Chapter 6 (The pageantry of a fight)
Rough hands shove Kkaj forward, and he stumbles out onto the arena floor.
Silence blanketed the crowd until a squealing voice said, “It’s Kkaj the unbreakable!” The crowd erupted in cheers, chanting his name.
Kkaj reached out and grabbed the edge of the ring, catching himself before he could fall. He would not be made a fool of. He turned.
At the entrance to the arena floor, a pair of heavily armed guards stood behind Roffor and Saffer. Their quivering lips sent icy octospider legs crawling down his back and threw his mind back into Orakab City just after he put down the last of the possessed Drunkzards.
He swallowed. I have to get that map.
“Kkaj?” the judge asked from the ring. “Would you please join the other fighters as slots are chosen?”
“No, I’d —”
One of the guards rested his hand on a long-barreled pistol and stepped closer to Saffer.
“Moonshine! I hope all of you choke on it and get alcohol poisoning.” Kkaj spun on his heels and stomped into the ring.
Up close, the one-armed Merkaej’s face scratched at Kkaj’s memories. Junkoi said he had been one of the fighters who nearly beat Kkaj, but the matches from so long ago just blended together. Merkaej bared his teeth and pointed at Kkaj.
Kkaj rolled his eyes. “Wonderful. Another adoring fan.”
Merkaej growled then took a step forward. “Kkaj. I’m going to —”
Moofuj rested a hand on his shoulder while Yazar and Runtef snickered. The lanky Penta from RiBer tapped his foot. Was he nervous? Or anxious to get started?
Merkaej glowered at Moofuj but stopped moving forward.
Kkaj moved between the two other battle royal winners as the tournament officials pulled out a massive spinning board that counted one to fifty. “Haven’t you fools developed a better way to select tournament positions?”
“This is and always will be the best way,” the judge said in a snarky voice.
Kkaj stretched his back then cracked his knuckles. “All of you are fools.”
“Excuse me,” the judge asked.
“You heard me, lackey.”
“I could have you disqualified.”
The judge raised his wrinkled hand into the air. He glanced over Kkaj’s shoulder and grew pale. The judge’s arm lowered, and he coughed into his fist. “Let’s begin!”
First up, the three winners of the battle royals. The short-haired woman spun the wheel with two hands. Twenty-six. The tiny man reached out, only able to grab the wheel with the tips of his fingers. He spun. Forty-two. Without taking his eyes off Kkaj, Merkaej grabbed the wheel and gritted his teeth then spun. Twenty-seven. A smile tugged at his lips as his gaze shifted to the short-haired woman.
“Very good,” the judge said in a booming voice. “Now, we will proceed based on our champion’s current fighter ranking.”
At least I can get this over with. Kkaj stepped forward.
“Of our five champions, only Moofuj has never participated in an official tournament, but his strength is well documented. They call him the crocobear of RulFer. Today, we will see his strength up close!”
Moofuj bowed to the judge. “You will not be disappointed.” He spun. Forty-five.
“We’ll continue with the Toi-Ritojok’s champion. With all of her losses save for two coming by decision, the beast from RoTusj, Runtef.”
Runtef pinched Kkaj’s butt as she shoved past him. “At least one part of you is still firm.”
Kkaj’s mouth worked, but no words came out. What could he say to the woman his father had originally arranged for him to marry? To the woman he broke off the engagement with by crushing her in an official match?
Runtef placed her hand on the wheel and flicked her wrist. Fifty. She grinned at Kkaj and ran her fingers along the jagged scar that climbed from her left breast to her right cheek. She shouldn’t have made him use lightning. “Don’t disappoint me, lover.”
“I don’t want to fight.”
“My ass of a king is forcing me to participate to suit his ego.”
She pouted her lips. “Either way, it’s good to have you back. The others are just plain boring.”
“What do you mean?”
“Next up!” The judge’s voice flattened Runtef’s words. “The current, number one contender! Yazar the bazar!”
Kkaj slapped himself in the forehead. Did she really have to own that name after I burned her eyebrows off?
She stomped over to the wheel and spun. Two.
Kkaj blinked before looking back at the lanky man. If Yazar is still only the number two fighter in the world, then —
“This may be unusual,” the judge said, “but the next up to the wheel will be our current! Reigning! Champion! He’s careful. He’s quick. He’s unbeaten! He’s never suffered a major blow in the ring! Ladies and gentlemen! I give you, Lorbooj the clean!”
The crowd booed.
The clean? Kkaj arched an eyebrow. Is that why Runtef has said it was boring?
Lorbooj strolled over to Kkaj and rested a hand on his shoulder. “This insult won’t be forgiven.”
“I’m the champion now. Not you.”
“Not a very popular one.”
A snarl tugged at Lorbooj’s lips. “I’m going to make you wish that you had stayed in retirement.”
“Too late for that.”
“Just shut up and spin the wheel.”
Lorbooj took a step back and held his hand out towards Kkaj, palm down. Lorbooj tightened his hand into a fist — the sign saying he would crush Kkaj.
Kkaj shook his head and made a shooing motion.
The crowd burst into laughter, and Lorbooj’s face turned crimson. His entire body trembled. Would he attack Kkaj here and now? It would be a good excuse to retire from the tournament early. Lorbooj stepped around Kkaj and spun the wheel. Forty.
“And finally!” The judge flourished his hands. “We have a special treat for you today. After a three-year absence, he has decided to return to the ring one more time. Undefeated for more than five years, claiming the title at the age of eighteen and never losing it. His reputation alone was enough to cripple most opponents. No matter what a fighter threw at him, he wouldn’t go down! He is … unbreakable. The unbreakable! Please give a warm welcome for the return of Kkaj! The unbreakable Penta!”
As if a pair of cannons had been fired right beside Kkaj, the crowd erupted into deafening cheers.
Kkaj’s joints locked up. His eyes watered. Where was he?
The world spun, and a slender woman stood across the ring from him. Her long, golden hair was a shade brighter than his, and her deep purple eyes marked her as a member of the Orienkk family. Did his eyes shine like hers?
His body convulsed, and pain shot up through his knees.
The woman’s curved hips and beautiful smile enticed him despite the act being forbidden. Was his purple eyes the reason so many women fawned over him? Was it why he was attracted to his cousin?
Something squeezed his neck and blew into his ear. The world righted itself, and Kkaj found Roffor holding him in the middle of the ring. Her beautiful smile stabbed at his heart. Was that why he was more attracted to her than her sister? Minus the eyes and hair color, Roffor was the spitting image of his cousin. All the way down to her fair skin.
He climbed back to his feet. “Thank you.”
A guard leaped into the ring and stomped towards Roffor.
Kkaj cut him off and pulled a flask from his pocket. “You might want to rethink your position.”
The guard froze in place.
“You’re going to release my girlfriend, too.” Kkaj popped the top of the flask. “Or I’ll rip you limb from limb and send your remains to your family before I do the same to them.”
The guard scrambled backwards, and his foot caught on the edge of the ring. He grunted as he toppled backwards and crashed head first into the arena floor. Clang!
“Get your sister and meet me outside the waiting room.”
Roffor licked her lips and nodded. “I will, but are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine because of you.”
She blushed. “I-I-I —” She spun on her heels and sprinted from the ring.
Does she also like me? Kkaj shook his head then approached the wheel. He spun. Fifty.
The judge clapped. “It’s settled!” He pointed at Yazar and the short-haired woman.
Both stepped forward and bowed to the judge. Then, they faced off against each other before stepping from the ring and walking towards the waiting room.
“Next will be Merkaej versus our current champion, Lorbooj.”
They faced off and moved to the waiting room. Moofuj squared off against the short man. Moofuj was over two times bigger than his opponent.
The judge coughed as soon as they left the ring. “And our final match of the first round is one of the greatest rivalries of the last ten years! Runtef! Versus! Kkaj!”
The crowd erupted into cheers again. Luckily, it was only a scream this time and not a boom.
Kkaj stepped forward and bowed to the judge before bowing to Runtef.
Runtef rubbed her belly. “If I hadn’t lost the baby, would you have kept our engagement?”
His heart fell into his stomach as he held his fists up for the face-off. “Yes.”
A tear rolled down her cheek. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I continued to fight after we found out I was pregnant.”
The crowd cheered again, and they joined the other fighters in the waiting room.
Next: Chapter 7