The memories made Casper frown. One fateful night that had changed everything. The next morning he had woken up sick in a rocking hammock, wood creaking around and a paralyzing ache pestering his head. As he tried to recall the previous night all that was left were blurry images and fractured words not appearing to make any sense. It wasn’t until later that Casper was able to remember how the hell he had ended up on a ship. Crawling on deck for the first time the burning sun pierced his eyes; he threw up in the next bucket. And there he was – scar face, standing on the quarter deck, hands behind his back towering above all as he yelled his commands to the crew.
The guy who before had joined him drinking in the bar, keeping him joyful company now didn’t deign to look at him. He had fallen pray to one of the cheapest tricks, now being nothing more than another worthless maggot there to do the dirty work. He didn’t exactly have a choice either. It was either stay and work, abide by the captain’s commands or walk the plank to end up drowning in the ocean – if lucky, or serve as food for the fishes. While on sea – occasionally getting seasick when the swell was particularly bad, he gradually had lost all sense of time.
A few days ago, he had finally sat foot on land again, never before in his life having been so grateful for the solid earth beneath his feet. As soon as he had had the opportunity, Casper simply ran, to not wanting to spend another few more months out on the sea and it wasn’t if as someone would have noticed his disappearance anyway. It wasn’t the hard labour, which he was quite accustomed to or the stinking crew but the always so unsteady ocean with its wild waves shaking. He had barely been able to even sleep for his orientation failed him; eyes closed lying in a lose hammock, vertigo had been his constant companion taking over him like a persistent parasite – night after night.
On the other side, however, Casper had had a lot of time left to think about his life, reflecting on the recent events that had left him in a spiral downwards. He knew now how selfish he had been behaving, how childish in front of Wisteria he had unnecessarily been. There was a mess he had left behind which he finally needed to clean up. And one other thing was for sure. He had to become stronger. Rumors about an all out war had been coursing around the boat when they had left bay shortly after the vikings’ attack on the king. A war against a much bigger threat (at least in their eyes) – the supernaturals inhabiting Athoria. Charles had shown him what humans were capable of, which destruction and havoc they had caused over the city. All his life he had been at war with them. A boy without a home, battling against prejudices and fighting for food – For his life. He had been – and still was, an outcast to society, killed by the same men who were meant to protect the Athoria’s citizens. The thought left him in a grim state.
It was a weird moment, when Casper finally stood in front of his house again, staring at the broken woodwork that was his home. Familiar scents radiating from the street coursed around him evoking memories of the past year – the volcano which had almost broken down the house, Wisteria standing at his porch asking him to squire her to the wedding, Wisteria apologizing, bitter tears in her eyes.. Despite never having been able to settle anywhere, it felt strangely familiar now – like home. It was a tower of strength in midst of all the chaos surrounding him. Brailston either wasn’t what it had been once anymore. A darkness seemed to have fallen over the country. People’s faces grimaced in worry, and the cheerful, bright market was merely a shadow of what it once had veeb. He wondered what had happened. Had the war already begun?
Leaving it all behind for a moment, Casper carefully opened the old door. He was welcomed by an all too familiar creaking; everything was still as he had left it behind. Even more dust had settled as a grey carpet over the sparse furniture. Taking in a few steps and closing the door behind him, a note on the table caught his attention. Furrowing his brow he picked it up. A sudden fear crept over him, feeling as though the eyes of a stranger were locked onto his body, monitoring every breath he took. Quickly glancing around, half expecting to see someone (which of course was ridiculous), he shuffled his feet in a circle. There was no one there.
While away, he had completely forgotten about Azazel’s gang – or rather had buried it in some dark part of his mind, left to rot. The gang which he had joined in order to get to the demon leading them, wanting nothing more than to talk and get some answers for his peace of mind yet they had kept stalling him. Providing the phantom with one task after another, keeping him busy so he may forget why he had come to them in the first place; until his purpose would sink into oblivion to mold him into a mindless slave to superiors he had never even seen. And now.. they threatened to end his life if he didn’t comply with their orders. Of course they had noticed his disappearance. Casper stared back at the words until he tore them apart and let the little pieces soar through the air to settled upon the dust.
“Ahoy, kiddo!” A strong hand landed on his shoulder, slapping him forward to bend over the table and almost choke on his drink. Irritated, Casper glanced over to the man who was now taking a seat next to him, eying him with suspicion in his glazed eyes. Quickly gulping down his drink, he ordered another one wanting to drown out everything around him to forget the world at least for one night. His attention wandered back to the stranger who now had sitting a drink in front of him as well. The image was blurry. By blinking he tried to get a better grasp of the man’s face but it didn’t improve much. Two prominent scars covered the right side of his face, turning into a horrifying grimace as a sinister smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. A shudder ran down the young phantom’s spine as he turned towards the waitress who had brought him his next drink.
“You look sad my friend. Alcohol your only companion tonight?” The stranger asked, his creepy grin seemed to be slapped onto his face.
“Jus’ some things I wanna forget,” Casper replied barely paying any attention to him and much more concerned with the content of his class wondering how he was doing to pay for everything. He was low on money – once again. It didn’t come as much of a surprise. A few second had been enough for Casper to form a view on scar face, thinking it better to keep to himself. Nothing good ever came of such company.
“Lost someone in the battle?“ He leaned in closer so that Casper could now see his half rotten teeth decorated with gold in between all the black “Ya family? Girlfriend?”
Casper assumed he could only mean the Viking’s raid which had taken place only a few days ago. But the King didn’t concern him. He wouldn’t mind if he was made a head shorter by some viking. Actually he would rather enjoy it. Keeping quiet, he nipped at his glass, distracted by waitress whose shining, soft hair flowed around her shoulders like silk, bobbing up and down with every feathery step she took – dancing onn her tiptoes.. Feeling the stare – a pair of cunning eyes trained on him he gave in. Maybe if he just played by his rules he would eventually be left alone. “Hm?”
“Ya know, you seem like the kind of guy who could use an adventure. Get away from here. Anywhere you like? The gates of the world are open.”
Walking through the cluster of people occupying the markets of Brailston – finally some family sightings; back home – Casper frowned at the fading memory. What now seemed to be years ago in reality had merely been a few months. With the alcohol having clouded most of the progressing evening there was only bits and pieces he was able to recall while he failed to distinguish between reality and the tales his drugged mind had added to embellish the memory.
As the evening progressed and the alcohol began to flow more freely all suspicions were shed as he found himself lulled in by epic stories told with the rough and a dominant voice radiating authority, leaving him with an insatiable desire – wanting more and more; the kind of stories – childish dreams of his which he had always hungrily devoured as a boy. Promises were made to fulfill his dreams if he would join the man on his journey; far horizons and unknown lands lay ahead of him. Asking where they would go the man had answered with a daring look – mystery surrounding him like a second skin. “Anywhere in the world,” he had said. From then on his imagination ran wild, the rest of the evening was nothing but a colorful haze of blending images accompanied by happiness and wild laughter. The man no longer a portrayal of mischief and danger but an amusing companion.
“So what d’ya say kid? Ya with me?” he had asked as morning already threatened to kill the night. With his head leaned on the counter, eyes fluttered open in a last attempt to fight the tiredness that had overcome him; he nodded. “Yeh, coun’ me’in” It was the last thing he remembered before sleep had taken over his body – vivid pictures invading his mind, carrying on to spin the tale.
“Old woman?” Tabitha had been used to people confusing her for a helpless little old lady before but this was going much too far. She could forgive someone for underestimating her physical abilities or even her emotional ones. But one thing she would not tolerate was being confused for a senile old woman. It was true that she was indeed “old” and much much older than she physically appeared to be. But if anything her increased age had made her smarter, more cunning, and some would even say tricky. For this despicable phantom to address his elder in such a way was more than disgraceful and she met his innocent boy routine with an insulted huff.“Have you? I see none to speak of! What a disrespectful brat you are. Come here, it’s very rude to walk away when someone is speaking to you young one.” Lifting her wand up Tabitha called out a quick spell with more enthusiasm than necessary and bound the phantoms spirit to to the stones under his feet. She grinned with a glimmer in her eyes and watched the boy squirm around trying to move knowing that he would be unable to shift a muscle while under her control. Tabitha laughed with a proper but snooty attitude and reached down to pick up the items the boy had dropped and sat them back on the stand where they had been taken from.“Now young man. I can excuse your thievery but lying will not be tolerated. If you will admit to stealing these items that do not belong to you and provide a reason why you were stealing in the first place then I will release you from my spell. But first I believe you owe me an apology.”
Casper abruptely came to a halt and could no longer move at all. He frowned trying to take another step forward but it was as if his limbs suddenly weighted a ton. As much as he tried he couldn’t make his body follow his intentions. Frustration settled down within the phantom and internally cursed the old woman. Who was she? Casper’s eyes grew wide as realisation struck him. What if this woman was a witch. He had heard stories about phantoms being stripped of all their powers by those magick people. Of course he had always though it to be the substance of legends. Now, however, that he saw himself faced with a seemingly more powerful witch than Rosemary or Wisteria and a stranger at that, he grew quite nervous.
Forced to listen, he growled and stared ahead of him into the dark street; buildings casting wide and threaneding shadows over the alleyway which was lacking any lamps. Having always been a little stubborn Casper didn’t even think about apologizing right away. It normally wasn’t his behavious to come across as rude towards strangers unless they had given him a reason.
“Why do you think I’d steal goods. Probably not out of pure pleasure.” A crooked smile pulled at the side of his mouth yet he managed to force it back where it came from. Not wanting to get into anymore trouble than he already had. The phantom sighed, closing his eyes and fighting the urge to make another snarky comment.
“I’m sorry, alright? Who are you?” Casper couldn’t risk to confess anything to the wrong people even if it was only a simply theft. The last time the king and their man had found him guilty for a crime he had never even commited. He needed to make sure she wasn’t operating in the King’s name.
Charles had been keeping an eye on his new student, watching as he came and went from his sad excuse for a home. Why he bothered to stick around in such a broken place was a mystery to him, perhaps sentiment. One of the many emotions he did not understand in the slightest. While he kept watch on the boy he had learned several pieces of information. One being that his pathetic student obviously did not know how to heal himself since his arm had been left to heal on its own, luckily for Casper one of the many perks of already being dead was that his body healed much faster than those of the mortals. Another was that when it came to his daily activities the boy was more than disappointing. Honest work for honest pay, though respectable in the eyes of the community, did not go well with the image he was trying to form for the lad. Finally, and probably the most interesting, Charles found that he was not the only one keeping watch on the young phantom. In the last week he had seen three different men come to watch the boy, following him everywhere he went and staying just a few steps behind. Assuming that these had just been hires from “Azazel’s” gang, he shrugged it off. There were more important things to be concerned with at the present moment, such as the onset of war.
The streets were filled with the cries of mothers, sending their baby boys off to die for reasons that Charles could not have cared less about. Groups had gathered in the various churches and places of worship to pray for the protection of their husbands, sons, and fathers. Sadness, fear, anger it all flowed through the streets as the man happily skipped along towards Casper’s residence, breathing in the distress as if it were a drug. He loved a good war. So much violence and death, the perfect place for the boy to cut his teeth and learn how the world truly was. Stronger men killing weaker men. That is all that the world was and all that it ever would be. Finding himself at the foot of the door, Charles knocked obnoxiously, pausing only a fraction of a second between knocks until the always irritable phantom had answered with a quizzical expression. Without a word of explanation, Charles motioned for the boy to follow him and turned on his heel, walking towards the forest that would lead him to the battle grounds. The elder phantom felt tingles of excitement running under his skin, already able to hear the clanging of swords and screams of dying men in their future. His voice was playful, speaking out without even bothering to check and see if the child was following him or not.
“Come Casper, we’re going on a little trip. War has broken out in Athoria, isn’t that exciting? The perfect chance for you to explore your deep rooted evil. You can kill anyone that you wish, Athorian or not. It doesn’t matter in the slightest. Wander around the battle field and observe. I want you to see the world at its worst. To see what people turn into when their livelihood is threatened. Aren’t mortals hilarious? One word from a man in a crown and they are off to mindlessly kill strangers without question.”
Charles’ words had never left the phantom’s mind. They haunted him like persistant little beasts that had bit on to his head and refused to leave him alone. Not even in his sleep was he save. They invaded his dreams and showed him what Charles had claimed to be Casper’s real face. Nothing more than a bystander, he was forced to watch a crippled version of himself roam through the lands, destroying everything and everyone withing his reach until Casper violently woke up, sweating and breathing heavily. Other times his face seemed to warp into something that rather resembled a ill looking Charles’ with his prominent grin yet his features scarred and bloody with sunken cheeks. In the past few days he had racked his brain about the thoughts the elder phantom had planted in his head. Who was he really? Was it all nothing more than an act? Was he no better than Wisteria? Just a piteable hypocrit who in secrecy still seeked out the thrill the infamous deed brought about them. The only evidence to display his evil, the scars and disfiguartions of his face and crippled and limping statue of his body.
Since the day he had passed out in the streets of the Athorian slums, his arm had only gotten worse. He began to wonder if it would ever heal and almost contemplated asking Wisteria for her help.. but it was out of the question. Even though they had come to some sort of silent peace, Casper didn’t want to, again, crawl to her to fix his damaged body. He didn’t want her to know in which trouble he had gotten himself again.
Unlike his normally energetic mood and the need he always felt for action which drove him out and work on something, he spend a lot of time sleeping and nursing his arm. Only when he couldn’t stand to spend one more minute in his dark and broken house he left it in search for some sort of job that wouldn’t be too difficult for him to handle with only one arm and even earn some much needed money before he couldn’t pay the taxes anymore. It was annoying however, that almost everyone sent him away to better go and see a doctor instead but neither did he have the money to pay these charlatans nor did he dare to. They would only find out that he was a phantom and god only knew what would happen to him then. The risk was toohigh. Besides, what could they possibly tell him anyway. There was nothing he didn’t know already. His bones were broken, maimed in an horrible way and all he needed was time.
An old shirt now served him as a makeship sling to keep his arm in place and secure it from any unesseccary and painful movements. He was tired and felt worn out, most of the nights it was that damn limb to prevent him from sleeping more then just a few hours. It had become rather useless and Casper could barely lift it on it’s own, always requiring the assitance of his other, healthy arm. Casper sat in the front if his fire place enjoying the warmth that slowly embraced him, watching the crackling fire. The last few weeks it had gotten rather cold. Winter had settled over Athoria and felt the wind mercilessly blowing through every bloody whole in the rotten wood of his roof and his windows which were almost non existent. The phantom was constantly cold and it felt like he would never really warm up again. He was more glad than ever for the cloak Rebecca hd given to him it at least made it better to some degree.
A knock on the door made him loose his train of thought and he wondered who on earth that would be. With a grunt he got up eventually and put the sling around his neck again, dropping the blanket carelessly on the chair.
Seeing Charles smirking face after opening the door he froze, his expression changing into an unreadable mask. The useless limb started pounding again as his arm seemed to remember the moment his bones had snapped into half. Casper automatically secured the vulnerable limb with his other hand, waiting for him to say something. But nothing. All he did was to gesture him to follow him. Tilting his head Casper furrowing his forehead he eventually went after Charles before he was gone.
Casper kept his distance while they were walking in silence. His eyes fixed on Charles broad back he was wondering what the other phantom was up to, yet didn’t ask any questions. They kept on walking for quite some times, widening the gap between the two phantoms. He didn’t want to be surprised by some set up that Charles would lead him into, after all he was not to be trusted. Casper stopped right when the other man did, slowly approaching him while he kept an eye on his surroundings, his senses on alert.
„Why would I..“
It was completly Casper’s set principles to just run off to kill random strangers yet when he heard Charles snarky remarks about the King and his men, Casper pricked up his ears. These men where beyond innocent. Despite their claim to bring rightenousnesson to the land in favour of their king, but all they did was mindlessly follow him not doubting his commands even once. This time he had to agree with the elder phantom, if he wanted or not. Yet he maintained his defiant attitude on te outside even though it was him that wanted to learn from Charles. What was he supposed to gain from this? Being at the heart of a battle with a broken arm at that.
„How the hell am I supposed to fight with this?!“ Nodding towards the crippled limb. No, he would certainly not risk his life for something stupid like this and already wanted to turn on his heels.
Although physical harm had always been one of his favorite methods of torture, it was nothing compared to psychological torture. Invading the mind and changing the course of a life with nothing more than a few fleeting words. It was challenging of course, but after years and years of practice Charles had grown a distinct fondness for such methods. The only problem was that he was never able to observe the lasting effects of his control, most of the humans he played with were weak and sentimental. They found solace in the promise of a forgiving God and took their owns lives in the hopes that such a benevolent creature would have mercy on them. He grew bored with the predictable fates of these mortals and instead went back to the sweet song of screams and pleading.
But now he had been presented with a glorious opportunity. A raw phantom with a clean slate, just out of hell and oh so impressionable. Charles was a frightening artist who had just been given a clean canvas, the possibilities were endless. With time, torture, and convincing he could mold this young creature into what a phantom should be. He had grown weary of the recent whelps that had somehow managed to drag their sorry selves out of hell. The lack of hatred and power was shameful given their abilities and amazing potential. To squander their gifts that were meant to inspire fear into every living soul that roamed the lands, and instead prance around pretending that they were still mortals with a choice. It was beyond pathetic in the eyes of the murderer.
His mind had been made. Whether the boy had realized it or not, he had just sealed his terrible fate. This evening in the ally would prove to be the beginning of a long road to corruption. Charles grinned over the curled up body of the phantom who had been nursing his mangled arm, imagining all of the glorious things he could do to this weak little boy to turn him into a man. Into what he was always meant to be, a soldier fighting for the evil that ruled in a world so frightening that God himself averted his gaze. No longer would this child cling to the ridiculous notion of free will and happiness, it was time he learned the truth. There was no way that Charles was going to throw away an opportunity to harden one of the growing number of pathetic members of his species. After all, it only took one failure to change the image for the entire race.
“What’s your name, boy?”
Charles leaned over, grabbing the phantom’s wrist and yanking his arm straight, smirking at the sound of bone clicking back into place. He dropped the limp appendage with little care and watched the broken bones wanting to shift back out, threatening to pierce the skin. Through it all; the pain, the fear, the doubt, this boy had struggled to keep up strong appearances. Even now, trembling in what must have been excruciating pain, he glared up at the murderer. A dark shadow crept across his face, his smirk turning cold and horrible as he looked forward to the day when that defiance would be replaced with fear and submission.
“Yes actually. Azazel, the real Azazel, is much better than me. He is a very powerful demon. Strong, smart, respected, Lucifer’s right hand man. The very sound of his name sends a chill down the spines of those who’ve spent any amount of time in Hell. So you tell me young one. What would Azazel, Lucifer’s go to demon, be doing running a tiny gang in the slums of Athoria? Hm? Why would someone as strong and powerful as Azazel give a single shit as to how much money they can rake in? How many rival gangs are killed? Or even what drugs can be trafficked in and out of Brailston? I’ll tell you… he wouldn’t. Why? Because it’s not him.”
Charles stood up straight, slipping his hands into his pockets, and shrugged his shoulders. A look of shock had crept into the boy’s eyes but there had still been a shred of denial clinging to his thoughts, hoping and praying that every word he spoke had been a lie. And although Charles was in fact a skilled liar, this time he spoke what he believed to be the truth. Not because he had any interest in helping this lost soul, but because he wished to instead claim him for himself.
“Think about it. What has happened every time you’ve gone to meet with Azazel? Have you ever seen him? Heard him? Has there been anything, anything at all, to convince you that he is even involved with these earthbound demons? These guys know the fear behind Azazel’s name, they know that new phantoms don’t understand what has happened and they take advantage of that by promising you your freedom. I’ll let you in on a little secret, there is no freedom. This. This right here, being a phantom, is the most freedom you are going to get from here on out unless God decides to welcome you back into his arms. I doubt it. Now you may be asking yourself, ‘But Charles, if you know the truth then why are you working for them?’ The answer is quite simple. I kill people, they pay me. I enjoy it.”
“If all you’re seeking is information then you don’t need to waste your time with these frauds. Come with me, I can teach you all that you will ever need to know about who and what you are. But if you’re honest with yourself, you already know the answer to these questions. I know your type, even when you were alive you felt it. That you were different from the others. That no matter what good you tried to do people still looked down on you. You were always watching, learning, but you were never one of them. You probably fought, stole, tortured, maybe even killed. You’ve always been this way, boy. Why are you denying it? Tell me. Tell me the truth. That deep down, even though you try to deny it, even though you’ve never admitted it to anyone… you love it, don’t you?”
The malicious smile that seemed to be glued to Charles’ face grew wider as he approached Casper who was still cowering on the ground. His eyes sparkled in the pale light, a dangerous sensation that made Casper press himself further against the wall. These eyes, however, also held a great fascination in them which almost hypnotized Casper to simply stare and look. Not even protesting when Charles took wrist. Even a small momvement like this was enough to make him cringe. About to speak his name, he opened his mouth yet no sound came out, surprised by the sudden twist of his arm and the disturbing noise of snapping bones. With a short delay the information reached his brain and Casper felt the full extent of the pain, shooting through his body. He screamed. A loud and bloodcurling noise. Everything around him seemed to happen in slowmotion. Tears threatened in his eyes as the limb was dropped at it side where he let it rest; not even daring to move it in the slightest way.
„Casper. It’s Casper,“ the young phantom whispered into night, a cloud of white smoke following his weak words, as he breathed heavy in an unsteady rythm. He sharply drew a breath everytime another wave of pain flashed through his crippled arm.
Could he really have fallen for such a stupid trick? He had been lured into the gang, so desperately believing and holding onto the only chance he had had to change his fate that it had made him blind. Blind to what he had felt all along. Every time they had given him a new mission, assuring him it would be the last one he had grown suspicious. Yet, despite all of that, never had he been able to give up on that small hope that had always remained that, eventually he would be able to speak with the demon. How naive he had been to believe their lie without hesitating even once. All the trouble he had gone through had been for nothing. The phantom had almost died for nothing…
Dropping his head he felt weak and tired. Accepting his defeat. There was nothing he could do. He put up no resistance to Charles’ poisnonous words; they simply flowed into his ears and made sense in this moment. It all made sense. As if he was revealing all the secrets that hold this world together to him; a mere maggot. For the first time in many years he also felt that somewhat understood. This man suddenly gave him a reason for all the bad luck and misfortune he had had in the past. Why he had never been able to achieve hapiness. Why it all fell to pieces in his hands. Why everything always went so horribly wrong. Maybe it wasn’t the search for freedom that had drawn him to Azazel’s gang… or rather someone elses gang, in the first place. Maybe what had attracted him in the first place was that he deep down missed the old days. Missed his gang and all the fun he had had not caring about the law or anything. Unit it had, eventually got him killed.
Charles question made him raise his head again. If he hadn’t been so exhausted he would have talked back. Would have protested that he was enterily wrong but he didn’t. He had never loved it. Or had he? After all, it was Casper who had initiated a change and made the decision to leave his dark past behind; to be a more humble and friendly man. But why? Everyone had left him. There was no reason to disguise himself anymore. Could it be that in the end everything he had done was to lie to everyone, even him self? Confusion settled within the young phantom’s mind and it left him restless.
However, his opponent had willingly agreed to give him all the answers to everything he had ever wanted to know. It was his chance to finally get stronger and to learn how to control his new gained abilities. Casper admired the elder for the power and knowledge he seemed to posess. It was worth a try. What did it matter anyway if he got involved with a demon gang or some other phantom? There wasn’t much of a difference.And maybe he would even be able to obtain his freedom in the end. There was always the possiblity of betrayal, when he was strong enought, he would be able to overthrow him and finally fight for the freedom he wanted so desperately, or so he thought.
Casper slowly nodded in agreement and Charle’s grin only widened, looking even more dangerous in the dark. And before he had the time to think about his decision or even revoke it, his opponent disappeard within the blink of an eye while the young phantom fell back against the wall, his head dropping to his side as he passed out eventually.
Tabitha would have normally been in bed at this hour. Yuri had been flapping his wings in protest all evening and knocking over bottles and dishes until the witch couldn’t stand it anymore. She opened the door and the owl quickly flew out into the night to stretch his wings with an appreciative hoot. Her familiar was a night creature after all so every once in a while she let him have his way. Some nights she even felt the moonlit walks to be enjoyable. However this was not one of those nights. She had been busy in her potions shop all day dealing with some of the most interesting questions and complaints that she had hear in a long time.
Her respect for the humans of the country was very high but it always amazed her of how incredibly stupid they could be at times. Desperate girls begging for love potions, the down trodden wishing for wealth, the fat wanting to be thin, the lazy demanding success for no effort. It was exhausting. All while playing into the fantasy that witchcraft was a silly story. She felt like she was protected in that sense but it never hurt to be overly careful. Tabitha of course could have handled herself in any situation the panicky mortals of Brailston wished to dish out but after centuries of dodging wars and accusations she thought it would be best to lay low. She had been a well respected member of society by the kingdom and had been mentor to the princess so even if someone had accused her of witchcraft she was not much worried for her own safety or reputation.
Walking down the path of the sleeping city Tabitha heard her familiar call out to her. Something was strange in this part of town. And he was right she felt it too. Looking around she saw no one but then to her own amazement a boy suddenly appeared out of thin air. It was a Phantom. One of her least favorite species next to vampires. She watched the lad sniff around up to no good she was sure. He approached a stand of goods and began grabbing all that he could. Tabitha frowned in disgust. She had been very good friends with the man who ran that stand and could have thieves stealing all of his supplies on her watch.
She walked up to the boy from behind then circled around to his side seeing a wicked grin. The sight was shameful and Tabitha could not resist scolding the boy. Sometimes she felt that it was her mission to keep the country in order when it came to manners and proper behavior. Lifting her wand from her pocket she cracked the wood over the phantoms knuckles before he could steal one more thing. “For shame young man! What business do you have stealing from others? Have you no respect? No honor?” Tabitha snapped her wand over the tops of his hands again, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Casper almost dropped the apple as an elder woman hit his fingers with some strangely wooden stick. His hand jerked back and he glared angrily at the stranger. Her skin was wrinkly, it spoke of all the time he had spend of this earth, experiences that had taught her. Now they were formed into an expression of outrage blaming the phantom for his misdeeds. Casper’s expression dropped and furrows appearing on his forehead as he was about to dispute her accusations.
“Honor? Of course I have honour! Who do you think you are? Didn’t do anything. You must be imagining things, old woman.”
Wearing a clueless expression on his face he shook his head while in his mind he was tracing back his every step, wondering when he had been so careless that someone could have seen him. Surely he must have seen this old lay at least at some point yet he couldn’t recall anything. Maybe she was just making up things after all. With her age Casper was sure that her frame of mind couldn’t be the best anymore.
“I’m sorry M’am. But I have no idea what you are talking about. I would advise you to go see some doctor and maybe get your head checked.”
The phantom bit into the the juicy apple again; his finger still echoing last waves of slight pain that could easily be ignored. He was playing the role of an innocent boy like he had many times before. He could be quite a skilled liar if he wanted to be although he had tried to give up this old, bad habit. With one last curious look and a lifted eyebrow he put his other hand in his pocket again and turned around; ready to walk away.
It was still daylight, perhaps late afternoon, and the suns beams through the single window above the bed at the far end of the decent sized room casted a brilliant glow across the floorboards. It bounced off of a small fireplace as well as a round table with matching wood chairs. A pitcher of water sat upon it with a bowl of fruit, and even though Rebecca was not used to resting in such places resembling that of a more civilized being, the comfort that was residing inside those four walls was undoubtedly nice. It was like a safe little refuge away from the world, even if it were just for a night or two, and she knew that Elki would not worry for the time being.
Of course, news about the hunters might spread to her Alpha quicker than Rebecca anticipated. And a part of her wished they wouldn’t. Not yet.
Casper’s concern for Rebecca’s wellbeing was not at all hidden, even if he were trying to conceal it for some reason, and it made Rebecca smile. She shrugged, however, after the soft touch from fingertips that grazed against the skin of her cheek and moved towards the table.
“I assume so,” she unfastened her cloak and drapped it against the backs of one of the chairs. Her fingers went to the brown locks the lay now messy against her shoulders, and gently she combed through them as she spoke. “They said they knew what I was, but didn’t say they knew who. My best guess is that they are hunters, perhaps from the king or maybe from someone that is paying. But they won’t find me here. Not yet, anyway,”
Rebecca had hunted before, and not just deer in the Hallowed Oak to make her skins. Elki had enemies at time and the threat was to be eliminated no matter what, and Rebecca had killed other species regardless of how she felt. It wasn’t always pleasant about it towards her leader and she threw a fit the entire time, yet the job was done accordingly. Her loyalty with Elki was never-ending like that, even if Rebecca shielded those uncomfortable memories from her mind as often as possible. Remembering the last look in the eyes of one about to be slaughtered for reasons that Rebecca sometimes did not even know about was not something to dwell on. It brought her shame, secretly of course, and at times she felt as though she were a failure in her own special way.
“If they wanted to kill me then they would have just done so, with me being surrounded like that, but they wanted to take me somewhere. Maybe they needed to see me phase before they made the attack, I’m not sure,”
Rebecca sighed in a grumpy manner, and she plopped heavily down into the wooden chair. “I’m so sorry for dragging you into this. I wish I could just go home, but I’m afraid to be followed,”
Chestnut eyes locked with those of her company once more, and she tugged at the bottom strands of her hair. “Thank you for staying. We haven’t exactly been able to catch up…how are you?”
Casper nodded understandingly as he followed Rebecca’s lead and took off his cloak as well. It had gotten rather hot inside with the thick wool hanging heavy over his shoulders. He threw it almost carelessly onto the far side of the bed and sat down on the edge of the bed; his arms, supporting him as he watched Rebecca on the opposite side of the room. As much as he loved to keep the woman company he would have much rather went hunting or something of the sort for he couldn’t really stand sitting around for long.
At Rebecca’s question Casper sighed heavily and leaned back on the bed to stare up onto the dark ceiling. Wisteria had been shoved to the back of his mind ever since she had rescued him from Stephen Freeman, a memory he’d rather not be reminded of. Although Casper didn’t sorrow after her anymore he still felt disappointment about Wisteria and her name, the memory, tasted bitterly on his tongue. His hands lay flat on his stomach, a few of fingers tapping to a random beat while his thoughts revolved around all the recent happenings that had shook up his life.
“Hm, I’ve been doing alright..”
It was a bit of an understatement considering everything that had happened since that day spend in the cave. He had even gotten himself into far more trouble than per had gotten deeper involved with the gang, more than he ever really wanted to be, had threatened Emery’s wife, burned down her shop and last but not least had almost been killed by a human. Too much had happened and he wasn’t in the mood to talk about these things now.
Following the complex patterns of wooden grain above his head with his eyes, he dwelled in memories, reflecting on all the stupid things he had done recently and gotten himself into. Casper had warned himself many times over these past few years to not, at any cost get involved with some kind of gang again; in no trouble at all. Now, however he apparently seemed to have done just that. They had stalled him. Given him one tast after the other, telling him everytime he would soon be able to speak with the demon. He started doubting that it would ever happen. They probably just used him and he had fallen for it so easily when he of all people should have known better. Closing his eyes for a moment he sighed and relaxed against the matress.
“What about you, Rebecca?”
Now that he came to think about it, Casper had no idea what werewolves even did for their living or how and where they lived. He could only assume that that she either owened a house just like a normal or.. lived like a real wolf in the forest. Yet he could hardly imagine a live like that, it seemed to only apply to wild and uncivilised creatures. Rebecca, however rather seemed like the opposite. Casper hadn’t believed that she was a werewolf afterall was it not for her claws that he had felt scratching down his back that day in the cave.
The phantom propped himself up on his forearms and glanced over to the woman, a crooked smile pulling at the side of his mouth. She was so small and yet inside of her was supposed to live a vile creature? Strong and dangerous that it could rip him apart in a matter of seconds. He would have assumed werewolves looked a little bit more ragged and dishevelled.
“How..does this whole werewolf thing work anyway? You hardly looked like a wild creature. Where do you even live?”
The distorted expression of fear and pain on the young phantoms face filled the murderer with excitement. Fear was like a drug for him. The look, the smell, the very feel of the essence as it secreted from his victim’s trembling bodies. If he broke this addiction down to its primary elements, it was not about the blood, the pain, or even the sex. Although these things did make the experience even more enjoyable. It was the fear. Watching lives filled with a variety of emotion flash before in their frightened eyes. Seeing them relive old memories and feelings that he as incapable of experiencing first hand. It was amazing, watching the last moments in their eyes. Seeing how they change from anger to fear. Starting out with their dignity and humanity only to revert back to the most primal instincts for survival.
He watched as the boy struggled to pull himself up, fighting to stay strong in the elder’s presence but failing to accomplish such a difficult task. What an ignorant child; spewing his beliefs, denying the facts, voice becoming intense with defiant purpose. But again, Charles saw the truth. A seed of doubt had been planted in his mind. He grinned watching the conflicting thoughts run wild behind those young red eyes.
“Where is it? Look around you. You’re in it. This is the planning stage kid. Preparation. We’re the laying the ground for whenever the hell He decides to come back up here for a show down. As for your values, your morals. What’s the point? Who are you trying to impress? God? God has turned his back on you, he cast you away to the fiery pits of hell. And these people that you claim to care for. You think they give a shit about you? Why should they? You’re nothing but failure. A lost soul who has already had his judgment.”
Charles shook his head, genuinely confused as to why this was so hard to accept for the young phantom. All this talk about values and wanting to be free of this life. It was puzzling. Charles had seen Hell. Even for a man that had difficulty showing or feeling an emotion such as fear he had never been more terrified in his life. Pain had always been exciting and sexual but while under the control of the dark masters in that horrible place he found no enjoyment. Only horror and excruciating pain. When Lucifer had offered his release back into the world of the living he had literally lept at the opportunity. Anything to get out of that place. Becoming a phantom was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Being free to wander around as he pleased, able to kill, rape, steal, anything that he wanted without fear of being punished. In fact, it was encouraged. So why did this boy shy away from such a glorious opportunity when he himself saw it as a blessing?
“This is your reward for the life you’ve led. A way to finally give into your dark urges and have no fear for the consequences. You can finally be who you’ve always been deep down. You don’t have to hide it anymore. There’s no one to impress.”
Slipping his hands in his pockets he walked over to the child, more interested in him than anything else. He bent over slightly to be at eye level with the younger phantom and tilted his head in confusion., wondering what is was like to have this crippling emotion of doubting one’s self.
“I don’t think you realize what a gift this is. Deep down you are as sick and twisted as I am. You know how know that? Because look where you are. Something got you into hell. And even more than that, Lucifer saw something in you that He liked. Otherwise he would have tossed you aside with the others, but he didn’t. No. He brought you back. He saw in you what he saw in me and every other phantom roaming the land. Absolute… evil. It’s not a bad thing. Some people just aren’t meant to be good.”
Charles rolled his eyes at the mention of Azazel. This boy was full of interesting surprises, not nearly as boring as he initially thought him to be. Finally, a fun new toy to play with. “Azazel, Azazel, Azazel… how did you get it in your head that this “Azazel” person would or even could help you?” Sarcasm dripped from his voice as he spoke the name, finding it hard to believe that this boy actually thought such a person to exist. Were people really this gullible?
No, no, no, no. Casper repeated it like a mantra in his mind while he shut is eyes before the world. He felt the mans presens right in front of him, suddenly aware of every single hair on his body now tingling in fear. Charles radiated a cold, an evilness of the kind he had only once encountered before. He, again felt reminded of Jeremiah who had had a the same sick and twisted mind, enjoying the pain and fear of others just like Charles. Memories flashed before his eyes while he listened to Charles dark words, encoumpassing him like a thick fog. It all seemed so unreal. More like a nightmare; his own mind visualizing the true image of his self, who really was. Uncovering all the lies his life was build on and presenting him a version of reality he wasn’t ready to accept yet.
No. Could it really be that he was meant for nothing more than to be a soldier of Lucifer? A failure with the foolish hope that one day he would be a good hearted man; kind and honored by the people around him? It seemed like the truth he had always sensed but had never been able to quite grasp it until he had for the first time heard about the greater plan for his species, the cause of his mere existence. Lucifer’s army. If he hadn’t seen the fires of hell with his own eyes he would not have believed any of this nonsense. But he had and he had heard the screams, felt the darkness taking over his heart, his mind and devouring everything around him. In a whole it had only been a few minutes that had, however, felt like an eternity.
Eventually, Casper knees gave in again and he slumped down on the ground. With the impact of the fall the pain in his arm began to pound stronger and the young phantom convulved in the pain, carefully bringing his arm into his lap. For the first time he actually dared to take a look at his arm that. His eyes widened in shock at the strangely deformed limb. How was his arm supposed to ever heal again properly? A treatment, he could not afford. However, there was no time to worry about it right now, first he had to get away from this maniac.
“Don’t you dare telling me I am like you. You are wrong. So wrong… so wrong.”
Casper’s voice had become weak and rough as he spoke. The dirt to which his words where directed favored the colour ash as it covered the dark pavement to hide it’s shameful sight from the word. To hide the poverty; hide the piss that polluted the streets of this godforsaken part of the country where his search for one of the apparently greatest demons had led him. Azazel had been his hope of getting at least some information about Lucifers plan that concerned the phantoms. It seemed, however, like Charles was more than willing to present the information on a silver plate for him.
“Information. I wanted information. I heard that he was working with Lucifer; an expertice when it comes to phantoms.” Casper teeth where painfully pressed together, his jaw already aching and feeding to his headache.
“Why? You speak so low him. Are you jealous? Is he better then you? Better than, Charles Ridgeway? Hm?”
A faint smile appeared on Casper’s bloody lips as he slowly lifted his head to face the other phantom in another attempt at foolish mockery.
This boy spoke big, but underneath all of the talk and cockiness his voice hinted at the fear brewing in his chest. It was a sound that the murderer was not only accustomed to, but made a point to look for in each of his victims. Given of course that this boy was not his preferred choice of prey, but to deny someone offering themselves on a silver platter would have been careless. Waste not, want not. The only exception to this rule being Collette Markham, who was too much fun to tease with his broken promises of pain and pleasure.
Charles leaned against the phantoms arm, grinning like a mad man at the sound of bone beginning to crack under the pressure. He gently brushed a lock of hair out of the boys eyes and tilted his head to see the pain and fear twisting together behind those red irises. He was like a small dog. Full of courage in the face of fear, yapping and nipping at the ankles of someone who could end its life in one hard stomp. More irritating than hazardous, posing little to no threat to against its master.
“You sound pretty confident for someone whose arm is about to be snapped in half. Say all you want, but try as you may your angry words can only mask your fear. Not only can I see it in your eyes, I can feel it spilling off of you. I can smell it. I hear it in your voice. You’re afraid. And you should be.”
His voice had become soft, a taunting whisper that held almost seductive tones as the child’s arm bent under his control. As of late, Charles’ life had admittedly grown to be a bit dull in his eyes. Everyday it had been the same routine, the same deaths, the same orders. With a man whose resistance to boredom was uncommonly low, such a schedule had brought him to a place in his mind where the man should never tread. The last time he had gotten bored the result had caused the brutal deaths of three young woman and their suitors, simultaneously. Horrible thoughts of dismemberment and bloodshed filled his mind as his considered what he could do to this boy and what acts would replace those snark remarks with screams of agony. The thought alone made his tremble with excitement.
Pushing his body against the younger phantom he grinned, feeling the bone snap under the force and twisting his wrist back and forth so that the fragments of bone scraped together under the skin. Though he preferred those of the younger female variety, the sounds that came from the lips of this boy were unlike any other he had heard. Desperate, riddled with pain, and a hint of rebellion as he fought to appear strong in the eyes of his attacker. Finding that he could have more fun with this amateur by keeping him alive, Charles dropped him to the ground with an amused laugh.
“Azazel? Freedom?” Charles continued to laugh, tears coming to his eyes as he ridiculed the phantom. “You don’t want to to be a part of His army. You don’t want to. And you think Azazel can help you get out? Oh my, my, my. You aren’t only young you’re a fool! This is hilarious, let me get this straight. You think that you actually have a choice? You think that you can walk out whenever you want and that’s the end? HA! Boy, let me tell you something. I know it’s hard for your tiny little brain, but pay attention. You might learn something.”
“Let’s pretend you’re not stupid for a second okay? Think logically. You die, you go to Hell, you meet Lucifer. A being that rules over Hell and is slowly forming an army in the land of the living. Now.. here’s where the thinking part comes in, why would this all powerful being of Hell bring anyone back to this world. Hm? From the goodness of his heart? You think he took pity on you? No. He’s recruiting dumbass. Collecting those with potential and sending them out into the field to train first hand, spread the word that He exists and that with the snap of His fingers he could have an army in position to destroy this pathetic world. There’s no happiness. There’s no getting out. This is your life now, boy. A soldier for Lucifer. And if you don’t like that, then that’s too goddamn bad because you know what? You had your chance at everlasting happiness and you blew it buddy. You went to Hell. Welcome to the war.”
The pain which shot through his arm as Charles applied more pressure to the twisted limb hurt like the stinging of a thousand needles that plunged into his flesh, simultanously. The nasty noises caused by the snapping of his own bones tormented his ears and made the hair in his neck stand on end. Casper screamed and squirmed under Charles treatment that almost resembled torture as he only very slowly moved his arm against the angle. His knees grew weak as he leaned against the cold stone for some sort of support. By now the young phantom had bitten his lip so hard blood began to drip from it as he tried to numb out one pain with another one. To no avail. His arms pulsed painfully as if he could actually feel it swelling as an effect of the injury.
Casper’s heart rate had increased rapidley and he felt it was no longer possible to maintain his calm posture. The overwhelming pain that screamed in his mind was too loud to let him focus on anything else. His ears began to ring and Casper had to close his eyes for a moment to keep the wordl from spinning and slipping from under his feet. When he opened them again it was his opponsts glowing red eyes that looked at him as if he was some sort of fascinating experiment. Almost desperate, Casper tried to say something, to talk back, mimicing the strong man that he obviously wasn’t and never had been.
Even in his youth, Casper hadn’t been much of a fighter. He had been an excellent thief, stealthy and quick, always successfull in his ambushs. Concerning hand to hand combat, however, he only knew the basics. He wasn’t trained or expierenced in the art of fighting. In gerenal, everthing he knew he had learned on his own. With no one to guide or educate him he had more than often had to expierence and learn things the hard way. There had never been someone to tell him how to sever right from wrong. What Casper knew, Casper had picked up on the streets by observing people and imitated them on his way to try and become a better person. A better version of himself.
Everything was nothing but a blur to Casper, the only thing he could perceive being the pain in his arm as he got thrown down into the dirt. It was his fault. He had brought this on himself with the foolish attempt of trying to come across as strong. He should have taken the smarter but cowardly way out of this, should have walked away when he still had had the chance to do so. The words that the elderly phantom spoke where these of biterness a cruel perception of what was reality in the other phantom’s eyes. What was presented to him the was a harsh truth that Casper had always tried to denied and even now refused to accept. He blieved into his freedom and clinged to it. There was happniess even for someone like him. All he had to do was to finally cut all the bonds that held him bac; that associated him with evil and cut the last connections to his past. Thus, ridding himself of everything that once had been his life, his character by adapting values that weren’t his own.
To preserve at least some dignity, Casper crawled back to the wall and sat himself up while his injured arm hang from his side in a grotesque manner; like a lifeless thing that had been stuck onto his body. He wanted to get up and challenge Charles who now looked like some evil demon standing above him as if he was nothing but a maggot that needed to be crushed. In an last uproar he bit his teeth together and pushed himself up against the wall; tears forming in his eyes as he silently endured the pain that send one shockwave after another through his body. Casper cringed, his legs shaking and pearly sweat forming on his forehead to glisten in the faint and rising moonlight.
“I don’t care about your manic talk about Lucifer’s army. Where is it? I don’t see an army. And I may not be as strong as the almighty Charles Ridgeway but I do have values. And I will fight for them. There always is a way out. There is a way to change who you are. I don’t believe in this twisted fate you tell me about.”
The young phantom breathed heavily and threw his head back as yet another relentless wave of pain shook his body. Squeezing his eyes shut he waited for it to pass before he could continue. Suddenly, he wasn’t so confident anymore. Ever since he had been back to roam the earth, people had turned against him, fought him no matter how hard he had tried to be good person. To be one of these heros attired in shining armour and earning the admiration of thousands. But even this image had been nothing but a lie. It had been the knights, these men who were supposed to fight to protect the land from crime and corruption, who eventually got him hanged for a murder he had never comitted. What if Charles was right? What if there was no happiness for him? Not in this life, not anywhere else.
“I don’t care for whatever reason he brought me back. I am not going to fight for him. I have people that I care for…”
Casper stopped. Although refusing to let Chales words infiltrate his mind for they were nothing but poison, he had to admit that there was really no one to stand by his side. The only person he had ever cared for, had mindlessly betrayed him in an act of pure selfishness. Casper shock his head in denial while his gaze was fixed on some invisble spot beneath his feet, trying to find a reason that was worth fighting for.
“Nothing but lies. I will find Azazel and I will find a way to free myself from Lucifer. I don’t want to be a part of this vile species that brings nothing but destruction to the world. I won’t hurt the people I care for. No one will make me do that. And they care for me. They always have and always will.. You are nothing Charles Ridgeway. You are the fool in this. You don’t see the truth. You’re just a lunatic. Your words mean nothing.”
Charles smirked down at the young phantom, enjoying the look of hatred burning in his eyes. He really had no idea to whom it was he was speaking, a man who took pride in the creatively heinous murders that had turned Brailston upside down in a panic. It was something he took much pride in, even if this child had claimed to not know his name. Time heals all wounds they say, but thanks to his being resurrected by Lucifer he could make up for lost time and continue what in his eyes was an art form. Every scream, gag, and gush of blood was a brand new experience that he cherished as fond memories, his very favorite victims having found a permanent place on his body in the form of a tattoo. Whether his name had carried on through the years or not was of no concern to him for now he could write himself through history once more. Just as he had been for the last 127 years, be it a bit differently than when he was alive but becoming a phantom allowed him to cause chaos and destruction in a way he never thought possible.
“Everyone has heard of me, boy. I am the chill that runs up your spine when you are afraid, the nightmares that plague the sleep of innocent children, I am all that is evil and wrong with the world… and not half bad to look at if I don’t say so myself.”
What a sarcastic boy this was. The murderer began to wonder what it was that made him so damn cocky. He must have known that he was in the presence of greatness, it practically poured off of him after all, so where did a young and obviously inexperienced phantom get off playing smart to an elder?
“If you feel you must bow, I wont stop you.”
He may not have physically looked like a boy but after so much time spent roaming the lands as a phantom, Charles had grown to identify an experienced phantom from one straight out of hell. And this child looked, acted, and spoke as if he had been spit out of the fires not even a month ago. It was irritating, yet at the same time fascinating. Unfortunately for the boy, with the more he spoke the less fascinating he became and brought Charles to dark state of boredom. Somewhere that no living creature would ever wish to be caught; because when Charles got bored, he became insatiably violent. In the time it took for the other phantom to blink, Charles had grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm around to slam his chest into the brick. He pinned the boy against the wall and pulled his skinny arm up against the angle, adding enough pressure that the bone threatened to snap in half.
“What do I want? Well for starters, how about why you are even involved with this gang? You’re obviously no comparison to my amazing talents, so what do they want with you? I’m surprised you can even phase to be perfectly honest. Or better yet, why the hell would Lucifer bring a weakling like you back? What purpose could a helpless child serve in His army?”
Much faster than Casper had even been able to look or focus had Charles, in a matter of seconds rushed towards him with incredibly fast and agile movements. Charles had already grabbed his wrist and pushed him against the concrete wall before his brain had even started to process the influx of information to put up a fight. Hence, there was nothing to prevent impact that shoot a sharp pain through his body. The rough structure of the the brick scratched against his cheek as he averted his face to protect his nose which, however, caused a sharp edge of the brick to cut along his temple. Casper could feel the warm blood as it slowly ran down his face. Once more the air had been pressed out of his lungs and left him gasping, struggling under the grip of the other phantom.
A scream vibrated against the wall and he could feel his own hot breath like steam on his face as it turned into a mask of pain and horror. Casper grunted and tried to free himself from the relentless grip. To free his arm which was now horribly twisted and about to break if he wasn’t careful. His body tensed up in a last attempt desperate attempt but the phantom had to accept his defeat in this one. Every time he moved it only earned him more pain and he feared his bones might snap in half with every further move.
“Let go of me!” He brought out between his breaths short and muffled breaths.
Every bit of the man, every word, every action displayed his incredibly big ego. It made him sick. Casper was certain that there were much more stronger phantoms out there. And it was only a matter of time until he would fall. Until his disgusting pride would turn against him, destroy him until he was nothing more than a pile of dust. And he would be there to watch. Casper would watch and laugh, that he swore to himself.
“Oh yeah? What are your amazing talents? Getting mad because and apparent weakling like me is getting in your way? Maybe you’re just afraid that I could dispute your status. Maybe you are not that great afterall. Nothing but bold words.”
Casper bit his lip in pain and closed his eyes; silently pleading Charles would just break his bones. It would probably hurt less than that. However he would not beg this man. Not for anything. He would not surrender his dignity to this maniac.
“You need to calm down. You are lucky. The only thing I want from them is to speak with Azazel. I don’t want to be a part of Lucifer’s army. I want my freedom. I won’t fight for his evil cause. So, let. Go. Of. Me.”