There was a murmur in the crowd as the first years twisted around in their seats, disoriented and unsure who was speaking to them. An older man walked confidently on the platform underneath the projector, facing the sea of student faces. A flexible earpiece supported a tiny microphone snugly against his cheek. At least this was a recognizable face–It was none other than President Korton. A small ripple of laughter began in the center of the older students, and they started clapping. Confusion turned into wry amusement, and the freshman also started clapping, finally recognizing the pervading nervous energy of the hall as the excitement that it was. The juniors started a chant, “Korton, Korton, Korton,” and it began to dissipate as the leader of their school held up his hands in an effort to calm the crowd, smiling humbly with a “Thank you, thank you.”
Oddly enough, this man, who was the spitting image of the nerdy history teacher, adjusting his rectangular glasses on his slightly bulbous nose, also had the inward intelligence and charisma necessary to become nominated as President of LennRoc, their school. It was a difficult job, especially because LennRoc was part of the prestigious Moss League, a collection of old schools that grew in renown and continued the age old crusade to produce the most capable of students. It was rumored that they were in fierce competition. However, she had never heard of the Moss Project. It sounded dangerous.
President Korton was beloved by the student population, perhaps because of his kind smile and understanding, or perhaps because of how elusive and untouchable he was. She had only seen him once, during orientation where a short video clip of him appeared, welcoming everyone to the school. But now he was here in person. As she thought this, he turned, his slightly graying hair and blue shirt belying his power. “A yes, the freshman,” he said quietly, a hush blanketing the room as the older students turned and watched them all.
“You are probably wondering why you are here. What’s the Moss Project?” His voice took on a new quality now, and he paced like a tiger on stage, his friendly nature gone and replaced with an intensely serious tone. She looked up at him, her eyes wide. The projector screen flickered with light, and then an image was splayed on the huge screen. It was a display of the coat of arms for all the Moss League schools, but the representations looked archaic and shimmered with the artificial glow of coals.
“Let’s start with the Moss League schools, the nations oldest centers of intelligence and skill. They are, in no particular order: Violet, Argentinia, LennRoc, Arrowtongue, Gravard, Kington, Inkvania, and Wale University. You are attending one of the eight most elite places in the United States. But you are a part of project, a mission that is even bigger than you realized when you applied to LennRoc.”
In the silence of anticipation, a faint whirring click echoed through the hall as the next slide appeared, this time revealing a photo of a group of six young boys and two girls, their faces serious as they huddled close together. Most of the photo was shades of gray, with the exception of their eyes, which were a deep black. There was a ragged strength about them, with a bow slung across one boy’s back, another one holding a scroll, a girl’s hand clenching a threatening sword. The other girl, in the middle, looked the most powerful despite her lack of weapons, the others poised around her in a tense defense while her stance was completely confident, almost predatory as her eyes burned into the audience.
“This is the group who started it all. Three years after the Moss League was founded between all the schools, almost 150 years ago, there began an annual tournament that would ultimately decide which school was the most superior. Each school chose eight of their top students, and sent them to an undisclosed location with an assortment of weapons and tools based on their skills, and the groups would race to complete their task before the rest of the students.”
“Unfortunately, there were vicious fights that cost the lives of the very best that each school had to offer. However, the groups that survived came back stronger than when they left. From their performance during the contest, they gained fame and respect from the whole economic world, and industries for decades have fallen over themselves to attain the leaders and victors from the tournament.”
She felt a cold chill crawling down her neck, its claws digging into her skin and down her back. It sounded like the haunting group displayed on the screen was more of a sacrifice for the school than an honored team. Who would want to risk their lives for something so meaningless? Squirming in her seat, the blood-orange color of her shirt seemed to deepen into crimson as she looked down into her lap, the bright light from the projector screen causing her vision to distort in color as she looked at her shadowed hands.
“The first year of the tournament, LennRoc proved victorious, eliminating all other competitors.” Looking back up at the screen, she was involuntarily drawn back into the gaze of the girl in the center. The girl’s eyes now revealed a glassy quality, the hint of a deranged ferocity that spared no one. She couldn’t look away. She felt her heartbeat speed up, a tiny coil of energy vibrating inside her stomach. But the connection was suddenly broken, the slide changing to black.
“For hundreds of years after, all the schools continued to compete. However, now, technology has allowed for us to drastically alter and improve the system of the tournament. And we have successfully used this system for the past five years. What is the result?”
President Korton’s voice became smug. “No deaths. Full video feeds of all competitors for the companies and audiences. And most importantly, total school participation.” The silence was in a futile struggle with the growing voices of students, as upperclassmen grinned and nudged their peers, while the freshman wavered between excitement and fear, conversing quietly with their neighbors.
“We are past the age of depending on the independent force of eight individuals. Now we can combine the entire school to create an army of students, a small city’s worth of people working together for a shared cause. No more sacrifices, simply school-wide improvement.”
“As I said before, welcome to the Moss Project.” A new view appeared on the projector, somehow feeding from an elusive camera stowed away in the highest reaches of the hall’s ceiling, showing the crawling mass of students that were looking at one another or at the projector.
As President Korton walked off the stage, disappearing again from site, he announced, “We now ask for you to go to your dorm RA, who is standing in one of the highlighted locations on the projector, and ask for your team number. After that, you will meet your fellow team members and begin to receive the training needed for the tournament next week.”
“I wish you all the best of luck and success for this year. Make me proud.” The echoing click of the microphone turning off was absorbed by the chaotic noise of students standing from their chairs, now talking full volume, and hastening with friends to find their RA. She continued sitting for a moment, however. Something was starting, yes. But the memory of the girl’s eyes from the photo left a bitter taste in her mouth.