Chapter 183

The explosion-like sound surprised all of the students, even those who had possessed some inkling of the hallucination occurring in Vince’s brain. In one moment he had been calmly muttering to a steel box, the top of which had twisted open at the sound of the horn. He’d risen slowly and purposefully taken several strides forward. His breathing was even, his eyes were focused, his body was taut with anticipation. It was evident he was calmly awaiting any challengers.

Then came the blast, a tremendous sound that was in fact a thunderclap from the bolt of electricity Vince hurled into the tree line where some of the students were emerging. That smoking ruin was less eye-catching than Vince himself - at least the Vince they could see once their eyes adjusted to sudden increase in light. Vince, or Vince as they knew him, was gone. In his place stood a wraith of fire, a human shape exuding continuous flames from his body. Columns of fire lanced the ground in front of him, creating a charred and burning landscape that would be treacherous even for most of these Supers to cross. Electricity crackled at his fingertips, dancing along his digits in a malicious foxtrot of anticipation. For most that was all they saw. For a poor few with gifts of vision, they were able to catch a glimpse of more. They could pierce the flames and see the face of the young man working to burn the world, and what lay on his visage was nothing that gave them comfort. Vince was not regretful, nor worried, nor fearful of what was to come.

Vince was eager. Furiously eager. He couldn’t wait for them to come closer. The fire was only the beginning. He wanted to show them the rest.

*    *    *

“Sweet fucking Christ,” Roy cursed, ducking instinctively at the loud sound and sudden burst of flame.

“I think that’s our cue,” Nick said, his eyes darting through the field of competitors to gauge their reactions. Most were surprised, some were afraid. A few were stalwart, but cautious. Nick noted the last group particularly. In the end that information wouldn’t make a large difference, but it might make a small one. “You all know what to do.”

“Kick ass until the bell sounds or we’re all knocked out,” Roy surmised, pulling himself back up and dashing off toward a cluster of opponents still recovering their wits.

“I do love his enthusiasm,” Nick remarked.

“He does have spunk,” Alex concurred. He and Mary darted toward Vince; they needed to be close enough to deflect things hurled at him while staying far enough away to avoid his sweeping flame attacks.

“Nick, is this really going to work?” Alice floated a few feet from him, almost close enough to touch. He took his time answering her, pretending to be mulling it over. In truth he already knew what he would say; he was taking this time to stare unabashedly at his blonde dorm mate. She was truly beautiful: he could finally admit that to himself. It wasn’t just the golden hair, the stunning body, or the wide green-eyes. It was her tenacity. Alice had turned from a spoiled princess into a determined warrior, and she’d done it mostly through her own gumption and relentlessness. He admired that. He adored that.

He was going to miss that.

“It will work,” he assured her at last. “At least, if we all do our best, it has a hell of a good shot. That’s all any of us can really hope for.”

Alice nodded her understanding. “I’ll try to keep my gravity fields off you, but I can’t make promises when dealing with this many people in this big of an area. Watch the grass; if it’s bending back on itself, stay clear of that area.” With that, she rose into the air and darted toward the center of the clearing. She would be a sitting duck, but Nick had a feeling most of the people who could bring her down would have their attention focused on Vince.

“Nice speech,” Camille said. They were alone now, save for Rich, who seemed to have decided long ago that silence was his ally in this precarious situation.

“Thank you.”

“One thing I can’t help but notice: you’ve put Vince in a situation where he is using lethal force without hesitation. Don’t you think that might put a damper on his chances of advancing, seeing as it’s an immediate disqualification?”

“It certainly would, were he doing it by choice. But when a man stabs someone, you don’t arrest the knife. That would be senseless. No, all the blame here lies not on the instrument of force, but on the man wielding it.”

“I reached the same conclusion,” Camille admitted softly. “You know, you’re a pretty terrible person.”

“You’re not the first to accuse me of such.”

“I didn’t imagine I would be. Still, in spite of that, or maybe because of it, you’re also a really good friend.”

“On that account,” Nick sighed, “I am nearly certain you are the first to utter such words. Now shush, the other teams have nearly reached our defenders. Once they do, we’ll be in for one heck of a show.”

*    *    *

The observation room, previously filled only with softly whispered comments and observations, was now erupting into a din of noise as the situation below unfolded. Dean Blaine kept his cool; he had seen situations far worse than this one during his long career as a Hero and educator. That said, he also recognized the beginnings of first-class shitstorm when he saw them.

“That boy really put his dick in the beehive now,” muttered Professor Cole from under her cloth wraps. Dean Blaine was inclined to agree, however he kept that particular thought to himself.

“Now, everyone, please settle down. We’re all experienced combatants here; the concept of ‘shock and awe’ is not one that should be new to any of us. What Mr. Reynolds is doing, while unexpected, is a perfectly acceptable tactic in trying to drive off enemy forces.”

“And what are we going to do if it escalates beyond just a show?” Professor Hill asked.

“We’re going to keep the students safe, as we always have,” Dean Blaine replied. “In order to do that we need to keep a close watch on them, however. So I would appreciate it if we could cut the chatter and keep focused on the matter at hand.”

With that, the assembled individuals turned their attention back to the screens.

The sight that greeted them was pure chaos.