Chapter 290

                Conrad had either merged with, or hidden himself in, the stone of the combat cells. A twisting formation of rock was choking the air from Vince slowly, easing him toward unconsciousness. The moment he blasted it away, he was going to take two strikes from rock spikes waiting near his legs. And even if Vince somehow got out of that, he would still be utterly vulnerable while Conrad remained unseen and untouchable. Vince was no stranger to bad situations, and even he had to admit this wasn’t looking great.

                The lone upside was that Conrad seemed content to run out the clock on Vince’s air, so no more attacks were coming at the moment. That gave Vince a few precious seconds to try and think. There had to be a way to get out of this. He might have enough of Thomas’s energy to make a shield, but that was a resource Vince couldn’t replenish. If he relied on that to beat this technique, sooner or later he’d run out and be back in the same spot. Absorbing was no good, the rock was physically constricted around his neck and face, taking away it’s kinetic force probably wouldn’t change the fact that it was still smothering him. Even if that did turn out to help, Vince would be stuck in place, unable to stop absorbing without finding himself in the same dilemma. At that point, it would probably count as a capture.

                Blasting the bindings on his neck wouldn’t work… wait, wouldn’t it? Conrad had tried to make Vince think that idea was off the table, but that didn’t make it true. Yes, Vince was going to take a blow to the knees as soon as he knocked away the choking rocks, so what if he wasn’t there when the attack landed? After all, he occasionally shot fire with both hands. There was no real reason he couldn’t discharge one energy from other parts of his body at the same time.

                Although Vince lacked the ability to carve smiles in the dirt, he managed a small grin of his own just before he struck. Vince fired off powerful blasts of kinetic energy from two points of his body: his head, and his feet. The rock-collar shot off as Vince tore into the air, the stone scythes meant to pierce his flesh slamming harmlessly into the ground. Vince was surprised to realize he’d blown the soles off his boots again, apparently he’d put more into the jump than he realized. Air whipped by his face as Vince scanned the cell, desperately searching for any clues as to Conrad’s whereabouts. No sign of Sizemore’s champion, although he did see the walls twitching slightly.

                Just in time, Vince remembered that Conrad could turn rocks into projectiles and started absorbing in mid-air. Seconds later a stone thudded softly off Vince’s back, kind enough to transfer it’s force to him before tumbling harmlessly to the ground. Several more followed before Vince landed, however they’d already slowed by the end. Conrad had seen it didn’t work and was no doubt switching strategies.

                “I think I’ve been making this too easy on you. What we need here is a shift in terrain.”

                Before Conrad’s echo had fully-faded, the change began. Stone spires began shooting up, just as they had for Alice, only this time they were sharper, with more points poking out. The floor itself was changing too, growing spikes that thrust upward, ready to slice through the first careless foot that tread upon them. All around Vince, the cell seemed to be growing rocky teeth of all sizes. Complete and total alteration to the battlefield in less than a minute. Frustrating as Conrad was to face, Vince had to admit he was glad the guy was on the side of the Heroes. A power like his would be able to save a lot of people.

                Such a thought was not great comfort to Vince as he surveyed the landscape, however. Virtually anywhere he went, any step he made, he risked shredding his feet. Maybe if he absorbed the kinetic energy while he walked it would keep him from sinking down on the spikes, that was a technique he’d never tried though, and this didn’t feel like the best time to find out if it worked. Not to mention that being in a state of perpetual absorption would leave Vince virtually incapable of offense.

                A spike fired out of the ground, on track for Vince’s hip, and his reflexes screamed at him to dodge. Barely keeping control, Vince instead absorbed the force of the spike, halting it just as it made contact and left a small hole in his uniform. Another came seconds later, this time aimed for his left shoulder, and at the same time one shot out from the right, targeting his spine. What was more worrisome, the first spike hadn’t vanished yet, it was still there, pressing against him, even as others formed a short distance away from Vince, ready to strike. Conrad was trying to pin Vince down, taking away his ability to maneuver while surrounding him with traps. The shoulder spike had gone high and turned in mid-air, halting when pointed downward and inches from his flesh. If he jumped again, Vince risked impaling his shoulder in the process. Rather than abandoning his tactic from minutes ago, Conrad was modifying and fine-tuning it, working to find a way to breach Vince’s defenses while keeping him from running amok. An aggravating tactic to face, but no one could claim it didn’t fit the ideals of a Hero.

                More spikes hit, more stopped stones staying carefully against or near Vince’s skin. The lone exception was one that struck him near the ribs, which hit a minor obstacle it had to drill through. That was the pocket where Vince had set Nick’s good luck gift of playing cards. If they were supposed to save him from some sort of unexpected attack, they’d failed spectacularly at their job. Then again, how would Nick predict something like that, especially since he wasn’t using his power? It couldn’t be something that simple. That wasn’t the way Nick worked.

                “Go on, blast them away. Or run across my spikes. Or jump into the air again. I’m starting to get a sense of what you can do, Vince Reynolds, and it’s only a matter of time until I beat you. I’m the best Sizemore has to offer, the best of this entire year’s Hero Certification Program. Do us both a favor and just give up before I have to make you look bad.”

                The best that Sizemore had to offer. The King of their class. Someone at the absolute top of their game. And now all that Lander had left was their fourth pick, the one who’d barely made it in. The man who was only default King because everyone else had lost.

                “Nick didn’t say I was the King.”

                “Well, that certainly sounds like insane babble. Did you crack?” The echo seemed almost concerned, as well as perhaps a bit uncertain. This probably wasn’t the reaction that Conrad had braced for.

                “In my class, we use a playing card analogy. The best fighter we have is the King. The top of the class. The pinnacle we all strive for.” Vince was wracking his brain now, trying to figure it out. It didn’t matter, or it shouldn’t in a situation like this. Yet all the same, Vince couldn’t stop pulling on the mental thread. “But Nick didn’t call me the King. He said maybe, like he was unsure. Nick’s never unsure. I’m the one who doesn’t understand things.”

                “Oh? Perhaps I can teach you a lesson then.”

                The floor around Vince began to rumble as his entire corner of the cell sank down, right as dozens of sharp stones grew into a dome overhead. They kept growing, forming into a ceiling, yet the spikes nearby weren’t moving. Conrad was combining his favorite techniques, trying to seal Vince in while preparing half-dozen attacks to strike the moment he stopped absorbing. With a ceiling in place, Vince wouldn’t be able to jump his way to freedom, at best he’d just get knocked back down here, at worst he’d seriously hurt himself.

                As the stones moved into place, closing Vince off from the artificial light of the cell, the situation seemed more and more dire. Yet, in spite of that, Vince lowered his head as the last bit fell into place and set his jaw in determination. He got it. Vince thought he understood what Nick was trying to remind him of. Even if he’d gotten it completely wrong, even if there was no meaning to the cards, it didn’t matter. Vince had realized what he needed to see, and that meant the cards had worked.

                The massive blast tore apart the stone spikes, shattering the ground for several feet in all directions and completely collapsing the still-forming ceiling. When the dust cleared, it revealed Vince Reynolds kneeling, his fist pressed firmly against the ground that had instantly turned into a massive crater. Before Conrad could reform the trap, Vince had leapt once more, soaring through the cell. When he was at the top of his arc, Vince held out his hand, creating a hammer of orange energy that stretched down and smashed into the spikey floor. It was gone before he landed, his attention back to absorbing so he didn’t break a leg. He turned around to face the shattered corner, where bits of debris were still tumbling down.

                “How… how did you create that much force?” Conrad didn’t sound so sure of himself now, and it was hard to blame the man. Vince had never used that kind of power in a match, certainly not here in Intramurals. The hole he’d left when fighting Graverobber was less than half of this one’s size.

                “I did what Roy would do. I put it into a single blow and smashed my way out by destroying the entire foundation your spikes were built on.” Vince stepped forward, a small blast of kinetic energy from the sole of his foot flattening the spikes on the floor the moment they touched his skin. “There are a lot of people to draw that kind of inspiration from. See, we’re different, you and I. I’m not the King of my class. I’ve had to fight against so many strong people to make it this far. I’ve had to counter them, to learn from them, to steal power from them, and grow from my losses to them. My best friend helped me see the two things I needed to make this fight a real challenge. The first is that none of this matters, it’s just my fight against you. So long as I don’t go into lethal territory, I don’t have to hold back.”

                Vince kept walking, flattening the floor and scanning the walls. He had an idea for how to draw Conrad out of hiding, but it centered on putting Sizemore’s champion on the defensive. While beating the last trap was a solid start, he needed to put more pressure on Conrad, make him unsure what was coming next. Despite the fact that Vince had never been much at intentional smack talk, it seemed the best path he had available.

                “Honestly, the idea of that still scares the hell out of me, and yet oddly I find it also somewhat freeing. But that was only half of it. See, it’s not enough to just come at you with everything I’ve got. That wouldn’t be enough. That’s probably why Nick gave me the cards, in the hopes that I wouldn’t get in my head and forget the basic core of my ability: I’m not just me. I’m an absorber, in more ways than just what my power does. Fighting with only my own default tactics is just going to lead to another Lander loss, and I’m more than that. I’m everything I’ve learned and stolen and seen in these last four years. Be it power, lesson, or technique, I’ve got something from everyone in my class with me today.” Flexing his fingers, Vince took a deep breath and got ready to turn this into a real match.

                “You might be the King of Sizemore, but I’m Lander’s whole damn shuffle.”