The image of Professor Stone had reappeared, but this time her placid, lifeless expression was nowhere to be found. Instead, she had her arms crossed and was sporting a scowl that would have been worthy of a disapproving southern grandmother. Her eyes narrowed even more as she looked at the group, still clutching hands with one another. The unpleasant look on her face matched the uncharacteristic curses she’d just let fly. For just a moment, her mask of professionalism slipped away and the real Esme Stone poked through.
“All of you? All of you? Honestly, I’m a little insulted. It’s like you don’t put any value at all on the education we’ve worked so hard to provide if you’re willing to toss it all away so easily.”
“No, Professor Stone, we greatly appreciate what we’ve learned here at Lander. We just value our friend more,” Mary said.
“I am just so very, very confused,” Vince said, looking around the ice-encased room.
“Nick passed his final test,” Professor Stone announced. As she spoke, the chunk of ice in the center of the floor dissolved, as did the chains attached to Nicholas and Nick’s legs.”
“His final test was failing?” Roy asked.
“His final test was two parts: the extent to which you all truly cared for and trusted him, and whether or not he was worthy of that trust,” Professor Stone explained. “If Nick keeps his memories of Lander, he will hold each your lives in his hands. He knows all of your secrets, your weaknesses, your fears, and your identities. That is no small power for any person to have over another. We couldn’t, as administrators, make that sort of choice for you. You had to decide for yourselves that your friendship with Nick was worth risking losing everything for.”
“Which we did when we chose to stay with him, even though it might mean losing our memories of Lander,” Hershel said.
“Exactly. The other part of his test was whether or not he deserved the trust you put in him. Nick figured out that the real exam was whether or not you all would stay with him some time ago.”
“Suspected, really.” Nick had his pride, but he was loathe to lay claim to achievements he hadn’t earned.
“Point is, he deduced enough about the exam to realize getting you all to stay might be what passed him, and he tried to get you to leave. You were willing to risk everything for Nick, but he wasn’t willing to see you all damaged for his own sake.”
“This sounds ridiculously complicated,” Alice said.
“Tell me about it,” Professor Stone agreed. “But you can thank Dean Blaine for all of it. The man had never been one to throw away a useful asset, especially in times of need.”
“I have to ask, Professor Stone, when exactly did you gain the ability to dream-walk?” Mary stepped forward, apart from the rest of the group, as she confronted her mentor. “You’re obviously not a buried memory anymore.”
“No, I’m not, nor am I truly dream-walking. It would be more apt to say that I’m creating new memories to speak to you as you ask your questions. Of course, they’re actually going in your head, Mary, but since it’s a shared experience everyone can see them.”
“But to do that you’d need… I see. We played right into your hands, didn’t we?”
“It’s more apt to say you played right into his.” Professor Stone pointed to Nick, who had the good sense to at least feign confusion. “When I set this up, I never really expected to see it fulfilled. Nick Campbell, you are a strange and gifted young man. Make no mistake though; the greatest piece of luck you ever pulled off was winding up with friends like these. You only needed one to stay so you would pass. For all of them to stick by you… be thankful for what you have.”
“Not to interrupt all the warm fuzzies and happy feelings, but would you mind explaining what’s going to happen to me?” Nicholas had pulled himself off the floor and crossed most of the gap between he and the others.
“Nick gets all of his memories back, that includes the ones he forged while cut-off from his Lander knowledge. You exist in the way you always did, as a part of Nick; the culmination of who he was at eighteen years old.”
“Do I die?”
“No, you just go home, to the place where you belong. You’ll still be around, still be a part of everything he does. You’ll just be surrounded by other parts of the consciousness as well. If anything, you’ll be much happier there.”
“Suppose I’ll just have to take your word for it,” Nicholas grumbled. He didn’t seem thrilled with the outcome, but compared to an eternity engulfed in ice with only himself to talk to it wasn’t quite as horrifying of a scenario.
“It occurs to me that this is conversation we could more easily be having outside my head,” Nick pointed out.
“Dreams are safer places to talk,” Professor Stone reminded him. “Here, very few ears can overhear what we’re saying.”
“So this newfound memory of mine, I’ll be needing to keep it a secret,” Nick surmised.
“Yes, you will.” Professor Stone’s face grew grave as all levity fell out of her tone. “What we’ve done today violates a myriad of HCP protocol guidelines as well as several laws passed down by the Department of Variant Human Affairs. The repercussions for this would be serious, for the dean and I especially.”
“Seems like an awful big risk to take on someone like me.” Nick noticed the walls of the ice dome were beginning to grow thin and crack, small fractures racing up and down the sides of it.
“You have a knack for uncovering information, and we’re in a situation where that is very precious commodity. Better to break small rules than see people get hurt,” Professor Stone said. “Sometimes, doing the right thing overall means you have to do a few wrong things in the process.”
“Now that’s the kind of thinking I can get behind.” The dome began splintering audibly, chunks of ice falling away and turning to smoke before they hit the ground.
Vince turned and opened his mouth to speak, but before a single word was uttered he vanished along with everyone else save for Nicholas and Nick. There was no puff of smoke or preamble, one minutes they were there and the next they were gone.
“I assume my friends are okay?” Nick asked.
“They’re fine; we just broke the connection between Mary and you. Unbinding sealed memories takes a fair amount of concentration, and extra people here only makes it harder. You’ll see them soon.”
“While its’ just the two of us, will you tell me the real reason I’m getting saved? All that bunk about me finding information is true, but there must be a few Subtlety Heroes who can probably do a better job than even me.”
“That there are, but right now we don’t know who we can truly trust,” Professor Stone said. “You are a criminal, a con artist, and a villain through and through. But you’re loyal to your friends, and that means we can use you.”
“Honesty, what a refreshing change of pace.” Nick looked up at the still shattering sky. “Anything else I should know before we leave the dreamscape?”
“You don’t really need me to do something as trite as threaten you with the unending terror and pain that will come if you screw up or betray us, do you?”
“No, but in a way you just did,” Nick pointed out.
“Yes, I did, didn’t I? See you on the outside, Nick Campbell.”