Shane knocked on Michael’s door again. He and Chad waited patiently for a few moments before Shane turned around.
“Still no answer.”
“I’m aware,” Chad said.
“That’s weird, though, right? Michael has his crap, but the guy never flakes on training.”
Chad shrugged with the casual apathy Shane had grown accustomed to. “Pressure makes some people better, it makes some people break. Maybe he couldn’t take it.”
“I guess. That just doesn’t seem like him,” Shane said.
“Yes, because Michael has shown such excellent coping mechanisms throughout the year,” Chad replied.
“Never this bad, though,” Shane pointed out.
“That’s why it is called escalation,” Chad told him. “Look, he isn’t picking up his cell and I can hear through the walls that he isn’t in there. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s off doing some special training on his own. In the meantime, you and I have only a few days left.”
Shane started to protest, then thought better of it. Michael had barely shown up for three days of training throughout the two weeks, and he’d been distracted each time. Shane considered Michael a friend, but whatever was going on, it was apparent Michael wasn’t going to share. So Shane needed to focus on making sure he was at his peak when test time came.
“Okay,” Shane agreed. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
* * *
Vince released a blast of heat into the concrete wall, creating a focused pillar of flame between himself and the boundary. In the corner of the training room was an ever growing pile of Sterno cans, adding an even more decrepit ambiance to the seared room. Vince had been training down here for most of his two weeks, stopping only for study, tests, food, and more fire. He’d worked hard with his heat, trying new blast patterns and ranged techniques. He’d focused on close combat as well, driving up the temperature around him to near intolerable levels for any human who passed through it. His body was sore, sweat poured from him constantly, and some of his muscles felt like a bat had been taken to them.
Vince couldn’t remember a time he’d felt better. He released the bolt of flame from the wall and cupped his hands. Between his palms a fireball formed, swirled about until he threw his arms forward. The fireball launched into the wall and spread across it, leaving a swath of fresh scorches in its path.
Vince paused to pick a new target area and realized that he was more or less out of clean space to hit. They were going to have to do a hell of a job fixing up this combat room. Then again, Vince had faith there was an efficient process in place for such things; otherwise there was no way this school could function with people like himself in it. He picked up a water bottle at his feet and took a deep drink.
Tomorrow was his down day, the night of the festivities. The day after that was the exam. He still didn’t feel ready, not completely, but Vince had been around the block enough times to know that he never would. He would do the best he could to prepare and then things would just play out. He wouldn’t know if he was ready or not or until it was all over, because that’s when the results would dictate the answer.
In the meantime, Vince still had a few hours before dinner with Sasha. The air around him seemed to be rippling as the temperature was strong-armed upward. The water bottle at his feet began to melt into the grey stone floor. Vince trained his eyes on a heavily scorched section of wall. Well, if he couldn’t measure his progress by marking, he’d have to measure it by melting.
Vince stepped forward and let fly with everything he had.