Chapter 252

               For the first time in any of the student’s memories, there was not a single gray or white uniform to be seen in Lander’s underground halls. In fact, few people wore their uniforms at all. Most were dressed in dark clothing, many in black suits with matching ties. The only ones wearing their freshman black uniforms were the ones who hadn’t owned any other clothing somber enough for the occasion. No one would have judged them for showing up in what they had, but everyone, oldest senior to youngest freshman, wanted to be respectful. After what they’d seen and experienced, each student had a keen understanding for the importance of these ceremonies, and the likeliness of attending more in their futures.

                Today, the lifts didn’t stop at the main hub where the classrooms, gym, and combat cells were hosted. Nor did it bring them to one of the many training arenas that lived further underground. The platforms kept lowering them past all of that, deeper than any student had been before, finally coming to rest in a large room. It was made of the same tough concrete material as the rest of the underground world, though here, swaths of black cloth had been hung, running from ceiling to floor. In front of them was a small stage and podium with a large television screen above it. Behind that, they could see that the back wall of the room was different than the others, made of a material like dark marble.

                Students filed down the rows of chairs, finding seats as their professors watched from the sides. Dean Blaine stood at the podium in front of them, patiently waiting as they made their way into seats. Not until the last person was resting in a chair did he speak, and when he did, it was with more gravity than almost any student had heard before.

                “Sasha Foster’s body has been taken home by her family, where they will bury her with her ancestors. In their grief, they have requested that none of our students, not even those of you close to her, attend that ceremony. I know many of you loved her, but I will ask that you all respect those wishes. They must mourn her in their own way, just as we will mourn her in ours.”

                Overhead, the screen lit up, showing a collage of pictures, all of them of Sasha. Group photos with her friends, snapshots that had been taken mid-match, images of her in all the ways they had known her.

                “I will not presume to speak to you all about who Sasha Foster truly was. She was a human, which is to say she had many sides and ways to be loved. Many of you knew her as a friend. Some as more. All knew her as a peer, or perhaps a rival. Anyone who has ever gone against her in combat knew her as a fierce warrior. As the dean of this school, I only knew Sasha as a student. But even in that small window I peeked through to see the person within, I could tell she was an extraordinary being.”

                The screen flickered, changing to a new set of pictures. This time, there were more of her mid-fight, a determined expression set in her eyes as she was caught racing about the battlefield.

                “Sasha Foster was willful, dedicated, and relentless on the battlefield. She was also kind and loyal to the ones she held close. Sasha was not perfect, as none of us are, but she was always striving to do better. To be better. She never forgot what it was we are all working toward here—the ideals of being a Hero. It was how she lived in her time with us at this program, and it was how she died: protecting a fellow student.”

                A few gazes turned to Alex, but found he was composed, with nary a single tear in his eye. Alex had cried over Sasha’s corpse for hours the night she died, and hours more after it was taken from him. Their relationship had been new, untested, but she’d still been a friend long before that. So many of those tears had been drawn out by guilt over his own weakness that had ultimately cost Sasha her life. But Alex was done with crying. He wouldn’t weep futilely anymore. Sasha had given her life for his. He intended to live it, and to be strong enough that no one else would ever have to make such a sacrifice.

                “Sasha Foster is not the first student I have lost,” Dean Blaine continued. “The Hero world is a dangerous one. You understand that in a way no class before you has, and in a way I pray no class after you will. She is not even the first I have lost before they achieved graduation, as disease and accidents are tragedies that even we must bear. Sasha Foster is, however, the first uncertified student I have ever lost who managed to still die in the line of Hero duty. Most of you know that when a Hero is killed in the field, there is a public ceremony held by the city they protected. The ones they love hold smaller events like this one, akin to normal funerals. And at the school they graduated from, in a room just like this one, their name is inscribed on a wall like the one you see behind me. Not their code name, mind you, their real one. Here is where we mourn and honor the person under the mask.”

                Behind him, Professor Fletcher walked over to the wall and crackled lightning between his fingers, illuminating a name that had been etched into the dark marble. Not everyone could make it out, but they all understood whose name it was.

                “Sasha Foster died a Hero’s death, and we have chosen to honor her as we would any other. It is a futile, impotent gesture that in no way encapsulates the bravery that young woman showed, but I’m afraid it’s all we as a school can do. As people, as her friends and teachers, we can honor her better. We can carry the memory of her with us, a reminder of those who have given their very lives in service to keeping this world, and the people in it, safe.”

                Dean Blaine paused, and the sound of softly muffled sobs filled the air. His students were mourning more than just one of their own; they were grieved by the loss of their own idyllic innocence. Most Heroes had time to see the field and prepare for the inevitable loss of a friend. For these children, it had come out of nowhere, and they couldn’t unlearn the truth laid out cold before them.

                “I am sure many of you are scared about what the future holds. For yourselves, for our program, for Lander as a whole. I don’t have many answers to give right now. All I can do is promise you that I will do everything in my power to ensure that Lander rises from the ashes of this tragedy, even if it’s a single brick at a time. I refuse to let those killers get what they wanted. I will not see the potential of so many future Heroes derailed. And, most importantly of all, I refuse to let Sasha Foster’s death be in vain.”

                Dean Blaine bowed his head, his own tears finally breaking through the self-control he’d been so ardently exercising.

                “My student gave her life to help protect this school. I can ask nothing less of myself.”