Wind roared and whistled in my ears.
Falling from such a great height would almost certainly prove fatal. It wouldn’t be pleasant but it wouldn’t be the end, either. Just inconvenient to have to go back to square one and do it all again. And first there’d be Yuqi to deal with.
Surviving the fall, however, would be infinitely worse. Lying there, back broken, limbs twisted in unnatural directions. Not good. I couldn’t heal myself if I couldn’t use my hands.
As I fell, arms spread out and staring upwards, I saw Cheng hovering above me, framed against a white sky. It was definitely him, although he looked very different. Hitokag had told me Cheng had three forms. I’d only ever seen the demon and the boy, perhaps this was the other one.
Four arms, wings like a moth, face like a diseased hippopotamus—I could see why he wouldn’t go out in it much.
A grey streak smashed into Cheng, taking him across the sky at great speed before slowing down enough for me to work out what was going on. A second winged figure had attacked him. This one was larger and its appearance was familiar. It was a war golem.
The golem had grabbed two of Cheng’s hands, the remaining two tried to release the first two.
Cheng tucked in his legs and then kicked the golem in the midriff with both feet, using the momentum to propel himself downwards.
His wings pinned to his side, he caught up with me in a couple of seconds, with the golem in close pursuit. He grabbed my foot, stretched out his wings, said, “I need to talk to you,” and tossed me upwards.
My stomach lurched as I rose, now seeing just how close the ground had been. It was a large meadow full of pretty flowers. One more second and I’d have been squished into fertiliser and evenly distributed in all directions, which would have been excellent for the the plantlife.
The golem collided with Cheng just as he let go of me. They tumbled a couple of times before crashing into the ground, creating a deep furrow in the earth.
The two struggled, wings flapping as they tried to grab each other. Cheng had an obvious advantage having four arms to grapple with, but he moved awkwardly, unable to get a good grip with his many-digited hands while the golem was very fast, blocking and hitting in the same movement.
It was harder to make out who was winning the higher I went, but then I slowed to a stop, hung there for a second, and began to get a much better view as I resumed falling.
The ground rose to meet me and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I screamed. Not out of fear, mind you. I just wanted to catch Cheng’s attention in case he’d forgotten our game of keepie-uppie.
I meant to call out his name, but with my stomach attempting to crawl out of my mouth all that emerged was a garbled jumble of sounds. It was enough to make him look up which gave the golem an opening. It grabbed Cheng around the waist and lifted him up. It was not a loving embrace.
This time, my fall wasn’t from quite so high up, so there was a good chance I’d only break all the bones in my body. Cheng seemed too busy to help out and unless I had a secret flying skill that only emerged at times of imminent death, there wasn’t an obvious way to not hit the ground. Dodge left?
Cheng pushed down on the golem’s shoulders and managed to squeeze the top half of his body up enough to unfurl his wings. He twisted and flapped, causing the entangled duo to skim across the ground until they were directly under me.
My feet hit the back of the golem’s head with a crack, which was caused by both my ankles breaking.
The golem buckled and let go of Cheng.
I hit the turf and didn’t feel anything. For one blissful second. And then my legs caught fire, or at least it felt that way.
When I opened my eyes, which had shut tight in reaction to the tsunami of pain washing through me, Cheng had the golem by its feet and was spinning around, faster and faster. He released the golem like a hammer thrower and it went flying off into the distance.
He came stumbling over to me, barely able to stay upright, but whether he was injured or just dizzy I couldn’t tell.
“We only have a moment before the golem returns,” said Cheng, his sonorous voice interspersed with gasping breaths. “You must take Mandy with you and leave this place.”
“Take her where?” I asked through my own panting, although mine was less from exertion and more from trying to manage the pain.
“Whatever your plan is, when you leave, you must take her,” Cheng insisted. “She isn’t safe here.”
There was a roar and we both looked up. A dark shape with wings outstretched was closing on us.
“Take me back to the others.” I struggled to a sitting position and gritted my teeth as I bent over to heal my ankles.
“We can’t lead it to them. It will—”
“You worry too much about other people. Just do what I tell you.” I was a bit short with him, which probably isn’t a great idea when confronted by someone who can kill you with a slap, but breaking both my ankles had made me irritable.
The pain in my feet began to subside as I healed myself, and then spiked again as Cheng grabbed me by the armpits and launched into the air. This time the takeoff was gentler, but hardly any less terrifying. I was facing backwards so our pursuer was square in my vision.
Cheng was quicker and more nimble. He took us through trees and was agile enough to only get brushed by the tips of branches while the golem slammed into everything in its path. Broken branches crashed to the ground but the repeated impacts slowed down the golem. By the time the flappy-box appeared ahead of us, we’d managed to get a little distance on it.
With my neck twisted I could see the others were where I’d left them. Maurice stood on top of the box with his hands shielding his eyes, finger pointing. He was probably shouting something, but the rush of air combined with the rush of blood left me unable to hear anything apart from an endless roar in my ears.
They all had weapons now, and looked like they intended on using them in a very ineffectual manner.
“Put me down!” I screamed into Cheng’s chest. “Gentleeeee…” I should have started with the gently part.
I hit the ground knees first (which was intentional to try and protect my ankles, but still horribly painful) and rolled along the ground.
Cheng stayed aloft and turned to face the golem which was still on our tail. With Cheng’s back to us, David crouched low and rushed through the tall grass.
“Phil! Time stop.” I could see Phil’s eyes register the order and then start to formulate objections. We’ve tried that… It won’t work… I have a better idea… “Now!” I screamed.
Despite what Jenny thought, the reason I didn’t consider myself the leader-type wasn’t because I didn’t have good ideas or didn’t know what needed to be done, it was because people always had a reluctance to do what I told them. They just didn’t want to follow my orders. Their own ideas were risible and clearly terrible, they would willingly admit, but they still had to be better than mine, right?
The ferocity of my delivery was enough to push Phil into action. He snapped his fingers and the golem froze in place, a metre or so above the ground and just before its extended arms could grasp Cheng who hovered between it and us.
David chose this moment to leap out of the grass, sword raised and aimed at Cheng’s head. He had about as much chance of taking Cheng by surprise as if he’d tried to sneak up on a volcano. Cheng moved to one side and David went flying past
Cheng turned around. “What’s he doing?” I couldn’t tell if he was angry or confused. The strange misshapen head was so far from human there was no way to understand the alien expression on its face. It was like an internet chat room with no emojis, impossible to read.
David hit the ground on his back and then sprang back to his feet, his sword pointed at Cheng.
“Put that away before he takes it from you and sticks it up your arse,” I said, getting even more annoyed.
“Please believe I would never do that,” said Cheng, apologetic on my behalf.
“Just ignore him,” I wheezed through the pain. “He thinks you’re a master.” I had to take a pause to catch my breath. “Give me a sec, Cheng, my feet are killing me.”
Jenny came running over and chose to throw herself into my arms at a very inappropriate moment. I lay flattened under her.
“Cheng,” I heard Claire say, “is that you?” Followed by more voices expressing surprise through various non-verbal sounds.
“Could you get off me?” I asked Jenny.
I really didn’t know if this clingy idiot was the same girl I knew before I time looped, or a copy from a parallel universe. My lack of experience with time travel and with relationships made it hard to tell. Perhaps all girlfriends turned out like this after a set amount of time.
She rolled off me. “You really have to stop running off to play hero. You don’t have to impress me.” There was a twinkle in her eye, of pure sarcasm. If this wasn’t the real Jenny, she’d done her homework.
While I took a couple of seconds to fix my ankles, everyone else had surrounded Cheng, with Phil and David hanging back nervously. By the time I got to my feet, Flossie had explained how we knew Cheng and his position as the leader of Monsterland, which made them even more nervous.
“He’s the Archfiend?” said Phil, stunned.
“Yes,” said Flossie, “but he’s our friend, so stop trying to stab him.”
Friend was stretching it a bit, but we needed him on our side if we were to have any hope of leaving this place, of that I was sure.
“Okay, okay,” I said, bringing the attention back to me, “why were you out here fighting that thing?”
Cheng was slightly distracted by the weapons hanging in mid-air where they’d been left. I was impressed none of my party had trapped themselves when Phil stopped time. He was trying to pluck a short sword out of the air and not getting very far.
“I am in training,” said Cheng, “and I need to get back before I am missed. My father has decided I should enter the tournament, but I am unprepared, he says, so I need to—”
“So you’re buddies now, you and your father?” I said. “The one who ate your mother?”
“Yes,” said Cheng, wincing—possibly because of the memory of what happened to his mother, or because the sword wouldn’t budge. It was hard to tell with his giant hippo face. “My father is the Grand Master.”
Phil and David both reacted to this news with shock, exchanging looks and gawping at each other. Their minds were being blown.
“Why do you look like this?” asked Claire, tactful as ever. “It doesn’t suit you.”
“Yeah,” joined in Flossie. “Are yo’ not feeling well?”
He let go of the sword and turned to face his interrogators. “It is my battle form. I’ve never had much use for it, but now that my other two forms have merged, my father insists I stay like this.”
“Why?” I asked.
“He says it isn’t seemly to present a corrupted form.”
“Hold on,” I said, “I thought welding things together was all the rage among your lot.”
Cheng tilted his head to the side. “I suppose you could say that. However, my change is not something I chose, it was forced on me. Until the tournament is over, I am to stay in this body and train against them.” He waved his hand towards the golem in suspended animation (literally suspended in this case).
“What is this tournament you keep talking about?” said David, finally getting up the nerve to speak.
“All the masters try to kill each other,” I said, “and the winner gets to eat the loser.”
Cheng looked startled (again, I’m guessing that’s what his reaction was). “That isn’t it at all.”
“Oh,” I said, wondering if Yuqi had lied to me. “The loser doesn’t get eaten?”
“Yes, that’s what happens to the loser, but we don’t try to kill each other. That would be barbaric. It is a very controlled display of skill and precision.”
Sure, not barbaric at all.
“And you’re taking part?” asked Claire.
“Partially. The tournament starts off with multiple battles with the winners going on to fight for the leadership and the right to consume the lesser of the losers, who fight in a separate bracket. I will be allowed to fight in the lower bracket only.”
“That’s not fair,” said Flossie.
“It is what my father wishes.”
Seemed a bit suspect to me. Why bother entering a competition you aren’t given the chance to win?
“But is you lose, will you still be eaten?” I asked him.
“Yes, of course.” He didn’t appear to see anything wrong with this.
“Cheng,” I said, “I know it’s the taking part that counts, but that’s usually when participating doesn’t mean you end up on the menu. You’ve got everything to lose and nothing to gain.”
“You don’t understand. I have to do this, for Mandy’s sake.”
“She’s here, too?” said Claire.
Cheng’s head dropped. I want to say sadly, but who knows? “She is safe for now, but after the tournament she will be in grave danger. She will be consumed along with the other tributes. That’s why I want you to take her with you. I think I can smuggle her out and bring her to you.”
“No,” I said. Some people find it hard to turn down a request for help. Apparently.
“She won’t survive if—”
“Still no. We don’t have anywhere to take her. That’s why we were coming to see you. My plan was that you would have a plan.”
“Me? I cannot leave here. This is my place... from now on.” He didn’t sound overly enthusiastic.
“Erm,” said Maurice pushing his glasses back up his nose. “What exactly are the rules of this tournament? Isn’t there a way you could get yourself into the upper bracket?”
“Even if I could, they are far stronger than me. I wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Fair enough,” said Maurice. “But it looks like you aren’t affected by this.” He pointed at the frozen golem.”
“Right!” I said, understanding what Maurice was getting at.
“What exactly is ‘this’?” Cheng asked, also pointing at the golem.
“That’s not important right now,” I said. “What’s important is it means you can win the tournament. You’ll be able to move but none of them will.” I hoped I was correct. If it wasn’t, it would be a very short tournament for Cheng.
“You want me to cheat?” I didn’t need facial expressions to see how appalled he was by the idea. “I can’t do that. This is sacred to my people. We do this because it is who we are. To take an unfair advantage is not our way.”
“Yeah, well, it’s only half of who you are. You’re also human, and our way is to take whatever edge we can get and act like we’re smart for not getting caught. All’s fair in love and war, and if you want Mandy to not get served up as an hors d'oeuvre, you better start thinking with the human half of your brain.”
I was starting to be able to read his face now. Uncertainty was writ large all over it. A little more push...
“Cheng, you need to make up your mind. Do you want to do what’s right and be able to live with your head held up high, or do you want to win?”