Book 1 ♣ Episode 2 ♣ Chapter 2
The Apprentices enter the ominous Black Obelisk. Chapter 2 of the Paragons Episode The White Knight.
Mom pulled us in closer, holding us for one perfect moment, before she stepped back. “The three of you will be great. I just know it.”
She gave us a parting wave, then hurried to join the other families of this year’s Chosen. Two women dressed in white were already leading them through the Garden’s iron gates. Our families had front row seats to the Assessment.
“Are you nervous?” Nevada whispered to me as we followed the other Apprentices into the Garden.
“Of course not,” I lied. I tried not to look at the Black Obelisk, but it was just so big. “You?”
She sighed. “Of course not.”
“Well, I’m not nervous,” Dante said, grinning.
I believed him. Dante didn’t get nervous. It just wasn’t in his nature. He exuded confidence wherever he went. I guess that’s why he was so popular. Honestly, it kind of made me feel like the lame, cowardly sibling.
“Welcome to the Fortress,” the General said when we’d all gathered around him at the center of the Garden. Today, his black uniform was especially crisp. And so was his expression. “This year, thirty teenagers—excuse me, thirty-one teenagers—from all over the world absorbed the spirits’ gift of magic.”
He paused to let those words settle in.
A few people in the crowd began to look around, searching for the stowaway. Every so often—for reasons no one understood—something went wrong with the Blending, and one or two of the Chosen failed to absorb the spirits’ magic. In those years, there were only twenty-nine or twenty-eight Apprentices instead of the usual thirty. But there had never been more than thirty.
The other Apprentices were whispering now. I wondered how long it would take before everyone figured out that I was number thirty-one.
“You were Chosen to be champions, the saviors of humanity,” the General continued.
I did the quick math. Roughly thirty teenagers per year over five Choosings—though the Curse had hit sixteen years ago, the spirits had only come to us a few years ago—that added up to one hundred and fifty of us altogether.
One hundred and fifty Knights to save the world.
One hundred and fifty teenagers against the Curse that had wiped out most of humanity.
Seen like that, the task of saving the world seemed almost impossible. We sure didn’t have very many heroes on our side.
“The spirits have given you all a great gift, a powerful gift. You have magic. Now it’s up to you to learn to wield it to save this world and everyone in it,” said the General. “The Castle is not a school or a playground, and you’re not children here for a vacation. You’re here to become Knights. And being a Knight isn’t just a privilege. It’s a job—the most important job on Gaia. Do not fail us. The Assessment begins now. Your actions over the next few weeks will determine not only your future, but the future of this planet.” With that said, he pivoted sharply and marched out of the Garden.
The General might have looked like a grumpy old grandfather, but he sure had a flair for the dramatic. As the gates clanged shut behind him, two women in white took his place at the podium. They were the same two women who’d ushered our families into the Garden.
They wore white dresses, white kid gloves, white kitten-heel shoes—and big, white, wide-brimmed hats with white silk bows. Even the neatly-knotted chiffon scarves around their necks were white.
The skinnier, meaner-looking of the two women lifted her arms in the air. “Good morning, Apprentices!” Her voice sliced through the Garden. “I am Ms. Pirana. This is Ms. Featherdale.” She indicated her colleague. “We are this year’s Apprentice Program Managers.”
She paused and waited, like she was expecting us to break out in applause or maybe lick her shoes or something. When no one moved, she let out a long-suffering sigh.
“After this initial Assessment today, you will be divided into six teams. We shall select the teams, so don’t bother asking if you can switch to be with your ‘friends’.” She simpered, like she couldn’t understand why anyone would ever choose to have friends. “Do take this all seriously, children, because you will be scored. Both individually and as part of a team.”
When Ms. Pirana tapped the slim white controller in her hand, the colossal Scoreboard behind her flashed, revealing a list of all thirty-one Apprentices and their hometowns.
“This year’s Government funds shall be allocated to towns based on their Apprentices’ performance in the Assessment. In other words, if you do well and follow orders, your town prospers.” She held up a stiff, stern finger. “But if you’re naughty, your town shares in your punishment.”
So if I got into trouble—which always seemed to happen, no matter how much I tried to behave myself—the people in Bayshore would suffer.
Ms. Pirana clapped her hands together once, short and sharp. “The Knights of Gaia is an elite organization. Freeloaders, cheats, and subversives will not be tolerated here.” Her gaze snapped to me.
Great. The General must have told her I was all of the above.
“Any Apprentice who fails to earn a minimum of five hundred Merit points in the first five days,” she said, pausing for dramatic effect, “shall be immediately eliminated from the Program.”
My toes dug deeper into the soles of my shoes. I bet the General had made that rule just for me, so he’d have a way to kick me out of the Program. He definitely wasn’t happy that I was here.
“Apprentices.” Ms. Pirana’s voice snapped like a whip. “Line up and prepare yourselves for assessment.”
Clothing rustled and feet shuffled as we all scurried to line up in front of her and Ms. Featherdale, who still hadn’t spoken a single word. I guess Ms. Pirana was the one in charge. Too bad. Ms. Featherdale actually looked nice. Ms. Pirana looked like a vampire who liked to feast on the suffering of teenagers.
“Hi,” said the girl on my left side. She smiled at me and the girl standing with us. “I’m Bronte.”
“I’m Savannah,” I replied, returning the smile.
“Kylie,” said the girl on my right side, waving.
It turned out that Bronte and Kylie both came from the Fortress—but from very different districts.
Bronte Vance looked like a princess out of a storybook and lived in a place called Killfield, of all things. Killfield was a nearby district, an affluent place populated by Government doctors, scientists, and engineers. Bronte was Killfield’s only Apprentice this year.
Kylie Moore came from the Blue Mountains, an expansive district at the outer edge of the Fortress. It lay directly at the gate to the Wilderness, lands lost to humanity and overrun with Cursed Ones. The people in the Blue Mountains lived a life of hardship and scarcity.
Ms. Pirana cut off our introductions before I could learn anything else about the two girls. “Commence Assessment!” Her voice echoed off the high domed ceiling.
Our First Assessment was a physical one. Ms. Featherdale took our measurements: height, hips, waist, chest circumference. Even the length of our arms and legs. Then Ms. Pirana supervised the weigh-in. She smirked and muttered ‘short and scrawny’ when she recorded my numbers in her charts. I really hated being defined by my measurements, and Ms. Pirana must have known it.
After the weigh-in, they had us run laps alongside the now-closed fence that surrounded the Garden. They made us do pushups, sit-ups, squats, and lunges. They evaluated our flexibility by stretching us until we cried. And they tested our agility and evasion by launching high-speed tennis balls at us using a device that looked like a modern version of a medieval war machine.
By now, it was way past dinnertime. My empty stomach was gurgling, and I was really starting to feel the effects of missing a whole night of sleep. The Fortress was nineteen hours ahead of Bayshore, so I’d effectively lost nearly a day.
But our Program Managers didn’t show any signs of stopping. They moved on to the Second Assessment, an evaluation of our academic knowledge. They went down the line of Apprentices, asking each of us questions on various topics—anything from literature and grammar, to mathematics and science, to history and geography.
All the while, dozens of cameras recorded everything we did. That’s how I knew our families weren’t the only ones watching this so-called Showcase. The General was too. I bet he was the one who got to decide how well we’d performed—and how many Merit points we received.
“Miss Moore!” Ms. Pirana exclaimed. “Step forward!”
Kylie took a cautious step forward. “Yes?” she peeped.
“If you don’t stop fiddling with that ridiculous necklace, I will take it from you,” snapped Ms. Pirana. “Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Kylie meekly tucked her silver necklace under her shirt.
“Good.” Ms. Pirana moved down the line, searching for her next victim. It didn’t take her long to find one. “Mr. Johnson, what is it?”
The poor boy had voluntarily raised his hand. “Ms. Pirana, may I be excused?”
“Excused? For what? What have you done now, boy?” she bit out through a fake smile.
He gulped. “I wish to be excused to use the toilet.”
“You want to go to the toilet.” Somehow, when Ms. Pirana repeated his words, she made them sound like a capital offense. “Apprentices, are there toilet breaks in the middle of battle? No! If you need to use the lavatory, there’s a schedule for that. Now, put your hand down, Mr. Johnson.” She swiped her finger furiously across her tablet screen.
I had a feeling she was marking the boy down for daring to acknowledge his own bodily functions.
And then she was right in front of me, glaring at me. “Well?” Ms. Pirana expelled an impatient sigh, like my entire existence was an unspeakable burden. “Are you even listening to me, Miss Winters?”
Crap. Apparently, I should have been worrying more about myself than about that boy.
“I’m waiting. Do you need me to repeat the question?”
Ms. Pirana’s savage smile promised there would be consequences if I went that route. Yep, the General had definitely told her I was a troublemaker.
“No, that won’t be necessary,” I replied with a smile. Thankfully, I’d at least been kind of listening to her. “The First Expedition began on February 14th, 2029. Earth sent a team of scientists through the first Spirit Tree they discovered on our planet. This team travelled across the Many Realms in search of knowledge and technology. Instead, they brought back the Curse.”
“A simple one-sentence answer is sufficient,” Ms. Pirana snapped. “No need to show off.”
Behind me, one of my fellow Apprentices snorted. I would have seen which one, if only I’d had a spell to put eyes in the back of my head.
“But, yes, let’s see how smart you really are.” Ms. Pirana leaned in closer, so close that I could smell the jasmine-and-apricot perfume she wore to cover her natural stench of pure evil. “Who was the first President of the new Gaian Government?”
“Adrian Flores,” I replied.
“Incorrect.” Something dark and vicious flashed in her eyes. “It was Mia Long.”
“Well, actually, it was Adrian Flores,” I said as Ms. Pirana scanned the crowd for her next victim. Her eyes immediately snapped back to me. “He only held the position for twelve-and-a-half minutes. His reign was cut short when, halfway through his inauguration speech, Cursed Ones attacked the ceremony and infected most of the guests. After that, Mia Long was made President. Her inauguration ceremony was held in a protected underground bunker with minimal guests.”
Ms. Pirana listened to me, her frown deepening with every word that I spoke.
“You can read the full story in Gaia: After the Curse. It’s a great book,” I told her with a smile, trying to be helpful.
But rather than accepting the book recommendation, Ms. Pirana glowered at me.
Somewhere in the crowd, I heard Dante sigh.
And I almost did too. Way to go, Savannah! So much for blending in!
Ms. Pirana looked down at the thick tablet in her hands. Her fingers swiped furiously across the screen. She was probably looking for something so obscure that even a bookworm like me hadn’t read about it. She must have found it too because a cruel smile curled her tight lips.
But a noise drew her attention, a low rumble, like the hum of a car engine. Everyone turned toward the sound.
A rattle mixed with the rumble. The iron gates of the Garden slowly slid apart, opening the way for a black SUV. Every Apprentice turned to watch the big and boxy vehicle drive down the narrow road that dead-ended at the center of the Garden.
Nowadays, the only people who rode around in cars were soldiers or important Government officials. We all waited to see whether a VIP would step out of the mysterious black SUV…
…or a bunch of Watchers.
The SUV stopped. The driver-side door creaked open, and a tall man jumped down. He was dressed in a suit, the uniform of someone who worked for the Government. I’d seen them on the news: stiff, important-looking people in stiff, important-looking suits.
But there was something wrong with the suit. It was both wrinkled and stretched, like someone had crinkled it up into a tight ball, then pulled on it until it burst a few seams.
There was something wrong with the man too. His skin was sallow, sweaty. He smelled wet and earthy, like a pile of leaves that had just begun to rot.
And when the man turned around to face us, his eyes flashed bright red.
My whole body went as cold as ice. Time ground to a halt, freezing on one terrible realization: the man was cursed.
He flashed his teeth.
Everyone in the Garden screamed and scattered like mice, fleeing in terror from the Cursed One.
Copyright © Ella Summers
Read the Author’s Commentary for this chapter.