The masters were all about the same size (huge) but varied in appearance quite a lot. Only Cheng’s father had the classic demonic look to him. The rest ranged from ape-like to giant robot. Some had two legs and two arms, others didn’t. One of them was a large ball with a face and no appendages, at least not that I could see.
“What’s this I hear about your boy wanting to fight me?” said a hairy character whose long arms ended in spikes.
“He doesn’t want to fight you,you fool,” said a blocky figure who resembled a 50s wind-up robot. “He wants to challenge for the leadership. He’ll only face you if he finds himself among the defeated.”
The hairy one raised an arm and pointed his spike straight up. I think he was giving him the finger.
“I think it’s absolutely perfect,” said an octopus-faced frog-thing. “The boy should prove himself on the field of battle like we all had to. He is truly one of us.”
“Is that number six?” said a talking collection of boulders. The stone fortress stomped over and picked up the flappy-box and inspected it, turning it over and peering inside. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” He shook the box so all our weapons fell out and then he wrapped it in a craggy embrace. It was hard to tell what he was doing, but it looked like he was hugging the box. The box flapped its wings manically for a few seconds, but then settled down and started cooing.
“Look at those tiny weapons,” roared a gorilla with scales covering his body. “Is that what the boy will be trained with?” He didn’t sound impressed.
While all this went on we were mostly ignored, which was fine by me. As much as I’d have liked to stand tall and trade barbs with the cast of Pokemon XL, the strong urge to piss myself every time one of them looked at me (and they had seventeen eyes between the nine of them) made it very hard to come off as tough and fearless.
Mr Biscuit raised a hand and the others stopped talking. “We shall see what kind of offspring I have produced soon enough. Until then, you may prepare as you see fit. I look forward to meeting you in the arena. Number 288, take them to the stables.”
A small winged figure, a miniature version of the golems, flitted down from Biscuit’s shoulder and landed next to Cheng. The imp was about knee-high.
The masters turned around and walked off. They didn’t seem bothered by our sudden appearance on their mountain. They certainly weren’t threatened by Cheng or our intentions to make him champion of the tournament.
“It is good,” said Cheng, his six eyes blinking one at a time from left to right. He seemed relieved. “I did not think he would agree so readily, but I see now he was hoping I would insist on being a full participant.” He turned to me and smiled. I think. “You have helped me realise I need to be more like you.”
I wasn’t exactly what he meant by that. Whatever it was, I’m pretty sure he was mistaken. No one needed to be more like me. Not even me. Especially not me.
“He should be even prouder of you when you win,” I said.
Cheng blinked in the reverse order. I think the idea of surpassing his old man was difficult for him to process.
“I have no chance of winning, of that I’m certain.” He was more like me already.
“This way,” said the imp.
“Aw, he can speak,” said Flossie.
“He can probably also eat your face and make a xylophone out of your skeleton,” I said. “Don’t try to hug him.”
We picked up the stuff that had fallen out of the flappy-box and followed the imp down the parade of golems towards the palace. And then around the side of the palace to a long building that stretched into the distance. It had oversized doors, suitable for large demons, I suppose.
Inside, there were numerous stalls stacked on top of each other with a flappy-box in each.
“They’re like chickens,” said Flossie. “Ah wonder if they lay eggs.”
There was a girly scream, the kind women make when they see each other at a party, and Mandy came running out from a stall.
“You’re here! You’re here!” She threw herself into Jenny’s arms, and then hugged Claire and Flossie. They all reluctantly returned the hugs, not really sure how to react to the one-woman hug spam.
She skipped over to Cheng and took one of his multi-tentacled hands in hers.
“We knew you’d come eventually. I said they would, didn’t I?”
Mandy was usually a mouthy bitch and full of herself to an unbearable extent. She used her sex aggressively and was quick to anger and jealousy. She wasn’t a pleasant person to be around and not reliable or trustworthy. But right now she looked like a mess.
Her hair was all over the place and her face was drawn and haggard. She was putting on a poor imitation of her usual boisterous personality. Her eyes gave away her true feelings—she was terrified.
I looked at the others. Everyone had the same shocked look on their face.
“I know he looks different,” said Mandy as though the looks were aimed at Cheng, “but he’s the same underneath. It’s only temporary, isn’t it, Cheng?” She clung onto him.
“Yes,” said Cheng very gently, “only temporary.”
She’d been here alone, surrounded by monsters and faced with Cheng’s transformation into something even less human than he was already. She wasn’t all that sane to start with, I could only imagine how close to breaking she was now.
“Do you know about the tournament?” she said. “If he does well in that, we’ll be able to leave.” The desperation in her voice leaked out despite her best efforts.
“No,” I said, “that’s not true. Even if he does well, they’ll still kill all of us. By eating us, probably.”
Mandy flinched and held onto Cheng even tighter. “You’re wrong. They’ll let us go if we—”
“No. They won’t.”
Claire yanked on the back of my jacket. “What are you doing?” She hissed in my ear. “She knows what’s going to happen to her if he loses. She’s barely holding it together and you’re not helping.”
Gets a superpower, immediately thinks she knows it all. This is the real reason mutants would be rounded up and put in camps, and rightly so. Who wants to walk around surrounded by a bunch of smug fuckers who think they know what’s best for everyone?
“Mandy,” I continued, “stop kidding yourself. We’re fucked whatever way you look at it. Our only hope of getting out of here is if he wins the whole thing.”
“But he can’t. They won’t…”
“We convinced them to let him try,” said Jenny.
“They think it shows he’s one of them or summit,” said Flossie.
It took a moment for Mandy to accept this as true; and then only because it didn’t come from me. Her fierce grip on her composure slipped and she started crying. “He can win? He can really win?” she mumbled through the tears.
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe not. But it’s a chance.”
“Yes, yes. A chance. We have a chance.”
“And even if we fook up,” said Flossie, “Colin can go back—”
I slapped Flossie on the back of the head. Not because I consider it okay to hit girls, more because she happened to be within reach for once.
“Wha’?” She grabbed the back of her head.
“Don’t hit her,” said Dudley, his face a little red, but no real threat in his voice. Not yet…
“Don’t go around spilling information you don’t have to.”
“What information?” said Mandy. Her distress had subsided now that she genuinely believed we had a chance of getting out of this situation. Her keen sense of suspicion had leapt into the void left behind.
“Nothing you need to worry about,” I said.
“Do you really think I can’t be trusted?” Her voice was almost back to its normal irritating self. Being annoyed trumps being afraid one hundred percent of the time, I’ve found.
“Of course you can’t. If you get the chance to get out of here by betraying us, you’ll take it. You’d probably even betray him—” I pointed at Cheng who had been observing quietly “—if you thought it would help.”
Mandy’s eyes were no longer timid and terrified. They lit up like suns going supernova. She came at me, hand raised.
I was ready. I stepped back, grabbed Jenny by the waist, and twisted her in front of me.
People think dancing evolved as some kind of mating ritual. I think this move was probably more likely the source.
Mandy’s attack stuttered as she was blocked off by Scarface holding up her arms and asking for calm. Mandy lowered her hand, reluctantly.
“Good,” I said. “She’s back to normal.” I peeked over Jenny’s shoulder. “Just remember, if we lose, we lose. Nobody cares, so you shouldn’t either.”
Tears were still falling down her face, but they were of relief more than distress. “He’s going to win.” She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms. “I know it. I have some food. You must be hungry.” She turned and ran off into one of the stalls.
“Was that really necessary?” said Claire. “You could have pushed her right over the edge.”
I shrugged. “A little real hope is worth more than a mountain of the fake stuff.”
“Thank you,” said Cheng. “Your methods are… unusual… but that is the first time she’s seemed her old self since we arrived in this world.”
“Well, I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but you’re welcome.”
“Is it always like this with you?” asked David. I’m not sure what the tone was. Appalled?
“No,” said Maurice, “he isn’t usually that tactful.”
“Hey, Judas, it’s supposed to be bros before hoes.”
“Who are you calling a ho?” snapped Claire. Three sets of eyes glared at me hard enough to give me sunburn.
Well, that turned quickly.
“Chill out for fuck’s sake. Nobody’s going to pay to have sex with you lot.”
“I would,” said Dudley. I think he was trying to be gallant, but it’s hard to come across as noble when you’re offering to buy a blow job. The glares turned on him.
“Er, I mean, I just—”
Flossie put her arms around his waist. “Don’t worry. No charge.” She buried her head in his chest.
“This is what it’s usually like,” I said to David. “About to die at the hands of giant demons and look at them. Immune to common sense. The only weapon that works on them is a bucket of cold water. Speaking of weapons, Cheng, where’s this treasury?”
Cheng looked blank. Well, he looked like a six-eyed hippo, but a baffled one. “What treasury?”
“You know, a place where they keep special artefacts and weapons. Didn’t Daddy mention it?”
“No. I’ve never heard of such a place.”
I looked at Claire, but she was too busy holding hands with Maurice and whispering in his ear. I snapped my fingers in front of her face. “Oi. Back on the job. Give me that.”
I took the manual which Maurice was holding.
“Cheng can this thing read.” I pointed at the imp which was standing next to him, still as a statue.
“I believe so. No. 288, can you read?”
“Read this then.” I tossed the red book at the imp.
The imp didn’t move and the book bounced off its head.
“No. 288, follow the orders of this one.” Cheng pointed at me.
“Yes, master.” It picked up the book and began reading. “Thank you for purchasing the—”
“288, stop,” I ordered. The imp stopped reading. “Maurice, take it into a corner and listen to it read. See if there’s anything useful in there.”
Maurice looked a bit apprehensive. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
The imp wasn’t very big, but it still looked pretty vicious.
“It’ll be fine, right, Cheng? Just don’t get it wet or feed it after midnight. 288, follow the orders of this one.” I pointed at Maurice.
“While you do that, we’ll try to figure out where the treasury is.”
“East wing, lower floor, master.”
I stared at the imp. It stood there like a doll waiting for orders. Like a robot.
“Somebody go watch the door,” I said. “I think we just found the plans to the Death Star.”