After a powerful opening set of matches, slowly but surely the students were beginning to fall. Amber, Britney, and Violet got off a series of exceptional attacks on Professor Stone, but ultimately the woman once known as Emerald Hydra proved to be more than they could handle. Violet was the last to go down, stubbornly manipulating her density with shocking skill as she was pelted with attacks. Eventually, however, she too was knocked unconscious. It had been a good showing though, and that was as much what these trials were about as the actual results. Could a student learn, when backed into a corner? Could they grow, and show that their evolution was not yet complete? Could they prove that they would continue getting stronger after graduation, becoming the sort of Heroes who could carry on for decades?
Many of Dean Blaine’s students had done just that already, and the crowd clearly noticed. But the trial was nearly over, with only six students still in the labyrinth and all save for Mary being somewhat injured there wasn’t much left to go. Yet the crowd stayed focused, because in some ways this was as vital to their evaluation as the first battles. After all, Heroes often went into situations tired, or hurt, or drained in every measure. Seeing who could push through, who could get the job done in spite of battered bodies and broken bones… well, that was as much the measure of a Hero as punching through walls or turning into fog.
Here, at least, Dean Blaine was unworried. Whatever fears he might have had about his students and their abilities, whatever rumors or nicknames might be circulating about the senior class, there was one thing he was unshakably certain on: This was a class with grit. They would fight until they were unable to move.
And even then, they might try to squeeze off a parting shot or two.
* * *
“Mary, Vince, Alice, and Camille. Mary is the closest, with Vince being the second.” Alex opened his eyes, ignoring the small bits of static swimming at the edge of his vision. Between the effort of manipulating all that fog and having his body shocked halfway to unconsciousness, it felt as though his entire head was stuffed full of cotton. Shane appeared to be holding it together well, but Alex could feel the pain radiating off his body. While Shane might act like he was fine, he couldn’t lie to himself, and that was the same as not being able to lie to Alex.
“Please tell me everyone else is at least a little beaten up,” Shane said. It had been his idea to rest and let Alex assess the remaining opponents in the labyrinth. After walking for ten minutes without seeing a soul, they’d both been curious about how many opponents were left. And, though he hadn’t said it out loud, Shane was beginning to wonder if he and Alex were going to have to deal with each other.
Alex nodded. “From what I can tell, Vince and Alice are both in bad shape. Camille and Mary don’t seem to be feeling any pain, though.”
“Well, no surprise from the healer, but I was hoping Mary would be a little roughed up. If she’s still at full-strength, we don’t stand a chance. Maybe if she weren’t a telepath and we could surprise her. As is, she’d know we were coming and lie in wait.”
“Who should it be then?” Alex asked.
“I think… I think it’s time we faced the facts.” Shane took a few steps away from Alex, not assuming an aggressive stance yet, though Alex already knew it was only a few words away. “We’re in pretty similar shape right now. Neither of us can handle another professor, and if we go after other students only one of us would get the points for it. Plus there’s no guarantee we’d even win those matches. Against each other… I’m not sure it’s right to say this is a fair fight, but we are both about the same degree of wounded. If you’re okay with it, we should probably square off.”
“And if I’m not?” Alex actually didn’t mind the idea one bit, he’d expected it would come down to this from the moment he accepted Chad’s invitation. If anything, this was better than he’d hoped for, since he wasn’t fighting Chad as well. He was curious to see what Shane would say if he declined the fight, though.
“Then we go our separate ways,” Shane replied. “As a teammate, temporary or not, we can give one another that courtesy. Walk off, do our own thing, and next time we see one another it’s as opponents. You had my back in there with Professor Pendleton; I’m not going to stab you in yours as thanks.”
“I appreciate that, I really do.” It was Alex’s turn to move, shaking his head in a vain attempt to clear the static and walking several feet away from Shane. He could barely see him in the dim halls of the labyrinth, but he could feel Shane’s existence, his tension, his every movement. “All the same, I think I’d rather have that match right here and now. It feels fitting, in a way. If someone is going to take me down, I think it should be my teammate. Besides, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit curious about who can win under these circumstances.”
Shane smiled in the darkness; already he was mentally shoving away his pain. “Tight quarters, minimal vision, and both of us with moderate injuries. No way around it, this is going to be a quick draw.”
“My thoughts exactly.” With nowhere to run or dodge to, it was going to be a matter of who got their attack off first. Either Alex would grab Shane by the spine or Shane’s shadows would come close enough to score a hypothetical deathblow. “We agree to officially start the match on three?”
“Works for me.” Shane tensed as he began focusing on the myriad of shadows around them. Speed and precision, those were his strengths, the aspects of his ability he trained most diligently. Alex, on the other hand, had spent years working on control and increasing his power. From every conceivable angle, this match was in Shane’s favor, yet Alex said nothing in protest. When he was a Hero, assuming he reached that lofty goal, his fights weren’t going to be fair, or balanced, or carefully monitored. Taking on stronger opponents now was how he’d ready himself for when he faced the same situation later on, only with much more dire stakes.
“One.” Alex’s voice echoed through the nearly empty hall.
“Two.” Shane’s word was barely above a whisper, yet Alex could hear every last syllable and inflection.
“Three.” That time, they spoke together, and as they did both reached out with their minds and powers. Alex could feel the shadows around him springing to life, even as he narrowed his focus. There was no time to be gentle with this; he just had to aim low so as not to disturb any of Shane’s more vital biological processes. Mentally grabbing a cluster of spinal nerves, Alex delivered a swift, careful blow, severing them completely.
He had just enough time to feel a thrill of triumph and hear the gentle thump of Shane falling over before the tips of several shadow blades rested against his neck and chest.
“Death… blow.” Shane’s jaw was clenched involuntarily in pain, but the blades never wavered. Somehow, he’d managed to stay conscious and land the winning attack, even as his back was broken within his skin.
“Damn, I thought I had you, but there’s no denying this would be my death.” Alex raised his hands slowly, and the shadows evaporated from around him. Nearby, a portion of the wall slid open, revealing bright light and a stairway up.
“It was pretty far from a clean win.” Shane tried to pull himself forward on his arms and made it a few feet before pausing to rest. “Guess I’ll have to hope the others stumble upon me.”
A new shadow appeared in the doorway, belonging to a stocky man with a thick mustache. “I’m afraid that’s not going to happen, Mr. DeSoto. While you have been awarded the point for defeating Mr. Griffen, Dr. Moran has also ordered your extraction. An injury like that needs to be examined and treated right away, lest there be any complications.”
“Who the hell are you? And what gives you the right to pull me out? I can still fight,” Shane protested, but his complaints fell on deaf ears as the man walked over and carefully lifted him from the floor.
“I’m Professor Wordsworth, here to help out. And perhaps you could still manage to make a good showing, but I am not in the habit of ignoring the orders of an HCP physician. You shouldn’t allow yourself to be either.” He carried a still complaining Shane into the stairwell, pausing only long enough to glance over his shoulder and make sure Alex was following.
With no other real options, Alex did just that. Three points from a professor and almost beating one of the best fighters in the class. Not a bad day, as he saw it. Not bad at all.