“No, no, Ozzie!” Mad Stan cried. “To the right! Throw him off balance, girl!”
It was no use.
The gigantic bear-mammoth flailed as Grimloch casually lifted her off her feet and raised her up above his head.
The colour left Mad Stan’s face. “What in all the gods? She weighs…what in all hells do you eat, man?!”
“Everything.” Grimloch snarled victoriously as he shoulder-pressed the gigantic, struggling bear-mammoth’s mass above his head a couple of times before casually placing the massive beast on the ground, and pinning her in place.
“Awww, come on, Ozzie!” Mad Stan cried mournfully. “It’s the first day, you can do it!”
After it was clear—from Ozzie’s futile grunts and the giant sharkman not even moving an inch—that the battle was done, Mad Stan finally spit and tossed up his hands. The beast stopped fighting and met Stan’s eyes.
“Fine, fine, fine! You win! Juuust let her up, she’s saying she just groomed her fur and you’re getting it all dirty again, so let her up easy!” He seemed to focus on Ozzie for a moment. “Come on girl, why would you be calling him names like that? That ain’t real sportsmanlike!”
Ozzie the bear-mammoth glared at Grimloch and shook herself after the grinning sharkman had let her up and dusted off his massive hands.
“Welp, ya wrassled ma bar-mammoth somethin’ good, I got to give it to ya…” Mad Stan sighed. “What was your name again, son?”
“Grimloch. And I’m not your son.”
“No, I meant-Nevermind.” Mad Stan sighed again. “You know in all my twenty years of comin’ here, ol’ Ozzie been pinned all of twice…you’re the third, ya, great big beast. Here you go.”
He gave the Grimloch a gold pin in the shape of a bear and a large stuffed bear-mammoth toy.
“I’d usually invite anyone that could pin Ozzie out for drinks…but ya’d probably bankrupt me big guy.”
Grimloch simply looked down at him. “…yes.”
“Also, uh, you’re not in the Duel by Proxy are ya?”
“No. I’m my own. Not a pet, or anyone’s familiar.”
Mad Stan let out a sigh of relief. “Well thank all the gods for that.”
They looked at each other awkwardly for a few moments.
“Okay.” Grimloch said, then simply walked away from Mad Stan without another word.
His friends cheered him and clapped him on the back when he got back to them. Brutus barked, but he’d been barking since they’d gotten close to Mad Stan’s pavilion. It looked like he wanted a crack at the bear-mammoths too…but probably in a much more vicious fight than any of them wanted to see.
“Well done, little brother!” Nua-Oge shouted.
“Little brother?!” Mad Stan, Mr. Lu and Mrs. Lu all cried at the same time.
“Well, well, well, looks like you came out on top too, big guy,” Thundar said, patting the giant sharkman on the shoulder. He too had pinned a bear-mammoth earlier, though a much smaller one.
“Mmmm.” Grimloch looked down at the stuffed bear-mammoth toy— almost half as tall as Alex, but in the sharkman’s hand, it actually looked small—then glanced at his older sister. “You want this?”
“I haven’t played with dolls since you were a child, Grimloch,” Nua-Oge said.
“Mmm.” Her brother grunted, then scanned the group surrounding him. “Here. You’re smallest.” He handed it toward Kybas.
“I’m a grown adult,” the goblin said flatly.
“Mmm. Then here.” He shoved it toward Selina.
“…I’m too old for dolls,” she said.
Everyone looked at her sceptically as her green eyes stared at the giant, fluffy toy, clearly wanting to fluff its fuzz.
“No you’re not.” Grimloch pushed the doll toward her.
Selina stared at it for a long moment, then sighed and took it, struggling to hold it and her messenger construct. “…thank you.”
Alex looked down at her. “You shouldn’t try and pretend you don’t want it when you do.”
“Hmph.” She pushed the fuzzy toy toward his hands. “Can you carry this?”
“Aleeeex,” she whined.
“Alex,” Mrs. Lu said sternly.
Alex took the big, fluffy bear-mammoth. He considered giving it to Claygon, but decided it was better if his golem’s hands were free in case the demon summoner pulled something.
Theresa looked at Alex. “Are you going to wrestle one of that guy’s familiars?”
“Are you?” Alex asked. “You are literally stronger than me, even though I’m-” He flexed. “-more statuesque.”
“Oh, by Uldar.” She rolled her eyes.
“And what about you?” Sinope asked Khalik, touching his shoulder. “I would love to see you test your might against a beast of the woods.”
Khalik thumbed his beard. “Haha, leave such crude measures of strength to folk like Grimloch and Thundar.”
“…Is what I would say, were I a coward.”
The prince took off his shirt, tossed it to Alex and strode up to Mad Stan while most of his friends cheered.
Sinope let out a whoop, cheering him on.
“I am not a toy and coat rack!” Alex yelled after him.
After spending a good part of the afternoon taking turns at bear-mammoth wrestling, eating, and seeing some of the other sights—like a horse and camel show, a demonstration of synchronised hippocampus riding, and one of illusion and combat magic—the group split up.
Grimloch’s foot race was taking place at the same time as the lightweight Duel by Proxy match, though they might be able to catch the end of it depending how long the duels lasted.
Alex, Theresa, Selina, Mr. and Mrs. Lu and the rest of the cabal made their way toward their seats in the small arena with Brutus at Theresa’s side. Beside there was an area reserved for golems and larger familiars by the entrance gate, and Alex left Claygon there, with four other good-sized golems.
On their way to their seats, several people—with larger beasts following close behind—stopped them to ask if they had plans to enter Brutus in the heavyweight Duel by Proxy competition. Those same people tried to hide their relief when Theresa’s answer was ‘no’.
“I’m surprised at how…relaxed everyone is,” Mrs. Lu said. “What with all the…you know what, going on.”
“My life enforcement professor says that if we let every event control our lives, then we’d be consumed by the suffering in the universe,” Theresa said.
“…sounds like a cheery man.”
They finally got to their seats near the arena floor, and Alex took a look around as they sat down: surprisingly…there were a lot less spectators inside the stadium than he would have expected. It looked like maybe only half of the seats were filled.
“Huh, you’d think this event’d be more popular,” Theresa said, looking around at the empty seats.
“The lightweight divisions are less spectacular than those of the heavyweight divisions. It is akin to choosing to spectate two squirrels fighting as opposed to two dragons,” Isolde said. “I myself would likely not be in attendance were it not for the fact that Khalik is competing.”
“Speaking of that, how do you think he’s going to do?” Thundar asked. “Well, I guess I mean, how do you think Najyah’s going to do?”
“I am most curious too,” Sinope said; the beautiful dryad looked around the arena. “We do not have such competitions in the forest, nor do we tame animals. Nature works with us at most times, unless we are going on a hunt and our prey wants to protect itself. Then it fights for its life.”
“Interesting lifestyle.” Theresa nodded with approval.
“You would think so, Theresa,” her mother muttered.
“Anyway,” Isolde interrupted before Theresa could fire back a response. “Khalik will do quite well, I should think. He and Najyah have plenty of experience in combat and work well together.”
Alex frowned, looking at one side of the arena. “She can fly, and she’s big compared to some of the other monsters in this weight class.”
He nodded toward some combatants waiting in a box just outside the main arena. There were foxes with fire spreading from multiple tails, dogs with mist rising from their fur, hawks with white feathers, small wolves with highly intelligent eyes, amphibians that were the size of cats, and others around that size.
One of them was a small, familiar looking bear-mammoth.
Alex looked carefully and saw Mad Stan standing beside the bear-mammoth among some other contestants: it seemed he’d entered the smallest of his familiars into the challenge.
“She’s not the biggest, but she’s the biggest flyer there. She also has that familiar connection with Khalik, so he can cast spells through her to/and help her.”
“Wait.” Thundar said. “You’re allowed to cast spells through your familiar during a match?”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “You can’t cast spells into the cage or onto your creatures, but you can cast spells throughthem: that’s the strength of being a familiar. Denying that would be like telling Mad Stan his beasts couldn’t use their claws, or Kybas that Harmless couldn’t bite people.”
In a way it reminded him of his conversation with Baelin when he told the chancellor about The Mark: the ancient wizard had likened calling it ‘cheating’ to saying that a student could not use their natural talents in school.
“Well, I guess that gives familiars an advantage,” Thundar said. “Well…maybe. They aren’t all that powerful themselves: it takes more mana, time and skill to make a more powerful creature into a familiar.”
“Yeah that’s right,” Alex agreed. “But Najyah’s pretty strong on her own so maybe-Ah! Wait she might be in trouble.”
Alex pointed at Kybas and Harmless. “Kybas made his connection with his familiar when he was really young. Now he’s one of the biggest in that division and Kybas can still cast spells through him.”
“Huh, Maybe Khalik’s got his work cut for him,” Thundar grunted.
“Who do you think’s going to win?” Theresa asked.
The minotaur shrugged. “Me. If Khalik wins, then my friend won his event. If he loses, then I get to make fun of him.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “And you wanted to be the leader of the cabal.”
“What? You know you’re thinking the same thing.”
“Gentlefolk!” an announcer—a broad man in a long cap and bright clothing—roared, his voice magically augmented to reach the entire crowd. “Today we bring you a death defying event! A battle of beasts and magic and the wit of wizard versus wizard! In ancient times, archmages would often resolve disputes by duelling each other through proxies! Chosen champions, summoned spirits, golems, bewitched beasts and more, would engage each other in vicious combat, as stand-ins for mighty wizards who could tear entire realms asunder in a dispute! Today, we bring you this ancient contest by way of sport and spectacle! Cheers for the champions you see before you and their chosen companions!”
Cheers swept through the crowd and Alex’s group joined in clapping, cheering, and whistling. Selina tried to not drop her snack—a fried dough pastry covered in cinnamon and brown sugar—and clap with everyone else, but sugar flew everywhere. Brutus promptly licked it up.
“Very good, very good! Stay ready people, it’s going to be quite the show!” the announcer shouted. “The combatants in this elimination tournament are hungry for victory, glory and the prize! There will be three rounds in each match!”
He held up three fingers.
“In each round, each competitor is awarded a maximum of ten points by three judges.” He gestured to a judge’s booth where three rough looking folk were sitting and watching carefully. Though they were of different races—a human, a selachar and an elf—they could’ve been blood siblings. From their sour expressions and stiff demeanour, they looked like between the three of them, the word joke would be a rare, if not a totally unfamiliar thing.
“Most rounds will end in a score of 10 to 9, with the advantage given to the more dominant duelist. Each time a combatant is knocked down, they lose a point for that round. For each time they are pinned, they lose twopoints for that round! If a contestant is knocked out or if someone surrenders, the battle ends! If both contestants make it to the end of all three rounds, then the one with the highest score at the end of three rounds takes the battle! No spells or potions can be used on a familiar outside of a round. For those who cast spells through their familiars, any ongoing spells must be dismissed at the end of each round. Make sure to preserve that mana!”
He gestured toward the entrants.
“Contestants have drawn straws, let us begin!”
Alex grinned. “Looks like we’re in for a treat!”
As it turned out, they were not in for a treat.
“Is it…is it supposed to be this boring?” Thundar whispered to Alex.
“I don’t know,” Alex whispered back. “They seem to be having fun.”
He nodded toward Sinope, Selina, Mr. Lu, and Mrs. Lu. The four of them were on the edge of their seats, watching as little monsters dodged and ducked each other’s strikes and fangs. Isolde, Alex and Thundar however, had been fighting yawns as the battles went on.
Sometimes spells or other magical effects blasted from familiars or other small monsters which livened things up, but—in the end—the fights weren’t really thrilling Alex.
“You know what the problem is?” he said. “Think about it: we’ve been fighting xyrthaks and dune worms and hordes of monsters, while down there-”
He pointed to the match going on.
“-we get to watch a shocking lizard-” He pointed to a lizard the size of perhaps a small hound that had blue crackling lightning bolts playing along two antennas on its head.
“A lightning lizard,” Isolde corrected.
“-I know, Isolde, I was being facetious. Lightning lizard,” he said. “Fighting against what looks like a muupkara, unless I’m going insane.”
“Indeed,” Isolde said. “A single muupkara.”
“Yeah, I guess there’s not too much spectacle in that,” Thundar grunted, looking around at the crowd. There was a mix of interest and boredom among the faces of those in the stadium.
Alex looked at Theresa. “You seem to be liking this.”
The huntress was staring at the battle with rapt attention, her eyes darting back and forth, following the movements of each small creature. As the muupkara ducked back and the lightning lizard sprang at it, she half rose out of her seat.
Mana bolts fired out of the muupkara’s chest—cast through it by its master—blasting the stone, rebounding to strike the lizard. As the reptile was hurled back, the muupkara sprang, unhinging its jaws, spreading them wide to grab its opponent.
The lizard scrambled back to its feet, and reacted by firing a bolt into the muupkara, shaking it from head to toe as it fell back, growling.
Of course, to Alex—from this distance—it looked like two tiny shapes jumping around. Not too exciting from how far away he was.
Theresa sat back down, blowing out a breath. Suddenly she looked at Alex. “I’m sorry, you said something?”
“I said that you look like you’re enjoying yourself,” he repeated.
“Oh yeah, it’s really exciting…” she paused, noticing Isolde’s bored expression and Thundar half-asleep. “…huh.”
“I’m surprised you’re so excited,” Alex said. “We fought a horde of muupkaras.”
“Yes, but it’s still exciting, just look at how they’re manoeuvring. You can see how each monster’s listening to commands, and the flashes of lightning, the movements and countermoves. It’s really cool.”
“…oh you know what? You can probably see the action a lot clearer because your eyesight’s so much better than ours,” he said. “If I’d thought of it I would’ve brought along some sensory enhancement potions for us. Couldn’t they use illusions to give us spectators close ups of what’s happening on the arena floor?”
“They do, for larger events,” Isolde said.
“I feel badly for Khalik,” Sinope said. “It’s interesting to me at least: I’ve never seen such a contest.”
“You don’t have to worry, Sinope,” Alex said. “He’s probably more focused on challenging and improving his skills than anything else right now.”
“And the winner has been decided!” the announcer roared.
“What, what now?”
He looked down to see the lizard hanging out of the muupkara’s mouth…but muupkara was on the ground, having been shocked until it submitted.
“Well, that’s that,” Thundar said as he woke up. “And now we get something interesting. Finally!”
“And now we have a treat!” the announcer roared. “A former champion versus a newcomer? It is! Staaaaaan Ernesto, Winner of three Duels by Proxy Grand Prizes in past Games, versus Khalik Behr-Medr!”
At last, the prince’s first battle had arrived.