When Camille stepped back into the room the dark streaks of blood staining her face and hair were the only signs of what she’d endured in the exam. Even her body was masked, thanks to re-donning her usual uniform. Gone was the brutal woman who had managed to slay a cluster of six Sims using only her touch, instead was the girl that the whole class had thought they knew, smiling meekly as she walked back over to Violet and Thomas. She was going to need a very long shower when this was all said and done, but otherwise she couldn’t have been happier with the showing she’d managed to put on.
It was Dean Blaine’s turned to draw a name, and he did so easily as there were only two slips of paper remaining in the jar. With quick hands he snared one, pulled it out, and announced the name.
Rich stepped forward immediately, a smug smile on his face. He’d been awaiting a situation like this for the past two years. The HCP had all these little tests and trials pitting him against unlikely circumstances, all designed to obscure what he considered a person’s real capability. The truth of the matter was that Rich believe his ability to be the most useful in the entire class. Sure, Chad and Roy could punch through concrete and Shane could call up his little shadow attacks, but Rich could lock down opponents with nothing more than a single glance. Who could possibly defend against a thing like that? Of coruse there were exceptions like Chad or Dean Blaine, it was to be expected in the world of Supers. That’s what the rest of team would be for, batting clean-up on the few anomalies.
“Do you require any weaponry?”
“Just my staff.” Rich patted the weapon he’d buckled to his back, though he didn’t imagine he would actually need to use it. He’d drop the whole gang without lifting a finger. Still, Professor Cole was a terrifying woman whose class he was in until the end of the year. No need to insult her by leaving his weapon behind.
“Very well then. Follow me.” The two headed out of the room and into the stairwell that all the students, save for Mary, had already walked.
“This is going to be a cakewalk for him, isn’t it?” Alice said, turning her attention to the monitors. “Just like Selena’s enchanting all over again.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Chad said. “Rich’s ability is very potent. It may be one of the more powerful I’ve ever seen, in terms of real-world application. Unfortunately, he is keenly aware of that fact and often gets lost in the sense of superiority it provides him.”
“It’s a damn useful power, but it don’t mean shit if the person using it can’t keep his head in the game,” Roy summarized.
“Especially if one of the Sims manages to take him by surprise,” Vince added. Unbidden, a slight smile came to his mouth as he recalled Nick using exactly that strategy the year before. He wondered how his friend would have done on this exam, if he were still around. Surely he’d have come up with some outlandish and unexpected tactics for victory, all while shooting off his mouth at inappropriate moments. Vince missed Nick dearly, and looked forward to seeing him that night. Perhaps they’d tell him about their day, and he would be relieved not to have had to undertake the grueling task.
If nothing else, at least Nick could revel in the fact that his time enduring such tests and trials had passed.
* * *
Nick and Nicholas emerged at the same time, a fact which both had come to expect by this point. The memory they’d walked through was the most recent one before the divide, the only one from Lander they’d gone into: blackmailing Rich into hypnotizing Vince so that he could let his real power out. Nicholas had been a bit shocked by the experience, this was one Nick had never had the chance to give him notes on, but for Nick it had been a rather pleasant memory. He was proud of what he’d pulled off that day; not just of what he’d accomplished, but of finding the strength inside to put a friend’s well-being over his own.
The tunnel had ended, now they were in an open, frozen landscape. Though the floor was snow and ice, neither had difficulty moving as they walked. Around them was an oddly familiar sensation, something almost impossible to pin down yet inescapable at the same time. Nick couldn’t have placed it easily, but Nicholas was far more accustomed to the feeling this place provoked.
“I believe we’re at the block in your memory,” Nicholas said. “This is the ice that obscures the information I try and access, or at least a mental representation of how it seems to me.”
“This dream just keeps getting more interesting,” Nick said, eyes sweeping the terrain carefully. In front of them was a single chunk of ice sticking up, just a little higher than their knees. Aside from it, the entire landscape was utterly barren. He began approaching the ice-block carefully, noting that Nicholas was shadowing a few steps behind him.
“Oh yes, revisiting our many crimes and sins from the past. Such a thrill.”
“Personally I found it refreshing to see our skill and techniques grow, like watching a montage made just for us,” Nick said.
“I highly doubt that was what we were supposed to take from the experience,” Nicholas said. The two were drawing closer to the chunk of ice now, near enough to see it had no recognizable shape aside from jagged ice.
“Are you bothered by who we are?” Nick asked.
“Are you not?” Nicholas shot back.
They stared at each other for a moment, and Nick felt a strange tickle in his mind as a new thought tried to bloom. Unfortunately, before it had the chance, something very distracting occurred.
From the chunk of ice came two enormous chains and cuffs, one snapping around Nick’s right ankle and one around Nicholas’s left. Each link in the ice chain was as thick around as one of their forearms, and the cuffs seemed to seal completely when they locked around the ankles, as if they’d been one solid piece the entire time.
“You have learned nothing. You have repented for nothing. You have experienced no growth whatsoever.”
The image of Professor Stone was back, and this time she didn’t look nearly so cheery.
“You were given the chance to regain yourself, to experience your memories with new clarity and see how you became the man you are today. With that knowledge, you could have made a new path, become someone worthy of carrying around the memory of Heroes. But you have done nothing. Changed nothing.”
The image blurred slightly and a disturbing sound began to fill the air. The ground splintered as new ice grew up from it, moving slowly but unmistakably. It was coming up all around them in a perfect circle, with Nick and Nicholas trapped in the center.
“You have failed.”