[Author's Notes: Mark finally meets the one who brought him here! This is more of a World building chapter than an Action one like last time, I'm also trying to correct my excessive use of passive tense. so forgive me if I ramble on. But Chapters this focused will be rare, so forgive me. Please remember to leave your comments and suggestions!]
~~~ Several Hours after the Ambush ~~~
Mark sat in the shallow cave, poking the small fire with a stick to stir the flames. His eyes swept the area, landing on the figure of a small girl sleeping on a thin cloth bundle. Her chest raggedly rose up and down as her face contorted in fear, unseen nightmares tormenting her dreams. Mark could only stare helplessly, lost in thought before the sound of footsteps drew his attention. A young man, stripped of the armor he had been wearing just hours before, walked into the light of the fire from the nearby entrance, a dirty shovel in his hand.
The young man leaned the shovel up against the wall and spoke to Mark in a hushed voice, careful not to wake the sleeping girl.
“It’s done. I can’t say it is respectable, but at least we will not have to worry about their bodies being eaten by some stray beast.”
The young man sat down heavily some distance away from the fire, his body sagging as if released from some immense pressure. A moment of silence passed before the young man asked Mark in a solemn voice, looking towards the young girl.
“How is she?”
Mark did not speak immediately. He simply looked into the flames with a contemplating look. He spoke after a moment, his voice low and without feeling,
“It’s infected. Whatever it is, it’s spreading fast. Might not last the night”
The young man’s eyes grew wide with anger and he quickly stood up before speaking in a half whisper half shout.
“What the hell is your problem!? Are we going to just do nothing?! You're speaking like it’s none of your concern, but why did you bother saving us if you are just going to let her die?!”
The Hero was not sure what to think when he’s first met the strangely dressed man on the roadside. On one hand, his sudden and inexplicable appearance and strange fighting style sent a red flag off in the Hero’s mind. On the other, he had put his life on the line for complete strangers. The Hero was left with a strange mixed feeling of gratitude, suspicion, and frustration.
Mark looked up at the young man and spoke in the same half shout half whisper, the fire reflecting in his eyes.
“And what do you expect me to do!?”
The Hero opened his mouth as in rebuttal, but before he could Mark looked back at the fire and spoke, this time in a cold soft tone,
“We’ve already gone through the carriage, there's nothing left we can use. And if you're right, the nearest town is still a day’s ride away.”
The Hero felt as if a cold wind blew through his mind. He slowly closed his mouth and leaned against the cool stone wall. He slowly sank to the floor as his legs lost the power to support him, before laying his head silently on his knees as his body began to shake faintly in the firelight.
Mark stood up with a grunt after several minutes of silence before reaching down to grab his discarded coat. The young Hero did not even bother to look up at Mark as he passed by and walked into the cool night. Mark stood there at the boundary of the campfire and the darkness of the night, looking up into the night sky. While the stars and constellations he was familiar with, winked back down at him, something else drew his focus.
Instead of the bright and shining Moon hanging in the night sky, there were three distinct chunks of rock spanning half the sky from the east to the west, and dozens of smaller less visible fragments floating between them. It was as if someone what taken a bat to a crystal globe and left the piece in the sky. Mark was not as shocked as the first time he’d seen the sight several hours ago, he briefly questioned if this was really a dream or not. Or a pill induced nightmare at the very least.
He finally lowered his gaze after several moments and began to walk down the dimly lit pathway. Mark arrived at the stone bridge a few moments later, taking only a moment to scan the area for danger before walking towards the opposite side of the road. He shifted around the dense bushes for a few moments, before a bright yellow flower caught his eye in the ‘moonlight’.
He bent down to inspect the flower before giving a slight nod and swiftly began to extract the plant, roots and all. Mark was years out of practice, yet he was sure he remembered that Pot Marigold could be processed into a basic tincture. The equipment pulled from the carriage was basic, but at the very least it might buy some time.
Mark slowly brushing the dirt off of the plant, careful not to damage it. He looked down at the small flower, deep in thought when a familiar sound suddenly came from his pocket. Mark slowly pulled the old phone from his pocket and flipped it open with shaking hands. A bright LED display flashed a two-word message at him as the phone continued to ring. Unknown Number.
Mark could only stare at the phone in shock and confusion before an unfamiliar voice called out from behind him,
“Are you going to answer that?”
Mark made a sudden tuck and roll motion to his left, grabbing a large rock as he did so. With a practiced throw, he sent the stone flying towards the unseen voice. Mark corrected his roll and entered a combat ready stance as he heard the sound of a heavy impact, stone on flesh. His eyes went wide in shock and his mouth hung open, however, when he looked in the direction of the toss. Leaning up against a nearby tree stood a calm man in clean and casual looking clothes, his outstretched hand gripping the large stone. The stranger held to his head a new model smartphone, glowing bright in the dim nightlight.
As he pulled the smartphone away, he pressed a button and the ringing of Mark’s phone stopped. The stranger then pushed himself away from the tree and put the smartphone way, before beginning to leisurely toss stone in the air. He spoke in a soft voice though it was strangely clear to Mark’s ears even from that distance.
“You always had a knack for the Curveball, Mark. It’s good to see you’ve not lost your touch”.
Mark raised his eyebrow in confusion at the stranger’s overly familiar tone. He did not lower his guard as he spoke to the Stranger in a questioning tone,
“Do I know you?”
The Stranger looked at Mark with a strange look in his eyes, then spoke in a small voice,
“No. but I know you, Sergeant Floyd. Sergeant Mark Floyd, 3rd Battalion, 338th Regiment, 157th Infantry Brigade. Second son of Debra and Samuel Floyd. 31 this October”
The Stranger spoke as if reading off a list, watching Mark’s jaw fall open. The stranger paused for a moment before speaking again, a mysterious smile forming.
“5’11, 182lb. Favorite color is dark green and favorite drink is mint tea in scotch. Should I go on?”
Mark’s mouth slowly closed as he stared daggers at the stranger in front of him. His voice trembled slightly as he tried to speak out in a threatening manner,
“Who the hell are you?! Did Max send you after me? I told him before that I’m not going to work for him, I don’t care how much he’s paying”.
The stranger tossed the stone away and looked at Mark with a smirk before speaking is a serious tone,
“I’m not with the Black Dogs, Mark. They can’t reach you here anyway”
As the Stranger spoke, he pointed up towards the sky. Mark’s eyes followed the motion and his eyes landed on the strange splintered moon. Mark felt his blood go cold and his body shiver as he watched the shards drift slowly through the sky. The Strangers clothes and phone, coupled with him seeming to know Mark, had made Mark forget for a moment that he wherever he was, it wasn't the world he knew. Mark forcefully quelled his shaking body before lowering his gaze and asking in a quiet voice.
“Who are you?”
The Stranger looked back at Mark as a large grin forming on his face, as if he had been waiting for that question all along. He paused for a moment before answering in a calm but questioning tone, as if not fully sure how to word it himself,
“A Watcher? A Guide? A Messenger? What you chose to call me is not important. What is, is that I have a request for you, Sergeant. One last Mission.”
Mark raised an eyebrow at the Stranger’s words. Who did he think he was trying to play himself off as? God?
“I’ve been called that, yes. But as I said, that is not important at the moment.”
Mark’s eyes widened in surprise at the Stranger’s answer to his unspoken question. Mark felt his body stiffen as he took several steps back and tightened his guard. The Stranger gave a light chuckle before speaking again in a light tone.
“As I said, should you choose to accept it, I have one last mission for you, Sergeant. Ha, I've always wanted to use that line.”
Mark squinted his eyes in suspicion, choosing to ignore the Stranger’s choice in words before he answered in a cold voice,
“I Refuse, I stopped following Orders a long time ago. I’m not some puppet dancing on your strings just so you can keep your hands clean. I don’t care who you are, do your dirty work yourself.”
The stranger hung his head and gave a sigh of resignation before lifting his head and spoke in a calm voice,
“You’re no fun. In all seriousness Mark, you misunderstand. I say ‘mission’ however I do not really require you to ‘do’ anything. Your simple presence is enough.”
Mark tilted his head in confusion as the Stranger spoke on
“The mission that I have for you, is simply to be yourself. To live in this world as you. Move as you wish, do what you feel needs doing. Learn. Grow. Become better than you were yesterday, aim for more than you will be tomorrow. And frankly speaking Mark, you are already ‘here’. There is no going back, no refusing even if you wanted it.”
Mark asked the stranger in a low voice even more confused than a few moments ago,
“And where IS ‘here’ exactly?”
The stranger looked sadly up into the sky his eyes focusing on the shattered moon slowly floating by. He thought for a moment before speaking,
“A Shadow? A Choice? A Possibility made Reality. This world is but one of infinite other like it, each the result of choices and outcomes, Cause and Effect. A collection of ‘What could have been’ sleeping in the shadow of ‘what is’.”
The Stranger looked back down at Mark with a gentle but tired smile before continuing,
“But do not misunderstand. This world is just as ‘real’ as your home; its people laugh and live, they bleed and cry just as any others. The only difference is that this world is ‘sterile’. It no longer has the ability to birth new worlds. It simply exists, sleeping alongside its sisters”
Mark did not think himself a stupid man by any means, yet as the Stranger spoke Mark’s heart began to beat rapidly and his head hurt. Mark did not fully understand what was said, but the implications of the Stranger’s words felt like a blow to his psyche. Mark spoke with a trembling voice, his hands dropping powerlessly to his side.
“W-what does this have to do with me? Why drag me all the way here if you don’t even need me to do anything?”
The stranger spoke in a low voice as eyes began to fill with a deep sorrow,
“This World is dying Mark. It is no longer making choices, no longer growing or moving forward. It has grown cold and still, apathetic and content. With Apathy comes Stagnation and with Stagnation comes Rot. If a branch is sick, it must be pruned from the whole before the entire vine is infected. If a limb is festering and the rot cannot be removed, then it is better for the limb to be cut off than for the body as a whole to die.
The Flame could burn away the Rot, but this World has lost its Flame. Its Passion has dwindled into smoldering embers and ashes. But as long as even a single ember remains, hope is not lost. As long as there is one spark left, no matter how flickering and frail it may be, the Flame can be rekindled!”
The Stranger, as he spoke, became more passionate and joyful, moving from a somber tone to one filled with hope, spreading his arms out in excitement.
“THAT is why I called you here Mark THAT is all I ask. Be a spark! An Ember to rekindle a smoldering Flame!”
The stranger paused for a moment as if to calm himself, he lowered his arms and spoke again in a low sad tone,
“Or else I will have no other choice but to sever this withering branch, and cast it away.”
Mark massaged his aching head then spoke to the Stranger in a dull, uninterested tone,
The Stranger simply smiled gently and spoke,
“As I said Mark, it’s not something you can really refuse. All I ask that you go about your way. The very act of you being who you were made to be, is all that is needed”.
Mark’s eyes flared as he threw an arm out in anger, he spoke in a voice near shouting,
“And What if I don’t want to! What’s stopping me from gallivanting off into the woods, never to be seen again?!”
The Stranger laughed lighting and shook his head before speaking,
“You misunderstand Mark. It is not the Ember’s will to light the kindling that it lands on. That's its Nature. No matter where you go. No matter what you do, your very presence will bring change.”
Mark’s mouth closed tight at the Stranger’s words, eyes still full of defiance and reluctance.
The Stranger’s face suddenly lighted and he clapped, causing Mark to jump slightly. The Stranger spoke again, this time his voice taking on a light and friendly tone,
“Well, enough of the heavy stuff! Let’s move on to business! I have a gift for you Mark! Think of it as a reward for saving little Merry. Simply say ‘System Menu’.”
Mark started at the stranger with a confused look, slightly off put by the sudden change in tone as he asked in questioning tone,
Mark jumped suddenly in surprise as a small gray window popped up in the corner of his eye.
[What the F---!!!]
Before Mark could finish his words, his mouth slammed forcibly shut. The stranger looked at Mark with warning eyes as he spoke,
“Language Mark. Anyway, I understand that coming to a new world may be confusing and overwhelming at first. More so when the culture, history and common sense differ greatly from what you are used to. So to help you in your travels, I whipped up a little gift for you. For now, let’s call it ‘The System’ [Patent pending].
Think of it as a “New World Wizard”, designed to fill in the gaps of information that you would otherwise be missing. It’s not perfect; it won’t provide information that you would otherwise not be able to access, such as someone's bank pin, a history of which there is no longer any record, or certain private personal information, but other than that as long as it is something that you would have had the ability to learn, then the System will cut out the grunt work for you.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!! I’ve decided to throw in a few extra functions I thought might be fun. If you look at the Menu in front of you, you will see several buttons.”
Mark could only stare in shock and a doubting eyebrow at the nostalgic menu floating in his vision. Mark gave the Stranger a look that questioned if the man in front of him was really sane, then asked,
The Stranger simply smiled back with a wide-tooth grin and shrugged his shoulders before speaking,
“Why not? I heard it's hip with the Kids nowadays, so I thought I would give it a go. I have to say, it turned out better than I thought. Now, the Main menu here is simply for organizational purposes, simply think about which one you wish to access and it will open. You can bring up any individual menu by simply speaking its name as well, though do so later, we don't have much time left.
The Examine option is the main function of the System I had mentioned earlier. Simply focus on the target and select examine in your mind, and it will bring up the requested info.”
Mark smirked at the Strangers words, he focused his gaze on Stranger and stealthily selected the option, only for a mechanical voice to sound in his head,
“WARNING, HOST DOES NOT HAVE PROPER AUTHORIZATION TO PERFORM THIS FUNCTION”
The Stranger gave a deep bellied laugh as he wiped a tear from his eye, before pulling a dull rusty sword from the Air and tossed it to Mark,
“Better luck next time. Here, try this instead. I recommend keeping it around, think of it as a good luck charm”.
Mark squinted his eyes suspicion as he skillfully caught the blade by the handle. He raised a questioning brow as he recognized the dull rusty blade he’d used against the creature, the Forest Goblin, as the young man from before had called it. Focusing on the Sword, Mark’s eyes widened in shock at the screen that popped up from the blade.
Index Entry: This old rusty blade has seen more and been farther than you will ever hope to. It has traveled the world, being passed down age through age. It has been wielded by great and mighty Heroes and common peasant soldiers. It has been used to slay dragons and skin pigs. Its very essence is a Legend, a physical manifestation of History. Just don’t nick yourself, you don’t want to know what those stains are.
Mark once more looked up at the stranger, a queer look in his eyes, questioning the man’s sanity, before shaking his head and tying its sheath to his belt. Mark knew next to nothing about wielding a sword like this, but it was obviously not normal. It would not hurt to keep it around for now.
The Stranger looked at Mark with a laugh and spoke,
“Time’s almost up, but I have one more ‘gift’ for you”
The stranger pointed to the Carriage nearby and crooked his finger as if to beckon something. With a shake, the bottom of the driver seat came loose, and a small compartment was exposed. Mark, curious, approached the carriage with slow steps. Inside was a small wooden box, a large book, a folded letter, and a small satchel. Mark opened the small Box only to find what he assumed was a rudimentary first aid kit; inside were several small brown glass bottles and thin gauze like cloth. He opened a secondary draw to find several neatly organized bundles of herbs and a long blue stalk of a plant he’d never seen before.
Mark lifted the strange stalk into the air, amazed at how fresh it appeared to be despite obviously being harvested long ago. He found the most striking feature of the herb to be its several small but transparent berries crowning its top. The skin of the berries was filled with light blue liquid that glowed slightly in the moonlight. Though they appeared fragile at first glance, their skin was thick and rubbery refusing to burst even when Mark gave them a good squeeze between his fingers.
Mark, engrossed in the strange plant, jumped slightly as the Stranger called from behind, his voice filled with a sadness.
“The Box was Merry’s Mother, Martha’s Apothecary kit. She loved to experiment and cultivate new herbs and understand how they worked. Take it to Alexander, he should be able to use what is there for Merry. The Book was meant to be a gift from her Father, Thomas. I’d ask that you hand it and the letter to her once she’s recovered. The gold in the satchel, you can keep. It was intended to be used as emergency funds in case something happened, but it will be only a small fraction of Merry’s…inheritance. Thomas would have wanted you to have it, as a way of saying Thanks for stepping in when you did. For now, Mark, remember my words well. The world may be cold and dark, but as long as there is even a single person still willing to move forward, one flame left burning, the dark will never overcome that Light.”
Mark, a frown forming on his lips as he turned to face the Stranger, only to find the road empty. He gave a sigh of resignation before grabbing the parcels and walking back towards the shadowed pathway by the stream.
Mark arrived at the small cave several minutes later, pausing for a moment as he let his eyes adjust to the light. Alexander, the young man who he had rescued alongside Merry, looked up at Mark with dull eyes, and spoke, his voice listless and dry,
“What? Did you forget something?”
Mark looked down at the young man with questioning eyes, before looking over at the fire. He noticed that the flames had barely dwindled compared to when he had first left the cave, despite spending what felt like the whole night on the roadside. He raised an eyebrow before lightly tossing the small apothecary kit to Alex, not bothering to say anything as he walked over to the fire and lead against the cold stone wall, his mind weary from the encounter.
Alex raised a questioning eye, before turning his attention to the small box. His hands began to shake as he peered at its contents, eyes growing in shock as he yelled towards Mark, forgetting to even adjust his volume,
“God’s Tear?! Where in the hell did you even…No, no, now’s not the times”
Alex quickly stood and rushed over to Merry’s side. He kneeled down beside the girl, hands trembling slightly as he removed her bandages. Alex gagged a little as a stagnate rotting smell filled the air. He looked down at the poor girl, his heart twisting in pain as he looked at her condition. When the Forest Goblin had struck her the left socket had caved in, crushing the eye and leaving a massive gaping wound for the festering rot to invade. Even now he could see the poison spreading outward from the wound.
Alex worked quickly as he did his best to clean out as much of the pus and rotting flesh as he could; God’s Tear was powerful even in its raw form, but he didn't have the equipment to properly process it. The more he could physically do, the greater the girl's chances. Mark watched on in silence, no visible emotion on his face.
Alex was satisfied with his work after a short time, then finally lifted out the blue stalked plant from the box. He cut off the berry cluster with a small pair of scissors before wrapping them in a piece of the thin gauze like cloth, then muttering a short prayer, he squeezed with all his strength.
Alex’s hands shook for a moment before there was the sound of a soft pop and the cloth gave slightly. Mark watched at a light blue liquid slowly seeped from the end of the cloth and began to fall drip by drip towards the girl’s wound. As the drops fell they seemed to ignite in the air, forming a bright blue flame which landed on the girl’s face. As each small flame landed, the surrounding flesh ignited in a similar bright blue fire.
Mark stared in wonder as Merry seems unharmed by this strange flame. To the contrary, where ever the flame touched, the rot and pus seemed to burn away into nothing, leaving clean, raw flesh in its wake. Alex heaved a sigh of relief as he watched the flames move slowly under the girl’s skin, eating away even at the hidden rot in her veins. This strain of God’s Tear must have been extremely potent for it to be so powerful even unprocessed; his heart grew icy at the thought how much it must have cost. Alex saw that after a few moments, the blue flames began to die out, leaving only a slight afterglow under her skin. Merry’s breath began to calm and soften as even that glow began to fade, her pained face slowly loosing into a relaxed deep sleep.
Alex gave a deep laugh as he fell backward onto the ground that slowly turned into tears of relief. He pulled himself together after a moment and began to work once more. He knew that the biggest danger was over, but the girl still had a major injury. He felt relieved, however, that the remaining common herbs in the apothecary’s kit where enough to concoct a few useful salves he knew of.
Alex worked feverishly preparing and dressing the girl’s wound, before finally finishing shortly before Dawn. He stood on shaking legs as he finished his work, pinching them as he attempted to return the blood flow. He looked over to the opposing wall as he did so and saw Mark sitting there in the same position when he had started. Mark’s eyes were blood shot and there were noticeable dark bags under his eyes, but as Alex walked over to his sleeping bag, he did not miss the gentle smile that rested on Mark’s face as he stared at the sleeping little girl.