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The stage of the stadium was transformed into a gladiator arena set up for battle. Chairman Suez had a place of honour in the central circular rotunda. All 20 fighters of each country were clustered around their national flag on stage, forming four equal quadrants. Some were equipped with their own weapons which they had brought for battle, expecting the worst. The mood was as tense as it had been in the VIP Lounge. The audience eagerly anticipated the next move.

Suez’s voice rang loud and clear. “Your elimination will begin now.”

“There are two ways to prevent yourself from being eliminated. You can either obtain a talisman, or survive as the last eight remaining from your country.” Suez announced.

What a curveball. What were these talismans that Suez spoke of? How would they survive to remain as the top eight? There was no mistaking the surprise. Fighters instinctively reached for their weapons and positioned themselves in a battle stance, shifting uneasily.

Sirens blared, signaling that the round was about to begin.

A transparent shield barrier rose between the audience and the main arena for protection. There would be no turning back from now on. The fighters were in their own arena and nowhere would be safe from certain death.

Beneath the fighters’ feet, the stage split. It divided into four equal quadrants and migrated to the edges of the stadium, locking into place with the shield barriers. In the centre of the stadium pitch, the commentators booth remained so Ashley and Ash had a 360-degree view of the fight from all quadrants. Now formed between the stage quadrants was a wide cross-shaped valley with a steep drop off the edge of around 20 feet. Fighters were now separated by country; twenty in each, now vying for the top eight spots.

In the Celtia quadrant, Dart was thrown off-guard by Suez’s announcement. His heart was racing as he grasped the reality of this turn of events. It was already a quick-fire elimination round? He thought that the inauguration was merely symbolic and they would find out more about what they were signing up for. But now, whether or not he liked it, twelve Celtians had to die right there and then.

Dart could feel each of the fighters reorganising their battle positions, creating space to distance themselves. It was an obvious signal that any hint of comradeship was over. The exception was Alex, who made no move to turn away from him. Vincent’s eyes bore right into Dart’s body; he could feel the man’s gaze. Dart shuddered as he realised that Vincent may have just sighted him as a target. He looked over at his new-found friend Felix’s quadrant in Vinlan Corp. Felix was putting on his hand wraps, his hands fumbling with excitement as he tried to get them on as quickly as possible. There was only one small silver lining. Heeding Krystal’s words had been good advice, Dart thought, as he clutched a dagger that he had selected from the wall of weapons at the last minute. It was light and had a smooth, sharp blade. As someone who had little battleground experience and only trained with wooden sticks before this, it felt foreign to him but seemed like something he could use in self-defence.

***

Suez began chanting ominously in an ancient language. His eyes were closed, as if he were in a trance. The sky darkened, the temperature dropped to a chill and wind rushed in. A storm was brewing. Thunder began to rumble from below the stage. Goosebumps ran through Dart’s body, fear gnawing at his resolve.

All of a sudden, Suez whipped two fingers into the air, decisively commanding, “I call upon Cerberus, Bakunawa, Jorogumo and Gandaberunda!”

The cross-shaped valley between each of the quadrants began to liquify and bubble. Screams from the underground mixed with the screams from the audience, echoing like a nightmare that had come to life. Indeed, what was happening was out of this world; it was as if the gates of hell had opened up.

From the valley of scalding hot lava, unearthly limbs reached out on the side of the stages. Then their heads emerged: four monstrosities, engulfed in flames. Each found a quadrant and began to crawl up onto the stage. The monsters’ fearsome appearances drew even sharper gasps from the audience, some of whom fainted. Each of them were similar yet distinct. They possessed an animal head and shoulders, and the body of a human warrior. The worst of both worlds.

In the Celtia quadrant, Cerberus stood several metres tall. It had three heads of vicious dogs and a fur-covered body of a human wielding a sword. Over in the Vinlan Corp quadrant, Jorogumo was a spider-lady hybrid with snapping jaws and three sets of spider arms and three sets of human arms each wielding shuriken throwing stars. Bukanawa, which faced Al Tehar, had a giant serpent-like head with sharp fangs and a spiked rattle tail, and it was holding a halberd. In Xin’s quadrant, Gandaberunda’s two bird heads shrieked in fury. It brandished its large wingspan while swinging a mace.

Suez had summoned them from the underworld.

Who was this guy again?! Dart trembled in fear, the adrenaline hot in his veins. A massacre was about to ensue. The dagger in his hand felt slippery as his palms began to moisten. He shook his head to clear his mind and rid it of these philosophical thoughts. It was more important to strategise. He could not seem weak to the others and especially not Vincent.

Standing no more than 10 metres away from Dart, Cerberus’ three heads were drooling and snapping in all directions.

“Follow my lead kid. We’re Celtians, and we’ll protect one another,” Alex said to Dart. Turning to everyone else, Alex began issuing orders. “Celtians listen up! We all need to work together to beat this monster. Follow me and stick to the plan!” Alex was quick on his feet and miles ahead of everyone else with a plan in mind.

Alex was charming and persuasive, and he slipped easily into the role of leader. Dart was fully convinced of Alex’s abilities. Alex was a mover and shaker. Dart admired the way his gauntlets glistened as he confidently waved people into strategic positions, swiftly barking out orders. Alex had been the mentor figure to him, reassuring him that everything would be fine. Dart trusted him—well, more than anyone else in the competition at this stage anyway. And it seemed that the rest of the fighters seemed just as convinced.

“Do you all follow? Let’s do this, my fellow Celtians!” Alex yelled, his fist raised triumphantly. The resounding cheer from the Celtians boosted the morale two notches from the trenches where they had been. Out of the corner of his eye, Dart noticed that Vincent had moved to the rear flank. He had found a cosy spot on the stage to lie down, kick up his feet and put his hands behind his head without a care in the world! His expression was cynical, and he looked almost bored as he played with a toothpick in his teeth.

***

The other countries were similarly taken aback.

In Vinlan Corp’s quadrant, Felix looked Jorogumo up and down, cursing. His boxing wraps were useless. He wouldn’t be able to punch his way out of this! Jorogumo had six arms and legs, for goodness sake! His mind went back to how he had just minutes ago proudly rebuffed Dart’s suggestion back in the VIP Lounge to select a weapon, and only picked up defensive equipment. Hubris had gotten the better of him, and he would remember this if he lived to see the next round. For now, his task would be to stay alive and perhaps grab a fallen contestant’s weapon.

The reptilian beast Bakunawa faced Al Tehar. Its serpent head was hard and scaly. Beady eyes, poisonous fangs and a sharp hissing tongue.

“Not this again...” Attossa said under her breath as she got into position. Shae rolled her eyes as she rolled up her sleeves. “Isn’t your brother coming to save you?” she taunted Attossa.

 

The Xin fighters would be dealing with Gandaberunda, which was able to fly. Its two birds’ heads each had a sharp beak and long neck.

Krystal drew the blade from her sword, ready to commence the battle. She had trained for this, and knew what to do.

“I’m going to kill that thing!” Erik snarled determinedly.

“You will do no such thing. Sit back,” Krystal ordered her brother.

“This is going to be interesting,” murmured Yi Sun as a smile twitched at the side of his mouth. The competitiveness ran in the family.

***

“Hey! I think those things hanging are the talismans that the Chairman was talking about!” Jack shouted to the rest of the Celtians. Several fighters were engaged in battle to keep the monster engaged, but they had finally advanced close enough to spot the talismans. They were swinging from the collar around the neck of the monster. There was an unnatural glow around each of these rectangular talismans. In total, there were eight. One for each contestant moving on to the next round.

The mission for each contestant was shifting. Stick to Alex’s plan and work together to kill the monster, or try to get a pendant each for themselves?

Sensing the sudden shift in tension with this new information, Alex shouted to keep the camaraderie together. “We need to stay focused and kill this monster!”

“There’s nothing about killing dear old Cerebreus in the rules,” Vincent sneered, still unmoving and seated. “However, there are only eight talismans. What will our great leader Alex do?”

“Taking the talismans would be a lot easier when it’s dead!” came the confident reply from Alex.

Across the whole stadium, the audience cheers seemed to fade and time seemed to slow down as Ashley began counting down from five to signal the start of the battle.

***

Alex's plan was to divide the Celtians into three groups. The forward group served as a diversion: they would run forward and then dodge in scattered directions. Even though it had several heads, Cerberus had only one body and this would limit its movement. As the first group retreated, two other groups would attack it from the side, tackling its human legs.

This plan worked. The right flank team, together with Dart, had managed to take out one of its legs as it ran forward for its target. Cerberus swung its sword in the opposite direction, and missed. The last group, seizing Cerberus’ moment of weakness as it toppled to one side, seized the chance to cut off its three heads. It was a remarkable show of well-oiled cooperation, and the Celtians had minimised their losses.

Alex picked up one of the dog heads and triumphantly held it up as a trophy. He pointed at Vincent. “You see what teamwork can do?”

Vincent, unflappable, stood up. His smirk couldn’t be wiped off that face.

Ding! A bell rang. “The first country has finished the elimination round!” Ashley’s announcement drew even greater cries from the crowd.

Alex swung his head around to look at the central rotunda, beaming with pride. It was all because of his efforts!

“Vinlaaaaaan Corp!” Ashley boomed.

Alex’s heart sank as he realised that the battle wasn’t over. There were still far more than eight fighters left in this quadrant anyway. In his hand, the head of the dog trembled. The mouth of the dog’s head turned upwards into a creepy smile. Its eyes blinked and looked right at Alex.

There was the sound of a swinging sword, followed by a clean slash through bone, muscle and the spurting of blood.

Alex’s head flew. It landed right in front of Dart. His expression was frozen: it was the instant of someone who realised that they had made a mistake. The leader of the Celtian fighters, Dart’s mentor and hero, had been beheaded by swash-buckling Cerberus. Little did Dart know that it would be the first of many more losses he would need to contend with.



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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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