Chapter 21

“Two-minute break,” Coach George shouted to the freshmen.

“Oh, thank you, dear and sweet merciful lord of heaven,” Hershel gasped. Vince and Nick had a similar sentiment but lacked the breath to express it.

What the course schedule had referred to as “gym” was in fact a tortuous living hell. For the past three hours there had been nothing but nonstop physical exertion. Pushups, sit-ups, weight training, resistance training, all with running in between. There had been a total of five two-minute breaks counting this one, and the rest of the time had been spent constantly active.

Hershel cursed himself for showing up to gym. He knew it had been a stupid idea when he did it, but after the morning’s incidents, he couldn’t bear being Roy again so soon. He had imagined that he would be able to handle whatever physical activities were thrust upon him for at least one day. He had been wrong. He had been oh-so-very wrong.

The only upside was that almost no one was faring well throughout this training. Vince and Nick were both gasping for air beside him as they stopped running, and across the track he could see the girls leaning against the wall, resting with as much vigor as possible. The coaches had separated the boys and girls into two herds at opposite ends of the track, warning that dire consequences would occur if anyone fell so far behind that they wound up in the other sex’s herd. A young-looking boy with messy brown hair had been the only one so far, and Coach Persephone had swept him off to another area. No one wanted to know what he had to do.

Truthfully, though, Hershel wasn’t sure how long it would be before others followed suit. The only reason more hadn’t lagged behind was that both groups were losing speed and stamina at similar rates. Near the head of the boys’ group a bald guy was holding it together pretty well, and next to him was a boy with short blond hair who didn’t even seem to be sweating or breathing hard. Those with physical based powers were kicking ass at life today. Hershel cursed himself again. If Roy were doing this he wouldn’t need a rest at all.

“Why... why did we let Dean Blaine dismiss us early?” Vince asked as he sucked in air.

“We’re idiots,” Nick responded instantly. “He was right, though. I now have a profound appreciation for Ethics of Heroism.”

Vince and Hershel nodded their agreement. Neither would be fantasizing about another early release any time soon. Or ever, for that matter.

“Time’s up, you over-confident wimps,” Coach George yelled. It couldn’t have been two minutes. There was no way it was two minutes. Hershel felt tears welling up inside him; he couldn’t take any more of this. He was out of shape to begin with; at least the others had some semblance of stamina. Before he could actually lose control, though, Coach George hollered once more.

“Everyone run over here and take a knee.” They followed his instructions quickly, never more happy in their entire lives to sit down on the hard wooden floor than they were at that precious moment. Coach George stood in front of them and Coach Persephone came up next to him. Somewhere inside him, Hershel felt Roy stir at the sight of her. Hershel shoved him down immediately. It was bad enough he was getting dirty looks from Julia all day. The last thing he needed was to be labeled as the student who tried to bang a coach, even if it wasn’t really him that was doing it.

“You did piss poorly today,” Coach George began. “That amount of exercise shouldn’t even faze a Hero, but you all were struggling just to make it to the end. With precious few exceptions, I daresay none of you would have finished if we kept going for the extra thirty minutes.”

Hershel certainly wasn’t going to argue that point and he didn’t suspect any of the other freshmen were either.

“When this year is over, you’re going to look back on today with a sense of nostalgia for how light the workouts were. You’re going to have fantasies that when you come into class we just tell you to run most of the time. This will be the happiest day of your career in gym, because from here on out it only gets worse,” Coach George said. The scariest part of his mini-speech was that he wasn’t yelling or trying to put fear into them. He seemed to be sincerely warning them, which made it all the more terrifying.

“Now, before I hand things off to Coach Persephone to talk about how the rest of this year will work, there are two people I want to see up front. Chad Taylor and Mary Smith, get up here.”

Mary made her way slowly over to the front. She was dripping with sweat and still breathing hard, but she seemed to have held together better than many of the others, Hershel included. The boy who rose up was the short-haired blond who seemed perfectly at ease. It was as though he had been sitting in air conditioning all day; not even his hair was too ruffled. Hershel didn’t know what his ability was, but in this situation it was an awesome boon. It was humorous to see the two standing next to each other, Chad with his height and broad shoulders next to Mary’s slim frame and understated smile. If someone was looking in from the outside, they would have never guessed what those two had in common.

“Okay class, I want you to take a good look at these two. Before, they were just names, but now you’ve seen their faces. These are the two freshmen standing at the top of the heap. They are the number one ranks from both sexes, and I have to tell you, there is a large gap between them and the rest of you. So burn these faces into your minds, because from now until the end of the year your only real goal is to beat them. You have one year to get stronger, get faster, get better, and take another shot at the combat trials. In the world of Heroes if you aren’t the strongest, you’re just next in line to die. Work hard,” Coach George said. He dismissed Mary and Chad to go sit down then took a step back as Coach Persephone came to the front.

“I want to speak briefly with you about the year to come,” Coach Persephone said. “For the first semester we will be spending all three hours as we have today, only with gradually increasing intensity. This is done to give you the base endurance and strength that every Hero needs to function. After winter break, however, the format will change. We will still be spending the first two hours with physical training, but afterward we will be splitting you into two classes. They will be combat training and alternative training.”

There was a murmur among the students. What kind of training was there besides combat? Coach Persephone ignored the commotion and went straight to answering the implied question.

“Alternative training is where we will help those of you with skills ill-suited to fighting learn to use them effectively in the field. Though some of you will no doubt think that this is inferior to combat training, let me assure you that there are ways to protect the innocent for those of us who can’t throw a tank.”

She paused for a moment and Hershel thought he saw her dart a glance at Coach George. But as she resumed a moment later he assured himself it must have been imaginary.

“As for who will go in what class, the top five ranked students from each sex will automatically be in combat training, while the bottom five will automatically be in alternative training. The rest of you will be evaluated by Coach George and me to determine where your talents lie,” Coach Persephone explained.

A hand went up shockingly fast. Hershel recognized the question asker as Sasha from his morning misadventure.

“Yes, Ms. Foster?” Coach Persephone said, pointing to Sasha.

“What if we are in the bottom five but really want to do combat training? Is there any way for us to prove we can handle it?”

“Actually, yes,” Coach Persephone said. “You can challenge another student for their rank. The two of you will be assigned a supervisor, a combat room, and a healer on hand. Then you will duke it out, and whoever is standing at the end keeps the higher rank.”

“But why would people with higher ranks agree to a challenge? All they can do is lose,” Sasha pointed out.

“They very well might deny you the right to challenge. Of course, this is a graded class that requires a passing grade to continue with the Hero Certification Program, and you will find nearly all of you lack the physical strength to pass it on merit alone. Fighting in challenges earns you bonus points, and successfully defending your rank earns you significantly more points. On the other hand, declining challenges will take points off of your grade, so sitting pretty on your rank is a dangerous move to make unless you are confident that you’re strong enough to handle every hurdle Coach George and I will put before you,” Coach Persephone said.

Hershel felt his heart sink. He had been certain that the fighting was behind them until the end of the year. Hershel comforted himself by trying to remember that he wouldn’t actually have to fight anyone: Roy was the one with the ranking.

“There are rules for the challenging process, though,” Coach Persephone continued. “The main one is the rule of five. You can only challenge someone within five ranks of you. If you want someone higher, you’ll have to climb your way to them challenge by challenge. Additionally, the top five on either side cannot be challenged by anyone lower. So rank six cannot go after rank five even though they are one rank apart. This is due to the difference in ability that the top five have compared to the rest of the class. They may challenge within their ranks, but otherwise none of you can fight them until the end of the year. Aside from that, make sure all fights are registered and monitored. Otherwise they don’t count, and in fact will be punished severely. Everyone understand?”

The class nodded collectively.

“Good. Now go hit the showers. You all stink to hell. Oh, and enjoy the weekend. It’s the last one you’ll have for months with only minor soreness,” Coach Persephone said.