Weakly, Rip pushed it towards Jaran. He spoke in a wavering tone, his speech croaking and cracking, “Take this. Take this and keep the sword and bow and arrow with you too.
You must continue on your own, Jaran. And be careful, that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
“Be careful, Jaran. Keep yourself safe. Get to the Portals and go through them as soon as they appear. I’m sure you’ll emerge into a favourable place.”
With that, Rip’s body became still as the life drained out of him.
Jaran fell over his body and began to sob amidst hard, laboured breaths. He felt weak. He knew though, what he had to do. He had to get to the Portals and step through them; simple enough. What if I end up going to Hell?
No, I mustn’t think like that. I’ve had just one serious encounter with the law. I’ve done nothing else wrong my entire life.
He pushed himself off the ground and swung the quiver over one shoulder, with the bow over the other. He sheathed the sword, grabbed the shield, and began to walk. With all that weight pulling him down though, it wasn’t easy.
“I could lose some of this, right? I mean, I don’t need a sword and a bow and arrow.” No sooner had the thought entered his head, that the quiver, shield, and bow faded away, leaving no trace of their existence.
“What the fuck? Where the fuck did my stuff go?”
“God damn it!” Jaran stomped on the ground in anger, swinging his fists through the air. “Give me my stuff back!” Just like that, everything came back — exactly the way it was when it vanished. “The hell is going on here…” Jaran was thoroughly confused now and had no idea what was going on. Damn it, Rip would know. These were all his weapons, after all.
Unable to think of anything else, Jaran tried experimenting a few more times.
“No bow and arrow.” The bow and quiver disappeared.
“Just quiver.” The quiver came back, but the bow stayed gone.
“Only shield.” Everything but the shield vanished.
“Damn, this is cool.” Jaran spoke in a quiet voice, laden in awe and wonder. He didn’t have time to marvel at it for long though. A strong gust of wind began to blow, and something smashed into Jaran, causing him to lose balance and start to tip to one side. Before he could hit the ground though, he was hit again, making him fall to the other side. This time, he hit the ground. He fell before he could even begin to fathom what was going on. Strangely though, the pain subsided almost instantly, and he was able to move into a crouch, one arm at his forehead trying to shield his eyes, the other holding a now-drawn sword. He willed the rest to vanish.
Despite having to squint, Jaran could still see the next attack before it came too close to him. He couldn’t quite define the figure, though. All he could tell was that it was large, it was fast, and it wanted to kill him.
Biding his time, Jaran kept the sword pointing downwards, waiting until the right moment.
Jaran lifted and swung the sword in a wide arc with both hands, cutting through his target with a jerky, rough cut. Immediately, the storm died out, and was replaced by the now-dead figure, laying there in two distinct parts. The two parts lay in a pool of blood and other fluids Jaran couldn’t identify, some parts soaking up the fluids, others secreting more of them. Looking at the first man he had ever killed, Jaran felt a mixture of queasiness, nervousness, satisfaction, and pride. He had managed to defend himself without Rip’s help, but the sight of the dead body made him want to throw up. Not wanting to stare at the corpse any longer than he had to, Jaran stabbed it once more for good measure (you never know how these things work), then willed the sword away as he began down the road again.
Soon after, a rectangular silhouette materialised someway down from Jaran. The doors — finally!
He cried out in relief and broke into a desperate run, very much wishing this ordeal over. Slowly, more and more of the door become visible, and what used to seem like a pair of rusted doors, now appeared to be two large ones made of mahogany, with no differentiating factor between the two. As Jaran came closer to the door, one of them swung silently open, leading to apparent nothingness. Suddenly, Jaran didn’t feel so eager to go in anymore.
They each came and went, and each struck him equally hard. He contemplated just staying out here, fending for himself, using the weapons Rip had given him. He quickly dismissed that idea, though, he knew he wouldn’t last long. Sure, he could defend himself to some extent, but what of food? Shelter?
Sighing, he accepted his fate and walked through the doors, his nerves rattling…
…and began to fall, body sprawled out, limbs failing. Until, that is, he realised he wasn’t afraid. Jaran seemed to be falling into a bottomless void, but he felt oddly calm. The edges of the “tunnel” let off a faint white glow and there was a slight calming breeze coming from the bottom (wherever that was).
Suddenly, he began to speed up, and Jaran started to freak out again. He tried twisting to the side to hold onto the edge of the tunnel, but his hand passed through the walls as if they were smoke. He screamed out in fright as he rolled into a ball, bracing for impact. Then, he started to slow down, losing speed gradually until he was just barely moving. He came in contact with a hard surface and stopped moving altogether. Jaran just lay curled up on the floor, his heart still beating rapidly from the momentary speed-up, and his side a little sore from the descent.
Slowly, he opened his eyes. The room he lay in seemed normal enough, save for the faint red glow emanating from the walls, and the fact that there was no door in sight. The hole in the roof where he fell from wasn’t there anymore either. Jaran reasoned the red glow may be from neon compounds in the wall lining, but there wasn’t any real way to be sure. It could be blood for all I know, I don’t know where I am.
Quietly, a man walked in from behind Jaran, a door appearing then disappearing as he used it. Jaran didn’t notice him until he spoke.
“Hello, Mr Reddington. My name is Francisco Zenon.”
“Holy shit!” Jaran scrambled backwards, unsure where this man had come in from.
“There’s no need for alarm, Mr Reddington, believe me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, Mr Reddington, you made it. You made it to the Light.” Jaran took a moment to register this. All his fear was for nothing. He wasn’t in Hell, he was in Heaven — the Light — he was one of the good guys. After giving himself a few moments to collect his thoughts,
“So, that’s what you guys call Heaven? The Light?”
“Well, it’s not exactly Heaven and Hell, but I suppose for all practical purposes of your understanding, Heaven would do; The Light is Heaven.”
Ignoring the initial part of his reply, “So, I take it what we call Hell, you call the Dark?”
“No, that bunch is called the Black.”
The man’s form wavered for a few seconds, shifting in and out of existence, but then materialised once more. Jaran found it odd, but didn’t bother questioning it, simply assuming it to be one of the ever-growing number of oddities of this realm.
“If you’ll just follow me through here,” Francisco waved his hand in the air, revealing a door in the far side of the room. “…we’ll get you acquainted with life in the Light.”
Francisco led Jaran through a multitude of doors, corridors, open pathways, and other structures he could not name, pointing out this and that, outwardly proud of some, subtly so for others. He liked Francisco, but supposed it was in the kind of way one likes a hotel manager: they are, by way of duty and responsibility, required to be nice to you.
Eventually, they came to a large stone building that stretched for miles in either direction. Again, there seemed to be no door, but as they approached, one materialised.
“This, Mr Reddington, is where everyone lives.
Tonight, at the Great Feast, you’ll be assigned to a regiment with a related ability. You’ll be trained in said ability until, over time, you become adept at it. Good luck.”
For the next three hours or so, Jaran was left by himself, free to work his way around this place. His room started off as a squat, grey one, with no decorative ornaments whatsoever. However, the more time he spent in it, the more the room began to morph to his tastes. The wall right opposite the door now donned a ceiling-to-floor Dali painting, and the floor was all-carpet. The wall facing east was now a ceiling-to-floor glass panel so that the room flooded with sun the moment it graced the sky.
Finally, it was time for the Great Feast. Jaran had never experienced anything like it.
The hall was split by regiment, with each of the five taking their own table. Those who hadn’t been assigned one, the newbies, had their own table right in the centre. There was also a table at the far end of the room that looked upon the rest of the hall. It only had five people seated at it, and they seemed to be higher authority. Jaran later learned that these were the five Masters of the Light, each proficient at their own practice.
As they ate, Jaran made a few friends. Can’t stay to myself for the rest of eternity. Mark Winner had a rather staunch air about him, so Jaran was a bit apprehensive about talking to him. However, he turned out to be pretty free-flowing and easy-going. He came from a line of wealthy business owners and had managed to keep up the family fortune right until he died. A gas leak caused his office to explode, resulting in his death, along with that of twelve employees (he didn’t know where they ended up though, he couldn’t see them anywhere). At least, that’s what the official report said. Mark was sure a business rival did that to take them out of the game.
Kristen Grey was an odd one too. She had a sort of resting bitch face and would snap at people at random intervals, but as they talked, Jaran realised she was a lot nicer than she seemed. She died while undercover trying to infiltrate the Rizzuto crime family’s drug ring. About six months into the operation, the Rizzutos began to suspect a mole amongst them. They managed to get to one of the members of the team handling Kristen (supposedly after having abducted his wife and kids), who then gave her up. Kristen didn’t get to see another sunrise.
A little way into the feast, the Master at the extreme right rose. The hall immediately fell silent, despite her not saying a word.
“Good evening all, and welcome, new recruits. I’m Master Shyama, Master of the Reapers. I’m sure you have a fair amount of questions, so let me try and answer them.
Each of you has made it into the Light, so first of all, congratulations.” Everyone gave her a calm applause. “During your stay here, you will be assigned to one of five regiments — the Reapers, the Crafters, the Masters of the Shadow Realm, the Masters of the Elements, and the Healers. As you probably would have inferred, each regiment has a linked ability in which you will be trained to perfection, so that when and if the time comes, you may use these powers to defend the Light and what it stands for.
“The opposite to the Light, the folks over on the Other End, are called the Black. The other Masters counselled me against telling you all this so as to not spook the new recruits, but I see no reason why you should be kept in the dark. The Light and the Black are prone to frequent feuds, which, more often than not, escalate to violence.
“At his point, you’re probably wondering why this is so. You see, the Light harbours a very special, very powerful item, a gem that allows one to learn and wield the powers of all five regiments: the Colossus. For most people, it is too strong to use, simply touching it renders one unconscious. There has only been one person in all of recorded history to have withstood its sheer raw energy — the original Reaper, Adeen Jor. Sadly, she is no longer amongst us.
“However, this is no reason to fret. The Light has defended itself and the Colossus almost since the beginning of time and will not lose anytime soon. So, enjoy the rest of your life here, and let the sorting begin!”
One by one, each of the new recruits were called before the Masters, who conferred for a few minutes before one of them claimed the individual for their regiment.
Peter Summers — Masters of the Shadow Realm
Edmund Hershberger — Master of the Elements
Tammi Ford — Crafters
Kristen Grey — Masters of the Shadow Realm
Mark Winner — Reapers (Jaran let out a sigh that comprised of a mix of melancholy and happiness at that)
And so, the list went on until Jaran was finally called. He walked slowly up to the podium like he had seen all the others do and stood right in its centre. The podium let out a hiss as it began to move upwards until Jaran was at the Masters’ eye level. This was the part that he couldn’t see from his table; somehow, they were barred from viewing this process.
Strange lights began to emanate from beneath him, basking him in red, orange, yellow, and more. He felt each of their gazes rest upon him one by one, until all five had assessed him to their individual levels of satisfaction. The five then conferred amongst themselves for a few seconds until the one right in the centre got up and spoke,
“Jaran Reddington, you have been selected to become a Master of the Shadow Realm. Welcome.” That seemed to have been said so that it was audible to everyone in the hall, for as soon as Jaran began his descent, the table in the far side of the room, the one almost sticking to the walls, burst out in welcoming applause. He picked out Kristen from amongst the crowd, and took a place next to her, greeting the others to his left and right.
And thus, the night continued, each new recruit being sorted into a regiment, their respective tables applauding as the decisions were announced. Once all that was out of the way, Jaran and Kristen decided to head up to the local bar for a few drinks to conclude their first night in this strange new place. Before everyone left though, the five Masters descended to the plane of the others, and Master Shyama announced,
“As is customary, all new recruits will report to the central courtyard at nine sharp, tomorrow morning. Dismissed.”
The haul sprung alive with chatter as people filed out, and Jaran asked Kristen if she wanted to go get a drink. She readily agreed. It seemed like everyone else had the exact same idea too though, for by the time they got there, it was packed. Jaran suggested turning around, but Kristen insisted on going in: “Gotta take what you want, mate.”
They got a drink each from the bartender — an American Light for Jaran and a Dark and Stormy for Kristen — and eventually found a spot near the back. Neither of them minded though, it was a comfortable area and gave them a bit of privacy too. Just as they sat, Jaran made eye contact with Mark who was a little way away, who was with a few others (other Reapers, perhaps), and signalled him to come sit with them. Mark happily obliged and sauntered over: judging by his gait, he’d had a few drinks already.
“That was the Reaper that brought me here! Thought I’d never be able to see Rinsco after I stepped through those doors. Great guy he is, really.” Mark nodded to both of them as said this and sat down.
“Cool,” Kristen began, “I met my Reaper too, before dinner. Don’t particularly like her though — Regina’s her name — too chatty.” Then, turning to Jaran, “You meet yours yet?” Jaran looked down quietly at his drink, seemingly engrossed in the American Light’s swirling yellow and red.
“Mine, uh…he died while bringing me in. Yeah, his name was Rip, quite liked the guy.” The other two fell quiet at this, apparently observing a moment of silence in his honour. “He left me some really cool stuff though,” Jaran continued as he willed the sword, bow and arrow, quiver, and shield, alternatively in and out of existence. Mark was too stunned to do anything, letting out a low No way in surprise, while Kristen punched him and exclaimed, “Damn, that’s cool!”
After that, they more or less sat in awkward silence for a while, the mood partly hampered by Rip’s memory, partly by not knowing what to say or do. Eventually, Mark came up with something. “Bet I could do more shots than you two in a minute.” Kristen immediately took that bet, saying she could drink more than a sea captain who’s been stranded for months. Jaran was a bit more conservative though.
“I probably shouldn’t, drunk me isn’t exactly…normal,” he justified, stretching out the last word.
“Oh, come on, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“I could get drunk and run around decapitating everyone with Rip’s sword.”
“Oh, loosen up, we won’t let it come to that.”
“Yeah, I’ve got great tolerance. Way better than Mark’s.” Kristen shot a sly look towards him, baiting him in.
“Ugh, fine. Let’s do this,” Jaran finally gave in.
“That’s it!”/“That’s the spirit!”
The three of them got up and sauntered towards the bartender, already seeming a little drunk (Mark probably was though). Mark told the bartender to line up twelve jägerbombs each, but Kristen made it twenty. Jaran had a feeling her gusto was just for show but couldn’t be sure — he hadn’t quite got the read on her yet.
A minute later, the three of them were leaning against anything that could hold their weight, including each other (the latter really wasn’t a very good idea, considering it ended with them having to pick themselves up off the floor after landing in an entangled heap); Mark had fifteen in, Kristen had all twenty (turns out she wasn’t just for show), and Jaran…well, Jaran had thirty. After his twenty, the bartender had asked him to stop, but Jaran screamed out and began threatening him, leaving the poor guy no option but to oblige (“Never mess with a drunk”, he had said, “They’re the most unstable people there are, and are the only ones truly capable of doing anything”). However, Jaran was a brash-drunk, not a subdued one, so, naturally, they were escorted out of the bar, and left to go find another one.
A loud screeching noise awoke a very hungover, very disoriented Jaran. He slowly blinked his eyes open, trying to adjust to the glaring light that seemed to be everywhere. His head rolled to the side and he found himself staring into an apparently never-ending patch of blue.
There was that screeching noise again; Jaran snapped his head in the direction of where he thought the noise was coming from and found himself face-to-face with a crow. It stared at him with its unnerving red eyes, blinking every few seconds as if it were assessing him, but doing nothing else. Jaran scrambled away from it in fright, scuttling backwards, but he bumped into something. A something that let out a muffled grunt when Jaran hit it. He turned around to see what this thing was, and saw a girl lying flat on her back. Black-brown hair streaked across her face, and there were slight remnants of drool around her mouth. The rest of her was angled oddly, her body was sort of sprawled across the ground. It looked like someone Jaran knew, but he couldn’t quite place who.
Jaran shook her awake, calling her name repeatedly, trying to get her to get up. She actually looked a bit dead, which worried Jaran even more. Finally, she rolled over and let out another groan. By then, Jaran had begun to somewhat come to his senses, so he was able to reason out the fact that he should probably look for Mark too. He pushed himself off the ground, subjecting himself to a sharp pain through his legs, but he pulled through it, stabbing his left arm with an outstretched thumb in an attempt to even out the pain. (He picked that up from his adolescent years, when he ruptured his ring finger’s tendon. While it was healing, whenever it hurt too much, he would start punching and pinching his leg so that his brain forgot about his tendon; worked like a charm.) He fumbled around, looking for the man he got drunk with the previous night. His first few minutes of search yielded naught, but at least his legs were working fine now. Now quite desperate, Jaran went back to get Kristen to help, only to find that Mark was already beside her and was trying to wake her up again.
“Don’t bother, she’ll just go right back to sleep.” Mark looked up in surprise at Jaran’s words, trying to place the figure talking to him. He too, was still fairly hungover. Then, once he got who he was looking at, he got up and hugged him. “Thought you were dead man, couldn’t see you anywhere. Thought maybe you really had gone around decapitating everyone and that they’d given you the rope for it.”
“Well, I don’t think they’d use something as rudimentary as a rope around here.” Mark punched Jaran’s arm. Kristen had finally begun to stir, so the two helped her up and propped her against a structure jutting out of the ground they were on.
“Great tolerance, my ass,” Mark teased.
“I’ll have something for that when I can remember what happened last night, Winner (pronoucing it weiner). Just you wait.” The three of them laughed and sat around the structure they propped Kristen against. Now that everything was under wraps, Jaran could finally take a moment to understand his surroundings properly.
They seemed to be on some rooftop overlooking some valley. He got up and tentatively walked towards the edge, trying to figure things out better. “Guys, where exactly are we?” The other two came up next to him to try and answer that question.
“I know that valley,” Kristen began, “It’s the one you can see from my room’s window. Which would mean we’re on the living quarters’ roof.” The other two simply nodded. “Fuck! We’re on the living quarters’ roof!” she finally finished, fully coming to her senses. Jaran and Mark realised what she was saying just then too and screamed out.
“Wait, guys. What time is it?” Jaran said. Mark glanced at his wrist and said “Nine-fifteen.”
“Fuck, we were meant to be at that courtyard thing fifteen minutes ago.” This time it was Kristen and Mark who screamed out.
“We’re screwed, aren’t we?” Kristen asked.
“Royally,” Jaran and Mark replied in unison.