Alex and Sim shook hands in the centre of the chamber.
“You should’ve told me you’d be here!” Sim said.
“Well, I don’t think there was really a chance to,” Alex said. “We’ve had, what, maybe ten conversations since I started working at Shale’s?”
“Yeah, good point,” Sim said, looking up at Alex, then eyeballing Claygon with an impressed look. “We do work at different times. Very different times, after all. By the way, did my mother ever get you to let her take a look at that beast’s golem core?”
“Hm? She never asked.”
“I’m surprised she never broke down and asked you; it was all she talked about after you brought it to the shop,” Sim said. “She and Lagor still talk about it now and then.” He shook his head, continuing to eye Claygon. “But, you know how it is in our profession, how rude asking to go rooting around in another golem crafter’s work is considered. Still…as excited she was, I thought she might throw all that aside. You know…convention be damned and all!”
Alex smiled, pleased that Claygon was still getting attention, but even more pleased that Lagor—his supervisor—and Toraka hadn’t tried to corner him about the inner workings of his golem.
That would have been very, very awkward.
‘Though speaking of awkward…’ he thought.
“So, I just want to make sure,” Alex said. “If we end up duelling, there'll be no hard feelings between us, right? No matter how it goes?”
“Hm?” Sim looked back at Alex. “Oh no. It's a competition. Friendly competition. Not much point in it if it’s not friendly.”
“Yeah, I think so too, but I just wanted to make sure. No offence.”
“None taken.” Sim looked up as the door to the waiting room opened again. This time a wizard, wearing multicoloured clothing, walked in with a baffling looking beast at his side: it had a lion’s body, but its well-muscled hindquarters were goat-like. A long snake’s neck and head formed its tail, and a goat’s head rose from its back like a torsoless rider.
“Tough crowd this year,” Sim remarked.
“Yeah, and Tyris Goldtooth isn’t even here yet,” Alex said.
Sim looked at him, nodding in recognition of the name. “Ah, that one’s entering a beast in this is she? I know she’s done really well in the Grand Battle and spell-joust in past years. But, I didn’t even know she had a pet to compete with in this event. Maybe she’s after the grand prize.”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “Are you going for it?”
“No,” Sim snorted. “I’m a crafter. I want to show off my craft, not go around shooting spells and getting into fights myself. But a good showing here is good advertising for the workshop.”
“Yeah, I guess it wo-”
The door opened again.
A massive footstep drew every eye.
The first thing Alex saw was an orange glow. It was followed by the confident figure of Tyris Goldtooth, striding into the room and waving her entrant to The Games inside.
And what an entrant it was.
“Holy shit,” Alex murmured.
It was an absolute monster of a tortoise. An undeniably enormous creature with a head and beak big enough to probably snap Thundar in half. Its shell towered over its body, and instead of being rounded like most tortoise shells, it rose into a peak like a mountaintop.
And the peak gaped open like a hungry mouth pointing up and curving forward like a giant claw. If that open hole could fire projectiles, anything in its path had better be real good at dodging. The orange glow that Alex had first seen was radiating from the ‘open mouth’ on its shell.
Suddenly, the fire mountains that one of The Traveller’s portals led to came to mind. The one they’d used to spray lava onto the hive-queen. The glow coming from the hole in the peak of the tortoise’s shell was reminding him of the glow from the lava filled sce-
‘Oh shit,’ he thought.
It wasn’t like the tortoise had a mountain for a shell.
It was like the tortoise had a bloody volcano for a shell.
“That’s…that’s against the rules, right?” Alex murmured to Sim. “Please tell me that’s against the rules.”
“I wish,” Sim muttered. “If it’s down here, it’s not against the rules.”
“Ooooh, that’s just great,” Alex mumbled.
The last big monster he’d faced was that lava spewing dune worm in The Barrens, and it had taken Claygon, the entire cabal, plus Hogarth, Svenia and Theresa to take it down.
He didn’t know what would happen if lava sprayed over Claygon. With the magic that was set up to stop attacks from being lethal or permanently damaging, hopefully, it would only mean that his golem would be buried in it and not completely destroyed.
‘Or maybe,’ Alex thought. ‘Maybe lava’s what Claygon needs to go through golem evolution? Right? Right? …probably not.’
Tyris took in the chamber filled with rivals, and then nodded to Stan. She also nodded to a few other competitors that she seemed to single out, like a wolf eyeing prey. One of them was Alex.
He nodded back to her, burying his nerves.
‘Don’t let them see you sweat,’ he thought.
He and Sim exchanged a few more words before each settled down for the wait. Alex spent the time observing everyone he could using The Mark to gather information about their body language while they went through their preparations.
It was easiest with Sim-
‘Sorry, Sim,’ he thought.
-but he collected a fair amount of information about how each competitor moved and reacted. He also observed how they treated their companions.
Some were openly warm.
Others—especially the ones who used golems—treated them like tools.
‘Yeah, if any of your golems suddenly gained intelligence, I’m sure they’d hate you,’ he thought. ‘No wait, focus.’ He brought his concentration back and discretely turned his attention to Tyris, watching her and her companion from the corner of his eye. Her interaction with the tortoise was gentle. There was caring, and a respectfulness there which looked like there might’ve been a bond between them.
Alex had assumed that since this’d be her first time competing in the Duel by Proxy to enter as many events as she could, she’d only gotten a monster for that reason.
But from their connection, it seemed more like they’d known each other for a while. Maybe it was simply a matter of her taking advantage of the resources available to her, like Baelin told his class to do. He might get the chance to ask her about her tortoise later, but for now, the fight was what he should be thinking about.
Alex looked away, focusing on himself as the room continued to fill. Falling into himself, he meditated. He checked his breathing. He strategized.
It was harder to make a familiar connection with larger and more powerful creatures, which meant that he probably wouldn’t have to worry about the spellcasting of his competition. Then again, he knew that Ozzie the massive bear-mammoth was one of Stan’s familiars, so it wasn’t impossible.
That possibility was something he’d need to watch for, but in his situation since Claygon wasn’t his familiar, there’d be no spellcasting for him during the match.
His best strategy was to use Claygon’s mental link for commands: he’d be able to give him instructions a lot quicker than if he had to say them out loud. His plan would involve observing Claygon and observing his opponents, then altering strategies as he needed to.
‘In the first round I’ll go for shock and awe,’ he thought. ‘A lot of these monsters are powerful, but Claygon’s really, really strong. Like ‘I can lift a dune worm’ strong. I think maybe only a handful of the opponents could even come close to matching his power. Then there’s the fire-gems. That’ll be my ranged option for flying opponents or fast ones. Either way, I designed Claygon for power. I’ll see if a quick, devastating offensive can catch at least my first opponent off guard.’
“Attention, duelists!” a voice called, drawing Alex out of his thoughts.
The announcer—who Alex hadn’t notice enter the room—was standing in the middle of the chamber.
“We are ready to begin the final division of the Duel by Proxy! The super-heavy match!” The announcer said, nodding to the contestants. “This is the most viewed event in all of the Duels by Proxy, so my hope is that everyone puts on a good fight, shows good sportsmanship, and takes care of your companions. Duels by Proxy are paradoxes: you want to show brutality within the fight, and honour outside of it. Let us keep this sport honourable. No cheating. No potions or spells cast from outside the cage, unless it is through your familiar. This is a duel by proxy, after all. Any unsportsmanlike conduct: screaming in rage at your opponent, any histrionics, abuse of your own companion, or other unseemly behaviour will result in heavy penalties. Are we clear?”
The contestants nodded and murmured their agreement.
“Very well! The structure of the tournament matchups have been decided. I will read off the names of the matchups for the beginning bouts!”
Alex sat up, listening to the list.
He wondered if maybe he would face Tyris, Sim, or Stan in one of the early rounds. That’d be a good way to start off with a bang. In the knightly stories he’d heard growing up, the hero always met their greatest rival and challenger in the final round of a joust.
Maybe he would meet Tyris or Sim then?
At last he heard his name.
“Arlando Durand and Shining Slash vs. Alex Roth and Claygon is match number seven-”
Oh. They’d be fighting someone he’d never heard of. He raised his hand and looked around to see who else was raising theirs. It was the same young man who commanded the ten-armed brass golem.
‘I guess that makes sense,’ Alex thought. ‘Odds are I wouldn’t be fighting someone I know right away, anyway. If at all.’
So, he settled in for the wait.
The announcer left the waiting chamber by a small door that went to another ramp leading directly up to the arena. On opposite sides of the large space were two more open doorways with ramps and a sign that read, ‘Combatant One’ above one, and ‘Combatant Two,’ above the other.
It looked like they were how the duelists and their companions got to the arena floor. Khalik, Kybas and the other combatants in the lightweight division had emerged from doorways on opposite sides of the arena too.
After the announcer went up to the arena, Alex heard a dim sound of cheering and stamping feet making its way down to them: the crowd sounded excited. He couldn’t blame them, the thought of all these big monsters and golems clashing against each other in an awesome contest…
…well it almost made him wish he was watching from the seats, instead of competing.
Two by two, opponents were called, and headed to opposite sides of the waiting chamber. The crowd’s roar grew louder.
Alex waited, keeping his thoughts clear and his breathing steady. His leg twitched.
Until finally, he and Arlando were called.
Taking a slow deep breath, he rose from his seat and started toward the ramp marked ‘Combatant Two’. On his way there, he turned toward his opponent and called out to him.
Arlando looked back with neither a response or even a nod. He just turned his head and made his way to the other ramp.
Alex’s expression soured. ‘Alright, then bad luck, I guess, asshole.’
He squinted as he and Claygon emerged into the daylight. The afternoon had turned cloudy—dark, with the threat of rain—though Alex could feel a strong sense of mana coming from the sky, and see that the clouds were parting.
The Watchers had announced that weather controlling spells would be cast to ensure The Games weren’t rained out.
“Next, we have two newcomers!” the announcer, well, announced. “Arlando Durand vs Alex Roth!”
The crowd cheered as Alex realised that the arena was absolutely overflowing with spectators. People were everywhere, seated, standing near the entrances, and anywhere else they could fit.
He looked over to see his silent adversary entering the arena from the other side. His golem’s brass surface and jewelled swords gleamed in the daylight, and it was moving like a praying mantis, preparing to strike.
“Representing Arlando Durand, we have Shining Slash: a handsome brass golem and veteran of performance combats all around the Prinean sea! Weighing in at nine hundred and fifty pounds, it holds ten swords of spinning death and can fillet a gorger like a fish in two heartbeats! Let’s hear it for Shining Slash!”
The crowd’s roar was deafening.
“Representing Alex Roth, we have Claaaaygooooon! This beast of a clay golem weighs in at twenty-four hundred pounds and was witnessed blasting bonedrinkers to ash during the attack on Patrizia DePaolo’s villa earlier this spring! With fists that smash and beams that burn, let’s hear it for Claygon!”
The crowd roared, and Alex searched for his friends in the crowd, finding them up on their feet cheering him from way up in the nosebleed section of the stands. He could just make out his little sister. The two of them had talked about her coming to his match since he figured he’d been using Claygon’s fire-gems, and wanted to give her the choice to stay at home.
“I wanna see you and Claygon fight!” she’d said. “I’ll just close my eyes when there’s fire!”
In the end, he’d supposed that if she’d found a way to be there and be okay, then it’d be the best of both worlds for her. Selina had asked for a knife for her birthday, and he hadn’t thought that it would be a good present for her; but then Mr. and Mrs. Lu—who were actually experienced parents who’d given their own daughter a knife—had given her one for her birthday. And she was taking care with it. So, if she wanted to watch, she could. Besides, she’d have Theresa—who knew how she’d reacted to her fire affinity—and the Lus there to support her if it was too much.
He swallowed and raised both arms and began waving wildly at them to let them know he could see them…before thinking how stupid that probably looked and stopping.
A blush spread across his cheeks and he quickly turned to Claygon. “Alright, big guy. Let's do our best together.”
The clouds shifted.
Claygon nodded slightly.
“Wait, what?” he muttered.
Was that a trick of the light?
He watched his golem carefully as the massive construct strode into the cage, but didn’t see anything unusual again.
Alex shook his head to clear it. “I kinda feel like fodder.”
There’d been books he’d taken out of the library for a fun read that featured a plucky, fleet-footed warrior who fought in martial arts tournaments. He had a fancy sword with a long name that he’d use to quickly demolish his opponents— who were always big, hulking jackasses—in the first round of any tournament he was in.
Alex towered over Arlando and was a hell of a lot more muscular, and Claygon dwarfed Shining Slash by nearly two feet and almost twice the weight.
‘Wait a minute,’ He thought. ‘That guy not answering me…is he the ‘cool silent badass’ who’ll completely whip Claygon to show how badass he is? No, no Alex, calm down. This isn’t some storybook. There’s no prophesied hero here-No wait. I’m a prophesied Hero. Yeah, but I’m literally comic relief. Oh jeez, maybe I should have ‘The Mark of The Fodder’ stamped on my shoulder!’
Four clay hands snapped into fists.
The announcer raised his hand.
Shining Slash raised all ten of its swords, gripping them by the middle of their blades with the pommels facing toward Claygon.
So, it looked like the plan was to use the ten pommels to bludgeon his golem.
“Begin!” the announcer roared.
Energy gathered in the fire-gems, with the glow building in Claygon’s forehead. The pair in his palms began to power up as well, but their light was hidden by his fists.
Shining Slash began to dance toward Claygon, spinning its swords across its ten hands. The blades flashed and shone in the air as it juggled them from hand to hand at speeds far quicker than Claygon was capable of.
The crowd roared with delight at the sword display, and the power gathering in Claygon’s forehead fire-gem.
‘Charge,’ Alex thought.
Claygon rushed the golem at full speed.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
His massive stride shook the earth.
Shining Slash dropped into a fighter’s stance, ready to react to anything Claygon did.
Then the fire beam blasted from the larger golem’s forehead.
Shining Slash leapt to the side, but both of Claygon’s hands snapped open as he ran forward.
Two more fire beams shot out at the last second.
The brass golem leapt over the beams—doing a shockingly acrobatic flip through the air—and soaring over Claygon’s head.
It gave Claygon a quick swipe to the ‘helmet’ as it soared over his head. Alex analysed the situation. So, that was the strategy: superior speed to show heavy domination of the fight and make it so that Claygon lost more than one point at the end of the round.
There were three problems with that.
First, Alex and Claygon were used to fighting fast opponents.
Second, when one was jumping through the air it was very easy to predict where one was going to land.
Claygon’s hand grasped Shining Slash’s ankle just before he landed. Arlando gasped.
-Claygon’s powerful core made him faster than he looked.
Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.
Gripping the brass ankle, Claygon swung Shining Slash over his head and then-
-slammed the brass golem into the stones.
Over and over, Claygon lifted Shining Slash up and slammed it into the arena floor. The brass golem’s arms weren’t long enough for a strike to its opponent’s hand, and it could only flail until Claygon slammed it to the ground one final time, then pressed it to the stones with his superior bulk and much greater strength.
Arlando had turned beet red.
“One…two…and pin!” the announcer called.
The crowd roared and Claygon let Shining Slash up.
But just as the brass golem turned around-
-the bell tolled, ending the round.
‘Welp, there’s one thing at least. Looks like I don’t have ‘The Mark of The Fodder’, after all,” Alex thought.