Chapter 263

                It felt oddly familiar, being in one of Lander’s fake underground cities. This was a new one to him, or the layout had been substantially changed, but Vince noticed his tension easing a bit as he took in his surroundings. The area wasn’t as big as a normal city, they only had a couple of simulated blocks to fight in, yet even within that space there were buildings of varying height, material, and shape. Mobility was going to play a big role in this match, and stealth might as well, depending on what his opponent was bringing to the table.

                Standing on the same street as Vince, only further away, was his enemy for this round. He was a wiry looking fellow, light-blue tinted sclera marking him as a Super. It didn’t escape Vince’s notice that he’d eschewed a normal uniform for the thick material shifters often wore, although there was also a compartmented belt around his waist and matching bands across either wrist. They locked eyes until Victor finally called for introductions.

                “Sam Carney, Close Combat major. After I graduate, the world will know me as Grave Robber.”

                “Vince Reynolds, also a Close Combat major. I, um, haven’t actually picked a name yet.”

                Sam’s forehead creased in visible surprise. “Seriously? The year’s almost over man, what are you waiting for?”

                “The fight begins, now!” Victor had ignored the extended banter, instead pushing them to get the real show going.

                Although he’d decided to start off defensively until he saw what Sam could do, Vince was surprised to find there wasn’t an attack coming to defend against. So far, the matches had started the moment they were allowed to, leading to a cluster of immediate attacks and counters in the first few seconds. Sam, however, was doing no such thing. Instead, he’d popped open a compartment on his belt and pulled something out. Before there was time to see what it was, Sam had tossed the thing in his mouth, chewed twice, and swallowed. Within seconds, a dark shiny covering grew across his skin, covering him from head to toe in segmented chunks of armor. It looked like a human had crawled inside a bug’s body and wrapped the chitin around themselves.

                 “Didn’t expect you to give me a chance to put on my fighting skin. Very sporting of you. Or maybe you’re just really bad at this. Be honest, did your class send you as a prank?” Sam was moving now, bursting off the ground and racing toward Vince. The dense armor was slowing him down slightly, but experience and training had dulled that drawback to a mere inconvenience. Sam made it within punching range and took a solid swing that would have likely fractured Vince’s jaw, if it had connected.

                Being slowed a little might not be a big deal in the overall scheme of things; however against someone with Vince’s martial training it made a hell of a difference. The blows were simple to predict and easy to avoid. While he didn’t trust himself to block without absorbing until he saw how much force was in those blows, dodging was easy enough to accomplish. Sam stepped up his attack, trying to land a blow on Vince, who continued to step away from swing after swing. He could counter, landing a kinetically enhanced punch and playing the role of a strongman, but that didn’t seem prudent yet. The less he showed off in early rounds, the better, because as soon as they knew he was an absorber the smarter ones would also realize how to counter him. For the moment, Sam was wearing himself down with bigger and bigger swings, while Vince was only using the bare amount of energy needed to dodge.

                Much as he would have liked to see Sam tire himself out, the guy hadn’t been chosen for Intramurals without reason. After a few more punches, Sam suddenly retreated, putting significant distance between himself and Vince. “Goddamnit, we’re playing the same game, aren’t we? You’re waiting for me to show you what I can really do so you can counter, and I’m trying to bait you into letting me see your power. We’re both trying to get away with showing as little as possible.”

                “Well, there is a crowd watching,” Vince said.

                “Then I guess we’d better give them something to see.” Sam took a step like he was about to charge once more, but when Vince braced for another attack Sam used the brief moment to pull something else from his belt and pop it into his mouth. Sam’s body suddenly started to swell, his chitin cracking and falling away in some places, revealing thick gray with muscle underneath. On his forehead, a small nub of a horn cracked through the dense armor, growing nearly half a foot long before stopping. “Dodge this you Lander snob.”

                Sam’s attack wasn’t fake this time, he sent a spray of concrete shards in the air as he dug his foot down and pushed off hard. It was a hell of a charge, quick and direct with a perfect line on Vince. The only downside was that Sam didn’t quite have Roy’s level of strength and speed, so for someone accustomed to dodging these sorts of attacks it was a step-down. Vince easily moved out of the way, watching as Sam’s new bulk carried him forward. The dodge seemed to infuriate Sam, who ground his heels to a halt, spun around, and charged once more. Vince avoided that attack, as well as the next two that followed it, until the fourth time when Sam didn’t turn around quite as quickly, instead slamming his horned forehead into a nearby wall and shattering the brick.

                “Will you throw a fucking punch already! This is getting ridiculous.”

                He had a point; Vince knew this wasn’t much of a flashy show for the spectators, especially compared to the fights they’d seen before. But Vince had tons of flash when the moment called for it. Right now, he wanted to show everyone that he also had control and discretion. The judgement to use the correct amount of force for the job. That was something he proved through making smart, tactical calls, not coming out guns blazing. Sooner or later, he’d have to attack Sam back; he just hoped to see a little more of what was hiding in that belt before the time came. So Vince did what he felt like Nick would have encouraged, and decided to try his hand at some smack talk.

                “When you present me a suitable challenge, I’ll strike back. Or when I’m sure this is all you have and decide to end things.”

                Although Vince wasn’t sure if Sam noticed he’d done it, one of those thick legs slammed into the ground at the sound of Vince’s taunt, pawing at it as he readied for another charge. “You Lander people and your egos. Just because your school has prestige in the public’s eye doesn’t actually make it better. But fine, I guess you get what you want. No more sandbagging, time to make this a real fight.”

                The charge was faster than those that had come before, though Vince still easily leapt out of the way. To his surprise, Sam didn’t stop running this time. Instead he plowed through the front of a small shop, vanishing in a shower of glass and dust. There was a dull thud from the other side of the building as Sam emerged, but it was too obscured for Vince to make out. There was a sudden tightness in his stomach as Vince realized he might have just made his first mistake of the fight: letting Sam slip out of view.

                From a street away, Vince heard Sam’s voice rise up, slightly muffled by the sounds of chewing.

                “Congratulations, Vince of Lander. I was hoping not to break out a party pack until at least the next round, but you forced my hand. I hope you’re as ready for this as you think you are.”