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You’d think being a psychiatric ward for 38 months would be enough to deter a guy from ever going back to a sport that involves watching human beings at the height of their physical prowess beat the living shit out of each other. Sometimes regulated, sometimes not.
But, here I am, fresh outta the loony bin and reading the most unusual advertising slogan I’d ever laid eyes on; “The most terrifying tournament has come around once again! Conquer your fears in the NFC
This was the business card that accompanied my black envelope as it was handed to me on the discharge ward by a well dressed and gangly fella with an uncomfortable wide smile. He didn’t say much of anything, just that his name was “Watson” before bowing and holding up the envelope.
“Heh, like the butler, right?” I said, taking the envelope from his plasticine hands. His smile ripples across his face and he nods slowly, his perfect hair unmoving in the strong wind before he turns on his heel and walks back to the black sedan.
The cold air chilled my bones, and I pulled the medical bracelet from my wrist, grimacing at the marks underneath before following Watson to the Sedan and hauling my luggage into the trunk before setting off, not knowing how I came to even be there in the first place.
I guess right now, that doesn’t really matter.
What matters is where I am now and what I’m doing. "blood strewn across the canvas, frayed brain matter sailing across my head and splattering against the wall, a woman standing in a pool of blood as the deformed creature twitches on the ground"
My name is Sal “Motormouth” Sabotta, I’m a sports commentator by trade. Be it combat sports, pro wrestling, death-matches or martial arts tournament, I’ve done it all.
I won’t lie; Work can be hard to come by. I’ve spent months struggling for rent and resorting to less tried-and-true commentary methods in order to survive. That has, at times, involved trying my hand at some of the more underground competitions; unregulated fights, sick, illegal games bet on by people on the dark web and worse… Things I’m not going to detail here. Things I’m not proud to have taken a hefty pay-check for from greasy, sweaty fucks in Armani tracksuits and stinking of cheap booze and coke all the way up to well-dressed bitcoin farmers in their 20s who probably own child slaves.
In short, I’m no stranger to the grim underworld or the secrecies with which they conduct their work. I see money and an easy way to make it with my voice; I don’t ask questions.
So when I received an email the day of my discharge from the hospital and I’m told “you’ll receive a letter from Mr. Watson, take it and follow the instructions to the venue. Pay up front as agreed.”, I don’t question it. Especially when the note is personalised, and the doctor says my medical fees were covered.
We drove past numerous landscapes, vistas and neighbourhoods before veering off into an industrial estate and entering an underground tunnel. Half a mile in, Watson stops the car and peers back, smiling.
He directs a thumb to the service door in the side tunnel and rubs his neck, a scar running from ear to ear. Was he a former fighter? Gangster?
I sighed and got out, still in my medical gown and hauling ass to the door. It opened before I could reach out and a tall, muscular woman in her late 30s greeted me with a smile. She was imposing, powerful in her gait, a black eyepatch with several seals adorning the sides accompanying a thick scar down her face did nothing to stop her beauty. She wore a tank top with a black cloak with white fur on the tops and sleeves, a thick black chain clasp around the neck. I won’t lie; she looked badass. Terrifying, but badass.
“‘Bout time ya showed up, Sabotta!” She grinned and put a cinderblock of a hand on my shoulder. I’m 5’10 and 180lbs, but she made me feel like a child in front of her. The power emanating from her fist was unbelievable. “C’mon, the trial match is starting and I don’t want no tourney without a broken in commentator! You gotta know the ropes of this place!”
“You know your driver was standing right outside when I was discharged, right? Couldn’t think to give me an extra day or two to freshen up?” I frowned. This wasn’t normal protocol, even for back-alley promotions like this. She just laughed at me and slapped my shoulder.
“The tournament waits for nobody, Sal. Times a-wasting.”
The hallway is dimly lit and the sounds of a ruckus above us are as impossible to ignore as the sounds of thudding, screaming and snapping. As we pass several doors with one-way mirrors on the front panes, I hear sounds I could have never placed in the animal kingdom or otherwise; gurgles, clicks, grunts and even otherworldly whispers.
“What the fuck is that? You guys doing animal fights down here? I mean I called a monkey fight once, but it’s not exactly… pleasant.” I shuddered, thinking of the violence chimpanzees can inflict on one another, let alone humans. She never stopped walking or staring directly ahead when she responded.“Those ain’t animals. Not by a long shot.”
Before I can probe further, I’m hurried into a changing room and practically swept off my feet by her strength. I turn back and she’s already poking her head out the door.
“You’ve got 5 minutes, get your shit and head up the left stairs, Watson will guide you.” She grinned, and I saw gold filings in her teeth that glinted as much as her bedazzled eye patch. “Ya came highly recommended… I expect good things!”
I do as instructed and within 5 minutes I’m back in my commentary clothes; an open buttoned Hawaiian shirt with my old Hotel Inertia shirt underneath, skinny black jeans and shimmering black shoes. I found some old slick gorilla powder in my hair and dusted it up, opting for the dishevelled look as I knew I’d be sweating by the end of the ordeal.
“You shouldn’t bother putting in so much effort, y’know. They’re not gonna care how good you look, only how well you talk.”
Standing in the doorway was a woman in her 40s, dark-skinned and hair clad in meticulous dreadlocks, tied back into a large bun with a pair draped down the sides of her head. She held a thick book in one hand and pocketed a serrated blade in the other before motioning to me.
“We’ll have to do the pleasantries on the way, the match is starting and you don’t wanna miss that. The commissioner isn’t the type you want to upset. Especially when you’re not here by choice.” I looked for a moment, dumbfounded.
“I’m here because I was invited, already got my pay from the woman who let me in.” I shrugged, pocketing the envelope and getting my equipment from the suitcase. The woman gave a sad smile and shook her head.
“Of course you’d think that. She likes it that way. Bet she didn’t introduce herself either, did she? C’mon.”
I follow her down and after a few minutes we come to a fork in the hallway, an elevator system to our right and a stairway to the left. Dutifully, Watson stood patiently, still grinning and motioning us to go up.
Once we’re situated in our booth upstairs, I set my equipment up and look down at the table, expecting a slew of papers and fighter information in front of me. I look to the woman to ask, but she doesn’t break her stare in the darkness, looking down at the arena floor some 100ft below us.“You won’t need that. Not for this match.”
The lights flicker on and the enormity of this venue reveals itself to me. It’s a structure of imposing steel, dried blood, claw marks and other unknown substances that littered the 40ft wide circular pit the fighters contested in, a black lift on either side from the fighters corners that I can only assume ascended up from their locker room area. Around them were chain-link fences that rose up to the audience stands above, situating around 300 people across all four sides. At the very top sat our booth, the commissioner’s office directly opposite, the judges booth to our right and the fight analysts/medical area to our left. Standing in the centre with a spotlight over them was the commissioner, microphone in hand and an energy that was almost palpable.
“Ladies, Gentlemen and Freaks of all kinds out there in the universe. I welcome you once more to the annual Nightmare Fighting Championship Tournament! It’s been a long year, but we have new blood to pit against our resident night terrors and some fresh fears to feast on the fortuitous soul that frolics into their den. As always, our contestants will be fighting for their freedom, a chance to get their wish or to fight for the ultimate prize.” The crowd cheers and the majority are hidden behind thick plexiglass and lighting, but I can see some have Karate Gi’s, weapons in hand and others with demon masks as they whoop and holler. The clientele here were, at least in my estimation, experienced. But I was feeling a lump in my throat at that one phrase The Commissioner so surreptitiously added in without issue; “As always, our contestants will be fighting for their freedom
I leaned to the woman next to me and as if she knew what I was going to ask; she put a finger up and shook her head. Eyes awash with fear and a grimness I had only seen on that of trainers who knew their fighter was not ready for the bout ahead. She pointed the finger down to my machine, then to the pit. Turning it on, I looked down as the commissioner began to talk, readying myself to commentate on whatever weirdos came up to battle.
“But before we get to that, we have an exciting exhibition match for our loyal supporters who bankroll this event every year. Without you elite few, we could not do this. You are the pound for pound goats of support! Now, without further ado; let’s get this show on the road!”The rest of the lights clicked on and spun around the venue as they raised the profile of the bout, the elevators both whirring into action as the right one arose first.
“In this corner, from the marionettes shop and accompanied by his Bunraku doll “Mr. Stares”, it’s the man who pulls the strings… THE PUPPET MAN!”
Out steps a tall, thin Japanese man in full clown makeup. His head shaven save for two ridiculous strands of hair stretched out and fluffed up to their limits, like red antennae. His eyebrows large m’s that practically cover his forehead, the nose a completely vacant slot with a black hole drawn in and the mouth… the fucking mouth was nailed shut. Literally. Sharp rusted nails had been hammered down through the lips with such force that they’d bent. A sickening crimson red face-paint stretched across the entire bottom half of his face, making it seem far larger by comparison. He carefully held a small bundle underneath a sheet and bowed deeply to the audience before standing at his designated spot.
“In the other corner, from the streets of god knows where and the womb of someone who misses him… "Hulked Up" Michael O’Donnell!”
I watched with wide eyes and a stomach threatening to evacuate its contents at any moment as the smoke cleared and a boy no older than 17 rushed out, beating his chest and screaming to the crowd as if he was the Incredible Hulk. I don’t know if they drugged the poor kid, but he clearly had no idea where he was.
“There are no rules, no referees and judges only exist in case of a draw or unclear victory. Our commentary team will take over and we wish you a phenomenal match.” She drools a little before she speaks again, looking up at me and winking. “Let’s make this a violent one.”
She snaps her fingers and leaps for the fence, climbing up with ungodly ease before sitting on her makeshift chair in her office.
I have no idea what I’m seeing but every cell in my body is urging me to run; I feel my knees tense and my frame rise ever so slightly before the woman next to me puts her hand on my thigh, pushing me down with great force.
“You have a job to do, so do I. Trust me, you think you can leave but if you get out of this chair, not only will YOUR life end. Mine will too.” She unsheathes the serrated blade and looks at me with pity. “We both have a part to play here, so put the headset on and let’s do our job, no matter how hard it is.”
Hands shaking, I pick up the headset and connect it to the portable recorder and take a breath.
“I… I need your name. What is it you do?” I stutter, trying to calm myself. She hands me a bottle of water as the surrounding lights dim and the spotlight focuses on the spectacle below.
“I’m Madame Nelle Lockwood, cryptid hunter and your co-host to guide you through tonight. Good to meet you, Sal.”
- NFC EXHIBITION MATCH: "Hulked Up" Michael O’Donnell vs The Puppet Man w/ Mr. Stares
“Welcome fight fans from around the world, god knows how you’re listening to this or WHY, but here we are. I’m your host Sal “MotorMouth” Sabotta, wishing this was all a bad dream. Joining me this evening is our cryptid specialist and all round badass Madame Nelle Lockwood. How are you doing, Nelle?”
She looks at me with a bewildered look on her face before blinking and coming to her senses.
“Uhh… good! All things considered… boy, you really have a professional knack for this, huh? I can see why Commissioner Alduin brought you in."
“Ahh, yes. That’s right, folks! NFC Commissioner Alduin invited me here personally and our exhibition match proves to be… challenging. Let’s check in on the action below.”
I look down and see The Puppet Man sat down and gesturing to the figure under the sheet, like he’s got a negotiation going on. The boy, undeterred and furious, rushes towards him and takes his back, slapping his head and even pulling on his hair with extreme prejudice.
“Well take a gander at that, that kid has absolutely NO fear. When I was his age, I would have stayed FAR the fuck away from a nightmare spectre like that. But hell, this is all part of the show, right? Hope they’re paying that poor guy down there a sizeable sum to throw a fight to a child. What do you think, Nelle; is this the weirdest make-a-wish fulfilment task or what?”
I look over to her, hoping she’d indulge me and that I could believe this was just going to end with a pissed off actor storming away when the child hit him too hard. But Nelle was scanning her now open book and looking for information on dolls.
“He’s talking to his doll because it’s desperate to be let loose. He’s trying to bargain with it to spare him. This is the nature of the puppeteer and his master.” She pushes the book to the centre of the table and shows me a faded illustration of a pristine Bunraku doll; a kind of meticulously crafted Japanese take on the ventriloquist doll. The limbs are thinner and the face is more minimalist, but still no more frightening. “They usually have a symbiotic relationship, but it seems this one obeys the doll and will not want to face more punishment.”
“What do you mean more punishment?” I ask, looking back down at the feverish puppet man as he tries signing frantically under the sheet, even putting his head under as the kid bites his arm and kicks him, screeching.
“The nails, Sal. Those aren’t to silence him, they’re to punish him.”
The rest happened in slow motion; the sheet fell down. The puppet man stood up and walked to his side of the fighters corner, facing the elevator and placing his face into his forearms as he shook. The boy followed to keep attacking, but with one swift kick to the midsection, the boy was propelled back to the centre of the pit where the doll sat.
If there was a human face, I didn’t see it. Instead, I was staring down at a small wood carved spider, the head sporting black geisha hair and the makeup still present, but rows of sharpened black teeth protruded from the clicking mouth and two larger eyes jutted out from the base of the skull, smaller ones dotted closely around it. It was like seeing a puppet ogre spider.
“Looks like The Puppet Man has let Mr. Stares out to say hi and I can certainly see why he was under that sheet, this one isn’t pretty folks! The face doth fit the name. The question is, what’s he doing to do ne-
“I didn’t need to finish the question. My hands shook, and the world spun around me as this creature crawled towards the still wheezing boy with ungodly speed and perched itself expertly beside him. I don’t know if it was my eyes or the distance from where I sat, but this was NOT a small puppet. He was easily half of the boy’s height and that became more unnerving when he reared up on his back legs, the head clicking up and the raspy voice hissing out like a gas leak in a building.
“Hey, hey, kid! Wanna make a deal?” The kid rubbed his eyes, seemingly realising where he was as he calmed down and an air of utter confusion around him.
“If you let me be your new master and you promise to take care of me, I’ll let you go!” His head spun around and the jaw clicked ferociously as he giggled, extending out a clawed paw. “Whaddya say?”
The boy, still confused, slowly reached out his hand and the moment immediately reminded me of a slew of nature shows I’d seen as a kid; where a predator waits until the prey is lulled before striking. I felt the chill up my spine as he extended his hand and grabbed Mr. Stares.
In that moment, he leapt up the arm and bore his way into the boy’s mouth, down his throat and shredded his flesh. The sound was so horrifying, so visceral that it outshines any backyard stabbing, joint snap or broken nose. The boy didn’t even have time to scream, he simply looked up with tear-stained eyes as the puppet disappeared.
Then he started walking without him realising. He looked down at his limbs, terrified, looked over at The Puppet Master, who still had his head to the elevator and pleaded with someone, anyone to help him. I looked to Nelle who refused to take her eyes away, studying the battle in an almost morbid scientific curiosity, detached entirely from the scenario.
I couldn’t fathom how she did it, how she ignored this boy begging us to get him out of there.
I wanted to. Every instinct in me as a fight fan and a decent human was to scream “STOP THE FIGHT!”.
But clearly, when my own life is at risk and money is involved... I am not a decent human.
Instead, with bile in my throat and a sweating forehead, I did my job.
“M-My goodness! The P-uppet, I mean, “Mr. Stares” has BECAME the puppet master, surely the fight will be over with our young competitor incapacitated? What does our commissioner have to say about this?”
She stared at me, her one eye gleaming and her face elated with the violence.
“It ain’t over yet, church boy. We haven’t even seen the finale, have we Puppet Master?!” She laughs and slaps her knee, the puppet master sobbing as he sinks to the floor and she continues.
“He ain’t done feeding, not yet.”
The way she said that word “feeding” nearly made me lose what food I had in me. That was a young man, somebody's baby boy…
“What does she mean by that, Nelle? What is the strategy to victory here?”
Nelle looked down at her book and traced her finger across a passage before wiping her forehead and pushing the locks aside. If her composure wasn’t breaking yet, it would do soon.
“This kind of parasitic doll feasts on its prey and targets non-essential organs first, controls the host with the neurotoxin in its tail and then, when it’s finally content, it gives the brain a second injection.”
“What happens then?” I asked, my own professionalism hanging on by a fucking thread at this point. She shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose.“I guess you’ll see in a moment, I sure as hell don’t want to. Not again.”
Before I can prompt her further, the boy lets out an ear-piercing shriek and falls to his knees, gripping at his head before it turned red, then purple and finally an ugly shade of puce before…
The sound of a watermelon hitting the ground from a great height is the best comparison you’re going to get without making me want to rush to the toilet to puke for a third time. But that’s what happened. His head burst and chunks of his skull, flesh and brain matter sprayed the pit and the walls, some hitting my desk and making me audibly shriek, much to the commissioner's delight.
“HA! You didn’t run! I like you, Sal. You pass for the tournament!” She hauls her body up and slams down to the pit, applauding as the microphone descends from the heavens. “And your winner; The Puppet Man and Mr. Stares!”
The crowd erupts with applause as the weeping puppet man pulls the blood-soaked puppet out, places him under the sheet and silently begins to walk back to the elevator while attendees clear up the boy’s corpse.
“What… what the fuck IS this place?” I ask Nelle, pausing my recording.
“This is where nightmares are kept and set upon mostly unwilling competitors for the world’s amusement. You HAVE done dark web fights before, right? Mafia snitches being put into lions pits, bum fights, addicts fighting women to score… this can’t be THAT unusual to you?”
I stared at her incredulously. Was that even a question?
“I did the dark web ONCE and it damn sure didn’t involve monsters!”
She scoffs and closes her book, stretching before looking at me with contempt.
“Oh, it did. Just not the ones you hear about in fairytales. Good luck with the selection process. I’ll be back for the opening round. Don’t try to run, they’ll devour us both in minutes, if you think this is the pinnacle of what lurks beneath this club, you're in for a rough night.” She sauntered off, leaving me deflated, sickened and terrified. Unable to leave and frustrated to the point of tears that I couldn’t express that concoction of emotions, I did what I always do; I regressed and pressed “record” on the device as Commissioner Alduin continued.
At that moment, however, I was deaf to it all. The gravity of the situation had fully enveloped me…
They weren’t kidding about the unwilling participants, I just didn’t realise I would be one of them.On every side of me sits men and women with a desire for violence that goes beyond the norm, beyond the sane and beyond the boundaries of humanity.Below me are an untold number of creatures rattling their cages and howling for blood.
Across from me is a woman so powerful she could crush my skull beneath her boot with the utmost ease if it so amused her.
That invitation was nothing more than my own ransom note in pretty colours and flattering platitudes.
I was in a tournament housing nightmares incarnate. And it would only get more violent from here on out.
- The opening round was a blood bath.
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