Chapter 3

“Feels strange to be wearing grey,” Nick commented as the Melbrook students filtered into the large lecture hall alongside the rest of the non-freshman HCP students. The black-uniformed newbies had gone through their meeting the day before; this morning had consisted of their battles for initial ranking. Evidently watching those fights was quite the spectator sport for the sophomore and older students, but the quintet had decided that it was best to avoid such condensed crowds until they had a better grasp of where public opinion was leaning.

It hadn’t taken long to answer that question. Just in their journey from the surface to the locker rooms for changing into uniforms and now into the hall, they’d lost track of the number of dirty looks and furtive whispers buzzing about. There had been the occasional outright glare, as well as the all-too-rare supportive smile. It seemed the overall consensus was that no one knew quite what to make of them. For the moment they were being regarded with the same apprehension one showed the bearded woman at a carnival: curiosity, disgust, and superiority, but not outright malice. It was actually much better than it could have been.

All five sat near the top of the stadium-style seating arrangement, unsurprised to find the once occupied spots around them quickly emptying. They were near the end of the procession, so the abandoners had only moments to relocate before Dean Blaine stepped to the podium positioned in the center area and addressed his audience.

“I’ll keep this brief,” Dean Blaine began, adjusting his glasses without noticing. This was not a speech he looked forward to giving, but it had to be done. “Normally you are all only called together like this for emergency announcements. I want to put your mind at ease and assure you we are not under any imminent threats. This meeting is to discuss the replacement of two of our staff.”

A quick buzz whipped through the crowd; the majority of them had only heard garbled rumors about George and Persephone, even if most claimed that they were privy to knowing the “real deal.”

“I’m certain that all of you are at least partially aware of the situation, and I want to apologize that it is only now I can tell you something concrete. Due to the delicate nature of this scenario, a full investigation was warranted before any statements of certainty were issued. That investigation has been concluded, and it is now my duty to inform you that both George and Persephone attempted to kidnap one of the freshman female students last year.”

The buzz spiked in both tempo and volume. Many glances were tossed around, though it was only the sophomores who threw most of them at the five students sitting near the top.

“I won’t be going into the details, predominantly because so many of them are still yet to be fully verified, but you all deserve to know that piece of truth. They committed a crime, betrayed the trust placed in them as educators, and have been replaced. You will meet your new teachers in their respective classes; they’ve requested I allow them to make their own introductions rather than trot them out in front of you all. I realize that this is difficult news, as many of you have grown to trust and respect your teachers over the years. To that regard we are offering counselors on site for the next few months. Should any of you feel the need to talk, their services will be freely available upon request.”

The buzz had dulled to a simmer, the initial shock of finding out such outlandish rumors were true giving way to the reality of what was being said. Two of their coaches had gone rogue and had tried to steal a student away in the night. After the first wave of disbelief passed through them, many of the students were hit with the terror deep in the pits of their stomachs as a uniform thought echoed across the landscape of their minds: “It could have been me.”

“I want to assure you that we’ll share more information about this incident with you as we obtain it. For right now, that is all. The sophomores need to report to the gym for this year’s orientation. Juniors will have theirs in three hours, and of course seniors already know what to do with their day. If you have any questions about this, please take note of my office hours and know that my door is always open to each of you,” Dean Blaine concluded. “You are now dismissed.”

“That wasn’t so bad,” Vince said. “I wonder why they didn’t have the freshmen in here too.”

“Kind of a ‘duh’ on that one. The dean just had to admit two of his own staff went off the reservation big time. The last thing the new kids need to hear at their welcoming is that the staff they’re supposed to be trusting with their lives have a recent history of kidnapping and treachery,” Nick told him.

“They don’t, not the ones that are left. The only two who were guilty are gone,” Alice said.

“You’ll forgive me, but until I know for sure what the motivation behind that fiasco was, I’m going to just go ahead and assume everyone here has a motive for wanting us kidnapped or dead,” Nick replied.

“That seems like a cynical overreaction,” Hershel said.

“Not really,” Nick shrugged. “I pretty much assume that about everyone anyway.”

“Well, Nick’s advocacy of paranoia aside, he has a point,” Mary said. “First year is already scary, the last thing they need is someone tossing on yet another thing to be afraid of.”

“Yeah, between the masses of people being drummed out, the mystery of what the classes are like, and the challenges for rank, there is already plenty to keep a freshman on their toes,” Vince agreed.

Nick snickered. “You don’t see the humor here, do you? We’re in the exact same boat. We don’t have any idea of what this year’s syllabus of examinations will be like. We’re no better off than the freshmen.”

“No, there is one big difference,” Hershel corrected. “We know we can make it through a year. We know we’ve got what it takes to survive the cuts.”

“Pretty trivial difference,” Nick said.

Hershel smiled at him. “Everything is trivial, right up until you need it. Now let’s go see what fresh horrors this year has in store.”