I was a teacher. Once.
I was an okay teacher.
That was a lifetime ago. A time of sanity, of possibility.
Not like right now. Not in this world of infinite screwballs and misunderstood wonders. Where the incredible is mocked and the tarnished raised above all.
This is not what I wanted.
And now it is what I have.
Artemis awoke in a fine bed.
She sat up, scared. The night before she had been captured, beaten. By someone who was supposedly the monster of the Test, the Enemy.
But now, she was sitting in the midst of quilted sheets and a down comforter. In a small cabin, with a blue fire flickering in the next room. And breakfast simmering.
Artemis’ stomach growled, and she clutched at it. She hadn’t caught dinner last night. unfortunately, that meant also clutching at her chest, where Cain had sat on her. The bastard.
There was humming. Artemis reached for a knife, or her bow, and couldn’t find either. Instead, she could only find a small book and a candlestick for weapons to arm herself with. She stood, and crept into the next room. Ready for anything, including breakfast.
Cain was currently cooking bacon. Two pans sat in front of him, the bacon sizzling in its own fat. He stood in front of a stove, struggling to flip an egg. “I’m assuming you’re okay with me trying eggs over easy?”
Artemis made a face. “Is there any vegetable in that?”
Cain held up a bottle of ketchup.
“No. Not even close.”
Cain smirked, and put some onions in with the eggs. He finally gave up, and started scrambling the eggs, swirling them back and forth.
“Please, have a seat,” he said. “There’s juice and coffee on the table.
“And if you’re going to try and kill me, can I at least plate the food first?” Cain asked. “It would be a shame to waste a good meal with blood.”
Artemis considered, and then set down the book and candlestick. She wasn’t sure if he knew how far away she was, but it seemed like he knew way more than he let on.
Cain slid the eggs and bacon onto two plates, set them down on the table, and sat across from her. Artemis waited for him to eat first.
Cain sighed, and took a bite. “Girl, if I wanted you dead, I wouldn’t have wasted perfectly good pig on you.” He bit into a piece of bacon. “Just wrangling enough out of the air for one is hard enough.”
Artemis snorted. Flying pig, right. She didn’t notice how light and airy the bacon felt. And she couldn’t feel how low-fat it was until much later.
Cain finished his meal in minutes, and then stood up. Artemis reached for a knife, and he held up a hand. “Peace. I need to wash up.”
“Where am I?” she asked.
“And where is that.”
“Nod,” Cain said.
“No. Nod. The land of Nod.” Cain waved his soap-drenched hand out an open window. “A land of myths and dreams. Somewhere to the East of Eden. Made entirely for the purpose of keeping the first son of Adam preoccupied while the rest of the civilized world goes on living.”
He flashed a smile. “Sorry, Abrahamic mythology. The Test couldn’t resist setting this place up.”
Artemis looked down, and continued eating. Cain took her plate when she was done, and then set about cleaning everything.
“Am I your prisoner?” Artemis asked.
“Of a sort,” Cain said. “Though I’d call you more like bait.”
“You said the rest of the Olympians were coming. I’d like to see if they could do what you couldn’t.” he chuckled. “Who knows, eleven might even be able to lay a hand on me!”
Artemis scowled, and stood up. “I’m no one’s bait. I go where I please.” She moved towards the door.
“Sit down,” Cain said. “We’re not done talking.”
She ignored him, and kept moving.
A cleaver thudded into the door. Artemis stood, frozen solid. Blood dripped upwards from the blade.
Cain walked over, laid a hand on her shoulder. Artemis was stiff, but he managed to turn her towards the chair, and set her down. He looked back at the cleaver, wiped it down with a rag, but left it stuck in the wood. As a warning.
The man finally finished the dishes, and then returned to his spot at the table. He looked at her. And Artemis finally looked at him.
Cain was still dressed in black. But now he seemed…lighter. His beard was trimmed close to his face, a deep scarlet flecked with gray that matched his hair. His eyes, what she thought were red last night, were actually pale grey.
He was young, too. Not as young as her, but she’d say he was in his mid-thirties. Not a lot of lines on his face, but they were definitely starting.
Artemis, for her part, was darkness. Her pale blue eyes shone off dark skin. Usually with her hair and skin, she could simply melt into the night and disappear. But that hadn’t worked last night. Cain had still found her.
He drummed his fingers against the table, thinking. The seconds ticked away, and Artemis sat there. Trying to be the second one to speak.
“Are you really Cain?” Artemis finally asked.
He nodded again. “And you, are supposed to be Artemis.”
“I am Artemis,” the goddess declared.
Cain rolled his eyes. “What is your real name.”
“Art…” she began. Cain’s hands clenched. “…Melanie.”
“Melanie.” Cain relaxed. “You said you were fifteen last night, Melanie?”
She nodded in turn. “I thought we weren’t supposed to say our old names,” Artemis said. “It’s against the rules.”
“Everything I do is against the rules,” Cain said. “Comes with the name.”
Artemis, or Melanie, was confused. This was not how she thought everything was supposed to go. The Test had seemed straightforward.
“Is this some part of The Test?” Artemis asked.
“Everything’s a part of The Test,” Cain said.
“But is…I mean, is defeating you…”
Cain folded his hands together. “Tell me what you know about the Test.”
Artemis shrugged. “The Test is in a sphere floating above the Pacific Ocean. A metal sphere that no one can move or damage.
“It appeared five years ago, though no one knows where from. Most think it’s an alien structure, from something better than humanity.”
Cain snorted. Like that was hard.
“Since then people have been invited to participate in the Test. A black circle appears on doors for people to enter at their choosing. They enter, and start in this place.”
This place. The Exam Rooms. Far bigger than anything Melanie had imagined. Deserts that stretched for thousands of miles. An ocean that floated above a volcano. And far more fantastic areas.
“This place can transform you,” Melanie said. “Giving you powers, abilities…all to make your wishes come true.”
She had entered, expecting a great room of alien structures. Or something like the black walls outside.
Instead, she had landed in a forest, surrounded by a dozen other people. Armed with her bow, arrows, and a new name. She could shoot an arrow at any target and hit it from half a mile away. Could track any beast or man with nothing more than a picture and scent. And Melanie didn’t have to worry about school, or cliques, or boys.
“I am now Artemis,” the goddess said. “Blessed with my aim, power over the moon, and a killer instinct.”
The Test had given her all the abilities she needed to succeed.
Cain coughed, and stood up. “And yet you’re beaten by an old man with a club and a smoking pipe.”
Children. He cursed the Proctor once again. The Test was taking children now.
Cain did not look at Test the same way others did. Governments looked at the sphere with terror and apprehension. A building in international waters, with an impenetrable defense and unknown destructive capabilities. In a politician’s eye, the Test was nothing more than an unknown enemy, ready to destroy any land-locked nation with impunity.
Others looked at the Test and saw power. While none had returned, there had been small videos that had leaked. Of beings that called down fire from the skies, or flew without any technology. Summon animals and mythical beasts to do battle for themselves. If you could harness the Test, you could conquer the World.
Politicians were never invited into the Test. Instead, it seemed reserved for the outer fringes of society. The legends and fools, the dreamers and schemers. All given entrance, and upon entry transformed. Given powers similar to gods, and then let loose in a Testing room that stretched beyond imagining.
There were no clear parameters. No real way to know if you were passing or failing the Test. All you could know for sure is where you were, your own skill, and that you weren’t doing enough.
That was the Test to Cain. Nothing more than a cruel joke played on humanity.
Cain walked to the door. He cleaned the cleaver, belted it to his side, opened the door, and winced at the creaks. He closed it behind him, promising an oil. Late, for now he needed to think.
The cabin was never supposed to be anything more than a bachelor’s abode. Little more than a four-room cabin, a hovel would be about as accurate. Kitchen, bedroom, living quarters, and a restroom. It wasn’t anything special, but then again it didn’t have to be. He had never had company over anyways. And he spent more time on the porch reading by the fire pit than he did trying to find ways to get out into the Test.
He looked out. Nod was a strange mixture of New England forest and a fantasy land. Pine trees were mixed in with strange golden trees. Wolves hunted deer with two heads, and unicorns fought with lions. And more, darker monsters stalked in the depths, willing to tear apart the Sinner the second he let down his guard.
Cain admired his gilded cage, truly. He had enjoyed his three years in this place Seven square miles of the most beautiful real estate he had ever been blessed to see. But it seemed like the Proctor had other ideas for what his life was supposed to be.
Artemis proved that.
The door hinges creaked. Cain turned and grabbed her wrist. The goddess yelped, and paled. She had tried to knock a plate over his head, and make good her escape.
“Next time,” he muttered. “Remember the creaks of your surroundings,” he said. “If you had gone out a window, you might have made an escape or even surprised me.”
Artemis glared. “Do you know what you’re worth?” she asked.
“Anyone who kills you immediately passes the Test. Whatever we win, whatever’s more awesome than this, whoever kills you gets it.”
Cain nodded. “That’s interesting. And you think you can handle it.”
Right. The Olympian gods had arrived. immortal beings of power that conquered the universe. They had dominion over all things, and could tear down the very building blocks of reality.
If Cain let them, that is.
He looked at his house, and shook his head. No way was he letting a bunch of kids run rampant through his house. It had taken him more than a year to build, and he didn’t relish the idea of thunderbolts in his kitchen.
No. If he was going to take on the Olympian gods, he needed a setting far more…apropos.
“Come on,” Cain said.
“Where are we going.”
“To the top of the world.”
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