Everyone was in the waiting room now, taking those precious few moments they were allowed to rest up in preparation for battles that each of them knew they wouldn’t be allowed one spare breath. The room was bland, Natoko thought, but certainly looked expensive. It had leather chairs and a bar, and was an impressive improvement from the hyena den that they had been made to squat in earlier.
Eight people littered themselves around the room now, most keeping a respectable distance from each. One boy, a shady looking brat with tight muscles who glared at her every time her eyes bounced in his direction, sat by the bar, nursing a simple coke and playing with a pack of cards the way magicians do. At one point he made the whole deck disappear and appeared to have no intention of bringing it back.
The fat boy that she hated was leaning by the entrance, as if there was no reason to enter further into the room and he might as well perch himself there until it was time for his match. Just a few feet away from him, another lad shuffled about nervously. It looked like he wanted conversation, but didn’t know where to get it from.
Sagara was playing rock paper scissors with an eight year old boy. They were annoyingly loud about it and everyone kept jerking their heads at them every time Sagara cried out when losing, which had been every turn so far.
The only one not staring at the two children was also the only other girl in the room. Standing at around six foot, the blond haired girl was the tallest here, beating the nervous guy by about a foot. Dressed in knee cut denim jeans and a white tank top her reason for not staring at the boy, or anything for that matter was her white and red bandana, which covered her eyes. It looked hand made, the red stains blotched everywhere in a poor attempt to dye it. Natoko couldn’t tell if she could see through the fabric but she was easily fiddling with a large naginata that bore markings to suggest it actually came from the Haishou era.
The last member of the room was the bar staff, a waiter with a thick mustache that had been systematically removing the glasses from the room since they had all entered. This meant they were missing a person, she noted, if it was to be an eight way tournament, though she felt relieved if this meant she might get a free round.
Yet even the nervous guy looked a little more excited than she did. She felt dead inside. What had Sagara meant by her forgetting her reason? She could admit to herself she was a little overjoyed that the last battle showed her years of training hadn’t been for nothing. That each practice swing of her sword had brought her to the level she displayed an hour ago. But at the moment, the only thing she really felt was how much she was going to love taking that boy apart at the folds. Did she really want to fight for just that? If only the other person had quit in front of them all, perhaps she could have joined him.
“Well, you both made it I see,” a voice said, snapping her out of her thoughts. From the entrance, Sakimoto Yuya walked in, looking a little miffed when Sagara didn’t reply, the boy taking his time to finish the ninety sixth round with a stone again. Natoko stood up attentively and felt a smile come to her lips when Yuya nodded back to her.
“I hope you don’t plan on winning entirely through luck, Sagara,” the businesswoman asked him when he finally noticed her presence. He didn’t bother to stand up, but just turned to her and said.
“I don’t think I even plan on winning.”
“Let me take this moment to explain this tournament to you,” Yuya said, choosing to ignore the boy. “This tournament, as all entering should know, is a qualification test!” Natoko’s eyes lit up with this. A test? She had assumed it was merely some kind of strange entertainment event. Maybe a test of skill for the fighters involved, but somehow what the woman had just said felt more important than that.
“There are three stages to the test. Know that you have already just passed two. The first stage was simply getting here. With the tournament being held in the InBetween Realm, which exists outside of Earth’s natural sphere, it is near impossible for most humans to participate. That is the first test; to simply obtain your invitation and get to the tournament before it begins. Regardless of what you may think, you have all been handpicked by me to participate in this tournament. That includes the three of you who think you have entered through false means.”
Natoko’s ears pricked up and this, and she looked at the woman with astonished awe. Did this mean that the woman had also picked her? Some other force choosing her to be one of the tournament participants. Could it be that, despite all odds, this woman had given Sagara the extra invitation, knowing that it would ultimately get to her? If that was the case, it was impressive and she even felt moved that such effort was made for her, but still Natoko felt she need not have bothered.
“The second test: was what was known as the preliminaries. That which you have all just passed. It is also the best way to eliminate most of the more useless bodies from the event. The so called ‘Battle Royale’ was designed to eliminate all but eight of those who made it pass the first test. Such a test was not merely a test of strength and skill in fighting but also your tactical awareness and ability to think in an extremely stressful and chaotic situation. In simple terms, it was a real fight. Since you are all here, I can assume that you showed appropriate tactics in surviving through the chaos that occurred but moments ago, no matter how bizarre your methods chosen.”
Natoko looked down at her sword, bound tightly to her waist. What she had done did not feel like a good move tactically, nor did she feel that she kept a cool head. In truth, it felt like she had got lost in her passions and just kept hitting everyone. Was that tactical enough? Someone with a firearm could have defeated her easily.
“And now comes the final test: Dueling.” Natoko looked back to the woman. “A simple duel may seem strange after fighting in a brawl like that. Surely, one might think, the Battle Royale beforehand was much more testing than this. But a duel is different to the fights you have all just had. It is a time to truly prove yourself. Believe me when I say this is much harder than both of the other tests. You are not investigating. You are not simply trying to survive. You are attempting to eliminate your opponent, fighting with everything you are, and with everything you have. And they are doing the same. You cannot hide, you cannot simply wait for the opponents to exhaust each other. You must stand forwards, fight and destroy those who would aim to stop you. Only that, will get you both victory, and the qualification.”
“The matches are done similar to the Battle Royale rules,” Yuya continued. “With the obvious exception that it’s only two people fighting at one time. The cage aspect has also disappeared, which means you can be immediately knocked out of the ring after the match begins. You can lose the match in one of five ways: knock out, give up, get knocked out of the ring, the referee decides that you are not fit to continue the match or, of course, death. You can argue with the referee if you want to, and if you are able to, he’ll probably let the match continue, but the rest will be immediate in deciding your fates.”
She walked over to the white board, and began drawing in a pyramid formation. “You should all know how a basic tournament works. There are eight of you, so there should be a maximum of seven fights, with each of you having a chance to fight in three of them depending on how well you do. If, after a certain fight, both participants of that tier are unable to continued, both are disqualified, meaning some of you may get to miss a fight. There is no time limit, and no real form of disqualification. The only real rule on disqualification is that you may not use any weapons or spells that you have not already registered. Divine and Demonic weapons are also not allowed and will result in disqualification the second they are detected. Also be aware that actions taken against other participants before the fight are forbidden. For the record, Itoko, this includes bringing about the false enlightenment of the passion gods.”
“Aw,” the blind girl muttered, like she wasn’t allowed to go out and play in the mud.
“Now,” Yuya continued without indulging the girl. “Let me show you who will be fighting who. I, myself, will pick a sheet of paper out of this box with a number on it. If you are that number, depending on which tier you were in earlier, you will go in the next position on the board, going one through to eight.” She walked up to a man that was holding a simple cardboard box. She looked away and fished her hand into it. The first piece of paper she pulled out was a number one.
“Who is number one?” Nobody answered, and Natoko checked her won sheet of paper just in case. Sagara stared blankly forwards, Yuya meeting his eyes. “It’s you, Sagara.”
“Oh right,” Sagara said, holding his arm up and eventually catching onto her stares. He looked back to Natoko quickly, in case he had misunderstood her.
“Very well,” Yuya said. “Futabatei Sagara is in fight number one.”
This process continued for a short while, as each fighter was chosen one at a time. There were no real objections to the first fight, which was Sagara and the playful eight year old kid. Nervous guy and shady guy were paired together, much to the nervous guy’s anxiety as the shady guy reached into his trousers to simply pull out the pack of playing cards. The blind girl was paired with a guy called Yamato, who appeared to be the missing one, though Yuya offered no explanation as to how this was.
“That’s it,” Yuya stated, as the man finished writing their names on the whiteboard. We will ask you to wait another five or ten minutes and as we finish preparations and the half time show, which you are of course free to watch. Until then, just sit, relax or prepare yourselves however you see fit. I’d offer you all good Luck, but negotiations were made to prevent her interfering in today’s matches.”
“But what about…” Natoko called out, where she realised she hadn’t been mentioned. The participants of the room turned to look at her, even Sagara, and she felt herself shrink back at the glances.
“You do know what elimination means, do you not woman?” the fat kid asked her, not even deigning her worthy to look at. “It’s a simple process. When six people have been chosen for three fights, the remaining two must fight each other. Is that not obvious?”
The shady guy grinned as the room fell into silence to center on her. Even the nervous guy smiled to accept what she said with some grace. The fat boy sniggered.
“Are you such a moron that you cannot even do that?”
Natoko cringed, and turned to Sagara, perhaps in some fleeting hope for help, but he had just wandered out of the room, scratching himself.
“Watch it, Hayate,” Yuya warned the boy.
“I do not believe you told us we were not allowed to taunt each other before the match.”
“I didn’t, but if it starts a fight, I’ll blame you over the other person.”
“I- I didn’t…” Natoko stuttered, feeling impotent rage quell up inside her. She did not care for striking him down now if it meant being disqualified, but there was shame in forcing a fight when everyone had agreed to certain challenges, and that damn Hayate boy knew it.
In the streets of the Fuugosuki, Melissa prowled, stalking her target with invisible steps that came from a stranger’s boots. The big guy had followed her, and she kept the illusions up to fit him as well. Invisibility doesn’t serve a purpose in a bumbling street filled with hundreds, but plain sight camouflage was perfect for stalking this prey.
“It was how he went about cleaning that got me, like he just accepted that was the way the room was set out, even though I had no idea what the room originally looked like.”
“Whatever. Just keep following him.”
Sagara’s fight would probably be up soon. Hopefully the fool would do well in staying in there for as long as possible. She’d hate to have to nurse him back from the ashes of defeat.
Otsune didn’t care anymore. Let the world explode with stupidity around her. Let life seek to make sense as a zoo flies around her and a deathtrap never activates. Let her be inside a realm completely devoid of possibilities for existing. Let science be abused, raped and tortured, until it finally came to believe it liked the situation it was in and seek more.
Just a few more hours, and she could go home and refuse to ever come along on any trip Sagara gave them ever again.
Even better, why leave the dormitory? The world was a scope of indoor networks now anyway. She just needed to shut herself inside, and never let any of them approach her again.
Yeah, that was the most rationale course of action.
It beat trying to figure out why a famous pop idol was singing on the main stage, and why her own body was dancing along to the beat with everyone else.
The rhythm was intoxicating, alluring and seductive, but ultimately avoidable. The half Sirynclou is nothing for me to be afraid of. As I wander the halls, the demons come. To face the stoolie. They seek to harm him. To drive him away from me.
But I will not be denied.
Not when I am so very close.
All shall burn who stand in my way.
Descending the last of the stairs, she looked around the abandoned lobby. A ticker tape scrolled above her, mentioning names she didn’t recognize. This had to be the place, she told herself, though there was no reason to assume it correct. The place she was shouldn’t even exist, yet the proof of it was clear to her.
In front of her, an old man swept away the dirt left by a thousand people. The place looked like it had been busy. And she could tell by the screams just under the din of the music that they had all moved into the adjoining room.
But she still had to get her ticket stamped, didn’t she? Or could she just walk in now. Or perhaps she was too late altogether. There was no one left at the ticket booth to ask. They had all packed up and disappeared by the looks of things. They hadn’t left a note either, and all that was left was the man sweeping the floor.
Sakura waited for him to notice her.
Back in the waiting room, Natoko paced frantically. “Where is he?” she muttered under her breath, keeping an eye in the direction he had gone. The half time concert show has just finished its encore. The little kid had already left for the stage, leaving a concerned man by the door, hoping more than the first event wouldn’t be ruined rather than Sagara actually showing up.
“Could you go pull…I mean drag your friend out from wherever he’s gone?” the man asked Natoko politely, in a way that felt like he had got her attention with a crowbar to her face.
The samurai girl didn’t reply, but silently headed for the direction he had gone, the noise of someone standing up behind her stopped her for a second.
“Don’t worry,” a calm but deep voice said from behind her. Natoko was surprised to see it was the girl with the bandana over her eyes. The girl turned to the man by the door. “He’s on his way to the arena. You can go now.”
“Erm, very well,” the man said confused, turning to leave, but doubling back all of a sudden. “You’re all allowed to follow and watch by the ringside if you want, as long as you don’t interfere. Or interject.”
The man walked off out the door, leaving Natoko unsure of what to do. Was the blind girl telling the truth, or was this some simple way of getting Sagara disqualified? She turned to look at everyone else, to see what they were doing. Shady guy and nervous guy had already left to watch. The others seemed to be staying. Natoko turned to the girl, whose name she heard was meant to be Itoko, to ask her something. Before she could, a loud cheer came from outside the door.
“That’s your lord showing up,” the girl said, staring at her for the few seconds it took Natoko to realise that this wasn’t possible. “I suggest you hurry up if you want to watch him.”
“Aren’t you going to watch?” the fat boy said rudely. Natoko took a second to realise for once she wasn’t talking to him. “You seemed interested in that boy.”
“And you in that girl?” she suggested subtlety. The boy responded with a hollow laugh, freaking out those still in the room with its horrible pitch and tone of superiority.
“I’m just surprised how something so weak can get in this tournament. She clearly had a lucky match.” He snorted at this, and went back to leaning against the wall. The blind girl considered this for a moment.
“Things are not always as they seem,” she replied. “You, for example, seem to have fourteen extra layers of skin over your natural layers. One of which is a barrier of some kind.”
“So it is noticable then,” he said with a sigh, moving to stand and face her. “And what do you plan to do now that you know?”
“As I said stereotypically but a moment ago using my rather round and, if I do say so myself, cute mouth…” She paused for a moment. “What did I say?” She waited for him to reply, but the fat boy called Hayate had just chosen to wander to the main stage.
“Oh, that was it,” she said, grabbing his wooden spear, and holding it up for others to see. “It’s meant to be a naginata, but I left mine at the hotel, so I had to sharpen this out of a stick I found.” She paused again, not sure if that was the right conversation, nor no longer able to tell if she was even having a conversation. Around her no one seemed to be making any noise, and so she sat down back quietly, slightly embarrassed.
It clearly was a naginata, Natoko noted, before putting it all aside and rushing up the steps to see her lord fight.