I looked upwards, eyes searching the skies. Somewhere up there, giant fish swam through the clouds. If I could tempt them down, maybe they would fight my enemies. Who was I kidding? The first thing they’d do was eat me.
Cheng landed in the middle of the arena, both his opponents out cold. He lifted Comfort out of the pool of blue liquid he was lying in and tried to carry him. The difference in size was too great, and Cheng too exhausted, so he had to drag the body out of the arena, back to the Palace. A trail of blue trickled behind them.
Unscathed rose to his knees, collapsed, and tried again. After a couple more aborted attempts, he got all the way up and followed.
There was a smattering of applause but most of the crowd were still confused about how Cheng had managed to defeat the two larger challengers and chatter was rife in all parts of the amphitheatre. A flash of light and Cheng appearing out of thin air was probably considered some kind of magic known only to the masters. The masters obviously already knew it had nothing to do with them.
Phil rose from his seat as 288 flew overhead and excused his way past the people seated in his row. He paused when he got to where I was sitting in the row behind.
“We’ve been summoned,” he said.
“I thought you could handle this one,” I said.
Phil sighed. “Do you really think they won’t notice if you don’t turn up? I’m sure they have other, less polite ways to make you go.”
He was right. But if they knew about the time-stop, what good would it do to walk willingly into the lion’s jaws?
A good leader would have seen this coming and have a contingency plan locked and loaded. A flappy-box camouflaged under a tarpaulin, ready for a quick getaway. A tunnel dug and hidden behind a picture of Rita Hayworth. Dorma was supposed to have a plan of his own, now would have been a perfect time for the cavalry to arrive. There was no bugle sound, no charge of heroes to the rescue.
“You expected this to happen, right?” said Phil.
I nodded. A mediocre leader knew when to keep his mouth shut. “Let’s go then.” I stood up.
Jenny stood up at the same time and grabbed my arm, pulling me in for a kiss. “Good luck.” Then she sat down again.
“You’re coming, too, minx.”
“Who me?” said Jenny, like I was talking to some other minx.
“I’m coming,” said Mandy, jumping to her feet.
“You all are.” I didn’t see why I had to walk into the lion’s den alone.
“They didn’t invite us,” said Claire.
“Yeah, but I am. And I’m the leader. Up, you fuckers.”
Reluctantly, they all rose and grumbled their way down the rows towards the exit. I don’t think it was the demons they were upset about. More likely they thought while I was off taking care of things they’d have a chance to sneak off to get in some rutting. Young people in love are disgusting.
Once we were out of the amphitheatre it became clear what would have happened if I had refused to accept the invitation. A line of war golems waited at the exit, ignoring us. But ignoring us in a very menacing manner.
288 flapped up to the head of the biggest one and exchanged some words out of earshot.
“Whatever happens in there,” I said to Claire, “try to pick up anything Cheng’s Dad might be thinking. He’s going to have the most useful information.”
“I can’t,” said Claire. “I tried before and I got nothing.”
“Like with me?”
Claire hadn’t been able to read my mind in this timeline even though she’d managed it in the previous one. I still didn’t know why.
“No. With you it’s like a wall I can’t get past. With him, it was just empty. It’s like that with all of them. Maybe they don’t think the same way we do.”
There’s no point having an edge if you can’t use it against your opponents. They were stronger and way more powerful than us, the least they could do was let us cheat.
The Palace gates opened as we approached and three more of the masters emerged. There was an ape-like one with very long arms; another who one that was all head and seemed to hover across the ground; and one made out of rocks, or so it appeared. They paid no attention to us as they made for the amphitheatre.
We entered the Palace and the gates closed behind us, cutting off the sounds of the crowd cheering. Or screaming. It was hard to tell which.
Rather than continuing down the long corridor like we had during our last visit, 288 turned left and flew into the wall.
Only by going forward and looking back could you see the opening covered by overlapping walls. It was a similar optical effect to the shaft that had led down to the treasury. If this was a feature of the Palace, there were probably many more hidden entrances we hadn’t spotted.
We climbed a broad winding staircase, a nagging sense of terror at the back of my mind accompanying me up each step. Perhaps we were going to be congratulated on having done an excellent job coaching Cheng into the final. Yeah, not very likely.
The stairs ended at an enormous archway that led into a vast hall. On the opposite side there were several more arches that led out to a balcony. Three masters stood with their backs to us. The sounds of violent clashes mixed with reactions from the crowd wafted towards us.
It was only once we’d entered the cast hall that I noticed the golems standing on either side of the arch behind us. They moved forward like statues come to life, ushering us forward whether we wanted to go or not.
Out on the balcony, the noise was noticeably louder, waves of yells and screams.
Cheng’s father, Biscuit, turned to greet us. “Congratulations,” he rumbled. “It seems my son chose well.” 288 settled on his shoulder like a captain’s parrot. “The light flash was very well timed. Not a technique I would use myself, but an ally is merely an extension of oneself.”
I had to tilt my head back to see his grotesque face. I’m no expert in demonic expressions but he didn’t seem angry about my intervention. So, that was good.
“We didn’t break any rules?” I asked him.
The creature to his left, an octopus-headed thing squatting on frog legs, leaned forward. The tentacles hanging from its face rippled as its voice gurgled out. “What is ‘rules’?”
If it was a free for all then maybe stopping time wasn’t cheating, either.
“My son, on the verge of becoming the Grand Master.” He seemed almost tearful at the prospect. I mean, he wasn’t, he was terrifyingly malevolent, but almost. “Now we will see if he is truly worthy of the mantle of Darkholme.”
“I thought this mountain was Darkholme,” I said. I felt like I should keep the conversation going. The others were crowded behind me, refusing to mingle. This was why I never took them to parties.
“This is Darkholme. Wherever we go is Darkholme. It is with us, always.”
A little bit grandiose, but I guess when you live in a castle on top of a mountain you can afford to be.
“And you’re leaving this world after the tournament?” Since he was being so forthcoming I thought I might as well pump him for info.
“After the tournament the barrier will come down. The land will be ravaged, the seas will boil away. Nothing will be left for us.”
“What about all the people?” Claire blurted out. I was more than happy to let her tag in.
Biscuit smiled. I think. His mouth spread wide and teeth were displayed. “They will perish. Their lives will no longer be necessary.”
“According to you!” said Claire, her natural hostility towards annoying men overcoming her nervousness around twelve foot demons.
“Yes,” said Biscuit. “According to me.”
When he put it like that, it was hard to argue against.
Claire had her hands on her hips now. “You would happily exterminate thousands for your own self-interest? Because you’re just that important?”
“Yes.” You had to hand it to him, he knew how to make his point.
Claire, of course, didn’t know when to shut her trap. “So you’re going to murder them just like you murdered Cheng’s mother?”
Biscuit’s face actually registered some emotion at the mention of his ex-wife. I can’t say for sure which emotion it was, but there was definitely a shift in features.
“Murder? There was no stealing of life with his mother. She gave herself to me freely, as those who watch below do so also.”
“Yo’ saying she wanted you to eat her?” said Flossie. Defiance can be catching.
Biscuit paused, probably trying to work out what Flossie had said through her thick Brummie accent.
“I was trapped in a world that could not sustain me. The man in the tower brought me there against my will, trapped me with no way home. The air was like poison. Each day I grew a little weaker and the only way to open the portal required more energy than I possessed.”
He paused and turned as Cheng came out onto the balcony. He looked unharmed. Mandy flinched, wanting to run to him but resisting. You don’t want to cause a scene in front of your prospective in-laws.
Biscuit put his arms on Cheng’s shoulders. “Your mother offered me her life so that mine might continue, but she is with me still, in here.” It would have been touching if he’d touched his heart or maybe his head. But he placed his hand on his stomach, which was kind of uncomfortable.
“The power of love,” said Mr Biscuit, “is a curious thing.”
“Makes one man weep, makes another one sing,” said Flossie.
Biscuit nodded. “Sage words.” First time anyone ever said that about a Huey Lewis song.
This revelation about Cheng’s mother stymied us all, even Phil and David. If she had really given up her life of her own free will, did that mean Biscuit was the monster we had thought? Answer: yes. You don’t eat people just because they say you can!
“The man in the tower,” I said, “the one who summoned you, he’s the one who sent us here. Do you hold a grudge against him?”
“Aye,” said Biscuit, his mood growing more sombre. “I would give much to have him within my grasp.”
“Then help us get back. We can send him to you.” I had no idea if that was possible. Certainly I’d be happy to try, but getting away from this doomed world was my first priority.
“We have no need of your assistance. The man in the tower will be dealt with in time. We have plans in place to bring him and his world under our control. Such is the power of the Prophecy Machine.”
This was the first time anyone had mentioned a Prophecy Machine. Before I could ask him about it, the third master—named Cheeser by Maurice—a yellow gelatinous blob proportioned like a snowman with large, black orbs for eyes, extended part of its body into a thin limb and threw it out like a whip.
The gelatinous limb curled around Phil’s body and then yanked him across the balcony straight into the jelly belly with a floop! sound.
It was so quick we had no time to react. Even if we’d had the time, I’m not sure what we could have done. Phil hung there, floating in yellow goo. His arms and legs flailed about but to no effect.
The body encasing Phil vibrated and Phil vibrated along with it. Then there was a climactic convulsion and he was ejected. He landed on the ground covered in slime and slid across the floor puking up goo.
Inside the now vacated body there was an object about the size of an index finger. It was throbbed with light, changing from one colour to another, although all colours were seen through the filter of Cheeser’s translucent body so they appeared to be different shades of mustard.
“Interesting,” said Biscuit as he bent down to peer into Cheeser’s stomach. “I seem to recall this was one of the oddities we brought back from the… third Darkholme. No one ever knew what it did. To think, it had power over time itself… Quite interesting.” He straightened up again. “I don’t know how it came to be in your possession, but no matter. It will be even more interesting to see how you will do without its aid.”
Yes. Interesting. Not the word I would have used.