Chapter 281

                No pressure. That was the phrase Alice kept repeating to herself as she stepped into the combat cell. After a field and a mock-city, she’d finally drawn a more boring, straightforward combat arena. It was bigger than the usual cells, about twice the size with tall ceilings that she absolutely intended to use. Conrad could manipulate something in the ground, rocks or dirt or something, so Alice’s best chance was to stay airborne the whole time. In theory, it should be a pretty straightforward fight. But in theory, Chad should also be her opponent. That was what she’d been expecting if she made it this far, and the idea had been daunting enough. Now she had to defeat the man who’d beaten Chad, a task several degrees harder because she hadn’t been fighting with or against Conrad during the past four years.

                But no pressure, right? Alice took a deep breath, steadying her nerves as Conrad stepped out from his entrance, a door that closed behind him. Sure, no pressure, except the eyes of every Hero in attendance, all the students who were already out, and her friends who were pinning Lander’s hopes on her victory. Because if she didn’t pull this off, it came down to Vince or Shane, neither of whom could easily avoid the floor falling out from under them, especially not if Conrad was fast enough to also change the spots where they jumped to.

                Alice blocked all that out. It was ancillary information, unrelated to her task at hand. She had to be at the top of her game for this. Ready, smart, and above all else: calm. Conrad fought intelligently, he’d neutralized one of Lander’s biggest threats without a single punch. If Alice wanted to win this one, she had to be able to think and adapt on the fly. So she ignored the stares, and the expectations, and the hopes on her shoulders. Or tried to, anyway.

                “For our first match of the semi-finals, please introduce yourselves,” Victor called.

                “Conrad Booker. I’m a Control major, and my Hero name is Seismic.”

                “Nice to meet you Conrad. I’m Alice Adair, Subtlety major and future owner of the Hero name Legacy.”

                As soon as the words were spoken, the whole air between them grew tense. This was unlike the earlier matches, where a sense of mystery accompanied the start of a fight as opponents tried to figure out what the other could do. Both Alice and Conrad had put cards on the table. He knew she could fly, and she knew he could change the ground. There would be a brief window, just at the start, where she was easily in range. This match kicked off with a race that had the potential to end the fight before it even properly got going.

                “Very well, the first match of the semi-finals begins, now!”

                The ground didn’t fall away from Alice at all, in fact it did quite the opposite. Hands made of rock shot up, reaching for Alice’s arms and legs, trying to pull her down. A single one would probably be strong enough to keep her grounded, and from there it would be a simple matter of pulling her into the floor just like Chad. Even worse, the damn hands were fast. So quick, in fact, that if Alice had been trying to fly away they would have easily caught her. But Alice wasn’t trying to fly off at all. She was still standing there, staring at Conrad, not moving a muscle.

                There was no warning, no taunt. One second the hands were nearly to her, the next they were slamming to the ground violently, no longer able to hold themselves up. Trying to keep her from getting airborne was the smart move, the trouble was that Alice could also figure out those smart moves, and how to counter them. Eyes still locked on Conrad, she rose up from the floor, positioning herself twenty feet in the air, halfway to the ceiling, putting as much room between her body and any source of rock or stone as possible.

                “I get it now. Gravity control. I had my suspicions after hearing about your last match, but that proves it. Incredible, really. And with a mind smart enough to handle a Subtlety major as well. One thing I must say about Lander, they clearly sent us their very best.” As he spoke, Alice noticed that the floor was moving again, this time around Conrad himself. It shot up his legs, forming around his whole body. Smart, he’d locked himself to the floor, meaning she couldn’t send him pinballing around the room. It was a similar move to what Thomas had pulled during their mid-year exam. That was the trouble in fighting others with environmental powers, they were used to thinking of how to control a battlefield. “But you should know, Sizemore also sent those with their sights set on victory. I’m glad it went this way, though. A semi-finals with three Lander students and just me. Imagine the respect people will have for Sizemore when I defeat the best Lander has to offer.”

                “Bit of a chatterbox, aren’t you?” While Conrad was going on, Alice had chosen her next move. There was no point in not showing off now, so she decided it was best to just try and end this quickly. With a burst of focus, she increased the gravity around Conrad. Using as much as she had on the rock-hands would be dangerous, but she could make him too heavy to stand, even with the coating of stone. Once he was struggling to move and his focus was broken, it would be a short matter of tweaking the gravity amount until he was completely paralyzed. It felt somewhat fitting to beat him by holding him helpless, just like Conrad had trapped Chad.

                The sound of rocks’ scraping echoed through the air as Conrad, completely engulfed in his suit of rubble, fell forward, landing at an awkward squat with his feet still rooted to the floor. He still managed to look up at her, that rock covered face somehow managing to produce an eerie version of a smile. “No. I’m not.”

                From above, two stones fired out of the ceiling, directly toward Alice’s torso. It was an incredible shot with pinpoint accuracy; obviously Conrad had been lining up the strike while talking to Alice. Pity for him, this wasn’t the first surprise attack Alice had ever dealt with. As the stones approached, much too fast to be dodged, they suddenly veered to the left, going off course and smashing harmlessly against the floor. More burst out of the wall behind her, these fired even harder, but again they suddenly turned, coming nowhere near Alice.

                “Damn you. Creating a field of gravity pushing directly back on anything coming in could be overpowered with enough force, but you’re got a bubble moving everything to a slightly different angle, making sure it never comes near you. The momentum of the rocks becomes the very thing that helps carry them out of the way.” Despite the dire situation, Conrad didn’t seem especially bothered. If anything, he sounded like he was trying to suppress laughter. “I wonder how much it can withstand.”

                Alice increased the gravity around Conrad, unsure of what he meant but damn positive she didn’t want to find out. Instead of driving him further down, however, Conrad’s whole body suddenly cracked and shattered, crumbling to chunks right before her eyes. For a fleeting moment Alice was sure she’d killed him, but seconds later it became clear that Conrad was still very much in this fight.

                All around her, the room began to shake. Cracks appeared through the walls, floors, and ceiling, as soft laughter rang out from within them. The stone was so malleable it rolled like waves, the terrain shifting as spires of stone began to sprout from every surface, the laughter growing steadily louder.

                It wasn’t hard to figure out what happened, Conrad had made her think he was covering himself with a rock suit, when in reality he’d used it as camouflage to slip away into the floor, leaving a stone shell behind. Too bad that in this case knowing wasn’t particularly helpful.

                Conrad’s power had a much larger range than Alice had anticipated, and that was bad. But far, far worse was the fact that he was hiding in the very element he could control, and she’d yet to think of an idea for how to pull him out without killing him.

                Dire as the situation seemed, she still fought to keep her cool, sure that she’d come up with something in a few moments. Unfortunately, just as she was settling her nerves, the entire room attacked her at once.