Chapter 174

                “Congratulations to all of our Intramurals competitors.” Dean Blaine clapped his hands, retaking control and attention from Alice, who demurely stepped back without protest. “There will be some extra meetings as we draw closer to the event, but for now you just need to keep the impending competition in mind as you train. Your classmates have trusted you to represent them, as well as our institution as a whole. Don’t take that trust lightly.”

                One of the gym doors opened, and Professor Pendleton appeared alongside Professor Fletcher, the two of them wheeling in a chalkboard, trying not to bang it against the doorway and failing multiple times. No one actually looked directly at them, keeping their vision on Dean Blaine, however more than a few students were scanning for details using their peripheral vision.

                “Now then, while I am impressed by the deductive assessments and choices you all made without knowing the new ranks, the unveiling is a necessary part of your education,” Dean Blaine said. “Remember, those of you with low combat rankings are not necessarily out for graduation, we take into account far more than brute force. However, if combat is the primary Hero skill you bring to the table, this is an important factor to take into account. Those of you who are placed highly should prepare to defend your spots, because the others will try to rise to the challenge. Those of you with low ranks, you have one semester left. Whether you try to raise your combat skill or pursue other avenues to round out your Hero arsenal is up to you, but now is the time to pick a plan and push with all you’ve got.”

                Professor Pendleton and Professor Fletcher arrived, the chalkboard’s blank side facing the students. They looked to Dean Blaine, who gave a brief nod. At his signal they flipped the board over, revealing the new rankings on the other side as the dean continued his speech. “Everyone, please take five minutes to note your rank, as well as the ranks of your classmates. You can speak to your teachers if you need help understanding any changes, but until then we still have your gym session.”

                There was no pushing or shoving to see the chalkboard, such tactics weren’t necessary. There were so few of them left now, it was easy for everyone to gather up around the rank listings. So many who’d been there gone, whittled down to these few, who would be even less in number when the end came. And here, written in chalk, was their best hint to whether or not they would be among the final count. While most were hunting for their own rank above all else, there was one major shift in the overall rankings that everyone took near immediate note of.

                “Congratulations,” Chad said, clapping Shane on the back. “You pulled ahead. Don’t expect me to give up on taking that spot back, but you definitely deserve it more after that last trial.”

                Sure enough, Shane DeSoto had overtaken Chad Taylor for the number one combat rank in the class. Chad, meanwhile, had fallen into the number two position. It was still a close race, but for the first time since this class began someone other than Chad was standing at the top of the heap. It was a stark reminder that no one, not even the seemingly unbeatable Chad, was safe in their position.

                For his part, Shane just stared at the board for a long while. His hands flexed, clenching into fists, and then relaxing slowly. Several times it looked like he might speak, but when he finally did it wasn’t a boisterous yelp of celebration like most were expecting. Instead, he sounded subdued, perhaps even a little sad. “Last year, Angela beat me at something we’d spent our lives competing for, and then turned down the prize. I couldn’t understand it at the time, why put in so much work if she didn’t even want it? She told me that it was because winning, getting what she wanted, it was all hollow if she didn’t earn that victory. It took me a while, but I finally get it. This is what she didn’t want to feel.”

                “You put on an excellent showing,” Chad told him. “You and Alex beat a professor.”

                “Maybe so, but only because you sacrificed yourself to give us the chance, not to mention helped out even while unconscious.” Shane turned from the board to look Chad in the eye. “I don’t count this as a victory. It’s not the way I want to surpass you. End of year rankings, that’s where we settle things. Bring everything you’ve got to Intramurals, because when the dust settles I’ll be in the number one spot. And that time, I’ll deserve it.”

                “As I see it, you deserve it now. But I welcome your challenge, as I always have.” Chad smiled, and Shane mirrored the expression. It had taken some time for them to balance their competitiveness alongside their friendship; however, once they found stability it had only served to make their bond stronger.

                Roy stepped over, looking past their heads. “At least you moved, Shane. More than three years I’ve been doing this shit, and I’m still at number five. Getting passed up now, too. Though I can’t say I’ve got much ground to protest either of those rankings.”

                The students Roy was talking about, numbers three and four on the chalkboard, were standing next to each other, looking at the rankings with a bit of shock. More than a few whispers were surrounding them as Alice leaned over to Vince. “Is that really right? Did I go from number eleven to number four? I thought they took past performance into account with these.”

                “The performances you’re talking about are well in the past. If you hadn’t been starting from so low, you may well have overtaken the top spots. Given how well you did, I’m actually amazed I stayed above you,” Vince replied. He hadn’t been sure where he’d end up in the grand scheme of things, but not only had he held his position, he’d actually risen by a rank, turning into the class’s number three. There was no question in his mind that the shift was largely due to Mary’s departure, since she’d opened up a new position near the top. Still, progress was progress, and he was glad to see it. Like Roy, combat was all Vince had. If he wanted to graduate, he needed to be among the best.

                “Huh.” Alex was noting his own rank, which had him in spot number eight; the first time he’d ever cracked the top ten. “Has anyone else noticed that, without knowing we were doing it, we picked the top four ranks for Intramurals?”

                “Oh shit, you’re right,” Violet said. “Chad, Shane, Vince, and Alice. What does that mean?”

                “It means that you have demonstrated exceptional skill in assessing one another, and yourselves,” Dean Blaine answered, despite the question not being directed toward him. “I’ve presided over many of these selection discussions, and very rarely do the students show such wisdom in their choices. Usually, this is a moment of reckoning where they realize their alliances and rivalries caused them to vote against the class’s overall interest, but you all have proven yourselves exemplary yet again.”

                Dean Blaine walked to the chalkboard and flipped it back over, showing them the blank side once more. “But all of that is in the past as of now. You know where you stand, now turn your attention to where you want to go. There’s only a few months left, and you have lots of training to do. So everyone take a five minute stretch and then be ready to run. It’s time to get started.”