Comfort rose from the ground in a jerking motion. The pounding he received had staved in the back of his head so it was dented and flattened to give him an unsettling appearance. It probably would’ve looked even stranger if his long fur wasn’t covering it.
He was unsteady on his feet but he managed to stagger forward, one of his spikes raised to Cheng’s face.
Jenny had her dagger half-drawn. I put my hand on hers and pushed it back down.
“He hasn’t lost yet.” I didn’t mind that she was willing to do what was necessary to send me back in time—indeed, it was probably the only way it would get done—but would it be so hard for her to be a little hesitant? You know, just for show.
Unscathed had Cheng immobilised. He was clearly stronger and there was no way for Cheng to slip out of the hold. From the looks of it, there was no way for him to even breathe.
There was an intake of breath around the amphitheatre as Comfort drove his spike towards Cheng’s face.
Mandy was on her feet. “Look out!”
I’m not sure how helpful this advice was. Cheng had six eyes and the spike was aimed directly at them. No one was better prepared to see what was coming than Cheng.
The spike froze millimetre from puncturing an eyeball. Phil turned to me. “Any ideas?” There was a degree of sarcasm to the question I didn’t appreciate.
It’s quite a luxury getting to fight with a pause button. I stood up and called out, “Cheng! Move your head.”
All the air had been squeezed out of him and he couldn’t find the breath to answer, but he was able to crane his neck to the side so that his head was touching his shoulder. It was a big head so there a lot to get out of the way.
I cocked my thumb and pointed a finger at Phil. “Hit it.” It’s difficult complaining about others when I can be such a monumental twat myself. Apparently I thought I was some kind of shitty rock star. The only excuse I can offer is a lack of judgement when I get overexcited.
Phil kindly didn’t tell me to go fuck myself (probably because he was a 90s kid and thought I was being cool) and snapped his fingers.
The spike continued on its murderous journey, missing Cheng’s tilted head and puncturing Unscathed’s chest.
Unscathed roared in pain.
It wasn’t just the tip, the spike went in all the way to the wrist. Even if it had struck Cheng in the face, it would’ve gone through and impaled Unscathed on the other side. Which made sense. There could only be one winner and if Comfort had the chance to get a twofer with just one hit, he’d be a fool not to take it.
Unscathed probably guessed this was Comfort’s intention and the fact Cheng had managed to dodge became a moot point. He released Cheng and grabbed the spike stuck in his chest with both hands. He pulled it out and a thick velvet curtain of black ichor poured out of the puncture wound.
With another, louder roar, he snapped off the spike. Blood (I’m guessing that’s what it was since it was blue and thin as water) spouted in a fountain, spraying wildly as Comfort roared in return.
Cheng had fallen to the ground and stayed there. Mandy screamed for him to get up. In a movie, the boxer hits the mat and is seemingly out for the count until a loved one (a child, a wife, a trainer in a pork pie hat) begs them to get back on his feet. And they do. Then they go on to win the fight, somehow.
Cheng didn’t get back to his feet. His body was twisted and bent out of shape. I had no idea what kind of internal physiology he had, but I’d guess there were plenty of broken bones and damaged organs in there, assuming he had those things to start with. Even if he was a quick healer, he’d need time to mend.
Fortunately, time was the one thing we could give him.
I called out to Phil and time stopped. Mandy immediately clambered over the short wall that ran around the perimeter and ran across the arena to Cheng. I don’t know what she thought that would achieve. She didn’t have a bucket of water or sponge or anything. Not even one of those little stools.
Unscathed had a hand over his wound trying to staunch the blood flow. His other hand was reached out towards the spike Comfort still had attached. Comfort in turn had been striking out wildly, ignoring his own wound. The blue liquid looked almost beautiful, frozen in a kaleidoscopic bouquet.
“What now?” asked Maurice. Everyone had turned their attention to me, including Phil and David.
It’s an odd feeling, when people look to you as the decision maker. I haven’t had much experience of that. Before I ended up transported to this freak show, nobody ever said, “We’re in big trouble, people—quick, get Colin.”
Back in London, a city of seven million people, any problematic situation that required sorting out would probably have seen me at least six millionth in the queue when it came to people you’d seek advice from.
Here, people not only sought my advice, they actually followed it. I don’t know how to effectively convey how much of a mind fuck that is when you aren’t used to it.
Most people in that position already believe their shit doesn’t stick before they get told it smells of roses by others. They win the confidence of others by having no doubts that they are in fact infallible. I’ve never felt that way. Even when I think I have a great idea, chances of it succeeding are minimal, in my estimation. Mainly because it’s going to require others to do their part. And they rarely do.
With everyone looking to me for answers, there was an overriding urge to shrug my shoulders and pass the ball off.
Yes, I’d managed to come through on previous occasions, but how long could my luck last?
A sharp pain in my leg brought me out of my reverie. I looked down to find Jenny’s dagger stuck in my leg. She’d stabbed me.
“What the fuck?”
“Stop it,” said Jenny.
“Stop what?” I asked through gritted teeth and a grunt of pain. “Why did you do that?”
She pulled the dagger out. She hadn’t stuck it in very far, but still… is that any way to treat the guy you like?
Unlike the blood frozen in place in the middle of the arena, my own red blood oozed out freely.
“Stop being all depressed and moody,” said Jenny. “Don’t make me have to do something drastic to snap you out of it.”
Stabbing me wasn’t drastic? I looked down to see Claire watching, nodding approvingly. I’ll tell you, demon’s to the left of me, jesters to the right, and I’m stuck in the middle with these harridans.
I healed my leg before it went gangrenous and had to be cut off. At least my magic still worked.
My magic worked, Even though time had stopped. There had to be a way to use this to my advantage, although, more importantly, I had to make sure Jenny didn’t think I’d been inspired by her treachery.
“You’ve got an idea, haven’t you?” She smiled, self-satisfaction dripping from her soft lips. Damn it.
“Yes,” I said churlishly, “but it has nothing to do with what you just did to me.” I don’t think she believed me.
Cheng had managed to get back up with Mandy’s help. She didn’t even have to stab him.
I created two balls of light with Jenny watching avidly, ready to claim credit for whatever I was about to do. I sent the two balls floating across the arena and placed one in front of Unscathed’s face so his open mouth looked like it was about to eat it. The other I put in front of Comfort’s grimacing face.
“Cheng,” I called out, “can you break off the other spike?” Unscathed was the stronger, but Cheng was no slouch himself. If the spike was breakable, then I saw no reason why Cheng couldn’t do the same.
A raised arm from Cheng indicated he would give it a try and then he exchanged a few words with Mandy. She was reluctant to leave him but eventually she returned to the stands.
Once she was back on the terraces, Cheng stretched out his wings hovered up so that he was level with the spike jutting upwards to avoid Unscathed’s grasp. Cheng placed all four hands on the spike.
“And keep your eyes closed,” I shouted.
The six eyes beaded across Cheng’s face closed. I gave the signal to Phil (a less ostentatious nod, this time) and time restarted. I snapped my fingers in time with Phil and the balls burst in a flash of brilliant white light.
The crowd went from rowdy shouting to confused gasps. Many of them were probably blinded, too, but not to the extent of the two combatants.
Even though time had resumed, neither moved, stunned by their sudden loss of sight.
Cheng didn’t waste the opportunity. He bent the spike in his hands and it splintered, then cracked. It wasn’t as clean a break as when Unscathed had done the same to the other one, but it was enough.
Comfort roared with pain and staggered backwards, one arm spewing blue fluid, the other with half a spike hanging off it.
Sometimes you hear of stories where an injured athlete fights through the pain to go on and win that Olympic medal. This wasn’t going to be one of those stories.
Comfort crashed backwards, stumps raised aloft, and wailed like a baby.
Cheng flew up and circled around. Unscathed was still blind and flailing his arms around, probably expecting Comfort to be still attacking. Cheng swooped down low and grabbed hold of one of Unscathed’s legs, using it to carry him off.
Unscathed was big and heavy, but the momentum Cheng had was enough to turn Unscated over and Cheng soared upwards with his prey hanging beneath him.
It was clearly a great strain on him as he struggled for height but soon they were a mere dot in the sky.
I thought he was going to drop him—the fall would no doubt do a lot of damage—but Cheng wanted to maximise his DPS. He looped over and began a dive.
He came down a streak, dragging Unscathed behind him helplessly. They looked like they were both going to hit together, but Cheng released his grip at the last moment and swooped across the deck and shot over our heads.
Unscathed did no swooping. He did splatting. When the dust cleared, a robot-shaped crater was the only sign of him.
There was silence (apart from Comfort’s continued wailing). Cheng hovered over the arena, waiting with the rest of us.
A square hand rose from the newly formed pit and slowly Unscathed pulled himself out, covered in mud. He managed to climb out, swayed from side to side, and then, like a chpped tree, fell over.
There was a pause, and then Mandy screamed jubilantly and started jumping up and down in exultation; even the back of her head seemed to be grinning. Unlike my own female supporters, she genuinely wanted to give her all for her man (or whatever Cheng was) which you had to admire. A bucket of fake tan and a ‘stolen’ sex tape and she’d make the perfect WAG.
The crowd were cheering, won over by the underdog even if they had no idea how he’d done it.
Technically, we hadn’t actually won anything yet, but we’d got through the first round, which had seemed impossible. Now we had to win the final and there’s no such thing as more impossible. Our odds of success were the same; zero.
How do you beat those odds? With a phenomenal amount of cheating. For whatever reason, 288 hadn’t informed on us and that gave us a chance.
I looked over at the balcony to see what the masters made of these events and saw a small figure flapping towards me. I stood up to see more clearly. It was 288 and he was alone. He stopped just over my head.
“The master wishes to see you,” he said.
“Do you mean Cheng?” I asked, knowing that wasn’t the master he meant.
“No. The Grand Master.” Then he turned and flapped away, but not very far. He stopped over Phil. “The master wishes to see you.”
That wasn’t a good sign.