# Nicol’s Apprentice

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\title{Nicol’s Apprentice}
\author{Marcus Appelros}
\date{January 2007 to ?}
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A seemingly ordinary boy. What age could he be? Twelve or maybe thirteen. Living the normal life of any other soon to be grown up. Hanging out with friends, impressing people with your so amazing stunts; throwing stones at cats and maybe some school on the side. Life is easy and no worries in the world, the kind of place you’d expect the heroes of fairy tales to end up in when they “live happily ever after.”

His name is Mark. He’s got a ruffled, pitch black hair that anyone could see hasn’t been combed this century, there are tears in his white shirt, his pants are dirty and his shoes are covered in mud. A bruise decorates his left knee.

This specific day is no different from any other, except that the clouds in the sky are dark and it might rain later. Mark is walking the same way down the road as he does every day. His untied shoelaces swinging rhythmically back and forth in symbiosis to his movements, reminding him of his mom’s admonitions to always keep his laces tied or he might trip and break a leg. But he isn’t afraid of such unimportant things; children mend so fast. His mother however, is a master of worrying; she would make even the most obnoxious hypochondriac jealous. She always takes every possible measurement of security. His growth has been so safe that he would have died by boredom already hadn’t it been for his best friend Jack, who had always been close and kept him entertained.

A great example of his mothers supreme anxiety are the weekly shopping tours to the local store. She would nervously tilt her head back and forth, looking up and down the street like a mouse sniffing, scanning the air for the scent of danger. They would then scurry across the street and hurry down the lane under the protecting shadow of the houses hanging above them; the withering tendril desperately clinging on to the crackling %?
mortar and the broken windows looking down at them darkly as if blaming them for sneaking around like thieves.

He remembers once when they had accidentally bumped into someone on the route back from Birketwoods Shop, as the store was called, named after the great looming forest that lingers just by its doorstep. It consists of mostly pine trees but also some oak and the occasional aspen. Squirrels could easily be spotted jumping from branch to branch and exotic birds would sing all day only to be replaced when the lights fade by crickets, shrieking bats and other nocturnal animals.

He remembers that day very clearly, just as if it had been yesterday. It was a clear sunny day\ldots
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“Mark! Are you coming?”

Mark draws the comb through his hair one last time and lays it aside on the sink. He wets his hands before turning of the tap %inte rätt
and strokes his hair, trying to make the moisture flatten the last untidy bits of his unruly hair. The mirror is obscured by a thick layer of mist from the previous hot shower he endured minutes ago. He grabs the towel from its hook and swiftly wipes the vapour of the mirror. %fel
For a moment he stands enthralled admiring his pretty, unharmed face which has not yet felt the cruel and merciless hand of time. For a second he experiences a feeling he isn’t quite familiar with, he feels a sort of sad melancholy which he can’t explain. Then he can hear his mother call again from the vestibule.

“Mark?”

He sighs quietly, the sudden feeling has disappeared just as fast as it appeared. He will have forgotten it in a few minutes and it will trouble him no more\ldots for now.

“I’m a-coming, ma!”

He walks out into the hallway where his mother is standing glancing at him reproachfully. Ignoring his mother out of habit he bends down and puts on his shoes.

“We need to hurry, it is almost noon, soon the lights will fade and it will be \textit{dark!}”

As she put the emphasize on the last word some bits of spittle fly from her mouth. She had a frantic look in her eyes and dark areas %?
under her eyes. Coupled with her lips painted vividly red it gave her an almost insane look. She had a thick leather jacket, despite the pressing heat, and an obscene hat with large feathers standing out on all ends.

“Sure ma, whatever” he says as he opens the door and casually walks out, completely oblivious to his mother’s admonitions to be careful. He steps out on the pavement and gazes up toward the sky, forced to peer by the strong sun.

His mother takes a hold of him and drags him with her. They ran across the street as fast as they could, even though it was completely empty and not a single person was to be sighted. This only made her more worried however.

“It’s a conspiracy” she mumbled inconsistently and stopped dead in her track. She holds his arm tight and looks around carefully, checking every window for sneaky eyes or deceptive voices emanating from behind closed doors or drawn curtains.

“Come on ma, it’s nothing”

She stood still for a moment and then with a jerk she dragged them on while mumbling something which he couldn’t quite make out about how you was not to be na\”ive in this perilous world.

With one last gaze at the bright stars he is dragged into a dark alley where the rooftops keep
all light out and the only guidance they have is a broken lantern casting its damp light on their path. A faint sewer smell penetrates his lungs and he has to criss-cross through overturned garbage cans and carcasses of some unlucky bird whose life ended as lunch for a local cat.

Suddenly he trips over a fat rat bursting out in front of him. Its brisker broken and small drops of, what he assumed was water running down the stiff
hairs. It squeaked indignantly before picking its ragged body up and tumbling on, leaving a small tuft of hair on the ground.

The first time his mother had dragged him through this alley it had been a sort of revelation, but also a knowledge he didn’t quite want; what insanity could drive her mother when she thought \textit{this} place was safer than the road outside, drenched in sunlight?

Then, as fast as they had entered it they were out again, he gasped at the sudden brightness and had to momentarily close his eyes as figures of light flashes behind his eyelids.

The clearing they’ve entered is that of a small city center. To the left there is a small book store who currently advertises \textit{The New Bestselling Book by Ronan Traskison, Expert Advise on Flying Mobiles, now only \pounds 5.}\footnote{Converted to a currency used in our time to help the reader understand the context better.} %think of a good fictive currency
Further to the right in the window there’s a poster encouraging you to buy the new hand held computer which will revolutionize working and entertainment as you know it. Under this bold statement a shiny thing which at first glance might look like a finely polished biscuit is lying on a soft blanket with a sign next to it reading \textit{\pounds 500} in large red numbers and with a crossed over \textit{\pounds 600} right above it.

Across the street is their designated target, a cramped shop with with nontransparent, brown windows. It is hard to tell if they are because they are designed that way or if it is because they haven’t been cleaned this century. Above the heavy wood door there is a sign that says “Birketwoo s Shop,” the “d” is missing and many of the letters hang askew. Once in time the sign had been a bright red colour, now it would be generous to call it bleak pink. Spider webs runs thick everywhere and weren’t it for the rug with “Welcome” spelled out in large letters on it placed neatly in front of the door you’d think the store was utterly abandoned.

A man is leaning against the burnt brick wall right next to the door. He’s got a black coat with lots of pockets and a belt runs around his body. He has boots that are worn from heavy usage and a dusty brown hat rests atop his head covering his eyes. A part of his untidy dark brown hair can be seen peeking out from under the hat. He is looking down at the ground and in his hand there is a nearly burnt out cigarette. His mother gasps and nearly dives behind a garbage can in her consternation. Mark tries to pull her out of there but to no avail and soon she is almost crawling in the dirt with only a pair of eyes sticking above the protecting shelter of the garbage can keeping a close watch on the \emph{abnormality}. Her son is standing right next to her looking extremely awkward, gazing embarrassedly around.

The man brings the end of the cigarette to his mouth and takes a deep breath before flicking %?
it away with his right hand. He rises to his full length and looks around while blowing the previously inhaled smoke out through his nostrils. For a moment his gaze stops on an old lady with a walking stick who is sitting on a bench across the street, a bit behind and to the left of where Mark and his mother are hiding. She is sitting under a large cherry tree which has a ton of white flowers growing next to the light green leafs. Suddenly a flower lets go of the branch on which it sits and flutters down, twisting and turning in the light breeze.

Not only the tree but also the ground is almost covered with these small white flowers. Next to the walking stick, made of finely polished oaken wood, that stands leaning toward the bench is a pair of dark brown leather shoes, they seem to be a bit to large for their owner they go high up the old lady’s legs and disappear under a thick woolen dress. A lacing with a black thin string seems to be the only thing holding the boots together, as they look very old. Her dress is check red with strains of green in it. Atop of that she wears a glossy purple coat that reflects the starlight straight into the eyes of the beholder. Around her neck she wears a long silver chain which ends in a strange symbol featuring a five-point star with a red crystal embedded at each end. This all combines to give the old lady a very mystic appearance and when she suddenly looks up and back at the man across the street he is quick to look away. Suddenly restless he steps on the still glowing cigarette which he threw on the ground a moment ago and hurries away in the opposite direction.

As he looks at the descending man, Mark can feel the old lady’s gaze burn his neck and when he turns around their eyes meet for a moment. He freezes and stands as hypnotized by those old wrinkled eyes, he feels an eternity pass when it is, in fact, only a few seconds. At his side his mother is getting up again, brushing the dust and rotten fruits from her dress. The old lady smirks and a sudden urge makes him take half a step toward her. He can see her shake her head almost unnoticeable and then his mother grabs hold of his arm and the spell is broken. His terrified mother drags him across the street to the shop, albeit she is a bit calmer since the man has gone she seems not to have noticed the old lady sitting under the cherry tree. Mark tries to call out to his mother to make her stop but when he turns around again the old lady is gone and all that is left is a shower of white flowers falling from the tree looming over the almost scarily empty bench. He tries to speak but he seems to have forgotten all words. All he can remember is those eyes, green bottomless eyes, and the amulet she carried. The timeless golden star with five deep red stones set into it.

As they enter the store a pungent smell of roasted peanuts rise to welcome them. A clerk is sitting behind the desk reading a magazine about programming called The ArC. One of the headlines on the front page read \textit{Groundbreaking new technology! Get the most out of your storage rooms} and is accompanied by a large picture of a large house transforming into a purple mass and sucked into a small capsule. %?
Other small notices inform the reader that the new upgrade to the Katana computing language, version 1.6180, is out, and that a whole bunch of security threats that can affect \textit{your} home system has been identified and that local authorities are working hard to exile them in order to cease the spread. A world built upon computers and code is an exceptional breeding ground for all kinds of viruses and diseases.

The shelfs behind the man reading the paper are filled with different wares. One entire row is filled with green packets that apparently contains \textit{Bons Baked Beans — now extra crispy.} Below there are a thousand and one different small boxes in a thousand and two different colours, each one containing a different exotic spice, basilica, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, white pepper, black pepper, yellow pepper, curry and even some aperift that had to have been %?must
shipped all the way from Octagon in the south east. A rare spice from far away, and if you don’t know that the price will be happy to tell you.

The man rises from his seat and greets his new customers with a strained smile on a tired face. There also dwells a little bit of expectancy in his drawn face, as if this is the grand event of the week, and he must do everything to make them stay. He looks older than he is, sitting inside this shop in the bad air has made his skin yellowing and his eyes are sunk deep into their sockets. When he speaks he has a very rasp voice,

“How may I be of aid, m’lady?”

This polite question is answered by a suspicious look and a step backwards. But then Mark’s mother pulls herself together, opens her mouth to speak but then closes it again and looks around the store.

“Just the normal Rick.”

The clerk picks up a brown bag and starts laying down different wares in it while chanting for himself,

“One pack of bacons, two packs of milk, one pack of flour, five packs of mixed vegetables, one pack of pork\ldots ”

Meanwhile \textit{m’lady} is rummaging through her bag until she finds a couple of round shaped yellow coins with a stamp on it showing a bullet like car, a mobile, flying through a ring of text reading \textit{The only defense against decay, technology. The only true goal, evolution.} On the other side there is only a big five. The coin is heavy as a small rock and about as large as the ring made when you put your index finger to your thumb, in the shape of a ring. She puts the coins on the counter just as Rick the shopkeeper turns around and begins

“This was all I believe, that’ll be\ldots \ oh.”

He picks up the coins, counts them briefly and puts them in a small box under the desk. Then he hands over the brown bag to the waiting customer on the other side. She takes it and hurries out through the door accompanied by the sound of a small bell that jingles every time the door is opened. Outside the lights are beginning to fade and a damp darkness is beginning to engulf the streets and houses. There are still a few people out but they all seem to be late for something, maybe they don’t like to stay out in the darkness that ensues in just some minutes. Because it gets dark fast, the planet is in a currently in a period where it is turning away from a red star, causing the nights to be very black and very cold. Mark’s mother is very much aware of this and as of such she is very anxious, when she reaches out to grab her son by the shoulder she notices how her entire arm is shaking violently. Frightened she pulls it back and says in a worried tone,

“Come on, we must hurry!”

In the falling darkness they make their way back again. She won’t take the alley shortcut this time, something Mark is grateful for. They round the broken houses and almost run down the street where they live as the night is becoming insistent. When there’s only a few hundred metres they are forced to stop due to the sudden profound darkness. It is so thick that it almost feels unnatural. Mark feels around with his hands in blindness looking for his mother when he is forced to stop due to a dizziness which starts almost unnoticeable at the bottom of his stomach, slowly spreading through his body, making his limbs numb, cold and almost impossible to lift. The weight becomes impossible to uphold and his arms smash into his body with the force of what seems to be several thousands of kilos. Then the world begins to spin before his eyes, everything starts to dissolve and he feels very ill, as if his mind is on the most horrible roller coaster with as many ups and downs as life itself. He looks up at the sky to try and gather himself and is amazed to see the sky’s natural colour black dissolving in what seems to be a deep, deep purple. A purple which seems to live its own life as it twists and turn, creating shapes and dissolving thousand times a second, right above their heads. Dazed he turns as in slow motion, it feels as if his entire body is buried in gel. In the vast distant in front of him he can barely see a shape take form out of the vast fields of black and purple. He tries to focus his eyes but instead of becoming clearer the form dissolves and becomes blurrier. He tries to take a step forward but then suddenly he can see. He blinks several time but the vision remains, next to him he can hear his mother drop the brown bag with groceries as a tall man in a long black coat approaches them in a slow steady pace. A moment ago it felt as if he was as distant as the faintest star on the sky but now suddenly he was just a few metres away. Mark felt as if he could stretch out and touch this figure but his hands and arms are frozen stiff in place. He can’t do anything but stare dumb in front of him as this man, force, vision, whatever it is, comes closer and closer to him and his mother. With watery eyes and a completely blank mind he looks up to the looming figure passing by, barely able to think he is half aware of the slight smile on the mans lips. He tries to turn his head to follow the man but it feels locked in place. Then he feels a rush as if time just sped back to normal again and he falls down on his knees. He tries to focus his mind but all thoughts flow back and forth without waiting as the most rapid flowing water. Looking up he can see his mother standing next to him with a completely blank face. He tries to get up and walk over to her but he falls down again, instead he tries to talk but only manages to stutter a few words,

“What\ldots \ how\ldots \ that?”

His mother flinched and looked at him as if he was some sort of alien. She got up slowly and didn’t answer him until she had stopped swaying back and forth. With a trembling voice she spoke as they made their way back to the house with unsteady steps,

And she would say no more on the subject.

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%Anyone looking suspiciously, according to her, at them would send her scurrying the opposite direction. If they met anyone looking a bit different, it might be someone very tall, or someone who had long striped hair, she would pull him close and whisper in his ear how he should always be careful and avoid such people. He’d never quite figured what was wrong with tall people…
Wise enough he hasn’t really taken his mothers worries seriously and when he walks down the road the cloudy day he doesn’t have a worry in the world.
%more considered her a person who kept garlic in the drawers to ward for vampires. When he come to think about it, his socks does smell strange sometimes…

Suddenly his face lights up and he bursts into a run. Ahead of him is a large tree, its crown is so thick with leaves that it is almost impossible to see through what’s inside it. Further down the trunk though, there’s almost no leaves, and its rough and withered old branches reach for the sky. This tree has stood here, on the edge of Birketwoods, for as long as anyone could remember. Although it is not nearly as old as any of the trees inside the huge forest; Birketwoods\ldots \ Where his mother has strictly forbid him to go, and the single place where he had the most desire to be.

His friends are already there and have gathered under it. They have planned for this day a long time and now it shall finally become reality: a magnificent tree house. Weeks were spent finding a suitable tree, and weeks again finding all the material needed, and then a long time passed until everyone was free to join in for the inauguration.

He yells and waves and they turn around and greet him. There’s Jack and John and Zaih and Peter and Mikael and Emanuel, everyone with their own different personality and treats. Like John who is alert but foolhardy, he is quick to jump on any idea, no matter how dangerous or stupid it is, and most ideas are his own. Or Peter whose meticulousness could bring down even the most superbly cleaned and shining goblet.

Smiling Mark walks up to Jack with his hand risen. Laughing they slap their hands together in a high five.

“Look here, I brought some more wood that we can use if we run out, I found it in our garage and I don’t think dad will need it. I also found ropes, nails and all other sort of useful stuff!”

The boy speaking is Emanuel, he is thin and pale but also quite clever. He’s got dark brown hair and a red sweater. In his hand he holds a hammer that he borrowed from his dads workshop. His dad runs his own shop so they got their own small factory at home where his dad creates all goods. In the facility he can melt metals, work steel and meld together various materials. As a result the boys got almost free access to metal and advanced machinery, as long as no adult is present.

Mark smiles and gives Emanuel a friendly push so that he trips and falls.

“Nice work!”

In the gang hierarchy Mark is the undisputed leader and with an important voice he announces:

“Let the building commence!”

Mark, Mikael and Zaih walk up to the base of the tree while the rest gets all the material from their secret hiding place under a bush further in the grove. The boys look up at the dwindling height, well inside the foliage the tree’s true identity is revealed as thousands of boughs and twigs running around in a network of total chaos and disorder, with a system only the tree itself can understand.

Daunted the other two boys are left gazing up at this sight while Mark grasp one of the ropes lying on the ground and walks round the tree. The first branch is almost two metres above the ground.

“Aight, lets start climbing then.”

He takes off and jumps without difficulty to a twig then swings on to the next one with great precision and agility. If his mother would have seen him now\ldots \ He can imagine her screaming in terror and urging him to come down immediately or he will break his back and never be able to walk again not to mention she would get an heart attack and he would be orphaned and be completely alone without anyone to protect him in this big bad world. Further on he would drop out of school and grow up as an outlaw vandalizing old peoples home and then end up either in prison or as an alcoholic. So if you don’t want to have a miserable life and die early then get down from that tree!

She is an exceptional exaggerator.

In seconds he has climbed to what they had designated to be the best spot to build on. He tightens the rope around a rather thick limb and looks down on his fellows.

“So, what are you still doing on the ground?”

They look up at him in awe as the others come back with some of the wood which will make the foundation of the hut. Mark throws the rope down to them while sitting comfortable three metres above them.

“Here, tie some boards to the rope and I’ll bring them up. Then we’ll have to make some sort of ladder so you all can come up here too.”

He adds a little smirk to the last sentence and the others look at each other briefly before doing as instructed. No one says anything but they all know what the others think. Maybe the undisputed leader is only undisputed by the outer appearance. If you scratch the surface jealousy and hatred runs deep. Thoughts on the like of \emph{if he just wasn’t that strong I’d sure teach him a lesson} and \emph{why does he deserve to lead us?} But as they can’t get up the tree without his help, they don’t have much option right now, but to follow his lead.

Work continues as a sparrow flies graciously above their heads, looking down as sticks are tied to yet another rope and then hauled %?
up by Mark and used as a ladder by the others. With the wind blowing strong under its wings it rises and soars viciously through the hot summer air. From the dark blue sky it looks down upon the minute people working at the tree; hammering, cutting, binding %?
and sawing.

Suddenly a sharp whistle sears through the air, inaudible to the boys on the ground but the sparrow quickly turns its head at the origin of the sound. A second whistle %syn
send her flying down and into the woods.

Meanwhile Peter
is knocking a nail into two boards before it’s going to be carried into the tree and fastened as yet another brick in the wall. Suddenly a knag stops the spike’s progress, the hammer slips and lands hard on the fingers of his left hand, busy holding the board to the ground.

“\ldots bloody!”

He jumps around desperately clinging on to his wounded hand with his other whole hand. From the top of the tree Mark cries down,

“Careful down there, don’t damage the building material.”

Peter sticks two of his left hand fingers, which has now turned into a slightly bluish colour, into his mouth.

“Vewy Fuwwy, haw haw!”

Sulky he sits down in the shadow of a small ash, with crossed arms he leans back and looks up at the birds flying around above them. Around and around they fly, on a light escape from life itself they circle high above the ground where we, the puny ones cursed to walk the earth forever and never feel the rush of wind through their feathers or do loops through the clouds or feel neither the thrill of evading a hawk through a sharp turn nor the glory of being the first one to find that elusive early worm during a misty morning, reside. Caged to the birds as the canary is caged to us. Though, even if all the boys working on the tree house this day are doomed to walk, not all of them are destined to stay in the cage of rules and restrictions.

“Hey Peter, no time for rest now you lazy git!”

The one talking this time is Zaih, who is busy sawing of a branch full of leaves that will serve as roof from one of the nearby trees. The leafs are red and whimper silently as their host and master is torn to bits by a rusty piece of metal; they can nothing but watch as the world as they know it is devastated. The entire tree is shaken from side to side until at last the branch is cut of, and as it falls down toward the ground Peter looks down from the sky with the circling birds breaking the laws of gravity.

“Why? Whawts the poiwnt?” He removes the fingers from his mouth and takes a quick look at them before wiping them off on his jeans, they have reverted back to their normal colour now but the nail on the middle finger is broken straight over. “It’s not like we’re ever gonna finish it anyways.”

“Hey!” Mark shouts down from the tree. As he leans from his branch to complete the sentence a small, almost invisible, bird flies down and seats itself on a small twig just a few metres away from him. Maybe he would have missed it all over hadn’t it been for the glimpse of sunlight that caught his eye, reflected from something in this small birds beak.

“I don’t want to\ldots ”

He changes his vision from the people on the ground and looks up at this small creature now accompanying him. He was correct, there is something in her mouth, something golden. It’s shimmering and blinking %?
so much from the starlight that he has to squint his eyes in order to avoid getting blinded. At the same time a thick black cloud filled with heavy drops of water rises to block out the stars, and Mark can finally get a clear vision of the object in the birds mouth. He gasps in surprise as he looses his footing and slips. The end of his sentence becomes distorted as he falls five metres from the tree, completely absorbed by the small golden medallion in the shape of a star.

“\ldots hear that kind of talk\ldots ”

He falls and as he fumbles for grip in the elusive tree the heaven rumbles as if angered by recent activities. The clouds in the sky gather more tightly and with united forces they manage to completely block out all light from the stars, whose last desperate rays of light are drenched in the heavy downpour that is unleashed. The birds that previously so vigorously flew through the oppressive air are quick to retreat back into the thick of trees further in the forest.

With great force Mark smashes into the ground with his back first, he can feel the searing pain of a rock right under his left shoulder. For a moment his vision goes black and when he looks up again the bird is gone. The heavy rain drops fall on his face like acid and run down his chin where they leave small trails of dirt. As he gets up to his knees the others come running. Slightly shaking he feels with his finger across his body, searching for wounds. When he looks at them again they are red with blood, he is bleeding from a rather large cut in his leg.

“We can’t stay out here, we have to get in. Can you walk?”

Mark gets up on unstable legs and takes a shaky step.

“I’ll be alright\ldots ”

To his right is Emanuel, covering himself with yesterdays newspaper, a barely noticeable smile covers his lips. As if those lips longed for nothing else but to scream out loud: \emph{Haha!}

“Let’s go to my place, it’s closest.”

The group starts moving with Mark limping along slightly behind, his mind elsewhere, with the golden medallion.

As they approach Emanuel’s house Jack announces that he should probably be heading for home now.

“We usually eat dinner at this time, see you later guys.”

And he runs off into the rain, with his head bent to the strong wind. The weather in this region of Mesura has a tendency to change quickly, and a rather warm and sunny summer day has now turned into half storm with hefty rain and red lightnings shooting across the black sky. Trees around them are bent to their breaking-point and miscellaneous trash appears to have come to life and travel seemingly at random near the ground.

“I guess I should be heading for home as well\ldots ” Peter says as he begins walking further down the street, “My parents wouldn’t like me to be out in this weather.”

The rest of the group agrees that they might not be able to continue working on the tree house today and a reunion in the morning might be the best option. So they separate, each going their own way except Emanuel, who already is home, and Mark, who has a lot further to walk than the others and the wound in his leg coupled with the strong winds and whipping rain makes him very eager to stay at Emanuel’s house until at least the worst of the weather has passed. %?
Furthermore it’s not like he’s eager to get home to his mother’s admonitions.

“Yea sure, you can stay.” Emanuel says with a sigh, “But only for a while, my parents will be home soon.”

They enter the house and can finally breath as the strong wind stops tossing them around. The hall is rather large, with hooks to the right for clothes and a large open space to the right with a beautifully woven dark red carped with the pattern of a orchid covering the floor. The tapestry around the room is brown and in line with this style of brown and dark red a similarly coloured sofa is placed next to the door leading into the kitchen. Mark sits down in this couch and rolls up his pants to examine the wound.

“Do you have some alcoholic to clean with?”%?

Emanuel walks past Mark and into the kitchen noting that he will check. Meanwhile Mark examines his leg carefully. A large cut is at the back of his thigh, caused from a sharp stick that lay where he fell. Looking closer he can see that a part of that stick is still in his leg. With his thumb and forefinger %?
he takes a firm grip around it, closes his eyes and with a swift move pulls it out. Gritting his teeth he looks at the nearly two centimeter long object that moments ago was inside him. He looks around the room, unable to find what he’s looking for and still hearing Emanuel out in the kitchen he quickly sticks the stick %haha
under the couch and leans back.

“I couldn’t find any alcohol, sorry.”

Emanuel comes back from the kitchen and looks at him shrugging. At the same time the door opens and two grown up people enter the room, a man and a woman. The woman is wearing a purple coat with a pen sticking up in the front pocket. Her hair is black with a slight tone of grey, a yellow straw hat covers her head and she has a silver chain around her neck. In her hand she holds an umbrella which she shakes slightly to dry it before hanging it on the wall. Next to her the man is about to take of his blue jacket, revealing under it a green sweater that is a little bit to large for its owner. He is shorter than the woman and a musky %?
mustache decorates his otherwise well groomed face.

“Oh, hi mom. Do we have any alcohol? Mark here says he needs it.”

The woman looks up, apparently startled by this unexpected visitor. While eying him down she answers in a cold tone more to Mark than to her son,

“No, we do not have any alcohol for your friend.”

Mark looks from Emanuel’s mother to Emanuel himself, who shrugs again, and back to his mother again.

“It wasn’t\ldots \ I mean, you know\ldots ”

His halting attempt to explain fall on deaf ears and he is faced by two cold sour stares. He sighs and gets up from the couch.

“Maybe I should just leave\ldots ”

The woman lifts her head higher and looks down on him from across the room.

“Maybe you should.”

He half walks and half limps toward the door. When he approaches the man and the woman they step aside as if afraid he might contaminate them with some horrible disease should he come to close to them. Their cold stares haunt him as he opens the door and steps out in the heavy rain, the wind has subdued somewhat so he can stand upright. Closing the door he can hear the mother angrily tell her son,

“If you ever let that terrible boy into our house again I will\ldots ”

He slams the door shut and begins to run. He runs down the street toward the woods, the rain whipping his face and his leg groaning every time it is forced to take off from the ground. There are no birds flying above him now, the black clouds cover the sky making the world damp and grey, and darker it will become; the lights are beginning to fade. His only companion is the steady sound of the rain hitting the black cold concrete under his feet. His clothes are soaked and his untidy hair is glued to his forehead. Thoughts run through his mind faster than the rain hits the ground, \emph{what did I ever do to them?} In his short time alive this is the first time of many many more where he will find out that the life he is living isn’t all that easy. Many more challenges and trials await our young man running through the curtain of rain thinking life can’t get any worse. Speaking on behalf of his own future, he is both wrong and right, in a way; as far as tough times go, it can only get worse, but everything else can only get better. \emph{I want to get away from here!}

So it begins\ldots %It has begun\ldots

At last he arrives at his destination and he can stop running. His leg aches as he looks up to the half finished tree house. The large tree looks hollow to the black sky and the clattering sound of the rain hitting the large leaves add up to create a very ghostly feeling. Suddenly the world is drenched in light and Mark is almost struck to the ground as lightning strikes a tree just a few hundred metres away and the ear-splitting thunder penetrates his mind. He gets up quickly and starts climbing the tree. He is surprised to see that the floor of the house is relatively dry; the foliage above provides exceptional cover from the rain. He sits down leaning to the dank boards that make up the house’s wall and stares into the black space with a vacant look, contemplating on what he might could have done different. He loses track of time as he sits there with an empty expression while fingering on his cuticles. Under him and the wood which he is sitting on hundreds of small creatures are sheltering from heavy rain. Ants crowd with large spiders with hairy legs and complex webs that are either unusable from destruction because of the strong winds or simply because there are no flying bugs foolish enough to be out on a tour in this weather. A caterpillar is climbing the trunk on its way to a suitable branch where it can cocoon in peace. On its way up it pauses to drink some of the rain that has gathered on the leaves. Suddenly a small bird lands next to it and picks it up with her sharp beak. The caterpillar squirms as it is painfully split in two and then slowly eaten by this superior predator. She then tilts her head and looks down on the boy lying on the hard boards half sleeping. Slowly he opens his eyes, looks around puzzled and then shakes his head. It is still dark but the raining has stopped. He then catches sight of the small bird observing him, he gets up slowly and walks over to the branch where she is sitting.

“Hi little fella. What are you doing out a night like this?”

The bird puts her head on her side and looks back, flaps her wings and then takes off into the darkness toward the forest. Without second thought Mark jumps down from the tree and follows her. Walking fast and with great determination he ventures into the pitch black forest where the giant looming trees block out all light from nearby stars. He jumps across slippery rocks, climbs over fallen trees and crosses shallow rivers seemingly random and with no set destination. And in truth he does not have a reason for his actions, but nevertheless he feels compelled to do this. Why he does not know, but it is too late to turn back now. He has no idea where he is and the darkness is closing in upon him. Distant howls sear through the cold night air and apart from the occasional hoot from an owl observing him from a nearby tree that’s all sounds there is. Blind and deaf he continues his voyage deeper and deeper into the unforgiving trees of Birketwoods forest. Once again he loses track of time, it could just as well have passed three days as thirty minutes. For a moment he pauses and leans on his own knees panting. Exhausted, extremely thirsty and hungry, hurt and dirty, he now begins to ponder his decision to follow the bird, which he hasn’t even seen since he left the tree house.

Just as he thinks this however, a tiny shadow flies above him. He looks up and can see the bird fly past a small group of trees before disappearing out of view. Renewed with vigor he forces himself up and starts to run in the direction of the bird. The bird, who as recent as a few hours ago had shown him the medallion which he so much desires. Again for a reason oblivious to him, all he know is that he need that golden star and that he can not rest until it rests securely in his fist.

As he rushes through the undergrowth he thinks he can see a clearing ahead. He undertakes one last effort and forces himself through a thick bush, leaving scratch marks on his chin and bare arms. He was right, there is a clearing here, his run fades into a walk. The trees surround a small circular area, maybe five meters from one end to the other, with a small mouldy stump in the centre. Upon this mouldy stump, surrounded by birds, sits an old lady. When Mark enters the clearing she looks up.

“Ah, we’ve been expecting you. Yes we have. But slightly young he is, don’t you think dear?” She says as if talking to one of the birds who sits on her shoulder.

“I know you\ldots \ I saw you before when\ldots ”

“You \emph{know} me? No no no, there is a huge difference between having \emph{seen} someone once and actually \emph{knowing} them. You know me no more than you know little Margerite here.” She says gently patting the little bird on her shoulder.

“You\ldots ”

“Yes me, me. Yes, yes, yes I have it.” She says while digging inside her pocket, pulling out a small golden star connected to a delicate golden chain. “And we also knows you wants this, no?”

“Yes, may I have it please?” He takes a short step forward, his arm outstretched. In response to this the old woman begins to cackle manically. When she comes to her senses again she puts the golden star back into her pocket and with tears still running down her chin she points at him and says,

“You thought it would be that easy acquiring the Golden Star? Just take a walk in the park, eh? Hah! Why don’t we just start handing out free samples to your average guy in the street? Why, well if we did, it wouldn’t be special anymore would it?”

Mark slowly shakes his head in response.

“Indeed I thought that to be the case, it is the uniqueness you seek is it not?”

Mark silently nods.

“Well then you wouldn’t want it easy now would you? Hah, hah! You’re better off taking this in now, rather than getting disappointed later on: nothing good in life comes easy! And you do not need to worry, it will certainly not be easy if you really are determined to lay your little hands on the Star.”

“I’ll do anything!”

“A bold statement indeed, and rest assured, it will be put to the test, hah! Now, don’t have any illusions you might get \emph{my} Star, it is mine and mine alone! There is only one person who has the power to award a Star to who he finds worthy. It is to him of which you must prove yourself. \emph{The man in black holds what you seek!}”

Mark swallows hard and he can feel the sweat running down his forehead. Yet he keeps his eyes fixed upon the woman and refuses to look down to her intense and powerful stare. Suddenly a loud noise breaks the silence, a sound as if branches breaking. %?
Mark looks over to the origin of the sound, the other end of the clearing, all his senses alert. The old woman looks amused and says gaily,

“I know you always considered your mother paranoid. But maybe you should’ve listened to her advise about staying \emph{out} of the forest\ldots \ Hah!”

A small creature enters the clearing, it’s about half a metre high %?
and has a large bone shield covering its head. Tusks sprout from under the shield and its legs are supported by hooves. Its tail with the tusk of hair on the end swings wearily from one end to the other and it snorts angrily as it sets its eyes on Mark who takes a reassuring step back. He glances back at the woman and is startled to see the stump empty. At the same time the rinakon charges at him. He does not have extensive knowledge about this specimen but he knows enough to realize it is best to run; he does not want to get hit either by the hard face shield nor by the sharp tusks. And run he does, and with the angry snorts of the rinakon following him right behind he got no time to catch his breath or pause to look for the way. He stumbles and falls but forces himself up again and starts running again. Miraculously and seemingly luckily he manages to burst out of the forest only a few hundred metres from where he entered it two hours ago. Almost instantly he falls on the ground breathing heavily but still manages to release a sigh of relief.

What is it with people thinking that as soon as you get out of the scary forest or spooky house the nightmare is over? Sure enough, some twenty seconds later the rinakon finds its way out of the forest at the exact same spot following nothing but the scent. Alarmed Mark quickly gets up from the ground and prepares to run again. But just as he is about to take off a sharp pain runs through his hurt leg and he falls to his knees. Meanwhile the rinakon has begun charging him again. Mark narrows his eyes and as the rinakon is only a few metres away from him he roll to side, dodging the sharp tusks by only a few inches. He manages to get to his feet before the rinakon charges again. This time however, Mark has a plan. As the beast comes charging again he musters all strength he has left and grabs the rinakon’s shield. He has but a hundred of a second to get a secure grip, and when he has it he leans back and to the left and with all the force in his body he manages to throw the rinakon through the air using nothing but its own brute force. He wastes no time celebrating this phantom victory since he knows the rinakon will be up and running in seconds, seeking revenge. Instead he takes off immediately and runs, this time with no detours, straight home. His thoughts however, take everything but a straight route from here, total chaos dominate as he decides on what to do next\ldots

\section*{
\begin{center}
4
\end{center}
}

“I don’t want things to change.”

Barely a day has passed since Marks meeting with the old lady. He has gotten little sleep, tossing and turning through the night, and thoughts are still rushing through his mind.

“But still I don’t want them to remain the same\ldots ”

He paces back and fourth through his room, Jack sitting quietly on the bed observing his unresting friend.

“I realize change is inevitable, but I fear what might be coming next.”

He stops for a moment, his fingers travel briefly to the bandage on his arm. It would be a grave understatement to say his mother wasn’t happy about the condition in which he returned late last night. He didn’t think she would ever leave him alone, going on and on about how worried she had been, and \emph{oh god you’re bleeding!} His bruises are still itching slightly from the disinfections. %?

“I have this feeling\ldots \ that nothing will be the same. And I shiver when I think about it.”

Slowly he turns around, facing his companion. His eyes flashing brightly for a moment before he blinks.

“I’m scared Jack, %of that which is about to happen,
and I don’t want to be.”

Jack meet his eyes for a moment, then shrugs and jumps down from the bed.

“I think you are overreacting. Things don’t just change drastically that easily y’no?”

They exit the room and set their course for the kitchen. %?

“I mean, just look at all the people saying how the world will practically end over every minor change, but still the world goes on. And so will yours, ours, everyones.”

He turns to look at Mark who returns his glance, still looking somewhat skeptical. Jack smiles at his reluctance to accept this truth, as they continue their walk through the not so big house.

Mark looks at him and smiles, maybe for the first time today, and maybe for the last time in a very long time. For even if it takes a minor miracle to impose major change on an individual, miracles \emph{do} happen.

“\ldots and don’t dare to leave out any details about your fight with that creature!”

Laughing they enter the kitchen, where Mark pours the last of the fridges milk in two glasses. Lost in the story of the nights adventure they sit at the table, talking. Outside, high up in the air, constant electric discharges cast a bright but hollow light on the land below, creating an artificial day. Outside kids are running around on the streets and patches of grass, playing and having fun, enjoying the scarce light. It has been fore casted to last another two days.

Suddenly Mark’s mom enters the kitchen, and very quickly goes on a ramble about how they shouldn’t have taken the last milk.

“I was going to make pancakes and now I can’t anymore. You both like pancakes right?”

They nod silently, not knowing whether to feel guilty or express gratitude. An odd feeling spreads across the room.

“Well it’s okay, I can go buy some more. Is there anything else you want from the store?”

They glance at each other and then shake their heads.

“Oh well\ldots ”

She sighs barely noticeable and turns to leave but stops in the door. She returns and kneels before Mark, hugging him. Aghast at this sudden intrusion he struggles hard and utters cries of indignation. She lets him go and sighs deeply, a tear in the corner of her eye. Mark looks at her with part skepticism, %?
part despair as she strokes his hair back.

“I may have overreacted in the past, but if I did it was only because I cared, and because I wanted to protect you. And I\ldots \ I just\ldots \ I love you more than anything in this world my child, and I don’t know what I would do without you. You must never forget that.” %I hope you will remember that.”

Overcome by her emotions she gets up and hastily makes her way toward the door. The odd, slightly creepy atmosphere lingers long after she has gone, and they can’t quite seem to get back to where they were in the conversation.

They sit in the awkward silence watching a bug creep over the table, finding small pieces of food and eating them hungrily. A cool breeze flow through the room as the bug spreads it wings and makes its way out through the open window, the leaves of the tree loaming over the house rustle gently. Small drops of water still remaining from the recent rain glisten in the grass. Birds chirp and dogs bark, the constant buzzing of a neighbour cutting his grass. It all slowly fades away. The boys in the kitchen of the small white house on the outskirts of don’t notice it, but they are soon cut off from all background noise. They are left accompanied only by the sound of their own breathing, slow and monotone. A vague shroud slowly falls upon the world, barely noticeable light seems to become scarce. The kitchen lamp flickers and fights to keep the darkness away. Mesmerized by the hands of the hallway clock the two boys lose track of time, unaware of how long they’ve been sitting by the table they are suddenly and abruptly jolted awake by a loud knock on the door. Startled they shake their heads puzzled and stare at each other. The sound of the knock echoes through the room, through the house, through the universe and their entire existence. They sit alone with the loudness of an entire world raging around them, and then there is silence, absolute and complete silence. They dare not move, they dare not breathe, the darkness outside is now almost complete and not a single chirp from one of the thousands of birds in the sky outside can be heard.

As the silence reaches its climax, the lack of sound beating down on their ears, they start to wonder if it was all nothing but an illusion. Then a second loud bang rings through the house shattering the very shadow of doubt: there is someone at the door.

Trembling slightly the two boys get up form the table and make their way toward the door. The sound of the recent knock dying away, leaving them wantering in silence. At last they reach the door, feeling as if they’ve traveled for the greater part of a lifetime. They stand at the base of the suddenly giant door, gazing at the handle hanging elusively high up in the air. The profound silence and looming darkness engulf them as Mark reaches out to open the door.

He grabs the handle and jerks it downward, the door slowly glides open. A cloud of dark-purple smoke whirl through the opening door. As it spreads throughout the room, damping the light further, a dark gestalt is revealed, standing in the midst of the smoke. They stand gaping at the grand figure towering before them, unable to talk, unable to move. Finally the man standing in the door begins to speak.

“Hello Mark, my name is Nicol. We’ve met once before and I believe you are aware of who I am.”

The spell starts to loosen and Mark begins to stutter haplessly, trying his best to give an coherent answer.

“Y\ldots you\ldots \ you are my father?”

The smoke shifts slightly throughout the room.

“Yes indeed I am, and i have come here because it is time for you to make a choice.”

Mark swallows hard, unable to look away from the eyes of the man dressed entirely in black.

“You must choose whether you want to stay here with your mother, or come with me.”

Jack shifts his glance wearily from Nicol to Mark, who has a determined look on his face.

“I want to come with you!”

A faint smile can he hinted through the shroud of darkness.

“Good. Very good. You must of course prove your worthiness. Your friend there\ldots ”

He looks at Jack who shifts wearily from one foot to the other. Nicol then switches his glance to an intense stare aimed directly at Mark.

“Hit him!”

Mark turns to his friend, who looks back at him with big eyes, then back to the cold black eyes commanding him to break the trust of a friend. If he for but a moment believed the trial to be a joke, that belief was now thoroughly shattered by the intense stare he was facing. Those black eyes tell him that this is for real, this is serious, and this is his one and only chance.

He turns around for the last time and launches his fist through the air with great force, landing it in the center of his soon to be former comrades face. He can feel the blood gushing over his hands as Jack falls to the ground, his nose broken, pointing in a unnatural direction. He attempts to break the fall with his left hand while his right rushes to his face in a weak attempt to halt the blood now running in deep strides down his face and neck, soaking his clothes. With a scared look on his face he watches as Mark walks out through the door with his father. They cross the now brightly lit lawn, the darkness rid from the land, gone as fast as it had appeared. Only the tall mysterious man is still shrouded in a lingering mantle of darkness. They walk up to the road and get inside the mobile parked there. They take of, flying off to some unknown place, never to be seen again by any of Marks former friends nor his mother. He doesn’t look back once.

\chapter*{Initiation}
\section*{
\begin{center}
1
\end{center}
}
He had flown in a mobile before, but never anything quite like this. His mom owned one which she had inherited from her father. It had been with them for as long as Mark could remember, and it had been with his grandfather for as long as his mother could remember. To put it shortly it wasn’t exactly new, and this mobile he was flying now is, although he doesn’t know it, at the very top of the ladder. Special made stable prototype unavailable to anyone but the very privileged. He knew his father was privileged, but he had no idea of just how powerful of a person he was sitting next to.

Nicol had no problem acquiring the latest model, since he designed them himself. He had almost full control over the market and could thusly decide who gets what in terms of technological advancement, always keeping himself and his peers far ahead of any potential enemy.

Mark is amazed by the hundreds of buttons and screens displaying various facts and information. To say he doesn’t understand half of it would be a gross underestimate.

When he looks out the window for the first time since the trip started any kind of familiar view is long since gone. They are flying across a plain of rocks and orange sand. He soon returns to a green monitor displaying the vehicle, its status and how it is reacting to the wind condition as well as the temperature of the hull, the surrounding air, the temperature five hundred metres above them and at the ground.

They travel across desolate plains for hours on end before the occasional house is visible below them. Soon great fields lush with life stretch out below them. Crops soon ready to be harvested, trees ripe with fruits. Certainly a drastic change from the cold infertile landscape they had just passed.

Up to now they had traveled in silence. Mark had barely dared to look at his father. Uncertain of what to come he now glances to his left at the man sitting next to him. He is leaning back, relaxed and in full control. Barely concentrating as he takes in every bit of information thrown at him. He doesn’t even break a sweat, and pulled from the context one would think he was lying on the beach on a sunny day, not steering a shuttle traveling in several thousand kilometers per hour.

As he notices his son looking at him he turns, meeting the glance. They look at each other for a few brief moments as the surroundings flash past the windows in a blurry mass. For the first time since they left the ground Mark breaks the silence.

“Where are we going?”

“Nowhere you have ever been. There is nothing you need to know about this place except that it will be your home for a long time to come. If you just do as I say you have nothing to worry about.”

Mark turns his head back to the horizon. He can see mountains far away.

“But, where are we going?”

A smile can be hinted behind the curtain of darkness

“The Capital.”

Nicol looks satisfied with his sons questions as they continue on in silence. Mark looks down at the ground and watches as the occasional house soon multiplies into packs of houses lined up after each other. The packs turn into throngs and soon the whole ground is littered with houses, from the blurry outline of whatever is behind them to the mountains at the horizon all he can see is houses.

Wondering about what people might live down there he is soon lost again in his own thoughts. Just a few hours ago he could have been one of the people he was now looking down at. Ordinary and boring, to small to even see from up here. He didn’t know where he was going, and he didn’t know his father or his powers. But he did know that whatever it was he was about to experience, wherever it was he was going, it would \emph{not} be boring. For the first time of his life he felt a sense of purpose, like what he did would matter. A feeling he couldn’t explain, and didn’t bother to try. He just enjoys the ride, sitting beside his father in silence, enjoying the last peace and quiet he will have in a very long time.

Soon the houses turn into apartment complexes and as the buildings grow in size so does the traffic. While they had had %?
the air mostly to themselves up to this point, they now passed several mobiles flying in their direction toward this mythical Capital, or flying toward them, maybe having just visited this grand city. Maybe on the way home from a vacation, a business trip, an important meeting or maybe delivering a cargo full of electronic equipment.

Mobiles continuously dock and take off from the various buildings below them. The ground is no longer visible from the myriad of constructions growing and growing as they get closer and closer to their goal. And suddenly Mark finds himself in the middle of one of the largest city on the entire planet. A daunting sight when you’ve only ever lived in a small rural town. Huge buildings stretch several kilometres above the ground. Flying above them Mark looks down the gaping chasm between two shiny metal buildings. He can’t see far down as his vision is blocked not only by clouds but also by hundreds and hundreds of mobiles racing in different directions.

Every here and there a greater and bigger construction towers itself above the others, reaching high into the air, looking down at its pathetic neighbours. Quickly they approach one of these larger buildings, a huge dome sticking up above the surroundings. As their mobile closes in a gate opens at the south side of the dome. As they get closer Mark can see turrets lined up around the gate and numerous defense systems are present on the walls inside. As they enter the gate a ray scans their vehicle. The procedure takes but a short second, and as soon as it is done they are allowed to dock. The gate behind them has already closed and they are now bathing in artificial light from the ceiling.

Nicol gets out of the mobile and motions for Mark to do the same. They are in a large room with several docking spaces. They are completely alone. The echo of their steps travel through the room as they approach one of the many doors.

Through the door they pass a short corridor before entering a high speed elevator. The chamber is huge and could easily fit twenty people. As soon as they are both inside the doors close and the elevator starts moving. It is completely silent and Mark is unable to deduce whether it is moving up or down.

They stand in silence. There is nothing much to look at in this room. The walls are shiny and sterile, no ornaments or decorations, no paintings on the walls, no mirrors. No buttons either and Mark, unfamiliar with modern technology, wonder for a moment how the elevator knew when to start and where to go. He is just about to ask when the lift comes to a sudden halt. The doors open and Mark looks curiously as a new room is revealed, one that would be best described as a hallway.

To the right there is an inconspicuous looking door, much like the ones they passed on the way to the elevator. Straight ahead there is a large steel door, its presence dominates the room. To the left there are several different hangers. %?
Some of them occupied with stuff but most of them empty. There are a few black coats, a hat that doesn’t seem to have been used for a while, two pairs of boots as well as some other minor garments. As he approaches Mark notices something which he recognizes. On a few of the hangers there are what seems to be ordinary belts. He had passed them of as insignificant but as he gets a closer look he can see small round buttons, about the size of a coin, attached to the cloth at regular intervals. He has seen one of these before. He doesn’t place it at first but then he slowly remembers. His mother’s old mobile, it was stored in one of those. Not exactly like them, but there was a striking similarity. He remembered his mother being overly protective about it, saying it was very, very expensive. He had seen it only briefly maybe one or two times. On the rare occasion they had to use the mobile to go somewhere. She would place it on the hull and then the mobile would be slowly, well, sucked in. For lack of a better word.

He had never quite understood how it worked, and he had never really wondered either, he just took it as a fact of life, like the clear starry sky and the constant night if you weren’t in a town or city. All he knew was that inside that small button, you could store a huge vehicle. And here there was twenty, maybe thirty of those buttons. Each probably a thousand times more advanced than the one his mother had.

Nicol takes off his jacket and hangs it one of the empty hangers. %?
He then starts walking toward the grand reinforced door straight ahead. There doesn’t appear to be a lock on it, yet Mark knows that if he tried, he would never get it open. But when Nicol gives it a gentle push it glides open, completely silent and with no resistance, revealing a large tastefully decorated room. Nicol motions for him to follow.

The room is even bigger than he first thought, as he enters he notices there is a soft rug covering the floor. In the middle of the room there is what appears to be a dinner table. Near the ceiling there is a window bathing the room in soft artificial light.
This is the first room he’s seen so far which has been even remotely möblerat. There are even paintings on the wall and an expensive looking vase on a pedestal in the corner. So different from the sterile look of the rest of the building. For the first time in hours the silence is broken, this time by Nicol, who slår ut his hands in a introducing gesture.

There’s a prominent feeling of closure in his voice. As if this is it, the finale, the great ending of an era, and at the same time the beginning of something new. A journey to be begun, started and finished in this very room. Mark looks slowly around the room before having his look fixated back on Nicol as he continues speaking.

“Now, strip off all of your clothes.”

It’s that same finalizing voice and Mark doesn’t need to ask to know the request is serious. Without second thought he begins removing his clothes, down to the bare skin.
Stark naked he stands before his new master. Subject to a gaze so intense it feels as if it pierces his very flesh, looking back into them dark eyes, unable to look away. Nothing could shield him from standing naked in front of the great figure now looking down at him. He watches silently as Nicol gathers his clothes and puts them in a metal bowl. When every last bit, every last scrap of his former possessions are secured inside the bowl Nicol takes out a small shiny ball, giving it a small tug before dropping it in the bowl. Soon red hot flames erupt, scaring the metal rim, turning his clothes into ashes. Mark watches emotionless as the last remnants of his past life rise to the ceiling in a pillar of smoke.

He is then led, still naked, through a door at the other end of the room, leading into a shower. The moment he enters the booth ice cold water pour over him, piercing his body, washing away the very dust of his hometown. He shivers as he steps out from the shower, Nicol is not there anymore but in his place there is a towel and some clothes left on a chair.

The clothes feel rasp against his skin, as if made from crude goat hair. They are plain and dull, an ugly shade of grey, but although ugly and uncomfortable they fit nicely.

Having dressed completely he looks around the room. The white walls are empty and the floor is perfectly clean. As far as he can tell this was the first time someone even used this shower. Shivering slightly he wonders for a moment whether to wait here for Nicol to return or to go out and try and find him. A couple minutes pass, the whole building is silent apart from the occasional ball of water released from his humid hair. The echo when the drop of water hits the floor resonances throughout the room. Unnerved by this eerie silence Mark soon decides he doesn’t feel like waiting around.
He walks up to the door and tries the handle, it is unlocked.

As he returns to the previous room he was in, the dining room, the first thing he notices is that the table is made. It had been empty when he went to shower. He walks up to the table, eyeballing the cutlery before taking pulling out beautifully carved cedar chair. He sits with his hands tightly in his lap, afraid to touch anything. The silence still haunting him.

He doesn’t need to wait long this time though, almost instantly Nicol enters the room with a big metal bowl. Fumes rise from the open pot and a faint odour spreads throughout the room.

After he has dressed they eat, sitting at the dining table his head filled with questions, yet they talk very little. After food he is lead to what will become his new room. A small cell with space for little more than a bed, an empty bookshelf and a doorless toilet in the corner. The door is shut behind him and he is left to his thoughts in the damp room. His eyes quickly adjust to the darkness as he lies in his bed pondering. The coarse underwear feels rasp to his body as he lies uncomfortably waiting and thinking as the minutes turn to hours, unable to tell just as to when his thoughts turn to dreams.

\section*{
\begin{center}
2
\end{center}
}
\emph{How could you leave me?}

He is jolted awake from his dreams by a sudden loud banking sound from the door.

\emph{What door?}

Slowly the contents of the previous day returns to him. His head spinning he sits up in the bed and looks at the rusty metal door that marks the only entry, and exit, to his room. There is no handle on this side of the door. With gravel in his eyes he drags himself to the toilet standing freely against the wall, wondering just how long he was allowed to sleep. He barely has time to finish before another loud bang follows and the large door is swung open outwards. The sudden sharp light from the outside blinds him and for a moment all he can see is the blurry outline of a man at the entrance.

\emph{Nicol.}

The outline disappears and he knows he has to follow. With weary steps and eyes not yet adjusted to the bright light he stumbles out of his dark room and into the well lit hallway. To the right a little down a door is open, as he enters he recognizes it as the dining room he was in the previous day.

\emph{Because it was the previous day\ldots \ Right?}

There is a single plate of food on the table and Nicol is nowhere to be found. Somewhat awkwardly he sits down all by himself at the huge table and begins to eat what seems to be a pudding of some sort. It doesn’t taste bad but not really good either, it’s unlike anything he has ever had before in its neutral nothing-taste. He is quite hungry though so it disappears rather quickly. There is no time to settle down though, as he barely has time to put the spoon down before the door behind him opens again.

“Come, and don’t forget the dishes.”

Mark gathers up his eating utensils and hurries over, holding them questioningly in front of himself.

“Put it over there.”

Mark follows Nicols’ point to an alcove in the far end of the room which he hadn’t seen before, strange he thought, as now he had seen it he couldn’t understand how he ever could have missed it. He quickly realizes that he should put the plate on a small tray, and as he does so the plate soundlessly disappear on a tract into the wall. He also notices several strange machines in the alcove but thinks nothing further of them as he walks back to the now empty doorway. He steps back out into the hallway and sees that a new door a little further down past his own room has now opened. Cautiously he approaches and looks inside. It is a large and completely empty room, in the middle Nicol stands, quietly observing him.

“Welcome, please enter the training room.”

Mark steps into the room and looks around, there really isn’t much to see. As he walks closer he ponders what sort of training could be done in here. He doesn’t need to wonder for too long however\ldots

“Todays lesson is: running and perseverance!”

Mark turns his head, going over the room one more time.

“Where do I run?”

“Anywhere you like.”

He shrugs slightly and shift his footing.

“How long do I run?”

“You run until you can’t possibly run any more. Then, and only then will this door open again.”

Turning to the door, not quite taken in what was just said he is about to ask something else but Nicol is already standing in the doorway, wishing him good luck with a slight nod before closing the door. Mark looks around the room one last time and then start running alongside the walls\ldots

\section*{
\begin{center}
3
\end{center}
}

Exhausted, the sweat trickling down his face. He remembers nothing but running, his entire world is built upon this next step, and he has to use all his might to muster up the strength for it. A sharp pain in his side reminds itself of every step, triumphed only by the aching in his legs. His kneecaps feel like they are going to explode, his mouth is dry and he feels faint and light-headed. Regardless he must go on, as he is still physically capable of taking yet another step, and he knows that as long as he is still able to do so, there is no way that door will open. So he presses on, lifting his legs in agony yet again and again, one step at a time, passing the white and never changing wall for what feels like the millionth time. The extraordinary blankness of the whole room echoes in his mind, the life he once had completely gone and the future irrelevant. Everything important lies within the borders of four white walls, within this exact moment, within taking but one more step without crashing to the ground. His eyes are open but he doesn’t see, he knows where to run without thinking, with a pace that is slow but constant. He no longer perceives the world or the room, nothing exists anymore except the numbing pain of his body, never questioning or even wondering what gives him the power to go on and on and on\ldots

The white swirls around, faster and faster as a deafening soundless noise slowly fills the room,

\emph{the world, my life}

\emph{united}

through meaning and

\emph{a senseless pride}

chaos!

\ldots

The world stop its twisting and suddenly there is only darkness. No more agony or despair, a release from nothing into the calming emptiness. He does not know the darkness, he knows only the absence of white. Suddenly grass, he knows that feeling, in the midst of the black emptiness he has found this small wonderful plant. He is absolutely certain he is lying on a large field, a warm breeze gushing past him, over him, into him. There is still only darkness though, he tries to touch his face but finds it impossible to move. Suddenly the warm breeze turns chill, lack of anything turns to pain and an unending clasping cold. He can hear a quiet sobbing in the distance as the comforting grass passes into concrete floor. He opens his eyes carefully and the sound of crying slowly dies. His vision fades and he finds himself looking at whiteness again. Inspecting closer he realizes it is not only whiteness, but in fact a white ceiling; and searching further he finds white walls, four of them. He gradually becomes aware of where he is, and subsequently questions where he was. The memory of the dream dissipates quickly however, and soon he finds himself only questioning the obscene aching of all his different limbs and the metallic taste in his mouth.

Slowly he comes too, fully understanding where he is. The origin of the pain becomes obvious as he fights to get up on his elbows. This small effort sends the world into turmoil again, spinning around him, making his already faint self dizzy and nauseous. In a final struggle with his body he leans over to the left and throws up violently before falling back on the floor. He closes his eyes and his body shuts off instantly, sending him into a heavy sleep.

When he wakes up again he feels somewhat rested, but insatiably hungry. He sits up without any considerable difficulty, even though most of his body still hurts it isn’t quite as pacifying as it was before he fell asleep, however long ago that was. As he sits up he suddenly remembers, and with a jolt he turn his head toward the door with half his mind bent on success and the other half braced for the agonizing failure of a still closed and locked door. The door is open. He relaxes and releases the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. Driven by the hunger he gets up and makes his way toward the door. %and thirsty

He looks up and down the corridor connecting the many rooms before making his way to the kitchen. On his right he passes the closed door to his own room before opening the door to the left that leads to the familiar dining room. Grateful the door wasn’t locked he looks around, always when he has eaten here before the food was already served, but where is the food stored? He makes his way to the small cooking alcove at the far end of the room.

\emph{Bigger than small, actually.}

There are a lot more drawers and closets here than he could remember, none of them numbered or marked in any way. He runs up and down the aisle searching and slamming doors when they reveal unsatisfying content; spoons, forks, bowls, knives, plates and a number of unidentifiable objects but nothing fucking edible. The hunger gnaws at his intestines as he angrily turns around in frustration and suddenly finds himself facing a big yellow door right next to the machine where he put his dishes in ancient times past, earlier today.

\emph{How could I have missed it?}

With eager anticipation not unlike that of a five year old opening the door to a candy store he pulls the handle. As the obstruction swings open a wind of cold air brushes over his face, watering his eyes so that for a moment the contents of the fridge is reduced to nothing but blurry outlines. Soon though it becomes clear that what he has opened is in fact the door to heaven as plate upon plate filled with not just edible items but all kinds of tasty looking food materialize in front of him as the water in his eyes subsides. Not for long however, as tears of happiness soon stream down his face.

“They are marked for specific days, so don’t eat them all at once.”

Startled he jumps around to find Nicol observing him from the doorway. Looking back at the food he can now see small notes attached to each plate displaying different numbers. He looks back at Nicol, wondering.

“What day is it today?”

“The first day of your new life.”

Facing the fridge again he quickly localize a shiny one connected to a dish consisting of what seems to be some kind of green mush. He ejects the plate and makes his way toward the table. Nicol is gone again. As he sits down he realizes he forgot to bring a fork. Seeing as he is alone again he ignores this and dives into the mush with his bare hands. It tastes oh so good and for a moment all his troubles are naught.

\section*{
\begin{center}
4
\end{center}
}

Slowly he makes his way back to his room, gently swaying from one side to the other. Tired, dizzy and his whole body hurting with each and every step, but not hungry anymore, at least. And although he is still in pain, it is a good pain, a pain of accomplishment rather than the hopeless uncertainty that has stained the last hours (days), the knowledge that he will now be able to rest is all he need to anchor himself to a world in turmoil and uproar. The pain will end, all I need is to sleep, and it will all go away in time. Fortified by this thought he inches closer to the black metal door marking the entrance to his room.

Upon entering his room he immediately notices the book standing lonely in his previously empty bookshelf. And it had been empty, he was sure of that. Cautiosly he walks up to it and pulls it out. It is bound with black leather but there is no title or any text whatsoever on the outside. Curiously he opens it, inside is a pen and nothing but blank papers. He picks the pen up clicks out the point, revealing black ink as its contents. Curiously banging the pen against his upper lip for a moment while observing the blank pages he then begins to write\ldots
\\

\begin{it}
Day 1

I am so confused, but even though I wonder about everything I have no questions that could possibly be aired. And even if they could, who would answer them? Today, and I’m only guessing that but one day has passed, has changed everything, put everything I once knew behind me and left only a great black hole of uncertainty right in front of me. It seems as if I am balancing along the edge of this great pit, and one fatal misstep will send me tumbling down into\ldots \ nothing.

There’s something from the past that keeps nagging me, but as I grasp for it something seems to push it further away, out of my reach. I feel that this is what I have to do, destiny if you like to put it that way, but at the same time I feel like I don’t belong at all. For having been here such a short while it feels like I’ve been here far longer that I should feel.

Everything is new and strange and alien, yet it feels familiar in a strange way. With this metal door and cramped space with the free hanging toilet this is more a cell than it is a room, a prison rather than home. And yet it feels warm and cozy, like I’ve lived here all my life, in this tiny undecorated room I feel at home. How can this be?

It seems as though I managed to vocalize one of my questions, but as previously mentioned, who would answer it? No one could even know the answer. Except maybe me, buried deep inside somewhere.

Disregarding the mental confusion this was still the most physically craving day of my life, and I honestly thought I wouldn’t live to see the black sky again. A big part of that giant black hole around which I am sidestepping is that I have no idea if this was the great initiation test or just the warm up for something much much worse. I take solitude in the fact that there hardly could be anything that exhausting, and therefore, hopefully, this should have been the former of the previous two alternatives. But who knows? Time will tell I am sure, and I must say I feel prouder than I ever have being done with that challenge.

Now however, I must sleep. I can barely even hold the pen straight.
\end{it}
\\

He throws the book back where it lay in the bookshelf and buries himself beneath the clothing of the bed, quickly falling into a deep and dreamless sleep.

\section*{
\begin{center}
5
\end{center}
}
\emph{Where are you?? Why have you left me??}

He slowly wakes up to the quickly fading sound of crying. Confused, his body still tense and aching from the previous days activities he lies in the bed, not wanting to get up just yet. Yet something urges him on, he quickly becomes restless doing nothing but waiting and resting. He pushes his body out of the comfortable bed, uses the toilet and dresses himself. Before opening the door and going to the kitchen he sits down at the desk for a moment, the chair is an uncomfortable wooden stick construction. Slowly he looks over the room, the untidy bed, the toilet, the window above the toilet letting in just enough light so that you could read what you write if you squint real hard (he knew this from experience), the almost completely empty bookshelf and finally, the desk at which he was sitting. He marveled for a moment at the complete unecessity of putting such a large unfilled bookshelf in such a cramped space before relieving it of its only tiny occupant. Placing the book on the desk in front of him he opened the first few pages and reread what he had written the day before. He finds some of his phrasing inadequate and thinks for a moment about making changes, but decides against it, letting it stay in its original way to better reflect his thoughts at that moment. Not to mention he doesn’t have an eraser.

Restless again he puts the book back in the shelf, shifts uncomfortably in the chair for a moment before getting up again. Apparently a new day has begun, and with no idea what to come he is not sure he is ready. He isn’t even sure it actually \emph{has} begun. After all, the previous morning started with a crash and bang, and barely enough time to get dressed. Now it seems he has all the time in the world, the food in the kitchen will always be there, the strange empty white room will be waiting for him an eternity, never withering, never giving up. Maybe this is what is making him restless? Knowing that you can’t outlast your opponent only makes you want to get the fight over quickly. Nothing but misery can come from dragging things out. He walks over to the metal door and puts a hand on the cold lever.

\emph{But}\ldots \ what if this is actually in the middle of the night, maybe nothing but emptiness and locked doors will be awaiting him out there. Maybe he has only sleps a few hours and ought to go to bed again, or maybe he slept too many and has now missed todays opportunity to clear yet another challenge, whatever it may be; mindless running or cooking lessons. Then again, the only way to find out\ldots \ His grip tightens around the handle to the door.

\emph{Wait a minute! Handle? To the door?}

His hand recoils, as if it had touched a phantom.

\emph{There was no handle here before, was there?}

He reaches out again, caressing the lever from one shiny end to the other, as if reassuring himself that it is actually there. His room is no longer a prison but just that, a room. Barring one detail\ldots \ He pushes the handle down, the door creaks and glides open. Yes indeed, it appears he is free to come and go as he sees fit, major improvement over yesterdays conditions. But then again maybe he had just missed it in the confusion of arrival, so much new he couldn’t possibly be expected to remember tiny details like door handles.

He steps out in to the dimly lit corridor. He looks up and down the narrow lane, nothing new here only the same row of doors upon doors. Most probably locked, and even if they aren’t he doesn’t want to risk getting lost exploring, or even worse, break a rule of some kind. Instead he heads for the familiar door he has used a few times already, leading to the kitchen. At first it is completely dark, but as he enters the light slowly comes on, increasing in strength gradually until the room is fully lit and shadows no longer haunt the corners.

He makes his way to the fridge and opens its door. He scans the tills and soon localize two plates marked with a deuce. Both are overly filled with food. He isn’t remarkably hungry but figures it would be best to fill up now as he doesn’t know when he will next get the opportunity to eat. He puts one of the plates on the bench next to the sink and then pours himself a glass of water before seating himself at the table.

The moment he is finished and has put the dishes away he turns around to find Nicol standing in the doorway, no time to even begin wondering what he is supposed to do next. He walks up to his father and is greeted with nothing but a cryptic “Follow me.”

He is led to the same room he was in the previous day, but as Nicol opens the door and welcomes him inside he notices one quite big difference: today, the floor is filled with rocks. Rocks of all different shapes and sizes spread out all over\ldots \ No strike that, upon further inspection he realizes they are only on one side of the room, the side closest to the door, and him. He looks questionably up at his father.

“Your job today,” he begins, with a deliberate pause for emphasis and suspension, “is to move all rocks on this side of the room to the other side of the room.”

With those final words he closes the door, and Mark is left alone with but he company of hundreds, maybe thousands, of rocks.

Not really bewildered at this task, the previous one was arguably more pointless,’ he carries on without really questioning any reasons for why he needs to do it. He just knows he has to, and that makes everything a whole lot easier.

Before bolting frantically at the rocks to get them to the other side he takes a moment surveying the scene, walking from one side to the other, inspecting the rocks and deciding on a good method of approach. Some of the rocks are remarkably larger and should perhaps more appropriately be named boulders, so as not to patronize their height, in this society who knows who might be offended. He quickly realizes that clearing the smaller pebbles first would be wise, so they aren’t in the way later when the larger ones are to be dealt with, or cause a sudden stumble with a medium sized brother in his arms. That could turn ugly, he tells himself while throwing the smaller stones over to the other side, going systematically up and down and then further right once he has cleared a row of its smallest components.

This does not tire him especially, and although he knows it will become much harder he is content now focusing only on the next stone to be picked up, weighed in his hand and then finally hurled through the air. The sound of its crash against the opposing wall or floor, or both, accompanying him as he scans for a new decently sized object to disperse of.

The sound of the rocks smashing the walls is a curious one. Mark first only registers it subconsciously but before long is giving it deliberate thought as the search and dispatch of rocks has become fairly automatic. The sound has a kind of metallic clang to it, but still not. It is muffled in some strange way, almost as if heard from underwater, quite unlike anything he has previously heard.

As he is finished with the smaller ones, listening carefully with each throw, he starts over again at the bottom row and picks up a decently sized rock that seems and feels as if it would weigh a couple of kilos. Too heavy to easily throw to the other side of the room anyways, and he finds it more energy efficient to carry it.

Having placed the rock neatly in one of the corners he draws his hand across the wall that had been struck by not few hard rocks thrown at considerable speed. He wasn’t a bad thrower, he could admit that, and still the surface of the material making up the wall was as blank and spotless as that of a mirror. Not a single dent could be seen nor felt. He feels a mixed feeling of safety blended with a slightly uneasy portion of claustrophobia. Nothing much would be able to get in here, nor out.

Shaking both feelings off his shoulders he walks around gathering the stray rocks that had bounced off the wall, arranging them in a neat pile in the opposite corner before traveling back to the other side to collect yet another trophy for his building collection. Modifying his plan of going side to side small to big to that of collecting somewhat bigger rocks first, while he still has abundant energy. He also clears out in front of the biggest items so they can be half rolled half pushed over to the other side as soon as possible. He is not tired yet, but he knows he must be economic with the force he has to spend, there are many many more rocks to be dealt with.

The amount of rocks on the north side continues to grow, and before long he has cleared a path out of the rocky south for one of the larger specimens to travel. It is not particularly round but still the plan is to roll it. He is no longer unaffected by the constant lifting, he is panting slightly and his hands are sore. He notices this especially when he bends down to try to heave the biggest one yet over on its side. With great effort he manages to lift one end a decent height above ground level, but it is hard to get a good grip and as he tries to change it he invariably loses control of the weight and drop the stone back with yet another ringing underwater metallic alarm clock that echoes back and forth throughout the room.

He steps back for a moment reassessing the situation, realizing that this isn’t going to work and he needs to update his methods. He walks over to the north side again and collect two fairly even sized stones and place them on each side of the boulder, within reaching distance of his feet. Again he manages with some difficulty to raise the boulder from the floor, and as he does he quickly sweep first one and then the second of the small rocks under the big one, holding it in place. After that it is a piece of cake to get a good grip and pulling the rock to its tipping point. With a satisfied grin he watches as the rock tumbles two lengths of its own width. With an effortless push he sends it the last length, making it tumble over on its flat side with an even louder echoing boom. Two or three more identical operations and it will be past the middle line, and then there are only two more boulders close to it in size, one slightly smaller but still big enough to be an obstacle, and the other a little bit bigger. He tries not to think of that one for now as he finishes rolling over the current project.

Back and forth, back and forth, first easy, then heavy, first empty handed, then with arms full, back and forth, over and over again. Sometimes he registers something unusually heavy, sometimes he feels nothing at all. The monotone is conquering him, but the times he wakes up from his stone lifting coma and glance at the north side, he is reimbursed with energy as each time the tide of rocks has crawled \emph{that} much higher. Alas, he is barely much more than halfway done so far, and it is quite the feat to not let that new energy drain as he turns back toward the workload ahead. Time seems to slow down as he walks and walks and walks, the short way back without weight seems like but a flicker of light in a world of darkness.

\emph{Better not to think.}

he thinks and empties his mind of calculations and approximations on the possible amount of time that might be consumed by the remaining

\emph{Ten times twenty plus eighty four (or five?) plus\ldots}

amount of rocks.

\emph{Size C’ rock, fifty steps, three seconds per step on average then\ldots}

But no, times goes much faster when you don’t think about it, or think about something else, or best of all: nothing at all. But yes it is so hard to do once you acknowledge consciously that you \emph{are} in fact thinking. There is nothing you can think to make you stop thinking, and if you want to stop thinking there is nothing you can do to stop thinking there is a way to think your thoughts to an end. All you can do is forget it. And then suddenly you will notice yourself not thinking again, but as soon as you do you’re screwed and wish you were actually a rock. Then thinking would at least be easy. Right?

\emph{Wait what?}

He resumes (\emph{continues}) lifting the rocks as if never pausing (\emph{I didn’t}), but damn they are getting heavy. So heavy, and his thoughts are strange, they don’t make much sense sometimes. Sometimes he gets dizzy and feel a rush after bending down to pick up yet another rock. Actually not just sometimes, it is getting to become a rule rather than the exception. Foreboding perhaps another ending as the one yesterday he takes the sound advice from himself of sitting down on the last really big (\emph{and it really is \emph{really} big!}) rock. Last time the door had been open after that, not really failure as it couldn’t have ended any other way he thinks, ending, but this time he has a task to finish, and he suspects that door isn’t opening if there’s a single rock left on its side. And if he can’t move all of them, then he will simply starve to death in this cryptic white stone filled room.

\emph{Or rather, like, dehydrate to death? Death by dehydration?}

Suddenly he is very thirsty.

\emph{Oh boy, shouldn’t have thought that.}

\emph{Can’t stop thinking, oh, can’t stop thinkin’ of nothing.’}

\emph{Or start maybe? Any}

how, if he could unthink the thought of death by dehydration he certainly would. The nagging feeling pokes at the back of his throat, or wherever it is you feel thirst, but he blocks it out for now, trying to think of something else (\emph{nothing}).

This proves harder and harder as \emph{something} continuously tries to grab at his conscious, the pretty shape of a rock,

\emph{thirsty,}

the prospect of finishing the task,

(something dark.)

But really now, you’re more than halfway done, you have made it so far you’ll make it through.

\emph{\ldots}

He lifts yet another rock and carries it toward the north side. From his short visit he brings back another two smaller rocks, seemingly counteracting his own work. They are for a greater purpose though, for the time has come to move the single remaining \emph{giant} as he so appropriately named them, the largest rocks.

The tactic is the same as with the previous ones, he place the smaller rocks strategically and then struggle to get an as good a grip as possible on the, thankfully, rather round boulder. When finally he has an acceptable hold on the damn thing he clears his mind and gather what strength he has left. With the conviction that this is the last really tough thing today he draws energy from deep within his muscles, tensing each and everyone as he, with great effort, lifts the giant off the ground. Swiftly he shoves the rocks under there, re grips, and with the adrenaline still flowing he makes the final push, tilting the thing over its side sending it rolling toward the north side. Quickly he runs up to it inspecting his work. He nods approvingly, not allowing himself to show quite the full extent of the happiness he feels: the stone has passed the midway line dividing north from south. Oh yeah, not much left now, he bounces back pulling at yet another rock from the dwindling southerner population.

Drawing them one by one, working as fast as his tired legs and arms will allow him he effectively clears bit by bit, making the white floor more and more apparent. Suddenly he finds himself, heavily breathing and holding the very last \emph{rock} in his hands. With one final thrust he hurls it away, sending it bouncing, and with the metallic thuds accompanying him he turns to the door and yells,

“\textbf{I am done!}”

He stands in the silence for a moment, maybe half expecting the door to answer his loud exclamation. Just as he feels he has given enough of a polite pause and is about to walk up and claim his reward of freedom the knob turns and, with the faintest creak, the door opens.

\section*{
\begin{center}
6
\end{center}
}
At first he doesn’t know who, but as the door fully opens he realizes Nicol is standing in the doorway.

\emph{Of course, who else?}

Nicol takes a swift look around the room before turning and facing the arranger of the stones. Before he has even parted his lips Mark has a ominous feeling of bad news awaiting.

“This is great, however\ldots ”

\emph{I knew it!} He pauses for maybe a mere second, yet to Mark it feels like an eternity of not knowing. \emph{However what? The rocks are actually made of chocolate and now I have to eat all of them? There has sprung a leak in the roof to my room and now it is completely water filled? Water\ldots}

“\ldots I now want you to move all the rocks back again.”

Instantly his heart sinks to his toes, this was about the worst news he could possibly have imagined, and that only because he has a very vivid imagination. All this work and he’s still only halfway done. Yet fullway thirsty, and an more than equal amount of time and effort required before he can drink. Maybe he is allowed to have a glass of ice cold delicious water before he continues. Maybe, maybe, can’t hurt to ask, at least.

He is just about to cry out to Nicol as he is leaving, but before Mark can say anything Nicol turns around and interrupt his would be words.

“Oh, and don’t try to push your thirst away, embrace it.”

With that cryptic advice still hanging in the air the door is closed, and so is his path to the elusive water.

With reluctance to face the work ahead of him he sits down facing the door, pondering for a second the small bit of help he had gotten. What does it mean? He wonders, as the thirst almost overtakes him.

He doesn’t want to get up and keep working with them damned rocks. Really all he wants is to be able to lay down on the ground and drift into a long and heavy sleep. Refreshing, replenishing; but! You can’t bake a cake without the ingredients, and water is a vital one. What strength would he be gaining sleeping with no water supply? It would be drained, and he would wake up so thirsty and ungodly hungry. That he didn’t want this to happen, possibly ruining his chances of completing the challenge, is the only thought that keeps him awake at this this point.

He tries his best and focus his thoughts to devise a plan of action. As he repeatedly fails he decides that if a full night sleep is out of the question maybe a quick nap will suffice. At least temporary.

Slowly he lays himself down, all the while doing his best to suppress the bubbling crave for water arising in his stomach(?). He can’t shake the feeling that he is somehow doing the challenge wrong as he slowly drifts into a shallow and dreamy sleep.

In his dreams he decides several times that he has slept enough and now is it time to get up and keep working. With much effort he drags himself up from the almost cozy floor. Each time he gets a little closer to the rocks he has to move before he wakes up momentarily, realizing to his dismay that it was all a dream. It is therefore with resent that Mark finally wakes himself up enough to actually get up; he feels that he has spent thrice the energy it should have taken just to rise. And oh god what is all this in front of me? Didn’t I just move all these and wasn’t it all the worst thing you ever done?

\emph{No.} He realizes now, both his answer and the fact that he had known all along that this was not going to be the only part of the challenge. Yesterday was harder. Then he had blacked out completely, here he had gone to sleep voluntarily to regain strength. There was no way this was going to be easier than the previous days running. \emph{No,} he realizes, things are only going to get harder from this point on. His life is like one huge initiation test, and them tests are \emph{always} harder toward the end.

“Where is your god now??” He yells as he hurls one especially tiny rock in an perfect arc across the room, ricocheting on the door handle. Snickering almost inaudible he picks up another rock and throws it in a similar fashion, watching it bounce of the wall and land where he had just spent a great deal of effort making sure it wasn’t; but now all that work was naught. He doesn’t care though, at least he likes to think he doesn’t. He is just a drone, a robot built only to follow a command. It is a relaxing thought, as the creativity and free thought, as well as the responsibility associated, can be quite the burden. One that he both hopes and fears he will bear once again, in not too long.

Filled with confusion fear and anger he goes to work.

Fueled not by accomplishment but destruction he throws the rocks back to where they once were.

Knowing his efforts are worth nothing in a grander scheme both soothes and enrages him. Measured though it is, he can’t lay it aside; and isn’t anything and everything, zoomed out far enough, completely useless? How does a planet roaming through space affect anything but the closest area around it? How does even the galaxy we live in, such an incomprehensible size and complexity, affect the universe as a whole? Baring a tiny gravity pull exerted on its galactic neighbours the answer is simple: nothing.

\emph{Or almost nothing anyhow.}

Obviously, everything affects the whole in some minor way. The whole is nothing really except the sum of its parts. A fantasy it is, the whole, it doesn’t exist, a conjuring of the mind to categorize the world. If the whole is but the sum of its parts, then what are the parts? Nothing but the sum of smaller parts!

So maybe what he does affects the non-existant whole by a factor of infinity plus one divided by infinity.

\emph{That’s not nothing, at least.}

The great thing about being a droid? Robotic minds don’t question the meaning of what they are doing.

\emph{And anything above nothing is worth doing.}

As anything above nothing can be made of any worth by changing the subject of comparison.

\emph{And anyhow, this means everything right now.}

As the outcome of his life is very much dependent on how well he manages not only this challenge but whatever else his father might throw at him. Obviously this task must serve some purpose, if only to prepare him for greater deeds. Deeds of real meaning. Deeds that will change the world.

\emph{Yes, I will change the world.}

But wont everyone? To some degree. Again the problem of nothing being nothing, how could you do anything without changing the world in some way?

\emph{And what is the world?}

Or change? These are two terms that must be defined before you can say that

\emph{I will change the world.}

The world, is it the planet on which we walk, the galaxy in which we soar, or merely the bed in which we sleep? The room in which we work? The rocks that we throw? What are they?

\emph{Not nothing.}

Find me a nothing and I will reward you with a thousand gold coins. I am confident in this offer, for if you could prove a nothing, everything would be naught, and that could never be.

\emph{And if it could, them coins wouldn’t be worth much anyhow.}

What good will gold do on the day of reckoning? Not a thing.

\emph{Nothing.}

Nothing nothing nothing.

He slams his fist into a boulder that he had on edge, sending it rolling. Gathering the tiny rocks he uses as support he inches closer and inspects the damage he has done. The huger rock still has a decent bit left before it will cross the middle line. Hunching down he places the tiny rocks at their usual place and readies himself. His hands are soar with blisters covering the skin, the muscles in his body are tensing up and the joints of his arms and legs are pleading for help. Then there is the Thirst, it cannot be forgotten, it cannot be ignored. The ever constant companion, a friend to rely on to always be there.

With dying force he reaches down to lift the rock of the ground. He fumbles with the grip for a moment before finally managing to lift it above the ground just enough to create a space where his small support rocks will fit. Quickly he shove them under there with his feet and lets go with relief. A quick breather before he pulls the final straw to break this one camels back, trying his best to not acknowledge the horde of desert animals behind him.

Desert animals, scattered across endless lands of desolate sand. Sand, nothing but sand and a scorching sun, eagerly awaiting a period of rain. Much like the back of his throat.

Mustering his strengths he renews his grip on the gargantuan in front of him and push upwards with all his might. The rock is lifted a good few decimeters above the ground when he begins to feel it slip. Beyond desperately clinging against its coarse surface in a futile attempt to regain control he can do nothing but watch as it slowly but steadily inch beyond his grasp. Holding his breath in startled fear, suddenly there isn’t a sound in the room as the giant mass of stone falls toward the ground. He doesn’t have time to step back, or even form an appropriate responding thought to this failure to happen. His eyes widen as rock touches rock and the smaller supporting pebbles are obliterated with what could be best described as a small explosion. As a ringing metallic sound twenty times louder than what he had experienced previously bounces from wall to wall Mark doubles over in pain, falling sideways reaching for his feet.

The pain is intense and as he regains enough sense to inspect his lower legs he can see that they are pierced by hundreds of tiny shards; shards from his support rocks.

When the image finally sinks in and he realizes what has happened his first reaction is to try and get up, instantly falling back down with a cry of agony. Trying hard to gather up his mind he finally calms himself down enough to reassess the situation. It doesn’t look good.

\emph{They will have to go.}

With a steady grip he reaches for one of the larger shards in his calf and with a hard yank rips it out.

%begin lost section
The pain is so intense that his eyes are watering as he pushes his hands against the wound to halt the blood flow.
Yet he pushes on, refusing to let this drawback cut him down. Maybe for a sense of duty, or of fear, fear that he wont be let out if he fails. He isn’t all too worried about this, but it lies in the back of his mind as he continues plucking sharp rock fragments out of his body.

\emph{At least I wasn’t standing on my head.}

It is a long and tedious work, mainly because he has to pause for a second to recover after each ejection, and before long he finds himself, his arms legs and clothes covered in blood. He feels somewhat faint and decides to lie down for a moment with only a few tiny shards left. Their small size make them hard to localize and pull out though, and as he lies down staring at the white ceiling he considers leaving them in there. This however proves to be not so good of an idea, as each shard stings violently when he tries to put any weight on his legs. Exhausted he lies back down and feels through the blood covering his legs for the remaining shards.

One by one they are removed, until even extensive searches fail to uncover more. On shaky legs and an aching body he finally gets up for the first time since the rock ahead of him came tumbling down. He feels in his flesh that he didn’t get every last one of them, but there’s not much he can do about that now. Probably embedded deep under the skin, and he’s not going to try and claw up the wounds with his fingernails, that’s for sure.

Instead he retreats from the giant that almost brought him down,

\emph{Imagine if my feet had been under there.}

and collect a few medium sized stones and carry them across the room. He intends on dealing with the big one as soon as he has recharged his strengths with this light meditative work. Easy, just pick up a rock and carry it to the other side. No mental and hardly any physical effort required. Almost like a holiday. The only thing blocking his recovery potential is the \emph{thirst.} Its nagging will not go away, ever. Instead it is rather growing, seizing new grounds and expanding its empire.
//end lost section

One by one he moves the rocks, wading through intense pain and exhaust, fading slowly into a comfortable numb. He doesn’t think, doesn’t reflect, words are redundant, nothing can describe what he is doing. The incredibly white room seems to dissolve around him, the borders between himself and the outer world weakens. The difference between himself and the rocks he is carrying becomes harder and harder to distinguish, the rocks are the world, the world is a rock, the world is he, he is a rock. At his core he can feel something shift, a realization so devoid of emotion, so empty that no words could adequately describe it. The feeling is there, and yet it isn’t. It is not a feeling of hopelessness, and yet it is. No matter how many times he walks back and forth the room he always has to return yet again, and so he hides within himself. Closing in and opening up at the same time, he travels not only in the normal perceivable dimensions, time appears to be at a standstill when in fact it is going at the speed of light. No but yes, the rocks need to be moved, no mather the cost. How long has he been here? In this room, is there even anything else, is the world intact? He doesn’t know, and when he thinks about it, does it really make a difference? Even if his life from this point consists only of the purpouse of moving thes rocks in infinity, then he still has a goal as fine as any. What does it matter what he does? Meaning? Why do these rocks lack meaning compared to anything else when anything else lack meaning compared to something greater? Truly there is no difference, driven to the ultimate point, in moving a rock and saving the universe. \emph{It} will still be, always, change wont affect it, it \emph{is} change. Without change it would be nothing. A single constant floating in emptiness, no never.

Suddenly, everything comes back. He was trapped willingly within himself for an indeterminable amount of time, and while soothing the feelings all come crashing down upon him again with full force, stronger maybe even than before.

\emph{When was before? Is there anything but now?}

The thirst overwhelms him, his muscles fail and he stumbles to the floor. The white in the room turns black and only a tiny, barely audible, voice in his mind is urging him on while his whole body craves surrender. He sits down on the single remaining rock that is large enough to sit on comfortable, when he looks around he is surprised to see he has cleared more than what he thought.

\emph{If I can only rest for a moment now then I’ll be able to finish off the rest, but oh god the thirst, no it’s not hard, not much, just this; and the big one I’m sitting on, that one too! F\ldots \ Yeah, but it will; the footcrusher it is! How will you handle it? The same as you, I, me, them\ldots }

Fighting off the nod he rises again facing the big rock previously supporting his bottom, and even earlier piercing his lower body with sharp shards. He daren’t try the same tactic once again, not when he is even weaker still. Instead he pushes it with all his might, slowly edging it across the floor, causing a hell of a raucus but not leaving a single dent or mark in the floor.

Finally, with one last effort he pushes the very last of the millions of rocks into place. Not once but twice has he completed this numbing task, and with no sense of the amount of time that has passed he is unable to compare his feelings now to the appropriate tiredness, thirst and hunger. All he knows is that he is all these, and more, but especially thirst. He has been craving water since the door was first opened and he was given the grim news he had to redo his work all over again. He had been expecting water then already, but now atlast then, would he be rewarded. With a failing body he makes his way toward the door, tumbling from the slightest change of pressure it is quite the feat to navigate the stone covered ground without falling over. When he finally reaches the door if he hadn’t the wall beside it to lean on for sure he would be on the ground. Nothing but the remnants of his last forces are what is keeping him up now, and that only to collect his anticipated reward: water.

He tries the door, finds it is locked and instead starts to bang on it. Again and again and again he punches the door until he has to pause to catch his breath. Suddenly, he holds his breath, there is a sound. A sound, yes it is clearer now, definitely a sound. The sound of approaching footsteps. Closer now, almost here\ldots \ He backs away a few feet from the door, waiting in anticipation as the doorknob is turned and the door swings open.

In it, stands Nicol. Surveying the scene he nods approvingly, causing Marks expectations of the coming reward to rise, almost blushing his face in joy.

“This is great work indeed, but\ldots ”

\emph{But?} As fast as it had risen his mood now sinks as a rock thrown into a river.

“You’re not done yet.”

A river without a bottom, the stone just keeps falling and falling never touching solid.

“Take this.” Nicol hands him a large hammer, so big that Mark can barely carry it and nearly doubles over when it is passed to him. “The rocks have to be disposed of, smash them into smaller pieces and load them into this.” Nicol says, throwing a large bag onto the floor.

“B-but, no\ldots” Mark stutters, “I need to drink, I need water.”

“I am so very thirsty, please let me have something to drink.”

“How is thirst a reason to need water?”

“Well\ldots \ I\ldots ”

“Mark, I promise you will not die in this room, nor will you suffer any permanent injury. Can you trust my word on that?”

“I guess\ldots ”

“Knowing this fact then, how can the thirst hurt you?”

“It feels horrible, and I can’t concentrate, nor work hard at all.”

“Does it really? Have you even stopped to think just how the thirst feels? And possibly is it so, that you can’t concentrate because instead of embracing and accepting the thirst as a harmless feeling you are wasting almost all of your mental power on trying to block it out. Like building an iron fortress to keep out a mosquito; sure it can be annoying, but once you pause to think about it, you realize it is harmless.

“And you say you can not work hard? Why is this? Because your body thinks it needs to preserve its energy reserve to survive? But you know for a fact that you wont die in this room, right? Then what need is there to preserve energy or water reserves? Put your mind above your body, reason before impulse, and you will have no problem completing this task.”

Unable to come up with anything to say Mark stays silent slowly taking in what was said until eventually Nicol turns around and shuts the door, leaving him once again, alone with the rocks.

His mind races, half in denial and half reasoning with the other half that maybe there is a point, maybe that was some real advice, maybe it works. But no, it is nothing but a horrible fate or a cruel joke. Nothing is real, he might as well give up right now and it wont make a difference. He might die, but that would probably be preferable to this. Not one more rock, not one more.

\emph{Do you give up that easily?}

No, never. This is just the beginning, if I can’t handle this I will tremble in despair at any future challenges. If I fail here I would do nothing but postpone my own demise, or advance it, depending on how you see it. Why did I choose to come here if I would not give in to it completely? I should have just stayed home then.

\emph{But I don’t want to stay home.}

Then what are you doing slacking off? What is there to discuss? Get that fucking hammer and smash ’til you drop!

\emph{Right.}

Riight.

\emph{RIGHT!}

He swings the hammer with energetic force over the top of his head and brings it down on a nearby rock, shattering it into a thousand tiny pieces flying in every direction. Ignoring the pain where the tiny pebbles bounce of his skin he obliterates yet another with a swift and precise blow. Again and again and again, he does not pause to think, because if he does he must feel, and if he feels he will have do bow down to the intense thirst and exhaust that threatens to\ldots

\emph{\ldots do what? No, don’t think.}

The air is filled with bits of stone, bouncing from wall to wall, a multitude of tiny metallic clangs are joined by the large bang of the hammer at regular intervalls. The energetic rage can only keep him fueled for so long however, and before long, with but a fraction of the rocks cleared, he is brought to his knees. With the adrenaline still running strong but his body unwilling the curtains before his eyes are slowly opened and he is forced to

\emph{What? WHAT? \textbf{WHAT???}}

feel\ldots

He pauses, he pauses his thoughts, he pauses his body. As the cessation is complete there is only stillness, and it.

\emph{What?}

The thirst.

\emph{What can it do?}

What can it do?

\emph{Nothing\ldots }

How does it feel?

\emph{I\ldots \ it\ldots \ I cannot explain it.}

Does it hurt?

\emph{\ldots no.}

Then how can it stop you?

\emph{The thirst can kill me, but I can’t die in here. So\ldots \ it cannot stop me.}

The thirst is meaningless.

\emph{Yes\ldots }

What else do you feel?

\emph{Exhaust.}

How does it feel?

\emph{As if my arms and legs are about to fall apart.}

Will they?

\emph{No\ldots }

The how can it hurt you?

\emph{The strain could damage me, but I can’t suffer any permanent injury in here\ldots \ So it cannot hurt me.}

What else is in your way?

\emph{Noting\ldots }

But illusions! Rise up, conquer and fight. Rid your self of the mental cloud and feel the truth. You and only you control your body, and anything holding you back is just a safety sparr to be overridden. Get up, stand up, and don’t give in!

Slowly he opens his eyes and with an extraordinary clarity he looks around the room, aware of every cnook and cranny, every rock and pebble. Waves of strength washes over him as the tiredness retreats as a tide, his grip around the hammer tightens. He strikes not the closest rock but the largest, and not with all the force he can muster, but with just enough force. First strike produces a crack, second strike widens the gap, third strike splits the rock in three. Twentyseven strikes later the whole boulder is dissolved into a lot more managable form, which is then scooped into the bag he was given. Systematically he works, shattering the large rocks first, and picking up the shards before moving on. Pretty soon he realizes this task was probably the easiest of the three, most of the rocks are already so small that he can collect them instantly, and he doesn’t have to carry any of the others anywhere. Just smack them and toss them. Piece of cake. Neither is he trying to ignore his thirst, he is aware of it all the time and this is now what drives him on instead of holding him back. Finishing will produce reward, but he doesn’t need reward to finish.

\section*{
\begin{center}
7
\end{center}
}

Finally, and with not nearly as much effort as the many previous tasks involving these rocks, he fills up the bag with the very last of the rock shards. Breathing a seemingly endless sigh of relief as he drags his cargo toward the door the door is opened before he can touch the handle to check if it is still locked, or wonder whether this is really it. In the frame, Nicol, with an approving look on his face.

“Here, let me relieve you of that.”

He says, motioning toward the bag full of rocks. Exhausted, delirious and euphoric Mark hands it toward Nicol who, hardly touching it at all, crushes the bag into a tiny pebble which is then discarded into his pocket. Mark barely reflects on this however, as there is but one thought crossing his mind,

“Will I\ldots ?”

“Be able to eat and drink now? Why yes, right this way here.”

Overjoyed by these news he can almost feel all his pains fading away, washing over him like water on stone. Almost floating, as if walking on clouds, he is able to take one step before fainting. The floor comes rushing toward him and then, all is black.

\chapter*{Challenges}
\section*{
\begin{center}
1
\end{center}
}

Drifting between a dreamless sleep and just under the surface of the real world he finally breaks the barrier to awakened consciousness. He opens his eyes and finds himself in a dark room, a room he soon identifies as his own’, lying in a soft bed. He feels not hungry nor thirsty, yet he cannot recall eating or drinking. When he stretches his arms trying to wake his body he realizes they are not sore, in fact he feels physically perfectly fine.

\emph{Was it all just a dream?}

He reaches over and run his fingers down the wall, finding a button that lights a lamp by his bed.

\emph{Was that lamp there before?}

He sits up debating what to do next. He has no idea what the time is, no idea how long he slept, no clue what to come. The door is closed and locked, he is sure of this.

\emph{Maybe this is a dream.}

He gets up and walks over to his desk, he sits down and pulls out the top drawer, within is his notebook. Driven by some non-conscious impulse to write down the dream or reality that was yesterday he puts the notebook on the desk and opens it. First he reads through the previous entry, as if to ground himself in this new reality where is isn’t quite sure of its boundaries between the actual world and the world of fantasy. He then picks up the pen stuck to the side of the notebook and begins to write.
\\

\begin{it}
Day 2

Or is it really? A week could have passed for all I know, or maybe but an hour. It feels like a lifetime since I last was\ldots \ somewhere else. Maybe a more appropriate title is:

Entry 2

And of that I’m certain, for even if I have lived the same day a thousand times and written about it every morning and every night it is still the second entry of \emph{this} book.

Mystical things are happening, my memories are foggy, time slowly begins to lose its meaning. What happened yesterday? The text I wrote the day before that(?) seems completely alien to me. Somehow it feels extremely important that I document as much of my thoughts and record of events as possible, just so I don’t lose myself into some crazy maelstrom of imprints upon my brain. Will I still remember writing this the next time I open this book? If I open it, not remembering, will I be able to identify that I did infact write this? Or will I just discard it as the rambling words of a foolish lunatic at the brink of madness. Because that is what I feel, as if I can not control my own thoughts. I am merely a puppet, a pawn in a giant game of chess, ready to be sacrificed at the whim of my master. All I can hope for is that he is a good chessplayer, and that my sacrifice shall not be in vain.

For die we must, and as of such it would be naïve to hope, that I would not have to make that sacrifice, or any sacrifice. What have I not sacrificed already? \emph{What??}

I must not dwell on that, for reasons I cannot fathom or question. The path leading to the answer to that question is blocked, and on the blockade is an inscription, and whilst I cannot read it I still understand that I do not yet posess enough strength to shatter it. I will though, one day I will be out of this room, this mental imprisonment.

What did happen yesterday? I woke up in this same room, confused as now, the door was open. Is it now too? I haven’t tried, but I suspect no. Why I haven’t tried it and instead rely on my intuition in this upside down world I can hardly grasp, but I have the feel that it is not time yet. Before I venture on more adventures I must first sort out what I have already been through, an impossible task at best.

And at worst?

At worst it would make me insane!

I did traverse outside the door, obviously, and beyond it lay\ldots \ the dining room. Yes\ldots \ But first a corridor, and in the corridor many doors. I’ve really only been to four of the rooms behind those doors, the showers, the dining room, my room and the white room. Then when I arrived we passed through a hallway aswell. I wonder how many more room this building holds, how small a portion of it that I have actually seen. Or the world, and life itself, how little don’t I know? I must learn this!

\end{it}

Suddenly, a sound, or merely an emonition, regardless it wakes Mark from his writing and has him looking toward the door. \emph{It is open now.} He knows it. With confident steps he gets up and walks over to the door, not bothering to clear out his desk. Gently he press the handle down and step out into the corridor, looking exactly as he remembered it. With ease he finds his way to the dining room and makes himself breakfeast using the plate labeled with a trey. It tastes okay, not gourmet food by any standards but he has certainly tasted worse, \emph{somewhere}\ldots

Having finished his food and with the lack of anything else to do he makes his way toward the showers, previously he hadn’t had time to do any looking around on himself as Nicol had always showed up just as he could begin to wonder what he is supposed to do next. He finds the nicely layered room just as he remembered it, with the exception of the small wooden chair with his new clothes on that had been there last time. He steps inside one of the showers and turns on the water. Beautiful shimmering water streams down upon him, just right temperature to soothe and warm but not burn. A long time he stands in the shower, thinking of nothing special, just feeling the water run down his body, washing away the filth and sweat of what feels like many days. He wonders how long he must shower to get rid of it all, especially in the absence of soap or any similiar bathroom accessory. With no way to keep track of time or how long hes been in here, or awake even, he eventually steps out of the shower feeling greatly refreshed. Even his mind feels clean and he is more ready to deal with whatever might happen today than he ever has been.

\emph{But what will happen today?} And when, he wonders as he gets dressed and yet again enters the empty corridor. He walks over to the door to the white room and tries its handle, locked. Uncertain of what to do next but unwilling to go back to his room and just wait he decides to head down the corridor to see how long it is. At first he tries a few doors at random but he soon abandons this endeavor as he finds them all irrevocably locked. Almost everything looks identic as he goes on, the walls are the same, the doors are the same save for a few minor details, occasionally there is an extra big one or a better lock or different handle, occasionally the corridor deviates from its straight ahead but slightly turned trajectory and takes a few sharp turns before continuing on as if nothing happened, and the ceiling seems to vary in heigth. Other than that everything is pretty much as it was, except the occasional painting on the wall, in fact a whole section had the tapestry entirely changed to a fiery blossom pattern, and the carpet! It takes a while before he looks down for long enough to see it change, at first it seemed as constant as the doors and walls but as he runs with his gaze lowered and his eyes unfocused so as not to get carried along with the changing scenery he notices its change, a constant and slow deliberate change in form shape and colour. The pattern in the carpet seems to morph almost with a purpouse, telling him a story, perhaps the history of the house itself, or his own destiny be it good or bad. Suddenly it stops, and almost seems to be going backwards before he looks up and finds himself exactly in the spot he started, there to the left is the door to his room and to the right is the door to the showers, still slightly open as he left it. Something is different though, he can almost feel it before he sees it, and perhaps is that feeling the reason he sought it out in the first place.

Beyond the door to the white room he can see a white mist gathering on the floor. He walks through it seeking its origin, his ankles are chilled and by this he determines the temperature of the mist to be subzero. Fortunately it does not take long to determine where the white mist has come from, as not to long up ahead there is an open door, one that he is certain was not open before. It is not completely open and he can barely see inside because of all the white smoke streaming out from it and down on the floor. Not hesitating a moment he walks up it and promtly shoves the door wide open, causing himself to be drenched in an avalance of tiny frozen drops of water. He can already feel his body shivering and his fingers turning slightly numb in the cold. Ignoring this he steps inside and looks around, instantly he knows the perfect title to this second room in his trials; in the middle of the room stands a towering body of ice, magnificent and translucent, and had it only been a little warmer Mark would have stood observing its beauty for quite some time. He can feel the numbness spreading through his body though, and decides he has spent enough time looking around. He turns around to return to his room and finds himself standing face to face with Nicol.

\section*{
\begin{center}
2
\end{center}
}

His voice echoes throughout the room, back and forth bouncing upon the walls until only a compact silence remains. Mark finds himself for the first time able to hold that penetrating gaze without looking away, and for the first time he actually feels ready, prepared, perhaps naïvely, for whatever is to come. Nicol makes no attempt to an explanation and finally mark feels obliged to break the silence.

“What must I do?”

Unable to keep the eye contact much longer he is relieved for this excuse to look around the room in a questioning manner. Nothing has changed since he last looked, the statuette of ice in the middle of the room and the engulfing white mist covering them both to their knees. Or Marks knees atleast, Nicols are significantly higher above the ground.

“See this sculpture?”

Mark nods.

“You must destroy it, with whatever means available.”

He looks around once again at the still unchanged room.

“But, there are no means available to me.”

Nicol, already at the door, turns around to face him one last time.

“You will not get out of this room until either that sculpture is destroyed, or every bone in your hand is broken.”

With those words he leaves the room and closes the door with not a single noise. Mark doesn’t need to try the handle to know that it is locked, and that no power he wields could possibly open it. He is left with nothing but the echo of those omnious and horribly true words bouncing back and forth between the walls, sending shivers down his spine at every passing by. Suddenly he is very aware of the freezing cold, and as the door and only escape route is closed the white mist begins to build up, rapidly increasing in volume at every passing moment. Almost with dread he turns toward the statuette, towering more intimidating than beatifully before him now.

He puts his hand on its blank surface, and, surprisingly, finds it warm to the touch. He presses harder but finds that it wont give way even a tiny bit, it is hard as a rock. Indecisive he looks around the room, desperate to find an “available mean” that could ease this task. Surely there must be some secret way to solve this, he isn’t expected to\ldots \ \emph{What was it he said?} Mark has no doubt Nicol could have designed the challenge in such a way that he had to\ldots \emph{Break every bone\ldots } The question is whether this is meant to train him in pain tolerance or thinking outside the box. He doesn’t want to start trying to break it down with his bare fists until he has exhausted every possible solution he can come up with. But he can’t come up with even one, the room is completely empty except for himself and the statue, and it is getting colder and colder every minute.

\emph{Maybe the cold is the solution. I can wait until my hands are completely numb and then\ldots }

He ponders this idea for a moment before discarding it when he begins to jump up and down while flapping his arms together to build heat; if he waits that long in this cold he will be to weak to punch with enough force for his purpose. And besides that would bypass the pain tolerance part of the challenge, maybe he would actually gain more strength overall by just going through with it. No doubt he will be hurt many more times, and he will have to learn how to deal with great pain sooner or later.

\emph{Better sooner.}

He walks up to the sculpture and positions his closed fist right next to its warm surface. Arm outstretched he marks the exact spot where he wants to land the blow. While inhaling barely noticeably through his nose he draws his hand back, he can barely feel the cold anymore and he has stopped shivering. Completely still he stands, focused only on this one spot in front of him. Slowly he eliminates every self-preservation mechanism inprinted in his bran, and with mixed emotions he sends his fist, with each bit of strength in his body, straight into the surface of this alluring body of ice.

His hand is retracted as fast as it arrived and he almost levitates off the ground as he flies across the room from the intense pain. His suffering is silent, but agonizing. Like an explosion of deadly snakes crawling beneath his skin, biting him over and over at the tip of his paw and slowly moving upward his arm, working in a scary level of organization so as to not leave any area, regardless of how minute, unbitten. As he begins to regain conscious control of his body he finds himself lying on the cold floor, covered in mist and desperately clutching his arm. His fist is both closed and open in a tense and awkward stance. The razor edge of the pain has been dulled, but his first attempts to relax his hand shower his body in yet another snake attack, as does any attempt to individually move any of his fingers. He lies panting, subdued by the pain he realizes he cannot lie here much longer, less the cold take over. Leaning on his healthy hand he helps himself to a standing position and inspects his hand. Nothing appears to be broken\ldots

\emph{Fuck\ldots \ fuck\ldots \ There has got to be a better way\ldots }

He stands for a minute, staring dumbfounded at his lifeless hand, then the statue, then his hand again. He soon realizes that whatever \emph{way} he has to take to finish this challenge he must first wake his hand from the dead. A task easier said than done, especially in this numbing cold. He needs to atleast be able to close it properly, but the excruciating pain when he tries to move his fingers hinders that; and after a while of trying to gently pry his fingers into place he decides upon a more aggressive approach. With a soft but firm jerk he forces his fingers into place through a great, but still tiny in comparison to what he had just experienced, agony. Ready again he stands before the statuette.

Perhaps is it the flows of adrenaline and endorphins still surging through his body since the last chock of pain or maybe the increasingly numbing cold, most likely a combination of both, because something certainly has doused the fears and hesitation he had previously. He puts his hand against the ice, retract, and almost instantly smash his hand once again into this rock solid object in front of him. Familiar waves of pain begin to overcome him, he does his best to hold them at bay while his left hand runs over the knuckles of his right, still nothing appears broken. Infuriated he slams his fist again and again against the blank surface of the ice statue until it turns spotted red and the world begins fading away. Down he falls into darkness for one brief relieving moment before the calm is shattered by the floor. He gasps for air but only manages to inhale more white mist as his bad arm takes the fall, moments later his head is bounced back and forth between the ground and his shoulder. Silent and unmoving but in a very special place of hell he lies on the ice, covered in mist and with a thick dark red trail of blood running down his nose into the corner of his mouth. His eyes are open but he does not see, he barely even thinks. He doesn’t want to think, he doesn’t want to see. He doesn’t want to move or do anything, but he doesn’t want to stay either.

Slowly he realizes that infact he cannot stay on the ground, he has to get moving, complete this task. With some effort he hauls himself into a sitting position, the constant throbbing pain has dulled his senses and he is hardly aware of any feelings at all anymore. Something tells him to check his hand and he does. It feels damaged, broken. With glassy eyes he looks at it hanging limp from the end of his arm, not of much use to him anymore, but still very much in the way. As the pain tears at his insides the stinging cold engulfs his body, not leaving an inch free of its terrible wrath. With shivering legs he gets on his knees, and with his heavy panting he adds to the white mist content of the room; leaning against the statue with but a single thought surging through his mind.

\emph{No more.}

But there is more, he knows this, it is inevitable. There is no easy way out, there never is.

\emph{Or is there?}

Maybe brute force isn’t all that counts? Maybe exercising your brain is just as important as pain endurance and physical strength. Maybe it’s too late to think of this again now, handicapped as he is with only one functioning hand.

\emph{And two feet.}

What good will feet do? You can hardly stand as it is even, how will you ever be able to break every bone in your hand? Wait\ldots

\emph{Break every bone in my hand? It’s a trick. Who ever said I had to punch it to bits?}

He is on his feet faster than the time it took to finish the thought. Ready in an instant, he charges the statue and throws himself at it, feet first. Not a sound is heard as he impacts, and quickly he twirls in the air to avoid landing on his broken hand. All things considered, his fall is actually quite comfortable, comparatively. Stumped, he gets up on shaky legs and goes to inspect the potential damage done. It looks completely the same. He sighs and runs his finger down the cold surface, conjuring a small sweeping noise, like when wiping the hot air mist of the bathroom mirror.

\emph{But wait!} There is an irregularity in the construction! He sweeps his finger back and forth a few times in search of the spot, and he almost begins to believe he imagined it when he suddenly finds it again. He leans up closer while running his fingers against its edges, maybe it was there before? Maybe it isn’t important and he has accomplished nothing.

\emph{But maybe, just maybe\ldots }

With his finger he traces the irregularity, nothing but a small edge in the ice, he loses track of it several times and has to spend quite some time relocating it again when he does, but finally he manages to paint a mental picture of what has happened, and his conclusion is a definitive and rummaging \emph{this method has to be tried once again!}

This conclusion is based on the fact that what seems to have happened is that a large rectangular shaped portion of the statue has been pushed out of place, edged a barely noticeable amount toward the other end of the reciepant side of his foot. While trying his best to block out the feeling of having been tricked and avoiding the treacherous longing at how much easier this would have been if only he hadn’t first ruined his hand he backs up ready to charge yet another strike at his target.

\emph{Why why why why didn’t I think things throooouuuugh!} His next kick lands almost precisely at the same spot and fueled by certainty, or rather not held back by uncertainty, the force of this attack is much greater. He knows, with every bone sinew and muscle in his body that this will work, he will get out, this is not a dead end and he has came up with the solution. He neglects to think beyond this kick and the next, at how many of these running charges he might need to take down \emph{the entire statue} and just how exhausting each and every one of them are, and how cold it is, and how the cold numbs all his other feelings of thirst, hunger, fatigue and, thankfully, pain. He refuses to realize just how broken down his body is at this point, because if he did he would be forced to realize the consequence of this: that if, and that is only if, he has now found the solution it doesn’t mean he will succeed, but only that he will most probably fail knowing he could have made it had he only been more methodical, more patient and evaluative, \emph{thought things through} instead of charging in and going with the first thing that sounded even remotely plausible. \emph{Remotely plausible, hah.} When could it ever have been a good plan to try and deliberately break every bone in his hand? \emph{You fucked up and now you must deal with the corollary of this.}

He lands, dizzy still but immediately gets up to inspect. He is eager to be able to either accept his theory as the truth or dismiss it as some delirious grasp at hope founded in the black pit of despair where he resided. To be without hope is worse than death, and as such even a fools hope, grounded in lies and misunderstandings, is better than no hope at all. Without hope there is nothing to look forward to, the whole meaning of the word is the belief in better times and without it all you have is now and if now is not satisfactory you have nothing. Nothing but memories.

He doesn’t even need to lean in close to be able to turn around and jump through the air fueled by the joy from the promise of freedom. He will leave this room and right here in front of him is the proof of its possibility!

He charges, again and again and again, not held back by anything, this portion of the construction shall fall! Deep down though he slowly realizes that what he is attempting is futile, each time he gets up from the ground, leaning on one good hand and the elbow of a broken one, he is that much more exhausted, his forces that much more depleted. He must get this one section down, that is what fuels him, drives him on; but as he stands before it, held by but a tiny inch and one small effort left from crashing down onto the ground the realizations his brain had made long before finally surfaces in his sea of consciousness: \emph{I will never be able to break down this entire thing.} It is simply impossible, he will die of starvation before it is done.

\emph{So what, the task is impossible?} He is thinking rationally for the first time in a while, no longer blinded by the promise of freedom of the loathsome feeling of despair nor the devastating feeling of failing because he wasted energy breaking his own hand. He no longer believes he would have been able to succeed with this method even if first went to a one week vacation and had a stock of pineapples to eat and a bed to sleep in. Still he realizes that it can not be impossible, Nicol would never give him a task he could not complete less it was meant for him to fail, and if he was meant to fail he wouldn’t have failed per say.

Suddenly it dawns upon him, so simple and yet he puts his life on the line should it fail. Decisably he walks up to the section hanging by the thread and gives it one hard stationary kick, then again, and one last time before the edge holding it in place crumbles. As it falls he too falls with it, positioning his arm so that the devastating blow of this huge chunk of ice is focused directly on his already damaged hand.

\emph{Never was of much use to me anyhow.}

A horrid crunching sound fills him to the core as the force ripples through his body, churning him like but a feather and slamming him into the ground. He feels no pain. As he lies, his vision turning black, he feels only release. He can die now knowing he completed what he set out to do. The goal of his life was to break every bone in his hand. Now that this is done he has nothing left to live for, and instead of searching for a replacement that he might never live to work with he cherishes death as an acceptable outcome.

\emph{But you (I?) shall not die.}

The door is opened and suddenly the room is not cold anymore. With but the flick of a finger the boulder holding him down is obliterated and as his consciousness fades he is lifted off the ground and carried outside.

He leaves the room.

\section*{
\begin{center}
3
\end{center}
}
With a jolt he is awoken \emph{Where is my bread where is my bed} for some unknown reason. He can’t remember any dreams \emph{Baking Smells Soda} that might have startled him out of his deep sleep, in fact he can’t recall any \emph{A soft touch} dreams at all.

\emph{A soft touch\ldots }

His first instincts draws his attention to his hand, he holds it before the eyes of the body, inspecting it throughly, moving each finger slowly and deliberately one by one.

He jumps at the voice and first now realizes he is not lying in his ordinary bed but rather in that of a luxurious hospital.

“As good as new.” Nicol smiles and pinches his finger, Marks hand is instantly withdrawn as a reflex to the soft sensation of pain. \emph{Soft Pain Don’t go there} He blinks and doesn’t return the smile but still holds the gaze, almost, of his father for an inordinate amount of time. Time enough to conclude the handsomeness of that nose placed above the mouth but below the eyes, neither of which feels completely comfortable to observe directly. Much like staring into the sun.

“How much time has passed?” Mark rises to a sitting position and looks around the room. It is large with white walls, his bed is positioned at the southern wall with a side wall forming a subsection of the larger hall. More beds are placed in other similar sections as well as several cabinets containing what seems to be medical instruments.

“About an hour.” Mark is shocked, he feels revitalized as if he has slept for a week.

“What did you give me?”

“Oh, just the usual. Here, eat these pills.”

“What are they?”

“One will strengthen your bones, another is to make your skin more resistant, a third will boost the positive properties of your blood. The rest are just ordinary nutrients, everything the body needs, so you wont have to eat anything for the next seventy four hours.”

“Oh.” Mark swallows them with a glass of oddly tasting water. He can’t help but wonder about whether to take the fact that he doesn’t have to eat as a bad omen. It is good that he doesn’t need to worry about that part but maybe it just means he will have to do something extraordinarily tough next up. Something that really puts what he has been through so far to shame.

“It is possible to entirely replace a diet with these supplements but it tends to get a tad boring, don’t you think?”

“I suppose. I’ve always liked food.”

“That’s the spirit. You should always try to enjoy as much of the good in life as possible when you have the opportunity.”

“Will I have such an opportunity in the near future?”

“You have such an opportunity right this moment, everything you could ever wish for is here with you now, always.”

“Oh?”

“Do not base your happiness in expectations or comparisons and you will never be displeased nor bored.

“Happiness, as we usually mean it, is not absolute but relative: to say that an event contains x happiness means nothing, only if you define a base, say event two which contains zero happiness, does the statement make sense.

“Say the base is you but an hour ago, crushed and cold on a bed of ice, compared to that does not this moment contain more joy than all of your life?”

“Well, I haven’t thought about it that way\ldots ”

“And you shouldn’t, as it is but a way to find the proper mindset. It is easy to see that whatever situation you find yourself in the possibility to set a base that is lower than what you are currently feeling will always exist. Thusly happiness, and other feelings, as a relative value does not provide objective measurement. Instead you must try to transcend it into an absolute value, one that is constant and neverchanging. Practically this only means that you observe the feeling in a vaccuum, do not attempt to label it as good or bad, only look at it and see it for what it is and how it can affect you. Then accept that.”

“Okay.”

“You will understand, in time. Now come.”

Mark gets up from the bed and follows Nicol as he exits through the door into the familiar corridor. Down the hall is Marks room, and further is the room of ice where he had just ventured. This time however they travel in the opposite direction for a short while until Nicol stops in front of a metal clad door. He opens the heavy door as easily as paper and motions for Mark to enter, which he does.

The end! (Nah just kidding, to be concluded!)

\chapter*{Notes}
As long as you live on you will live to see better times, even if that just means cessation of pain (death).

Who wrote the second entry?

I need water! Why? …

I promise you will not die in this room. Considering that, how can the thirst hurt you? The thirst itself is not a negative, only the death associated with it. Shed yourself of any negative prejudices of thirst, and analyze only: how does it \emph{feel} to be thirsty?

Stones (splinters in his foot), fire, tree. Man in the center of the room. Big rock, smash? Jumping, uhu. Punching.. something. What is in the storage room? What are other rooms?

“So I never really had a choice?”
“No.”

“We even make their money! They call us a threat to society? Hah, we \emph{are} the society! At any moment we could turn our civilization into a state of anarchy, and should they succeed with their plan to `eradicate’ us that would be precisely the result, and I believe, or hope, that on some level they are aware of this. Which makes their efforts all the more pathetic. They are fighting a scene war, and a losing one at that.”

He is awoken early and dragged into heavy training. Beginning with hand to hand combat. He is first given personal lessons by Nicol and later mixing it with simulations. Each night he goes to sleep his room seems unnoticeable bigger.

After only a few days he notices his bookshelf is no longer empty. A black notebook stands lonely all by itself. Inside it is a pen, but apart from that only blank pages. %begin diary entries

After a few weeks have passed, while walking around in his room he notices he no longer has to squeeze past the bed. %hint this.

After about a year of training he is introduced to mêlée weapons, starting with a simple gladius. After another year of training with this new weapon as well as reinforcing unarmed combat he is, on his fifteenth birthday, allowed to leave the mansion for a brief period of time.

He knows nothing about what is about to happen when he travels a short distance with Nicol (not leaving the city) to an open city square. %?
This is the first time in two years that he sees another living being besides Nicol.

They walk across the crowded square talking when suddenly Nicol points at a man some metres away.

“See that man?”

“Yes.”

“Kill him!”

Mark does not hesitate but draws his sword, charges forward and thrusts it into the man who dies on the spot. The whole thing takes mere seconds but when he looks back Nicol has completely disappeared. He is now alone, in a huge city full of unknown, armed with nothing but his gladius.

The crowd quickly shatters as they realize what is happening. A ring of emptiness is formed around Mark as he tries desperately to think up a plan. Just as he decides he should make his way toward a more desolate area where he could plan for the route back again by locating some of the more memorable buildings they flew past on the way here, a man separates himself from the ring of observers and cries out.

“Hold it right there!”

The man is holding a gun pointed at Mark, he looks slightly nervous but still has a firm hold on the weapon. He appears to at least have an idea of what he is doing. Staying calm Mark measures the distance between them as well as analyzing his foe. The man turns his head for but a brief moment, he intends to yell for the crowd to disperse and leave room for the arriving officials, but the words never have a chance to leave his mouth for at the precise point where his attention shifts from his subject to that of protecting the observers, he is vulnerable. Mark knows this, and it was the one thing he had been waiting for. As he bolts forward the man in question is watching a weary mother pull her child by the wrist, away from the commotion and danger. The child is crying, and with a sudden unexpected jerk his ice cream falls to the ground. Mesmerized by this image, the man watches the frozen liquid as it falls toward the ground. It is as his world is moving in slow motion. He can see the ball of chocolate flavored dessert twirl through the air, while reaching closer and closer to the inevitable end. Only in his world, the ice cream never hits the ground.

His body barely has time to register the feeling of pain before he is face down on the pavement in a puddle of blood. %his torso ripped from his lower body
In the distance sirens can be heard. Mark looks around him, pauses for the briefest moment, and then starts running.

Mark eventually reaches a super market, where he barricades himself from the police. A series of battles end in a climactic fight with a highly trained agent. Mark is able to take hold of one of the polices mobiles and uses it to find his way back home.

Lots of stuff happens, amongst them killing “innocent” people, thinning out population, live target practice, driving lessons. He is also begun training with more sophisticated weaponry.

More stuff happens, as well as some hint that there is another person in the “house”.

When he has “finished” his training he is sent on one last mission: to discover the origin of resent animal attacks and or a poisonous lake in a rural town. This leads to discovering a secret facility where they work with mutating animals. Mark learns that they’ve dispatched modified animals into the wild to see how they’d survive. He embarks to kill these “infected” animals, who’ve proven to be extremely lethal. He rallies a group of both trained soldiers and natives before heading into the great green. They overcome a few obstacles, such as raging animals, normal as well as mutated, cryptic messages from “oracles” living in the forest (You seek the key!), raging rivers with killer fish, quicksand, angry tribes, and some other stuff. Ending with Mark as the only survivor in an Indiana Jones-esque cave where the treasure is a lump of clay. When making it out of the cave he is surrounded by angry men with bows and blowpipes. He escapes and with all his food supply depleted he reaches a tribes town and discovers that they are cannibalistic. He kills a few of them and uses their own cauldrons to cook and eat them. He brings some food for the road and then eventually escapes the forest. He can’t use his mobile to fly out because he lost his equipment belt, ergo no guns or other stuff. Doubtful whether he completed his original mission, however Nicol appears pleased when he is presented the clay. Mark is instructed to hold on to it and is then told that his training is complete, and he can walk the world freely.

%The ending lines
From high above a dark figure watches over him as he pauses on the pavement, gazing out at this whole new world ready to be explored. Uncertain of where to go next he crosses the road and starts walking in no specific direction, with no goal but the thought that now fills his head. He repeats it to himself over and over. He knows not what it means, he knows only that it is what he must find, it is what he must have. And he must have it now!

\emph{FAINT!}

%two rules, always question me, never disobey me.
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