“And they’re supposed to already be inside?” Otsune asked. “Are you sure we’re at the right place?”
“It’s what it says on the tickets.” Gen said, checking them again. “This is the road.” Observing the road on the outskirts of the city, one of the very few dirt tracks that still existed in Fuugosuki, Otsune looked over Gen’s shoulder to the map indicated on the ticket. It was a simple large block roughly where they were standing, with a little cat waving happily out of it. “This is at least the right area. These should be the buildings.”
“We are not going in there,” Otsune said clearly, addressing the whole group. “It doesn’t look safe and I don’t want to get caught for trespassing. Besides I thought this was supposed to be a stadium.”
“There’s no one here,” Fujiko stated, looking at the others as they wandered round the outside of the building, as if they were expecting to see a tournament pop out of nowhere any time now. “It should be fine if we at least take a look.”
“Are you stupid?” she asked honestly. “If there’s no one here, then we have even less reason to go in.”
“I…guess,” Fujiko admitted, scratching his head and rereading the address of the ticket for the ninth time in the last few minutes.
“That guy must have given us the wrong address or messed up some other way.”
“No way,” Sarah shouted from a few meters away, staring at the decrepit yet still bolted door that was barely holding up in front of her. Otsune could see from the way the child was standing that Sarah was becoming more and more tempted to just try and kick the door down, but was put off by the people surrounding her. “Boss wouldn’t make a mistake like that. This was important to him. And this doesn’t make any sense. I’ve been here before. There were restaurants here yesterday. I own two of them.”
“Ahhh,” Fujiko whined, unable to figure it out. “We shouldn’t have let them go ahead like that. We’re gonna miss it at this rate.”
“We have half an hour before the start, and there’s no other place called this in Fuugosuki. I didn’t even know this place existed in Fuugosuki,” Otsune began to rationalise. “You’d think if we could make the mistake even though we’re so used to this area, then foreigners would also be scattered around lost.” That concerned her as she thought of Sakura and Tina. Both had stayed behind today, with only Tina confirming that she would catch up later. Both of the foreign girls would have difficulties if the natives were lost.
“Hey, there’s some people coming this way,” Sarah noticed. The gang turned to see, walking down the beaten path hand in hand, an old man and a very young girl slowly heading in their direction. They looked nice enough, talking happily to each other, so Otsune took a chance and stepped forward.
“Excuse me?” Unsure of which one to address, she just hoped one would answer her. It was the small girl, who looked about six years old.
“What is it, young girl?” the child replied formally. Otsune stared at her for a moment, wondering if she had bad grammar.
“We’re looking for some martial arts tournament around here,” she asked, ignoring it for now. “But we can’t seem to find it. We were wondering if you knew?” The old man mumbled something under his breath, while the girl looked at her with troubled agitation, as if she had just been told they were going to try and steal her arms. She looked at the ground, then at the old man, before turning to face Otsune again.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean,” she stated. “Anyway, you children shouldn’t be around here. Run along now.” Otsune felt strangely compelled to obey the little girl’s request, as if it were a headmistress telling her to do this. Gen approached her from the side.
“Are you sure, ma…m.” His tongue stopped him for a second, and Otsune could tell he was having the same problem. His common sense telling him he wasn’t being polite enough for this little girl. “We have tickets for this event, you see, and…” He showed her the tickets, her face turning to an expression of befuddlement, as if he had just shown her a miniaturized panda.
“Oh…I see…hhhhmmm…” The little girl composed herself in thought, staring rigidly into Gen’s eyes over the tops of her wireframe glasses, the landlord unable to do nothing save look straight back. There was something funny about the little child, Otsune noted, like they should be looking up at her rather than down.
“Ah, I understand it perfectly now.” The little girl walked ahead of them. “Come now, child. I’ll show you how to get in. It’s relatively simple.”
“Thank you very much,” they both said, bowing fully.
Otsune stared at Gen, who had zoned out, as the old man slowly passed them, still muttering something under his breath. Otsune caught a word or two, hearing what sounded like Russian. The group walked behind the strangers, keeping their heads down until they got to where Sarah and the others were. They turned to look at the two newcomers.
“Are these part of your entourage?” the possibly aged between six and sixty girl asked. Otsune saw Gen stumble over his words, trying to bow extra hard as if it would help start the sentence.
“They are,” Otsune answered, with a feeling that it was best to say yes to everything if they were to get inside today. Whatever was going on seemed a little more formal than it should have been.
“Very well,” the girl turned to her muttering companion. “If you would, my child.” As Sarah stepped backwards out of the way, the rascal of the dorm becoming strangely sullen all of a sudden. The man mentioned something about liberalism and then tapped his stick on the door three times. The door, which had once been painted a full green until time had cracked most of it off, slowly creaked open as if it had never been locked by the bolt that was still attached tightly to it. The group slowly peered inside, not entirely sure if they should be seeing an abandoned apartment complex, with a broken staircase and several hundred layers of dusts, or several thousand members of the audience staring back at them.
It was the former.
Fujiko went to say something, probably what was on everybody else’s lips, but Otsune shushed her with a glance. The main lobby had a hole in it, and death waited for all those who went up the staircase, but other than that; nothing special.
“Don’t be shy, children,” the little girl said. “Step on through. The first time’s always the most confusing.” The wise words brought Otsune the courage to step forward and go first, but Aki strolled in without a second thought.
“So is this where you offer us roles in a porn film or…”
“Sarah!” Otsune scolded, knowing the girl would bring them all shame in front of honourable stranger if she wasn’t careful. She saw Sarah’s face cringe in anger, the girl’s hand clenching into a fist.
“There will be nothing of the sort, my child,” the even younger child interrupted, silencing everyone quickly. “It’s just down these stairs.” And without a further word, she descended into what appeared to be the basement behind the stairs. Aki followed without a single complaint, and the others quickly joined her, Otsune in last place to coax Sarah down.
She couldn’t tell what exactly what happened next. A ten minute walk down a staircase in half darkness would be disorientating for anybody, even more so for the fact they were already on the ground floor. But for the entire time she was walking, all Otsune could hear was breathing, the whole group traveling in silence as they descended wooden stairs that did not creak or give sound to their footsteps, with lights that did not have a source and fresh air that had no conditioner to flow out of.
All the time Otsune could only tell herself that this was impossible. Though she knew that wasn’t entirely true. The ceiling had concrete supports and there were still insects scuttling around (though they were just as silent as the visitors) but somehow it felt incomprehensible that this place could exist.
The stairs ended without incident and, as soon as they hit the bottom, as if an unwritten were no longer in effect, the old man just started mumbling again, Otsune picking up mentioning of a proletarian movement needing to be consolidated by a centralized party to fight for the people. It got ignored as there, all of a sudden, through a mahogany oak door, was a great line of people, who didn’t look at all concerned by their sudden appearance. Behind her, she heard Sarah give the same gasp of amazement she herself had just released.
Everything was so…different. Not dramatically. This felt like the natural progression of events for some reason; they were planning to go to the tournament after all. But it was just…wrong.
It was a normal lobby, the type of normal lobby you’d see at a normal stadium or a major concert, with hundreds queuing up as normal to get into some normal special event. Above them, a normal large panel, made up of thousands of normal neon yellow light bulbs flashing information as normally as one would expect, stating the times the preliminaries started, where the main matches were expected to start and that the normal management were not responsible for any items lost while on the normal premises.
“Abandoned and soon to be demolished apartment complex that should be popular restaurants… giant, multimillion dollar arena.” The size alone wasn’t right, the noise of everyone chatting away was unbearable and the area behind her was missing the door that she came through. Otsune had to remind herself they were at least two hundred meters underground.
She tried to ignore it all and thank the young girl, but upon doing so, found they had walked ahead of them and had already sneaked into the queue. It seemed that that had been their intention to get there before Otsune’s group were.
“W-What’s going on?” Fujiko muttered, looking at the whole scene as warily as she was.
“I don’t know…” Otsune said honestly, with a hint of freak out in her voice. “And you don’t either. Let’s just get our tickets punched, buy some popcorn from the store over there, ignore the guy selling tournament merchandise and just not think about it for a while.” She walked off to stand behind the old man in the queue, who was muttering about the death of serfdom.
“Hey,” Sagara said drearily, not putting any energy into standing up straight as Natoko tapped him on the shoulder. “What’s up?”
“I think you’re annoying the boy in front of you.” Natoko pointed to the large mass of meat in front of him in the line. The slightly smaller mass on top of the large mass was shaking, clearly annoyed by Sagara using the lower pieces of mass as a pillow, yet too disciplined by its training to respond accordingly.
“Na, I’m sure he’s fine.” Sagara patted the mass on its back laughing, before catching a glance of where they were. They were surrounded by people on both sides and for some strange reason it felt like there was no way out. “Where are we?” he asked.
“The line,” Natoko replied, growling to some extent. “We’ve got to register so we can be put into groups. Anyway, I should be the one asking that.”
“Groups?” he bounced back. “What for?” This elicited a large sigh from the lips of the samurai. It didn’t seem right that he had no idea what he was doing here, despite him being the one to set this all up.
“I’m not sure, something about the first set of eliminations.” She would have explained further, but she didn’t know herself. “I was hoping you’d know. Seeing as you brought me here, with fried octopus no less.” Sagara clearly didn’t know, as he immediately fell back asleep upon the sumo wrestler in front of him.
Natoko looked miffed for a second before calming down and looking around. There was more than the expected two hundred he had told her about here. It was more like three to four hundred. Some of them were huge. There was one particular, a bruiser with a square jaw, army slacks and hair coming out of everywhere that looked like he couldn’t be any younger than thirty-five, yet stood in the line for those younger than her and giggled alongside two other boys dressed almost adorably in judo suits. Another female sat on the floor in the middle of the line with a thick bandana covering her eyes and rendering her totally blind. Even so, she had no problem playing a variety of coin tricks for anyone happening to watch, and caught a 100 yen coin on the tip of her tongue before flicking it back up and slicing it in half with her little finger.
Wishing to take her mind off the surrealism surrounding her, Natoko looked down to the ground. This was so strange. Could she truly fit in here? It wasn’t exactly a place where she could belong; a lot of the people here were pure muscle that looked like they could break the earth by sitting on it.
They were the type that looked like they had been in actual fights, where she had never even taken a punch from anyone except Sagara. It wasn’t right, she felt like she had just sneaked into a party where she wasn’t invited, and every minute spent was another minute not being caught and thrown out.
She knew she didn’t actually belong here, not properly anyway. Sagara had provided her the ticket. At first she figured it normal, but there were definitely some freaky people round here. Some were clearly devout monks, while some were wandering nomads, four girls stuck together and reminded her of amazons. No one looked exactly normal, but then with her hakama on, she was no exception. But that was probably the only thing keeping her here. They were part of this world of demons, part of this strange realm of never ending corridors. It was like some kind of fantasy adventure where everyone knew what was going on as if it were common sense. She had no right to be here.
That fat boy hadn’t exactly helped, she lamented. His speed the morning before had really put her off. Disappearing in an instant like that made her worry about the level of competition yet. Whilst it was true she hadn’t even fought Sagara properly yet, beyond training and being possessed, she couldn’t judge her skills against anyone until she was up there in the ring. These people were clearly part of Sagara’s world. Could she hope to keep up with that?
The queue shuffled forwards slightly and Natoko didn’t notice, causing the person behind her to push her as he too wasn’t paying attention. She turned around and unleashed a menacing growl that pushed the pusher back a few steps. When she realised what had happened, she turned back around and let her expression turn to a depressed frown. Was intimidation all she was good at? The boys at the class back home always seemed to lose not because of their lack of training but because it felt like they were facing a professional madwoman brandishing a sword. At least, that’s what she heard them saying a few times. Intimidation did seem to be an important factor in some fights, but it was never a winning one. Sagara had taught her that when he had just laughed off her taunts. The boy’s calm was something she did not have. Her anger was the thing that drove her, but it’s also what made her lose. If she didn’t have anger, what would she have?
Waking up once again, Sagara lifted himself up from the sumo wrestler in front of him. Apparently wanting to keep himself awake, he slapped his cheek hard. Turning around, cleaning up his drool, he looked glad to see Natoko was there, and, slapped her as well.
“What the?” Natoko replied in shock that quickly turned to anger. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Just checking you’re not a dream,” Sagara replied casually, slapping himself a few times to make sure he didn’t fall asleep again.
“A dream?” she asked surprised. “Shouldn’t you be more focused today? That’s several times you’ve fallen asleep.”
“It’ll be okay,” he said, waving her down. “Hey, have you got a piece of paper? I’m supposed to write my dreams down.” Natoko looked taken aback at this near random request, but shook her head anyway.
“That’s a shame. Mom insists I always do it before I forget.”
“Next,” the caller shouted, clearly disliking his job. Natoko looked ahead to find a large empty gap where the wrestler had been. Getting pushed forwards by Natoko, Sagara stumbled to the person with the large box. “Registration card please,” he asked with a need to fall asleep attitude. Sagara dozily searched his pockets for it, before Natoko passed it to him. He flashed in front of the man, who smiled with lips that looked like they were being lifted at both sides by cranes before presenting the box.
“Pick one out,” Natoko whispered to him, not willing to chance how stupid he was feeling today. Sagara fished his hand through and after a moment pulled out a little slip of paper with the number two on it.
“Stick that on your registration card, sir,” the man holding the box said helpfully. “It’ll let you gain access to block number two at the time of the tournament.”
“Thank you,” Sagara said. “Where is block number two?”
“Not my jurisdiction, sir. Please move along,” the assistant said with about the friendly helpfulness one would get out of an inconveniently invincible cabbage.
“Surely you could just tell me?”
“Move along, sir,” the assistant interrupted. Sagara found himself forced to obey as he walked off along the side of the queue. From behind, Natoko sniggered a bit and flashed her card at the man. His smile disappeared, and he just thrust the box at her. Pulling out a number five she was kicked away before she had chance to stick it onto her card. Hoping to catch up with Sagara, she only got so far before a snort of superiority froze her in her tracks.
“I see you failed to heed my warning,” Before she even turned to see she knew who it was, the snort alone reminding her of her savior from yesterday. The fat boy with the psychotic cousin stood several places behind them in the line and she hadn’t even noticed. The cousin was there as well, skulking down at the floor at this point and doing his best to ignore everything. “You shall regret that.” Natoko didn’t know fully how to reply to this, she seemed to try by stuttering.
“So…s…” she trailed off, as she felt bad about something. She wasn’t sure what though.
“Humph, if you’re going to whine, woman, you might as well just leave now. Know this before you do depart though. What I say is not to insult you, but to inform you. You are a useless creature here, below the level of my uncle’s son, who himself is a useless creature and only here because of his father’s status.” He pierced his gaze into her in one strike and the floor was her key interest all of a sudden. “And you’re a swordswoman as well, I see,” he commented, snorting again.
“I…i…” She wanted to spit anger and fury at him, but it was gone.
“With your level of awareness it’s clear you’re just an amateur. I’m amazed at how someone like you got invited to this noble event in the first place.” Natoko continued staring at the ground, unsure of how to fully react. She looked up a moment later, and found he had disappeared, choosing to move further down the line without saying anything. With no one left to reply to, she left the area as well, hoping that she wouldn’t run into Sagara.
“Please tell me someone else finds all this strange,” Otsune muttered as Aki plopped down in the seat next to hers on the high bleachers, a fresh bag of bananas in her hand. It seemed the snack store really did sell everything, including fresh fruit direct from foreign countries.
“Find what strange?” the dark skinned girl replied. Otsune exhaled as hard as she possibly could, before confirming with her eyes that which she had already checked several times before even sitting down.
The place was huge! It was more like a professional wrestling arena than the abandoned building they had come across just a few minutes ago. This might have made sense were it a wrestling match they had come to see. But she had seen martial arts tournaments before, back when a collage friend dragged her to one for support. They weren’t anything special in the remoteness of any possible significant events in any part of the world. Usually they had just booked a local sports hall or convention centre, and on the other side they’d be a basketball game going on or something and the most interesting thing (because it was clear to her superior mind that there was nothing of any great merit watching two morons bounce around each other for two minutes only to stop when one tapped the other to have a point declared) to see that day would be arguments between the two sports resulting in a basketball in her then boyfriend’s face.
To see an arena, packed with what had to be several thousand members of an audience, and a huge ring in the centre, bigger than any she had seen on television, was beyond a mere term like surreal. Yet it suited the term, ‘just plain crazy’ perfectly.
It wasn’t even a ring really. It was a tiled slab of a square that went about fifteen meters in each direction made out of smooth stone. Wasn’t that dangerous for a martial arts fight? The tournaments she had been to they usually padded the floor.
If this wasn’t enough for her friends to find strange, and to be honest, it was very easy to get used to, certain members of the audience were proving even worse. She turned, just a little, once again, just to check if she was sure. And yes, yes indeed, there, around five seats away from her was an eagle. A fully-grown bald headed eagle, with dark brown wings and a purple tail that she swore looked like it had been dyed with the same stuff Fujiko used when she dyed her hair last year. Weren’t bald headed eagles from America? At first, she had assumed it to be some exotic pet, or more realistically, escaped from a local zoo. It had only been when nobody else seemed to own it or have a problem with it that she gave up that thought, only to be nearly scream as it flew passed her, returning several minutes later with a small bag of popcorn. Could eagles even eat popcorn? Surely it would have digestive problems. She did her best to ignore it, especially when it started glancing back at her. She got the strangest feeling that it might start trying to chat her up.
The others had no problems with anything going on. Fujiko had taken her advice and now relaxed with food and booze that Otsune couldn’t bring herself to consume. Gen hadn’t denied himself though and was consuming about half of what Fujiko was. Sarah looked ready to bolt the second anyone looked away to go find Sagara and Aki was just enjoying herself. Why was she the only one that couldn’t relax? That was obvious to her even as she asked herself. Because it was all so damn weird! Even she was acting weird earlier to Sarah and her attitude with the little girl. What had she been thinking? It was like she was treating the helpful stranger like royalty.
Tina still hadn’t joined them yet. They had been given seating numbers so she shouldn’t have much trouble getting to them when she did show up. But the chances of her even finding this place, much less wanting to stay…
Trying her best to focus on nothing, to become as ignorant as the others, Otsune failed, catching sight of a man walking into the centre of the ‘arena’. She couldn’t really tell how tall he was because he was so far away- Sagara not having got them the best seats to observe from- but he was very well dressed and was carrying a microphone with him. Slowly strolling to the centre, an act that got a lot of the audience to fall silent, the man scratched his mustache and cleared his throat, testing the microphone as he did so.
“Hello!” the man began. “Konnichiwa, Tsubakateenato, Gu’tak and Bonjour to all of you. Welcome to the one hundred and fourth decade’s Young Warriors tournament!” The crowd erupted into an explosive cheer causing everyone around her to join in. Just in front, the eagle let out a loud shriek, which nearly elicited a shriek from her in return. “On behalf of the committee and the Balance Negotiator Services, may I say how delighted to see so many people here. The stands are practically full to bursting with so many of you- as I suppose many of you can tell. I hope you will be comfortable throughout the fights. It’s surprising that so many people are here in fact, especially since this tournament is supposed to be a well kept secret.” Half the crowd laughed at this, but Otsune wasn’t sure if they were just cheering in general. Everyone except her seemed to be having a good time. Behind her, Fujiko was muttering to her digital camera, as she desperately tried to get it working before she missed too much. The man continued. “Regardless, let me thank you on behalf of everyone at the committee how pleased we are that you all showed up. Thank you very much.” The man performed a little bow to express somebody else’s gratitude and the crowd cheered him on more because of it. Otsune just became more and more unsure why she wasn’t just running away, going as fast as her beautifully conditioned legs could carry her.
“Now before we begin,” the man continued, after most of the crowd had calmed down. “Here to inform you of the rules of the tournament is the woman who lets all of this become possible. Please welcome her kindly, the CEO of Sakimoto Enterprises and the head of the Balance Negotiator Services: Lord Sakimoto Yuya.” There was an increased cheer in the audience, which told Otsune that this woman was famous for some reason, and she doubted it was because she was an executive.
“Thank you, Mr. Taichi,” she said , taking the microphone off the well dressed man and bowing as he removed himself from the stage. “Thank you, everybody. May I say how great it is to see you all here today?” The crowd cheered. Otsune sighed. “When I took control of running this tournament five years ago, I had no idea what I’d be in for, nor how the numbers would grow as time, and the internet as well I suppose, went by.
“I am beyond happy that you have all joined us today for this spectacular occasion. For those of you in the audience who are a little less enlightened, and perhaps a little too petrified with how you got here, just be polite and bow like usual and we’ll all get along fine. Remember, though we fight today for honour, we also respect life of all those on Earth and seek to remain balanced. If you get confused or lost or frustrated, please visit any of the Balance staff in the gray tops, and they’ll be glad to help you with what you need to know.”
It continued, and although many may find Sakimoto Yuya’s speech very uplifting and motivating, to Otsune it was already becoming tedious. As the woman went on about stadium population figures and the history of the tournament in terms of who won it, it was all Otsune could do not to yawn in disrespect.
When it was time to clap, Otsune found herself joining in.