Chapter 4

The underground section of Lander, the place where only those who were currently enrolled in the Hero Certification Program could access, was bustling as the juniors filed through. The freshmen had arrived and taken their initial ranking exams yesterday. The entry hall seemed thick with black uniforms and young, uncertain faces.

“Were there this many of us during the first year?” Alice asked.

“Probably back in the beginning,” Mary replied. “Hard to believe though, given that only of twenty of us are left.”

The juniors were filtering down the lifts slowly, a splash of gray amidst the sea of black. Aside from alterations to accommodate growth spurts, each still had the same uniform from their sophomore year. Those who made it to senior year would earn the right to don a white one. No such uniforms were currently visible, they would have their orientation on the following day. This one was devoted to sophomore team selections in the morning and whatever activity awaited the migrating juniors once they arrived.

It took some time to traverse the thick hallways of freshmen, but eventually all of the juniors had made it to the gym. Dean Blaine waited for them to fall into a line patiently, allowing for a certain amount of gawking as everyone tried to figure out who was missing. Professor Pendleton, Professor Fletcher, and Professor Stone all stood his right. Professor Hill, Professor Cole, and Professor Baker were to his left. A man that most of the students didn’t recognize hung out near the rear of the gym. In contrast to the professors, he was exceedingly normal looking, dressed in a polo and cream colored slacks that would have looked more at home on a golf-course than in a heavily fortified training facility. Once the last student arrived, Dean Blaine began to speak.

“Julia Shaw. Agatha Mason. Tiffani Hunt. Stella Hawkins. Nick Campbell. Michael Clark. Hector Morrison. Gilbert Reid.”

At first the students were confused as he rattled off names of classmates, however as each recognized the name of a friend they knew about, a sense of uncomfortable understanding seeped in.

“Those are the students that are not with us this year. Those are friends of yours, people you bonded with and cared about. Those are powerful, skilled warriors who, for the most part, upheld the principles that a Hero is meant to stand for. They are gone, and the odds of them coming back are strikingly minimal.”

Dean Blaine stepped forward and surveyed the faces of the students before him. The sadness was nearly palpable. A shared dream united people, gave them a familial sentiment toward one another. The cost was that when one had that dream die, it pained all who cared for them.

“I know that’s hard for you to hear. It isn’t easy for me to say, either. I cared for all of them as I care for you. Losing our companions is a bitter part of this process, one that I have the unfortunate role of telling you will only get worse as this class shrinks. But trust me when I say that as much as you dislike this, it is infinitely worse for those not currently wearing a uniform. I don’t say that to sadden you further, I just want you to know that it can be worse, and encourage each of you to try your hardest not to experience that side of the equation.”

Reaching the end of the line, Dean Blaine turned around and began walking back.

“Now that the past has been spoken of, let’s move to the future. Your year ahead, specifically. First order of business, in light of last year’s… unplanned excitement, we didn’t manage to close things out properly. As a result, we never collected the information on which of your courses you wished to drop and which you hoped to stay in. Given the hecticness of everything and this gap on our part, we’ve decided that everyone who has made it to this year may keep whichever two classes they like. When I finish you will speak to your professors and let each one know whether you intend to drop or keep their course. At the end of this year you will meet with your two remaining professors and decide which course will become your major. I urge you to take this seriously; as your designation will greatly influence the training you receive as well the expectations of you upon graduation.”

Dean Blaine arrived back at his starting point, then motioned to his educators. “They are excellent assets, you will never again have so much knowledge in so many different areas freely available to you. Make a wise selection. That said, there are three other matters to discuss. Firstly, I’m sure you are all wondering about the updated rankings. They will be posted tomorrow before the beginnings of your first classes. Until then we will answer no questions regarding them. Secondly, as you all recall last year was focused on learning to work in a team, how to allocate resources effectively, and how to use each member to their full potential. That was key training for your future careers as Heroes. This year we will focus on a less pleasant but equally, if not more so, important aspect. You will be learning to take on multiple enemies at the same time. The nature of this conflict will vary based on your courses, so once more I caution you to choose with forethought. We’ll go over the details for each as the first trial grows closer, however I think those of you in more battle oriented majors can draw a few informed conclusions.”

Here the dean paused his speech and motioned to the man at the back at the gym. He came forward with a casual gait, nothing to suggest he felt nervous despite an entire class worth of attention focused on him. The man gave the class a warm smile, then turned to the dean and waited to be introduced.

“Our last matter of business is one relating to actual business. We understand that college is financially taxing for many students and their families, and that being is this program has prevented a lot of you from being able to earn money at a job like regular students. Now that you have all made it to third year, the odds of staying in this town for the remainder of college improve significantly, so as a courtesy we set up a partnership with several local businesses to give part-time jobs to those who want them. These will be owners that know what you are and the demands on your time, and have agreed to accommodate those issues. The gentleman beside me is Kent Mears, the liaison who coordinates between you eager students and the kind employers. Anyone interested in a job can speak to him in a few moments. For those who do, I urge you to do your best at any job you get, remember that these require business owners to work around our program and a poor employee may make them less likely to offer HCP students any future positions.”

A smooth step moved Dean Blaine back in line with his professors. He saw all the students waiting patiently and allowed a slight smile across his face. They had come so far from this day two years ago and there was still so much ahead of them.

“Okay students, please begin.”