After heading home from the meeting at the café, I spent the night tossing, turning, and wondering anxiously what Eva had in store for me. I didn’t need to wait long to find out, though. The next morning, I received a text from my mentor telling me to meet her in some sketchy part of Valport later in the evening. My follow-up messages asking why I needed to do that were all ignored, of course. With no other choice, I did as I was told.
That night, I found myself waiting around in a part of the city no soul would want to be caught in after dark. Shady figures meandered about, eyeing me with unwelcoming eyes—and I couldn’t blame them. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and I was positive it was only a matter of time before one or more of them decided to corner and rob me.
But just as I had gotten lost in preparation of an inevitable stick up, a familiar girl clad in denim came dashing up to me.
“Hey, you’re early!” Eva greeted me as if we were meeting for a trip to the fair.
“No, you’re just late,” I retorted.
She chuckled nervously and tapped her head with her fist. “Anyway! I hope you’re ready for this, my plucky pupil!”
“What exactly is ‘this’? I still have no idea why I’m here or what you were thinking bringing us out to a dangerous place like this at this time of night.”
“Oh, the danger is the point. Follow me.”
Eva looked left and right, presumably ensuring we weren’t being watched, and then proceeded to walk into a pitch-black alley. Stupidly, I followed her.
“Are you trying to get us stabbed?” I growled.
“Just trust me!”
We kept going until we reached a ragged-looking door at the end of the alleyway. Eva knocked on it and a sliding peephole opened, revealing a pair of dark eyes that looked us up and down.
“What’s the password?” a gruff voice barked at us.
“I got this,” Eva assured me. “‘Act your age, Jo!’”
The door swung open and a rugged, burly man waved us in with a smile. “That’s it! Welcome back, kid!”
Eva and the man proceeded to share some kind of secret handshake as if they’d known each other their entire lives.
“Sup, Reg?” the pink haired girl asked the large man.
“Oh, you know. Just another night! How’s the undefeated Queen of the Ring doing?”
“I’m great! I’m about to introduce my friend here to this little oasis!”
The man broke his friendly gaze away from Eva and analyzed me with serious eyes. “Hey, ain’t this the kid that’s been all over TV? The one that saved the Princess?”
“Yep, that’s the one!” she confirmed. “Chat later, Reg. Come on Shinsuke, this way!”
She led me around a corner and through a hall lined with metal racks. There was a door at the end, and the closer we got to it, the more I could hear some kind of ruckus coming from the other side. She opened the door for me, and I was immediately hit with an ambush of cheers and chants.
“Here we are!” Eva declared.
We had entered into what looked like a large, repurposed storage area. The room was dark and smokey, lit only by a few overhead lamps that cast dingy yellow spotlights through dying bulbs. In the glow, a crowd of people huddled around a brawl between a man and a woman, cheering it on and reacting every time one combatant collided with the other.
“Eva, what the hell is going on?” I asked, refusing to step any further into whatever we had just walked into.
“Tonight, we’re going to test your mettle! We’re going to see what you can do against the real deal!”
“Are you serious? How did you even find this place? What even is this place?”
chuckled and said, “it’s an underground fight club, of course! As for
how I found it…let’s just say I know some interesting people.”
“Right. Well, I’m not doing this.”
“Don’t tell me you’re intimidated right now, Shinsuke. You’re about to face the prince of Gliyrhiel—one of the most trained and deadly men on the planet. This is nothing by comparison.”
“That’s a sound point, except I’m sure I won’t catch something if I hit the ground at Royal Stadium. This place, though…”
She shook her head and said, “I compete here all the time and I’m just fine. You’ll be fine too.”
“You’re a prodigy, I’m not. These guys are going to eat me alive.”
“Sure, I might be a prodigy. And I might also be undefeated here. But still, I have faith in you, Shinsuke!”
“Shinsuke, if you can’t win a fight here, you can’t beat Emil. You have to do this, okay?”
I groaned as she led me closer to the crowd and the ongoing fight. The man and woman seemed to be neck and neck in their battle until they gained some separation from one another.
“Come on!” the man goaded.
Ice formed upon the woman’s knuckles, and she lunged at the man. He got his arms up to block, but it was too late. The woman buried her frosted fist in his cheek, causing her opponent to drop like a rock. As members of the crowd dragged the unconscious man out of the circle, the woman began to celebrate her victory to the tune of raucous cheers.
“That’s about to be you, Shinsuke!” Eva said, nudging me.
“The guy on the ground? Yeah.”
“No! I meant her! You’re about to blow your own mind with what you’re capable of. I know it!”
“I hope you’re ready to explain to my parents and Mizuki why I’ll be spending the night in the hospital,” I whined.
“Oh, stop it. Get in there!” Eva shoved me and I stumbled forward into the ring.
“Eva, what are you doing?!”
“Good luck! You got this!” she shouted.
Damn it, Eva!
I turned to give the pink-haired menace a piece of my mind, but I lost sight of her in the crowd that circled me. When the audience got a good look at me, they grew frenzied.
“Hey, it’s that punk that doesn’t wanna marry the Princess!”
“What’s your problem with our Princess, huh kid?!”
“Why’d you think it was a good idea to show your face here!?”
“Ain’t he gonna get his head kicked in in a few days?”
Anyone with the tiniest thought about me fired off mouthfuls of venom as a rather large man emerged from the pack.
“Only if he makes it that far. Because I’ll be the first to kick his head in,” the man announced.
First man up just has to be big man on campus. Of course.
“Hey,” I started, “let’s just think for a second and—”
“Shut up and get your hands up, kid!” the man roared and began hurling his fists at me.
I began dodging the furious assault the best I could, but I didn’t have a lot of room to work with. As my back began to near the crowd, I spun around the man when he threw a haymaker that probably would have killed me. The distance granted me a brief second of rest, but my opponent didn’t seem too thrilled about that.
“Real smooth kid, that got me warmed up. Now stop playing and face me head on!” He punctuated his demand by encasing his fists in flames, just like Eva back in our first encounter.
Crap, not again with these flaming fists! What am I supposed to do about this?!
Without a shred of hesitation, the man was once again back at me, trying to nail me with a flurry of burning punches. I managed to dodge each of his strikes but stumbled over my own foot and slipped back-first into the crowd. They caught me before I hit the floor and, to my dismay, shoved me right back into the fray. Unable to stop my forward momentum, I was launched right into the man.
He pulled his fist back and shouted, “I gotcha now!”
And he was right. With no way to avoid it, I was drilled directly in the stomach with a burning punch that felt like it went straight through me. Gravity yanked me to my knees instantly, and I heard him laughing over me while I swatted out the flames engulfing my shirt.
“That the best you got, kid?” he gloated.
A fire, not unlike the one that nearly cooked my shirt, was building inside me. The pain in my stomach that anchored me to the floor was commanding me—commanding me to stand up and drop the big lug looming above with a fist of my own. And with my gaze at the floor beneath me, I knew exactly how to get what I wanted.
“Come on, kid. Don’t tell me you’re already washed.”
The room serving as an arena for unlawful brawling was in an unkempt state. Cardboard boxes, metal cases, and various other containers and junk were strewn about the perimeter of the area. But more important than that, there was dirt and dust everywhere, including right beneath me.
I swiped my fingers through a clump of thick, black dirt and leapt up to my feet, tossing it directly into the man’s eyes.
“Agh, hey!” he whined, rushing to clear his disrupted vision.
I wasted no time taking advantage of the situation. With anger fueling my offense, I delivered a combo of punches to my opponent’s midsection, throwing him off balance. When he tried to get away from me, I threw a kick at the back of his thigh, bringing him to a single knee. With him at the perfect height, I concluded my attack with an uppercut that put him flat on his back and out cold.
“Who’s washed now?” I asked, wringing the hand I flattened him with.
Members of the crowd dragged the knocked-out man out of the ring, and a man and woman entered in his place. The woman was the same one from earlier that won her fight with knuckles of ice.
“I bet you think that was really slick, don’t you?” she remarked. “Let’s see how you fare against me.”
“And me too,” the man who entered alongside her added. “We’re gonna knock your stringy-haired block off.”
My eyes whirled around and finally found Eva’s unmistakable pink hair in the audience.
“Eva, I won my fight!” I shouted over the mayhem. “So why is there more? And two on one? This isn’t fair!”
“Actually, outside of not destroying the building, the only rule here is that you don’t talk about this place. So, this is technically completely fair!” Eva replied, shouting back at me.