Chapter 55

"So how do you guys know each other?" Vince asked once the ladies had gotten their cups and beer to fill them. Thomas, like Vince, had found the idea of drinking underage not becoming of one reaching for the goal of being a Hero.

"Thomas and I dated for a bit in the first month," Violet said. "It didn't work out too well, but we stayed friends. I met Stella at the gym one day when I was looking for a sparring partner. We gave each other a good workout and decided to do it again the next day. We kept fighting, and somewhere along the way started doing stuff outside of beating each other senseless."

"Wow," Vince said. "So you must be pretty tough if you can fight someone who can turn into solid steel."

"Sort of," Violet admitted, blushing slightly. "I manipulate density. So I can make myself denser than titanium, or so insubstantial that I pass through walls. I can do it in objects, too. That's how I weakened the ice and popped you out that night."

"She's a handful when you get her in the fighting mood," Stella complimented. "She's only one rank behind me at three."

"Impressive," Vince agreed. "And Thomas, you have some sort of energy beams? I saw them when you grabbed Michael."

"Essentially," Thomas nodded. "I command my inner energy outward of my body. It shapes according to my will, though the dimensions are limited by the amount I can summon. In my time at Lander it has grown significantly stronger, though."

"Really? Just from body-breaking exercise?" Vince asked.

"The exercise certainly helps, but I attribute it more to the constant training I do in my off time. Having a variety of skilled opponents forced me to learn to new styles of fighting, and that helped me grow as a warrior subsequently," Thomas explained.

"I see," Vince said. "So it sounds like you spend a lot of time training outside of class."

"We all do," Violet chirped in. "Everyone higher up says it's crazy easy to go from the top to the bottom in your first year if you don't work hard."

"It is especially important in cases like my own," Thomas pointed out. "I am ranked as seven, but my power could easily be viewed as ancillary, more useful as support than combat. I have to work very hard to demonstrate otherwise."

"You've got a leg up on me," Vince said with a smile he didn't feel. "I'm only at eight."

"I'd heard about how you were ranked that high after losing your first bout. You must have put on a hell of a show," Thomas said.

"He took on that douche we pulled off of him. Guess that counts for something," Stella said.

"Not to mention Michael is the worst type of opponent for me," Vince said, only half-defensively. This whole line of conversation was making him realize just how little effort he was putting in compared to some of the other students. He'd been avoiding additional conflict for fear of having to charge up his powers more. That might be a reality he'd have to face sooner than expected if he wanted to keep up with people this determined, though.

"Why is he your worst type?" Violet asked.

"I absorb energy," Vince explained. "Michael’s power is cold-based. Cold is literally the absence of energy, so he can come at me all day and I can't absorb anything he throws."

"Cool power, though," Stella said. "What all can you absorb?"

"Oh you know, just the basics," Vince deflected. "Hey what's going on over there?"

*          *          *

What was going on over there was a surprisingly close battle of beer pong with both teams down to a single cup. As it turned out, Ben was a shifter like Hershel, so his powers were out of commission until he decided to make the change. So far he was doing well enough in normal form. Hershel was keeping up decently, but it was really Nick and Chris that were the juggernauts of the game. Chris, it turned out, had the power to teleport objects he touched. This made his style of play less bouncing based and more just teleporting directly over the cup he wanted. That should have sealed the game, save only for the Nick factor.

With his honed dexterity and power over luck, Nick was tearing up the table on par with his opponent. Sure he should have been laying low, squeezing by without drawing attention, staying in the middle ground, but damn it, this was fun! He'd been in such a secondary position at Lander, so accustomed to the idea that everyone around him was better at everything. They were stronger, they were faster, even a few of them were smarter. For the first time in months though he was doing something he could win at. It felt good to be a winner; it reminded of who he really was under his ridiculous facade. Besides, it wasn't like people didn't already know what his power was. It would have been more suspicious if he hadn't been running the table. At least, that's what he told himself as he dunked yet another ball into a red cup.

"Fucker," Ben swore, chugging down the contents.

"You're good, Sunglasses. You're real good," Chris told him, picking up the ball for his turn. "But me, I don't miss." The ball vanished from Chris's hand and reappeared a few inches over one of the remaining cups on Hershel and Nick's side.

Nick threw Hershel a glance and the heavier boy took the cup and guzzled. He was beginning to feel all the alcohol, and far sooner than he'd expected. Roy always had such insane tolerance that Hershel had forgotten somewhere along the way that it didn't extend to him. He needed to finish this game soon if they were going to have a chance.

"Come on, Hershel!" Alice cheered in spite of herself. "Sink it to keep the pressure on."

Hershel drew in a breath and took his aim. He released the ball, and it flew almost true. As it landed for its first bounce it veered ever so slightly off course, sending it into the cup's rim instead of the bitter beer inside.

"Oooh, so sorry there, freshman," Ben taunted. "Looks like you just don't know how to push through in the clutch. Don't worry, though, that comes with experience." On the word "experience" Ben tossed his own ball. It arced gracefully through the air, hopping once and depositing itself in the lone remaining cup in front of Nick. Without a second glance Nick scooped up the red cup of failure and did his duty.

"Ah well; win some, lose some," Hershel said, trying to stay steady in spite of a slowly mounting urge to slur.

"You fought a good game," Ben said sportingly. "Chris and I haven't had anyone go that long with us in a long time. Up for another?"

"Not sure about Nick, but I'm going to pass," Hershel replied.

"I can keep going," Nick said with a smile. Unlike Hershel, Nick had earned his tolerance for alcohol the hard way and was nowhere near hitting his limits.

"Sad to see you go, big boy," Chris said. "You were the weak link in the team anyway."

"Dude," Ben snapped at his friend. "Be nice."

"Fuck you, I've never been on board with this 'coddle the freshmen' idea," Chris shot back.

"It's fine," Hershel said with a grin. "I was the weak link. It's true, so how bad could it be that he said it?"

"I'm sorry," Ben apologized. "My friend can be an asshole when he's competing and drinking."

"Like I said, it’s fine," Hershel shrugged.

"Yeah, Ben, it’s fine. He knows he can't drink. Next game, I say we take on the broad and the pussy who wanted to watch," Chris said with a snicker.

"Hey!" This was actually snapped by Alice, Alex, and Nick simultaneously. In addition to yelling, Alex was searching for something not too property damaging to throw at Chris. Alice, unfortunately, lacked such means of recourse, but was unhappy nonetheless. Before any of them could take any action, though, Hershel acted first. He held up his right hand in a swift, stopping motion honed from years of commanding troops. Elf troops battling an orc invasion admittedly, but command skills were command skills, regardless of the venue in which they were acquired.

"Alex," Hershel said in an oddly still voice. "May I have your drink, please?"

"Um, sure," Alex said, handing Hershel his cup and the remaining liquid inside.

"Thank you," Hershel replied, swallowing the last of it in one gulp. He handed the cup back to Alex and walked back over to the table.

"I thought you didn't drink whiskey," Alex commented.

"He doesn't," came a deeper, rougher voice from Hershel's throat. A slow ripple seemed to move across Hershel's body, giving him an amorphous appearance. His torso and limbs lengthened, muscles emerged where only fat had been, and his face became leaner and more chiseled. It happened in the matter of seconds, and then someone totally different was standing where Hershel had been.

"I do," said Roy, his eyes hard and a smile that seemed more dangerous than joyful slicing across his face. "Now I'm going to show you what happens to the poor bastards who question the drinking skills of a Daniels man."