After two years in the Hero Certification Program, every student who still remained had come up with some manner of pre-exam ritual; a method of preparing, mentally and physically, for the trials that awaited them come sunrise. The evening before the junior class’s semester final saw people preparing in different ways.
Some went to the gym, doing workouts meant to keep their muscles limber without over-taxing them. They might not have known what they were facing, but soreness wasn’t going to help them with any type of challenge.
Others took the night off totally. They planned movie marathons, had lavish dinners, or found other methods to get their minds off of the next day’s coming challenge. This was their way of both distracting themselves, and having what might be one last hurrah. People usually weren’t cut at this point in the program, but what they’d been learning since Day 1 in the HCP was that anything was possible.
Vince was in his room, trying to block out the excitement he felt over seeing his friend and their plans for the following evening. He needed to be calm for this to work. It was a technique he’d only discovered recently, in his daily fights with George in the desert. It had taken him months of practice to learn to use it reliably, and tomorrow might be his first opportunity to use it in battle. The key was to calm himself down, to push past the usual fire he felt when engaged in battle. Keeping himself steady and detached would be the hardest part of the exam tomorrow, but he had to do it. He wouldn’t let Nick’s sacrifice be for nothing.
Roy and Chad were sparring down in the gym. Though it was still difficult for Roy to land blows on Chad, his blond opponent could no longer dominate Roy as he once had. True, Chad would always be faster and more skilled, but Roy’s own growing strength and coordination made counters more dangerous. Neither considered this a true match, as both were holding back plenty in reserve. One day they’d have an all-out brawl to determine who was stronger, just not on the night before an exam. Doing well was more important than stroking their ego by proving dominance. That fact alone, more than any other, spoke to the growth Roy had experienced since freshman year.
Alice and Mary were doing basic exercises to work on their precision. While both might have benefitted more from a bout of actual battle, since neither possessed healing abilities it was too risky to strain their bodies the night before a match. Instead, they focused on sharpening their skills. That would be what made the difference tomorrow. Physically, each was skilled, but not terribly imposing. They could handle any civilian with relative ease, yet by Super standards they were weak and vulnerable. Add in their ability, however, and either young woman was powerful enough to send the smart criminals fleeing for the hills.
Camille, Thomas, Will, Jill, and Violet all had a simple dinner that night. They set a table, cooked a variety of dishes and toasted to the friend who was no longer with them. If Stella had been around, they would have all been training as well, striving for an extra iota of power to use in the coming trials. But Stella was not there, and as such they had learned that there were better uses of one’s time than just training. For example: having a night with friends, making memories that would last, even if not for all of them.
Curiously, it was a Super who was no longer in the HCP that had the strangest night, and following day, of the lot.
* * *
Nicholas was downright impatient when he “woke up” in the dreamscape. He leapt up from the ground, spinning about until he spied Nick, who was standing nearby and looking somewhat confused.
“Right then, let’s get this over with. I don’t care what the game is; I’m not letting you beat me at this one. Your emotions were already leaking all over the place when dealing with Vince, any more and I’ll end up so dim and dull I may as well be a civilian.” Nicholas spat the word “civilian” as though it had rancid taste when coming across his tongue.
“Coming out of the gate swinging, I can respect that,” Nick replied. “Unfortunately, you wasted your bluster. I don’t think we’re playing a game tonight.”
“Well, I’m just guessing here, but I’m basing it mainly on the fact that I can’t seem to manipulate our dream-reality anymore.” Nick extended his hand, trying to conjure a table or chairs like the ones he’d called forth previously. Nothing happened, the mist and fog merely swirled about.
Nicholas did the same, attempting to produce nothing more than a pack of playing cards, items he was so familiar with he may as well been conjuring his own fingers. As with Nick’s efforts, there was neither a shift in the world nor cards in his hand.
“Curious,” Nicholas noted.
“Fucking annoying,” Nick countered. “I really wanted to beat you again.”
“No chance. I went to sleep tonight intent on winning.”
Nick rolled his eyes, a gesture hidden by the sunglasses on his face, and looked around. There was nothing to signify what came next, only an empty, expansive landscape completely covered in swirling white fog. Then, as he swept his gaze around once more, suddenly there was something in front of them. A small, female figure that hadn’t been there previously. It took Nick a moment to place her, which was forgivable. He’d never taken Focus, and the woman looked thirty years younger than the professor he’d only seen in passing.
“Are you ready to begin?” Professor Stone asked.
“Begin what? What is this? Who are you?” Nicholas looked torn between taking a swing at the small woman or getting down and pleading with her. “Can you finally end all this? Please?”
“Are you ready to begin?” The words, the tone, the facial expression, all of it was an echo of the first time she spoke. Nick quickly assembled the clues before him.
“She’s not real. Well, she’s real in that she exists here, but she’s not an actual telepathic projection. Are you, Professor Stone?”
“Are you ready to begin?”
“That pretty much answers my question.” Nick turned to Nicholas. “Maybe she’s an implanted memory or something, it doesn’t really matter. She’s clearly the next step in whatever this crazy bullshit we’re going through is.”
“Vince was the last of them,” Nicholas said slowly. “No more games and memories. This is a new trial.”
Nick nodded and adjusted his sunglasses out of habit. “Maybe it’s the endgame, maybe it’s not. We do know one thing about it though.”
“What’s that?” Nicholas asked.
Nick flashed him a wild, hungry grin, the sort of expression he would never show outside of a closed Family meeting. “It’s going to be interesting.”
Nicholas allowed himself a smile of his own. That was true. For all the differences he and Nick had, it was clear they both still shared in some personality traits. Most dominant among those was the part of them that had defined so much of their lives and the man they’d grown into: the inability to resist a good challenge.
The identical yet different young men looked to the small woman, who took the cue.
“Are you ready to begin?”
“We are indeed,” Nicholas said.
“Hell yes we are,” Nick said.
The landscape around them shifted dramatically. In the blink of an eye the woman was gone. In her place was a massive stone entrance leading down. The walls of the enclosure were lit, but even straining neither Nick nor Nicholas could see more than twenty feet down.
Wordlessly, they both wandered down into the cave.