The Portals Of Hell – Snippet 11

Chapter 6: The Wrong Answer

Davin crossed the center of the campus, neck muscles tight and face grim. Summer classes were completing today, final examinations starting tomorrow; the fall session would begin soon after. Davin was finally enrolled, and was to be given credit for many of his academy classes, which would have excited him, were not the coming interview lying heavily on his mind.

A scattering of students joined him in the central quadrangle, some with the haste and worried expressions of those late for class. Most were lacking coats, dressed in only shirts or half-cloaks, as the day was sunny. A few students nodded and smiled but Davin failed to respond.

Today, five days after his arrival at the University, Davin was to be tested, and his fear and anticipation grew at each step he took toward his destination. Two incidents had heightened Davin’s anxiety about the impending test. The first, three days ago, had begun when he had seen flashes of light only moments before a minor Hellport began to form near the dorm, right on the campus grounds. Several students and one of the professors had given the alarm, and a Talented priest quickly sealed the hole before it could stabilize.

The second event was even more disturbing. Yesterday morning, a professor had been working with some of the more Gifted novices in a senior class, when an exercise went awry, causing a burst of God’s Power that made the building vibrate, as in a mild earthquake. Most students noticed the merest jar, but Davin, in his cell, was almost blinded by a brilliant flash. The next thing he knew, he was on the floor in a daze, wondering what had happened. He suffered a monstrous headache for the rest of the day.

All in all, the test seemed destined to tell Davin something he most assuredly did not want to hear, and the closer he came to the new Earth Studies Building, the more his tension grew.

The building was massive, constructed largely of clay brick. Atop it was a broad dome of rock and plaster, perched on walls set in an octagonal pattern that held huge windows of real glass.

Across the broad front landing, thick, polished bronze doors led into the main hall. The roof extended over the landing, supported by five pillars of mammoth granite blocks. Walls to either side held bronze panels, the left a picture of St. John, feeding his faithful followers. The other, to the right, showed Maria, God’s daughter, leading her son Jose into the Iglesa to worship.

Drawing a deep breath, Davin entered the main hall, an enormous octagonal rotunda, capped by that massive dome. He stopped in astonishment, looking up at the enormous concave expanse painted with murals that illuminated famous passages from Scripture.

Maria’s descent from heaven was the central scene, and her rape at the hands of the Evil Men (portrayed with great delicacy, of course) was the largest of the peripheral paintings. The other scenes in the upper dome included God’s commutation of her suffering, His blessing of the child, and the great deeds of José, including the familiar story of feeding of the 5000 faithful and his calling of L’s Hermanes, the servants (“brethren”) who followed him. The outer rim of the ceiling contained smaller vignettes including the murder of José and The Seven Miracles.

The rotunda was nearly deserted. Major hallways led away from the central hall, ahead and to left and right. Following instructions he had been given, Davin turned left across the rotunda into a long passage. Doors on either side opened into lecture halls, many empty, but others filled with students in various states of attention, from rapt interest to outright sleep. He heard droning lectures as he passed two open doors on the left.

Counting to the third passage, he entered a smaller corridor to the right, went to the third door on the left, and knocked. A voice called for him to come in, and he did so.

Before Davin was a massive oak desk, covered with books, papers, and a miscellaneous assortment of items that included a half-dozen chunks of ore, a crude bar of iron, speckled with rust, and various mechanisms and parts at whose purposes he could only guess. The massive chair behind it was empty. The right side of the office held floor-to-ceiling bookcases, jammed with more volumes than he had seen anywhere short of the university’s own library. Occupying some of the top shelves were strange gadgets with coils of wire, gear wheels, and other bizarre attachments.

At left were two tables piled with pieces of wood, metal, and boxes of what might be charitably described as junk. Somewhat bemused, Davin looked in vain for his host. In a moment, a voice floated over the tables. “Over here.”

Crossing the office, Davin edged between the desk and the table nearer it. There was a space behind it with two chairs, a man standing beside the farther one. Davin found himself facing a tall, blond, blue-eyed man who seemed not much more than ten or fifteen years his senior. Like most of the teaching clergy, he wore his hair shoulder-length, his long blonde locks tending to fall into his eyes. The priest sat, gesturing for Davin to do so as well. As the priest sat down, he submitted Davin to an uncomfortable scrutiny. Davin’s tester had broad shoulders, clear skin, and a face resembling Bayn’s. Clearly Nortes, his garb was a plain brown cassock that was more the province of the solitary Brothers.

Suddenly he thrust out a hand, which Davin took cautiously. The priest shook it vigorously and said, “Welcome to the University, Davin. I am Father Josephus. We all take a priestly name here, but you might remember me better as Carter Grenoble.” He had a deep, resonant voice.

Davin shook his head, mind blank, then recognition brightened his eyes. “Carter! You’re Kel’s best friend! You and he used to play with Meara and me, and take us riding in the summer.”

The priest smiled. “Yes, and frequently get into trouble with the General, your father.” He looked apologetic. “Everyone used to call him the General.”

“Everyone still does.”

“In any case, that was long ago.” Father Josephus spread his hands in a self-deprecating gesture. “I always wanted to be a priest, from childhood. And of course, Kel was always going to be a General in the Guard. I have not seen him in years.”

“He’s in the Guard, in San Luis,” Davin said. “He’s already a colonel.” Staring at the priest, he muttered, “You hardly seem old enough to be a priest, or a professor. That is,” he stammered, “I thought most of the priesthood were much older, particularly the faculty.”

Father Josephus seemed amused, and Davin was immediately reminded of Bayn’s half-smile. It came to him that Bayn and Carter Grenoble were probably cousins. The priest made a brief bow of acknowledgement. “I have been a priest for five years, by grace of Deos, and fortunate enough to become a member of the faculty only two years ago. My specialty is the study of God’s Power, or as we say, the GodGift. One of my responsibilities is to test new students for their potential.”

Davin frowned. “Only a formality, really,” Father Josephus assured him. “I rarely have a positive response. Very few have a Gift that is not yet discovered — by my count over these last two years, maybe ten students that enrolled here showed some ability that had not yet been detected, and those mainly minor Gifts. But by directive of Deos’ Servant, we must test all new arrivals. It’s done as a matter of course.”

Davin breathed out slowly. The priest expected nothing from the test, but Davin knew that for him, the outcome was certain. There was Donaia’s prophecy — and his own experiences in the last few months. All he could was submit to the test or run away — and where would he go? Certainly not to face the General again. With more confidence than he felt, he asked, “What do I do?”

Rising, Father Josephus appeared to search the nearest shelf for something. “Nothing yet. I am awaiting another student, a novice like yourself.”

“Novice?” Even the term made Davin jumpy. “I’m not a novice. I’m just a student taking the general curriculum.”

“Of course. But technically we are a school for priests and teachers, so all students are initially classified as novices in their first year. In general we do not admit any but those entering Service or those who are known to possess the Gift. And a few students such as yourself from patrons of the Church. Oh, don’t take offense,” he said, as Davin eyebrows went up. “I do not begrudge your presence. Your father is a historic figure and a great friend of the Church as well. We must also welcome those who will become leaders in this land in the years to come.”

Davin shrugged. “I’ll certainly never be a leader. I just want to learn enough to help father run the ranche.”

With a grunt, the priest stretched his considerable height to the top shelf of the adjacent bookcase, retrieving a small cubical frame of iron. Davin could see hefty copper wires connected to a central copper clasp that held a pale blue stone which seemed to glow even in the relatively dim office. It was ovoid in shape, about the size of a hen’s egg. Father Josephus placed the device on an open space on the table nearest him, seated himself, and examined it carefully. Once or twice, he touched one of the copper wires, seeming to make sure that the blue stone was positioned in the exact center of the frame. He looked up at Davin and smiled again.

“Some have the Gift to endow inanimate things with a reservoir of God’s Power.” The smile turned into a devilish grin. “Many of our order do not like to acknowledge that God’s own Power can be chopped like hard-boiled eggs or a side of beef, as a colleague of mine likes to say. Or that an object can hold that Power, like bottled wine. Reeks of the Engineers, you see.

“That’s what the Engineers think, you know. They regard God’s Power as something natural like sunshine or fire that has always been around. Nevertheless, a small amount of God’s Power can be bottled, even though such a Talent is very unusual. One of my order made this a long time ago, made several in fact, and we still use two or three for testing.”

Davin inched his chair up so that he could examine the device closely, which appeared very old. Some of the copper wires were stained brown and the iron frame was rusted in several places, but the copper clasps attaching the stone to the wires were bright and untarnished, and the stone had a sheen that made the surface appear almost liquid. The whole gadget was hardly more than a broad handbreadth on a side.

“How does it work?”

“No one knows for certain. I have an engineer friend who would love to take it apart and try to learn its secrets. I can only guess, but I think that fundamentally it sets up a resonance in a local three-dimensional space.” As Davin’s brows arched, he laughed and said, “Oh, don’t be so surprised. I studied mathematics here at the University, and I have several Engineer friends. Some are as devout as the Servant. They cooperate with us in some studies, which we do not publicize to any extent, but we do in fact have a joint interest in learning all we can about the Power.

“If you are interested, I can introduce you to an engineer later on. Regardless of our official position, I don’t think talking to him will do you any harm.

“But that’s not the purpose of your visit, which is to use it.” The priest held it up. “It takes at least two people with the Gift to make it work, and one must be trained in use of the tester itself and be able to detect the resonance if it forms.”

Davin realized that his eyes must have been getting bigger and bigger. “You have a Gift!”

Again that deprecating wave of the hand. “A minor one. I can sense the resonance. This is what we do: We ask a Gifted student, who understands his or her Gift moderately well, to help me set the conditions for the test. That person requires training in the use of the tester, so I keep a list of volunteer students who can assist. I generally rotate volunteers so that each has a chance to help me at least once in a semester. The volunteer tries to initiate the resonance. If the person being tested has the gift, the resonance is set up and I can sense it. If you have no gift, nothing happens.”

Davin frowned. “What do you mean by a ‘resonance’?”

Father Josephus frowned. “Surely you know about resonant frequencies.”

Davin nodded. “All mechanical systems have a natural frequency at which they vibrate. But you can’t mean a mechanical vibration.”

“Well, no. Of course, new students like you do not study the Power, only upperclassmen who have committed to the priesthood, so you have not had the benefit of any lectures on the subject. Frankly, even we in the priesthood do not fully understand God’s Power-who can know the Mind of Deos? We can say a few things about it, however.