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“No no no no!” Minister Glover cursed. The video feed broadcasting the camera directly above the fighters had died abruptly.

The control room was in disarray as he angrily flipped random switches to toggle through the security cameras in the food storage looking for a visual on his targets. “How could there only be one video camera on all this meat merchandise?! Where were the stupid panthers? They should’ve been eaten alive by now!”

Suddenly, Minister Glover became aware of a presence behind him. The screen that had blacked out had a menacing, foreign reflection. He made a move to turn, but a pair of strong hands grabbed his head, and smashed it down straight into the video screen.

***

Ming sneezed himself awake. It’s really cold in here, he thought. What is all this sticky stuff... As his eyes adjusted to the dim light streaming from the thin sliver of a gap, nothing could have prepared for the half-gouged face of a murder victim staring straight back at him. Panicking, Ming tried to sit upright. Bonk! His head made contact with the top of the drawer and his vision began to swim in front of him, leading him back into an unconscious slumber.

***

The metal door looked like it had been punched through. The panthers’ exoskeletons were so strong that they had been able to breach metal.

The three red panthers prowled through the cold storage. It was quiet and still, but their senses were initially disoriented from the multitude of smells. One sniffed the crate of chillies and gagged with watering eyes. Another pushed over a crate on purpose to instigate some movement. Twenty pineapples rolled away in different directions. Still, there was no movement. Where were the fighters?

The big pile of meat in the middle of the room towered over the panthers. This juicy heap was at least four metres high, stewing in the juice or raw flesh. At the very top, its crowning glory was a prime hunk of pork ham. It must have been from a hog larger than the panther themselves. The smell would have made any human gag, but to a panther—it was irresistible. Natural instincts kicked in. It was feeding time!

Krystal held her breath. From her hiding spot sitting inside a covered barrel, she could just barely make out from a hole in the side that the panthers had gone for the obvious bait. So far so good.

The panthers gorged themselves noisily. The one with the injured eye rolled around on the floor blissfully, tearing chunks off of a piece of ribs and then sucking on the remaining hunks of bone. Another clambered up to the top of the pile. Its target: the prized leg of ham. The panther bit deep into the flesh and dipped its head to drag it backwards. But as the pork leg shifted, a human face came into view. It was Dart.

Dart stared at the panther, his eyes shivering with fear and determination all mixed in one. He had been lying on his back, partially hidden under the pile of meat with his knife clutched in front of his chest. Sensing his opportunity, he thrust the knife vertically upwards in a clean sweep. It cut through the panther’s exposed jugular.

Blood spewed out of the gash from its neck from where Dart’s knife had made an entry point. Dart twisted the knife, then stabbed once more, deeper and more viciously before withdrawing.

The panther howled in pain, sounding a warning to the other two that the food had been a trap. But it was too late. For all of the red panther’s highly-armoured anatomy, its neck was unprotected from the underside. It had been a well-timed and precise blow. Finally, the panther shuddered and collapsed.

Great, one down. Two more to go. Dart steeled himself, realising that he had killed someone—something—for the first time.

Why did I have to be the one under the meat pile… Dart started to regret his position.

Dart wiped the blood and meat juices from his face and half emerged from the crown of the heap of meat. The other two panthers were almost upon him, and his body was still trapped under the pile. Dart closed both hands around the secret apparatus that the trio had planned. The plan had to work!

The other panthers came running from the bottom of the pile. As the panthers reached him, he deftly attached his fistful of hooks onto their exposed rib cages.

Reeling back in confusion, the panthers pawed at their chests, trying to undo the foreign objects that were now attached to their bodies. They were long, metallic… chains?

“NOW!!!” Dart screamed from his hiding place underneath the meat pile.

In a flash, Krystal exploded out from the barrel and yanked down hard on the lever on the wall. The entire contraption heaved, then the butcher’s line started to move along at full speed.

The chain connected to the panthers’ bodies snapped taut. Then within seconds, one panther was whipped away. Dangling from mid-air by its belly from the chain, the panther shrieked as it struggled to unhook itself. It was impossible.

The panther’s companion watched helplessly as it was dragged along the conveyor system towards its final destination: the meat grinder. Completely unable to secure traction, the live animal was shoved, kicking and screaming, against fast-moving blades that pulverised it whole.

But wait! The panther’s companion? The second panther’s chains were still loose.

Where was Gilgamesh?

That coward.

Gilgamesh had disappeared. The other lever at the far end of the wall, right next to the dumbwaiter, remained unengaged. He had abandoned his part of the plan.

So much for helping people. He must’ve taken the elevator up when we weren’t looking!

Krystal sprinted towards Dart, who didn’t have a clue what was going on—except that the snapping jaws of the incensed panther was right in his face.

Dart was helpless; without his fellow fighters’ cooperation, he had run out of moves. The rest of his body from the waist down was still trapped under the meat pile. He began to start wriggling his way free, but the panther was getting closer and angrier.

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About the author

PlayingGamesOfDespair

Bio: YA fantasy book series created by Kabir Singh & Judy Goh
Sypnosis: Tournament of the century, ordained by God. Who will prevail?

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