Chapter 13
Setting the Path

Near Mount Vulcan, Gladius

"When I first wore my father's armor, I was flooded with its knowledge and memories. However, I could not make out most of it. Perhaps it was because I was haunted by what I had done to acquire it. As I came to accept what had happened, it granted me more of its power. Before it would let me overcome others, I first had to overcome myself."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Mark had not said a word since they left the cave. It was already close to sunset when they emerged from the mountain, so they did not go very far. They found a place to camp atop a hill that gave them a favorable view of their surroundings in case foes tried to strike at them during the night. While they were unpacking their gear, Teresa addressed the group.
"I want to check everyone for injuries before the sun sets."
Unsurprisingly, Jasper jumped to the head of the line, but Teresa's first concern was Mark. Even though he had seven weeks to heal, she worried about the consequences of the Inkari's ambush and his fight with Mark Kurin. Sensing the unusual coldness of his demeanor, Teresa approached the swordsman somewhat tremulously.
"Would you mind taking off your armor?" she asked. "Your ribs are still weak and I'm worried they might have gotten broken again."
Mark, who had been such a cooperative patient before, refused to take off his armor and allow her to examine him. He said nothing to her and it did not appear that he would be moved to speak anytime soon.
"Mark, please..." she pleaded.
"Leave him alone for now," Sonia said, guiding the novice away from Mark. "Check the rest of us first and maybe he'll be back in sorts by then."
Despite her reservations, Teresa complied with Sonia's suggestion. However, it became clear that Mark would not be seeking her aid. He walked a short distance away from the group and sat down, an unmistakable sign that he did not want anyone's company. They set up camp where they were, thinking Mark would join them by the warmth of the fire. He never did.
The next morning, Mark's spirits had not improved any. He kept his distance from the others, ate nothing and hardly showed any signs of moving at all. After what had happened yesterday, all were content to leave him be, all except for Sonia. As she approached him, he did nothing to acknowledge her presence.
"How long are you going to sulk?" she asked. "Yes, you lost control back there, but who could blame you? You can't let it eat at you."
Mark held his silence. Sonia's face showed signs of aggravation, but they quickly faded.
"You've been seeing things since you put it on," she said, "haven't you? Things you can't fully understand... The past... both near and distant..."
This got a reaction from Mark, but still no answer.
"You'll see more when you fight with it," she said. "I've worn this armor and wielded this sword for years now, but I haven't really started to use my powers until recently. I know I've barely scratched the surface... And yet, when your gear accepted you, everything became clearer. I think Papa was right about you being the key to awakening my full powers. I think the Elemental Knights truly manifest their potential only in the presence of one another."
"When was the first time you killed a man?" Mark asked distantly.
The question took her off guard, but she did not hesitate to respond.
"Why do you ask?"
Mark did not say anything. Sonia hesitated for a moment before answering, but she was not willing to lose this chance to get him to open up.
"A couple months ago," she said. "When I killed the guards at the gatehouse in Cruz."
"What went through your head when you killed them?" Mark asked. "How did you feel afterward?"
"I don't see where you're going with this..."
"Please... Just tell me."
Sonia scratched her head. "I wasn't really thinking at all. I was so angry when I saw you taken away... I didn't feel a thing, not then, not now... I did what I had to do. I don't regret it."
"You hate the Gladian Guard that much?"
"Yes, I hate them that much," she said firmly. The fencer tapped the ornament on her forehead. "You see this? It's all I have left of my master, the man who taught me everything I know about wielding a blade and being an Elemental Knight. My master learned that Randwulf was hunting down the 'Sleeping Lion' from the warlock's prophecy and he had me perform the Rite of Succession early. The Guard was dispatched to kill me, but he died in my place.
"I followed his last wishes and waited until the time was ripe. He believed the warlock's prophecy, that the Eagle in the East was the key to Randwulf's defeat. Nine long years I waited... and then I was reunited with you. I knew I would finally get my revenge."
The talk of vengeance and her slain master had left Sonia tightly wound, but she released the tension in a single breath. With her calm restored, she reached out to her cousin once again. "Come on, really, why are you asking me all this?"
"Perspective," Mark replied, his voice still distant and detached. "My first time was ten years ago... I was protecting my uncle from bewitched soldiers. I wasn't like you. It tore me up inside. I wasn't driven by anger or justified by revenge... Just saying it was what I had to do wasn't enough for me. I tried to push it away, but it wouldn't stay down. I couldn't live with it. That's why I became a monk. I thought I could make a life for myself there and never have to kill again. But I couldn't let go of my past. I had to know...
"When I started to learn about the conquest of Gladius, I didn't want to get involved. I knew if I got mixed up in it, I'd have to kill again... In Watercress, when I was protecting that boy, and then again in Cruz, I fought my every instinct as a swordsman to keep from killing any of them. Then we were captured by the Inkari...
"Seeing the gear of my forefathers desecrated like that, I lost all control..." He paused. "There's a difference between killing a man with a sword and killing one with your bare hands... I'd never done anything so brutal before..." His fingers slowly ran down the length of his face, which had a haunted look to it. "I can... I can feel his blood on me... It makes me feel sick... I know there's no turning back..."
Sonia rested her hand on his pauldron. "Mark, you've been raised as a swordsman," she said. "It's in your blood. There's no denying it. When you left your abbey, you didn't have to wear a sword, but you did. You could've let your training lapse, but you didn't. Somewhere deep down, you knew it would come to this. You have to come terms with who you are and what you're meant to do."
Unable to contradict her, Mark bowed his head. "Why did you come with me?" he asked.
"Well, you're my cousin after all," she replied, "and I couldn't very well leave you at the mercy of that drunkard." Realizing it was no time to be facetious, her tone became more serious. "That's only a part of it, though... I hate Randwulf... I hate him so much... and the Guard... and all his other followers... And even though I wasn't away all these years like you were, I also have to face my past."
Mark turned to face her. "Why did you wait until I came along?"
Sonia shrugged. "I don't know... Maybe it's because I believed what my master believed... about the Eagle in the East... Then again... Maybe I just lacked the courage to take matters into my own hands..."
"In the time I've known you," Mark said with a weak smile, "you've never done to anything make me question your courage."
Before she could respond, Edward interrupted them, beaming with self-satisfaction as if he was single-handedly responsible for Mark's succession.
"You've done it," he said, "you've proven you're the son of Luther. Now we'll strike at Darkwall while its defenses are weak. Gladius will soon be free!"
Mark stared at him blankly. "I told you before, I'm not here for your revolution and I'm not going to be your pawn."
Edward's good mood was instantly deflated. "How long are you going to cling to this foolishness?" the Prince growled. "Randwulf is responsible for the death of your family and countless others. Are you content to stand idly by!?"
"Is that why you fight?" Mark asked. "For others or for yourself?"
"How dare you!" Edward barked.
Sonia raised her hand to stop Edward. "Mark," she said, "he may fight for selfish reasons, but that doesn't mean you have to. You've seen how much pain Randwulf has caused. You know it's not over yet.
"Elemental Knights can feel it when another performs the Rite of Succession. It hit me like a boot to the gut and I'm sure Randwulf felt it, too. Wherever the Marauders are campaigning, Randwulf's goal is to get you, the Eagle in the East. Now that he knows you're here and that you've succeeded your father, he's going to be heading back to Gladius as soon as he can.
"If we strike Darkwall now, there's a good chance we could seize it. With Randwulf's castle in our hands, the people would finally have the courage to rally behind our banner. The Marauders will be cut off from their supply lines and without that, their strength will crumble."
She took hold of both his pauldrons and shook him lightly. "You have a chance to stop him, Mark. You won't be alone either. I, for one, will be there to fight beside you."
Mark stood up and looked to the horizon. The sun was peeking over the mountains, a great fire out of the East. Would he be the same, a mighty flame sweeping over Gladius to burn away Randwulf's tyranny?
"I'm not saying yes," Mark replied, "and I'm not saying no. I don't want a revolution, but there's one more person I need to confront to get the answers I seek. Your path seems to be the shortest route to him, so I'll stay with you for a while longer."
Edward grunted with disapproval, but Sonia smiled.
"That's good enough for me," she said.
After packing up, the group set out with a new destination: the dreaded Castle Darkwall. Mark had agreed to follow along with Edward's quest, but his heart was not set on freeing Gladius, not yet at least. Only time would tell if his feelings would change.