Chapter 274

                If Vince had been nervous about the first fight, he was bordering on skittish for the second. Not only had he gotten a very real reminder of how even the best of the class could lose, but by the accounts he could gather Lucinda had handily crushed her first opponent. Although Grave Robber had been strong, he let the chip on his shoulder about Lander’s reputation slightly cloud his judgement, and that had opened up opportunities. If Lucinda was really on top of her game, Vince couldn’t count on the same advantage. So far in the second round of fights Chad had lost and Alice had shown off her real power to the crowd. Between the two, Vince would rather be in Alice’s shoes than Chad’s, so he was entering this fight ready to give whatever it took.

                They were in a large area, rocky, open terrain without any grass or landscaping. No fake sky, but a ceiling much higher than in a normal combat cell. Everything was bigger, in fact. The whole thing sort of looked like a battered reproduction of a colosseum. It occurred to Vince that maybe not every battlefield here was designed specifically for Intramurals, maybe some of these were just old Lander training grounds that had been repurposed to the task.

                Across the terrain, his opponent stepped into view. She didn’t bother waiting for Victor, signaling Vince with a theatrical wave. “Hey there! I’m Lucinda Cherry, Control major, and my code name will be Slow Burn.”

                “Vince Reynolds, Close Combat major. Still no name picked out yet.”

                “Sure, what’s the rush, graduation is only a few weeks away. Can’t imagine you’ll need a Hero name anytime soon.” While her tone was playful, there was something dangerous in the half-smile that hung lazily off her face. Without fully understanding why, Vince shifted his footing, mentally preparing for defense. His instincts were screaming that she was dangerous, and with so much on the line Vince couldn’t risk ignoring them.

                The crackle of the speaker sounded slightly annoyed, somehow. “Since you both jumped ahead of the script, we may as well go ahead and start the match. This fight begins now!”

                Lucinda’s hands both rose up instantly, and she met Vince’s eyes for a split-second. “Sorry, but I heard you’re strong. That means I can’t take any chances.”

                Twin blasts of fire roared away from her fists, surging through the air toward Vince. He readied himself to dodge, with absorption in his back-pocket if he was too slow, but five feet from impact the fireballs suddenly exploded outward wrapping around and engulfing Vince in a perfect cone of flame. Five feet away on all sides the fires burned, his body sweating instantly from the sudden influx of heat. Lucinda was corralling him, cutting off Vince’s vision so he couldn’t shoot and overheating him until he passed out. It was a sound strategy for non-lethal subjugation, but there was a flaw in showing off this kind of technique. To have this level of control meant that the only thing she could be was a fire manipulator, and Vince was more than capable of dealing with that.

                The flames vanished as Vince quickly pulled them in, clearing his vision to reveal Lucinda looking slightly surprised. Not quite the shock and devastation he was expecting, but after four years of HCP training keeping a poker face was somewhat expected. They had locked eyes again, and this time it was Vince’s turn to apologize.

                “Sorry to you, too. That’s a great power. It really is. And you’ve clearly got amazing control over it. This whole match is really unfair, I just happened to be the perfect counter to your ability. I wish I felt better about this win, but I’m afraid I can’t afford to lose.”

                In the time he’d bought by talking, Vince had shuffled slightly over and lined up his shot. He’d had to give away his absorption ability, however the trade was well worth it. One bolt of lightning and this would be over, a step closer to the finals. Raising his arm with a quick, practiced motion, Vince sent a surge of electricity blasting across the battlefield toward Lucinda. He was expecting her to dodge, which he would follow-up with another set of shots wherever she landed, or maybe she would shoot back, not that the fireballs would be fast enough.

                What Vince was not prepared for was his lightning bolt to travel ten feet before igniting a tremendous blast of fire. It was so much, so hot and so fast, that Vince was knocked backward, barely managing to stay on his feet. How… she could conjure flames away from her body too? And use them defensively? It didn’t seem possible, but the force of the explosion had been perfect, just enough to knock him off-balance and hurt without risking serious damage. It had to be Lucinda, he just didn’t understand how. Was she really fast enough to block lightning?

                “Absorber, right? I had my suspicions after I caught the end of your last fight, but it wasn’t until you stole my fire that I knew for sure. You’ve got a lot of variety, I’ll give you that. Problem is, it looks like you’re also vulnerable when attacking. Seems almost like a stalemate, doesn’t it?”

                Vince staggered slightly, finding his footing. He was breathing hard, even though he’d barely moved so far in the fight. That blast must have taken more out of him than he realized. Except, that didn’t make any sense. Vince was used to fighting and taking injury, all without losing a step. He’d spent four years in HCP training, there was no way he should already be short of breath. None of this made sense. Why was he panting? How was she blocking his attacks? For that matter, why was she standing there talking instead of pressing her advantage? There had to be an answer. Or at least a tactic he could use to buy time. Something in the arsenal, kinetic, electric, fire-

                It was hard to say what made everything click. A combination of forces and information slamming together at once, aided by the intuition Vince was trying harder to listen to. But the instant it did, Vince understood. He knew Lucinda’s trick, and what he had to do next.

                Leaning back, Vince blasted himself up into the air, high as he could go without risking a hit to the ceiling. As he flew, he took the deepest breaths possible before ultimately slamming back down to the ground and absorbing his own impact. Lucinda had moved position to something slightly more defensive as he flew, but she resumed her aggressive posture once he landed.

                “Damn. I thought I was going to be able to sell this for at least a few more matches.”

                “If it was anything else, you might have,” Vince said. “But fire was my first energy to really control. I know it better than any of the others, and I have a good understanding of how it works. Plus, I know my body, and there’s no way I was actually worn out yet. You should have waited a little longer to make it seem natural.”

                “Like I said, I heard you were strong and didn’t want to take chances. Neat trick you pulled there, credit where it’s due.” Lucinda had lifted her hands once more, with a careful aim at Vince. “Think you can pull it off again?”

                Truthfully, Vince wasn’t sure. Hanging in the air like that left him vulnerable, and if she attacked when he landed then Vince would have to choose between absorbing the fire or the kinetic energy. But he was going to have to think of something, fast. Already the air around him was shifting. It was so subtle that it would be impossible to notice if one wasn’t looking for the change. That was part of what made her so dangerous, with the chatter and the fire, it was easy to fall for Lucinda’s bluff. Because while she was a manipulator, it wasn’t fire she had domain over. No, she was something much worse.

                Lucinda Cherry was an oxygen manipulator.

 

Since a lot of people seem oddly concerned about this: Yes, I know how oxygen and flammability works. Everyone take a deep breath (pun intended) and relax, you'll learn more about how Lucinda pulls this off soon.