Chapter 275

                “Figured it out yet?” There was a twinkle of wicked joy in Nick’s eyes, making it all the more blatant that he’d understood Lucinda’s true nature before the fight even started.

                “After all that, I think most of the room has put it together,” Alice replied. “Lucinda is manipulating the oxygen around them. She’s got spark-mechanisms on the gloves of her uniform, and she creates hyper-oxygenized trails and pockets for the flames to travel along. At high enough concentrations, even the dust or normally trace amounts of flammable gas in the air could be combustible enough to act as temporary fuel. For the tornado, I’m guessing she was burning the ground and using oxygen to guide the flames. She also put a big wall of concentrated oxygen between her and Vince that first time, which the electricity ignited, breaking his aim and focus with an explosion. And all of that was really just a diversion so she could decrease the oxygen in the air around Vince until he passed out. She is good.”

                Nick was still watching the screen, waiting for the action to resume. “A thinking opponent, one of the most dangerous types to face. Even worse, she’s well-trained. Every movement is precise and practiced; she has been using the perfect amount of force at each turn to be effective without crossing into lethal-danger. She even lowered the oxygen around Vince at a slow pace to ensure there wouldn’t be unpredictable side-effects. I haven’t seen the stats, but I’d wager Lucinda might be the best of her class.”

                “Which brings us to the real question: can Vince win this one? I know what I’d do to try and counter her, but I’m not sure it would work. With Vince, he’s fighting something he can’t absorb and she’s cut off a lot of his fire and electricity ranged options. The orange energy would get through, but he’s slow with it, so she could probably dodge. All he’s got left is kinetic, which means getting in close. That should put him at an advantage; although I can’t shake the feeling she’s got a plan for that.” Alice glanced briefly around the room, to the rest of the students. Round two was showing what people could really do. She wondered how many surprises would be left for round three.

                Absent-mindedly, Nick pulled out the playing cards from his pocket and began to shuffle them. “I genuinely don’t know how this one will shake out. I had some concerns going in, but Vince caught on faster than I expected. Now that he knows what he’s fighting, he has a chance. It’s up to him how much he makes of it.”

*             *             *

                Lucinda didn’t look bothered by her secret being uncovered. If anything, there was a touch of relief in her posture, as though she were glad not to bother with the farce. It wasn’t hard to understand the sense of ease, she was definitely the one running this fight, and had been since it started. She stood there, waiting for Vince to move, content to let him take his time and puzzle it over. Of course, the only reason she was so accommodating was that the longer Vince waited, the greater a chance he’d run low on oxygen and pass out. Already he was panting again, even after the deep gulps of air from above. Time was against him. So was distance, for that matter, since she could make everything Vince shot literally blow up in his face. The only option he had was to get in close. Powerful as she might be, the odds of her having any physical defenses were low. In melee, Vince was an opponent; out here he was just a target.

                “Come on already. We both know where this is going. Only one path to victory.” Lucinda pointed to a patch of ground three feet away. “Trust me, you don’t have time to waste. Better make that play while you’re still conscious.”

                So, Lucinda knew he was going to rush her. Not a great shock, she’d been a step ahead the entire time. It might be a bluff, trying to make him think she had a counter ready so he’d choose another tactic. Or maybe she wanted him to think that so he’d charge in to whatever trap she had planned. Vince spared a few precious seconds to shake his head roughly. This was pointless. He wasn’t going to outthink Lucinda. She was cunning, confident, and capable. But, there was one factor Vince could control. Even if she knew what he was going to do, it didn’t mean she knew how effective he’d be at it. Battles of the mind might not be his forte, but Vince could usually hold his own in duels of the fist.

                Speed was the first priority. A regular charge would just give her time to move, so instead he was going to have to close the gap fast. Leaning back onto one foot, Vince launched himself into a horizontal leap, blasting across the battlefield. He still didn’t have Roy’s aim or control at this, but Vince could make it to a general area. Lucinda was, unsurprisingly, ready for this move. A quick motion of her hands and a spark leapt off, turning quickly into a fireball that roared toward Vince at an incredible pace. It exploded right in front of him, creating a wall of fire he’d have to travel through, however it was Vince’s turn to be prepared. He absorbed the fire in mid-jump, barely switching to kinetic absorption in time to land without snapping an ankle.

                The jump had landed him less than ten feet from Lucinda, who had slightly changed positions. Vince raced toward her, taking a swing as soon as he was in range. To his shock, she nimbly stepped aside, countering with a punch to his stomach. Vince didn’t let the pain distract him as he went for a grab, only to have his hands close on empty air. This was crazy, how was she keeping up in hand-to-hand when he’d been training as a Close Combat major for years? Vince darted away to try and get his bearings, and the truth snapped into place as he staggered for footing.

                “I’m slow. It’s not that you’re fast, I’m just moving slowly because I’m constantly out of breath.”

                “That, and my blood is extra-oxygenated,” Lucinda added. “Think of it like blood-doping, except I can do it myself.”

                Weakening her opponent while strengthening herself, enough to cover for the gaps in skill. Despite how dire his situation was looking, Vince found himself wondering where Lucinda would intern after graduation. She seemed like the kind of Hero he’d like to share a team with.

                “You are… crazy strong.” Vince’s breath was coming in gasps now, those failed swings had cost him dearly. “I love it.”

                “Not too bad yourself. Most people go down by now,” Lucinda replied.

                “Yeah, that’s always been my problem. Too stupid to know when to quit.” Vince steadied himself, trying desperately to think of what he could do. She was keeping perfect control of the oxygen in the battlefield, letting herself breathe while starving him out. That had to require a lot of concentration. He needed to break it, catch her off-guard if only for a second, in hopes of getting more actual air. Absorbing was no good, even if he could get the room cold fast enough all it would do was hinder his own mobility as he suffocated, and none of his offensive energies could punch through her defenses without blowing up. He needed something, anything, to knock her off her feet for a few… that was it. That was his one shot.

                Summoning the last bit of his focus, Vince ran for Lucinda again. He took another half-hearted swing, only to have his right arm caught in a lock, just like he’d expected from someone with so much training. Lucinda twisted, bringing Vince to his knees, his left palm pressed against the ground.

                “Well, a little anti-climactic, but I respect the determination. Since I doubt you want to risk blowing my hands to chuncks with a kinetic blast in front of all these people, how about you give up now, and I don’t have to make you pass out? Or, if you struggle, I’ll break your arm. I’m trying to be fair here, but we are still in a match. Oh, and you’ve got a few high-oxygen pockets right around you, so try shocking me and you’ll light yourself on fire.”

                Vince mumbled something under his breath, drawing Lucinda a few inches nearer. She was keeping a safe distance though, the woman was no fool. It seemed like this was as close as he was going to get. Looking up, Vince repeated himself, this time staring right into Lucinda’s eyes as he did.

                “Jump.”

                The blast of kinetic energy from Vince’s palm tore through the ground at their feet, shattering it into rubble even as Vince was thrown wildly across the cell. Lucinda tumbled to the ground, scrambling back to her feet over the broken floor as fast as she could. It was too late, however. Vince had already earned himself some distance, and a few breaths of air in the process. She’d reestablish control in no time though, and they both knew it.

                “So we’re back to where we started. You over there, me over here, and no way for you to win.” There wasn’t any relaxation in Lucinda’s stance now, she was wary. Vince had taken her by surprise, and that apparently didn’t happen too often.

                “We are back to where we started,” Vince said. “But I don’t know that I agree on that second part. Look around, Lucinda. We’re in an enclosed space. While I’m sure there are vents somewhere, they can only move so much air at a time. You have an incredible ability, one that has clearly been honed through countless hours of practice. All the same, you still only control one element. So, what happens when someone has a gun with no bullets?”

                She took a step back, on the defensive for the first time. “You haven’t absorbed nearly enough fire from me to pull that off. Even if you did, that would still be crazy.”

                “No, but I brought plenty of my own flames. And it is crazy, I’ll give you that.” Vince steadied himself, all too aware of how last-ditch this gambit really was. Even he knew how impossible the task before him was. But that didn’t matter, Vince didn’t actually need to succeed. He just had to make Lucinda think he could. “But we’re the Class of Nightmares. Crazy is what we do.”

                With that, Vince lifted his arms and summoned an inferno.