The smell of salt filled the air. Although the wind whipped sea spray over the deck of the Nary Seahorse, dampening the clothes of the passengers, nothing could dampen the spirits of these competitors. All manner of men from across Ilithria crammed aboard the small vessel, displaying vastly different weapons and armor. Although many couldn’t understand what others were saying, the common language of battle was spoken by all. Crowds gathered around the impressively large Thimondians with their enormous greataxes, and the deft Rhilorosians with their knifeplay. Bards accompanied the vessel, bringing life through their joyous tunes and songs, bringing a multitude of various dances out from many of the men and women. Keaton wasn’t dancing, though. Instead, his eyes were on the valuable weapons men had casually laid aside as well as the coin purses left in cloaks that hung about. He chose his targets carefully, unburdening only those who he was certain were incapable of competent retaliation and those who clearly couldn’t miss something as petty as 20 gold coins. “A sucker is born every day…” he thought to himself as he moved towards a jackpot target.
A man of clearly noble birth, not afraid to flaunt his wealth, was in the midst of a crowd, impressing them with his juggling skills. Although this wasn’t any normal juggling. The fool was juggling five glass vials filled with some bubbling gray liquid. Although Keaton couldn’t be sure what these flasks might do upon breaking, he was sure the results would be amusing and he silently wished for a slip-up, although it never came. Rich. Arrogant. Careless. A perfect target. So arrogant was this man that he unmistakably had his butler aboard the ship. After the “performance” Keaton looked for his opportunity. Siding next to the fool, he reached for a small coin purse tucked into the man’s belt. He spun around. Keaton had been made. He attempted to slip away, but the man managed a firm grip on his arm and he forced Keaton towards the edge clearly in an attempt to throw his overboard. “Rotten lowlife thieves! You all deserve to be put down!” As if getting caught wasn’t enough, the man’s scoldings were just too much. A firm hand separated the two.
“Aye, now what’s this?” Came the friendly but firm question, thick with a northern Cadimarian accent.
“This… vagabond attempted to pick my pocket!” Said the nobleman with all the polite disgust he could muster. Keaton made no attempt to speak, but merely slid his hands to his side where he could reach his concealed daggers if need be.
“There’s no nee a be fightin now. Save it for tha tournie boys!” Both men seemed to eye each other up before silently conceding. “I’m Donovan by tha way. Nice ta meet you.” The man smile broadly, holding out his hand and waiting for a response. Keaton took in Donovan for a second. The man was tall, quite skinny, and wearing only simple sandals and a tattered robe. On his wrists and ankles he wore manacles that jingled with every movement. Half his head was shaved, the other half forming a long pony-tail. This boat was for competitors only, so Keaton knew there must be more to this man than met the eye, or else he was a fool who was going to get himself killed.
“I’m Kaedo, at your service,” the nobleman said, clearly back to his social courtesies.
“Oh it’s a pleasure! Can I get you boys a drink?” Donovan replied, his manner indicating he’d buy them a drink even if they didn’t want it. Keaton noticed others who were missing their valuables begin to look around. He couldn’t make enemies just yet, so he thought it prudent to, for the time being, befriend these men.
Down in the galley, the three men sat around, sharing the pisswater ale being served. Drinking seawater might have tasted better. As Donovan and Kaedo got acquainted Keaton assessed some of the competition. Mostly young men, looking to make a name for themselves, although a number of veterans were there, sporting all manner of deadly weapons. Most people stayed in their groups, what he assumed must be teams. The advantage was on their side. Teams could be up to four members, and right now, he just had two. He wanted that prize money so he could exact his escape from…
“Heya boyo! They’ve got turnips!” A bowl of turnip gruel smacked onto the table and an older man with graying hair sat down and began to eat fiercely. “And who are your friends Keaton? I’m John, John Kovak, if it please you,” He said through mouthfuls of food. Keaton cringed at the mention of his own name. Hopefully no one overheard…
“I’m Donovan, and thus is Kaedo. Keaton eh? Ya know I’ve got a nephew name Keaton. That little bugger is such a handful, I mean, when he…” Donovan rambled on with some anecdote. Lost in his own thoughts, Keaton continued to survey the room. She was hard to miss. A slender woman wearing a tight-fitting and hardly-modest dress, with long black hair and ivory skin was making her way around the room, talking to the groups of mostly men. Her soft laughter could be heard as she subtly flirted with any who would have it… which was most. He hand would casually touch an arm here, a shoulder there. Most men were beyond subtlety and openly stared at her flawless curves. In time, she made her way to their table. Placing her hand on Kaedo’s shoulder, she introduced herself.
“Hello darlings. My what capable men you are! Are you on a team together? I don’t see any weapons. What is it exactly that you all… do? I’m Elysia by the way.” Her smile was radiant and her body was breathtaking. Her gentle laugh was too much for Kaedo who was openly fawning over her. Donovan was friendly and polite but seemed to have little interest. Kovak offered her some of his porridge. For a moment, her face displayed disgust, seemingly both at the gruel and the man offering it, and then she seemed to remember herself and her courtesies returned. Keaton knew what she was up to and gave away nothing. Luckily Kaedo knew little about the others’ abilities, and was only able to brag about his own capabilities. Apparently those vials he was juggling could produce fire when broken. A useful tactic, although he shouldn’t be giving that away to any potential opponents… or their informants, whichever she was. Keaton kicked Kaedo under the table and gave a look. After his immediate indignation, Kaedo got the point and stopped talking. Clearly knowing she couldn’t get anything else from them, she excused herself and moved on.
- * * * *
Many ships had already docked and others continued to pour into the harbor of Tader Island. Set off the coast of Kaerland, the island had the same lush green grass, and rolling hills as the mainland. A massive mountain dominated a large portion of the southern half of the island, and clouds of white smoke could be seen slowly drifting from its peak. Teams were being assigned to their tents, while those without teams were in a designated area to be recruited. All things aside, Keaton had seen Kaedo’s potential, and the two had managed to agree to work together, along with Kovak. Adding a fourth member would be ideal, so before they settled in, they headed to check out the unassigned. Clearly they were later as most of the men remaining without teams were either very young, very old, weak, or clumsy. About to lose hope, the three noticed a newcomer moving to the area. He was tall, muscular, and carried a bow on his back as well as a sword at his side. He was their best hope.
Daniel Prado was swamped with offers as soon as he walked into the recruiting area. His mind was lost elsewhere. He had a benefactor pay for his entrance fee, the same anonymous benefactor that had set him up on his current job. He cared little about the fame and glory of the tournament, but was there on a mission. He was there for bounty. He needed to be a competitor since he was sure his target was also a competitor, but the job wouldn’t take long, so he didn’t want to get stuck fighting through the whole thing. For this reason he ended up choosing the team he thought least-likely to succeed: some ragtag team of a noble, an old man, and a weaponless silent-type.
The newly-assembled team settled into their tent and talked some strategy. Keaton was skilled with a well-placed dagger and seemed adept at remaining quiet as he did so. Daniel could use a bow quite well, and wasn’t bad with a sword either. Kovak could wield magic, a surprising ability since those who could use magic were rare. The others learned that he could actually cast fourth-circle spells, which was even rarer. Kaedo mostly threw his flasks of fire liquid, but assured the others he had some tricks up his sleeve. They pretty much hoped that they would at least have the advantage of being a unique team; most of the others were just meatheads with sharp pointy things.
Everyone was heading to the banquet area to celebrate the opening ceremony for the tournament. A large, bald and bearded man took the stage, announcing himself as The Emissary. His family owned the island and had been officiating the tournament since its inception. Here, his word was law. The Emissary began to give a long-winded history of the tournament. It began over 750 years ago with the first sighting of the Theod Comet, named after the constellation of the Warrior through which the comet passed. Every 53 years upon the comet’s return, a tournament would be arranged for the heroes from across Ilithria to display their martial prowess. This was the fifteenth tournament to be held and as such had special significance. The prizes were great, as well as the cash pool… but so were the number of contestants allowed. Over 800 teams had signed up, although only the top 64 would secure a place in the single-elimination bracket. The Emissary also explained the tournament rules. First, his word was final. Second, once a bout had begun, no help could be given from those outside the fight. Third, if an opponent forfeits, the fight is over and the other side wins. Fourth, slain enemies cannot be looted. Fifth, fights outside the scheduled arena bouts were not allowed and would lead to disqualification. And sixth, competitors were not to leave the island for the duration of the week-long tournament.
As everyone enjoyed the moderate feast, a ripple of murmurs ran over the crowd. An old man clad in expensive and ornate full-plate walked up to join the Emissary. Everyone had recognized him as Marythsan, the winner of the previous tournament. Since the time between each tournament was relatively long, it was uncommon for a victor to survive to attend or even compete in future tournaments, usually making the title of Theodian Champion a lifelong one. Elysia was also at the banquet, again, making her rounds though only with the more obviously-impressive teams. They’d have to keep an eye on her…
- * * * *
The format for the tournament would be exhibitions in the morning that would provide minor prizes based on a team’s success, with scheduled fights in the afternoon at one of the six primary arenas set up over the island. The first day’s challenge was a series of skill tests meant to present athletic and mental prowess. First was an obstacle course of progressively harder feats. Keaton took this one. Flawlessly moving through the first five obstacles, he struggled with the last two, but still placed well. The team was also able to watch Donovan’s performance. Although he was hung over from drinking in excess of excess the previous night, he still managed to complete the course without a single misstep. Next was a triathlon of climbing, running, and swimming. Daniel took this one. Climbing over a high wall, he was one of the few who simply jumped off the other side. Being a strong runner and swimmer, he was able to secure a high number of points for the team. The third test was a number of combat maneuvers to be performed on dummies. From disarming, to tripping, to grappling, many skills were tested. Daniel also took this one, although his abilities in these areas were more limited. The final challenge was a tactical assessment test. Brain prevailed over brawn in this test as Kovak secured the top place for the challenge, putting the team’s placement at second.
Because of the vast number of teams present, the fights for this day were relatively short. There was a ten-minute time limit on bouts, with points being scored in case a fight wasn’t yet resolved after the time limit. Through a series of five fights a ranking was established, granting the top 64 teams their place. While many capable teams held back to keep some of their tricks a secret, the newly-formed team decided they would try to win the hearts of the crowds, and pulled no stops. Dominating their matches, they placed fifth and earned a lot of notice from the spectators.
At the banquet that night, Elysia approached them to congratulate them on their success. The fact that she was there meant that she had also qualified… an unnerving fact. No one seemed to know anything about her team or her tactics. Donovan had also qualified for the bracket, as well as Marythsan, who surprisingly had competed despite his old age. Further shock entered Keaton’s mind when he learned that Marythsan didn’t have other teammates, but was a solo competitor. Despite their high placement, the team would have to be careful. Many of these people had more to them than met the eye.
- * * * *
The second day of the tournament began with beautiful weather. With the top 64 established, all manner of bets were being placed, on everything from a match’s first blood and individual winners to tournament winners. Keaton placed a few bets… on his team of course. The odds were really against them for tournament winner, but with their impressive first day, they seemed to have more crowd support than they thought. The challenge for the day was a breaking contest, where a series of progressively harder item were to be broken in succession. If an item was not broken but damaged, it was replaced. Kaedo volunteered for this challenge. Most of the men that volunteered were quite large and strong. Some even laughed when they saw Kaedo. He didn’t care. They’d see.
The items, in order of difficulty were a quarterstaff, a coconut, a block of ice, some boards, clay tiles, a river stone, some bricks, and finally a metal bar. Kaedo easily broke through the first two items, but after two failed attempts at the block of ice, he drank two of his special concoctions, greatly increasing his strength and size. With this, he was easily able to smash the remaining items, including the metal bar. Few others succeeded, and many hurt themselves severely trying. The team noticed that among the competitors was a gorilla. Not just any gorilla, a very large one. This extremely exotic animal was never seen by most people, especially so far from its home environment. The gorilla placed second, earning quite a lot of repute for its team.
Assigned a random arena, the team headed to the southern part of Tader Island. They entered their side of the arena, which was a maze of 15 foot high stone walls. With no knowledge of who their opponents were, they set out carefully as the match began. Kaedo used a flying potion, wowing the crowd. As he flew higher, he saw a number of small figures moving into strategic positions on the other side of the arena. His team did likewise. As he flew closer, he threw some bombs at visible targets only to have them disappear. They were some sort of illusion. An arrow hit him in the arm, so he descended to just above the walls. Keaton was sneaking around, peering around corners, hoping to catch someone unaware. This was offset by Kovak following him and loudly mumbling about not have any turnips at the moment. Daniel climbed the wall and began to fire arrows at targets as they appeared. Everything they hit was an illusion and disappeared. Suddenly, one of the squat figures appeared around the corner and attacked Kovak with ferocity. This short, incredibly strong man had a beard and wielded his axe with skill, hurting Kovak quite badly. As Kovak tried to run, the short man pursued, continuing to rain down punishment and earning cheers from the crowd. Hearing his friend’s plight, Keaton moved in that direction. A fireball manifested itself out of thin air, and he was able to barely move out of its path before it exploded on the wall behind him. A female figure of similar stature stood before him. As he charged to attack her, his body froze. He couldn’t move.
On the other side of the arena, Kaedo began throwing bombing in rapid succession while Daniel fired off arrows, several of which missed their target. One of Kaedo’s bombs hit quite directly, severely hurting the axe-wielding man. Three against one was too much punishment for him. It was only a matter of time before his team couldn’t handle being outnumbered. The crowd was on their feet for the brutal displays of physical violence and powerful magic before them. They had made it to the next round, but they’d only have one night to rest up and recover from their wounds.