Chapter 251

                “Again.”

                Shane stood in the center of the room, motionless yet vibrating with the intensity of a taut cable, as the others circled up around him. Violet, Alex, and Selena were all out of arm’s reach, not that it made much difference. Hand-to-hand was an area Shane had been comfortable with for years, but using his shadows against living opponents was a harder task. If he made it to the Hero world, they would no doubt bill him as a scorched earth kind of Super, the sort to call in when someone needed to lay waste. And he would fill those roles, as only he could, but Shane wanted to be more than that. He wanted to help, to protect, to deal with small-scale issues as much as tearing criminals apart, and all of that demanded precision. The sort of precision he’d be able to demonstrate in tomorrow’s matches, or prove that he lacked in front of a huge crowd.

                Off to the side, Professor Fletcher watched the training with a careful eye. He was the only one on staff fast enough to intervene if Shane made a mistake, and Dr. Moran was standing by to heal just in case that happened. So far, it hadn’t been needed, but Shane didn’t let that lessen his focus. With his ability, one mistake was all it took to go from hurting someone to murdering them. He had to be surgical, or he’d never be more than the brute force his power seemed to make him.

                “Selena, do a song to make him sleepy and slow those reflexes. Alex will fend him off and lend me some support while I attack.” Violet took a step forward, her body so dense that the concrete cracked slightly under her foot. They’d tried a few different methods so far, and each time Shane had managed to end things with a shadow pressed against their flesh. No one was holding back tonight, they couldn’t afford to. The students from the others schools sure as hell wouldn’t take it easy on the Supers of Lander, so they had to be hard on each other too.

                Glancing behind her, she saw debris spinning around Alex, chunks of concrete he’d be able to turn into projectiles at will, and Selena warming up her voice again. They were as ready as they could be. Time for another round.

*             *             *

                It was almost nostalgic, being back at the summer training ground. At least the heat had died down, not that it did anything to keep Alice from sweating. The sheer amount of effort she was putting in had rendered her damp to the point of almost dripping, but she paid it no mind. All of her focus was on the boulder that she was trying to force down with gravity while Mary lifted it up. That was part of why they’d had Mr. Transport bring them out here after he was done storm-chasing with Vince: there were only so many places where Alice could train with Mary anymore. Besides, this was a good workout. There weren’t a lot of people still in the class who could directly oppose Alice’s power, so Mary was a necessary tool for resistance training.

                The boulder slammed into the ground as Alice let out a coughing gasp, allowing her body to relax. That had been the hardest win yet. She still couldn’t beat Mary every time; however the year of training was paying off. The two were much closer matches than they had been over summer, and knowing how powerful Mary was Alice took no small measure of pride in that.

                “Let me rest, then we can go again.”

                “Forget it.” Mary came strolling over, sweating and short of breath as well. It was a nice sign that she’d been giving her full effort. “You still need to get healed up so you aren’t sore or tired, then have a good night’s rest. No burning yourself out before the big day.”

                Alice let out another series of coughs as she managed to start getting some deeper breaths down. “Maybe I just want to spend some quality time with my friend, did you think of that? We don’t get to train like this anymore.”

                “If quality time is what you want, then just hang out with me while we watch Intramurals tomorrow,” Mary said. “I got the word from Dr. Moran today: she’s allowed to take me along since I’m officially training under her. I had to sign even more contracts and stuff, so my hand hurts like hell, but I’ll be there with you. Just don’t expect me to read anyone’s thoughts; my hands are going to be very tied.”

                “Even if you could, I wouldn’t ask you too. Defeats the point of being a Subtlety Hero if I can’t gather information on my own. And I really want to show these other schools what a Subtlety major can do. So, what do you say, one more match?”

                Although her expression was grumpy, Mary gave a begrudging nod. “Last one. Then we get you healed and have some dinner. Winner gets to choose what we eat.”

                “I hope you’re ready for something fancy and French,” Alice told her. “Because I’m not out of gas yet.”

*             *             *

                Chad sat quietly in his room, eyes closed and legs crossed. To the outside observer, it would seem as though he were meditating, and while that wasn’t entirely off-base it also didn’t fully capture the scale of what he was actually doing. His whole body was being worked over, fine-tuned and tweaked, to ensure it was running in absolute peak condition. Last minute training wouldn’t do him much good; he considered this a much better use of this time.

                While the others would no doubt be focusing on their grand, showy tactics that would wow the crowd and put fear into the other competitors, Chad didn’t have such show-stoppers. He used techniques, of course, and some were even quite interesting to look at. But bone-armor would never outshine a torrent of living shadow or the power to bend gravity to one’s will. So he didn’t try to. Instead, he focused on something only he could do: run at peak, perfect efficiency. It might not seem like a lot, yet it had taken him far in the HCP. There was still a bit further left to go, though.

                And when Chad crossed the finish line of graduation, which he fully-intended to, it would either be holding the top rank or knowing he gave everything he had to reclaim it. His power wasn’t showy, but it was useful. If things went well tomorrow, people would never say the name Intra in quite the same way again.

*             *             *

                The bat struck Vince’s bare ankle and halted, as it had so many times before. Choosing the right spot for the attacks was important, since Camille’s healing wouldn’t mean crap if Vince died from the impact. The ankle was a spot that Roy could hit reliably, and was unlikely to end in death if Vince failed to absorb the kinetic energy. That rarely happened anymore; however when one swung with the power of Roy Daniels safety precautions had to be taken.

                “How long as it been?” Roy asked.

                “An hour and some change.” Camille spoke from the corner, a safe distance away but close enough to run over if needed.

                “Sounds about right. I’m starting to get tired, and my swings are weakening. Let me do a heal and rest session for ten, then we can get back at it. Thomas, you want to step in?”

                As Roy walked over to Camille, Thomas stepped forward from the other side of the cell. “I’ve regenerated some of my energy, but I don’t recover as fast as you. Still, it couldn’t hurt to pour some more in. Just be sure not to drain me entirely, Vince. I don’t recover as quickly when I’m pulled dry.”

                “You don’t have to do this at all, if you don’t want to,” Vince said. “I know you hate having your energy pulled out, and you already gave me some. I’m still not even sure it’s entirely ethical to absorb the energy of a classmate before a match. It feels a little like cheating.”

                “I hope you shed some of these ridiculous notions before the fights.” Thomas held up his hand, a glowing orange ball manifesting in his palm. “Momentary discomfort is not an adequate reason to deny my friend aid. And as for the idea that this is cheating, I see it as no different from gathering lighting or kinetic strikes from Roy. You are merely preparing as any Hero would, and this event is supposed to test who is the better Hero.”

                “Lightning is natural, and I could get kinetic anywhere, Roy is just the most efficient method. What you have is special, though. I’d never be able to find it under normal circumstances.”

                From across the room, Roy chimed in. “Normal is a hard word to define in this place. And there ain’t nothing wrong with taking help from a friend. You’re using every resource you’ve got to get ready for a fight, relying on the people around you. If you don’t think that’s what Heroes do, then I don’t know what kind of program you’ve been in for the last four years.”

                Thomas turned his palm toward Vince as the orange light grew brighter. “Roy is spot on. Besides, this is not a fight where you, Vince Reynolds, are representing merely yourself. The four of you are fighting for the pride of Lander, and when you step into those battles you’ll be representing all that this school has given you. All the training, all the skills, all the resources, all the knowledge. You four will be the faces of our school, the standard by which we are all judged.”

                The orange light flashed, striking Vince and vanishing as he started to absorb it. Thomas’s smile was eerie, lit by the strange glow of his own blasting energy. “We’re counting on you four, so go show those other schools exactly what kind of Heroes Lander produces.”