Legion’s fists are clenched together so tight that the veins look like they’re going to burst any second. His teeth grind together like they’re trying to break a walnut. His face is as red as blood and his eyes sear with the blazing fire of hate. Faust, on the other hand, is laughing his ass off.
After a few minutes, Faust calms down and settles for a smug grin. “I win, Arastoo. I win,” he says.
“You remember what our standard betting rules are,” he continues. “Winner is allowed to hit the loser once. No retaliation.”
Legion punches the table. “Yes,” he says through clenched teeth. “I remember.”
Legion stands up and walks to the door. Faust jumps up to follow him. “No leaving,” he says. “You gave your word, which means I get to hit you.”
Legion punches Faust in the face harder than he’s ever punched anyone before. Faust falls to the floor with a loud thump. A crimson torrent gushes from his nose.
Faust spits out a few teeth. “You hith me!” he shouts. “Whath happened tho no rethaliathion?”
“Retaliation is for something that has happened,” he says. “You haven’t punched me yet. This is merely me punishing you for being an annoying git.”
Faust, still on the floor, punches Legion in the leg. Legion laughs at the pathetic punch and leaves the broadcasting room.
“Wooie!” Haven says. “Now that was a hog killing time!”
He pauses for a moment. Under his breath, he says “Crap. Already used that one.”
“You okay, partner?” he asks Vic.
Vic is as still has a statue and covered in sweat. His hands are held together, palms flat. He stares blankly out the window. Haven pokes him. “Vic?” he says.
Vic exhales a deep breath as he sinks into the chair. He releases his hands and uses one to wipe the sweat from his brow. “What?” he says. “Oh, right. I’m okay.”
“Had me worried for a second. What has you strung up? Ya look like you just got bad medicine.”
“She won. I…I can’t believe she beat Lazarus.”
“That she did. Why’re you so concerned?”
Vic thinks for a moment then sighs. “Money. I told a friend to place a few bets for me. One of the ones I told him to bet on was Lazarus losing his first match.”
“Well, looks like you just struck gold.”
Vic smiles. “Gold?” he says. “I just struck platinum.”
Rachel sits on a table in another small room within the stadium. The table and the room around it are large, large enough to even the largest of the Tournament’s fighters. Judging by the countless medical supplies lining the room’s walls, the room is some type of doctors office. The room smells of cigarettes and disinfectant and has bright lights that make Rachel want to pluck her eyes out.
Helena, the woman who healed Faust, is scanning Rachel with some sort of handheld medical tool. Her shawls remain, but are now hidden behind a white labcoat. Emblazoned above a pocket on her left side is the name Helena Pasternak, MD.
After the match Rachel, was forced to wait for close to an hour for Helena to finish healing Lazarus and then another twenty minutes for Helena to examine her. Now, she wants nothing more than to get back to the metal room so she can celebrate with Jeremy. Helena places the scanner down.
Without a word, Helena unravels Rachel’s bandages. Satisfied by Rachel’s condition, she walks over to a button on the wall. She pauses before pressing it and turns her head towards Rachel.
“Congratulations on the win,” she says.
She presses the button and Rachel is teleported away, back to the metal room. Specifically, Rachel is teleported back to the metal room half a meter in the air in a sitting position. She, predictably, falls and lands on her back.
Jeremy runs over and kneels down next to her. “You did it, Rache!” he says with a gigantic smile on his face.. “You won a match!”
Rachel sits up. She smiles. “I know!” she says.
She stands up and walks over to the cupboards. She pulls out two wine glasses and begins searching for something to drink. “That fight was amazing, Jer,” she says. “I almost died, but I’ve never felt as alive as I did when I was fighting him.”
“How are you feeling, by the way?”
“I mean, your stomach.”
“Great. That orb’s the best thing we’ve stolen in years.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. The dog statue we’ll stolen back in ‘31 is still my favorite. It had such an adorable face. Too bad you broke it.”
“I said I was sorry.”
Jeremy chuckles. “I forgive you,” he says.
Rachel laughs and pulls out a bottle of cheap liquor. “Want any?” she asks Jeremy.
He shakes his head. “More for me,” Rachel says.
Rachel takes a swig of the bottle and spits it out. She gags. “They spend so much on this Tournament, they could at least have some good booze.”
Jeremy frowns and releases a large sigh. “Rache, don’t you think you’re getting ahead of yourself?” he asks. “I’m glad that you won and thrilled to see you so happy, but you only won one fight. There’s still a long road ahead of you, one that will almost certainly end with a loss.”
“You need to lighten up a little bit. Tonight’s a good night. Let’s celebrate.”
Jeremy smiles. “Okay, but in the morning we need to talk about your next match.”
Rachel sets the bottle down next to the blood covered sword cane and does a double take, primarily because of the fact that the sword wasn’t there before the fight. “What’s this?” Rachel asks.
“I believe that it’s Lazarus’s sword,” Jeremy says.
“When did this get here?”
“It kinda just showed up after your fight with Lazarus.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s some sort of a trophy.”
Before they can speculate further, the phone next to them rings. Rachel picks it up. “Miss Botterill, how nice to talk to you again,” Ysabel says on the other side of the line. “Would you be willing to appear on Faust’s show tonight?”
Ysabel is blunt, like always. Rachel thinks back to her disastrous introduction on Faust’s show. She decides that she doesn’t care. “Sure,” she says.
Rachel removes her belt and places it and her bag on the bed. “So,” Jeremy says, “You’re ready for another interview with Faust?”
“Sure,” Rachel says. “Why not?”
“I remember the last one.”
“I just had my insides split open on a global television broadcast. There’s no reason for me to be scared of spilling my guts a little interview.”
Rachel walks over to the door. Jeremy grabs hold of her hand. “Rachel,” he says, “I’ve got a few things to say. First of all, how much did you take in the break room?”
“I didn’t take any.”
“Rachel, you can’t lie to me.”
“I’m not lying.”
Jeremy considers the fact that she may be telling the truth. “Then why are you acting weird?”
“I’m happy,” Rachel says. “I know, it’s weird, but for the first time in years, I feel alive. And, because I’m alive I can actually feel happy.”
Jeremy takes a seat at the counter and begins fiddling with the knife. A smile emerges on his face. “It’s good to see you happy again,” he says.
“So, what’s the other thing?” Rachel asks.
“You said you had a few things to say, implying that you had multiple things to say. So what’s the other thing?”
“Oh, right. I was going to ask if you were seriously planning on going out dressed like that.”
Rachel looks down at her clothes. Her shirt is torn in half and her pants are covered in her blood. “Good point,” she says as she goes to change.
The interview with Faust goes far better than the first. The crowd still scare Rachel, but she manages to avoid throwing up. The knowledge that she’s been through worse comforts her. Rachel lounges in the black hoodie and sweatpants she wore when she came to the Tournament. Faust is in a new pinstripe suit, this one purple instead of red.
Faust and Rachel talk about the fight, Rachel’s likes and dislikes, the interesting things Rachel stole over the years, and a dozen other topics. At the start of the interview, Rachel is shy and stumbles over words. By the end, she could host her own talk show.
After an hour and a half of talking Faust checks his watch. He sighs. “Rachel, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you, but I think I should probably give the people what they want,” he says. “It’s time to announce the next fight.”
Rachel leans back in her chair, exhausted from her day. While the orb removed the exhaustion from the battle, the mental stress of fighting Lazarus is enough to make someone need a nap or ten. Her interview with Faust and the joy from winning distracted her, but it makes sense for her to eventually need a break.
Faust walks to the front of the stage and pulls a note from his pocket. “Tomorrow’s fight,” he says, “This year’s first fight between fighters who already have a notch under their belts, will be between Aegis and Jackrabbit!”
It takes around ten seconds for Rachel to process what Faust said. When she actually realizes what’s going on, her heart sinks. She’d forgotten that she’ll be fighting more than one fighter this week. The cameras stop rolling a second before Rachel bolts out of her chair and grabs Faust’s hand.
“I just fought a few hours ago!” Rachel says.
Faust turns and looks at her. His eyes narrow. “And you’ll fight tomorrow,” he says in a different voice than normal. His new voice is deep and cold. Rachel shivers when she hears it.
“Now then,” he says. “I believe this interview is over.”
He raises his hand into the air and Rachel is teleported away.
Rachel fights off exhaustion to talk to Jeremy after her interview. “We need a plan for tomorrow,” she says. “We had a plan for Lazarus that worked okay, we’ll need an even better one to defeat Aegis.”
Jeremy puts the knife down and smiles. “You seem to be pretty calm this time,” he says. “No I’m going to dies yet. Plus, you didn’t throw up at all in your interview.”
“Shut up and help me. His main weapons are glowing shields, how can we defeat that?”
“Ah, yes. The ultimate enemy of the glowing sword, the mighty glowing shield.”
“Well, Gunslinger could have beat him if he was less of a showman, so maybe shooting him would work. Actually, now that I think about it, that works against most people.”
“I don’t have guns, Jer. Stop making jokes and help me.”
Then it clicks in Rachel’s head. If she received Lazarus’s sword for defeating him, then what did Aegis receive for defeating Gunslinger?
“Oh my god,” Rachel says. “Aegis probably has a gun now. Oh my god, I’m going to die, aren’t I?”
“No. Calm down. You’ve had one hell of a day and need rest. Especially if you plan to do this again tomorrow. We’ll come up with a plan tomorrow.”
Rachel lies down. “You’re a mean brother,” she says as her head hits the pillow.
“I love you too.”
“So we’ve decided you should avoid being shot,” Jeremy says. “It’s a start at least.”
“I fight in a few minutes,” Rachel replies. “Having a bit more than a start would have been better.”
“He’s a tough fighter to plan around. You have a sword and some boots that let you jump around pretty good. He has shields. Either you can get around them and stab him, or you can’t. At least we solved the oh so difficult gun problem.”
Rachel pulls her right arm through her Jacket, completing her costume. That morning she woke up to a fresh set of clothes, these ones with significantly fewer bloodstains. Rachel hopes that the were teleported in by Ysabel rather than being placed there in the middle of the night by some stranger.
She places the bag around her shoulders and walks into the bathroom, telling Jeremy that she plans to “tidy up” in less delicate terms. She locks the door behind her and leans her back against the door. She pulls one of the painkiller bottles out of her bag.
She stares at the bottle, contemplating taking some. Rachel sighs. She places the bottle back in the bag and notices something that she’d forgotten about. An idea enters her mind. An idea that soon forms into a plan. “Jeremy!” she shouts. “Get in here!”
“Are you dead?” he says. “Cause otherwise I’m not going in.”
“Nice seeing you again,” Haven says when Vic plops down next to him. “Good to know that someone as rich as yerself is still willin’ to sit next to us common folk.”
“I’m not rich yet,” Vic replies, a smile on his face. “Besides, it’s occasionally fun to take the time to look down upon you peasants.”
Haven laughs. “You here to watch yer girl win?”
“I only placed a few bets, and only on first round fights. I placed one on Dreadnought’s first fight, one on that robot that Pharaoh built, etcetera. I also placed a bet on Aegis losing his first match. That one didn’t pan out very well.”
“Sorry about that.”
“On the subject of Aegis, I have a feeling you’re hoping Rachel takes him out.”
Haven shakes his head. “I don’t harbor any hard feelings towards Mr. Galo. After what I did to him, him stabbing me in the back is more than understandable. Although, if I’m being honest, I’m rooting for miss Botterill. Always liked me an underdog. How ‘bout you?”
“Again, I have no stake in the fight. I only care about matches that can result in me making money.”
“Then why’re ya here?”
“Have you ever heard of The Lye Don’t Lie? It’s this amazing soap that EWC just came out with. It’s the only thing I trust to keep my coat clean.”
“I figured s’much.”
“Don’t get on your, excuse me, yer high horse. I’m not the only one here advertising to earn a little dough.”
“Really? Who else is prospecting ‘round these parts?”
Rachel and Aegis await the beginning of the next match. Rachel’s hand is once again on her sword. Aegis’s is on a gun. Specifically, on the gun he took from Haven, which is currently aimed at Rachel’s head. One shot and Rachel dies. The first ten seconds of the fight with Aegis will determine Rachel’s fate.
The sound of the bell ringing and the gunshot are almost indistinguishable. The colt’s hammer hits the primer, igniting the propellant and firing the bullet out of the gun barrel. In layman’s terms, Aegis pulls a trigger and sends a chunk of lead at Rachel’s skull.
He misses. This is partially due to Rachel side jumping to the left the second she hears the bell and partially because Aegis, being an inexperienced marksman, aimed for the head, an incredibly difficult target, instead of a much easier one like Rachel’s torso.
Aegis fires three more times as Rachel jumps in a circle around the outside of the ring, each shot missing. Rachel attempts to throw off his aim by jumping high into the air, flipping at the top because she feels like showing off. Rachel, deciding to take a risk, jumps straight at Aegis.
Aegis fires, grazing Rachel’s shoulder and raises his shield in front of him. Rachel slams face first into it. Aegis takes aim, lowers his shield, and fires. Rachel quickly falls to the ground, narrowly dodging the bullet. Aegis aims the gun down and pulls the trigger. The gun simply clicks.
Several seconds later, Aegis stares at Rachel, confused. Why there isn’t a corpse with a head wound in front of me? he wonders. Rachel is equally confused. She jumps away to be safe.
Aegis pulls the trigger several more times. Nothing. At this moment, I believe it would be wise to point out a crucial error that Aegis made prior to his fight with Rachel. Gunslinger’s revolvers each hold six bullets. Due to magic spells Gunslinger inscribed on the pistols prior to the Tournament, these six bullets are continually replaced throughout fights. Aegis, a man with no magical abilities or understanding of how magic works, assumed that Haven’s magic guns would work for him. This, of course, was a foolish assumption.
Aegis shouts a few curse words about the gun’s lack of ammo and throws the gun at Rachel, who proceeds to laugh at him. She stops laughing when he throws a shuriken at her. She, of course, dodges it.
Knives and shurikens fill the air of the arena, all aimed at a moving target. They all miss their mark. The moving target jumps in the air, dodges several knives, lands, and charges at Aegis
Aegis reaches back, creates a shuriken, and throws it at Rachel. Rachel draws her sword and deflects it. Aegis creates a wall. Rachel sheaths her sword, reaches into her bag, and jumps at it the wall. She lands feet first on the wall and kicks off.
Rachel lands on the other side of the arena. She jumps at the wall as the EMP grenade she dropped five seconds earlier detonates. Aegis’s shield disappears as Rachel punches him in the face, using the momentum of the jump to increase the force.
Aegis falls on his back and skids to a stop several meters away from Rachel. Rachel clutches her hand. It, like Aegis’s sunglasses, is broken. Rachel decides to ignore the pain; after all, she can just fix it using the orb as soon as Aegis is defeated.
Aegis crawls up onto his knees and points his pointer and middle fingers at Rachel. Nothing happens. Confused, he makes a fist. He tries pointing at Rachel again. Again, nothing happens. He curses and points at her with his other hand. Nothing happens.
Rachel smiles and turns the dial on her goggles, setting them to thermal mode. “What did you do to my gloves?” Aegis asks.
“Electromagnetic pulse grenade. You’ll be shieldless for something like thirty more seconds. In the meantime,” Rachel says while grabbing her crowbar, “Let’s have a little fun.”
Aegis’s jaw shatters as Rachel takes her first swing. Aegis collapses to his knees. The second swing is directed into the back of the collapsed Aegis. Aegis spits several teeth out and punches Rachel in the leg. Rachel stumbles backward as Aegis rises to his feet and pulls his fist back.
Rachel is almost knocked over by one of the strongest punches in the history of the Tournament. The fact that she keeps her balance is simply astounding. All thoughts of the punch are aborted when the thermal view on her goggles starts working.
Rachel reacts immediately, dropping the crowbar and reaching for her sword. Aegis sees what she’s doing and instinctively moves his arms in front of him, opens his palm, and spreads his fingers. Before a shield can appear, Rachel cleaves his arms off near the elbow.
Aegis’s expression immediately after losing both of his arms is not one of anger. Nor is it one of pain or one of terror. Rather, it is an expression of pure confusion. Said confusion is exacerbated when the lights on his gloves start going haywire and a bubble shaped shield explodes out from them.
Rachel is thrown backward by the explosion and lands by the wall of the arena. The bubble expands, filling the arena. It grows larger and larger until it reaches Rachel. Rachel is pressed between the two forcefield bubbles to the point where she fears being crushed to death.
Rachel screams. Aegis, having just realized that his arms are missing, joins her. Then, the bubble disappears as the ciruits in the gauntlets die out. Rachel exhales a sigh of relief. Aegis replies with another scream. Rachel runs and jumps into the air. She lands on Aegis’s head, kicking off the second she touches him. The force of both actions snaps Aegis’s neck. It also stops the screaming.
Aegis is teleported away before he hits the ground. Rachel lands and catches her breath. She smiles. Two wins, two days. She doesn’t think about her opponents condition, she only thinks about the elation she felt the moment Aegis disappeared.
The audience is cheering so loud that she can barely hear her own thoughts. They scream one word over and over again. Jackrabbit. Rachel smiles and activates her sword. She raises it in the air and the audience goes wild.
After a wordless doctor’s visit, Rachel returns to the metal room. The energy given by the crowd remains and a wide smile covers her face. Jeremy greets her with a hug.
“You didn’t just beat Aegis,” Jeremy says, “You kicked his ass!”
Rachel beams at this comment. “I know!” she says. “That went surprisingly well.”
On cue, the phone rings. Ysabel asks if Rachel would like to be on Faust’s show and Rachel politely declines. She and Jeremy instead elect to celebrate with a feast of chips and cheap booze.
“I think I’m getting a hang of this Tournament thing,” Rachel says. “Who knows, I might even win this thing.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. You still have a long way to go before you even come close to the championship,” Jeremy says.
“You’re right, but I can get a little ahead of myself. At least while I’m celebrating. Wanna know why?”
“Cause I’m awesome.”
Jeremy laughs. “I’ll give you that.”
“Seriously, look at what I did to Aegis and Lazarus! I destroyed them!”
Jeremy smiles. He thinks for a second then frowns. “I think you might have actually killed Aegis,” he says.
Rachel’s euphoria freezes. She hadn’t thought about whether or not Aegis had survived his encounter with her. “I hit him pretty hard, didn’t I?” Rachel says.
“Yeah, I think that last kick might have broken his neck.”
Rachel thinks for a moment. “I don’t feel bad,” she says. “Does that make me a bad person?”
“I don’t think so,” Jeremy says. “He entered a competition where he might die of his own free will. Sometimes things like this happen. So no, I don’t think you’re a bad person. Plus, he did try to shoot you in the face.”
Rachel mulls over Jeremy’s thoughts. “Wow,” she says, “That really killed the mood. Any ideas on how to bring some fun back to this party?”
Jeremy sighs. “Actually, there are some other things we need to talk about,” he says.
“Like what?” Rachel asks.
“Like the fact that the block finals are on Saturday.”
Rachel makes a face that tells that she has no clue what he’s talking about. Jeremy makes a face that tells Rachel that she’s going to have to listen to a long lecture about the Golden Valhalla Tournament.
“All Tournaments from the seventh onward have had 64 fighters,” he says. “There are 63 other fighters vying to win this Tournament. You guys are separated into eight groups of eight. These groups are called blocks. With me so far?”
Rachel nods. “Each group fights in its own mini-Tournament to determine the quarter-finalists. Your block was chosen to go first. Right now, you’re one win away from going to the quarterfinals. Tomorrow Arctic and Heavyweight are going to fight to determine who fights you on Saturday. Whoever wins that fight wins the block.”
“What happens if I win the block?”
“You get a few weeks of rest then get to fight the other block winners. Then the Redemption Tournament happens, but that’s complicated. Anyway, that brings me to my next point. You’ll be fighting either Arctic or Heavyweight.”
“They’re both a lot stronger than Lazarus or Aegis.”
“So we’ll do what we always do. Plan.”
“That still leaves us with one very big problem.”
“The sword isn’t as sharp as we thought.”
Rachel thinks back to her fight with Lazarus, where her sword and his clashed against one another, and to her fight with Aegis, where she deflected a shuriken instead of cutting through it. She realizes that the sword that cuts through anything is a lot duller than she thought.
“Which means that it might not be able to hurt Heavyweight,” she mutters.
“Exactly,” Jeremy says with his head hung low. “Rache, these guys might kill you.”
Rachel sighs. “Sometimes things like that happen,” she says. “I entered a competition where I might die of my own free will. If I die, it wouldn’t be those guys who killed me.”
“Don’t quote me,” Jeremy says. “Half the stuff I say is incredibly stupid.”
Rachel laughs, which puts a smile on Jeremy’s face. “Come on,” he says. “We have planning to do.”
Jeremy leads Rachel to tarp laid out in the back corner of the room. On top of the tarp lie two arms and a gun. “What is this?” Rachel asks.
“It appeared after your fight with Aegis,” Jeremy says while bending over to get a better look at one of the arms, “It appears to be some more trophies.”
“It smells terrible.”
“Well, it’s decaying human flesh. What do you expect it to smell like?”
Rachel gulps and grabs one of the arms. She takes hold of the bone and pulls the hand out of the gauntlet. She drops the severed arm and slides her arm into the glove. Jeremy stares at her, mouth open.
“What?” she asks.
“Nothing,” Jeremy says. “I just thought you’d be a little more squeamish.”
“I cut a man’s arms off two hours ago. Perspective, Jer.”
Rachel backs up a few steps and puts the gloved arm out in front of her. She makes a fist and the lights on the gauntlet light up. “Wait!” Jeremy shouts.
“That thing exploded earlier. Are you sure you want to mess around with it?”
“I need it if I’m going to win my next match.”
Rachel takes a deep breath and spreads her fingers apart. A wall of light appears in front of her. She smiles. “We’ll spend the time leading up to my next match practicing.”
Later that evening Rachel stands upon her porch, gazing into the night air. Jeremy is asleep inside. Rachel clutches her bag like someone’s going to steal it. Rachel slowly opens the back and grabs one of the pill bottles.
Rachel drops the bottle off the porch, into the water below. She reaches in and grabs another pill bottle. She drops this one like the first. She pulls out the final bottle.
Rachel stares at the bottle. She knows that when she drops this one there’s no coming back. Her arm shakes so much that she worries about it falling off.
Wordlessly, Rachel throws the pill bottle as hard as she can. After a few moments, it splashes down into the water far below the metal room, before sinking into the deep blue sea.