Sole Survivor – Chapter IV: To Fantastic Horizons

At the beginning of May, the Tournament staff contact Rachel and ask her if she can travel to the Tournament on her own or if she requires them to make accommodations for her. Rachel decides upon the later. Three weeks before the Fourteenth Tournament. Rachel travels to City 19’s docks to board a ship headed to an island in the middle of the Pacific ocean.

An armored man, like the ones who arrested her, waits by the ship. He carries a blue sword and leaves its tip planted in the ground. Rachel wonders to herself if he is the man with the flaming longsword or the one with the lion club, or perhaps a different man entirely. Although Rachel doesn’t know it, the man’s name is Rompaye. Occasionally people walk past Rompaye and gawk at his attire. He ignores them.

“Look’s like we’re in the right place,” Jeremy says.

The man carrying the sword notices Rachel and begins to board the ship. “Should I…follow?” Rachel asks Jeremy.

“Probably,” he replies.

Rachel follows Rompaye and boards the ship. Two hours later, the ship leaves port, heading to fantastic new horizons.

As the ship leaves Rachel stands on deck, gazing at the city she grew up in. She stares at the tall skyscrapers, half of them abandoned, that stretch into the heavens like mountains. She stares at the polluted bay with piles of trash floating like lily pads. She stares at the thick smog that blocks out the stars at night.

And she feels tiny. Despite its massive problems, for her entire life thus far, City 19 was her home. As the ship goes farther away from the city, Rachel says goodbye. Goodbye to the crime and to the cold. Goodbye to the murderers and the thieves. Goodbye to the city abandoned by the heroes and the government. Goodbye to the city filled to the brim with despair. Goodbye to home.

Rachel would eventually return to that city by the bay, years later and under entirely different circumstances, but that is a story for another day. For now, all that matters is that City 19 became smaller and smaller until it disappeared from the horizon completely.

+++

I suppose it would be wise to describe the boat. The ship, officially known as the SS Platypus,  is large, rusty, and made of thick sheet metal. Thousands of large shipping containers lie on its deck, each filled with various goods. The Platypus is old. Aside from the engine, the boat has been in use for 56 years, with very little repairs over the decades.

Near the bow of the ship lie a few containers that contain no cargo. Rather, these containers are empty and are used to transport passengers. After the collapse of the airline industry following the fourth world war, sailing became the preferable way to move across the ocean. Cargo companies, realizing this, began to leave a few empty shipping containers aboard, and sell cheap tickets between ports.

Journeys on these ships are long and cold. Food isn’t provided and containers are filled to the brim with travelers, all seeking a new life on a new continent. The living quarters are cramped and smelly, filled with the cumulative waste from years of people traveling. Most containers house a dozen weary travelers at a time. The crew watches the containers from a distance, weapons in hand, ready to shoot any passenger that attempts to do something illegal. Rachel mostly sticks to her own container.

The Tournament staff can afford to transport each fighter to the Tournament arena with first-class accommodations. Unfortunately, the man in charge of booking accommodations for the fighters is a tad bit cheap. Said man spends the entire voyage sitting within Rachel’s shipping container, resting against a wall. He rarely moves from the spot, leaving the container only to use the restroom, and sleeps in the same position. Occasionally, he lifts part of his mask to drink some water or eat an onion, only to pull it back down when he finishes. Every once in awhile he tosses an onion to Rachel, to prevent her from starving. Each time he does this Rachel wonders to herself where he produces the onions from.

Rachel tries to ignore the strange man. Instead, she focuses on her training. She practices slashes and stabs, strikes and blocks, preparing for the Tournament. Jeremy gives her instruction when he can, passing on what he has picked up from years of watching the Tournament.

One week before the Tournament, Rachel builds a training dummy out of leftover onions. She slashes it, creating a flurry of white flakes with each strike. She jumps in the air, screaming and spinning, and decapitates the dummy.

“Don’t,” a stern voice says.

Rachel turns around, looking for the source of the noise. Her eyes land on the man, who is munching on an onion. She turns and looks at Jeremy. “I didn’t know he could talk!” Jeremy mouths. Rachel turns back.

“Screaming is pointless, and flashy moves tend to leave an opening for your opponent to kill you,” Rompaye says.

Without a word, he finishes the onion and pulls his gas mask back down.

+++

Four days before the Tournament, as the sun is rising, the man picks up his sword and exits the container, indicating to Rachel that she should follow him. Rachel grabs her belongings and follows him to the bow, where he stands holding a piece of paper covered in arcane symbols. “What’s a matter?” Rachel asks him.

He swings his sword, creating a blast of wind, and sending her tumbling overboard. Rachel lands in the ocean with a large splash. The sea is cold, a frigid cold that seeps into every fiber of Rachel’s body. She struggles to stay above water and gasps for air.

Rompaye dives in after her, disappearing as soon as he hits the water. A small sailboat emerges from the deep, with Rompaye holding onto the mast. He reaches into the water, grabbing Rachel, and pulls her aboard.

She coughs up a lungful of water and begins shivering. Rompaye takes off his coat and places it around her, and she begins to warm up. Jeremy crawls aboard, angry about the whole series of events. “What the hell is wrong with you!” he yells at the man.

Jeremy’s question is not acknowledged by the man. The man takes his sword and points the tip at the sail. A gust of wind emerges from its edge, moving the sailboat towards the rising sun.

“Why did we leave the ship?” Rachel asks.

“That boat will not reach your destination. We were only traveling with it for a short while.”

“Could you have at least warned me before throwing me overboard?”

“Yes.”

+++

They sail for two days and two nights, without seeing any islands or ships. Rachel begins to worry that the man has become lost and that she will die at sea. On the second to last night preceding the Tournament, Rachel lays awake, lying on her back, staring at the stars.

The moon lies above her, a white semicircle illuminating the sky. The stars are like diamonds, shining brightly in the heavens. The waves have calmed down, and the entire ocean feels like a field of glass, with nothing but blue as far as the eye can see. Nothing like the cloudy smog-filled sky of City 19. Despite the stresses of the journey, part of Rachel feels that it is worth it to see such an amazing view.

Rompaye is resting against the mast, his sword still gripped tightly. Jeremy sits on the edge of the boat, his feet in the water. “It’s beautiful,” Rachel says. “Isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Jeremy replies. “It’s really something else.”

Rachel sees a shadow of a pirates ship encroaching on the moon, crossing the white barrier from the night sky. She turns Jeremy. “Did you see that?” she asks.

“See what?”

She turns back and the ship is gone, the moon free from any obstruction.

“Nothing. I thought I saw something, but I was wrong.”

Rachel falls asleep, dreaming of flying ships and seas of stars.

+++

She is awoken at dawn by the shaking of the small boat. The golden sun is rising on the horizon, and the masked man aims his blade at the sail, causing the boat to glide across the waves. To the south, partially obscured by darkness, lies land.

A mountain, covered in trees and buildings, stretches to the sky. Upon its peak lies a circle of stone, larger than any of the other buildings.

Rachel turns to Jeremy. “Is that it?” she asks. “Is that the arena?”

“No,” he says. “The arena is far more fantastic.”

The waves begin to increase and the boat continues to shake. A large building begins to emerge from the sea, causing the boat to almost capsize. Rachel watches in awe as a colosseum of stone and steel and glass floats to the heavens.

I suppose it would be wise to describe the floating fortress. The ginormous colosseum is built in a circle, and sixteen arches of stained glass wrap around it. Large marble steps lead down from them to dozens of docking bays, for the ships that usher fans to and from the arena. On top of the arches sits a massive unbloomed flower made of crystal, taller than the rest of the building. Below the arches lies a large ensemble of bronze gears, like the inside of a clock tower, turning and rotating as the arena rises. Green light emanates from them, illuminating the darkened waves.

The first layer building contains hundreds of shops that sell food and memorabilia to the spectators. The second layer houses tens of thousands of seats, where the fans rich enough see the show in-person sit. Watching the battles live is considered to be one of the greatest status symbols for a citizen of the Coalition. On the northern side of these seats, a large silver throne sits. During matches, Marilyn Maia sits atop this elegant throne and watches the matches. Next to the throne are two smaller thrones, one for Maia’s assistant, Ysabel Howard, and one for the stadium engineer, Miro Caiden.

In the central layer, just past the stands, lies a sphere of empty space, 60 meters in diameter. Here various battlefields, like the one that Kysely and Lupei fought in, are swapped in during battles.

After rising far above the sea the arena stops moving. It rests, stationary in the sky, with its gears turning like clockwork. The rising sun refracts through crystal and glass, dazzling the ocean in an enchanting mist of color. Rachel is awestruck, amazed by the marvel that floats above her.

“That,” Jeremy says, “is the arena.”

“Wow,” Rachel says.

It’s all that she can say.

Dozens of smaller buildings, each the size of a small house, follow the floating fortress out of the sea and begin orbiting the arena. Fourteen battlefields, each encased in a forcefield bubble, float to the surface and sit on the water beneath the colosseum.

The waves calm, and Rachel spends the rest of the morning staring at the sky.

+++

Around noon, the boat reaches a sandy beach at the base of the mountain. Rachel and Rompaye exit the boat and Rompaye places his hand on the sand. Magical runes appear beneath the ship and it disappears, returning to wherever the man summoned it from.

Rompaye walks away from the beach, up a winding path to the city that rests on the mountain. Rachel follows. The city is filled with tall towers, hotels for the Tournament fans to stay in. The streets are crowded with people and vendors, busy chatting away about the Tournament. On the sides of one hotel, Rachel spots a massive poster, advertising for the Tournament.

On the right side of the poster is a large man wearing bulky black and red armor. He looks to be somewhere in his early twenties and has a crooked smile on his face. While the man underneath is tall and muscular, the armor inflates his size to massive, Heavyweight-esque proportions. The armor is especially thick around his hands and feet. Covering both of his palms are large sun shaped indents theat reveal the skin beneath is armor. His pupils are a dull shade of red and have the same sun symbol inscribed on them.

On his left is an older man, with a cyan energy sword in his hand. Silvano, Rachel realizes. The winner of the first Tournament. Behind the two men, in blocky white letters, is the number 14.

Rompaye grabs Rachel’s shoulder and begins dragging her away. “Don’t get distracted,” he says. “We’re running late.”

Rachel and Rompaye walk through the city, passing through the massive crowds. As they walk, the people begin to notice them and a hushed silence spreads through the street. The people clear the street, crowding by the buildings.

They stare at Rachel, sizing her up with their eyes. Rachel feels uncomfortable and walks faster. “Why are they staring?” she asks Jeremy.

“They’re spectators for the Tournament,” he says. “They watch all of the fighters as they come through here, and try to guess who’ll win.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I guess it gives them something to think about during their days.”

Rachel looks at the crowds of people. Most are dressed in the finest garb, clothes that seem to exist for the sole purpose of telling other people of the wearer’s wealth. In one of the alleyways, she spots small children, covered in dirty rags, watching from behind the rich crowd. Each of their foreheads is emblazoned with a symbol of a trophy, surrounded by wings.

They scurry away when Rachel looks at them, terrified of being seen. The children remind Rachel of herself, and the encounter feels like home to her.

Eventually, Rachel reaches the edge of the city and escapes the crowds. Rompaye leads her up a dirt trail, twisting up the side of the mountain. The path takes several hours to climb and leaves Rachel exhausted.

The path leads to a large stone arena, partially collapsed. Rachel and Jeremy sit down to rest by the ruins. Rompaye tosses Rachel a bottle of water and sits down next to her.

“So,” she says. “Now what?”

Rompaye says nothing and continues staring off into the distance.

“I think this little journey’s almost over,” she says, “But considering how little you’ve told me about it, I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes us another two weeks.”

“The Tournament starts tomorrow,” he says. “A vehicle will arrive shortly to take you to the floating arena.”

He stands up and enters the ruins. Rachel follows. The inside of the ruins contains thousands of seats, arranged in a circle around a tiled floor. Dozens of cracks and burn marks cover the ground. A ring of black metal separates the stands from the tiles. The room is obviously an arena, one that has been abandoned for years.

Two men sit in the stands. One is young, around Rachel’s age, and wears black robes, with a white sash serving as a belt. The boy’s lean frame and baggy robes hide his chiseled muscles. His head is shaved and two crossed swords are tattooed on the back of his neck. A large black duffel bag is slung over his shoulder. A tattered pink ribbon is tied around his wrist. His name is Daragh Ximeno. The Tournament staff calls him Swordmaster.

Ximeno taps his fingers against his seat, obviously bored with having to wait. When he notices Rachel, he jumps out of his chair and into the concrete arena.

The other man is armored like Rompaye and wields a large golden trident. Although Rachel doesn’t know it, his name is Arastoo. He too rises when Rachel enters, following Ximeno over to Rompaye.

“Finally,” Ximeno says, obviously annoyed. “Can we go to the arena now?”

The man with the trident and the man with the sword meet in the center of the arena. “You’re late,” Arastoo says.

“The sea was rougher than normal,” Rompaye replies.

“Hey, gasmask!” Ximeno shouts. “You can talk later.”

The two masked men exchange a look. “There is something we have to do,” Rompaye says. “Wait here.”

The two walk away, and Ximeno shouts insults at them as they leave. “He makes me wait for three hours and then leaves?” he mumbles. “I’m killing him. As soon as this Tournament is over I’m killing that mute bastard.”

Ximeno sits down, waiting for his guard to return. Rachel turns to talk to Jeremy. “What do you think this place is?” she asks.

“From my experience, it’s for mute weirdos to eat onions and take naps,” Ximeno pipes in.

Jeremy ignores him. “This is the old arena. They used this place before they built the floating one.”

Rachel looks around, at the vines growing on the walls and the ceiling with a hole in it. “It’s seen better days.”

“The ceiling was destroyed during the finale of the seventh Tournament,” Jeremy says. “Rather than fixing it, the staff just decided to build a new one. A wise choice, if you ask me.”

“What do you think the guards are doing?” Rachel asks.

“No clue,” Jeremy replies.

“Honestly, I think he’s just stalling to get back at me for trying to kill him,” Ximeno says. “I’d probably do the same if I was in his shoes.”

“I know how we can find out,” Rachel says.

She climbs up onto the stands and walks over to a patch of vines hanging down from the ceiling. She begins climbing, heading to the top of the arena. “Rach?” Jeremy says. “Sure that’s safe?”

“Relax,” she says. “I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t care if you fall,” Ximeno grumbles. “One less person for me to fight later.”

Rachel ignores both of them and climbs to the top of the arena. She walks across the roof, making her way to the edge. She pulls the goggles out of her bag, places them on her head, and turns the gear.

The goggles zoom in on the front of the ruins, where the guards stand. Rachel’s guard, the man with the blue sword, places his palm on the ground. The same runes that surrounded the boat at the beach appear in around him. For the first time in three weeks, he takes off his helmet and mask.

His face is stern, like that of a soldier, and deep bags rest beneath his eyes. His hair is trimmed short and a five o’clock shadow covers his chin. A large scar, jagged and rough, covers his right eye. Said eye glows a supernatural gold, unnerving Rachel. His left eye, oddly enough, is green.

Rompaye hands his sword to the Arastoo and bows down on one knee. Without a sliver of mercy, the other guard slits his throat.

Scarlet blood gushes out like a waterfall and within a second Rompaye falls over, dead. The golden glow disappears from his eye, and it becomes white. The surviving guard drops the sword on the corpse and places his hand on the runes, sending Rompaye’s body away.

Rachel is frozen, shocked by Rompaye’s death. While the man had been odd and uncaring, he hadn’t acted especially cruel to Rachel. Rachel runs back to the interior of the ruins, terrified of what the man might do to her if he realizes that she saw his crime.

Arastoo returns shortly. Ximeno yells a few complaints about waiting, but Rachel barely hears them. She simply stands, with her head hung low, trying to avoid Arastoo’s gaze. Jeremy walks over to her, placing his hand on her shoulder.

“You okay?” he whispers.

“I’m fine,” she mutters.

Ximeno briefly looks at her, before returning to insulting Arastoo.

+++

Eventually, a hovercraft appears and flies them to the arena’s steps. The small group exits the craft, and begin walking up the stairs.

“I’m scared,” Rachel whispers to Jeremy.

With a blue flash, a woman wearing a pantsuit appears next to them. Her skin is cobalt blue and covered in small scales. Her hair is the color of seaweed and tied in a tight bun. Half-moon glasses rest in front of her large violet eyes. Rachel can’t help but gawk at the odd appearance of the woman.

She quietly talks to Arastoo for half a minute. Ximeno starts digging around in his duffel bag and pulls out a sword, a wakizashi to be specific. He points it at Arastoo. “Is this conversation going to go on for much longer?” he asks.

“No,” Arastoo says. “This woman is named Ysabel Howard. She’s in charge of showing fighters around this place.”

“She,” he says, “Will be giving a tour to miss Botterill first. After they are done, she will show you around.”

Ximeno lunges at Arastoo, with killing intent in his eyes. Ysabel raises her hand, and Ximeno disappears, leaving nothing but his duffel bag. Arastoo walks over, picking up the bag, and nods at Ysabel. He too disappears, leaving Rachel and Jeremy alone with the strange woman.

“Follow me,” Ysabel says. “We can do introductions as we walk.”

Rachel follows Ysabel up the stairs and into the shopping layer of the arena. “I apologize for any inconvenience those two may have caused.

“I’m fine,” Rachel says. “The two mostly fought with each other.”

“Occasionally these things happen. Most fighters have the common sense to avoid attacking our staff, but every once in a while one of them tries something stupid. Fortunately, I am usually able to stop them. I was born with the ability to move objects across long distances with next to no effort. This ability, as you can imagine, is extremely useful.”

Rachel looks at the various shops, all empty and lifeless. “People won’t be arriving till tomorrow,” Ysabel says. “For now only the staff and some of the fighters are here.”

The two cross over the threshold into the stands and stare at the empty void where the battlefields belong. “During fights, the bubbles outside will be moved in here for you to fight in. You will be teleported directly to the battlefield several minutes before fights.”

Suddenly, Rachel finds herself in a cramped white room, the size of a broom closet. A thick steel door, painted to blend in with the wall, sits in front of her. Rachel turns around and finds Ysabel, standing right next to her. Jeremy leans against the wall behind her. “Where are we?” Rachel asks. “How did we get here?”

Ysabel frowns. “I’m sorry. I sometimes forget how disconcerting teleportation can be to at first. We are currently outside a viewing gallery.

Ysabel leads Rachel through a door into an empty room with a large window covering the wall opposite the door. Rachel walks over to the window and looks out. Below are thousands of empty seats. Rachel realizes that she is near the top of the stands.

“There are several of these viewing galleries around the arena. The best paying viewers watch from them. This one is set aside for the Tournament fighters.”

“Wow,” Jeremy says, looking out the window. “You can almost see the battlefield from up here.”

“This place is kinda empty,” Rachel says.

“Yes,” Ysabel says. “We are severely behind schedule. Speaking of being behind schedule,” she says as she and Rachel leave the room.

Rachel follows and is teleported to a round metal room with a high ceiling. The room is devoid of any furniture and has two doors, one glass and one wooden. Two light switches lie next to the wooden door. “This,” Ysabel says, “Is where you will stay in between fights.”

“It’s better than the freighter, at least,” Rachel says.

“Ah, yes,” Ysabel says. “The SS Platypus. Why General Rompaye insists on giving the worst possible accommodations to his charges is beyond me.”

Rompaye. Rachel realizes that the name must belong to the dead man. She looks at her shoes, unsure if she should tell Ysabel about his death. Ysabel walks over to the switches and flips one.

A kitchen emerges on one side of the room, filled with modern appliances and cupboards full of food. A large bed emerges next to Rachel, in the center of the room. The wall opposite the kitchen opens up, revealing the largest television Rachel has ever seen, and a recliner rises up in front of it.

On the counter sits a cordless phone. Ysabel walks over and gestures at the phone. “If you need anything, just call. We’ll contact you if you need to be somewhere. Now then, there is one last thing I need to do before we part. Take your clothes off.”

Rachel and Jeremy at Ysabel for half a minute. “Perhaps I phrased that wrong,” Ysabel says quietly. I’m a tad bit embarrassed. “I need to check your belongings for illicit substances.”

“Oh,” Rachel says. “That makes more sense.”

“I’m going to wait on the porch,” Jeremy says before slowly walking away.

After five awkward minutes of searching, Ysabel comes to the conclusion that Rachel is clean.  Rachel quickly redresses and drags Jeremy back inside. “Are we done?” Rachel mutters.

“Not quite,” Ysabel says. “I still need to search your bag.”

Ysabel teleports the bag up onto the counter and begins to empty it. She lists off the bag’s contents as she empties it. “One flashlight, one swiss army knife, two EMP grenades, one crowbar, one glass eye, one broken earpiece, feminine hygiene products, one metal orb, gauze, large amounts of currency-”

She pulls out the charm and asks Rachel a few questions about its purposes. Rachel explains that it’s a silencing charm. Ysabel eventually accepts that the charm is useless in a fight and continues her search. She pulls out three bottles of pills. Jeremy gives Rachel a dirty look as Ysabel sets them on the counter.

“All that remains are the prototypes that you stole from Vulcan Laboratories,” Ysabel says. “After some consideration, the Tournament staff has decided to allow you to use them. This stolen technology is dangerous, yes, but no more dangerous than the gear possessed by the average fighter.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Rachel asks.

“Goodnight, miss Botterill,” Ysabel says.

And with that, she disappears. Rachel shouts a few curse words, to no avail. Jeremy walks over and sits down on the recliner. He releases a long sigh. “It’s been a long day, Rach,” he says.

Rachel walks over to the glass door and opens it. On the other side of it is a porch with a single chair, providing a perfect view of the floating arena. Rachel sits down and watches as the setting sun hits the crystal, and thinks back to the similar sight she witnessed earlier that morning.

She realizes that it has been less than a day since she was on the sailboat and only three short weeks since she was back in City 19. Now the shabby apartment with a leak in the roof and the windows that never quite manage to keep out the cold of winter feels so far away.

Rachel looks over the porch’s railing, at the waves crashing below, and realizes that she is in one of the smaller buildings that orbit the arena. In the distance, she spots the mountain island, where a large ship pulls into port.

Rachel returns to the metal room and falls asleep on the comfiest bed she’s ever slept in.

+++

On the first day of the Tournament, Rachel is awoken by the noise of battle. She crawls out of bed to see a montage of people fighting on the massive television screen. “Can you turn that down?” she asks Jeremy.

“Sorry,” he says.

She walks over to the counter and grabs the remote, turning the tv off. She notices the clock on the oven. 5:04 PM. “I overslept,” she says.

“A little bit,” Jeremy quips.

Rachel pulls an apple out of the cupboard and begins munching on it. The apple is ripe and delicious, one of the most heavenly things Rachel has ever eaten, although that might just because it is something other than an onion.

Rachel notices a large bag sitting on the counter, with an envelope leaning against it. “When did this arrive?” she asks.

Jeremy turns around, noticing the bag for the first time. “I don’t know. Ysabel must’ve teleported it in while I wasn’t looking.”

Rachel looks inside the bag, seeing a pile of clothes. She opens the envelope. Inside the envelope is a small note. One side of the note tells Rachel that opening ceremonies start at eight PM and that she should be ready by then.

The other side simply states “Wear This.”

“I think it’s a costume,” Rachel says.

“Go try it on.”

Rachel goes through the wooden door, into the bathroom, and changes into the clothes within a bag: Blue skinny jeans with holes in the knees; A black t-shirt, with a white heart symbol partially obscured by a black plus sign in the middle; A belt with places to attach tools; and an old brown aviator jacket with a broken zipper.

She holsters her sword and crowbar, slings her bag over her shoulder, puts on her goggles, and looks at her reflection. Quickly, she grabs her sword and activates it. She swings it in front of the mirror, shouting with each blow.

If someone had been watching she would have probably felt extremely stupid.

“Shut up,” she says.

Their bickering is cut off by a loud rumbling noise. The two walk outside, and see the flower atop the arena blooming, opening the middle of the arena up to the sky. Fireworks shoot off around it.

Rachel sits down on the porch chair. “Wow,” she says.

Hovercraft begin floating from the island to the arena, docking at the bottom of the giant staircase. A flood of people enters the arena, ready to get good seats.

The Tournament has begun.

+++

“It’s five past eight,” Rachel says. “When do you think they’ll come to get me?”

“I don’t know,” Jeremy says. “It probably takes a lot of time to move that many people between their room and the arena.”

The two lean against the railing of the porch, staring at the arena. “Although, we don’t know what order they’re going to move people,” Jeremy says.

Rachel turns and finds herself in the stands of the arena. In a section roped off for the Tournament fighters, specifically.

To her left sit eight other fighters, all dazed from being teleported. The girl sitting next to Rachel wears a white gi and has medium length white hair. Deep burns surround her eyes, which are a dull milky color.

“I can feel you staring,” the girl says meekly. “Please stop.”

Rachel sits down awkwardly and tries to refrain from looking at the girl. A young woman with long black gloves that stretch to her elbows appears next to Rachel and takes the seat to her right.

Dozens of other fighters are teleported in, one after the other. Cowboys and pirates. Demons and robots. Superheroes and angels and magicians and assassins and ninjas. A woman made of oil and a beast made of steel. An alien and a werewolf. The Tournament fighters.

One of the last fighters brought in is Ximeno, who is teleported away seconds later after he punches the man to his sitting to his left. More on that later. After all is said and done, 63 fighters crowd the arena’s seats.

A stone platform, similar to the one where Heavyweight and Helios fight, but smaller and without a forcefield, descends into the area. Atop it stands Faustino Nash with a big smile on his face.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he says, “I humbly welcome you to the Fourteenth Triennial Golden Valhalla Tournament.”

The crowd roars with applause. A few of the fighters join in. Faust waits for them to stop cheering before resuming his speech. “Over the past eighteen years, I have had the honor of bringing you some of the greatest battles in history. Battles that amaze, battles that astound, battles that you talk about for years to come!”

“I have a feeling that this Tournament, the fourteenth, is going to be the greatest one yet,” he says.

He gestures to the stands filled with fighters. “We have a great set of fighters this year, some of the strongest we’ve ever had. Handpicked to give you guys a stellar show.”

“But, I think I know what you all are here to see,” he says, and a stone pillar begins to rise from the edge of the stage. Atop it stands an elderly man, older than any man that Rachel had ever seen.

His skin is like crumpled leather, with deep wrinkles covering his face. His eyes are sunken deep into his skull and long white hair falls to his shoulders. Deep burn scars cover the left side of his face, and his left eye is a milky shade of white. He supports himself using a wooden cane and looks like he could be toppled by a light breeze. He wears a suit that is far too large for his frail frame. His breathing is heavy, and Rachel feels that he could keel over and die at any moment.

Rachel realizes that the man is Silvano, winner of the first Tournament. The man who stands before her is a pale imitation of the man who fought Diefenbach. Rachel wonders how old the man is, and guesses that he is around 90 years old. Rachel is wrong. At the beginning of the fourteenth Tournament, Silvano has been alive for 116 years.

Another pillar raises to the right of Silvano, this one containing a bronze statue of a woman holding two scimitars. A third pillar rises, containing a middle-aged man resting his weight on a large hammer. Four more pillars rise, three containing statues and one containing a man clad in armor and a gas mask, holding a flaming longsword.

Rachel’s blood boils when she sees the seventh pillar. She regrets not telling Ysabel about Arastoo’s murder of Rompaye. Then she calms herself. She doesn’t know if the man on the pillar is Arastoo or someone else entirely. The girl next to Rachel, the one with the white eyes, smiles when the seventh pillar rises.

The eight pillar contains a woman with gold eyes and silver hair and the ninth contains a man wearing a lab coat. The tenth contains two people and the eleventh contains another bronze statue. The twelfth contains a woman wrapped in white shawls, with her head hung low. The shawls cover her entire body, including her face. Only her deep green eyes are visible beneath the layers.

The thirteenth and final pillar rises, with the man in black and red armor from the poster atop. He raises his fists in the air and the audience erupts in bombastic cheering.

Faust resumes his spiel. “Over the past thirteen Tournaments, there was one slightly annoying rule. Fighters could only participate in a single Tournament. While this kept each Tournament fresh, it also kept us from seeing battles between former champions.”

“Well, this Tournament is different. This year, we asked each of our winners if they wanted to fight again. Two took up our offer. The first champion and the most recent champion.”

The man in black and red armor jumps down from the pillar, landing in front of Faust and cracking the tiles beneath his feet. The first pillar lowers to the ground and the weak old man slowly hobbles over to Faust. 

The two men, both champions, stare at each other, both thinking about a possible fight. “That’s right,” Faust says, “This Tournament will feature Gallus “Sage” Silvano and Seong-Su “Dreadnought” Schuyler joining 62 new fighters in the battle for the ultimate prize. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that these two titans will battle in the final.”

“Although,” he says, “We’ll have to wait and see if anyone can knock these two out before then.”

The pillars descend back into the floor, taking the statues and champions with them. Silvano and Dreadnought walk to opposite sides of the stage. “Now,” Faust says, “As much as I enjoy talking to you, I’ve prattled on for long enough. It’s time for the real master of this Tournament to arrive.”

Faust backs away from the center as steps of glass appear midair. Vibrant, multicolored smoke emerges from the sea beneath the stage, seeping up through the space between the stage and the stands. It floats up to the top of the stairs and stops moving.

The smoke begins to take shape. It stretches into arms and legs and hair, becoming more human looking with each passing moment. Over the course of a few seconds, small details like fingers and eyes become clear. The smoke takes the form of a tall woman, floating above the stage.

She begins to move. Her foot touches the topmost step of the stairs, turning to flesh as it connects. The smoke woman walks down the stairs, turning more and more solid with each step. Her skin is silver and her hair, like the smoke, is a shifting rainbow of color. Her feet are uncovered and a long white dress stretches out behind her.

A sash, the shifting color of her hair, sits around her waist. The edges of her sleeves and a stripe down the center of her dress are golden. The sleeves of the dress are far larger than her wrists, which are covered by golden cuffs. Her eyes are lavender and white crystal earrings hang from her ears. A golden necklace made of chains sits around her neck.

She reaches the bottom of the stairs and multicolored fire shoots out from the back of the dress. The fire takes the form of butterfly wings, stretching three meters away from her body. 

The crowd, Rachel included, bow. A handful of the Tournament fighters refuse, one even making a crass gesture with his hand, but their dissidence is ignored by the rest of the arena. Thousands of spectators, from different cities and cultures, all bow before the silver woman. Their god has arrived.

Many names have been given to the woman over the years. The Butterfly Queen. The God of Wishes. The Silver Genie. The Guardian of Humanity. Master of the Tournament. The most common name, however, is the Magnificent Marilyn Maia.

In the year 2072, Maia descended from the heavens, bringing magic with her. Over the following decades, she reshaped the world, transforming it into the empire known as the World Government Coalition. By the time of the first Tournament, Maia’s rule was absolute, with the world regarding her as a caring god.

Maia’s powers dwarf those of the even the greatest mages. Her mightiest power is the ability to magically grant the wishes of humans. The Tournament was built around this power, with its winner being granted a single wish as a reward for surviving the chaos.

Most people worship Maia like the god that she is. In all honesty, Rachel has never been too keen on the whole “worship” thing. While she acknowledges the fact that Maia exists, Rachel doesn’t really care about a higher power. Still, Rachel is wise enough to bow when standing before an actual deity.

Maia gestures with her right hand and her worshipers retake their seats. “Welcome,” Maia says, her voice filling the arena. “Welcome to the Fourteenth Triennial Golden Valhalla Tournament.”

“Thank you all for coming. It is always enjoyable to witness the joy of my citizens. I sincerely hope that my staff will put on a spectacular show for you.”

“When Asturias first came to me, all those years ago, with the idea of this Tournament, I never could have imagined how popular it would become. It’s difficult to fathom that all this began with a sixteen-man bracket in a tiny room.”

“There are many things I can say tonight, but we have held you all for long enough. This opening ceremony will conclude with the announcement of the eight men and women who will fight in the following week.”

Maia raises her hand and a glowing white ball appears in the sky at the top of the arena. Faust walks over to Maia, carrying a large glass bowl filled with names written on pieces of paper. Maia thanks Faust and takes the bowl from him. She draws out the first name.

“Anatolios Haven, Gunslinger!” she reads. The white ball changes, displaying a picture of a man wearing a cowboy hat. Beneath the picture lie his name and code name. Rachel spots the man sitting a few rows down. A spotlight shines down on the man and he jumps in the air, throwing his hat in the air.

Maia continues to draw and read off names. “Maoilios Lupei, Helios!”

“Gwynn Galo, Aegis!”

“Marek Kysely, Heavyweight!”

“Magalie Matsumoto, Emerald!”

Maia reaches in and draws the sixth name. “Rachel Botterill, Jackrabbit!” she shouts.

Rachel nearly falls over in shock over hearing her own name. She knew that she would fight eventually, but never imagined it would happen so quickly. The crowd begins to murmur, discussing her name. The white orb shows a picture of her wearing her costume. She decides not to dwell on where the Tournament staff obtained the picture. The spotlight shines on her, and she ducks down to, not wanting to look at the spectators

Below the picture is her name and the word Jackrabbit. A codename, she supposes. She clicks her boots together, thinking back to the power they gave her at the lab.

Maia reads off the seventh name. “Victor Callaghan, Arctic!”

The spotlight shines on a man several seats to Rachel’s left. Rachel is glad that the audience is focusing on someone else. The man, Callaghan, continues to focus on Rachel.

Maia draws the eighth and final name. Unlike the others, she pauses for a second upon seeing it. A smile appears on her face. “Gallus Silvano, Lazarus.”

The crowd erupts in cheer and the spotlight moves to the old man standing on the edge of the stage. A sly smile emerges on Silvano’s face.

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