“You orange glowing bastard!” Roy screamed as he went sailing through the air yet again. He’d lost count of his flights somewhere in the teens, not because it was too hard to keep up, but because there was no point. Each had thought one of them would break, run out of steam, or come up with a new strategy to end things. As it was, they were dancing the same tango they’d been shimmying since they started.
Thomas’s own sentiment wasn’t much more positive. By his assessments of Roy’s strength, Thomas should have prevailed by now, but the taller young man had gotten much stronger in a short time. When things were over, Thomas would ask him how he’d pulled that off. For the moment, he was simply trying to figure out a way to finish this pointless battle. The problem was that Roy had the advantage in his endless energy. Thomas was beginning to feel the first signs of fatigue, signs he knew his opponent would never suffer at this pace. He still had a lot of gas left in the tank, but that wouldn’t matter if he didn’t find a way to hurt Roy. At this pace the most he could hope for was a clean escape.
Thomas blinked beneath his orange armor as the realization hit him. Why not escape? This test wasn’t predicated on winning individual fights, only on who got the most points through orbs. He wasn’t helping his team right now; in fact, he was wasting himself as a resource. The beginnings of suspicion began to tickle in his brain. This was probably part of the exam: not only winning when it was possible, but also walking away when it wasn’t. It was what the second match had been meant to teach them. The more he thought about it, the more certain Thomas grew.
A snapping of branches alerted Thomas that Roy was charging again. He enveloped his opponent’s legs in energy, just as he had countless times before. This time was different. Instead of chunking Roy at the nearest object, Thomas put more power into the throw and aimed higher. He cast Roy with all of his might, sending him sailing over the tree line far from their current position. By the time Roy found his way back, Thomas would be long gone.
Distantly, almost imperceptibly, Roy’s voice could be heard screaming obscenities as he flew through the air.
* * *
“Results are in,” Mary whispered. She was reasonably certain she and Nick were alone, but the way things were going, she wasn’t up for taking any risks. “One win, two losses, and a draw.”
“How did we get a draw? Wait, never mind, let me guess. Thomas and Roy?”
“Nailed it. Thomas realized he was wasting his time, so he headed off to find a better fight. Roy is less than thrilled.”
“I can imagine.”
“Anyway, Alex lost, so did Camille and Vince. Alice, thankfully, pulled her match off rather impressively,” Mary reported.
In spite of the bad news, Nick allowed himself a small smile at news of Alice’s victory. The girl deserved a win, and putting one up against an opponent like Violet was no small matter. As honest as his joy was, it was equally brief. Immediately his brain began assessing the news of the losses and adjusting his plan.
“How are they holding up?”
“Alex is knocked out, Camille is largely unhurt but stuck under a tree branch. Vince is pinned, too, but he’s been torn up pretty bad.”
“Shane separated and trapped them so Camille couldn’t heal Vince. Smart guy. I hate other smart guys.”
“Should we go help them?”
Nick shook his head. He’d suspected this might happen, not just when he heard they were facing Shane, but from the very beginning. Vince had gotten so much stronger than he’d been even a few months ago, but it wasn’t as if he were going up against mere humans. Everyone else was growing too, getting better at what they did. Vince might one day be the strongest of them all; however, that day wasn’t this one. And if he didn’t find a way to showcase Vince’s real potential then that day might very well never come. The only guidance he had was Globe’s advice, about the fact that they were all underestimating Vince’s real power and how kindness was both the cage and the key. Understanding it hadn’t been difficult, but discerning a good way to utilize it had left Nick with precious few options.
“Okay, Mary, here’s the plan. First things first, I’m calling in the twenty-four hours of non-mental listening you owe me.”
“Freshman year, I did you a favor by taking Alice shopping, and that was my price. I’m calling it in, effective immediately. Do not, under any circumstances, listen to my thoughts for the rest of this day.”
“Can I ask why?”
“You can ask anything, you just won’t get answers. Next, I need you to tell me where Rich is, currently.” As he spoke, Nick reached up and removed his sunglasses. He carefully applied pressure to one of the lenses until it snapped, leaving a slightly jagged edge.
“About fifteen minutes to our east,” Mary replied, pointing despite the fact that she was certain Nick knew the direction in question.
“Perfect. Now, keep hunting our invisible girl, but if you haven’t found her in thirty minutes then refocus on making sure Alex and Alice get to the deposit site before the timer ends. Stay out of sight until I get there.” Nick took the jagged edge of plastic and used it to cut a section of his uniform’s coat, then ripped along the tear until he had a long, if ragged, piece of grey cloth.
“They’ll make you pay for that, you know,” Mary pointed out, having honestly no idea what else to say to his strange behavior.
“I’m aware of the rules.”
“Are you sure I shouldn’t go help Vince and Camille instead of hunting Britney? What if they don’t get free in time?”
“Vince will get them free,” Nick replied simply. “Trust me.”
“I guess at this point I pretty much have to.”
“And words cannot say how much I appreciate it.” Nick was finished making his cloth strip, so he tucked it into his right pocket. He put the jagged plastic in his left and let the remains fall to the ground. He didn’t need them any longer.
Nick looked at Mary; she was staring up at him with a perplexed annoyance. She was true to her word: if she’d been listening to his thoughts, she would have worn a very different expression. Good; he’d have hated for her to get caught up in this. When the dust settled she was going to need to be able to honestly say she had no idea what he was planning. Ignorance was the only protection he could give her.
“So, while I’m doing all this running around, what are you going to do?”
“Very simple, my dear Captain,” Nick replied. “I’m going to build a pyre.”