Once they’d confiscated Phil’s device, the masters lost interest in us and returned their attention to the fighting below. The combatants were barely visible as clouds of green dust billowed over the arena, seemingly emanating from the rotund master who was mainly head. Special gas attack?
Cheng’s father had his arm around Cheng’s shoulder, proudly claiming him as his own. Despite the method of his victory (or maybe because of it), Cheng was now considered legit. He was worthy of being a Darkholme demon.
Cheng turned his neck to give us an apologetic look. Well, I say that, it’s hard to tell what six eyes blinking in sequence is supposed to signify.
No one seemed to be forcing us to stay and there weren’t even any snacks, so I didn’t see the point of hanging around.
“Is it okay if we go?” I said to the accumulated backs ignoring us. It was a good indicator of just how little threat we posed that despite our magic and powerful devices, we weren’t considered worth locking up or even keeping an eye on.
And maybe rightly so. What were we going to do?
No one acknowledged my request, or even my existence. 288 jumped off Biscuit’s shoulder and flapped over to us. “This way.”
The golems made no move to stop us. Apparently permission had been given.
There was a general prickliness among the group as we headed back down the staircase, only Mandy hesitating to leave. We were being dismissed in a very offhand way, like it didn’t matter what we did. I think this was a feeling we’d all experienced in the past, although perhaps we had forgotten what it was like, our lives having taken a strange path in recent months.
Of course, deep down we were still those same awkward, easily-flustered dorks who didn’t know how to handle embarrassing social situations. Sex with a fellow dork and wandering around with a sword didn’t change that.
“Ah’d like to see his face when we beat him,” muttered Flossie. “Fookin’ big head.”
“He does have a big head, doesn’t he?” said Claire. “I wonder how he found out about the time machine.”
Phil, who had been very quiet since his expulsion from the belly of the beast and was still dripping yellow goo, rounded on the two girls. “Someone obviously told him. Probably your little friend who’d been keeping tabs on us since we got here.”
Dudley stepped in between Flossie and Phil, his features clouding. His usual reticence to put himself forward didn’t apply when it came to the girl of his dreams. Phil realised his mistake and backed off.
The little friend in question was 288, and Phil had a point.
“288, did you tell the masters that we could stop time?”
288 paused at the bottom of the staircase and turned around to stare back up at us. “No.”
“Why not?” I asked him.
“They didn’t ask.”
He could have been lying, but I didn’t think he was. What reason would he have? We’d already lost our key weapon against the masters, and they weren’t worried about us using magic to aid Cheng. If anything, they enjoyed allowing us an advantage just so they could make our defeat all the more demoralising. They were like bullies who gave you a headstart.
When we exited the Palace, 288 headed for the arena but I didn’t really want to watch the fighting. It might give us some insight into how the others would fight and what techniques to use against them, but I wasn’t convinced it would help us all that much. Without Phil’s device, it’d be a massacre.
“We can still win, can’t we?” Maurice asked me. The others all waited for my answer.
Pressure. Jenny claimed I was at my best when under impossible conditions, and maybe that was true. But this kind of expectation, where people look to you for answers you don’t have, was just debilitating. Too much time to think.
A wild monster coming at me with jaws gaping and fangs glistening got the adrenalin pumping.
Big-eyed dependants looking lost and helpless just made me want to hide until they found someone else to cling to.
I considered lying to them, giving them a boost with a rousing pep talk. I decided against it.
“No, I think we’re fucked. But we still have our backup, assuming they haven’t figured that one out, too. Which they probably have.” I sighed. “I’m not really looking forward to going back and doing this all again, I don’t even know what to change, and having to re-explain everything to all of you is going to be a pain, but it’s still an out.”
They didn’t say anything.
“I’m going back to the stables.”
“What should we do?” asked Claire.
“Whatever you want.” I took the long way around the amphitheatre, sounds of clashing fighters rocking the walls, and headed back to the stables. I didn’t have to look back to know they were all following me.
I felt a presence on my shoulder and turned, expecting it to be Jenny, but she was further back handing out hope and optimism. She was like my one-woman PR street team, selling me as a leader worth following. If it hadn’t been for her, the others would probably have abandoned me long ago. I really had to get her to stop.
“You aren’t confident,” said David. He had stopped wearing his cowl and mask. He was in his 30s but had a very boyish face.
“I’m never confident,” I said. “It’s part of my charm.”
“I think you can still do it.”
I found this surprising. David had never expressed any kind of admiration for me or my abilities. The only reason he had agreed to come was because of Yuqi. No doubt he had planned to leave us to our foolish plan and take care of things on his own. But here he was.
“Why do you think that?”
“Because you have such monstrous good luck, it is inevitable you’ll stumble your way through, somehow.”
That made more sense. He didn’t think I was capable of doing it myself, he assumed someone as useless as me could only have succeeded due to massive variance. Even dumb shits get the time right twice a day.
I didn’t make intelligent choices, I made random choices that turned out to be correct by fluke. It was a roundabout way of belittling me and my achievements.
My view of things was quite different. I saw myself as incredibly unlucky and put my survival down to not being a very impressive trophy. Nobody’s going to put my head over the mantel and go, “Look what I caught!” So far the plan was going great.
“David, I’m no luckier than anyone else, including you. The reason I’ve managed to get closer to a way out in a couple of days than you have in sixteen years is because you suck at this.”
When it comes to trading insults, I’m not one for subtlety. Pretending to make supportive comments while actually sticking the boot in is just childish. Plus, he started it, the passive-aggressive douche.
David stopped and stared at me, probably deciding whether or not to cut my head off with his big sword. He decided against it. Lucky me.
When we got back to the stables, I retired to the stall I’d been sharing with Jenny and lay down. My options were fairly limited. Either die and try again or somehow win the tournament.
Even if I did go back, and the masters weren’t waiting for me the way they had with Yuqi, I had no idea how to not end up in exactly this predicament.
At some point Jenny came in and lay down beside me. She slowly nuzzled up against me which could only mean one thing. I tensed for the attack.
“I’m not going to stab you,” she mumbled into my neck.
“That’s exactly what you’d say if you were planning to stab me.”
She took the dagger from her belt and tossed it across the stall. “See?”
“Second dagger,” I said.
She smiled, sat up and took a dagger out of her boot. She threw it so it landed next to the first one. “Happy now?” She wrapped herself around me without waiting for my answer.
While I considered the chances of her having a third dagger hidden somewhere, she began nibbling on my ear.
“You know how the masters treat us like something stuck to the bottom of a shoe?” she mumbled between licks.
“Mm,” I replied.
“That’s how you treat us, sometimes.”
I sat bolt upright, an acute pain suddenly digging into my chest. Some people don’t even need a knife to cut you.
She grabbed the back of my shirt and yanked me back down and reinserted herself around my rigid body. “Calm down. We know you don’t mean it the way they do. You’re just a bit inconsiderate of other people’s feelings, you know, because you don’t have any of your own.”
It’s not nice being told unpleasant things about yourself. Especially when you recognise them as true.
“No one expects you to change. Just don’t forget we love you.”
How do you respond to that? How can you accept it when your whole existence has been built on a solid foundation of the exact opposite?
Maurice’s head appeared over the dividing wall. “The book’s gone.”
I stared up at him. “What book?”
“The manual. I left it here, and now it’s gone.”
“It wasn’t that useful, though, was it?”
“Might have been.” His glasses threatened to fall off his face as he peered down. “What’s she doing?”
“I’m checking him for weapons,” said Jenny. “He might be planning to stab me. If I’m lucky.”
“Ask 288,” I said, ignoring the wandering hands that had got inside my shirt. “He probably took it to the masters.”
His head disappeared. “Hey, 288, come here… Did you take the book that was here?”
“Did you give it to your masters?”
There was a pause. “Then where is it?”
“I lent it to some friends.”
There was something strange about the way 288 was talking. He didn’t normally say any more than was absolutely necessary, which basically meant a vocabulary of yes and no. And since when did he have friends?
I pushed Jenny off me (which took an immense amount of willpower, I can tell you) and got up to peer over the divider.
Maurice was sitting on the floor with 288 standing opposite him looking his usual disinterested self.
“288,” I said, “how do you feel about the masters?”
He looked up at me and shrugged. He’d never done that before. “They’re alright, I suppose.”
I exchanged a look with Maurice. Golems weren’t supposed to talk like that.
“Did you read the manual, 288?” I asked him.
The manual had been full of information about how to take control of the masters’ creations. 288 was one of those creations. Reading it must have been quite eye-opening for him.
“Would you like to be free of the masters, 288? Choose what you want to do for yourself?”
288 continued to look at me. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no, either.
“And what about the other golems? Do you think they’d like to do their own thing?”
There was the slightest of nods.
Well, well. It seemed Mr Biscuit was going to experience something all men had experienced at one time or another. He was going to be betrayed by his own penis.