Chapter 112

                The gym was quiet, save for the sounds of rustling cloth and scuffing boots. Though nerves, curiosity, and excitement bubbled in every student, those inclinations were pushed away in favor of focusing on the task at hand. Staying calm, collected, and ready for anything was one of the most important skills they’d gained in their time at Lander, and with the last test of the semester finally here it was one they all planned on putting to good use.

                Dean Blaine was waiting for them as they filed in, patiently watching until everyone had formed a half-circle around him. It was a bit strange; to see him here alone, usually some of the other professors were in attendance at these announcements. Maybe they were greeting the Heroes who had come to watch, or tweaking the Sims to make them as dangerous as they could be. Anything was possible, which meant the students had to expect everything.

                “The final trial of your first semester,” Dean Blaine said, shattering the silence with his powerful voice. “Every year, this is a key point for you, and for us as your educators. Here is where we see how the training you’ve endured has changed you, crystalized into something that made you more than you were when the semester began. It’s why we so often re-assess rankings at these points, and this year will be no different. The information from today’s test will be used to create the new list of rankings waiting for you when you come back in spring. That will, by the way, be the last set of rankings until your graduation. Not all of you are attempting to graduate via martial means; however, for those who are this will give you a strong indication of where you stand.”

                He began to turn, slowly, making sure to meet the eyes of every student for at least a few seconds.

                “You have all come so far since you stood here as freshman, terror and uncertainty dripping off you while you waited to see what trial awaited. That was before you knew about the levels below, before you fought as teams, before learning to fend off entire groups of attackers. Many more of you were here then, yet those who remain today are by far stronger than that group, even with its advantage in size. All of you have grown and evolved in your time at Lander, and today you’re going to show us by exactly how much. Because, my students, you are all going back into the labyrinth.”

                That did manage to surprise several students, though they kept their mouths sealed tight even if their expressions did betray being caught off-guard. Repeating a test was something that had never happened before. Even in the city-battles with the Sims, they were given different parameters to make the exercise unique.

                “Rest assured, this won’t be the same test we give to freshmen,” Dean Blaine continued. “For one thing, there won’t be any color-coded stun-guns this time around. You all have had more than enough training and familiarity with each other to fight for real. To defeat a fellow student, you must either knock them unconscious, achieve a hypothetical deathblow, force them to surrender, or render them incapacitated for three continuous minutes. That number isn’t chosen at random, by the way. Three minutes is the average response time for a collection team to arrive and restrain a criminal Super. Hold someone that long, and you’ve effectively defeated them.”

                Behind Dean Blaine, on the gym’s back wall, a screen lit up. It was divided into six blocks, showing only darkness on each one, but the more keen eyed were almost certain they saw movement amidst the shadows.

                “Every student you defeat is worth one point,” Dean Blaine told them. “When you lose, you’re out, and your point count becomes locked. Now obviously, that somewhat limits things in terms of general strategy, as it becomes a simple game of hunting each other, and we’ve taught you to account for more variables than that. So, to keep things interesting, there will be lighted rooms within the labyrinth, just as there were last time. However, they will no longer be empty. Instead, there will be special challenges awaiting those brave enough to undertake them.”

                The six black boxes on the giant screen flickered with white light, illuminating the rooms and, more importantly, the people inside them. Each student knew who they were looking at instantly, it would be impossible not to. These were, after all, the men and women who’d trained them, forged them into stronger warriors than they’d have ever been on their own. In each of the six boxes stood one of their professors, all looking directly into the camera.

                “Should any of you feel especially bold, you may elect to take on a professor. If you come into these rooms by accident, have no fear, as a formal challenge must be made to battle them. Once it is, however, the room will seal shut to ensure no one can enter or leave, staying locked tight until a winner is determined. If that winner is you, then you will receive six points as your reward. And before anyone asks, yes, you can work in teams to take on the professors. In those cases, the points will be split evenly among the students, rounding down on decimal remainders. For anyone slow at math, that means if you bring in more than six students to the fight, you’ll get no reward as everyone would only be entitled to a fraction of a point.”

                It was a barrier put in for their own protection, as much as out of practicality. Trying to overpower a professor with numbers would be chaotic, and there was a high chance that someone might be injured in the fray. Keeping the number to six was more manageable, allowing for complex and coordinated strategies without people tripping over one another.

                “The trial ends when there is only one student or less remaining,” Dean Blaine said. “Which means if you want, you can avoid all of the professors. They are an optional component to the exam, one you need not deal with unless you think it will benefit you. Then again, perhaps you’ll team up with a few friends, opting to try and pad your scores until you’re inevitably forced to deal with one another. How you attack this challenge is almost as important as the results you get, because by now you know we’re looking at far more than simply who can beat up the most people. Oh, I almost forgot: teamwork only earns shared points against professors. Against fellow students, whoever achieves the win gets the point. Choose your strategy carefully, and choose it soon. In five minutes, we will begin dropping you at random points in the labyrinth. If you’d like to go in with people you trust, up to three students can be dropped off in one location. Or you can go in alone. Whatever way you decide to meet this trial, know that I wish you the very best of luck. And that we’ll be watching.”

                With that, Dean Blaine motioned for them to begin talking amongst themselves, and the illusion of calm was shattered amidst a sea of rapid conversation.