Chapter 289

                Big and empty. Perhaps not ideal, since it offered Vince little cover against Conrad’s ability to manipulate the floor, walls, and ceiling. Then again, would fake shops or small patches of trees really make much of a difference when his enemy was attacking with the environment itself? If anything, that would only give Conrad more projectiles to toss around. Besides, Vince rather preferred it like this. The same general area as what Alice and Chad had been stuck working with. This way, if he managed to win, Conrad would have no excuses. It was just the two of them, power versus power.

                “Welcome competitors. This time, I’ll be handling your intros, since you’ve got better things to keep in mind.” Victor was standing in front of the giant clear window, his back to the competitors as he addressed the viewing room. “From Lander, we have Vince Reynolds, a Close Combat major with no Hero name chosen. From Sizemore, we have Conrad Booker, a Control major who will be operating under the Hero name Seismic. You’ve all gotten to see both of these fine young men put on dazzling displays of power, strategy, and determination in their first three matches. Now we see who will emerge from this year’s Intramurals as the champion.”

                Victor turned around, facing the clear material keeping him safe and staring out to the two competitors below. “Vince, Conrad. Your match begins, now.”

                Conrad was probably expecting Vince to run. It would have been a tactically sound move, racing about to make himself a harder target. The trouble was, Vince knew how well that worked for Chad, and unlike Alice, Vince didn’t have the ability to fly. Jumping around might by him an extra few moments, but eventually he’d have to land, which meant coming down into Conrad’s waiting rocks. When he looked at the situation calmly, it was obvious that within the first few seconds of the match Conrad was going to catch him. There was no avoiding it. So, rather than waste stamina, Vince stood in place, waiting for the ground to swallow him whole. Either he could beat this technique, or he couldn’t.

                It didn’t take Conrad long to notice Vince was standing still. Hands of stone burst forth, gripping Vince across his arms and legs, dragging him quickly down. Vince let them, feeling his body sink deeper. When it was about halfway down, his belly button past the floor, the time to act finally arrived. With a concerted effort, Vince let loose a blast of kinetic energy through the stone around him, sending dust and bits of debris flying into the air. It was messy, but the ruined rocks could no longer hold him in place as he climbed, slowly and deliberately, out of the hole.

                “Sorry, Conrad. I’m afraid you’re not going to be able to capture me. Feel free to keep trying if you want, I’ve got enough kinetic energy stored up to do this for days.” That was, in truth, probably an exaggeration, although shattering the ground had taken a relatively minor amount of the kinetic force Vince was holding. He could do it a lot more before that well ran dry, but the goal was to not bother. If he could make Conrad think it was a waste of time from the start, it would force Conrad to turn his attention to other tactics, which would hopefully allow Vince to move a little more freely.

                “Not able? Just because I’m being gentle doesn’t mean I’m incapable of using force.”

                That was all the warning Vince had before the ground opened up under him completely. It was the same trick Conrad had used on Chad, turning the floor beneath him into a pit. Vince fell quickly, absorbing his landing and lifting his hand upward, even as the stone around him rapidly shifted, sealing him off beneath the floor. The speed and precision of the technique were both impressive, in a stretch of mere seconds Vince had gone from standing in the cell to being buried without a shred of light peeking through.

                The trick was rendered somewhat less impressive by the giant blast of rubble that came shooting up from the ground, like a geyser of rock erupting. Moments later Vince leapt out, landing easily and turning back to Conrad’s position. He was still trying to think of a good line to shoot back with, but immediately realized there was no point. Conrad was nowhere to be seen, he’d slipped away beneath the ground while Vince was distracted. Right… Conrad wasn’t some dumb bruiser. He thought tactically and responded to new developments. He’d probably known the bigger pit wouldn’t work on Vince, it was just a distraction creating time to slip away.

                “Hiding already?” Vince called. It was a blatant stab to the ego that he didn’t expect to land, but at the moment he couldn’t think of anything better to yell.

                “Against the mighty champion of Lander? Of course.” It felt like the voice was coming from all directions, as though it were spitting out of the very walls themselves. Maybe Conrad could project his voice through them, or had set up some kind of echo chamber. How he was doing it didn’t matter, but it did confirm that sound was a method Vince couldn’t use to track his enemy down. “You put on a good show. Too bad you, like most other Supers, need a target to fight. Maybe you should have let Lucinda win. At least she had the possibility of suffocating me. That is, if I even still have lungs.”

                Taunts. Conrad knew the other students were speculating about how far he could take his power. If he could fully transform into stone, Vince wasn’t sure there was any way to win this fight. As it stood, the ideas he had were half-formed at best. Vince was still debating on the next move when a fist made of rock shot out of the ground, on a crash course for Vince’s knee. Springing mid-chat was a good idea, it stood a better chance of catching an enemy by surprise. Sadly, for Conrad, Vince was a little too accustomed to sudden attacks thanks to his training. The stone fist landed directly against the knee, and then merely halted without imparting any damage.

                “Sorry Conrad, you’ll have to try something other than brute force. That is, if you even have something other than brute force.” It felt good to throw the taunt right back in Conrad’s face, but Vince readied himself as he spoke. The first few exchanges of the match had made Conrad’s offense look ineffectual. If he had the ego most people with his kind of power did, that wouldn’t be sitting well. The opening phase of the fight would come to an end quickly. Conrad wouldn’t let this stand, he’d want to show the world that he could hurt Vince, that this was a real battle.

                The hand shot out of the ground at incredible speeds, stopped just before it would have careened into Vince’s jaw. Opening wide, it stretched out, wrapping around Vince’s face to cover his nose and mouth before winding down around the base of his neck. At the same time, Vince noticed a sudden pressure on his legs, something jutting into the back of his calves, before it rescinded.

                “You want something new? Fair enough, it’s the finals, you deserve that. Wish granted, Vince. You’re being suffocated, in a minute or so you’ll pass out. Now you could blast that away, no problem, like I’ve watched you do already. But the second you try it, I’ve got stone spikes ready to stab you through the legs. Even kept them a few inches away, since you only seem to blast things you can touch. Good luck concentrating after that one. Everyone knows most absorbers can’t take in and expel energy at the same time, and based on your earlier fights you’re no exception, so I guess the real question is which do you choose? Lose now, painlessly, or struggle and lose a minute later with bleeding legs. Doesn’t really matter to me. I get the same outcome either way.”

                On the ground in front of him, Vince saw the dirt sink down an inch in a crescent shape, followed by a pair of circles slightly higher up. A smiley face. Conrad had formed a smiley face on the ground, just as an extra twist of the knife. If Vince had any lingering doubts about how badly he wanted to beat Conrad, the smile on the ground washed them away.

                Now he just had to figure out how the hell he was going to pull that off.