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National pride was on full display at the inauguration as each country sought to upstage the other. No budgets had been spared in making sure that they caught the full attention of the thousands who were present at the stadium and the millions more that were tuning in on the television airwaves. No one, young or old, rich or poor, could miss this tournament. Their fates and certain future were enshrined in the outcome of the next five years. Life would not continue the same way after the next five years. Many were making moves to ensure that their way of life would be preserved, or to seize the opportunity of potentially making a new life for themselves through risking it all. What was money if you could not bring it with you into the afterlife? But for now, there was plenty of money to be made from advertising and the bets that would be placed on each of the contestants for their scores. In the backdrop of every grand game, several more were being played.

After all four national anthems had been sung, the contestants were ushered into a posh VIP lounge. This lounge faced the stage, giving them a private space with a prime view of the cultural performances. Dart moved closer towards the edge of the viewing gallery. A young singer with a high ponytail and backup dancers were gyrating to the catchy beat of trap and hip-hop. The crowd was on their feet and the stadium's neon strobe lights were flashing to the rhythm; The camera operators alternated between focusing on her expressive face and trailing her body. She was executing choreography that would have left anyone breathless—all while delivering opera-worthy whistle notes. Impressive stamina.

"You know she's competing too right?" Felix said, cutting into Dart's thoughts.

"Huh?" Dart was confused. "The singer? How did she qualify for the Tournament?"

As if reading his mind, Felix replied in the affirmative, "You don't know her? She's Maya Keene, one of the most successful artists from my country."

Dart was dumbfounded. This girl was a slick dancer and knew how to work the crowd. She could fight too?! Images of her dancing her way around an opponent seemed outrageous in Dart's mind. She didn't seem like a killer, but then again, neither did Felix or some of the other contestants in the room.

"Eh don't worry about her, she's just a babe with a good voice. She's famous! She was probably selected to amp up the endorsements part of this tournament. The elites have got deals in all parts of this game." Felix dismissively said. He had already struck her off his mental list of threats. Even though they were both from Vinlan Corp, eventually, there would only be one winner.

***

The viewing section was getting crowded. Someone was trying to cut between Dart and Felix. Irritated, Dart jostled right back against the two uniformed guards who had pushed him aside and raised his voice, "Hey man what's your problem?" The guard raised his eyebrows and touched his holster belt to indicate that he had a weapon. "You want to say that again, punk?"

The young lady behind them rolled her eyes and waved at the guard to stand down. "Don't bother with these peasants." She looked extremely young and had a princessy attitude about her. Or perhaps that vibe came off from her head-to-toe dress of pink glittery ruffles. A diamond-studded brooch clasped on her clavicle was in the shape of the letter A. A for Attossa.

"As you wish, your Majesty," the guard respectfully bowed.

What was these people's problem? Dart was not about to be bullied and started to open his mouth to retort instinctively but closed it as he came to his senses. The energy in the room was hostile and less-than-celebratory. Everyone had tense expressions on their face, and conversations were being held in low, conspiratorial voices.

"You still don't get it kid?" said a deep, calm voice from next to Attossa. It belonged to a bald dark-skinned man with a rough-looking sewn cape, and he seemed to know Attossa. Probably from the same country. His name was Flamma, and his face was battle-hardened with a scar right under his left eye. "Don't let the festivities fool you. See that wall of weapons? How do you think the 32 fighters will be selected? Every single person in the room is living life with an expiration date as we speak. Some want to drop out before elimination begins. People fear what they don't understand. Anticipating death. I won't blame them for being on the edge right now." Realisation began to dawn on Dart. Nobody was here to make friends, and the smart ones had come with allies to improve their chances of self-preservation. Only Gunny was sitting by himself drinking and enjoying himself.

Dart's attention was captured by Flamma's reference to the wall of weapons. On the far side of the VIP lounge, an exhibition case was devoted entirely to the display of magnificent weapons. Rows of swords, gilded axes, spears, scythes and bows, and accessories like shields, gauntlets and knuckle dusters were all shelved behind a lit display case. This is how we are meant to die, Dart thought to himself, at the hands of someone else in this very room.

***

From the other side of the room, a maniacally-laughing Celtian by the name of Vincent was causing a ruckus. Had someone already gone off their rocks from the stress of the tournament? This fellow certainly looked a little deranged, with long greasy dark green-coloured hair carelessly swept away from his face. His nails looked like they had been gnawed down into stumps, and his eyes were an unnatural, piercing purple colour.

"All of you are fucking hypocrites. Ha ha ha. You chose this, so just accept that this is what you have to look forward to. Look at you all, sulking like it wasn't what you wanted in the first place. Fame and fortune come at a price. The thrill, oh the thrill. Each one of you wanted to taste some blood. Right? Right??" he grinned, revealing teeth stained dark by betel leaves. He walked up to different contestants as he spoke, leaning as close as he could. A Xin fighter named Kitaro wearing a formal kimono robe embroidered with gold thread flinched at his intimidation tactics but held his ground. Shae moved away, unflappable. She took a long drag from her cigarette and observed from a distance. Vincent was poking fun at his prey, something that he liked to do. Who would be next?

"Some of you might have tasted a little bit of blood, and now you want more. How does it feel to know what lies in your future? You're all looking right at it." Vincent stopped at a monk who was meditating with his eyes closed. "Hey you, little altar boy, isn't this against your religion? Or are you a fake like the rest of them?" He breathed down the monk's bare back. The monk, Koga, did not break concentration. How was he doing that, with a cloth-covered ring encircled around his midsection? It looked like a weapon..

A significant silence filled the room. Without opening his eyes, Koga responded simply, "This is for the greater good. A small sacrifice will save millions. The future nation of one will have peace and harmony."

Vincent laughed psychotically at his sagely response. Dismissing his wisdom, Vincent continued his tirade. "But you won't be here to see it. None of you will. Such cruelty from the almighty being everyone had faith in… Turns out that God isn't so merciful eh? He likes a good show! And we're all here to dance for him!"

"Let me ask you all a question," Vincent flourished an arm at the wall of weapons. "Are you picking the weapon you want to fight with, the one you want to die by? I'll tell you which one leads to the swiftest, most painless death…"

Dart had heard enough. Darkness was clouding his mind and second thoughts were gnawing at him. What had he done, joining this tournament. Had he signed his own death certificate? Was he capable of killing anyone in cold blood? He felt stupid for having been so naive.

"Hey kid, don't listen to him.. Just focus on getting selected and don't take unnecessary risks. Always remember that we Celtians have to protect each other," a cheery voice came out of nowhere. It was Alex, a fellow Celtian fighter. He was literally Dart's knight in shining armour, and dressed for the part. He looked unfazed by Vincent's psychotic advances. "Don't let this guy get you down. Always keep your eye on your goals."

Overhearing their conversation, Vincent turned to look at Dart. He grinned when he realised that he had made an impact on this impressionable young kid who had earlier collided onstage. Making eye contact with Dart, Vincent drew a line across his neck and laughed. "The first to die."

Horrified, Felix and Alex turned Dart forcefully away from Vincent's creepy gaze.

"Okay definitely do not listen to that psycho. Anyway I'm sure you're here because you wanted something so badly that you have to do whatever it takes to achieve it," Alex said.

"Yeah, that's what being a man is all about!" Felix chimed in supportively.

"Says the person who got his nuts sent to his mouth from a woman," Attossa smirked arrogantly. She exchanged a knowing look with Shae. The Al Tehar fighters were individually tough nuts to crack, but between Attossa and Shae, it now seemed like they were ganging up.

Felix shuddered as if her words had pierced him in his heart. He was embarrassed at the recollection of his earlier encounter.

Trying to change the subject, Dart asked Felix why he had joined the competition. Felix recovered his composure and puffed up his chest. "Well, I want everything! Fame, money, respect and beautiful women."

"What a pig," Attossa stated in disgust.

"Hey why are you even listening to our conversation?" Felix turned around to her insult, furious.

"You speak to me with respect. I am the princess of Al Tehar."

Felix burst out laughing.

Without waiting for her guards to respond, Attossa impulsively reached out to slap Felix. But, Felix was too tall for hand-to-face combat. She settled for slapping Dart in the face instead. Her guards followed behind her quickly. Alex, having sensed conflict and swiftly moved out of harm's way to pretend to assess the weapons wall, grimaced as he watched the interaction from afar.

"What did I do?!" Dart was disoriented and upset.

Felix was clutching his stomach laughing. "It's probably your face. It's repulsive."

"At least my hair doesn't look like toothpaste!"

"Good hair is a gift," Felix's hands flew up to check if his coiffed hairdo was still intact. He whipped out a mini-comb from his pocket and preened pretentiously.

A bulky weightlifter, chest as big as rocks, spoke up. "Your hair looks great," he told Felix, pointing to his own overgrown mop of straggly hair. Felix nudged Dart and said, "See! He gets it!"

Dart marvelled at the beast of a man. He's huge! He's definitely winning this tournament.

"Sorry, do you mind if I join you guys? I can leave if it bothers you," Atlas said. He was surprisingly nice and gentle for someone who looked like he could beat three people to a pulp with just a smash of his fist.

"No, you can stay. I'm Felix from Vinlan Corp and this short bread here is Dart," Felix extended his hand in a show of sportsmanship.

"I'll kill you if he doesn't," Dart interrupted.

"I'm Atlas," he shook Felix's hand by extending a finger. "From Xin."

"Ah,of course, you're the world carrying monster," Felix joked.

"I'm used to idiots calling me names," Atlas responded coolly.

"Did you just call me an idiot?"

"Sorry, imbecile."

"I'm going to eat a beast today for dinner!"

"Try me," Felix jumped onto Atlas, eager to land some prideful blows.

Dart scrambled away just in time as the couch overturned and the two got wrapped up in landing blows on one another. Well, that didn't take long, but at least the mood is lighter now, he thought ruefully.

Krystal was passing by. Her perfume was intoxicating. I have to apologize, Dart thought. He started to run after her.

"H...hey! I'm sorry for…" he blurted out like a gauche teenager. Krystal doesn't even turn to look at him. "You should pick your weapon."

As if on cue, an announcement came on in the VIP lounge. "All fighters, please come to the main stage for the elimination round," a robotic voice said.

***

Atlas and Felix's idiotic fight was over. Atlas was sitting on Felix's back. "I will crack you, you jacked up humpty dumpty," Felix groaned. "How is your ego still intact?" Atlas seemed genuinely curious as he stood up.

Dart was panicking. "We need to hurry, the elimination is about to start!"

"In a minute," Felix tried to get up. His overcomb had flattened slightly and he looked a bit worse for wear. "Or maybe in five. I might need a doctor."

Atlas politely wished Dart and Felix good luck for the tournament. "I hope you guys make it."

Felix put both thumbs up, his stomach still seized into knots. "Sure, let's go!"

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About the author

PlayingGamesOfDespair

Bio: YA fantasy book series created by Kabir Singh & Judy Goh
Sypnosis: Tournament of the century, ordained by God. Who will prevail?

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