Klein tilted his head at the otter’s exclamation quizzically. “What? Cheating?” The therapist sighed, thinking back on his own taunts at the skunk earlier during the fight. “Fair enough,” the shifter shook his head resignedly. “So did you just come up with that on the spot to win” Mandrake had to ask, “or is that what you really think?”
“I meant what I said,” Klein replied, echoing the words that Rakim had told him after his previous fight with the bat. “You better be careful,” he finished quoting. “I mean, I’m not a therapist or anything,” the skunk saw it fit to add, “but I’ve been in love, wildly inappropriate love before, and that’s what I see on his face when he looks at you,” he clarified, “and transference is a thing.”
It made a lot of sense in some ways. Mandrake was the first person who Diaz had even really talked to in several decades. Not only had the otter seemed like a savior pulling him out of the darkness, but he was being the golem’s entire model for what a constructive, positive personality could be like around other people at all. How could he not have fallen for what that was going to mean to him at a time like that? But a therapist who allowed that to happen would only make it seem like his therapy was a cover so that he could prey on the desperate.
“... Whoa,” was all Mandrake could say, “I... didn’t see it,” he shook his head disbelievingly, “I can’t believe I didn’t see it.” The otter covered his mouth with his brown-furred hand in deep thought. “I’m going to have to figure out how to deal with this, aren’t I?” Klein gave him a dismal, knowing look. “It’s not going to be easy, I know, but... well, it seemed like you should know, one way or another,” the skunk explained.
“I guess so,” the therapist conceded, sticking his tongue out at his erstwhile opponent as he did, “I was using as much psychological warfare as I could to help take you down, myself. Can I ask you just one thing, though, skunk?” the shifter went on. “Sure, what?” Klein inquired. “Even if you do end up against him in finals, and push comes to shove... don’t tell him I know. He’d be so embarrassed.”
The skunk nodded, encouraging Mandrake to go on. “Diaz looks powerful, but he’s a sensitive soul underneath. If he found out I know too early or the wrong way, it could compromise his entire treatment. Please, let me handle this on my own in due time. It’s important to me.” This time Klein nodded in understanding assent. “Of course,” he answered, “there are more important things in life than winning.”
The otter smiled, relieved. “Good,” he said, pausing as they walked back to their seats in the audience. “Good luck.” The skunk almost thanked the therapist for his encouragement, before realizing that they’d been close enough to where they’d been sitting that the shifter was already talking to Diaz by that point, stopping to hug the golem on his way to what would be his second fight that night. Not long to recover, but then that was part of what putting the contestants’ abilities to the test was all about.
On some level, Mandrake wanted his client to win, naturally (he preferred to think of them as clients, not patients. Patients seemed crazy. Clients needed help from professionals to solve problems). He’d put a lot of work into building up the snake-taur’s confidence, and it would’ve done wonders for him to have won on top of that. He just hoped that the statue wouldn’t mangle the chimera too much doing it – Soma already disliked tournaments enough without having to heal the fire-breather, who made the dryad nervous...
Meanwhile Diaz, on his way to the ring with no idea of what had just transpired, was also divided about the battle which had just taken place. On one hand he’d wanted the otter to win, because he always wanted his therapist to win at everything but, on the other, he was glad that the shifter had lost, because it meant that there was no risk that the golem would have to fight him in finals. As for the chimera, he was just glad that Mandrake had lost to Klein because the otter’s water shifting had scared his fire-breathing self a lot more than the skunk or statue had.
Having followed the chimera most of the way to the ring, Rakim kissed all four of his FWB’s heads successively for luck before returning to his seat in the audience by the skunk’s (even the snake one). The chimera ducked under the rope on his way into the ring again with sober expressions on his faces, looks that seemed as though they underestimated nothing without showing fear. Diaz was trying not to show it either, but as fleshy as his opponent was compared to him, he couldn’t help finding the monster quite intimidating in spite of that.
Still, the golem already felt a lot better about himself than he had at the beginning of his previous fight. Not only did he have the crowd’s cheers, Mandrake’s support and one victory to fuel his belief in himself, but another helpful factor was that the stakes of this fight were noticeably lower for him than the first fight’s stakes had been, on a personal level. He didn’t have to be as afraid of losing as he’d been against Boko, and he intended to bring that particular fearlessness to bear during the fight toward winning.
After Diaz had slithered and climbed his way into the ring as well, the chimera facing him put his closed fist in his palm in front of himself, and bowed to him. The otter had warned him that tournaments sometimes drew a lot of trash talking as a routine diversionary tactic, and to keep that in mind enough not to take any of it to heart if he happened to be on the receiving end of some of it while he’d be there. It was this show of respect for which he hadn’t been prepared, but he certainly welcomed it.
“May the best lion win,” the lion head opined. “Likewise,” the golem answered back, putting his own fist in his palm to bow back to him similarly. As the chimera assumed a simple, self-assured fighting stance, the low hiss of his snake tail head behind and under him reminding his opponent of the underlying threat that it represented, the statue brought his clawed palms down to the ground in front of him, rattling his snake tail behind and over his head to pose a threat of his own.
He feinted with it a few times, swinging it back and forth ever so slightly in front of himself as though he meant to swat the heads which were keeping their eyes on it, but the monster didn’t step back an inch at it, undaunted. He could tell the difference between a feint and a real attack at a glance, it seemed like. Diaz told himself it was time to move on from the former to the latter, and did.
The chimera redirected the golem’s punch at his dragon head out of its trajectory. Grabbing the marble wrist with one hand and the marble elbow with the other, he went down in a slow spin back while pulling on the wrist and pushing down on the elbow until the statue was face-down on the ground next to him. Standing up to plant his foot on Diaz’s controlled shoulderblade, he pulled on the golem’s arm up and toward himself as hard as he could.
That was when he realized that a statue’s arm proved considerably more difficult to hyperextend than he’d accounted for.
When he saw the golem’s free tail coming for his neck as he struggled with the arm, he gave up on doing so altogether and stepped off the statue’s shoulder, letting go of the arm and retaking a more defensive stance nearby just in time to avoid getting caught in a tail choke. As Diaz stood back up from the hold that he’d just broken out of, he intertwined his fingers near his hip to swing both of his joined fists in a sideways arc which would’ve hit all three heads on his opponent’s shoulders successively, had the monster not had the presence of mind to bend all three heads under it. His fists still joined, the golem brought them back up under the lion head trying to hit its chin with the force of two uppercuts at once, but the chimera arched his back up out of the strike’s path, watching it go up past its mark on its way.
Diaz brought both joined fists back down from behind his own head aiming for the top of the then-upright lion head. Stopping both forearms on their way down with his hands, the monster had to put all of his strength into pushing up and back as hard as he could to prevent them from ploughing on through his resistance to reach their target in spite of his efforts, and strained visibly. The golem eventually used the momentum of his opponent’s push back to stop pushing down and roll backwards instead, going for the lion’s chin with a rising tail strike on the way.
The chimera managed to arch his back out of the marble tail’s path, but the statue then grabbed his dragon and ram heads to bonk them right against the lion head between them. Klein saw Rakim cringe and Mandrake cheer, not sure of who he should have been rooting for himself. Heartened by his recent success, Diaz repeated a similar motion going for both side heads with two claw swipes at once, but the monster knelt under them, the golem’s arms crossing over his heads instead.
Grabbing the statue’s hips from his kneel, the chimera stood up lifting him and went back into a bridge, slamming Diaz’s head into the ground behind him as he did. Moving his hands from around the golem’s hips to the ground behind him, the monster pushed his legs up from in front of him to turn his suplex into a back handspring over the statue, from which he ended up standing face-to-face with him again. What coordination it must have taken to have been able to pull off a move like that while making sure that none of one’s own three heads would hit the ground while doing so, the skunk couldn’t help but think admiringly.
Borrowing the motion again from what had become a forced forward roll for him, Diaz brought both of his separate claws down on the ram and dragon heads in front of him, his forearms getting stopped on their way down by the chimera’s arms again. The snake tail head snuck its way between the monster’s legs right in the golem’s face, intending to spit venom in his ruby eyes. Unfazed, the statue brought his own tail down forward over his own head, his tail whip forcing the snake tail head to retreat back between the chimera’s legs from whence it came.
The monster span, bringing the back of his elbow up against Diaz’s chin as he did, sending chunks of marble flying off from it on the ring around them. This time it was the bat who cheered while it was the otter who winced, Klein saw. The chimera leapt up at the golem, his knee continuing the sculpting work that his first elbow had started, while simultaneously bringing his other elbow down on the statue’s head.
Stunned but not defeated, Diaz grabbed one of the ram’s horns and span, letting go thus sending the monster careening and forcing him to grab onto the rope on his way to stop himself from falling out of the ring. The golem hoped to take advantage of the instability that he’d created to finish the job and used his tail to propel himself toward his opponent in a shoulder slam. The chimera, dodging by a hair’s width, ended up on the golem’s side with the statue’s back exposed to him because of his shoulder charge.
So he grabbed the top of Diaz’s head to pull it down and back, forcing the golem’s back to arch back against his knee in a move that would have broken the back of a lesser creature. He then stepped forward and finished his movement by smashing the statue’s face into the ground in front of him. Stains of wax and oil mixed with the chunks of marble that flew off from his head that time, and the monster stood up to leave him there, believing that he’d won.
For a moment, Diaz would’ve been inclined to agree with him. But when the raccoon referee started a countdown, something, he didn’t know what, made him struggle to try to get up before it would be over with everything he had, failing once, twice, but always persisting as the countdown continued to near its end. The chimera looked down at him seriously, without gloating, his four heads calmly shaking no in a way that almost seemed to entreat more than to warn.
‘Don’t make me hurt you,’ they seemed to mean in earnest. The golem was undeterred.
He finally stood up at the count of 9 from what had seemed like it had been going to be the tournament’s first knockout victory. The statue had somehow pushed himself upright again, against all odds. He glared at the monster defiantly as the dust from the crumbled marble chunks that had flown off from him and the stains of wax and oil that had leaked out of him made their way back up on his body, reforming into his formerly shattered features as they did.
The first thing that the chimera noticed was a sound, a sound that he wasn’t used to, as though something somewhere near him was welling up somehow. But it’s only when he saw the small wisps of red light that seemed to be being pulled out of non-existence and into Diaz’s glowing ruby eyes that he understood what was about to happen. He understood that, at this point, if he did nothing, this fight would end very badly for him indeed.
Not giving the golem the time to finish charging up, the monster ran at him while lowering his ram head in front of himself. It was just at the point of impact when the ram horns hit the statue’s torso that Diaz’s head was thrown back by its force, roaring deafeningly as the lasers that shot out of his eyes burned a hole through the ceiling above them. When the noise and blinding light had stopped and the dust around them had settled down, the golem was on his back, quite outside the ring that time.