Chapter 16

Vince yawned broadly as he walked into the concrete-walled classroom. After Nick’s movie marathon on Sunday he’d slept incredibly poorly. His dreams had been stuffed with monsters to the point where they slipped into the absurd. Case in point: one dream had him chased by a giant pumpkin wielding knives, while a later dream had him chased by a giant knife wielding pumpkins. The first had been scarier, yet curiously it was the second that jerked him from his slumber. He tried to shake off his weariness as he scanned for a seat; after all, this was the first day of his real classes. He wanted to be alert.

The classroom was more a circle of wooden benches than a lecture hall, all wrapping around a focal point where Professor Fletcher stood patiently. To be honest, Vince was more surprised there was any seating at all in a course on close combat; he’d expected more circles and days duking it out with fellow combatants. Still, after what he’d seen Professor Fletcher do, Vince wasn’t going to question his methods. Any man with that much skill was worth listening to.

Other students began filtering into the room one by one. Thomas took a seat next to Vince, and they were soon joined by Stella and Violet. Chad and Shane entered a few minutes later, followed by Michael close at their heels. Sasha walked in with Julia and purposely passed by Vince without even a passing glance. Jill, at least, gave him a supportive smile before joining her suite mates when she walked in. Roy ambled in near the beginning of class and plopped down in the closest space he could find. One of the last people to enter was the most surprising to Vince.

“Camille? What are you doing here?”

“They assigned me,” Camille said, glancing around the room nervously as she stepped farther from the doorway. Everyone seemed so much bigger than she. Bigger and stronger.

“That can’t be right, you’re a healer,” Vince said worriedly. “Let’s go talk to the professor and see-”

“It isn’t a mistake,” Stella interrupted. She glanced at her diminutive friend and raised an eyebrow. Camille gave her head the barest of shakes and Stella looked back at Vince. “Trust me, the girl belongs here.”

“Are you sure?” Vince’s question was addressed at Camille, not Stella. No matter what anyone said, if his teammate didn’t feel she was up to the task, he wasn’t going to let her get hurt.

“I’ll be fine,” Camille assured him. She sat down on his other free side, and the remainder of the stragglers came into the room and plopped down, prompting Professor Fletcher to begin his first class.

“Good morning,” Professor Fletcher said to his bright-eyed students. His stunt on Thursday had been a bit heavy-handed, but the results couldn’t be argued with. He’d won their respect if not their admiration, and they were hanging on every word he said. Professor Fletcher pitied educators who didn’t have overwhelming brute force as a teaching tool.

“Let’s start with a little background. How many of you have been training in any form of martial combat for more than the past year?” Professor Fletcher asked.

Most of the hands in the room went up.

“Good, more than five years?”

A multitude went down, and Vince was a little surprised to see the slender arm next to him remain in the air. Camille did her best to look nonplussed.

“Better than I expected. Ten years?”

Nearly all the hands went down, only Vince’s, Shane’s, Michael’s, Roy’s, and Chad’s remained airborne.

“Nice. Any of you over-achievers got fifteen under your belt?”

Chad and Shane were now the only ones with their hands aloft.

“Okay then, for anyone without at least five years of training, we’re going to treat you like newbies,” Professor Fletcher said firmly. “That means we’ll be having one on ones to see the way you move and selecting the martial art that is best suited to your natural talents. Anyone who has five but less than ten, we’re going to stick with what you know. No sense in trying to break habits and reactions that are already ingrained. Those of you with ten years and up, congratulations. You just became teachers.”

“Say what?” Shane said in surprise.

“You heard me. You got your fill of pounding each other pointlessly last year, though there will be plenty more of that to come. But people with your level of experience need to be teaching as well as training to advance. I can’t be the first one to tell you this.”

“It is a commonly accepted practice,” Chad agreed. Shane did his best not to look abashed at having been ignorant of what was evidently public knowledge.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to train you as well,” Professor Fletcher assured him. “You’ll just also be responsible for helping the newbies improve in whatever art they undertake.”

“What if they choose one we don’t know shit about?” Roy queried.

“Then hand off to someone who does. Or to me. You’re not personal trainers, you’re just there to answer basic questions and give feedback. It’s not like the premise really varies that much. Hit the other guy and don’t let him hit you. The rest is details,” Professor Fletcher said. “Important details, but details all the same.”

“Still feels like a waste of time,” Roy grumbled.

“Tell you what, kid, the day you can beat me is the day you no longer have to listen to my methods,” Professor Fletcher offered. “And that goes for all of you. When you’re stronger than I am, then you become the teacher.”

Chad mulled the idea over briefly. He couldn’t beat the professor, not as he was now. But the fight hadn’t been a complete loss for him. He’d been able to observe the older man’s movements and techniques to some extent. He couldn’t beat the professor yet; however, eventually that would change. It had to. Chad was aiming for a space at the very top of the mountain, a place of unassailable power.

That meant, sooner or later, Chad would have to surpass everyone, even the people teaching him. Even the friends sitting next to him. Even the Heroes out in the world already. Chad was going to pick up the name that the rest of the world seemed content to tread on and he was going to carry it all the way to the top. He wouldn’t stop until he succeeded. No matter what.