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Alex’s head was severed at its neck and blood was gushing from his arteries. Suddenly, his eyes opened and his mouth twisted into an evil smile. “You’re next, Dart!”

Dart screamed. His eyes fluttered open and his heart was pumping wildly. He sat up with a start. He was on a bed, but it was unfamiliar and hard. The sheets had a sterile smell to them and there were bars on the side of his bed. Maybe this was the waiting room for heaven. His vision swam and came into focus. Oh, there was a children’s bicycle in the corner in a pitiful condition. The same one that he’d stolen to get to the tournament. The tournament, he pondered. Whatever happened with that... was he dead? Then he saw the tooth embedded in the tyre of the bicycle, and it all came flashing back to him. The cliff jump, landing on Ash’s head, the mockery of a beautiful girl by the name of Krystal… Dart blushed as he recalled her rebuffs. Still alive then, I suppose.

“How beautiful, that terrified face of yours.”

A drawl came from the side of his bed. It was almost crooning in a wistful way, as if someone was talking about puppies. The oddness of the tone made Dart whip back to reality.

Vincent and Ginther were sitting by the side of Dart’s bed.

“Hey, looks like you’re awake! I got you some cake.” Ginther offered up a plate of lemon cake. It looked like someone had started eating part of the gigantic slice.

Dart was more focused on Vincent’s morbid remarks. He shivered as all the memories of his interactions with Vincent came flooding back. This was the man who had been sizing up each and every single one of the fighters, and who had personally terrorised Dart right before the tournament. He had defiantly opposed Alex, the one person he had admired, and even kicked Alex’s lifeless, butchered head like a soccer ball. Life was like a plaything to him. And most creepily of all, he had threatened to kill Dart on multiple occasions.

“Why are you here?” Dart blurted out, his voice quivering. His gaze was right at Vincent, even though he couldn’t stand the sight of him.

“I met him on the way over to the medical bay. He was looking for you and seemed concerned so I brought him here,” Ginther shrugged, completely oblivious to the hostile situation.

“I just wanted to see…” Vincent said, staring intently at Dart and studying his reaction. “The choice I made.”

Vincent scooted his chair a little closer to Dart, and placed a not-so-reassuring hand on Dart’s right arm. Dart flinched. His arm hurt. Vincent’s touch sent goosebumps down his spine.

“Wha...what do you mean?” Dart choked out.

“The choice I made to let you live. It was fun to play God.”

Vincent leaned even closer, his breath brushing against Dart’s ear.

“So naïve, you are, so young and innocent. So pure. It would be so much fun to crush you. I hope I get that chance,” Vincent whispered. His tone was dripping with sadistic malice.

“I’ll make art out of you.” In Vincent’s hand, was Dart’s knifehis weapon from the tournament. Vincent brushed the blade of the knife across Dart’s neck ever so slightly, incising a cut. Beads of blood trickled onto the shiny blade.

Dart was disgusted and angry, but too shocked to react.

Vincent’s smile was replaced by mock sadness. “That look… that’s the look I want to break. Don’t look at me like this. I’m really sensitive.”

“Yeah? You’ve changed your mind now huh? You want to kill me now? You can’t do that anymore, it would be against the rule of the tournament,” Dart hissed. He would not be taken for a fool again.

“That would have to wait,” Vincent put the bloodied knife to his tongue, and licked it off. He was marking his property.

With the blade of the weapon now clean, Vincent pressed the knife into Dart’s open palms and leaned back in his chair. “Good things take time. Besides, now you owe me... You owe me for letting you live. I will collect this debt one day. If you survive that long at the hands of others, that is. I’d like to watch what my seeds grow into first, though. What joy!”

***

The door to Dart’s room kicked open with a flourish.

“Is the lil shit up yet?” Felix bellowed. His presence sliced through the tension in the room like cake.

Vincent rose from his seat. “I’ll take my leave. I hope we see each other soon, Dart.”

“Aww, did I interrupt your bromance?” Felix laughed as he plonked himself down on Vincent’s recently-vacated seat.

Dart muttered under his breath, “Yeah, I won’t call it that.”

“Hey Ginther! You made it too. Definitely thought you’d be dead,” Felix said cheerily, offering him a friendly fist-bump.

Ginther briefly paused stuffing his face to return the fist bump. “Just got lucky, I guess.” His mouth was full of the lemon cake that he had brought ostensibly for Dart. “By the way, I was told to give you these too.” Ginther put two items into Dart’s outstretched hands. It was a talisman and an ornate envelope with a gold seal.

“Everyone got one of these from Suez after clearing the elimination round, but you were unconscious,” Ginther explained, sputtering crumbs.

Dart opened the envelope and took out a paycheck. “Woahh! This has way more zeros than I’d expected!” He furtively looked over at Felix and Ginther for their reactions, narrowed his eyes, and started to shove the paycheck back into its envelope.

“You know we all got the same cheques. I don’t need to steal yours,” Felix huffed angrily, annoyed that Dart didn’t seem to trust him.

A mysterious figure appeared in the doorway, leaning seductively in the door frame. Her silhouette cut a striking outline. She paused for a second, surveying the room.

“This sounds like a party. Looks like you’re awake, Dart,” she said. She twirled her stethoscope around her manicured fingers as she spoke. The doctor was a young, bewitching woman who exuded an alluring aura. Graceful and sultry at the same time, she was a vision from head to toe. Her scrubs clung to her curves, and a hint of cleavage revealed that she was tattooed. As she walked towards Dart’s bed, her scent was irresistible to the hot-blooded men in the room. Even Ginther stopped chewing the remaining cake.

Felix’s eyes nearly bugged out of their sockets. In a flash, he was out of his seat and by her side. “I’m sorry for my friend’s behaviour, he’s a little dense,” he said. He reached for her hand and brought it to his lips lightly. “Who might you be? I’m Felix, pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Dart, I am the Doctor.” She quickly lifted her hand out of Felix’s grasp.

“I definitely thought I broke my ribs and other bones. How did I heal so quickly?” Dart wondered out loud.

“That would be because of rōōh,” the Doctor explained.

“Rōōh? What?” Dart blurted out.

“You haven’t met Olo yet, I presume,” the Doctor said. “Rōōh is the essence of energy all around us. It powers nature, the environment, everything around us…and it can be harnessed.”

Leaning over Dart, she reached up and unbuttoned her uniform slightly. All eyes left her beautiful face and transfixed upon her bust automatically. Dart’s cheeks flushed as his gaze dropped. He had the best view of the tattoo on her chest, which was in the shape of the tournament emblem.

“You see this tattoo? It is a medium that absorbs and converts rōōh into a unique power that you will inherit from God. You will understand when you receive your own tattoo from Olo. You will need to understand and hone your powers to fight in the tournament. Now, tell me if you still feel any pain?”

“Can I see the tattoo too? I can’t see it from this angle,” Felix piped up.

The Doctor ignored him. Dart replied, “On my arm. Everything else is fine.”

“Am I invisible?” Felix sputtered incredulously.

“I might have missed it the first time,” the Doctor frowned slightly. Moving closer, she touched Dart’s arm gently. “May I?”

Dart wasn’t sure what she wanted permission for, but played along, nodding his head.

The Doctor grabbed his face and kissed Dart full-on the lips. The tattoo on her chest glowed bright green, absorbing energy to heal Dart.

“Is this better?” She pulled back, but continued to embrace Dart’s face. He went bright red, completely embarrassed.

“No… I mean, yes. No, I mean, no pain in my arm,” Dart stuttered back. Could she feel how hot his cheeks were?

“You know Doc, I might have pain in my shoulder from all the fighting too,” Felix tried to get the Doctor’s attention enviously.

The Doctor winked at Dart. She turned to leave the room, but not before tossing Felix a painkiller.

“Pffft…” Felix complained. “Not my type.”

Dart couldn’t stop grinning. “Yeah, right.”

He paused for a moment, suddenly frozen with realisation. The Doctor had probably kissed him when he was unconscious in order to heal him. His first kiss! He buried his face in the pillow.

“Anyway, get up! We’ve got to leave for the ship to Vinlan Corp,” Felix ordered. “Ginther, close your mouth.”

“Sure, why not?” Dart started climbing out of the bed. Ginther put down the empty plate.

“Are we going in your sports car?” Felix pointed at the trashed up bike.

“I will just go with Ginther.”

***

Dart, Felix and Ginther were aboard the luxury cruise liner, The Challenger. It had been docked at the very same port that Dart had disembarked from that morning. It was to take the fighters to their next destination: Vinlan Corp.

The sundeck was crowded with folks sunbathing and relaxing. There was even a pool and bar! Felix, dressed in a bright yellow Hawaiian shirt with his big hair gelled up, turned to Dart and lifted his sunglasses. “Let’s go meet some women!” he said cheerfully.

“That’s not really what we’re here for,” Dart was stunned. “When did you even change?”

“A man is always prepared,” came the suave reply. He pulled Dart by the collar towards the pool bar, even as Dart put up a fight kicking and screaming about having recently been injured.

A woman was sitting at the poolside bar alone, her back to Felix.

“Hello, mademoiselle,” Felix sidled up to her, “May I have this…” He stopped mid-pick-up-line when she turned around. Her silhouette seemed familiar for the wrong reason. It was Zora.

All the colour drained from his face and the confidence left his backbone. Felix felt as if he was looking at a ghost. No worse, at death itself. Zora’s face was the epitome of coldness and spite, her mouth tight-lipped in a scowl. Was she annoyed at being hit on, or was that just how she looked? Dart was too taken aback by her hostile demeanour to speak. Zora seemed to be looking right at him, bloodlust in her eyes. Abort mission!

Felix and Dart high-tailed their way to the other end of the pool without a second word.

“Are you all right?” Dart asked Felix, who was still pale and shivering. His eyes were raw with emotion.

“She killed them. No matter what you do, stay away from her.”

“What do you mean? What happened?”

“She killed them all.” Felix repeated.

Dart recalled the events of the afternoon, searching for an explanation. Vinlan Corp had been the first country to clear the elimination, which included both Felix and Zora. Felix was lost in his train of thoughts.

“At the elimination, she didn’t care about the monster. Zora killed everyone she thought was weak. It was so quick I couldn’t even move,” Felix said finally.

Dart forcibly turned Felix’s shoulders and steadied them towards their cabin. “Let’s go to our rooms and relax.”

***

One year later. Location: Vinlan Corp Stadium.

It was the first round of God’s Tournament. The Vinlan Stadium was buzzing with the latest high-tech screens and an even bigger crowd than at the inauguration round. The capitalists loved a good excuse to party, gamble and watch entertainment. What better event than God’s Tournament?

Ashley and Ash were reprising their roles as emcee. “Hellooooo Vinlan!”

“Are you ready for the first match of this emotional rollercoaster?” Ash cried into the microphone. The gap in his teeth had been fixed with a shiny gold veneer. He had even left the bandage on his nose even after it had healed as a vain battle scar out of vanity. Both matched his biker aesthetic perfectly, and now he had a unique story to tell behind it. “Your two favourite emcees are back! This time, we’ve got a closed roof so nobody needs to worry about getting hurt from people falling out of the sky. Or as the saying goes… lightning doesn’t strike twice!”

“We’ll see about that! I’d like this time to be a knight in shining armour, falling in a chariot to whisk me away,” Ashley said dreamily.

“Anyway, we’re all ready, aren’t we?!” Ash turned to the audience. “The fighters are revved up, the guests of honour have taken their seats and most importantly, my hair is on point! All we need is all of you to show us that you’re ready to see our first fight!” The audience reciprocated as asked.

“Chairman Suez, a few words?” Ashley turned to Suez.

“Begin already,” he said in his usual irritable tone. The over-the-top antics by Vinlan Corp to squeeze every bit of monetisation opportunity from the tournament were even more grating than at Five Knife Island.

“Such emotions in those words!” Ash exaggerated. “Let’s find out who the first two fighters are!”

The screen began rolling two faces in a random shuffle. It would be a one-on-one fight. The crowd held its breath collectively.

Zora VS Gunny!

“It’s Zora versus Gunny! Both fighters are Vinlanders! What are the odds?!” Ash announced, “Vinlanders are you ready!?” Both fighters began to make their way to the stage and took their positions. Gunny lugged his bottle of whisky, clinking as he walked.

“Gunny is a decorated military veteran. Such a patriot, willing to lay down his life for his country time and again.”

“Zora used to be a top dog at the Ministry of Intelligence. I’m not sure what the nature of her job was, but she seems to be a fan favourite after her stellar performance at last year’s elimination.”

“Yeah, what does she do exactly? She’s so scary… like my mother,” Ash joked.

“Do you want to ask her?” Ashley countered.

“And let’s begin!” Ash began the countdown to the knockout round. The screens flashed green.

 

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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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