The exhibition for day five was being prepared in the Grand Pavilion and the teams were making their way there. The excitement had really died down for the competitors as the toll of days of battle left them weary, and wounds were being stacked. Kovak had disappeared since the previous day and none of the others knew where he was. This put their team at a huge disadvantage. Keaton entered the arena and assessed the situation. The exhibition for the day was some sort of mind challenge, a riddle. The arena floor was open except that a large pillar had been placed in each of the corners. The rules were announced and the contestants would have to go to each of the pillars, read a clue, then put the clues together to find the answer, and they only had two minutes to do it. Their turn had come up. It was a real shame that Kovak wasn’t there. Despite his crazy and often distracted mind, he was quite clever, and knowledgeable. They’d have to make due without him. They entered the arena and the time was started. They each ran to different pillars and began to read. Only then did they realize the catch to the challenge. Each pillar was rigged with a magical trap, that when read, triggered a different spell. Keaton and Kaedo read two of the clues and then began to move to the other corners. Daniel began to read a third pillar, but just became more and more confused. He stared at it and just couldn’t make sense of it. Keaton tried the fourth pillar, but his mind wasn’t strong enough and the magic triggered. He panicked and ran away from the pillar as if being chased. Kaedo tried the same pillar and was able to get the clue. They all tried the pillar that Daniel was staring at, but none of them could make sense of it. The time was almost up, and with only three of the four clues they tried to solve it, but were unable before the time ran out. Disappointed, they went to prepare for their afternoon bout against the Poison Lodge.
- * * * *
The afternoon match came and Kovak still hadn’t been found. The three had looked, but had heard no word about the white-haired old man. They headed into the large mountain on the island which was supposed to be a dormant volcano, but as they climbed the last set of stairs that opened into the hollow interior, they could see pools of lava indicating otherwise. The arena for this fight was open, but the whole fight was to take place on a bed of coals. Contestants would have to take off any footwear and fight barefoot for the duration of the match. They entered the arena and got the first look at their opponents. Two men and two women, moderately-armored and with some average-looking weapons. With a name like the Poison Lodge though, they could be pretty sure there would be some foul play.
The match started and the teams moved quickly into their positions. Daniel fired shots at one of the girls as she ran up, bearing dagger. Kaedo began to fly and started throwing bombs at both her and the other man that was advancing with his sword and axe. The other two had held back. Keaton also charged the girls and hit with a few precise strikes, leaving the girl bloody. The dual-wielding man proceeded to step up to Daniel and take a few swings, although he was able to dodge and block most of them. One of the two that had held back ran up to the girl and laid his hands on her, chanting some sort of spell, and many of her wounds began to close by themselves. From out of nowhere, a bolt of bright lightning burst forward. The girl and Daniel dodged out of its path, but Keaton wasn’t able to react quickly enough and the bolt caught him across his back, burning him significantly.
The girl with the daggers took the opportunity to stab at his back and caught him in the kidney. The dual-wielding man turned around and attacked Keaton as well. Kaedo threw bombs to deter them, but it was too late. Keaton was unable to sustain the blows from both of them, and he slumped to the ground. Daniel, feeling overwhelmed, threw his hands up and forfeited the match. Sneering and laughing, their opponents limped off the arena floor and disappeared out of sight.
- * * * *
The banquet was as somber affair for the team, or what was left of them. Daniel drank in silence. Kaedo was a little upset over forfeiting the match, although he had stopped verbalizing it. He had hard feelings about Keaton’s death, but was more frustrated at himself for not being able to defeat their enemies. If he’d done better, Keaton would still be alive…
Daniel had been watching the Rhilirosian girl from the team Flair. She was the target he’d been hunting and the original reason he’d come, although he’d grown attached to these guys. With a companion dead, his anger was at full-boil. Tonight he’d take his bounty. He got up and skulked off to the tents to hide in wait.
The time passed slowly as Daniel waited. Keaton’s pride had killed, he thought to himself. If he’d given up sooner, he’d be alive. It wasn’t his fault. He repeated these thoughts to himself, but he couldn’t get past the weight of personal guilt for his part in letting another man die. An innocent man… He stopped as the team of three made their way into the tent. It was late and the banquet was surely over. He waited until he didn’t hear any noise from the tent, then waited another hour, just to be sure. Creeping up to the tent, he listened for any noise. Nothing but the rhythmic sounds of breathing. He used a dagger to cut a small slit in the back of the tent, then knocked two arrows that he’d stolen from the sanctioned armory. Taking his aim at the figure of the woman sleeping on the floor, he released. The arrows sunk deep into her chest, pinning her to the ground. She awoke, but with arrows through her lungs was unable to scream. Daniel moved quickly away from the scene and headed back to the tent. Keaton’s body was there, stripped down to his undergarments. Kaedo was tending to the body and had prepared fresh clothes for him.
Daniel stood there in shock. The tattoo of a small, red flower could be seen on Keaton’s left shoulderblade. The Red Orchid. Keaton was part of an assassin’s guild. Daniel felt a little worried. Had they sent him there to check on him? Was he being watched? His order was sworn to take down all of those involved in organized crime, and the Red Orchid was Anselm’s largest group. Mostly assassins for hire and dirty politicians. His group had been working on them for years, yet they still thrived. He wasn’t sure what this meant, but didn’t see anything to do but to wait it out and see what happened.
The rest of the tournament was less than exciting. The final four teams were Jasmine Kiss (Elysia), The Knights of the Mountain, the Poison Lodge, & Jabberwock. Jasmine Kiss defeated Jabberwock and the Knights defeated the Lodge. Daniel’s heart wasn’t in it. He had such mixed feelings about the whole situation. He, as a part of the Golden Serpent, should have hated Keaton, but then again he couldn’t just let someone die. He felt good about completing his assignment, and word had spread quickly of the murder. There was no way he could be identified, but he still acted casual so as not to arouse any suspicion. Kaedo was complaining about the money they had lost by not advancing to the next round, but Daniel just drowned him out. Kovak had also showed up the following day, and it turns out he’d been kidnapped, with no way to identify his kidnappers, and was released the following day. Daniel suspected that the McNally’s had something to do with the whole process. Kaerland’s premium crime family had had quite a presence in the gambling circuit for the tournament, Daniel had identified several higher-ups, and would have loved to collect bounties on them, but there was just too much of a presence there for one man. They would have to wait. He was convinced that the gamblers had orchestrated Kovak’s kidnapping to tip the results of the fight in their opponents’ favor, but without proof anything he said would only cause more trouble.
Elysia was crowned the winner of the fifteenth Theod Tournament during the victory ceremony. She smiled and feigned humility as she waved to the crowd. Daniel could see right through her. He was almost certain she was a pawn of the McNally’s and that fair play is why they were defeated. He stored up the anger in his mind, saving it for a later time. The team received their prize: 1,000 gold crowns and a participant’s sigil, embossed with gems in the outline of the Warrior constellation. Disappointed and defeated the team went back to the tent and collected their belongings. Daniel was eager to put some distance between himself and Tader Island.
Back on his private houseboat, Daniel stared absently over the cresting waves. The shoreline of Kaerland could barely be seen behind them. It would be almost two weeks on the ocean to get back to Anselm. Faster boats could be used, but the houseboat was all he had. Keaton’s body was below, in a simple wooden casket, and Kovak hadn’t wanted to leave its side. Kovak had insisted that Keaton was to be buried in Anselm, and Daniel was happy to take them all back, feeling like he owed them something. Kaedo had a townhouse that he could let them use once they were back until they figured out what was to be done next. For now, Daniel’s mind returned to the wind and the waves.