Nick darted down the smooth stone tunnel, positive he was on the right track. As he moved, he tried to wipe away some of the blood that had splattered on his shirt. It refused to be moved, only permitting to be turned into a scarlet smudge on the green fabric. He suspected it was meant to be some sort of symbolism since he was in a dream realm, but in all fairness it could just be reflecting his own knowledge that getting blood out was a three wash ordeal.
The tunnel curved around, dumping him into a wide cavern. Before Nick even saw him, he heard his doppelganger’s footsteps. Nicholas emerged from an opening nearly identical to Nick’s. On his white shirt, almost covered by his suit jacket, were specks of blood in a similar formation to those on Nick’s.
“Snitch Larry?” Nick asked.
“Snitch Larry,” Nicholas confirmed.
The labyrinth had been splitting them up at regular intervals, forcing them to wind their way through various memories. Both had assumed they were engaged in a race, though neither had found much success in gaining ground on the other. Nick assumed he was supposed to be learning something from these old experiences, perhaps righting wrongs or mending his ways, but he’d mostly focused on getting through them as quickly as possible. He didn’t bother with regret, and he wasn’t sorry for the kind of man he was. If this labyrinth was supposed to make him a different person, then Professor Stone had tremendously miscalculated who she was dealing with.
“Any thoughts on why we had to go through that one?” Nicholas asked.
“First time we ever saw a man get killed in front of us,” Nick said. “Maybe we were supposed to try and stop it from happening.”
“I didn’t do that.”
“Why would you? We were eight years old and surrounded by ten guys working over one. The most we could have done was gotten kicked out of the room,” Nick said. “Besides…”
Neither needed to say it out loud. Pre-Lander, their thoughts and impressions of the events they’d experienced were mirrors of one another. Snitch Larry, as he’d become known posthumously, had worked for the cops and helped bring down several members of the Family. He’d betrayed a trust that Nick and Nicholas always held as sacred. Even if they could have saved Larry, in the memory or in real life, they wouldn’t have. Betrayal came with costs.
Another set of tunnels loomed on the horizon, a pair of entrances that curved downward, obscuring much of the view.
“Here we go again,” Nick said.
“Do you wonder how long we’ve been down here?”
“Nah, we’re in dream time. It may have seemed like hours, but it’s probably only been ten minutes.”
“You seem oddly confident of that,” Nicholas said.
“I got to deal with a lot of mind-mumbo-jumbo crap last year. And even if I’m wrong, what does it matter? You have some escape method you’ve been hiding?”
“Then don’t worry about how long we’ve been here,” Nick said. “Worry about getting through.”
* * *
After Will returned to a room filled with various volumes of applause from friends and acquaintances, he blushed ever so slightly and silently went back to the crowd to stand at his sister’s side. Dean Blaine motioned for Chad to follow; it was time for the next student to take the exam.
“Am I permitted to take some of the weapons, or are those only for students in the actual Weapons course?” Chad asked.
“Weapons are basic equipment and are free to whoever wants to use them,” Dean Blaine replied, making sure his voice was loud enough for all to hear. It was a fair question, but he’d rather not answer it multiple times.
“That’s surprising,” Shane noted from his spot behind Chad. “I’ve never seen you so much as consider using something other than your own body.”
“Different situations call for different styles of response,” Chad said. “When training with you, increasing my body’s capabilities was always my primary concern.”
“And this time it isn’t?”
“This isn’t training,” Chad told him. “This is a real-life scenario, in which we should apply all of our skills.”
“No argument here. Under these circumstances I think I’ve finally got the edge on you.”
Chad gave him an uncertain look. “That is an interesting hypothesis. I truly wish you the best of luck, my friend.” With that, he headed over to the rack of weapons and selected two bundles of throwing knives that were designed to be wrapped around an appendage.
“I’m ready,” he told Dean Blaine, who opened the door and escorted him down.
Professor Fletcher was already waiting in the course, so it was just the two of them who descended the steps as Dean Blaine explained the procedure. He took his time, making sure Chad understood what was expected of him and what the process was, just as he would with any of the students. It was hard to be detached with Chad, hard not to root for him extra hard or give him occasional assistance. It was hard, but it was also necessary. If he showed even the slightest bit of favoritism, Chad’s status and accomplishments would be called into question.
“…and when the screen tells you to, you go in. Any questions?”
“None that you would be permitted to answer,” Chad said. He’d gotten the throwing knives wrapped around each bicep as they descended the stairs. “Actually, I do have one, now that I think about it. Is it even theoretically possible for any of the non-Subtlety students to beat Will’s score?”
“In terms of overall effectiveness? Not with the power sets your class has,” Dean Blaine replied honestly. “I’d have to check with Professor Pendleton to be sure, but I’d wager Will Murray just got close to a perfect score in Subtlety. Such a thing is nearly unheard of. However, it will still be possible for you to score higher than others in your respective disciplines. It all depends on what methods you use and how well they work.”
“Seems I’ll have to put on a good show then,” Chad said. “There are multiple factors being evaluated, and I’d hate to lose my spot after hanging onto it for so long.”
“Mr. Murray is unlikely to move much in the combat rankings. While his skill level was exceptional, he displayed minimal use of combat tactics.”
“It wasn’t Will that I was worried about. My dormmates are much stronger than last year, and Shane had always been closer to my back than he realized.”
“Chad, I appreciate the humility you constantly display, but right now it is just you and I down here. We both know this challenge is more suited to you than the others realize.”
“Every threat must be taken seriously,” Chad said, face solemn as always. Then, after a moment, a small grin appeared on his face. “Though I confess, it will be nice to finally show off more than just my combat skillset.”
“Of that, I have no doubt. Now go put on a good show for them. Mr. Murray set the standard high; I’d hate to see you lower it.” Dean Blaine hesitated for just a moment, then pressed on. He’d offered equal encouragement to Will, so it hardly counted as favoritism. “Good luck, Chad. Even if I can’t cheer, I’ll still be pulling for you to do well.”
“I’ve never doubted that for a moment,” Chad said. With that he turned and stepped through the door, leaving his godfather alone in the stairwell.