- and the -
Arena of Chaos
Just beyond the outer edge of reality lay the pit stop to the afterlife: Limbo. Every day a quarter of a million recently departed souls were shuffled through the system, processed by an army of office workers who used to be alive themselves, and then escorted to one of two destinations. The realm of Limbo was designed to reinforce the notion that once someone had arrived it meant there was no going back to Life. Despite the moving statues, wisps of smoke carrying messages through the air, the many grim reapers moving around and the occasional dragon standing guard, most of the recently departed were still under the delusion that they could talk their way out of being dead and return to Life by simply asking one of the thousands of sorters to bend the rules just this once. It never worked.
In another part of the realm, far from the headaches and miseries of reminding the dead that they were, in fact, dead, was a small office on the corner of Anubis and Niamh, where one slightly inebriated client was trying to get one particular bounty hunter to bend the rules to work in his favour.
“Please,” slurred Montgomery Stup. “You used to work for the bank. It’s only a hundred gold pieces.”
Kingston Raine leaned back in his chair and raised his hands to form a steeple, then he rested them just in front of his chin. He was taller than average with his hair swept back in an executive wave, and as he sat there he tried his best to ignore the rum coming off his client’s breath. “I’m not about to rob someone’s vault just because they owe you money, Montgomery.”
“But please! We need to find Rufus. He can’t have just dropped off the face of the realm. He can’t have! If you met him you wouldn’t like him either, you’d want to go into his vault and get the blueprints that he promised were mine. He’s a liar and a thief.”
“He’s an apothecary,” said Kingston.
“And an enchanter! You would hate him.”
Kingston considered his words carefully before responding to Montgomery. “That’s just the thing, I’m afraid. No one likes to be made a fool of, do they?”
“See! You get me,” said Montgomery, beaming with a faux smile. It seemed to fit his faux suit as well, which was a sad and faded grey jacket with frayed cuffs and a tie that had never held a decent knot. Montgomery was now building up quite the sweat on the top of his balding head.
“And you’re not the only one who’s out there looking for him,” said Kingston.
Montgomery stiffened and Kingston saw his breathing slow down. “What do you mean?” asked Montgomery.
Kingston rolled his eyes. “I mean you and several others are all looking for the same person. No doubt he owes everyone money and he has decided to run off because you lot keep threatening him.”
“I won’t tell any of them if you find him,” spluttered Montgomery.
“Uh huh. The last time we met you gave me this to give to him.” Kingston opened his desk drawer and removed a black leather wallet.
Montgomery glanced at the wallet and blinked back towards Kingston. “Yes. That’s his wallet.”
“Yeeeaaaah. No one exchanges a hundred gold pieces and offers their wallet as collateral. It just doesn’t happen.”
Montgomery blinked several times as his nerves got the better of him. “He dropped it.”
“Oh, it’s certainly his, no doubt about it,” said Kingston. “He would be a remarkably clumsy thief if he took a hundred gold pieces and then dropped his wallet, and quite a fortunate one if he hadn’t yet put the money into the wallet that he was about to drop.”
Montgomery shook his head. “He had the money in his purse. That’s just for his ID and cards and … well, you’ve probably looked inside. I was hoping it would inspire an act of kindness on his part, that he would be so grateful that he would pay me back in a hurry.”
“Uh huh.” Kingston sniffed the wallet and handed it over to Montgomery. “Notice anything about how it smells?”
Montgomery took a whiff. “Smells like leather.”
Kingston drummed his fingers against the chair’s arm rest. “It smells a lot like ostrich powder, which can be used as a tracking and listening agent. You thought you could get this to Rufus and then follow the scent, or simply eavesdrop on what he was up to. It’s not very clever.”
Montgomery stammered and looked over the wallet again. “Uh, my brother … he’s a lawyer.”
“My condolences,” said Kingston. “No, really. I am so sorry.”
“He thought it was a good idea.”
Kingston covered his face with one hand and shook his head. “Montgomery, your brother is a moron.”
“He’s quite gifted.”
“You asked me to find Rufus.”
“And Rufus used to run his own apothecary.”
“And so your brother bought this powder from the same apothecary that Rufus used to run, not thinking that it would be the first place I would go to find out if they knew the whereabouts of the former owner.”
Montgomery blinked again. “… Yes.”
“And at some point I’m bound to ask, ‘Has anyone been in here lately asking about Rufus’ current location?’”
Montgomery dropped his head. “Oh.”
“Exactly. Madam Muira was quick to identify the ostrich powder. She also told me a little more about why you’re looking for Rufus.”
Montgomery spluttered and threw his hands out in defence. “I told you everything I know!”
Kingston nodded and felt a smile try to break through. “Yes, I do believe the sum of your knowledge could be passed on to me in a ten minute meeting, so let me ask you about your gambling debts.”
With that, Montgomery froze. “I, uh, don’t have any.”
“You came in here last week with a black eye, Montgomery.”
“I bumped into a statue.”
“And clearly you lost,” said Kingston. “I used to work for the Bank of Limbo, as you know. I still have some access there and some old friends. You and your brother owe a lot of money.”
Montgomery sunk lower into his chair, then he finally shook his head in defeat. “Rufus owes us money. He’s quite a genius.”
“Yes, borrowing money and dropping off the face of reality is the surest sign of intelligence. You wanted to find him, no problem. Perhaps you wanted him to honour your agreement, again I see no problem. You even lied to me and my business partner. I, personally, don’t take much offence if someone lies to me. I’m quite used to it. My business partner, though, is a little sensitive on the matter. You hurt his feelings.”
Montgomery cocked his head to one side and could barely look Kingston in the eye. “I’m … sorry?”
“I also found out that you are not the only one who has loaned money to Rufus.”
“He can pay me back, I know he can.”
“He’s utterly flat broke,” said Kingston.
“But the bank keeps records. He told me. I’m serious! He’s a master builder, you see. He can engineer any kind of mechanical device and enchant it to work against the laws of reality. All of his time in the apothecary paid off. He can enchant a mechanical clock with a cuckoo that does more than just chirp on the hour, he can make the cuckoo fly around as though it were alive. His attention to detail is remarkable, a true genius. But he couldn’t have kept everything in his head. He had to write something down. All of his documents, plans, blueprints, notes, and theories are locked away in a vault. And not just his! Just about anyone who has ever come through Limbo has something locked away in the bank and that kind of information is valuable. I don’t need Rufus to pay me back in gold. I mean, I’d like it, but this was his collateral. He promised that he could get me all sorts of plans and notes and that I could sell them to the highest bidder.” Montgomery beamed with a desperate smile. “So you see, I just need to find him so we can go to the bank and get to his vault.”
Kingston shook his head. “Bad news on that front. He doesn’t actually own that paperwork. The bank does. Intellectually the information is his. The bank can’t do anything with it. The physical paper and ink that’s stored in those vaults belong to the bank. Rufus doesn’t have access to any of that. He never has, he never will. He offered you that collateral when he knew it didn’t belong to him.”
Montgomery wiped the sweat from his brow. “He … knew?”
“Oh, he knew all right. You didn’t know, which was crucial.”
Montgomery’s eyes darted from left to right as he tried to process a mixed bag of emotions and fears all at the same time. His jacket now looked far too big on him, as though he was an eleven year old wearing his father’s hand-me-down. “Okay … does he have copies of these plans?”
“He burned them.”
“To stop people from stealing them. Tell me, are you now more interested in getting your money back from Rufus, or getting these plans for his cuckoo clock?”
“The plans! But not of the clock, of everything he ever built!”
Kingston sighed and leaned back in his chair. “So I feared. I’m afraid our business together has come to an end.”
“But … what? All I did was ask you to find Rufus. I can handle the rest.”
“Should you require these sort of services again I’ll let you know that your troubles no longer entertain me. Should you require future assistance in such matters, perhaps you could try one of the other bounty hunters.”
Montgomery breathed in quickly, gritted his teeth and, like a nervous Pekingese, barked at Kingston. “You are contractually obligated to finish what I paid you to do.”
“We didn’t sign a contract,” said Kingston.
“It was verbal.”
“And you haven’t paid me at all. You promised to do so when I located Rufus for you.”
“Then you should deliver!” shouted Montgomery. He looked around the office frantically and his attention fell upon a curious painting hanging in the corner. It appeared to be an abstract watercolour of a zebra-striped dragon flying through the air. Montgomery shivered and looked away. “Hideous,” he mumbled.
Kingston looked over to the door marked ‘private’. “You have the five gold pieces on you? That was the figure we agreed upon.”
“I can write a cheque when you find him,” grumbled Montgomery.
“Fine. I don’t know why you’re so miffed all of a sudden. I located Rufus. He’s in that room, listening to everything we said through your enchanted wallet there. You really should take note of your temper, it can be rather off putting.”
Montgomery glanced at the wallet sitting right in front of him. “You indicated that you couldn’t find him.”
Kingston shook his head. “I said no such thing.”
“You never said that you found him.”
“I’ve never said many things. It would be quite difficult to keep track of everything I haven’t yet said, wouldn’t you agree?”
“You told me our business was done!”
“And that’s true, because I have wrapped up our business successfully. Is this really how you deal with people?”
“How did you find him?”
Kingston was sure his answer was not going to make the slightest amount of sense to his somewhat challenged client. “I dropped a nearly invisible gold coin on the ground and sat in a café until someone tried to pick it up.”
Montgomery shook his head a few times and leaned in across the table. “What? You … what?”
“So that will be five gold pieces, if you will,” said Kingston.
Montgomery scowled. “I demand proof that you caught him.”
“You never asked me to catch him, just to find him.”
Montgomery glanced towards the private door. “You said he was in there.”
“I did. And he is. But you need to be careful with your choice of words. You never said anything about catching him. You said, exactly, ‘I want you to find Rufus.’ And so I did.”
Montgomery stood, went to the door marked private, glared at Kingston one more time, and he pushed on the door handle as hard as he could. “It’s locked.”
“Well, of course it’s locked, you moron. It says ‘private.’”
The door handle turned and Montgomery released his grip in surprise. The door swung open, revealing a mighty goliath of a man. He stood seven feet tall with broad shoulders and a thundering chest. He looked like he could bear hug an oak tree into oblivion. This man was Little John.
Montgomery wheezed again and stepped back to stop his head from craning up to the ceiling.
“John, you remember Montgomery?”
“I do,” said John, glaring at the tiny man.
“Now behave yourself. I know he hurt your feelings and all …”
“He did more than just hurt my feelings,” said John, refusing to take his stare away from Montgomery. “And it sounded like he doesn’t want to pay us.”
Montgomery spluttered and backed away. “A bu … bu … no, no, that’s not it at all.”
“Then here’s our bill,” said Kingston, holding up the invoice. “Forty five days to pay, if you could.”
“Of course,” murmured Montgomery. He took the invoice and was relieved to have an excuse to move farther away from the hulking giant in the room. “But uh, on the matter of actually locating Rufus …”
Kingston called out to the other room. “Rufus?”
A feeble voice echoed back. “Yes?”
“You told Montgomery that he could have access to your plans that are housed in the bank if you couldn’t pay him back, right?”
“You weren’t entirely truthful, were you?”
“Not … entirely.”
Kingston smiled back to Montgomery. “Thank you. We hope you have a pleasant day.”
“You owe me money!” Montgomery shouted into the private room. He then glared back at Kingston. “You. I will hire you to get him to pay me back the money he owes me.”
“One hundred gold pieces?” Kingston asked.
“Plus the interest.”
“Of five gold?”
Kingston laughed and shook his head. “He doesn’t have that money. And no, I won’t take you up on that.”
“I’ll get my money!” shouted Montgomery. He glared at Kingston, looked away from John, and backed himself towards the exit. “I can report you to the bounty hunter’s guild.”
“You could,” said Kingston. “But it won’t do much good. Forty five days. Don’t forget.”
Montgomery clenched the invoice tightly in his grip and pulled the front door open. He didn’t bother to close it as he left and allowed Kingston and John to hear his tiny footsteps disappear down the corridor.
Kingston stood, fixed his pin striped jacket, and closed the door after his client. He could still smell the streak of rum on the man’s breath and he was a little disappointed to see him leave in such a hurry; Kingston had a few more insults prepared that would now go to waste. He shrugged and went into the private room, which was the tea room in the back of Kingston’s office. It was thin and cramped, with one sofa pushed against the wall, facing the kitchen counter and small fridge. It was so narrow that no one could pass if the door to the fridge was open.
At the far end of the sofa was Rufus, a thin man of average height with a trimmed white beard hiding his gaunt face. His glasses shimmered and Kingston knew it was because they had been enchanted to see the unseen, or at least the easily unnoticed, which was how he came across the nearly invisible gold coin that Kingston had laid out for him. Rufus cursed himself for falling for such an easy trap, but the surprise of finding something on the street while surrounded by hundreds of people had caught him off guard. His only moment of gratitude was that Kingston and John had not beaten him to a pulp when they finally caught him.
“He’s going to tell everyone he knows I’m here,” said Rufus.
“I know. And he’s probably going to trash my office when he gets a chance,” said Kingston. He looked over the enchanted leather wallet and held it out for Rufus. “Did you want this?”
“He’s probably copied all of my details.” He looked over Kingston and John carefully, weighing up the success of what he planned to say. “I need someone to hide me.”
“You did a reasonable job of that yourself,” said Kingston.
“I stayed out of sight for two months and got caught looking at the pavement. But I’ve heard about you. You can hide me where no one will ever find me. You two are really … you know, fictional?”
Kingston and John nodded in unison. A cosmic accident happened not too long ago that sent Kingston Raine, the master of industrial espionage, from the pages of his own series of books into the real world of Limbo. When he was able to return to his own universe and rescue his girlfriend, Joanna York, he had managed to trample through several classics and picked up a couple of friends; Little John from Robin Hood and Catalina from Don Quixote. Limbo had become their new home since it was neutral territory. Death tolerated their existence, even if it did break some fundamental rules of the realm, being that only formerly living people could live in Limbo. Death had to accept that he himself had never actually been alive, so he was a violation of his own rules.
Kingston was quite aware of what Rufus wanted help with. Kingston had some access in returning to the fictional universe and it was entirely possible to bring someone with him. “What you’re asking could have serious consequences. Trust me, I’ve screwed up enough lives by being in the wrong place.”
“I’d be safer there than here,” said Rufus.
Kingston scoffed. “Hardly. Macbeth nearly decapitated me.”
“Well then, don’t send me to Macbeth,” said Rufus. “How about somewhere tropical?”
“And the bounty hunters will be after you to bring you back to reality,” said John.
“They won’t find me if you hide me really, really well.”
“Or, you know, you could just stop picking up pennies from the ground,” said John.
Kingston smiled at John and gave him a nod of respect.
Rufus fell quiet and shook his head. “I can’t pay anyone back, you know that?”
“Oh, I know,” said Kingston. “You’ve racked up quite the fortune in debt. But, sadly, I’m not here to protect you. You’re free to go.”
“What? But … you guys help people.”
Kingston looked over to John, a little surprised by the news. “Is that our reputation?”
“You guys thwarted a coup!” cried Rufus.
“By accident,” said Kingston.
“And you toppled a secret organisation operating within of the Bank of Limbo!”
“That doesn’t really mean we help people hide from debt collectors,” said Kingston.
“Please? I mean, I can pay … wait, no, I can’t pay you. But I’m sure I have something to barter with. I mean, the Games are coming up soon. I can provide information. I know who the good competitors are. I know the betting system.”
“What Games?” John asked.
“They haven’t been announced yet,” said Rufus. “But they come every ten years and this year is Games year. I could help you win a lot of money with some well placed advice. You can always tell a winner from a distance and you can always tell who’s going to take a fall to try and better their chances in the next round. Well, usually. Sometimes the odds are sixty to one!”
John glanced over to Kingston. “Is that good?”
“If they win, yeah, but has anyone with sixty to one ever won?” Kingston asked.
“Not as such, but they wouldn’t have odds if it wasn’t a possibility. Please? You can just hide me and I won’t cause any trouble.”
John looked back to Rufus. “What are the odds for the winner?”
“Even money, I suppose. But that’s still a win, isn’t it? The best was three to one. No one saw that one coming.”
Kingston waved his hand in the air. “No longer interested.”
“You will be as soon as you know the combatants,” said Rufus.
John arched an eyebrow. “Combatants? Like … wrestling?”
Rufus shrugged. “I guess. There is fighting involved, so wrestling could happen.”
“I’m in,” said John, now beaming with a smile. “Put three to one on me and no one will see me coming. Three to one is good, right?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty good,” said Kingston.
“But not as good as sixty to one?”
“You’re more likely to win at three to one.”
“What if I’m three to one and fighting twenty guys at once? Would that put me up to sixty to one?”
“It might be a straight twenty to one. Or, more likely, eighteen or nineteen to one, giving the house a chance to take their cut.”
“Ah. Gotcha.” There was a slight pause, broken by John asking, “The house?”
“Please just hide me,” said Rufus. “I’ve got skills. I have something to barter with, I know it. Anything you want!” He did his best impersonation of a broken man begging for mercy, but his eyes kept darting towards the door and Kingston knew that look. Rufus was ready to run at a moment’s notice and he would cause undue trouble the moment someone’s back was turned.
“Maybe we could use him, not just hide him,” said John. “He’s good at the apotha … please don’t make me say that word.”
“Apothecary,” said Kingston.
“And he knows all of that. Maybe we could use some concoction or whatever. Spells and stuff. Enchantments.”
Rufus shrunk back into the sofa. “Oooo, that’s … no, I left all of that behind. I even sold my shop.”
“But you remember how to do it,” said John.
“I’m not very good at that, actually. A bit of a train wreck.”
John snapped his fingers as though he had a brilliant idea. “We could use his glasses to see things. He can teach us that ostrich powder trick.”
Kingston nodded and knew a good idea when he heard one. He turned to Rufus and smiled, turning from a troubled rogue to a beaming employer in interview mode. “Well? We’ve found something worth bartering for. Considering how many people are after you it might be a good idea for you to agree.”
“You want to learn to be an apothecary?” Rufus asked.
“Ha! No. You’ll do all of that. We hide you and you help us out from time to time.”
“Enchantments are really difficult and expensive. I don’t have any of the materials. And if I’m honest, I drove my business into the ground. How does this not concern you?”
Kingston shrugged. “I’m sure we could set you loose, but we know how to find you. We know the people you trust and maybe they don’t trust you quite as much as you’d like. So we could pop by whenever we wanted. I mean, when Montgomery tells everyone that we found you we’re going to be quite rich in the finding Rufus business. We can keep dragging you back here and let you sweat it out while the guy who hired us demands that we hand you over to him. Eventually one of them will make us a reasonable offer.”
“But I thought you lot helped people!” cried Rufus.
“I help John,” said Kingston.
“I help Kingston,” said John.
“Ugh.” Rufus slapped his hands over his face and pulled them down over his cheeks, stretching his features wider. “If I agree, where would you hide me?”
“In Limbo, where we can find you and you’ll know how to get your chemicals and powders and the like.”
“Okay. Well, actually, I can go unseen in most places so I don’t need much hiding. I was thinking more of a good book, like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, something like that.”
“I was thinking the basement of the bank,” said John.
“Me too,” said Kingston.
Rufus reeled back. “You’re going to hide me in the bank?” Then something dawned on him and he warmed up to the idea. “Actually, that might be a good idea.”
“If you mess around in there they’ll do a lot worse than Montgomery and his lawyer brother.”
“If the bankers catch me, yes,” said Rufus. His eyes narrowed. Kingston and John had the distinct impression he was plotting something sinister.
John’s eyebrows and nostrils flared and he stepped forward, crossing the entire room in one stride. He sucked in a mountain of air and bellowed at Rufus. “We are saving your life and you will not dick around with our gratitude!” John raised one of his mammoth sized palms to the side. “Do you see this hand?”
“Yes,” said Rufus, shrinking back into the sofa.
“Do you see how close it is to your face?”
Like a dragon breathing steam out through its nose, John exhaled and the room settled into a controlled calm. “Good.” He turned to Kingston and dropped the act completely. “I think he understands now. No dicking around.”
John stuffed Rufus into a sack, told him to keep still, and carried him to the bank. It was there that John still enjoyed some privileges as a former janitor, even if he was no longer expected to turn up for work. The senior janitor, Simon, had worked in the lower recesses of the bank for so long it had done a number on his memory, so it would take him years to realise that John hadn’t been around for a while. Nevertheless, John fitted Rufus with a janitor’s uniform, introduced him to Simon and Snowflake the cat, and he knew the two guys would avoid each other as much as possible.
Meanwhile, Kingston turned the idea of Rufus being an asset to his business over in his mind. He leaned back in his chair, tapping his two index fingers together against his lips, and worked through everything he had learned from Montgomery’s blunders. He also needed to research something that both Montgomery and Rufus had mentioned. Kingston grabbed a pen and sheet of paper and scribbled a note to Joanna York, his girlfriend and partner in crime.
J, Rufus is now our ally, for the time being. There’s a large gambling ring in Limbo. Are you able to track that down and see how Rufus and Montgomery fit into it? There are ‘games’ coming up, they happen every ten years. Dinner tonight? K.
Kingston sealed the note, wrote Joanna’s name clearly on the front, and dropped it into the air. In a flash of light the note disappeared and would reappear instantly at Joanna’s feet elsewhere in the realm. Kingston reached for another sheet of paper and scribbled a note to Catalina, John’s girlfriend and occasional partner in crime.
C, John did very well today. Can you pick up a copy of any newspaper printed in Limbo from the last twenty five years? I’d like to go over the news a bit. Thanks a million. K.
Like with the previous letter, Kingston sealed it up and dropped it into the air. It disappeared in a flash, leaving Kingston to consider the details of Rufus’ knowledge that was locked away in the bank. His thoughts were interrupted when he heard a gentle tap at his office door. It was not the secret tap that either John, Joanna, or Catalina used. Kingston rose out of his chair, quickly put the trip wire in place and closed all necessary drawers to his desk, then he stepped silently towards the corridor.
“To whom am I speaking?” Kingston asked.
“It’s Michelle. May I come in?”
Kingston dropped his erudite dominance in an instant. He knew he was going to be delighted with Michelle’s arrival and he was equally sure that she was going to bring on a whirlwind of problems. Kingston opened the door and beamed with a smile. “Michelle my dear, how are you?”
“I’m doing okay,” she said. She was Death’s personal secretary and was often credited for actually running the realm, though she always denied it. Despite being in Limbo for eight hundred years Michelle had the features of a young woman in her prime. Her brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she wore a dark grey business suit with a waistcoat. Kingston was also sure she had a crush on him. “How are you?”
“Couldn’t be better,” said Kingston. “Please, come in.”
“Is it safe?”
“Ah, let me just unbooby trap the place.” Kingston quickly disarmed everything he could use in a surprise ambush. He showed Michelle inside and closed the door behind themselves. “Coffee?”
“Sure,” said Michelle. While Kingston headed into the small tea room, Michelle glanced over his dinky office and wondered how a man like Kingston, with all of his considerable charm and ability to lie through his teeth, had settled for one of the smallest offices in the entire realm. It didn’t seem to fit with his ego, but she reminded herself that he had only just started the business on his own and, despite receiving an allowance from Limbo, money might be tight.
Kingston returned with an espresso for Michelle and a cappuccino for himself. “Here you go.”
“So how’s work?”
“Busy as usual,” said Michelle. “And yours?”
Kingston shrugged. “A little slow but I’m sure it’ll pick up.”
“And Joanna and Catalina are well?”
“Very well,” said Kingston. “I mean, there hasn’t been much for them to do lately, so they’re usually out making contacts, trying to rustle up our next client.” Kingston gave Michelle a weak smile, which was something Michelle read into.
“Are you and Joanna having some problems?”
“Not at all,” Kingston said, upping the value to a million dollar smile. “We’re actually honest with each other for once. But she did like being able to jet across Europe and hide in Morocco for a few days, then to slip over to the Andes without a care. Limbo has none of those things. It has a few restaurants, and a theatre of sorts, but …”
Michelle gave Kingston a sympathetic smile. “She’s bored?”
“She might be afraid that the best of her years are behind her.”
Then came the secret knock and John walked inside. “Sorted,” he said. He glanced at their guest. “Ah! Michelle. Long time.”
“John! How are you?”
“I’m the envy of men everywhere, so I’m doing quite well.”
“Enjoying herself immensely. She’s picked up a few Latin dance moves and I’ve never seen a woman shake it like that. Neither has any other man in the realm, hence the admiration I receive.”
“Lucky you.” She turned back to Kingston. “I’ve come to liven things up.”
“I thought you would,” said Kingston. He then gave Michelle a cheeky grin.
“I don’t always come with an assignment, you know.”
“Not always, no. But when you do they are big and expensive.”
Michelle dug into her bag and pulled out a freshly printed booklet. It was titled The Guide and featured a stylised drawing, circa 1930, of two robots in a gladiatorial battle. “Fresh off the presses. The Games will be announced tomorrow and here is most of the history you’ll need as a casual observer.”
“The Games, huh?” Kingston said. John picked up the booklet and started flipping through the pages, trying to understand what he was looking at.
“Death knows that the people here can get bored, so not long ago he set up a suggestion box on how to entertain the masses. We sorted through the ideas and put it to a vote among the population. The Games ended up winning. I take it from your stoic look that you are not entirely familiar with what I’m talking about.”
“I’m about five percent aware of what the Games are and I’m trying to figure out how I’m supposed to fit into all of this.”
“Well, this is not entirely a social visit,” said Michelle. She saw Kingston and John lean in with intrigue. “The people here are quite starved for entertainment, so when something does come along everyone gets involved and things get a little crazy. Everything gets blown out of proportion. You guys are getting a heads up because you are pretty good at thieving and espionage. These Games require an enormous amount of both. If you get caught or pick the wrong team to root for, people are going to come after you with pitchforks. Or, more likely, bills and insurance claims.”
Kingston leaned forward as he was now very interested in all of this potential thievery. “These Games require espionage?”
Michelle smiled. “You’re giving me that look where you’ve already agreed to do anything to enter this tournament.”
Kingston feigned a bout of innocence. “I haven’t agreed to anything.”
“And if I say the team with the best skills at espionage and stealing usually wins?”
“Damn it, Michelle! How am I going to say no to that?”
“Then hear me out. Since the industrial revolution there has been a fight to the death involving machines and, to some degree, magic. Mostly machines, though. No actual people. The to-the-death thing is a figure of speech. It’s just machines pummelling each other into dust, although sometimes people do get hurt. The Games happen every ten years. It began as a purely Limbo thing where groups of mechanics and engineers built robots that would beat up other robots. A hundred years ago Hell was granted access to join in. There are several components to this battle with a lot of spectacle. There are battle royales and different weight divisions, power divisions … it’s your regular spectator sporting event, really. Mix in festivals, parties, egos, cheating, secrecy, false information, and you have utter mayhem. Enchanted robots slug it out against other robots until there is a final winner.”
John nodded almost non-stop, fascinated by what Michelle was saying, and finally he had to lean in towards Kingston. “Robot?”
“Think of a suit of armour that could walk and fight all by itself without anyone inside it.”
“Ah, a golem,” said John, with a broad smile. “Gotcha. And there are kings involved?”
Kingston smirked at that one. “A battle royale would be several of these things in the arena at the same time, all fighting each other.”
John’s eyes lit up in delight. “Oooo! A free for all? I’m in.”
“It’s not for humans,” said Michelle. “Though, humans still take a few beatings. They have a habit of picking a team and being a little too enthusiastic when their team wins. The losing teams generally knock them senseless.”
“Definitely in,” said John.
“And this has what to do with us?” Kingston asked.
“You’re celebrities and celebrity endorsements can be useful. But mostly you’re thieves. If you’re working for Team A then it would be good to steal the blueprints from Team B while keeping your blueprints a secret. That way you can prepare Team A’s robot to fight effectively against Team B’s. Usually there are dummy blueprints with false abilities or surprise tricks, so it’s amusing to see when someone falls for believing a dummy blueprint or if they actually managed to get the real thing. Spare parts are also an issue. Teams raid everything they can, even their own offices and rip furniture to pieces just to get some oddly shaped hunk of metal, or they’ll try to melt down a door hinge and use it to build their machine.”
She caught John looking over the office for anything to steal, and she did her best not to smile. “The enchanting also requires lots of rare items, lots of exotic powders and mystical elements. Without those, your team doesn’t stand a chance. But these things are ridiculously expensive and most of them come from Life. So, grim reapers are bribed and some of them get caught, because it’s all cheating and all illegal to steal from Life for personal reasons and especially for profit. Death tolerates it to some degree because it’s better to have a disruption like this every ten years and get it over and done with than to have a constant annoyance every single day where people rip apart their offices for no other reason than because they’re bored. But the thieves are probably the most important part of a team. Everyone thinks the builder is the number one person, but even the best builder doesn’t stand a chance without all the parts they need. To get all of those you need a brilliant thief.”
“Finally – a cause I can get behind,” said Kingston. “I suppose there’s a lot of gambling involved as well?”
“A ridiculous amount of gambling,” said Michelle. “You can bet on anything. Who wins each fight, who’s going to lose, who’s going to win the first round but lose thereafter, who’s going to be the first team disqualified for cheating, which team will be the first to be beaten up, which team is going to be arrested, and which team has no chance whatsoever. The list goes on but there’s an official betting sheet that goes with the Games. Well, I say official … it’s completely illegal but since Hell got involved there’s no way to stop it. Even if Limbo made gambling illegal, people would just find someone from Hell to bet against. So it’s tolerated. But the gambling sheet is as thick as a book. I assure you, someone will be betting on you, even if you don’t endorse a team.”
Kingston arched an eyebrow. “On me? How?”
“Which team you’ll support, which team will you come out the hardest against, which team will try to hire you, all of that.”
“What about me?” John asked.
“You as well. Which team will you punch out?”
“Oooo, I like that. Can I bet on myself?”
“Of course, but I’d be careful about it. The odds can change and sometimes teams will bluff their way into the gambling association to turn things in their favour. If they’re afraid that you’re going to punch them out, they’ll make it seem as though it’s inevitable and your odds will be terrible. Say you bet a gold piece on yourself that you will beat up Team B. They go to the commission and turn the odds so that if you do win, you’ll get your gold piece back and an extra silver for the actual odd. That way it won’t be worth fighting them in the first place.”
Kinston glanced over the booklet and saw a familiar face on one of the pages. “Rufus?”
“Yeah, Rufus,” said Michelle, with a sympathetic smile. “Oh boy, is he terrible. He’s a builder. Really he’s an enchanter. He used to run the apothecary on Uka Pacha Way and I guess the fumes got to him. He’s able to bring some of these machines to life. Not actual life, I should say. And not anything remotely life-like either. It’s just an expression. But he can build a power source and make it work when, really, it shouldn’t.”
“Good for him,” said Kingston. He gave Rufus a nod of respect.
“It’s a remarkable talent,” said Michelle. “But these builders always get in over their heads. It’s so expensive you need to take out a loan from the bank and the only way you can pay it back is if you rank in the top three at the end of the tournament. You can collect some of the prize money and any winnings from the bets you placed. Even then you have to sell your robot or break it down into spare parts. That’s for third place. Second place, you will earn enough to either keep the money and sell your robot, or repay the loan and keep the robot. You’ll end up with a neutral bank balance, give or take.”
“I take it if the bank is after Rufus then he didn’t break even?” Kingston asked.
Michelle nearly laughed and shook her head. “Not even close. He’s entered himself into every tournament. He’s never won. I can’t begin to imagine what kind of debt that would put him in, so I can’t blame him for hiding at this time. If I were him I would be staying as far away from trouble as possible.”
Kingston glanced back at the booklet and felt a rising possibility in his chest. “I suppose the odds of him winning will be terrible.”
“Very,” said Michelle.
“But you also said that the team with the best spy and thief has the greatest chance of winning.”
“Yes, I did say that,” said Michelle. Then she settled into something that looked a lot like defeat. “But there’s no way he’s going to compete. He swore off it after the last tournament. He owes too much money to risk it again.”
Kingston kept his expression as neutral as possible. “I see. How many teams usually compete?”
“Around thirty. It’s a roughly even split between Limbo and Hell. The Games are announced tomorrow, the teams will figure out if they can compete or not, and in a month they’ll have their official entries. In three months the chaos begins. I suppose most of the teams started figuring it out the day after the last Games ended so they’ve had ten years to gather their materials and keep everything hidden away. The gambling, though, starts tomorrow. They’ll bet on who’s going to compete and who won’t. The betting sheet will be updated constantly and you can get a short list that appeals to your interests, or the full thing which weighs the same as a brick.”
“Interesting,” said Kingston, his eyes glazing over as he imagined the possible glory.
“I thought it would be up your alley,” said Michelle. She reached into her bag and pulled out a mass of paperwork, bound and held together with official tape. “Here’s everything you’ll need. You have a breakdown on Rufus’ strengths and weaknesses, previous designs, details on previous competitors and winners, typical enchantments they use, and, most importantly, you’re going to need to remember to cheat as much as you can.” Michelle locked eyes onto Kingston. “You’re going to ensure Team Rufus wins.”
“Team Rufus for the win,” repeated Kingston, with a nod.
“Good. I’ve been saving up for the last two years and this time I’m actually going to make some money out of this tournament. And by the time you reach the next set of Games you’ll understand how bored everyone in Limbo can be. Just remember to be sneakier than any of the other teams.” Michelle leaned back and the seriousness in her demeanour drifted away. “It was nice catching up. Say hi to Joanna and Catalina for me. I must be off.” Michelle gave a quick and innocent smile to Kingston and John, then she slipped away.
“I guess the cheating has already begun,” said John.
“So it would appear.”