“Next time,” Kybas said. “Next time.”
“Yeah, you gave Khalik a real run for his coin,” Alex agreed. “Damn, I wish you’d gotten third, though. The prize for third was still really good.”
He and Kybas were standing near the entrance to the arena. The others were chatting with Khalik, but Alex had gone over to talk to the little goblin.
“I do too!” Kybas grasped his head in frustration as Harmless watched his master with typical reptilian coldness. “Agh, why did I tell Harmless to charge in round three! I should have had him stay back. But I thought I could get another pin and keep Khalik from getting a come back. I didn’t expect his bird to turn into a catapult stone!”
His jaw clenched. “Never kind, I’m just making excuses. Even if I stayed defensive, he still could’ve gotten me with that trick. I think he has more fighting experience than me and Harmless.”
“Yeah, he does,” Alex said. “He’s been training longer than most of us.”
“But two pins,” Kybas groaned. “If it’d been only one, he would have won, but I still would’ve had enough points to get third place. That trick with the flying pin. Bah! That was it for me!”
“Nothing to be ashamed of.” Alex spread his hands. “Failure’s the mother of success, right? You fought a hard fight with Harmless and you can learn from it. Trust me, failures can be really, really good teachers.”
Alex had a feeling he knew that better than most people.
“Ah, thanks for the encouragement.” Kybas glanced around, then leaned closer to Alex, his voice dropping low. “I’m going to go get my harvest soon. I’m thinking maybe when the Grand Battle is on since a lot of folks’ll be away from the city and off on that island, and lots’ll be here watching the Battle through illusions I heard. So, with so many eyes away, it’ll be a good time to do a big harvest.” He gave a big conspiratorial grin.
“Good luck,” Alex whispered. His eyes scanned their surroundings, but it looked like anyone who’d been tailing him, was nowhere around now. Or if they were, he couldn’t see them. “Just be careful.”
The goblin-wizard sighed. “I’ll be more careful than I was in the match! Anyway, I should go get Harmless some food.”
“Yeah, he’s earned it. See you later, eh?”
He and Kybas split up; the goblin and crocodile went searching for a good meal. Alex watched him for a while, looking to see if anyone would leave right after him, but no one did. So, he returned to his family and his other friends. Khalik, Selina and the rest of the group were fawning over Najyah, who stood at her full height, preening her feathers.
Alex waved as he approached them.
“You are the champion, my friend!” Alex said, patting Najyah and clapping Khalik on the shoulder. “How does it feel?”
“Fantastic,” the prince said. “It was good sport. Very good sport.”
“Well done, man, well done,” Alex said, looking up at Claygon.
The golem loomed over them all, looking ferocious.
Khalik followed his gaze. “Let us see if there is room for two champions in this group.”
“You can count on it.” Alex patted Claygon.
‘Uldar’s Heroes might have a ‘champion’,’ he thought. ‘But mine’ll be bigger. Probably. Unless Uldar picked a giant for a champion or something. But Claygon will probably be bigger.’
“Alright, enough of that!” Khalik said. “There should be enough time to catch the end of Grimloch’s race if we move quickly. Let’s go see exactly how our big shark-like friend crushes his competition!”
“By all the gods he is fast…” Khalik muttered in horror.
The group had reached the spectators’ platform for the foot-race—an obstacle-laden marathon that went through much of campus—just as the leaders were close to finishing their last lap.
Alex could see why the wizards who provided the illusions for The Games weren't around for the lightweight competition of the Duel by Proxy. A pack of them were following the racers on flying disks, showing their progress along the track.
And what was being shown was that Grimloch—even with his long stride and life enforcement practice enhancing his speed—was in third place.
“What in the hells?” Thundar grunted, blinking. “I thought for sure he’d take the grand prize.”
“Well, he’s not far behind second place.” Alex pointed to the illusion that showed only ten yards or so separating Grimloch from the racer in front him: a centaur. “But…I don’t see whoever’s in first place anywhere near them.”
“Over there.” Isolde pointed. “You can see first place in the central illusion.”
The illusions floated above the spectators’ platform like a mural made up of many individual paintings. Each image that made up the whole scene was a moving illusion showing a different part of the race. Some images were from a bird’s eye view of the track which made the obstacles look like little toy houses, and the competitors like ants.
Others focused on individuals or groups from maybe a distance of thirty feet above them, giving a clear view of the action as they raced along the path.
In the centre of all the illusions was one that was twice the size of the others: it gave a clear angle of who was in first place.
Alex’s eyebrows shot up.
“I…can’t see anyone around the leader,” Mrs. Lu said.
“He must be really far ahead,” Mr. Lu said.
A young man—corded with lean musculature—was tearing along the path so quickly, that it looked like the illusion had been sped up. His arms pumped in perfect rhythm with his long strides, and the sun shone on his bald, dark scalp. His moustache seemed to be pressed against his face from the sheer speed he was moving at.
It wasn’t even a contest. Despite how fast Grimloch was, and the fact that second place was an actual centaur, the distance only seemed to grow between him and the rest of the pack.
“Indrajit Hanuman,” Isolde said darkly.
“…oh,” Alex groaned.
“What’s the matter?” Mr. Lu asked.
“You know that event we’ve been training for?” Alex said. “Well, he’s on one of the opposing teams.”
“…oh.” was all Mr. Lu said.
The rest of the race seemed to pass in a blink.
Hanuman placed first by minutes, and the centaur came in second. Grimloch finished within three seconds of second place, as a small crowd was gathering around Indrajit, chanting his name. It looked like he had a lot of friends.
“He is even faster than I had heard,” Isolde said, watching as the laughing young man was hoisted up on his friends’ shoulders.
“He might have had a breakthrough in his life enforcement training,” Theresa said. “Which means he’ll probably also have sharpened senses, strength and stamina too.”
“Could you catch him?” Alex asked her.
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t stand a chance. I’m only a little faster than Grimloch these days, and that’s if we’re going in a straight line.”
“Well.” Thundar tapped one of his horns. “If we fight him in the grand battle, we’ll have to circle-beat him. Get him separated from his group and bring him down. He might be able dodge one of us, but all of us? I’m thinking not. We’re gonna have to keep our eyes on him.” He paused looking at the finish line. “Hey look, there’s Nua-Oge. She’s heading over to Grimloch!”
He waved at the selachar and sharkman from the audience platform, as he, Alex and the rest of their group headed down to meet up with the siblings.
“Hey, tough break,” Thundar said to their friend as they all stood in a circle.
“I was slower because I didn’t have prey to chase,” Grimloch said, drawing looks of alarm from his friends.
“Why do you always have to scare everyone with everything you say?” Nua-Oge chided him.
“Why not?” was his only answer. “Let’s go find something to eat after they hand out the prizes. That was hungry work.”
“Yeah,” Alex said, glancing at the first place winner.
He was going to be a hell of a challenge during the Grand Battle, as they’d expected.
And tomorrow, he’d see some of the abilities of another competitor.
He wondered just what kinda hell the lava wielder would bring to the arena.
As the day went on, Alex didn’t see Amir or any of his group. The gnawing worry that there’d be another demon summoner attack seemed to fade from peoples’ minds the more that time passed.
The afternoon went by in peace, good food, and excitement.
And the next morning…
…peace and excitement continued.
Since none of his friends had any events, the group got to take in some of the other competitions:
There was a contest between illusionists: the challenge was, who could create the most realistic, or artistic illusion. From a distance, Alex saw a competition for who could melt down various materials the fastest using fire magic, but he decided not to take Selina to that one.
It was too bad, since he wondered if Tyris would be there competing so he could let him get some good data on her fighting style, but Selina’s peace of mind came first.
As they were walking away, though, Alex saw her looking in that direction.
They went to watch a magical marksmanship competition while they ate lunch. Some of the wizards took turns levitating various clay plates, while others shot them down with force magic.
One of the competitors was actually his old force magic prof: Professor Ram. The stern force wizard watched the clay targets shoot through the air, then blasted them with a flurry of jet-black force missiles from his force construct right arm.
Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack!
The targets snapping in the air sounded like hailstones hitting cobblestones during a storm in Alric, and Alex could see a look of satisfaction form behind Ram’s perfect black beard.
It made him wonder if he’d be wearing a similar expression after the super-heavyweight Duel by Proxy fight that afternoon.
Since there weren’t any more events that they wanted to see after lunch, they decided to head to the arena early, a few hours before Alex’s event began.
It was a good thing that they did too.
“Well this is a lot different from yesterday!” Mr. Lu cried.
Even though the earlier competitions had already ended, the arena was still full, and any empty seats were filling up fast. Illusionists were setting up at strategic vantage points around the arena, getting ready to display the action from the best views and angles, both in and outside of the arena.
There was more energy in the air.
Suddenly, Alex started to feel nervous. It was weird: battles to the death? He was getting used to those. He’d also been in a spell-joust before with an audience watching, and danced at a fancy ball with mostly strangers attending with no issues.
But something about all of this….the spectacle and expectations hit him differently. He took a breath and calmed himself, acknowledging his nerves and then letting them go.
‘Remember, it’s no different than having Baelin watch you,’ he thought. ‘If anything, it’s going to be less stressful.’
“Alright,” Alex tapped Claygon’s side affectionately. “We’d better get down there.”
Selina grabbed both his hand and Claygon’s finger. “Good luck!”
“Good luck!” Theresa gave him a quick hug, conscious of her parents being right there.
“Good luck, Alex,” Mr. and Mrs. Lu hugged him.
“Fail hilariously.” Thundar clapped him on the shoulder.
“Lose without grace.” Khalik clapped him on the other shoulder. “Have a tantrum in front of everyone! It will be much more amusing.”
“Ignore them. Do not embarrass the cabal,” Isolde told him. “I should think that with Claygon, any performance other than victory would be incredibly below what is expected of you.”
“Thanks,” he said dryly. “That makes me feel soooo confident…”
“No need for confidence,” Grimloch growled, looking at Claygon. “Your golem is a predator. The rest are prey. There’s no need for confidence or nerves when hunting prey. You just chase and eat.”
“Y-yeaaaah big guy,” Alex said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Aaaah, Mr. Roth.” A man checked his name off. He was standing in front of a large doorway. “You’re early. Good. Others are already waiting and others will arrive later. You may wait and take a seat inside.”
“Okay, thanks,” Alex said.
He and Claygon had gone through a large door that led to a sloped ramp that wound down in a circle beneath the arena. His name had been confirmed by two different officials: one who stood at the door leading to the ramp itself, and one who stood at the door at the end of the ramp.
Both doors were huge and reinforced with iron and glyphs that strengthened them.
Alex was a little shocked to see such an underground complex created so quickly. Then again, with magic and multiple wizards, such things were fairly simple. Or maybe it had always been there. After all, it was Generasi.
Looking at everything around him, he couldn’t wait for the expedition to begin. Once the land was cleared out, it was going to be something to see how quickly they got the research castle built in Thameland.
But first things first.
He wanted to win this.
It was time to see what he’d be up against.
Stepping into the large room with Claygon, he looked around, taking in everyone who’d already arrived.
Alex could see why the room was so big.
Beasts, monsters, constructs and their masters waited at the edges of the chamber. From the size of those already there, they would’ve definitely over-crowded the space if the room wasn’t as big as it was.
There was a massive swamp drake with black, jagged scales and teeth that protruded from a mouth big enough to snap Alex in half. There was a brass golem that was approximately eight feet tall who had ten arms—Alex counted each one— with a jewelled sword in each hand.
A white furred ape that must have been at least twelve feet tall.
He was surprised to see Ozzie and Mad Stan there, having a quiet talk in a corner of the room.
And then there was-
“Sim?” he called out. “Is that you?”
A short, grey-skinned man with a slight build stood beside an eight foot stone golem that had been carved to resemble a…well, powerfully built…version of himself. Its stone ‘clothing’ was painstakingly painted to look deceptively real.
The young man looked up and blinked in surprise. “Alex!” he called in an unexpectedly deep voice, considering his slight build. “I should’ve known I’d see you here!”
Sim Shale—son of Toraka Shale, the owner of Shale’s Workshop—walked over to Alex.
‘Huh, looks I might be duelling my boss’ son,’ Alex thought.