The child did not appear again, and by the end of the trip Matt was convinced it must have been some sort of vivid, mildly disturbing hallucination brought on by excess stress and intoxication. A closer examination of the carriage revealed nothing and there was nowhere, Matt assured himself, anyone could have come from, let alone gone – and besides, what would a kid be doing on here anyway? And why would he write some vague spooky nonsense and then vanish? It made no sense, so Matt tried to forget about it and resist the urge to look over his shoulder every two seconds for the rest of the train ride – which, unfortunately, there turned out to be a lot more of.
It took ten hours – ten excruciating, brain-witheringly boring hours – before they arrived at the end of the line with (on Jane’s part) a renewed excitement and (on Matt’s part) a newfound hatred of trains. From there they were greeted, to Matt’s incredulous chagrin, by the dark figure of a teleporter popping into existence on the station’s edge.
“Hi there!” he beamed. He was a young, well-built black guy, maybe a year or two older than Matt, medium build, with very white teeth. “Will Herd. Pleasure.” He held out a hand and Matt, suppressing his annoyance, took it. As they shook, the teleporter’s eyes found Jane, and his face hardened.
“Empath,” said Will, with none of the warmth or charm he’d laid out for Matt. Jane merely nodded. At her acknowledgement, the teleporter stiffly raised an arm.
“This is lead lined,” he told her bluntly, “You won’t be able to absorb through it.”
“Thanks,” Jane scowled, her voice not so much dripping as bleeding sarcasm. Will ignored her, instead turning back to Matt, his charisma returning like it had never left. “These your bags?” he asked, indicating Matt’s suitcases, “Here, let me…” He grabbed the largest handle as Matt wrapped his hand wordlessly around one arm of the teleporter’s sweater, which felt oddly lumpy. Jane hitched up her lone tattered backpack and moved to do the same as Will closed his eyes, envisaging their arrival location.
There was a sudden lurch. The world went black, and a heavy force pulled Matt in towards his hand. There was a rush, his ears popped, and a feeling of all the blood rushing to his head, like being upside down in a wind tunnel. Then suddenly, the pressure on his body subsided – the noise stopped and Matt’s nose filled with the smell of rotten eggs. He opened his eyes, his pupils readjusting slowly to the light – to find them standing on the edge of a forest surrounded by nothing but wind, pine needles and the sounds of the wild, staring up at the distant shadow of a great building looming high atop a verdant hill.
“Welcome to Morningstar,” smiled Will.
Jane threw up.
It was bigger than the pictures – that was the first thing Jane thought when she finally looked up, fighting the nausea. Bigger than the pictures she’d seen, the ones she’d once had on her wall. Photos didn’t do it justice, couldn’t convey the majesty of the building, the grandeur, the glow of illuminated windows in the afternoon light.
It was an old place, modelled after the great manor homes of England, great sandstone stories interlaced with windows and latticework. Built, she’d read, by a rich man longing for the old world, and gifted by an old man dreaming of the new.
It was almost a castle, Matt guessed. Except more square and yellow-brown, more mansion, less drawbridge. The term ‘unnecessarily large’ came to mind, the type of place where the rooms were named for colours instead of functions because there too many to practically use.
He glanced behind him at Jane as they trudged up the hill, the only sound the gentle hum of insects moving out into the afternoon air. She was leaning against a pine tree, looking up at the manor with an affection he might not have otherwise believed the empath was capable of – though at least not too enamoured to miss Matt’s discrete cleaning motion with his hand to get her to wipe her mouth on her sleeve.
They crossed the well-kept grounds towards Morningstar’s entrance without pomp or ceremony and entered through a heavy oaken door, twice as tall as Matt, which was already open when they arrived – and through which waited none other than Daniel Winters, resplendent in a charcoal-grey suit, who welcomed them inside with an easy smile.
“Rooms are on the third floor,” explained Winters as they moved through the corridors and up two flights of stairs, the suited director in front, Will having left. The walls alternated between sandstone and white plaster, the floors carpeted a dull green. Pictures of Legion members past and present, photos and awards, adorned the walls. “Meals are served in the Grand Hall. Food is available twenty-four hours a day. Our cooks are quite good.” He turned a corner and they followed him down another hall as Matt tried to keep mental track of where they were going. Winters gestured with his free hand at one of the closed doors as they passed. “The central building is mainly living quarters, although you’ll also find classrooms, computer labs and the library. The general rule of thumb is people in here, powers out there.” He smirked as if this was funny, but Matt didn’t really get the joke.
“There’ve been extensive additions to the grounds over the years,” Winters continued without waiting for or needing acknowledgement, “Pools, arenas, courses. You name it, we’ve probably got it. You’ll know your way around soon enough. There’s a map in your room in case you get lost.”
They summited another set of stairs to find themselves looking horizontally along a long row of plain and practically identical wooden doors. “These are not luxury accommodations,” Winters said clearly, “But they’re soundproof and they’re private. Beds are made up and cleaners change them regularly. Each room has a small ensuite to prevent the need for night-time wandering.” Matt flashed Jane a sceptical eyebrow but lowered it as Winters stopped and turned to face him.
“Mr Callaghan, you are three doors down there,” he pointed to his left, “The one with the envelope taped to the front. That’s your welcome package – read it, unpack and make yourself at home. Then be at the Grand Hall for your Welcome at six.” Winters reached into his front pocket and drew out a small silver key, which he placed in Matt’s hand with a reassuring smile. “Feel free to greet your neighbours. No one’s going to bite. We’re all in the same boat – fighters in the Arena, friends in the halls.” Matt nodded.
“Welcome to the Legion,” the director smiled. They shook hands, and Matt picked up his bags and began trudging towards his room.
Winters spent a few seconds watching him go, then glanced at Jane, his smile fading slightly. “You’re around the corner,” he said, “Follow me.”
They walked through the halls without exchanging a word, the director leading, her following. Like Matt, her door had a white A4 envelope affixed to it with masking tape. The director reached into his other pocket and handed her the key.
“Thank you,” she muttered.
“You’re welcome,” Winters replied, inevitably professional. He looked at her and they made eye contact for the first time since entering the building – the lines of the well-groomed man’s face smoothed into an inscrutable expression, neither welcoming nor hostile. For the briefest second his eyes flicked to her cheek, before he caught himself. He could have been a movie star, Jane thought. He had the look, the smoothness. He carried himself well.
There was a brief pause.
“Six o’clock, Miss Walker,” Winters said finally, “The Grand Hall. Don’t forget. The Welcome.” He paused, and his grey eyes glinted with a hint of meaning.
“Yes sir,” Jane replied. The director nodded curtly, then without another word turned and walked away, leaving Jane alone with her backpack, standing silent in front of the door.
For a while, she just stood there, breathing. This was it. She was here. It was real, it was happening. Jane took in a few shaky breaths, letting the reality sink in.
She was inside.
Suddenly, there was a sound to her left. Jane turned her head. Five doors down a tall, thin Eurasian girl with long dark hair, almond eyes and flawless olive skin stepped out from one of the rooms. A blue satin blouse hung loosely around her chest, a white cotton skirt flowing long down her legs. She was beautiful, thought Jane. As if having heard her, the girl turned towards Jane and smiled.
It was a small smile. A smile, followed by a wave, and then in a blur of speed, the girl was gone. Jane stood for a moment, alone in the corridor, watching where she’d been, wondering who she was, where she’d gone – and why, if she could see her mark, the girl had bothered to smile at all.
The Grand Hall rumbled. Even from where they stood, in a small passage off to the side of the main stage, Matt could hear the murmuring of the gathered crowd, glimpse individual faces in the sea of people. Legionnaires, Acolytes, whatever they were called – there were hundreds of them, crowded onto benches either side of six long wooden tables which ran the entire length of the room. Matt forced himself to breathe, running through a few calming routines in his head. He’d never liked crowds, though he seemed to be at least doing better than Jane who, standing next to him in the darkened corridor likewise waiting to be called, may as well have turned to sweaty stone.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Winters’ voice rang out; the man himself standing tall behind a lectern in the centre of the stage, facing the gathered crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you please.”
The murmuring withered and ceased.
Even with his back to them, Matt could tell that Winters smiled.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Acolytes of the Legion-” (so that was the term) “-it is my great honour to welcome two new members into your ranks. A brother and a sister in arms – fellow soldiers to our cause.”
Jane’s heart was pounding so loudly in her chest she could barely hear Winters’ words.
“First, Mister Matthew Callaghan.”
In the darkened hallway, out of sight of the crowd, Matt shot a nervous glance back at her, then he swallowed, straightened his shoulders and stepped forward. A smattering of polite applause filled the Hall as he strode out onto the brightly lit stage towards the Winters, who gestured warmly towards a spot to his left – Jane watched as Matt took his place beside the podium, glancing out over the crowd, his face a nervous, sheepish grin. He gave a small, tentative wave.
“Mr Callaghan,” announced Winters, his voice effortless, confident and assured, “Is one of the most exciting new recruits to grace the Academy. Mr Callaghan is a person who I think – with the right guidance – could do remarkable things. Mr Callaghan-” he repeated a third time, and his voice rose louder, filling the room with his conviction, “-is a clairvoyant.”
An audible murmur raced around the room. From where she stood Jane could see people turning to one another, see the glances and the exchange of whispers.
“I won’t labour his introduction any further,” said Winters, his voice dropping back down from loud to inviting, “I suspect he will have much to show us himself over the coming months, so I won’t say any more.” He turned to gaze at Matt with fatherly affection. “Except welcome, Matt. Welcome to the Academy.”
There was another round of applause, louder this time, more forceful. Jane saw Matt give a short, jerking nod, then take half a step back.
Winters paused, turning back to the crowd, and the applause died down.
“Our second newcomer,” the director announced, and to his credit no edge of distaste crept into his voice, “Is also a promising talent. She has a PDR of 12 and will no doubt make a fine addition to our ranks. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Miss Jane Walker-”
Like in a dream, Jane’s feet began to move, carrying her out onto the hardwood stage without thinking, her mind a burning blank. There was sound somewhere, distantly, initial disinterested clapping – and then the shining, blinding lights hit her eyes and her face, and suddenly, all sound stopped.
The Hall fell deathly silent. There was no clapping, no whispering. Nobody said a word. Jane kept moving, kept her head forward, her gaze straight, trying not to meet any one of the thousand eyes, the sea of faces staring up at her. She moved to Winters’ right, the sound of her muffled footsteps echoing out, alone, into the awful, gaping void, to stand beside the director, who turned back tall and firm to the assembled and spoke the single, unnecessary word-
For what seemed like an eternity, nobody moved. Nobody breathed. Jane’s hands clenched at her side, feeling the collective eyes of the Academy burn into the side of her face.
“May they uphold our legacy,” proclaimed Winters. His voice strained against the silence. “May they ever serve the Dawn.”
And then, without warning, somebody hissed.
A grating, shuddering intake of breath, raking over tongue and teeth, coming from nowhere but spreading throughout those gathered without exception and pause, until the sound of it seethed through the entire Hall. A low, vicious whisper, a tide of anger swelling between hundreds of statues who glared up at her with blazing hate.
“Oh yeah,” she heard Matt mutter under his breath, “This is going to be great.”
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).