It is a word that sparks many ideas. That a location can give safety and security from the terrors of the world. There is a place that is meant to be perfected, meant to be an idealized version of what the world is supposed to be.
That God has blessed this holy ground, far beyond the powers of man.
But for a sanctuary to exist, there must be a guardian. Someone with enough power to lord over all who may come within the borders of this sanctum, and has the will and conscience to do so with justice and mercy.
In the right hands, a sanctuary is a balm. It soothes the needs of the aching, strengthens the weary hearted, and can spin wisdom out of the naivete of youth.
In the wrong hands, well…look what happened to Eden.
“So where are we going?”
Cain wanted to abandon them already.
“Helloooooo?” Hermes poked him in the leg. “Cain? Are you still a murderous rampage of death and destruction? Or kind of fluffy?”
Cain turned on one heel, and kicked Hermes into the sky. He pinwheeled his arms, screaming with delight.
“I got him, I got him!” Apollo flew up, laughing. He snatched Hermes just as the trickster god started to descend.
“How far did I get that time?” Hermes asked.
“Judging by the sun, and how small they look down below,” Apollo said, doing some quick calculations. “I’d imagine about forty feet.”
Hermes grinned. “Think next time I poke him in the butt?”
Cain grit his teeth, and kept moving. Cursing his lot in life even more so than usual.
Olympians crowded around him. Zeus and Hera were just enough behind him to track his movements back out. They jostled with each other for position, smiling at each other as they tried to knock their opponent into the dirt.
Ares and Athena argued with each other about how the battle with Cain could have been better. Ares insisted that with a little more help he could take down the Sinner. Athena doubted that, even with their combined talents. Considering one was still limping from the fight, and one hadn’t even made it up to the man, it was a draw. As usual.
Artemis, Poseidon, and Aphrodite each walked alone. They kept their gazes locked on their new guide, trying to understand just what made him tick. Cain wondered whether they were hoping to kill him, charm him, or simply show him that he was unnecessary. With those three gods’ reputations, it could be all three.
Which left Hestia and Hephaestus bringing up the rear. The young man leaned on the goddess, gasping. Cain felt a slight tinge of regret at that. He had been so eager to just get on with this new venture, he had forgotten that the god of the forge was most likely lame. And now he had raced up a mountain, down a mountain, and was now trekking several miles through the wilderness. He bore it without complaint, as did Hestia.
Cain thought about it. The Olympians had supposedly been these impressive gods, that helped shape the nature of society.
But these weren’t noble beings. No infinite wisdom spouted from them. They were just kids, teenagers playing at deities.
Cain laughed. Which was probably an accurate descripton of many of the Olympians back in their day.
“What’s so funny?” Zeus demanded.
“You,” Cain said. “All of you.”
Zeus bristled. Cain could hear thunder start to crackle overhead.
“Do we really need a repeat of what happened on the mountain?” Cain asked.
That only made the young god darken even further. Wonderful, another agitated kid. Cain sighed, and turned around.
“I’m going on ahead with Zeus.”
“Why?” Hera demanded.
“If it’s about the group, I think we should all…”
Cain spun her around, and walked a few steps away with the goddess. This was not real. He needed to have a conversation to convince someone to let him have a conversation. Why couldn’t he just kill another dire beast?
“Listen, I need to have a talking-to with Zeus over here. And if he has an audience, he’s going to be impossible to reckon with. Am I understanding that right?”
Hera nodded. Good, he had guessed correctly. Hera, and probably most of the Olympians, had a very dim view of the godking’s temperament. Accuracy of the myths still holding strong.
“So while that’s going on, I need you here to make sure everything is still going strong, ok?”
Hera smiled, triumphant. And that was two for two. The Proctor had chosen each of the teens carefully. It made sure that each of them approached life in a similar manner to the gods themselves. Though whether that was because this kid had been like Hera, or the Proctor had remade her to fit the Test, was anyone’s guess.
Hera hated her husband, and always wanted power. Rightness of it aside, she was most likely the most competent for the job. And if she tried to simply take power, he was certain he could take her. He was certain he could take all of them.
They were just kids.
Cain walked with Zeus for a few minutes in silence. Not because he had to think. Rather, it was because he knew Zeus would go insane without anything to argue. The king of the gods needed to be in charge. Being led without explanation was enough to drive him insane.
“Where are we going?” Zeus asked.
Cain shrugged, and kept moving.
Zeus huffed, and floated into the air. “You know, we’d go faster if we flew. That is, if you can fly.”
Cain couldn’t. or at least, he hadn’t properly tried.
“That fight was a draw, you know,” Zeus said. “I totally could have taken you.”
Cain nodded, and kept walking.
“Look, what is your deal?” Zeus asked.
“What’s yours?” Cain asked. He turned, and smiled. It had been far enough to give them some alone time.
“What?” Zeus asked. He looked around, and realized that the two were by themselves, in the middle of Cain’s forest. “Oh, so here’s where I confess every little thing to you?”
Cain shrugged. “I could care less about confessions. You twelve were the ones trying to get my help.”
“We don’t need your help,” Zeus muttered. “We just need to get stronger than the Titans.”
“And how do you propose to do that?” Cain asked. “By willing yourself that way?”
“No!” Zeus shouted. “By training. By being better than them.”
“Training,” Cain said. “I see. So you were a jock.”
Zeus huffed. “What, just because I played sports, that makes me a jock?”
“Generally,” Cain said. He paused, and looked Zeus up and down. “I’m thinking, six foot eight, with an insane arm reach, good looks and knows it…you were quarterback, point guard, and track and field?”
Zeus paused. “How did you…”
“He made an educated guess,” a proper voice said.
Cain stiffened, and turned. A man stood underneath a tree. Dressed in a burgundy three-piece suit, he checked a silver pocket watch. He adjusted the hands on the watch. The sun and moon followed his watch’s movements.
“For Zeus was never designed to be brilliant, or wise. The king of the gods only ever needed to be powerful, and charismatic.”
The man finally snapped the pocketwatch shut. The stars aligned around him, a sharp turn into dusk.
“The Enemy must always understand his opponents. For how would he be effective if he were obtuse?”
“Proctor!” Zeus exclaimed.
Proctor bowed his head. “Mister Freeman. How are you?”
The Proctor. The voice and director of the Test. For most, the Proctor was the first one they saw on entering the sphere. He gave them their names, their powers. Helped discover the possibilities that could be found within the Test.
Cain’s feet were rooted to the spot. He didn’t dare move. He couldn’t, even if he wanted to.
“I’m good, I’m good.” Zeus folded his hands behind his head, and laughed. “These powers, man, they are something.”
Proctor gave his weird half-smile. The one that seemed to be an acknowledgment, rather than happiness. “Something, king of the gods?”
Zeus laughed. “Check it. Boom!”
A thunderbolt shattered the tree next to Proctor. Earth and bark splintered all around the figure. Shrapnel passed through his suit, his face.
Cain sidestepped some of the branches, keeping his gaze on the man. Proctor gazed back, before turning to Zeus.
“Instant atmospheric disruption. Adequate.”
“Adequate?” Zeus asked. He laughed. “Man, that was insane! It could have killed you!”
“Could it?” Proctor asked. “Curious. It did not.”
He nodded to Cain. “Just as you could have killed the Enemy. And you chose not to.”
Zeus bristled. “We could have, but…”
“Zeus,” Cain said. “Shut up.”
“Don’t tell me what to…”
Cain flickered forward. He grabbed the teenage god by the wrist, lifted, and hurled him up into the sky. Zeus screamed, flipping end over end, as he flew out of sight.
Proctor examined the trajectory, and pulled out a notebook from a breast pocket in his suit jacket. He made a quick calculation.
“That is not escape velocity. He will come back down.”
“I’ll catch him,” Cain said. What was more important was that Zeus was out of the picture. He wasn’t arguing every five seconds with him, or worse the Proctor. Cain could think, and maybe come up with a way where everyone wasn’t dead.
“Ah.” Proctor nodded, and put away the book. “So you are mellowing with time.”
Cain tried not to give a full response.
He knew what others thought of the Proctor. As the director of the Test, it seemed like he gave others powers. Abilities, godhood. Who could hate the man who made you a god?
But Cain saw the Proctor, and knew. Knew that while Proctor was their first sight in the Test, he’d most likely also be their last. Tutting, bent over a battered corpse. Making note of how they failed, and why. Trying to do better.
The Proctor wasn’t here to help people along. It was another cog in this game. It followed people along, pressing the right buttons, all in the hope of understanding more. For this man was not interested in truth, or justice. All he wanted was information.
Proctor watched Cain study him, fascinated. “Your hatred is something to behold, Cain,” the man said. “Is it possible that it has grown in isolation?”
“I’m just here to try and help some kids,” Cain said.
“Poor evasion,” Proctor said. “Quite poor. Perhaps you would like to try again?”
Has it grown? Has the fire died down in three years? Did Cain not wake up every morning, look out into his utopic prison, and scream his curses to the sky? Swear death to his jailer?
No. He hated Proctor. He hated the Test. And one day, he would watch it burn.
Proctor nodded, and made another note in his book. Cain frowned. did Proctor know what he thought? Did he always know?
“You said before, that you are trying to help some kids,” Proctor said. “Are you speaking of the newly minted Olympians?”
Cain stood silent. Maybe if he didn’t say anything, there wasn’t anything Proctor could hang on him.
Proctor half-smiled again. “Arrogance, evasion, and stalling through silence. We have tried this scenario before, Cain. It ended rather unsatisfactorily.”
“You ended,” Cain said. “I killed you.”
Proctor nodded. “Eleven times, actually.”
“Care for a nice round twelve?”
“For twelve gods?” Proctor asked.
“Aha. Right, your whole hatred of the system.” Proctor moved several steps to the right, and started drawing on the ground with a cane that wasn’t there a second ago.
“Cain, you seem rather distracted, so let me get to the point. For three years, this little world has been designed to bring you to the correct mental and physical conditioning we needed you to be in. Frustrated, yes. Angry, quite. Ready to take on the worlds and screw us all, well, that was the desired outcome. We hoped you would become the enemy all these Takers so desperately needed.”
“And I didn’t play correctly.”
“This was supposed to be your Purgatory. A seething maelstrom of comfort and chaos, able to mold you with battle while allowing some peace.” Proctor took up his cane, and snapped it between his fingers. The pieces scattered onto the ground. “Instead, you made it your little hideaway.”
Cain shrugged. “Sorry. Wasn’t feeling up to becoming the Enemy you wanted me to be.”
“And so we made adjustments. If the devil will not haunt the hero, then we will send the heroes to you.”
Cain stamped his foot. “You sent children after me.”
“Teenagers,” Proctor corrected. “All of whom were well aware of the risks.”
Cain hated this. He hated the way Proctor talked. Proctor always tried to take everything in in every conversation. His past sins, his future ones, all while barely glancing upon present choices. As if the present were the thing that mattered least.
Cain paused, and collected his breath. “May I ask a question?”
Proctor blinked. “I believe that is the first time that you have deigned to be polite. So by all means.”
“Why choose twelve children as Olympians?” Cain asked. “I mean, these gods are, they’re big. Important for Western society. They mean something to the outside world. And you’ve chosen children for that.”
Proctor chuckled. “And even more, these particular children.”
He snapped his fingers. The cane pieces shuddered, and glowed. A harsh blue, and sparked. Zeus was there. The boy, trapped in a vortex of energy.
“What the…” He shouted, before his words became blurred out.
“No cursing,” Proctor said, tapping the cage. “It is impolite.”
He took out his notebook, and nodded. “Here we have two rather singular individuals, Cain. We have Zeus. The last-born son of Rhea and Cronus. King of the heavens, lord of Olympus. He overthrew his father, and the Titans, damning his kin to eternal imprisonment in Tartarus. And with the most destructive power of ancient times, the thunderbolt, lorded over his brothers and sisters with an iron fist.”
He tapped the cage again. “And we also have one Peter Freeman. Sixteen, and already quarterback of the San Dismas Generals. Two point five grade point average, two romantic dalliances that went beyond kissing, and yet cursed with an overabundance of anxiety and imposter syndrome.”
“That’s not, that isn’t…” Zeus barely got those words through before the vortex roared again.
Proctor looked at Cain. “Zeus is power incarnate. Charismatic, and conniving. The highest of highs, and disrespected by all of his peers. He deserves nothing, receives everything.”
“So is this a lesson?” Cain asked. “Another part of the Test?”
Proctor shrugged. “Is it? Or were we bored with responsible adults playing all by themselves in infinite sandboxes?”
The vortex shuddered, and tightened. Zeus cried out, as the electric cage became chains. They sank into the ground, binding his arms and legs to a large rock.
“Hey!” Zeus shouted. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Hell,” Proctor murmured. “Has no meaning here. Punishment, damnation…mere words to describe a singular aspect of failure.”
He looked over the godking, and tutted. “You had a mission, Peter. Kill the Enemy, the Sinner known as Cain. Wipe him out of this exercise, and in return you would be given Nod for use as a new Olympus. We were quite clear on that.”
Proctor motioned to Cain. “Given your current movements, it is also clear that you have failed. Just as you failed to establish your reign on Olympus. And why we have no time left to waste on you.
“All that is left now is to reduce you to bare components, and hope the next candidates will make better use of the godhood you were given.”
Cain laid a hand on Proctor’s shoulder. “Let him go.”
Proctor sighed, and looked up at the man. “Cain. You were supposed to die several hours ago. By these children. Yet you try to defend him?”
“I’m not done with the Olympians,” Cain growled. “I took them. Give me back what is mine.”
Proctor raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Zeus screamed. Lightning crashed around him. The landscape churned. A wind rose up, scattering rubble through the forest. Proctor and Cain remained standing, ignoring the boy’s powers.
“Do you know who they are facing?” Proctor asked. “What these young gods are up against?”
“Power, cruelty, and a rigged system,” Cain said. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“The Titans,” Proctor said. “Zeus and his kin pale in comparison to them in every way.”
Proctor stopped, and chuckled. “Much more powerful, older kin, cast aside by fate in favor of the younger gods. Refreshing to see you on this side of the argument, is it not?”
Cain darkened, and remained silent.
Proctor clapped his hands together, and looked at Zeus. “Very well, Peter. Time for a pop quiz. Rather simple one, truly. Can you submit yourself, to Cain?”
Zeus looked up at the man. Cain frowned, and looked at Proctor. What was he planning?
“If you say yes, and commit yourself fully to Cain, then he will be able to free you from this Quiz, and the two of you shall be allowed to leave Nod.”
Zeus struggled against his bonds. “And if I say no?”
“No?” Proctor paused. “Well, under normal circumstances I would call this a third failure, and remove you from the Testing grounds poste haste. However, given that this could be construed as resistance to the Enemy, which we have expressly required all to do, I would have to call this a draw. Remove yourself, and your comrades the Olympians from Nod, and allow everyone to go about their days.”
Proctor clapped his hands together. “Well, no matter what, Zeus will be freed! That is a wonderful turn of events, isn’t it?”
Cain frowned, and looked at Proctor. It was a good deal for the kid. A really good deal. What was the downside for him?
Proctor took out his notebook, and stood over Zeus. “Now, before we get to the quiz, I would be remiss if I did not endeavor to give as much information as possible. So here is who you would be binding yourself to should you choose servitude.”
Cain’s eyes widened, and he moved towards Proctor. “No, no, please don’t…”
Proctor tapped his pen to the notebook. Cain stopped speaking. He clutched at his mouth. Or rather, where his mouth should have been. Suddenly there was nothing more than a keyhole.
Proctor held a key, smiling. “Prattling without purpose. You have lost your speaking privileges.”
Zeus watched, mouth agape.
Cain tried to curse out Proctor. Fruitless, useless. Proctor represented the will and power of the Test. Everything that the Test could give, Proctor received. He was nigh immortal. Anything he wished to have, he received. And all Cain could do was watch, helpless.
“Now, onto the mysterious Cain. Or, if you would prefer his previous sobriquet, Reverend Calvin Harrow.”
Zeus’ eyebrows shot up.
“Yes. Cain was indeed a pastor. Order was the Presbyterian Church of the United States. Graduated without honors or distinctions, and consequentially was shuffled into a backwater church. Wrote several papers, none of note, and was quite relieved when he received an offer to participate in the new Test.”
Proctor looked up from the book, and smiled to Cain. “What was your motivation, to open that door? Was it perhaps to see if God was on the other side? Or rather, if he was not?”
Cain didn’t say anything. Not that he could.
“He received several abilities in the early months of the game, some of which he exhibits now. Heightened speed and durability, preferring to withstand blows rather than give them.” Proctor ran his hand over several pages. “His achievements were mundane. Helped rediscover Atlantis for the sixth time. Eliminated the golem that plagued the seventeenth floor of the tower of Babel. Smoked a rather prodigious amount of hallucinogens at Shangri-la. Nothing truly out of the ordinary.
“That is, until the murder of his brother.”
Proctor waved his hand. And Proctor had to see him again. Standing in midair. Golden-haired, clothed in shining steel armor. Wielding a sword and shield, ready to take on the world.”
“Artorius Rex. Arthur. His accomplishments were beyond compare. The slayer of dragons. Conqueror of the Mobius Time Streams. He established Camelot, and forged deeper into the lands than any.
“He was a hero. The greatest Taker the Test had ever seen. He came within mere days of understanding and answering the questions with such perfection that even I wanted to know what he knew.”
Proctor shed a tear, and bowed to the image, before letting it disappear. Cain saw one last look up at Arthur, who gazed on him with such pity that he wanted to wretch.
“Arthur was supposed to be the one to beat this Test. He was the one who should have given us a grand conclusion, years ago.
But late at night, his cowardly brother stole into his room, removed his defenses, and with a power that was supposed to be forbidden, slit his throat.”
There was a clicking sound. Cain gasped, his mouth finally freed. He fell to the ground, breathing in through his mouth. Air, the wooded, sooty air of Nod. He loved the taste of it.
Proctor turned, and kicked Cain in the throat. Pierced through all of his defenses, his trappings, and sent the Sinner sprawling into the earth.
“This lowly speck of refuse and frog-breath, who is not fit to lick the spats of his brother,” Proctor whispered. “Stole the greatest treasure the world had ever known. The kindness, the power. Our entire raison d’etre, shattered from jealousy and rage. Cain killed his brother. Not for duty, or honor, or any complicated reason.”
Proctor spat. “It was because Cain could never stand not being first.”
Cain lay on the ground. He coughed up a glob of blood, and spat it out.
“Thanks to Arthur, we considered naming this man Mordred,” Proctor said. “To make it apropos. But Mordred was powerful, and cunning, and charismatic. A knight, evil though he may have been. Cain was a lowly farmer, who could never please anyone. Not his parents, not his family. Certainly not his God. That was a more fitting title for Calvin Harrow.”
Proctor waved his hand. “In memory of his brother, we did not kill him. We sent Cain here, and let others know his crimes. So that they might be inspired to do what we could not.”
Proctor closed the notebook, and looked at Zeus. “And now, this pathetic coward seeks to wrap you up in his sin. To bind your lives to his, and make it seem like an honor? Zeus, you were born to be a king. A god. Do not let his folly take you and your kin with him. Live, and fight another day. Whatever he has promised you, is not worth the cost.”
Proctor stepped back, and nodded. “Now, godking. Choose. Answer the quiz.”
Zeus looked at Cain. The young man tried to look at the Sinner fully. His own eyes, touched with rage and fury, and struggling to understand. He looked at a man, sprawled on the ground. Covered in dust and filth. Not even able to look him in the eye.
It was true. All of what Proctor had said. He was pathetic. Cowardly. A monster. And he deserved all the hatred of the worlds.
“Why?” Zeus asked.
Cain shook his head. That was the question that he would never answer. He could not, and would not. Because to do so, would only cement the truth.
Zeus groaned, frustrated. He looked at Proctor, and then at Cain.
“What is taking so long?” Proctor asked. “I offer you freedom, from all of this. You and the other gods can return to your quest. You can return to it all!”
Zeus nodded. “And what about him?”
“Cain stays where he is meant to,” Proctor said. “Locked away from those who do not deserve the filth of being near him.” Proctor smiled. “Besides, he prefers Nod. Finds it peaceful. Why not simply let him rot in a prison of his choosing?”
That made sense. He hadn’t tried to leave in three years. Why should Zeus get involved? Why should any of them have to deal with him?
“Nah,” Zeus said. “I’ll stick by Cain.”
“What?!” Proctor rose in fury. “You would dare…”
Cain stood up, and grasped the chains. He broke one in half, and stamped another into dust. Before Proctor could try to raise a protest, Cain had freed Zeus, and stood before the Proctor, arms folded.
Proctor opened his mouth. He closed it again, and folded his hands together. “That is your decision?”
Zeus shrugged. “Suck on it, and let me get on with my life.”
Proctor sighed. “A youth who would rather choose servitude over his own personal success. That, is a true mystery.”
He looked at Cain. “You are free to leave Nod, Cain. None will stop you. But the worlds beyond have changed since you were there last. Perhaps someone will be able to finally end your miserable blot of existence.”
Proctor stepped sideways, and was gone.
Cain looked at Zeus, frowning. “Why’d you choose me?”
Zeus smiled, and laced his hands behind his head. “It had to be a trick, right? If someone hands you something too good to be true, it usually is.”
Cain nodded. “It usually is.” He walked away.
Zeus paused. “Was it?”
“Was it too good to be true?”
“How should I know?”
“Cain, that was too good to be true. Tell me I didn’t just screw yourself.”
“Cain, that doesn’t sound convincing. Cain! What did I just do?”
Cain sighed. Gods.