Chapter 132

                Professor Pendleton had once told his senior class that as a Subtlety Hero, there was often an expectation to see a hundred moves ahead. To know every plot, scheme, and trap the opponents had prepared and be ready to counter them all. He’d then gone on to explain that this was, of course, fucking idiocy. No one could actually plan for every possible scenario or know the schemes of all potential opponents. However, the fact that it was untrue didn’t mean that as Subtlety Heroes they shouldn’t play into the expectation. Not for the sake of their teammates, who would know better, but rather for their enemies. Being seen as all-knowing was a useful reputation to have.

                Alice wasn’t sure how she was going to bluff her way out of this situation, unfortunately. From pretty much all angles, it was obvious that she’d stepped right into one hell of a trap. The orange energy glowed along every surface, disorienting her as she searched for the areas that were concealing exits. Even if she knew where to escape to, it wasn’t as though she had worked out how to pull it off yet. Thomas’s plan was a good one. Scary good, in some ways. After lagging behind the rest of the others in growth for a while, he’d hit upon a technique no one else could pull off: total territorial domination. Everything in this hall belonged to Thomas, coated in his damned energy and completely under his control.

                Dipping low, Alice barely dodged a fist that swung out from the ceiling toward her. Two more hands reached out from the wall, causing Alice to veer more toward the center of the hallway. She’d only just realized that she was being herded when a half-dozen orange tendrils shot out from Thomas’s hand and tried to wrap around her. Darting through the air, Alice backpedaled and avoided them momentarily, but the effort had driven her closer to the walls and therefore left her vulnerable.

                It had been a long time since Alice had been on the ropes like this, between her flight and gravitational skills there were precious few threats she couldn’t handle from a distance. But she had been pushed into a corner before, and she’d never forgotten how much she hated it. The panic, the fear, the sense of being useless. That was why she’d undertaken her summer training with Roy and Mary. Because sometimes, she couldn’t fling an opponent through the air, and in moments like that she needed raw power as much as finesse.

                Sliding away from the wall, Alice glanced over at the glowing orange form of Thomas. So far as she could tell, the suit of energy was covering every inch of him, bonding his feet to the ground and keeping his body propped up. While she could theoretically turn up the gravity around him until it was too strong for his energy to support, depending on the amount of power it took he might die the moment his suit of protection failed. Against a real villain, an undesirable but potentially necessary move. Against a fellow student, however, that would be far too dicey to risk. Luckily, Alice did have other options. It was just too bad for Thomas that there were going to hurt like hell.

                “Hey Thomas, just a quick heads up.” Alice spoke even as she wove her way through more limbs striking out at her from the ceiling. One caught her shoulder, imparting a powerful blow that she could feel start bruising immediately. “When you feel something start to give, please surrender. I don’t want to hurt you anymore than I have to.”

                “Your concern is noted and your warning is heard,” Thomas said. “But don’t presume victory just yet. You aren’t the only one with tricks up your sleeve.”

                Alice struck then, because she knew she had to. While the exact form of what Thomas was doing was yet to be seen, she knew he was preparing for a large assault. If she didn’t take this opportunity, there very well might not be another. As she narrowed her focus, carefully examining every curve and angle of his energy coated form to assess where parts of his body were, the world around her sprang to life. Dozens of hands surged from the walls, floors, and ceiling, surrounding her instantly. There was no way to dodge, no chance at escape. Some detached part of her was floored that Thomas could create so many pseudo-limbs at once. He really had come a long way since freshman year. But then again, so had she.

                The glowing hands grabbed her arms and legs, yet Alice didn’t try to avoid them. This was no longer a match of dexterity, it was one of focus. The victor would be whoever had the greater concentration… and perhaps the ability to fight through pain. Keeping her attention at the area where Alice imagined Thomas’s ankles had to be, she let loose another fluctuation of gravity. This time the area was tightly contained, everything was happening within Thomas’s skin. Twin forces suddenly manifested, pulling with extreme power in opposite directions, one slightly higher up than the other. With enough force, Alice could theoretically sheer bones in half or rip limbs clean off, although she’d never actually attempted such a tactic. Today was no exception either. Alice didn’t need to break a bone, not when joints were already much easier targets.

                In the chaos around her, Alice couldn’t actually hear the ligaments tear or the joints dislocate, but she did notice the hands around her slow down. Good a sign as that was, with no call of surrender from Thomas she didn’t pause to presume victory. That proved to be a smart call, as moments later the orange arms redoubled their efforts. Inhumanly strong hands tightened their grips, until it felt like they were holding her by the bones. Some began to pull her limbs back, trying to put her into a submission hold. It struck her that in a sense, she and Thomas were using the same strategy, just going about it different ways.

                Her right arm snapped at the same time she dislocated Thomas’s knees. Both of them screamed that time, and the orange walls seemed to warp and ripple. No doubt about it, Alice was weakening his concentration. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as though she were free of trouble herself. It was taking everything she had, and perhaps a bit more, to continue trying to focus on warping the gravity around Thomas’s body. Everything else had fallen away, she hardly even remembered why they were fighting, or what they were doing down here in the first place. All she could think of, all she could see, was victory.

                Then her left leg broke, and Alice nearly bit her tongue by accident as her jaw tightened. One more… one more and she’d probably lose focus from the pain. But not yet. She could still hit him again. Even if it was nothing more than a parting final shot, Alice refused to go down without getting in another strike. Blocking out the pain as best she could, Alice glared down at that damn orange body, which had to be the only thing keeping Thomas upright, and created one last burst of warped gravity.

                There was no scream as Thomas’s legs dislocated from his pelvis, which seemed strange until Alice noticed the pressure holding her immediately lessen. All around her, the orange energy was fading, leaving her once again cloaked in shadows as the darkness returned. Thomas was the last source of light, and as his body covering flickered out he seemed to tumble over. On instinct, Alice slowed his descent, so he landed lightly rather than cracking his skull against the concrete.

                “You passed out from the pain, didn’t you?” She lowered herself carefully to the ground, never actually making contact. Part of this was out of caution, just in case he was playing possum, but it was also due to the fact that her snapped left leg wasn’t going to hold her weight. “Credit where it’s due: you never did give up.”

                With Thomas out, that gave her three points. She’d been hoping for more, but given these injuries Alice had to face the possibility that she might lack the focus to win another. Still, the trial wasn’t done yet, so it was worth trying.

                If nothing else, she liked to think she’d put on a hell of a showing for a Subtlety major.