Chapter 184

Many of the students would one day look back at this day, their final match of sophomore year, as the moment when they finally understood what it was they were aspiring toward. The matches they’d had previously, while difficult, had been controlled by their very nature. There were always safeguards, always rules, always a set number of variables to be accounted for. In the last five minutes of their match, none of that was true. It was their first taste of true battle. There was no order, no simple objectives. There was only chaos, and fear, and violence.

And fire. All of them would remember that quite clearly. There was so very much fire.

*    *    *

Sasha held back until the first wave of people crashed together, Roy in the center smacking away bodies like yappy dogs at his feet. She waited because she was smart, because she knew the real action was up at the area marked by the blue beam, with her ex-boyfriend impersonating a bonfire just in front of it. Sasha didn’t know what was going on with him, but it didn’t matter. Chad had their orb; all she needed to do was intercept any other team’s depositor who looked like they might get past Vince. She needed to reposition herself, so once the initial fray began she took off from her hiding place.

Sasha was only running for a couple of seconds when she felt her legs give out from under her. She crashed heavily to the ground, the pain slapping across her body far worse than it should have been from a mere fall. She was tough, she was a speeder; she didn’t get hurt from simple tumbles. With great effort she pulled herself up onto her elbows, only to fall right back down. It was insane; it was like something was pulling her down, like her body weighed hundreds of pounds. Remembering her team’s match with Team One, she searched her limited field of vision for Mary, certain she was the cause of her sudden immobility. There was no sign of her, not that it would have mattered if there had been. Sasha’s real problem, and the problem of many students similarly sprawled across the ground, was floating twenty feet overhead, fist clenched in concentration.

*    *    *

Stella made it past Roy’s ruckus and steered clear of the areas where everyone seemed to have become forcibly enamored with studying the grass. The burning ground licked at her feet, but it wasn’t hot enough to melt her metal body so it was easily ignorable. She didn’t have her team’s orb - that had been entrusted to Amber and Tiffani - however, she wasn’t certain those two would be able to approach with Vince laying down random blasts of fire. They could move without being seen or heard; that didn’t mean they were immune to heat stroke or sudden incineration. As if on cue, Vince lanced the ground with twin blasts of fire, one from each palm, narrowly missing Hector and Allen. Damn, Vince was not fucking around: he’d really been trying to hit them.

Her pace quickened. He might have a great offense, but once she got in close, Vince had no chance. She just needed to make it another dozen feet or so. A bit of ground gave way beneath her weight and her eyes flickered away from her target, only for a moment. It was long enough to miss the attack, not that it would have made any difference.

Stella’s body went limp and her brain became useless as a barrage of electricity coursed through her. For all the protection her metallic form offered against the fire, it left her more vulnerable to attacks that could be measured in voltage. Her consciousness faded away, though not before she felt a foot step on top of her for the briefest of instants. Someone had been running behind her, using her as cover. There were a few candidates to pull off such a ballsy maneuver, but she had a hunch it was one in particular. Stella greeted the unconscious world with a smile on her lips. At least her efforts hadn’t been for nothing.

*    *    *

Mary mentally knocked a marble the size of a sedan back at Terrance, who hurriedly dodged out of the way. Checking to be sure the coast was clear, she hustled to the depository and placed her team’s orb inside. She’d circled around to approach from the rear, thankful Nick had programmed Vince’s delusion to see them as allies. Briefly she wondered how they appeared to him. Occasionally she would peek at his thoughts, but they were convoluted and wild; it was hard to get more than general impressions of what he was seeing. One thing she did know: however he was viewing their competitors, it was not favorably.

Vince jerked at a sudden noise and let fly a bolt of electricity directly into Stella’s torso. Strange, he had only used fire until now, but he changed tactics exactly as he should have against his opponent. Mary wondered if he was still able to discern their abilities through the haze of his hallucination. She might have investigated, but at that moment she noticed something that had escaped her attention before: Chad had been running behind Stella during her ascent, using her loud approach and attention-gathering nature to hide his own assault. When the metal girl went down, he never broke stride, stepping directly on her as he continued to approach.

For the briefest of moments Mary was tempted to intervene. Chad was incredibly powerful, no doubt about that, but at this range she still had a good chance of sending him sailing away. Mary readied herself to let fly with a telekinetic blast, then stopped. He might be able to dodge, just as he was avoiding the fireballs Vince was hurling at him. Beyond that, Nick had said all they were doing was pushing back the weaker students so Vince could face the strong ones. If ever there was a chance for Vince to prove himself, it was against Chad Taylor. Mary redirected her focus toward the rest of the students working toward their direction. She needed to keep them at bay.

If Vince was going up against Chad, he was going to need every last bit of concentration he could muster.