Chapter 127

                Dealing with Chad in combat was an interesting, oddly nostalgic experience. Although he’d never tell the boy, and Chad probably wouldn’t believe him even if he did, Sean was positive that Joshua hadn’t been this tough a fight in his senior year. While the Hero named Intra had unquestionably grown stronger in the field, as things stood now Chad was ahead of his father in terms of ability, even while fighting unconscious.

                Awake, Chad probably would have been an even larger issue to deal with, and that made Sean Pendleton all the more thankful that he’d semi-neutralized him. Knocked out, Chad was still a handful, striking at Sean relentlessly over and over again. No matter what Sean did, no matter how he moved, Chad was there, followed closely by those damn blades of shadow that kept trying to take a slice of Sean’s flesh the moment he was distracted. If it were a full-on fight, things would have ended almost as soon as they began. Physically, Sean was no match for Chad, conscious or not. The only thing that was keeping the Subtlety Professor in play was his defense: shifting bits of himself to fog every time Shane or Chad landed a blow.

                It was a technique that had been borne of necessity, back in his own HCP days. Turning into a full-blown cloud had been too limiting, at least against his peers, so Sean had needed a way to still be useful even when in a mostly human form. Reactive shifting had been the solution, and while it had taken him years to hone, the technique had saved his life in the field more times than he could count. It was not, however, a perfect strategy. Especially since it left him on the defensive.

                Sean leapt back, trying to put some distance between himself and Chad, only to have the blond senior twist in place and lunge forward. Chad’s hands tried to close around Professor Pendleton’s arms, only to pass harmlessly through like they were made of smoke. Which, in that moment, they were. From the corner of his eye, Sean caught sight of a dark shape flickering toward him. The shadow struck his leg, and it would have severed more than a few tendons if it hadn’t met mere fog rather than flesh. Across the room, Alex was standing motionless, eyes never wavering from Sean no matter how much the professor tried to jump about. He still had the piece of Sean’s spine in his mental grip, the pressure was noticeable even with that section turned to fog, and that was the biggest issue of all.

                Even if he’d worked hard to keep the thought from his mind, lest Alex get a true sense of the situation, Sean was running a bluff. While he could turn sections of his body to smoke and still function, it was incredibly taxing to do so. Flesh and fog weren’t meant to intermingle in such a way, there was a reason he only used a few pieces of his body at a time while in cloud form. Between dealing with Chad and Shane’s assault and keeping his spine misty, Sean’s concentration was slipping. He had more tricks tucked away in his pockets, but much as it pained him to admit, the kids had done a decent job of shoving him into a corner. If only Chad had stayed down, Sean could have dodged Shane’s attacks and turned the tables on Alex. But with the number one rank in the class never letting him get more than a few feet away, Sean was having to give all of himself to just staying in the fight.

                He needed to turn things around. The obvious solution was in reach, he did still have the remote control in his pocket. One quick press of a button and everything would change. Sean could go misty again, and this time he wouldn’t give them time to regroup before taking Alex out of the fight. In a real battle, with life or death on the line, Sean wouldn’t have hesitated to do so. He was a Subtlety Hero, and part of that title meant being willing to win any way he could. However, this wasn’t a real battle, it was just a test. And he hadn’t sunk so low that he would disregard a student’s sacrifice to score a hollow victory.

                Instead, Sean did something no one in the room was expecting. He charged forward, barreling into, and then through, Chad, turning himself into full-fog for a split second and pushing on toward Alex.  If he could just take down the supposed-Jedi, that would regain him control of the match. Sean would have preferred something a little more crafty and dignified than a flat-out sprint, but doing whatever it took to win didn’t always mean double-dealing and tricks. Sometimes it just meant accepting that the classic methods were often the best.

                He’d made it all of ten steps past Chad when he heard the sound of boots on concrete quickly catching up to him. Sean twisted around, ready to defend against whatever attack Chad was preparing to launch. To his surprise, it wasn’t Chad drawing close at all, however. This time, it was Shane who had broken into a sprint. Sean and Shane’s eyes met for a moment, just before the latter launched himself toward Sean’s torso. Of course, what he met was only fog as Shane’s hands clutched about uselessly. Yet he seemed undeterred, and as Sean felt the blow to his knee it wasn’t hard to guess why.

                In the moment of confusion at seeing Shane mount a physical assault, Sean had momentarily taken his eyes off of Chad Taylor. A relatively minor error in other circumstances, but this time it had cost him dearly as he felt his knee splinter and break. Chad had managed to land a kick on Sean’s body, one he wasn’t able to defend against, and it hurt like a son of a bitch.

                Sean was already falling when he saw it, a brief flash of darkness that whipped by his face. That was when he knew. Before the sharp pain in his neck and the slight wetness trickling down to his shoulders. Before Shane’s declaration. That was the moment Sean Pendleton knew he’d lost the match.

                “Deathblow,” Shane said, voice somewhat ragged. He was more out of breath than Sean had noticed; evidently throwing around his power that much took a toll. “I just scratched you on the side of the neck, but if I’d gone deeper I could have slit your throat.”

                “You’ll get no argument from me. That was a clean kill, no question about it. I officially admit defeat to the team of Shane DeSoto and Alex Griffen.” Sean kept an eye on Chad as he spoke, watching to make sure no more attacks came through the dream-filled haze. As soon as he conceded, Chad relaxed, however. With an expression more peaceful than Sean could ever recall seeing on the boy while awake, Chad lowered himself slowly to the ground and went still.

                “I feel like Chad should get some credit too,” Alex said.

                “He made his choice. It wasn’t an easy one, I saw to that, but sacrifices lose their meaning if there aren’t consequences. Don’t worry too much for him, though. Chad already had more than enough on his record to prove he can fight. Today, he proved he could use his head a little, and that he was willing to take one for the team when the occasion called for it.” Professor Pendleton paused, fighting back a fresh wave of pain that he was working tirelessly to keep off his face and out of his voice. “Alex, are you still holding onto my spine? If so, please release the grip.”

                “Whoops, sorry about that, sir.” Alex let out a long breath, then nodded. “You’re free.”

                “Thank you. I need to get to a healer, and I’d much prefer to do that without walking on a broken knee. As for you two, get back into the labyrinth. You might have each gotten three points off me, but you’ll need more than that to secure victory.” With the last order given, Sean shifted his body fully over to mist form and headed for the nearest exit.

                Much as he disliked losing in general, he still felt a measure of pride at what had taken place. Those kids had grown so much since he first saw them in their sophomore year, and Sean liked to think he’d played a small role in it. Maybe he could see why Blaine was so into this teaching thing.