Chapter 4

The grey-uniformed population of the gym had thinned slightly from its black-clad incarnation. Though Vince recognized all of his once-friends amidst the sophomores, there were definitely some faces missing. Faces of people whom he’d seen struggling and working and fighting right alongside the rest of them. Faces that wouldn’t be seen again in the HCP. It was a solemn reminder that there was a long road ahead, with plenty of opportunities to wash out. Vince shook his head and focused on the task at hand. There were six individuals clustered with Dean Blaine in the center of the room, all of them quite distinctive and unfamiliar.

“Today, we are going to talk about majors,” Dean Blaine announced once everyone had gathered within range of his voice. “Freshman year is used as a trial by fire. We drum out those who can’t cut it and get those who can into shape. From sophomore year onward, things will be working a bit differently. For starters, we’re going to be having only a single hour of gym together each day. The rest of your time will be spent in your respective classes. Here at Lander, as well as in all schools participating in the HCP, we offer six distinctive courses designed to evolve you into field-ready Heroes. I’ll let the professors introduce themselves and their courses in a moment; right now I just want to touch on the program as a whole.”

“This year you will each be enrolled in three of the six courses. These were chosen by determining the areas you can best grow, as well as your performances in last year’s final exam. Come your junior year, you will be allowed to continue in the two areas you show the most promise, and in your senior year you will devote all of your energy to a single area of focus. This final area is considered your specialty, or major, in the HCP. It will help determine what sort of Hero you’ll be and give you a good idea of where you should apply for internships.”

“Internships?” Vince whispered to Alice with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, don’t you know? Once you graduate you have to intern under an existing Hero for two years before you can work on your own. It gives real world experience,” Alice hurriedly whispered back.

“That is, of course, a long way down the road and will only concern a fraction of you,” Dean Blaine continued. “There is something else relevant to this year, however. Last year we focused on learning to fight one on one, which is a core concept for any Hero. However, one of the great advantages we have over criminals is our ability to work together in a trusted and cohesive unit. For that purpose, tomorrow you will be split up into teams. Aside from your performance in your classes, there will be several team-based challenges throughout the school year. Your performance in these will, of course, affect whether or not you join us for the junior year curriculum. The details for that will be covered at the commencement of tomorrow’s gym period along with the team selection, so for now I will defer to your professors so that they might introduce themselves.”

Dean Blaine stepped back, opening up the floor to whoever wanted to come forward. The first one to take the step was the most unassuming. She was an older woman, clearly in her sixties or seventies from the wispy grey hair and mild hunch in her spine. Already diminutive, the curve in her figure made her border on tiny. Her voice betrayed none of the frailty of her form, speaking loud and firm with the confidence only a wealth of experience could provide.

“It is a pleasure to meet you all. My name is Esme Stone, though it will be Professor Stone to you lot. I teach the subject of Focus, and those of you who enter my class will emerge with a new level of understanding regarding the inner workings of the self.”

She stepped back into line, allowing the next speaker to come forward. He was a tall man with a broad chest and jet black hair, only his temples showed his age with a few patches of white.

“My name is Professor Hill,” he barked in a loud, determined-to-be-commanding voice. “I teach the subject of Control. The privileged few who gain access to my class will be taught to command external forces on greater levels than they ever thought possible.”

The next figure to step forward was easily the most distinctive. It was covered with cloth strips on every possible exposed part of its skin, making it look like a mummy wearing clothes and a large cloak. A sizable sword hilt protruded from over its shoulder, and it walked like a snake just begging for a reason to strike. It shocked many of the students to hear a female voice emerge from the wrapped face unmuffled. It was high-pitched and delicate, but not delicate in the sense of fine china or hand-crafted porcelain. It was delicate like an unstable explosive.

“My name is Professor Cole. I teach the course on Weapons. Those of you unfortunate enough to get me will be beaten, cut, burned, sliced, skewered, and snapped. You will get strong, and those who make it to the end might even emerge as warriors.”

The next figure stepped forward quickly, a pretty woman in her mid-forties with hair somewhere between brown and red, as if it wasn’t quite able to make up its mind.

“My name is Professor Baker, and I’ll be teaching some of you Ranged Combat. I feel like my course’s name pretty much explains it all.”

She stepped immediately back in line, leaving only two figures remaining. They exchanged glances briefly, and the taller of the two took a bounding step forward.

“My name is Sean Pendleton,” said the man, his dark hair hanging forward, slightly dangling into his eyes. “Though I suppose from now on it is Professor Pendleton. I’ve been brought here to teach you in the art of Subtlety. Much like any other art, all I can really do is help develop what already exists. Some of you have the touch, while others don’t. I look forward to seeing what you can do.” Professor Pendleton gave a grand bow before retreating to the line, leaving only one figure remaining.

He took his step forward and gazed out at the students. He was an older man, probably only younger than Professor Stone. His powerful frame was largely concealed under his gaudy Hawaiian shirt, but he carried himself in a way that made it evident he was not a man to be taken lightly.

“My name is Professor Fletcher, and in addition to teaching Close Combat, I’ll also be running the gym sessions and overseeing the team events. For the slower of you that means that yes, I am new here and was brought in to replace George. Now, this leads me to the unfortunate disadvantage I suffer meeting you in your second year. Normally, I would have trained you all up and seen your fighting prowess on a finite level. That would let me gauge what to expect from many of you in the year to come, as well as earning your respect by demonstrating my skill as a fighter. Since I missed that opportunity, I’m afraid my most practical remaining option is simply to test you all with my own fists and get a sense of your strength from that.”

The rest of the professors and the dean began backing away from Professor Fletcher. He cracked his knuckles lightly and gave the class an oddly reassuring smile.

“Anyone who needs to shift, do so now. In ten seconds I intend to fight you all at once.”