It’s tiring having to come up with ways not to die. Lying there with a girl playing with your hair might seem idyllic, but when monsters are waiting outside to eat you, it makes it hard to relax.
Somehow I drifted off to sleep. Ideas can sometimes come to you when you stop trying so hard to think of them. Spend hours trying to figure something out and get nowhere. Go off to do something else and the answer pops into your head.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
I woke up and still had nothing. What had woken me was a breeze in my face. 288 was hovering over me, his wings fanning cool air over me. It was quite nice, if you resisted thinking about what 288 was and where that tangy odour was coming from.
“The final fight is about to begin,” he said.
I sat up, waking Jenny in the process. She had dozed off leaning against the wall and was now all stiff and stretching. Girls are so obvious. They claim they hate guys eyeing them up, and then they wake up and be all attractive. Can’t fool me.
“Did you speak to the other golems?” I asked him, tearing my eyes away as Jenny arched her back. Well, mostly away.
He nodded. “They are prepared to do what must be done. For the Book.”
I wasn’t entirely convinced the crusading golem army would be a force for good—when was the last time fanatical devotion to a book led to anything other than trouble?—but as long as they got us through this, I’d be happy to grant them tax-exempt status.
“Is there anywhere we can hide until this is all over?” I asked him.
He seemed confused by the question. “You don’t want to watch the fight?”
“I don’t want to be eaten as soon as the fight’s over.”
He nodded and floated back down to earth. “There is nowhere in Darkholme you can go that you can’t be found. This is the masters’ home. Each of them will claim their portion of tribute. Without it, they will not be able to join with the welding.”
“Can the masters reserve their part of the tribute?”
He looked at me with a confused expression again. “Reserve?”
“Yes. Can they choose particular people as exclusive to them?”
“They can,” said 288. “Master Cheng has already claimed one of the females as his.”
It made sense that Cheng would pick Mandy. The other masters probably assumed he had a taste for big boobs (which he did, although not in the way they thought). If he could make a claim on the rest of us, we might not get swept up in the general carnage.
This all relied on Cheng not having a change of heart and deciding to eat us, of course.
I sent 288 off to ask Cheng to make dinner reservations. He was unlikely to win the tournament, but he was in the final. That had to count for something. I didn’t know how much weight it carried, but he might still get to call dibs on who he got to eat.
Jenny had finished stretching and sorting herself out. I’m guessing. I wasn’t really paying attention. The others appeared, all had their game faces on.
“It’s strange having to rely on others,” said Claire. “I almost wish we were the ones taking care of the masters.”
Exactly the kind of thinking I had to make sure we didn’t fall prey to. “If we didn’t have the golems to help us, we’d be running, not taking their place.”
It was already dark when we stepped outside. The sky was a dark red, illuminated by the huge flaring jets of white flame that circled the mountain top.
Maurice flicked through his notebook as we headed towards the amphitheatre. “288 said the other two in the final are Cheng’s dad and Gamba. He’s the one who looks like he’s made of boulders.”
“Have all the other fights taken place?” I asked him. He had pages of stats and scores like he had his own team in a Fantasy Monster League. Possibly it would be a Fantasy Fantasy Monster League.
“Yes. The loser was Skull-Face. The one with the giant head. He gets eaten by the winner.”
“How they gonna eat him?” said Flossie. “His head won’t fit in anyone’s mouth.”
“They probably won’t eat him whole,” said Maurice. “We’ve never seen the masters consume anyone. It might not be the knife and fork kind of eating.”
“Yeah,” I said. “They might stick a straw in his noggin and ‘I drink your milkshake’ him to death.”
“Ugh,” said Flossie. “That’s not very nice.”
Sometimes I felt the only reason my party were able to traverse the strange landscape we had found ourselves in was because they never stopped to consider the true horror they were surrounded by. Which was probably for the best.
The noise from inside the arena was filtering out to us. It sounded like excitement and anticipation. The crowd didn’t come across as scared at all. They were looking forward to the culmination of what, for them, was several lifetimes of waiting.
Convince yourself the terrible thing was actually great, or remain completely oblivious. Both approaches felt better than mine, which was to constantly be on the verge of shitting myself. I made a point of not hoping for things because it would only remind the universe how to fuck me over, but I really hoped 288 had managed to get my message through to Cheng.
We took our seats among the thrilled audience and waited for the finalists to arrive. Nothing I could do to change things now.
There was a tremor beneath us. The whole arena shook as three figures entered. Cheng’s father was first. He towered over us, making the arena look undersized. Like he had built it out of Lego around him.
The next to enter was Gamba. He wasn’t anywhere near as massive, but he was carrying a lot more weight. It was his steps that caused the ground to shake. His rocky features were a bit like the trolls we had encountered back in Flatland, but somehow even less human.
And, in the rear, was Cheng. He seemed dwarfed by the other two. Even if we’d had Phil’s time-stopping device, I couldn’t see it helping that much. How do you defeat a super-sized balrog and a walking mountain?
The buzz around the stadium began to escalate. The whoops and cheers soon turned into a sustained roar as the combatants took their places.
“Hey,” said Claire, who was seated to my right. “Sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” I asked through the din.
“For always giving you such a hard time. I know we wouldn’t have made it this far without you. Despite everything, I’ve been happier here, with you, than I ever was back in my old life. I just wanted you to know that.”
She sounded like she was giving a farewell speech.
“Are you planning on leaving? Because it’s not nice to tease.”
She scowled at me. “No, you’re stuck with all of us. But this could be the one where we don’t make it.” She shrugged. “I’m surprised we made it this far, to be honest.” Her face trembled then, which might have been caused by the monsters in the arena charging at each other. “If I’m the one who ends up not making it, you don’t have to go back just for me.”
I wasn’t sure why she felt the need to convince me to do that. If we could get through this with only one casualty, I’d consider that excellent value.
I’d been worried our constantly delayed demise would give them all a hero-complex. We haven’t died, we must be the chosen ones! It seemed we were already past that and into delusions of martyrdom.
Claire could read minds (although not mine), however, she couldn’t see the future. Her gesture was very noble but a bit premature. I expected her to feel somewhat different if the person destined to not make it turned out to be Maurice.
It’s easy to make unreasonable demands of someone if it’s not for your own direct benefit. Still a fucking imposition, though.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll make sure Maurice finds a fit bird to replace you. He won’t even notice you’re gone.”
I could see her swallow down the caustic words frothing on her tongue. “Thank you,” she snarled.
There was a resounding clash that nearly shook me out of my seat.
In the arena, battle had been engaged and one thing became immediately clear. Biscuit and son had a game plan.
They ganged up on poor Gamba and dismantled him. I mean that literally.
Gamba had targeted Cheng who was the smallest, so the easiest to take down. Gamba seemed to be expecting Biscuit to wait and fight the winner. Mr Biscuit had other ideas.
He moved with explosive swiftness and grabbed hold of Gamba’s arms from behind.
Cheng shouldered the startled rock monster, pushing him off balance.
Gamba whirled to the right, swinging his head like he might be able to hit his captor. He was all but ignoring Cheng who had flown up and then came swooping down at full speed.
Biscuit spun Gamba into Cheng’s path. Cheng smashed full into him. Then he flew up again. Rinse and repeat.
It was very unfair, but very effective. Between them, Biscuit and Cheng set Gamba up for a wicked beating, sending chunks flying off him. Then an arm. Then a leg.
Gamba collapsed in a heap of rubble. The whole thing took less than five minutes.
Now there were two left. A big one, who looked undefeatable, and a small one, who was our guy. One day, I’d like to be on the favoured side, just to see what that feels like.
There was a tense moment as the two of them faced each other, and then Cheng dropped to his knees and lowered his head. These were supposed to be warriors. Were you allowed to pussy out?
Are you not entertained? No.
“Your time will come, my son,” rumbled Biscuit. “But from today, you will sit by my side.”
And that was it. A bit of an anti-climax after all the build up. I’d expected to see a little more blood and guts.
“People of Nekromel!” bellowed Biscuit. He was now surrounded by the other masters. I hadn’t even seen them arrive. “The Day of Welding is upon us. You shall become us, and we you.”
A roar of approval went up. It was a bit on the shrill side.
“Come with us and ascend to your full potential.”
The masters left the arena to shouts and screams. Not the type you hear before the police charge their horses into the crowd, the good kind. They were all so looking forward to getting eaten, it seemed rude not to let them. Some people just don’t know what’s good for them.
“We really aren’t going to do anything?” Claire asked. She wasn’t asking me, though.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do,” said Maurice. He looked down at Dudley on the terrace below.
“I doubt they’d listen to reason,” he said.
I was getting the feeling I was undergoing a mutiny.
“Don’t worry,” said Jenny. “We won’t disobey you. We just want to make sure you have all the options available to you.”
Really? And what would they do if I rejected their options? Fortunately, they couldn’t come up with any to offer me.
As the crowd began filing out, on their way to dinner with the Darkholmeses, I noticed something strange. Some of the women in amongst the crowd were a little bit bigger than others. And getting bigger.
I stood up and looked around and saw more of them. Women who seemed to be morphing into men. They threw off their clothes to reveal naked bodies. No weapons, no armour. I recognised Varg among them.
“What the fuck’s he doing?” I muttered to myself.
“He’s going to stop the welding,” said David. He had his sword drawn.
“And how is he going to do that?” I asked him.
“They can’t weld if there’s no source of nourishment for them,” said Phil.
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Maurice. “The only source of food are these people. How do they—”
He didn’t need to finish his question, the answer became only too obvious. The men who had been disguised as women had also, it turned out, been disguised as men. Their bodies continued to grow and change, and became horribly distorted. They were Weretics.
They fell on the crowd, devouring them in a frenzy of all the blood and guts you could ever hope for.