June pulled her maroon uniform top down and rolled her shoulders. She stood before two large black doors, behind which more than a three dozen Immortals waited to welcome her into their ranks. She couldn’t believe it had only taken her three months to become proficient enough to be set loose on the Worlds.
Nervously, she cleared her throat. She’d felt this way before.
Every new school and new class she’d been forced to introduce herself to – make a fool of herself – called to the front of the class and asked to tell about herself. When she graduated, she was glad that she’d left it behind. Now here she was.
The new girl again. Only this time the stakes were higher.
Master Hadrian put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “You’ll do fine.”
Turning to look at him she gave him her best fake smile.
Master Hadrian laughed.
A rich and full laugh, the kind that lit up his eyes and face. The joy in it was contagious and made June really smile.
Master Hadrian turned to face the doors. “I was nervous at my induction party as well. But there’s nothing to worry about.” His face was now a grim mask. “This is where they judge how well I trained you and how powerful you’ll become. Your performance in there will have a rippling impact on the rest of your life.”
“Right.” June chuckled, dryly. “no pressure then.”
The silence between them stretched. The weight of his words settling into her, twisting her blood. Master Hadrian said she’d learned faster than anyone he’d ever heard of. Three months to full mastery. It didn’t seem long enough. She wasn’t ready to face what was waiting behind those doors. Who was behind those doors.
Hadrian turned his head to look at her, and not for the first time said, “Remember to look them in the eyes. No matter how they make you feel or how much you want to, don’t look away.”
June nodded. For the past month, he’d been telling her that daily. She had a habit of not looking people in the eyes. He called it a weakness. But he’d been only partially successful at training it out of her.
“I am not prey.” She repeated his next sentence so he wouldn’t have to.
He nodded, turning to look at the big black doors. “Exactly. We are the apex predators here, they should be afraid of us not the other way around.” His last sentence was spoken with a firmness that made June think it was something he was saying to remind himself, not her.
The realization made her stomach drop. He was afraid too. Afraid of the creatures behind the wide doors. The creatures who could kill them both. Rip them to shreds at the smallest sign of weakness or hesitation. If Master Hadrian was worried, she should be terrified. These creatures were going to eat her alive. June corrected herself. Not creatures. Aliens. They were aliens. Nothing magical about their appearance. Simple evolution had given them advantages. That was it.
Master Hadrian put his hand on the door, muscles flexing he pushed it open. His long, firm legs carried him into the room.
The space was a wonder to behold. Everything seemed to be carved from one perfect piece of black granite, even the large table and chairs at the far end of the room. The black walls, lace-like ceiling, and floor were clean and met in impossibly perfect angles. Even the giant chandeliers – giving off a pale white light – seemed to have grown from the ceiling rather than having been cut.
June’s eyes were drawn to the creatures in the room. There were three types, all mixed together, talking quietly.
Padarians. Impossibly tall, seven fingers on each hand, with skin that looked like brown and orange marble and large black reflective eyes. They specialized in Physical Immortality. A touch from one of them could heal or harm. A single finger. Some of the stronger Immortals wouldn’t need to touch, just be in close proximity.
Gutxic. More like cats that walked on two legs. Retractable claws. The men had silver grey fur; the women were brightly colored. They were masters of their environment. Elemental Immortals.
June had to concentrate on the absence of movement to see the last species. Ifrianians. They were perfectly still. Blending with the black of the floor and motionless. Their skin was darkness make flesh, drinking in light. They watched her with unblinking eyes, scattered through the crowd. To her, they were the most terrifying Immortals. Mental Immortals. They could crawl into a person’s brain, swirl everything around, then shove it back in with something added, or something taken. Master Hadrian said they could read minds, hear thoughts.
The very idea of being able to slip into someone’s mind and control them made her skin crawl. She was glad she didn’t have the skill with Mental Immortality, too much possibility for corruption.
Master Hadrian stopped five steps into the room and announced her.
The room went silent as attention shifted to her.
June swept her eyes over the gathered Immortals. They watched her closer than she was watching them. Wanting to know what her weaknesses were, where she hid her soft spots.
For a slow heartbeat, she stood frozen. Predators’ eyes cemented her in place. She wanted to back up, turn and run screaming from all those eyes. From the sheer power surging through the room.
Then Master Hadrian turned to look at her, his blue eyes sharp and strong. There was a gentle reprimand in his posture. He braced his arms behind his back and raised his eyebrows like he did when he’d told her what to do and she wasn’t listening.
June gave him the smallest of smiles, then strode into the room.
As she passed the doorway, she could sense the Immortals in the room feeling her power. Trying to measure how much strength she had, and how much growing she still had to do.
A Gutxic stepped in her way, blocking her path. His blue-gray fur was laid down and relaxed. Only because he was inches from her face did she see his eyes. They were the same color as his fur, but his pupils were red hourglasses.
June couldn’t help but think of the belly of a black widow. A single bite might not necessarily kill, but it would hurt.
The Gutxic took another step forward, invading her personal space, and towering over. “She isn’t as strong as I’ve heard.”
Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of Master Hadrian folding his arms and she knew he wouldn’t interfere.
This was her testing grounds. The real test.
Everything that had come before was just preparation. How she performed here would determine the level of respect she got for the rest of her life.
But he prepared her for this, warned her this might happen. It was the Gutxic way to challenge new Immortals in this way. Call them weak and then see what would happen.
He was just as strong as her, and he’d been able to practice for years. Most of what she struggled to do would come naturally to him.
Her strike was quick and brutal. With the thinnest strand of power, she could peel away she reached out and took his legs out from under him. He gasped as his back hit the ground, the wind flying out of him. With another flick of power, almost an afterthought she flipped him to his belly.
Then she swung her booted foot back and kicked him in the face. Blood sprayed the ground. Squatting she grabbed him by the chin, clicking her tongue in symphony as she examined his broken nose.
She waited for his hourglass pupils to focus on her before she said, “Next time you lie,” She smiled at the Gutxic Immortal, warmly, and filled it with as much hospitality as she could cram into it. All to let him know there weren’t any hard feelings. “I’ll remove your tongue.” Then she stood, the friendly smile still on her face.