Chapter 65

"You sure it's him?" Nick half-whispered.

"Seeing as he's the only student in our class whose thoughts I can't hear, yeah, I'm pretty sure," Mary confirmed.

"Ahem. It's dark, I get that. I am still standing right here, though," Chad called out.

"Oh no, we've offended him. Now he'll easily beat us and knock us out of the test. A totally different outcome than what he was already planning," Nick said.

"Actually, I was planning to let you and Alice go," Chad corrected. "Neither of you pose a good fight for me."

"Really?" Alice asked from overhead.

"Yes. Mary stays, though. I imagine she will make an interesting opponent," Chad informed them.

"Cool by me!" Nick declared. "Alice, fly your ass down here and let’s book."

"But... what about Mary?" Alice asked hesitantly.

"I appreciate the sentiment, Alice, but you should go. Chad is a strong Super, so fighting him is likely to cause a lot of collateral damage. It will be easier if I don't have to worry about hitting either of you in this darkness," Mary told her.

"You're sure?"

"Of course. I'll catch up with you two later. Now hurry up," Mary instructed her.

"You heard the girl, time for us to exit, stage right," Nick told her.

Without any more coaxing Alice floated down to Nick's side and the two slowly made their way into another room. They stumbled along into another hallway and were lost once more in the endless twists of the labyrinth. Neither Chad nor Mary said anything until their footsteps had totally faded away.

"You lied to your friend," Chad said matter-of-factly.

"Yes, I did," Mary admitted.

"That was very kind of you," he complimented.

"It was kind of you to let them go," she returned.

Mary heard something that sounded suspiciously like a shrug. "I meant what I said. Their powers aren't suited for combat. I won't learn anything from them or be suitably challenged. I gain no satisfaction from defeating weaker opponents."

"You and me both," Mary said. "Though I don't think that's applicable to either of us in this case."

"No, it is certainly not," Chad agreed. With that, he rushed forward.

*          *          *

"Holy crap!" Nick exclaimed as they heard a tremendous smashing sound some yards behind them.

"Ditto," Alice seconded. "Do you think she's okay?"

"I'm sure she's fine," Nick lied hurriedly. "We should be moving faster."

"You think Chad will change his mind?"

"I think there is a metric fuckton of power being flexed uncomfortably close to my proximity and I'd like to increase that meager bit of distance," Nick clarified, quickening his pace.

"You make a compelling case," Alice agreed, matching his speed. "This doesn't seem a little wrong to you, though? I mean, we're here learning to be Heroes. Doesn't running away go counter to that?"

"Only if your definition of a Hero is someone who gets needlessly pummeled," Nick replied. "You and I have precise, useful talents. Kicking ass isn't in either of our repertoires though."

"Maybe if we teamed up-" Alice began.

"We could have hamstrung the only one of the three of us with an outside shot of winning," Nick finished. "Moments like this are exactly why I'd guess they're splitting us into combat and alternative training. To illustrate when a strategic removal of forces is more beneficial than a grand last stand."

"You sure jazzed up the concept of running away there," Alice said.

"Why thank you, Princess, I consider it my gift. Since when are you so concerned about Mary's well-being anyway?"

"She came looking for me. Both of you did. Something sits wrong with me hightailing it away from her now that things are rough," Alice justified.

"And I here I just thought you were growing chummy with our diminutive mind-reader," Nick said.

Alice tried to brush off his comment; however, she discovered that it didn't brush quite so easily. She wasn't just worried about getting away and she didn't feel guilty purely because she was leaving someone behind. These feelings were more persistent because it was Mary she was running from and Mary who was in danger. At some point in their living situation tolerance had transitioned into fondness. Alice stopped running.

"I'm going back," she declared, turning around.

"No, you're not," Nick told her, pulling himself up short as well. He strode back over to her, groping a bit before finding her precise location in the darkness. "I get it. She's our friend, we care, we want her to be okay and it seems like making a grand stand will facilitate that outcome."

"We'll think of something," Alice said stubbornly.

"We'll distract her, we'll get in the way, and it's possible we'll get hurt or killed. Accidents happen, even with the safety measures the HCP takes. And Mary will blame herself for not being able to protect us. You want to toss in the fact that we're learning to be Heroes? Then remember this: a Hero's first priority is the greater good. You feel inadequate and guilty, so you want to ameliorate those feelings by trying to help. That's selfish, though; it puts your need to feel good about yourself over Mary's need to stay safe and win," Nick lectured her.

"I still feel like shit," Alice admitted, something she didn't think she could have said if she'd been able to see Nick's face.

"Sometimes doing the right thing leaves you feeling like an asshole," Nick told her. "Now move."

*          *          *

"You're amazing," Chad complimented her. "You can't see me or sense my thoughts, yet you've still managed to last this long. I'm sincerely impressed."

Mary wheezed in a breath and blinked sweat from her eyes. She appreciated the sentiment, but she didn't feel particularly amazing. Fighting Chad was hell. He was fast, strong, had ridiculous endurance, and worst of all he didn't seem remotely fazed by not being able to see. She'd been generating what was essentially a bubble of telekinetic power to stop him, but he'd already broken through twice. She'd released a massive burst and driven him back, but he'd landed glancing blows each time. Not to mention the fact that those massive blasts took a lot of her. She could feel her mental reserves slipping and her bubble weakening.

""Why... can't I read... your thoughts?" Mary rasped out between ragged breaths. She needed him to talk, to buy even a few extra seconds if she could.

"Brains work on certain frequencies through electrical impulses. I've done some extensive remodeling of how mine functions to maximize potential. You could think of it as you pick up FM, but I'm broadcasting on AM," Chad explained.

"Impossible," Mary said.

"No such word. Think of any wonder or miracle in this world and sooner or later you'll find someone with that power. It's just a matter of perseverance. Speaking of, while I admire your attempt to stall in hopes of a better outcome, don't you think it's time we let this dance come to its inevitable conclusion?" Chad asked.

"I suppose," Mary agreed. With one last push of effort she slammed an area nowhere near the last spot Chad's voice had come from, striking in a wide area rather than focusing on a more central point. Mary had tried several attacks already, but no matter how fast she'd been, Chad was always gone by the time her blast hit the area he'd last been. She let her bubble drop and put that energy into the strike as well. This was a last shot gambit, one depending almost entirely on luck. Chad wouldn't be where she'd heard his voice, so the only choice left was to pick a totally different spot and pray for the best. There was a smashing sound as her force struck empty wall, and she knew it was over.

"Well done," Chad's voice said from behind her. "A foot over and you would have hit me. I'd love to fight you again when we're on a more equal ground."

"Sure," Mary agreed. "After break, though. I need a long rest after this."

"Of course," Chad agreed, delicately placing his weapon against her shoulder and giving it a quick pulse.

*          *          *

"Finally, sweet light," Nick said as the door slid open and he stumbled into the lit room. Alice followed suit, though more cautiously. Her last light room encounter was a bit too fresh in her mind to leave her at ease.

"The loud noises have stopped," Alice pointed out as Nick walked to the center of the room and dropped to a sitting position.

"I noticed. We'll wait here for five minutes to see if Mary joins us," Nick told her.

"And if she doesn't?"

"More wandering in the dark. Staying mobile and hidden are our best bets at that point," Nick said.

"You say that like there was a point when that wasn't our only option," Alice pointed out.

"Well, with Mary we could have pulled off a little magic. Just you and me, though, we're less useful. Have to face facts; this challenge was designed to favor combat types," Nick sighed.

Nick waited for a reply, but when one didn't come he turned around to face Alice. He'd expected to see her lost in thought or worry, annoyed at being stuck with him again. Instead what greeted his eyes was her collapsed form and a barely noticeable pale glow from her wrist.

"Shit," Nick swore, scrambling to get on his feet. He reacted quickly, but not quickly enough. A sharp pain emanated from his gut and dropped him right back to the floor. As his vision cleared he saw a female figure ripple into view. She was a fellow student, of course, one with short, mousy hair and a cocky grin.

"I don't know," she said, jumping into the conversation. "I find that a power is as useful as the person wielding it."

"Well, crap," Alice said weakly from her spot on the floor. Nick felt that summed it up nicely.