“You all look nice and rested,” Coach George said as he walked in front of the line of members of the combat class. “That’s good. I’m glad you all got time to heal up and re-energize, because we have now entered the last mile of your freshman year. And does everyone remember what happens at the end of your freshman year?”
There was no response; he’d long ago drilled out the habit of speaking without being called on. There was fear, though, fear and uncertainty dancing behind nearly all of their eyes. He’d have preferred to see it in every last set of orbs, but some of them were just too stupid to face the possibility that they wouldn’t make the cut. There were also a few too smart not to know they were a shoe-in.
“That’s right: at the end of the year we have ourselves another set of matches. These won’t just be fighting this time; they’ll test every aspect a Hero needs to bring to the table. Strength, intelligence, cunning, resourcefulness, and yes, even a bit of battle prowess. So keep those memories of your time off tucked away in a nice safe spot in your mind. You’ll need them to keep you sane every night when you crawl into bed, your bones creaking and your spirit crumbling. These next two months will be hell on you because I am going to be personally applying the pitchfork. You see, this is my last chance to get you pansies strong enough to actually survive the second year’s training, and I take that responsibility very seriously. So, do we have any questions?”
Not one person’s hand even dared to entertain a thought about ascending.
“Glad to hear it,” Coach George declared. “Pair up as I call your names and get into your fighting circles. Oh, and we’re changing something up today.”
The students looked at him with an uneven mix of anticipation and trepidation.
Coach George gave them a winning smile. “Today, my little charges, I declare that you have had you asses whipped in mortal ways long enough. As of now, you may begin using your powers.”
There was a physical mumbling, if not a verbal one. It was the sound of backs cinching up in fear, knuckles cracking in excitement, and eyeballs roving in their sockets as they sized up their opponents in a whole new way. If Coach George could he would record that sound, put in on a loop, and play it continuously as he nodded off to sleep every night.
Instead he began hollering out the pairs.
* * *
“As you all know by now, not every member of this class will make the cut into the sophomore program,” Coach Persephone said, walking in a nearly identical fashion to her male counterpart. “Now, while George likes to take this time to deaden the nerves of his students, I prefer to sharpen the minds of my own.”
Curiosity danced in the eyes of the Supers lined up before her. That was good. Curiosity meant listening and listening meant thinking. Thinking was what would make the difference between success and failure for her charges. That, along with creativity and determination.
“Some of the tests you’ll endure will be combat-based. I won’t sugarcoat it for you: with precious few exceptions, most of you will come out the loser in these encounters.”
The gazes of several faces turned toward the floor.
“That is an acceptable loss, though, because it does not comprise the entirety of these evaluations. Think of it as giving away a pawn in order to take their king. They will hone their bodies and battle instincts over the coming months. We will be honing our minds and adaptability instead. We will double down on our strategic lessons. Your minds will ache with effort and you will tear out your hair in frustration, but you will improve. And at the end of May, when you go into your trials, you will emerge as victorious sophomores.”
It wasn’t the best inspirational speech in the history of the school, but it did seem to bestow her kids with a bit of hope. At this point that was really the best Coach Persephone could shoot for. These Supers were fighting an uphill battle, proving that they were useful even without the ability to fend off an army. When they crested that hill they would understand just how powerful they really were. Until that point, all she could do was keep them working hard in hopes of achieving what most of them saw as impossible.
Persephone at least had the advantage of knowing something they didn’t. Sometimes attaining the impossible was simply a matter of continuously putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what.
* * *
Dean Blaine and four other figures stood in a small room lined with television screens. Normally these screens would show a variety of rooms with different teams from different classes on each one. Today, however, they showed different angles of the two rooms where the freshman class was being addressed.
“Interesting crop,” said the smallest figure, a woman’s whose voice had seen its share of days.
“That’s what you say every year,” Dean Blaine pointed out.
“It’s true every year,” she countered.
Dean Blaine had no rebuttal to this - he never did - so instead he moved on to the task at hand.
“You’ve seen their files, you’ve watched the tapes, and you know their names. Today we divvy them up, and you have one and a half months to devise their test, then half a month to get it all set up,” Dean Blaine explained.
“George and Persephone already made their picks?” This time the voice came from a tall, male figure.
“Turned them in to me before Spring Break,” Dean Blaine said.
“Such a prompt pair,” said a new female voice, this one young and lilting.
“Would that I could see such efficiency from the rest of you,” Dean Blaine said.
“Let’s be fair, you don’t keep us around because we adhere so well to the red tape,” said the old voice.
“No, but I still expect you to take tasks like this seriously. You have the room for the next two hours. Make your selections and have them on my desk by the end of the day,” Dean Blaine instructed them. He walked briskly out the door before any other snide comments could be made.
“Now then,” said the fourth figure, a voice like silk being torn thread by thread, “I think it’s time to get down to business.”