Chapter 174

The trees were on fire, that much was evident to anyone nearby as well as to any students who took notice of the rising smoke and orange glow. Although Vince hated to damage property, he would have doubtlessly found the sacrifice to be worthwhile in exchange for defeating Shane. Unfortunately for him, that was not the case.

Vince’s arms were both extended, his hand open with small waves of heat still emanating from them. Rather than being aimed near Shane, which he’d intended, they were facing a cluster of trees that were crackling as the flame turned them into kindling. Vince couldn’t see them, he could only feel the vine-like appendages that had wrapped around his arms, jerking them to a new target at the last minute. Before he could even think of shifting his focus, those same restraints flexed against his arms. The next sensation Vince was aware of was searing pain and a sticky dampness down to his elbows.

“You always use your hands to aim,” Shane commented. “It makes you predictable.” His irises and sclera were gone, or at least they had turned so dark that they may as well have vanished. It gave the illusion that Shane’s face bore empty sockets, ones that opened to a twisted void of a dimension encompassed in utter blackness. It was, to say the least, a bit unnerving, and not just because of the strange visage it gave him. Even after spending the year with him in Close Combat class, Vince and Camille were both impressed by his shadow manifestation and manipulation ability.

Vince was currently thinking less about how impressive it was and more about how much pain he was in. His arms were hanging uselessly: whatever muscles Shane cut had taken away Vince’s ability to lift them above his waist. Trying to focus through the pain, Vince set his eyes on Shane and began to draw upon the electricity stored within.

“Enough.” Shane made a quick hand motion, and Vince felt his feet go out from under him. A few attempted motions confirmed that several muscles in his legs had been severed. This time Shane hadn’t tried to wound, he’d gone for incapacitation. Vince lay in the grass, his eyes still focused on his opponent, but another quick motion flipped him over and changed that as well.

“I hate to do this,” Shane said, turning his attention to Camille. “I actually sort of enjoy both of you. You support your team, you train hard, and you conduct yourselves with behavior appropriate for aspiring Heroes. Regardless of Vince’s origin, I respect his ability. That’s why I have to take him down; he represents too great an unknown factor in this game. Camille, you are simply collateral damage since you could revive him.”

As Shane talked he manipulated the shadow on one of the larger trees, first turning it into a blade with which he sliced off a branch, then thickening it into a tendril which he used to heft up the tree limb he’d just cut down. He carted the branch over and set it, surprisingly carefully, down on top of Camille.

“There, that should keep you from going over to him,” Shane said once the task was done. “You can breathe, right?”

Camille couldn’t form words; the seething rage at seeing Vince sliced into ribbons had her head pounding and her tongue thick. Instead she stared daggers at him, but took a strained breath to ensure she was capable. Anger was well and good, but if she asphyxiated she wouldn’t be able to go help Vince once Shane left.

“Okay then, on to the next task.” Shane walked over to Vince, careful to keep a healthy distance, then flipped him onto his back and pinned him down with the same branch acquiring technique he’d used on Camille. While his power was similar to Thomas’s, the ability to strike from any area and to manipulate his shadows into bladed weapons made Shane a far more deadly opponent. Had he taken a different route, he could have been a world-class assassin. As it was, he spent much of his training learning ways to utilize his ability so it wouldn’t be deadly. That was why his major was biology; it was why he studied anatomy in his free time. That was why he knew what muscles he could cut without causing a target to bleed out.

“There are a lot of stories about you, Vince,” Shane said as he lowered the branch in place, making sure it rested heavily on but didn’t crush his captive. Shane was careful to move around as he talked, changing direction frequently. Even injured and pinned, giving Vince a stationary target was asking for trouble. “How you stood your ground against Coach George, how you dominated Michael in the first match this year, and, of course, your neat trick against Thomas during last year’s midterms. You’re a strong guy, and I’ve trained with you in combat enough to know you’ve got hand-to-hand chops.” Shane finished adjusting the branch and stood a few steps further back.

“That said, you need to understand the gap between those in the middle and those at the top. Dean Blaine outlined it for us during the first year. Only the strongest can move on, because only we have a place in the Hero world. People depend on us, I know you know that. You’re the kind of guy who fights all the harder when there are people who need him. I respect you for that.”

“Thanks,” Vince gasped from under the limb. “Didn’t seem to help much.”

“You’ve got a Hero’s heart,” Shane said. “You just don’t have a Hero’s strength. I’ve taken you out as painlessly as possible, much more gently than some of the people who don’t share my sentiment would have. Just tell me who has your orb and I’ll be on my way.”

“No,” Vince rasped. “I’m not telling you anything.”

“Can’t say I’m really surprised,” Shane sighed. “You’re the type that would let me peel off his skin before he said a word that might lead to his friends being hurt. I had to try, at least. I could probably get it out of you, but it would take far too long to be worth it. Oh well, I suppose taking out two of my rival team’s most useful members will have to be good enough.”

He moved quickly and carefully, being certain not to enter Vince’s field of vision. Even in exiting Shane’s motions were deliberate and thought out.

Vince tested the heft holding him down and found it unmoving. If he’d had both arms he might have been able to pull something out, but with his injuries there was no chance of conventional escape. His head thudded softly as it fell backward onto the grass. It felt strangely good to lay there, motionless, staring up at the false sky. Time was running out, and he needed to think of something.

It was either that or accept that this was his last day at Lander.