When the smoke cleared and it was made obvious who was in charge, they offered to take me to their boss.
Except, y'know. For real, this time.
"Keep sharp," Sumerset said, but he didn't have to tell me twice. I trusted these guys about as far as I could throw them.
Well, maybe not that much.
I tried not to giggle.
The man I'd smacked down limped to the front and lead the way. His two friends stayed behind me--but I kept an eye on their shadows. We wove through the streets of the Stix, into the network of alleyways and zig-zagging passages.
When we finally arrived, I could hear the dull thrum of voices in the background--that, and a thick, tangy scent that grew heavy on the back of my tongue.
It wouldn't be until later that I'd recognize it as blood.
The building was an ugly thing, just like the rest of them--it had once been a hotel by the looks of it. The windows were boarded up and the front entrance had been barricaded shut. The only way in was through the side, where two wide-bodied thugs kept constant watch.
When they saw the three men and me, nods were exchanged--and they stepped aside.
The interior was dark, but big. Really big--the ceiling above us had been stripped out to make room. There were faces everywhere, along with people shouting and cursing. Right away, I could make out figures that ranged the gambit from human to merely humanoid. Skin, scales, and horns were all present.
"Lots of powers here," I said aloud, over the roar of shouts. More for Sumerset's benefit than anything else.
"How many?" Sumerset asked.
"Must be thirty, forty. Maybe even more," I continued.
"Yeah," one of my guides replied, shouting back. "You'll fit right in, gorgeous."
"I don't like this," Sumerset said.
In the center of the room was a large metal cage--the ground was covered in sand with dark stains. Some of the people up front were pressed against the metal, holding fistfuls of paper.
"Looks like some sort of--fighting ring?" I said.
We were moving past the cage, up to a shoddily made platform where several men and women sat--all of them with some sort of physical aberration. One girl's eyes were pure white, with no pupils or irises--a boy had pink, slithering snake-like worms for hair. Another girl had no visible skin--her body resembled strips of bacon, twitching and spasming with every gesture she made.
At the top of the platform was a fancy mahogany throne with damask cushions; in it sat a man with skin like chalk and eyes like embers. He wore a dusty, battered tophat, and had a black suit dense with grime. His age was indeterminable--but his face had a shallow and hungry look to it. Like he hadn't eaten for weeks.
And when he grinned... His teeth were nightmarish. Little more than rotting slivers with jagged little points. Reminded me of Sharkface, except much worse. At least Sharkface brushed his.
"And what have we here?" he asked as he looked to the men who flanked me.
"Askin' for work," one of the men--the one I had delivered the beating to--replied. "She's a bruiser, boss."
"Is she, now?"
"I am," I said, and then I stepped forward, assuming my best cocky stance. "You want me to prove it?"
"What do you want, lil' girl?" he asked. "Why have you come to Voodoo Jones' court?"
Seriously? 'Voodoo Jones'? His 'court'?
"Looking him up," I heard Sumerset say.
"What's it matter? I'm here," I said. "I want some work. I can punch things. Do you have anything or what?"
Voodoo Jones gestured to the people around him on the platform. I noticed they were all around my age--some were even younger. "Powers come to Voodoo Jones because they've been thrown away, child. But you--you could pass as a normie. Why would you come here?"
"Not getting anything," Sumerset said. "Nobody's heard of him."
"Or is it something else?" Voodoo Jones asked, rising to his feet. As he walked, he gestured for me to follow; we moved toward the base of the platform. "You look normal, but maybe you aren't. Maybe something's wrong with you on the inside."
I walked in his footsteps, keeping my eyes on those around me. Several of them didn't like me--I could feel their stares on the back of my head. Measuring me up.
"Either way, child, Voodoo Jones accepts you," he said. "Prove yourself, and Voodoo Jones will keep you warm--keep you fed--put a roof over your head."
"Does Voodoo Jones always talk about himself in the third person?" I asked.
He laughed, then; it was a terrible sound, full of dust and age. "Silly thing," he said, and then he stepped aside.
Without thinking, I stepped forward. It didn't even occur to me until a moment later that I was stepping into the cage.
"What--huh?" I said, turning around. How had that happened? Had he controlled me, somehow? Or--
The cage door slammed shut with a clank. Voodoo Jones smiled at me through the bars.
"Prove yourself," he said. "Then we'll talk about a job."
I turned back around. On the other side of the cage I could see a figure--someone was being loaded into the entrance.
"What's going on?" Sumerset asked.
"Apparently," I said, glancing to the chalkboard to the right of the cage, "I'm getting 1 out of 10 odds."
"I'm in the arena," I said, my voice low. "It's an underground fighting circuit."
The gate on the other side opened.
Something shrieked at me and launched itself forward.