Chapter 282

                Massive spikes of stone shot forth from the walls, ceiling, and floor, several on a crash course with Alice. Worse, they stayed rooted to their sources, so the damn things would be able to power through her gravity defense field. It had been designed for projectiles, not aspiring mountains, and Alice wasn’t sure how much it would even take to knock something so huge askew.

                For once, Alice found herself glad she’d spent the early part of her HCP career unable to do anything but fly. While it had tremendously limited her capabilities in terms of offense, the one benefit to being airborne and useless was that Alice had learned to dodge like a mother fucker. She zipped through the air, nimbly avoiding the rising obstacles as they tried to get close. Already, she could see the rock-hands forming on the sides of the spires, hands that would grab her if she drew near. Alice had assumed that she might be able to break out from a stone prison with strong enough opposing gravity shoving the rocks away from her body, but that had been before she saw how much stone Conrad could manipulate. It was insane, he must have been born with an amazing talent and then worked his ass off for years to have this level of control. Conrad wasn’t just strong, or dangerous. He was overwhelming, the very idea of fighting him felt like trying to box a force of nature.

                Alice couldn’t help but wonder if this was what it felt like for the others to fight some of Lander’s best. If so, then she had a great deal of empathy for them, but she didn’t want to share in the same fate. Conrad had an amazing power, there was no doubt about it. The thing was, Alice controlled a fundamental force of the god damned universe. She wasn’t going out that easy.

                Still zipping around, doing her best to keep distance, Alice began to create new gravity fields. These were just like the ones she used to break limbs, two forces pulling strongly in opposite directions. Only Alice wasn’t going after something as meager as bones. The first spire snapped within seconds, falling off a wall and crashing heavily to the floor. It went easier than she expected, maybe all of the shifting and reforming of the stones was leaving them weakened. More soon followed as Alice turned her focus, breaking each spire at the base and making sure to steer clear of the raining debris. Conrad might have been able to fill the whole cell with obstacles, but in less than a minute Alice had torn them all down.

                The laughter, she noticed, had also stopped. Maybe he’d been trying to play mind games, maybe he’d just been tickled at the idea of getting to finally cut loose. She could understand that, fighting in Intramurals was like tying your own hand behind your back. So much constant measuring of what should be revealed versus how to win; there was a sense of relief to simply being able to fight full-out. Plus, judging from the fact that Conrad was the only Sizemore student left, it seemed like a fair bet no one in his class had been able to properly challenge him in a long while.

                “A fight that comes down to multi-tasking. Not how I saw it going, but I’m not complaining. You’re really giving me a chance to show what the best of Sizemore is capable of.” Conrad’s voice seemed to exist as an echo now, coming from several directions at once. When she squinted, Alice could see small holes dotting the walls, almost like stone speakers. If Conrad was working this hard to mask where his voice was coming from, then it probably meant he had a reason to hide. There was a chance he couldn’t fully turn into stone, which meant he’d be vulnerable. Maybes and ifs, that was all Alice had at this point. No matter what turned out to be true, she had to draw him out, or this was going to be a fight with her constantly on the defensive.

                Sadly, there wasn’t much time to think about that. The broken spires were all being absorbed into the ground, and several had already started to regrow. Just as Alice was about to knock them down, a blast of rocks came firing at her from the ceiling again, this time managing to graze a leg as they rocketed past. She’d let her projectile defense weaken as she focused on dealing with the spires, and Conrad had just made her pay for that. Quick as she could, Alice recreated it, but while she was distracted the spires continued to form, filling the cell once again.

                More were already forming this time, Conrad had seen her avoid the first wave and was cutting off her mobility. Alice set to snapping them, flying at high speeds as more and more showers of projectile rocks rained down on her, getting steered away by the gravity field. He was attacking on every front, yanking her concentration in multiple different directions, daring her to make so much as a single mistake. But Alice refused to yield. She doubled down on cracking the spires, putting in a few extra seconds of effort to make the ones she broke off come slamming down on other spires, doubling her destructive output. Up and down, left and right, she rocketed through the cell, whipping about and knocking back everything Conrad threw at her. Abilities took effort and energy to use, and something on this scale had to be draining Conrad’s endurance. If she could outlast him, wear him down, then Alice would have a chance at taking the offensive when he rested.

                For a few minutes, it seemed as though the pair had managed to stalemate each other. However, such a balance was impossible to maintain, eventually one of them would make a mistake. As Alice tore through the room, being sure to give the spires ample room so they couldn’t snare her, she ended up briefly near a flat section of a wall. In her dodging, she’d come close to such surfaces before, it was nigh-impossible to avoid them when darting around the spires. But this time, she was just a little slower as she tried to plot her next angle of attack. A little slower, and just close enough that the wall was inside her projectile re-orienting field. A single rock fired off, smashing into the side of Alice’s head and sending her spinning through the air. It wasn’t enough to do serious damage, no stronger than a good punch would have been, but it still broke her concentration. Not for long, not for long at all. It happened, though, and that was the moment Conrad had been waiting for.

                By the time Alice shook the stars from her eyes, it was already too late. Stone hands had reached out from a nearby spire and pulled her in, encasing everything but her head. Alice struggled, trying to snap the spire at its base or create enough gravity to crack open the stone shell holding her. Conrad wasn’t giving her the chance, however. The spire shot back down into the floor, taking Alice with it. Hard as she tried, the pain in her head and overall mental exhaustion was slowing her down, and she wasn’t quite fast enough to break free before being sealed in the ground. She kept fighting, even then, refusing to accept the end. Trying to find a way to break free, to use just the right amount of gravity to crack the stone floor without seriously hurting herself. It was a fierce, valiant effort, just as Chad’s had been. And ultimately, it came to the same result.

                “That is three minutes, meaning Conrad Booker of Sizemore has just won his third match,” Victor announced. “Thank you both for putting on an incredible show, and I think I speak for everyone when I say we can’t wait to see the final bout. Whoever wins this next fight has their work cut out for them. Now off to the medical rooms, both of you.”

                Alice felt the ground shift as her body started to rise, like it was being pushed from below. Across the room, Conrad was doing the same, lifting up from the floor without so much as a scratch or a bruise to show for the entire fight. She did note, however, that he was still quite human. Conrad met Alice’s eyes and gave her a polite nod. “That was an excellent match. I have to say, I thought Chad would be the toughest of you all, since all the rumors indicated he was the best, but you were a much harder challenge. Perhaps Lander should re-evaluate its ranking methodology.”

                “I might have more raw power than Chad, but he’s the most consistent fighter in our entire class. He’s a man you can trust and rely on, no matter the situation, and don’t you dare talk about him like he was a mere stepping stone. You got lucky, Conrad. Your power happened to be a perfect counter to his.” Alice walked forward, shaking off the small bit of dust still clinging to her uniform. “But your information is out of date. Chad lost the top spot earlier this year. So if Shane wins against Vince, you get to fight the current top rank at Lander, and I have a feeling he’s not going down as easily as you might hope.”

                “If he’s the top rank, shouldn’t it be a forgone conclusion that he’ll win?” Conrad pointed out.

                This time, it was Alice that laughed, although there was nothing theatrical or taunting about it. “You’ve been the top of your class since freshman year, haven’t you?”

                Conrad was silent for several seconds, visibly annoyed by her laughter in defeat. “As someone who just witnessed my power, I think you can figure it out on your own.”

                “See, that’s going to be a problem for you. Because at Lander, we’ve all been fighting, clawing, and scraping to get a little bit stronger, to come a hair closer to being the best. We’ve all lost, all felt the pain of being not good enough. You think once the best is done, you’ve got smooth sailing, but in all honesty I don’t even know who the strongest at Lander is anymore.” In truth, Alice really wasn’t sure how effective Vince or Shane could be against a power like stone manipulation. All she knew was that she refused to let him belittle her class. The fight was lost, there was no changing that, but Alice was still a Subtlety major. She could put a touch of fear into him, if nothing else.

                Alice kept walking, going right up to, and then past, Conrad as she headed for the exit.  “But whichever one of them is still left will be coming for you with everything they’ve got. Rest up, Conrad. Your hardest fight of this tournament has yet to come.”