Hershel tossed another shirt into his suitcase while Nick and Vince lounged about, watching TV. Hershel had decided to do his packing in the boys’ lounge to spend a little more time with his dorm mates before the trek home. It was the day after the exam and the mood was surprisingly upbeat.
"I still can't believe everyone passed," Vince declared yet again. It was a bit of a surprise that all of the students had been told they would be returning next semester, and from Vince's reaction, he must have been placing himself as a particularly high candidate for elimination.
"I still can't believe we all got beaten by girls," Nick chimed in, folding his arms bitterly.
"What are you, five? Who cares if we lost to girls, I'm just happy we get to keep going," Vince said, switching the channel to some competitive cooking show.
"It's a point of manly pride," Nick said defensively. "Though I have to admit, yours had a pretty awesome power."
"Enchanting people through song," Vince said with a shake of his head. "I talked to her afterward; apparently she can make people feel all sorts of stuff with her singing. Adoration was just the easiest."
"I'm glad it was you and not Roy. Heaven knows how he would have reacted if he actually liked a girl," Hershel laughed.
"What about Julia? I though those two hooked up fairly consistently?" Vince asked.
"They do, but that's only because of how... unique her power makes her," Hershel said, opting to skip over the more lurid details.
"Very diplomatic way of saying she's her own gang bang," Nick said.
"Right... anyway, Selena, the girl who can sing, told me she snared a bunch of others before and after me. I wouldn't be surprised if she's toward the top in knocking out other players," Vince said.
"So nice of them to tell us we're all coming back but then hide our scores and which training we'll be going into," Nick said.
"Oh, come on, it's not as if anyone would stay for the results anyway," Hershel pointed out. "Alex, Will, and Jill already left town yesterday."
"Sasha, too," Vince pointed out. "Though she does that with more ease than most, so I'm not sure if that counts."
"I don't blame them," Hershel said with a sigh. "I miss my mom and my town. I can't wait to get home and sleep in my own bed."
"It will be nice to get some real food," Nick agreed. "Hey Vince, where are you going for the holidays anyway?"
Vince was spared from having to answer by the door to the boys’ lounge opening to reveal Mr. Numbers.
"Before anyone leaves, Mr. Transport and I would like to see you all in the common room," Mr. Numbers said briskly, turning around and walking right back out.
"That wasn't creepy at all," Nick said once Mr. Numbers was out of earshot.
"I'm sure they just want to wish us safe travels over the holidays," Hershel said optimistically.
"Sure. That or the order came down to terminate their little project and bury us in shallow graves," Nick replied.
"Let's be realistic. It'd be much easier for Mr. Transport to just ditch us in a volcano or something," Vince said.
"Point conceded," Nick said as they walked out into the lounge. Alice and Mary were already there, and of course the two men wearing suits were standing in the center, just like they had that first day they'd popped in and scared the crap out of everyone.
"So, what's this about?" Hershel whispered to Mary as the boys ambled over and stood near the girls.
"Let's call it a surprise," Mary whispered back, her tone saying quite clearly that was the end of the subject.
"Thank you all for coming," Mr. Transport announced with a big smile. "Mr. Numbers and I wanted to take a moment to congratulate you on making it an entire semester. As you know all too well by now, this program is grueling physically as well as mentally, so we are very proud that one hundred percent of Melbrook students have lasted into the second semester."
"And surprised," Mr. Numbers tossed in.
"Well, yes, statistically this does count as an unexpected outcome," Mr. Transport tried to recover. "We know, though, that you've all made it this far through determination and hard work. You five are doing an excellent job in showing that years of practice with one's abilities don't matter nearly as much as heart."
"We are very happy to have done so," Alice said, all but beaming. The girl devoured praise and accolades.
"That's good," Mr. Transport said. "Because there is one more small task we need to take care of before you're released for Winter Break."
It wasn't the change in scenery that registered first with the five young students: it was the sudden slice of freezing wind ripping across their bodies. The shivers started immediately, as well as a reflexive search for shelter from the scouring wind and the white snow that was dumping down upon them. Everywhere they looked there was only more snow. Everywhere except up, where a huge peaked loomed overhead, lost at the top amidst the clouds.
"I hope you've all still got a little bit of gusto left," Mr. Transport yelled over the wind's howl. "I brought you here for what you can think of a final exam for Mr. Numbers and me."
He really didn't have to elaborate. Given the surroundings, there was only one logical conclusion. Giving words to it only served the purpose of hammering that unavoidable truth fiercely into their minds, which would be almost cruel given the circumstances. Mr. Transport didn't have any need to elaborate... but he did anyway.
"You five are going to climb a mountain."