Sole Survivor – Chapter X: Long Walks on the Beach

Far from the stadium, there lies a beach. There are no battles to be found at this beach, no underdogs or champions, no wizards, and certainly no cowboys. At this beach, you can find nothing but grey sand and blue water.

On one cold morning, years before the 14th Tournament, a woman by the name of Rosa walks down this beach. It’s early, before the little crowd that the beach will get that day has arrived. In fact, Rosa cannot spot another human being. She isn’t surprised. Very few people are at a beach at seven in the morning, especially on a foggy day like this one.

Rosa crosses the grey sand, smooshing it beneath her shoes with each step, headed for a small shack that looks like it could fall over at any moment. Above the shack is a big sign saying Seneca’s Surf Shack. The shack, as its sign implies, rents surfboards. The interior of the shack houses piles of boards. A counter has been cut out so that beach goers can rent a surfboard without going inside.

Rosa enters the shack and takes a seat at the counter. She pulls a book out of her coat and prepares for what is sure to be a very long morning. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she spots him. A giant man standing near the water, barely visible thanks to the fog. Rosa stares at the man. She’s seen him around the beach before, walking down and back. He’s never come up to talk to her. In fact, Rosa has never seen the man talk to anyone. The man notices her gaze and quickly scurries away, leaving massive pits in the sand with each step.

Over the day, a grand total of three people rent surfboards. Each of which is returned after the customer realizes how cold the water is. Rosa finishes her book and spends the last three hours of her shift wishing she brought another one.

The boredom is the primary reason Rosa hates her job at the surf shack. All day, every day, she sits at a counter, doing nothing but reading and waiting for someone to come rent a surfboard. Despite the monotony of the job, Rosa doesn’t plan on leaving it for several months. College is expensive and the shack provides her with enough hours to quell her complaints.

After a mind numbing fourteen hour shift, Rosa locks up and begins walking home. After walking a third of the way, she notices the sound of heavy feet sinking into the sand. She looks behind her shoulder and sees a dark figure following her. After a second, she realizes that the figure is the giant. Rosa quickens her pace.

By the time she’s halfway home she is running as fast as she can. Despite his large size, the giant is gaining on her. Then her foot hits a rock, sending her crashing into the sand.

By the time she can get up onto her hands and knees the giant is standing over her. She screams and throws her book at him. He raises his hands in the air and shouts “I’m sorry!”

Rosa temporarily pauses her screaming to ask “What?”

“I’m so sorry I scared you I didn’t realize until halfway through that you were scared so I chased after you so that I could tell you that I was sorry which I now realize was a bad idea I’m so sorry,” the giant blurts out in the span of five seconds.

Rosa pauses for a moment. “What?” she says again.

“You’re pretty. I mean, I think you’re pretty. Not to say that other people don’t think you’re pretty, but…um…yeah.”

Rosa thinks for a second about whether she should take the compliment or start screaming again. She compromises by staring at him confused. “I like long walks on the beach,” the man says. “That isn’t a line. I actually do like walking this beach. Which you probably know. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Rosa begins to feel safer. The odds of the man standing over her hurting her are low. At least, the odds of him being a threat to her are low. The odds of him hurting himself seem to grow with every sentence that escapes his mouth.

Rosa begins to study the man. He doesn’t look especially scary. His hair is unkempt and long bangs cover most of his face. Shining through the bangs are a pair of large hazel eyes that make him look like a big kid. His head is hung low and he’s making the expression puppies make when they’re apologetic. The only thing that’s really scary about him is his size.

“Why were you chasing me?” Rosa snaps at him.

“I, uh, I walk down this beach every day. There are a lot of pretty girls here this time of year, but you’re the prettiest,” he says, flustered. “So, I, uh, I go by your stand every day and try to work up the courage to ask you out. Today I finally managed to wrestle up the courage to ask you, but you weren’t there anymore. Then I saw you and figured I could catch up to you and ask you out, but that scared you and I’m so sorry for that.”

He gulps. “Will you go on a date with me?” he asks.

Rosa stares at him for a solid two minutes before sighing. “I suppose. As long as you don’t follow me home,” she says.

“Really? I can’t believe that actually worked,” he says.

“Don’t make me regret this.”

The giant helps Rosa to her feet. “I’m Rosa,” she says. “What’s your name?”

“Marek,” he says. “Marek Kysely.”

+++

Minutes before Marek Kysely’s third match, a short man with grey skin and blonde hair sits in the Peanut Gallery. His name is Vic. Vic, for somewhat obvious reasons, wants to kill Kysely. Unfortunately, he, for several other reasons, cannot kill Kysely. Thus, he awaits someone else doing it for him.

“Well, look who’s still kickin,” a loud voice shouts from behind him.

Vic would turn his head to look at the source of the voice. Unfortunately, he, for one gigantic reason, cannot turn his head. Said reason being the fact that he’s still wearing a neckbrace. The neckbrace and the reason he wants to kill Kysely happen to be the same reason.

“Nice to see you again,” Haven says while sitting down next to Vic. “After what the big fellow did to ya, I thought ya were a goner.”

“I’m lucky to be alive,” Vic says bitterly.

“You seem a little glum.”

“Well, maybe it’s because I didn’t get much sleep last night. Or, I don’t know, it could be because my neck was broken by a giant psychopath who broke my goddamn neck while the Tournament staff sat back and laughed. That might have something to do with it.”

“Well, think on the sunny side. Ya might get to see Heavyweight get his big behind handed to him.”

“Honestly, that makes me feel a little better.”

Haven chuckles and gives Vic a pat on the back. Vic winces in pain and Haven decides to avoid touching his injured friend. “I try to avoid takin’ sides, but I must confess that Heavyweight just rubs me the wrong way,” Haven says. “It looked like he seriously wanted to kill you. Good people don’t try an’ kill each other.”

“We have no room to talk. No one in this Tournament does. I kill people for money and you made Aegis look like swiss cheese.”

“I wasn’t tryin’ to kill him. I didn’t hit any organs. All I did was make him bleed a little.”

“And that’s why you lost. This stadium is a palace cruelty and sadism. We fight, we maim, we kill for the right for our own benefit. This is not a game for gentle souls. Put simply, those who lack the will to kill either lose or die.”

“That’s a tad pessimistic-”

“No. I’m not pessimistic. I’m realistic.”

Haven and Vic stare at each other for a few seconds, neither speaking a word.

“Now that I think about it,” Haven says, “You ain’t that good a person yerself. I was wrong to cheer for ya yesterday.”

“Well, you were right about one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“You were right to think Heavyweight sucks. That guy is a gigantic asshole. In more ways than one.”

Haven laughs at the joke. “Look’s like we’re both cheering for miss Botterill, then,” he says.

“Looks like it,” Vic says.

“You know, I have a feelin’ that we’ll have us a dang good hoedown today.

+++

“I had a feeling about her, Legion,” Faust says. “I had a feeling that she’d be a contender. Now she’s won two fights.”

“Interesting,” Legion replies. “I also have a feeling about her.”

“Really? Do tell.”

“I have a feeling that she’s going to get beaten to a bloody pulp.”

“Come on, you don’t have to be so pessimistic.”

“I’m not pessimistic, I’m realistic. Kysely is far from an easy opponent. He’s tough enough to survive both explosions from Lupei and a machete strike fro Callaghan.”

“Good point. Counterpoint: she has a very sharp sword.”

“Not sharp enough.”

“Well, it may become sharp enough if she can figure out a way to, oh, I don’t know, turn off his powers.”

“She used an EMP on Galo, you blithering idiot. Kysely is a man, not a machine. Unless she spontaneously acquires new powers, she will lose this fight.”

Their argument is cut short when the cameras start rolling. The two turn towards the cameras and begin their introductions. “Hello, and welcome back to the Fourteenth Triennial Golden Valhalla Tournament,” Faust says, his voice filled with all the charm and charisma he can muster.

“My name is General Arastoo Rompaye,” Legion says, without a shred of charm or charisma. “Also known as Legion. With me is Faustino Nash, also known as Faust.”

“Today’s fight is the very first of this Tournament’s eight block finals. The winner of this match will earn a spot in the quarterfinals in August, while the loser will have a chance to fight for another shot at the top in the Redemption Bracket,” Faust says.

“The first fighter is Dr. Marek Kysely, also known as Heavyweight. He is 35 years old and from the outlands around City 174. He is 216 centimeters tall and weighs 146 kilograms. He has a Ph.D in biochemical engineering and is currently serving a life sentence for 56 counts of murder and 289 counts of assault,” Legion says

“Legion,” Faust says.

“What?” he replies.

“You’re a little wordy. I told you to be more descriptive, not to give them a biography.”

“Fine. You do it.”

“I will,” Faust says, indignantly. “Heavyweight made it here by fighting off both the flames of Helios and the chill of Arctic. This mammoth murderous monstrosity seems unbeatable. However, we may have a challenger who can take him on.”

“She isn’t a challenger.”

“Shut up.”

“This is a Tournament. No one challenges anyone.”

“Again, shut up. The point is he’s going to be facing a girl who has proven to us twice that she can take out the best of the best. Rachel Botterill, aka Jackrabbit, is a young girl from City 19 who weighs in at a lot less than Heavyweight.”

“With her cyan sword and golden boots, Rachel managed to wow the Tournament by defeating former champion Gallus Silvano. Then, with only a day to prepare, she managed to break through Aegis’s shields, earning herself her second victory,” Faust says.

“Still, Heavyweight is one tough cookie to break,” Faust continues. “He’s ready for war with his fifty-kilo weights and fire cannons stolen from Helios. Heavyweight is one of the toughest villains we’ve seen in years.”

“Villain? Try to avoid bias.”

“He’s a member of a terrorist group. It isn’t biased to call him evil.”

“Fair point.”

“All and all, I have a feeling that we’re going to have one hell of a fight.”

+++

“Sword?”

“Check.”

“Boots?”

“Check.”

“Goggles?”

“Check.”

It’s only a few short minutes before Saturday’s fight and Rachel and Jeremy are preparing in the metal room. The two are going over a final checklist before Rachel’s fight with Heavyweight. Her weapons are all in place. The strategies to defeat Heavyweight have been discussed. All that remains is to go over the checklist and make sure everything is in order.

“I think that’s everything,” Rachel says.

“Wait,” Jeremy says, “There’s one thing we forgot.”

“What?”

“This,” Jeremy says as he hugs Rachel. “Stay safe out there, okay?”

“Okay.”

And, with that, their preparations are finished. Everything rests on Rachel now. She heads to the metal room’s porch and is taken away, teleported to the arena.

Now she stands atop a circle of limestone tiles, roughly 40 meters across. On the other side of the arena stands Heavyweight, a man who will spend the next fifteen minutes trying to do nothing but kill her.

The fear is back. There is nothing to do to silence it. If Rachel is going to survive, she’s going to need to ignore it. “The guns don’t really match,” Rachel says, her voice quivering.

Heavyweight cocks his head. “I mean, you have this black and grey thing going on, but you have these gaudy orange guns sitting on your shoulders,” she says, with a little more confidence. “Plus, you’ve got this whole black knight thing going on. Wouldn’t want to ruin it by adding in something out of place, like guns. Anyway, my point is that you should get rid of them.”

Heavyweight just stares at her. “No? Honestly, I didn’t think that would work,” Rachel says, trying to put on a brave face. “You probably aren’t the best person to have a conversation with. You seem kinda quiet.”

The bell rings and a blast of fire soars towards Rachel. She closes her eyes and places both hands in front of her, creating a shield to block it. A boom echoes as the blast collides with Rachel’s shield. Fortunately, the energy from the blast is redirected away from her.

Rachel opens her eyes and discovers that she is still alive. She smiles as another fireball is stopped by the shield. As another one collides, she realizes that she can’t hide behind the shield forever. When the third hits, she notices a crack starting to form in the center of the shield. When the fourth one hits, she is thrown against the wall as the shield breaks.

Rachel decides that standing in one place and allowing her opponent to shoot at her isn’t the greatest solution. She jumps to avoid the next fireball, flying over Heavyweight and landing behind him. She pulls out her sword and slashes it against Heavyweight’s back.

The sword bounces off, having done no damage to the massive man. Part of Rachel realizes how significant this is. A much larger part of her is distracted by Heavyweight punching her in the stomach.

The punch throws Rachel against the wall and makes her feel like she’s been hit by a cannonball. To make matters worse, Rachel drops her sword. She regains her footing and jumps over Heavyweight to avoid his next punch. As soon as she lands she is forced to jump again to avoid Heavyweight swinging one of his weights at her.

Most people assume that Heavyweight is stupid. He’s big, tough, never talks, fights with the brutality of a crocodile addicted to narcotics, etcetera. They are wrong about him. Or, at the very least, wrong about how intelligent he is. Heavyweight is, in reality, extremely smart. Smart enough the earn his doctorate. Smart enough to reverse engineer Helios’s cannons from the scraps left behind from their fight. The point of this tangent is this: Heavyweight is more than intelligent enough to figure out how to kill Rachel Botterill.

Heavyweight throws his right weight above his head aswings ng it in a circle while walking towards Rachel. Due to the length of his chains, a large portion of the arena is covered by his swing radius. Anything caught his swing radius, including plucky young underdogs, will be hit by either the chain or the weight. A strike from either is enough to kill or severely injure someone.

The point is, Rachel cannot jump in the air to avoid Heavyweight’s attacks anymore. Heavyweight fires firing his cannons again, sending blasts of fire hurtling at Rachel. Rachel puts her shield up and tries to think of a better plan.

+++

“Heavyweight is strong,” Jeremy says. “The amount of energy to throw those weights around is astounding. If you get hit, all of that energy going somewhere. Care to guess where?”

“I take it that the answer is something unpleasant?” Rachel replies.

“The energy is going into you. Specifically, it’s going into your bones and organs.”

“Called it.”

The two are discussing strategies on the metal room’s porch. Rachel is sitting on the edge, her feet dangling over the abyss. The fight will commence in less than a day. It’s nice to feel the cool night air as the moon rises.

For the next 18 hours and 38 minutes, Rachel plans to spend her time coming up with a plan to take out Heavyweight. “Avoid the chains. Got it,” Rachel says.

“You don’t just have to watch out for the chains, you also have the fire guns to deal with. You should take them out first,” Jeremy says.

“How?”

“Use the revolver. Or the gauntlets. Or your sword. How doesn’t matter, the important thing is that you don’t get hit. The fact that you’re quick is going to be a big asset in this fight. His weights are hard to aim and his canons require him to move his entire body. Keep moving, use your shield, and take out those cannons. That’s step one.”

“I assume step two is cutting those chains.”

“Yes, but be careful about cutting them. Cut it too close to the weight and Heavyweight ends up with a whip. A whip that he can swing much faster than a ball and chain. In his first fight, he whipped one around Helios’s neck. You don’t want that happening to you.”

“Maybe I do. It could be fun.”

Jeremy laughs even though the joke isn’t very funny. Maybe it’s the seriousness of the situation. With the fight about Rachel wanting to fight behind them and the fight against Heavyweight ahead of them, a little brevity is needed. The two are sitting in the eye of the storm, catching their breath before all hell breaks loose.

“All jokes aside, you need to cut those chains as close to his hands as possible.”

+++

Rachel jumps to the side to avoid the part of the chain that is as far from Heavyweight’s hands as physically possible: the stone weight. The weight crashes into the wall behind Rachel. Heavyweight yanks the chain, returning the weight to his hand for another shot. The other weight spins in the air above, keeping Rachel grounded.

Rachel starts running as fireballs explode around her. She forms a shield with her left hand. A fireball hits her shield, forming another large crack. “One,” Jeremy mutters from the metal room. He mutters the words “two” and “three” when Rachel blocks the corresponding shots. He shouts “Jump!” when the fourth collides. Rachel follows his instructions and jumps to the right, avoiding any injury when the shield breaks.

Rachel forms another shield and begins charging towards Heavyweight. The shield blocks fireballs, with Jeremy counting off each blast. When the shield soaks up its third blast, Jeremy shouts “Now!” Rachel grabs the revolver and fires three shots at one of the cannons as it fires shot number four. The cannon explodes, throwing Heavyweight off balance and making him stumble two steps to the right. He lets go of the spinning weight for a second, interrupting its rotation, but immediately throws it back in the air and resumes spinning it over his head.

Despite the left cannon exploding in dramatic fashion, the right one still fires on time. Thanks to Heavyweight’s stumble, the shot veers slightly to the right, just enough to miss Rachel, instead exploding on the ground next to her.

Rachel returns to her best friend: the ground of the arena. Upon falling she drops her gun. Jeremy considers supergluing Rachel’s weapons to her hands. That way she won’t lose them.

Heavyweight regains his balance and fires a blast from his remaining cannon. Rachel rolls out of the way, managing to avoid being hit by the fire. The explosion crashes into her other best friend: the wall.

While Rachel survives, Haven’s pistol is destroyed. Rachel reaches into her bag and grabs the orb. She pretends to be dead while being healed, hoping that Heavyweight will stop attacking. Surprisingly, it works for a few moments, buying her time to heal the damage from the explosion. But, before long, Heavyweight realizes that she’s faking and yanks his left weight back. Rachel pulls up a shield to block the shot, giving her time to regain her footing.

Rachel jumps back to avoid the next weight toss and another fireball. She pulls up her right shield and begins firing knives at Heavyweight’s remaining cannon. She scores a hit. Unfortunately, she doesn’t hit the cannon. She hits the chain. Near the weight. A fireball destroys her shield and the metal chain is swung at her like a whip. It hits its mark.

Rachel, amazingly, manages to stay on her feet. Not to say that the whip doesn’t hurt her, it does. The metal chain breaks three of her ribs and hurts like hell. Rachel jumps back and avoids the whip’s next crack.

Rachel pulls up another shield and watches as two fireballs crash into it. She notices a small grey cylinder resting by Heavyweight’s foot. Her sword. Rachel runs forward, switching hands when her shield breaks. She dismisses the shield and dives between Heavyweight’s legs, grabbing her sword. She rises to her feet and stabs the remaining cannon from behind Heavyweight.

Rachel jumps out of the way when the cannon explodes, avoiding injury. Heavyweight is not amused by both cannons being destroyed. He swings the chain at Rachel, hitting her before she can create another shield. The chain wraps around her stomach. Heavyweight pulls the chain close, bringing Rachel to him, then punches her away.

+++

Marek brings his burger close to his face and takes a ginormous bite. Not a big bite, not a large bite, a ginormous bite. The type of bite that consumes three quarters of  a sandwich in one bite. Juices, ketchup, and a pickle roll down his chin. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Rosa watching him. He sheepishly cleans himself with a napkin.

“Who are you, exactly?” Rosa asks.

“My name is Marek,” Marek says while swallowing the burger.

“Yes, I know your name. You told me it at the beach.”

“Right. I told you my name.”

The two are sitting on the stools of a diner eating hamburgers and fries. Marek’s suggestion. Rosa actually doesn’t mind the diner. While she was cautious at first, the food is surprisingly good.

Rosa sighs. “What do you do for a living?” she asks.

“I’m a professor at the university. I, uh, have a Ph.D in biochemical engineering. I mostly work with algae and making fuel from algae.”

“Wow, sounds interesting,” Rosa says flatly.

“It really isn’t,” Marek says. “I was hoping to get a better job, but this was the best one I could find without going into one of the cities.”

The cities. The giant metropolitan areas created by the World Government Coalition, each containing millions of people. Rosa and Marek share an equal dislike of these cities. “What about you?” Marek asks.

“I’m actually going to school at the university. I’m working at my uncle’s store while class is out of session in return for room and board.”

“What are you studying?”

“History, with a focus on the governments that existed before magic came back.”

“Wow, sounds interesting.”

“Fair enough.”

“That’s with Dr. Jaydon, right?”

“Correct.”

“I hate that guy. He once put a bunch of kingsnakes in my office. I opened my desk drawer to get my stapler and bam! Bunch of snakes!”

“I think I heard about that! Wait, are you the professor who accidentally set himself on fire?”

Marek looks down at his food. “Unfortunately, I am,” he says.

Rosa laughs. “I only did it once!” Marek pleads. “Everyone acts like setting myself on fire is a hobby. It was an accident! Accidents happen!”

“Well, most accidents don’t end with half the science building burning down.”

“Fair enough.”

Rosa takes a bite of her burger and a sip of her drink. “How old are you, anyway?” she asks.

“Twenty six,” he replies.

“You seem kinda young to be a professor. When I think about a guy teaching biochemical engineering I imagine a balding old guy who gives lectures in a monotone voice.”

“I, uh, I’m not much of a teacher, to tell you the truth. The university really only hired me so that I could work in a lab for them.”

Marek finishes his burger and cleans his face with a napkin. Rosa has barely touched her food. “So, what do you do in your free time?” Rosa asks.

“I like reading,” Marek says.

“So do I.”

“Yeah, I know,” Marek says quietly.

He is less than proud about spending so many days watching Rosa while working up the courage to ask her out. “What were you reading the other day?” Marek asks.

“A really cool book.”

“Really? What book?”

“One that is really interesting and definitely not boring.”

Marek raises an eyebrow and Rosa sighs. “I was reading a book by Ulviye Mann on historical economies and how the problems they encountered apply to the modern world.”

Marek laughs. “And you made fun of me for having boring interests!” he says.

“It’s really interesting, I swear! It points out some flaws in the economies of the cities and postulates that they’re the reason for the economic decline!”

“That sounds insanely interesting.”

“Shut up! I like it.”

The two burst out laughing. “I believe you,” Marek says. “I’ve actually read some of Mann’s books. She’s a good writer. Shame about her death.”

“Have you heard the heard the theories about her being killed by the government for insulting them?”

Marek rolls his eyes. “People always think it’s the Coalition when famous people die,” he says. “It was probably just an accident. Accidents happen.”

Rosa sighs. “I suppose you’re right. Still, I wouldn’t put it past those Coalition bastards.”

“Careful, they might kill you for saying that,” Marek jokes.

“Oh no!” Rosa says, playing along. “I wonder how they’ll do it?”

“I bet they’ll make you fight in that Tournament.”

“Oh, don’t get me started on the Tournament. It’s inhumane. I can’t believe that people allow violence like that to happen.”

“People don’t usually care about things that don’t affect them, that’s how.”

Rosa sighs. “I know. We live in a screwed up world.”

“It’s nice that you care. Most people just sit back and watch the violence.”

“I’ve never been one to sit back when evil is happening.”

“I can respect that.”

Eventually, the conversation steers away from talk about the Tournament. Marek and Rosa spend the rest of the evening discussing literature, ragging on the Coalition, and telling jokes. Eventually, the proprietor of the burger joint kicks them out. Marek walks Rosa home. She stops before entering her uncle’s house and looks Marek in the eye.

She stands on her tiptoes and Marek bends down to give her a kiss. “Let’s have another date sometime,” Rosa says as she opens the door, “I had a good time.”

+++

The massive warrior, Heavyweight, waits for Rachel to crawl to her feet. As soon as she stands, up he whips her again, knocking her back down. The repeated blows with the chain and the punch from Heavyweight have taken their toll on Rachel. She reaches into her bag for the orb and uses its power to heal herself.

Rachel raises a shield in front of her and stands up. Heavyweight begins whipping it, trying to break it. Rachel jumps to the side to avoid a swing that shatters the shield, only to be struck by another swing seconds later.

The swing hits her in her the face and knocks her back down. Despite the pain, it takes Rachel several seconds to realize the extent of the damage done by the strike. The entire left side of her face is screaming, and her eye feels like it just got stabbed. She can’t seem to focus or think straight, probably because of the massive concussion. Her goggles are destroyed, obviously, and the left lense shows nothing but blackness. Rachel grabs the goggles and pulls them off.

Rachel stares at the ground for a second before realizing a horrifying truth. She still cannot see out of her left eye. Cautiously, she places her hand on her face. She feels blood, hot and sticky. She feels a deep cut across the left side of her face. What she does not feel is an eye.

Rachel screams, louder than she’s ever screamed before. “My eye!” she yells. “Where’s my eye!”

+++

Weddings tend to be quite beautiful, and Rosa’s is no exception. Her’s is held on the beach at dusk; no other location feels right. Wooden chairs and an iron archway are set up on the grey sand, within view of Seneca’s Surf Shack. Seneca himself walks Rosa down the aisle, filling in for Rosa’s deceased father.

As darkness envelops the beach, lanterns filled with bioluminescent algae come to life, illuminating the beach enough to see a 26 year old woman in a blue dress. She’s beautiful. Or, as her fiance to be would say, the prettiest girl on the beach. On that cold night in August, she walks through the sand to a goliath like man wearing a tuxedo with a blue bow tie.

The goliath is named Marek Kysely. He is 29 years old, speaks two languages, has brown hair, hazel eyes, weighs 119 kilograms, and likes long walks on the beach. He is about to become one of the happiest the men alive.

Marek barely fits into his tuxedo. Tuxes for giant men simply aren’t made. His tux, the closest to his size that he could find, is tight and looks like the buttons are about to pop off. This, combined with the sweatiness of his palms and his heavy breathing, make some of the guests think that he’s regretting his choice to get married.

These speculations could not be further from the truth. Marek wants nothing more than to marry Rosa Fertig. He’s nervous. Nervous about the thought of her saying no.

Rosa reaches the archway and smiles. As it turns out, Marek isn’t the only one excited about starting a new life. The officiant speaks about the couple, but neither of them pays attention. Both are lost in thoughts of their new life together. Eventually, rings are exchanged and vows are said.

“When I first saw you, I thought you were the prettiest girl in the whole world,” Marek says. “I mean, I still think that, but that’s beside the point.”

“I fell in love with the way you stood there, completely engrossed in some book, paying no attention to the world around you. I fell in love with the fact that you chew on your fingernails when you’re thinking and all the times you pushed your glasses back up because they fell down while you were reading. I fell in love with the small smiles you made when no one was looking. I shouldn’t have fallen in love with you then.”

A hushed silence spreads through the crowd at this bombshell. “I fell in love with a pretty face and a few quirks. I fell in love with a picture of you. I’m sorry I fell in love with you. I’m sorry because I should have waited until I met you before falling in love. I should have waited until I found out that you are far greater than I could have imagined.”

“I don’t love you because you’re pretty. You are pretty, like, really, really pretty, but that doesn’t matter. I love you because you’re smart, and kind, and funny, and a million other things. I love the way you hug me every time we meet, even though you only make it as far as my waist. I love the way that you’re so passionate about so many things. I love that little crinkle you get in your nose when you’re ranting about history. I’m sorry I fell in love with you before I knew how amazing you are. I hope you can forgive me.”

“My parents died when I was a very young. For a long time, I was alone. It hurts, being alone. It feels like there’s a hole in your heart, a hole you can’t fill no matter how hard you try. Then I met you, and suddenly, I wasn’t alone. I was loved. The hole in my heart wasn’t there anymore.”

“The point of all this incoherent rambling is this: I love you, and want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

The officiant says the famous words. Marek and Rosa both say yes. Before the officiant can finish saying you may kiss the bride, Rosa jumps on Marek and gives him the biggest kiss of his life.

+++

Blood gushes from the hole where Rachel’s eye used to be, forming a red pool on the white tiles. “My eye,” Rachel sobs. “What happened to my eye?”

“Use the goddamn orb already!” Jeremy screams.

In his defense, he’s been saying the same thing for thirty seconds. He isn’t angry. Just scared. Rachel is also scared. Very, very scared. Having an eye whipped out will do that to you.

After a few more attempts, Jeremy finally manages to get through to Rachel. She reaches into her bag and places her hand on the healing orb. With one eye, she watches the green light envelop her.

Waves of pain, far greater than anything Rachel has ever felt, envelope her skull. It feels like a thousand tiny knives have been stabbed into her face. It feels like her blood is lava. It feels like a monster is ripping her skin off. After all is said and done, her eye is still missing. “No,” she whispers.

She repeats the word to herself, again and again, the volume increasing each time. “No,” she whispers, quieter than anything she has ever said before.

+++

“Jesus Christ,” Haven mutters, breaking character for a moment.

The various fighters spread around the Peanut Gallery are disgusted. Several of them are throwing up. Most of all, they’re happy that they didn’t have to fight Heavyweight. Coral, the woman who threatened to eat Vic, is salivating.

Speaking of Vic, he is not handling watching Rachel get her eye knocked out very well. His eyes are watery and he looks like he’s about to vacate his insides. Behind his nausea, though, is something else.

Anger.

+++

Heavyweight is motionless. He stands like a statue, waiting for Rachel to get up. He wonders to himself, Did I hurt her enough to make her stay down? He hopes the answer is no. He isn’t satisfied yet.

“Why is he waiting?” Rachel asks, lying on the ground in a pool of her own blood.

“What?” a hysterical Jeremy replies.

“He could have killed me by now. So why is he waiting?”

Rachel’s voice is quiet and without emotion. It sounds the way that molasses looks, if you can imagine that. She’s in shock over the eye, distracting herself by focussing on her opponent.

“Rachel, you need to forfeit the match immediately!” Jeremy shouts. “The reason he hasn’t killed you yet doesn’t matter, the important thing is that he’s going to any minute now!”

“I think he enjoys this,” Rachel continues. “Not the way I enjoy it. In a different way. He enjoys this in a sadistic way. He enjoys my pain. That’s why he keeps letting me get up. He likes knocking me down.”

“I can’t beat him from the ground,” Rachel says. “That chain’s too dangerous. I need to get around it.”

Rachel forms a shield in front of her and rises from bloody tiles. Heavyweight whips the shield, almost breaking it. “Don’t do it,” Jeremy says. “Don’t even think about doing what you’re thinking right now.”

Rachel closes her eyes and jumps straight up into the air.

One of the sad truths of life is this: the intelligent thing isn’t always the best thing you can do. Sometimes, people get lucky. Sometimes, doing something insane or idiotic is the wisest course of action. The odds of Rachel getting through Heavyweight’s spinning weight circle are incredibly low. Choosing to jump through it is an incredibly dumb decision. But, as I just explained, every once in a while, people get lucky. Rachel Botterill jumps through Heavyweight’s spin cycle without being hit.

Rachel opens her good eye at the crux of the jump and, upon realizing that she’s still alive, places a shield beneath her. She lands on the shield and immediately jumps again. While midair, she reaches behind her head, forms a shuriken, and throws it. The shuriken strikes Heavyweight’s right chain, severing it near Heavyweight’s hand.

Rachel lands and, before Heavyweight can react, slashes his left chain off. Heavyweight has finally been disarmed. Rachel jumps a meter in the air and strikes Heavyweight’s throat with her sword. It bounces off like it was made of rubber.

Rachel recalls the same thing happening at the start of the fight. She hadn’t dwelled on it at the time but, in hindsight, it was probably an important detail to remember.

Rachel ducks to avoid a punch from Heavyweight and tries stabbing him in the stomach. Again, the sword bounces off. Rachel jumps back to avoid another punch and starts thinking of a way to hurt Heavyweight.

+++

Rachel throws a throwing star into the ocean and is disappointed when she doesn’t see a splash. It’s several hours before her fight with Heavyweight and her and Jeremy have talked about strategy, taking breaks only for sleep, food, and using the restroom, for almost an entire day.

“There’s one thing we need to talk about that we’ve been avoiding,” Jeremy says. “We’ve been coming up with strategies while under the assumption that the sword can pierce Heavyweight’s skin. We need to come up with a plan for what to do if it can’t.”

Rachel stares at the water. “Come on Rache, we need to focus,” Jeremy says.

“We tested the sword back home,” Rachel says. “It can cut through rock, it can cut through steel, it can even cut through diamonds. However, my fight with Lazarus and testing out here tell us that it can’t cut through Lazarus’s cane, meaning that there are things out there that it can’t cut through.”

“We also know that Heavyweight’s skin is so tough that Arctic’s machete broke instead of cutting it. If Heavyweight is too tough for me to cut through, there is no way for me to beat him.”

“We don’t know that.”

“If the sword doesn’t work, the gun and the gauntlets won’t work either. I have no other way to hurt him.”

“Maybe he has some kinda weak point. Like, if you stab him in the back of the neck, he dies.”

A lightbulb goes off in Rachel’s head. “Jeremy,” she says while jumping to her feet, “I have a plan!”

“Really?” Jeremy says while standing up to face her.

“We know that he has a weak point. In fact, we know exactly where it is.”

“Where?”

“Think about it. Where’s the only place that he bothers to put armor on?”

“His head! He must need the helmet to protect his brain.”

“Of course he does. Why else would he wear a helmet?”

“So how are you going to take him out?”

“I’m going to kick him in the head.”

+++

Rachel runs, jumps, and kicks Heavyweight in the head. A clanging noise fills the arena as Rachel’s boot collides with Heavyweight’s helmet. Heavyweight’s head is thrown backward, to the point where his neck almost breaks. Rachel lands on the ground in front of him and jumps again, kicking him in the jaw.

Heavyweight stumbles backward, giving Rachel time the pull her crowbar from her belt and jump in the air. She smacks the top of Heavyweight’s helmet, making a noise that sounds similar to a bell being rung. Rachel keeps hitting Heavyweight in the head, either via a kick or a swing, dodging any countermeasures from her massive foe until Heavyweight manages to grab her leg.

Heavyweight tosses Rachel away from him like a rag doll. Rachel lands without much damage. “Hitting him in the head doesn’t seem to be working,” Jeremy says.

“Well,” Rachel replies, “Maybe I just need to hit him a little harder.”

Rachel gets a running start then leaps into the air. She crashes, feet first, into Heavyweight’s skull. The second she connects she fires off her boots at full power, sending herself flying against the arena wall and Heavyweight to a meeting with Rachel’s best friend. Rachel regains her footing and jumps at Heavyweight, landing on his face. She steps off Heavyweight, onto the ground by his shoulders, and turns around.

Rachel sheaths her crowbar and pulls out her sword. It’s time to make him pay, she thinks to herself while raising the sword above her head. She activates it and plunges it into one of the eye holes on Heavyweight’s helmet. The sword makes a squelching noise upon impact with Heavyweight’s eye.

The sound of Heavyweight losing an eye fills Rachel’s heart with bliss. Rachel pulls her sword out and begins to smile. She even dares to hope that Heavyweight it dead. Alas, he is not. Heavyweight begins to stand up, unaffected by the loss of his eye. Rachel jumps onto his back as he rises, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. “Seriously?” she says. “No reaction? ‘Cause I can attest to the fact that losing an eye isn’t fun.”

Heavyweight tries to shake Rachel off. Rachel grabs her crowbar and plunges the hook under Heavyweight’s helmet. She hoists herself up onto Heavyweight’s shoulders. She jumps it the air, bringing the helmet with her. She and the audience are shocked by the horrors that lie beneath.

+++

Marek Kysely stands in his bedroom, staring out the window at the night air. The stars are twinkling like diamonds. Marek loves the stars. Out where he lives, far from the great cities, the stars seem to shine the brightest. He remembers dozens of nights spend cuddled up with Rosa on the beach, staring at the sky and talking until the sun came up.

“Marek?” Rosa says, half asleep. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he replies.

Rosa groggily crawls out bed and staggers over to Marek. “Why aren’t you in bed?” she asks, “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says. “I’m just thinking.”

“About what?”

“Stars.”

“What about stars?”

“The fact that they’re so far away. See that one,” he says while pointing at a star, “That’s Eta Carinae. It’s billions of kilometers away. The light that we’re seeing now is actually 7500 years old. In that time, it isn’t unlikely that the star died. But we can still see it, we can still gaze upon its magnificent beauty, even though it doesn’t exist anymore.”

“What’s your point?”

“No point. I just find the idea to be fascinating from a philosophy standpoint.”

Rosa smiles. “You’re weird,” she says.

Rosa looks down at the crib in front of Marek. “Did he wake you?” she asks.

“He’s fine,” Marek says. “I just couldn’t sleep is all.”

“Well, when you’re done think about stars, the bed is as soft as ever. I’d recommend getting your sleep while you can. We don’t know when our little bundle of joy is going to decide to deprive us of rest again.”

“I will.”

Rosa walks back to the bed, gets under the covers, and instantly falls asleep. Marek looks down at the crib. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispers to the baby inside, “You make all of those stars look like turds.”

“I can’t believe how much I love you, Nikola. I never thought that I could be so happy. I promise I’ll protect you, and love you, and do a million other things for you.”

Nikola starts squirming and Marek carefully backs away. “Mommy and I need our rest, so I’m going to go to bed now,” Marek says.

Marek lies down on the bed. It takes him a while to fall asleep. He’s too busy thinking about stars and his son. He hopes that he can stay like this forever.

+++

Heavyweight’s helmet falls on the ground behind him. Rachel lands on the other side of the arena. For a moment, the entire stadium is silent. The people in the stands share a simultaneous held breath. They can not believe their eyes. Or, in Rachel’s case, eye.

There are exactly four reasons why someone might wear a helmet. The first and most obvious reason is for protection. Helmets can soften blows and even save lives. Prior to the fight, Rachel and Jeremy assume that this is why Heavyweight wears a helmet. They couldn’t be more wrong.

The second reason why someone might wear a helmet is as a fashion statement. Helmets can be quite stylish. In the 2160s, various types of helmets were “in,” and fashion models around the world dressed like knights or soldiers. This trend ended in 2168, when it was discovered that cowboy hats are far more stylish.

The third reason is for a Halloween costume. Even though the Tournament begins in June and ends before Halloween, you could argue that Heavyweight is wearing a costume. He wears the helmet of black knight and dresses entirely in black clothing. In fact, Heavyweight’s wardrobe was chosen by the Tournament staff for the purpose of intimidating other fighters.

The final reason for wearing a helmet is to hide a blemish, like a pimple or a cold sore. When you wear a helmet, people don’t say things about your pimples. They say things like “Why are you wearing a helmet?” or “Where did you get that awesome helmet?”

Covering a blemish is the primary reason why the Tournament staff gave Heavyweight a helmet to wear. Except, Heavyweight’s blemish is a lot larger than a pimple or a mole. Heavyweight’s blemish covers his entire face.

Crimson flames cover Heavyweight’s skull. That is not a metaphor. His head is literally on fire. His skin cooks and chars before the audience’s eyes. The fat in his cheeks bubbles and boils. His scalp is essentially bald; only a handful of burning hairs remain.

If someone didn’t throw up when Rachel lost her eye, they are likely to throw up now. Faust won’t. Partially because he has a high tolerance for gore, and partially because he’s seen the face of Marek Kysely before. Truth be told, half of the reason Faust chose Heavyweight was so he could have a dramatic reveal when someone inevitably unmasked Heavyweight.

There are a few interesting things about the bonfire above Heavyweight’s shoulders. The first is the fact that the fire doesn’t seem to be going out or getting stronger. It just stays at the exact same size.

Another interesting thing about the bonfire is that Heavyweight’s face doesn’t seem to be deteriorating. His face seems to stay at the same level of destruction, even as the raging fire burns away his facial features. His eyes, for example, are in a constant state of melting out of his skull. In fact, it even looks like parts of his face are healing, only to melt away seconds later. One last interesting thing is the fact that his left eye, the one Rachel stabbed, looks the same as the right.

The bell finally rings and the fighters are teleported away. Up in the announcer booth, Legion turns his head towards Faust. “What the hell did you bring to this Tournament?” he asks.

Faust smiles. “I brought a monster,” he says, “Every good story needs one.”

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