It took them less than twenty minutes to get from HQ to the disused warehouse Melia had told them of. Tristan seemed to know the way well and they chatted about trivial things as they drove. Adelaide realised that she was becoming more and more relaxed in his company and hoped that he was likewise in hers. They had a lot in common when it came to music tastes and favourite films, which fuelled their conversation and Adelaide found Tristan to be witty as she spent most of the drive laughing at his casual observations on the people around them.
As they approached the warehouse, he pulled the car onto the gravel drive where several others of all shapes and sizes were already parked. Taking the car out of drive, he paused a moment and looked at Adelaide.
“This place is owned by the Peacemakers. It’s a members only club, of sorts.” He paused and sighed, gathering his thoughts. “What I’m trying to say, I guess, is brace yourself. This is where our kind comes to be themselves.” Adelaide nodded, not really sure she understood just yet. She unbuckled herself as he got out and waited for him to open the door for her and help her to her feet.
“Normally, I’d have to show my badge before we can go through,” Tristan said, motioning to a small glass window in the side of the warehouse next to a large metal door, “but I know the guy that’s working today, so we should be fine.” As they approached, a large egg-shaped head appeared in the window, adorned with a huge bushy beard that reached down over a bare, tattooed chest and curled up above a pair of tight leather trousers. The most alarming thing, however, was the pair of black horns that reached up from the top of the shiny, bald head and curled back down behind the ears.
The doorman looked down at Adelaide through wide brown eyes that shone out from beneath inked-on brows, arm muscles flexing menacingly. The terrifying effect was broken, however, when he turned to look at Tristan, the thin line of his mouth splitting into a huge grin.
“Well, well, well. Tristan O’Donnelly!” The voice that boomed forth from the booth was so deep, Adelaide could have sworn she felt the floor vibrate. “You come to lose some more savings on the pool tables boy?”
“Adelaide,” Tristan said warmly, “this is my good friend and hustling’ partner Reggie Walker. Reg, my man, this is Adelaide, she’s a new recruit.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Adelaide said, her voice thin and shaky. Reggie pressed a button and the metal door unlocked. Stepping out of his booth he opened it and motioned for them to come inside.
They walked through the door into a small cloakroom of sorts, lit by a harsh fluorescent bulb that buzzed continuously above them. Addy turned as a door clicked to their right and watched as Reggie stepped forward and embraced Tristan in a huge, bone-cracking bear hug. She was beginning to worry for Tristan’s back when they finally broke apart.
“Reggie here is an Oni,” Tristan explained. Reggie held out his hand and, after some fiddling with her crutches, Adelaide took it and shook it.
“An Oni?” she asked, flexing her fingers to try and get some feeling back in them.
“A type of Japanese ogre,” Reggie explained, “one of the better looking ones, though I say so myself.”
“He really is,” Tristan said in a stage whisper, “trust me, I’ve met his sister.” Reggie swiped at him playfully and Tristan dodged. “Much as I’ve loved seeing you mate,” he said as he straightened up again. “We’re actually looking for Dekker.” Reggie nodded, suddenly serious.
“I see” he said, stroking his beard. “Well you’re going to have to wait until after the cage I’m afraid. Dek’s already prepped, they’ll be kicking off in five. I’d get good seats if I were you.”
“Understood mate,” Tristan said, giving him a pat on the arm. Reggie dipped back into his booth and pressed another button. With a second buzz a door at the far end of the room opened and he motioned them through. Adelaide had run through a hundred scenarios in her mind as they were walking up to the front door, but nothing prepared her for this.
Instead of a scruffy-looking old warehouse, the building had been converted into a giant club. Pool tables clustered in one corner of the room, lit by swinging lamps with fans. A long wooden and chrome bar ran along most of the length of the opposite wall, containing every type of alcohol Adelaide could ever dream of, plus much more. An empty dance floor stood in the immediate centre of the room with a large set of DJ decks and all kinds of lighting rigs hanging from the high ceiling and at the far end of the vast room was a giant, domed cage that reminded Adelaide of the Thunderdome from Mad Max.
The thing that really stunned her, however, was the clientele. There were tails, horns and wings everywhere she looked. In between the dance floor and the cage was a podium where beautiful women with different coloured skin danced in barely any clothing whilst men leered on at them. Addy shuddered as she saw one man flick out a frog-like tongue towards a stunning woman whose skin was an alarming shade of mauve.
“This is where you come for down-time?” she asked Tristan, gesturing towards the dancing girls.
“Hey man,” he said, holding his hands up, “don’t judge. I’ve got to have something to do in my spare time.” He motioned for her to follow him as he made his way towards the cage. A crowd seemed to be gathering around it and he had to clear a path for them to get through. Adelaide spotted a large digital clock hanging on the wall to their right that seemed to be counting down. Above the cage there were several boxes hanging on pulleys from the ceiling and, as she watched, she spied movement on the make-shift catwalk that went around the edge of the room. Tristan followed her gaze and saw the movement also.
“That’s Flynn,” he said, having to raise his voice to be heard over the music that was playing. “He’s a dwarf and the games master here.” Adelaide watched as the shadow stepped forward into a beam cast by one of the many hanging bulbs that lit the building. She had expected him to be a little bit odd-looking, appearing out of proportion like other dwarves she had seen around and about, but he looked just like a fully formed man, only smaller, about three foot smaller. As she continued to watch, he pulled out a walkie-talkie and spoke into it, his voice inaudible above the music and the growing crowd. A door opened at the back of the warehouse and sunlight flooded in from outside.
“Adelaide!” Tristan shouted above the noise of the now excited crowd. “Are you squeamish?” She shook her head. “Good!” he called. “Chances are this won’t be pleasant.”
“What’s going on?” she shouted back. He looked at her with a worried expression, as if gauging mentally just how much he should tell her. He leaned in close to her ear so that she could hear him clearly.
“Our society has laws,” he explained, as though choosing his words very carefully. “For most of them, you break one and you get a slap on the wrist or you have to pay a fine. However, for the more serious ones there’s a penalty. That’s where the cage comes in. The cage gives you a fighting chance, literally.” Adelaide pulled back and looked at him in horror.
“You mean, this is meant to be justice?” He nodded, reluctantly.
“You have to understand, that is the way of our society. By doing it like this, in a controlled environment, we avoid a bloodbath on the streets.” He couldn’t help becoming a little defensive as he spoke. She was, after all, an outsider and this was his culture.
“I don’t have to understand,” she said truthfully, “and I wouldn’t even if I did, but I won’t kick up a fuss.” He seemed grateful to her at this but something was niggling at the back of her mind. She was about to speak when a cheer went up from the crowd and she turned to look at what was causing the commotion. Something or someone huge had stepped into the doorway and was almost completely blocking out the light. As she watched, the cage lifted and the hulking silhouette moved forward to stand underneath. A second cheer went up as another, smaller figure entered the room and made for the cage as the door closed behind it. Slowly, the iron dome was lowered once more, sealing them both in and Adelaide was able to see the two creatures clearly.
The first was at least seven feet tall and full of muscle, a shaggy loincloth the only piece of clothing on its dark, tattooed body. The face was grotesque and twisted with teeth protruding through the lips from the lower jaw. As she stared, Tristan identified it as an ogre and Addy could help comparing Reggie to this man in cage. She was certain it was male, unfortunately the loincloth didn’t really conceal much. Trying to avoid this sight, she turned her attention to the other figure in the cage and a cold dread filled her. Facing the ogre was a small figure, barely five foot nine, dressed head to toe in motorbike leathers, a black helmet with tinted visor preventing any chance of checking gender or even species.
Adelaide swallowed hard as she looked back and forth from the ogre to the biker, thinking that the latter was definitely about to get beaten into a pulp.
“Oh man!” Tristan exclaimed beside her. “That isn’t even gonna be a fair fight!” He ran his hands through his hair in frustration.
“I thought we were here to see Dekker!” Addy shouted above the increasing noise of the crowd.
“We are, but Dekker’s a bit busy right now!” he shouted back, motioning to the cage. Addy looked in at the large ogre and swallowed hard again. So that was the person that would be teaching her to fight? Suddenly she found herself regretting her decision. She didn’t have time to think too much about it, however, as rock music began to pump out from the speakers and the clock drew near to single figures. A loud hydraulic hiss made her look up and she saw two of the boxes hanging from the roof being lowered into the cage at opposite ends. Once they had entered the dome, the boxes seemed to split apart and as they were pulled up again she saw that, hanging at one end of the cage was a pair of short, silver daggers and at the other was black revolver. Both items were within easy reach of the ogre for sure, but there was no chance the poor biker was going to get to them. Adelaide didn’t think she could watch.
As the music reached a crescendo the clock hit single figures and Adelaide felt a change in the atmosphere as the crowd began to count down. Without even realising at first, she joined in, anticipation building in contrast to the knot in her stomach. As the clock ran out a loud klaxon sounded and the ogre launched forward as if on a spring. Adelaide cried out in dismay but the biker dropped and rolled to safety.
Again and again the creature lunged and each time the biker dodged skilfully. She had almost allowed herself to hope when the ogre struck out and sent the biker flying back into the concrete ground. Gasps and shouts echoed throughout the crowd but next to her, Tristan stayed perfectly still, watching everything. She slipped her arm through his for support as they continued to stare into the cage. The ogre launched once more, confidence restored by the last blow and the biker leapt back, moving almost in time to the pounding music.
“Come on!” Tristan shouted, hands cupped around his mouth, “you’re just messing with us. Quit playing around!” Addy couldn’t be certain, but she was sure she saw the biker nod at this and she became confused. Looking back at the ogre, she saw him draw his arm back to swing again, putting all his power and weight behind it, aiming for a finishing move.
Everything seemed to slow as he attacked, lunging forward with everything he had but hitting only air. The music swelled to a massive crescendo around her that seemed to make the very floor shake as the biker dodged, running to the side and jumping. It caught its foot on a rung of the cage and leapt, using it to launch around the ogre, spinning in the air and reaching out to grab the daggers. As the biker dropped, the ogre staggered forward into the space it left behind.
There was a tumultuous roar from the crowd as the biker spun and steel flashed, biting into the back of the ogre’s legs, severing the tendons. The wounded creature howled as it dropped to the floor, bellowing in agony. The biker dropped the blades and, taking a few steps back for a run up, leaped onto his back, using it as a ramp, dodging expertly as the ogre made a grab. The biker jumped, reaching out for the gun and, grabbing it, dropped to the ground, yanked off the safety, held it at arm’s length behind their body and fired without even looking.
The report sounded and everything went silent. The ogre looked startled for a second and then dropped, the bullet hole between its eyes still smoking. The whole room was silent for a moment before suddenly erupting into rapturous applause.
Adelaide stared in wide-eyed wonder as the biker threw the gun onto the ground before the ogre, almost as if holding it were offensive. They then reached up and removed the helmet. Long, brown hair cascaded down and was subsequently shook out before the helmet, too, was tossed to one side. Loud cheers and whistles erupted as the biker started to unzip her leather jacket, exposing an incredible figure underneath. Even Adelaide found herself impressed when the woman turned round to face them. Tristan looked down at her shocked expression and grinned broadly as she recognised the face from the photo on his phone screen.
“Adelaide,” he shouted above the mutterings of the crowd, “it’s time you met my good friend Dekker, the Valkyrie.”
“Valkyrie?” It was a word Adelaide had heard before in passing but one she had never given much thought to. The cage lifted with a loud hiss and a team of men in grey overalls ran underneath the metal frame towards the body. One of them went to Dekker to give her a once over but she brushed him off with a look of disdain and strolled casually out into the crowd. Looking at her, you would have thought she had just come from a spa day rather than a cage fight.
Smiling, she made a beeline for Tristan, embracing him in a warm hug which earned glares of envy from several surrounding males. As they pulled apart, Tristan brushed her hair back to expose a small cut that was steadily bleeding.
“He caught you a good one there,” he said softly, tucking the hair behind her ear.
“I thought it only fair to give him a chance, even if it was just the illusion of one.” Her voice was rich and low and she spoke with a strange accent that sounded mostly English, but with a hint of something else. “I need an ice pack.” She turned and headed towards the bar, motioning for them to follow.
“Come on,” Tristan said, moving the crowd aside enough for Adelaide to get through. He grabbed a stool so that she could sit down whilst the bar man handed Dekker a bag of ice wrapped in a towel.
“Cheers,” she said, taking it from him and pressing it to her head. Turning, she spied Adelaide and glanced down at her foot. “This the witch?” she asked abruptly.
“Yeah,” Tristan nodded, taken aback. “How’d you know?”
“McGordon phoned me last night,” she shrugged, “figured you’d bring her here today.” She turned to Adelaide and held out her hand. “I’m not being rude, he just didn’t mention your name. He’s an arse like that.”
“I’m Adelaide,” she said, taking Dekker’s hand and shaking it. “Adelaide West.”
“Dekker, just Dekker. Though I do also answer to ma’am, Your Ladyship and your majesty.” Adelaide’s eyes widened at Dekker’s serious tone but then Tristan sniggered next to her.
“Come on Dek,” he scolded, “don’t make fun of the new kid.” Dekker shrugged in apology and, without even turning, clicked her fingers at the bar man. He ducked behind the bar and emerged with a bottle of Scotch and three glasses. “No thanks,” Tristan said, waving it off, “I’m driving.”
“Boo,” Dekker mocked before turning to Adelaide, who also shook her head.
“I don’t drink it, sorry.”
“Fair enough,” Dekker sighed. “Just me then, Jim.”
“It’s Tim,” the bar man corrected as he poured, wincing as he instantly regretted his decision to speak.
“Yeah, because I care,” Dekker drawled, draining the glass and holding it out for another. She turned back to Adelaide and seemed to scrutinise her. “Have you ever had any martial arts training or anything similar?” Adelaide shook her head.
“My mom wanted me to, I think,” she said casually, “but when she died my dad sort of forgot. It just never happened.” Dekker nodded slowly.
“Working with a clean slate then, it has its advantages.” She drained the second glass and placed it upside-down on the bar. Moving forward, she stood in front of Adelaide and examined her face. Addy was beginning to feel uncomfortable under the scrutiny when she straightened up and rolled her shoulders back, throwing the ice pack onto the bar as well.
“What do you think?” Tristan asked, making Addy feel a bit like a lot in a cattle market.
“Definitely a Blackwood, the family resemblance is there. You look a lot like your mother, has anyone ever told you?” Adelaide shook her head in mild wonder.
“You knew my mother?” Dekker nodded, turning as one of the men in overalls brought her helmet over to her, taking it from him with thanks.
“Aye,” she said, tucking her helmet under her arm and pulling some keys from a pocket in her jacket. “It just so happens we were friends once, until she broke the law.” Adelaide looked at her in shock.
“What law?” She glanced from Dekker to Tristan who, judging by his expression, wanted to be anywhere else but there in that moment.
“She married a human and used her gift in front of him. That’s a cardinal sin to us. The unaware should stay unaware, that’s the law and she flouted it, hence her punishment.”
“Punishment?” Adelaide said, her voice rising. “What punishment?”
“She was cast out,” Tristan said quickly. Dekker opened her mouth to say something but he glared at her. “It’s in the archives,” he turned to Adelaide, who was staring blankly at the floor. “I would have told you but now isn’t really the time.” His voice was pointed, but Adelaide didn’t notice. Dekker, however, picked up on his hint.
“Sure,” she said, agreeing, “not the time. Besides, you can’t access the archives until you’ve got an ID badge anyway. Come back to the compound and we’ll get you hooked up with one.” Dekker pulled her helmet on and flipped up the visor so she could still see them. “I’ll meet you back there,” she said, giving them both a nod. “Get Adelaide some suitable gear and meet me in the gym.” Walking past, Dekker slapped Tristan on the shoulder. “Enjoy the awkward ride back,” she joked.
“Are you going to be okay to drive?” Adelaide asked, motioning towards the empty glass on the bar. Dekker laughed.
“I’ll let you in on a secret kid,” she replied in a stage whisper, “I’m actually pretty awesome.” With that, she tipped Adelaide a wink and strolled off through the crowd towards the back door. Tristan took his car keys out of his pocket as they watched her leave and jingled them nervously.
“Shall we go?” he asked, holding out his hand to help Addy up. She ignored him and stood up on her own, moving past him as fast as she could and heading for the way that they came in.
“Look, Addy,” he said, catching up with her, “I was going to tell you, I just didn’t think it was the right time, what with your dad and that...” She stopped and glared at him.
“You don’t decide when it’s the right time, okay? You don’t know me enough for that. It’s not your place to keep that from me.”
“Look,” he said again, holding his hands up in surrender. “I cocked up, I’m sorry. Moving forward I’ll tell you anything, deal?” He looked pointedly at her when she didn’t respond. “Deal?”
“Fine,” Adelaide sighed, “deal.” She winced as she shifted her weight to her bad foot and Tristan’s brows narrowed.
“Is it starting to hurt more?” he asked, his voice full of concern. She nodded as she shifted her weight back. “Right,” he said, making up his mind about something. “Don’t hate me for this.” Before she could say anything, he grabbed her around the waist and hoisted her onto his shoulder. She screamed as he took the crutches off her and started walking towards the door, ignoring the jeers and cat-calls from the people around them.
Reggie opened the door for them with a laugh when Tristan knocked on them using the crutches.
“Nice catch mate,” he joked as he ran to open the front door from them.
“What can I say,” Tristan said with a shrug that made Adelaide bounce, “I’ve still got it.”
Despite her protests, he carried her out and, opening the car door, placed her down gently next to it, holding the door open for her whilst she climbed in.
“And this,” he said with a bow, “is why you can’t ever be mad with me for long.” He winked as he closed the door on her.