MAGGIE WAS ABOUT TO lose it.
I didn’t blame her. I was about to lose it too.
But then whatever magic Cleon had used to force me to kneel had let go. I jumped to my feet.
“Get behind me,” I told Maggie.
I fired two quick shots, one from each gun, and the slugs found their target, center mass on the big bull. But a minotaur’s skin is thick like a Kevlar vest and the bullets did no real harm. I’d known this as I fired. But sometimes the crashing sound of gunfire and the impact of the shots can distract something as bulletproof as a minotaur long enough for me to enact the next piece of my brilliant plan.
So, the moment after I’d squeezed the triggers I turned to Maggie. I pointed to where I’d come into the arena.
“Run!” I shouted.
And so we ran, followed by a raucous chorus of boos from the stands.
It always feels wrong to me to run from a fight. But priority one here was to get Maggie home with all her limbs. Besides, a minotaur is not something I like to tussle with unless I have no other option. The bullet proof skin is one reason. The other factor is that they are immensely strong, which Mike showed to be true when the massive stone altar dropped out of the sky in front of us.
The stands erupted in cheers and I toyed with the idea of emptying both guns into them. But only for just the tiniest of moments.
Maggie and I reached the exit to find it barred. Literally. A gate made from thick, vertical iron bars had evidently shut behind me when I’d entered earlier. Maggie and I were now trapped in the arena with a minotaur, a dark wizard, and a thousand or so screaming monks with their blood lust up.
Not one of my better days.
We turned to find Mike bearing down on us like a charging bull. Which, of course, he was.
I’ve always made it a rule in my life to avoid coming into contact with a minotaur unless people were in danger. Luckily, there ain’t that many left alive. I know of one in California, I’ve been told that a set of twins live in South Dakota, there are rumors of a family of them in Main, and of course there’s that village in Greece. And then locally, there’s Mike.
I’ve never had any trouble before from Mike. He’d been living under Kansas City for as long as I can remember—which is a good long time—and as far as I know he’s never so much as hurt anyone. Mike’s always been one of those monsters that liked to be left alone. In fact, I don’t even like to think of Mike as a monster. I mean, technically, that’s what he is, but the few times I’ve dealt with him in the past he has shown more compassion and selflessness than most humans I know.
So what was he doing here?
I thought maybe I should ask him.
“Mike!” I shouted. “Talk to me. This ain’t like you.”
Mike, however, didn’t feel like talking. He kept coming at me. I stepped to the side at the last moment, and the big bull slammed headlong into the gate that had Maggie and I trapped.
As a testament to the builder, the gate didn’t fall. Which was too bad, I was kinda hoping Mike would inadvertently set us free. Instead, his horns got caught among the bars and for the moment Maggie and I didn’t have certain death crashing down on us.
“What do we do?” Maggie asked.
Mike bellowed as he thrashed and pulled.
“Well,” I said. “I think reasoning with the beast is out of the question.”
“You called it Mike,” Maggie said as we backed away. The monks in the stands called out their displeasure at the lull. “Do you know that thing?”
“Mike is a minotaur,” I said.
“I kinda worked that one out for myself.”
“Okay,” I said. “Anyway, he’s usually kept to himself. He’s worked hard over the centuries to avoid human contact. In fact, the Mike I know would find the idea of being worshiped ridiculous and frankly, I think he’d be more than a little aggravated.”
Whatever she’d meant to say, she didn’t finish as Mike freed himself from the iron gate. He turned to us and I noticed that his eyes were dull, like those of a cow grazing in a field.
Make whatever jokes you want, but the few times I’ve crossed paths with Mike, his eyes had looked anything but dull. These were the eyes of an automaton, not an intelligent creature like Mike.
“This ain’t you, Mike,” I said again as the big bull took a step toward us.
But Mike only snorted, lowered his head, and charged once more.
Maggie and I jumped out of the way and Mike sailed past us.
The monks were not happy. So far their hopes of an exciting battle had been dashed by nothing more than a few missed passes by an angry bull.
“Follow me,” I called and ran to the stands.
The wall between the arena floor and the crowd was only about three feet high, and as Maggie and I arrived I helped her up onto the top of it. But it’s as far and she was going to go.
“There’s something here,” she said, standing on the wall and pounding on nothing. It won’t let me through!”
A magical barrier.
Then Mike was there. I pushed Maggie out of the way as the bull took hold of me, lifted me up over his head, and then tossed me like a doll into the middle of the arena.
I hit the ground in a heap, landing on my right shoulder. I felt it pop out its socket and I screamed through the pain.
Mike threw his head back and bellowed.
The crowd cheered their approval.
Over it all I could hear the sound of laughing.
I looked up into the stands and had no trouble locating the source. Sitting in his own private box, like the emperor himself, was Cleon, his head tattoos glowing like a black light poster in a stoner’s basement.
Maggie ran to me and knelt at my side as Mike continued to bellow.
“Kill him!” Someone called from the stands.
Others took up the cry and soon the crowd was chanting.
“KILL HIM! KILL HIM! KILL HIM!”
Mike turned and took a step toward us, then stopped. He shook his head as if trying to clear it of cobwebs and for a moment, the dullness left his eyes.
“What—” Mike said before the blank expression returned and he took another step toward us. His movements suddenly jerky and forced.
“He’s controlling him,” Maggie said.
“What?” I said.
“Cleon. Look at his tattoos.”
Mike took another step toward us, it was almost robotic. Beyond that, I could see that the glow from Cleon’s tattoos had grown more intense, pulsating with each step Mike took. Maggie was right. Furthermore, I could see the concentration break out on Cleon’s face along with beads of sweat.
Mike was fighting it.
“Okay, listen,” I said to her. “I have something here that can help us, but we need to get through that barrier first.”
I pulled a set of brass knuckles from my pocket.
“Brass knuckles?” She said.
“I don’t have time to explain but they’re mag—”
Suddenly Mike was there, lunging for me. I rolled out of the way, grunting as my dislocated shoulder got underneath me, and I dropped the brass knuckles. I tried to grab for them, but Mike was there first. He took hold of me, lifting me from the ground and squeezing me to his chest like greeting a long, lost love.
The air was forced out of my lungs as Mike squeezed, and I panicked. I kicked and flailed, fighting against the thick steel cables that were Mike’s arms, but it was no use. I couldn’t get free.
I looked up into Mike’s face and saw nothing, like a cow chewing its cud.
“Mike,” I said with the little breath I had left, and then it all slipped away.
Mike, the arena, the screaming monks, Cleon’s smiling face of triumph, and the tears falling from Maggie’s eyes, it all faded as I slipped into the Black.
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