She was beyond bloody. Cuts ran across her fair skin, savage rips in her flesh that had been made by tooth and claw rather than something as precise as a scalpel. There was blood. There was so much blood. Vince wouldn’t have believed anyone could be alive after losing so much, but she was still moving, motioning him towards her as words desperately tried to escape her damaged throat. He moved in slowly, carefully brushing aside a tangle of dark curls. A few strands of pale blonde hair fell away. When he remembered this discontinuity, it would cause him many nights of sleeplessness as he tried to puzzle out its meaning. That would come later; right now, there was only her.
Her... and the wretched sound of growling from the shadows that surrounded them.
* * *
Team One rushed forward, they could already see some of their competitors edging into the clearing. If Vince registered movement from any source, it didn’t show on his face. His eyes were laser-focused on the depository, his lips moving slightly, as if he were engaged in a conversation with the metal box.
“What the hell did you do to him?” Mary asked yet again as they sprinted.
“The long and short of it is, I freed him,” Nick replied. He would have been slowed by having to lug along Rich, but thankfully Roy pitched in and helped heft the prisoner as they ran. “He won’t see any of us as human; he won’t even register what’s going on. He sees the box as something he’ll want to protect with his life, and he’ll see anyone coming toward it as something intent on harming it. Well, except us. He should register us as allies.”
“So, do you know what it is he’s seeing the box as?” Camille asked, using all the subtly as she could, which was clearly very little.
“Rich only conjures concepts. Vince’s mind will fill in the details. It’s more effective that way than if we tried to guess what would get his motor running.”
“Right, and why exactly is Rich helping us again?” Roy asked.
“I’m a powerful motivator.”
“Cryptic as that is, I don’t see the point in any of this,” Alice said, able to speak more easily since she was coasting through the air rather than dashing across the ground. “Why go to all the trouble? We could have tried to stop people from depositing their orbs without brain-jacking Vince.”
Nick and Mary exchanged a quick glance. They hadn’t told the others about her talk with Globe, and now sure as hell wasn’t the time to bring it up. Mary nodded, almost imperceptibly, and Nick took the cue.
“Call it a hunch. It’s no secret that Vince’s recently uncovered parental origin put him at risk to be cut from this program.” That actually came as a surprise to several members of the team; however, they stayed silent and allowed Nick to continue. “Vince’s biggest weakness has always been himself. His goodness. He’s afraid of hurting his opponents, so he holds back. Sometimes it’s on purpose, sometimes it’s unconsciously. Either way, he can’t afford it this time. If Vince is ever going to show those people watching how strong he really is, then this is the moment for it. All I did was try and set up a scenario with the greatest chance of him doing that.”
“Still seems like a lot of effort for a minimal change,” Alice remarked.
“Wait until you see the change before you assess how minimal it is,” Nick replied.
“I’m on board,” Roy said. “So do we go over and help?”
“No. Vince needs to hold the line up there by himself. What we need to do is hold back as many as we can so they don’t converge and overwhelm him,” Nick explained. “Alice will lay down gravity fields to pin the weaker or dumber ones. Roy, you bat cleanup and knock away what you’re able to. Alex and Mary will try and make sure none of the long-range people are able to land a shot on him. Camille will stay with me since I’m largely helpless and will be lugging along a hostage. As for my job, I’ll be laying down as much luck as I can to give him an edge.”
“If we do all of that then won’t we be stopping the others before they can get to Vince?” Roy pointed out.
“Not possible,” Mary told him. “There are too many opponents with too much strength. At best we can slow some of them down. The truly strong ones will get through regardless.”
“Precisely,” Nick agreed. That was, in truth, a calculated piece of his plan. Vince needed to show off, and he needed to do it against students with high rankings for it to matter. There was also another reason Nick only wanted the strongest of their class to make it to Vince. Nick had a very high opinion of what Vince could do when letting loose, yet Globe had specifically said that none of them had the true measure of Vince’s power. That had been a message for Nick, telling him that his estimates were off. He didn’t know that he quite believed the mysterious villain, but it would be folly to not take into account the possibility that he was right. That was the real reason Nick wanted to keep the weaker students away from Vince.
Because, if Globe was right, there was a very real risk that Vince might kill someone.
Nick was snapped out of his reverie by the sound of a loud horn being broadcast through the arena. All at once, the red light that had been shining down on the depository turned blue. The five minutes window had started. Game on.
* * *
Her voice was a rasp, a whisper on the winds of impending death. She was so broken, so bloody, yet she reached up and carefully took his hand in her own. Her fingers were slick with blood, all of it her own.
“Vince... they’re coming back for me. Get away. Run.”
Something in his stomach twisted. A cold sensation he’d felt only once before began to seep through his brain. The world started dissolving. All his uncertainties, all his fears, all his concerns melted away from thought. All that remained was the girl. The girl, and the monsters that had done this to her.
From all around a hideous belting sound filled the air. The beasts in the shadows clacked their jaws together in hunger. Vince didn’t know what they were saying, but he understood that the sound had been a signal.
She pawed at him desperately. “They’re... coming.”
She was right; he could already hear their movements. They were drawing closer, but there was still some distance to cover. That was good. That gave him space to work in.
Vince leaned in and tenderly kissed her forehead, his mouth filling with the taste of copper.
“Don’t be afraid. I’ll protect you. I promise.”
He rose and faced the wall of shadows, out of which the twisted creatures had begun to emerge. They were coming all right, and coming fast. That was fine with Vince. Let them come. Let the bastards who had done this make the mistake of drawing close to him. He reached down within himself and felt the energy stored there.
Let them come. Vince was ready to show them what a true monster was.