How do you handle a situation where you’re hopelessly outmatched? Come up with a one-in-a-million longshot and hope to get lucky? My track record suggested not.
Yuqi, a fellow Visitor from Planet Earth, loomed over me, a spiral of warped vines twisted into an approximation of the female form constructed from giant pipe cleaners. Only the head manifested any kind of permanence; a ball with limp horns hanging on either side. A jester with killer material.
The only weapons available to me were my quickness of thought and ability to engage my opponent on a psychological level.
“Ah, so, you’re a girl?”
Okay, perhaps not the smartest thing to say to the living embodiment of your nightmares. Some women might even take offence at the question. Femininity, or the lack of, can be a sore point for those females with a more robust physique. Bodybuilders, Olympic athletes, giant demonic beings… it can be a touchy subject.
“Yes,” the voice rumbled like colliding planets. “At least, I used to be a long time ago, or so it feels. Time is so hard to pin down these days. But yes. A girl. Were you expecting someone petite and demure? A simpering cutie with big doe eyes? Sorry to disappoint.”
She didn’t sound very sorry.
“You probably prefer a wiggle and a giggle. I can provide you with those things, too.”
Tentacles writhed, changing the form from humanoid to something with far too many limbs, and back again. The giggle that accompanied the slithering transformation gurgled like a storm drain.
I looked around but there was no obvious direction to run. It was unlikely I’d be able to get away even if I did know where the exit was. I sat down, legs crossed. Even if this wasn’t a real place and my body wasn’t really my body, it still felt good to take a rest.
“Are you giving up? Have you had enough of running and running and running and getting nowhere, Colin?”
“Actually,” I said, “yes. You win. I don’t even know what it is you want, but you can have it.” I felt weary. I know the good guys aren’t supposed to give up and let the baddies win without even trying, but how was I supposed to fight Godzilla?
Yuqi, crackling with an electric glow that flashed across her skin in streaks, stared at me, which didn’t make me feel any better. “What are you planning?” she asked suspiciously.
“Nothing. I don’t have a plan. I’ve never had a plan. David said I couldn’t die in here, is that true?”
“Death is not a concept that exists in this place.”
Kind of a pompous answer. A simple yes would have sufficed.
“Okay. I’m going to take a nap, then. It’s been a long day.” I lay down. It wasn’t the most comfortable, but I’d slept on worse.
“What are you doing?” There was a slight tinge of irritation in the voice.
I pushed myself up on my elbows. “Just five or ten minutes. Then I’ll help you do whatever it is you want. Okay?”
A terse roar blew over me. I think it was a snort. “Do you really think I’d believe that? You’d leave your friends to suffer while you take a nap?”
Clearly, she didn’t know me at all. “Yes. It’s time travel, isn’t it? There’s no point rushing. If I go back, I’ll still end up at the same point in time. The past isn’t going anywhere.”
I lay back down and closed my eyes. When I couldn’t see the monstrous behemoth in front of me, I felt quite relaxed. Sleep drifted—
My whole body went rigid, shook so hard I bounced off the ground repeatedly. Every muscle in my body extended to what felt like breaking point. If my jaw hadn’t seized up, I would have screamed.
It only lasted a few seconds but when it stopped sweat covered my face and my breathing sounded more like the braying of a donkey, only not so genteel.
“You think you can just ignore me and I’ll go away? You think you can turn your back on me? This is my house. Nothing here is beyond my powers. You will bow down to me.”
It was difficult for me to form words. I had bitten my tongue and pulled a muscle in my neck. No wonder Amnesty International made such a fuss. Torture not pleasant, confirmed.
“You can’t outsmart me, Colin,” she gloated, taking great delight in my suffering. “The Day of Welding approaches and I know you have a plan. Your sort always do.”
She had definitely confused me with someone else. “What...” I said, struggling for air. “What… is the Day of…” It was hard because I could only take shallow breaths; anything deeper caused paralysing pain across my chest. “Day of Welding?”
There was silence. A long silence. So long, I opened my tightly shut eyes in the hope she wasn’t there anymore.
Unfortunately, she hadn’t moved. The mouth, which had previously seemed an ominous crack in reality, now seemed a stupefied gash of disbelief.
“You don’t know what the Day of Welding is?” To say she sounded incredulous would be to undersell just how much flabbergast was packed into each syllable.
I managed to sit up. My muscles had relaxed enough for me to move, although my legs still quivered like jelly. “No idea. What is it?”
“Didn’t anyone mention it?” She was going a bit overboard with the whole ‘how is this possible’ tone, if you ask me.
“They mentioned it. It’s a big deal, I get that, but every religion and cult and group of nutters has a special day. The day a magical thing happened and now we have to dress up and celebrate the super special thingy, every year, forever, for no fucking reason. Happy Herper Derper Day! Who gives a sh—”
Another bolt of agony zapped through me, arching my spine so hard I smacked the back of my head against the ground. I flopped about like a landed fish for at least a minute, my teeth clenched along with everything else that was clenchable.
When she released me, my skeleton seemed to have dissolved. I lay there, unable to move.
“What kind of idiot are you? Didn’t you think it might be important? You could have asked someone. Anyone.”
When you’re being subjected to extreme levels of pain by an insane villain, the usual response is to make a witty remark. Something cutting which demonstrates your refusal to give in.
It’s so cliché, though. I decided to go in a different direction; I burst into tears.
“Why don’t you…” Tears were streaming from the corners of my eyes and trickling into my ears. I wasn’t sad or upset, it was just the relief of not being electrocuted. “Why don’t you just tell me.” I began sniffing like a coke-fiend and panting in short bursts.
“The Day of Welding is a tournament,” said Yuqi. “The masters gather on their unscalable peak and battle each other. There is a winner, who becomes the leader, and a loser, who gets eaten by the winner, who absorbs the powers and strengths of the flesh and so becomes even greater.” She explained it like I was a child, which was fine by me. Her voice also went from menacing and ominous, to slightly cranky.
Even though I was in a very stressful situation, it was good to know I still had the ability to annoy the fuck out of people. That old Colin magic.
What she told me about a tournament among the masters actually was worth knowing. She was right, I should have asked someone.
“How many masters are there?” I asked in between wheezes.
“You don’t even… No, of course you don’t. There are nine masters left. There were hundreds, once. Maybe even more. The one who arrived with you makes it ten. He is favourite to get eaten, by the way.”
I assumed she meant Cheng. I was surprised he decided to take part, although maybe he didn’t have a choice.
“What about you?” I said. “Are you taking part?”
“Ha!” It was a mirthless snap of laughter. “I am not one of them. Not yet. But I will be, with your assistance.”
“I’m not sure what you expect me to do, but if you keep giving me the taser treatment, I won’t be much use to anyone.”
This time, the laugh was unfettered and full of mocking. “Like you said, it’s time travel. When you return to your previous body, this one will no longer exist. Whatever I do to you here is of no consequence. I can take your suffering to the limit, and then a little further. The mind is quite elastic. It bounces back, if it doesn’t snap. Hehehehe....”
I spasmed and writhed as another bolt of lightning assaulted me from the inside.
“You’re going to help me, Colin—no, no, shhh, don’t talk, just listen. Do you have any idea how hard it is to use fear to control people who aren’t afraid of dying? They love dying. They think of it as a blessing. You can’t scare people who jump into Death’s arms on a regular basis. You have to use more persuasive tactics. You have to break them, the way I’m going to break you.”
Over the sounds of my bones cracking I heard her giggle whoop and soar. You had to hand it to her, she had the whole monster thing down to a tee.
“You might not be able to die here, but you’ll wish you could.”
There was sizzling sound, which was the surface of my skin cooking. She stopped after five minutes. I immediately pissed myself, which was odd considering my body was just a mental projection in a non-existent space. I also noticed that my sinuses had cleared up. All the crying had left me quite blocked up, but now I drew a long breath in through my nose, filling my chest with air that didn’t exist either. So, not all bad.
“Tell me something,” I said through shuddering sobs. “What happened to all the women?”
“Oh, you noticed, that did you? I’m surprised you didn’t put it down to them all going off on a shopping trip.”
Somehow, I had given her the impression I was a sexist arsehole. Completely unjustified. I began to suspect she had been listening in on the girls talking. Typical gossiping women.
“They are in hiding under the city,” she said. “When the Day of Welding approaches, the masters select the choicest females for their… entertainment. The people of Meet, with a little guidance, decided to hide their women so the masters would choose the three from your party.”
“That was your idea?”
“It is no easy task to threaten people who love killing themselves. You have to give them something they fear losing. You have to give them hope. They need to believe they can control their own lives, save their loved ones, then they’ll do what you say. Of course, the masters would notice the lack of options. Your companions aren’t exactly the most attractive females Nekromel’s ever seen and the masters have fussy tastes.” She extended the word into a hiss. “They would have sniffed out those poor girls in the end. The feeble men of Meet could never have changed that, but hope makes believers of us all.”
“That’s kind of cold,” I said. “Shouldn’t you be trying to help your sisters?” I raised a fist. “Girl power?”
I nearly snapped in half as a bajillion volts coursed through me.
“All that is irrelevant. Little David’s only real job was to win your trust, but Philip…” The oversized head shook from side to side and the horns crackled with blue light. “I will deal with him later. The only thing that matters is defeating the masters in the tournament. You will see to it.”
I rolled onto my front and wiped the drool from my mouth. “Take it easy… I said I would... If you tell me what it is you want from me, maybe I can even come up with a better way to do it.”
There was a howl. Laughter? Outrage? I wasn’t sure.
“You think you know better than me? I, who have been devising the perfect plan for years? Can you truly be this arrogant.”
I crawled on my stomach, every grunt and groan wracking my body with pain. “Hey, I’m not the one who’s been stuck in a black box for the last sixteen years.”
“They promised me a chance at immortality. To be a god!”
“And you believed them? Weren’t you a bit gullible?”
I’d say it was at least ten minutes under the zap-o-matic this time. I was foaming at the mouth and had double vision.
“Fine, fine… I’ll do what you say. But how do you expect me to help you when Phil and Dave couldn’t? They’re both more powerful than me.”
“What are you talking about? David flashes his sword about like a paper ninja, and Philip is a child with his toys.”
“Phil can stop time!”
“Now who’s being gullible? He has no such power. It’s a device he wears around his neck.”
Technically, Phil was still able to stop time, even if it was through some magical artefact. Good to know, though. I’d have to figure out a way of nicking it off him, assuming I got out of here with a few brain cells still intact.
“And David can’t travel back in time?”
“Only we can do that.”
She leaned down. The gnarled, tangled body and startling horns were alarming, to say the least, but it was the eyes that were truly shocking. They were completely human, if a little manic, giving the impression of someone trapped inside the monstrous figure hovering over me.
“I was like you when I first arrived here.”
“Tired and depressed?” I asked.
There was a chortle. “I mean I was able to jump back in time. I thought it was such a gift. A superpower, like a comic book hero.” A sigh escaped the lipless fissure in her face.
The mouth moved when she spoke but there were no teeth, no tongue. There was only a rip through which stars twinkled at me.
I dragged myself backwards to get a little distance, not that it would make a difference. “And how did you end up like this?”
She straightened up. “They noticed me jumping back and changing things. Considered it cheating. Can you believe it? They have the power of deities, and I was the one cheating! They caught me, confined me to this tiny corner of Nekromel. The rest of Nekromel is a paradise, did you know that? No, of course you didn’t. Dalada is the cesspool where all other sewers flow to. They gave me this ditch of shit to watch over, to see if I’d be their obedient pet. Use me as their lackey, then throw me into the tournament when I’m strong enough to offer sustenance, but not so strong I pose a threat. They’re in for a surprise. They have no idea what I’m capable of. No idea.”
“So, you don’t gather people for them? Send them to the Palace to be eaten?”
“Oh, yes, I do that. I can’t let them know what I have in store for them. I’ve been waiting. Waiting for you, Colin.”
“Of course. The moment you jumped back, I knew you were the one. I can see it all, the different threads you create. They were mine to control once, but now my body lies between life and death and my mind is trapped here. They can’t let me die, it would free me.”
Her gruesome face swung down, a galaxy coming to claim me.
“You will find my body and you will revive me. Perhaps you will wake me from my slumber with a kiss; that would be fitting. I give you permission. Raise me from everlasting sleep and together we will destroy the masters, take their power and gain access to all existence!”
“Sounds great.” I turned my head so I didn’t have to stare into the open mouth of eternity. “I’ll be happy to help.”
“I will be a god. There are so many universes, so many places to go.” She slammed a balled fist into the blackness around her. There was thump like she’d hit it against a wall. “You don’t know what it’s like to be trapped here. How I ache to be free.”
“What will you do once you get out there?” I asked.
“Isn’t travelling to alien worlds enough?”
I shrugged. “I went to Paris on a school trip when I was a kid. Eiffel Tower and all that. It looked like a picture on a postcard. Don’t get me wrong, if you want to travel and do the whole tourist thing, go for it. Personally, give me a sofa and some snacks, I’m good.”
“Do you even understand what I’m talking about. A god!”
“Yeah, I get it. Sound exhausting. Very, very exhausting. It’s fine with me, though, if that’s what you want. If you let me go back, I’ll help you. You don’t have to torture me, or break me. I’ll do it willingly. You can get David and Phil to keep an eye on me; they can kill me and send me back here if I try anything. It’s in my interest to help you, Yuqi, that’s why you should send me back, right now.”
I was rambling. It was hard to think straight with every inch of my skin on fire and smelling vaguely like barbeque.
Yuqi smiled. I think. Or maybe she was considering sucking me in like a black hole absorbs the meaningless debris of space.
“It is time travel, as you keep telling me. We can do this until you get it right. I won’t go so easy on you next time, so make sure there isn’t one.”
I was falling. The pain in my body was gone. The wind in my face was refreshing and the tears it brought to my eyes were nothing like the ones smeared across my face just a moment ago.
This time, I knew the goal. I was familiar with the controls. I knew where the weapons were stashed. The people to trust, or not—mainly, not. I knew what I needed to do. Speedrun.
Tentatively, I turned my head, afraid this time would be different, that nobody would be there, but Jenny was plummeting beside me. The others were screaming and generally freaking out, which was strangely comforting.
I rolled over onto my back. High above me, I saw him against the white of the sky. A small figure flapping large wings. He seemed to be carrying something, although he was already too far to be sure. Cheng. He was the key to getting out of here. Preferably, alive. I rolled back as the water rose to meet us and I dived in.