“Please pass the marmalade, Pyrrha,” Blue says pleasantly. He’s anxious about what today will bring, but trying to focus on the positive things in life, like the delicious breakfast spread in front of us. Emilio continues his compartmentalization skills by thinking of nothing but, crunching through a heavily buttered Imperial Biscuit with relish.
I hand Blue the orange marmalade and he thanks me with a smile. My revelation of the source of my power has had surprisingly little impact on him. Mary Lou is similarly unaffected, her analysis powers having already informed her of the truth of my power. She is in slightly better spirits than last night, but not by much. Perhaps more accurate to say she is functional, for now.
Ray is distracting himself with a holo-game, testing his reflexes, narrowly avoiding slamming a hand down onto his fried eggs. He is more ambivalent about my powers, surprisingly not because of how they grow but because of what it could mean. He is all too cognizant of what could happen if they become too great to handle, even briefly. It makes him concerned for me, and the concern is touching.
Genevieve still thinks I’m a monster, but the others’ neutral to positive reactions about my abilities have put her in isolation. Our only other team member with a truly negative sentiment towards finding out about the source of my power is Emilio, and surprisingly he’s smart enough to keep this opinion to himself.
He was torn between the idea of me killing him and absorbing his ability and not wanting to look weak for having that concern. So he’s steadfastly compartmentalized the whole issue and is pretending like the conversation last night never happened. If anything, the fact he’s no longer overflowing with lustful thoughts every time he looks at me is a win.
Blue is more of a puzzle. He doesn’t believe the title given my powers by my guardians growing up is accurate, but his mind skips every time he thinks about the reasons why. Normally I would give a great deal not to have any idea of what people are thinking, but this particular mystery is a touch…aggravating. I would really like to get him alone to just ask, but I doubt we will have a good amount of time to ourselves for at least the next several days.
When we file into the classroom after breakfast, Professor Karim stands in front of us. He’s wearing a glass circlet swirling with energy that is causing his thoughts to splinter like static. I wonder if it is a counter measure he thought up all on his own or if one of his coworkers suggested it to him. But despite this new trick, I get a sense of what we’re in store for and shutter involuntarily.
“That bad, huh?” Mary whispers.
“I don’t think it’ll be as bad as yesterday, but your mileage might vary on that,” I whisper back.
Professor Karim claps his hands. “Welcome children,” he says. The room collectively cringes at his word choice. “I’m glad to see so many of you still with us. Only a couple of your classmates chose to drop out. I’m afraid a couple more may do so before the day is through, though historically if you make it past today’s activities there is very close to a 100% graduation rate. Alas, today’s test lies at the heart of what we do here.”
Behind him materializes a row of men and women matching the number of our classmates plus one. It is a dramatic entrance that almost certainly means they must have been sent via the portals in Hope’s Bastion. This information is confirmed as their emotions hit me, though it is difficult to parse out of the sickening amount of hate and violence emanating from their minds.
“As I’m sure Professor Grimes explained to you yesterday, the children you killed were real, at least in some sense. Unfortunately, given the tenuous and temporary nature of their existences, there are bound to be a few who refuse to cognitively categorize Professor Kiru-coy’s creations as being any more real than the mental constructions that we used to use. We’ve had similar difficulties in the past using Graveminder’s puppets, besides which he’s currently in jail, and medical advances have taken off the table the possibility of euthanizing terminally ill kids from out in the world. Not that it would be a very palatable option to begin with.”
Professor Karim pauses, assessing whether we can figure out what comes next. Mary trembles besides me slightly and I know she figured it out the instant the bound figures materialized behind Karim.
“We aren’t willing to kill random children with lives in our world, but we do need to know that you can kill someone you believe is real,” Karim continues. “And fortunately, we have arrangements with several Crime Lords like Graveminder to provide more acceptable targets. The men and women behind me are real, no ifs, no ands, not buts. They are flesh and blood people born and raised in our world the same as you and me.”
Sand swarms to his hand from the floor and forms into a long, thin glass sword. He turns to the nearest man and abruptly pierces his sword down through the man’s throat. There is a gurgling noise as the man chokes on his own blood, then slumps to the slide as Karim pulls his sword out and it dissolves back into a swarm of bloody sand.
“These are not good people. The Crime Lords are allowed to exist because they are organized, they are disciplined, their crimes are…controlled. Their fights with Heroes are pageantry and in an emergency they can be useful. These people used to work for them, but broke the rules. They have been handed over to us for justice. They are rapists, child molesters, hero killers. But they are human. They had lives before today. Sick lives, but lives nonetheless. And if you leave them alive, they will go to jail and have lives tomorrow. Today’s lesson, today’s question, is can you kill for real?”
He’s barely finished speaking when a knife flies into the head of one of the women. Mary trembles beside me, once again the first to finish her task of killing. The well-worn path of her mind circling the repressed memories cracks further inwards with another sense of deja-vu and there is a flash of bodies surrounding her.
Mary runs out of the room as Miss Sedrick follows up her performance by ripping out a man’s throat. I see Nelle send one of her needles through someone’s skull, Grant Li calmly shoots someone in the head, Forest sends a tree branch through a man’s chest, and Allie feels perfectly content as she force crushes someone in one of her bubbles.
Allie’s attitude would be a lot more concerning if I couldn’t feel the minds of those being killed. I approach a man near me who just stared at me with a lustful sneer. He doesn’t care that he’s about to die. This is a joke to him, a mocking hate that reminds me of the Barber’s smiling demise. But the Barber was pure hatred, a disdain for life itself, the product of a mind broken by more than just mental illness. This man is more than hate; he’s lust and wrongness for wrongness’s sake.
He’s undressing me with his eyes, violating me, even though in his mind I’m far, far too old. The things he would do to me make me feel dirty just by proxy and the things he has done to girls nearly cause me to throw up.
It only takes me a second to summon James and end him and I still feel like I took too long.