The arena for the Duel by Proxy hadn’t existed a day ago, but here it was: a small arena built of bright red wood. Painted across the outer walls were gigantic, murals of realistic looking monsters fighting other monsters.
Dragons fought giant, white-furred wolves. A kraken grappled with a sea-serpent. A massive wyvern with gaping jaws was trying to bite through a xyrthak’s neck.
“It’s all the big monsters,” Alex said to Claygon as he scanned the paintings. “But no-wait, there it is.”
What looked like an iron golem was fighting some sort of war-spirit, like the one Professor Mangal had summoned in Alex’s first summoning class.
“Hah, there is some love here for golems after all,” Alex said, patting Claygon. “Let’s see how much love we can give back.”
The arena was open to the public, though the area designated for competitors to practice and warm-up in, was still gated off. Just outside the arena, a few booths selling monster-themed food, potions that boosted physical abilities, and even-
“Bar-mammoth wrasslin’!” A towering, rough-looking, grey bearded man called from beside a fenced-off area. “Mad Stan’s Bar-mammoth wrasslin’! Step right up, be you man, woman or child! We got baby bar-mammoths for the kids, big bar-mammoths for you adults and they’ve all got gloves strapped on’ that’ll stop ‘em from clawin’ ya to pieces! They’re wearin’ force spells on thar tusks that stops ‘em from gorin’ ya. They’re all intelligent so they wouldn’t try, but accidents have-I mean, could happen!”
Alex took a moment to realise, through the man’s accent, that ‘Bar’ meant ‘Bear.’ Also, was he asking children to wrestle bear-mammoths? Even baby ones?
‘Hmmm’, he thought, ‘The ‘Mad’ before Stan was making sense.’
Unconsciously, Alex slowed his step and paid more attention.
In the fenced off area were four calm-looking bear-mammoths, with massive tusks that were shrouded by force spells. There was something...odd about them. An intelligence, like he’d seen from Brutus or Najyah. Alex remembered seeing bears that had been hunted by some of the local woodsmen back in Alric, but the biggest bear-mammoth in the enclosure dwarfed any he’d ever seen back home.
There was a massive one with reddish-brown fur. Alex watched as it rose up on its hind-quarters; the beast must have been about fifteen feet tall standing on its back legs. A swipe from one of those gloved paws would probably send Brutus flying.
“Hey, young man!” the man—who Alex assumed was Mad Stan—called out to a passing student. Alex saw a strange, tentacled beast following him. Maybe he was one of the competitors. “Why don’t you try your hand at a little wrasslin’ the bar? You control that beastie by you, surely you ain’t afeared of somethin’ as big an’ fuzzy as a bar-mammoth?”
“A what?” the young man asked.
“A bar, bar, my fine fellow!” Mad Stan pointed to the bear-mammoths in the enclosure.
“Ooooh a bear-mammoth!” the young man said. “No, not interested.”
“Alright, then, and what about you! You with the broad shoulders!” Mad Stan flexed his own corded arms and looked right at Alex. “Surely you wouldn’t object ta tryin’ yer hand against one of me familiars, wouldja? You look strong!”
He pointed at a brown bear-mammoth that was one of the smaller ones in the enclosure. “Old Gilda thar’s about three hundred fifty pounds and gentle as a lamb…well, not that gentle, but the perfect size for a big, strappin’ lad like yourself. Care t’ test your strength?”
Alex waved his hand as he and Claygon kept on moving. “No thanks, but maybe you should enter that big guy there in the super-heavy weight class of the Duels, though.”
“That’s why I’m here, laddie! Just makin’ a little side coin first, and speaking of that-Bar-mammoth wrasslin’! Impress your kids! Wrassle the bar-mammoth!” He called to passersby.
Alex shook his head as he entered the stadium.
The interior was set up in a similar way to the main stadium where he and his friends regularly trained: stone floors with a column on the side that granted magic to monsters which stopped them from seriously hurting each other. It was like the magic they used to cover their weapons in the other stadium.
There was one key difference though.
A brass cage completely surrounded the central fighting pit, enclosing the top with a shining metal dome. Alex noticed that for safety, glyphs were etched onto the bars; wards that blocked most magic from leaving the fighting arena. It would take something really powerful to break through those enchantments.
Alex scoped out the arena.
There were tradespeople walking around the space, finishing up last minute tasks. He could use them to help him gather data by estimating their heights, then applying some of the maths he’d learned in Ram’s Force Magic class and the church school, to approximate distances.
“Let’s see, that guy looks a little shorter than me. So…maybe two-and-a-half feet per pace,” he muttered. “Looks like it’d take him…thirtyish…paces to get from one side of the arena to the other? Looks like…maybe seventy or eighty feet across for the fighting space,” he noted. “No obstacles. Plenty of room for large monsters and constructs to manoeuvre. Cage overhead makes it like a cage match. Some creature could use the bars to hold onto. Dome extends…about the same height as the width in the middle. Room for flying monsters, as long as they’re not too big. Cage is climbable. Should find out how much weight it supports.”
It felt like he was being watched. He was getting that nervous feeling he got when someone’s eyes were lingering on him too long. Alex turned suddenly.
There was a woman sitting higher back in the stands—maybe twenty feet away—with her legs up and her ankles crossed over the back of the seat in front of her. She looked only a little older than he was, and smoke puffed from a pipe clenched between her teeth.
She gave him a nod of recognition.
“Alex Roth,” she said in a neutral tone. She said his name like she was making a declaration. Her lips pulled on the pipe and she let a long puff of smoke out the side of her mouth.
He saw a flash of gold in one of her teeth.
“Tyris Goldtooth.” He nodded back to the woman. “I’ve heard of you.”
“And I, you,” she said.
Somewhere outside the arena Alex could hear music starting up. Someone had begun plucking a lively rhythm on the strings of a sitar.
He looked at Tyris closely, just as she was looking at him: with an appraising eye. Like opponents measuring each other.
“You here for the Duel by Proxy?” he asked. “I’m surprised you’d be going for the pet stuff. Your lava spells are so famous all over campus, I woulda thought you’d be in the spell-joust, or some of the direct wizard duels and, you know, the Grand Battle.”
She shrugged. “You need to place high in a lot of events to have a chance at the grand prize. So, I diversified.”
Everything about her body language spoke of confidence. In some ways, she moved similarly to Khalik: completely openly, with set shoulders and smooth movements. The prince’s poise was a bit more refined, probably because he was, well, a prince.
But she had a similar confidence.
“Diversifying is smart. I take it you’re bringing a strong monster to the field?”
She nodded. “I need one if I’m going to take down that four-armed wonder of yours.”
There was a playful note to her voice. No malice.
“Oh, super heavy-weight too?” he asked.
“That’s the biggest prize. The most glory.”
“Cool, so what monster are you bringing?”
She shook her head. “You can wait to find that out.”
“Awww, that’s no fun.” Alex smiled, patting Claygon on the side. “Well, whatever. Claygon could use the exercise.”
She snorted, puffing two lines of smoke from her nose. “A golem exercising. Funny. You’re a funny guy?”
“I try.” He shrugged. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
“That’s good.” Her green eyes twinkled. “Funny people are gracious losers, at least.”
His smile widened. This was fun. Competition. No threats to his life. No manipulation. She was obviously checking him out to judge his abilities, but he was doing the same to her.
He could have some fun with this.
“That’s funny.” He chuckled. “You’re funny. You a gracious loser too?”
Her smirk widened. “You won’t find out.”
“Well, we’ll see, won’t we?”
The Games of Roal’s opening ceremony took place just before noon.
The weather was beautiful.
A massive crowd—more people than Alex had seen in his entire life—were gathered in the school’s stadium with many more seated outside. Giant illusions hovered in the air—created by a team of wizards observing the events and then projecting them in real time—displaying the opening ceremony to those outside. Patrols were thick in the air—Alex could see them filling sky-boats—watching the crowds like hawks.
Alex and his friends—since they’d arrived at the venue early,—were able to secure seats inside the stadium for their group of family and friends. There was quite a big group of them, all things considered.
There was their Grand Battle team of course, but some of them had invited close friends. Alex sat beside Selina and Theresa, who was sitting beside her parents, Shishi, and some of her other friends from life enforcement. Khalik sat holding hands with Sinope the dryad—Alex noticed that the pair seemed very relaxed with each other now—and friends from Baelin’s class and his other classes, also sat with them. Even Kybas was sitting near Alex.
When Theresa had introduced Shishi to her parents: Shishi had started speaking to them in rapidfire Tarimite, which amusingly, took a bit for the Lus to reply to with rusty, stilted, awkward-sounding words in the language. Alex remembered that they never spoke Tarimite back in Thameland.
For some reason, Theresa’s face suddenly broke into this sorta satisfied looking grin like she’d been vindicated or something, but Alex had no idea what that was all about.
The opening ceremony began with a line of Watchers carrying a longsword between them on a litter. Its blade shone in the sunlight, and the scabbard beside it looked like it was crafted of shining fish scales.
“Roal’s sword,” Theresa said in awe. “Maintained after all this time.”
“Wow,” Selina murmured.
The precious sword was carried to a central platform that had been erected in the middle of the arena, where a glass cauldron filled with seawater—according to the announcement describing the opening ritual—rose.
One of The Watchers drew the sword high above his head.
“And so we open these Games of Roal, celebrating our founders’ life and her victory over the invading sea-demigod Oreca!” The Watcher roared, his voice booming out across the crowds.
A circle of Watchers surrounding the central stage drew their swords.
Then thumped their staves against the stones in a slow rhythm.
“In her name,” The Watcher holding Roal’s sword roared. “We celebrate the coming together of magic, might and skill to battle the world’s dangers! The sword?”
“A weapon!” The Watchers roared in unison.
“A weapon!” They roared again.
With that, the warrior on stage turned the sword and plunged the blade into the seawater. It slipped into the liquid without a splash, despite the force of the thrust. He released the hilt and—by magic—the water clung, holding it in place, hilt up.
“For the five days of these Games, the water will hold up Roal’s sword!” He declared. “Enjoyment to all spectators! And best fortune to all competitors!”
Loud cheers rose from the stadium.
The Games of Roal had begun.
Looking around, Alex saw Baelin, Hobb and some of the other administration sitting in a VIP booth. He could see that the chancellor was focused on the crowd, not the ceremony.
“That was a lot to take in,” Mrs. Lu said, as they left the stadium.
“It shall grow even more busy as the days pass,” Isolde offered. “The earlier days tend to have the less popular events.”
“Which means it will be time for me and Najyah to play,” Khalik said, giving Najyah a pat on the back. “The lightweight Duel by Proxy is coming soon.”
“Yes, and soon it will be Harmless winning the prize!” Kybas grinned. “And me too!”
The prince smiled at the goblin and the little-ish crocodile. “That sounds like a challenge, my confident friend.” He said.
Alex could have sworn Harmless had grown even bigger in the last few weeks. Kybas must’ve been really loading him with mushrooms to get him ready.
“The archery contest is tomorrow which is also an early event,” Theresa said. “Damn, I feel a little unwanted.”
“All of us early contestants can be unwanted together!” Alex said cheerily. “Like a bunch of lazy sons-in-law.”
Mr. Lu gave Alex an unimpressed look.
“I suppose it is time to get organised, then,” Isolde said. “I would like to view each other’s matches as much as we can.”
“I am hoping to see you all at mine, and I will be at as many of yours as I can,” Khalik said.
“Hell yeah, if I don’t see any of you at mine, I’m kicking all of you out of the cabal,” Thundar snorted.
Sinope frowned, her willow-leaf-like hair softly rustling in the warm wind. “Oh? I thought it was only Khalik, Isolde, Alex and you that shared a cabal.”
“Well, yeah…but also, like…well like, if the others were in, I’d kick them out!”
She blinked at him. “And you are the cabal’s leader?”
“He’s more of a mascot,” Isolde grunted.
“You’re a mascot!” Thundar snapped back.
Mrs. Lu looked down at Selina. “Well, they’re certainly a lively bunch. Do you want to be like them when you grow up?”
Her eyes grew wide as if Mrs. Lu had threatened her. She rapidly shook her head from side to side.
“Hey!” Alex cried.
His sister grinned evilly.
‘Oh, was she joking? That little gobl-’ Alex thought.
He quickly glanced at Kybas.
‘-uh, evil thing that is not in any way a goblin.’
Selina looked up at Khalik. “When does Najyah fight?” She smiled up at the eagle while cradling her messenger construct in a bag.
“In about three hours.” Khalik looked down at the schedule in his hand.
“Oooh,” Alex had a thought. “I think I might have a couple of ideas. Grimloch, Thundar, you busy for the next little bit?”
“I was just gonna stuff my face with food that’s bad for me,” Thundar grunted.
“No such thing as bad food,” Grimloch countered.
“Try thinking that when you’re past forty…” Mr. Lu muttered in a melancholic voice, tapping his belly.
“Well, I think I have an idea that’ll get your appetite stoked,” Alex grinned, rubbing his hands together.
“Bar-mammoth wrasslin’!” Mad Stan called. “Step right up! Test yer might against the bar-”
The man froze.
He watched as Alex led his group up to the bear-mammoth wrestling tent, flanked by a grinning Thundar and Grimloch.