Sole Survivor – Chapter XI: A Man Who Survives

Rachel collapses onto the ground the moment she arrives in the break room. Without the fight to distract her, the sheer horror of what has happened hits her like a freight train. She starts hyperventilating and repeating the words oh my god over and over again.

“Rache, we need to talk,” Jeremy says.

“Oh my god oh my god my eye is gone my goddamn eye is gone why did I sign that contract his head was on fire my eye is gone I’m and idiot oh my god!” Rachel screams, ignoring Jeremy.

“Rachel!” Jeremy yells at the top of his lungs.

Rachel stops screaming for a moment. “What?” she asks.

“First of all, you need to calm down. None of your injuries are life threatening, which is good.”

“Jeremy, my eye is not in my skull. Nothing is good right now.”

“Fine, things aren’t as bad as they could be. How about that?”

“That works.”

“Good. The second thing I needed to say is that you should try the orb again. Maybe it failing was a one time thing.”

Rachel follows Jeremy’s advice and places her hand on the orb. Nothing happens. “It isn’t working, why isn’t it working?” Rachel yells.

“I don’t know! It was a prototype! Maybe it has limits on what it can heal!”

“Limits?”

“Like, it can heal cuts, but can’t regrow organs.”

“Well, it’s good to learn that now,” Rachel says, her voice filled with contempt.

“How the hell were we supposed to know that beforehand? Were we supposed to do surgery on each other between rounds to figure out how much the magic thing we stole can heal?”

“I don’t know! I just wish I knew this before he whipped my goddamn eye out.”

“You need to calm down,” Jeremy says.

“I don’t need to calm down, I need two eyes!”

Jeremy sighs. Rachel has moved from the denial stage to the anger stage and is taking her rage out on him.

“The stupid orb sucks,” Rachel says. “The sword sucks too, it couldn’t cut through that asshole.”

Rachel begins searching the cabinets for some bandages. “What even is he?” she says. “He definitely isn’t human. He’s some sort of demon. A big, stupid demon who has a campfire for a face.”

“Rachel, he knocked you down a thousand times,” Jeremy says.

“Thank you, dear brother, for reminding me,” Rachel says sarcastically.

“Why didn’t you just stay down? Why didn’t you just give up?”

“I don’t know. I just didn’t, okay?”

“Rachel, I think you don’t give up because you enjoy fighting too much and are worried that you’ll hate yourself for not giving it your all.”

“Do you have a point or are you talking for the sole purpose of annoying me?”

“Rachel, you need to give up. Just this once. If you don’t, he’s going to kill you.”

“First of all, I’m not going to give up. Secondly, I couldn’t even if I wanted to. It didn’t work for Arctic, it won’t work for me. They only teleport fighters away when they can’t fight anymore.”

“I know. That’s why we need to make it so you can’t fight anymore.”

Rachel pauses from bandaging her eye. “What?” she asks.

“As soon as you go back, slit your throat.”

“You want me to save myself by slitting my throat.”

“They have a very good medic standing by to heal fighters. She fixed the injuries you gave to Lazarus and Aegis, she’ll be able to save you.”

“I’m not slitting my throat.”

“Why the hell not!” Jeremy yells.

“Because,” Rachel says as she finishes bandaging her empty eye socket, “I don’t want to just survive. I want to fucking win.”

+++

“So this Felix guy, is he nice?” Marek asks.

“Kinda. He’s a bit…over the top sometimes, but he has a good heart,” Rosa replies.

“Over the top? What do you mean by over the top?”

“He’s extremely passionate. Kinda like me.”

Marek smiles at this. He loves the fire that lies within Rosa. He also knows that he can trust her judgment on whether or not Felix is a good man. The two are sitting in a crappy bar, waiting for Rosa’s coworker Felix to arrive. “So what does he want with me?” Marek asks.

“I don’t know, he just asked if he could meet with the two of us for drinks sometime. Maybe all he wants is to meet you. I talk about you a lot at work. Maybe he wants to be friends. It wouldn’t hurt you to gain a few.”

“I have plenty of friends.”

“Name one.”

“Doctor Spirogyra.”

“He doesn’t count. He’s your boss. Besides, when was the last time the two of you did something together?”

“Sometime recent, probably.”

“Admit it, the only people who you hang out with are me and Nick.”

Marek’s shoulders tense. He pulls out his phone. “Speaking of Nick, maybe we should call, see how he’s doing.”

“He’s fine. He’s with my uncle.”

“That’s why I’m worried.”

Rosa pulls the phone out of Marek’s hand. “Marek, you’ve been dedicating all your time to Nick for the past three years. You more than deserve to spend a night having drinks with friends. Lighten up a little.”

Marek sighs and loosens his shoulders. “I suppose you’re right,” he says.

“Felix will be here any minute.”

Marek thinks for a moment. “Felix Ares, what kinda name is that, anyway? He sounds evil,” Marek says.

“Really?” Rosa says. “You’re trying to get out of this by complaining about my friend’s name.”

Marek pauses for a moment. “Yes. A good name is like a second inheritance.”

“What?”

“It’s something that I heard in an old western a few nights ago.”

“That’s a stupid quote.”

Before Marek can respond a chubby man in his thirties sits down next to Rosa. His hair is dyed turquoise and pulled into a long braid. He has an unkempt black goatee and silver nose ring. He is dressed in blue jeans and a grey t-shirt with the letters ARC written in large white letters. He offers a hand to Marek. “I’m Felix,” he says. “Judging by the fact that your chair looks like it’s about collapse and beg for mercy, I’d say you’re Marek.”

Marek cautiously shakes his hand. “Seriously, Rosa said you were big, but this is insane!” Felix says. “How tall are you, anyway?”

“Extremely tall.”

“Damn, and here I was thinking that I was tall.”

Felix chuckles at his joke. Marek and Rosa don’t join in. “It’s nice to see you, as always,” Felix says to Rosa.

“It’s good to see you too, Felix,” Rosa says.

“So, what exactly is it that you do?” Marek asks Felix.

“Wow, gotta love the bluntness on this one,” Felix says. “I work with your wife down at the historical society. But that’s just my day job. What I really love to do is help out with the Allied Regional Combatants, or ARC, for short.”

“The ARC, they’re some sort of militia, right?” Marek says.

“Right. We help train and arm the people in the region, prepare them for any threats they may encounter.”

“Threats like?”

“Threats like another alien invasion, or a mage going nuts and attacking people, or-”

“Or the Coalition?”

The words hang heavy on the stale bar air. All three of them had known they were coming, but none of them wanted to be the first to say it.

“Yeah, or the Coalition,” Felix says. “If the situation arises.”

Marek frowns. “Look, we don’t want to get involved in anything dealing with the Coalition,” he says. “Right Rosa?”

Rosa bites her fingernails, trying to come up with the best way to phrase her next sentence. “Marek, honey, I think we should hear what Felix has to say.”

“Fine,” Marek says. “I’ll listen to what he has to say. What do you want from me?”

“Marek!” Rosa says. “Who said that he wants something from you? Isn’t it possible that he just wants to meet you and have a few drinks?”

“Actually, Rosa, I did want to ask your husband something,” Felix says. “I’d like to offer him a job with ARC. We’ve been looking at a few research scientists and Marek seems like he’ll be a perfect fit.”

“What type of research do you want me to do?” Marek asks.

“Marek, you’re pretty smart when it comes to science, right?” Felix asks.

“I have a Ph.D in biochemical engineering,” Marek says, completely deadpan.

“I read your thesis paper, the one you wrote on steroids. I didn’t understand a single word of it, but I’ve heard that other scientists considered it to be brilliant.”

“I don’t know if brilliant is the word, but yes, I did get some recognition for it.”

“The point is, your work is good. Which begs the question, why are you working on algae fuel in some rinky dink lab all the way out here?”

“It was the only job I could find outside of the cities.”

“Yeah, jobs aren’t easy to come by out here. It’s a shame you couldn’t continue your research.”

“Sometimes life’s like that.”

“Marek, do you love algae? Do you wake up every morning excited to get to work so you can spend a day dedicated to algae?”

Marek looks at Felix for a second before answering. “No, I don’t,” he says.

Felix smiles. “How’d you like to continue your old research?” he asks. “The ARC wants to fund your experiments. We’re willing to pay you more than you make now, give you your own lab, and be as accommodating to your personal schedule as necessary. The only thing we ask is that you give us the fruits of your labor.”

Marek and Rosa look each other in the eye. “Could you give us a second alone?” Rosa asks.

Felix takes the hint and heads to the counter for another drink, leaving the couple alone. “Well?” Rosa asks.

“Well what?” Marek replies.

“What do you think?”

Marek sighs and takes a sip of his drink. “I don’t want to get involved with these people,” he says.

“Marek-”

“I don’t want to get involved with fighting the Coalition. They are, for all intents and purposes, the only government body on the planet, have the strongest military in history, and are led by a literal god. They aren’t the type of people we should mess with.”

“You can at least consider it. You’re always talking about how much you hate your job, this is a chance to love what you do.”

“I love living, thank you very much.”

The two sit in silence for a few moments. Rosa stares at the olive floating in her martini. “Did you see what happened in Razrushenie?” Rosa says.

“Yes,” Marek says with a sigh.

“342 people, Marek. Not soldiers, civilians. Regular people protesting the Coalition’s plans to destroy their homes. The Coalition army mowed them down without a second thought.”

“I know.”

+++

I suppose it would be wise to describe the events that transpired in Razrushenie two years before the Fourteenth Tournament. For you to understand that, I must first explain what NOU is. In the thirty years following the day when the world was introduced to her, Marilyn Maia conquered the entirety of the planet earth. For twenty years after that, the people of earth lived under a military run police state known as the World Government Coalition. Unfortunately, the Coalition did a very poor job managing the world, resulting in dozens of rebellions and civil wars.

In the year 2115, 43 years after Maia revealed herself to the world, the idea of building the great cities came about. These great cities were designed to house millions of people each, have semi-autonomous government, be self sustaining, have well trained police, and have walls to keep people from coming in or out without government approval. Nine years later, ten of these cities went online.

The great cities project was an enormous success and plans to build more were put into motion. Over the following decades, city after city was created. In the year 2232, the year that Marek meets Felix, there are 173 cities around the globe. However, there are still people out there who don’t want to live under Coalition rule, people like Marek Kysely. These people live in the land between cities, usually referred to as the Outlands.

The Coalition begrudgingly allow the Outlands to exist, figuring that it’s more trouble than it’s worth to manage them. The Coalition ignores the people who live outside the cities, allowing them to rule themselves. Most of the Outlanders live in complete anarchy, but a few small governments have managed to emerge from the chaos.

The greatest of these small governments is the Northeastern Outland Union. NOU, located in the ruins of eastern Russia and Mongolia, is a functional government with more than two million citizens. The Coalition keeps very close tabs on NOU and forbids it from having any organized military.

I suppose I should also tell you about the terrorist organization Ragnarok. They first appeared two years after the Great Invasion, when they blew up a monument dedicated to the soldiers who died by alien hands. In the 32 years between their first attacks and the 14th Tournament, the Coalition has learned next to nothing about their leadership or plans. The only real piece of information on Ragnarok that the Coalition has is that they have around ten thousand soldiers around the globe, any of which can be called upon at any time to advance Ragnarok’s goal: destroying the World Government Coalition and killing Marilyn Maia.

As one would assume, given the relative sizes of their army compared to the Coalition’s army and the fact that they plan to kill a god, they have made little progress towards their goal. What they have managed to do is kill thousands of innocent people. Naturally, Maia and the Coalition want to destroy Ragnarok.

Additional facts about Ragnarok that you may find interesting: Ragnarok has access to high level magic and advanced technology, making their soldiers incredibly hard to take down; Ragnarok leaders communicate with soldiers using untraceable magical messages, making it virtually impossible to track down the organization’s members; the location of Ragnarok’s headquarters is unknown, but the Coalition believes that it is hidden somewhere in NOU territory; interrogation of Ragnarok soldiers has revealed nothing, because only the very top members of the organization know anything about the organization’s plans; 30% of captured Ragnarok soldiers come from NOU.

Three years before the 14th Tournament, the Coalition announced plans to build a 174th City in the middle of NOU territory. Supposedly, the new city would be built to help the Coalition fight Ragnarok via faster response times. A rather common opinion among the citizens of the NOU is that the new city’s true purpose is to weaken the strength of the NOU, due to rising fears of NOU going to war with the Coalition.

On August tenth, 2232, hundreds of protesters arrived at the construction site for City 174 located in Razrushenie. Little information exists about what happened next, but the following is known by every man, woman, and child living in NOU: the Coalition soldiers sent to protect the construction crew opened fire on the protesters, killing 324 people. The official statement by the Coalition is that the protesters began attacking the construction workers and attempted to kill the soldiers. Since all of the protesters died, there is no evidence that this is a lie.

+++

“Every person on this planet has the civic responsibility to make the world a better place. Right now we have a chance to protect innocent people and you have the audacity to say no,” Rosa says, furious.

“The Coalition is dangerous. Associating ourselves with a group of people who want to go to war with the Coalition is likely to get us killed,” Marek replies.

“Felix’s group doesn’t want to go to war with the Coalition, they want to help defend people if something like what happened at Razrushenie happens again!”

“I just can’t do this, Rosa.”

“Why? Why on earth can’t you do the right thing?”

“Because I love you,” Marek says, quietly. “You and Nikola are my entire world. If a war breaks out between the Coalition and the ARC, the Coalition will hunt down everyone involved with the organization. They won’t just kill me, they’ll kill my entire family. I can’t risk that.”

“Marek, a war is coming. When the war breaks out the Coalition will kill everyone, regardless of their connection to the ARC. If the country has an army, we can buy ourselves time to flee once the violence starts. The stronger the ARC is, the more time we’ll get to run. If you help the ARC, you’ll be protecting Nikola.”

Marek considers her words and weighs his options. Felix plops back down next to Rosa. “I hate to interrupt, but there is only so much vodka a man can drink. Have you two come to a decision?” he asks.

Marek sighs. “I’ll take the job,” he says.

“Excellent. I guarantee you won’t regret this,” Felix says.

Felix’s words could not be more wrong.

+++

“Something ain’t right about that man,” Haven says. “You see his face? It was burning. The man’s possessed by old scratch, I reckon.”

Vic doesn’t respond. He’s looking down at the ground and can’t decide if he’s angry or horrified. It’s likely that he’s both. Either way, his fist is shaking and his eyes are filling with tears.

”I can see why the big feller didn’t freeze durin’ his match with you,” Haven says, “His head’s a dang campfire.”

“He’s going to kill her,” Vic whispers.

“Well, that ain’t somethin’ the two of us can be certain about. For all we know, she’s ‘bout to make one heck of a comeback.”

“I’m not in the mood for cowboy talk,” Vic snaps.

Haven smiles and narrows his eyes. “You’ve taken’ quite a like’n to young miss Botterill, ain’t ya?”

“No, I ain’t. I want to see Heavyweight get the living shit beat out of him, that’s all.”

“Nah, it ain’t that.”

“Yes it-,” Vic says as he pauses for a moment to figure out what the opposite of ain’t is, “Is that.”

“Color me surprised. I didn’t figure that a cold hearted assassin like yourself had feelings.”

“First of all, that pun was terrible. Secondly, she’s scrappy. I respect that.”

+++

The old arena lowers from the stadium and a new one moves in to take its place. The new arena is much larger, clocking in at 70 meters. Most of its interior is dedicated to rows of chairs that surround the center of the arena. Lying in said center is a boxing ring, complete with ropes.

Like the Labyrinth Arena, where Rachel fought Lazarus, the forcefield bubble surrounding the arena is made of a special type of hard light that allows the audience to see in but keeps the occupants from seeing out. Unlike the Labyrinth Arena, a set of spotlights, all aimed at the ring, hang from a set of crossbeams hovering above the ring. When the spotlights are on, the ring lights up like a beacon at night.

Rachel and Heavyweight are teleported into the new arena. From the booth, Faust says “This, dear fans, is the Haymaker arena.”

The lights are off when Rachel arrives and, a few seconds, her and Heavyweight both stay completely still. Rachel stares at the only source of light available: Heavyweight’s burning scalp. The darkness makes him look especially ominous.

Then the lights turn on, piercing the darkness and bringing Rachel back to reality. It is at this moment that Rachel realizes that she doesn’t have a plan for defeating Heavyweight. The second Heavyweight lays his eyes on Rachel, he charges at her, moving surprisingly fast.

Rachel panics and jumps as high as she can. Rachel goes through the crossbars holding up the lights and grabs onto the, on her way back down. Heavyweight, on the other hand, slams into the ropes, which bounces him onto his back.

The light fixture is square shaped and slightly smaller than the boxing ring. Two crossbars intercept in the center. Attached to each corner is a small glass orb with green lightning bouncing around inside. These glass orbs are small antigravity emitters that keep the structure floating above the ring. Rachel climbs up and sits down where the crossbars cross. She starts working on a plan to hurt Heavyweight.

Back down on the ground, Heavyweight is trying to come up with a plan to hurt Rachel. An idea forms in the chaotic shitstorm that is Heavyweight’s head. Heavyweight rips off one of his destroyed cannons.

He throws it at Rachel. An idea, yes, if not the most elegant one. Certainly a better idea than what Rachel has come up with, which is to hide up there until Heavyweight dies of a brain aneurysm.

The broken cannon misses Rachel and Heavyweight starts throwing other things. He throws the other cannon, parts of the makeshift battery that powered his fire cannons, his shoulder pads, the backpack, and even his leather vest. The vest, surprisingly enough, manages to hit Rachel, but not hard enough to knock her down.

Eventually, all that remains is a metal cylinder that had been sitting at the bottom of the backpack. On closer inspection, the cylinder has a small metal rod sticking out of the middle. Heavyweight grabs the cylinder by the rod and swings his arm.

The rod expands into to a length of around one meter. Rachel realizes that the cylinder is actually a retractable sledgehammer. “Oh come on,” she whispers.

Heavyweight throws the sledgehammer at Rachel. She has to jump to the side to avoid being hit and barely stays on top of the light fixture. The hammer collides with one of the antigravity emitters. The device explodes in a flash of green light and shakes the lights.

Rachel notices the ground beneath her feet start to shift beneath her feet. She instinctively jumps in the air. The corner that the hammer collided with sinks down, sending the opposite corner into the air. The other two corners stay at the exact same place while the entire structure rotates ninety degrees.

Rachel lands on the corner opposite the busted antigravity device, at the top of the structure. Specifically, she lands on a hollow glass orb containing mysterious green energy. As she tries to keep her balance, she looks down at the orb and comes up with a plan.

Rachel pulls out one of her EMP grenades, fiddles with the timer, and jumps into the air, releasing the grenade as she soars. The grenade detonates at the center of the light fixture, turning off all of the lights and, more importantly, the antigravity emitters. The structure falls straight down, landing on Heavyweight’s head.

It takes the Tournament staff several seconds to figure out what to do about the destroyed lights. Eventually, they use magic to form a small white light where the light structure had been, effectively replacing the normal lights. When the light appears the audience is treated to a view of Rachel standing atop the light fixture, with Heavyweight seemingly slain below her.

The structure shifts and Rachel falls over, almost falling off the structure. She only remains on top of the light fixture because her foot slips and gets caught in between the bars. Beneath her, Heavyweight lifts the structure above his shoulders. He throws the light structure and  Rachel with it into the empty chairs outside the ring.

Heavyweight walks to the edge of the ring. Without breaking stride, he walks into the ropes. The ropes stretch as Heavyweight exits the ring and walks towards his prey. The ropes snap, allowing Heavyweight through them without affecting him in the slightest.

+++

One year before the 14th Tournament, Marek Kysely is diligently working in his lab. The lab is small and cluttered with piles of books. A large ensemble of tubes and beakers are connected on one counter. Another counter is covered in cages filled with rats.

Marek fiddles with the beakers and a blue liquid courses through the tubes, winding up in a small glass vial. He picks the vial up and smiles. This could be it, he thinks.

A loud clang shatters the silence of the lab and startles Marek, causing him to drop the vial. He turns around and searches for the source of the sound. Nothing in the lab seems to have caused the sound. He decides to double check his rats.

Marek’s blood turns cold when he looks into the first cage. All three of the rats inside are lying down motionless. Marek grabs a pencil and nudges one of the rats. The rat doesn’t move. Dead, Marek thinks.

The second cage tells the same story, as do the third and fourth cages. The fifth and final cage, on the other hand, is even worse. All three rats are lying on their sides, covered in blood. Two of them have deep gashes near their throats. The bars of the cage have been ripped apart, creating a large hole. What the hell? Marek thinks.

One of the rats begins twitching. It opens its eyes and rolls over onto its feet. It stares at Marek for a few seconds. Then, it jumps through the hole in the cage, aiming for Marek’s throat.

The rat hits Marek in the center of his chest. Marek feels like he’s been punched by a very large man. The rat sinks its teeth into Marek, tearing through his sweater vest.

Marek grabs the rat and pulls it off him. The rat struggles and squirms, trying to escape Marek’s clutches. It bites Marek in the finger. He curses and chucks the rat at a wall. With a loud crash, the rat collides with the wall, leaving a large crack and a red stain.

“Wow, you’re really mean to your pets,” Felix says from the doorway.

Marek turns around to look at the smaller man. Felix’s beard and hair are no longer blue, instead, they have been dyed a horribly ugly shade of green. Marek personally thinks that Felix looks like an infant vomited on his face.

Marek wouldn’t say this out loud, though. In the year between Marek being hired and Marek being attacked by a rat, Felix has risen through the ranks of the ARC, becoming head of the regional research division. Simply put, Felix is Marek’s boss now.

“You know, I was actually planning to have you watch my dog while I head out of town. After seeing you dent our walls with that rat, I’m not so sure I want you around Snickerdoodle,” Felix says, jokingly.

Marek wipes the blood of himself with a nearby rag. “Is that why you’re here?” Marek asks. “Or do you have another reason for coming down to my lab?”

“It’s my lab,” Felix says, all levity gone. “I just let you use it. Never forget that.”

“Fine. Do you have another reason for coming down to your lab?”

Felix walks around the lab, eyeing the piles of books and test tubes. “Believe it or not, I actually do have a good reason for coming down to this dingy little cave,” he says while dragging his finger through the dust covering one of the books. “I need a progress report.”

“Couldn’t you have done this via email?” Marek asks.

“I could, but then I wouldn’t be able to tell if what you were saying was true. For all I know, you could’ve had a couch and a tv down here.”

Marek looks around the disorganized lab. “Where would I even fit a couch?” he asks.

“Good point. A couch big enough for you would fill the entire floor.”

Marek sighs. “Let’s ignore the logistics of fitting a couch down here for a moment,” he says. “I believe you wanted a progress report?”

“Correct. How close are you to completing the serum?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you at least give me an estimate on when you’ll be done?”

“No.”

“Come on Marek, give me something to report to my superiors. You’ve been here for a year. You’ve got to be somewhat close to giving us a workable product. How complicated can steroids be?”

“You’ve asked me to synthesize a complex injectable drug that instantaneously increases levels of adrenaline and testosterone throughout the body. It’s complicated.”

Felix scrunches up his face and places his fingers on his temples. “Marek, this isn’t the type of thing my bosses like to hear. Can you give me something good?”

Marek walks over to the cages. “Right now, the serum is unsafe for human injection. Testing it out on people would be inhumane.”

Felix joins him by the collection of dead rats. “What happened to the rats? Did you forget to feed them?”

“The Serum happened to them. Yesterday, I injected all of these rats with the latest batch. I was planning to test out its effects today. I planned to make them run races, compare their times to their times from yesterday. When I arrived a few minutes ago, I was greeted by this lovely sight.”

Felix notices the fifth cage, the one that the psycho rat originated from. He sticks his hand through and pokes one of the rats with slit throats. “What happened here?” he asks.

“That’s the oddball. All fifteen rats were given the same serum. Twelve of them died, most likely from heart problems related to the drug. But in this cage, something different happened. One of the rats tore its roommates’ throats out and gnawed through the bars. It jumped me when I examined the cage. Right now, murder-magee is a red stain on the wall.”

“Wait, are you saying that a rat tore through these bars?”

“Yes. The strength increase of the serum is phenomenal, but the heart problems and psychotic tendencies it causes are issues we need to work out.”

Felix doesn’t hear this last statement. He’s in his own world, a smile on his face. He suddenly turns around to face Marek. “Marek, this is the type of thing I was looking for,” he says, his voice full of glee. “My superiors are going to love this. The Coalition isn’t going to know what hit them.”

Marek frowns. “You mean, if it comes to that, right?” he says.

Felix backpedals. “Sure. What did you think I meant?”

“Nothing. It just sounded like you wanted to use my serum to attack the Coalition.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. The ARC is a defensive organization. As the R implies, we’re only concerned with dealing with regional problems.”

“Right, we’re the good guys,” Marek says, even though he suspects that the ARC wants to use his research to destroy the Coalition.

Marek doesn’t want war. He wants to create an emergency weapon to protect his wife and son. Nothing more, nothing less. Going to war with the Coalition is the type of thing that would put them in danger.

“Well, I’d better get going. My bosses will want to hear the good news as soon as possible,” Felix says. “Good work, Marek. Tell Rosa I said hi.”

Felix exits the lab. After a second, he reenters. “Oh, before I forget,” he says. “Clean this place up. I don’t want the whole building smelling like a bunch of belly up rats.

+++

Rachel is lying belly up on a chair when Heavyweight exits the ring. Her ankle is twisted and caught within the bars of the light fixture. Heavyweight inches closer as she tries to free herself. “Use the sword!” Jeremy yells in her ear.

Rachel cuts through the bars and pulls her foot free. Heavyweight notices and charges forward. He jumps over chairs and throws the lights away to get to Rachel. Before he can grab her, she jumps away to another part of the stands.

Rachel feels a shot of pain as she lands and falls to her knees. Her ankle, it seems, was injured when Heavyweight threw the lights out of the ring. She grabs the orb and begins healing her ankle. Heavyweight rips a chair from the ground and runs after Rachel.

The second Rachel jumps to get away from him, he throws the chair at her. The chair collides with her midair. She falls flat on her face. She isn’t hurt, but something very bad has happened. The orb, which had been in her hand when she jumped, is gone, dropped somewhere in the stands.

Rachel searches for the orb on her hands and knees, She sees it sitting under a chair and reaches for it. A large hand grabs her foot and pulls her away from the orb. The hand’s owner, Heavyweight, lifts her into the air. He spins around and throws her into the ring.

Heavyweight steps over chairs on his way to the ring. Along the way, he finds a metal sledgehammer. He picks it up and begins dragging it behind him as he heads to his next victim.

+++

Seven months before the 14th Tournament, Marek Kysely is awakened by the sound of screams and gunfire. At first, he doesn’t register what he’s hearing. It must be hailing, he thinks. Then he hears an explosion and realizes that something terrible is going on.

Marek jumps out of bed and looks around his bedroom. The room, filled with stacks of books on history and chemistry, seems to be fine. In fact, if it wasn’t for the sounds of war repeating in Marek’s ears, he would think everything was normal.

“Rosa!” Marek shouts. “Rosa, you need to get up!”

A groan comes from underneath the covers. “What time is it?” a sleepy voice asks.

“I don’t know. Rosa, you need to get up now. Nikola is in danger.”

This statement wakes Rosa up. She jumps out of bed and looks around. “What’s going on?” she asks.

“Listen.”

Rosa realizes that the rumbling noise she’s hearing is the sound of people dying. “The Coalition army is here,” she says, her voice barely as loud as a whisper. “Oh god, the Coalition army is here.”

“The ARC will hold them off for a while, but they can’t last forever. We need to get out of town before they kill us,” Marek says, his voice filled with authority. “Go grab Nikola. I’ll meet you outside.”

Marek and Rosa run out of the bedroom. Rosa heads to the bedroom of her four-year-old son. Marek runs in the other direction, heading to the kitchen. There he finds an assortment of tubes and beakers, almost identical to the one in his lab, sitting on a counter. He turns a knob and a blue liquid races through the tubes, flowing into a small vial.

Marek takes the vial from the tubes and rushes to the kitchen’s cabinets. He tears them open and searches for a syringe. He finds one hiding behind a cereal box. He jabs the syringe into the vial and extracts the blue liquid. He puts the syringe in his pocket. I’ll use it if I have to, he thinks.

The door to Marek’s house bursts open as a chubby man with magenta hair carrying a shotgun enters. The man rushes through the entryway and enters the kitchen. “Marek, just the man I was looking for,” the man says.

Marek is surprised to see the man. “Felix? What’s going on?” Marek asks.

Felix frowns. “This is it,” he says. “This is what the ARC has been preparing for. The day when we’re forced to fight the Coalition’s army. I’m here to make sure that you, Rosa, your son, and your research get out of the city safely.”

Felix notices the tubes. “What’s with the chemistry set?” he asks. “You’re supposed to do all of your research at your lab.”

Marek looks at his feet. “I, uh, have a mini-lab here so I can do work at home,” he says.

Felix groans. “We have you do all of your work at the lab for a reason,” he says. “Your lab was filled with explosives. That way, we can destroy to keep your work from falling into enemy hands. I blew up your lab ten minutes ago for that exact reason.”

“You blew up my lab?”

“There is an army of Coalition soldiers invading the city. This seemed like as good of a time as any to blow it up.”

Felix walks over to Marek’s fridge and opens it. He searches the shelves for alcohol. “Do you have any booze?” he asks,

Marek turns around and grabs a large bottle of vodka located on the top shelf of the cabinet. “Is this really the time to be drinking?” Marek asks.

“This isn’t for me. I’m making a Molotov cocktail. I’m going to burn this place down before we leave.”

Rosa enters carrying Nikola. Marek runs over and hugs them. “Are you two okay?” he asks.

“We’re fine,” Rosa says.

Nikola is barely awake. He rests his head on Rosa’s shoulder. After a few seconds, he begins snoring like an adorable baby panda. “We need to get going,” Marek says.

“Just one second,” Felix says as he places a vodka-soaked dishrag inside the bottle. “There’s one thing I don’t understand.”

“What?”

“Why do you need to work from home? We provide you with a good lab, pay for everything you need, give you money to take care of your family. Why can’t you do your work at our facility?”

Marek gulps and tries to come up with a convincing lie. “This isn’t really the time,” Rosa says. “We need to leave before the Coalition army reaches us.”

“Oh, I think this is a perfect time to talk about this,” Felix says. “Why the hell do you have a lab at home?”

Rosa looks to Marek for an answer. He provides none. “I think I understand what’s going on,” Felix says. “You have a private lab because you don’t trust us with your research, right?”

As the sounds of gunfire draw closer, Felix waits for an answer. “Well?” he says. “Are you going to try and defend yourself?”

“You said that the Coalition wouldn’t know what hit them,” Marek says. “I was worried that you might use my research to launch an attack on the Coalition. I decided to keep my research from you until I could be sure that you wouldn’t use it to start a war.”

“How noble,” Felix says sarcastically. “I think you’re forgetting something, though. You. Work. For. Me!”

“I own you!” he shouts. “You think you can backstab me without any consequences?”

Felix slams the molotov cocktail down next to the breakers and picks the shotgun up. Marek and Rosa’s hearts skip a beat. “Felix,” Rosa says quietly, “How about putting the gun down?”

“Marek, tell your whore wife to shut up,” Felix says.

“What did you call her?” Marek says, angrily.

“I called her a whore, because she is one.”

“Don’t you dare insult my wife.”

“What are you going to do?” Felix says while pumping the shotgun. “Tackle me?”

Marek bites his tongue. He doesn’t want the gun-toting psychopath standing in front of him to blow his head off. “Besides, it’s not like I’m saying anything inaccurate,” Felix says.

Marek makes a look of confusion and Felix laughs. “Wait, you didn’t know? Me and Rosa have been bumping uglies years,” he says.

Marek looks at Rosa, hoping that Felix is lying. Rosa’s eyes give away the truth. “You son of a bitch,” Marek says while walking towards Felix.

Felix fires a warning shot into the beakers. Marek freezes. Nikola wakes up and looks around, confused. “What’s going on?” he asks.

“Go back to sleep, sweet pea,” Rosa says. “Close your eyes and pretend that you don’t hear anything. Everything’s going to be okay.”

Felix aims the gun at Rosa. “God, my superiors are going to kill me when they find out that one of my top scientists was keeping his research from me,” he says. “We could have launched a dozen attacks on the Coalition if we had soldiers with super strength.”

“The ARC is supposed to train people in self-defense!” Rosa says. “You aren’t supposed to attack anyone!”

“The ARC is a front. It’s nothing more than a tool to recruit soldiers and develop weapons.”

“Recruit soldiers for what?”

Felix smiles. “I suppose there’s no reason to keep the truth from you anymore. I work for another organization.”

“Ragnarok,” Marek says. “You work for Ragnarok, don’t you?”

“Guilty as charged.”

“You’re working with a terrorist organization?” Rosa says in disbelief. “How can you help those monsters? They kill innocent people!”

“Look at what the Coalition are doing right now! They’re burning this city to the ground to destroy the ARC! They’re the real monsters.”

“I didn’t sign up for this,” Marek says. “I wanted to protect my family, not protect murderers!”

“We aren’t murders,” Felix screams. “We’re the ones who’re going to save the world, goddamnit!”

Felix fires his gun at a wall in anger. Marek seizes his opportunity and charges Felix while Felix pumps the shotgun. He isn’t fast enough. Felix blasts him away before he even gets close.

Rosa screams and Nikola opens his eyes. He begins crying and screaming for his daddy. “Shut up!” Felix yells.

Marek Kysely isn’t dead. Not yet. He pulls the syringe from his pocket and jabs it into his leg. He injects himself with the experimental super strength serum.

Instantly, Marek feels the serum take effect. His blood vessels feel like they’re filled with fire. His muscles feel like they’re about to burst. He can’t even form a coherent thought due to the all-enveloping hatred he feels towards Felix.

Before Marek can do anything, Felix pumps the shotgun and fires another shot, this one at Rosa. Rosa turns in an instant, shielding Nikola with her body. She collapses to the floor, blood pouring from her back and skull.

Marek screams as he tackles Felix. He rips the shotgun from Felix’s hand and breaks it in half. He punches Felix in the face again and again, till Felix’s jaw has been turned to powder.

“Mommy!” a child’s voice screams.

Rosa, Marek thinks. He runs to Rosa and Nikola and cradles them in his arms. He holds them tight, afraid to lose them. He places a finger on Rosa’s throat. No pulse.

No,” he thinks. No no no no no no no no no NO!

Rosa Kysely is dead. Marek begins crying, but can’t focus on Rosa. All he can think about is killing Felix. The serum is affecting his mind, increasing his hate and rage.

A gunshot echoes through the house as a bullet pierces Marek’s neck. He falls on his back and sees Felix, face destroyed, holding a pistol. Nikola screams even louder.

Marek can’t breathe. His throat is destroyed, and he can’t bring in air. Marek Kysely is about to die. He does something he never thought he would do. He prays.

Let me survive. Let me survive so I can protect my son and avenge my wife.

“Stop crying, you brat,” Felix says.

Nikola, the four-year-old boy who just lost his parents, doesn’t listen to this order. In fact, he begins crying louder. So Felix shoots him in the head.

Marek Kysely feels like his heart has been ripped from his body. His son, his baby boy, his sunshine, is dead. A piece of Marek is gone, a piece that he will never get back. This is my fault, Marek thinks. I did this.

Marek looks up to see Felix lighting the cocktail. No, Marek thinks. He did this.

Marek Kysely ignores the fact that he’s been shot and charges at Felix. Felix panics and swings the molotov cocktail, smashing it in Marek’s face. The fire envelopes Marek’s skull, charing his skin.

At this moment, a moment before Marek Kysely’s life is robbed from him, a demon grants his wish. To survive. To stay like he is, forever. A blue light envelopes Marek as otherworldly magic alters him. Felix, seeing this, runs. Marek runs after him.

Despite multiple gunshot wounds and the fact that his face is on fire, Marek seems to be healthy. His injuries have no effect on him, aside from fueling his rage.

I suppose it would be wise to describe how Marek’s newfound powers work. Blessings are powers that reshape reality to make a certain thing happen. If someone was blessed to always have the right amount of change in his pocket, money would appear whenever they needed it. If someone was blessed to be fireproof, even the fires of the sun wouldn’t be enough to hurt them.

Marek Kysely was blessed with the ability to survive in the state that he was at the time of his blessing. Put simply, his powers make sure that he always returns to the state he was moments after he was hit in the face with a molotov cocktail.

For the rest of his new immortal life, Marek Kysely will have a flaming face and a bullet hole in his throat. He will have the strength and rage granted by the serum. He will forever feel like he did seconds after watching his son die. Marek Kysely has been cursed to live a painful existence for the rest of eternity.

Marek snaps. His soul drowns in an endless sea of pain and sorrow. His brilliant mind becomes trapped behind a wall of hate. He becomes Heavyweight.

Heavyweight chases after Felix and grabs him by the shoulder. He throws Felix against a wall. He walks over and grabs the jawless man by the throat. He lifts Felix in the air. As Felix struggles to get loose, Heavyweight grab’s Felix’s hair with his other hand. Heavyweight rips his hands in different directions, decapitating Felix Ares.

Heavyweight doesn’t feel better after killing Felix. He will never feel better. He is physically incapable of feeling better. Heavyweight turns around and looks at his house. There is nothing left for him there.

Heavyweight walks outside as a group of Coalition soldiers reaches the house. Each soldier carries a Kaladanda cannon. The aim their guns at Heavyweight and order him to get on the ground, put his hands on his head, etcetera. He doesn’t listen and charges at them.

They open fire and blast Marek to bits. His internal organs end up splattered across the street. He doesn’t care. Pain isn’t something that he cares about anymore. Much to the soldiers’ dismay, his body heals in a few seconds.

The fight between Heavyweight and the soldiers takes five hours and involves them bringing in extra soldiers and heavy artillery. Long story short, Heavyweight wins.

+++

Heavyweight climbs into the ring, dragging the hammer behind him. Rachel is barely conscious in one of the ring’s corners, curled up in a ball. Her sword is in the middle of the ring; she dropped it when she was thrown. She sees the hammer and all of her confidence goes down the drain. Rachel’s rage and courage and determination are buried under a sea of terror. She begins hyperventilating as paralyzing fear floods her veins.

“I’m going to die,” she says. “This is it. This is how I die.”

“Rachel, you need to get up, okay?” Jeremy says.

“He’s going to splatter my brains all over the floor. He’s going to crack my skull open and show the entire world what the inside of my head looks like.”

Heavyweight runs at her, intending to make her predictions come true. “Rachel, you can’t die,” Jeremy says, barely audible. “You’re all I’ve got left.”

Heavyweight jumps, raising his hammer over his head mid-leap.

“Goddamnit Rachel! Get off your ass and fight!”

They say that, before you die, your life flashes before your eyes when you’re on the verge of death. Something like that happens to Rachel as Heavyweight soars through the air. Something clicks within Rachel and she remembers everything. She remembers the wonder from when she first saw the stars over the sea. She remembers the joy she felt when she defeated Lazarus. She remembers the thrill she felt during her fight with Aegis. She remembers the pain of losing her eye.

She remembers a promise she made to Jeremy, years before the Tournament. A promise to survive. Rachel decides that she isn’t going to die.

Rachel rolls out of the way to keep Heavyweight from killing her. His hammer smashes into the floor of the boxing ring, breaking through the ring’s canvas mat and bursting through the wood beneath. Rachel jumps to her feet and immediately ducks to avoid a hammer swing from Heavyweight. She jumps high in the air, landing in the center of the ring.

“Glad to see you’re back to reality,” Jeremy quips.

“I had a slight freak out,” Rachel replies. “Forgot a promise I made.”

“So, you think you can win this?”

Rachel reaches down and picks up her sword. “I’m probably not going to win,” she says as she turns her sword on. “But I’ll be damned if I die of my back.”

Heavyweight runs at her and swings his hammer. Rachel jumps, dodging the swing, and kicks Heavyweight it the head. He stumbles backward and she stabs him between the ribs. Her sword bounces off.

Heavyweight recovers and smashes his hammer down in front of him, embedding it in the floor. Rachel jumps back to avoid the swing and strikes the hammer right by its head. Her sword bounces off.

“Seriously?” she says, annoyed. “The damn sword is supposed to cut through everything! Why are there so many things that don’t count as everything?”

Heavyweight pulls his hammer from the ground, almost hitting Rachel in the face in the process. He spins in a circle, swinging his hammer at Rachel’s skull. Rachel attempts to block it with her sword. Rachel’s sword is knocked out of her hands and lands on the other side of the arena.

Rachel jumps backward, colliding with the rope. The rope bounces her forward and she slides through Heavyweight’s legs, landing near her sword. Rachel grabs it and rises to her feet as Heavyweight charges at her. He swings his hammer, Rachel swings her sword.

It is human instinct, in situations of great stress, to wish for the impossible to happen. When Victor Callaghan began to freeze, he wished he wouldn’t die. When Marek Kysely’s family was in danger, he wished that he would survive so that he could protect them. Once upon a time, wishes like this were pointless. But, after Maia descended from the heavens, wishes gained power. Gods and demons began granting wishes by bestowing blessings upon random people.

During the closing moments of her fight with Heavyweight, Rachel Botterill wishes for a sharper sword.

Heavyweight and Rachel’s weapons collide. A blue light envelopes Rachel. Rachel’s sword cuts through Heavyweight’s hammer, severing its head.

+++

“Did you see her turn blue?” Faust asks. “I saw her turn blue.”

“Incredible,” Legion whispers, ignoring Faust. “Just incredible.”

“What?”

“That was a blessing.”

“You mean, she got powers in the middle of a match?”

“Yes.”

Faust smiles. He knows that this’ll be good for his ratings. “What kind of powers?”

“I don’t know. At the very least, they seem to make her sword sharper.”

+++

By the time the head of the hammer reaches the ground, the blue light has subsided. In front of Heavyweight stands a young girl wearing a black t-shirt and a brown jacket. One of her eyes glows red, the other is missing. A white stripe runs through her wavy brown hair, which is pulled in a ponytail. In her right hand, she holds a sword with a serrated red blade. Her name is Rachel Botterill. The Tournament staff call her Jackrabbit.

Rachel slices her sword across Heavyweight’s chest, creating a deep red gash. As the gash regenerates, Heavyweight swings what’s left of his hammer at Rachel’s head. Rachel ducks out of the way and swings her sword at Heavyweight, cleaving off his arm.

The severed limb crashes down onto the ring’s floor, bringing a pool of blood with it. Heavyweight, unfazed by losing an arm, kicks Rachel. She falls onto her ass and jumps away to avoid another kick.

The pool of blood surrounding the arm disappears in a matter of seconds as individual drops of blood fly to the ground and return to what’s left of Heavyweight’s arm. Once all of the blood had returned, cells of muscle and skin and bone separate from the severed limb and reattach to the stump. In a matter of seconds, the entirety of the severed limb returns to its rightful place, and Heavyweight’s arm looks like it did at the start of the fight.

Rachel jumps forward and slashes Heavyweight’s chest again. She jumps a meter off the ground a slices Heavyweight’s head clean off. The head flies through the air, landing outside the ring. Heavyweight’s body slumps down onto its knees, decapitated.

For a moment, the fire disappears from the head. Then, like the arm before it, the head returns to Heavyweight’s neck, bit by bit. Like a phoenix, the blazing inferno upon Heavyweight’s scalp reignites.

Heavyweight jumps at Rachel, intending to tackle her. She jumps to avoid it and lands on the other side of the arena. Heavyweight jumps to his feet and charges at Rachel. Rachel jumps at him and stabs him in the heart. Basically, the two do a lot of jumping.

Heavyweight hits Rachel with a nasty right hook, sending her, sans sword, to the floor. Heavyweight reaches down and grabs Rachel’s foot. She jumps to get away but cannot escape his grasp. Heavyweight slams Rachel onto the ground a few times before raising her high in the air by her foot.

Heavyweight pulls Rachel’s sword from his heart. Its hilt is completely covered by his massive hand. Heavyweight plunges the red blade into Rachel’s chest. Rachel gasps for air for a few short moments as blood drips from the gaping hole in her heart. As her vision fills with darkness and her body becomes limp, Rachel Botterill is teleported away from the arena. Heavyweight has won.

Sometimes heroes lose. Sometimes the bad guys win. Sometimes even miracles are not enough to fix a hopeless situation. This, as sad as it is, is a fact of life.

The force fields around the arena disappear and Heavyweight is greeted by the sight of thousands of cheering onlookers. Fans shout his name and scream for him. Heavyweight opens his mouth to scream at them. No sound escapes his lips.

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