As a group, we all headed for the Sanctuary.
I wasn’t nervous, per se, but I was in cognitive overdrive. I’d entered the world today, and I was lagging behind it. I had to catch up, but with everything from sensory information to the implications of events, it was taxing. The future was getting exponentially complicated.
But I had a plan. I think. Things were getting fuzzier in that department.
Whatever, I’d roll with it.
It was a short trek for our collective around the slope and up to the entrance of the Sanctuary. The doors were no longer hanging open, but people were still coming down mountain passes towards them.
Kendall stepped through and held the doors for everyone else.
The huge Sanctuary, with its domed ceiling, had wide open stone floors with cracks running through them. In certain places, the rock jutted straight up to form partitions or overlooks. There was a kind of amphitheater off to one side of the room, looking down on a blackboard. Then there was an area on the other side with computers, work spaces, and a shooting range. There was an overlooking room with a one-way glass wall, and just beneath that higher craggy outcropping was a gateway, with powerful vault doors. Everything, though, revolved around the center area, which was a sort of no man’s land, which everyone avoided. There was a circular steel platform there, slightly raised from the ground. It had rings, dividing sections of it, with the outer border a glowing barrier. It was slightly foreboding, I felt.
A man in a blue suit was down in the amphitheater, with several people standing around him, talking. We five walked down and came within earshot.
“-Don’t wanna talk about that. Anything else?” He was saying.
“Professor Porter, how many disciples will you be taking?” A girl asked.
“I’m interested in finding one or two talented Guild worthy Magi.”
“So you’re only taking in two disciples?”
“I didn’t say that.” Porter was watching us as we came closer. “Here comes one of my students. Kendall, right? Blackthorn.”
“Yes sir,” Kendall said. He motioned for us to stay put and approached to shake Porter’s hand. Porter stared at the hand and Kendall awkwardly dropped it.
“You’ve gotta earn that.” He turned back to the crowd. “Tell your professors that I will be accepting transfer students, but to stop poking their eyes around here with magic. If they want to talk to me they can-” he trailed off, staring off in my direction.
Oh. This could be problematic. Wait…
His gaze was cast over my shoulder, I whipped my head around to see who he was looking at. A young brown-skinned dude in a black suit and tie, with dark red shirt and black hair. He was smiling.
“Go back to your professors, get lost,” Porter said.
The black suit walked with dignity, control, as he descended to the blue suit. It was strange, the contrast between them. Everything about them was different, aside from gender, I could think of no connecting factor.
Ashes had an amused grin, watching the interplay. Bored personality, I thought. He arched an eyebrow as he saw me checking on him. Odessa seemed disinterested. Anna was watching, but her demeanor gave a hint to just how little control she was capable of exerting. And me, of course, I was watching too, maintaining no interference.
Kendall though, in those few seconds the black suit walked, looked very stiff.
“Porter,” black suit said, “professor Wulff sends his regards.”
“Tell him I said hi, then. And thank you, Christopher, for this morning. Thought about it some, and you were right. I’m going to be great with young people.” Porter said it with a kind of scary undertone.
Christopher just smiled, knowingly.
Kendall spoke up, “would you like me to present my work, Master?”
“None of that shit, just Professor. And yes. Good timing, Christopher. You called yourself magus, at the hearing?”
“Yes.” I had no idea what was going on there. Kendall seemed not to, as well.
“You’re in the Guild then?”
“I am.” His responses were instant, almost mechanical.
“Good, come give me your opinion on Kendall’s work. He could use an extra set of criticisms.”
“It would be my pleasure. Come on Kendall.” He said it like he knew him.
This is fantastic. My head ached, but there was just so much to focus on here.
“Y-yeah.” Kendall looked to his team, I mentally dubbed us. “Come on.”
Porter lead us to the center room platform and thrust a finger at Ash.
“Me?!” Ashes exclaimed, mockingly.
“Get in the ring, Ashmedai,” Kendall said.
Ash hopped up on the platform with a skip and sauntered into the middle.
“This is Ashmedai, the Traitor. He assisted in the Hell Campaign and ended up in my keep. And that is the object of my thesis, repurposing resources that would be otherwise wasted.”
Resources. The character profile of her I was building proved accurate when I checked, and Anna was cringing.
“-Ashmedai is a demon, which under oath is actually loyal. A valuable asset.”
“Silence. He’s a tier three spirit of deception. His directly offensive powers are lacking. But I work with what I get.”
While Kendall talked Ashes went about pulling knives from behind his back and throwing them on the ground. They couldn’t all possibly have fit in his skinny jeans. They clattered loudly against the steel floor.
“Warfare and weaponry can be automated, but in the Hellscape an insurgent would be a uniquely useful tool,” Christopher said.
There was a joke there, I think.
“Agreed. Next,” Porter said.
Odessa went up as Ashes came down from the platform, giant sword still in hand. The knives had disappeared, at some point.
“Also recovered from the Hell Campaign, Odessa Dragonsbane. She had cleared a large sector of threats, on her own. Once the sector was claimed, she was brought off the battlefield. Her sword is heavily enchanted, but she herself is not an enchantress.”
She swung the sword and I could feel the very movement in my chest. It seemed lighter than it looked, in her hands. No doubt an imbued trait. Just as I doubted it worked for anyone but her. The sword slammed down into the platform and dug deep into the steel.
“Next,” Porter said.
Odessa barred her teeth, her eyes turning murderous for an instant. It was the first display of emotion I’d noticed her make. It was unprovoked, as far as I could tell. She came off the platform, and Porter pointed at Anna.
“She’s new, so’s that one,” Kendall said. ” She’s an elemental spirit, tier one. Needs development. Get up there.” Anna was hesitant but went on. “Do something.”
“I don’t uh…” She nervously touched the scars at her neck. She put out a hand and closed her eyes. Nothing happened. It was rather painful to watch, as the moments passed.
A fast breeze mussed up Kendall’s long hair and he shook his head. I cracked a crooked grin, waiting for a couple of seconds for the wind to subside, but it didn’t.
“That’s enough,” Porter said.
“Sorry.” Anna rushed off the platform.
Christopher looked at me, still smiling, and spoke. “You next.”
I stepped up. Walked to the middle and turned to face them, my hands at rest hooked on the brim of my open coat. Christopher’s smile had disappeared.
“Tier zero,” he said as he looked at me, seeming unsure.
“Human. Yeah, I sense that too,” Porter added. “Do you do anything…?”
I didn’t think he was looking for one, but I supplied a name anyway. “Doran. And no, I’m more of a thinker, for now, I think.”
Christopher’s lack of smile had gone full blown frown.
“Sorry to disappoint.”
Porter gave Kendall a poke, and Kendall flinched.
“A little underwhelming,” he said. “Not a lot of raw power. You’ve got a heavy, a spy and a scout, possibly, and that one. Not a lot of potential, either. It’ll be the leadership which makes this a hit or miss, Blackthorn, and that’s not promising. The underlying idea is smart. I suggest expanding your team. Christopher, verdict?”
Christopher had gone, vanished. In any other place, one would see a bigger reaction to that kind of thing. Kendall and his crew, I included, didn’t seem to care. Porter squinted and started grimacing.
I stood around, waiting for someone to tell me to do otherwise.
“I’m going to go, I’ll be back.” Porter left a hint of urgency in his pace.
As soon as he was out of earshot Ash asked, “I do good?”
Kendall, focused on me and irate, “What the hell are you supposed to be?” He strode up onto the platform, his trajectory straight for my personal space. He grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me in. “Are you a student? Are you fucking with me!?”
Kendall hadn’t conjured me, I’d already known. Now Ash would, undoubtedly.
Anna started forward but I put out a hand to stop her, out of Kendall’s sight. “No, I honestly don’t know or care about you, Kendall. Calm down, Porter will see you. Leadership, remember.” My momentary surprise subsided, and I was able to stare him down, being taller than him. I had this.
He let me go with a shove.
“Kendall, he’s still gainful,” Odessa said. A connection there?
Shut up, stop analyzing.
I blinked a few times, found myself again, where I’d fallen away. I adjusted my coat, put my hands back where they were comfortable and occupied, clasping my Nehru jacket, thingy.
We stood around for a second, but the uncomfortable silence was broken.
“Are we interrupting something?” There was a girl, short and ghost pale, with a wild mop of pitch black frizzy hair. Behind her, three tall guys in plaid and jeans, each strong faced, stood with arms crossed. Very lumberjack. Minor differences separated the lot of them, but only just. Siblings.
“No… no.” Kendall slicked back the hair that had fallen into his face. “Just me, being a leader.” He glared at me.
“Right…” she sounded doubtful. “Where’s the professor, then?”
“Are you a disciple of Porter?” Kendall inquired.
“Are you?” One of the guys asked. A yes, obviously, but it meant more.
A competitive system. Conflict abounds.
Kendall pointed in the direction Porter had gone. The lot went brazenly over the platform, instead of circling around it. One of the broad shouldered, big guys, brushed past me, in a way that could only have been intentional. They went out of sight behind one of the stone walls.
“They’re siblings,” I said.
“Yeah,” Anna agreed. When our eyes met she still seemed concerned, as she’d been when Kendall had grabbed me. Not sure what that meant.
This time, I noticed as the doors to the Sanctuary swung open, and people entered. Eight or so men and women in varyingly appropriate dress, for how cold it was. There was an Asian guy sporting a ponytail in the back of the crowd, with a katana at his hip, and a stern look on his face, wearing nothing but very old looking baggy pants. The rest of them were rather plain. As they flooded into the room, Kendall huddled us all back together and walked us out of the group’s path.
These people were all students of Porter, immediate transfers. The timing of their arrival was odd, though, just as the timing of the siblings had been.
I almost wondered if that was Aku. Subtle design.
“Can you do this, Kendall?” Odessa asked, her voice low. I detected an accent, a lilt of proper old English when she spoke.
“Yes… Yes,” he said it again, more firmly. “We can, but only together. I need you to forget… forget about what happened, Odessa. I’m sorry about that. But we’ve got to.” She cut her eyes down, baring her teeth again. “Ash?”
“I’m in this for myself, man, you just happen to get in on that. You don’t needa worry, Kenny, I’m with you,” Ashes said, actually serious.
I could see how he played, tactically. Surprisingly, I was actually liking him.
Kendall put a hand on Anna’s shoulder. “We’re gonna work on finding your strength… Anna.” He’d almost forgotten it. “And you, Doran, are going to make yourself useful, somehow. Or there’s no point in keeping you around.”
“You don’t know me…” I said. I looked at the ground, thinking long and hard for a moment, clearing my thoughts and letting go. “I’m smart, and I’m focused. I feel light and weak. But wisdom… wisdom can solve any problem, I believe that. Believe that I can do whatever I set my mind to. And I could be human, apparently, but so are you, Kendall. So is Porter. And me, I’m just getting started, and there’s a lot to accomplish. I don’t know where I’m going. Things are confusing, fuzzy, and chaotic. But I’m alive now, I know that, and not a lot else. And I’ll stay free, too. I won’t allow myself to fail. You’ve got my loyalty, Kendall.”
“Mhmm. We’re a team then,” Kendall said. “Me and my motley crew.”
“Oh, I’m doctor Feel-Good!” Ash exclaimed.
“I don’t get it,” Anna said.
Kendall seconded, saying, “yeah, nobody ever does, Ashmedai.”
Odessa threw her sword over her shoulder and I bent back as it swung past my head. “Classes begin on the morrow, Kendall. Let’s not mingle, let’s return.”
“Come on everyone.”
“You’re all faggots,” Ashes accused us.
I didn’t know these people, but I was starting to understand them. I could manipulate them if I wanted to. I could make this happen.
Hubris. Humility is your friend.
Right. Sure. Playing it safe.
I couldn’t help a little devious smile, as I went on my way with the others.