Monday, March 31, 2008

Chapter 48: Head to Head

~ "Oh for cryin' out loud!" Andrew muttered.

The apparent leader of the other group snapped at the man on his right.

"Vin you're an idiot. Why would we do that?"

"Because if this is a sim, that might be the challenge, and if it's real, we'd at least but cutting down on the competition!" John tilted his head.

"My gosh, he's actually considering it," murmured Jaden in disbelief.

"You have got to be kidding me," said Takyle, in an exasperated tone that suggested she didn't believe that they were. Jaden felt the familiar thrill of fear and adrenalin from the prospect of a fight. He slipped the straps of his pack off his shoulders and let it fall to the ground behind him. He felt his pulse begin to thump in his neck.

"Let's talk about this guys," Takyle addressed the other team calmly. "You're not in a sim. Look at your clothes; they're spotless. And why would you be put up against another team in a sim? We're as real as you are." John nodded thoughtfully.

"You make a good case. This is probably real." He turned to his companions. "We don't need to kill them." Jaden felt Takyle relax just the tiniest bit. "All we need to do is injure one of them enough for their team to be crippled. I'd say the girl is the best candidate for that." He smirked. Takyle sighed and unsheathed her own knife.

"Ok, if that's the way you're going to be...Bring it, bitch," she spat at him. John smiled grimly.

"Oh you are going to be eating those words."

The three men charged forward and Team 6 acted as one. Just as their attackers reached them Jaden jumped forward, keeping close to the wall. Due to the tight formation their rivals had adopted, he slipped through easily, shielding his own body with his knife hand and planting an elbow hard into Cal's kidney on his way past. He spun around, now behind the other team. Meanwhile Takyle had fallen back three steps, luring John after her, while Andrew had ducked back into the door they'd left, allowing Vin to just miss him.

Before his guy could turn around, Jaden hit him as hard as he could in the back of the head with the hilt of his knife, causing him to stumble before coming around. Jaden ducked as the man swung and came up in time to hit him while his stomach was vulnerable. Jaden was momentarily surprised at how invulnerable that stomach was. He was reminded that he wasn't fighting a skinny teenager. The man had abs.

Over Cal's shoulder, Jaden saw the one called Vin stumble backwards across the hallway and crash into the wall. He'd made the mistake of trying to follow Andrew into the other room. Farther down the hallway Takyle parried and danced back from John's hatchet. She was a precise and delicate fighter, something that John seemed to be having a hard time getting used to.

Jaden jumped to the side as Cal dived forward, knife leveled at his belly. He just managed to catch Jaden's lower arm, tearing his sleeve and nicking flesh. The line of pain was like a cue to Jaden's body. Anger surged through him. He threw his fist, clasped around the metal hilt of his knife, into the man's face. He felt Cal's nose crunch beneath it and blood gushed out.

"I don't need another frigging scar!" Jaden shouted at him, punching him again in the face. Cal took a step back, looking somewhat surprised Jaden thought, and Jaden drove a powerful kick into his solar plexus. Cal looked faint for a moment, and then dropped. Jaden spun to check Andrew and Takyle. John was erratically swinging his hatchet at face level, apparently growing tired of being outmaneuvered. The only member of the other team that seemed to be winning was Vin, who had somehow gotten the upperhand and lured Andrew back out into the hallway. He now had him up against the wall. Both Andrew's and Vin's knives were gone and Vin had one hand pressed to a bleeding wound in his side, the other clenched on Andrew's throat.

Jaden reached them in two strides, wrapped one arm around Vin to hold him and pressed his knife to Vin's throat. A thin line of blood sprang up and three droplets slipped across the face of the blade.

"Let him go before you're a dead man," he hissed into Vin's ear. To Jaden's immense relief, Vin did what he was told. Andrew grabbed his knife off the floor and ran over to Takyle, who had just slipped in and delivered a quick slash to John's chest. She looked like she was almost enjoying herself. Andrew put his years of kickboxing to use, ridding the tired man of his weapon and landing him on the floor with three well placed blows. Takyle looked down on her conquered opponent and slapped Andrew on the arm.

"Dude! What the hell?" ~

Friday, March 28, 2008

Chapter 47: Surprise Party

~ Takyle proceeded down the hall, cursing under her breath at each door that her key failed to open. Andrew cleared his throat.

"Maybe we're missing something here. We don't know if this key works in any of these doors. I mean, the thing just said the items were for the next level." Takyle turned to Andrew and raised her hands.

"Well what do you propose we do, Andrew? We've already been through this once and we know that the unlocked doors just lead back here!"

"Maybe since then some others have been unlocked, I don't know."

"Hey, shut up, you two!" Jaden hissed at them. "Listen." Without the cover of Andrew and Takyle's conversation, what Jaden had heard was obvious. Unfamiliar voices, not terribly far off, and sounding as if they were coming closer. Andrew touched Jaden's arm and along with Takyle they withdrew and ducked through the only unlocked door, the first one Andrew had marked on their previous time around. Takyle, leaving the door a quarter of an inch ajar to observe the hallway, gestured to Andrew to watch their backs. Meanwhile she pulled a tiny mirror out of a pocket on her backpack and set it in the opening so that she could watch the end of the hallway where the voices had seemed to be coming from, in the opposite direction of the live-sim door,.

"I see them," she murmured. "They...It looks like another race team. What are they doing here? It must be a mistake..."

"Well we heard them, so they probably heard you guys. Even if they didn't they'll see the marked door and try it," Jaden whispered to her. "Maybe we should just go ahead and beat them to finding us, or get the hell out of here while we can." Takyle shot Andrew a glance. He shrugged.

"I've never heard of a race in which the teams met up. Maybe it is a mistake somehow?" Takyle nodded and took one more look in her mirror before pocketing it and waving them forward. They stepped out into the hallway facing their competitors, who looked just as shocked and bewildered as the members of Team 6 felt. They immediately stopped in their tracks and compressed into a tight knot, obviously assuming the worst.

Jaden eyed the competition. They were all male, all looked to be older than anyone in his team, but still in their twenties, if barely. They looked a good deal swarthier than the average citizen as well.

Takyle took one step forward, slightly closing the gap of several yards.

"We're Team 6. I don't know what happened here, or why we're in the same level, but we-"

"Quiet, lady!" one of the other team interrupted rudely. He turned his face slightly to his teammates, keeping his eyes on Takyle. "What is this, Cal? Is this supposed to happen?" Cal answered in a strained sounding tenor that seriously mismatched his appearance.

"I don't know. Maybe? This might just all be another challenge in another sim."

"I don't think so-" Takyle started to say. The first speaker jerked a hatchet from his belt and strode forward three steps in a show of bravado.

"I said shut up!"

Andrew and Jaden stepped up to either side of Takyle, knives unsheathed.

"I think you need to simmer down and take a few deep breaths," Andrew counseled in his usual quiet, strong voice, but it was laced with threat that always at once scared and reassured Jaden. The man did take a step back, but didn't look as if he calmed down all that much.

"As I was saying," Takyle stated in an icy voice."I don't think that this is a sim. We believe that this is real. Possibly the first real obstacle. Why we're in it together, I don't know. Have you been in a sim where you had to find three objects yet?" All three men on the other team glared at Takyle.

"Don't tell them anything, John! It's probably a trap, real or not," said the last of the trio, finally getting to throw in his three cents worth, and looking satisfied for having done it. Then he excitedly added another thought. "Maybe we're supposed to kill them!" ~

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Chapter 46: Glass Half Full - Bonus chapter

~ Andrew immediately handed the two items off to Takyle and moved to the door, cracking it open and peering out.

"It seems to be a doored hallway much like the one we just left," he noted. Jaden looked around the room.

"Is this...real?" he asked. He studied his clothes. "I feel much cleaner than I did a minute ago." Takyle nodded.

"Yeah, me too. Of course, it would be possible to make us just think that while still in a live-sim."

"I suppose so," Jaden said absently. "So are we going out into the hallway?" Takyle unzipped a flap of Andrew's backpack and pushed the scepter into it. She pocketed the key and turned to Jaden.

"Don't seem to be any other doors, so yes." Halfway down the hall Jaden stopped.

"I think this is the same hallway. Here's the door Andrew marked. I think this is real. We left a live-sim by exiting the wizard's cabin into this real hallway maze. We wandered around in a circle, came back here and entered another live-sim. After completing that, it essentially kicked us out by shutting off when the time was up. If we hadn't found the items by then, we wouldn't get them."

"But we still have them; they're real objects..." began Takyle.

"Yes, but there's nothing stopping real objects being planted in a live-sim. We can really eat in live-sims," added Andrew. Takyle nodded.

"So either they're very consistent with the sims, maintaining the marks that Andrew left, or this is our first obstacle that's actually real life."

"Either way it doesn't really matter," Jaden added. "I think the first thing that we should do, given our history here, is try turning right around and going back in." Takyle nodded her agreement and jogged back up the hall. She tried the door at the end and turned to yell back at them.

"It locked behind us. I'll try the key I found." When she came running back it was obvious that that didn't work. "No dice, I think we're cursed to wandering some more."

"Maybe that key would work in one of these other doors..." Jaden wondered aloud. Takyle sighed noisily.

"Well that's shit. Do you remember just how many doors we passed when we were here before?" Andrew grinned.

"Maybe it will work in the first one you try, Ta," he offered. Takyle rolled her eyes at him, but her frown melted a little. In fact, there was actually a tiny bit of a smile there.

"Thanks Andy. Always so freaking optimistic aren't you?"

"Well I do what I can. Right Jaden?"

"Right Andrew, you certainly get an A for effort." Takyle shook her head and placed her key in the lock nearest her. It didn't turn. ~

Monday, March 24, 2008

Chapter 45: The Gamble

~ Jaden crested the sandy hill and stopped to look down on where the media station stood. Takyle was already there and pacing nervously up and down. Jaden was suddenly very worried that he had misjudged the time and that he was late. He slid down the dune at the run and skidded to a halt in front of Takyle, panting. She raised an eyebrow.

"Did you find your item?" she asked. Jaden held up the scepter and glanced over at the com screen. 6.33 minutes left and counting. "I found the key," Takyle continued, and gestured at the top of the com screen. Sure enough, there sat an unassuming, silver colored key. "No word from Andrew yet." Jaden nodded and leaned back against the station, laying the scepter next to the key. After another three minutes had passed he began to open his mouth to ask if they should possibly try radioing Andrew, but he was saved that by Andrew jogging back over the dune that Jaden had watched him disappear behind at the beginning. He held up his empty hands.

"So um, yeah, did you guys find the key and code?" Takyle and Jaden nodded silently. "Ok, I'm fairly certain that the so called "sphere" mentioned is actually referring to the sun, because I couldn't find one other friggin' thing. Kinda makes sense when you look at the clue too," said Andrew.

"What was the clue?" Takyle asked and Andrew pulled the paper out of his pocket and, unfolding it, read aloud.

"Look to the East for life. High treasure, giver of all."

"And you went East?" she pressed.

"Yup, nothing there. Nothing but sand to the horizon. I mean, it could be somewhere else in here, but I don't see any other clues in this as to where you'd look. Sounds like the sun to me...At least I sincerely hope it is because, as I said before, I couldn't find any other explanation." Takyle bit her lower lip. She looked as if she almost wanted to run off and have a look-round for herself, just to make sure. Finally she spoke.

"Alright Andy. If you think that's it, I trust you." Andrew nodded.

"I do think that's it." He picked up the key in one hand and the scepter in the other. "I wonder what we do with these?"

"I don't know," said Jaden. "But what's going to happen when the clock hits zero?" He didn't actually have too long to wait to find that out. The trio all held their breath as the last minute counted down. Painfully white, but familiar light swelled around them and washed out Jaden's vision for a moment. A second later when his eyes adjusted, he saw that he was in an empty, square, white room. Takyle and Andrew stood beside him, Andrew still clutching the key and scepter. They seemed to be in a live-sim lab. ~

Friday, March 21, 2008

Chapter 44: Topical Analysis

~ Jaden attained the top of the hill and paused to catch his breath, looking back. He could barely see Takyle, moving steadily towards a stand of brush and palms and Andrew was out of sight. Jaden shielded his eyes from below and scanned the dessert all around him. At first he didn't see anything, but then he noticed a strange swirl in the blowing sand not far off. The wind was catching on the corner of what Jaden dearly hoped was a rock of some sort. He slid down the far side of the dune and set off again. He checked his watch and then cursed himself for not marking time when the clock had started ticking on the media station. Oh well, that couldn't have been more than five minutes ago.

Jaden waded through the loose sand, attempting to keep his face at least partially shielded from the hot grit. The wind was picking up, whistling over the dunes with a low and eerie wail. Jaden reached the stone he'd spotted on the upper edge of the dune and, to his surprise, found it to be one of the top corner stones of a doorway, set in the side of the hill facing away from his vantage point. It looked like the entrance to an ancient tomb from some low budget archaeological adventure movie.

"Oh great," he thought. "Let's get all Indiana Jones-y shall we?" He rolled his eyes, and pulled out his flashlight. He shone it around just inside, inspecting the walls and ceiling.

"What are you looking for? Booby traps?"

"Yes!" he told himself sternly. "Better safe than sorry!" He cautiously took a step into the tomb. Nothing bad happened so he took another.

The chamber Jaden had entered wasn't very deep and wasn't very impressive. The walls were made of stone exactly the same color as the sand, and they were devoid of any interesting markings. Just across from Jaden though, was another doorway, and this one had a carved and painted lentil and posts. The figures looked Egyptian. Big surprise. Shining his torch through the door Jaden could just barely see something glinting out of the darkness. Jaden moved forward into the second room, his time constraints causing him to be bold. This room was also mostly empty, except for a backless Egyptian chair, and on the chair sat a scepter topped with the golden head of a little vulture.

Jaden peered around himself looking for...crocodiles or a boulder or something. He cautiously approached the chair, and searched around it.

"I'm looking for a key, code, or sphere," he reminded himself. He reached out and laid a gentle hand on the scepter. He looked around. Nothing happened. He slowly picked it up and turned it over in his hand. Three strings of eight numbers were scratched into the shaft. Arabic root numbers.

"How very authentic," he muttered and, gripping the scepter, stepped away from the chair, still expecting something to happen to him. He waited stock still for a moment, watching, listening, and then bolted for the door. There was a crash from behind, and he felt a whoosh of air rush past him. He stumbled out into the daylight and kept going. After about thirty yards he stopped and turned to look back. The tomb entrance shook and trembled, dust spilling out of the opening as the stone sank back into the sand, the dune swallowing it whole, filling and hiding it.

Jaden watched until it had disappeared from sight altogether, then he looked down at the rod in his hand. The golden eye of the vulture glinted up at him. He realized that he was still holding his flashlight in his other hand. He switched it off, returning it to its pouch on his belt, and started back towards the media station.

"That was easy," he thought. ~

Monday, March 17, 2008

Chapter 43: The Other End of the Spectrum

~ Takyle stalked back to the marked door and glared at it malevolently.

"Just what are we supposed to do now?" she demanded. "We went through the only unlocked doors there were! What exactly are we supposed to do?"

"How the hell should I know?" Andrew snapped back. "You're the one that decided we should go that way!"

"It was the only way!" Takyle shouted. Jaden took that moment to physically step between his team mates.

"Hey guys, have either of you noticed that you seem a bit moody here lately?" Takyle glared at him.

"Just what are you trying to say, Jaden McAllister?"

"I'm trying to say that you both seem a bit moody here lately," Jaden reiterated calmly. "Now why don't we just go back the way we came in and try redoing this from the beginning?" He gestured to the door at the end of the hall where they had exited the last live-sim. Takyle breathed deeply for a moment.

"Ok. I personally don't think I'm moody...But Andrew definitely is, so let's go," she said. Andrew's jaw tightened, but he didn't respond to her jab, just headed for the door. The three stepped back through and, instead of re-entering the wizard's white building, they were seamlessly standing on the edge of a vast expanse of rolling dunes, sun relentlessly beating down on them, blinding them. A hot breeze picked up the sparkling, tawny sand from the tops of the hills and threw it into the air like morbidly brilliant confetti.

"Oh hello," Andrew said mildly. Just in front of them was a media station, just like the first one they had encountered back on the plain. Text scrolled onto the com screen.

"Team 6: Your task here is to locate three things required for the next level before your allocated time expires. The three items are: A key, a code, and a sphere. You will find three clues to their locations printing out below. Good luck." The text disappeared and was replaced by a ticking clock already counting down from 20 minutes. Takyle jumped forward and grabbed up the three sheets of paper that the media station had spit out. Each held a line or two of print. She thrust one each at Andrew and Jaden.

"Let's go. We've all got our radios, yes? Meet back here when you've found your item. And be careful!" Takyle took one glance at her sheet of paper then set off at a jog towards what appeared to be an oasis in the distance. Andrew looked over at Jaden, then at his own clue. He shrugged, checked the compass on his watch, then headed towards the East without a word. Jaden silently watched his companions leave, then looked down at his own paper.

"Essence of Earth, steady, true, hard as iron, fall to wind and water, shelter of the pursued," Jaden read aloud. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" He looked back up but Andrew and Takyle were already far away. And the clock was ticking.

Fall to wind and water...Stone. Water and wind both wear rock away. Shelter of the pursued. He needed to find a cave or stone structure of some sort. Jaden looked around, located the tallest dune in sight and headed for it at a run. Perhaps from that vantage he would be able to see something other than just miles of sand. Hopefully. ~

Friday, March 14, 2008

Chapter 42: Individuality Pays Off

~ The Team 6 trio walked cautiously down the hall, trying every door they passed. In vain as it would happen.

"Seriously?" said Takyle in exasperation. "Every one of these is locked?" At just that moment, quite naturally, Andrew tried a knob on the left that actually turned.

"No. Not every one." He pushed it open and peered in. "Another hallway. Shall we go down it?" Takyle tried a couple more doors.

"I suppose so. Can we mark our path somehow in case we have to come back this way? This looks suspiciously like a maze to me." Andrew nodded.

"Sure, we can mark it. How do you feel about destruction of property?" Takyle shrugged.

"I'm ok with it. I think it's a given for the race," she said. "I mean, there was no rule against it or anything."

"Sweet." Andrew pulled out his pocket knife and took long strip of paint off of the door just above the doorknob on both sides. "How about that? Unmistakable."

"Brilliant. Let's go." Takyle slipped through the door with Jaden trailing and Andrew let it swing closed behind them. Another long hallway, one unlocked door leading to an empty room with four more doors, one leading to another hallway, leading to another room, and then another one. At each door they passed through Andrew stopped to carve his notch in it, leaving a trail. After another half dozen or so he paused.

"You know guys, in hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to mark these doors with an arrow or something. You know, to indicate which direction we were going at the time...I'm gonna start doing that," he pronounced decisively. Before proceeding into the next room he turned to Jaden.

"You've been awfully quiet there. Anything on your mind?" Jaden shook his head.

"No, nothing in particular. This place just seems a little strange is all."

"How do you mean?" asked Andrew, stepping out into yet another gray hallway lined with doors.

"Well, it has a different feel than the rest of the places we've been in. I don't know." He paused for a moment. "What I do know is that we have definitely already been this way." Jaden pointed at a door that they were just passing. Over the doorknob a distinctive strip of paint was conspicuously missing.

"Aw, hell," muttered Andrew under his breath. "Wouldn't ya just freaking know it." He raised his voice to call Takyle back. "Hey boss, you're going to love this. We've been going in a circle all this time." Up ahead Takyle stopped and before she turned around Jaden heard her utter a few choice expletives to the labyrinth. ~

Monday, March 10, 2008

Chapter 41: Off And On Again

~ Jaden patted Takyle's arm awkwardly.

"Um, you ok now?" he asked. She nodded.

“Yeah, better.”

Andrew looked up from repacking his sleeping bag.

“If you want to wait for a while more Ta, we can you know,” he said. She shook her head.

“No, I'm fine. We really need to get back on track.”

“Ok, just...Be careful.” A smile touched Takyle's lips.

“Yes sir.” He looked over his shoulder at her for a moment.

“Alright, I'll be quiet about it.” Andrew slammed back the last of his coffee and stood, pulling his backpack on. “If you think you're ok, let's get the lead out then.”

Jaden pulled open the white door and stood gazing outward, not in shock so much as amusement. The clearing and wood line were gone. In their place was now a long gray hallway. Along either side were closed, unlabeled gray doors.

“Well ok, that's interesting,” commented Andrew. Takyle hoisted her pack and came to the door.

“Alright everybody, you know the drill by now, heads up, expect anything.” She sighed. “Here we go again.” As they started down the hallway Jaden shot a look at Takyle.

“If I didn't know better I'd think that you were tired of this race, Takyle,” he noted, casually. Andrew elbowed him painfully in the left kidney and he clamped his mouth shut against a groan. Takyle looked back over her shoulder.

“No, I'm not tired of it Jaden. Tired, yes, but don't you worry, I'm still just as full of fanatical zeal as I ever was.”

“Oh I wasn't worried. I wasn't worried at all. I was just...Well, I was just making idle talk. But I wasn't worried. Not in the slightest...”

“You can shut up now I think,” counseled Andrew.

“Oh, but he was on such a roll,” said Takyle, turning back around to face the open hallway before them. Jaden heard a laugh in her voice, and he realized what a very welcomed sound it was indeed. ~

Friday, March 7, 2008

Chapter 40: Full Disclosure

~ The first thing that Jaden did was grab his watch from where it was sitting on top of his backpack and put it back on. Andrew had his priorities set as well, and went right to surveying the options provided by the extensive meal Väinämöinen had laid out for them. Takyle moved over to the fire, and put her hands out to it, as if cold.

"You know I could get used to this kind of thing," said Andrew, after taking a bite of what appeared to be some sort of fish that had been sauteed, then lightly toasted and garnished with orange.

"Well don't," said Takyle. "After this we'll be back to eating powdered base proteins and desiccated fruit and grain meal."

"Yeah, don't remind me."

Jaden zipped up his bag and clipped his rolled sleeping bag to it.

"When are we going to move out?" he asked. Andrew raised an eyebrow and took a long sip of coffee.

"You in a hurry?"

"Well we are in a race!" snapped Jaden. Takyle sat down by the fireplace and leaned back against the wall, closing her eyes.

"I could use a bit of rest, Jaden," she said quietly. Andrew immediately switched his attention from Jaden and his food to studying Takyle. He knelt down in front of her and pressed a glass of water into her hand.

"You alright there, Ta?" She raised the cut glass goblet to her lips and took a drink.

"Yes, I'll be ok. Just need to rest." Andrew looked skeptical, and then suddenly very protective.

"Just what exactly did he make you do, Takyle?" Jaden noticed that Andrew had managed to keep his voice impressively level. Takyle caught something in it though, because she cracked open her eyes to look at him. One corner of her mouth raised just the tiniest bit.

"Nothing untoward, Andrew. Just tiring." She closed her eyes again.

"Like...?" Andrew prompted, patting her knee to rouse her. Takyle shook her head, but spoke anyway, eyes still shut.

"The first one was another translation in a room, except that there was a glass wall with water behind it, and the water kept rising until it began to pour over the wall, and the only way to stop it was to finish the translation. It wasn't too hard though, so I got it done in plenty of time, but as soon as I did, everything changed.

"The next thing was a math problem. Algebraic stuff. Around the edges of the room the tiles of the floor disappeared every little while, working in towards me in the middle, but I finished that one in time too.

"It kept going like that though. As soon as I finished one thing, another would appear, and it kept getting harder and harder. Sometimes I didn't get them done quite fast enough. Once there was a riddle to answer and there was this fog near the floor and the longer I took the deeper it got until I couldn't help breathing it in, and it burned my lungs, and...I thought I was going to suffocate before I had the answer.

"In another one the floor cracked and lava began to seep out." Takyle paused for a long moment. "It kept getting hotter and hotter, and I couldn't make it stop." She absently rubbed her left arm. "The lava reached my feet and my lips cracked and I could feel my hair beginning to burn..."

Jaden saw a tear slip out from under Takyle's eyelid and run down her cheek. He suddenly felt like a gigantic jerk for acting peevish a few minutes before. Andrew saw it too and he didn't waste a second in setting aside the cup of water and wrapping Takyle in his arms. He held her and rubbed her back and murmured soft, nonsensical, soothing things into her hair. She didn't cry anymore. But she didn't pull away either. ~

Monday, March 3, 2008

Chapter 39: Defense Mechanism

~ Jaden felt a stream of something warm slipping down his neck. He looked down and saw a dark stain spreading across the front of his shirt. He looked back up and Andrew's body was gone. His double glided around to stand in front of him. Jaden felt as if he were going to vomit, and he placed a hand on his stomach. His shirt, soaked to his navel, clung to his skin. He felt no pain though. He turned back to his doppelganger who was staring at him with cold hatred.

“What are you doing to me?”

“I'm not doing anything to you, young one, you've done this to yourself.”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” Jaden cried weakly. “I didn't do this.” He felt blood begin to seep down into his lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Choking him. Drowning him.

"Where's Takyle?" he gasped. His legs went weak and he felt himself collapsing, sinking to the ground. The other Jaden looked down on him without compassion. He shook his head.

"You can't help her. You couldn't help Andrew. I guess you just weren't strong enough, Jaden. Not good enough..."

"No...I couldn't do anything...please..." Dark fog pressed in all around Jaden and the world began slipping away.

"Just open your eyes," said his mind.

"It's no good. I'm dead. They're dead."

"Just do it." With the righteous indignation of the dying, Jaden forced himself to focus his remaining strength on that one task. His eyelids opened and through blurred vision he could barely make out the tree tops against bits of graying sky. A voice spoke.

"Good morning!"

Jaden jumped at the noise and leapt up. The wizard stood there in front of him. Jaden clutched at his shirt; it was dry. His hand flew to his throat and found it whole. He saw a circle of ash behind the wizard, and he jerked around to look at the rest of the clearing. Behind him stood Andrew, very much alive, with Takyle leaning against him, looking exhausted. Jaden pointed a finger at Väinämöinen's face.

"You! What did you do?" he shouted. Väinämöinen just gazed calmly back at him.

"I did nothing. Experiencing the spirit of reality puts you in a position to easier access your feelings, young one."

"Don't call me that! I thought you “weren't going to hurt me needlessly”!? What the fuck is wrong with you! How could you do that to me?" Andrew quickly strode over and grabbed Jaden by the arm.

"Jay! Calm down. What are you talking about? You've been here with me," he said, all the while pulling Jaden back from Väinämöinen.

"He did something to me! He made me think that you were dead and it was my fault and that a part of me wanted it that way! Then the evil me cut my throat and he let him do it!"

Andrew looked at Väinämöinen, as if for a confession.

"Perhaps you are confusing your own deep fears for something that I did, young one. I can assure you, I did not cause you to think anything," the wizard said. Jaden spun around to look at Takyle. She stood where Andrew had left her. She looked pale and drawn.

"Are you ok?" Jaden asked. She nodded. Jaden jerked his arm out of Andrew's grip. He felt like punching Väinämöinen in the face. Or killing him. He didn't though. He took a deep breath instead.

"What else do we have to do for you?" he demanded venomously. Väinämöinen suddenly looked tired and sad.

"Nothing. You have completed the task. Now I will bring you back to the shelter." He waived his staff without further ado, and just like that they were all back in the plain, white building. Väinämöinen dipped his staff towards the hearth and a crackling fire sprang up, a hot meal set before it. The wizard looked around the company and smiled.

"Your did well. I wish you the best on the remainder of your journey. Rest here as long as you like." Andrew and Takyle thanked him. Jaden maintained his angry silence. Väinämöinen beckoned to him.

"Young one, may I speak with you?" Jaden wanted to say no, but found himself walking over to the wizard anyway. He could feel Andrew and Takyle watching him. The wizard gazed on him for a moment. Or perhaps gazed into him would be more apt.

"I am sorry Jaden McAllister. I did not know that you carry such pain with you. Don't be afraid to search your soul. Pain doesn't last forever." He paused and smiled kindly. "You were correct after all, young one. You are very strong." Väinämöinen turned and opened the door. Jaden opened his mouth. Then closed it, then opened it again.

"Oh just say it for cryin' out loud!" his mind scolded.

"Väinämöinen?" he said quietly and the wizard turned around. Jaden cleared his throat.

"Um, thanks." ~