Chapter 291

                “That’s a cute line, but nothing about your situation has changed.”

                Conrad was right and wrong. The situation might not have changed, but Vince had. He’d stopped thinking about how to endure the next few minutes and started focusing on how to win. The first step was actually a very simple one: Vince had to figure out if Conrad was still physically human under all the stone. Until he knew what he was fighting, it was going to stay impossible to plan an appropriate strategy. Luckily, humans had many noticeable differences from rocks, the most relevant of which was a higher natural temperature.

                Theoretically, it was just like tracking people when Vince absorbed light. Of course, he wasn’t trying to find them through layers of rock in those situations, so the tactics might not be directly comparable. That didn’t matter, though. Win or lose, this was the path he had to walk either way. If he couldn’t do it, then he went down trying. If he could… well Vince would cross those bridges as he came to them.

                Weeks at Lander East had taught Vince a lot of things. Releasing larger bursts of energy was certainly one aspect of it, but he’d also focused on faster absorbing. In truth, he’d never reached the point where he could flash freeze a large area, not even in the months since then. Of course, that didn’t mean Vince hadn’t still been improving; there was a wide stretch between perfection and incompetence. Reaching out to the ambient heat all around him, Vince began to draw it in. Not just letting the heat through, like he once had; Vince was greedier this time, drinking in as much as he could. Water in the air turned to frost on the stones, which were starting to move as Conrad put together the context clues that Vince wasn’t absorbing kinetic energy anymore.

                The rocks were a little slower this time, whether because Conrad was feeling cautious or the sudden dip in temperature made them more brittle and hard to control. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. By the time Conrad was moving again, Vince had already gotten what he needed.

                “Upper left corner of the ceiling, under one of those spires you like creating so much.” Vince was already pointing up by the time the first rocks bounced ineffectually off him, breath turning to fog in the room’s chill. Switching back to kinetic didn’t return all the heat Vince had leeched, and while he did have to suppress a shiver he felt no inclination to warm the air back up. With it this cold, he would only need to absorb heat for a few seconds to pin down Conrad’s location again. “Looks like you’re not a full-shift manipulator after all. That, or stone-you still puts off an awful lot of heat.”

                “You froze the room to hunt me?”

                “It’s what Mary would have done, except I used heat instead of thoughts to run you down.” Vince started to move now, flattening more chunks of ground as he did. The small spikes shattered easily, too easily in fact. All the shifting of the rocks Conrad was doing must have been weakening them, they were formed into unnatural shapes that didn’t hold together well. Once he’d gotten a little distance, Vince pointed upward and let loose a brief torrent of flame. It wasn’t quite at the spot where Conrad was hiding, that would put him at serious risk. Instead, Vince focused on the stones below him, turning up the heat as much as he could. The shot barely lasted a full second before stone spikes shot out and Vince had to absorb their blows. No doubt about it now, Conrad’s attacks were definitely a little slower post-freeze. Whether it was the cold itself or simply forcing him to split his attention and deal with attacks was a discussion for minds smarter than Vince’s. He didn’t especially care why it was working, only that it was.

                Another round of heat absorption showed him Conrad moving through the walls, being shoved along by his shifting rocks like an automated tunnel. It was tempting to send another blast of fire, but Conrad was wising up, he’d picked a new position with plenty of stone spires in the way. Well, he wasn’t the only Super who could change a battlefield.

                One of the unexpected advantages to knowing where Conrad was hiding: Vince also knew where Conrad wasn’t tucked away. That meant he had a very clear idea of which parts of the cell could be attacked without risking lethal damage. Doing a horizontal leap, Vince flung himself at the nearest stone spire in his way. Landing at the base, he was barely there for a second before his fist slammed into the bottom of the massive spire, snapping it off at the root and sending it tumbling down. He was gone before it landed on another spire, shoving both into a section of still-spikey ground. It was a mix of Roy and Alice, brute force combined with altering the battlefield. Flecks of broken rock bounced off every section of the cell. Vince had to make Conrad afraid. Force him to go deep. That was the only way to end this safely.

                “This is insane, how much strength have you stolen?” A new flurry of rocks shot toward Vince. He absorbed the force in time, but these were slightly faster than the last batch. One way or another, Conrad was recovering, and Vince couldn’t allow that to happen.

                “It was given freely, actually, and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of how much raw power Roy was able to impart. That man has strength to spare. Which means so do I.” Risking a quick switch to absorbing heat, Vince double-checked Conrad’s position and then picked a totally different spot on the floor. Dropping his fist to it, Vince let out enough of Roy’s force to form another huge crater in the ground. “See, if that had been you, I’m guessing you’d be feeling pretty rough at the moment. Don’t worry, though. I’m not going to come after your real body like that. Not until I’ve figured out exactly how much power it takes to cave in the stone and wound your body without killing you outright. No lethal damage, you know.”

                If Vince had been facing someone from Lander, they would have never bought it. His classmates knew him too well. A move like that was inherently risky, no matter how sure Vince might be about the necessary force. But Conrad didn’t know the real Vince, he only knew the student who’d won through achieving deathblows on two of his opponents. He knew the Vince that was tearing apart the cell with seemingly reckless abandon. Conrad knew was he fighting someone who could see through his supposedly perfect hiding spot and punch through what was meant to be unbreachable armor.

                Sure enough, another brief absorbing of heat confirmed that Conrad was burrowing in deeper, probably nearing whatever border the cell had. That was the moment Vince had been waiting for, when Conrad was covered by enough rock to have solid protection from the heat.

                There was no time to waste. Vince smashed his way across the battlefield, taking down another spire in the process, before he arrived at Conrad’s hiding spot. Not slowing for a moment, Vince put a few craters in the ground encircling Conrad, then summoned the biggest, hottest blast of flame he could manage and sent it roaring into the ground. Within seconds the top layer of stone started to glow. Conrad’s counter was swift, two stone spikes shooting up on a crash course with Vince’s shoulders. This time, he didn’t change energies, however. Keeping the fire going, Vince stepped to the side, managing to avoid one of the strikes. Unfortunately, the other caught his left arm, cutting a slice in his triceps. Gritting his teeth, Vince ignored the pain and focused on the fire. A little more. A little more. He could see the glow spreading, the rocks were reaching the limit of how hot Vince could safely make them.

                Another set of spikes were already in route when Vince dropped the flames, barely turning to blast them away before hurling himself at the ground that seemed on the verge of boiling. Hand outstretched, Vince took back his flames, reabsorbing the heat from the rocks as fast as he could pull it in. As the stones cooled, far faster than nature had ever intended, cracks began to form throughout them. Between Conrad playing with their structure and the sudden dramatic shift in temperature, the rocks were turning incredibly brittle. By the time Vince landed, he was grinning from ear to ear as he stood atop the crumbling floor. He might never be up to snuff on the more advanced physics of his abilities, but even he knew what happened when someone dropped a hot dish in cold water.

                Conrad was trying to escape, his heat signature flopping about as it struggled, however the brittle rocks all around weren’t as easy to manipulate, and passing through Vince’s craters meant risking temporary exposure. He still had to potential to get away though, so Vince didn’t hesitate. Pressing his hand to the top of the floor, Vince summoned up the last of Thomas’s energy. An orange tendril appeared, slamming and slithering its way through the fragile rock, drilling to the bottom faster than it could have dreamed of moving through normal stone. The digging grew harder as it went deeper, Vince hadn’t torched the top long enough to penetrate all the way down on purpose, lest he cook Conrad alive. Ready for this moment, Vince widened the orange tendril into a massive cone, shoving away the rest of the rocks and dropping deep into the pit he’d created.

                Spikes and stone hands shot out at him, but Vince didn’t absorb them this time. Instead, he took a cue from Thomas’s energy suit, as well as his own previous escape in the match, and started letting constant kinetic energy surge from all parts of his body, shattering the attacks as they hit. While it was true that the rocks left wounds as they made contact, it was far better than being skewered. Plus, this method had the upside of letting Vince still blast offensively, and that was exactly what he planned to do.

                Attacking through an entire floor was much too risky for the person being hit, but this close, Vince could work in a smaller scale. He tore apart the ground beneath him, ignoring the steadily increasing torrent of strikes leaving cuts across his side and back. Pain was a good method to stop a lot of Supers. Just not ones from the Class of Nightmares.

                Slamming a fist through a layer of rock, Vince caught sight of Conrad’s leg. His real, human leg. At last, there was finally a proper opponent before him, and Vince was ready. He wrapped a hand around Conrad’s ankle and turned up the kinetic force considerably. The bones were hardy, clearly improved endurance was an aspect of Conrad’s power. But Vince had the Son of Titan’s strength running through him, and in moments the ankle snapped, eliciting a soft howl of pain from Conrad.

                Vince didn’t let go when he felt the break, instead he dragged Conrad out, dodging a half-hearted attempt at a punch before leaping out of the pit with Conrad still in his grip. They tumbled through the air,  breaking apart by inches just as they landed, with only one of them absorbing the force of the fall. Conrad started to sink immediately, but Vince was already there, jerking him back up.

                “Go ahead. Seal us.” Vince threw an kinetically-enhanced punch that Conrad blocked, shattering his forearm. “You’re just locking yourself in there with me.”

                Now that they were out of the hole, Vince noticed that perhaps he’d been taking those attacks lighter than he should have. Blood was running down his limbs and back, staining his white costume wherever it went. Conrad had taken notice too, though his eyes seemed more wide with fear than hope.

                “You can’t seriously be that wounded and still keeping focus. It should be impossible. What sort of reckless training do the instructors at Lander give you?”

                For the first time in the fight, Vince felt a flash of genuine anger. “They teach us to fight, no matter what, no matter how hopeless, no matter how impossible, because someday we’ll be the only ones who can. You want to know what makes Lander so unstoppable? It’s our teachers. They’ve fought for us, bled for us, and wept for those of us they couldn’t save. They aren’t reckless at all. They’re Heroes, and that’s what they’ve been training us to be. The kind of Heroes who don’t bow to the impossible, who won’t quit until we’re dead. And even then, our bodies will still keep on fighting. Heroes don’t accept the impossible, we don’t have that luxury. That, more than our powers or our training, is what makes us strong.”

                His hands slapped against either side of Conrad’s face, like Vince was trying to to hold the head in place. “Deathblow. Unless you think you’ve got a way to wriggle free of kinetic blasts to both sides of your brain. Unless you’re ready to fight for an impossible victory.”

                Conrad’s eyes blazed and he started to squirm, an act that put pressure on both of his broken limbs. The struggling failed, and he glanced to the ground, but they both knew it was pointless. Vince could “kill” him before the first stone rose, especially with Conrad’s injured state muddling his concentration. Another second ticked by, and Conrad closed his eyes, all-too-aware of what was inevitably coming.

                “And there you have it!” Victor’s voice was booming louder than ever, with something of a frantic edge to it, yet there was also noticeable joy as he yelled the results. “By deathblow, Vince Reynolds has defeated Conrad Booker. That makes him this year’s Intramural champion!”