“Where’s Kendall?” Porter asked. He was standing over us, huddled and resting in the cold. He was looking at me, though. Was I the chatty one?
“He’s screwing off,” Anna said, then, pleasantly, “can we take a message?”
“No. Kendall needs to hear this himself. There’s been a development.” He strode through the Sanctuary doors, and we took that as our cue to follow. “Aku, get Kendall.”
“He’s coming,” Aku replied.
“What’s happened?” Ash asked, actually worried.
“I’m not explaining twice,” Porter replied flatly.
After some time of us not talking to one another, and standing around, Kendall came through the doors looking a touch disheveled. He was standing straight, though, with his hands clasped behind his back. There was the faintest trace of an odd smell about him.
He seemed more composed than I’d expected. He hid it well.
“Professor Porter,” he said. “Apologies.”
Porter waved a hand, didn’t care. “The Beaulieu’s and Hasami are en route. I need to talk to you all. Something happened. There was a development during the War Games that’s changed things. Drastically.”
“But what about the War Games?”
“What? Oh, that. What did you think, I would just drop everyone?” Porter asked. “That was only for the rest. I’ve narrowed it down to you three, easily enough. I just needed an excuse to drop the rest. I knew you’d lose, but I knew you’d perform. Watching the recap, you did exactly that.”
You’re a moron, Kendall.
Porter continued. “Your team was effective Kendall, as were you. I’m honestly not sure how you transferred control to Doran, of the demon. It was a feat of skill. Each, with the exception of one, functioned well on their own, and even better as a unit. I’m not throwing that away.”
Kendall let out a breath and, quickly remembering to maintain himself, followed with a stiff nod. He was deeply relieved.
In through the doors and up to the platform where we stood, the center of a lonely Sanctuary, came the Beaulieu’s. Hasami wasn’t far behind, and came to plant one foot up on the platform, occupying the edge.
“Porter-” Catherine started, her brothers talking over and to each other.
“Not important,” Porter raised a hand. He gave a displeased look to Hasami, who hung his head.
Predictably, he’d underperformed. Yet he’ll still fight the inevitable.
“Professors are briefing their students as we speak. There’s been an emergency and it is still ongoing. It has not been resolved, and there’s a possibility that it won’t be.” The corner of his mouth rose, I saw, but only a touch. It was in his tone, as well. “An entity has been classified as untiered, and it’s hostile.”
“The fuck? Untiered?” Catherine said. “Like, God?”
“He’s a pure personification of everything. So, in a sense, yes, miss Beaulieu. An absolute bodily personification of existence, the Omniverse. It had been moving around in the outer verses, and Aku had attempted to handle it… but failed.” He smirked a little. “And we know he’s targeting us. Utopians. We think he’s about balance. The binding element to his being is Ought. He’s a moral agent, and he’s judging us. Much like an Angel would.”
The Samurai had raised his head, displaying a look of dismay.
The implications were… they were troublesome.
“We’ll be attempting a binding.” Porter took off his blue suit jacket, going over the buttons. “I’m an expert in personification metaphysics, so I’ll be involved. But I can already tell you; it isn’t going to hold, and won’t work more than once… So, there are some things we need to come to terms with.” He threw off his jacket and stepped off the platform.
He was shedding his vest as we followed him back to the lockers, where there was a changing room.
“The entire operation is pretty much waiting on me,” he said. “I’ve got special permission to direct the binding. I needed to get this information to you all, though, so you could talk it over. Plus its fun to make them wait.”
“Talk what over?” Asked one of Cat’s brothers. He caught the shirt which Porter threw at him, then tossed it aside.
“People talk. There’s been a notion for a while now, among the prophets and seers, that something is coming. A darkness. We don’t know if it’s the Ouroboros, that’s what he calls himself, or what. But the order of things fights back. Change like we enact is resisted. We can’t make things work like we do. And if we’re going to continue to, then we need get stronger. That’s on you. So I’ve decided that I’m going to accelerate your training. To prepare us.”
He stepped into the dressing room and when he stepped out, he was wearing a blue Eidolon suit. A suit with a hint of an old military uniform in it. Like that of a general. It was armored and intricate. Dense.
“You three are going to join the Hell Campaign.”
A twisted fight. Our enemy and child.
Stop that. Shut up.
“So, you’ve all got to decide. Is this the end of your road to immortality? To whatever the fuck we’re supposed to be reaching towards, nowadays. Know that, if you do make it through Hell, and take part in whatever’s next, I truly believe that it’ll be a new frontier. There’s always more to conquer. Those who do are the only real gods. It is the path into the stars. Into eternity.”
Kendall’s posture hardened. “This sounds like the end.”
“Never an end in sight,” Porter said, blithely undaunted.
He means to win. To get back what he had.
This had been Porter from the beginning. He didn’t want a successor, and he had no intention of sharing his skills. No one else could do what he did. I’d looked into his history, on those late nights in the last month when I couldn’t sleep. I’d watched the hearing. I’d seen Christopher there. He’d said it then. He’d figured it out some time later.
No one could do what he did. He meant to use that.
But against something like this. The will of God? If there is such a thing.
Those implications? I knew what they were now.
We weren’t righteous. I wasn’t. One couldn’t hope to be.
“Think it over.” Porter picked up and ran out of the Sanctuary. He was off to do whatever they needed him for. They were already giving him special exceptions to his sentence at the first sign of necessity. He expected things only to get worse.
So did I, inexorably.
With that, he’d eventually be back in the field like he wanted. That left us as potential teammates for him, one day.
“Hell just froze over,” Ash quipped.
Kendall turned to Hasami and Catherine. “This is a nightmare.”
“We’re not afraid,” Cat smugly said.
“I’m… I’m hesitant,” one of her brothers slowly added.
“Shutup!” She barked, holding up a hand.
“Our cause…” Hasami said. Neither Kendall nor Catherine looked pleased. Nobody wanted to talk about the dilemma that Ouroboros presented. Now wasn’t the time for reflection. He continued with a different track. “I will go where the path leads, undeterred. It would be dishonoring to turn back now.”
No room for doubt.
“There’re all those expressions for a reason,” Anna said. “It’s literally the worst place to go, and we’re just gonna live there?”
“Aye.” Odessa had lived there for some time.
“Can you please get them to shut up,” Catherine scowled at Kendall. “The Swordsman is in. We’re fucking in. This is our shot to the Guild. There’s no magus I’d rather study under than Porter. So if you can silence your summons, Kendall, I’d like to know if you’re ready to drop out yet?”
“Thanks for the extra motivation, Catherine,” he said, angrily. “But we need to deliberate on the subject. You can push your brothers around, but I’ll treat well those I depend on.” He looked over his shoulder to his summons. Odessa grimaced. He looked like he’d expected it. But he still deflated some.
Abruptly and obnoxiously Ash shouted “Burn!” and snapped his fingers.
Not everybody understood. Catherine hadn’t, but it still pissed her off.
She stormed out of the Sanctuary with brothers in tow. Hasami too took his leave. He wasn’t happy either. Once again we alone occupied the Sanctuary.
“We’re not going to go through with this, right?” Anna asked. “Please, please, tell me we’re not going to hell, Kendall.”
“Inevitability,” he replied. “I can’t be the only one who gets that?”
“Spare us,” Ash, vitriolic, said. “We don’t have to do anything.”
“This is graduation for me, you fucker. The price of my tuition was always military service. This was always the probable endgame. If I drop out now, because I don’t feel like it, then I’ll never get back in. Each of us goes back to being who we were without the Cause.” He looked to each of us in turn and said, “Ash goes to another summoner, or, far more likely, gets shelved. Odessa rolls the same dice. Anna? I’m not sure they wouldn’t just dispel you. And Doran? He can go back to wherever he came from. I’ll see to that.”
Fuck you, bro.
“So, this is where we part ways… if you choose.” Facing Odessa he added, “I owe you that choice.” He fished out his cards from his pocket. Stared down at them, waiting and pretending to search through them.
I, tightlipped, was still silent. My answer was a given to him. But I had serious doubts. I didn’t want this. Even though I had begun with the mindset to plan and plot. I now couldn’t recall why really. Why anyone would play this game.
But nobody really makes that choice. Nobody does this on purpose.
Can you really follow through?
You don’t have to. You can stop.
No. I can’t.
I had made up my mind. For now, I would stay the path that’s been made.
“This sucks.” Ash simpered creepily. “But I think I’ll stick with you, Kendall.”
“That’s two,” Kendall said. Taken for granted.
“You could request a transfer!” Anna desperately reasoned.
“I won’t abandon you, Kendall. But know that I will not bow,” Odessa said.
“Fair enough,” he replied.
“No! Come on!” Anna shouted. “I don’t get a goddamned choice! That’s what’s fucked about all this! When did being rational start meaning that you control everything? Every choice that’s offered is one that benefit the Cause. It’s fucked! Don’t you get it?!” She actually began to storm off, leaving us behind.
Kendall started after her, but I put a hand on his shoulder.
“What?” He slapped it away. I took the question as permission.
“She needs this,” I said, grimly.
I didn’t know if she’d come back. It wasn’t like she could go anywhere. Kendall could call her back in a moment. The command need not be heard. None of us could be free. None of us really could be free with him.
“We’re staying together then,” Kendall concluded. “For the long-haul.”
“Yes. From here on we achieve as a unity,” Odessa said.
“In sickness and in health,” Ash mocked, still smiling.
“Together,” Kendall threw away the cards in his hands, “we’ll be stronger.” As they drifted to the ground they burned away. No idea what that meant.
I knew, though, that onward we’d be together. Stronger? Maybe even so.
“Let’s go,” Odessa said.
“Yeah.” Kendall knew the way, leading it.
We went on, out from the Sanctuary to prepare ourselves and attend to anything that needed attending. When Porter returned, we’d be ready with our answer.
Kendall’s decision was to seek immortality in the Guild, the only ones who would give him such a gift. Odessa and Ash were with him hoping that in the end, they might be free. An unlikely prospect, that Kendall would give up his weapons.
No, in the back of their minds, they knew the truth. That, unless we die, we’ll be doing this forever, with Kendall as our master. The business about contract limits was all lies. They’d force our hands, just as they’d done to Anna.
I doubted that we’d get that far, though. I couldn’t live that way.
I looked up to the twilight sky one last time, appreciating the stars.
Set my mind to the present. There was work to do. A descent to be made.
But, I couldn’t deny the dread growing inside. Every choice turned air to led.
To Hell, we damned go.