Author's Note: I have to say, out of my many characters, one specially you're about to see here, has a special place in my heart. Let's show he holds up for you guys!
They all hated the man with the tattoo.
Before he came along, they had their reputation and they had their wealth. Then after he showed up to their table and asked for a game or two. It was simple enough, the four of them assumed; all they had to do was humor the poor fool who didn't know about their skills and reputation, toy with him for awhile, then rob him of everything he had on a high-stakes game. Simple as that.
Or so they thought.
By the very end, the challenger was smiling from ear to ear as he pulled all his winnings from the middle of the table towards him. The pile of wealth consisted of gold and silver coins, precious jewelry and polished stones. Knowing he could not carry it all, he had a number of men carry it away for him in some chests.
Satisfied, he rose from the table, gave a small bow and walked away saying:
"That was fun. Keep playing and maybe you four will actually be a challenge for me in the future!"
After he left the table, the four other players stayed there, wallowing in angry defeat. The casino, at least this one in particular, was their stomping ground, their kingdom to walk about and be praised as royalty among gambling, but in a single night, they had all been dethroned by a complete stranger. Charles Cuore, Rachel Diamante, Judah Bastone, and Ace Vanga had all suffered a humilating defeat by some no name who came up and asked for a game.
Charles was known not only for being a card shark, but a pretty boy and a womanizer of sorts. Usually seen wearing custom made clothing and looking as though he had spent hours in front of a mirror, when he was not at a table stealing money from opponents, he was often seen in the company of three women. His most prized possession, a rapier with a handguard made out of solid gold and set with priceless gems, had been put up for a prize when he ran out of coins. True, he thought it was a foolish thing to do, but he thought losing to the man with the tattoo was even more foolish and was confident at his success.
Rachel was like Charles in both skills of gaming and the love of pretty things. Like the pretty boy, she wore clothing made out of the best material and had her appearance done up by experts. However, unlike Charles who was friendly (mostly to beautiful women), Rachel was known as a sort of ice queen. She would make catty remarks and stick her nose up at most people, unless she found them worthy of having even the slightest bit of respect from her. Like Charles, she had lost something precious in the game: a magnificent armlet fitted with a dozen perfect diamonds. She was always known to wear diamonds on her person, a necklace, earrings, rings for her fingers, but it was common knowledge that she adored the armlet most of all.
Judah, except for the fact he had love and talent for the gambling world, was the total opposite of Charles and Rachel. He was a short, fat man always seen wearing greasy, stained clothes of a laborer and a filthy bowler hat on top of his balding head. He was a rude man with a foul tongue and poor manners, not to mention a violent temper, but his skill earned him the respect of his fellow players. Despite his appearance and attitude, he was a man who enjoyed music and his favorite harmonica, a gold one he had custom made, was now in the hands of the tattooed man. This made his fat face turn dark red; oh how he wanted to take the baton at his hip and beat his face in!
Ace was the youngest of the group and was quite cocky. His arrogance was no doubt the reason why he was the first to fall victim to tattooed man. Ace was what one could call the epitome of a gambler; he like to wear dark suits, dress shoes and a fedora, as well as a silver pocketwatch that he kept in his waistcoat. The loss of that very same pocketwatch was another result to his arrogance.
Humiliated and stripped of their personal treasures, the four players harbored nothing but hatred for the man. They shared the same, single thought after he walked away with his new wealth. It was the same thought that many humans had thought of since the dawn of civilization.
With his earnings and new prizes, Ned Low rode one of the elevators from the casino level of the man-made establishment known as Vice Island to the docking bay at the bottom level. A regular to the island, he had not been able to stay long enough to enjoy much of the entertainment the island had to offer until this latest trip. The House of Baraja was the best place to play poker, he had heard, and although the games he had just gotten through were easy enough for him, he did enjoy the fact that he received such a reward, it wasn't that much different than other places he had been to.
Vice Island was a huge iron structure that, thanks to the genius of the engineers that built it, moved from one sea to the other. A lover of luck and chance, Low kept tabs on the place at all times so he would know where it would be. As a pirate, he was more than welcome on Vice, for it was an independent civilization. Here, although there was a degree of law to keep peace between the visitors and the people who actually lived here, there was no law against pirates and other criminals coming to and spending time on the island. In fact, it was because of outlaws that the floating "island" did so well in both popularity and prosperity.
As he rode the lift, Low looked at himself in one of the mirrors that hung around on the walls. A man approaching middle-age, he had very short black hair and had a pair of icy blue eyes that stared back at him from the looking glass. Like many pirates, he wore the clothes of a sailing man: boots, trousers and the like, with a sailing coat and a number of braces for pistols around his torso, which were hidden well thanks to the coat. If it was not for the large tattoo on the right side of his face, people may not remember him as easily as others. Stretching from high on his temple to his neckline was a joker, exactly the kind you would see in a deck of cards. Most people didn't think highly of the joker, but the joker was actually thought to be lucky and even a wild card. Low liked the joker and liked the tattoo; he thought it fit him perfectly.
Smiling, he fitted himself with the four items he had won. The pocketwatch and the harmonica he tucked away into his coat, the rapier was strapped to his waist (although he preferred pistols more than blades) and the diamond armlet went on his left arm. A man who had sailed the seas for at least thirty years, he had heard all kinds of stories and lore, and one he remembered was that if one wore a diamond on the left arm, they would be invincible. He was a very lucky man who had counted on his luck to make it in the world, but he didn't think it hurt to have a little extra help from the supernatural.
The lift came to a stop on the docking level. He stepped out and walked towards the area where his ship The Lady Luck was anchored. Behind him, the men with the chests followed, not saying a word. As soon as he saw the figurehead of his ship, a beautiful woman with barely anything covering her body, he turned and pointed to it. "Put all of that in the cargo hold! I want it secure and safe before I set sail!"
"Another fruitful expedition, Captain?"
Low smiled before looking over his shoulder. Coming towards him was a large man, reaching about seven feet in height with a muscular physique and a very browned body. Like Low, he wore sailing trousers and sea-salt encrusted boots, but he wore a wife beater shirt and a pair of black leather gloves. Low gave a short wave. "Knuckles, glad to see you're keeping an eye on things as I've asked."
"Of course," Knuckles nodded and looked at his commander, noticing the pretty sword at his hip. "A prize?"
"One of many, my friend, one of many. Come, I'll tell you about it."
"What are we doing here of all places, Judah?"
The stocky man in the bowler hat scoffed as he lit a fresh cigar. He inhaled deeply and let out a heavy cloud of smoke, much to the irritation of the other three in the lift. Having left the casino with revenge on their minds, the quartet made their way to one of the other levels of the compound, where blood was spilled and lives were taken for sport. Judah had suggested it.
"We're here for a little muscle, ya damn broad," he replied as the lift door slid open. The new level was so much more noisy and heavily polluted with smoke. So much more, in fact, it made them grateful for the puff they had breathed in just moments before since it was dwarfed by the smoke here. "The meaniest brawlers come here to make a living or to make a name for themselves. They'll do anything for money and I do mean anything!"
"How do you know that?" Charles asked, glancing at him.
"Because I'm a regular!" Judah said proudly. "In fact, I used to be a manager for a couple of fighters here before I gave it up to be a gambler full time."
"Why?" Ace asked. "If you were behind the scenes of a fight and you bet on it, you could make sure you won!"
Judah shook his head. "Naw, it's still too risky. Not all the fighters I've come across were able to last that long. If I had a fighter, made a bet and watched him go down just after the bell rang, I'd be out of money! Not only that, but if word got out that I fixed the fights, people would be after my head."
They followed Judah, walking past all the rings and arenas, hardly able to hear much besides the screaming of the crowds and the screaming of fighting men when their bones were broken from a hard impact. They made their way to main office where the boss of the level sat behind a big desk, counting piles of money. When Judah came through his door, he looked up and smiled.
"Judah!" He rose from his seat and held out his hand. "I haven't seen you in a few weeks, I was beginning to wonder if you had forgotten about us!"
"Not one bit!" Judah laughed as he shook his hand.
The boss looked at the others. "Let me guess. The guys are new blood and the broad's here to be eye candy for the crowd?"
If looks could kill, Rachel could have sent him to the Grim Reaper the second after he said it.
"No, but good idea, we'll talk about that later," Judah leaned over the desk, his hands planted firmly on the edges of the furniture. "I'm here for some fighters."
"Fighters, eh?" the boss took a drag of his cigar. "What kind? Big, small, fast, slow? Gimme details."
"I want the best and the most brutal fighters on the level," Judah said slowly. "I want the ones who aren't afraid to kill a man, and I mean I want murderers who don't have one single ounce of human emotion and would do a hit for pay. No questions asked."
The boss smiled. "Oh, I think I got exactly what you need."
Low had just finished telling Knuckles about his victory over the four in The House of Baraja Casino. Lounging in his cabin on The Lady Luck, Low had removed his coat and thrown it over his chair, revealing fourteen different pistols resting on his torso and thighs. He was rolling up his right sleeve when Knuckles caught sight of a device made out of leather and steel strapped to his forearm. He didn't need to see the extra playing cards loaded onto the device to know what it was; he had seen and known about it long ago.
"You ended up cheating again, didn't you, Captain?" he asked.
"Do you have a problem with that?" Low shot back.
"You know that I don't."
"Then why ask?"
Knuckles shrugged. "I still don't understand your way of thinking, Captain Low. You call yourself a gambler, a man who lives by the luck he carries, and yet you cheat at cards. I wouldn't be surprised if you cheated at other games, but I don't understand why you do it if you rely so much on your so called luck?"
Low cracked a smile as he removed the device from his arm. ""In this treacherous world of ours, where people would so much as cut your throat the second they had the chance, the only thing you can truly rely on is your LUCK; I make my own luck in life, which is why I have yet to lose the game we call life.
"What you call cheating, I call making my own luck. Is it fair to others? No, but when you think about it, not a lot in life is fair. Natural luck is something the universe gives out, Knuckles, and unless you do something about it, it's all you're going to have. However, if you do something to help your luck," he pointed to the device, "then you're better off. Natural luck can be fickle, it can be good one second and then bad the next second. What I do helps me stay as lucky as I possibly can. It's why I'm a hell of a gambler and a hell of a pirate, because I'll do anything to win."
Knuckles looked away, crossing his arms.
"You don't approve."
"Like I said, I don't have a problem with it, Captain, it's just that seeing people cheat is what made me leave this place years ago to begin with."
Low cocked an eyebrow. "You've been here before? You didn't say anything."
"Nothing to say, except that I got into some trouble and I left. Nothing more to it than that, but it's why I didn't have a problem watching the ship when you left. I-"
Suddenly, the door to the cabin burst open and one of Low's underlings just about fell onto his face coming inside. "CAPTAIN! WE'VE GOT TROUBLE!"
The tattooed pirate reached for his pistols. "What kind of trouble?"
"There's a whole bunch of people outside wanting to see you! They threatened to scuttle the ship if you didn't come out and see them!"
Knuckles looked at Low for a moment, then to his shipmate. "What are they, lawmen?"
"No, but they mean business!"
Low sighed and strapped the braces around him. "I have an idea of who it is..."
Knuckles shook his head and followed his captain out of the cabin. "I wouldn't be surprised if you did."
The deck was swarmed by not only Low's pirates, but by the fighting men that Judah and the others had hired. They had come down here, using most of the lifts in the process, and with a little persuasion, found out where Low's ship was anchored. The two sides were staring each other down, weapons at the ready, both factions ready to rip each other apart. When Low stepped out into the open, Knuckles and the messenger behind him, there was a cold laugh in the air.
It was Rachel. The ice queen moved a lock of pink hair out of her eyes and sneered, "Did you really think you can do such a crime as embarrass us like you did and get away with it, Low?"
"I had a feeling there'd be some fallout or something after I left the casino," Low said calmly, hands on his hips. He looked around on deck and whistled, "Nice little bunch you have there. They look like they've spent time with blood on their hands."
"Of course they have!" Ace snapped at him. His fedora was clutched in one hand and his slicked back black hair shined in what sunlight cold fall into the docking bay. "These are the most vicious killers money has to offer here on Vice Island!"
"So, what?" Low smirked. "The four of you got so pissed off at losing, you want me dead, but neither one of you have the balls to come and do it with your own two hands? Well, to be honest, I was expecting at least one of you to try and kill me after beating you, but I didn't think any of you were so gutless to resort to hiring mercenaries. So, how much are you paying them?"
"Enough," Charles replied.
Low looked to the four he had wronged and noticed something. Frowning, he looked to Judah. "What in blazes is the matter with you, fat man? Nerves finally breaking down on you?"
The three others turned and were surprised to see Judah, who had once been filled with glee at the thought of murder and revenge, shaking like mad. His face was pallid, his eyes were wide like saucers and the only thing that came out of his mouth was not cigar smoke, but rather a noise that sounded like a terrified mouse that had been cornered. He fell onto his fat back side and his bowler hat fell to the deck floor.
"Judah! What's the matter with you?" Charles asked.
The stout man raised a thick finger and pointed it towards Low. "I-I-It's h-h-him!"
Rachel scowled. "Of course it's him, you idiot! What happened, did you forget what we're here for?!"
Judah shook his head frantically. "Not him! Behind him! It's the Iron Fist!"
A wave of excitement rippled through the group of mercenaries. Charles and the others looked to see their hired help were looking over and similar looks of excitement and fear were crossing their faces. At first, Low didn't know what to make of Judah's behavior or of the words that he had spoken, but then he turned around. Knuckles was staring down at the smaller man. At first glance, he looked calm, but Low could tell from his face that he was clenching his jaw and he recognized the murderous glint in his eyes.
"What's he mean by that?" Low asked his subordinate. "What does Iron Fist mean?"
"Iron Fist," Knuckles murmured, "is the name I used when I fought here on Vice Island."
"So what!" Ace cried. "We have a bunch of fighters here, what does this one matter?!"
Judah gulped loudly. "You don't understand! Iron Fist is a legend among the fighting men here. He's one of those human-hybrid descendants of giants and he's so strong that he can make dents solid steel! When he fought here, he killed over two-hundred fighters in deathmatches, he was completely unstoppable! He left when-"
"When I found out that he and the arena boss tried to bring me down," the giant man interjected. "The boss was getting tired of me winning all the time. He thought it cost him money and that I made the arena boring and predictable. I didn't think so, but he did and he had one of his thugs try to make it so I would actually lose a fight, so that some new blood could come in. He was the thug." Knuckles pointed to Judah. "I don't want to go too much more into detail, but he and the pit boss are the reason why I left."
"Well, isn't this an interesting turn of events?" Low turned to the fighting men and their employers. "So, do you boys still want to have a go at me? You'll not only have me and my men to deal with, but he," he jerked a thumb to the giant behind him, "works for me now. You go against me, you go against him."
"Forget that!" one of the mercenaries cried out.
"Yeah, we didn't sign up to go against Iron Fist!"
"Let's get the hell out of here!"
They made a mad dash off the ship, leaving their four employers behind and at the mercy of the pirates.
"Now, the question is what do we do with you?" Low looked around at his men. "What do you think, boys? Should we let them go, knowing that they threatened me, or should we show them how we pirates deal with people who like to start trouble?"
His crew cheered their desire to deal out punishment to those who wanted their captain dead. Low nodded and clapped his hands. "Alright then! Have at them, all of you!" He turned to head back into the cabin, but stopped and slapped Knuckles on the arm. "The fat one's all yours, Iron Fist."
Low entered his cabin and planted himself in his chair, propping his legs up onto his desk. He closed his eyes, listened to the screams outside and smiled. Luck, his own or natural, had made this visit to Vice Island the most enjoyable one to date. Not only had he gotten a favorable bounty, but he had found out that the big man he had found in a bar not so long ago was actually an infamous arena fighter. A strong one too for that matter, considering the giant blood that ran through his veins.
"A champion makes his own luck," he murmured, pulling out the golden harmonica from his coat pocket. He held it up, admiring it as he listened to his men outside. "And I am very lucky!"