Chapter 43

The warehouse that the fraternity had rented was... well, just that. It was a warehouse in the industrial district of Lander that someone had clearly deemed unfit for use, but that someone else (likely someone well-compensated) deemed more than adequate to house hundreds of young bright minds and extensive musical equipment.

Still, none of the partygoers paid much attention to lack of structural integrity. Instead they lined up outside, allowing local police to check their IDs and mark their hands appropriately, then depositing five dollars with the doorman and entering the bass-thumping building already nearly crushed with bodies.

Once inside the aesthetics were slightly better, in the same sense that being chased by a cheetah is slightly better than being chased by a bear because at least you won’t have to run for long from the cheetah. The walls were multi-colored tones of grey and faded white that might as well have been grey, and the concrete floors provided poor acoustical absorption from the massive sound system set up near the rear of the building. Overpriced drink and food carts littered the walls, with a few selling alcoholic beverages to those with unmarked hands, as well as those with marked hands who were willing to pay double under the table. Near these concession areas stood a smattering of tables and chairs, though most of the warehouse was dedicated to room for the young ones to dance and mingle. It was a scene that anyone with culture and sense would dub a new level of hell.

“This place is awesome!” Vince cried out, the others nodding in agreement as they holed up at one of the few open tables and took a moment to collect their bearings. “I can’t believe they can finance this whole party with just five bucks per person. That’s really nice of them.”

“I’d say less nice, more intelligent,” Will corrected.

“How so?” Vince asked.

In response Will pointed to an area of the warehouse where a small section of couches had been set up and roped off. Sitting on these plush seats were a collections of males in costume, as well as a rotating selection of females entering and leaving.

“This is the best place to go for all of us underage students and they know it. So know they’ve got access to hundreds of young girls, away from home for the first time and looking to spread their wings of experimentation. On top of that, they’re in positions of power in this small one-building kingdom, able to expel people at will. It’s a sweet setup when you think about it,” Will explained.

“That seems a bit underhanded when you point it out,” Vince said.

“War is hell, and mating is the greatest war any man will ever fight,” Will shot back.

“Besides, what do you care who gets first crack at the girls with self-esteem and daddy issues? You’ve got your own dysfunctional lady right here,” Sasha jumped in, putting her hand on Vince’s knee and squeezing gently.

“That’s great for you two, but some of us need to work a room to know who we’re taking home tonight,” Roy said, rising from the table and locating the nearest vendor with alcohol. It might have been Vince’s imagination, but he could have sworn Roy shot Mary a questioning look before setting out on his own. Even stranger, though, was that he was almost positive she responded to his gaze with a small affirmative nod. He shook it off as a mere misinterpretation as Roy began weaving his way through the crowd, not unsurprisingly drawing looks of admiration from many of the female attendees.

“I hate to say it, but he has a point,” Alex said. “This seems like a great opportunity to meet some new girls; hell, that’s part of why I came. I just wish Hershel were here, too.”

“Trust me, he wouldn’t be much help in that department,” Nick told him. “Besides, I’ll come wing for you. Chicks totally dig the shades.”

“Thanks,” Alex said sincerely. “I’ve had a little trouble getting into my groove up here. It’s harder to snag a date than it was in high school.”

“You just gotta get confident, buddy,” Nick assured. “That’s all any lady wants.”

“You’re probably right,” Alex agreed, rising to his feet with Nick following suit. “I guess the biggest difference is I never had to try before. I mean, back then, everyone knew about my... extraordinary talents, so most of the girls were always hitting on me.”

“Being regular sucks,” Nick agreed, throwing an arms around Alex’s shoulders and dragging him off into the crowd. “Let’s try my extraordinary talent. I call it ‘lying’.”

“What about you guys?” Vince asked the remainder of the table once Nick and Alex had departed.

“I have a girlfriend back home,” Will told him. “And my understanding of college courtship says it is traditional for the women to wait for a man to make the first move on them.”

“Shitty, but true,” Jill confirmed. “So you two are just stuck with us.”

“Oh assballs,” Sasha swore.

“Geez, did you want to be alone that bad?” Alice asked.

“Huh? Oh, no, no. Not that. Sorry,” Sasha said. “I just realized I forgot my chapstick in Alice’s car.”

“I’ll go get it,” Vince volunteered. “Alice, you want to come with or just have me use the keys?”

In response Alice pulled out her keys and slid them across the table with a light jingling sound. “I understand the need for protected lips, but my ass is settled and getting up in this outfit is an ordeal just to keep myself covered.”

“Thanks, Alice,” Sasha said, snagging the keys and handing them to Vince. “And thank you, my big strong knight.”

Vince accepted the keys and her praise with a sheepish grin, then got up and began fighting his way against the current to exit the building. It took some doing, but he finally reached the other side of the entrance, confirmed with the doorman he would just be exiting to retrieve something from the car, and made his way into the parking lot.

The October air was surprisingly refreshing after the small amount of time he’d spent sweltering inside the warehouse. He made his way down the street, savoring the sweet crispness and realizing how much he missed being outdoors on nights like these. He’d adapted so quickly to living in one place and sleeping indoors all the time, yet as his feet slapped against the pavement, a small wave of nostalgia crashed against him. Maybe he would see what sort of camping options Lander had nearby. He was sure at least of a few of his friends would be interested in spending a night among the trees.

If Vince had been a bit more focused on the task at hand and a bit less lost in his haze of memories and potential plans for the future, it’s entirely possible he would have heard the figure sneaking up behind him in time to react. That was not the case, however, and so as Vince rounded the side-street to the parking lot where Alice’s car was located, he felt a blast of freezing energy smash against his lower back, frosting over his legs and sticking him in place. The next blast hit his upper back, locking his arms and reinforcing the restriction on his torso.

“You’d think a guy like you would learn to watch his back,” said Michael’s all-too-familiar-by-this-point voice.

“S-S-S-orry,” Vince chattered though his rapidly cooling jaw. “I d-d-on’t think lik-k-ke a c-c-coward.”

“I’ve gotten really sick of that mouth of yours, Sucker Punch,” Michael sneered as he circled around to Vince’s front. Vince snorted a laugh out through the cold and Michael’s eyes narrowed. “What’s so funny?”

“Ir-rony,” Vince answered, slowly letting his reserve of heat pour out all over his body, melting the ice on contact with his skin.

“I’m glad you got a good chuckle,” Michael taunted. “See, I figured something out about you. You might be a good fighter, but you’re weak as shit. All you had was one punch when we fought. So even if you’ve got a little fire in you, I’m betting if I wrap you in ice ten inches thick you won’t be able to burn your way out of it.”

“You b-b-bet wrong,” Vince lied, trying valiantly to keep the rush of fear off of his face.

“Could be,” Michael agreed. “Let’s find out.”