Chapter 5

Prove your metal

"What do you mean 'not quite'" Demanded Zack. "Who is there left?"

"I believe you've yet to fight me."

This gave Zack a slight shock. "I-I'm gunna fight you?"

"I see no reason not. In fact to even things up not only will I not use my mark, but I will only fight at one quarter strength. Hell I'll tie my hand behind my back if it'll make you happy."

"I don't want you to go easy on me."

"Trust me it won't be easy." With that Hark drew his sword. "When you're ready."

Zack pulled his sword so that it was between him and Hark. "Rea-" Before he could finish Hark appeared on his right. He was far faster than Zack had expected.

Zack barely managed to block his strike, but even that was not good enough. The impact sent him flying like a baseball into a sand dune.

"Would you like me to go easy now?" Asked Hark running his thumb along the brim of his hat. "Or shall we call it quits here?"

"Are you kidding me? That was nothing!" That was a blatant lie.

Before he could take it back, which would have been wise, Hark appeared in front of him. Zack barely managed to roll out of the way before Harks blade struck. The strike had such force behind it that it sent Zack flying once again.

Zack pulled himself to his feet as Hark approached nearer and nearer. He held his blade between him and Hark. Hark slashed the blade down near the hilt leaving Zack nothing more than a small knife to fight with.

"Oh so careless." Chirped Hark almost singing to himself. "And after I went through all that trouble to repair that for you."

Zack was out of ideas. The first two fights were easy, but now he was out matched and no amount of craftiness could fix that. The most he could do is by time. He turned and ran.

"Cowardice is not what wins battles." Called Hark chuckling.

"Not cowardice, but instinct."

"Very well. If you are adopting the instincts of the prey, then I'll adopt the instincts of the predator." Hark took up the chase. He was quite happy with himself.

Zack found that he could not shake Hark. He ran as fast as he could, but Hark was only a few feet away the entire time. He would strike at either side of Zack every now and again which only encouraged Zack to run faster.

After running for a while they came upon a sizeable cliff. Zack peered over the edge. A few hundred feet lay between him and the ground.

"Caught in a dead end." Sang Hark in a cheery tune. "No safety around the bend

You're now stuck way up high

If you don't escape you'll surely die"

Zack turned to find Hark slowly approaching him. "What now? Will you surrender or fight?"

He took another peek at the cliff wall. He smiled. "Neither." Zack lept over the cliff.

Hark ran to the cliff edge and looked over the precipice. He found Zack standing on a branch not far from the top. Zack slammed the hilt he was still holding against the stone wall.

The stone began to crumble underneath them. They slid along the rock wall as thousands of stones followed them.

Not willing to let this get the better of him Hark continued striking at Zack. It was much easier however to avoid Hark when he was distracted by the environment.

As they neared the cliff base Hark began to refocus himself. His assaults where drawing closer and closer to their target. One blow landed very near Zack throwing off his balance. He fell as rocks began to bury him.

He sat there covered with stone. He soon was uncovered by Hark, who was still smiling. He wasn't done with Zack yet.

He tried to get his hilt, but his arm was stuck under a large bolder. Hark entered the hole that had formed around him. His heart began to beat faster and faster as Hark approached. The fear began to set in. Just then something happened.

As if it was responding to his adrenaline the hilt began to grow hot. It was nearly burning his hand! A bright red light showed from under the rock. The light and heat increased quickly until they reached their peak.

There was a burst of energy. The shock wave pushed aside all the stone. Zack looked at his hand. In his hand laid a bright red katana. It was radiating heat, but it didn't burn him. It felt good. Like a warm blanket. He lifted the blade so that he could have a better look at it.

It didn't feel like it was a blade. It had no weight and he couldn't feel it in his hand. It felt more like it was another body. Like it was him and he it.

He gave a sweep with the weapon. A crescent shape blast of red energy flowed out of it. The crescent flew quickly towards Hark.

Hark brushed the attack aside as if it was nothing more than a cool breeze. "That'll do." Said Hark now walking away.

"What?" Asked Zack. "That's it."

"This exercise was only to allow you to achieve stage one. Now that that's done there is no reason to continue. Besides you're still not strong enough to match me. That'll be it for today. I trust you can find your way home from here."

Zack walked along the dark streets of the town. It was lucky for him that he remembered to bring a change of clothes. His other shirt was torn to ribbons.

He was surprised it was so late. He hadn't thought the training had taken all too long, but it was nearly nine when he left. The walk home was a two hour trip to. Something told him this wouldn't be the first late night he would have from this whole thing.

The night was oddly quiet. Other than the sound of a light breeze there was not a single sound. All of a sudden a voice broke the silence. "Get away you freak!"

He ran towards the location of the scream. He gazed down a dark alley. There was a girl in a grey coat talking to a large man in a leather jacket. She had long blond hair and a delicate figure.

"I said get away." Shouted the girl. Zack recognized her. Her name was Jessica. They had gone to the same school before the whole signature thing started.

"And I said you're coming with me!" Bellowed the man.

"I'd leave her alone if I where you." Remarked Zack smugly. "After all it's a bit late and I really don't feel like hiding another body."

The man turned and scowled at Zack. "Why don't you just mind your own business?"

"Because that's clearly what you're doing."

"That's it you're dead! Get him boys." As he spoke two other large men approached Zack. One of them placed his hand on Zack's shoulder.

"You really want to do this?" Asked Zack. Without waiting for a response he elbowed one of the men in the gut. The man was sent flying out of the alley and into a dumpster across the street.

He grabbed the other man by the hand and squeezed. The man fell to the ground crying in pain. He met the gaze of the last man. "Your move."

The man pulled a gun from his side and immediately went to pull the trigger, but in the time it took him to do that Zack had reached into his bag, pulled out his sword, and cut the gun at the barrel.

Zack sheathed his blade. "This is the part where you run." And the man did just that. Although he didn't get far. He was focusing too much on Zack and ran straight into a light post.

"Zack?" Asked a very surprised Jessica.

"The one and only."

"Th-that was..."

"Weird right. I mean where did those two guys come from."

"Yea sure. Where did you come from? I thought you moved."

"No just transferred to a new school."

"Oh well ok then."

"Well if you're ok now I need to be on my way." He said as he continued on his way.

"Thank you."

"No problem. Just try to stay safe."

Zack crept into his house for the second time that week. Only this time he wouldn't be caught.

"Well you're home late aren't you?"

His mother. The one thing that scared him more than his dad. "Oh mom. I was um making up a test."

"I'll bet." His mom stepped closer. Her red hair was tied up in a bun. She only ever put her hair in a bun when she was mad. She rubbed the cut on his cheek. "And did that test give you this?"

"No I uh tripped."

"I'm no fool so don't talk to me like I'm one."

"Mom I'm…"

"Save it. Your dad is a smart man, but he can't hide anything from me."

"I…"

"Look you're old enough to decide things for yourself. I'm not going to ask what you've been doing and I won't tell you to stop. Just promise me one thing. Promise me whatever you do you'll come home safe."

"Mom"

"Promise."

"I promise I won't get myself killed."

"Alright then. Up to bed with you."

Zack started to walk up the stairs when he stopped. "Night. Love you."

She didn't respond.

The next morning Siel found Hark waiting for her behind her desk. "I'm sorry he refused to wait outside." Explained Susan.

"It's okay." Said Siel. "Just go. Hark and I clearly need to have a talk." Susan left leaving an annoyed Siel to talk with Hark. "You know when most people need to talk to someone they call first."

"I prefer this." Replied Hark. "If I called you'd know I'm coming."

"Well can I have my desk back?"

"No I'm going to need every bit of leverage I can get on this one."

"Okay then what do you want?"

"Zack."

"You want Zack?"

"No. I want you to let Zack take the final exam now."

"No. He's not ready. Students need to have mastered at least stage two before they can take the final exam. He needs to keep training."

"That's the problem. He's not going to improve anymore through training. He needs genuine experience. That's why we need to let him take the final exam."

"He hasn't even reached stage one yet."

"That's where you're wrong. He reached stage one last night."

"With less than one week of practice?!"

"He's very special. That's why we need to give him the exam now."

"No the exams aren't even scheduled to happen for another few months."

"I didn't want to have to do this, but you owe me one."

"But you can't use that on this! That was about Zack!"

"That's exactly why I should use it on this."

There was a long silence while Siel thought over her options. "Fine he can take the exam on one condition. Instead of fighting one of the teachers he has to fight four."

"Deal. It'll be all the more fun when he wins."

"You want to put your money where your mouth is?"

"Sure what's the wager?"

"If Zack loses you pay for my lunch."

"And when he wins I get bragging rights and you stop questioning my plans."

"Deal"

"You're gunna regret this."

Zack was well along his way to the school when he encountered an old friend. It was Jessica.

"Hey Zack." Called Jessica as she ran towards him. At first he was happy to see her, but then he thought about it. He couldn't let her walk with him to the school. Not with that time space wall thing. Well he could, but she would be very confused after he disappeared. "I never got a chance to thank you last night."

"Well now you have." He said as he tried to think of a way to ditch her. "Hey shouldn't you be in school?"

"They cancelled it for the week. Something about water damage."

"That school always was a wreck."

"And what about you."

"Oh uh my first class doesn't start till eleven. I'm out running errands for my mother."

"Oh I'll walk with you then."

"Oh you really don't have to do that."

"It's ok I usually go walking around town and could use the company."

He might not have realized it yet, but she had come looking for him that day. He had piqued her curiosity to say the least. After that super human display she was very curious to see what he was up to. Of course she had the idea that he was some sort of super hero, and if you have that same thought I tell you right now you're wrong.

Zack continued on his way now accompanied by Jessica only now he had a completely different rout planned in his head. He took the next left on his rout and began a path to the grocery store. He picked up a gallon of milk and some eggs. He needed to keep up his story.

What next? He needed to find the most out of the way destination that he could excuse as an errand. Wait a minute. His grandmother! She lived out in the hills to the west! A long walk, but easily excused as an errand.

He turned to Jessica. "I actually need to go visit my grandma now. She lives a while off up in the hills. I wouldn't blame you if you didn't want to go all that way."

"Oh I don't mind" That's a lie. "I walk out there all the time." Another lie. "I used to walk in the forest with my dad. We would pick berries and watch the clouds." Lie, lie and lie.

"Ok then." This was quickly becoming a huge pain for him.

He led her along the forest path that guided them to his grandmother's home. The thought crossed his mind of just knocking her out and leaving her in the park.

He stopped midway along the path. Idea! "I almost forgot. My grandmother likes me to pick berries for her and the berries she likes only grow further out in the woods. I'll be right back." There were, of course, no berries that grew in that forest, but she clearly didn't know that.

He wandered far enough into the woods so that she couldn't see him and then he ran back to town. Ever since recent events he had been able to do any physical activity shockingly well so he reached the town in a matter of seconds.

He did feel more than a little bad about leaving her in the forest, but there was nothing else to be done.

He began making his way to the school once again.

As you might have guessed Zack arrived at the school late. He kind of expected that Hark wouldn't be happy, but he had no idea that everyone was waiting for him.

"You had to pick today to be late." Complained Hark.

"Give me a break it wasn't my fault. What's going on here?"

"I pulled some strings to allow you to take your final exam now."

"Final exam? Explain."

"The final exam is going to be your last experience as student here. That is if you pass. And when you do you'll have a choice of what you want to do in this little society we have, but I'll explain that a bit later.

"To pass the test you'll need to defeat four of the teachers in a row. The four you'll be fighting are Susan, Erica, Laura, and Casur."

Zack gazed across the small arena that was set up to see Siel standing next to Casur and three women he hadn't seen before.

One was a tall young lady with ling blond hair. She wore a plaid skirt and a black dress shirt. This was Susan.

Another had shortly cut black hair. She was very thin and wore a tight brown shirt. She wore black leather pants and heels. This was Erica.

The last one had brown hair that was longer than Erica's but not quite as long as Susan's. She wore a yellow tank top and baggy pajama pants. She had a kind of frail look about her. If you know anything you'll be able to figure out that this was Laura.

"They'll be allowed to use their marks to whatever level they wish," Continued Hark. "But don't worry. I'll be allowed to give you advice before each match and we already know you can beat one of them. Now that I think of it I would have liked to give you a chance to practice with your new powers, but it's too late now." Hark took a long pause to think and then said: "Do you think you're ready for this?"

Zack thought about it for a while. Was he ready? He had yet to use his mark in battle and there was still plenty he didn't know. It would have been nice for him to of had a chance to practice, but what could be done now. It wasn't in him to back down. He looked over at Hark, who was worried by his silence, and answered. "Definitely."