Chapter 143

               The moment finally passed when the group released Nick. Alice spoke first, her voice echoing eerily off the icy landscape. “Okay, I’ll be the one who bites: what the hell is all this anyway?”

                “I’m not totally sure of that myself,” Nick admitted. “A second chance, maybe, or some sort of test of character.”

                “You’ve never been short on character,” Hershel said.

                “No doubt,” Roy agreed.

                It was at this moment that, amidst all the craziness that was his life, Nick Campbell finally got taken completely by surprise. He jumped back a solid foot, nearly yanking his chain taut in the process, and stared dumbfounded at the two people who were supposed to be one.

                “Yeah, that was about how we reacted too,” Alice said. “Our best guess is that since Mary pulls in minds, not bodies, Roy and Hershel both got to come along for the ride.”

                Nick took a minute to compose himself, reasserting his calm demeanor after having effectively shattered it into pieces. He was out practice dealing with these weirdos, and it showed.

                “Leaving behind the philosophical and pragmatic questions about Roy and Hershel being two separate people, which I promise you we will definitely be circling back to, when did Mary learn to drag others into her coma-walking power?”

                “A few weeks ago,” Mary said. “I’ve also gotten good enough to do it when people are sleeping, not just rendered unconscious by Rich’s ability.”

                “Well… duh. Didn’t you see that possibility the moment you first discovered the power?”

                “Remind me why we’re here to save you again.”

                “Because he’s our friend,” Vince said. He’d been studying the chains that bound Nick, and the point where they shackled to the hunk of ice. It seemed like perfectly normal frozen water, but even he understood that in a world composed of thought and imagination there were bound to be some rules that worked differently. “And while we’re on the subject, we should probably get to work. I don’t know how long that hole in the ceiling will last.”

                The others glanced up and noticed that, while there was still ample room left, the place they’d entered through had grown slightly smaller.

                “Roy, can you come hold this for me?” Vince asked. The taller Daniels brother walked dutifully over and scooped the chain up in his hands. Even resting on Roy’s sizable digits, the ice-chain was disproportionately thick. On instinct, he gave one link a careful squeeze, expecting to feel it bend and crack under the pressure of his enhanced grip. Instead, it held completely firm, as though he weren’t crushing it at all.

                “This stuff is strong,” Roy noted, pulling the chain taught so there was a large section stretched between his hands.

                “I thought it might be. But strong or not, it’s still ice.” Vince’s right hand seemed to glow as a sheath of orange flames wrapped itself around his lower arm. Keeping as clear of Roy as he could, Vince grabbed the chain firmly and turned up the heat, releasing a steadily increasing amount of fire. By the time he pulled his hand away Roy was sweating just from standing so close, and Roy was not easily affected by little things like heat.

                The chain, unfortunately, was as firm and frozen as it had been when Vince started. He took a step back, face inscrutable as he stared at the unyielding restraint, then surged forward. Vince delivered a perfect blow, striking the chain dead center and unleashing a tremendous blast of kinetic power. It was all Roy could do to hold on, the attack nearly tearing the chain completely out of his hands. The chain was the only one unaffected by Vince’s strike, showing not so much as a single crack in its icy facade.

                “At least I don’t feel so bad about not being able to budge mine,” Nicholas said, watching the spectacle from a sitting position on his side of the altar.

                “Seems like brute force isn’t going to work here,” Mary surmised. “Not even the level that Vince and Roy can deliver.”

                “Can we just reshape this place so that Nick isn’t held anymore?” Alice asked. “You and I are able to change pretty much everything we want when you come into my dreams, no reason why we couldn’t do the same here.”

                “Actually, there’s a very good reason,” Nick said, jumping in before Mary could. “Dreams are just that: dreams. They’re open-ended swirls of thought with no defined direction. This is an unconscious representation of what’s happening to me. Professor Stone set the whole thing in motion, and since I was a boy bad and failed her little exam, I’m getting my mind wiped all the way.” Nick leaned back and looked up at the dome and narrowing piece of open sky, cupped his hand to his mouth and yelled to the darkness: “Isn’t that right, bitch?”

                A few feet away, the image of Professor Stone shimmered into view, causing several gasps of shock from his friends. It surprised him as well, he hadn’t been expecting her to reappear, but he was able to maintain a composed expression. It made him feel slightly better about his reaction to Roy and Hershel earlier. The image began to speak, and for a moment Nick hoped he’d tripped some hidden trial where he was supposed to curse out the professor, but then he realize she was merely repeating her verdict.

                “You have failed. You will both be sealed here, as will all recovered memories from your time at Lander. A full-wipe is occurring, and when it is done it will be as if Nicholas Campbell never set foot on the Lander campus. All memories of time in the Hero Certification Program that are here will be forever sealed.”

                “Whoa, hold the hell on a minute,” Alice said. “Did she say all the memories that are here?”

                “Yup, that’s what full-wipe means,” Nick said.

                “No, but… we’re all here. I mean, not physically sure, but mentally. Mary, this is your power, you know best, will that thing trap us too?”

                “It’s hard to say,” Mary replied. “I’d guess somewhere between maybe and probably. Since we do disconnect from our bodies when I do this, it is possible that pieces of us could get caught, at least theoretically. This is exactly the sort of question I would ask Professor Stone.”

                “Everyone, relax,” Vince said. He’d walked back over to the group with Roy a few steps behind. “This changes nothing. We just have to figure out how to get these chains to break before the hole closes. We’ve still got time.” Vince looked at Nick, who was a bit surprised at the strange sense of reassurance he felt just having his friend near. “Nick, you’re always the one talking about games, and that’s what this seems like to me. There has to be a way to win it, right?”

                “That’s been my theory since the beginning,” Nick said. “If there wasn’t some method for beating this, then Professor Stone wouldn’t have created it in the first place. I just haven’t managed to figure out what she wants from me yet.”

                “Start at the beginning, tell us everything that’s happened,” Mary said. “Maybe going over it again will help you figure something out.” The short Super chanced a quick glance upward and noticed the hole had shrunk again. “But maybe talk quick and skip the boring parts. We’re on a bit of a clock here.”