Despite his resemblance to a creature from fevered nightmares, underneath it all Cheng was still the insecure boy with abandonment issues. Put him in a war to save his people and he’d lead like a true general. Tell him to stand up to his Dad, and he made jelly look sturdy.
“What you’re suggesting, it isn’t even… I mean, I don’t know if it’s possible…”
“Well,” I said, “what are the rules of the tournament?”
Cheng took a moment to think it over. “I’m not sure. My father told me it would be best for me not to enter the full tournament. Otherwise I might have to face him.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “Either he doesn’t want to hurt you, or he’s afraid of you. I wonder which it is?”
“I… I don’t think he fears me,” said Cheng.
“Sounds a bit like he does,” I said. Obviously, I didn’t really know how Cheng Sr. thought or what his reasons were for not wanting his boy in the tournament proper, but the fact he hadn’t given a clear-cut explanation for his decision raised a few suspicions.
In my experience, limited as it was, the person with a definite reason for doing something questionable always wants to lay those justifications on the table. And the person reluctant to do that has something to hide.
“Wait,” said Phil. “Hold on for one minute. Are you suggesting we go with your friend to the tournament and help him win?” said Phil.
“Yep.” I gingerly took a few steps to test my newly fixed ankles. They worked, which was a relief.
The pain had been quite extreme and yet my reaction had been fairly restrained. I hadn’t twisted my ankle, I’d broken both of them—I felt them snap—so you’d expect at least a little anguish, maybe some wailing at the heavens, beating of the ground with my fists and so forth. All I felt was mildly inconvenienced. Did this mean I was toughening up and becoming a man? Or that my special ability was being able to take a beating. Not much of superpower. I suppose I could defeat my opponents by smashing the bones in his fists with my face.
“You want us to walk into the Palace of Laughter, and then what? They’ll just offer us ringside seats, will they?” Phil was not feeling the plan. You couldn’t really blame him, nothing I’d said so far suggested my plan was anything more than a shot in the dark.
I walked over to the golem, its wings outstretched and its demonic face frozen mid-snarl (although that may have been its permanent expression). I put my hands on the wing and pushed up, turning to sit on it. More comfortable than sitting on the ground.
“Depends. We don’t know exactly how the tournament is set up or how they’d react to us turning up. What you have to bear in mind is you’ve been here sixteen years and never even got close to escaping. Not with Yuqi’s powers and her unique insider knowledge. Not with your ability to stop time or Honk Kong Phooey over there with his Hong Kong phooey chop.”
“Racist,” said Claire.
“Definitely,” said Maurice.
“I’m afraid so,” confirmed Dudley.
“Who the fook is Hong Kong Phooey?” said Flossie.
I ignored the false accusations. “My point, and I do have one, is that if you want to get out of here, you need to talk to me.”
“Fine,” said Phil, “tell us what makes you think the other masters will just agree to all this. Even if they give him a shot at the title, why are they going to let us in there? What are we supposed to be? His special diet?”
“I find that offensive,” said Cheng.
I gave Phil a slow shake of my head. “Now that’s racist.” I turned to Cheng. “Don’t you get to have helpers or seconds or something.”
“They all have teams of golems to assist them. Some are war golems like this one, but there other types.”
“But they don’t have to be golems, right? You could bring in your own team, couldn’t you?”
“See? No problem. We’ll be Cheng’s prisoners, he’s going to use us to boost his abilities and teach him our special fighting skills and tactics in exchange for our freedom.”
I could sense the objections being aimed at me from every direction. Dissent is all well and good in a healthy society, but there’s nothing to be gained from endless arguments with people who know even less than you do.
“Remember,” I continued before anyone could verbalise their concerns, “this is a culture where they decide who should be in charge with a rumble. Obviously, they’re into the whole way of the warrior, Bushido bullshit. If the young pup here goes to Dad with fire in his belly and demands a chance to compete, you think he’d going to be told off for being needlessly aggressive? I don’t fucking think so. Even if Dad’s not so keen, he’s still going to feel proud of his offspring. Chip off the old block. And if the kid brings in a team of specialists to help get him game-ready, that just shows how serious he is. How can they not love that? And if Dad refuses, we’ll just call him out for being scared. Macho arseholes can’t stand getting called chicken. There are any number of ways we can take their deference for the nobility of violence and use it to bully the fuck out of them.”
My rant left them all a bit stunned. Everyone looked to someone else to make the counter-argument. And I’m sure one of them would (I could think of half-a-dozen off the top of my head), if I gave them the chance.
“As long as they can see why you’d want to use humans to aid you, they’ll accept you as a challenger. I’ve seen enough TNG episodes to know how Klingon society operates.” This last point left Cheng entirely baffled, but made Maurice’s eyes light up. “And that’s not all, but I’d rather keep the other details to myself for now.” I pointed at Phil. “You might still be working with the weretics.” I shifted my finger towards David. “And you have something going on with Yuqi, which make both of you suspect. More importantly, how does this tournament work, Cheng?”
Stick the landing and pivot.
Cheng folded his arms, all four of them, relieved to answer a simple question that didn’t require a moral self-reappraisal. “There are nine masters of—”
“The universe?” asked Maurice excitedly. “Are they called the Masters of the Universe?”
“No,” said Cheng, which was a shame. Would have been a nice twist if his Dad turned out to be He-Man. “They are masters of Darkholme. They begin by fighting in three groups of three. The winner of each group goes on to challenge for the leadership. The remaining six face off, the victor taking no further part, the losers continuing to fight each other until only two are left. The final loser is the Chosen One.”
Nice of them to give the loser a nice heroic title. Although from what Cheng had said it seemed the loser gladly sacrificed himself, the usual ‘honoring tradition’ nonsense. Perhaps they should name the loser the Happy Meal.
Maurice was busy scribbling all this down. “So the loser will have fought… four times, but the winners need only fight twice. And where do you come in? After the initial bout?”
“Yes,” said Cheng. “Instead of three one on one battles, there will be two doubles and a triple. My presence makes things more complicated, but they are used to dealing with uneven numbers. There used to be many more masters.”
“And if you demand the right to compete fully?” I asked. “Do you think your father will allow it?”
Cheng hesitated. From the beginning he had been reluctant to use underhand methods to win the tournament. Or maybe he was reluctant to fight his father. Despite what the others might feel about my plan, the only person I really needed on board was Cheng.
“I spent some time learning about my people,” said Cheng. “I felt it important to understand where I came from. The right to claim power is open to all. There is no restriction on who can be leader.”
“That’s great, then,” I said. “If you want to do it, that is. I can’t promise you it’ll work or that you’ll win, but one thing I am sure of is that making you the leader of the masters is our only chance of escaping this world. That includes Mandy. If you don’t want to save her, then don’t agree to help us.”
Reasonable, rational, no pressure. I presented him with the facts and let him decide for himself.
Like fuck I did.
Guilt trip, limited options, imminent threat. I presented him with select facts and guided him towards the decision I wanted him to come to.
“You can still take her with you,” said Cheng. “She will at least have a chance with you.”
“No, she won’t. If anything, she’ll just endanger the rest of us. The masters know about her, they aren’t aware of us. If they go looking for her, she’ll lead them directly to us. If you won’t fight, she’ll die. If you force her on us, we’ll all die.”
“And what if I don’t win? What if I end up in the lower bracket anyway? I could be the loser and you will all be consumed.” His excuses were half-hearted at best. I had him on the ropes.
“Then don’t lose.” I slid off the golem’s wing. “Phil, David, why don’t you show him how your ability to stop time can be used as a weapon?”
Neither of them moved.
“I’ve seen you do it. You worked together to cut up one of these things in the city.”
“In Meet?” said David. “Why was it in the city?”
“It’s a long story, but you can do it, right?”
“We haven’t even agreed to your plan yet,” said Phil.
“No, you haven’t. But you can see the advantage of having a friend in charge of Darkholme. Of having free access to the Palace of Laughter. Of being able to go anywhere we want, including off this rock. You can see all that, can’t you?”
Phil and David exchanged a look, then both nodded.
The demonstration didn’t take long. Phil stop-started time, David sliced the golem into bits.
“You’re like us,” I said to Cheng. “You aren’t from this universe, so you’ll be unaffected like David. Which means you can attack and move before your opponent has any idea what happened. You try.”
The golem was about half dismembered. Cheng took over from David but he didn’t have a weapon. It turned out he didn’t need one. His fingers could be used to cut as well as grab.
Cheng picked up the timing from watching David and was just as effective. The real MVP, though, was Phil. He adjusted the timing so that Cheng’s blows fell between time-stops. If he’d got it wrong, Cheng would strike a solid block of impenetrability and probably injure himself.
Within a few seconds the turf was littered with chunks of golem. It was far less threatening in this state, although the separate pieces trembled and shook. They fell over, rolling and shuffling across the ground like they were magnetically attracted to each other.
“It’s no good,” said Phil. “It’s just going to reform and come after us unless we take care of it now.”
He was going to suggest we take the pieces away and bury them, which would have taken ages and also I couldn’t be bothered.
“Can’t you tell it not to attack us?” I asked Cheng.
“No, I don’t have the controller. It’s at the palace.”
“Don’t worry about it, then, ” I said. “We’ve got the flappy-box. We just have to get back before it does.”
“The wagon won’t be able to outrun it,” said Cheng.
I walked in between the writhing flesh until I got to one of the wings which was mostly intact. I picked it up. The membrane quivered in my hands. Creepy.
“Someone grab the other one,” I said. “I’d like to see it catch us on foot.” I threw the wing into the flappy-box.
With both wings in our possession, even if the golem was fully reformed, it wouldn’t be able to get airborne. On top of which, the Palace of Laughter was on top of a mountain. Much harder to reach the summit when you couldn’t fly.
“Do you really think this will work?” Phil asked me.
“Yes,” said Maurice as he entered the box.
“Absolutely,” said Dudley following him in.
“You’d be surprised,” said Claire.
“Believe it,” said Flossie
It was nice to get a vote of confidence from the people who knew me best, even if their combined wisdom wouldn’t fill a sawn-off thimble.
“And if it doesn’t,” said Jenny, “we’ll kill him.” Of course, she meant to make me go back in time. At least I hoped that’s how she meant it.
Ultimately, this was my trump card. It was a risky move, but I had infinite lives, which meant so did they, kind of.
“You don’t have to come if you’re scared. Just give me the device and we’ll take care of it.” I held out my hand.
Phil stared at my empty palm and then turned and walked into the box.
“I’m only going to rescue Yuqi,” said David.
Jenny and I were the last to board. Before we joined the others, Jenny pulled me to one side and kissed me. She was grinning.
“What are you so pleased about?” I asked her.
“You. I’m pleased about you. You’re leading us into battle. One you think you can win. You’re very attractive when you’re like this.”
I wasn’t sure how to take that. She hadn’t been attracted to me until now? “Thanks. See how you feel when we’re all dead.”
“I’ll feel exactly the same,” she said without hesitation. Deranged. And still I was horribly attracted to her.
I think she misunderstood my reasons for wanting to face the enemy. The fights I avoided were the ones we were likely to lose, which happened to be all of them. But give me cheat mode, and I’ll fight anyone you want.