Chapter 264

                The silence was unnerving. Sam’s body was huge and cumbersome, every step he took should have been sending rumbles through the street, yet Vince couldn’t make out so much as a light scuff. He was either standing perfectly still, which was unlikely, or he’d shifted once more to something that could move around covertly. How many forms did this guy have, anyway? Taking a moment to breathe, Vince forced himself to stay calm. This wasn’t his first time hunting an enemy through cover, thanks to all of Lander’s training and tests. His focus turned to the ambient heat all around them, the kind put out by human bodies. By absorbing on a very low level, he could sense the heat sources just like he’d hunted the speedster’s kinetic output last May. In no time, he’d have Sam’s exact location and could form a plan from there.

                Except… he couldn’t seem to find Sam. That made no sense, even if he was shifting forms, Sam’s body should still put out detectable levels of heat. Vince quieted every other part of his mind, focusing only on the heat slowly pouring into his body. There had to be a variant somewhere. It was just a matter of focus.

                It was close, but Vince caught the slight flicker of heat and movement above him just before the attack came. He spun around to find… something perched on top of a nearby building. Sam was no longer huge or gray, though there did seem to be fresh chitin on his body. Also in the mix were mandibles, antennae, claws, and several other features Vince couldn’t name without a biology book on hand. Horrifying didn’t even begin to capture the sight, and that was before Sam launched his strike. A stream of green liquid shot out from a sack below his mouth, on a crash course for Vince. The moment of warning gave him a chance to react, but the goo was too spread out to dodge cleanly, and without knowing what it did he couldn’t risk being exposed to any of it.

                Vince’s hand flew up and an orange barrier appeared overhead, catching the brunt of the splatter. A few drops hit the ground nearby, hissing and sizzling as they landed. Acid? Aside from the question of how on earth Sam had this much versatility, was that still on the side of non-lethal attacks?

                “If you’re wondering, I shot enough to wound and disorient, but not so much that you’d be hurt enough to die.” Sam’s voice was high and strained, his vocal chords clearly warped by this fresh transformation. “And look at that, someone finally had to use their power. Energy manipulation is a good one, but you’ll need more tricks than a shield to beat me.”

                With one motion, Sam leapt from the top of the building, whipping through the air and landing twenty feet away from Vince without missing a step. Now that his legs were in view, Vince could see they were warped and swollen, not to mention tinted an off-shade of green. It was seeing those malformed legs that finally brought everything home for Vince, though even he felt like it should have clicked sooner.

                “Grave Robber. I get it, you literally are what you eat. You’re stealing traits from the things you ingest, aren’t you? The first time you ate a beetle, and then you chewed down rhino… wait, aren’t those endangered?”

                “They still die naturally, and I have a source who provides me with a little bit of the meat,” Sam replied, so quickly that Vince knew without asking that he wasn’t the first to bring this up. “Besides, the real fun starts when I eat a pre-made grab bag. Or party packs, as I like to think of them. This one is called Bug Bomb, for obvious reasons. See, that’s why I’m going to win this whole tournament, even though I’m not from the famous Lander. I’ve got adaptability that you can only dream of. And all you have is a little bit of orange energy.”

                Sam was barely done speaking when another shot of acid fired from his mouth. Vince’s trained reactions were all that saved him, as he barely managed to get another energy shield up in time. That conversation had gone on for longer than was strictly necessary, so there was a fair chance Sam couldn’t shoot that goop indefinitely. He probably had to rebuild up his supply between blasts. Or he was trying to trick Vince into thinking that so he could catch him off-guard. It was hard to dismiss anything with an opponent who put this much thought into their tactics.

                The brief moment of relief Vince felt from stopping the goo was cut short as Sam darted up close to him, swinging a clawed hand for Vince’s torso. Evidently the acid was only a distraction. As Vince tried to dodge like he had so many strikes before, he realized that he was too slow. Sam didn’t get in deep, but he did leave a trail of bloody gashes across Vince’s ribs, slicing neatly through the uniform. Although he didn’t fully understand how, Vince had to accept that Sam’s new form was faster than the old one. He backpedaled, trying to put some distance between himself and those dangerous claws, but Sam wasn’t letting up. Vince needed a moment to think, to regroup, to buy himself a second to contemplate a strategy. It was like the fight with Camille, where he was constantly pressed, unable to think past avoiding the next strike. Only this time, Vince was better prepared.

                The bubble of orange energy surrounded Vince completely, cutting him off from Sam’s assault. Vince actually hadn’t been sure he’d be able to make something like this until it happened, he didn’t have Thomas’s level of control with the energy. It was hard to hold in place, and he could already feel the limited resource draining, but he’d bought himself a few seconds to think and that was worth having.

                “Hiding in your shield now? Come on, seriously, how did you end up at Intramurals if this is all you’ve got.” Sam was trying to bait him, because he thought he had the fight locked down.

                With a moment to properly analyze the situation, Vince came to an inescapable conclusion: he was going to have to show his real power. Whether it was poor strategy on his part or just bad luck of the draw, Sam had proven too dangerous to try and beat while holding back. It was too bad, after seeing Alice and Chad keep their secrets hidden he’d really hoped to do the same.

                “For what it’s worth, Sam, I think you should know that you’re really strong. I wasn’t expecting to go full-force in this fight either, but you’ve forced my hand. No matter how this turns out, I think you’ll make a very capable Hero one day.”

                “Thank… you?” Sam’s malformed eyes were clouded with confusion at Vince’s compliment, and the feeling only grew stronger as he watched the orange shield vanish into thin air. “I’m confused, are you giving up?”

                “No. I’m cutting loose. To an extent, anyway.” Vince calmly stepped closer to Sam, watching for any movement. The acid was still something to be wary of, but those claws were dangerous too. Awareness was Vince’s biggest weakness; if he missed an attack then he couldn’t defend against it. Against someone like Sam, one miss could be enough to cost him the fight.

                Sam started forward like he was going for a charge, then leapt up again, floating overhead and sending down a spray of acid. Vince threw up another orange shield to block it, painfully aware that this fight had cost him a fair bit of Thomas’s energy, and started to look toward the ground where Sam would land. Something stayed his eyes however, and sure enough when he looked back up he saw that Sam had sprouted modest insect-like wings that were hidden on his back. They weren’t enough for proper flight, but they did allow him to alter his course mid-air, sending him crashing right toward Vince. With a quick step, Vince leapt back just in time to miss a pair of clawed hands trying to rake over him. For a moment, he and Sam were only a few feet away, far enough that neither could launch a melee attack but close enough that something ranged would almost certainly hit. It was the window Vince had been waiting for.

                Electricity burst from Vince’s palm, searing through the air and striking Sam in the chitin covered stomach. It was a test-shot, meant to see how tough he was in that form, but it still managed to send him staggering backward. Vince didn’t hesitate, launching another, slightly stronger blast that sent Sam convulsing to the ground. Whatever changes he’d made to his body, apparently enhanced resistance to electricity wasn’t among them.

                “Please yield. I don’t have any desire to hurt you more.”

                “Fuck you. You think I’m going down that easy?” Sam was struggling to lift his arms, reaching for something, and in a flash Vince realized what was happening. He wanted to eat the contents of another compartment, probably one that could take a shock without breaking a sweat. While Vince had more tricks up his sleeve, this was the safest option for bringing Sam down. If he had to go to fire, things became a lot riskier. Much as he hated to do it, there was only one way to finish this immediately and keep Sam safe.

                Vince slammed a fist lightly down against Sam’s chest, more a gesture than a punch, and met his eyes. “Deathblow. This fight is mine.”

                “From one punch? You must be out of your mind if you think I’m buying-”

                “Vince Reynolds has scored a deathblow, and is therefore the winner of this match.” If Sam had been surprised by the lightning, he was downright flabbergasted by Victor’s voice announcing his loss. Victor wasn’t done quite yet, however. “Vince, in the interests of fairness, if you’re going to claim that deathblow then I have to ask you use the energy it would have taken. Its part of managing your resources, and the people watching are going to want to see that you can back the claim up.”

                “That’s fine, I had a feeling I’d need to do something like this.” Vince got up from Sam and walked half a block away, to a clean section of the street. “Building or floor? I’d like to do whatever is safer and easier for you to clean up.”

                “Dean Blaine requests that you use the floor. That’s just one fix, as opposed to putting a building back together.”

                Vince nodded, then looked down at the concrete below. The punch needed to be strong enough that it would kill Sam, but he didn’t necessarily have to give away entirely how much force he could deliver in a single blow. If he undershot it, they might make him go again though, or question the win. Better to be sure this was over. About five Roy-hits worth of force should be enough to settle the issue.

                The concrete buckled and shattered, caving in on itself as a small crater formed and dozens of cracks spider-webbed out across the pavement.  Vince had to hop back quickly, lest he lose his footing. Down the street, Sam was slowly turning back to human-form, staring at Vince in an odd mix of anger, wonderment, and terror.

                “Thank you, Vince, that settled the matter nicely. You should both report to the medical rooms for evaluation.”

                With Victor confirming the match was over, Vince turned to Sam, extending a hand to help him up. “Are you okay? I tried to keep the voltage low but you’re probably going to be shaky until we get you to a healer.”

                “What in the living hell are you, man? I just watched you throw manipulated energy, lightning, and a punch that would break a strongman’s ribs. What kind of power is that?”

                To his surprise, Vince realized he actually had managed to keep part of his ability hidden: he hadn’t absorbed anything in the entire match. Some people might put it together, but there was a chance he still had a few surprise cards to play. Reaching down, he hefted Sam up to his feet, taking care to steady him.

                “What am I? I’ll tell you Sam, since you seem to have some preconceptions about Lander. What I am is the last choice among my school’s competitors. I’m the guy who barely made the Intramurals cut. So I hope Korman brought their best and came to win, because we’re not going to make this easy.”