Chapter 284

                It was strangely heartening for Vince to see a familiar face across from him, lit by the flickering neon of a nearby sign. They’d drawn a semi-city environment, although this one was visibly more barren and derelict. More parking lots than buildings, and the few that were around them were run-down. Weaker too, no doubt. This was probably a training room that had been used to make students hyper-aware of potential collateral damage, as one rogue strike could bring down a store full of hypothetical people. Shane was a ways off, nothing between them but painted asphalt.

                “Students, since you both come from Lander I’m sure you know each other, but for the sake of formality let’s go ahead and do introductions anyway,” Victor’s voice instructed.

                The tension in the air lifted slightly as Shane permitted himself a small grin. “Shane DeSoto, Control major. My Hero name is going to be Styx.”

                “Vince Reynolds, Close Combat major. Still haven’t found a good name.”

                “You really need to get on that, Vince.” Shane’s smile faded as they both began to tense, waiting for Victor to signal the start of the match.

                “Very well Lander, time to see which of you will represent your school in the final bout. Students, begin!”

                Both men acted at once. Shane didn’t waste a second, summoning a blade from Vince’s own shadow and stabbing toward his leg. The attack succeeded in piercing his uniform, but the burning light that burst forth ripped apart the shadow as soon as it drew near. All of Vince was shining with the same glow, a constant stream of absorbed light pouring out of his skin.

                “Figured that out, huh?” Shane asked.

                Vince nodded, never entirely taking his eyes off of Shane. “It was pretty obvious after fighting with and against you all these years. Your shadows never get too close to a source of light, because the closer they go the weaker they become. Release a constant stream of light and your power will be unable to even scratch me. I made a point of absorbing plenty, just in case we got matched up.”

                “You’ve come a long way from the early days, I’ll give you that. There is one flaw in your strategy, however.” Shane’s gaze shifted, yet the sclera of his eyes remained dark. He was still in touch with his shadows, ready to summon them with a thought. “If you’re constantly outputting light, it means you’re unable to absorb or shoot anything else. This neutralizes your power too.”

                It was Vince’s turn to grin as he raised his fists and adjusted his stance. “I know. Part of why I liked this method. Seemed like a perfect opportunity to show everyone watching that we’re more than just our raw abilities. We’ve got some good old-fashioned hand-to-hand skills as well.”

                Shane began to slowly circle Vince, keeping at a healthy distance while scanning the environment. “I’m game for a melee fight, but I’ll warn you now: drop that light for even a second and I’ll strike. You absorb a single punch and I’ll slice you from a half-dozen angles.”

                “I’d expect nothing less. You’re not an opponent I can afford to let my guard down around. My best bet of beating you is in a straightforward fight.”

                “As I recall from freshman year training, we were pretty evenly matched on that front,” Shane said.

                “We were. But I stayed in Close Combat, while you went the Control route. I wonder what sort of gap that creates between us?” Vince was moving too, not in any direction, just shuffling his stance as he watched Shane circle.

                Shane kept shifting, probing for any angle of attack that might be slightly more advantageous. “You assume I haven’t kept up with that training on my own.”

                “Of course not. You’re Chad’s best friend, I’m sure you’ve been sparring all the time in your off hours. I really don’t know which of us is going to win this match,” Vince admitted. “I just want it to be whoever is truly stronger. We’ve seen what Conrad can do. Lander deserves the best it still has to fight him.”

                “Hand-to hand-combat isn’t necessarily the best way to determine that,” Shane pointed out.

                Vince kept on turning, showing Shane the same stance no matter how much he moved. There wasn’t much left to do, except let the conflict begin. “Maybe not, but given how closely we’re matched, it’s going to come down to judgement, determination, and endurance. Those are factors I could definitely see making the difference in the Conrad fight.”

                “Well then, I suppose let’s see which of us wants this more.”

                Shane didn’t hesitate after that, instead he bolted forward, taking a few careful swings for Vince’s ribs. They were easily blocked, which he’d expected, and Vince countered by throwing some jabs of his own. Shane nimbly moved out of the way, striking back with a kick aimed at Vince’s knee, only to connect with air as Vince yanked it out of the way.

                They were testing one another, getting a sense of their opponent’s speed and patterns. It had been a long time since they faced one another like this, each had grown in countless ways. Truth be told, the experience probably would have been an enjoyable one in other circumstances. But whatever light-hearted joy they both took in combat was squashed by the pressure of those watching, unseen, in the viewing room. All those Heroes, scanning them, evaluating them, seeing if they measured up. And one more set of eyes, belonging to the man who had defeated both Chad and Alice. Neither Vince nor Shane ever said the secret advantage to fighting like this, because they didn’t need to. It was understood from the beginning why this method was the best way to determine which of them would advance.

                Because this was the only way to fight in which neither one showed off any more of their power than they already had. It didn’t give Conrad a scrap more to work with. Both men were fighting for victory, and both were giving their all to grasp it, but they were still students of Lander. They knew what it meant to achieve victory for a team over glory for themselves.

                Vince landed a half-blocked strike against Shane’s ribs, which he paid back with a knee to Vince’s hip. The two backed off slightly, adjusting their stances and evaluating the other. Yes, they were going to do this the mundane way, with every power except Vince’s glow off the table. Yes, they both wanted Lander as a whole to win, and to pay back Conrad for the way he’d crushed Chad. But they still had to fight to see who would get the honor of trying to take Lander all the way, and neither one was going to yield that easily.

                With a quick change to his footing, Shane darted in, feinting another blow for the ribs then launching a jab for Vince’s jaw. Vince jerked away, not quite fast enough to keep Shane’s knuckles from grazing his cheek. The message was clear: the time for testing had passed. Now they fought with all they had to see which one would be left standing.