Chapter 1

Despite my training, I arrive on time at midnight. The lounge is still full if not more than it had been hours ago. The man behind the bar notices me come in and hands me a glass of beer, even though I haven't asked for one. I push the glass across the table back to him and say no thanks. He mumbles something back to me but I don't hear it over the noise. He's built and his head is shaved; he looks more like a bodyguard covering for the real bartenders.

"Sorry?" I say, leaning over the counter to hear him.

He grins and then I see darkness. Someone throws a black sack over my head and yanks it tight.

"Shit!" I yell, pulling at the tightening cord around my neck.

They respond by pulling taut the whole sack over my face, but I still can't see through the fabric. They tie my hands tightly behind my back. They're dragging me wordlessly behind them now and I stumble over my own feet, tripping on steps and chair legs and maybe even people, I can't be sure except for the muffled impact of my boots. I'm walking up a set of stairs, something I had to discover after my first three failed attempts. I count several sets of stairs, six steps each. In the dark, it feels like I've been dragged for hours.

On the sixth step of what I imagine to be the last set, I instinctively extend my leg to walk forward. Relieved there isn't another set there, I sigh and one of the men snickers. We pass through a set of doors, down a hall, and then into another set of doors. They shove me onto the ground, yanking off the bag as I fall. I lean to my right and fall onto my shoulder; a broken nose would be a bad idea right now. Someone cuts the ties from my hands and I quickly push myself up so that I'm standing. The woman stands in front of me, a metal pipe in her hand.

"Punctual. That gets you half a point," she says, tapping the pipe against the tip of her steel-toed boots. I realize her weapon isn't as hollow as I'd thought.

"If you can make it to at least twenty points, you're in. I've got Rylan over there keeping score on both of us. If I get to ninety nine points, you're out."

I nod. Ninety nine points? Slim chance. The bartender from before, Rylan I guess, leans against a wall, smirking at me.

"I'm Amelia. And the fight begins now," she says, suddenly lunging at me.

Victor's drug has put every sense into high gear, and I briefly wonder if pain also becomes stronger as I leap out of the way. I land roughly on the cold marble floor, realizing how unsuitable this room is for the battle. It might have been a ballroom hundreds of years ago, or a museum.

I roll onto my feet and stand to face Amelia, who swings once more at me. I duck, nearly hitting my face against the ground, palms flat against the floor. I go to kick her legs out from under her but she steps out of my reach.

"By the way, it's half a point for every dodge, but you lose a point every hit I get in. Vice versa for my points," she says, "And I win if I kill you."

"What about the points if I get a hit?" I ask, getting back up onto my feet.

"Silly boy, you don't hit girls. But, you win if you can disarm me," she says, waving the pipe in the air and grinning at me.

I lunge at her, grabbing for the pipe which she easily pulls back from my reach, and then retaliates by aiming for my head. The shock of the metal against my skin nearly knocks me over. It only grazed my shoulder, but it's enough to lose me a point. Damn.

"That will bruise, won't it?" Says Amelia, smiling at me as she takes a few steps back, obviously pleased with her achievement.

Of course it will. I need to find a way to disarm her, but she only comes in for a hit, and then I'm too busy avoiding the hit. The twenty points is a joke. If I can't hit her, I'll have to get that pipe somehow. I run around her, looking for a weak spot. She turns as I circle her, eyes narrowed as if annoyed. She holds her weapon close to the front of her body when I do this. If I can grab the pipe from behind, but it's nearly impossible. She's always facing me, always watching.

"Rule number one," she says, "the game can only be played on Blue Magnolia property. The moment you walk in here, you're free game."

She says this last part with a smile and a wink. This is hardly the best time for chit chat, but I can bet that she's done this dozens of times before, trying to distract confused new players. All the while I watch her hands holding tightly onto her weapon.

"Rule number two, players aren't allowed weapons."

We're circling each other now because she's clued into my next move. I can see her her hands flex instinctively, knuckles going white from under the thin skin on the back of her hand.

"Three. You must eliminate your current opponent in order to proceed. I'm sure you already know what this means."

She raises her eyebrows, but I don't respond. Of course I know what she means. I wasn't paid half a million dollars to pick daisies; this is a game of murder. Legal murder. While she speaks, I begin taking steps towards her. She backs up a couple steps and then swipes at me, which I duck to avoid. She goes in for another hit across my face and I scramble backwards, grimacing at the fact that she's got me on the ground. The grimace fades and I almost want to smile.

Leaping up onto my feet, I charge at Amelia. She's smarter than I thought, though and immediately steps aside, bringing the metal pipe heavily down onto my lower leg.

"Ah, shit!" I yell, dropping onto one leg.

"Rule four," she continues in the same tone as before, as if nothing had happened. "Doping is allowed. Obviously. We get a lot of junkies fucked out of their brains here. They can play as long as they can fight, but most of 'em are weeded out early on, y'know?"

I put the ache in my calf out of my mind and edge in just to the left of her as she buffers the distance between us. When I get close enough, I make a run around her back. She twists around in the opposite direction expecting to hit me in the face as I go by, but I bend backwards and make a swipe for her weapon. I miss and she brings it back hard against my shoulder blades. I can feel the mark burning red on my skin.

I whip around as quick as I can and grab hold of the pipe, kicking her legs out from under her. Just like that, she lets go of it to catch herself before she falls. The marble floor, I notice, has been shined until it reflects the ceiling like a giant mirror. There are scuffs marks from my shoes, though, where they smudged streaks into the ground.

"Any other rules?" I ask, watching Amelia stand up and dust off the butt of her pants.

She looks right at me and for a moment I can't tell whether she's angry, amused or completely unaffected by the outcome.

"Rule five, the last man standing wins," says Amelia, pushing a strand of curly brown hair out of her face. "By the way, the beer was drugged. You're free game on Blue Magnolia property, but no fights are allowed outside of this room, the arena. Watch your back out there."

I nod as I rub my aching back.

"Thanks, Rylan," she says, and before I can turn around, a blunt force has me crashing to the ground. I watch Amelia's expressionless face twist into an amused grin before I'm hit again and the darkness clouds into my vision.

I'm in an alleyway outside of The Blue Magnolia, slumped as if sitting against the wall. The sound of cars honking and people shouting from inside the lounge wake me up. Standing up carefully, I wipe off my pants and start the short walk back to my apartment.