Chapter 315

                This wasn’t sophomore year. It couldn’t be, Vince wouldn’t allow it to be. Back then, he’d been confused, tricked by illusions, but the core emotions he’d felt were his all along. That was always what made seeing that video of himself so terrifying; the knowledge that while Nick had conjured a scenario to create a specific reaction, he hadn’t been in actual control over Vince. Everything he’d done, everything he’d felt, that had all come from within. It was the first time Vince truly had to face the monster living inside him, the scared child going feral with anger over the idea of losing yet another person from his life. Now, when the stakes were real, he didn’t have the luxury of such unchecked aggression. That wasn’t how Heroes fought, wasn’t the way they treated life. Vince had to be in control, had to know what he was doing each step of the way and be at peace with it. Otherwise, he was exactly the kind of person Ralph Chapman had always suspected.

                However, being in control didn’t mean Vince couldn’t still crib a few moves from his mad-self’s playbook. He stepped out of the orange dome with a massive blast of fire ahead of him, concealing the momentary break in defenses and setting all of the nearby grass and shrubs alight. The flames would create smoke, which would hopefully make him a tad harder to hit, as well as provide disincentive for anyone to try and make a physical approach. When the flames cleared, he got a look at what they were facing for the first time. A dozen guards, most covering their faces to avoid getting burned but a few already lining up shots. Near the rear of the group were four Heroes, one tussling with the guards while the others were getting in position and staring at the dome. After the massive plume of fire, all eyes were at least partially on Vince though.

                It seemed a shame to waste such an opportunity, so Vince didn’t. Lifting his arm straight into the air, an action which made sure everyone even partially aware of him turned their gaze in his direction, Vince let off the most powerful flash he could build up in the span of a few seconds. It wasn’t going to be as effective as his usual attack since he hadn’t darkened the area to dilate their eyes first, but the screams of pain and hands rubbing faces confirmed that it had absolutely had an impact. This was the best shot Vince was going to get, and there was only one energy for the job. Digging deep, Vince summoned as much lightning as he could, memories of Lander East flashing through his mind. Against one Super, even one with enhanced endurance, this was too much, but spread out among a dozen guards it shouldn’t put them at lethal risk. There was still a chance of it, though, electricity attacks were hardly a precise science. Because of that risk, Vince angled his unfocused, splintering attack away from the Heroes. It meant he wasn’t able to get every guard, however it also ensured he didn’t accidentally take down any allies, even if they didn’t know he was on their side.

                The blast sent a few guards to the ground, although less than Vince was hoping for, and already several had begun to recover from the flash. One, a bigger guard who never rubbed his eyes at all, was leaping over his fallen comrades on a direct charge for Vince. Large size, unbothered by light or electricity, probably some manner of strongman type. Much further back, another guard shook off the eye pain and turned into a blur, racing toward Vince. Not great, two at once could be problematic if they were smart and worked together.

                The two were briefly neck and neck as they ran at Vince, and then, suddenly, they weren’t. From out of nowhere another streak came zipping in, slamming into the running guard and sending him sprawling to the ground. Vince didn’t recognize the woman who appeared briefly as she paused to watched the speedster guard hit the ground then followed when he tried to escape, and he didn’t need to. She’d just helped, and in this fight he’d take all the friends who wanted to pitch in.

                There was no time to call for her as she gave chase, the big guard had leapt over the flames easily and was just about in swinging distance of Vince. From the stance and technique, this fellow obviously had some training. It was not, however, enough to bridge the divide against someone who had spent the last four years practicing endlessly for exactly these sorts of situations. Vince didn’t even bat an eye, he merely ducked the first swing, put a fist against the guard’s sternum, and said a silent prayer that the guard was as durable as he seemed. Otherwise, this was about to get very messy.

                Luckily, Vince’s guess was right, and the kinetic blast sent the guard flying up into the air rather than blowing his heart out his back. With him out of the way, though, Vince was able to see that many of the other guards had recovered and were learning from their predecessors mistakes. That was an easy enough threat to deal with, he could handle pure kinetic attacks. The trouble was that not every guard was grabbing a gun. One was picking up a stone that had started glowing in his hands, another had eyes crackling with some form of red electricity, and a third was now holding what sure looked like a cat made of living super-heated metal. Energy powers and a summoner, that was a dangerous combination, especially when paired with bullets. His best chance was to cut off their ability to fire or fight by putting them on the defensive.

                Another massive blast of flames, but this time it didn’t even reach the guards. One had held up a hand and created a shield of blue light around them, and the fire was glancing off it harmlessly. Shit. Vince had caught them by surprise before, that was the only reason his attacks got through. With a defender of their own, this was going to be a much tougher battle.

                Vince shifted to absorbing kinetic only seconds before the first gunshot, one almost instantly followed by screams. For a moment, Vince thought his attack actually had gotten through, as one of the guards was completely engulfed in flames. Then he saw the next one shoot, and it all made sense. As soon as the trigger was pulled a fireball bloomed around him, a small bubble of concentrated inferno. Casting his eyes about, Vince could just make out Lucinda near the edge of the clearing, and she gave him a tired wave. Blood was on her uniform and she was leaning against a tree, visibly wounded. Even in her injured state, she was still trying to help as best she could. Many questions sprang to mind, such as how on earth she’d gotten here, but they would have to wait. Vince had a fight to deal with.

                Unfortunately, just as the guards were getting scared, the Heroes began to move. They made it all of ten steps closer before a golden blade slammed into the ground in front of them, a figure in matching armor leaping out of the trees and stabbing a guard who had been trying to sneak up on the Heroes from the rear.

                “Hey there.” Charon tossed aside the bloody dagger, which vanished back into light instantly. “The name is Charon, fellow Hero, you’ve probably heard of me, and all the kids in white uniforms are on our side. That one included.”

                “He’s protecting Globe,” said a woman in a bright yellow and red costume.

                “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do with a prisoner?” Charon countered. “Can’t very well let these assholes kill someone in our custody, now can we? Especially not someone that the DVA would want to get answers and secrets from.”

                The guard with the stone reared back to throw, but his legs went out suddenly and he fell to the ground, dropping the stone with him. It exploded a second later, sending dirt, as well as several guards, tumbling through the air. Vince just had time to see two blades of shadow slither away before he heard Shane’s voice.

                “Quit trying to do all this yourself, Vince.” Shane was near, staying out of sight to attack without warning but close enough to speak. “Come on now, what is the first advantage that separates Heroes from criminals?”

                “Heroes work together.” Vince did a short kinetic leap forward, slamming his elbow into the nose of the guard with crackling red eyes and sending him down hard then scuttling back in front of the dome. “Heroes trust each other.” The metal-cat was racing toward Vince, so he held out a hand and began to absorb the heat coming off of it. He’d never tried to steal energy from a summon before, but if it was real enough to torch the grass as it moved, it was real enough to lose that same inner fire. The cat began to twitch as its body cooled, cracks forming along it’s flesh before the whole thing vanished in a puff. Nearby, the summoner who had called it staggered back like he’d been hit, and Vince didn’t give him a chance to call any more friends, putting him down with a targeted shot of lightning.

                Shadow blades were flying, more guards were slowly dropping from lack of oxygen or burning up when they shot a gun, and the gal in the golden armor was putting down any idiots who got near her. This was why the Vince from sophomore year could never have been a Hero. Indiscriminate destruction not only put people needlessly at risk, it circumvented the ability to work with others. It had been a good tool for showing everyone watching what Vince could do at the time, but in the field there was no technique, no power, more valuable than having people he trusted to fight at his side.

                One Hero could make a difference, but a coalition of Heroes could keep the country safe, protect the weak from the powerful, and inspire Supers to use their gifts for good. That was why Captain Starlight formed an organization, he understood better than anyone else had the importance of working together.

                Unfortunately, he was not the only one to grasp that lesson. All the fighting had stirred up a commotion, and more guards were coming. Near the front of the charge, one of them raised a hand in the direction of Vince and the dome. He was still some distance away, with the remains of the first group of guards between them, so Vince wasn’t expecting the shot to go off yet. When it did, however, there was no mistaking it for anything else.

                A wave of rippling force, like heat from pavement on a summer day, cascaded out from the guard’s hand. As it moved, it began to hit the other guards, and the moment it did they started to… peel. Their bodies came apart one after the other, skin followed by muscles and bones, a hideous sight to watch even as the cause drew closer to Vince and the dome. The guard with the blue shield tried to block it, but his power was useless as his body tore to pieces. Even Charon dove aside after she watched it rip through a spear that she’d left planted in another guard’s knee. Whatever this power was, it was pure destruction, nothing like Vince had ever encountered before. Still, he couldn’t move. There was no guarantee Thomas’s energy would stop it, especially after seeing another shield already fail. The best chance they had was Vince.

                With no idea what the wave was, blasting through it was probably out. The odds of him having the right energy to stop it and choosing that on his one chance were just too slender. No, absorbing was the only way this might work, but that had its risks too. Vince didn’t know what the energy was, he’d have to feel it, touch it, to be able to draw it in, assuming he even could. The problem was that the instant it touched him, he’d pretty much be dead. That was… unless it took something he could live without first.

                Bracing himself for what would no doubt be an indescribable amount of pain, Vince set his jaw, locked his feet and thrust out his left arm as far as it would go. Seconds later, the wave struck. The skin on his fingers began to peel before the pain arrived, although it wasn’t far behind. Blocking it out as best he could, Vince focused only on the wave, the energy, the feeling of what it was. Every cell it hit felt like it was tearing him apart, or maybe making his body tear itself apart. There was a frequency to it, an oscillation, kinetically based yet not quite the same thing. Crafted energy, distinct to the Super creating it, but Vince had absorbed such power-types before. He ignored the flesh falling from his forearm, refusing to permit the screams trying to tear from his throat. It didn’t matter. One arm. One limb to save his friend, the woman he loved, and his father. He should be grateful for such a bargain.

                It passed his elbow, the pain growing worse, but Vince was getting a feel for it. He could sense the movement of the energy, the effect it had on the things it hit. Vince would have dearly liked more time, but the arm had only bought him a few seconds to try before the wave hit his whole body, and the limb was almost gone. Hoping against hope, Vince closed his eyes, focused with all his might on the energy wave, and pulled like his life depended on it. Which it, and several others, very much did.

                There was an instant where the wave kept going, nearing the shoulder, and Vince thought it was over. Then he felt the warmth of energy flowing in. Eyes snapping open, he could see the wave vanish as he pulled it in, absorbing the deadly threat completely. Blood was spilling from what little remained of his left arm at a dangerous rate. Finally allowing a horrendous scream of pain to pass his lips, Vince summoned a burst of fire in his remaining hand and slammed it into the stump, cauterizing the wound.

                All eyes, Hero and guard alike were on him. Giving himself a few seconds to catch his breath, Vince finally looked at them, then lifted his right arm and made a “come here” motion with his hand.

                “Give me everything you’ve got. Fight me with all you have. It doesn’t matter. No one is getting through this dome. Because I am standing here, against everything you can bring, and I will stop you.”