Chapter 269

                Chad had to miss Shane’s match, not that he was especially worried. His support of the shadow-wielder during selection hadn’t been mere friendship or bluster. Although Shane didn’t know how close it had been a few times, there were fights where he’d pushed Chad to the limit and nearly secured a victory. There was no one from the class Chad would rather have on his Intramurals team than Shane DeSoto. His victory was considered a forgone conclusion to Chad, even as he reminded himself not to allow complacency in his own fight.

                Odds were strong that this wouldn’t be a long bout. Although Chad had been getting a post-match exam when his opponent fought the first time, his enhanced hearing had allowed him to pick up some amount of discussion. From the whispers, it seemed he’d be facing off against a strongman, a male student who had shrugged off several attacks and laid his enemy out with only a few punches. It should, in theory, be a straightforward slugfest. However, Chad had also noted that none of the people from Sizemore were the ones doing the chatting. If the students from his opponent’s own school were staying that quiet, it hinted that perhaps not all of the tricks had been revealed yet. That was to be expected, they were only in the second round of fights, but Chad wasn’t taking any needless chances.

                “You’ve both been through this before, so you know it’s time for introductions.”

                Victor’s voice echoed off the empty walls, apparently Chad had drawn a boring combat cell again. Fifty feet away, Chad’s hook-nosed opponent took a step forward and spoke. “Conrad Booker. Control major. Hero name: Seismic.”

                “Chad Taylor. Close Combat major. My Hero name is Intra.”

                There was a flicker of recognition in Conrad’s eyes, he’d have been getting prepped during Chad’s first match but his team had probably told him about the legacy name. Victor’s voice crackled once more and announced that the match had begun, which was all Chad needed to hear.

                Since he’d shown off his speed in the first fight, there was no reason not to use it now. If he held back on the things they knew he could do, it would only show that he had other techniques he leaned on and could pull out in a moment’s notice. Better to limit their expectations and hope to catch them by surprise. Besides, between the name and the Control major, it sounded like Conrad probably had some ranged skills to go with his ability to shrug off damage. The sooner Chad could bring the fight into close quarters, the better a chance he stood.

                He bolted forward, quickly closing the gap as Conrad stood there, staring calmly. There was something in that expression he didn’t trust, and Chad ran a touch faster, eager to get the real fight started. There was no warning between steps, one foot slammed into the stone floor and shoved off with ease, the next swept down into nothingness, unable to find, of all things, the ground. A glance down showed Chad why: the floor had pulled inward, creating a rapidly expanding crater that left him nowhere to land a foot. With nothing to kick off of, Chad was simply carried forward by his momentum, momentarily helpless in midair. As he tumbled, the crater expanded, turning ten feet wide and deepening so that Chad continued to fall. By the time he finally landed, it had turned into a makeshift pit that Conrad was staring down into. The moment Chad felt his body hit something, he was ready, kicking off hard to jump his way back to the surface. Bones were also growing at a rapid pace, poking through his skin so he’d be able to extend them and find footing even if the ground fell away again.

                Unfortunately, Conrad was apparently doing more than just hanging around up there. The hole in the pit had sealed completely shut before Chad could reach it, not that he planned on letting such an inconvenience slow him down. With a powerful punch, Chad fractured the stone ceiling, only to watch in horror as the cracks instantly repaired themselves. Conrad had some kind of rock-manipulation ability, it was the only thing that explained this, and he was healing the pit as Chad damaged it. A good idea, true, but it assumed Chad couldn’t break through in one blow. That was a mistake. Rearing back, Chad allowed a set of bone spikes to form at the end of his knuckles and threw a punch he’d have never risked on a human.

                It worked, in that his arm tore through the ceiling, revealing the light of the cell once more. It was substantially less successful in the sense that no sooner had Chad punched through than the rest of the ceiling reformed around his arm, locking him in place. Although he wouldn’t have heard it with normal ears, Chad could just make out Conrad saying two words as the ceiling sealed around his arm.

                “Caught you.”

                All around Chad, the walls closed in, encasing his whole body. Bone blades were pushed further and he struggled against the shifting stone, but with his arm momentarily caught and the attack coming from all sides, it was impossible to pull away or dodge properly. It only took seconds for Chad to be almost entirely encased, the lone exception being his head, which began to see light once more. He was rising, the very ground that had trapped him pushing him to the surface, only now with his entire body encased and a large slab directly in front of his face, blocking his sight.

                “You’ll have to forgive the face-plate. It’s probably overkill, but after hearing a rumor that you were the top of Lander’s class, I can’t risk you revealing some sort of eye-blast or spitting technique. I’m never one to take pointless chances. That’s how I’ve stayed at the top of Sizemore all these years.”

                Chad strained with all he had, pushing his muscles to the limit. Flecks of rock fell away as he cracked his tomb, but the progress was healed within seconds. He needed to break through all of it at once if he wanted his freedom. The problem was, Chad was starting to wonder if he had enough raw strength to pull it off. Roy could have done it, without a doubt, but his raw power was much higher. Still, Chad had faith in his body, he’d spent a lifetime working on and fine-tuning it, if he put everything he had into an escape effort, he was sure he could burst free.

                More struggling, and more reforming cracks, yet Chad didn’t despair. He felt like he was making progress, getting better and cracking through, just a little more strength in the right places and-

                “Three minutes have elapsed, and Chad Taylor remains bound. That means Conrad Booker of Sizemore has won this match!”

                Even as Victor’s words rang out, Chad continued to fight. That couldn’t be real. There was… there had to still be time. It was only the second match of Intramurals, it was impossible that he was already out. The faceplate fell away revealing Conrad still standing in the same place he had at the start of the match, not so much as a single step taken.

                “I know from experience that guys like you hate losing to traps, but take it as a sign of respect. Your reputation is something fierce, so I didn’t want to deal with you in close range.” Conrad seemed to notice that Chad was still fighting to get free, and slowly took a step away. “Don’t take this poorly, but I think I’ll have that break apart once I’m out of the cell. You look like you need a minute.”

                With that, Conrad turned and walked away. Chad paid him little attention, fighting to get free until he finally felt the stone tomb crumble and give way. Once he was out, he took two giant steps forward, shaking off the dust and rubble. There was nothing to do, though. No one to fight. Much as he hadn’t wanted to accept it, the match was already done.

                His fists balled up so tightly that his fingers were turning white; Chad lowered his head and walked toward the exit. There was nothing else for him to do here.