Mark was feeling miserable. His mom managed to calm him down some but there was just too much to process right now. Worse, he knew that the situation wouldn’t magically fix itself. Unless it did. Actually that would be kinda cool, but not something he should count on. The one lesson his dad pushed more than anything else was that when push came to shove, the only person you could rely on was yourself. Mark steadied himself and thought about the people back outside. Mark had to deal with seeing the aftermath of a tragedy, but they were there as it unfolded. It didn’t seem right that he would hole up and abandon them when they needed his help the most. New determination found, Mark pushed up his sleeves and decided to get to work.
A he walked towards the puffs of smoke and meaty scents that indicated someone was preparing a huge amount of meat. As he rounded the edges of the fenced in yard he saw people working a bunch of carcasses. The scene brought Mark back to the summers he had spent preparing meat in the field with his dad and he easily stepped into flow of the work. Not trusting himself to talk much, he simply started helping where he could to help move things along. He was quickly rewarded with a notification saying he got some skill levels in cooking, but really, seeing the church group smile as they worked was the best. He had just started to open up a bit more and playfully banter with the group when he heard the whistle.
The sharp percussive sounds of the survival whistle were unmistakable, and the pattern was the one he gave George. Geroge must be in trouble, and Mark was filled with horrible premonitions. After all the nastiness he had seen today he promised himself he would make sure his friends were ok. Without thinking, he immediately started to Falling Step towards the sound and pushed himself harder than he ever had before.
Mark was a blur as he raced down the street. He gained a feeling of control as he pushed himself to the limit. It was also really nice to see the counters for mana. That helped him understand some of the nuances to his movements and drove him to make continuous improvements to his ability. After a few small corrections to his distance and speed, his efficiency with his mana skyrocketed. The savings seemed doubly important to him because he had no idea what he would find when he got to George.
Wait a second. Maybe he shouldn't be rushing towards potential danger at a breakneck pace without letting other people know first. It was a little late for the realization but the fact that he actually considered it was pretty good progress for him. He slowed his pace drastically and refocused on saving mana for whatever was coming up. He figured his dad and Liz would be following behind. Liz had to have heard the whistle too and she knew what it meant. Plus, who knew if the couple of seconds Mark might be saving would be the difference between life and death.
With renewed focus Mark made his way up into the trees. He covered more ground in the past minute than he could have mounted on horseback, and his mana was more than halfway depleted. He probably only had a few Chi Infusions or an Explosive Charm or two left to toss out. If he didn’t get to the sound quick his mana would be in a pretty critical state. Fortunately, his next leap took him to the source of the whistles. Unfortunately, that source was surrounded by four Ice Wolves and a group of Golden Apes. There was a weird sort of standoff going on.
A window to a house on the corner of the block was open, and seemed to be where the sound was coming from. The house was situated at border of the forest and jungle biomes. The scene was pretty surreal. Vines and Aspen trees collided into a tangled heap, seeming to fight for the boundary of their territory. He should come up with a better name for those biomes. Maybe Ice Forest, but that was still kinda lame though. A throaty growl reminded Mark that maybe naming things wasn't the best use of his focus for now and he should probably pay more attention to the killer monster things instead.
Mark crouched down and was glad to see that he wasn’t the target of the wolves ire. They were pacing around a tree that some golden apes had climbed up into. He knew from experience the wolves could climb frighteningly well, but he imagined they were reluctant to engage the apes in their natural habitat. Mark made use of the standoff to start sneaking towards the wolves. He tried not to use any abilities for this because he was worried he wouldn't have enough mana for a prolonged fight. Instead, he was just careful in his approach, using the clusters of vines and low shrubs to cover his lines of sight. Luck was on his side because the wolves were up-wind from him. That allowed him the opportunity to get pretty close just with his sneak skill. Excited about the chance, he charged up an Explosive Charm and readied his attack. He popped out of his cover and threw a well placed charm, but not before the stupid apes up the tree shouted in alarm. The wolves, noting this, had turned right as Mark jumped out and scattered away from his toss. Mark hoped he'd catch at least one but the dangerously fast wolves had already spread out too far to take any real damage.
"Uh, nice doggies?"
The Ice Wolves growled and turned towards Mark. The two that were nearest to the apes in the tree kept their positions but other other two stepped forward to eliminate the new threat. Mark hated it when wolves tried to eat him. He glanced quickly up to the window on the second floor wondering if he could make the jump. It was still open, but just a bit too far away to leap to. There were no weapons poking out either so Mark didn't see any help coming from that quarter for now. He was on his own.
Mark quickly scanned the area for some better cover and saw a pretty tall tree behind him. Using more of his precious mana, he jumped back and popped up into its branches. He knew the stupid wolves were really good at climbing, but it should at least get him some time to regroup. Mark’s movement surprised the approaching wolves but they quickly recovered and charged towards his new location.
Mark prepared his next action carefully. He slowed his breathing and was pretty impressed at how calm he was. Sure, this wasn't a game, but he was still pretty good at it. I mean, level six was really high. He didn't get Liz's level and wondered if she was higher or lower than his own.
"Oh crap," the wolves were almost there as Mark let himself get distracted by his idle musings. Mark used the last of his mana to Falling Step away, but had left a gift for the wolves that had rushed up to his position. As he landed, he raised his hand and released the hold on the Explosive Charm he had placed on the branch he was just on. A satisfying explosion erupted and the wolves lifeless forms fell from the tree.
Mark felt dizzy as he noticed the warning on mana being low pop up. It would have been really bad for him if he had to continue to fight in those conditions, but he didn’t have to. His dad and Liz rode up and pull up in front of Mark. Hopping off his horse his dad took a defensive position in front of him while Liz dismounted a little further ahead and readied her bow.
"Hey Dad, couple people seem to be holed up in the house. Got two of the wolves, but dunno how many apes are in the tree over there."
"I see them, you ok?"
"Just a little winded, and low on mana. I'm going to rest for a bit."
“Find some cover, I got your back.” His dad nodded as he drew his gun. His eyes scanned the branches of the trees where the apes were screaming, trying to pick out their forms. The explosions had set them off and they looked pissed for some reason. Although chaos was everywhere, Mark tried to keep his head in the moment. He knew there were people in the house and didn’t want to be out of the fight. He decided that he could just move behind his dad, do some meditation, and be back up in no time.
In hindsight, closing your eyes in the middle of a fight is never a good idea, but Mark wasn't really thinking great at the moment. The apes, seeing a stationary target, decided to enter the fray. For them, that meant using the rocks they had been carrying and trying to hit the scary things on the ground. With remarkable accuracy, a rock flew towards Mark and with a dull thwacking sound it connected solidly with his forehead.
Mark's head snapped and he collapsed backwards hitting his head on the asphalt for double the fun. He was dazed, but alive, and had the worst instant headache he could imagine. His groan let his dad know he was conscious, but having seen the source of the projectile, his dad had already moved into action. A few bangs later and three dead apes fell from the tree. Liz, in the meantime, had taken the remaining two wolves out with power shots.
Mark lifted a hand to his head as he stood up.
"Maybe, just as a suggestion, don't sit down in the middle of an exposed section of street when you are trying to recover."
"Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Probably shouldn’t close my eyes either." Mark weakly smiled
His dad grimaced and took a deep breath to make sure his next words came out calm. "That is correct. You need a potion?"
Mark reached out and took the offered vial. The pain in his head receded, but he still wasn't feeling great. He looked at the rock that had hit him and was amazed that he was able to stay conscious.
“Good thing I have a thick head, huh?”
His dad did not seem amused, but did put on his pensive face. “Son, you don’t get to walk away from these all the time. You need to start thinking and stop just acting. Closing your eyes in the middle of a fight is a good way to get killed. You have these amazing abilities now, but the thing in your head is still by far your best method of staying alive.”
“Wait, we have mana cores in our heads?”
“Your brain you doof!” Liz smacked him in the back of the head as she walked over to check on him.
“Ow! That really hurts!”
“Well, suck it up, that was stupid and you’re not allowed to die.” She reached out to help him steady himself as he stood. He was a little dizzy from the blow and low mana level, but after a few moments he recovered enough to stand on his own.
“Ok, lets see who’s in the house then.” Mark said, stepping forward. Liz and his dad flanked him as he walked up to the door and knocked.
“Anyone in there? It’s clear now!” He shouted.
The door cracked open and a very relieved looking Lance peeked out. At least Mark thought it was Lance. Their meeting in the high school was pretty brief.
“Oh thank god. I thought those things were going to kill us. Come in, Casey was bit, but otherwise we’re all okay.”
“How’s George? Is he here with you too? That whistle was him right? That’s the code I gave him.”
“Uh. Dude, that’s a rough one. Let’s get to Casey and I’ll fill you in. Do you have any of those healing potions? Sheriff had a few, said it came from you all, but he kept it to himself, like all the good stuff.”
Mark was confused. George should be here. That call was specifically so he could help him out. He was having trouble processing what was going on and followed his dad upstairs in a daze. Liz ran over to where Casey was laying down with a small pool of blood forming under her leg. She had a nasty bite on her calf and Liz went over to help her drink a potion.
Mark looked around the room, hoping that for whatever reason people just hadn’t seen George, or something, but he definitely wasn’t there. Liz was next to Casey and Ellen, her friends from school, and Lance was standing next to the preppy guy. Mark knew his name wasn’t really Preppy McPrepface, but that’s all he was remembering at the moment. His dad saved him the embarrassment of asking what his real name was by introducing himself.
“So you all probably know me, and I recognize a few faces here,” his dad nodded to Casey and Ellen, “But I don’t think I’ve met you gentlemen yet.”
“Hi! You’re the survival dude. Totally know you. Yeah, Jason Randall. You are totally internet famous. I’m Lance, and this here is Mike. We got drafted for guard duty inside the school for a bit since we weren’t tough enough to go out on our own, at least according to sheriff dumbass. Liz totally hooked me up with a knife though, and quite frankly, I think it saved my life. Jesus. It was a madhouse in the school.”
“But what happened? Where’s George? Is everyone ok? Is the sheriff like crazy mind controlling everyone?”
Lance glanced over to Mark and seemed to have trouble figuring out where to start.
“Sorry, go ahead, maybe start with how you got here?” Mark ammended.
Lance nodded and started into his tale.
“Short story is we escaped. Sheriff was pissed at us for running around and killing things without orders, and after the mana storm, he chucked us into a classroom on the third floor and locked it. Most of the away team was locked up too, but they were split up and George was with us. He’s like, a total badass now. Not sure what abilities he got but they were solid. He climbed out the window like it was nothing and found some rope in the neighborhood. He helped us get down and told us about the whistle thing, and then went back to help the other guys. Sucks that Henry caught wind of what was going on and got all freaked out and called his dad over. That’s when we bolted. The sheriff is totally creepy now, so we tried to get out of the range of his voice as soon as possible. I feel bad about it, but there was nothing we could do. That damn voice gets in your head and you get stupid about following orders, you know?”
“We’ll get you back to the house and figure out what to do from there, but it’s good to have more info. Did the sheriff seem dangerous?”
Lance looked like he was about to start a tirade when Ellen chimed in.
“I don’t think he’s dangerous, he’s just totally freaking out. Like, he saved a lot of lives and was right in the middle of things when those apes broke into the school, but he is super paranoid about the ‘right’ people being in charge. It’s like he thinks we’re all going to lord of the flies or something if he doesn’t make sure we behave.”
“That sounds like Arthur, he never dealt well with chaos. We’ll talk about it when we get to safety again. Can you walk now Casey?” His dad inquired.
Casey stood up but leaned heavily against Ellen for support. “I can make it. It hurts, but I can put weight on it.”
“We’ll put you on a horse. We don’t have them saddled, but we’ll be walking back and I promise you nothing dangerous will get close.”
For the first time since they arrived, Mark saw the teenagers smile. He knew that being escorted back to a place of safety was a good thing for them, but he wasn’t quite able to join in with their relief. He was still thinking about everyone else at school, and wondered what else was going on.