I experienced my first life or death fight at age 17, after getting drafted into the Crucibles.
Before a contest starts, your body goes to a place that exists outside of our time. It feels like slipping into anesthesia and waking up in another place. It can happen anytime, anywhere.
It first happened to me during my first period English class, junior year of high school, February 2008. I sat in class daydreaming, staring at the teacher without listening. I blinked and opened my eyes in another place.
I appeared alone in a stone courtyard surrounded by a thick, dark grayness and strong winds. I stood on an icy mountain, and I saw a dark hole in the side of the mountain, still visible through the heavy fog.
I walked towards it, hoping to find shelter from the icy wind. As I walked closer, I began to see. The hole in the mountain was the gate of a jagged stone castle.
I approached the door and pounded on its black metal with both of my numb fists. The doorway opened, and I entered.
The stones inside the castle glowed grayish-blue, and I followed their light down a long hallway. When I reached the end of the hallway, I stood at the top of a stone staircase that descended into a large hall, a banquet hall. A long table with 18 seats sat in the center of the room, with one empty seat. They ate and talked until they saw me. After an awkward silence, a woman spoke to me. “Come down here and sit,” she invited.
One of the men moved over and motioned for me to sit next to him. I descended the stairs and sat at the table next to him. He had a stocky build to him, and he had a scar that stretched from underneath his left eye to just below his ear, at the top of his jawbone. “What do you want to eat?” the man asked as I sat down.
Metal dishes and eating utensils covered the table, and everyone seated at the table had a different meal sitting on their plate. “Uh, why do you ask?”
The man drank from a cup sitting next to him and ate a spoonful of the gruel from his plate. “It could be your last meal.”
I thought about that for a second. I knew that I had a low chance of survival. “I want baby-back ribs with sweet barbeque sauce, baked beans, and lemon icebox pie.”
He pointed at my plate with his spoon. I looked and saw exactly what I’d imagined. Barbeque ribs smothered in a sweet and savory sauce, with baked beans and a large slice of lemon pie. My mouth watered as I stared at the food in disbelief. “Eat,” the man told me.
I picked up a rib and started eating. I ate everything on my plate, and so did everyone else in the room. The man sitting next to me nibbled and watched the rest of us. “What’re you eating?” I asked him.
He looked down at his plate, took up a spoonful and ate it. “Dog food,” he told me.
“Why’d you choose dog food?”
He looked at me and shrugged. “I always eat this before the contest.”
“Because I don’t want my last meal to be dog food.”
I thought about that for a second. “Huh, okay. What’s your name?”
“Alex,” he said. “You?”
Alex leaned back in his chair. He looked around for a moment at the other people seated at the table. 18 people, 9 men and 9 women, chatted and laughed quietly together as they waited to die. Alex leaned towards me and whispered, “You see them? Don’t think of them as other people. Think of them as your teammates.”
Alex leaned back in his seat again. “Stay with me and do as I say” he told me. “I’ve lived through many of the contests.”
“How many?” I asked.
“I lost count.”
“How long have you fought in the contests?”
I found it hard to believe the man, but I believed him anyway.
After everyone had finished their last meal, the sound of a loud, deep bell echoed throughout the castle. Some sighed while others stood stoically and walked out of the room.
I followed Alex and the others down another long hallway. We walked into a massive stone room filled with weapons all kinds of weapons, from every era. Red painted carvings in all different forms of writing covered the armory’s walls. “What do all the carvings mean?” I asked Alex.
“They all say ‘Their death for your life. Their humiliation for Our Glory. Do not fail Us.’” I followed him as he weaved in and out of rows of large wooden gun cabinets. “I’m sure there is an English translation around here somewhere.”
“Those are the only rules?” I asked. “Kill ‘em all?”
“That’s the only rule you need to know,” he said. “After the bell rings, you have one hour to prepare. There are two rooms in this place: The Gathering Hall, and The Armory,” he explained. “For now, choose everything that I choose. Over time, you’ll learn to select your own gear.” Everywhere he went, he grabbed two of everything, and he handed one to me. I didn’t notice everything that he grabbed, except for the guns and knives he handed to me.
I followed him to a table where we began putting together our equipment. Everyone in the room- both men and women- stripped down and put on the black clothing. “You need to put it on,” Alex told me.
“It’s camouflage,” he explained. “Right now it’s black, but it blends with the terrain.”
I did as instructed. Every person in that room seemed like a veteran, so I took his advice.
We each had a rucksack and a MOLLE plate vest, with several pouches. I realized that Alex had mainly taken MRE’s and ammunition for us. We had a few other essentials too, like a few toiletries, but Alex did not seem too concerned about that. When I asked him why he packed that way, he told me that “Things become quite difficult when you run out of food and ammunition.”
“What’s the longest you’ve been out there?” I asked.
Alex didn’t answer me for a long time, but he continued to work. “Maybe eight months.”
“What? Why don’t you know? Did you not count the days?”
“Time is different during a contest,” he told me, and he handed me a watch. “Put this on. We don’t know how long we’ll be gone, but when it starts, we synchronize our watches.”
I put the watch on and finished packing. I watched Alex closely and did everything exactly as he did, until we started strapping on our gear. He helped me with that.
My hands trembled terribly. I picked and bit at my nails until they bled. I had never felt that afraid before in my life.
We began prepping our weapons. I had no idea what to do, so Alex showed me how to load and charge the guns. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were using a Beretta 93R, an HK MP5, and an AK 47. The two of us also had a survival knife and a Xiphos, which I found odd. I had never held any of those weapons before, but I would carry them into combat. I would kill with them.
A low-pitched alarm shook the walls of the armory, making an unnerving pulse sound that made my gut quiver. A few of my companions took deep breaths. “Here we go,” One of them, a woman, said. A couple of them frowned and nodded. Alex’s expression never changed; he seemed… at peace.
I inhaled sharply, and my fearful, unsteady jaw quivered. Alex looked down at me and backhanded me in the balls.
He barely hit me, but that fucking hurt. I bent over and held myself while the others snickered. Alex pulled me back up straight and gave me a cold, firm look. “You are here for a reason, Mark. Keep it together. You will be fine.” He looked away from me and sighed. “Just don’t be weak.”
The armory faded, and everything went white.
The white subsided, and a foggy landscape materialized. 2 white moons and 1 blue moon shined in a black sky over our heads. “Do not turn on your flashlights,” Alex advised. Most took his advice, but a few ignored him and walked off on their own. He sighed as he walked off into the fog, and I followed him. “Motherfuckers,” he hissed, shaking his head. The rest of the group, ten other people, followed behind me and Alex. They didn’t turn on their flashlights.
Alex seemed like the de facto leader of our group. He always seemed know exactly what to do. Even though he’d never set foot on that alien landscape, just like the rest of us, he seemed to know exactly where to go.
While we hiked through the fog, I started to understand his strategy. “We’re looking for the high ground, aren’t we?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said without turning around.
I huffed and puffed as the thinning air made it harder to breathe as the elevation rose. “Do you know where we’re going?”
A woman behind me answered for him. “Alex always knows where he’s going.” She said. I looked behind me and saw the others in our group dispersed through the fog. She didn’t look directly at me, but her face looked focused. She looked hard and strong, but she also looked beautiful. She reminded me of the Amazon that Achilles fell in love with during the Trojan War.
While I stared at her like an idiot, I stumbled over a rock. She looked up and smirked. “Keep your eyes on the path in front of you,” she advised. I did.
After a couple of hours of hiking, we reached the summit of a mountain. When we stopped, most of the others took off their gear. Alex and the woman left theirs on, so I did as well. “Spread out and form a circle,” Alex ordered. “We need eyes all around us.”
Everyone fanned out, taking cover behind rocks. I stayed with Alex. “Take out your binoculars,” he told me. “We’re looking for the dumbasses that left and whatever we have to kill.”
We started scanning the dark and murky landscape with our binoculars. Throughout the fog, I could see flashes of quiet light, like silent lightning. I ignored those lights since they didn’t stay steady, like flashlights would. “What does the enemy normally look like?”
“Anything, and everything,” Alex said. “We’ve fought things that look exactly like us, things that looked nothing like us.” Alex lowered his binoculars and turned to me. “If you didn’t see them at the table earlier, kill them.”
I nodded and looked down at my AK. I knew I would do what I had to when the time came, but the idea made me shudder.
“Keep searching,” he told me. “I need to go around and check on the others. You stay right here. Don’t move.”
He left. I took deep breaths, and I tried to keep the fact that my companions surrounded me at the front of my mind. I still felt alone in the dark.
I looked through the binoculars and scanned the surrounding landscape. Jagged black points stuck out from the fog in many places; they looked like black trees. That entire world seemed to only have four primary colors: blue, gray, black, and white. We easily blended with the landscape.
I heard a burst of gunfire followed by people yelling. Several creatures out there howled earsplitting screeches. I winced as I tried to find the source of the commotion. Several of my companions behind me yelled “Contact!” I turned and searched the landscape in their direction.
I saw tracer rounds lighting up the fog. I saw things falling in and out of the area. Those few things quickly became a swarm.
“Daoust, Kang, Dayan, take sniping positions. The rest of you, follow me,” Alex ordered. Everyone scrambled. The woman and two other men set up their long sniper rifles and aimed them towards the swarm of the black, bat-like creatures.
We ran behind Alex. He barked orders that the others in the group while I stuck close to him and observed. He set the others at different positions along the ridge. After he had everyone in position, he radioed one of the snipers. “Dayan, what’s the count?” he asked.
The woman’s voice answered over the radio. “I count fourteen now. They’ve shot down four.”
“Alright, everyone listen,” Alex instructed over the radio, “Dayan, Daoust, and Kang will fire at the hostiles. When they fly over here to retaliate, we’re going to ambush them on my signal. Do not fire until I give the signal. Over.”
Everyone acknowledged the orders. “We’re going to trap them.” I said.
“Are there always eighteen of them and eighteen of us?” I asked.
“Yes. Breathe easy. This should be over soon,” he told me. He held up his radio again. “Snipers, fire.”
I watched the swarm through my binoculars. Several of the creatures fell from the sky. Four of them fell before they diverted their attack towards our snipers. The swarm dispersed and spread out, fluttering towards us in a scattered group.
As they drew closer I put in earplugs to block out their horrendous screeching. Soon I could see them clear and up close through my binoculars. They were humanoid creatures with bat wings, and they looked just as horrific as their screams.
“Standby,” Alex ordered. I put down my binoculars and raised my rifle. Through my scope, I picked one target and kept my rifle trained on it.
Gunfire erupted. It me, but I managed to keep my target in sight. I pulled the trigger. It turned right and swooped down towards me. It grew larger in my scope’s view as it closed in on me. I pulled the trigger again, and again.
It slammed into me. I felt my left arm snap in two and my ribs begin to crack as I tumbled backward with the creature down the ridge and into the black woods. My back slammed into a tree, and I felt a crack in my left shoulder blade. I lost my rifle. The naked humanoid bat-monster was on top of me.
But the creature didn’t move. It didn’t breathe. Its head hung over my left shoulder and hung over a tree branch. I panted and looked all around me as I tried to figure out what had happened. I may have had a slight case of shock. I felt something wet flowing over me and down behind the tree. It was the creature’s blood. I’d killed it.
I’d killed that massive fucking monster. I stayed there against the tree with that corpse draped over me. It was almost seven feet tall, and it must have weighed 300 pounds.
I was afraid to move. I was afraid that if I moved, the thing would somehow come back to life and mutilate me. After lying there for what felt like forever, I realized that the gunfire had stopped, and I heard people calling my name. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t move. After a few minutes one of my companions found me. He had a huge gash in his face, but otherwise he seemed fine. “He’s over here!”
Alex and my other teammates- minus the six that went off on their own and died- came over to me. Alex grinned. “Congratulations, you’re alive,” he told me.
I tried to smile, but I think I just showed them my teeth. One of the snipers, Daoust, kicked the corpse off me, and it rolled onto its back. It was female. Its giant black eyes were wide open, and it had an empty mouth. Broken teeth littered the ground around it. Alex picked up one of its fangs and handed it to me. “Keep this for good luck,” he said.
I grabbed it with my right hand and then looked at the broken left side of my body. “Am I going to be okay?” I asked.
Everything began to fade to white again. I thought I was dying, but I reappeared in school, without so much as a scratch on my body. The teacher asked me a question about her lesson, and I proudly proclaimed, “Don’t know. I have no idea what we’re talking about.”