In the middle of the Pacific, floating seventeen feet above the ocean, lays the Test. A structure three-hundred and sixty six cubit feet in length, a perfect sphere. A black substance guards from all attacks, and entry is given only to those it deems worthy.
The Test appeared five years ago, and none have claimed responsibility for it. Some say it is an attack by a rogue power. Others say it is a gift, given from beyond the stars.
Others say that it is the work of Hell.
One thing is for certain. The Test is here to teach any who are truly meant to learn.
It has said so.
And why would it lie?
I am the sinner in the land of gods.
Three years. Three years I’ve been in this cursed place. Left alone with my thoughts, my fears. My punishments. The Proctor gave me solitude, and I have been grateful.
In fact, he (or she, or it) has given me more than any person ever has. The Proctor made sure that everyone knew what a wretched, pathetic thing I am. Banished me to the back end of the Exam Rooms, and locked the door away from any stupid enough to search for me.
And then the monsters came. And I spent every waking moment in fear for my life, my sanity, and my soul.
For that, I am thankful. The Proctor gave all that was promised, and more.
But today, the Proctor broke its promise. She gave me something I never wanted. Something he knew I despised.
It sent company
She drew an arrow from the quiver at her side. Broad-headed, and just sharp enough to pierce hide. She sighed, and looked up at the moon. It wasn’t real, but it gave her hope all the same.
Artemis was hunting, and it was her time.
She slunk past a tree, and kept her eyes peeled for any beast. She’d already slain a manticore, and a fell beast. The two had been strange mixtures of lions, insects, and winged lizards. Still, Artemis had killed them. By the power of her magic, and her skill with the bow.
It wouldn’t save her here, but she didn’t know that.
Artemis kept walking. She had found Nod by accident, and was even more surprised when she had been let into its doors. The Guardian had said that she would find only pain in this realm. Pain, and a transformation more foul than she could ever imagine.
Which was strange, because she could imagine a lot. She had read a lot of fantasy books, and even a lot of H.P. Lovecraft. And if you could understand what Elder Gods were, what else did you really have to know?
The goddess leapt backwards, screaming. No one was supposed to be here! No one! This was an unexplored part of the Test, it was supposed to be empty. They promised it was empty.
And yet, there he was. A man, leaning against an oak tree. Dressed all in black, with a small club by his side. A pipe was stuck in his mouth. The small flames lit up a hard face, covered by a half-grown beard. His hair hung just above his eyes. Artemis took a step back, and paused.
Red eyes. The man had red eyes.
He studied her for a second, and then sighed. “Who do we have here?”
Artemis calmed, and leaned backwards. “Artemis. Goddess of the Hunt. Goddess of the moon, and women everywhere.”
She nocked an arrow, and pointed it at the man. “Now run, before I consider you prey.”
The man puffed on his pipe. He blew a smoke ring up into the tree branches, and chuckled. “Goddess, eh?” he asked. “What are you, twelve?”
She bristled, and stamped her foot. “I’m fifteen! I’m not twelve, fifteen!”
He surged forward, club in hand. Artemis ducked under the blow, turned, and leapt up into a tree. She drew the bowstring, fired, and disappeared into the branches.
The man swatted the arrow out of the way, and grimaced. Artemis wasn’t supposed to be here. No one was supposed to be anywhere near here.
This was the land of Nod. His prison, his home. He stalked forward, as that small bit of anger started to rise up in him again.
Visitors. The one thing he hated more than anything now was visitors.
“What are you doing here, Artemis?” he called out. “Here to disturb a poor man’s exile?”
“Your exile?” she asked. “This is supposed to be the new Olympus!”
She stopped, far too late. The man turned, and threw the club. It spun into the trees, and knocked the goddess off her perch. She yelped, scrambled for a handhold, bashing against branches all down the side of the trunk, before landing on her butt in the undergrowth.
The man took another puff, and smiled. “A huntress should learn to keep her mouth shut.”
She glared, and stood. Tossed away her bow, and drew a long hunting knife. It caught the moonlight, and started to shine.
“Foul man,” she muttered. “I’m going to enjoy tearing you to pieces.”
“Bring it on,” he said. “I’ve got nothing better to do tonight.”
Artemis surged forward. Faster than she had ever moved before. The man stepped backwards, the hunting knife cutting just in front of his chest. Artemis struck again, and again, trying to break through. But wherever she was, he wasn’t.
And then the man kicked out. The goddess was picked up, and flung into the trees again.
This was impossible. She wasn’t just any huntress. She was supposed to be Artemis, The Huntress. The girl looked around for her bow, frantic. Come on, come on. She needed to find it, find it!
The man pointed back towards the first tree she fell out of. “Perhaps look over there?” he suggested.
She glared, and leapt to the tree. Picked up, drew, and fired in a single motion. The man leaned out of the way.
“Decent magic, and archery skills to boot,” he said. “But you’re not that used to the Test, are you?”
She fired again, and again. Three, and then four arrows were in the air, whizzing towards the man. He snatched the first, and batted the other three away.
“A Greek goddess,” he muttered. “I was wondering when the Proctor would get around to finding some of the Olympians. But I was hoping they’d send someone better to kill me.”
“Shut up!” she screamed. “Just shut up and die!”
And then he blurred, and the man was suddenly there in front of her. He snapped the bowstring, and the bow. He tapped her on the side with the pipe.
He swept her legs out from underneath her. The blow sent her crashing to the ground. She struggled to rise, and then he sat on her. And relit his pipe.
“Get off!” Artemis shouted.
He thought about it, and shook his head. “Nah. Haven’t had a good chair for three years. And this gives me a second to think.”
Artemis glowered up at the man. “Who are you?”
“Cain,” the man said. “My name’s Cain.”
She frowned. that was impossible. Cain was the Enemy of the entire Test. The destructor, the most Evil being in the sphere. There was a standing kill order on him throughout the entire Test. Even Accepted gods wanted the bounty on Cain’s head.
“Cain is somewhere in the upper levels,” Artemis said. “Or he’s down in the Underworlds. He’s not in…wherever this is.”
“Cain is wherever I am,” Cain muttered. He looked up at the sky, and sighed. “Now what am I supposed to do with you?”
“Get off me!”
Cain shrugged, and puffed on his pipe. This didn’t seem like a particularly good huntress. Or a proper Olympian, for that matter. Did the Proctor really think he was going to lay down and die this easily?
“What is going on here?” Cain asked. “Why did you pick here, of all places? What made you think that it was okay to invade a monster’s dwelling?”
“I’m here to conquer,” Artemis muttered. “I am here to take what is mine.”
“What is yours?” Cain asked. He stood up, and laughed.
“Nothing is yours, not here.”
He waved his hand. “We live in a simulated reality. A sick Test made up by a being with way too much power than is good with. Men and women come here because they’re promised wealth, power, and the fulfillment of dreams, if they only pass this one little exam.
“And anyone stupid enough to fall for that is stuck in here. To try and scramble enough of a life together before we are consumed by this alien’s jokes and riddles.”
They were all Test takers. Students of a game where the rules were even more hidden than the answers. All save for one.
And now the Proctor was sending students his way. Children playing at gods. “Is this the best you can do, Proctor?” he shouted. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m right here! Right here!”
“What is going on?” Artemis demanded. She sat up, rubbing her chest.
Lightning cracked through the air. “Teach her,” the wind whispered.
“Never!” Cain shouted. “I’m never going back!”
The air shuddered, and split apart. Artemis scrambled back.
“What is that?!?” she demanded.
Cain looked ahead, furious. He knew exactly what it was. A prophecy.
“Fall. Fall goeth before the sinner. Before the gods, before all humanity. Let not your troubles be heartened, for today, evil has come to reign. May the Sinner rise again.”
The air settled, and returned to normal.
“No!” Cain shouted. “I’m not leaving! I like it here. I’m not playing your games anymore!”
Artemis tried to rise.
In an instant Cain was upon her. He grabbed her shoulders, and held her up to the sky.
“I’ll kill her, you bastard!” Cain shouted into the sky. “I’ll kill everyone here before I follow your sick plan!”
Artemis screamed. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. She was supposed to be a goddess. A goddess!
“What are you?” Cain demanded.
“I’m just a nerd!” Artemis screamed. “And I’m trying to find who I really am!”
Cain looked at her. He sighed, and tossed her away.
“Not again,” he muttered. “Not again.”
Cain knelt down, and looked at the ground. He scooped up a bit of dirt, looking at it.
It was coarse, wet. Completely artificial, but looked even more real because of it.
Cain had been alone for so long. He was supposed to be.
He had been named Cain for that purpose.
He was the Sinner. And he was evil.
“The Olympians will come for me,” Artemis muttered.
Cain chuckled, and looked at her. He clapped his hands twice, and she fell asleep.
“I’m counting on it.”