Rachel returns to her apartment several hours later. Her home is in the rundown part of the city. Or, more accurately, the most rundown part of the city. The part of the city with the gangs and the drugs. The part of the city where people get pickpocketed every ten seconds. On a side note, Rachel actually knows a lot about how often people get pickpocketed; she stole dozens of wallets when she was a child.
Rachel reaches a desolate apartment building, abandoned long ago. Despite the sign in front that says Luxury Condominiums, the place looks to be the opposite of comfort. The ceiling is caving in and all of the windows are either broken or boarded up. Rachel climbs through a hole in the boards covering the windows and finds everything that the cops took, sitting in a pile in the building’s lobby. Rachel grabs the stuff and climbs three flights of stairs. She arrives at her home and unlocks the door. She enters her dingy apartment with a leak in the roof and the windows that never quite manage to keep out the cold of winter.
Rachel and Jeremy discovered the building years ago. The entire complex was abandoned before the two were born after the owner and most of the residents were killed by aliens. Despite the fact that the back half of the building was missing and the dozens of rats that scrambled around, the two decided that the place would be their home.
At first glance, the apartment appears to be a complete garbage heap. The furniture is ratty, the appliances are falling apart, the paint is chipping and faded, and a family of raccoons have taken up permanent lodging in the bathroom. On a second glance, most people realize that the apartment is an oxymoron unto itself, a living contradiction.
On a hole filled wall hangs an original Picasso. Sitting next to an old stereo is a stolen silver salamander sculpture. Various pilfered expensive antiques dot Rachel’s bedroom. The raccoons gnaw on some rubies. A solid gold bar sits next to the toilet. Rachel’s crappy apartment is filled to the brim with signs of wealth and prosperity.
On the couch sits Rachel’s older brother Jeremy. Upon seeing Rachel he hugs her and tells her how worried he was. “How’d you get away from the cops?” he asks.
“They let me go. All I had to do was sign up for some Tournament thing. He called it the Goldfish Valley Tournament or something,” Rachel says.
The color drains from Jeremy’s face. He stands up and walks over to the Picasso. He stares at it for a second before speaking. “Golden Valhalla,” he says.
“It’s called the Golden Valhalla Tournament.”
“So you’ve heard of it?”
Jeremy sighs. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ve heard of it. It isn’t the type of thing you should get caught up in.”
“Because! The deadliest people on the planet are, you know, deadly!”
“I can deal with deadly.”
“Not like this. These people are on a level far above anything you’re capable of.”
“If it’s too much for me I can drop out.”
“Faust. You know, the guy in charge of this thing.”
“I’ve seen his talk show, he’s a slimy scumbag. Not the type of person whose word you should trust.”
Rachel begins flipping through the pamphlet, looking for a passage she saw earlier. “Here,” she says as she holds the small book up to Jeremy’s face. “Prior to the Redemption Bracket, fighters are allowed to retire from the Tournament by contacting a member of the Tournament staff.”
“Okay, fine. You can quit. But that’s assuming you don’t die before you realize you’re in over your head.
“Faust said that there isn’t any killing allowed in the early matches.”
“Just because something’s restricted doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. And that’s only in the main bracket. The Redemption Bracket’s different.”
“What’s the Redemption Bracket?”
“It’s an optional losers bracket for the crazy fighters. Killing is allowed, and winning gives you a fight against the main bracket winner.”
“I’m not crazy-”
“So I just don’t participate in the Redemption Bracket, and I’ll be fine.”
“It’s still not safe. The Tournament has dangerous people. Monsters, even.”
“How do you know so much about this Tournament anyway?”
“I’m a fan. A lot of people are, actually. It’s very entertaining.”
Rachel walks over to an old computer sitting on a desk. Stolen, like everything in the room. She sits down on a chair resting next to the computer and begins typing, looking for clips of Tournament matches. “What are some good fights?”
Jeremy crosses his arms and stares silently. Rachel ignores his indignation and begins reading off the names of several fights. “Let’s see here,” she says. “Vulcan v Wyvern, Legion v Lovecraft, Dreadnought v Tsunami, Bombshell v Sage, Swiss v Wand-”
“Play Bombshell v Sage. That’s a good one.”
Rachel clicks on the video and the computer projects it on the apartment’s wall. The video shows two fighters standing in an arena. Not the arena where Heavyweight and Helios will fight, a smaller one. One shaped like an octagon, with glass walls that stretch to the ceiling. The arena lies within a dark room and is surrounded on all sides by seats containing cheering spectators.
“This fight is one of the older ones,” Jeremy says. “It’s from the first Tournament, actually. It’ll help me prove my point.”
The two fighters stare at each other. One is an older man, thin like a matchstick. He wears a long black coat that hangs still at his side, with plain clothing underneath. His glare is stony, with an esoteric calmness hiding beneath.
His opponent is younger. A lot younger, actually. Thirty-three, to be specific. She wears cargo pants, black boots, and a camouflage top. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and layers of athletic tape are wrapped around her arms. Unlike the old man, she looks impatient and shifts a ping pong ball between her fingers as she waits.
The camera switches to a middle-aged man in a suit sitting at a table, a mike in his hand. He begins to speak over the arena’s sound system. His voice is worn, from years of announcing, and bears a somewhat friendly tone, like that of an old pal. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he says, “Are you ready to see something amazing?”
The crowd cheers and the announcer chuckles. “I figured you’d say that,” he says. “Over the past couple of days, we’ve seen some pretty great fights. However, all good things must come to an end. This Tournament is one of those good things.”
“Two fighters remain, each vying for the greatest prize imaginable. One wish, granted to the best of our abilities. Aside from that, the winner’s going to take home the honor of being crowned the greatest fighter on the planet. Get ready, folks, because I have a feeling it’s gonna be a good one.”
“In the red corner, we have the bombshell who actually explodes, Regina Diefenbach!”
The crowd cheers and the woman holds the ping pong ball up in front of her face. It turns yellow and she throws it in the air. It explodes like a grenade, filling the arena with smoke. When it clears, her face is twisted into a crazed grin that unnerves Rachel. The old man’s stoic expression remains unchanged. Diefenbach raises her arms in the air and the crowd erupts with cheer.
“Seems like someone’s excited,” the announcer jokes. “A little too excited, if I’m going to be honest.”
He waits for the audience to calm down before returning to his spiel. “Standing in the blue corner we have the old sage of swordplay, Gallus Silvano!”
The crowd returns to cheering. Unlike Diefenbach, who seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd, Silvano ignores them. Without a word, he lifts his right hand skyward. His sleeve falls to his elbow, revealing tattooed symbols that spiral up his forearm. The tattoos begin to glow cyan, and a light begins to shine within Silvano’s palm. The light stretches, forming into the shape of a sword. He grasps the blade by its grip and pulls it to his side. The light solidifies into a thin sword.
Silvano points the blade at Diefenbach. “Prepare yourself,” he says. “I do not intend to hold back.”
Diefenbach rolls her eyes. “I’m ready when you are,” she says.
“Well, folks,” the announcer says. “I think it’s time to get this show on the road.”
A bell rings and the fight begins. Diefenbach runs forward, palms open, ready to grab Silvano. In a second, she reaches the other side of the arena.
She lunges at Silvano. Silvano, despite his advanced age, moves like lightning, quickly dodging Diefenbach. As she falls to the ground, he swings his sword, bringing it to the side of his opponent’s neck.
The blade shatters like glass, leaving only a small broken shard extruding from the hilt. The broken pieces evaporate, leaving no trace of their existence. “A swing and a miss from Silvano,” the announcer says.
Diefenbach lands on her hands and knees. “Neat sword,” she says. “Felt like a feather.”
Diefenbach closes her eyes. She slams her hands down on the floor of the arena, and the ground around her turns yellow. A massive explosion erupts from the ground, shaking the glass room. Silvano jumps back but is caught by the blast and thrown against one of the arena’s walls.
“We just had a massive explosion from Diefenbach. It’s currently unclear if Silvano’ll be able to get up from that.”
The smoke clears and Diefenbach stands up. Her hair has come undone, her bandages have been darkened by the smoke, and the bottoms of her pants have been torn asunder, Aside from those few blemishes, she remains completely unharmed. She smiles. “Boom,” she says.
“Seems that Bombshell’s okay,” the announcer says. “But what of the Sage?”
On the glass wall lies a small red smudge. Blood, left by Silvano’s impact. Silvano’s back rests on the wall, and drops of blood drip down from the back of his head. A torrent of blood pours from his nose, staining his shirt. His eyes are welded shut. His grip on what’s left of his sword has loosened, and the blade lies flat on his palm. Most distressing is his leg, which is contorted at the knee and twisted like tree roots.
“I’d say that Silvano’s down for the count,” the announcer says.
“Come on, is that really all you’ve got?” Diefenbach taunts.
Silvano’s eyes snap open and his fist clenches around what’s left of his sword. He raises it skyward, and the blade reforms.
“Looks like Silvano’s still got a little fight in him,” the announcer says. “Although, fighting with that knee’s gonna be tough.”
Silvano plants the blade in the ground, using it to support himself like a cane. He pulls himself up. “I’m not done,” he says. “Not yet.”
Diefenbach smiles and reaches into her pocket, producing a ping pong ball. It turns yellow and she throws it at Silvano. In an instant, Silvano spins, swinging his sword. The blade extends, reaching across the room, and colliding with the ball midair. The ping pong ball explodes as it connects with the blade, far from Silvano.
The blade shatters from the explosion, and Silvano falls forward. In an instant, the blade reforms and Silvano plants it in the ground again. Diefenbach reaches into her pockets and pulls out two more balls.
She throws the first one, and Silvano once again intercepts it. Then, as Silvano’s blade falls apart, and he falls because of his damaged leg, she pitches the second. Silvano lacks the time to reform his blade, leaving him in danger. Suddenly, a second blade extrudes from Silvano’s hand, stopping the ping pong ball dead in its tracks.
“Come on,” Diefenbach says. “Two swords? Isn’t that overkill?”
Sage reforms his right sword and plants it as a cane, then reforms his left and points it at Diefenbach. “Perhaps,” he concedes.
He begins to move forward, stumbling with each step, heading to the center of the ring. Diefenbach accepts his challenge and does the same. “The fighters are moving in,” the announcer says. “Something tells me that this will be over soon.”
The two meet in the center and look each other in the eyes. One gravely injured, the other untouched. Diefenbach reaches for Silvano’s throat and he ducks out of the way. With one of his blades, he splits open the pocket containing the ping pong balls. They spill out, making a light clicking noise as they hit the floor. Silvano thrusts his other blade upward, striking Diefenbach in the bottom of her chin.
The blade stops, unable to pierce her skin. Silvano steadies himself with his other sword and tries to push the blade into Diefenbach’s skull, trying to end her before she ends him. Diefenbach attempts to grab him once more and he falls backward, narrowly missing her hand. As she swings her arm, the bandages begin to glow.
The blast from the exploding bandages throws Silvano away from Diefenbach. He lies on the ground in a pool of blood. The left side of his face is red, covered in blood and burns. He grits his teeth, trying to hold in his screams.
“And a surprise blow from Diefenbach nearly kills Silvano!” the announcer says. “Exciting stuff, folks. Looks like this is the end.”
The announcer turns to the side and mouths “end this” to one of his staff. Silvano reaches into his coat pocket. He pulls out a golden medallion etched with arcane carvings and raises it above his head.
Suddenly, a circle inscribed with a pentagram appears beneath him, forged out of blue light. A radiant pillar rises from its center, raising Silvano up into the air. The light transforms him, making him into something different. Something powerful. Something magical.
The pillar dissipates and Silvano lands on his feet. The frail old man with the destroyed eye and a crippled leg is gone, replaced by a younger man clad in armor. Blue flames surround him, creating a hardened shell of the same energy as his swords. His face is mostly hidden by the armor, but his stony glare persists. In his hand lies the golden medallion. He places it within the thigh plate of his armor for safe keeping.
“This is a shocking development, folks!” the announcer says. “Right when we thought this was over, Silvano’s back in the game!”
Two gigantic claymores form in Silvano’s hands as he runs at Diefenbach. He attacks relentlessly, hitting her with his right blade and throwing her against the wall. She shrugs off the hit and charges at Silvano. He slashes at her legs, knocking her off balance, and slams her to the ground with a downward slash.
She lands on her back and Silvano drops one off his swords, grabbing the other with both hands. He plants the blade on her stomach, thrusting downward with all the force he can muster. Again, the blade fails to pierce her skin.
“That won’t work,” Diefenbach says. “No matter how many times you try, you can’t hurt me.”
She touches the ground and a wave of gold spreads across the floor. Then, everything goes insane. The entire arena is engulfed in energy. Glass shatters and falls to earth. Silvano is thrown in the air. Spectators scream and try to run away as the ceiling begins to crumble. The front row lies still, their lives taken by the blast.
As Silvano lands, the announcer yells for the audience to evacuate. He grabs the mike and screams at the fighters, “Stop! This is insane!”
Neither fighter heads his words. The announcer runs, joining the fleeing crowd. Diefenbach walks through the shattered wall, each step crunching broken glass under her boots. She brushes a corpse out of its seat and rips the seat from the floor.
As Silvano stands up he is hit in the face by an exploding chair. He shrugs it off, protected by his armor, and reforms his swords. Diefenbach turns around to grab another chair.
A child runs through the chaos, separated from his parents. He’s scared, desperate to escape before the psychotic woman kills him. He trips and falls, right in front of Diefenbach. She smiles and cracks her knuckles, and the child screams.
Silvano’s sword crashes against the side of Diefenbach’s skull, shattering into a thousand pieces that rain down above the child like shooting stars. Diefenbach turns around as Silvano grabs her arm. He flings her back into the arena and restores both of his blades.
Both swords smash against Diefenbach’s skull with the sound of a thunderclap as the two warriors run at each other. Silvano swings and Diefenbach catches the blade, exploding it in an instant. Diefenbach grabs Silvano by the neck and golden energy engulfs his armor. “Boom,” she whispers.
The explosion leaves a large crater in the center of the room. By now, the ceiling has completely collapsed, and moonlight pours down on the two fighters. Silvano has returned to his original form and the medallion lies at his feet, broken in half. Diefenbach lies on the other side of the crater. Her hair is charred and her boots have been reduced to a gum-like consistency. A small drop of blood rolls down from her face from her left eye.
Diefenbach rises from the ground and a riotous laughter escapes from her lungs. Amidst the rubble and death, she feels joy, pure ecstasy over the destruction. Then it all ends. A thin blue blade stretches from Silvano’s hand to her eye, embedding itself in her brain. The blade dissipates and Diefenbach falls to the ground, dead.
Two fighters lie side by side, one dead and the other barely clinging to life. The audience has been given the great battle they wished for, at a terrible cost. Silvano raises his fist in the air, triumphantly, before finally succumbing to unconsciousness.
“Like I said,” Jeremy says. “It isn’t safe.”
The spell breaks and Rachel is back in her crummy apartment. She mulls over the brutality of the fight. “You know what the best part is?” Jeremy says. “This wasn’t even a Redemption fight. They didn’t add those till the eighth Tournament. This is from when killing was against the rules. The Tournament is dangerous, Rach.”
Rachel thinks about the violence she just witnessed. This is insane, Rachel thinks. But, deep within her heart, a voice emerges. That looked like fun, it whispers.
“I’m still going,” Rachel says
“What?” Jeremy exclaims. “Why?”
“I don’t know.”
Rachel looks around the dingy apartment with a leak in the roof and the windows that never quite manage to keep out the cold of winter. The apartment she chooses to stay in despite the fact that she can afford much better. “I have to do this,” she says. “I don’t know why, but I feel like I have to do something more with my life.”
“Besides,” she says. “I already signed Faust’s contract. I don’t think I’m allowed to say no at this point.”
Jeremy runs his hands through his hair and mutters some curse words under his breath. “Okay,” he says. “We have five months for you to learn to fight. No more heists, no more bars, nothing but sword fighting training, okay?”
“And then, when we go to the Tournament-”
“‘I’ll come along as your trainer. When we get to the Tournament we pray you get gentle enough opponents so that you can survive your matches.”
“I want to do more than just survive,” Rachel says. “I wanna win.”