Des had been to the Central Office a few times with his parents or with Annelle. The grand entryway never stopped catching his breath, though: the marble entryway, the broad sweeping stairways leading up in both directions, the perfect people at the reception desk, looking as much a part of the decorations as the gold trim on the stairs or the broad silk carpets on the floors.
It was different, being there today. For one, there was a voice in his head telling him to bypass the reception desk and the broad stairs and go to a narrow black door nearly hidden under the left stairway. For another, there was the way that people’s eyes seems to skid off him the moment they noticed the collar. For a third, there was the terror in the pit of his stomach.
He noticed things about the marble floor and the silk carpets he never had before, like the fact that the patterning on the marble was regular, symmetrical, and almost looked like words, or the figures hidden in the broader geometrical and floral patterns on the rugs, so that each one was a frieze telling a story, a story most people probably never noticed.
Des walked slowly, ignoring the collar chivying him along. He had several minutes until it was eleven, and he might use every one of them crossing the entryway.
He certainly spent several heartbeats waiting at the tiny black door, his hand hovering over the nearly-flat door-lever. The collar said nothing, but he could feel its warmth against his throat.
It was almost like a hug. He opened the door and stepped inside.
Inside, it turned out, was pitch black. ::Forward twenty steps,:: the collar offered. ::Trust me, and I will get you through this test.::
Desmond rubbed suddenly-sweaty palms on his pants and shifted his stance a couple times before stepping forward, counting under his breath. “….eighteen, nineteen, twenty.”
::Very good. Now. Left, forward three steps, left, forward eight steps, right, forward fifty steps.::
The floor was smooth, almost slick, under Desmond’s feet. Twice he lost count and the collar reminded him gently. Once, he slipped, and it took the collar painful seconds to recalculate where he was when he stood.
::There is a doorknob in front of your right hand. Turn it, and shade your eyes with the other hand.::
The voice had gotten him this far. Desmond shaded his eyes and opened the door.
The light was somewhere between bright and blinding, even through the hand Des was using to shade his eyes. He moved his hand slowly, even as the door behind him swung shut with a very quiet thump.
He was standing in front of a table; behind the table were three people, all of them wearing collars, although all of the collars were far more elaborate than the one around Des’ neck.
The wall behind them was white; the table was white; they were wearing light-colored clothing, all of it cut to expose neck and shoulders. The person on the far left had dark brown skin and was tall and lean; the person in the middle had fair skin with a smattering of freckles and was round and pudgy; and the person on the far right had middle-brown skin and looked far too skinny, but all of them were wearing the same jacket, the same shirt, and almost the same collar, just in slightly different colors.
Des bowed. He made his most formal and polite bow, the one he’d practiced when he was still singing recitals. Then he straightened and waited, hands at his sides, eyes on the table. He was not going to embarrass himself, even if he had no idea what was going on.
The person on the left spoke. “You navigated the first challenge successfully. Well done.” Their voice was low and melodic, and Des thought they sounded pleased with him. “The second challenge will be a more direct–“
::Left hand up palm out:: The collar snapped the directions into Des’ mind, but he found he was obeying them before he’d heard them. A ball of green light came hurtling at him, and a ball of red light seemed to shoot from Des’ palm, intercepting the green light and surrounding it.
Des shook his hand. It felt strange – not unpleasant, but warm. The air smelled faintly of strawberries.
“Very well done. Now, you’ll find–“
Des jerked his right hand up and splayed his fingers. A globe of red grew there, just as the person on the right sent out stringy blue tentacles of light towards him. The globe seemed to collect all the tentacles, turning faintly purple in the middle, and then it vanished.
“Impressed.” The person in the middle bowed to him. Their voice was high-pitched, almost childlike. Their smile was not the least bit youthful nor innocent. “You are already working well with your counterpart.”
Desmond looked down at his hands. “What…. What in the three eyes of the Almighty and the eight arms of the Darkness was that?”
::Symbiosis:: The collar sounded absolutely smug. ::That’s what happens when you and I work together.::
Des couldn’t tear his gaze away from his hands. He waited, to see if the people in front of him had an answer, or if they had another test for him, or if they were going to send him home as uncouth and profane.
He highly doubted the last, because nobody had ever said “Oh, my son came back from his visit with his collar,” but, then again, maybe it was too shameful to mention, or maybe he would just fall down an oubliette.
“As I gather your compatriot has probably told you.” The person on the left, with the melodic voice, sounded a little amused, “what is happening is symbiosis. You and the artifact around your neck will, if you are good, work together to create things that neither could create on their own.”
“Magic.” Des’ voice was dry. “That’s a thing out of the Long Night.”
“Magic,” agreed the squeaky-voiced one. “And it has never left us; it has simply been… contained.”
Des touched the collar around his neck. “Contained.”
::I am a container::, the collar agreed. Definitely amused. The more it talked, the more tone of voice it seemed to have.
“Contained,” agreed the melodic one. “You have passed the initial tests; you and your compatriot can work together. Now you will enter training. Out the door behind you and to the left is a stairway upwards.”
Upwards! Des had always wondered about the sweeping towers of the Central Office. Now he might find out!
The melodic person was continuing. “Take the stairs upwards until your compatriot tells you that you have reached the appropriate level. There, you will begin your training.”
This entry was originally posted at http://aldersprig.dreamwidth.org/1204597.html. You can comment here or there.