Although it would’ve probably been considered a controversial approach to therapy at best by a lot of his peers, after having given it some thought, Mandrake had decided that it could’ve been a great idea to bring Diaz to the Bolgia. Then again, most therapists hadn’t led the kind of lives which would’ve allowed them to make decisions like that from personal experience. When the otter therapist had first started developing his own shifting abilities, the xenophile bar had been one of the places which had played one of the most significant roles in learning to feel safe appearing the way he really was, and he’d hoped that Diaz could learn to feel the same.
It’d taken several months of progress to be able to get Diaz to a point at which he’d gathered enough of a sense of self-worth to leave his hideout at all. Half a century as a shut-in couldn’t simply be washed away but, if he never went anywhere where he was going to get more positive reactions from people than he’d received before, those previous negative impressions of himself would always remain the ones which he’d feel would define him as a person, and that was the obstacle which had to be overcome. Diaz had spent a lot of time arguing against several other possibilities of first haunts to begin to explore because of his anxiety, before the description which Mandrake had given him of the Bolgia had eventually convinced him to settle on it as a social destination.
He’d followed the otter’s first fight with rapt attention, cheering for him when he’d done well, cringing when he’d been hurt, and hugging him after he’d won. As they’d watched the first and third fights together, Diaz had wondered how he’d been going to do on his own first run through. Initially the plan had only been that he’d show up to watch, since it was his first time going, but after having shown up, he’d suddenly felt a burst of irrational confidence from the head rush of having been there at all, and without thinking he’d gone with it to sign himself up.
Mandrake had warned him to be prepared for the possibility that he’d lose, and that it’d have not to be the end of the world. The tournament tended to draw competition at a very high level and, after having seen the third fight, Diaz was especially inclined to believe him. There was no shame in losing to a trans-dimensional entity from beyond space and time – apparently not even shame in losing if you happened to be one – and people would be justifiably impressed that he’d have entered at all, which would be what he’d need to be able to focus on.
He wondered what his opponent was going to be like.
Bracing himself for the moment when the audience would turn to him, looking to the otter smiling at him encouragingly for support, he stood up from his seat to begin slithering his way to the ring. There were gasps, of course there was going to be a reaction when people realized that what they’d thought had merely been a lion sitting down on his legs like the rest of them really had the lower body of a large serpent instead. They weren’t horrified gasps, though – in fact, as inconceivable as the thought would’ve been to him if he hadn’t been living it, people seemed almost... awestruck.
As people were recovering from the initial shock of having had his appearance revealed to them, a few of them even started cheering for him on his way to the ring. As he climbed on the ring, the light shining on him unmistakably showed the crowd the white marble that was his skin and the red rubies that were his eyes. A statue like him shouldn’t have been able to go anywhere at all, yet there he was and, rather than decreasing, the cheers had seemed to increase when the audience had realized it.
Rakim nudged Klein to get his attention. “I would so hit that!” The skunk tilted his head to the side, making sure he’d heard the bat correctly. “Really?” “Oh yeah!” the cyborg continued earnestly. “Everything he’s got going on,” he gestured appreciatively, “Chiseled, one might say.” The skunk wondered if a living object could’ve been said to have been objectifying another living object. “Statuesque.” The golem hybrid certainly seemed to be welcoming the attention, though – the bat probably related, and Klein couldn’t see the harm in that.
The audience seemed to like precisely the part of Diaz which he’d always been afraid of being judged for, the part of him which he’d felt that he’d had to hide from others at all costs, and the Bolgia seemed like it’d been a better idea to have come to by the second. This must’ve been how Mano had felt when she’d appeared on that same ring, revealing her six arms and third eye to the world after a year of isolation mourning her girlfriend, Klein thought. Beaming from the ring for the first time in a long time, Diaz briefly turned around, and smiled at Mandrake in thanks.
This was going to be the last of the quarter-finals, so whoever won this one would end up moving up to semi-finals against Klein, against the chimera, or... against Mandrake himself, which Diaz was trying not to think too much about right then. But where was his opponent? The golem couldn’t see him anywhere, and as people in the audience talked amongst themselves, he could tell that they were asking themselves the same question.
Suddenly they all saw that Diaz’s adversary had been there the whole time. A shiver went down Klein’s striped spine as the space in front of the golem started slowly shifting its colors into a more and more easily recognizable silhouette. If Diaz had been reluctant at the thought of facing Mandrake, Klein was downright terrified at the thought of facing Diaz’s current foe.
It was Boko.
Boko and Klein had a history together. Klein had loved him once. Although he’d never been able to tell whether the chameleon’s apparent reciprocation of his feelings had been genuine or feigned to gain his trust, Boko’s persuasiveness, combined with the skunk’s lack of direction at that point in his life, had enabled the silver-tongued anthropologist to turn Klein into an eco-terrorist.
The skunk had only snapped out of it to come to his senses when he’d seen the reptilian archivist kill someone right in front of him, to protect an abandoned building slated for demolition at that, and he’d run for his life without looking back. Klein was surprised that the obsessive animist had been allowed to show up at all, let alone sign up, yet there he was. The skunk would’ve never showed up if he’d known that Boko had been going to be there.
Boko had always had a thing with sculptures.
When he’d taken Klein with him to rob a museum – he’d seen the chameleon knock out a 7-headed hydra security guard in two seconds flat – he’d explained that they had to do it because the fact that the museum had already been robbed proved that the people who were in charge of guarding it didn’t know how to do their jobs. They’d never protect the sculptures with their lives, as if they’d been living things, the way he would. He was the one who should’ve been in charge of taking care of them.
Boko had told him that the souls of inanimate objects were purer than those of living things, because they did no harm and they could do nothing to defend themselves, which made it his job to protect them from the tyranny of the animate. He resented artists, who created more unique objects that meant more work for him to have to protect; they were irresponsible contributors to the world’s overpopulation. His goal was for nothing new to be created and for nothing that existed to be destroyed, to keep the world in stable condition at all costs.
The social chameleon, whose adaptive social skills sharply contrasted with those of the timid statue before him, had no magic of his own, despite his claims to the contrary. He did enjoy messing with the magic of others, when he had reason to, and he was enough of a collector that he could always find some of it lying around here or there to dabble. At some point he’d become driven crazy enough by the fact that he couldn’t be everywhere to protect everything at once that he started thinking in terms of finding a more efficient solution to the problem.
What if sculptures could run away from thieves or kill thieves, themselves?
The bell rang.
His deafening roar making the ring shake, Diaz charged right up to Boko to pick him up over his head and throw him out of the ring. Surprised, but not so much that he could no longer think in strategic terms, the chameleon extended his absurdly long tongue all the way across the rope to stick it in the golem’s face. Using it to pull himself back to the ring, he noticed that the hybrid was going for his tongue with his arms, hoping to use it to swing him right back out, but the reptile was already over the ring by then, and pulled his tongue back into his mouth in midair while repurposing his trajectory into an aerial attack.
Flipping forward, Boko used his momentum to bring his tail down on the Diaz’s head, re-extending his tongue right after to follow it up with a downward tongue strike. He’d struck it so hard that chunks of marble flew off from the lion head to land on the ring around them. Klein wasn’t scared of him lightly – he’d seen martial artists break boards, bricks, ice, cement – but never marble, and certainly never with their tongue.
There were more gasps when everyone noticed that the chunks of marble weren’t content to stay where they were, but that as they finished crumbling to dust they were already slowly inching their way up around the golem’s body back to his head. The way his curse worked was that, every time something came off, it would be reformed no matter what, because what better way for Boko to quell his own restless mind than by also making sculptures invulnerable? Diaz had certainly found out how convenient that was every time his depression and self-hate over his appearance had led him to take a hammer and chisel to his snake tail lower body, hoping to get it off or to make it into legs only to see it reform just the way it was every time.
The chameleon shifted his colors to diagonally spiraling blue, white and red, making himself look like a barbershop insignia. He smirked sardonically at the ‘haircut’ that he’d just given his opponent. “Just a little off the top,” he provoked, the implication being that, like hair, it would grow back, before returning to his original coloring.
Angered by the reptile’s taunt, the golem charged again going for his throat with his hands, Boko using his tail coiled under him to spring up over his assailant as he did. Ducking under the snake tail slap of the turning hybrid, he regretted that he hadn’t been able to trick him into rushing off the ring altogether. As he back-flipped out of an attempt that Diaz made to wrap his snake tail around the chameleon’s ankles, striking the golem’s face with his own tail again on its way up, it occurred to the reptile that if he wanted to win – and he did – he’d have to come up with a way of getting the hybrid out of the ring, because the chunk by chunk approach wasn’t going to do the trick.
Before he could put a better plan in motion, Diaz grabbed Boko with his arms, turning him upside-down to slam his head down on the ground. Barely able to suppress some of the impact by putting his own arms on the ground around his head on his way down, as stunned as he was by having been put through that, the chameleon had the presence of mind to turn his new position into the start of a headspin. He started hitting the golem’s face with his tail and the supporting base of the hybrid’s tail with his tongue on each spin, before going for the face with his tongue while going for the tail base with his tail, his head sliding on the ground while advancing thus slowly pushing Diaz to the edge of the ring with his crisscrossing spinning limbs.
When the golem tried to sweep the chameleon’s head with his snake tail, Boko wrapped his own tail around the hybrid’s chest to hold himself up from it upside-down above the ground, the snake tail thus swinging under his head. Coming back to his feet, he lifted up Diaz to hold him upside-down in front of himself with his own tail so he could slap his face back and forth with his tongue a few times. Still upside-down, the golem wrapped his snake tail around the chameleon’s neck, which took him off guard enough for him to let go, and Diaz wrapped the rest of his tail all around his opponent’s body in a full coiling hold as he fell back to Earth.
As far as Klein knew, Boko had never been defeated.
The hybrid had his foe in such a grip that there was absolutely no way for him to wriggle out of it. As he started running out of air, the chameleon reluctantly realized that the only way out of this one was going to be a momentary graceful acceptance of defeat. But Diaz, his features distorted by fury, didn’t see it that way and, when Boko panicked and started tapping out, the golem didn’t stop, squeezing even tighter than he had been instead, a squeeze powered by the rage of 50 years alone.
This bastard never saw him as a subject. He’d made him an object. He would pay.
As his mind raced Diaz spotted Mandrake, still looking at him from the audience. He asked himself whether he was just trying to scare the chameleon or not and realized that he honestly wasn’t sure. Boko’s life was flashing before his eyes, every decision he’d made which had led up to this rethought, everything he’d been going to do, he pictured gone, all gone, forever. Who was going to take care of all the objects when he’d be gone, he wondered? There was no more time there was no more memory there was...
Would killing him have meant being disqualified from the tournament? Diaz was pretty sure it would’ve been, but it could’ve been worth it, if anything. Could Boko have been his only chance to find out how to break his curse, since he’d been the one who’d put it on him in the first place? He didn’t know. There was a chance of it, but he could never be sure. Would Mandrake still give him therapy if he’d killed someone...?
It must’ve felt pretty shitty to have killed someone, he thought to himself grudgingly.
Finally loosening his coils at the very last second, he let the raccoon referee, who was keeping a very close eye on them by that point, raise his arm over his head, and declare him the winner. Boko vanished the instant he was free, using his chameleon abilities to make himself invisible, determined to never show his face in the Bolgia again. Diaz slowly slithered off the ring and back to his seat, where Mandrake, while still shaken by everything he’d just seen, welcomed him with open arms.
“You did good.”
Diaz hugged Mandrake eagerly, letting out everything that he’d been holding in his chest for all that time, his ruby eyes covering the otter in his tears of wax and oil, but it didn’t matter, Mandrake thought as he hugged the golem back caringly.
“You showed him good.”