We hurried back up the shaft and through the Palace. I say hurried, although there was the expected amount of faffing as we all tried to scramble up the handholds. It’s a lot easier going down than up, let me tell you.
Cheng flew up with Mandy and left us to it. I took the opportunity to tell the others about the encounter with the Jester, although I left out most of the details of the fighting. Not because I didn’t want Jenny to get her due, but because I didn’t think David would appreciate her mutilation of the girl he clearly had very deep affection for.
The main thing I impressed on David and the others was that Yuqi was willing to wait for her freedom. David seemed to accept this as the best way forward and left the dust laden semi-corpse behind.
I had no idea how we would bring her back to life or if it was even possible, but we could deal with that after we had defeated the masters, crowned Cheng King of the Demons and found a way to leave this world before it was reduced to a ball of sand. So probably sometime after lunch.
The trip to the treasury (storeroom would have been a better name for it, if you asked me) hadn’t been all that fruitful in terms of finding a super-weapon or game changing device. We would have to rely on Phil and his time stopping trick.
This had been the plan from the start, but I couldn’t see it going off without a hitch. It just wasn’t how we rolled. Some kind of secondary plan (I didn’t want to call it Plan B, because nobody likes Plan B) would have made me feel a lot less anxious.
It didn’t help allay my fears that Phil had gone from his usual smug-self to a jumpy, nerve-racked bag of tics. Seeing his friend stuck in the wall affected him in the way you would expect. He was weighed down with guilt and his relaxed Gen X ambivalence was a distant memory. He jogged through the Palace with a lot more purpose than before.
But chief among all these concerns was 288. The marvellous, deplorable, detachable demon’s organ could blow all our plans in one moment of indiscretion. Indeed, that may have been the very reason he’d been left with us.
“Did 288 find anything interesting in the manual?” I asked Maurice as we snuck back through the throne room with the azure dome.
“No, not really,” said Maurice. “He read all of it, but when I asked him if he’d found anything good, he just bent over and presented his bum to me. You know, I’m starting to think he might be an M.”
“Do you think there’s a way to wipe his memory? Maybe in the manual.”
We were in the long the final passage towards the Palace gates. Maurice stopped and scratched his chin. “I don’t know. Would he tell us if there was? I know I wouldn’t want people to know how to return me to factory settings.”
“Come on,” said Claire, noticing we had hung back. Maurice instantly answered the summons by trotting after her.
If there was a way to clear 288’s memory of sensitive information that would solve the problem in one fell swoop. But simple solutions never presented themselves to me. He wasn’t a USB stick, he was… I wasn’t quite sure what he was at this point, other than a liability.
“Hey,” Jenny whisper-shouted at me, “you coming or what?”
The others were already down the other end. I ran towards them, not because I’d been summoned, you understand, but because I was the leader and without me they had no idea what to do. Mind you, even with me, it was still touch and go.
Outside, the world hadn’t changed. The golems still guarded the empty stables and the white skies remained empty. The masters hadn’t returned and we had achieved very little in their absence.
“Phil?” I put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a shake.
“What?” he snapped at me. His mellow had well and truly been harshed.
“Can you stop time so we can get back into the stable?”
It took a few seconds for the intensity to drain from his bugged-out eyes and he calmed down enough to snap his fingers. His eyes reminded me of Yuqi, which doesn’t mean I think all Chinese people look alike since the Yuqi I’m referring to is the giant dream monster, not the unconscious girl with the big boobies.
With time stopped we were able to return to our accommodations without any fuss. We all fell down in the stalls, exhausted as much from the tension as much as the actual effort.
Nobody felt very much like talking and I think the enormity of what we had to do was starting to dawn on them. Cheng in particular had become very quiet and he and Mandy disappeared to another part of the stable to be alone. Even though his appearance was far more monstrous than it had been when mandy had first met him, she seemed completely unfazed by his many eyes and misshapen head. Or maybe she just had kinky tastes.
Maurice took 288 over to a stall and got him to read some of the manual to him. I heard him ask lots of questions. I didn’t hear many answers. There were quite a few thumps followed by something hitting the stall wall.
I tried to talk to Phil about the device he used to stop time and that perhaps he should show someone else how to use it, but he didn’t even seem to register what I was asking him or why.
“It’ll be fine,” he said dismissively.
“But you’re going to get tired. You know what happens when you use it a lot in a short space of time. If we have several fights in a row, you won’t be able to operate it.”
He stared at me blankly and then lay down and went to sleep; I took that as a no.
I lay down and tried to think of a clever way to prevent 288 from reporting back to Cheng’s father. There was bound to be an elegant solution if I could just think of it. I fell asleep.
Dudley spotted the flappy-boxes returning a couple of hours later. He had taken up position by the doorway, one arm around Flossie’s shoulders like he was showing her off to the golems standing on guard.
“They’re coming back,” he called out to the rest of us. We all got up and wandered over. Our preparations for the big fight had consisted of napping.
The wagons were accompanied by the masters. They landed behind the golems who finally moved.
The wagon doors fell open and people came surging out. They were predominantly young women, although there were some young men.
“Why do they prefer to eat women,” muttered Claire.
“Probably the extra fat,” said Maurice without thinking, which earned him some stares. “What? Women have more body fat than men, on average. That’s just a biological fact.” He did himself no favours by not shutting up. “And fat tastes better.” No favours.
The new arrivals seemed very excited. And happy. They pointed out the golems like tourists taking in the sights and ooh’d and ah’d when they saw the Palace. They thought they were here to become part of something bigger, which I guess they were. Like potatoes in a casserole.
And flying over the crowds towards the masters was a small figure. 288 reporting in.
He landed on Biscuit’s shoulder and told whatever he had to tell him.
My stomach sank and I mentally prepared myself.
“Make sure you have one of the daggers on you,” I said to Jenny. “You might need to send me back in time.”
Jenny nodded and showed me the dagger in her hand. She was way ahead of me.
The golems moved aside as the masters stomped towards us, driving the people ahead of them. There must have been at least a hundred of them.
“I thought they only took two or three tributes,” I said to Cheng who had appeared beside me.
“This will be the last Day of Welding,” said Cheng. “There will be need for a lot of sustenance.”
“People of Meet,” boomed Biscuit, “you who have been chosen, celebrate your good fortune.”
The people cheered.
“Like your ancestors before you, the stars will be your home from this day on. The life you knew will be a forgotten speck against the endless existence you will share as one of us.”
Again the cheering broke out. People will believe anything if you sell it well enough. Too good to be true just makes it sound more desirable.
“Tonight you will feast. Tomorrow you will witness the greatest tournament ever to take place on this or any other world. And then you will ascend to greatness.”
There have been boyband concerts with fewer deluded women.
Cheng left with the masters, leaving behind a forlorn Mandy. We weren’t addressed and nothing suggested Cheng’s father knew about the ace up Phil’s sleeve. 288 rode away on his creator’s shoulder.
The people all crowded into the stables, ducking and squealing in delight as the flappy-boxes buzzed them on their way to their roosts. It was all new and exciting for them.
Later that evening, with the sky turning pink and jets of white flame around the perimeter providing light, a large bonfire was built in front of the Palace gates. Small golems (although none as small as 288, or his distinctive shape) roasted large cattle of some kind over the flames and fed the people who gathered around.
There was an air of excitement, as there always is around a barbeque. Some things can’t be ruined, not even by monsters.
We had our plan. We knew what we had to do to survive. There was an excellent chance we would fail even if we hadn’t been ratted out by 288, but it wasn’t like we had another option. Well, we had one other option. Kill myself and do it all again.
Is it normal for the hero to feel depressed before the big battle? It wasn’t like I’d be doing the fighting, but not even that could cheer me up.
We returned to the stables for the night. It was a lot more crowded than before and much noisier. The flappy-boxes flapped and creaked in objection to being disturbed, which only made it noisier.
I ended up leaving the stables and going beyond the shooting jets of flames to watch the stars dance over the sands.
The next morning, all traces of the bonfire had disappeared and in its place there was stone amphitheatre. Not an easy thing to knock up overnight.
It wasn’t huge, the arena was about the size of a school gymnasium, surrounded by tiered seats made of something resembling granite. People hurried to take their places and buzzed in anticipation.
After what seemed like hours, but was probably more like a ten minutes, the Palace gates opened and three of the masters emerged, followed by Cheng. He was in the first round, which was a relief. If things were going to go tits up, I’d rather get it over with.