The masters who emerged from the Palace strode into the arena three abreast. No armour, no weapons.
Maurice, sitting on the terrace below me, had his notebook out and was comparing his sketches to the combatants as they entered the arena. They walked in through an archway which was barely high enough to allow them in and the crowd let out a collective nervous murmur.
Each of them was a colossus, twice the size of a regular person. Each had two arms and two legs, but other than that, they were as different from each other as was possible.
The tallest of the three was a shaggy-haired sasquatch-type of creature with spikes for hands. It must have made wiping his arse very tricky, assuming he needed to perform those sorts of bodily functions. According to Maurice’s notes, he was called Comfort.
Beside him was Unscathed, a robotically block-shaped creature but with smooth, hairless skin rather than metal. He had a squat, powerful body and large, heavy hands with three digits on each. They didn’t look like they’d be very good for anything other than punching things. Which, by a lucky coincidence…
And the third of the combatants was on another level entirely when it came to weirdness. He had a triangular head with very tightly curled horns. At least they looked like horns at first. He had a thin, long-limbed body and from the look of him you would guess he was the weakest of the three.
Maurice had him down as Dark Melody, which sounded very elegant. The talons on the ends of his spindly fingers had a less genteel effect.
And behind them, head lowered and exuding no confidence whatsoever, was Cheng. He was smaller than the others by some margin but he was still a giant compared to us. Not that you’d know it from his anxious slouch.
“Cheng! Cheng! You can do it!” Mandy screamed to the shock of the crowd. Their focus shifted from the strange giants to the strange bird in the bleachers. Cheng looked up and gave her a small, embarrassed wave.
“Which of them is likely to win?” I asked Maurice.
Maurice leaned back to talk to me, earning him a disparaging look from Claire. “According to 288, Comfort’s the one to watch. He came second in the last tournament.”
Spike-hands was the early favourite, but the other two didn’t come across as the type to go down easily. Cheng very much had his work cut out for him.
They spread out to take up positions facing each other at the points of a cross. Then they waited, stretching and limbering up.
Were they waiting for a signal of some kind? They didn’t seem to be in a hurry.
The crowd grew a little restless, more from not knowing what was going on than anything.
I leaned across Jenny and bent lower to stick my head between Phil and David. “Are you ready?” I asked Phil.
“Yes.” He spoke tersely. He hadn’t been the same since we’d found his friend and hadn’t been very talkative since we’d got back. David turned to give me a slight nod.
As much as I hated always having to do everything myself, it was just as difficult having to rely on others. Especially when it was this bunch of no-hopers.
“I say,” said Dudley, “these are very good seats, aren’t they? Impressive view of the whole shebang. Best seats in the house, I’d wager.” He stretched his neck and looked around. “I don’t suppose there’s a concession stand about, is there?”
“Ooh,” said Flossie. “Ah’d like a sausage on a stick.”
Typical. Death surrounded us and all they could think about were snacks. I didn’t want to even consider what might be in the hotdogs.
Jenny slipped her arm through mine. “It won’t be so bad.”
“I know.” I nodded vaguely. “Can’t be much worse than the hotdogs back home.”
She shook my arm to get my attentions. “I meant the tournament. Are you alright?”
“Mm? Oh, yeah. I’m fine.”
The problem with having an intimate relationship with a girl is that she ends up knowing you intimately.
“No, you’re not. You think we’re going to lose. No one is up for it. Cheng’s scared. Phil’s distracted. And 288 knows what we’re planning to do and may have already told on us. You don’t believe this is going to work for a second.”
She wasn’t angry, or even worked up. She was stating facts in a calm and reasonable manner.
“Yep,” I said, “that pretty much sums it up.”
“You’re probably right,” she said, “but acting like you have no belief will only make sure you fulfil your own prophecy.”
“What am I supposed to do? Just because I’m the leader doesn’t mean it’s my job to make sure everyone does their jobs properly.”
Jenny put her head on my shoulder and kissed the side of my face just below my ear. “Yeah, it kinda does. Telling people what to do is the easy part. Getting them to do it properly is what separates the good leaders from the bad ones.”
“Maybe I’m one of the bad ones, then.”
“No, you just have a different approach. You’re at your best when you’re shitting yourself. You need to be pushed right to your limit before inspiration tells you what you need to do. Complete and utter despair is like your spinach. That’s why I’m so good for you. I can always get you there.” She began nibbling on my ear.
Is that really what a good girlfriend is? So terrifying you’re always on the verge of a nervous breakdown? I pushed her away. Eventually. “I’d rather have less terror and a demotion. Someone else can be in charge.”
Jenny didn’t respond. When I turned to see why, she was staring up at the sky. I followed her gaze. Nothing but white.
“I saw something move,” she said.
I scanned the sky but saw nothing, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t seen something. There were giant flying fish up there, as I knew. I wondered how they fit into the whole death of the planet scenario. Were they going to be consumed by the masters, too? Why hadn’t they already? And what about the kraken in the ocean? There were quite a few of them and they seemed to be doing fine.
Why hadn’t the masters used them for nourishment? Did they not eat fish?
While I pondered these questions, a gong sounded from the direction of the Palace. It was loud enough to silence the crowd; some of them even put their hands over their ears.
Doors opened on the top floor of the Palace and the other masters emerged onto a balcony. As I took in this sight there was movement below me. The fight had begun.
Unscathed (robot guy) and Dark Melody (curly horns) charged towards each other. Cheng and Comfort waited. I assumed this was how the fight worked, taking it in turns to attack.
A tremendous noise broke out from the crowd as they clapped and cheered. It was a predominantly female crowd, so the sound was high-pitched and grating.
You might think women would have a distaste for violent sport, but you would be mistaken. Women on Planet Earth, sure. They are, generally speaking, less likely to experience the bloodlust that accompanies gladiatorial combat, but even that is a particular kind of refined woman. And by refined, I mean artificially affected.
Women are as likely to be roused from behind their mask of civility as anyone. And the lower down the social ladder you go, the quicker the mask will fall. Am I saying poor people are more vulgar than the rich? No, I’m saying they’re not so worried about showing it.
Then again, there are some people, both male and female, who find any kind of physical violence unwatchable. Not because they have higher morals or are more civilised, but because they’re squeamish.
Flossie had her face buried in Dudley’s chest and refused to budge, not that I think he minded.
Unscathed ran with his arms stretched out in front, eager to get a hold of his opponent.
Dark Melody seemed just as eager to give Unscathed something to hold. He ran straight towards the incoming arms.
As Unscathed was almost upon him, Dark Melody leapt high into the air. His horns unfurled to reveal wings attached to his head and flew over the grasping hands trying to snag him out of the air.
Unscathed dug his tombstone feet into the ground and snorted in irritation before turning his head at the laughing shout from behind him to where Dark Melody had landed.
But before the bulky robotic body could manoeuvre himself to face the other direction, Dark Melody had jumped again, this time onto Unscathed’s back. He bucked and tried to reach behind, but his stocky, square limbs were not suited to such nimble movements.
Thin arms were wrapped around Unscathed’s neck, which was the same width as his head. He snorted and bellowed; veins stood out on his square head and his eyes bulged grossly, making him look more human. A human pumped full of helium and about to explode.
Failing to dislodge his attacker, Unscathed threw himself backwards, attempting to crush Dark Melody. But he wasn’t quick enough. His crash into the ground only damaged himself. Dark Melody had jumped clear, somersaulted and snapped his wings open to land gently on his feet.
Wings, from what I’ve seen, are usually attached to the back or sometimes as extra skin underarm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them sprouting from the ears. Mind you, I have seen helmets with winged insignia, so the idea isn’t totally without precedence. It still looked ridiculous in action.
Unscathed rolled over and got back on his feet in a fluid motion that belied his size. He stampeded towards his opponent, who again came to meet the charge head on, and again leapt at the last moment.
But Unscathed was ready for him this time. He leapt too, and although he didn’t reach anywhere near the same height, it was far enough to grab a foot.
Unscathed stuck the landing, both feet planted into the ground with enough force to send a tremor through our stone seating. He brought Dark Melody back to earth with a bang, slamming him into the turf face first.
The crowd moaned, but whether it was out of pity or bloodlust, I don’t know.
Then he lifted him and brought him back down again. Three times without resistance was enough to reduce Dark Melody’s face to mush. There was no blood, just a gradual deterioration until the flailing arms went limp.
The crowd had fallen silent as this battering continued.
Unscathed stopped. He was breathing hard which at least indicated he wasn’t a machine. He picked up Dark Melody and set him on his feet. He was like a rag doll, unable to stay upright without help. Unscathed shook him and the large eyes, completely black, opened.
A line opened across Dark Melody’s mangled face, which turned out to be his mouth. A laugh came out of it and he slapped Unscathed on his shoulder. It was a feeble slap but he seemed to be okay otherwise.
Unscathed released and Dark Melody unsteadily walked out of the arena. There was applause but now that they had seen how brutal an encounter it had been, an air of uncertainty had settled over the crowd.
Triumphantly Unscathed returned to his previous position on the other side of the arena and stood with his arms folded across his chest.
Cheng’s turn. His opponent was taller, had a bigger reach and had spikes for hands. Nothing comfy about them. He didn’t have wings, unless there were hidden. They might be rolled up inside his butt for all I knew.
Cheng stretched out his own wings, glanced over to where we were sitting, and moved towards the centre of the ring. Comfort did likewise. When they reached the middle, Comfort lunged forward, arms aimed at Cheng’s waist.
He froze in mid-air. Cheng beat his wings and jumped over the extended arms and came down on the elongated back.
Time resumed and Comfort grabbed at nothing. Cheng’s feet drove into Comfort’s spine, sending him jack-knifing into the ground like he was about to be snapped in two.
The crowd gasped at what, to them, must have appeared to be explosive swiftness.
Cheng’s knees followed his feet into Comfort’s back. My eyes flicked across to watch Phil snap his fingers to a beat of Cheng’s four fists wailing on the back of Comfort’s head. Unable to move, Comfort could do nothing to avoid being perma-stunned as each blow landed with maximum force on an exposed and vulnerable target.
It looked like the number two seed was going to go out of the competition in record time. Which would have been great if the fight had been just between the two of them. But it wasn’t.
Unscathed entered the fray without warning and grabbed Cheng from behind, wrapping him in a bear hug which pinned Cheng’s arms to his side. Lifted up, his legs were the only part free to move. His wings and all four arms were tightly bound.
The rules of engagement were flexible, apparently.
The arms around him tightened. Cheng’s body squeezed in the middle and ballooned on top. Even if Phil stopped time, Cheng was already caught. Freezing Unscathed in that position would change nothing. If he could get free, but he would have to do it on his own. And quickly. Comfort had got back to his feet and he didn’t look happy.