Summary: It is the first, and bloodiest, sport in human history. Many enter, one leaves. Every victory has a cost. Frank Zhang is a mixed martial artist who debunked fraudulent masters, beating them in the ring. After a fateful bout, he finds himself drafted as a Contestant.
Frank Zhang awoke as a fist hooked towards his head. His gait was staggered and weak, like ready to crash like a crane on a windy day. His vision was blurry, shapes as mere suggestions. His arms were heavy when he tried to move them, meaty pendulums tethered to his shoulders. His mind screamed at him, but his body did not fully respond to the incoming blow.
Stars exploded across his vision as the fist crashed into his temple. Frank brought his hands up too late to block the blow, but early enough to preclude a follow-up. His opponent waivered, taking a half step back. He circled like a hungry predator, sizing up his opposition.
Frank saw his scraped, square-jawed face tracking him like the turret of a helicopter gunship. He was clad only in a boxer's shorts, much like Frank realized he wore. The bulky man towered like a bent tree, strong but unbalanced. A jab-cross combo moved towards where he was a moment earlier, but he'd already stepped back.
Frank heard the metal grate before he felt it. It was a cold, steel mesh that precluded escape from the arena. He could barely see it in the dim lighting, but beyond it was completely cloaked in darkness. He thought he heard the soft splashing of waves nearby, but he turned back to the fight with renewed alacrity.
Frank circled with a celerity that surprised him, until a blow struck his stomach. Fortunately, he exhaled at the moment of impact. He shot a quick glance at his opponent's wide eyes. The blow did have its intended results. Before his adversary could react, he already countered.
Frank felt the adrenaline moving through his body like a racer down a speedway. His hips dipped with the same celerity his hands moved up with, finding their way towards the enemy's head. He charged into his adversary's center of mass like a charging warthog, claiming his balance like a victor's trophy. The large man thrashed immediately, but it was too late.
Frank hoisted him over his shoulder, but the man dropped his body weight. Like any striker, he recognized the defense to a wrestler's shoot: sprawl and brawl. However, Frank let the man fall, turning his weight against him. His head slipped off of Frank's sweat-glistening shoulder and fell straight to the floor like a ripe melon.
Frank heard something crack as the man limply moved at his feet. For a second, he thought the burly man would stand up or pull guard. Instead, he remained motionless. Cautiously, Frank moved in, ready to stomp the man's throat if he moved. Instead, a hand slowly and carefully moved towards him. The man's eyes opened, and words escaped his mouth, each no louder than a whisper.
Frank stepped back, his foot quivering. Just a moment earlier, he was a single motion from ending the man's life. The man's request unnerved more than his experience.
"Kill me," he said once more, clearer.
Frank hesitated. He moved away from the prone man, wary of some trick or ambush. He saw a line of deep red dripping from the man's back. He doubted he'd ever get up again. He pressed against the walls, seeking any opening by which to leave the arena. Then he heard it.
Frank heard the rattling of chains above him. He looked up, tracking a large metal box plunging from an unseen height above. He instinctively stepped back, but he saw it was not collapsing into the arena. Instead, it was plummeting into the pool beside it. As it descended, he made out barred windows. From within, he heard a child scream.
"S-son!" rasped the man behind him.
Frank saw the cage vanish beneath the water, never to re-emerge. Behind him, the broken man sobbed pathetically. A feeling of guilt, of terror, turned his stomach into knots. He tried focusing, remembering where he was. He came up blank, remembering only going to bed the prior night. Such thoughts left him, as the man cried behind him.
From somewhere in the distance, a voice spoke to Frank. "Every victory has a cost."
As he futilely searched for the unseen speaker, Frank did not know how closely that statement would define the remainder of his life.