Chapter 180

Alice was surprised to see a rock floating up to her, given her location in the air and the general lack of buoyancy associated with dense minerals. Then she realized someone had etched “Follow Me” across the flat front of it and grew suspicious. This looked like Mary’s doing, but it could be a trap. Violet could have made a rock light enough to get up here, but she couldn’t have made it guide her back to an ambush. Agatha could make inanimate objects move; however she was unable to change their properties. Alice was reasonably sure Tiffani’s illusions didn’t have this good a range, but just to be sure, she poked the stone with her finger. It wasn’t a high-minded or fancy test, but the stone was solid, so she knew it was real.

That left the combination of Will and Jill, who might have made this using some crazy technology. Alice was reasonably certain she could get the drop on them if it was. Besides, this was a weirdly specific gizmo to have up their sleeves. At last she realized the easiest way to get confirmation. She thought about how if it were really Mary sending this, it should start doing loop the loops. Sure enough, the stone began floating in tight circles through the sky. That was as good as Alice was going to get, so she thought about how she was ready to follow it, then floated after as it began to descend.

The stone drifted down to Mary, who was waiting in a small clearing just large enough for Alice to land in safely.

“Find Britney?”

“Sadly, no. She used Gilbert to hop about periodically, making tracking her all but impossible. I managed to avoid everyone and hang onto our orb, at least.”

“That’s something. So why the rock?” Alice’s feet settled gently on the ground using a controlled maneuver that the Powered version of her could never have imagined.

“I need to round up as many of us as possible. We’re supposed to meet at the depository before it goes active,” Mary explained.

“Are we laying an ambush?”

“Honestly? I have no idea what we’re doing,” Mary sighed. “We’ve got enough time to grab Roy on the way, so we should get moving. Alex woke up a little while ago; he got the message from me and is already on his way.”

“What about Nick?”

“No idea where he is or what he’s doing. I owed him a day of not listening to his thoughts from a favor last year, and he called it in during this match. He’s the one who wants us to meet with him, so I feel safe assuming he has something planned.”

“Nick always has something planned. It’s just not always something we should want to go along with.”

“Vince and Camille lost to Shane, Alex lost to Selena and Jill,” Mary informed her. “You’re the only winner; the rest of us have been safe or gotten a draw. No one has stolen an orb yet, so right now we’re all getting evaluated on our performances in this match.”

“Some of us might make it,” Alice said, though she didn’t know which of them she was trying to comfort.

“Some of us. Might,” Mary replied.

“Damn it. So we either resolve ourselves to losing some friends or we go with Nick’s plan, whatever it might be.”

“Or we try to make a grand last stand at the depository,” Mary countered. “However, I’m pretty sure Nick is already thinking of something along those lines anyway.”

“Funny, he’s not really the ‘go out in a blaze of glory’ type,” Alice mused. “I say we go along for now. Time has to be getting close, so we’d need to go anyway. We can always tell him no if we don’t like his idea.”

Mary nodded and the two set off, but inwardly she wondered about such a notion. She’d been deeper in Nick’s head than anyone else; she appreciated the extent to which he planned, the lengths that he was capable of going to in order to reach success. She had a nagging feeling that by the time they knew what Nick’s plan was, it would already be too late to do anything but watch.

*    *    *

“This isn’t looking good,” Professor Pendleton muttered as they watched the various students fight, sneak, or trudge across an expansive display of monitors. He kept his voice low, audible only to Dean Blaine, who stood next to him. Behind them was a room half-full of people. Most were the other professors and staff; however, a few were people dressed exceedingly professionally. Two of them were board members, and one, an older man whose hair was just beginning to grey, was their guest. He’d showed no badge, offered no job title; he’d merely been quiet and watched the students on the monitor. Or, rather, one student. His sunken eyes had never wavered from whatever monitor was currently displaying Vince Reynolds.

“The thing with the branch was impressive,” Dean Blaine replied.

“Would have been more impressive if coupled with a win,” Professor Pendleton shot back.

“Shane is second only to Chad among the males. That would have been the result against nearly any other student.”

“Too bad it was against Vince.”

“Agreed.” Dean Blaine kept his sympathy for the silver-haired boy off his face and out of his voice. Right now he did his student more good by seeming objective, whatever little difference it might ultimately make.

“They’re heading for the depository. Think they’ve got any shot of pulling this one out of the crapper?”

“My answer depends largely on your thoughts about something. On monitor seventeen you’ve surely noticed Nick Campbell leading a captured Rich Weaver toward the same place as the others. He’s avoided detection so far, and the audio indicated he took Rich prisoner to keep him from getting back into play.” Dean Blaine hesitated, checking to be certain they weren’t currently being overheard. At least he didn’t have to fear telepaths or super-hearing; thank heaven for small favors. “Do you believe that is actually what he’s doing?”

“Not a chance. That’s a stupid plan. The kid might be a lot of things, but he isn’t one to use stupid plans.”

The lightest twitch of a smile played at the corner of Dean Blaine’s mouth.

“Then I suspect this show has not yet reached the final act.”