The Golden Games
Summary: Milo Archer is a martial artist forced into an underworld tournament of occult bloodsport. The winners will have their wishes granted, and the losers die horribly. To survive, he'll need to learn the esoteric rules of the contest.
[The following is the transcript of a recording found on the deep web.]
[The narration starts in a male voice, singing in English with a slight American South accent.]
"You could be a friend of mine
In heaven you'll forever shine
Test your mettle and you'll see
Just where you're meant to be."
-Rick Landon¸ That Fickle Muse
[The voice continues speaking in a nervous, but still jocose tone.]
Week 0: Battle Buddies
My name's Milo Archer, but you can call me crazy. I can't quite put everything into words, but I'm gonna try. Let's go to where it started.
I've studied martial arts for a decade, an eclectic mix I picked up as I moved around. The ones that stuck with me the most, and vice versa, were aikido and mixed martial arts. Hell of a blend, right? One's all about relaxed, controlled movement, and the other's a frantic flurry of fists. Like a first kiss, your first martial art always stays with you. Same with your first real fight.
I remember seeing it when I was with my college aikido club, although I was not an active participant. I was naïve enough to think my aikido instructor, Sensei Marcus as we called him, would be a pushover. When a frat boy blundered into our lesson, he was drunk enough to throw a punch after being asked politely to leave. Despite being a short old man, Sensei flipped him and pinned him on the floor, despite him flailing around like a flopping fish. After campus police took him away, an older student explained Sensei grew up in a rough town, so he peppered his lessons with his practical self-defense techniques.
After during summer, I went a local MMA school to keep up some semblance of regular training. My MMA instructor looked more like a military drill instructor than short old man. We just called him Coach Taylor. He had these brown eyes that stared right through you, despite the cheery façade he put on. I got the impression he was a combat veteran, but I never confirmed it. He was a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu that punctuated move with a breakdown into its mechanics. He also had weekly sessions where he cross trained us in other techniques, like boxing, wrestling, muay thai, escrima sticks, and even weapon disarms. He was ever the professional when discussing those moves, and I had no reason to contest them.
When I went to grad school, I met my friend Dave taking krav maga at a local club. We bounded over our similar backgrounds, although he was far more comfortable with the weapons than I was. I even let him take me to the shooting range a few times, although I never got too used to all the techniques he excited showed me. He finished two semesters ahead of me, and I got buried under my own work. Due to changing apartments, I was unable to attend the club as frequently as I used to.
Instead, I picked up an unrelated skill: blade throwing. My housemate Kevin was interested in card tricks, stage magic, and knife-throwing. The shear variety of point objects surprised me, but I gravitated towards the axes. I guessed it was due to my love of heavy metal. When I swung them in my hand, they felt even lighter than the escrima sticks Coach Taylor taught me. I bought a pair of tomahawks and started practicing on my own. I never was good at it as Kevin was, but he'd spent far more time on it than I had. I still like to think I could take him in a fight, but thankfully, our disagreements never escalated that far. He'd always had a way of diffusing the tension with those stupid jokes of his.
For the years that followed, I drifted between jobs due to sticking in the turbulent startup scene. Sadly, I can't claim credit to any of the ideas that each company. Just as well, I don't blame myself for any of those companies faring poorly. I've seen enough to know when things are about to head downhill. I got that feelings recently, but in just before my personal life crashed. After a nasty breakup, I moved across the country to live with my cousin Sam. She works nightshift, so I rarely see her. I settled into a new routine looking for jobs, but things went south after the second week.
You see, Sam lives on a vacant tract of land along an otherwise forlorn road. In the infinite wisdom of the state transit board, there was a bus stop out here in the boonies, but I walked a kilometer to get there. I'd get up every morning to head into town, and return after my business concluded. Not having a car in a rural area tends to be like living without legs. It was along one of those walks that things get weird.
The dirt driveway connecting Sam's house and the road is densely lined with trees, so I couldn't see very well at dawn and dusk. In my desperation for any source of income, I was down to submitting my resume at one of those convenience store terminals to apply for more dead-end jobs. I don't remember why I got so frustrated, but I was content to stew in my misery during that trudge down the musty road. The sun hung low above the horizon, like an overripe Florida orange ready to fall.
My left sneaker sank into the mud as my mood similarly stewed. I saw my tomahawk embedded in a tree stump beside the house, which I used for stress relieving practice. My sense of distress left me as I retrieved the blade from the wood. Holding it in hand, I walked backwards and hurled it at the center of the stump. The tomahawk struck exactly where I hoped it would, and deeper than I expected.
Pleasantly surprised by my solid hit, I headed back to the house with the intention of retrieving my axes. There was something cathartic to lobbing blades like a Norse berserker. Pleased with myself, I almost failed to hear the heavy footfalls behind me. My instincts knew it wasn't my cousin, and I swung around into my fighting stance. My fists rose before me, my left guarding my face and my right ready to greet any unwanted guests. It was then it all went black.
I woke up nursing a throbbing pain on the side of my head. My eyes opened to flashing colors, like a firework show in my optic nerve. I leapt backwards, feeling unexpected weight on my hips and an unexpected light before my eyes. I blinked in disbelief several times, observing the noonday sun directly above me. My surroundings were no longer that lonely wooded road towards my cousin's house. Before surveying my surroundings, I felt the tomahawk slipped into my belt. Out of desperate instinct for any sort of weapon, I blindly reached for it.
I saw the area around was not that lonely driveway, but a place I'd never been to before. I'm not quite sure how to describe it, save as a literal trailer park. Disused trailers and shipping containers were stacked around like metallic Legos, but the tents and still-glowing campfire embers indicated recent habitation. Parked cars with out-of-state plates implied the unseen campers came from far away. The fresh tracks indicated they'd only been hastily abandoned. My hand stopped, as if my years of training left me. A moment later, I realized my hand was restrained from behind.
I wish I could say I whipped around with the grip-breaking moves I'd drilled for years in aikido. I tried, but my body failed to respond. My would-be captor looked down at me, looming over me like a contemptuous titan. I found cadence involuntarily matching his own, as though he controlled my body like a meat marionette. I would have flinched back and sprinted away, but his gaze seemingly controlled me hypnotically. I walked onwards, a bystander to my own destiny.
We stopped before the end of a shipping container turned rust-red. A shorter man stepped out from around the corner. He resembled my presumed kidnapper in face and dress, as well as the way he slung a short-handled sledgehammer over his shoulder. I saw his forearm was covered in tattoos as he scratched his arm, but I only identified a single gold triskelion among that jumbled mass of symbols. From the way my captor followed his gaze, it was clear he was the brains of the two.
Each might have been a different half of Janus' face. The larger one had a shaggy, acne-covered face terminating in a goatee, and topped with shaggy, badly bleached hair. The shorter one was clean-shaven, with glasses and greasy brown hair, and wiry, lean frame like a stiletto blade. Even their thrift store fashion sense of old military uniforms and ragged garments hinted at the relationship between them. The short one wore the timeworn coat of some old officer, while the larger one wore the faded camouflage pants of an enlisted man. The short one spoke with a nasally voice that would have been the epitome of average.
He stepped in front of my face. "Miles Archer, tell them to come out."
A fear raced over my mind like a Biblical flood. So many terrors came over my mind. I feared how much they truly knew about my personal life, because no one outside my family and old friends called me by my birth name. I feared for those phantasmal vagrants, and what my captors had in store for them. I feared for my cousin, friends, and family, because of where they presumably took me from. Lastly, I feared for my own fate at their hands, as if I was but an afterthought in my own mind. I was momentarily unsure whether I was suicidal or scatterbrained. Neither mattered as someone else's words left my mouth.
"Hey! If there's anyone here, you'd best come out. Because if they find someone else later, I can't say for sure what they'll do," I said. My own voice carried throughout that vacant lot so far, and I remembered my old trip to the Grand Canyon. I'd somewhat accustomed to losing control of my own body, but I discovered newfound horror at the others that stepped out to join us. I wondered if I was serving as a conduit whatever powers they possessed.
I beheld at least a dozen people step out, all of whom were strangers. I found small comfort in this, but I only remembered a handful of them. Curiously, not all of them were as fearful as I was. Some stood proud with readied weapons, as though they'd been called to arms. I initially could not see them as they stepped forward from shipping containers, beyond the trees at the edge of the lot, and out from behind the tents scattered haphazardly around. As I surveyed them, I made out a few of their forms.
Towering on a shipping crate like a stone sentinel was a black man with a distinctly martial appearance. He wore black sunglasses that concealed his eyes, and irregular scars covered his cheeks and forehead. This torso was sandwiched between body armor plates, and he wore digital camo pants. I saw a pistol holster on his belt, but the most apparent weapon was the trench knife clutched over his chest. He saluted with it outstretched, like I always imagined Roman Emperors doing before gladiatorial bouts. Unlike my captors in military clothes, I could tell he was the real deal.
Another one was a slender, feminine form that almost melded with the shadows around her. Her face was concealed beneath a bell of jet-black hair, as dark as an obsidian blade. She was dressed in a jet black dress that revealed portions of her olive skin beneath, but she dragged a massive object behind her. It was a massive wooden club, lined with rusted, jagged razor blades. She pulled it behind her like a sack of regrets, before pulling it up beside her.
The third of them swaggered out of a container with a smug grin on his face. I remember a strangely normal looking man, holding a cheap katana by his side. He was a tall, fat man covered in acne, and clothing several sizes too small for him. His belly bounced like a bounding sack, and his facial hair crept from his chin to his chest. From the way he swung the wobbly, half-rusted blade like a baseball bat, it was obvious he was out of his element, yet supremely confident.
The last of those four I remembered was the most peculiar of all. He simply walked around the corner with a hurried, peculiar gait that was halfway between a skip and a frolicking bound. I was not sure it was a "he" at first, due to his androgynous build and appearance. He wore a black coat that was reminiscent of some religion I could not identify, but I found no identifiable symbols on his body. His left eye was covered by a combover of bleached hair, contrasting his otherwise straight, perfectly parted black hair. Wrapped around one arm was a leather bullwhip, with small bits of glass and metal inserted into it. The other was a dirty burlap sack, held closed only with a drawstring he wore like a bracelet. He stopped before the others and giggled unnervingly.
There were others, but I did not remember them individually. What I did remember was the assembled mass of people clearing an area near the edge of the lot of debris and garbage. I remember helping them, crushing cardboard boxes the others laid on the ground. Near the end, we covered everything up with cellophane we liberated from one of the shipping containers. I knew I'd see the importance of this soon.
"All of you will be given a chance to prove yourselves for this year's Golden Games," I heard my stolen voice say. "Each bout will end with the death or surrender of one party. As per tradition, there is no requirement that surrender be accepted."
The assembled crowd strangely clapped at this.
"As per tradition, this unwitting man is the Herald, the announcer and recorder of this contest's bouts. He is not to be harmed until a single of you remains, in which he will partake in a bout. The victor of that bout will pass to the next tier of the Games."
The tall black soldier in body armor walked up to me with one fist in the other. "Don't worry kid. I'll make it quick."
"Assuming you live that long," said the black-coated man before resuming his demented giggling.
"Sergeant Daniel Dubois and Xenophanes," I said, conjuring a stentorian tone I thought myself incapable of. "Do not interrupt the opening ceremony, lest there be…repercussions."
The two Hammer Brothers cleared their throats at the exact same time, and the entire crowd moved back a step. I felt like I'd wandered in on some strange movie, having wandered in halfway to miss the plot. Nevertheless, I knew whatever'd follow would not be pleasant to watch. I wish I had the ability to run away screaming.
"The act of passing a tier brings you closer to any request you can imagine, for you all compete here for your own reasons," I explained. "Now, we shall begin the first bout of the Games. Those of you remaining after the bout will be assigned your own opponent and time."
I saw the crowd nod their heads in an unholy synchrony, suggesting my own situation was but one manifestation of my captors' abilities. I wondered if I had been drugged, hypnotized, or worse. The longer the spectacle continued, the more inclined I was towards the last case. I walked towards the edge of the arena, and I saw two eager volunteers step forwards. The fat man with the katana stood opposite the strange man I presumed was Xenophanes.
"The honor of this year's first bout is between Xenophanes and Eugene Jones," I said, speaking once more in that strange, authoritative tone. "This is a taste of things to come. Begin."
I stepped back, and my captors stepped forwards to interpose themselves between the combatants and myself. I tried to move, but my body failed to respond. My captors deigned to respond to my futile escape attempt, as they focused on the fight. I saw Xenophanes smile and uncoil his whip, allowing its barbed coils to fall to the arena floor. Eugene raised the cheap sword over his head, and he sprinted directly at his svelte opponent with a surprising celerity.
I thought Xenophanes would sidestep the telegraphed strike with ease, but I was honestly unsure how useful the whip would be. Xenophanes weaved to the side, elegantly stepping like a ballet master while bringing the whip around his opponent's legs. Eugene pretended not to notice, but I heard him shriek as the whip tightened around his hammy legs. He came crashing down like a meaty mountain, and Xenophanes started that awful giggling again.
I saw Eugene futilely reach for his sword, but his movements were nothing but uncoordinated flailing. I heard him shout and grunt, but he was moving against the taut whip. Xenophanes never stopped giggling as he pulled the whip with both hands. He moved with the enthusiasm of a fisherman reeling in a prize catch, his small frame apparently hiding a nearly superhuman strength. He moved the bound Eugene across the ground with an alacrity I'd never expected from any human. Recalling what happened then, I have my doubts if that's the case.
I saw Xenophanes open the drawstring on the burlap sack. The sack opened wider than I thought physically possible, until the point I'd thought it would rip. Eugene looked up with a perplexed, wide-eyed look on his face, even as he squirmed like a fat worm. The shorter man placed the mouth of the bag at his foe's feet, and his giggling stopped. Xenophanes eyes opened wide, like a wide-eyed kid witnessing a magic trick. When something pulled Eugene into the bag, he erupted into a fit of obnoxious, high-pitched laughter. Eugene didn't even have time to scream before he vanished inside completely.
I watched Xenophanes coil the whip around his hand as though nothing happened. He pulled the drawstring around his wrist, and as he did so, the bag once more shrank to its prior size. I was unsure what I had just beheld, but I knew it was bad. When Xenophanes paused for a moment, I knew my worst suspicious would be confirmed.
Xenophanes opened the bag again, but it only expanded to a size barely big enough to fit my fist in. He giggled that obnoxious giggle again, and the flow began. A torrent of dark, arterial blood rushed out of the bag, and sprayed onto the arena floor. There was a comingling of black, red, and every sanguine shade in between. I saw a piece of what might have been a skull, crushed by enormous teeth. There were bits of white and yellow bone fragments scattered across that mess, but a single object stood out.
Xenophanes walked over and picked up Eugene's ratty sneaker, with the bloody foot still inside it. The foot terminated in a ragged flap of bloodied flesh, as though it had been devoured by whatever beast chewed on the skull. A belch escaped his mouth as Xenophanes' cheeks flushed red in embarrassment. He walked over to the bloody sneaker with his bounding steps, before stuffing the sneaker back in. He looked around at the audience, before apologizing in his voice. "Excuse me."
The audience thinned out considerably in the seconds that followed. I remember the running and the screaming as a crowd of armed, scary people stampeded like spooked cattle. Some of them climbed into cars, only for everyone else to struggle to pile in. One original driver, a lab-coat wearing man with a belt of revolvers, decided to simply abandon his vehicle and join the others rushing into the woods. I saw a woman with a shotgun dart into the woods, never once looking back. I saw a man with a longsword and medieval-style plate jump onto the back of a van as it passed. I wished I could be one of them.
This was not to be. Instead, Xenophanes bowed to an empty, gore-slathered arena. The Hammer Brothers returned the bow, and I joined them. I wished everyone else would have run away. Whatever these Golden Games were, I did not want to stick around for them to end. Despite my greatest hopes, I saw people remaining. I saw the Sergeant from before, along with the black-gowned young woman and a host of half-remembered others. I saw my captors step aside, so that I could address them.
"Your first bouts will be a week from now," I said. "Welcome to the Golden Games. The winner will get their wishes granted, and you saw what awaits the losers."
I saw the others nod, and I blinked. I saw the headlights of an approaching car, and it took me a moment to register that I could move again. I stood like a blinded deer in the middle of the road, causing my cousin to honk at me. I stepped off the road and felt the tomahawk in my hands. I hurled it at the stump again, striking it with the same vigor as before. I pulled out my phone, and I saw that only a few minutes passed since I last checked it. I found strange words nevertheless escaping my lips in a singsong voice, like the refrain of a forgotten song:
"You could be a friend of mine
In heaven you'll forever shine
Test your mettle and you'll see
Just where you're meant to be."
I still don't know if it was a vivid daydream, a realistic hallucination of my stress-addled mind, or what. What I do know is that I saw a small amount of blood on my shoe, and it's not mine. I've cleaned it off, but I still feel stained. I can't prove any of what happened, but I know it's more than just a weird vision. The stuff I've found online, deep in the darkest corners of the web, is too disturbing to go into now.
But for now, I'm not just going to wait. I'm going to train in whatever McDojo I can find in town, even if it's just a fitness kickboxing class. I'm going to practice with any weapons I can find, from my hatchets to that old 22 my cousin uses for pest control. I long for the previous days, when unemployment was my only concern. I know that I've done worse than finding a job. A horrid, unwanted job has found me, and our next appointment is coming soon. Welcome to the Golden Games.