I find others to be more of a hindrance than a gift.
Not on quests, or journeys. Just in general. People united through a common cause are truly a wonder to behold. The combined will of humanity is able to shake mountains, to move seas. And that is just to build a highway.
But that is when humanity is united. Either through money, or cause, or conquest. When people are allowed to think, to speak, and to differentiate, they become something far worse than united.
They become individuals.
And individuals act differently from one another.
“Welcome to the Test!”
Cain darkened, and looked away.
The smiling image of Proctor spread her arms wide.
“Gods! Heroes! You come to the Test with questions, and in answering, have become legends yourselves. Experience worlds barely imagined. Defeat monsters and vicious foes. Destroy evil. Pass the Test!”
A recording. And a rather bad one at that. Full of platitudes, and good words meaning nothing. Cain kept his head down, and kept marching.
He hadn’t felt good since he left Nod. Abandoning the forests, for a futuristic city. The Olympians spread out along a busy moving sidewalk, fifteen stories up and floating of its own accord. They looked around, trying to be both unimpressed while taking in everything.
Central Testing looked most like what many on the outside thought of the Test. A floating metropolis, teeming with the latest and greatest of technological achievements. Datastreams ran alongside the sidewalks, carrying more information in a second than the human mind could process.
Buildings stretched up, far up. When Cain had left for Nod, the tallest in central processing topped off at half a mile. Now that was seen as a quaint memory. Constructed of glass, steel, and materials that most men didn’t even know about, their entrances beckoned. Come, explore the latest bar, café, reality. We won’t lock the doors behind you. Unless you want us to.
Central Testing was supposed to be where Takers got started. For many, it was where they never left. It was everything a prospective nerd could ever want. Information, technology, and all the comforts of centuries far, far into the future. Plug yourself in, and let go.
And through it all was the smiling face of Proctor. Standing over a hundred feet tall, with strong Asian features and the perpetually warm face. She was dressed in a fusion of future tech, and garb that looked like it stepped out of feudal Japan.
“Who is that?” Hermes asked.
“Proctor,” Cain muttered.
Zeus looked at Cain, questioning. The Proctor he had met was…well, a he. Was Proctor a title?
Cain shrugged, helpless. He honestly didn’t know. But everyone intuitively knew who was a Proctor. Whether it was the same person, or a group of people, they ran the Test with efficiency and heartlessness. Much to the delight of everyone at the top.
“Make sure you drop by the Sorting Hall and find directions to your next paradise!”
Cain snorted. Paradise, right.
“You’re a very negative person,” Aphrodite said.
“Because I’d rather be surprised by joy than misery,” Cain said. He tapped the sidewalk, and gave directions to the Sorting Hall.
Zeus and he tried to stay away from each other, which presented a challenge. neither wanted to acknowledge what had happened with Proctor in Nod. Cain didn’t fully understand what kind of power he had over the young man, and wasn’t particularly inclined to explore it. And Zeus didn’t want to ask how bound he was either.
But the two also wanted to be in charge. Zeus wanted it, Cain needed it. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Neither was willing to let the other start ordering everyone around.
Though whether those orders would be obeyed, if either gave them, is another story.
“Where are we going?” Aphrodite asked him.
“The Sorting Hall.”
“But you snorted.”
“Because of the…” Cain stopped, and shook his head. They weren’t important to him. They weren’t. Just take care of getting them squared away in Olympus, then it was back to Nod. The mantra of it started to echo in his psyche.
Don’t get involved. Don’t be a villain. Don’t care about anyone else. Keep moving forward, and the rest of the universe will pass you by. And then you die.
But the little love goddess kept right next to him. “Why are we going to the Sorting Hall?”
“The Sorting Hall has information about all worlds, realities, principalities, and several hall closets.” Cain watched the sidewalk dip and then swerve towards a small door with INFORMATION plastered firmly over it.
“In here lies the way to Olympus, and a way back to Nod.”
“But we know the way back to Nod,” Aphrodite said. “Don’t we?”
“Don’t you?” Cain asked. “Where is it?”
The girl laughed, and thought about it. Then she frowned, and kept thinking. “It…we were just there.” She looked up at Cain. “I just had it.”
“You could walk out the door, and forget where it was,” he explained. “Nod is different. More obscure. Private even. The only way in is through invitation from those who know the way.” The better to keep the Enemy at bay.
“Ugh,” Zeus muttered. “Why do we even need to go to this Sorting Hall anyways? We’ve been to Olympus already.”
Cain nodded. “And you know where it is now?”
“Of course. It doesn’t change.”
“Yes, it does.” Cain walked through the portal. “Everything changes.”
“Hello, and welcome to the Sorting Hall!”
Cain sighed, and moved to the left. The Olympians flowed through the Hall. They moved past the comfortable chairs beautiful landscape paintings. The teenagers all blitzed straight towards the desk.
The Sorting Hall was always meant to be comfortable. Always just a bit larger than needed, to make the occupants feel like they were surrounded by space. A place to put you at ease as you were shuffled off into a new place and destiny. It could be terrifying for many, or a breathtaking experience.
Cain sat in one of the chairs, and waited. The Olympians all crowded around the desk, hoping to find some answers.
“Hello?” Hera called out. “Anyone here?”
The gods all looked around. There was nobody there.
“Dear Apollo, how are you? Has your archery skill improved since we last met?” It was a rather cheery voice, bubbling off the walls.
Cain sighed, and closed his eyes.
The sun god looked around. “We met? Who is we?”
“The Hall, of course! We are always so excited to reacquaint ourselves with our excellent Test Takers. So proud that you haven’t been blow to smithereens by your rivals!”
“What?!?” Hera exclaimed.
“What can the Sorting Hall do for you today?”
Several of the gods looked at her in confusion. Athena finally muscled her way to the front of the desk, and looked up.
“Sorting Hall, we are looking for a direct route to Olympus.”
“I’m sorry, but that is quite impossible.”
Cain opened his eyes. What?
“What?” Athena asked. “Isn’t it just past the Elysian Fields and Malltown?”
“Not quite, Olympus has moved in your absence.”
“Moved,” Ares sulked. “How can a mountain planet move?”
“Quite easily, actually!” The Sorting Hall beamed. “In fact, aside from Central Testing, and several fixed points in space and time, the entire Testing Lands are mobile. It allows for some wondrous combinations and conflagrations when opposing worlds rub against each other the right way.”
Cain nodded, standing up. The Test liked to keep everyone on their toes.
“But, but how do you move a planet?” Ares asked.
“A planet is always moving, dummy,” Athena said.
“What you consider a planet, Ares, is actually simply the portals and entrances the Test uses to set up our entryways to different realms,” The Sorting Hall said. “While Valhalla, Atlantis, and the Double Void may not be moving themselves, their entrances are. And when they bump together it makes a wonderful BANG!”
There was a sound like a gunshot, and the Hall split in two. The gods scrambled out of the way, trying to steer clear.
“Stop that!” Athena said. “That’s really disorienting.”
“My apologies, Athena,” the Hall said. “We just wanted to better demonstrate.”
“Fine. Now tell us where Olympus’ portal is.”
“I’m sorry, but that is quite impossible.”
“Why?” Apollo asked.
“You have been strictly forbidden from reentry by the current rulers of Olympus,” the Sorting Hall said. “We cannot violate their direct wishes, unless to further enact the rules of the Test.”
“And what are the rules of the Test?” Hermes asked.
There was a flashing red sound, and Hermes was punted out of the Hall. He flew back up and in, smiling.
“I’ve done that like five times this week!” He said. “Awesome, every time.”
The only rule everyone knew about the Test. No one could tell you the rules.
“Is there any way we can find a way to Olympus?” Demeter asked.
“Certainly. There are an infinite number of pathways towards the portal,” the Hall said.
“You just can’t tell us?” Hephaestus guessed.
Hermes lit up. “Can you tell someone else?”
“We are always ready to assist anyone on their journey, so long as it does not violate the rules of the Test or the wishes of the inhabitants.”
Hermes pointed at Cain, grinning. “Loophole!”
Cain sighed, and nodded. “Can you show me where…”
The Olympians and Cain were shoved out the entrance. They flew down the sidewalk fifteen stories, to land in a heap at the very bottom of Central Testing.
“NO CAINS ALLOWED!” The Sorting Hall scream was loud, emphatic, and had none of the mirth that it had had before. There was a slamming sound, and the distinct click of a lock.
The Olympians looked at Cain. He shrugged. He had warned them.
Hera collapsed. Her eyes started to tear up.
“Olympus has moved?” she asked. “But, but that’s impossible.”
“What are we going to do?” Apollo asked. “That was our shot. Our best shot.”
“This isn’t fair,” Ares sulked. He kicked at a wall, shattering the stone to dust. “It isn’t FAIR!”
They started to split up.
“Hey, hey!” Zeus shouted. “Come on, guys! We can still get to Olympus!’
“How?” Poseidon asked. “How are we supposed to do that?”
“We’ll find someone else to ask, and then…”
“And then what?” Athena asked. “Take on the Titans by ourselves? You saw what happened last time. Cronus put enough of a hurt on you.”
Zeus glowered. “That isn’t fair.”
“No. But splitting up and letting us go our own way is,” Athena said. “I’m going.”
She turned and left. The rest of the gods also started to drift.
“Hey! Guys, come on! We’re the Olympians, we’re supposed to stick together!” Zeus shouted. “Come on!”
Cain shook his head. “Sorry, Zeus. It’s hard enough to unite around a common goal when it doesn’t seem like the world’s out to get you.”
“Oh, shut up,” Zeus said. He sulked. “This was supposed to be my big chance.”
“Big chance?” Cain asked. “You were…”
“The quarterback. And the point guard, and all that,” Zeus said. He rolled his eyes. “And you know how much that mattered to anyone? Enough for a party, not enough to do anything. I did what I was told by the adults, and everyone knew it. I was in charge in name only.”
He looked away. “Outside of the game, I was nothing. Do you know how much it sucks, to be a high school athlete that no one cares about? Like, what was wrong with me? This should be, it should be easy to be popular. A breeze. But all that skill, all that talent on the field, it doesn’t matter if nobody cares.”
Zeus held out his hand. Lightning crackled out of his palm. “And then the Test comes out, and suddenly I’m not just a god, I’m the head god. I’m in charge. People have to listen to me. Things are going to be great.
“And then we get kicked out of Olympus. And I lose to you. And I lose again. And again.” Zeus bowed his head. “No wonder nobody wants to be around me.”
Cain grinned, and punched Zeus in the arm. “Well, I’m more of a minus, but you’ve got at least me.”
“And I’ve got a plan for the both of us. I think I can figure out a way to find out where Olympus is.”
“Why?” Zeus asked.
“Because they want to keep you out,” Cain said. “And I want to know why.”
He picked himself up, and looked around. “There’s a place we can go for answers. Someplace that no matter what the Test says, we can find the things we need.
“But we’re going to need some help.”