Chapter 253

                It was the uniforms that they noticed first. They were similar to the ones from Lander, still crisp and white, but with minor stylistic differences. A seam here, a cuff there, small things that wouldn’t have stood out so much to anyone that hadn’t spent four years draped in different colors of their particular version. Only after seeing the other people their age in white, all of them staring back at the four from Lander with a mix of expressions, did they start taking in the rest of the details of the viewing room.

                A massive window, no doubt made of the same reinforced material as the ones in the combat cells, stretched across the back wall. Only darkness lay behind it, concealing whatever secrets dwelled on the other side. Set just above the window were a dozen massive screens, all currently showing the same image: a sixteen point bracket with nothing but school names and a single digit next to each slot. Below the center screen, in front of the dark window, was an area with five boxes set up, each baring the name of an HCP school. Behind each box stood a person that radiated the sort of confidence that spoke to how dangerous they were, be it the woman with green in her hair, the older man with a stone-faced expression, the lady with copper hair and danger in her eyes, or the fellow with a thick mustache barely concealing his smirk. Dean Blaine walked past them, taking a spot behind the Lander box, and it all clicked into place: these were the other HCP deans.

                “Good morning everyone!” The voice was familiar, though it took some of the four longer to place than others. It certainly helped when the speaker stepped out from the crowd into view, microphone in hand. Between his naturally booming tone and the freshly-shaved head, it was hard to forget a man like the Hero once called Bullrush. “For those of you who don’t know, my name is Victor Pakulski, and I’m the Lander alumni who has been asked to MC Intramurals this year. I know I worked with some of you in my Hero days, and plenty more of you when you wanted tickets to an SAA event, so I’ll skip a lengthier introduction and instead put the focus where it should be today: on the students!”

                There was a round of brief, but sincere, applause as all the people in both costumes and normal clothes clapped for the competitors. A few of the students from the other schools looked embarrassed, and one woman gave a grandiose bow that earned her some dirty looks from her classmates.

                “I know time is a precious resource all around, so I won’t waste any of it. Let’s get right to the heart of the matter and kick things off with the drawing of lots.” Victor waved to all the students, pulling them in closer. “Competitors, this is the easiest part of what you’ll be doing today. Just step up to the box with your school’s name on it, pull out one of the numbered balls inside, and show it to your dean, then the crowd. We’ll take care of tracking the rest. Once you’re done, you can step aside so the rest of your class can draw. The only exceptions will be whoever draws the number one balls from Lander, Korman, West Private, and Sizemore. Your matches are the first two up, which means as soon as those are drawn we’ll have someone from the DVA take you down to a prep room so you can get ready.”

                When Victor finally paused, the students felt the stares of the crowd and realized they were supposed to be moving. Going as quickly as they could, each lined up in front of their respective boxes and prepared to test their luck.

*             *             *

                “This feels excessive.” Nick didn’t look away as he spoke, keeping his eyes trained on Ralph Chapman’s as instructed. “Do you really think I’d manipulate the ethereal forces of fortune just to give my friends an easier set of matches? Besides, Blaine is down there, so what could I even do?”

                Ralph was staring at Nick from across the tiny office, barely permitting himself to blink. “I think you’d sabotage every other school with knives and poison if you believed it would give your friends even the slightest edge, so using luck is more than on the table. And I have no doubt you’ve calculated the exact area that Blaine can affect so that you could move slightly out of range. Once I get word that the drawing is done, then we can head down to watch the fights. But even then, you stay near Blaine and keep your eyes visible. Bringing you down is bad enough, you do not want the kind of trouble that would come from accusations of cheating at Intramurals.”

                “If you’re smart enough to cheat well, no one will even notice.” Nick had little hope that this line of conversation would change Ralph’s mind, it was merely a way to kill time until they could head down. “You’re also overlooking something important.”

                “I deeply suspect I’ll regret asking, but what’s that?”

                Without taking his eyes from Ralph, Nick pulled a deck of cards from his pocket and began to absent-mindedly shuffle them. “They don’t need my help in the first place. Those four can handle things on their own.”

*             *             *

                “And Lander’s number one ball has finally been drawn!” Victor had a knack for working a crowd, they were starting to discover. He’d been making the announcements with varying degrees of intensity, but with this revelation he upped the energy substantially, and everyone watching seemed to follow him. A few even let out applause or small shouts. Who knew what kind of reactions he’d be able to get when the fighting finally came.

                “That means the first match of Intramurals has been locked in. Chad Taylor of Lander versus Brenda Sellers of Korman. Both of you, head to the prep rooms to gear up, calm down, and do whatever you need to come out swinging. Once the other slots are set we’ll draw your match terrain, but that’s going to be a surprise you get to experience when you face each other. Until we see you again, stay focused!”

                Victor’s voice faded as DVA agents took both Chad and a woman with short hair out of the viewing room, out a side door that no doubt led down some stairs. The rest of Lander looked at each other, and at the numbered balls in their hands. Alice had drawn number two, while Vince got number three and Shane held number four. Although none of them said it out loud, there was a sense of relief at the way things had worked out.

                Nobody knew if going first would be helpful or a disadvantage, but if they’d been given the choice they’d have all elected to put Chad in the slot. Whether it helped or hindered, if any of them could deal with the pressure of being the first fight at Intramurals, it was Chad Taylor.