Golem Project in progress
April 30th. Wessel’s 12th birthday, and the day of his Inking Exam. The two other students standing before him, Lillian and Jakob, were celebrating their birthday this day as well. It was a day of discovery, of combat, of becoming a part of society. Wessel’s hands began to sweat.
One other figure stood in the room, behind the administrator. The figure was twice as tall as a man, plated in flexible material that gleamed with a dull bronze. Four multi-jointed arms protruded from the hulking figure, encircling the administrator. The figure did not breathe, did not move a hair. It was only there as a reminder. This was a special day for the three children, an important day. The Inking Exam.
Wessel bit his lip, sliding up alongside Jakob to join the lineup. The three students turned to face the administrator, but not before Jakob shoved a discrete elbow into Wessel’s side. Wessel grunted at the blow. It wasn’t friendly, but he didn’t dare retaliate. Not during this event. This wasn’t the time. It was never the time.
The administrator gazed past the three with unseeing eyes. “Now,” he said, “we can begin. Wessel, Jakob. Face one another. Bow.”
The two did as told. Jakob was tall for his age, but no less thick for it. His slick black hair was cropped short, and his eyes flashed a near-crimson shade of reddish-brown. When the boy leered at Wessel, his teeth were unevenly spaced, canines long and sharp.
Wessel, in contrast, was both shorter and thinner than average. He had a mop of brown curls, a narrow nose, and dark eyes. His skin tone nearly matched his hair color, from head to toe.
Both students wore a tunic made of heavy fabric, with wraps on their hands and feet.
“Let the exam begin,” the administrator said.
Wessel dropped into a fighting stance, hands open, knees bent. Jakob straightened, again showing his teeth in a sneer.
“Ain’t nuthin changed since yesterday, Wessel.” Jakob whistled when pronouncing the ‘S’, no doubt because of his jagged teeth. “Might as well get on the ground and let me pin it. Ain’t no sense in getting all banged up, neh?”
“If you’re so sure,” Wessel said, speaking slowly to make sure he managed the words, “then put me on the ground.”
Jakob pursed his lips and stepped forward, reaching with his long arms. His legs sank into a perfect stance. The same stance that he’d used to toss Wessel into a wall the day before.
The administrator and Lillian watched the two square off, in complete silence.
All or nothing, Wessel thought. He planned out his actions, then sprang forward. Everything was calculated. His hands would grasp Jakob’s wrists. He would twist, sinking down below Jakob’s center of gravity. Leverage. The throw. The arm bar, movement of the legs to pin the larger boy down. That was the plan. He would execute the plan.
The plan didn’t work out.
Jakob sank down further, dropping his hands out of Wessel’s reach. He drove his head forward, intercepting Wessel’s rush. Hard forehead slammed into Wessel’s jaw, and the plan broke. Wessel reached for his jaw. The game was over then.
Jakob swept Wessel’s legs out from under him, and the smaller boy was pinned by the time he hit the mat.
“Break,” the administrator said.
Jakob’s hold tightened, his body bending in a way to put pressure on Wessel’s elbow. The message was clear. ‘I could break this if I wanted to.’ But he disengaged and stood. Wessel climbed to his feet, wincing and nursing his jaw.
“Adapt, young Wessel,” the blind administrator said. Then, to Jakob, he said, “You have passed. Proceed into the back room.”
Wessel watched with jealousy as Jakob sauntered off, wide grin on his thick face. Why? Why couldn’t he think like that? When the contest began, why couldn’t he react?
“Lillian, Wessel,” the administrator said. “Face each other. Bow.”
With a sickened grimace, Wessel did the same again. Lillian was facing him. She had her silken red hair in a long ponytail, slightly off-center. Her face was a complete mask, her bright blue eyes steady. She was calm, composed, assured.
Why? Why couldn’t he do it?
He needed another plan.
“Let the exam begin.”
Lillian wasted no time. She bounded on the balls of her feet, in and out of Wessel’s range, daring him to act. She knew him. She knew how he fought. Why couldn’t he change, adapt to what she was doing? He entered his own stance, wrapped hands open and ready.
She struck. Her style was different from Jakob’s, more focused on striking than overwhelming and pinning. Her hand whipped out and popped Wessel in the shoulder, making him stumble back. Her next strike, a kick, landed near his hip. He shrugged the blows off.
“Careful,” the administrator murmured. “Nothing that would be lethal or crippling.”
Lillian swallowed, then made her final push.
Wessel had another plan. A more complicated plan. One that would be harder to pull off.
Strike to strike. Blow to blow. Attack the incoming limb.
She swept with her foot. Instead of moving back, or sidestepping, Wessel dropped low, punching her foot. Lillian cried out, balance lost, and Wessel lunged forward. His shoulder hit her stomach, and she lost her wind as they both went down.
Wessel tried to stay on top of her, looking for a leverage hold. Where were those? He had to get an arm, that was the plan. But her arms were wrapping around his shoulder, pushing him to the side. He needed a leg, maybe? A knee? A shoulder? A shoulder was what she had. He had thought this out in advance, but she was changing tack. Her hold on his shoulder pushed him down, and she pivoted to climb atop him. It was messy, but it was working.
There was only one plan. Get her arm. But it was out of reach, and she was keeping it that way. She had his shoulder, he couldn’t get to it.
But he only had the one plan, and it would have to do.
He went for it.
Something in his shoulder popped, and pain racked his body. He wouldn’t let it stop him. Not now. Not today. He found her hand, her wrist, and twisted. Her hold lessened. Legs up, around her shoulder and back, fall down in stance, brace elbow.
His shoulder burned, and he wasn’t sure what was wrong with it. He’d broken his body’s rules to follow the plan. Was that his only way to win?
Had he won?
The two disengaged. Wessel tried to use his arm to climb to his feet, but it faltered, and the burning sent hot coals of pain into his body. He yelped, he couldn’t help it. Tears rolled down his face.
Lillian was there, tugging him up by his other arm. He got to his knees, then stood. With his good arm, he wiped his face and met the empty eyes of the administrator.
“Lillian,” the administrator said, “You fought well. I will make arrangements for you to test again. There is no need that you should fail.” His empty gaze swiveled to Wessel. “Wessel.”
“You have shown your tenacity. No dire injury is to be caused in these tests, but you have injured only yourself. That much is uncalled for, but is not against the rules. You pinned your opponent without injuring her, and thus have passed.” The blind man shook his head. “Be careful to learn, to adapt, and to train. Your heart is ready for the inking, but your mind needs to catch up. Perhaps the inking will help. Nonetheless, welcome to adulthood.”
“Thank you, administrator,” Wessel said, bowing.
The administrator smiled. “There will be a doctor in the back room. They will see to your shoulder.”
Wessel nodded and then bowed to Lillian again. She rolled her eyes, but bowed and said, “Well fought, Wessel.”
His heart in his throat, he took a faltering step, then broke into a brisk pace toward the back room. He hurt, yes, but today was the day he’d dreaded. The day he thought he would fail.
He had passed the Inking Exam. Life would be different from now on.