Chapter 12

“Gaaaaah!” Vince cried as he was knocked back across the field, his small body rolling in the grass before coming to a stop.

“How many times do I have to tell you? Learn their timing and adjust your own to fit into their defensive gaps. Most people fight with patterns and that’s all they know. If you can flow through those patterns, they won’t even be able to see how you’re hitting them, let alone find a way to block you,” said a tall, dark-haired man in a tattered red coat.

“Sorry... Father,” Vince squeezed out as he gasped for air. His father’s last punch had knocked the breath out of him. He was used to it, though, and would recover quickly. Father didn’t hold back when teaching him how to fight, because no one Vince ever went up against would be holding back either.

“You’re getting better, Vince,” Father encouraged. “You landed two punches onto my arms that time before you fell into your own rhythm.”

Vince managed to pull himself to his feet. Small and slight at eight years old and wearing ragged clothing, the only thing remarkable about the boy standing in the field was his tousled silver hair. That, and the look of determination screaming out his soft blue eyes.

“How do I keep from falling into my rhythm?” Vince asked.

“Simple,” Father replied. “Don’t have one.”

“I don’t know how,” Vince admitted. Father never chastised him for admitting ignorance, saying it was the only way for Vince to find his weak spots and grow stronger.

“It’s not something that’s easy,” Father explained. “You have to be able to adapt to your opponent’s style, to work in a way that is the most detrimental to them. The only way to achieve it is through proper training and a variety of skilled opponents. However, you have a slight advantage in this area.”

“What’s that?” Vince asked curiously.

“Your power is that of absorption. You can deal in all different types of energies; that means that your core nature is an adaptive one,” Father said. “You were built to handle all kinds of different challenges, so I have faith you’ll be able to learn how to fight without a form.”

“How does my ability factor in?” Vince asked harshly. “I can’t even control it unless you’re around.”

“Just because you can’t control it doesn’t mean it doesn’t say a lot about you,” Father pointed out. “Now, the train will be pulling out in two hours, so if want to jump on a car we only have an hour and a half left. Do you want to spend it whining, or do you want to spend it training?”

Vince took a deep breath, making sure he had fully recovered from the blow to his stomach and losing his wind. He hadn’t, but it was good enough for the moment.

“Training,” Vince said with a grin.

*          *          *

Ten years later found Vince charging across partially-frozen concrete, ducking blue blast blows as they flew toward him, making a beeline for his enemy as he put all of Father’s training into use. Vince knew Michael’s pattern and knew that any freezing attack would have to be concluded in a two-punch combo. More than that and Michael needed a breath. Vince also knew that while Michael’s style so far had been long range, the way he held himself and threw his blasts were indicative of someone comfortable with close range fighting. Michael definitely had training, and from the way he had been attacking, Vince was betting it was in boxing.

Vince sidestepped another blast as he circled, closing the gap between himself and Michael. It was harder to dodge the closer Vince got, but he’d learned to dodge boxing blows at close combat range; there was no way a punch with a lag time was going to hit him. The problem would be that once Vince closed the gap entirely, he wouldn’t be able to take a single one of Michael’s punches or this match would be all over. Normally he could just count on his practice taking blows to let him work through the pain, but getting frozen solid wasn’t something you could grit your teeth and push through.

Then, all at once, Vince realized he was in range to actually strike back and every cohesive thought was gone from his mind. All he saw was his opponent’s movements, feeling the pattern that Michael wove to take down his prey. Vince flowed around Michael, using footwork to keep Michael from being able to get off a clean shot. At the same time Vince began lightly throwing his own punches. Mere taps at first, easy to recover from for both parties. Vince wasn’t trying to do damage: he was trying to see how Michael blocked. The more soft blows Michael avoided, the surer Vince was that Michael’s training was in boxing, which told Vince exactly how to take him off guard.

Vince slid to Michael’s side and threw a left directly at Michael’s face. Michael blocked it immediately, rearing back his own left to deliver an ice punch to Vince’s face. He never got the chance, though, as Vince followed the momentum of the punch through with a hard knee to Michael’s ribs. Without stopping, Vince used the force to push himself around to Michael’s back, out of range of his frozen fists, and deliver a right-handed blow to same spot on the ribs he had struck with his knee. Vince was preparing to let fly a punch to the back of Michael’s head when the ground beneath his feet suddenly went slick.

Vince backed away quickly, getting on to a part of the concrete that offered more traction at the sacrifice of his position behind Michael. This had obviously been Michael’s plan - he must have punched the ground to steal Vince’s footing - but Vince had no other option besides playing into it.

“I can’t believe it,” Michael said. “All that fucking running and it turns out you have some decent hand-to-hand skills. I’ll admit I did not see that coming.”

Vince noticed Michael was talking but not punching. Maybe he was foggy from the blows, but Vince doubted it. More likely he had either realized he couldn’t hit Vince at this range, or he was trying to lure Vince into relaxing and letting his guard down.

“Of all the things I expected today, using this on someone who hasn’t even shown me their power wasn’t one of them,” Michael said. His tone was casual but his eyes were hard. Vince had embarrassed him, and it was very clear Michael did not take kindly to that. “You got in some good shots, Vince, but that won’t work on me anymore.”

As he spoke, Michael’s body seemed to grow blue. After a second Vince realized that ice was forming over Michael’s frame, cracking and fissuring as it went to allow movement, while thickening to protect what was underneath. It seemed to take no time until Michael was almost totally covered in his ice armor. Vince could still make out his eyes through a pair of slits, but there was no way he was going to find a vulnerable chunk of Michael’s flesh to pound on this time.

“You did pretty good for being as weak as you are,” Michael goaded. “But I want you to see what a real warrior looks like. I’m going to be the number one ranked in this class, because no one is as powerful as me!” Michael tilted back his armored head and laughed, unconcerned about his worthless opponent as he stood in the invincible protection his ice offered him.

The moment Michael’s head was back, Vince began charging forward. He’d made it halfway there when Michael noticed his headlong sprint.

“You think this is for show? Or are you so dumb you really think you can punch through several inches of ice?” Michael asked, taking his stance once again as Vince drew closer.

Vince never slowed down for an instant, running right up to Michael and stopping on his left foot, letting the speed carry his right forward into a powerful side kick. Michael moved to block it, but the foot drew back a few inches before it would have struck the armor around his arm. Vince kept spinning, though, pulling off a complete three-sixty before planting his right down and launching forward on it. Michael realized that Vince was still carrying most the momentum from the run in his body, and that he was cocked back to throw a punch right at Michael’s face. It took everything Michael had not to laugh at this sad, determined idiot. So Vince wanted to break his own hand just trying to land a blow on Michael? Well, that was just fine by Michael’s standards; he knew how powerful his ice was. Michael didn’t even make a motion to block. Let Vince give it his all and fail miserably.

Vince kept moving forward, stopping just short of bouncing into Michael’s chest and throwing the rest of his momentum into his right fist, just as Michael had expected. Vince furrowed his brow in concentration; he would have to time this just right. Vince’s punch soared upward, on a dead track for Michael’s jaw. A fraction of a second before it hit, though, to Michael’s tremendous surprise, a fireball roared forth from the clenched fist, striking the icy covering an instant before Vince’s flesh.

Black and white spots flashed in front of Michael’s eyes as he landed on his back. He couldn’t understand it. Vince had hurled a fireball to melt and weaken his armor before the punch connected, that much was obvious. But if Vince had that sort of power, why had he played defensive for so long? One thing was certain; Michael was done taking it easy on this kid.

Michael rose to his feet, reinforcing the area around his chin that Vince’s fire had melted. Michael had no banter or sass this time, only unadulterated hatred in his eyes for the boy who had put him on his back.

“Crap,” Vince said from the same spot he had knocked Michael back. “I was really hoping that would put you down for the count.”

“It didn’t,” Michael replied.