Brilliance and Bitterness
Prologue: The Finalists

A/N- This story is the prequel to Riding the Nightmare. I didn't mean to start it until RtN was finished, but I realized I was writing less 'enigmatic hints of the past' and more 'nobody's gonna get this without backstory.' So since I couldn't really write RtN the way I wanted it done until this story gets finished, I'm switching stories. So there.

Disclaimer: I don't own OMF, I just borrow and abuse the characters, but Misty and Ratchet are mine, all mine!

The mood in the room was sober. How anyone could've expected anything different was quite uncertain, but...

"The tournament is scheduled to begin August 15th, 2097, and is expected to take place over two months. It will be held in various arenas—on Earth, Luna, Mars, and Europa—depending on random draws by the competing pilots. Because the number of candidates is uneven for standard brackets, and in order to ensure the victor wins through skill rather than luck, it will be a triple-elimination tournament." Unspoken was the other factor. In order to increase ticket sales, and thus profit, the tournament must last as long as is feasible.

The man, some nameless and faceless WAR intern, read almost mechanically. The occupants of the room were not all necessarily listening—the same orders had come to each of them over their work terminals that morning.

The reception was Major Kreissack's idea of a show. Little media was permitted in the room, but the fact that it had happened at all would be enough for the public. It certainly wasn't for the competitors to get acquainted—many already knew each other, and they were the ones casting the majority of distrustful looks at their peers.

"Ten finalists for the position will compete. Cossette Akira."

She had once been imposing, but injury had placed her in a wheelchair, robbing her of stature and much respect. The mind behind it all still functioned, and her bitterness at so many people treating her as an inferior would make her a dangerous and unpredictable foe. Kreissack sought her out and smiled as her blue eyes flickered about the room, daring someone to cast a derisive look in her direction.

"Jean-Paul Delaney."

He stood in the back of the room, emerald gaze not quite focused on the intern, a tall and wiry incarnate of indifference itself. His strength was his intelligence, not his physical ability, and he would not be expected to last long. Yet the competitors would watch him with caution. His enigmatic ways would make him one of the hardest fighters to prepare for.

"Christian Devroe."

His hands were clenched at his sides as if he might erupt at any moment. Kreissack knew this to be true. Christian was very good, but his skill was offset by that boiling rage... he would act rashly, and he would be defeated. Kreissack savored the thought of his failure, though he knew many fans—mostly females awed by the striking blonde—would not be so pleased.

"Crystal Devroe."

What was she playing at? She stood apart from her brother, but without him how could she expect to last any further than the three guaranteed rounds? She was no warrior, and really, wasn't her brother's presence enough for that pathetic family? No matter. She had been qualified to compete, and he would enjoy her failure just as much as her brother's.

"Shirro Hiritsu."

He was easy to pick out, considering the light shining from his bald head. Legend had it he used Mr. Kleen to achieve the effect. Kreissack wouldn't put it past him. Shirro was a favorite, still strong and skilled despite his advancing age, and he was no threat to the Major. He was optimistic, and preferred to sit back and let things work themselves out. A fool, but a very useful fool... perhaps, though, not completely foolish. Hadn't it been his idea to hold this tournament, when he was one of the best fighters under consideration?

"Ibrahim Hothe."

He seemed confident, and rightly so. He wasn't necessarily a fighter, but he was certainly an athlete, and he knew the HARs inside out. All things considered, knowing the HARs might be the most important part of this whole tournament. Kreissack supposed it wouldn't be so bad if he won. The man's obsession with the machines made him easily controlled.

"Raven Shikoba."

Kreissack's bodyguard stood supremely confident, positioned in such a way that the room's climate control blew his dark hair in front of his face. He did have a flair for the dramatic on occasion. Raven was almost certainly the greatest fighter there, and were it a hand to hand battle rather than in HARs he would have little trouble succeeding. The machines evened the field somewhat, but Kreissack was well aware his puppet was still operating with excellent odds.

"Milano Steele."

His deep brown eyes could not remain focused, but it was not the nervous flickering of some of the others. Even in this carefully controlled environment he sought out the slightest hint of a security threat. He was good at what he did, but Kreissack would be just as happy if he stayed there. He put up a noble front, yet there was an undercurrent of craftiness to him. Kreissack could not claim to be comfortable with either facet.

"Angel T'au'lin"

The intern had stumbled slightly over the last name. Kreissack let his eyes move to the young woman, her silvery white hair granting her an aura of unreality. Nobody could understand why she was there. She wasn't even an employee of WAR! In truth, Kreissack himself could not explain why he had allowed her in, but... her jade eyes lifted, as if sensing his gaze on her, and any doubts fled.

"Steffan Tommas."

What a pathetic brat. He looked as confident as Raven, but he was no more than a baby. The fact that his qualifications were superb despite his age only made the others resent him more, and what did such a child know of fighting? Barely worthy of thought. He could not win.

Ten finalists. Ten HARs. Kreissack looked around at them and smiled. They didn't have to know the forces at work behind the scenes to know the opportunity each of them had here. Each with their own motives, but motives no longer mattered. Combat would determine the victor. A regression, perhaps, into a less civilized—and less complicated—age. One he most wholeheartedly approved of.

The man finished reading and exited, leaving the competitors to stare at each other with renewed hostility. And, on a few occasions, curiosity. Most of that was directed at the girl Angel, who stoically ignored their gazes. That was fine. There was no need for anyone here to get too friendly with anyone else.

In fact, Kreissack would be just as happy if they remained hostile. It made things so much easier.

Two years. Two years for training, preparation, and more training and more preparation. And then they would take to the arena. And nobody knew what might come out of it...

Well, only one person. But Kreissack wasn't about to share the knowledge.