Life prior to the fall was a distant mirage to William. There were still those fleeting, hazy memories of his rain-soaked home in Britain. Not that any of that mattered now. It was all bullshit now; he chuckled while he heaved his tank-like body from the bed, taking special care to not disturb the women on either side of him. He couldn’t help himself, though, his hand slapping the ass of the one on the right. The blonde with the perky tits, Jenna. She giggled and moaned while he slunk off of the bed and onto the floor, pulling a bottle of scotch off of the nightstand.
“Baby, where are you going?” Jenna murmured, still in a haze.
“Just need a nip an’ a walk, that alright, innit?” He picked himself up, snatching the red kimono with the kanji on the back that spelled out “Metsu-Ken” off of the chair across from the bed and lazily draping it over himself, trying to tie the belt with the bottle still in his hand. His hand quaked like it had been doing for months now, requiring a deep breath to keep it from showing.
“But baby,” she said, rubbing her eyes, “you know you are in the arena tonight.”
“Oh, I am,” he said, taking another burning pull from the bottle. “Just need a l’il air s’all.”
The top half of Branch Tower was residential, with the topmost few floors being reserved for those of the utmost importance, a category that William fell into, even if he had to earn his way into the elite. Everyone knew him as the brawler; the man with the taped fists who would enter the arena with the British flag draped over his shoulders like a cape before he put on some of the wildest brawls that Branch’s arena had ever seen. They cheered, laughed and hung on his every motion, which helped turn him into a god of Branch’s new society.
William was a hero in Branch Tower, and Jordan Branch himself had promised him the retirement that he was due for. Soon, very soon. In fact, he believed that very night would be the night that the “British Brawler” William Farrington retired from the arena. William was a hero, a tall tale, and of late they were feeding him bums to fight. Maybe it was that Branch ran out of anyone willing to fight to the death in the arena anymore, or that his legend had grown out of proportion for them. He was never sure of which, but he was sure that his time was coming to a close. Still, he felt a little like a hero. Maybe after he got to retire, he could finally sleep through the night.
The only one that he hadn’t fought yet was the Crusher, but he was always sure that the arena’s two favorites would be kept separate, at least for now. With William on the way out, it meant that none of it would ever need to concern him again. He would only be a spectator at the fights from then on, not the main event anymore. A part of him would miss the roar of the crowd, the adrenaline pumping through his veins while he fended off hordes of the undead and whatever warrior had shown up at their doorstep. The rest of him just wanted it all to be over already. There was only so much self-medicating he could do to forget everything.
Some would categorize Branch as a monster, organizing fights between the living and other survivors, sometimes against the undead or even beasts from the Wasteland, but not William. William understood well enough that there was only limited space in Branch’s new world that he was building and that his skills were important enough to gain him the trust of the most important man left in this world, Branch.
William had found his way to Branch Tower like everyone else had; through stories, conjecture, and desire to survive. He was so far removed from his home at that point, with no hope of ever returning, that it seemed like the only thing to do was find a way to Branch’s compound. His brother, Stuart, had been with him throughout their journey from what was California to the desert of Las Vegas.
Everything along the way was decimated or in some state of disrepair. Stuart and he had holed up in a shelter when the bombs dropped, but they knew they couldn’t live there forever. They spent an entire year inside of that shelter until one night in a fight over some rations, Stuart had slit the throat of of their de facto-leader’s son. That was the critical mass leading to their exodus, leaving them no choice but to run. They would have to survive topside, in what was left of the world.
Will stumbled down the dimly lit hall of Branch Tower, hearing the fountain from the common area and laughing to himself at the luxury he found himself in. Their escape from the shelter was a bloody one, Stuart had snapped and had stabbed at least three of the men who attempted to come after him, with William forced to drag his brother away from the fight, subduing anyone in their way to the door. Women were crying, children were cowering while the two boys from Brighton brawled their way out of the shelter. The shelter itself was a dismal abomination of families huddled in corners and hoarding their supplies from each other.
Warm, arid wind whipped at them outside of the shelter, with the unfamiliar sunlight blinding them after their extended stay underground in a dimly lit, incandescent hole in the ground. The landscape that laid barren and still before them took Will’s breath away at the moment, so much so that he didn’t hear the heavy iron door slamming shut behind them and latching. Everyone had lived in fear of the outside world, but Will and Stuart had known that their time there was running out. The food was growing scarce, tempers were flaring, and Stuart was finding himself in more and more jams that Will had to pull him out of.
Their arrival in Los Angeles had been on a vacation across the United States. They were on a trip to clear their minds after their mother had passed on from cancer. Stuart had taken it worse than Will had and was getting into more trouble than Will could deal with, so he arranged for their great American trip. Little did either know that they’d never see home again, instead find themselves stranded in the American wastelands after the fall. Sand and ash had swept throughout what was once a great city, the Earth reclaiming what humanity had taken from it and helped to destroy. Buildings had crumbled and what was left of them had become overgrown with plant life, like the Earth was trying to reclaim what belonged to it. They dared not go into any of those old buildings, though, for fear of what could have been lingering inside still, or worse yet, random collapses. Their journey towards Branch Tower was a solemn march, most of it spent in relative silence. Stuart’s clothes stained with the blood of the people he had stabbed, and neither had muttered a single word about it. The trip took them over two months, in part because of the terrain, but also from the survivors. When the undead first appeared, the panic was undeniable, but there was a sense of control after a few weeks. That was until the bombs dropped. That was when they realized that they’d never see home again, and that all hope was for fools. There were a few shuffling undead along the way to Las Vegas, but they were few and far between on their journey. Most of their problems came from the living.
Will first killed a living man halfway into the trip when an older man with a pistol and an itchy trigger finger accosted them. He was hungry; he had said, and he wanted their food. He’d let them live if they handed it over. Stuart had wanted none of that, of course, brandishing his knife and lunging at the old man who began firing. A shot had whizzed over Will’s head before he pushed Stuart aside and buried his shoulder into the old man’s ribs. The old man was on the ground in an instant, Will on top, smashing away at his face with his knuckles and elbows until the old man drew his last pained breath. He had continued to smash at the man’s battered skull, unsure of the possibility of the old man reanimating and wanting to be sure, but it took Stuart dragging him off of the old man for him to realize what had happened. That incident became another that the brothers refused to speak of, with the fear of retelling the events out loud, making them more real or horrific. Will still saw that fucker’s broken skull every night in his dreams, no matter how much he drank.
Along the way, they had run into some trouble with a few slavers, but that turned into a silent affair for both brothers, serving as the place where Vera came into their lives. The poor girl. Neither one of them had spoken much after picking her up, just grunts and nods for the rest of their journey before they reached their destination. When Branch Tower crested over the horizon, a lone marvel of man’s endurance and perseverance, their silence was finally broken. “Quite a fuckin’ sight, innit?” Stuart muttered.
“Aye,” he had agreed.
* * *
“That fire,” Branch said, brandishing a smile and rubbing his hands together. “I know that you’ll be tremendous tonight, a star. No… No, my star.”
“Aye,” Will said, Branch’s hands grasping onto his broad shoulders. “Well, I’m ready to knock some heads off.”
“Good,” Jordan said. “That is what I want to hear! You see, Will, can I call you Will?”
“Why not?” He shrugged.
“Well Will, we’ve known each other for a while now, right?”
“Aye, that we have Mr. Branch,” William was sitting on a bench in the dark underbelly of the arena, pulling his gear on. A gauntlet on his right hand had become his signature; him using it, the cave in the skulls of the shuffling undead and any of the living that they tossed at him. The spikes made for an imposing visual, but the electromagnetic charge that pulsated through whoever it contacted was the actual killer. He had even given a name for that punch, the dreaded Metsu-Ken, which in Japanese meant “Destroy Punch.” At least, that’s what someone had told him. That what was he did, though; he destroyed lives with that punch, and they all ate it up.
“Oh please, Will. Call me Jordan,” he assured him. They hadn’t known each other all that well, but Branch had taken a serious liking to him of late, which didn’t bother William that much because it was all business at this point. Branch was arguably one of the most powerful men in the world. For all that he or anyone else around knew, Branch was the only powerful man left. There was always this vain hope that there was life and society thriving elsewhere, but Branch painted a rather vivid portrait of how the rest of the world was in chaos and how it was on them to survive, to thrive and to rebuild after all of this time. He should know. He still has a working helicopter.
“Alright, Jordan, then.”
“Good, good,” he said. “Tonight is a special night. Tonight we add to our menagerie of sorts, our society that we are rebuilding from the ground up.”
“That’s a good ‘un, innit?”
“It is. It is.”
“What’s this addition now then?”
“The addition is hope, my good friend. It is hope in the way of a new survivor, one that everyone will recognize. He’s more than a man to most of them, he’s many men, he’s a memory of our past opulence and also of our triumphs.”
“Some sort of hero?”
“A hero, yes,” he said. “Are you familiar with TK Gabriel?”
“He’s that picture badass, innit he?”
“That he is, that he is.”
“He’s here? Fuck off.”
“No, really,” Branch was staring off into the distance. “He showed up at our doorstep this afternoon. I believe he could be a turning point for our little society here. He’s a symbol of hope, a symbol of what existed before all of this.”
“That’s good, right?”
“It is, and it isn’t. He’s a symbol of a world that no longer exists and can no longer exist. He hasn’t stated that he’d do it yet. In fact, I haven’t brought it up yet, but I want him to fight in the arena. I want him to fight you.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he chuckled. “He’s a movie star. Yes, he’s survived out there in the wilds for years, but you are the best fighter we have. There’s no way that he can take you. Will, you are a hero to these people. You are the hero that was created in the Wasteland. You are the new hope, he is the old hope. Do you see what I’m getting at here?”
“Aye,” he nodded. “You want me to call the bugger out?”
“Yes. I want him to fight in the arena. I want it all to lead up to a final showdown between the two of you. A battle for the ages, a battle to the death. Your retirement from the arena coming by crushing one of the old gods. I’m salivating at the very thought of it, aren’t you?”
“Sounds like my kinda plan,” he tightened the gauntlet around his hand. “What about Stuart?”
“Ahh yes, your brother,” Branch paused. “Stuart and Viktor are a vital part of my security forces. I don’t believe that either has any intention of retiring anytime soon.”
“No,” he said, “s’pose not. The Twin Terrors will continue on.”
“They will. They are simply too good at what they do to stop just yet. You shouldn’t be worried about them. It’s not like either of you can return home, either. There’s no home to return to, your home is here now, your place is here as the beloved Brawler of the Wasteland.”
“Suppose so,” he said. Will picked himself up and did one last check on his gear. The gauntlet sat snug around his fist and a bandolier of throwing knives hung from his shoulder. Those knives were mostly for show. There wasn’t much use for them now that he had the gauntlet, and he hadn’t had to use them since his earliest fights. Instead, it was all about the Metsu-Ken. His right hand is what most wanted to see now, with that electrified gauntlet that gave him that boost in power that he needed to put on a good show. Power surged through it on contact and usually exploding the heads of anyone that he touched with it.
A sullen sigh escaped from Will, knowing that he’d still have to keep fighting, knowing that his retirement wasn’t in order just yet. Not that it mattered, anyway, it just meant more violence, more killing and more feeling adrift and lost for him. None of that was anything new. He took a swig from a small bottle of scotch that he had tucked into his bandolier, emptying it and tossing it onto the concrete, it shattering into pieces on impact. Hopefully, at least, it meant that he was being saved for something and that he’d have an easy time out there compared to past battles. There were a few that were close calls, those were the few battles he didn’t almost return from, and they marked his body up with those scars until the day that he died to remind him of it. That wouldn’t be tonight, at least. No, not tonight, because tonight he was the champion. The Brawler of the Wasteland and Jordan Branch had a plan for him. That made him special, or at least more special than those other poor knobs that Branch fed to him..
“Are you all prepared for battle then, my champion?” Branch reached out and grasped onto William’s shoulders.
“Good. I’ll leave you to it. To battle, my friend!”
“Aye, to battle!”