Chapter 280

                No speech this time. No call to arms or promises of glory. It would have been wasted seconds and pointless words. These people knew what they were here for, knew what awaited them if they succeeded. Wealth. Not money, wealth. The kind that would change their lives, and their family’s lives, for generations down. Charles Adair had spared no expense, especially not on this part of his security. Ten trained Supers, each strong enough to be considered a viable threat on their own, plus every guard with a half-decent power that hadn’t run for the hills already. That was who was waiting for Crispin when he appeared in the room.

                Wordlessly, he set a hand on each of them, activating his ability and increasing the capacity of their powers. Crispin liked to see it as bringing out their true strength, showing them the best that they could be. The fact that they actually couldn’t be this powerful without him was a detail Crispin chose to overlook. It didn’t fit with the philosophy he espoused, so it was cast aside. One by one he went down the line, until every Super present had felt his touch. Crispin turned to the man in the suit, expecting to be teleported out somewhere safe.

                “This was just the first batch, the ones that are going to come in behind and give our intruders trouble. Next we take you deep down, to where our forces are going to hold the line. That’s where you’ll stay until this is all over. Protected by the people you enhanced, and easy to grab if we need your help again.”

                “And what if the line gives, these intruders break through your defenses?” Crispin asked.

                “Then I imagine they won’t be too happy to see you. Seems like excellent motivation to give everyone you touch as much help as you possibly can.”

                “Crafty. I expected as much,” Crispin admitted. “Not like I had much of a choice, though.”

                “There’s always a choice. You could have stayed safe in your cell, but you wanted freedom. Freedom comes with risk and danger, part of the package. But making sure an asset we acquire performs at peak efficiency, that’s just good business sense.” The man turned from Crispin to address the rest of the room. “You all have your orders. Just remember, your families will receive extremely generous compensation packages if you die in battle, but they get nothing if you run and we have to kill you later. Keep that in mind, in case your willpower starts to fade.”

                With that done, he took Crispin roughly by the wrist. “Now then, let’s get you down there before it’s too late to make a difference.” The two men vanished, leaving behind a room of amplified, highly motivated mercenaries, all with one single goal:

                Stop Globe and his team, no matter what.

*             *             *

                The med checks were getting quicker. Shane suspected that was because the doctors were growing more accustomed to assessing his mind for post-battle issues, since the physical healing was as speedy as ever. Not that he needed much, aside from the rubber bullet to the forearm he’d barely been struck in the last fight. Lesley had come out even better, she’d avoided every attack so thoroughly that she didn’t even have a small cut to deal with. Fast as they were, Shane was still surprised when he stepped back into the viewing room and found the next fight hadn’t started yet. Thankfully Dean Blaine was waiting for him at the entrance.

                “We’re taking short breaks between bouts now that we’ve reached the semi-finals. Not long, but enough time for everyone to watch the fights before theirs. It gives people a chance to hit the bathroom or grab a snack, plus makes sure you all have a fair amount of information to work with for the final match. Over the years, we found that doing it this way makes sure that the last match is as balanced as possible, and that makes it more interesting for the Heroes to watch.”

                “Good, I was a little worried I wouldn’t get to see the guy who beat Chad. Speaking of, how’s he doing?”

                “Better, but this will require time to mend. You know he’s not a man to take defeat lightly, especially not with stakes like these. I do think that is helping, though.” Dean Blaine nodded across the room, where Shane realized Chad was standing. It was understandable that he’d missed his friend, since Chad was currently under an assault of affection from a tall blonde woman who obviously had no sense of shame or decorum.

                “Well, she made it after all.” Shane wasn’t entirely sure if he was happy or annoyed that Angela had shown up, most likely some combination of the two. That was the nature of their dynamic, and probably always would be to some extent. But as long as the happy outweighed the annoyed, they could make it work. He’d barely formed those thoughts when someone whispered to Angela, who whipped her head around and spotted Shane across the room.

                Without a moment’s pause or hesitation she bounded over and wrapped Shane in a strong hug. “Holy shit! Little brother, that was a hell of a fight. I actually thought she had you on the ropes a few times.”

                “Please, you think I’m going to let you be the only DeSoto who gets to say they won Intramurals? I came here to make it all the way.” Shane paused, remembering there was a practical issue he needed to sort out quickly. “Wait, who won between Vince and the fire-woman?”

                “Oxygen manipulator, actually,” Graham DeSoto interrupted, having quietly made his way over to his grandchildren during the chaos that was Angela. “And she was defeated by Vince Reynolds. You’ll be facing him in the next match. Alice and Conrad have already gone to the prep rooms to prepare for their fight, which should be starting any minute now.”

                Quickly doing the math, Shane realized that if Vince won, that meant everyone other than Lander students and Conrad were out of the running. On the surface, that seemed like a great victory for his class, but one glance around the room gave away the issue. Lander was already seen as a bit full of itself, thanks to the reputation they had with the public of churning out more well-known Heroes. Whether they perpetuated the myth or not, it was a reputation that hung on its students’ shoulders, and now they’d just wiped every other school from the tournament while losing only one of their own.

                Almost every student in that room, and some of the Heroes, were pulling for Conrad to win. Not all out of malice or anger, but simply because they wanted to root for the underdog over the apparent dynasty. Lander was the dominant force, the one with students consistently hiding how strong they really were. Even if the feelings of the crowd changed nothing, it was still a strange sensation to stand there, aware that nearly every eye on him was hoping he would lose.

                Angela wrapped an arm around Shane’s shoulder and pulled him close, whispering into his ear. “This is the view from the top of the mountain, little brother. This is what it means to be the best. Even the people who love you, hate you just a bit.”

                “Any suggestions?” Shane whispered back.

                “Yeah. Never give them what they want. Stay here, on top. Stay the best. Because they don’t have to love you, they just have to trust that when shit gets real, you’re someone they can call on. Respect that you’ve earned is better than mindless adoration. So when your turn comes, go out there and show them why you’re a man to be respected.”