Cain and Aphrodite looked up. Zeus was there with them, leaning against the well.
“What do you mean, Heaven?”
Cain shrugged. “Stands to reason. In the Test we have several afterlifes. The Norse and Egyptian mythologies. Plenty of underworlds. Nod is even a reference to someplace East of Eden, untouched by man. But where is Heaven?”
“Heaven isn’t a place,” Zeus said.
“Neither are a lot of things,” Cain said. “Like gods shooting lightning.”
Zeus fumed. “So, what? they’re looking for heaven, but can’t find it?”
“Is this a part of the Test?” Aphrodite asked. “Some way to find the answer?”
Cain smiled. “Who knows what is part of the Test? But Proctor and the Test named us all after legends. Heroes, villains, gods and demons. We are all supposedly involved in something cosmic, spiritual, and supernatural.”
He pointed to Gabriel. “And the leader of the Jacobin is convinced that finding Heaven is the best way to discover just what this is all about.”
Gabriel. Cain knew Gabriel. Or more accurately, Arthur had known Gabriel. He had been one of the first to be invited into the Test. There when everyone else had started to come in, and just understand what their names truly meant.
The angel’s powers were unknown to Cain. Not even Arthur had known what Gabriel could do. Just that he had never lost a fight, or even be seen drawing a weapon.
Oh, and he could fly. That part was always important.
Gabriel sat next to Athena, and the two kept talking. Athena was growing more and more animated, excited. She waved her hands around, pointing into the air. Figures started to appear, illustrating her point.
Athena wasn’t like Aphrodite. She didn’t get noticed, never got noticed. Most people overlooked her in high school. She was short, she was quiet, and she didn’t have…she wasn’t exactly feminine. Nobody really cared about her.
Except in times like right now. Classmates always wanted to pair up with her when it came time for group projects. Or test prep. When it came time for an answer, it was time to look at the nerd.
“So, Athena,” Gabriel said. “What do you think of the Test thus far?”
What did she think? She thought this was the coolest place in the universe. She thought that this was the pinnacle of artificial achievement. It was divinity, molecularized.
“I think this proves God is dead,” she said.
Gabriel’s eyes flickered, before chuckling. “Interesting. Why do you say that?”
She looked up in the air. “This entire world, is artificially made,” she said. “Every stone, every breath of air, every world, is created by a computer program.”
Athena looked up into the air. This was, quite possibly, the most brilliant creation since the Big Bang. Each part of this world was so delicately programmed to the point of being indistinguishable from “reality”.
“Our worlds, our new powers,” Athena mused, her brain running faster than her mouth. “Someone is able to overwrite certain portions of our DNA, and unlock abilities within our bodies that would take millennia upon millennia. Someone has unlocked the code to deity.”
It all made sense to her. They were living in a simulation of the world beyond. Proctor, or whoever she really was, encoded each invitation with a neural coding. Everyone saw their “entrance” into a realm beyond imagining. Once there, new machines were able to encode their subconscious desires for being gods into a new reality.
Or, they were all in the Matrix. Not entirely impossible, but way less cool in her mind.
“You’re saying that there are no gods,” Gabriel said.
Athena sighed. “Gods are only sciences we’ve not yet fully grasped. Pyrokinesis, telepathy, self-propelled flight, those are only the possibilities of tomorrow.”
She stood up, and looked down into the well. “Think about today’s achievements. The idea of picking up a piece of metal, whispering a spell, and communicating with someone across the world, well, a hundred years ago you’d be considered mad. Three hundred, and you’d be burned at the stake for heresy.”
“And yet, there are gods here.”
“There are no gods,” Athena said. “We only call ourselves that because Proctor said so. We’re just a bunch of children playing around in a sandbox with the rules turned off. And I’m not interested in being called a deity.”
“What’s she saying?” Zeus asked Cain.
Cain grimaced. “Nothing good.”
Athena could see it. The Proctor could see it, it’s why she was named Athena. It’s why Gabriel was so desperate to get a hold of her.
“But where is it?” Gabriel demanded. “Where’s Heaven in this place?”
Athena shrugged. “How should I know?”
Gabriel picked her up. His glow intensified, and burst out into a pair of wings from his overcoat. He towered above her, furious.
“You think this is just a game, girl?” Gabriel demanded. “You think we’re all just playing?”
Athena tried to wriggle out of his grip. “You’re hurting me.”
Gabriel blinked. “Am I? Or is this just another part of your new science?”
“Gabriel!” Cain called out. “Stop this. She’s just a kid.”
“She is so much more than that, Cain,” Gabriel hissed. “She is supposed to be a goddess of wisdom. Blessed with insight, understanding. Do you know how many gods of wisdom there are in this realm?”
He held up a hand. “Five. And they have all turned away. Run into their own little pocket worlds to pursue their own truths. Just like this one would if given half a chance.”
He looked down at Athena. “Little smart girl, who would rather sit in her home and read than do anything useful.”
“Utility is overrated,” Athena said.
“So is unnecessary life,” Gabriel said. He leaned forward. “Now tell me what I want to know, or you’re going to find out that a failing grade in this Test, is far worse than anything you dealt with in high school.”
Athena looked up, and saw the truth. Saw the desire in Gabriel’s eyes. He didn’t just want Heaven to be real. He needed it to be real. And he needed her to find it.
And for the first time, she couldn’t just give him an answer.
Was this where she was supposed to die?
A bolt of lightning sped towards Gabriel. It hit the glowing light, bouncing off into the air, before bursting a piece of the ceiling to rubble.
Zeus pointed at Gabriel. “You. Glowing wing guy. Get your hands off my friend.”
Gabriel puffed his hair, and glowered. “Godling. You do not want to make an enemy of mine.”
“Yeah, yeah, divine wrath,” Zeus muttered. He clenched his fists, sparks crackling around him. “I’ve got some of that myself.”
Gabriel nodded to the other people in the room. “Take care of the infidels.”
Cain turned, and realized that everyone was focused on them now. Glowing, with a faint light. He recognized some of them. Minor angels, cherubim, and several heroes and legends.
And they all hated him. They knew Arthur’s legend, and his downfall by his own brother. The chance to remove Cain, to finally kill the Sinner, was more than they could have ever wanted.
Cain flexed, cracked his knuckles and started forward.
“Stay out of this, Cain,” Zeus muttered. “This is Olympian business.”
Cain’s eyebrow rose, but he said nothing. Leaned back, and looked over to Aphrodite. “How are you?”
“You can’t be serious.” Aphrodite started. “You, you have to help him.”
Zeus stretched a little bit, glaring ahead at the people in front of him. Overhead Cain could hear storm clouds crackling, which was rather odd for an underground area.
“Cain, come on!” Aphrodite shouted. “He could be killed!”
“He’s fine,” Cain said. And he was.
Zeus flung his hand forward. Lightning shot out, sparking through four of the men. They were picked up, thrown across the room and flung into the stone wall. The wall cracked, sending the four slumping to the floor, twitching.
Zeus smirked, and started walking forward. He pointed at one person after another, sending lightning coursing through their bodies. Most didn’t even scream before they fell unconscious.
Aphrodite blinked. “He’s not losing.”
“He shouldn’t be. His power’s enormous,” Cain said.
The goddess frowned. “But you took him so easily.”
“I take everyone easily. One of the perks of being the Enemy,” Cain said. “And losing to the Titans, your superiors in power in almost every way? Within a week of you coming here?”
The two watched as Zeus systematically tore through everything the Jacobin could throw at him. Fists were useless. Swords were lightning rods to him. And the strange Test magics that everyone had access to seemed to just pale in comparison to Zeus’ might.
This was good, Cain thought. This was exactly what the god of lightning needed. It had been several bad shakes for Zeus and the Olympians. He had been humiliated by the Titans. Taken apart by Cain. And then he had to bow his head to Cain just to get through a Proctor pop quiz?
Zeus had forgotten just how powerful he was. Sure, right now he was not one of the elites. He wasn’t able to take on the Enemy, or the Titans. But who should have expected him to, truly? He wasn’t a god, he was a student.
But he did have power. Power enough to take on so much more than he realized.
More followers appeared, and Zeus laughed.
“Let’s talk about you.”
Aphrodite looked up at Cain, shocked. “Me?”
Cain shrugged. His gaze remained locked on Zeus as the boy charged the new foes. “I can see why Zeus is in here. The boy who would be king, trying to establish himself in the unknown arena. Athena makes even more sense, a nerd with a new puzzle to play with. This Test must be as fascinating as it is terrifying.
“Everyone else…they make sense. What are you? What is your sense in all of this?”
Aphrodite shrugged. “Proctor needed a love goddess. And I fit the mold.”
Cain snorted. “Come on. Do better than that.”
“I’m serious. I just wanted out, and the Test gave me that.”
“The Test doesn’t give anything,” Cain said. “You were chosen. Why?”
Aphrodite waved her hand over her body. Cain kept his gaze looking the other way, and that made her steam.
“Why were you chosen?”
“You’d know if you looked right at me!” Aphrodite shouted. She grabbed his cheeks, turning his face straight to her chest.
“You know exactly why I was chosen. Because my chest is big, my waist is tiny, and I have a big butt! I’m what guys want, and girls hate, and I can’t do a thing about it!” she shouted.
Cain frowned. he tried to turn away from her. Aphrodite clenched, and her nails dug into his cheeks, drawing blood.
“Don’t,” she hissed. “Don’t look away. It’s not respectful when men look away at pretty girls. It’s demeaning. Like I should be ashamed for looking like this. That I should feel guilty for what they think.”
A gentle tear rolled down her face. “I have value, Cain. I matter. Not just because I’m pretty. I have a mind. I have a voice. Hear me.”
She tugged at him, harder. “Please. Just see me.”
Cain stopped struggling, and looked at her. Aphrodite started back. When Cain looked at her, he pierced. Eyes, usually so sunken and despondent, were suddenly alight. They looked past her own, and straight into her.
There was understanding in his gaze. There was compassion. It scared her.
And then it was gone, and he was looking somewhere else.
“You’re wrong,” Cain said. “You do have a pretty face.
“I’m not,” Aphrodite urged, but he held up a hand.
“You have a pretty face. A pretty voice. A pretty smile.”
He stuck his thumb back towards Athena and Gabriel.
“Use them. And save your friend.”
Aphrodite looked at Gabriel. The angel held Athena aloft, sneering.
“Absolutely pathetic,” he muttered. “Your king is nothing more than a brute. A thug, hoping to enact his philosophy of might making right. Picking on those of true faith.”
Athena rolled her eyes. “Right. Fanatics always accept that theirs is the way of truth.”
Gabriel glowered, and looked down at her. “Where is the entrance to Heaven?”
Athena laughed. “I know you’re not going to kill me. I’m way too valuable and rare for you to risk it.”
The angel laughed. A cold sound that made Athena shiver.
“According to legend, you Olympians are immortal. Nothing I can do will kill you anyways.
“However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t purify your mind, body and spirit. After several months of reeducation, you might be converted to our way of thinking.”
“You wouldn’t,” Athena said.
He bent forward, looking at her. Still with kind eyes. Still smiling. “It’s for your benefit. It’s for everyone’s benefit.”
“Is it, though?”
Aphrodite stepped forward.
“Step back, harlot,” Gabriel warned. “I am not to be trifled with.”
Aphrodite bit back a curse. Harlot. That was a new one for her.
She never stopped moving forward. Calm, innocuous. Just keep his eyes on her.
“You are trying to get to Heaven, right?” Aphrodite asked.
“Everyone?” she asked. “All of you?”
“Heaven, paradise,” Gabriel said. “We each have our own different name for our eternal reward.”
Aphrodite smiled. Something warm, and kind. Try not to think about all the fallacies in that argument. Focus instead on word choice.
Our. Everyone. Gabriel considered himself a leader, and given how everyone here treated him, that might not be far off. She could use that.
“Each and every one of you?”
“Absolutely,” Gabriel said. “This is why we were chosen. This is why we were all put in this Test. So that we can realize the Courts of the Almighty, in this place.”
“But what about you?” Aphrodite asked.
Gabriel paused, and looked at her, fully. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, just look at what you’re doing,” Aphrodite said. “You’re planning to torture a young girl. Physically tear her apart, until you get the information that you want.”
“It’s not what I want!” Gabriel roared. “It’s what’s necessary!”
“Is it?” Aphrodite asked.
“We are finding paradise,” Gabriel says.
“But at what cost?” Aphrodite said. “Your morality? Your dignity? Your soul?”
Gabriel stopped. He stared down at the goddess. “My soul? You would take my soul, witch?”
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t even know where to look. I’m sorry if that sounded like a threat. It’s not. Not even Zeus could stand against the might of you and your God.”
“Don’t be so…” Cain stomped on Zeus’ foot, and clamped his hand over the young god’s mouth. Zeus started to protest. Cain moved his hand, placing it on Zeus’ shoulder, and made a small shushing motion.
Zeus grunted, and started wiping himself off.
“Then what claim do you have to my soul?” Gabriel asked.
“I don’t,” Aphrodite said. “Your God does.”
She moved forward again. Now she stood beneath the angel and Athena. The young goddess looked down, incredulous. What could the airhead beauty queen be thinking? What was she doing, even thinking? That was her field.
But Aphrodite wasn’t just thinking. She was surmising weaknesses, and feeling out strengths. Gabriel had a singular type of vanity, one that couldn’t be soothed with easy flattery. He was a leader of men, he was supposed to be a savior.
And true saviors reached the promised land as well.
“Your God commanded you, do not kill,” Aphrodite said. “And just think for a moment how the Almighty must think of you, trying to enter Heaven, by torturing a young girl?”
The Jacobins glanced at Athena. The young girl struggled, trying to break free. She looked tiny in the angel’s arms, helpless.
“Gabriel, look at her,” Aphrodite said. “She’s terrified of you.”
The angel grimaced, pained. His grip tightened, and loosened, fearful of hurting her.
“We are trying to get to Heaven,” he pleaded. “We need to find our way.”
“But where would that path lead, Gabriel?” Cain asked. “Good intentions do not tend to lead where you would expect.”
“And you would know, Sinner!” someone shouted from the back.
Cain turned, and pointed at the Mark on his head. Everyone recoiled. And stepped quickly back.
“I know exactly what the road to Hell looks like,” Cain whispered. “And I’d rather walk it alone.”
Gabriel shivered. Aphrodite could see the turmoil within him. The need.
This was a believer. He knew that Heaven was real, and that it lay within the Test’s borders. Not with evidence, not by word of mouth, but by the simple fact that only God could name an angel. He existed, and so there must be a Heaven. With that knowledge came a need to see it.
But could a murderer ever witness Heaven?
He set Athena down.
“Leave,” the angel whispered. “Never return to the Well.”
“We were looking for Olympus, Gabriel,” Cain said.
Gabriel turned on the Sinner, full of fury. “You dare?!”
Cain stood tall, defiant. The Mark flared crimson. Gabriel tried to threaten. This was his home, his place of power. Gabriel had faced down gods without even breaking a sweat. But even the angel turned away in the face of the Sinner. He would not risk the Mark.
“I don’t know where Olympus is,” Gabriel muttered.
“Bull,” Cain said. “We’re tired, ticked, and ready to start breaking heads. I’ll tear this place down if I have to.”
“And we would give our lives,” Gabriel said. He looked at the Olympians. “And while I would not take a life to gain Heaven, I’d surely kill and die to defend my flock. Can you say the same?”
Cain glowered, but didn’t deny it.
“Leave this place,” Gabriel said. “I will not ask a third time.”
Cain looked to the Olympians. He sighed, and walked towards the door.
“It should have been you who died, Sinner!” Gabriel called out. “Arthur would have been King of this world. Of all worlds. And you stole him away!”
Aphrodite noticed Cain’s fists clench. Felt him tense. She laid a hand on his back. He walked away. Back into the cold.