A/N: Happy reading! More at the bottom.
Maze Runner - Part 1
No one spoke for what seemed like an eternity as the six boys stood frozen on the sidewalk outside the school doors. The sky above them was like a curtain of blood, looming menacingly in the background of the pitch-dark, void of a sun which sucked in their sight without any pain. Without anyone looking away, one of the boys finally put to words what was on their minds:
"WHAT THE FUCK," Jory screeched.
"Looks like we're not in Kansas anymore," Charlie said.
"We were never in Kansas, Charlie," Josh retorted quietly, without so much as blinking.
"Does that even matter," Ben exploded, finally breaking his gaze from the atmosphere. "I TOLD you all this would be a trap! Why didn't you listen to me?! Look! LOOK! Do you see it?" He pointed to the sky. "THAT is exactly what I was warning you all about! DO YOU GET IT NOW?!"
"Yes, yes," Drew said, "we get it, Ben: you're so right. But, you know, with something like this, somehow I'm not convinced that we would've been safe if we didn't come here either. What do you think, Mr. Righty-pants?"
Ben's lips immediately curled in on themselves at the thought and he shrunk in a bit.
"Actually," Byron said, putting his hand to his chin, "that brings up a good point. How did we even get here? And when? I don't remember any signs in the school that we'd entered some kind of alternate space. How about you guys?"
The others gave their independent answers audibly or in gesture, all of which agreeing with Byron's assessment.
"Fucking great," Jory deadpanned. "So you're telling me that we could've been in this since forever ago and didn't know it?"
"Either that or we're in some kind of hallucination."
"Would they do that though," Josh asked skeptically. "Wouldn't it be bad for them to have us wandering around in physical space like that?"
"Hmm. Good point. So if that's the case then we're probably in a vegetative state and being shipped off. The proof of that theory will be if we suddenly wake up somewhere else. Until that happens, if it does, we might as well act on what we see."
("You say that like it's no big deal," Ben said quietly, growing ever more diminished.)
"So we're in some kind of alternate space, yeah," Charlie asked. "Does that mean we can do whatever the hell we want now?"
Drew snorted at the thought. "Of course that's the first thing you go to, Charlie," he said with a smile. Meanwhile, Byron faceplamed, Josh rolled his eyes, and Jory got stoked up before replying:
"He's right though! In here, we can't be seen by anyone so we can use our powers however we want!"
"Perhaps we could even turn that to our advantage," Byron said. "Develop our powers while we scope out the opposition."
Ben hugged himself tightly. "But if we can't be seen by anyone else, doesn't that mean the people we're up against can use their powers however they want too? We're sitting ducks…"
The device in the bag that Charlie was holding began to ring once more. The boys stared at him as he gave a look that read, "You want me to answer it?" as he slowly opened up the satchel. The ringing continued as he fished out a small, black communication device. After inspecting it, Charlie found a button that seemed like the way to pick up and one last time looked around at the other's worried faces, Byron giving a nod to continue. Charlie hit the button and held the device in the palm of his hand as if it were resting on a table.
"Hey boys," a familiar valley-girl voice almost sang out. "Like, it's totally great to be able to actually talk to you." She giggled eerily. "Would you like to play a game?" After another short silence, she spoke again disappointedly, "Oh, come on guys. Like, there's no need to be so cold… Can't we have a little…fun?" (She said that last word a bit seductively.)
"Alright, I'll bite," Josh said, keeping the silence from going on too long after that. "Who are you and what do you want?"
"Yaaaay! We finally get to begin! And here I thought you guys had hung up. You know, I was really excited when I found out that I would be the one to get to talk to you all. It's not every day that..." As the girl rambled on, Byron put his hand in the air and snapped twice quietly, getting the other's attention. He then made a motion that put his two pointer fingers together vertically, simultaneously mouthing the words "pair up" and moving over next to Charlie. The others followed suit and by the time they sorted themselves, the girl finished her nonsensical blabber. "…and I'm soooo happy that I get to play this game with you all. …Hey, like, are you guys still there? Helloooooo?"
"Yeah, we're still here," Drew said with an irritated undertone, "but are you gonna talk us to death or answer the questions? Who are you, and what do you want?"
"Oh, poo, such a bad sport," she replied bitterly before brightening up instantly again. "But that's okay—I haven't explained the rules yet!"
"Rules," Byron contended cynically.
"Yes, silly," she said as if it were plain as day. "We can't play a game without setting up rules first! So let's start with this: you all need to choose one person to represent your group. While we're on call, that one person talks and everyone else needs to play the quiet game." She giggled again. "Easy enough, right? Once you've done that, I can explain the rest. So, like, I'll call back in a few! Choose wisely, boys! Buh-byyyye~!" At that, she hung up.
"Haha," Charlie laughed in a Mickey Mouse voice continuing on in an imitation. "Well, that was awkward."
Ben double-hand-face-palmed and dragged them down the front of his face. "Uuuuuugh, why is it that every time people with superpowers get into these situations they can't just talk it out like normal people?"
"Because these motherfuckers don't understand anything unless you put them in their place," Jory exclaimed. "And I say we do just that!"
"...And how do you suppose we do that," Josh asked bitterly.
"Easy: when she calls back we tell that bitch that we're sick of her dodgy bullshit and that if she won't answer our questions then we're gonna come find her and MAKE her answer them!"
"Joryyyyy," Ben whined in exasperation.
"Oy vey," Byron said, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"I dunno, Champ," Drew began. "I don't think outright threatening these people is going to work."
"It'll work when we follow through! They're looking down on us!"
"They have every RIGHT to," Byron exploded. "WE'RE IN ANOTHER DIMENSION!"
"Yes, hello," Charlie said, putting the device to his ear, the others turning in panic. "I would like to nominate George for speaker, please...absent person not on the other line."
Drew snorted, Josh and Byron giving a sigh of relief.
"Charlie, don't scare us like that," Ben wailed, almost crying.
"Hey," Charlie began, "if we're not gonna make a pick before the time's up, then I'm just gonna take it."
"Charlie's right," Byron said, rubbing his forehead, "we're getting sidetracked. Who are we putting up as our representative?"
Ben gave an obvious sign that he didn't want anything to do with it. Josh and Jory both considered it for a second and then also backed out.
"I mean," Drew said as he shook his head, "is that even a question? I'm pretty sure you're the only person who would even want that here."
Charlie made a motion to George, now on his hand, who was munching on the device in his sock mouth like a cow would a tuft of grass. After which, everyone in the crew said, "no", only slightly off all at once and in various tones of disapproval.
"Awwww," Charlie said disappointedly, his shoulders dropping a bit.
"Then if no one else objects, I'll do it," Byron said, addressing the others. He turned back to Charlie. "Charlie, can have the device?"
Charlie put his hand to his chin and thought for a moment, humming loudly. He then took the device out of George's mouth and offered it to Byron. "Alright, pawn. I shall allow you to fight on my behalf this time. ...You better win though."
"Naturally," Byron said, taking the device.
"So," Josh asked. "What's next?"
"Strategy. What's our end goal?"
"Get out of here alive," Ben answered immediately.
"Right. So is there anything...besides threatening them, that we should try to ensure that?"
"Oh, come the fuck on," Jory exclaimed. "What reason do you have to think that's not something we should at least consider!?"
"Maybe because they might try to KILL us, you dolt," Josh replied venomously.
"I vote that we mess with them somehow," Drew said. "Leaving it without anything to put them on the back foot would be both weak as hell and incredibly boring."
"I second this," Charlie said.
"Fiiine," Jory lamented, "if that's all we can get."
"Fair enough," Byron said. "If the opportunity presents itself, I'll take it. But if we can't on the first round, we'll figure out how to do it later. Good?" Everyone gave their nods or hums of approval. "Excellent. Then the last thing is our arrangement. I'll be negotiating; if I could find out their motives, that would be ideal. But for now I'll just take what I can get. Drew, Ben—I need you two to listen closely to her every word to glean as much info as you can from her; I'll be speaking so I can't catch everything. Josh, Jory, Charlie: you three keep watch and alert us of anything weird that might happen around us; also see if you can spot someone, they may be watching. And if there is an attack, we'll need you to raise the alarm and/or take to the front lines to intercept it. Don't let anything go unnoticed everyone, and keep your powers at the ready." Byron smiled confidently. "Let's show these fools who they're messing with."
"And they think they can take on the five of us and a Marty Stu," Ben said melodramatically. "I'd like to see them try.~"
Morale rose as the group took their positions. As they settled in, silence settled in as well. The seconds ticked by in the noiseless world until even time itself seemed to stop. And then...
Byron hit the button to answer the device. Once again, the voice of the girl greeted him gleefully.
"Hey heyyyyyyy~! So I hope you're ready now. Have you, like, chosen your leader?"
"I guess that would be me," Byron said nonchalantly.
"Oh, yeeeeah! I just, like, knew it would be you! What's your name, guy?"
"Ohhhh, how charming," the girl replied half-sarcastically. "Well, unfortunately, I don't feel like answering that question."
"And I don't feel like answering yours. So unless you're gonna put something on the table, we're at an impasse."
"Wooooow, like, look at you. So grown up. I think I'm starting to understand you guys just a bit better now. How 'bout this: what do you guys want, then?"
"Well, for starters, how about you tell us what you want with us. I know our last encounter wasn't on the best of terms, but I mean it when I say this: we don't mean any harm."
"Oh, I think that's for us to decide. Maybe you didn't intend to cause us trouble last week, but I can tell you that what you did made a lot of very powerful people just a little angry. Like, a teensy bit."
"If we can make it up to you, would you leave us alone?"
"Oooo, sorryyyy. No can do, guy. Orders are orders, after all. Don't take it personally."
"Eh, worth a shot," Byron said, stretching a bit. "Alright, then let's move on to this game thing you kept mentioning. Frankly, we never agreed to take part in anything like that, so I have but one question for you on this: what happens if we choose not to play?"
The girl giggled and then spoke bluntly in a chipper tone. "Then I guess...you all have to die~ ."
Her words hung over the group like a guillotine. Josh, Jory, and Charlie all tensed up, quickly scanning every angle for any movement.
"Oh sillies, you know as well as I do that that's useless; you won't find me and I'm not out to kill you yet. I'm serious! Like, there's no reason not to trust my word, right?"
Byron chuckled gravely. The others cringed but still kept to their tasks. "Uhhh, I don't know if we can trust you, but if this is what you're like when you're serious, I do wonder what you're like when you're not."
The girl burst out laughing on the other end. "Ahhhh, aren't you funnyyyy!" She sighed. "It's just too bad, guy. I think you'd be, like, an awesome friend. Your buddies too, you know? But as I said, orders are orders. We have a game to play, and you all don't have a choice."
"I see. That truly is a pity. ...Then I suppose we'll just have to play your game. And win."
"Hey, that's the spirit, guy! Let's, like, get into the rules, then. So in this game, we'll give you several tasks and you have to complete them. Also, you each will have, like, three points on your score. If the entire group fails to complete a task, one point will be deducted from everyone's score. Individual points can be deducted for failing to abide by the rules too. Furthermore, if, like, all three points are deducted from someone…? ...Yeeeah, let's just say they're not long for the world."
"Oh, you FUCKING BITCH," Jory yelled, turning around to face the phone.
"Ohhh, look at that! Like, you failed already! One point down for the fire guy."
Jory immediately bit his tongue and Byron swiftly brought the device closer to his face to speak more forcefully. "Whoa, whoa, wait a minute! You never said anything we agreed to before this conversation applied to the game itself—that was just a formality to explain the rules. You can't expect us to be playing by rules you haven't established yet. Don't try to con us."
"Ooookay, ooookay. Settle down, guy. I get it. You are technically right about that, so as a show of good faith, I'll let it slide this time. But just so that everyone's on the same page: when we contact your group like this, there will be penalties for speaking out of turn. And the next time your hot headed friend blatantly steps out of line, we'll be deducting a point from all of you. Are we clear?"
"Crystal," Byron said sternly, raising an eyebrow at Jory; the latter gritted his teeth and went back to watching the surroundings.
"Gooooood. We'll revise the rules after every challenge so that, like, going forward there are no more disputes. And with that, I think that it's for now."
"Fine by me. So what's the first challenge?"
"First up is a race against the clock! You have, like, thirty minutes to get to the Southfield Plaza. Simple enough, right?"
"How cliché...but we'll roll with it. What's the catch?"
"No, that's about it. The timer will start immediately after this call has ended and you can use, like, anything at your disposal to reach the finish line. I'll call back when you get there or if the time expires, whichever one comes first. So good luck! I'm rooting for you! Byyyyyyyye~!"
With that, she hung up once more. ("No you're not," Josh mumbled.) The group turned in on itself to deliberate quickly.
"You heard the gal," Byron said. "Off we go to the Plaza."
"Yeah," Josh said, glancing snidely at Jory, "I think most of us heard her."
"Josh," Jory said, posing as if to fight, "don't make me come over there."
"Okay," Ben said angrily, putting his hands out to act as a buffer between the two, "can we not do this right now?"
"Yeah," Byron said, "this time we really don't have time for that. So let's just get a move on."
"I think we have plenty of time," Drew said, turning to the parking lot. "I mean, we can just take our cars there, ri—"
Drew fell silent as his eyes met the parking lot. Nothing. Not a single car there to be found. He scowled, as did Charlie seeing the same.
"Now it's personal," Charlie said murderously.
"Yup," Drew said. "That's it: these people are toast."
"That's great and all," Josh said, "but now what?"
"Looks like we're hoofin' it," Byron said, looking at his watch and shifting to start the trek. "No time to waste."
"Awww," Ben said, his shoulders dropping as the others also turned face and started toward the street, "but I'm allergic to exercise…" Soon after he dragged his feet forward and picked up the pace, jogging after the others into the still, alien world.
Smith paced back and forth between the windows that overlooked a small, school courtyard and the pristine tan lockers that resided by the music classrooms. At the same time, Pérez had sat down on the bench by the window, thinking to herself, with her head tilted back against the glass.
Blip. "Bravo to Command, over." Blip.
Smith snapped the walkie off his belt faster than a starving dog would a bone. Blip. "This is Command. Update. Over." Blip.
Blip. "Sir, we've swept the school and met up on the opposite side. We've checked everywhere that would be available to them and there are no signs of forced entry to any of the locked rooms. They're not here. ...Over." Blip.
Blip. "This is Command," Smith said, his voice raising in frustration. "All units start a sweep to check for hidden passageways. Clearly they didn't leave through any of the exits, and if we can't find any hidden ones, they ARE here. We'll check under every single seat and desk in this entire school if that's what it takes—but I want those kids found! Am I clear?!" Blip.
Blip. "...Yes sir." Blip.
Immediately after that reply, Smith changed the channel on his device and spoke again: Blip. "This is Command. How goes the search outside? Over." Blip.
Blip. "Roger Command, this is Mobile. All outside units are fanned out to search the entire radius for the next mile. We've got nothing yet, Sir. Over." Blip.
Smith bashed the side of his hand against the lockers, hanging his head in defeat, "God, damn it!" He lingered there for just a moment before sulking over to the bench that Pérez was occupying. Sitting down himself, he buried his face in his hands.
"Getting agitated isn't going to help with finding them," Pérez said quietly, her eyes still closed and chin tilted back.
"Easy for you to say," Smith almost spat from behind his palms. "I've been on this case for decades…" He held his hands out as if holding something invisible. "To be THIS close to a breakthrough," and then gripped his hands into fists, "but then end up losing it...it's beyond infuriating..."
"I understand," Pérez said, sighing and finally straightening herself up. "But we have a job to do so let's take this from the top one more time. See if we missed anything."
"They came in here. We watched them do it."
"We didn't see them exit. And we can't find them in the building. So where are they?"
"It is odd that they're so hard to find... But there's always an explanation for this. If our suspicions were correct and they're onto us, maybe they predicted that we would try to find them in here?"
"That's fine and all," Smith growled, "but even if they knew, it doesn't explain how they could hide so well from us… Either they took a secret exit or we've been had by our enemies..."
"What about that, then? Let's say they are with the Organization, as you think. They would be gone by now, and there's nothing to be done about it. But let's say they aren't. What then?"
"If they aren't, they're probably dead by now…"
Pérez hummed to herself, seemingly not convinced.
"...How can you remain so unnerved at a time like this," the Agent said, turning to his partner. "Weren't you the one defending the safety of those boys to begin with? If they have been spirited away by the Organization, they're not already in their pockets, and they're still alive, they'd be in a ridiculous amount of danger right about now."
Pérez just shrugged. "Let's not forget that if they are their own faction that they've already survived one run-in with the Organization on their own—a feat so incredible I'm sure I don't need to explain it. I don't feel like it would be right to count them out just yet. So we should give them more time. At this point, considering how impossible they are to locate, that's all we can do...and have some hope that they can hold their own again."
"I don't deal in 'hopes and dreams', Pérez," Smith scoffed, standing up again. "I deal in facts. And here's a fact: I now have to contact my higher ups because apparently the most sophisticated arm of the U.S. Government is too incompetent to find a group of teenagers..."
"Oof," Pérez cringed. "Good luck with that…" She eyed the door under a unisex sign just down the hall. "...I think I'm going to go to the bathroom."
Pérez then got up and the two went their separate ways, Smith walking down the music hall toward the door. He stared out the window into the empty field for a moment, then took a phone out of his pocket. After punching in a few numbers, he put it to his ear and after another moment, he spoke.
"It's Smith. You can probably guess why I'm calling you, but I have to report it anyway: the targets have gone missing, as per usual. Everyone's scrambled to find them."
"There's more than a zero percent chance, for as much as that's worth. But, regardless, we should continue with our previous plans and start getting in contact with their associates. Who knows, it could prove useful in the long-run."
"We still have one more hurdle to get over. But the more time I spend with her, the more I think it won't be an issue."
"Understood. Beginning Phase 2, then."
Meanwhile, the group had already made their way to the light by the school, choosing to turn and go through the subdivisions as a shortcut to the Plaza. They were jogging briskly down the middle of the road, passing by empty car after empty car and soon turned on to Jory's street. Drew and Jory led the pack, Charlie, Byron, and Josh just behind them, with Ben slightly straggling behind.
"YYYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEES," Jory yelled, throwing his hands in the air. "FINALLY! OUR FIRST ACTUAL FIGHTS! I CAN'T FUCKING WAIT!" He sped ahead some more in his excitement.
"Jory," Ben yelped. "Slow down! I can't keep up like this!"
"Oh God, whose ass do I get to kick first?! Dammit, where are the guys for me to shove my foot into?!"
"Ben, I don't think he heard you," Josh called back, his feet still carrying him forward. "Try calling him a name next time—idiots usually respond to those kinds of things."
"I heard that, Josh," Jory replied over his shoulder.
"Good job, Jory," Drew said plainly. "You're officially an idiot."
"Well, I dunno guys," Charlie said. "I think it's one of his more endearing qualities."
"Yes, endearing," Josh said. "That's what I'd call immediately forgetting that you got your ass handed to you by someone who stood still."
"All of you," Jory said bitterly and half-giving up. "Just...just go fuck yourselves."
Byron checked his watch. "Alright. At this pace, we should be able to get there early. Although, even if I'm overestimating, we should still have enough in the tank to sprint the final distance if need be."
"Cool," Drew said, "then I guess we just take it easy from here on out."
"Not really," Josh said. "We should probably talk about that call we just had."
"Right," Byron said. "So why don't we start with what we've learned about our opponents so far."
"Well," Charlie began, "we know they have a good fashion sense." The others gave him a look, Charlie sporting the satchel that the communicator came in, the strap across his chest and the bag bumping against his side as he continued to jog along. "What?"
"Charlie," Josh asked incredulously, "why do you still have that?"
"I thought I'd keep it as a souvenir!"
"You realize it could be bugged, right? You should toss it."
"Yeeeah," Byron said, "there's also no guarantee you could take it with you when we get out of here."
Charlie thought for a moment. "Welp, it makes me sad, but those're some good points." Immediately he flipped the strap over his head and let the bag drop to the street, its form now growing smaller as they jogged away from it. "Aaaaaaall betteeeeer!"
"Speaking of bugs," Ben said loudly, trying to keep up, "what about the device itself?"
Byron took a look at the device in his hand before stuffing it into his pocket best he could while still moving. "Uhh, it could be. But we kinda need it though."
"Yeeeeah," Drew said, "not much to do about that one."
"Who cares," Jory said. "Let 'em hear us. Once we get our hands on these cowards, I bet they'll be pushovers. The only reason they're hiding is because they know we're a threat to them."
"Avoiding a fight doesn't make you weak," Josh said. "...And now that I've had to say that, everything makes sense."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean," Jory yelled over his shoulder.
"Exactly what it says."
"Not now, you two," Byron interjected. "But Josh is right: they're not hiding because they're weak, they're hiding because they're smart; even a small threat isn't worth taking a chance on when you have better options. It's important to remember that the people we're up against are the highly meticulous types. Almost every action they take will be intentionally designed to gain some kind of advantage. In fact, that was happening from the very first time they called us."
"Wait, really," Drew asked in disbelief.
"Yeah. I know a silver tongue when I hear one and that chick chose her words very carefully. It's arguable from the way she phrased things that deducting a point for someone else speaking was a trap designed to test how easy it is to push us around. Hell, even having us run to the next location serves dual purposes."
"You can't be serious," Jory said.
"I am. For one, it's a soft test for physically-oriented superpowers; the people who are least tired out potentially having them. Two, it tires out the people who definitely don't, potentially making them easier to pick off in the next challenge."
"Huh," Drew said. Then he yelled over his shoulder: "You hear that, Ben!? Better build that stamina, quick!" (Jory snorted in the background.)
"Thanks," Ben yelled back, obviously miffed. "I'll keep that in mind."
"So what else have we learned about our enemies other than that we should include ourselves," Charlie asked.
"Well," Byron started up again, "the downside to facing hyper-competent opponents is that they're a hassle to deal with because they're so ruthless—hence the rulesharking. But the upside is that they basically telegraph what they're after in their actions because they optimize so much. For example: the fact that their higher ups won't let us go through negotiations means they see us as a major liability. So if I were in their shoes, I'd be thinking of how to contain us in the least intrusive way, which would probably be to try and convert us to their side. I'm pretty sure she even hinted at that somewhere in there. Subliminal messaging, you could say."
"Ooooooh, I get ya now," Drew said. "How 'bout this then: you know that moment when she said she was gonna kill us and she laughed about us trying to find her? Doesn't that confirm that she can at least see us?"
"Maybe," Josh said. "Either that or she's trying to psych us out."
"That's definitely something to watch for then," Byron said. "Nice catch, Drew. Anyone else?"
"Yeah," Ben said. "I noticed that when she was talking about calling us that she switched perspectives. She used 'I' all the way up to the end and then switched to 'we', so maybe she was trying to hide that she has other people with her at the moment."
"Ooooo," Byron cooed. "Very nice catch, Ben. That opens up the question of which one is the one who put us here. It could be the girl, but it could also be someone else. That's a question that'll have to be answered before we take any offensive measures." Byron checked his watch again. "And speaking of offensive measures," Byron looked over to Josh, "I think it's about time we build up our arsenal. Let's stop for a sec."
Byron ushering them into the middle of the street where they ground to a halt and all looked at Josh as he shot back a curious look. "What?"
"As I said before, we should take advantage of our situation to the fullest. And since the dragon's already out of the bag from earlier, we can use that power to our heart's content. And that means," Byron smiled confidently, "I think it's about time for some flying practice."
The expressions of the group lit up like Christmas trees except for Josh who took a look down the empty street before him and looked back to the others and simply nodded with purpose. "Okay, stand back everyone," he said. After they put some distance between themselves and Josh double-checked to make sure he was clear, he leaned forward a bit and then quickly transformed into a dragon, his front legs coming down on the pavement and causing a slight scraping sound before he stabilized. Byron walked up to Josh's side.
"First thing's first, let's get some wing movement. I'm going to tap the base, alright?" Josh grunted his permission, and leaned over a bit to give Byron better reach. Byron pointed his fingers downward and tapped along the arc of Josh's wing toward the base in rounds of two, moving toward his spine. "Feel that? Focus on the muscles there and try to get some movement."
Byron backed away again and Josh craned his neck to look at his back. He rolled his shoulders a bit and then his right wing jolted, his face coiling back a bit in surprise. He moved it again, this time up and down and then in a circular motion. He then started up on doing the same for the other one.
Byron waved his hand to motion the others to come with him. "Let's get walking. Josh, try lifting your wings and following us at the same time."
All of the others began herding down the street, Josh staying put until he figured out how to get the tips of his wings off the ground. Once they were steady, Josh took a few steps forward, cycling his legs properly. The others began to pick up the pace, delighted, and Josh matched it. Soon they had reached a decent stride, and the group rounded a corner to the right, Josh following along. They continued picking up the pace down a short path to another crossroad, this time turning left. Before them, again, a wide open and straight path to the next turn presented itself. Josh stopped, looking at the path and the others, noticing, stopped as well. Josh readied himself as if to pounce, stretching his wings out as broadly as he could, his tail even raising behind him. The others, breathless, could only watch in amazement. Josh spinted forward, his legs in a gallop, and leapt into the air, gliding forward and through the others (who parted for him as he came by) about fifteen feet before his claws finally touched back down. Josh turned to the others, grunting as he nodded away from them as if to say, "Let's go."
The others silently cheered. "You heard the guy," Byron said, addressing them. "Pick up the pace!" At that, the whole group took off after Josh, the latter turning again to get ready for another gliding attempt. As they caught up to him, he took to the air again, this time gliding a few more feet than the last. Approaching another turn, Josh bounced off once more, the others following as he drifted ever so slightly to the left, more or less rounding the corner. The others soon followed with confidence. After another turn right, this time more smoothly, the group found themselves coming up on a mostly straight section of road which curved ever so slightly in the distance.
"Wait," Ben yelped, almost tripping over himself as Josh was preparing another glide. Josh turned to see the others starting to lag behind him and stood to wait patiently for them to catch up.
As they approached him, Drew also yelled to keep Josh from starting up again. "Yo!" The group moved forward to Josh and Drew jogged past him, turning to signal toward the sky as he did. "Try getting some height this time."
After that, the others strolled past Josh who looked up at the less foliated stretch. The former shifted back into a jog, trying to watch Josh as they pushed forward. Josh took a deep breath and got ready once more. He then dashed, his wings outstretched, this time after jumping he flapped his wings a few times, but actually cut his usual glide short, albeit touching down safely. Continuing to move forward, he did this a few more times, the others starting to gain some distance on him.
Byron stopped and turned to say, "They need to undulate," as he made his hands do the recommended movement pattern. "Scoop up the air—that'll get you lift."
Josh angrily growled at Byron as if to say, "I know what the physics are, you asshole. I just can't do."
"Okay, okay. Point taken," the latter said, putting his hand up like he was under arrest. He then turned to continue on with the others.
Josh took position again. This time stretching his wings a bit to feel the movement. He then ran forward, pumping his wings while still on the ground for a moment and then pushed off the ground as hard as he could.
The classic sound of wings beating filled the still air of the strange world as Josh gained enough height to glide the rest of the way, flying over the other's heads and letting out a triumphant roar. The others looked up in amazement, picking up the pace so as not to fall behind. Josh made his way back to the ground and looked back at the others, making sure that he wasn't too far ahead of them. His concerns put aside, he turned to walk forward and let the others pass before he attempted to repeat his newest feat. He took a few steps, turning his head forward and looking out into the streets he did so.
Then, he froze. Looking down at his legs, they simply wouldn't move, and seconds later he started to tilt to the side, plopping sideways on the cement road, completely motionless. The others, terrified at the sight, immediately rushed to Josh's aid, the latter transforming back into a human but still remaining motionless. As the crew reached him and started to crowd around him, Josh spoke:
"Help, I've fallen and I cannot get up."
"Are you okay," Ben exclaimed more so than asked while attempting to catch his breath. "Are you injured?!"
"I can't move."
"...But you're okay," Drew asked.
"No, I'm not. I can't move."
"Josh," Byron began, panting a bit and leaning over him. "You're human right now. Can you move like a human?"
Josh's fingers twitched and after blinking twice he started to stir. Without any pause he sat up normally, taking the others by surprise. After he proved to be able to hold himself up they helped him to his feet.
"Huh," Charlie said. "That was weird."
"Yeah, what the fuck was that," Jory exclaimed, himself short of breath.
"I don't know," Josh said, brushing off his side. "It was almost like, for a second there, that I just...forgot how to dragon."
"What the hell, Josh," Byron opined. "How does that even work?"
"I. Don't. Know. But that's the best explanation I can give so that's all you get."
Ben put his hand to his mouth to think. "Do you think it had something to do with the Geass order?"
"It could, but I can't say for sure," Byron said, gesturing with his hand. "Although I can say that, assuming that it works like it does in the show, it shouldn't have anything to do with it."
"Then was that some kind of attack," Drew asked.
"If it was, that would spell a worst case scenario; supposing the person who made this space has full control over everything in it, including our mental properties, we're doomed. I don't think we can afford to believe it."
"Then I say we ignore it," Charlie said adamantly.
"That doesn't make it any less of a problem," Ben groaned.
"No, it'll be fine," Josh said. "I'll be fine. We have more important things to worry about right now anyway."
"Ben, don't worry. I'll figure it out. So stand back."
The group moved out of the way and Josh transformed into a dragon once again. He looked at the others and began to walk forward, seemingly fine.
"Then let's not waste any more time," Byron said, starting to catch his breath and looking at his watch. "We proceed as were before. Hop to it!"
The group slowly but surely shifted gears, picking up their lost tempo as they jogged down the street. Josh resumed his flight attempts once more, adding a bit more height on every attempt but making sure not to pull too far ahead of the others. The crew made their way down the curved road before them, past a stop sign and then on to a straight stretch. In the distance, the canopy cleared out completely and the main road leading to the Plaza could be seen.
"That's the final stretch, guys," Byron yelled out, his voice a bit strained, checking his watch. "Finish strong! We can take a breather before entering the lot!"
Josh waited one last time, allowing the others to catch up and pass him, then took his last run toward the opening. Like a plane on a runway, he picked up speed—faster and faster until he was ready to take to the air. Pushing his wings the best he could, he jumped, climbing several yards into the air. He soared over the heads of the others who had taken a right-hand turn onto the street and they slowed a bit (some stopping altogether) to take in the spectacle. Josh did a figure eight, sliding through the air like a hot knife through butter then gave a few flaps to try to stay airborne, managing to maintain some height before gliding down to the road. Ben managed to meet up with the others who had since gotten over their amazement and rejoined with Josh who decided to transform back, seeing the many cars blocking his flight path. Not too far off, they could see the final row of shops leading to their destination and together they jogged the last section in silence.
Soon the crew slowed as they reached the edge of the strip mall, lining the sidewalk and occupying the grass there to catch their breath. Ben fell to his knees, huffing and wheezing, while the others had a mix of positions; arms behind their heads, hands on their knees, or simply standing normally. Drew, one of the ones posed as if nothing had happened, took a look around at the more pathetic members of his party and frowned as Ben flopped over on his back, still breathing heavily.
"…You would think," Ben managed to spit out between gasps, "that with anime powers…we wouldn't have to worry…about getting tired…"
"You know," Drew began, "I realize it might be a bit late to ask this, but did we ever consider that being in shape was kind of necessary to how anime characters are portrayed?"
"Fuck," Jory whined, taking in a deep breath afterward. "Are you telling me that being nerds actually made us worse fits for having superpowers?!"
"Yup," Charlie said chipperly, also not looking tired. "And that's not even the best part! Just wait until we have to dodge incoming attacks: they make it look way easier than it is in real life!"
"Please don't say that," Ben huffed between breaths. "Not all of us are exactly the athletic types, you know..." He took a deep breath this time.
Josh, also seemingly fine, was stretching his back. "Athletic or not, a light jog shouldn't be that bad."
"You flew most of the time using body parts that don't exist on the human body!"
"I have sensations right now where I thought they weren't possible."
"I...didn't want to know that," Drew said incredulously. "Byron, how are we on time?"
Byron checked his watch. "We're fine, take your time. Although, even if we didn't make it, I think losing the points would be worth it in this case."
"I'd rather not," Ben whined, finally getting up, his breathing a lot steadier.
After spending another minute there, Byron took a glance around to check the crew's status. He checked his watch too, making sure they still had time, and then addressed his allies: "Okay, since it looks like we're mostly recovered, we could start heading in. Next step is to scout the area for a sign of the next challenge."
"Whatchamacallit," Charlie said pointing into the parking lot, "you mean like that thing?"
The others turned their heads to follow Charlie's finger. In the middle of the giant parking lot that was the Plaza stood a giant post with a sign at the top, whatever was written on it being illegible from a distance. After exchanging a few worried glances with each other, they slowly moved like a herd toward the post.
"So," Drew said, trying to avoid the chilling silence of the world they were in, "what do you think the next challenge will be?"
"Hard to say," Byron said. "But if I had to guess, I would think they'd still be trying to suss us out."
"Will there be ass-kicking," Jory asked excitedly.
"Probably not, but—"
"—Well, I just lost interest."
"...Of course you did," Josh said snidely. "Meanwhile, the rest of us will be focused on actually living, in case you forgot we're in danger already."
Jory shot Josh the bird. "You see this, Josh? You see it? This is how much I care about your sass."
"Josh has a point, Jory," Ben said. "It's great and all that wehave anime powers, but that doesn't mean you have to act like an anime character."
"Bitch, you're just jealous of my Anime Swag.~"
Charlie moved in toward the others and struck a dashing pose. "Did someone say," he swapped to a deep, rich, tone, "swag?"
"...Oooookay, this is getting way too awkward for my taste," Drew said. "Sorry I asked."
The group was now close enough so that the text on the sign came into view: "GOAL~".
"Oh," Josh deadpanned. "How polite of them."
"Are you serious," Jory scowled. "What do they think we are, twelve?"
"Thaaaat's one way to interpret it," Ben said hesitantly.
"Yes," Josh sneered, "we get it, Ben. Everything's a trap."
Drew snorted. "Hey, at least they have a sense of humor."
The group finally made it near the post and gazed up at it, then looked around. Nothing. Checking back in with each other they confirmed the fact.
"Okay," Charlie said. "Now what—"
The gadget in Byron's pocket began to vibrate and so he quickly fished it out, taking a moment to compose himself before answering.
"Heeeey~," the familiar voice of the valley girl rang again. "Looks like you boys made it. Good job~. Game #1: complete."
"Piece of cake," Byron replied.
"It, like, really was, wasn't it? I have to say, we're all, like, totally impressed. You passed with flying colors: no panic, arriving with time to spare—you even got some practice in on the way. For a bunch of high schoolers, you guys are, like, scarily efficient, don't ya think?"
"The same could be said for your group. Asking for a spokesman to determine leadership, making us travel on a time limit to gauge our planning and stamina—don't think we aren't on to you."
"Oh, geeeeee, look at that. Very smart. But, like, that was just a warm-up, so now it's time for Game #2. The rules are simple: just navigate the maze! Ready? Goooooo!" She hung up.
Again, the group looked around at each other, Jory breaking the lull.
"What the fuck is that supposed to—"
Jory's words were cut short as the ground beneath them began to shake. The boys tried to keep their footing, but the convusing of the cement beneath them only got stronger. Byron barked the order for everyone to stick together, and they grabbed hold of their respective partners, but it was too late: before they could form a chain, the ground vaulted upward sending them skyward and walls formed between them. The three groups of separated members soon found themselves falling down separate paths, screaming for the other's sakes. Then, the skyline closed on each respective hole, leaving them in the dark.
To Be Continued...
A/N: Hey everyone, sorry we're late. There's some crazy things going on in the world, as you all know, but here we are. Hope you enjoyed, because we're finally in the thick of it. Stay tuned!