test jpg.jpg

Forum Posts

Quintessence
Jun 25, 2022
In Short Stories
CW: Blood, Death, War Synopsis: In a world of heroes and villains, the Hound Who Ate the Moon continues to terrorise the people and their way of living. Hope, a young hero, is tasked with assembling a team to take down the Hound and his organisation. But maybe the Hound was there all along, fighting alongside him... Word Count: 10943 Date Written: August 2021 “If you don’t tell me the information, lady, I’m afraid I’m going to have to shoot you dead.” “Then you’ll have to pull the trigger, son. Because I’m not saying anything.” “Then say goodbye.” He raised the pistol, pointing it at the old woman kneeling on the floor. Papers and books were spilled all over the bamboo mat, and a small sliver of moonlight shone through the curtains. He put his finger on the trigger, trying to keep his hand steady. “Though, son, why are you crying? I thought I was the one who was supposed to be doing so.” “Huh?” He touched a finger to his face, and realized that it was wet. “It’s okay to cry.” The old woman’s voice was soft. “I just thought that bad people didn’t cry.” A shot rang out in the dead of the night. As he left the house, one of his comrades clapped him on the shoulder. “Good job, Lang. We’ll get you up there yet.” “Yep.” But still, he felt sick to his stomach. He was called Hope, because that was what he was to the people. Hope, defender of good, bringer of justice. At least that was what he was in his own mind. “It has been two hundred and eighteen days since the appearance of the Hound, one of the most dangerous villains we have encountered to date. His ability threatens mass destruction and harm, and all those with abilities should be on the lookout for - ” Hope shut the newscast off. The Hound Who Ate the Moon. That was why they called him so. Because on the first day that he had made himself known, a large chunk of the moon had disappeared. “Any luck, Tae?” he asked the black-haired boy who had just entered the room, carrying a stack of documents. “We’ve got some leads. Turns out he’s with a group called the Hares. You’ve heard of them?” “Hares…called so because they’re underground and quick to run?” Hope rubbed his fingers over the material on the arm of the couch. Soft and quick to change colors, from light to dark and back again. “Exactly. One of the more notorious villain groups out there…but they’ve started to become active again, ever since…the Hound ate the moon.” “Good work, Tae.” Hope stood, stretching. “I guess we should head down to headquarters and make a team, eh? Shouldn’t be too hard to find the Hares.” “They’ve got several ‘burrows’ scattered around, so it will take a bit of time and team effort to do it.” “No time like the present. Let’s go.” They found most of their usual team. Kei, a guide; Wind, a conjurer; Ren, a weapons expert. Along with Tae, who was a sharpshooter, and Hope, who made a good leader, they formed an excellent team that had battled through all sorts of villains and storms. “HQ wants to assign three more to us,” Tae reported not long after they had sent in their team request. “They don’t think five is enough.” “Well, who are they sending?” “Some novices who need training, I suppose. We have Yu, who’s a hacker and has some sort of electric manipulation over power systems, and then there’s Ness; I think she works well as a tank, and Lang, who has the power of restoration.” “Restoration, eh?” Hope grinned. “Will come in handy when facing the Hound.” “Sure will. Shall we agree?” Hope nodded. “Yeah, let’s take them all. I can make a good team with this.” However, the first meeting they had, Hope began to have some doubts, as he sat at the end of the table, a smile plastered on his face that was starting to hurt. Ness and Ren had already sparked some bad blood between them, and were arguing about something or the other that he hadn’t quite caught. “All right, all right, girls, let’s settle down,” Hope said before they could tear each others’ throats out. “We’re going to be spending quite a bit of time together, and I don’t want that to be a miserable experience.” Both of them shot him glares before sitting. Hope tried to keep his smile. This was going to be much more difficult than he imagined. “Shall we start?” Tae asked. “Of course.” Hope stood. “I assume you all know who I am by now. I’m Hope, and I’m going to be your leader this mission to take down the Hound. In order for this mission to be a true success we’re going to have to know each of our strengths and weaknesses and how best to use our abilities with each other. We’re going to be spending a little time training, and then we’ll set off. How does that sound?” When no one responded, Wind looked around and said, “Look, guys, I’ve worked with Hope and Tae before, and I can tell you, as long as you follow what they tell you to do, you’re going to be just fine. He’s probably the best leader HQ has these days, especially for his age, okay? So show a little respect.” Hope gave him a smile. “Thanks, Wind. I know some of you are new, and maybe you aren’t all suited to work with me, but that’s okay. Once you’re no longer a novice, you’ll be assigned to better jobs. Now, enough sitting around. I want to see your gifts.” The gifted were those who were blessed with some sort of ability. Gifts deteriorated as their holders grew older, so HQ primarily consisted of young people working for them. Better to take advantage of them early on, they said. And so it was. They headed down to the gym in HQ, used primarily for training, with its space and props. Yu, Ness, and Lang looked slightly uncomfortable in the large area, probably because they had only trained in the novice rooms beforehand, and not in front of established members. Tae had already gone to set up the targets, while Wind and Ren went to go find weapons. Kei sat down on the bleachers, a grin on his face, as if ready for a show. “Why don’t you guys start by telling me about your powers?” Hope asked. “Shouldn’t you already know what they are?” Ness asked. “I want to hear them from you.” “I’d rather show you.” “Show me, then.” Hope stood back. “Go ahead. I’m going to ask each of you to demonstrate your powers.” Ness stretched, cracking her joints. “All right, but don’t get too close.” She tied up her light hair with a headband and took a stance like a runner. Tae had set up a barrier of large blocks at the other end of the gym, and when he gave Ness a thumbs up, she took off. Right as she hit the blocks, she set them flying in all directions, electricity and smoke crackling in the air. Some of them had fallen apart. Tae jotted something down. “You create force fields to push things away?” “They can also be used to protect,” Ness replied, wiping her forehead. “Basically if I jump in a fight and activate them, no one will be able to touch me.” “Must take up a lot of energy though, right?” Hope asked, handing her a towel. “Since it’s electricity-based.” She scowled slightly, taking the towel. “Yeah. I guess.” “All right. I’ll keep that in mind. Who wants to go next? Yu, what about you?” “Erm…” Yu was quite thin, his black hair almost falling over his glasses. “Is there a computer somewhere around here?” “I’m sure you do great on a computer. I’m more interested in seeing the other side of your ability, however.” “Oh…” Often times, abilities were double-sided. Tae was a sharpshooter because he had excellent aim and eyesight. But at the same time, it could also serve to track people, as well as other similar things. With Ness, she could probably cause a power surge, if need be, or electrocute those around her. Yu took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt, then put them back on. “Um…” The lights in the gym flickered and went out. After a while of awkward silence only penetrated by the bouncing of a ball on the floor, he said, “That - that’s it…” “Could definitely come in handy.” Hope gave a grin, then remembered that no one could see anything. “Can you turn them on again?” “Sorry…” The lights flickered back on. Yu looked like he wanted to hide beneath the bleachers. “Hope, you keep telling us to use our powers, but what about you? What’s your ability?” “Oh, you’ll get to see mine eventually. We shouldn’t waste time on it right now, though. Lang, what about you? Can you show me what you can do?” “Hope, stop letting the newbies have all the fun. Give us a chance too!” Kei stood, and began walking down the bleachers. His light brown hair was all mussed up from his hand. “Fine then. Kei, show us what you can do.” Kei grinned. “Lang, tell me, is there anything that you want to eat right now?” “I’m - I’m not too hungry - ” “Oh, come on, surely you want to eat something. HQ always has a plethora of snacks hidden around, but with the hallways, it’s near impossible to find. So tell me, what do you want? I heard your stomach grumble earlier.” Lang’s left ear turned red. “Chocolate…chip cookies.” “And you shall have your chocolate chip cookies! Come!” Kei snapped his fingers, and his eyes were lit up by something only he could see. “This way!” Hope laughed a little, and followed, and Ness and Yu did as well. Tae, Wind, and Ren were used to this, so they stayed behind in the gym, stretching, or shooting hoops. Sure enough, after winding through the mass of hallways that HQ possessed, they arrived at a fresh plate of chocolate chip cookies. “Why do they even have these here?” Ness asked, taking one. “It’s like finding items in a maze, I guess,” Hope replied, handing Lang one. Lang took it and chewed it silently, as if spacing out. “You sure you didn’t follow your nose?” Yu asked. “Oh, no. No, no, no, certainly not. I can find more than just food, y’know. People, places… I just need to know what they look like.” “Should we take some back for the others?” Lang asked quietly. “Nah, if the others wanted any, they’d have come with us. Let’s go back.” They followed Kei back to the gym. Wind yawned, sitting on the ground, cross-legged. “If you really wanted cookies, I could have just given you some. You didn’t have to walk all that way, did you?” His long silver-green hair was draped around his shoulders. “How about something healthy? Like an apple?” On cue, a bright red apple popped into his hand. “If you’re hungry, you can have it,” Tae muttered. “Suit yourself.” Wind bit into the apple. “Let’s finish this up, okay? Stop wasting time on frivolous things.” “Yeah, we haven’t even gotten to the fun part yet,” Ren said, cleaning a very sharp blade. Hope clapped his hands together. “Right. Lang, are you ready to show us now?” “Sure.” Lang looked around. “Any of you have a vase or something breakable?” “There’s a really ugly vase just down the hall,” Kei said. “I’ve wanted to smash it every time I walk past. Want me to get it?” A faint smile appeared on Lang’s face. “If you will. And you can break it, too.” “Awesome!” Kei ran out, then ran back in, clutching a large vase that was, indeed, very ugly. He smashed it with relish upon the gymnasium’s floor, the pieces scattering everywhere. Lang bent down, moistening his lips, picking up a shard of ceramic, examining it underneath the harsh lights. Hope watched him, his every movement, the way he turned the edge of the shard along his finger, his dark eyes drinking it all in… The pieces began to move across the floor, forming themselves into the vase again. The movements were all very smooth and very deliberate. It was like watching a puzzle being put together. “That’s beautiful,” Hope breathed. “No, it’s still an ugly vase,” Kei said. “But that was pretty cool, man. With you, we could definitely take down the Hound.” Lang’s ears reddened once more, both of them. “Thanks,” he said, standing. “Well, that’s enough ability use for now. Let’s get to physical training,” Hope said, cracking his knuckles. “Hope you guys like working out!” That night Hope returned to his dorm, exhausted. Tae, too, was sweating. “So what do you think?” Hope asked, turning on a desk lamp. “I think it went well.” Tae grabbed a clean set of clothes. “I’ll wash up first?” “Yeah, yeah…” Hope collapsed in an armchair, staring at the ceiling. Out of the new guys Ness had the most physical prowess, of course, followed by Lang and Yu. In fact, Ness might even be up to Wind and Kei’s level. Lang could maybe match with Ren. Not bad, not bad at all. A couple more weeks, and they could probably head into combat. Hope stared at his fingers, the light from the lamp shining on them. He hadn’t used his powers at all today… From the window he could still see the chipped moon, hanging in the sky. That amount of mass destruction… Could they really face the Hound? If they relied on Lang to fix things as the Hound destroyed them… Was Lang’s ability enough to fix something big, like the moon? Tae came out from the shower, drying his hair with a towel. “We need to do something about Ren and Ness.” “Do you know what they were fighting about?” “Not sure. Anyways, shower’s free for you.” “Thanks, Tae.” He would have to keep a closer eye on Lang in the coming days and weeks. “C’mon, guys, keep it up! I know you’ve all run before!” Hope’s voice resounded through the gymnasium. He didn’t even need the megaphone that Tae had brought him. Lang was already starting to feel winded. Back when he was in school, they had made him run laps, too, but it had been a long while. He could hear Yu dying behind him. Ness was still going strong, though, Kei right behind her. “How come you guys don’t have to do laps?” Ness called, as they passed Hope and Tae again. “Because they’re special,” Wind replied dryly, pulling a water bottle out of thin air and taking a long sip. “Because we already ran this morning,” Hope said. “But if you really want, we’ll join in. Right, Tae?” Tae rolled his eyes, but he still followed him to the back of the group. Lang tried to keep in the middle, not falling behind or going too fast. He didn’t want to get too close to Hope, because he felt like if he did, his cover would be blown. Because even though Hope was always there smiling, taking care of everybody, he felt like there was something in Hope’s eyes that could see through lies and deception. “Hey, watch it,” Ren said as Lang stepped on the back of her sneaker. “Sorry…” What was he being paranoid about? They had checked Hope’s profile before sending him here; his ability had nothing to do with seeing the truth. But even if he did find out, so what? The longer they deceived him, the worse Lang would feel. “Say, Lang, you seem like a dagger kind of guy. You like daggers?” Ren asked, keeping pace with him. “Mm? I, uh, I prefer pistols, actually.” “Oh? Pistols? I can find you a good one, for sure. What do you like about them?” “Um…probably the loud, clear noise they make after a shot. It’s really startling.” She raised an eyebrow. “Strange. I’ve never heard anyone say that. Most people want silenced firearms, because they hate the loud noise, or are doing something shady.” “But the gunshot serves as a warning for everyone else in the area, right? If it were a silent firearm then more people would die.” She let out a small scoff. “You sure are a weird one.” And she ran on. Lang watched her red hair flow out behind her. She had tied it up for training. Personally he thought she looked better with it down. The flowing crimson… It reminded him of blood. The blood, stained on the ground… He felt his stomach clench. Oh, no… He couldn’t. He couldn’t break right now. Keep up the front, keep it up… They finished their laps, and Lang sat down after a long water break, watching Hope and Tae continue to jog with Yu, who was almost at a walking pace at this point. “How did you even get in with your stamina this bad?” Kei called. “There’s no way you passed the physical exam!” “He probably hacked the system to change his results,” Ness replied, twirling a long strand of blonde hair around her finger. “Who knows.” “Stop talking trash about him,” Ren said, shooting Ness a glare. “You don’t even know if that’s true.” “Hey, Kei was asking!” “Actually, Yu did pass his physical exam when we took it several months ago,” Lang said, staring at the light reflecting on the edge of his water bottle. “But he was sick for a long time afterwards. He’s still recovering.” All three stared at him. Lang didn’t dare look back. He didn’t want to see what emotion was in their eyes…make him feel worse than before… “Who asked you?” Ness finally said, standing and stretching. “Guys, if you’re going to continue to be rude, we’ll have to ask you to leave,” Wind said, sitting at the top of the bleachers. “Sorry…” “No, not you, Lang. You weren’t rude at all. Those guys.” “Who died and made you king?” Kei looked up at him. “It’s Hope’s final say.” “Yeah, and Hope’s coming right this way. So behave yourselves! You’re an old member too, Kei. You should be more understanding.” “Yeah, yeah. Sorry.” Kei sat down again, hardening his face. “Lang, come with me to toss this trash out,” Wind said, picking up several plastic water bottles and hopping off the bleachers. Lang followed him, taking up some bottles as he passed by the others. He didn’t like Wind much; he seemed too sly, too smooth, too in-control. At least with his silver hair done up he seemed less intimidating. “You’re a quiet one, Lang,” Wind said as they made their way down the air-conditioned hallway. “Where’re you from?” “I’m from the north side of the country. You?” “Oho. I’m from the south side. You like the cold?” “Not really.” “Your first time in the big city?” “I’ve been here a while.” “You like it?” “It’s okay.” Wind laughed, and Lang jumped. Did he say something? Had he been seen through? “Is something the matter?” Wind wiped the corner of his eye. “I’ve never met someone like you. So jumpy, taciturn, shy, but at the same time, you don’t seem like any of those things. You behave like a man with a lot on his mind.” “Maybe I do…” Lang gave an inner sigh of relief, but at the same time, he wished that he had been found out. Perhaps that would bring him greater relief. But it was too late for that now… “Come now, cheer up! I know that they’re rude, but Hope will beat some sense into them. He always does. Man, you should’ve seen Kei when he first joined. He was way worse than this. Nowadays he just pokes fun, mainly.” “I - I see…” Lang put the empty bottles into the recycling. “What’s Hope like?” “Hope?” Wind tossed his bottles in with a satisfying clunk. “Spend some time with him; you’ll find out!” “I guess I’ll do that, then…” Lang gave a small laugh, feeling a drop of cold sweat roll down his already sticky back. “I’m sure you’ll fit in just fine here, Lang.” Wind patted him on the shoulder. “You really will.” It took all his strength to smile, and agree. The day was so beautiful, and Rynn wanted to cry. From this spot, his secret spot, in the hideout, he could see the outside, where the tall grasses grew, and the afternoon sunlight shining through them made them golden. The breeze was so nice today, sweeping in, caressing his face and neck. Wind chimes sounded in the distance, and he closed his eyes, focusing on the noise. The indistinct conversations, some kid in the neighborhood bouncing a basketball… Out of the blue, he wanted to climb through the window and run outside, away from this dark place, this basement, and live free, but he couldn’t. He didn’t dare to. “Rynn!” Rynn nearly fell off of the crate he was sitting on. He looked up to see a light-haired, far too serious man looking at him. Of course Seth would be able to find him. Seth was always able to find him. “What are you doing on the floor? Come on, get up. I want to talk to you.” Seth grabbed him by the arm, hauling him to his feet. “Wh - what is it?” Rynn asked, trying not to flinch. Though, compared to the others, he was most comfortable around Seth… “You know how Lang has gone?” “Y - yeah.” “Well, you’re going to stand in for him. As the Hound. You’ve got dark hair, you were close with him, and you can mimic his ability with yours.” “Me?” Rynn gave a laugh, wiping his sweating palms on his trousers. “I - I couldn’t. Can’t - can’t we wait for Lang to come back?” “Don’t you understand the predicament Lang is in? If he’s not here, then they’ll surely suspect something!” “I - I still think you ought to find someone else, sir. I’m - I’m not cut out for this job - ” “You’re not cut out for anything, Rynn. That’s what the superiors all say. Heck, that’s what everyone says. But you can show them, Rynn. You can show them that you’re actually made of something.” “You - you know I’m - I’m just like they say.” Rynn looked away, trying to find a sliver of sunlight to focus on. “I could - I could never do what Lang does. He’s - I mean, you guys trained him specially and all, and me, I haven’t used my ability since - ” He broke off, his voice catching in his throat. “Rynn - ” “Please don’t make me do this, sir.” He hated how close to tears he was getting. “Please don’t.” Seth gave a long sigh. “Rynn, the word of the superiors is law. If I report back to them, and say that you’re, oh, I don’t know, too cowardly to take on the job, they’ll surely kick you out! I don’t even think they’ll execute you; they’ll think you too scared to even report us - ” Rynn stared at the ground, his hands trembling. “I don’t really think I should - ” “Rynn, who are you more scared of? The superiors, or the world?” Rynn wanted to say “both” but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything, with the way that Seth was staring at him. So he kept silent. “I’ll tell them that you’re doing it, then,” Seth said. “For now…I think we can take off this collar, no?” The collar? Rynn tensed as Seth pulled out a tool shaped like a pair of pliers and held it near the nape of his neck, where he had a collar implanted by the government. His ability had been too dangerous to be controlled, they had said, and he would have gone to jail for it if the Hares hadn’t come and broken him out. But he still had to wear this ability-inhibiting collar. The pieces of it fell to the ground. “There,” Seth said. “You’re free.” Free… It felt like he could finally breathe, after being smothered for a very long time. Rynn actually felt a surge of confidence run through him. Maybe…maybe he could be brave now? “Why don’t you give it a try?” Seth suggested. Rynn held out his hand, flexing his fingers. One, two, three… A tremor shot through the ground, and the house threatened to collapse around them. Rynn withdrew his hand immediately. He had only meant a small tremor, one that no one would even notice… Outside, there were shouts of confusion, and a siren blared. Rynn bit his lip, wanting to cry. His beautiful day was gone… Several weeks had passed, and finally Hope decided that they were ready to take on the Hares. The hardest part to work on had been teamwork. It took almost everything for Ren and Ness to dissolve their argument and agree to become civil with each other. Lang was quietly disappointed that they had to move on. If they went to go face the Hares, then he would have to go back again, and he had…enjoyed his time here. “Dang, if Ness and Ren had never made up, I’m sure that the Hares would’ve come and killed us all!” Kei yawned. “Congrats.” “I wonder why they didn’t strike while we were training…” Wind murmured. “Tae, you got any intel on them?” “Oh, the Hares did strike,” Tae replied. “Several times. We just didn’t tell you.” “You didn’t what?!” “We wanted you to focus on your training,” Tae replied, holding his file tighter. “We didn’t want to worry you.” “Was the Hound…with them?” Ren asked. “The Hound? Yes, he was there. He destroyed a good chunk of the western borders of the city.” The Hound…was there? Lang’s stomach dropped. That couldn’t be. Because he was the Hound. He was right here. He hadn’t destroyed anything in the past few weeks, had he? “All right, guys, get a good night’s sleep. We head out tomorrow,” Hope said. That night Lang snuck out of the dorm he shared with Yu and headed away from HQ, towards the hideout of the Hares. Who had he been replaced with? He had a nagging suspicion, but… He climbed through the open window of the kitchen. Seth was within, chopping up vegetables. At his entrance, the man seemed about to throw the knife at him, then realized who it was and resumed chopping his vegetables. “What are you doing here? Your mission isn’t up yet.” “Who did you replace me with?” Lang asked. “Why are you asking?” “Look, I never agreed to be replaced! Who did you replace me with?” “Rynn.” “You replaced me with Rynn?” Lang sunk into a nearby chair. “Why would you do that?” “He has dark hair, he knows what you’re like, and he can replicate your ability,” Seth replied calmly. Lang was at a loss for words. Rynn? Rynn, of all people? No, he never wanted this… He remembered the first time he had met Rynn. Seth had told him to get acquainted with the boy in the other room, so Lang went in. He saw a dark-haired boy with hollow cheeks, staring out of the window at something. “What are you looking at??” Lang asked, and the boy nearly fell out of his seat. “Don’t - don’t hurt me - ” “Relax, I’m - I’m new here. I’m Lang.” “Oh.” The boy seemed quite embarrassed, running his hand through his hair. “I’m Rynn.” “What were you looking at?” “There was a bird… Look, I think it’s still there.” Lang peered over Rynn’s shoulder, seeing where he was pointing. There was a small chickadee hidden among the branches in the trees outside. It twitched its tail, letting out a small chirp. “This is my favorite spot,” Rynn breathed. He glanced at Lang. “I mean - uh, you’re welcome to come here too, if you want.” “I’d like that.” They were assigned to work together, stay together. They went out, did the dirty work of the Hares. It didn’t take long for Lang to realize that Rynn did not have much courage within him. “Well, if it isn’t little tiny Rynn!” Some of the other bigger members said one day, encountering the pair in the hallway. “Where you off to today? Did Seth send you to buy smokes again? Why don’t you buy some liquor for us too, while you’re at it?” “We’re not going anywhere…” Rynn tried to push past them, but they wouldn’t let him. “Come on, Rynn. What are you doing here? I thought we told you to never come in this area! An underdog like you, not even a full-fledged Hare… And what are you doing with this prize? Do you really think that you should be associating with the likes of him?” “I’m - I’m sorry - I’ll remember - ” “And what happened to the boots I had you shine last time? Look at them! Look at those blemishes! Do you call that clean and shiny? Do you?” Rynn looked down, but was kicked in the stomach, and he doubled over, groaning. “You let him alone!” Lang said, stepping in front of him. “What’s he done to you?” “Well, if it isn’t the new weapon the higher-ups picked up. What did they ever see in you?" “Leave us alone! Or I’ll report you!” “Oh? You? Report us?” They laughed, shoved him around, and went on their way. Lang helped Rynn up. “You gotta stand up for yourself.” “Yeah, well…” Rynn gave a nervous laugh. “I’m…not good with them. I’m better at…work.” And it was true. Rynn was better at the dirty tasks they did than Lang was. After killing someone, Lang threw up in the corner of the alley, sobbing. Rynn patted him on the back. “The first time…it’s always hard. But after a while, your conscience gets dull, and you - you won’t feel as bad anymore…” Lang wiped his mouth. “I’ve killed one hundred and fifty eight people,” he said. “And every time, it’s always been the same. I always…I can’t - ” Seth, who had been taking a smoke, said, “Well then, we have a problem here. Bad guys don’t have consciences. Are you really cut out for this line of work?” “I’ve killed…one hundred and fifty eight people…” “If a scaredy-cat like Rynn can do it, you can too. You need to tone down your reaction, Lang.” “I understand…” How many times had words like those been spoken to him? How many times… Eventually he was able to stop throwing up, but the tears were still hard to stop. “You replaced me with Rynn…” “Why are you so concerned? Lang, you should be more worried about your own mission.” Seth began washing his knife and cutting board. “Aren’t you supposed to be even more concerned? Seth, you know what Rynn’s like, you’ve been with him for so long… Aren’t you afraid that he’s going to get himself killed?” “The superiors ordered it,” Seth replied. “Look, Lang, if you’re really worried, then make sure nothing happens to him. I’ll keep an eye on him as well. He’ll be perfectly fine, okay?” “I guess…” Lang bit his lip. “I should be going now.” “Where is your group going to be tomorrow?” “...not sure.” “You must have some idea.” “...we’ll probably go for the west side first.” “I see. Very well. Good luck.” Lang couldn’t bring himself to say, “You too.” Seth. One of the Hares. A far too serious man with light hair. As far as anyone could remember, he had always moved with that boy with the hollow cheeks by his side. “You used to work for HQ, didn’t you?” Seth didn’t answer, merely focusing on lighting his cigarette. “So what if I did?” “I heard you trained that boy Hope.” A breath of smoke. A sigh, through the nose. “...so what if I did?” “Hey, we’re not trying to test your loyalty. No, there’s another ability user we want you to find and train.” “Oh? What info do you have on him?” They handed him a file. Lang, a boy with disintegration powers. Somewhere in this city… “Rynn, if you were this kid, where would you hide right now?” Seth asked, holding up a pair of binoculars as he and Rynn perched on the top of a building. “I would try to blend in, rather than hide,” Rynn replied, eye twitching at the height below them. “Hiding would look too suspicious. He’s - he’s very plain, right?” “As plain as they come.” Seth handed the binoculars to Rynn, lighting a cigarette. “Take a look for yourself.” Rynn was a good kid, just a bit too timidly. They had entrusted him to Seth’s ward. Useless, they called him. Take care of him, else we throw him out. Hadn’t they wanted Rynn for their purposes before? But they found out that he couldn’t. So they decided to replace him with Lang. They hadn’t even bothered removing the collar around his neck. Seth was the one who had requested that he take charge of Lang. Sure, they presented it like it was their idea. But it was all his idea, really. Rynn probably never even crossed their minds. Because he knew what useless felt like. “Mr. Seth, what’s your ability?” Rynn asked, still crouching by the edge of the building. “I don’t think about it anymore.” Seth let out a long breath of smoke. “Are - are you past the age now?” “Mhm.” “I took you for younger.” “Most people take me for older.” Seth rolled the cigarette between his fingers. “It’s because you’re so serious, sir.” Rynn gave a small laugh. “I thought you took me for younger?” Rynn was a good kid. Albeit too cowardly. The dark side of HQ… Once you were past your prime, and your ability had completely withered away, they threw you aside, out with the trash. Seth hated to see a kid like Hope be treated like that one day. So he left, and joined the Hares instead. Not really for himself, but for Hope. If they took down the organization, then Hope wouldn’t have to go through all that he did. He knew that the Hares did the things they did for different reasons. But hey, they were a tool, a stepping stone. Lang would be their sword. If they could find him right now, of course. It was almost completely dark now, only traces of violet in the sky. “Go home now,” Seth told Rynn. “You don’t want to stay out too late.” “You - you will be okay, sir?” Seth scoffed. “You don’t need to worry about me. Who do you think I am?” Seth and Rynn. Rynn and Seth. One of the more efficient, admired pairs in the Hares. Well, not admired so much. But they got the job done. The superiors admitted it. Seth spotted some movement near a trash can in an alleyway down below, so he went and took the stairs down. They hadn’t waited all day for nothing… Someone was rifling through the garbage. A broken bottle lay on the ground. The boy crouched, and slowly, the pieces began to come together again. He took the bottle in his hand and weighed it, catching it in his other palm. Seth moistened his lips. Lang would not want this. He could feel it. But hey, all criminals had to start somewhere, right? “Kid, how would you like to join the Hares?” Force, coercion… The kid was green. But he was wanted. He had no other choice. “I’d feel mighty awful if I joined, sir.” “Well, I did too. But not anymore.” “Anymore…you think I’d stop feeling awful?” “Mm, yeah, you would. No one here feels awful anymore.” So was this the same Lang he had found in the bathroom a day before his infiltration mission, completely broken? “Mr. Seth…I thought you said I wouldn’t feel awful anymore.” And Seth did not know what to say. He did not ask what training the kid had gone through before he was transferred to under him. He did not want to know. All he knew was that he would train him in the same way that he had trained Hope. Except with a different purpose in mind. Was it bad that Rynn was actually starting to enjoy being the Hound? For once in his life, he felt like he was being admired by the others. He had always been called out and restricted for his ability. But now, the Hares gave him free reign. He could almost strike terror into them. He could see it in their eyes. They may still give him a hard time, but his place in the Hares would never be the same. What about Lang, though? Lang had never enjoyed being the Hound. Rynn knew, because he could see those red-rimmed eyes and tear-stains on his face whenever he returned. “Destruction isn’t all that you can do, isn’t it?” he had said to him one night. “You can restore things too, right?” “Yeah,” Lang replied listlessly. Two sides of the same coin… With the way that Lang was, he was probably more suited to be a hero. Even if he was constantly struggling with himself more than finding something good to do in the world, during his time at HQ, they were probably affecting him with their teachings and sayings and things that they fed heroes… HQ wasn’t a bad place. Rynn knew that from Seth. And he knew what they were doing was wrong, and he understood why Lang felt so. He also knew that any sensible person, being in Lang’s place, would betray the Hares in a heartbeat. They were going to lose anyway, with Rynn as the Hound. Weak. Cowardly. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile before, Lang,” he said to him. “What is there to smile about?” Lang’s eyes were tired, confused, in pain. Lang could probably smile more with that hero Hope than he could with him. If it was so that Lang could smile, then he was willing to… Rynn let out a long sigh as the others called him, and pulled on his black gloves, draping the hood of the cloak over his head. “Coming…” Early the next morning they set off to fight the Hares, going towards the western side of the city. The amount of damage was devastating. Lang felt his heart wrench. Not unfamiliar scenery… “They even destroyed the Osaki Noodle Shop!” Ren seemed quite agitated. “How could they?” “There will be other noodle shops in the future,” Kei said, patting her shoulder. “Yes, but they won’t be the same!” “So is the way of war…” Wind murmured. “Is this even war?” Lang turned and looked out the window of the van, trying to block their conversation with the sound of the engine. He knew that some of them had grown up in this area… “Why didn’t HQ dispatch anyone?” Kei asked. “They dispatched us,” Hope replied. “When we find the Hound, I should like to put a bullet through his head,” Ren muttered. “I wonder who the Hound even is,” Ness yawned. “Have we even seen his face on the news before?” “He’s a real dangerous villain, that’s for sure,” Wind said. As they talked, Lang wanted to say, “I’m right here. I’m right here. Hey, I’m right here. I’m the Hound. Look at me. You want to kill me? I’m right here. I’m right here!” But the words kept catching in his throat. They parked at the edge of the area. The Hares’ hideout was close by, further into the destruction. Tae said that they had set up camp there… “All right, Yu, Ren, stay in the van. Keep an eye on the nearby frequencies. Kei, Wind, Lang, Ness, come with me. Tae, you said you were going to keep watch somewhere else?” “To keep an eye on the Hound,” Tae nodded, shouldering his sniper’s rifle. “All right. Good luck, all.” Lang followed Hope somewhat tentatively. What if they bumped into someone who knew him? What if they found Rynn? He wanted to scream. Was he with the Hares or not? When would his mission be over? They found the base, and Kei led them, Ness staying close by to protect them with her force fields, if needed. Wind nudged Lang forward. “Move your feet,” he whispered. Lang bit his lip and nodded, feeling the weight of the pistol in his hand. Ren had found him a good one, one with a loud, clear sound. It was better than what he used to use, although a little on the light side. He preferred something with more weight. Perhaps next time he should ask if - What was he going on about? There would be no next time. “You sure there’s people here?” Kei hissed. “Seems mighty abandoned to me.” “Keep your voice down!” Ness silent-screamed. “He’s right, though,” Wind whispered. “I don’t think anyone’s here…” “Don’t let your guard down.” Hope seemed slightly nervous, surprisingly. He kept fidgeting with his gun. “I hate waiting…not knowing what’s going to happen.” Kei’s face turned serious. “Thinking about dinner later, or someone I might have to kill right now… Oh? I think I’ve picked up a pathway to the Hound.” The Hound? A pathway to him? Oh, no… He was going to turn around, and see that the Hound was Lang, he was going to come and he would be found out, and he - But as they turned the corner, a shot rang out, and Kei crumpled to the ground, blood spraying everywhere. It was quiet, back at the van. Yu didn’t know how he felt about being alone with Ren. She seemed quite intimidating, almost scarier than Ness. Maybe because she was holding weapons half the time. “Why’d you decide to work for HQ?” Ren asked, polishing a dagger. “Me?” “Yeah, you.” “Well…” Yu paused. “I mean, we with abilities should do our best to help out with the world, right?” “I see.” Ren continued polishing, her red hair falling over her shoulder. “I don’t have an ability.” “You - you don’t?” “Mm… My brother did, though. And he came and worked here.” “Is he still here?” “He defected.” Yu stared. “Defected?” “Defected to the Hares, yeah. So I decided to come and take his place. And I swore if I ever found him again, I’d kill him with my bare hands.” Yu could feel himself start to sweat. “So did you?” “We received news that he got killed two months after I started here.” “I’m - I’m sorry.” “Don’t be. He was a bastard of a brother anyway.” Yu winced. Still, as he watched her, he saw her eyes start to glisten, ever so slightly. “He would…take me to places. Like the zoo. Amusement park. Introduced me to Osaki Noodle Shop. He was probably the best brother anyone could ask for.” She was starting to choke up, ever so slightly. Then she wiped her eyes, and said: “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. The only one I’ve told this to is Hope.” “Hope’s a nice guy.” “Isn’t he? Keep an eye on your monitor, by the way. Where are they?” “They’re in the tunnels right now…” There were footsteps outside. Ren and Yu exchanged glances. “Back already?” “So this is where that fellow Hope’s equipment is. And I assume you two are part of his team?” A worn young man with long blonde hair and sharp eyes peered in, wearing a sand-colored flak jacket. Ren snatched up a rifle, aiming it at him. “Don’t you dare come another step closer!” The young man grinned. “We have five of us out here. There’s only two of you.” “I’ll really shoot!” “If you were going to, you’d have done so already.” Ren pulled the trigger. A shot rang out, but the man with the sharp eyes easily ducked. “Nice try, miss. You seem awful familiar, with those crimson eyes of yours. Reminds me of someone on our team, once.” “Don’t hurt her!” Yu cried, summoning up his energy. “Hope will be here in a minute!” “But is a minute enough?” The young man with the sharp eyes extended a hand, and the barrel of the rifle began to bend over backwards, twisting out of shape. “Oh, the things we could do to you two a minute…” Yu wished that he wasn’t so useless. He wished with all his heart that he could become powerful and beat the five Hares. But wishful thinking didn’t lead anywhere. Everything had gone to pieces. Kei was dead, and the rest of them were barely able to fight their way out of the hideout alive. Why had things gone so wrong? Hope cursed himself. A misstep, a misstep! If Seth were here, he would have given him some profound advice or tell him to suck it up and keep moving. Dwelling on past mistakes was no way to live, especially if your life was in danger. “It’s a diversion!” Wind called, when they realized that there were less people at the hideout than there should be. “We have to go back!” Go back… Wind was right. And they had left their weakest members at the van…! Hope, Wind, Ness, and Lang ran back across the desolate plains, Ness slinging Kei’s body over her shoulders, blood still falling to the ground. The earth, the sky, it was all filled with sand, with dust, the buildings were wrecked, why had everything gone so wrong…? Hope coughed as they emerged from a particularly nasty dust cloud, and the van came into view. Please be all right, please be all right… Ren and Yu’s bloody bodies were both lying there on the ground, gathering dust. Hope felt bitter bile rise up in his mouth, and cursed inwardly. They were too late. Wind was right, this was a diversion, everything was a diversion, everything… “Where’s Tae?” Wind asked. “Tae!” Hope turned and began sprinting towards the building where Tae would be situated. No, no, no, no, no… It was a tall office building, its foundation cracked, its windows shattered. Just as Hope arrived in the square, however, a young man with sharp eyes and several others came out, dragging Tae with them. “No!” Hope’s mind was too blurred, too messed up, for him to concentrate his energy to use his ability… He had to use his ability… “Are you Hope?” the young man called. “Shut up!” Hope screamed. “What have you done with Tae?” “Oh…” The young man hauled Tae up, bruised and bloody. “I thought it would be interesting to see the light in Hope’s eyes die…” His ability…! If he could just use it… But he couldn’t. Why couldn’t he? No, his ability wasn’t working… “Wondering about your ability?” The young man tilted his head. “All abilities in this area have been temporarily disabled. All thanks to our friend here.” He gestured at one of the Hares with him, a man with brown hair. “I’d like to see you try anything.” No… Hope looked at Tae. Tae, his roommate, his friend… The first day that he had come to HQ, he had been thrown into a strange room in a strange place. He had gotten terribly lost, and after several hours finally managed to find his dorm room. A black-haired boy was sitting on one of the beds, watching something on a tablet. “Are you Hope?” he asked, as Hope entered. “That I am,” Hope replied. “Oh.” The boy turned back to his tablet. “I was expecting a girl.” And that was how Tae and Hope had met. Rivals in class, constantly trying to outdo one another… “Dangit, Hope, you finally beat me,” Tae said, looking at their final results of the year. “Looks like I’ll be your assistant from now on.” They had made a bet: whoever came in lower than the other at the end of the year would be the other’s assistant. And now… The young man with the sharp eyes pressed the barrel of his shotgun to Tae’s head and fired. He didn’t even flinch. “...you killed my assistant.” Hope could only hear the ringing in his ears, see through a red haze. “You killed my assistant!” The young man grinned. “There’s the look! There’s the look in your eyes! Despair! Just like those two at the van… Oh, my. Anger, as well! The five stages of grief, is this? Beautiful! To see this in Hope’s eyes…” Hope raised his gun and fired, and didn’t stop pulling the trigger, even long after all five of them lay dead, and his ammo was gone… Why had everything gone so wrong? Why? Why? It was like they had been expecting them… Hope had been good to him. He really had. Like Wind had suggested, Lang ended up spending some more time with Hope. Not that he wanted to. He didn’t think it would be good for when he had to leave later. But Hope was the one who had sought him out. Hope sought everyone out. But he made them feel like that they were the only one he was thinking about. “Say, Lang, you enjoying your time here?” Hope had asked him during one sunny afternoon, as they sat on the steps, watching the others play capture the flag. (They were both in jail.) “Yeah,” Lang replied, hands on his knees. “Yeah, it’s nice.” He watched Wind tackle Kei. “It’s good for training,” Hope said, following his gaze. “I make them do this every year.” “How long have you been here?” Lang asked. “Mm…two, three, years?” Hope seemed pensive. “Might stay for a couple more years.” “Do you like it?” Hope looked for a moment as if he were about to say something else, then he said, “Yeah. Yes, I like it here. Wouldn’t have stayed elsewise.” And he smiled. Lang watched Kei starting to pull at Wind’s hair, and Ness running over to join in the fray. “Why did your parents name you Hope, anyways?” “I guess…” Hope began tying his shoelace. “I was born during a dark time. And my parents wanted a little hope. So here I am.” “I’m glad that…you’ve taken it upon yourself to be a source of hope, though, for the people.” “You really think so?” Hope gave him a side glance. Lang backtracked. “I mean, that’s what they all say about you…” Hope chuckled. “Do you see me that way?” Lang wondered if, perhaps, one day, he could become someone like Hope. Maybe in another life. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.” “I’m glad you think so.” Hope sighed, and stretched. “So tell me abut yourself. What do you like? What hobbies do you have?” “I…” Lang remembered Rynn’s secret spot with the window. “I like watching birds.” “Oh? Why?” “Because…they seem so free.” “They do, don’t they?” Hope stared at a couple of yellow birds in a tree nearby. “They are so free…” Hope had really treated him well. Which was why Lang hated himself more than he already did. Seeing Hope broken like that, over the deaths of four of his team, Lang could only swallow, and say some empty, blurry words of consolidation. But this had all been his fault… It was his fault that they were all dead. He was the Hound… “So this is what it’s like to be a hero. Watch carefully, Lang,” Hope said, his face streaked with tears. “You’re going to see these kinds of things more often. Wondering why you were a step too late, why you couldn’t save them. Wondering what you did wrong. And you’re going to feel awful. Absolutely awful. The guilt you’re gonna feel…” “It’s okay,” Lang wanted to say. “I feel that already.” “Are you sure you want to continue on this path to being a hero? Are you absolutely sure? Because I don’t want you to feel this kind of thing.” Becoming a hero… In truth, he could stay with HQ. He could just stay here, and train, and become a hero. And no one would know the wiser, if they managed to take down the Hares. Especially if everyone thought that Rynn was the real Hound… Whatever it was like, surely it would be better than the guilt that weighed him down now. Later, when he and Hope were alone, he said, very quietly, “What if…what if I was the Hound?” “What?” Hope looked at him, that same kindness in his tired eyes that he had always shown him. “What if…I was the Hound?” Hope stared at him, then laughed. “You? The Hound? You aren’t, Lang. There’s no way you’re the Hound.” “But what if I was?” “Why are you asking this, man? C’mon, let’s go get dinner.” Lang followed, his stomach wrenching. His once attempt at coming clean, at trying to say something, at trying to ease his guilt… No matter. They didn’t have to know. He wasn’t the Hound. He wasn’t the Hound. He wasn’t the Hound. Rynn had replaced him. Days passed, tired days, days filled with following the red poppies. The war with the Hares was tiring. Lang had not realized how vicious they were until he was on the receiving side. HQ had sent more heroes to help them, and with their help, they were able to take out more of the Hares’ hideouts. Soon, the organization would disintegrate completely… Wherever Lang walked, he tried to restore things. He cleared the way, moved broken glass, made things whole again… The other side of his ability. How fitting. Could he still fix the moon, though? One of the heroes let out a long whistle, seeing the newest path of destruction. “It’s like the Hares grew fangs and claws. This is worse than before!” “Well, they do have the Hound on their side…” Lang swallowed. “I’m going to go on ahead,” he said. “Good luck, Lang! Stay safe!” Lang went on alone. There were too many collapsed buildings around for him to fix, he could only try and pave a pathway right now. On the radio in his pocket he heard a sharp buzz, and then the voice at the other end say, “The Hound has been spotted, I repeat, the Hound has been spotted. Somewhere near the forest towards the north side, near the ruins of the third district…” The Hound… Rynn. Rynn! He was still alive. No, he had to get to him before anyone else could. Otherwise they’d find him, and kill him. Lang broke into the job. The area was clearer here, with more farmland and hills and such. Still, the grass was all yellow and wilted. Destruction, even on nature… There was a tall white building on a hill ahead, with the evergreen forest as its backdrop. A church? Lang ran faster, then slowed, his breath coming up heavy. “Rynn…” There he was, standing under the archway of the building, dressed in the black cloak that Lang used to wear, wind whipping through his dark hair. “Hey Lang…” Rynn’s brow was covered with perspiration as he stared down at him, his hollow cheeks seeming even more sunken. “Nice to see you.” “Rynn, please, get out of here, they’re going to kill you - ” “Lang…I’m the Hound now.” “Rynn, please, listen to me - ” Lang wanted to cry. Rynn gave a smile, blinking. “Lang, you did it.” Lang stared at him. “What?” “When they come, you say you did it. You killed the Hound. And you’ll be honored. Okay?” The wind was soothing, a cold whistle wrapping past his ears. The evergreen trees were whispering, swaying… “Rynn - ” “Lang…bad guys don’t cry, remember?” Before Lang could run towards him, Rynn sent a tremor throughout the earth, and the ground became like a wave, throwing Lang to the ground. He watched as the building collapsed on top of Rynn, and as the dust settled, the shaking stopped. The trees still whispered judgmentally in the background. He wanted to scream, he wanted to put the building back together again, to put his friend back together… Rynn had died because of him. Rynn had died because of him! How many people had died because he lived? As he brought the building up again, he wished that he could turn back time as well, and be the one standing where Rynn had been, and crushed instead of his friend. There he was, blood trickling from his head, staining the black cloak. He looked almost peaceful, like he was lying in a field of flowers instead of the middle of a battlefield of wreckage. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so, so, sorry…” He wanted to weep, but he couldn’t he had to move on, he had to - Lang wiped his face with the bloodstained cloak, then took it off of Rynn and put it on himself. No, he was the real Hound. He wouldn’t let Rynn die for nothing. Forget about being a hero. He was the Hound. He always had been. “Lang’s gone.” Hope turned to look at Wind. His purple eyes were serious. “You sure?” “Yep. He didn’t return yesterday. Not in his bunk, either.” Hope let out a long sigh. “Well, that’s not like Lang…any updates on the Hares or the Hound?” “The Hound’s moved places. We’ve lost track of him.” “Well, find him again. I want to see him.” It didn’t take too long. As they headed out into the ruined desert to fight another bunch of the Hares, they received report that that the Hound had gone on a rampage again. “Completely wild, causing greater destruction than he has in the past few weeks…” “Which way?” Hope asked, slinging his shotgun over his shoulder. “About two, three, kilometers in. Keep going north. Wait, Hope, are you going alone?” Hope didn’t reply, and broke out into a sprint over the sand. The sun was in his eyes, bright and searing, and made him want to cry, but he couldn’t. His tears had been dried up days ago, with the death of Tae and his other teammates. He could hear Ness and Wind calling him, but he ran faster. He couldn’t drag them into this. He couldn’t let them be in any further danger. Lang… His lungs hurt. His ears rang. He could no longer register the ruin around him. The houses, the buildings, the vehicles, the trees… All disintegrated, falling apart, turning into dust. This was the power of the Hound. He remembered back when he was training, when he was with Seth. Those had been sweet days, filtered with the golden light of memory. Seth had asked him, “What did the higher-ups say to you regarding our last mission?” “They told me to keep my emotions out of my work.” Because he had pitied a villain, and let him escape. “Hope.” Seth leaned against the bridge they were standing on, the wind whipping through his hair. “Your strength lies in your emotions. Why are you training to be a hero?” “So I can save people.” “And why do you want to save people?” “Because I care about them…” “Exactly.” Seth stared up at the sky. “Let your emotions fuel you, and drive you to do good. It’s dangerous; one misstep, and you could become a villain instead. But as long as you follow that line, straight and true…” “Seth…” Tears burned his cheeks as he ran. “But you still left, Seth… You still left me alone.” No, that wasn’t true. He hadn’t been alone. Tae had been with him. And soon, the rest of his team. “Lang…” Was it because he recognized himself in that boy, that he was chasing after him, seeking his shadow? That quiet nervousness of wanting to do right… “Lang!” His voice was carried away on the wind. How far had it been? Had he missed him? No, the Hound was near, the Hound was near… There was Lang, standing on a small patch of sand, surrounded by clear water reflecting the sun. Remnants of the national library still surrounded them, large pillars, crumbling rooftops, broken marble steps, and the books, oh, the books, the books were everywhere, dying in the sun and the sand and the shining water… “Lang…” That was him, tired, his dark hair windswept, wearing the Hound’s trademark cloak. The hood down, unzipped, so that his face could be clearly seen… “Hope…you’re finally here.” Hope slowed his steps. “Why did you run away?” Lang didn’t answer. “Don’t come near me. I have to kill you.” “Lang?” Lang’s eyes focused on something behind him, above him, and he stretched out his hand, and the nearby pillars and buildings started to collapse, to fall on him… Hope remembered Tae, poor Tae, and that cursed land, and he activated his ability. If he could, if he could just… If he had, then Tae wouldn’t have died… Curse that ability user. What a cruel thing to do. Time stopped. The falling wreckage, paused in midair. The smoke, still flowing where it had once flowed. Lang, his eyes widening ever so slightly. Hope took those bold, daring steps forward again, not even glancing up at the looming shadows. “You knew about my ability.” “The first I’ve seen of it.” “Lang, why did you run away?” He stopped where the water started, his feet sinking into the still coolness. “It was my time to go.” Lang’s voice caught in his throat. “That time…why did you say I wasn’t the Hound? You knew, didn’t you?” “Because you aren’t the Hound, Lang.” “No, I am!” “At that time…you were still one of us.” “But I’ve always been the Hound, Hope. Rynn, Rynn was fake. Rynn was merely filling my absence. Me, I was always among you guys…” “You didn’t feel like a villain to me, Lang.” “Well, I am a villain! I am, and I was, and I was raised and trained to become who I am today. And nothing you say can change that. Because of me, so many people died. I killed them. I killed them all, Hope! Directly or indirectly. It’s too late to turn into a hero. Kei and the others dying…was proof of that.” Lang quickly wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. “When Rynn…Rynn was trying to give me a chance to become the hero who killed the Hound. But so many people had already died because of me… I can’t change that easily! You understand, right?” “Lang…” Hope still stared at him. “I didn’t say any of that. You were all thinking that yourself.” Lang’s eyes widened, and he pulled his black pistol out of the cloak pocket. “Do you understand my thoughts?” “Didn’t you hear what I told you a few days ago? The pain and emptiness you face as a hero…” “Heroes and villains are different!” Lang’s hand was trembling. “So tell me, why do I still cry? They told me I would stop feeling so awful after a few kills, but still…!” Tears were streaming down his face as he pressed the barrel of the pistol to his head. “Should I end myself, right here, right now, to rid myself of this crushing guilt? Should I? Do you know how many times I wanted to take the easy way out, because it was just too much to bear? Do you?” “I don’t usually say this about villains, but…poor you.” Hope smiled, because he could feel Lang struggling to through his tears. “You carry a stronger conscience than even some heroes I’ve met… Why don’t you follow it?” “Do you really think that after all I’ve done…following my conscience would change anything? Tell me, they’ve preached to me about forgiveness and grace but to me, those things are only a mockery of the blackness of my heart. They offer to clean it but they don’t think about the rag that gets dirtied. I am me, and I can either end myself here or have you end me. So what will it be? What will it be?” “I don’t like killing villains,” Hope replied. “I prefer arresting them and turning them in. If you kill yourself now, people will say that you took the easy way out. That you didn’t get the just punishment you deserved.” “So arrest me, then! Will that lift this weight off my soul?” “And then people will say that even the death penalty wasn’t enough…” Lang lowered his pistol, and aimed it at Hope instead. “So I’ll kill you, then, and wait for the next hero to come and see what he does with me.” “I don’t want you to feel any worse…” “It’s too late for that now.” Hope lifted his shotgun and rested the end on his shoulder. “It’s your choice, Lang. Do whatever you want. Kill me and continue being the Hound, end yourself, go to Hell… Or try to start fixing what little of this that you can. Will any of those things truly make you feel better?” Lang steadied his hand. “I guess one time in life I did feel better… I’d feel bad if I chose that path now, though.” “And when was that?” “One afternoon when I was with you.” “Why is the moon like that? It’s kind of bumpy and patched…” “Because the Hound ate it, and then they fixed it. You do remember that villain, don’t you, honey?” “What was his real name?” “I heard they called him Lang… It’s just a rumor, though.”
1
1
19
Quintessence
Jun 22, 2022
In Short Stories
CW: Mentions of Explosions, Implications of Terrorism Synopsis: A woman meets a strange man on a subway, and a chance to hear a whole new world around her. Word Count: 1104 Date Written: May 2021 “Do you hear it too?” His gleaming eyes flickered like the lights in the subway we were on. “What do you hear?” I asked. He swayed with the subway car, hanging onto the strap from the ceiling. His white hair was strange, bangs growing out over his brow, a mullet covering his neck. His voice was soft as he spoke: “A beep-beep-beeping coming from somewhere. It just doesn’t stop. It gets louder then quieter and I can’t tell where it’s coming from. Can you hear it too?” I listened, but I could only hear the rumbling of the subway and the chatter around us. “It’s all in your head.” He shot me a half-grin. “That’s what they all said to me. Ah, miss, if only you could hear it too. I can hear such beautiful things sometimes…” I edged away. Obviously my parents had warned me against talking to creepy men on the subway, and this guy was definitely no exception. “Are you sure you don’t hear it?” He locked eyes with me once more. “I - I’m sure I don’t,” I replied. “Do you need to go see a doctor?” He gave a soft chuckle. “Things just haven’t been the same since the explosion…” “Explosion?” “Explosion.” His eyes flicked up back to mine, then down again. “Oh, the sweet ringing, the distant ringing and stinging of the eyes… And my father and the others, oh, the things they’d say: ‘Gui Shami, stop pretending.’ ‘Gui Shami, you’re lying again.’ ‘Gui Shami, I thought that your doctor said you were getting better. Why are you acting like this again?’ But I? Well, I just pretended that their words were part of my hallucinations too. My delusions, if you will. They? Well, they never listened. They never heard. Have you ever heard the sound of rose petals falling?” “N - no.” The way he was staring so intently at me sent prickles over my skin, and I tried to edge farther back, but ended up bumping into someone. When would my stop arrive? “Well, roses in general are very soft. And so the way that they wither is also soft. People say that they go silently, but no. They go near silently. But not quite. Such a vain flower won’t leave without a last gasping breath, don’t you agree?” My eyes trailed to his hands. Peeking out from behind his sweatshirt sleeves a pattern of black roses was tattooed on his wrists and the back of his arms. “You can hear roses falling right when it’s the loudest around you. Just right then, yes, there, there’s the sound of the flower falling, so graceful. And then, being trampled beneath someone’s feet, leaving behind such a fine scent… Can you hear it? Isn’t it so marvelous?” “This is my stop,” I said, making a beeline for the doors even before they opened. “But surely…the swaying of the subway, the fresh winds, you can hear that? You can feel that?” He followed, his backpack slung over his shoulder. “I can,” I replied. “Please, I have a train to catch.” “Well, we’re going in the same direction. And I grow tired of hearing the same voices, both inside my head and out.” The bustle of the people. The blurred voices from the intercom. The winds, the wheels on the tracks, the platform rumbling beneath my feet. Sounds, sounds, sounds… As we emerged from the underground, he exclaimed, “Oh! So many sounds, so new, so fresh…” I sighed. “So just what do you hear?” He turned around to face me as he walked. “Oh… I think I hear someone singing. French opera, is it? Yes, someone singing. Can you hear it too?” He seemed so earnest, that I gave a small smile. “Sure.” “You can?” “No. No, it’s all in your head.” “Well, that’s not very nice, miss…” “Look, I’ll pretend to hear it, okay? Opera, right? And the sizzling of the oil in the frying pans... Butterflies landing on flowers. Can you hear it?” “Isn’t it amazing?” He laughed, some life sparking into his eyes. “All of this, miss…” I checked my watch, and lost my smile. “I have a train to catch. I’m sorry.” “We’re going in the same direction…” “Please…” I brushed past him. He stared after me, eyes wide. “That beep-beep-beeping…can you hear it too?” His voice, so soft, so shadowy. It sent chills up my spine. “I can’t, okay? Please leave me alone. It was fun playing games with you, but…” “Ha…” He caught up to me again. “Games. That’s what they all say. ‘Stop playing that stupid game, Shami. No one else can hear it. It’s just you.’” “Well, maybe it is just you! Why are you talking to me anyways?” “Well, miss…I thought you were different.” “I’m not. Please stop, or I’ll call the cops.” I left him standing there. After going through the train station, buying my ticket, and finding the right car and bed on the sleeper train, I let out a sigh of relief. Creeps… I never wanted to be bothered by people like him again. What was he, insane? All those sounds… But truly, for a moment, they had sounded wonderful. As the train began to pull out from the station, I thought I caught a glimpse of him through the window. In the middle of the night I was awoken by some strange beeping and a weight on my legs. I opened my eyes to see that same guy from earlier sitting on top of my covers. His eyes… Something wasn’t quite right. Gleaming, reddened… “The beeping…” His voice was soft. “Do you hear it too?” My eyes trailed to his chest. There was a bomb strapped to him, a red countdown flashing. The beeping… “No… No!” He grinned, a small chuckle escaping his lips. “I’ll blow this train and its passengers to the Western Heavens. You know…an explosion is a marvelous thing. You’ve never felt so distant from death after one. The ringing in your ears, the blur before your eyes, the sweet stench of smoke and flames… Miss, I’d love for you to experience what I have.” “Help!” I cried. “There’s a man in here, and he’s got a - ” The other passengers in my section groaned. The man sleeping across from me sat up and said, “Miss, there’s no one there. You’re alone.” I glanced back at the guy in front of me. He smiled, tilting his head to the side, palely illuminated by the red numbers counting down. “What is it?” the woman beneath me yawned. “Nothing. This lady’s just delusional, is all.”
5
6
42
Q
Quintessence

Quintessence

More actions