Tap. Tap. Tap.
Laughter roared from behind the locked tavern door, mingling with the music that thumped against the walls trying desperately to escape its rectangular prison. I glanced behind me, a feeling of unease flooding my senses. The dark air of night had swept in fast. Black now coated the once-lively cobblestone street, the only light being emitted from a small lantern above the smooth mahogany entrance. Not even the moon was out tonight. I shivered.
A glass shattered inside the building, followed by a chorus of bewildered shouts and amused chuckles. I heaved a heavy sigh and moved back towards the door, tapping my knuckles against its sturdy surface for a second time.
A short, high-pitched chirp entered my ears. I looked down. My partner, Moss, purred reassuringly on my shoulder, flicking her tail and flaring her spines, her dark green scales glowing under the light of the lantern. She then rubbed her tiny head against my neck. Even though I’d been with her for well over a month now I still couldn’t believe how unusually small she was, especially for a dragon.
The door swung open and a blinding golden glare rolled out of the room, accompanied by the deep voice of a male.
“What?” he snapped impatiently. “This is a pub, kid: ‘The Dragon’s Den;’ not a children’s crèche.” I gulped. He was a big, burly man with bulging biceps and a rough, angular face. Tanned skin cloaked his body in tough leather and his tight tank-top did little to hide his abdominal muscles. With a clean-shaven head and tattoos curling around his limbs, he truly looked terrifying!
“I-I-I’m here to sign up for my next match!” I stammered, my voice rising to a petrified squeak. On my shoulder, Moss squealed and darted under the folds of my clothes. The man glared at me for a moment longer before stepping to the left with a grunt of disapproval.
“Good luck then, kid” he spat. Tentatively, I stepped inside the tavern. The room reeked of stale urine, beer and body odour. More lanterns lined the oak-wood walls and tiny table candles sat astride each bench-top. The once polished floor was now scuffed and dinted and the noise level in the room was astounding!
I moved towards the counter to register and collect an ID tag. The excitement in the room was suffocating. It was overwhelming and actually quite frightening. I could feel my heart thumping against my chest, like someone was driving a battering ram into my rib cage.
“Excuse me, kiddo,” the bar tender began gently. He looked rather out of place here in amongst all of the other competitors. With his soft face and wiry red hair, he certainly stood out from the rest. “Your number is 404,” he continued. “So make sure you remember it!” He gave me a friendly wink and gestured towards an empty stool in front of the bench. “Just take a seat and listen for your number.” And with that, He strolled away. I think he could tell I was nervous.
Carefully, I picked up my tag, slipped it into my pocket and plonked myself onto the cushioned leather seat, trying to steady my racing heart as I did so. Moss poked her head out from under my clothes and purred softly. Even Moss could tell I was nervous!
Then, suddenly, an arm was draped around my shoulders. I jumped in shock and let out a stunned cry.
A young male voice flowed into my ears. A face for that voice appeared in front of me moments later. He looked around my age, about 13 or 14, with thick, untidy grey hair that dangled down past his shoulders. He was rather small, short as well as skinny, with pale skin and a yellow-cream beanie that sat atop his messy mop. A puppy-sized griffin stood on his shoulder.
The boy flashed a huge, toothy grin.
“Name’s Charlie,” he announced. “Nice ta meet cha!” He held out his small hand, a friendly expression plastered to his face; a soft warm glow lighting up his dark eyes. I could feel a tight smile forcing its way across my own lips. I mean, it was impossible not to smile at his enthusiasm. Slowly, cautiously, I raised my hand up.
Charlie’s hand lunged forward with lightning speed and latched onto mine, shaking it up and down vigorously.
“Howdy! Nice ta meet cha! How ya doin’?” he shouted. Then, leaning closer, he asked:
“What’s ya name?”
“L-Louise,” I stuttered. A dubious expression flashed across Charlie’s face.
“L-Louise?” He repeated uncertainly. But, as I watched, a smile slowly crept across his lips, the confusion painted on his face only seconds earlier melting away like candle wax.
“Nah, I’m just messin’ wit cha!” he beamed, giving me a light punch to the shoulder. A loud chirp resounded from Charlie’s shoulder, the griffin that sat there fluffing its brown and white feathers in frustration.
“Oh! Sorry pal!” Charlie said. “This here’s Sora: my partner.” Charlie jerked his thumb towards the hybrid. He then heaved a sigh and leaned backwards, placing his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. “Yep. We’re pretty famous, me and him. Known all round the world for our awesome skills.”
My jaw dropped and my eyes bulged in absolute astonishment.
“You’re a world renowned fighter?!”I gaped. Charlie nodded.
“But... but you’re... so small!”
“So?!” he snapped lividly. I jumped a bit. His voice was so loud! I watched as some heads turned towards us, fixing their glaring gazes onto Charlie. Charlie didn’t seem to care though. Furious flames flickered in his now-open eyes. I must have hit a nerve.
Charlie straightened his back and took a deep breath.
“Does it really matter?” he asked, more calmly this time. Then, raising an eyebrow, he added:
“You ain’t too big ya self, ya know.”
Sora chirped in what sounded like agreement, combining with Charlie’s laughter to create an intoxicating cloud of cheerfulness.
“Real strength don’t come from size,” he began, placing his hand on his chest. “It comes from here.”
A bell-like noise drowned the whole room in silence.
“Excuse me, everyone”
A young female voice flowed from the speakers like river water, soft and smooth but overflowing with confidence.
“Could numbers 17, 99, 254 and 404 please make their way to their respective waiting rooms.”
My heart began to pound again.
“That’s me...” I whispered. Charlie chuckled again.
“Really?” he exclaimed. “Me too!”He hopped off his chair and lifted his arm up, clenching his fist.
“Good luck, mate!” he grinned. I tapped his fist with mine.
“Yeah, you too,” I replied. I made my way towards my waiting room. The door was different from the others, with a polished brass knob and darker wood. It looked colder, drained of every ounce of the excitement that filled the rest of the room. Just looking at it gave me chills.
I reached out and gripped the knob, twisting it round and pulling the door open.
That was all I could see. No light. Nothing. It was like a dark, empty void had engulfed the room, spilling its intimidating atmosphere into the air. My legs moved by themselves, guiding me into the void.
The door slammed shut behind me. It was then that I noticed how heavy my breathing was, how hard my heart was thumping. I inhaled once, as deep as I could, and released all my nerves in one go. Time to do this.
A transparent blue square appeared in front of me, along with the words ‘ID check’ and a blank rectangle in the top left corner. Without hesitation, I slammed my palm down onto the square and watched as blue lights caressed my skin.
A picture slowly materialised in the empty space on the screen, depicting a young girl with long, orange-brown hair that tumbled over her shoulders like waterfalls. Big brown eyes lit up her face and a petite little nose covered in pale skin sat in the middle of it.
That’s definitely me, I thought as the panel dissolved. Slowly, a door opened in front of me, finally allowing light to enter the void of darkness. Cheers flooded into the room, getting increasingly louder as I walked out into the arena. Dust swirled across the dirt floor. Wood ringed the edges of the coliseum, steel bars sprouting from the several metre tall planks. I glanced around.
“Who’s my opponent?”
I stopped and stared in disbelief. Charlie returned my stunned expression with one of his own. I couldn’t believe it! I had to fight him!?
A familiar female voice boomed from the speakers.
“Combatants, ready your weapons!”
I didn’t move; I couldn’t move! Moss wriggled her way out from under my clothes chirped encouragingly. Charlie drew his weapon and I watched as it transformed into a spear. He gripped it with both hands.
Charlie kicked off the ground with lightning speed. In moments he was in front of me, pushing the point of his spear closer and closer to my body. I heard Moss’s piercing cry and watched as flames engulfed Charlie’s body. Charlie’s bloodcurdling scream managed to break me from my trance. I jumped to the right and drew my weapon from its holster, pushing a button on the hilt to manifest a lightsaber-like axe. Sora dove forward and tackled Moss, throwing her to the ground with a sickening thud.
“Moss!” I cried. That was when I realised that Charlie had disappeared. I spun myself in circles, scanning every shadow for even the slightest trace of movement. Behind me, I heard dirt crunch under boots. I spun around but my reflexes weren’t quick enough. Charlie lunged forward, the blade of his spear slicing my bicep as I dove out of the way. Blood trickled down my arm, along my fingers and into the dirt beneath my feet. But my wound was nowhere near as serious as Charlie’s. His body was badly burnt, painful-looking raw skin now covering his whole body. On the upside though, at least he wasn’t on fire anymore.
Charlie twirled his spear in his hand before sprinting towards me, thrusting his weapon forward. I darted to the left and swung my axe around, its blade slicing through the skin that still remained on his lower back. He screamed again, but not before swinging his spear around and pushing it upwards. The blade pierced through my chest.
“Damn it!” I cursed, adjusting the rimless glasses balancing on the tip of my nose. I carefully placed the gaming controller on the carpet and stood up, pushing my lower back forward in an attempt to loosen my overly tense muscles. The ‘Game Over’ banner still flashed brightly on the screen, its accompanying music drifting effortlessly through the room, riding the air like a surfer.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it!” I growled. “After all that, I still lost!” I narrowed my eyes in frustration. However, I could feel an excited flame beginning to well up inside me and, before long, a content smile had begun to lift my cheeks.
I’ll get you next time... Charlie.