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Story Children of Volk

Baconhands

The Traveller
It was raining again. The dark clouds that blanketed the sky had established dominance in mere moments, bringing with them howling winds, roars of thunder, and great flashes that illuminated draconic silhouettes. The town of Tallin, as with all settlements in Volk, bore this storm with vigour and stubbornness; though its buildings groaned in its grasp, they all stood firm in defiance of the petulant being that would see them fall. The fishing and raiding boats, sometimes the same vessel, were not so lucky as to have foundations in the earth, and most rocked violently and precariously, but even then, most refused to be overturned in a defiant gesture to whatever being had decided to bring the storm to their island.

Tallin’s people, despite having instilled this attitude into the town proper, were wise enough to seek shelter from the lashing droplets; Kadri was no exception. The eighteen-year-old stood at the window of her room, staring out at the storm that stretched across the horizon. Every time lightning crackled and she caught a glimpse of the shape of a creature in the sky, she would glance down at the clusters of blue scales on her right forearm, and try to catch a glimpse of that same electricity running through them, often to no avail. But that did not matter; the storms often brought with them a sense of kinship, a consequence of the blood that ran through her veins – that of the divine.

A storm as severe as this brought about this feeling to an even greater extent – Kadri had been taught that only the presence of Arbuzs’ children, the blue-scaled dragons, created intense storms, and none were as intense as those brought about by his First Born, the oldest three. Vidris was the largest; he roared the loudest, shone the brightest, and his bellows oft tried to reign in his younger siblings. Merska was one he was always supposed to be reigning in; the youngest of the three, she was mischievous, fickle and intelligent, and more likely to direct her lightning at mortals she’d perceived to have wronged her. Eldin was the rarest – reserved but striking, Kadri often thought her storms were the most beautiful to behold.

The sound of a fit of raucous laughter turned her attention away from the window. An embarrassed smile tugged at the corner of her lips. She’d forgotten she’d had guests staying over. Towelling her raven hair one last time, she checked herself over in the mirror before she opened the wooden door and began her descent down the stairs.
“-but I was being serious, Sigrid,” Kadri heard a male voice insist. “I think Magnus will win this time; I’d put five gold rings on it.”
“And that’s why I handle the money Hendrik,” came Sigrid’s accented retort. “He’s all gusto, and celebrity; some skill, sure, but I reckon Kadri-”
“Will totally have her ass handed to her by him? I think so too,” the lineaged chuckled light-heartedly, completing her descent into the living room. It was a large room, centred around a stone fire place. Four wooden chairs, three of which were furnished and cushioned, and a tea table were the permanent occupants of the room; two chairs had been moved close to the fire and were currently hosting her two companions.
Hendrik was a tall, gangly man with unkept, blonde facial hair that contrasted starkly with the short cut upon his head. He was wearing some of Kadri’s father’s clothes, a simple tunic and a pair of plain trousers, Hendrik’s having been water-logged by the sudden downpour; he looked as if he had been swaddled and Kadri had to suppress a grin at this sight. His round, maroon eyes lit up a little as they spotted Kadri entering, and he meekly raised a hand in greeting.
Sigrid, a slender woman, was a couple of inches shorter than Kadri and sat in the chair opposite Hendrik. Her chestnut brown hair was still soaked through by the rain and she was desperately trying to warm herself through by the fire. Her olive skin was highlighted by the flames, an indicator that she was born in the Platinum Consulate, and stood in stark contrast to Hendrik and Kadri’s paler complexion. A pair of inquisitive hazel eyes greeted the Volken.
“That’s even if I get that far,” Kadri mused, ignoring the chairs and sitting cross legged beside the fire place.
“You will!” Hendrik proclaimed, the tinge to his cheeks indicating he’d said that a bit louder than intended.
Sigrid’s grin was malicious. “Five silver rings says you will.”
“You bet a loaf of bread last time,” Kadri responded.
“But last time you placed well.”
“Thirty-third.”
“That’s better than what I did,” Hendrik intervened.
“There are far more competitors in the non-lineaged tournaments, Hendrik,” Kadri said, bluntly but not unkindly.
“Yeah… but… you have to contend with all those magic spells. There’s only so much someone can do with a sword.”
“You can knock out three nobles with one,” Sigrid chimed.
Sigrid’s grin infected the two Volken. “My best placement ever,” Hendrik said wistfully. “You reckon Svend’s going to be the next monarch?”
The change in subject, though related, took Kadri a little off guard. “After you knocked him out? I don’t think so,” she joked, though the smile that had come to her lips transformed into a puzzled frown after a moment. “I mean… has he been doing well in the tournaments recently?” She asked earnestly, directing her question to Sigrid. The Consul normally kept up with the goings on of all the top competitors, mainly for monetary reasons.
A shake of the head was the initial answer. “The Ever-Watching prefers lineaged candidates, first of all. And to answer the question properly, no. He’s been very distracted in the fights recently, from what I’ve heard at least.” She paused, that mischievous, plotting grin returning to her lips. “I, personally, can’t wait for queen Kadri to ascend the throne.”
“And I cannot wait to appoint my most important councillors,” the Volken responded through a laugh. “But,” she said, allowing a moment to let herself calm down. “Placing well again would be… miraculous.”
“The Aspect of Luck favours those with grand ambitions,” Sigrid stated, flipping a coin with her right hand.
“She also favours those who deserve her favour,” Hendrik said. Kadri knew he was trying to be reassuring, but the statement was far too ominous for her liking.

A silence settled, punctuated every so often by the sounds of fire wood cracking, and thunder booming overhead. Kadri’s eyes wandered for a few seconds before settling on the fire. It would not take long for all of them to start reading. Though they had settled on different publications, mainly because Hendrik and Sigrid had left their copies at their homes, the trio shared a common favourite in the form of ‘The Saga of Euross’. A compilation of short tales, each supposedly composed by one of the ten Aspect Dragons and a final one apparently written by their First Born, the Saga was oft sold by the clerics and priests of the Haven as a religious document that connected common mortals with the divine. Kadri, though hoping to an extent that they were right, had her doubts; to her, the Saga was a collection of stories – she had a hard time believing that the ten divine beings wrote any of them. Regardless, they were entertaining enough, and it would have been a lie to say that a couple of stories didn’t awaken some feelings of connectivity with the world around her.

The lineaged was reading ‘The Three Strikes’ written by ‘Arbuzs’, the divine Aspect of Lightning meant to be her ancestor. One of the martial Aspects, it told the tale of how his three First Born lead his mortals to victory against overwhelming odds, defeating the children of Sendrin, Olikah, Bakrit, and Awramaar in a series of pitch battles. The dialogue was a little to be desired, and it was written comparatively blunt, but Kadri could sense the passion and the pride of the writer in the accomplishments of the First Born.
A snore roused her from trance; Hendrik had fallen asleep. Splayed out across the chair, one arm drooping down to the floor, his legs hanging off one end and his head off the other, Kadri genuinely wondered how anyone could sleep comfortably in such a position. And yet Hendrik had slept like that before, and he would always be fine in the morning.
“He passed out about an hour ago,” Sigrid said, nursing a mug in her hands. “Your father went upstairs about half an hour later.”
Kadri raised an eyebrow; a quick glance to her left assuaged her cynicism as she caught the sight of a small mountain of blankets and pillows. “You should have said something,” she said, stretching for one of the blankets before standing and placing it over her passed out friend.
“You were absorbed,” the Consul explained. “So, how are the siblings?” She teased with a slight smile.
“Winning,” Kadri retorted quickly, placing a silver bookmark on her page as she closed the book. “As they always do.”
“Always?”
“Always. According to this book, they’re not responsible for any losses at all.” Kadri grinned a knowing grin.
“I think you’ve got a very selective memory,” Sigrid retorted with a growing grin. “Vidris is the fucking worst in-”
A mighty crash of thunder caused the Consul to let out a yelp, one she was only just able to stifle as her hands shot up to cover her mouth. The lineaged grinned, then chuckled, and then started laughing.
“Serves you right!” The mage proclaimed, stealing Sigrid’s grin. She turned her gaze upwards. “That’s right cousin, don’t let anyone talk down about you!”
Sigrid was blushing indignantly as Kadri brought her gaze back down. The Consul didn’t say a word as she made herself a makeshift bed out of pillows and blankets and a few seconds later, Kadri started doing the same. The lineaged kept her grin; she considered this an insurmountable victory against her friend. Soon enough, they were nestled in their own separate sleeping areas. The lineaged pulled a couple of blankets over her and turned to face the wall, listening to the howling wind and the occasional crash of thunder.
Hendrik, in all the commotion, simply turned away from the source of the noise, and allowed his snoring to drown out the storm.
After a couple of minutes, Sigrid’s voice carried over the ambience. “Are you nervous?” She asked.
Kadri thought for a moment but she didn’t turn to face the Consul when the response came to mind. “Always.”
“I’ll end up saying this on the day, but majors are no different to a regular tournament. Just more people.”
“And more money for you to make.”
“One of the reasons I want the Guild to run more than four a year.” The ambience dominated for a second. Two. “If I were a betting person, and I am, I’d put money on you getting top sixteen.”
“If I do, I do,” Kadri said as nonchalantly as she could. “I’ve heard rumours that a special guest is going to be there.”
“Royalty?”
“Maybe. Some have said that this will be the monarch’s last tournament. That they’re basically just clinging on.”
“Some like to speculate.”
“And sometimes some are right; I think we’re going to end up with a King Magnus before the next major.”
“What does that matter anyway?”
“It… doesn’t,” Kadri hesitantly said.
“Right,” Sigrid asserted. Kadri heard the Consul prop herself up and gave her friend the courtesy of turning to face her. “And anyway, when you kick his ass you can show the Ever-Watching he’s a pompous prick worthy of being just a footnote in Volk’s history.”
“Don’t let Hendrick hear you say that,” the lineaged smiled.

Even as the wind died, and the fire wound down to nought but embers, Kadri found herself staring into the void that was the ceiling and unable to sleep. A frustrated groan left her lips. She could have been lying there for days; she could feel every painful second ticking by.
A huff left her lips and she reached for her copy of The Saga and lit a lamp. She flicked through to the last story, titled The Dragon War, carelessly skipping pass her current bookmark. Fond memories of her parents reading to her as a child played in her head as she started to read, and thus it had always served to calm her jittering nerves.
It played out as she remembered; it began with an explanation that the ancient civilisation that had inhabited Euross were created as a way for the Aspect Dragons to settle disputes. Each was led by a family of lineaged, the first ‘mortal’ descendants of the Aspects. While the Aspect Dragons could not intervene directly, they often directed their other children, such as the dragons, to assist the mortal civilisations in these proxy conflicts.
Nixhem and Arbuzs, the Aspects of Metal and Lightning respectfully, were in conflict, and thus their mortals were embroiled in war. The reason was never explained fully in the book, and Kadri could never recall any priests of the Haven giving much guidance on the matter either.
Every battle was lost by Arbuzs’ kin, and soon his kingdom faced destruction. While it was never mentioned, Kadri always felt like her divine ancestor would have tried to sue for peace, seeing how desperate the tale described the war had gotten. The lineaged of Arbuzs, as written in the Saga, cried out for deliverance, as their enemy was soon to destroy their civilisation in its entirety. Arbuzs answered, crafting an artefact of such great power that besieging armies were scattered in a day, and soon it was Nixhem’s country that was facing destruction.
Arbuzs’ success, however, worried the other divine siblings. Awramaar, Aspect of Arcana and oldest of the siblings, and Selta, Aspect of Ice, tried to intervene. But other forces were at work. Olikah, the Aspect of Poison and Medicine, sensed an opportunity to permanently reset the balance of power in his favour and joined Arbuzs in creating an artefact for his mortals to use. Three others took after him, forcing the hands of five others, who took to the mortal plane to stop the destruction of their people.
All ten of the Aspect Dragons were soon embroiled in conflict, leading their mortals in war against each other. The final chapter culminated in a battle where all ten divine siblings clashed. The description of this battle always disappointed Kadri, for it was vague and broad in its scope. But the moment the siblings realised their folly always made Kadri take pause. The story ended with the continent shattering, and whole armies and cities falling into the abyss that the gashes in the world created.
 

Baconhands

The Traveller
By the time Kadri had finished reading, the first vestiges of dawn were worming their way through the gaps between the wall and the curtain. Only then had her tiredness finally caught up with her. It manifested itself in heavy eyelids that willed themselves closer and closer to shutting. When slumber did embrace the lineaged with its ever-welcoming darkness, it felt like only a minute had passed before she was torn away from her rest by a vigorous shake of her shoulder. This motion was accompanied by Hendrik’s voice proclaiming, “Wake up! We’ve got to leave soon!”

A groan escaped Kadri’s lips, but a nagging part of her knew she had to give in. As groggy eyes flickered open, a growing part of her knew she’d slept an hour at most. Turning over, she was met with the sight of a fully clothed Hendrik and no sign of Sigrid. There was little point in trying to sleep anymore, she’d resolved; today was travel day.

Kaunu, a city eighteen hours north of Tallin, was one of the four cities that hosted a major each year, and the next such event was in three days. This particular contest was a favourite of the trio: the city was relatively close, there were many side events should an early knock out occur, and Kaunu’s role as a vertex of the lucrative trade route known as the Jeweller’s Triangle meant many international travellers would be attending. Beyond all the exotic wares that would be brought by the merchants, it also offered a chance for Volk’s competitors to prove that they were among the best warriors the Nineteen Islands had to offer, an attractive prospective for any aspiring Volken. Indeed, rumour had it that merely travelling to a major, such as Kaunu’s, was enough to catch the eye of the Ever Watching and that First Born were known to spectate.

“Sigrid’s already gone to collect her stuff,” Hendrik explained. “I’m just going to get the supplies. Meet you in the normal spot!” Without so much as waiting for a nod in acknowledgement, the gangly man was out the door.

Kadri rolled her eyes and headed upstairs; today was ging to be a long day.

The storm had moved on for the most part; a light drizzle was all that was left. Even then, the clouds that were left, light grey and harmless, were being chased away by the sun. There would be little doubt that the companions’ journey would be accompanied by clear blue skies.

Soon enough, Kadri was waiting for Hendrik and Sigrid at the north of Tallin, just past an inn named ‘The Jester’s Choice’. She let herself bathe in the sunlight and what little rain remained in the air, hoping the chill of an early morning would keep her awake. To her annoyance, her sea-green travelling cloak was doing its job far too well.

Despite leaving her home last, it was Hendrik who was the first to arrive at the meeting point. A smile always came to her face when she saw him on a travelling day – he always wore the equipment he wore in his tournament bouts. An ivory-coloured gambeson made up the first layer, over which he wore a black tabard with a crudely embroidered symbol, that of three azure-blue waves, on its chest. Neither fit him particularly well, both being a couple sizes too big for him. Black trousers and brown leather boots, as well as a belt around his waist with a leather scabbard that sheathed a dull-edged sword, completed his outfit. On his back was a large canvas bag that always seemed to Kadri as if it would topple him should a strong gust of wind blow in his direction.

“Hail our lord and saviour, the vanquisher of nobility, for he has arrived in earnest!” Kadri grinned, bowing low.
A moment passed as Hendrik struggled to think of a witty retort. A defeated tone came to his voice, “You and Sigrid could have come up with a better nickname after my best placement.”
Kadri straightened her back and shook her head. “Its descriptive,” she insisted. “Encapsulates the event perfectly.”
The lineaged smiled a half-cruel, half-reminiscent smile. It had happened a few weeks prior; Hendrik had placed well for the first time ever in a free for all, having finished fifth out of thirty-two; but it had been purely accidental. Despite inheriting Volk’s competitive nature, Hendrik didn’t have the conviction necessary to face down others in a free for all, preferring to stick to the peripheries of the arenas to try and simply place well by attrition, a tactic that got him generally to a low to middle place finish. In this tournament however, he had managed to not only keep his distance from others, attributing his victory to his lighter armour which allowed him to move a lot quicker, but he had managed to knock out three prominent nobles, including prince Svend. As he had pulled back his blade to swing, he backhanded one in the face with enough force to daze him, managed to slam the flat of the blade against the temple of another, and once he swung the other noble was so bemused by the incident that Hendrik landed a swift strike to the head.

“Sidabrinis smiled upon me that day,” Hendrik finally conceded.
“The Aspect of Luck favours those who are lightly armoured and have a powerful back hand.”

Before Hendrik could retort, Sigrid had approached. She was dressed resplendently, and very few people would have guessed that she wasn’t noble. She wore a tight-fitting, short-sleeved white tunic that had an embroidered gold trim. On the right lapel was one of the many symbols of the Platinum Consulate, gold talons on a white shield, the edges of which were black. A belt was around her waist where two pouches hung. A cloak adorned her shoulders, raven black and trimmed silver.

“Are we ready?” The Consul asked with a beaming smile that almost eclipsed the sun.
“I reckon we could have been off ten minutes ago if you two simply stuffed your things into a bag a changed when we got there,” Kadri said with a sigh.
“But where’s the fun in that, my dear dragonling?” Sigrid grinned. “If you have wealth, it should be flaunted, even when traversing the emptiest roads. And I have the best security in the world: nobody’d dare challenge Queen Kadri and the Vanquisher of Nobility!”

The road was well maintained between Tallin and Kaunu. It was easily wide enough to maintain steady streams of travellers heading both ways simultaneously. Traffic was frequent; barely half an hour had passed and many carts, laden with barrels, bags, and sometimes people, had already overtaken them. It wasn’t an abnormal amount by any stretch of the imagination, but it was clear to see that many were merchants and traders heading to Kaunu in anticipation of the influx of people.

The road to Kaunu was a favourite of Kadri’s, due mostly in part to the features to her left. Emerald green plains were running inland, with trees that dotted the landscape. They stretched unimpeded for about half a mile, before they reached the Azurelak; a massive body of crystal-clear water that glowed vibrantly blue at night. Arbuzs and Selta had supposedly clashed here in the Dragon War. The lake was supposed to have formed when Arbuzs called down a lightning bolt that sheered away the Aspect of Ice’s scales, and as they fell, they melted, forming the lake. Selta managed to retaliate, catching the Aspect of Lightning with a blow that coated the mountains tops with his blood. Kadri could see lightning striking their peaks every few seconds even then.

Around midday, the party stopped to eat. They made their way to the edge of the Azurelak; while the sea was closer, the lake had some strange magic to it that made it warm when the air was cold, and cold when the air was warm.
Hendrik had volunteered to pack food; it was nothing special – bread, salted beef, and a few pieces of fruit and vegetables, primarily tomatoes, lettuce and apples.
All three of them had their feet in the water and were sitting on the bank of the lake. Sigrid had brought a blanket to sit on, to prevent her clothes from staining.

The topic of conversation had changed and flowed on a whim but it always settled on their standard subject; the Dragon War. They had debated which side was in the right many a time before and today wasn’t too different, with the exception that Kadri didn’t contribute much, nor did she pay much attention to her companions; she was desperately trying to stay awake. They still had most of the journey to go but she could feel exhaustion clawing at edge of her mind, trying to drag her into slumber.

When she yawned, Sigrid grinned, “So… how long were you awake for before we set off?”
The lineaged didn’t look up from the lake. “Got back to sleep at dawn.”
“Less than two hours?”
“Easily.”
Hendrik’s shoulders sagged, and he laid down against the soft grass. Sigrid seemed overjoyed – she didn’t have to say anything; her eyes lit up and her grin got wider. She was quick to return to the topic of dragons, however she could not hide her jovial tone, much to Hendrik’s clear annoyance.

Their attitudes remained until the evening as they continued their way north. The sun had fallen past the mountains and the sky was stained a brilliant array of blues, oranges and purples. The first stars could be seen, and the waning moon was rising. Before darkness could well and truly settle, the party took a few steps off the road and decided to settle there for the night before continuing onwards to Kaunu at dawn. Hendrik set down his bag, inside was a bell tent, large enough for the three of them to comfortably sleep in for the night. The roads between Tallin and Kaunu were well patrolled, especially on the weeks before and after a tournament; security wouldn’t be an issue.

The trio sat once more in the grass; while it was cool, it wasn’t damp. The stars shone above, the last vestiges of day had well and truly disappeared. A gentle breeze from the south brought with it warm air from lands far away; sometimes Kadri thought she could smell the spices of the Commonwealth’s markets, or that the winds brought with them the sounds of distant wars. Alas, today neither sense was rewarded with an image of foreign lands; her only experience of such things for the immediate was Sigrid. A silence settled among the trio while they were eating as they gazed at the velvet darkness.

“I wanted to say this earlier,” Sigrid started, her voice uncertain. “But I’m planning on getting a ship.”
“A ship?” Kadri inquired, a last burst of energy filling her as intrigue flooded in. “As in?”
“Yep. A merchant ship. A two decker. To sell Volkscrest,” the Consul elaborated.
“When you say you’re planning?”
“I mean… well… I’ve commissioned it. The Shipbuilders guild in Silverun accepted the design and I sent the money las-”

The sentence was cut off, suffocated by the competing hugs of both Kadri and Hendrik. The two Volken made eye contact with each other.
“Do we have to start calling her captain now?” Kadri asked.
“No!” Sigrid wheezed.
“Definitely! And we can get her one of those tricorn hats in Kaunu!” Hendrik insisted.
“I’m not the capt-”
A squeeze silenced the Consul’s protest. The pair continued with their teasing for twenty seconds before releasing Sigrid, who then gulped in the air hungrily.
“Well… I was going to ask you to come on the maiden voyage when it’s done but I can’t trust two barbaric Volken onboard MY ship.”
“We’ll probably start raiding as soon as you dock anywhere,” Kadri mused.
“By Arbuzs and Sendrin, a raid? The Aspects smile down upon us!” Hendrik laughed.
The laughter was infectious. For a couple of seconds, that was all that could be heard.
“But. But seriously,” Sigrid managed. “The offer’s there.”
“As if you had to ask!” Hendrik responded.
“We’ll both be there,” the mage assured the Consul. “But… where are you going?”
“Probably Aurora. I’ve always wanted to go to Norgard.”
Hendrik leaned forward, and Kadri noticed a level of anxiety to his voice. “Do… do you think?...”
“That she’ll be there?” the lineaged completed. “I don’t think so.”
“I… guess it was silly of me to expect such a thing,” the dough-eyed man opined.
Kadri shook her head, her voice lowering a tad. “Not impossible, but it is unlikely,” she said, pausing for a moment as she headed to the tent. Glancing over her shoulder, she added, “Are you going to let the others come along?”
“If they’re in Kaunu they’re getting an invitation, Kadri,” Sigrid answered. “What would an adventure be without them?”
 

Baconhands

The Traveller
The march to Kaunu held similar weather as to when the party left Tallin; the clear skies beamed a bright blue, the clouds were relegated ominously, albeit securely, to the west, and the sun climbed optimistically in the east. When their destination came into sight, it was much as Kadri had remembered it. The city had no walls, ever welcoming to any traveller. Whether they were there to trade, to rest, or to simply enjoy the competitive and violent culture of Volk, Kaunu was open to all. It covered a large area with several of the outlying buildings reaching as far as a mile from its centre. While most of the architecture was much the same as Tallin, the nucleus of this circular city held several grander buildings: the abbey, with its great spires challenging the heavens, the guild hall, the only one in the east that wasn’t unassuming, and the arena, where the finals of the hosted tournaments took place.
A river, the Aevon, ran into the sea about half a mile north of the city proper. This waterway ran from the interior to the sea and had its origins in the mountains where minerals and Volkscrest were harvested. Two roads, one running north towards green pastures and one heading south to the fishing grounds, fed Kaunu both literally and figuratively. They were both choked with people. Traffic disproportionately headed towards the city. Some had set up shop outside it, creating a pseudo-marketplace of a myriad of multi-coloured market stalls that were selling goods from across the Nineteen Islands.

The companions, despite leaving early, were caught in this midday rush of merchants, traders, and travellers. Kadri couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the poor guards, who were trying desperately to direct the crowd to the appropriate authorities. Most of them seemed quite young, probably volunteers who were only working temporarily while the tournaments were being run. The lineaged heard the city paid quite well for this sort of work, and it came with a number of perks such as free food in a number of inns and taverns dotted around the trade hub. She and Sigrid had tried to convince Hendrik to volunteer once, but he had refused, stating he would much rather be spectating and competing.
The trio found themselves on the end of an outrageously long queue that stretched for a quarter of a mile outside of Kaunu proper. Determining that they would be there for at least an hour, Kadri volunteered to browse the stalls and grab food for the three of them. Five gold pieces, enough to purchase one of the finer bottles of wine in Volk, was graciously given to her by Sigrid. The Consul had been reluctant to give such money away, but the lineaged was quick to point out that merchants tended to charge a huge premium for food and goods at these events, especially for food that was from faraway lands such as Alba and Silverun. Moments later, she was walking down to the tents and stalls outside of Kaunu with a broad grin on her face.

She returned, carrying a leather satchel over her right shoulder and a small wooden chest with a handle at its top in her left hand, to a rather grumpy looking Sigrid, and a Hendrik who looked on the verge of collapse.
“One hour,” growled the Consul, “How did it take you one fucking hour?”
“An hour,” wheezed Hendrik weakly in support of Sigrid’s outrage.
“I think you’ll find it to be worth it,” Kadri grinned, “the chefs needed time to prepare your dishes individually and, since I care for the both of you, I got you a meal from different stalls! Also, lots of queues and people, you know, standard market stuff.”
In reality, the acquisition of food had been fairly straight forward. The market place, while not devoid of life, wasn’t at capacity yet, as was to be expected, and so the queues had been reasonable. Kadri instead, had been distracted by the stalls. Words couldn’t describe how liberating it was for Kadri to be walking among such diverse goods and people once more! The tournament was still two days away from officially beginning, and this pseudo-market was already twice the size of Tallin’s proper market. It had bombarded Kadri’s senses with intriguing scents, bright colours, and a cacophony of beautiful, chaotic sounds that only a proper market could bring. The lineaged practically bounded from stall to stall, inspecting and browsing everything that was on offer. She had brought with her a small notebook and a quill for this exact reason, writing down the names of merchants she spoke with, what they were selling, how much they cost, and sometimes reserving some items, such as a particularly fine purple cloak, made of what felt like silk, from the shores of Arbor which she knew Sigrid would absolutely adore. It was only the loud grumble of Kadri’s stomach that had brought her back to focussing on her actual reason for being there: food.

The lineaged had spent just over a third of the money she’d been given, most of which was spent on the satchel and the chest. The queue had apparently been unmoving for the last twenty minutes, and so Sigrid and Hendrik were sat at the side of the road, their place apparently guaranteed by a nearby guard.
Kadri placed the chest down first, and lifted its lid. Inside were three meal-sized wooden bowls, secured with their own lids. The lineaged had been sure to mark each one with the initials of the intended recipient. For Sigrid, she had acquired a pasta-based dish, mixed with some sort of tomato sauce with about a dozen herbs and spices, that apparently did something to the flavour that Kadri did not understand, with diced chicken and bacon mixed in. A simple meal, but one that brought a touching amount of nostalgic joy to Sigrid’s face when the meal was unveiled that Kadri thought she might be a changed woman for a few moments.
That same expression, though less nostalgic and more probably simple excitement that food was in front of him, came to Hendrik when it was revealed that Kadri had gotten him pulled pork, lathered in a sweet sauce, with fried, cut potatoes.
Kadri had had a plethora of choice, but rice was so rare in Volk that she simply had to have some, fried with eggs, vegetables, and mixed with slow-roasted pork.

Hendrik had brought basic cutlery. The queue remained unmoving, and so the trio tucked in.
“How… did you… manage to spend as much as you did on… just this? Not that I’m complaining.” Sigrid inquired suspiciously between mouthfuls. Apparently, this meal was enough for Sigrid to forget her normal etiquette.
“Well the chest is enchanted by a lineaged of Sendrin, so it’s perpetually one temperature, hot but not so much that it will burn food, on the inside,” Kadri explained. “And this here has a few things inside it.” The lineaged grinned as she indicated to the satchel, “Namely, bottles of red wine from the Sapphire Isles.”

The queue finally began moving ten minutes after the party had finished their meals, and it was moving at a much quicker pace than before. After a further ten minutes, they were at the front of the line. Three inspectors were sorting the incoming traffic. They were all dressed in white and black robes with the symbol of the city, a ship leaving the side of an open gatehouse, on their left lapel. Normally these inspectors wouldn’t have been in place, but with the influx of merchants due to the tournament, such measures had to be implemented to ensure any illegal goods were filtered out. When the trio were called forward, they were simply asked for their purpose of visiting.
“They’re competing, I’m sponsoring,” Sigrid said, producing three pieces of paper. They had been collected by Kadri from the Guild Hall in Tallin, and listed their names, where the papers had been issued, and their stated role for the upcoming festivities. The document was stamped with the symbol of the Guild Halls.
The forms were looked over briefly, their bags were opened and searched, before they were waved in without any issues.

The trio had entered from the south, and thus were well situated to find an inn that would accommodate them for the entire tournament. Most inns were in the north of the city, along with the market, since the docks were situated north of the city, near the river. The south, while not abundant in choice, had several quiet, but still relatively high quality, establishments that were somewhat unknown to travellers from the rest of Volk and were certainly unknown to foreigners. While most of the traffic headed north, the party diverted right down a less busy cobbled road. A minute or two passed before the trio stood outside of an unassuming three-story building with a wooden sign that read The Squire’s Choice in simple black lettering.

Kadri was the first to enter. She was greeted by a familiarly modest albeit spacious room. There were a dozen round tables, with about six times that number of chairs and stools scattered around. The furniture kept with the inn’s rustic aesthetic, as did the bar at the other side of the room. The floor, much to Kadri’s surprise, however, was covered in a fine blue carpet, and several lanterns hung from metal chains from the ceiling. They held no fire, however, as natural light was pouring in from windows on both sides of the building.
There weren’t many patrons; Kadri counted eleven in total. Most looked in her direction as she entered and she was greeted with a round of smiles.
“There they are!” a hearty, country accent enthusiastically shouted from the other side of the room.
“Here we are!” Kadri beamed, elation clear in her voice.
As Sigrid and Hendrik entered behind her, Kadri watched as a barrel of a halfling with balding, ashen hair for a top waddled over enthusiastically, arms outstretched, ready to embrace the lot of them. The tavern owner was short, even for a halfling, only coming up to Kadri’s waist, but the lineaged was still convinced that if he wanted to, he could hug all three of the companions at once.
“Come ‘ere you!” he said, taking them individually into a soft bear hug. None of them resisted.
As he released Hendrik, Oskar took a couple of steps away, “I’ve been countin’ down the days I ‘ave. Didn’t know if you’d come today or tomorrow; we had a wager on it me and ‘elga we did.” He turned and shouted over his shoulder, “I assume you want the usual?”
All three of them voiced their assent. They sat down at a worn round table and a minute later Oskar had sat down next to them, drinks and room keys in hand.
“Who won the bet, you or Helga?” Sigrid asked.
“Well, ‘elga, I think it goes without sayin’,” Oskar admitted, “You gonna be runnin’ your usual stakes this time Sigrid?”
The Consul produced a ledger, “Can’t give you odds yet on individual matches, but I assume…”
“You’re goin’ to the finals this time, ain’t ya Kadri?” Oskar asked, though it was more a statement than a question. Before the lineaged could answer, her mouth full of apple juice, the tavern owner continued, “Go on, I’ll put twen’y down for ‘er to get to the finals.”
The lineaged spat most of the juice back into her cup. “Well, no fucking pressure on me then is there?” Kadri exclaimed.
Oskar seemed unfazed, and rested a pudgy hand on Hendrik’s shoulder, “And I’ll put five on this strappin’ young’un to get through his first round, regardless of who it’s against.”
Hendrik sat up straight at this, his shoulders back and his chest proud, “I won’t let you down.”
“I know kid, I know, it’s gonna be plenty fun watchin’ ya,” the old man smiled sincerely.
As soon as Sigrid had finished scribbling everything down, she looked up with a smile, “Right, I’ll get odds to you before you hand over anything.”
“Now don’ you be treatin’ me special, Sigrid, I know what you’re like with my customers,” he said, shaking his head, “don’t be so ruthless with ‘em.”
“It’s that ruthlessness that keeps them interested,” Sigrid grinned in response.
A bawdy laugh escaped Oskar, “O’course, o’course. When do you want me to advertise the bettin’?”
“When the brackets are released,” Sigrid chimed, “Should give people a bit more confidence.”
“Right, right, will do, will do. Enough about that. Updates, stories, tell me everythin’,” Oskar insisted, leaning back in his chair and taking a large swig of his drink.

Despite this invitation the story-telling was remarkably one-sided; the tavern-keeper had no end to his stories and seemed genuinely enthused to tell them to an audience that weren’t his regulars with stories ranging from tales about the Union, his home country within the Commonwealth, to a change in his beef supplier that was charging him slightly less for the meat. The trio listened intently, chucking in the odd comment here and there before Hendrik managed to fit in his tale about how he knocked out three nobles in a recent tournament.
“And you’re going to do the same again?” Oskar inquired, but it was clear that he knew what the answer would be.
“That’s the plan!”
“Good lad.”
“Oskar,” Kadri began, finally managing to squeeze in a word.
“Hm?”
“Are the others here yet?”
“Haven’t heard head or tail from ‘em. Unlike you fine folk, they don’t ten’ to book ahead. Ain’t got nobody ‘ose keepin’ them in line like Sigrid.”
“You have such little faith in us Oskar,” a high and mighty voice called from the doorway. Kadri sunk a little down into her chair. Sigrid grinned as she did. “It’s almost insulting.”
“As much faith as I need to; ‘specially considerin’ you ‘ave a tendency to show up out ‘the blue,” the halfling responded.
“We’re working on that, Mister Blackfoot,” another voice assured him. “I wanted to send a message ahead but we weren’t certain we’d be coming until the last minute.”

Kadri internally sighed, straightened her back once again, and turned in her chair to face the newcomers. Bjorn held himself higher than his companion; his shoulders were back, his chin was up, and his hands rested on his hips in some faux show of gallantry. Black clothing, trimmed bronze, clung tightly to him in a vein effort to make the muscles he had stand out more and, to his credit, it had some effect; coupled with the fact that his dirty blonde hair was just a couple of inches below the door frame, the bronze, draconic scales embedded along his forearms, and the light that was eking in from the entrance behind him, one could be forgiven for thinking that he was some kind of hero from a novel. Kadri thought this was the sort of image he would always try to project; however, one thing threw off this façade: that smug smile that spoke only of a superiority complex he always wore made his clean-shaven face incredibly punchable.

The woman that followed him in did not hold herself to the same pride as her companion, indeed, she fell in behind Bjorn. To the Volken, Meera’s rose-red skin, horns, and similarly coloured tail distinguished her as ‘Flame-touched’ – to the rest of the Nineteen Islands, they were known as Tieflings. Her eyes were not spared from what was to some a divine inheritance and to others the indication of a great sin; Meera’s irises were a deep red that were unable to look anything other than intense. Unlike Bjorn, her form was clad in loose fitting robes that just about concealed the red scales that Kadri knew she bore. Her black hair was tied back into a tight pony tail, exposing her pointed ears. Resting just above her horns was a gold circlet that gave the Tiefling somewhat of a regal look; to Kadri, she always thought that Meera fulfilled the look of the unassuming hero.
Both of the newcomers wore embroidered patches on over the left side of their chests depicting a two-masted ship leaving a harbour.

“You two goin’ ta be stayin’ ‘ere?”
“That was my plan, even if it’s not his.”
“That would depend on the competition,” Bjorn stated, removing his right hand from his hips. He dramatically pointed his finger towards Kadri, “Don’t let that top thirty-two placement get to your head.”
“You can talk when you actually beat her,” Sigrid responded. Kadri gave her a glance, but the Consul still wore that same grin.
“I have beaten her seven times!”
“And lost the last five matches against her… in a row…” Hendrik said matter-of-factly, as if trying to recall the information.
“Twice in Volholm too. Home territory, how embarrassing,” Sigrid added, re-joining the assault.
“Sigrid-” Kadri tried to intervene.
“I remember being in the crowd,” Hendrik said wistfully. “I’ll never forget the silence that followed when you landed that last bolt. I think I was the only one that applauded.”
“Hendr-”
Bjorn’s smile cracked; a glower came to replace it that was so intense Hendrik visibly shrunk back in his chair. “Do you need to get your lackies to come after me, now?” He asked, directing the question at Kadri.
Kadri blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“Your apology is accepted. See, just because our divine ancestors were enemies does not mean we can’t be friends. Lineaged should hold themselves to higher standards.”
Crackling noises emanated from under Kadri’s sleeve, and her eyes darkened. “Hold yourself to those standards, then.”
“This is your issue, Kadri. We can be civil; we’ve been civil in the past. You’ve spent too much time with-” Bjorn realised his mistake too late. Meera had already stepped away from him, shaking her head. Before he could so much as blink Kadri was in front of him, her left hand on his collar, her right hand raised in front of his face, a ball of blue-white energy crackling between her finger tips. She watched his eyes go wide with terror, his hands quickly shot up as if surrendering, and he shrunk back in her grasp to such an extent that he was now off-balance.
“Finish that sentence.”
“I-K-Kadri, this really isn’t necessary.”
“That depends on the next words that come out of your mouth,” the ball of lightning flaring in her hand.
“I-I’m… sorry,” he struggled after a moment.
“Sure you are,” the lineaged of Arbuzs growled, pushing him down to the floor.
Bjorn scrambled to his feet. What few patrons had been in the Squire’s Choice were watching on. Kadri could see in his face that he was debating retaliating, but as the onlookers started muttering, he turned and barrelled out of the door.
Kadri let the spell drop, the energy dissipated harmlessly into the air.

“That’s a new record,” Meera observed, stepping alongside Kadri.
“Two new records,” Kadri corrected. “Haven’t snapped at him so quickly before either.”
“If you could do that more often, I’d greatly appreciate it,” the tiefling requested.
“I’ll make sure to remind her,” Sigrid called from the table.
“Did I cause that?” Hendrik asked, genuinely afeared.
“No. That was only a matter of time,” Kadri reassured him. “Not a lot worse than a talented person with an ego to match.”
 

Baconhands

The Traveller
The companions reconvened around the table, Sigrid still grinning from ear to ear; even a cautionary glance from Kadri did little to mute the Consul’s glee. Only Hendrik seemed bemused about what had happened, despite the fact that such a thing occurred practically every time the trio had encountered Bjorn since Kadri’s first victory over him in Volholm. There was little point in explaining it to him, however – it would only be a matter of time before he understood fully. With Meera present, the conversation turned once more to competition: reminiscing about past bouts and speculating about future contests, the many rivalries that were beginning to bloom, and guessing who would be chosen by the Ever Watching to take up the mantle of Monarch. This last topic came to be the one the group stuck to. All ruled out the Prince, Svend; all spoke well of Magnus Birgensen’s chances and of his great rival Aela Ritsdotir. If it weren’t for his age, most of them thought the famed raider and pirate Bo Koensen would be in the runnings, but alas the Spirit bore in mind the stability of the kingdom during its considerations, and soon such talk turned to mere jokes and japes at the captain’s expense though these did not last long; when Kadri noticed some of the older patrons glancing in their direction, she indicated for her friends to hush.

The afternoon whittled on into evening. Long shadows slipped into the inn through the windows, replacing the brief patronage of the golden-orange light of the setting sun before these too were chased off by the lighting of the fireplace, candles, and lanterns. The sounds of the city outside did not abate, however, as was customary when tournaments came to settlements like Kaunu. As twilight chased off the remaining light, dozens of the Squire’s Choice’s regulars made their way through the doors, and a local lute-wielding bard began to play their renditions of Volken sea-shanties that few could resist joining in on. With ale flowing plentifully throughout the establishment, Kadri watched Sigrid skilfully navigate her way through the patrons, signing them up for bad-bet after bad-bet. It was not long before the Consul’s purse was swollen with coin that she considered ‘safe’.

As yet more patrons continued to trickle in, the group signalled to Oskar that they were retiring, though they made a point of holding up their cups and tankards as if asking if they could take them. A simple nod from the halfling was enough confirmation for Hendrik, though the others were certain that he wasn’t even looking in their direction when he did.
The party made their way pass the bar and up a set of creaking steps to a narrow corridor that was home to half a dozen rooms. Kadri made a point of inviting her companions to share one of the bottles of wine before they dispersed; a reinforced red named The Triumvir’s Vine, and as soon as Kadri uncorked the bottle the fragrance of masterfully fermented summer fruits greeted her nose and a light smile sprung to her lips.
“Say what you want about the Safeir, they know how to make good wine,” she said, pouring most of the bottle into the assorted cups. “To the contest,” Kadri continued, raising her glass.
“To the glory,” Meera said, raising hers.
“To the coin,” Sigrid smiled, bringing forth a chuckle from the others.
“And the blessings of the Ten,” Hendrik said.
“The blessings of the Ten,” the others repeated with notably less enthusiasm.
All drank deeply from their cups. The taste was sweet, bordering tantalisingly on being too sharp. The lineaged grimaced a little but could not stop herself from finishing the cup, so smooth was the taste after a second. Meera and Hendrik had done similar, though the grimace was far more pronounced on Hendrik’s face; Sigrid had merely sipped at hers. Kadri lowered the vessel from her lips and then inspected the bottle.
“Sig, we better be going to the Sapphire Islands when you get your ship,” the lineaged stated.
“It might be on the itinerary,” was the Consul’s response.

They retired to their rooms not long after. Kadri’s was simple but spacious. A bed, wash basin, a small wardrobe and a desk and chair were the only occupants. A window with mostly undamaged curtains sat in the west wall. It didn’t provide much of a view; she could see across to the wooden buildings opposite but these weren’t exactly architecturally interesting. A half moon poured light in through the glass, and illuminated the cobbled street below. There was by this time few moving about the streets of Kaunu; Kadri watched a couple of drunken patrons stumble down the road, but it was otherwise empty.

The lineaged felt her forearm tingling as the azure blue scales began to react to… something. A storm? But there had been nothing on the horizon. Not that it was impossible for such freak weather to batter the island; it was sometimes said that the youngest of Arbuzs’ children would bare down a small storm upon Volk, and no doubt other parts of the world, just because they were bored and spontaneous downpours were the result of such behaviour. But this felt different; Kadri could hear the small crackles of tiny sparks emanating from beneath her sleeve, and as she rolled it back, she could see the blue-white energy skipping along from scale to scale. A brief bit of concentration brought this reaction under control, but this did little to stop the growing unease that had taken to her mind and body.

In but a few seconds, the light of the half-moon was chased off of the buildings and streets by a blanketing shadow. Raucous rain hammered against the ceiling and windows, each droplet issuing its single, blaring demand to be allowed entry.
It was growing harder and harder for Kadri to keep the sparks from reappearing. A bright light struck the street outside. Her head turned, her hand raised all to shield her eyes as a thunderous roar caused the windows to shudder and shake. Part of the lineaged wanted to roar in response, but, as her vision returned to the window, she noticed the rain had stopped, as if the storm had been scared off by the lightning.

She looked down into the street, her grey-eyes spying a humanoid figure apparently unaffected by the weather. They wore a silver sleeveless tunic, which exposed two slender arms that were covered in draconic scales tinted the same colour as Kadri’s, and ended in hands that appeared to end with claws, the right one carrying some kind of necklace. These scales covered the rest of their body too; their head and neck bore them. A small snout protruded from their face, and a long, powerful tail peaked out of the gap between their trousers and their tunic. They didn’t wear boots, instead they walked upon bare, draconic, digitigrade feet. They sported long black hair atop their head and their light-blue eyes caught the moonlight well. Though Kadri tried her best not to presume, the figure’s features appeared feminine and could be chalked up to them being a skinny and unusual Dragonborn; the rational part of Kadri’s mind agreed with this assessment. But instinct told her otherwise. And after a couple of seconds, it would be proven right.

There was another smaller flash, this time focused on the stranger, followed by a similarly small rumble that sounded like thunder. The light faded, and in place of this Dragonborn was a human woman, with sharp, inquisitive, and mischievous features, and a complexion not too dissimilar to that of Kadri’s. But the clothes were the same, and the draconic scales still lined the individual’s eyes and cheekbones. They still clutched the necklace in their hands. Kadri knew not of a spell that acted in such a way; even the polymorph spells practiced by scholarly spell casters nor the shapeshifting cast by druids did not behave like this.

During her bewilderment, Kadri did not noticed that the individual had moved their head, and before she could realise it, the lineaged had locked eyes with the stranger. A creeping sense of familiarity washed over Kadri, and her entire body bristled with unease. The stranger’s eyes did not seem unkind, but bore an aged wisdom that contrasted sharply with their youthful humanoid appearance. The smile that tugged at the stranger’s lips seemed both suspicious and trustworthy at the same time. An idea began to form in the lineaged’s mind, but it felt too preposterous to even contemplate.
The individual winked, and Kadri jumped as they did, as lost in thought as she had been. Determined to confront them, Kadri turned, and took a step towards the door, nerves turning to adrenaline with each moved muscle. She’d managed to make it to the inn’s stairs before a low rumble caused her to cry out in frustration. Nonetheless, she headed out into the street, to find what her instincts told her would be the case: there was no sign of the stranger.
 

Baconhands

The Traveller
Kadri only just managed to avoid yet another sleepless night, though it was not without its tribulations. The lineaged could not shake the disturbing sense of familiarity; it lingered on ‘til morning and continued even pass then. She had always been sceptical about the idea that dragons brought storms with them, but now Kadri was not so sure. And only the First Born had inherited their parents’ ability to shapeshift into a humanoid form. But why would a First Born be in Kaunu? Sure, it was not unheard of for these beings to be present at tournaments of particular spiritual or political importance but, even then, the presence of either Merska, Vidris, or Eldin, was considered to mean something bad was about to happen, or to influence the Ever Watching’s selection for the next monarch of Volk. Such thoughts, troubling, intriguing, and exciting as they were, caused Kadri to sleep fitfully. Thanks in part to this, she was awake before dawn, a scenario that brought with it a couple of opportunities that the lineaged, despite the ache of a bad night’s sleep, could not pass up on.

She swung her legs round and sat up, stood and washed, and put on the day’s clothes. Sigrid had been meticulous in attempting to cultivate an image for Kadri – a more marketable brand, she’d called it - and so the Consul had been the one to pack the lineaged’s clothes, and had done so with labels and in such an order so as to make it very clear what she be worn on which day. A smile tugged at Kadri’s lips; Sigrid had tried to take to Volken culture, but the business savvy, managerial characteristics of her home nation, the Platinum Consulate, always shone through when it came to ‘managing her best client’. The mage did not pretend to understand what her friend had meant by this, and had long ago resigned herself to never truly understanding the inner-workings of anyone from one of the Commonwealth’s merchant republics.

Today’s outfit was simple enough, and Kadri appreciated that greatly. A royal blue, short-sleeved tunic, its trim embroidered with ancient runes written in a silver thread, black trousers, a black, leather belt, and brown knee-high boots. A wave of relief washed over her; this was all stuff she had worn before, and she knew she would be comfortable enough in it to do a bit of sparring. For the purposes of keeping herself warm, she grabbed her sea-green cloak and threw it over her shoulders, securing it in place with a chain.

Comfortable in her attire, the mage took in a breath, let out a sigh, and headed downstairs, out through the empty tavern, her thoughts still very much focused on what she had witne-
“Good morning,” Sigrid’s voice echoed from the corner of the room.
Kadri jumped and let out a yelp, too which a howl of laughter followed. The Consul was wearing much the same as the day before, still resplendent in her white and gold. The lineaged raised an arm, letting the long sleeve of the tunic fall so that her scales showed. She made them crackle with lightning in a mock show of-
“Hi Kadri,” Hendrik munched from the other side of the room.
Another yelp, this time followed by the sound of crackling lightning and the smells of ozone and burnt wood. Kadri slowly, hesitantly, raised her head, and her eyes spotted a blackened section of the ceiling about ten centimetres in diameter.
“You two are paying for that,” she said quickly, glancing between the two of them.
The Consul sat back in her chair, shaking her head. “Tsk. I mean, acts of startled dragonlings aren’t really covered in our contract.”
“I don’t do lightning,” Hendrik added sincerely, wiping his tabard clean of crumbs.
“Great. Thanks. A hearty fuck you to the both of you, and tell Oskar to put it on my tab,” she said with a frown, turning away and proceeding to the doorway.
“Quite a storm last night,” Sigrid continued to tease, “do I need to watch what you drink going forwards or you going to call in one of your cousins again?”
Kadri hesitated. Her hesitation led to her stopping. Then it led to her turning to face her friends. She grinned a grin that was one-third troubled, and two-thirds excited.
“Want to know what I saw last night?”

As the mage explained what she had seen, she watched her friend’s expressions explore a range of emotions that started with denial and ended with child-like giddiness. Hendrik was noticeably faster through this process than Sigrid, and was hanging on Kadri’s every word.
“So I think there was a First Born here,” Kadri concluded.
“Probably Merska or Vidris,” Hendrik breathed. “Oh, by the Aspects! A Divine!”
“But why are they here?” Sigrid asked.
“Do you think I got the opportunity to ask?”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Sigrid said. “I mean… aren’t they supposed to announce themselves? Normally the arrival of a First Born means something… significant is about to happen.”
“We can hypothesize on the way to the Arena,” Kadri assured her, opening the inn door and greeting the cool, morning air. “Best to get there before the crowds start to appear.”
“One of the Divine,” Hendrik said, still very much rooted in his seat. “Here. Spectating.”
“Not necessarily,” Sigrid said, following Kadri out the door. Hendrik hurried after them. “She could have just moved on; especially if it’s Merska.” She swore as she stepped into one of the puddles that had formed in the sudden downpour from the night prior as they started heading north, towards the centre of the city.
It was overcast, but the clouds were not quite thick enough to block out the light from the peeking sun. Occasionally, the trio would walk pass a shop or bakery that would be getting ready for morning sales, but all in all, the town was still very much at rest.
“But you said she was holding something, right? An amulet?” Hendrik asked. When Kadri nodded, he continued. “I bet that’s some sort of ancient relic that she’ll give to the winner to sway the Ever Watching’s decision. You said yourself that you think this is the last tournament before selection, and my dad told me he saw Eldin give some crown over to the current monarch before the last selection.”
“Ah, but he’d announced himself a few days before,” Sigrid countered. “The brackets are released today and the tournament starts tomorrow; if this First Born were going to, then she would have said so beforehand.”
“Pity the fool who assumes to know the will of the Divine, for the storms are Divine in nature and Volk, beset as it is, is the subject of great interest to the Aspect’s children,” Hendrik stated. “They bear the bounty from which our Kingdom is built, and strengthen the resolve of the warrior’s that defend our shores.”
Kadri watched Sigrid’s nostrils flare, and she knew the Consul was doing her upmost to hold back a string of barbs that would attack the amateur warrior on personal levels.
“Regardless,” the mage started carefully, “we have a renewed reason to perform even better than before.”
Hendrik, blissfully unaware of Sigrid’s seething frown, smiled broadly. “Yeah!”

It would only take a few minutes for the trio to make their way to the Arena. It was a circular amphitheatre that could easily hold ten thousand spectators, and it was one of the oldest buildings in Kaunu. Its walls were weathered by centuries upon centuries of rain, wind, and snow; the once pristine marble had been discoloured and degraded but still held firm. It had ten entrances, with heavy, iron-reinforced oak gates; above each individual one was a carved image of one of ‘Volk’s Great Raids’ with local and national Lore-Keepers stating that it was in these raids the marble to build the Arena had been looted. One of these gates was slightly ajar just wide enough for a person to fit through. The trio headed inside one-by-one, stepping into a tunnel that bore no torches. Kadri could hear the sounds of ice crunching and shattering, and the rumble of moving earth as they entered, and a smile tugged anticipatingly across her lips. Stepping out of the tunnel, Kadri was greeted by the sight of the Arena’s great interior; thousands upon thousands of benches, arranged into eight tiers, spectated a sand-covered, stone stage that was dug two metres into the earth. A railing ran the circumference of the drop in an effort to prevent spectators from joining the fight; evenly placed around this were two metre statues of the ten Aspect Dragons. Magical methods were also used to keep the crowd at bay however, during the early hours, such methods weren’t used. Raised up above the rest of the seating was a covered platform, bearing ten chairs and one throne, bearing a great, golden eye in its back, intended for the monarch and their entourage should they ever wish to attend and spectate.

Heading down to the railing, the trio watched the sparring match with keen interest; the sparrers were both in their early twenties, both wearing short-sleeved tunics, and Kadri could tell, even from relatively far away, that they were both grinning from ear to ear. The combatants were a man and a woman, both of slim, athletic builds, and both sported the pale skin so characteristic of Volk’s people. The woman, however, had long red hair which was tied back into a neat ponytail, and could not escape the ancestral trappings that many who came from Faelún exhibited; her ears were brought to a neat point, and her eyes were a deep green, almost devoid of whites, that resembled the many sprawling forests of the only elven kingdom in the Nineteen Islands. Snow-white draconic scales that glittered in the morning light decorated the quarter-elf’s right forearm, and a fine mist was exhibited from them each time a spell was cast towards her opponent.
It was clear that he was trying to resemble Volk’s traditional image of a seaborn raider; loose blonde hair worn in braids, a scar over his left eye, and the beginnings of what could be a glorious beard if he properly tended to it for a couple of years decorated his face. Bronze scales took prominence over his right forearm.

Three shards of ice, their sharpened points glinting in the sun, formed above the woman, and launched towards the man at great speed when she flicked her wrist in his direction. The man raised his hand, and a rock pillar rose with it. The shards slammed into it, intercepted, sending dust and water vapour into the air and scattering ice across the floor. The pillar shattered, and earth shot out from the dust cloud towards the quarter-elf. She shielded her face with her arms, crossing them in front of her as she started to take careful, calculated steps backwards. The stone and dirt began to twist and spin, forming a slowly shrinking tornado around her, buffeting her with increasing frequency. But she stood stoically, her fingers and hands twitching subtly as the man strode forward, his hands raised.

“Distracted by a couple of pebbles, Sylvi?” he jeered.
“I’d ask the same of you, Eikfyr,” she retorted, closing her fist.
Three spikes suddenly sprung from the ground, one stopping a mere inch from Eikfyr’s abdomen, one practically tickling his nose, and the other pressing against his spine.
The pair didn’t move for a second. Two. Three. Kadri wondered if they would continue. Then Eikfyr lowered his hand, and Sylvi opened her fist. The stone and earth fell to the floor, the spikes melted and formed rapidly evaporating puddles in the dirt. A nod passed between them, a few more words were exchanged, and Kadri watched them start to head over in their direction.

“You three are up early!” Eikfyr greeted as he got closer, though the statement was quite clearly aimed at Kadri.
“So are you two!” the lineaged responded.
“Professionals should have standards, Child of the Stormbringer,” Sylvi stated, her grin relaxing to a smile, “and our standards happen to mean getting a decent spar in before each and every dawn.”
Hendrik voiced both his and Kadri’s thoughts. “We’re professionals too!” he insisted, indicating to his hodgepodge armour and equipment.
“No doubt about that,” Eikfyr said, his voice honeyed with sarcasm. Sylvi chuckled.
Kadri stopped herself from frowning; she knew if she’d responded in a similar manner to Hendrik, a more respectful response would have been given by the two other mages.
“Who won?” Kadri asked after a moment.
“As if you didn’t see the outcome,” Eikfyr pouted childishly.
“That’s because the you got distracted and fell into a trap even Bjorn would have seen,” the quarter-elf stated matter-of-factly. “Anyway, I’ve seen you get out of that sort of thing before. You just wanted to have a chat.”
“I wanted to help our resident merchant,” Eikfyr started, indicating to the Consul, “with the upcoming odds.”
It was clear that was intended as a joke, but when business was brought up, Sigrid could not resist turning it into a serious topic of discussion.
“I heard some non-lineaged mages gave you two trouble in the last regional,” Sigrid said, whipping out a notebook and a pencil.
“Foreigners,” Eikfyr explained, looking up to the sky and squeezing his eyes shut hard trying to remember the details. “One from Alba, went by the name of Jack Fleetfoot, one from Lumia who had such a stupid name that I think it was just an alias. Grey Greybeard or something like that. We definitely underestimated them; apparently the Empire and the Commonwealth’s academies have been stepping up as of late. If they’re here, expect them to get to the top sixteen.”
“There are non-lineaged that good?” Kadri asked, the shock resonant in her voice.
“These ones are, easily,” Sylvi confirmed. “And there was someone, also Alban, named Leo ach… Marn? I think, who I can absolutely guarantee would have beaten Svend in his prime.”
Sigrid was noting all of this down; Kadri, too, was making a mental note. It was not unheard of for non-lineaged mages, that was people who dedicated their lives to rigorously training their bodies and minds to tapping into any kind of magic that they could, to do well in tournaments, but such things were incredibly rare. Though non-lineaged mages outnumbered lineaged ones, they were at, what was at times, an astronomical disadvantage when facing off against mages that bore the draconic scales that was meant to indicate that they harboured Divine blood; lineaged could innately manipulate one of the ten Aspects that made up the world with great skill. Wild theories abounded that non-lineaged people actually bore highly diluted Divine blood, but this had never been substantiated.

Hendrik had hopped down into the arena proper and had started jogging around its circumference, talking to himself about how he would impress the First Born.
“How did our next king do?” Kadri asked, unclasping her cloak and placing it on one of the benches. Sigrid promptly sat on it. The lineaged rolled her shoulders and shook out her arms.
“The Arch-prick of the Arcane?” Eikfyr scoffed. “Dare you need to ask?”
Sylvi shifted uncomfortably. “I think there’s a couple who could beat him, if he’s having a bad day, and they were performing optimally,” the quarter-elf nodded. “I think we’re looking at another victory for Magnus, less you get another surprise upset.”
“That was a fluke,” Kadri flustered, her cheeks tinging red.
“Don’t call my defeat a fluke,” the bronze-scaled lineaged chided her playfully, but proudly. “You deserved that win.”
“And we can spar in a bit and you can prove it,” Sylvi offered.
“Well… if you insist,” Kadri said, initially hesitant. She closed her eyes, after fixing the image of the arena a couple of metres behind Eikfyr in her mind. She canted the spell in her mind, felt the energy build in her scales, then felt lightning leap from them to dance over her body, and, upon hearing the crackle that announced her teleportation, opened her eyes again. “Can you help me warm up then?” she asked, looking over her shoulder.
“It would be our pleasure,” the quarter-elf nodded.
 

Baconhands

The Traveller
“What sort of tempo are you looking for?” Eikfyr said, stepping out into the arena, fist-sized rocks tearing themselves out of the ground and floating in front of him.
“Fast,” Kadri replied shortly, taking a couple of steps back.
“Alright. These ones aren’t going to stop, so if you miss, and you get cut, you only have yourself to blame,” her senior insisted.
“Don’t patronise her Eik,” Sigrid called from the stands, “that’s my job!”

Kadri closed her eyes, took in a breath, and exhaled. The adrenaline that had started to build manifested itself as lightning, jumped from scale to scale across her forearm. Her eyes snapped open as the first rock started towards her at the speed of a galloping horse. A charge ran down to her fingers, leaped from them, and intercepted the projectile; it glowed briefly, a brilliant white and blue, before exploding into pebbles. The second one came, faster. Intercepted. The third had been launched without her notice, the debris that was its exploded remains only dodged by a swift sidewards step.

“If you get hit by easy ones like that, I’m going to want your entry fee back!” Sigrid complained as loud as she could, her smile audible in every word.
“You think I can affor-” Kadri ducked out of the way of some incoming pebbles.
“Concentrate!” Eikfyr shouted.

The process repeated. Heavier chunks of earth, different angles, faster speeds. The bombardment became endless, a meteoric shower of stone, dust, and dirt that became increasingly difficult to intercept or dodge. When the rhythm started to become predictable, the lineaged of the Earth would throw in an abnormally large rock that would force Kadri to uncomfortably dodge and attempt to deflect the projectile simultaneously. This warmup lasted no less than seven minutes, ending just as Hendrik finished his second lap of the Arena. Several other groups had come into the stands by then; both Meera and Bjorn were among them. None had come down into the Arena proper quite yet, the weight of their eyes was on the lineaged from Tallinn.

Kadri wasn’t certain what had distracted her: somebody may have shouted something, or something out of the corner of her eye moved suddenly. Regardless, after one of the large rocks had been deflected, a smaller one, a bit larger than her fist, shot out from behind it, and slammed into her solar plexus, knocking the wind out of her. The rock she had been redirecting fell to the floor with a thud. She staggered, one step, two. She collapsed to one knee, only just about catching herself with her right hand, her head bowed.
“Kadri!” Sylvi’s now motherly voice rang out in harmony with Hendrik’s.
The kneeling lineaged let out a wheeze. Then a groan. Then a growl that turned into a vicious and frustrated snarl.
“Warmup over?” Somebody asked, their words echoing mockingly through her mind.
“Did I say to stop?” Kadri said through gritted teeth.
“I’m going to make an executive decis-”
“Víyamá.”

What clouds were left of the morning coalesced quickly, far too quickly, over Eikfyr, casting him and only him in darkness. Lightning struck, a mere couple of inches from where the Earth mage stood.
“Ah,” he said levelly. “I guess that means sparring’s started.”
“You’re damn right it has,” came Kadri’s terse reply. She forced herself to stand, she looked up and set her two pitch black irises on her opponent.
“Do you expect me to go easy on you just because of that display?”
“Do you expect me to go easy on you because that was an accident?”
“I warned you,” insisted Eikfyr with a casual shrug.
“Bál.”

A ball of energy, crackling purple and white, formed at the tips of Kadri’s fingers, growing for a couple of moments until it barrelled forwards, tearing up the ground as it spiralled through the air in a blindingly fast and increasingly erratic trajectory. It crashed into a hastily erected stone barrier that cracked but, crucially did not break under the force of the impact. The lightning branched across the surface, threatening to overrun the defences and attack the mage that they were shielding, and only just running out of energy as they reached the edges.
Kadri was already in motion, running round to try and find an opening on Eikfyr’s left, flinging small bolts that did nought but to buy her time as she looked to cause him to make a mistake with his footing. He was unperturbed. The stone shield crumbled into shards. They were launched one after another in straight lines with masses and velocities greater than earlier. Every one was intercepted, their linear trajectories making them easy to predict, showering her in pebbles. Only one rock remai-
The ground in front of her suddenly elevated, forming a three-metre pillar. Her head told her to stop, her scales told her to keep going. Lightning encased her, and in two simultaneous flashes she had teleported from one side of the pillar to the other mid-stride, emerging just in time for the final rock to slam into her shoulder and send her sprawling. A frustrated groan left her through gritted teeth as she pushed herself up onto her feet.
“You’re better than that, Kadri!” Eikfyr called. Kadri wasn’t certain whether it was intended as encouragement or a taunt. His right hand raised, and three spikes erupted from the ground, thrusting towards her. Another teleport. Another rock. Larger, more cumbersome, and yet even as Kadri dodged this one, having expected it, it still grazed her, tearing into the fabric of her tunic and scraping the skin beneath. The spikes and the pillar broke down like the barrier, and the several dozen shattered pieces flew towards her like a hail of arrows.
“Gatás.”
A bolt of lightning struck between her and the projectiles, lingering as a warping line of blue, purple, and white that, as she tried to maintain the spell, caused her hands to shake. As each projectile got close, the lightning forked, incinerating each rock in the blink of an eye. With her focus squarely on the current threat, Eikfyr took the opportunity to close the distance. Dirt and dust, rock and stone, all began to surround his hands and forearms, forming vicious claws.
As he got close, he leapt, ready to swipe down.
Kadri incanted, “Atalikás.”
She moved her hands and her body with a grunt of effort. Sweeping her leg around, she bore her hands towards the airborne mage. An initial, small bolt, launched from her scales and struck Eikfyr’s chest.
The lingering lightning twisted violently and shot towards him, as if guided to by the smaller strike, catching him in the side and throwing him horizontally with a rather entertaining yelp of surprise. He rolled into the dust with several grunts. Hendrik cheered.
Kadri did not let up. She teleported close to him, and reached her left hand to her forearm, picturing a shortsword in her mind. Her scales responded, crackling with energy that, as she gripped, formed a handle in her hand, and as she pulled back, the blade soon followed.
The lightning lineaged swung down and met rock as her prone target raised his hands in a cross-guard. He forced his way to his feet, to the cheers of the small crowd of spectators that had trickled in as their spar had progressed.
Kadri backed away, wiping the sweat from her brow.

“No shame in calling this one a draw, Kadri,” Eikfyr offered earnestly. He was sweating too, his breathing heavy but it was apparent he was in a better position than his opponent. “Close combat’s not your strong suit.”
Why do you think I’m practicing it? Kadri wanted to respond, but for a lack of breath she could not. She held the sword in front of her in both hands. Eikfyr smiled a relishing smile that bordered on evil.
“Fine.”
The two lineaged clashed, and as many would have predicted, Eikfyr’s experience shone through. He outpaced Kadri and forced her immediately onto the defensive. Every block she managed sapped more and more energy from her, and maintaining the blade grew more and more difficult. In another moment of laxed concentration, Eikfyr feigned low, and as Kadri’s blade moved, he struck high, causing her to stumble and fall onto her rump in the dirt, her sword dissipating into the air. She looked up, panicked.
“Let’s try again!” He triumphantly yelled, bringing a raking hand downwards.
Fuck it, hail the Aspects!

“Bál!” She yelled, raising her hand. The ball of lightning formed with incredible speed, and she saw fear flitter in Eikfyr’s eyes for a brief moment. Then she felt the stone claw strike her hand, and let out a cry as her arm was forced down to her side and the energy shot into the earth. The other clawed hand stopped short of striking her eyes.

Kadri’s chest raised and fell with each laboured breath. Sweat beaded her brow. But there was no way back from this position. She raised her free hand as if surrendering. The earth-made claws returned to the ground. As Eikfyr released her, and offered a hand, she refused.

“Not… to be rude…” she managed, “just don’t… think I can stand up at the moment.”
“I guessed,” he chuckled lightly, taking a seat next to her.
Sylvi, Sigrid, and Hendrik were rushing over. Some of the spectators had started applauding.
“Bjorn saw that,” Kadri opined, lying back against the ground with a frown and a sigh, raising her hands above her head, and closed her eyes, trying to focus on her breathing. Every muscle in her body already felt sore. Her scales stung and burned. Sweat had started to bead across her body, and her tunic and trousers had scrapes and breaks in several places. Kadri was pretty certain she was bleeding somewhere. She just wasn’t sure where. Maybe everywhere.
“Trying to impress him?”
“He’ll be taunting me about this… until I kick his ass again…” Kadri paused, as if finally registering what her senior had said, opening her eyes to give him an annoyed look. “You’re kidding right?”
“You think I’m not?”
“I swear, if every part of my body wasn’t on fire, I would be striking you with the most explosive spell I know.”
There was another chuckle in response. “Well, at least the status quo has been restored.”
A beat of quiet passed between them. “You are right, I need to work on close quarters more,” Kadri admitted. She let out a sigh and closed her eyes again. When they opened, Sylvi was leaning over her. The quarter-elf was trying to help her sit up, a small metal chalice in her hand that she then offered to the lightning mage. Kadri drunk heartily, and the aches, pains, and stings, started to abate. The chalice was refilled when Sylvi waved her hand over it, and it was then offered to Eikfyr.
“I could help you practice close combat,” Hendrik offered.
Kadri smiled weakly, and nodded. “Something for when we get back to Tallinn, I think.”
It was a half promise, made only to not upset him. It was an offer he would inevitably forget about and, though she didn’t want to say it, it was help that would ultimately not be helpful; fighting a non-magical opponent was not a good use of her time.

“So I’ve given you simple pain relief. Nothing major, I don’t know any recovery magic,” Sylvi fawned, inspecting Kadri almost intrusively. “Get the arm checked, make sure you eat something. Nothing too heavy mind you. Though if you haven’t eaten, go and have something proper. If you see a lineaged of Olikah about-”
“I’ll make sure she does,” Sigrid assured the quarter-elf. Her assurance was enough, it seemed, for the Fae to calm down. “I took some notes that we can go over later, Kadri,” she continued. “Um, and if you have some advice, Eik-”
“CQC and predictability,” Eikfyr said. “More options is more good. And temper. Keep your cool. You, in particular, are a very passionate competitor, despite the fact you don’t act like it off field. But you are a better fighter when you think about what you’re doing, and aren’t just relying on instinct.”
“You’d just hit me with a rock.”
“And that, young one,” Eik said, putting on a sage accent, “is why you fail.”

The morning continued, with more and more competitors taking the opportunity to meet others, practice, and spar. A good tenth of the capacity was amphitheatre’s capacity was filled by nine o’clock. As crowds started to gather outside the Arena, officials from the Guild made sure that only competitors and their sponsors were within its confines, quartering the number.
The trio had retired to the benches, and were spectating Hendrik and Kadri’s future opponents. No less than thirty mages and fifty non-magical competitors went out of their way to greet Kadri, an experience that, overall, she had found creepy as she knew only a small handful of them, but a lot of them were trying to talk to her as if they were her friend. One particularly embarrassing encounter had seen her interrupted as she was tucking into a bacon roll, which had seen her drop the food item onto the floor, which then promptly rolled down the tiers and into the sparring matches below. What was even worse was that the person who had surprised her had then gone out of their way to get her another one, which she’d accepted because she didn’t want to seem rude. Then she’d promptly given it to Hendrik.

“Free food seems like a plus,” Hendrik noted, biting into the roll.
“Free food seems like a plus when you know who’s getting it for you,” Kadri said slowly.
“Just wait until the Guild starts publishing posters of you,” Sigrid joked.
“Or one of those calendars that have you pose in a very flattering way,” Meera added. The tiefling had just hopped up out of the Arena. She was wearing loose fitting, red robes, with the embroidered patch of a ship leaving port sat over her left collar bone.
Kadri flushed red. “Not my sort of thing.”
“As in they’re not for you, or you don’t want to be in them?” the tiefling sat down, grinning from ear to ear.
“What sort of question is that?"
The sound of metal scraping against metal echoed throughout the stadium, and the trio’s eyes were draw to one of sparring pairs.
“Bjorn’s looking competitive,” Kadri observed, turning her attention down into the Arena again, thankful she was able to change the subject. Her rival was sparring a mage who was maybe a year or so Kadri’s younger. Bjorn was easily dealing with every attack thrown at him. Despite their best attempts, and the effort was clear in their movements, their sounds, and the sweat on their brow, it was clear that this newcomer was extremely outclassed.
“At least they’ve not given up yet,” Meera sighed. “He should stop sparring people like that; he never learns anything.”
“He could be trying to teach them?” Hendrik offered optimistically.
“I think he’s trying to satisfy his ego,” Kadri said. “It won’t be long before he starts going after the non-lineaged.”
“As with all things Bjorn, it’s only a matter of time,” the Consul said, standing up. “Brackets should be released soon. Want to come along?”
“Sure, let me-” Kadri started, cutting herself off as something caught her eye.

A figure, clad in purple and gold, form-fitting robes, was striding into the arena. He was a slight man, of average height, his black hair cut sensibly short. He bore pale skin, and features that spoke of someone who was simply well groomed. But his eyes, filled with ambition and pride, were a regal violet; a violet that matched the dragon-like scales hidden by his clothes. He carried himself in such a way that even those that were sparring naturally made space for him, and he exuded a radiance of nobility that one would have been forgiven for thinking that he was directly related to one of the previous monarchs of Volk.
“Never mind,” Kadri said, moving down close to the arena’s edge and taking up a spectator’s position once more. “Someone’s got to be ready to intervene in case Magnus decides he wants to kill Bjorn.”
 

Baconhands

The Traveller
The challenge wasn’t audible for all to hear, but scant few could miss it, and even those that did had their attention turned in the direction of Magnus and Bjorn. A slow approach, an interruption, a conversation followed by an intense silence while Bjorn contemplated whether or not to accept the spar. Most competitors would ask someone they didn’t know personally to a friendly bout with a certain level of politeness; Magnus would not eschew this courtesy, but the way he phrased the question, and the look that he would give his upcoming opponent very much set him apart. Magnus never asked, Magnus demanded.

Kadri could see, even from so far away, that her rival was nervous. A sparring match meant different things to different people; Magnus, even as powerful as he was, had a reputation for not holding back. Why would now be any different?

Bjorn was still contemplating, even what seemed like an age later. The wind whistled idly. Fresh clouds passed over the arena and were quickly and silently ushered out by others, as if they too were awaiting his response. The answer was never in doubt; Kadri knew Bjorn could never refuse a challenge, not with so many onlookers. He was too proud for that.

The spectators crowded. All other spars stopped. Hundreds of eager eyes gazed down at the pair as they took central stage. Magnus did not remove his cloak.

The bout started when Bjorn took two coins from his pocket, one steel in his left and one bronze in his right. Both liquified, grew and reshaped, taking the forms of a hand axe and a barbed short sword respectively. Bjorn’s right hand moved down, and the jewellery that Magnus wore pulled him down so that he pinned in a kneeling position. Rushing forward, Kadri’s rival brought the axe down. It phased through the pinned mage as if he were made of air, his form appearing to flicker in and out of existence. Bjorn didn’t stumble, however; he pirouetted, shifting his weight, and the short sword started to glow as it was brought around in a vicious swing that would have caught the flickering Magnus regardless of his defensive spell.

A second glow, this one a deep purple, surrounded the blade and wrenched the sword from Bjorn’s hand. The sword rounded Magnus’s back, its vicious, barbed point threatening to slam into Bjorn’s side. The sound of metal clashing against metal rang out through the arena as the axe checked the sword’s trajectory. Magnus stayed kneeling – there was no need for him to stand.

As the Arcane mage manipulated the floating sword, distracting his opponent with clearly experienced offence, a lance of roiling purple-black energy formed above his head. In the blink of an eye, it moved; one second Bjorn was standing mere feet away from Magnus, the next, the lineaged of Nixhem, he who was descended from the Aspect Dragon of Metal, was lying in a crumpled heap on the floor against the arena wall.

There was silence. The wind had stopped. But Magnus had not.

He who would be the next King of Volk was on the move, flying through the air, borne aloft by a cloud of arcane energy, the sword that he had stolen from Bjorn swinging lackadaisically from side to side in front of him, its purple glow more menacing than ever. It had but one target. Bjorn had managed to sit up, but his axe lay broken beside him. The sword gathered speed and plunged forward towards his chest.

Kadri had never teleported so far before, nor had she done so while creating a weapon from her scales. Nor had realised she’d done it; every movement, and every word of the incantations necessary to cast the spells had been instinctual. She parried the incoming sword, and swung down, casting the stolen bronze blade into the dirt. It shed its purple aura.

Further silence, but the mood had changed; morbid curiosity was replaced by shock.

Magnus landed, a disapproving and genuinely annoyed frown plastered across his features. “You shouldn’t intervene like that,” he complained, bringing both his hands together to form a sphere. In a few moments, chaotic energy railed against his fingers and palms like a wild animal that was desperate to be unleashed from a restrictive cage.
He’s right, she thought as she moved to stand between the downed mage and what she knew would be an oncoming onslaught of chaotic, arcane spells. Just don’t goad him further.
“And you shouldn’t be such a sadistic asshole, yet here we stand,” someone, with her voice, said. The words had left her lips before her brain had a chance to stop them.
You idiot, you absolute idiot, she thought. Every curse word she could think of ran through her mind.
A smile tugged at Magnus’s lips. “He was belittling our less experienced comrades, my dear,” he declared, clearly addressing the crowd though his intense gaze was on her. “Surely you wouldn’t want to intervene in a lesson of humility for one who is mistaking arrogance for pride? After all, we should be shining examples of what all of Volk’s people should aim to be! Virtuous, vicious, and victorious!”
Kadri bristled when she heard some of the crowd agree with him, and a handful of these even cheered; Magnus was as much a showman as he was a talented mage, and that made him all the more dangerous. Her blade flared with renewed energy.
“Don’t lecture me,” she growled, “excessive violence is abhorred by the Aspects and their First Born.”
“Bold of a lineaged of Arbuzs to be stating such things,” Magnus retorted. “Didn’t your ancestor start the Dragon War?”
Kadri stiffened. The grip on her blade tightened. A new word, an incantation, leaped to her mind. “Vihar,” she snarled. The clouds in the sky, curious and observant before, grew dark and belligerent, swelling in size and number until they blanketed the entire arena in shadow. Thunder rumbled overhead, and silhouettes danced above as lightning crackled; the threat was very much clear. The spectators retreated, trying to take cover from the sudden storm. It was a twitch, and nothing more, but Kadri saw Magnus’s smile fracture. The stand-off continued only for a couple more moments. The lightning lineaged’s energy left her, sapped away by even casting, let alone maintaining, such a large spell. As quickly as they arrived, the dark clouds started to scatter, like troops routed from a battlefield after losing their commander. Her summoned blade evaporated into sparks in the air, and despite how hard she willed herself to stay standing, she was driven to her knees, darkness threatening to consume her vision.
“Don’t get in over your head,” Magnus said, allowing the spell in his hands to dissipate. “These tournaments aren’t for those who get in my way.”
Kadri just barely couldn’t muster the energy to tell him to go fuck himself.
It became increasingly apparent to her that she was going to black out. The black, embracing void, crept slowly across her vision. But just before it took her into unconsciousness, her closing eyes fixed themselves on someone in the stands; a woman with a mischievous but warm smile, and blue, draconic scales that lined her eye sockets and cheek bones.
Wasn’t that the First Born from last night? Kadri wondered as she started to slump forward. Was she watching?
Her head hit the floor and her eyes closed without any answers.

When Kadri came to she wasn’t in the Arena any more. A barren room save for the bed she was now lying on and a couple of other furnishings, the lineaged recognised the room immediately as the one she was renting at the Jester’s Choice. Two others were in the room with her, and while their forms were blurry at first, she knew they were Sigrid and Hendrik. She didn’t try to move at first; her muscles continued to ache and a pounding headache wracked her brain. Her lips were dry. When she did try to move, grunts of effort escaped her. She pushed herself up into a sitting position.
“The physik said not to move too much,” Hendrik said.
“And the sponsor is saying not too as well,” Sigrid added.
“Guess I get to spend the rest of the day in bed,” Kadri managed with some effort, resting her head back against the wall.
“That was some new spell,” Hendrik said, his voice laced equally with awe and concern. “I’ve never seen you summon a storm that big.”
“The benefits of being lineaged,” Kadri said, “a tonne of spells hidden in my brain just waiting to render me unconscious and stop me from competing.” A moment of silence passed. Her eyes found the window. The sun was on its descent, but the sky was still a pleasant blue – the orange-red hues that accompanied evening were not yet present. “How long was I out?”
“A few hours,” the Consul answered. Kadri’s stomach rumbled. “I considered buying you lunch, but I was concerned Hendrik might have eaten it when I left to get the brackets.”
“I wouldn’t have done that!” the amateur fighter protested. “But if you… weren’t going to wake up before dinner then it would have been a shame to waste it.”
“How considerate,” Kadri chuckled.
“Exactly,” Hendrik exaggerated with a grin.
“So what’s the damage? Did I just destroy my chances of getting past the first couple of rounds?” the mage asked, her tone lowering. She wasn’t certain if there was regret in her voice.
“Well, I went and asked for the brackets,” Sigrid explained, taking out a sealed letter. Her voice was trembling; was she excited? Even Hendrik’s grin widened. “The Guild Members organising the tournament recognised me and since I was there, they handed me this letter.”
Kadri was suddenly full of energy – her arm moved instinctively and snatched the letter from the Consul’s hand. The seal was broken in a flash, the letter removed and unfolded, and Kadri’s eyes scanned every word eagerly; she read each and every one aloud.

Dear Miss Laar,

It is with great excitement and anticipation that we welcome you to our most humble city. We would first like to thank you for choosing to participate in the upcoming tournament and we are certain that you will bring much entertainment to the spectators, as well as prove yourself a worthy combatant in the eyes of the Ever Watching.

The Mage Tournament will consist of single-elimination, one-on-one matches. The lineaged tournament has 323 entrants. Due to this unexpected number of competitors, we have decided to place the current top 64 seeded competitors ahead on the bracket as is appropriate. Due to your previous results, it is the view of the Guild, on behalf of the Ever-Watching, to place you in this grou-


The lineaged was cut-off, tackled into bear-hugs, born from elation, on both sides. Kadri allowed them to continue for a couple of moments before she reminded both of her friends of her severely aching muscles.
“I knew this would happen!” Hendrik beamed with validation. “It was only a matter of time!”
“One step closer to Queen Kadri!” Sigrid added, doing little to hide her pride. All three of them laughed.
“Okay! Okay, let me just finish the rest of this,” Kadri said, trying to calm herself down, but failing miserably. “Let’s see, courteous stuff, etcetera, etcetera, right, here we are, your projected bracket is on the inverse. Right. Here we are, so, we’re expecting, let’s see… Lengvar Leifson.”
“Lineaged of Bakrit. Light magic and illusions mostly,” Sigrid said, flicking through her notebook. “Who’s after that?”
“The Guild projects I would win, and then we’re expected to face…” Kadri trailed off. Her face fell. All optimism that had been in her voice vanished, replaced by regret and fear. “Shit.”
“I… well,” Hendrik said, looking over his shoulder. The distinct lack of energy in his voice was disturbing for the mage.
“Well, guess I’m only going to be fighting twice in this tournament,” Kadri said lowly, tilting her head back until all that encompassed her view was the ceiling. “What’s the fucking point in coming all this way to only do two bouts? I get into the top thirty-two once and decide that’s good enough to go up against Magnus?”

An uncomfortable silence settled; all the elation and positivity that had only seconds ago surrounded all three of the companions had deserted them entirely. The birds sung discordantly and infrequently. The shadows cast about the room leered at the news.
“Urgh, fine,” Kadri eventually growled. “I’ve made my bed, helped along by words in my fucking head that I suppose are just conspiring to get me killed, and I guess I’m destined to damn well lie in it. Gah! Spontaneous Spells are the fucking worst!”
“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” Hendrik started, “he might forget-”
“I showed him up in front of the rest of the competitors, Hendrik,” Kadri lowered her head. She lifted up the letter, threw it across the room, and willed what was left of her reserves to incinerate it with a bolt of lightning. “I damaged his precious reputation just a little bit and that’ll be enough to set him off. It’s what I get for helping protect one asshole from another asshole.”
“It’s in your nature to act before thinking,” Sigrid said slowly, subtly indicating to the lineaged’s scales. “Especially in those sorts of situations. Nobody else was willing to intervene. You acted to help someone because you needed to.”
“Which reminds me,” Kadri said, her mood still foul. “Why didn’t anyone else try to stop him? I didn’t see Svend, or Foltest, or Sylvee, or Eikfyr even move a muscle.”
“Sylvee and Eikfyr were at the brackets,” Sigrid said.
“Svend can’t do magic,” Hendrik noted, “And I haven’t seen Foltest.”
“Brilliant. Great,” she murmured with a sigh. “Well at least the First Born is going to have a wonderful spectacle of me getting my ass handed to me by the next King of Volk who…”
Kadri trailed off as she saw the downtrodden look on both of her friend’s faces. The expressions sent a wave of shame and embarrassment through the lineaged. She looked down, breathed in, and let out a shaky breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Descendent of the Aspect of Lightning, apologizing?” Hendrik asked, mock disbelief in his voice.
“The future Queen of Volk apologised to us, Hendrik,” Sigrid corrected. “Best take advantage of this as much as we can!”

Kadri smiled; this was not their first time dealing with Kadri’s ranting and she had a feeling it wouldn’t be their last. But, nonetheless, she was always pleasantly surprised, and supremely grateful, when either of them forgave her for what she had said. Instinct was supposedly apart of her through her particular divine bloodline; it was not a major issue outside of stressful situations, but sometimes her heritage shone through in particularly emotional conversations, and this had been no exception.

There was a knock on the door. It was Oskar. The innkeeper waddled in once Kadri consented, a letter in his hand. “Seems yer gettin’ more and more popular Kadri,” he said, handing the letter over. “Black-scale dragonborn with a strange accent, think Alban, came by sayin’ this was fer yer.”
All three of the companions raised their eyebrows. The lineaged took the letter and inspected it closely. Her name, indeed, was written on it in golden, cursive lettering, and sealed with a black, wax stamp. Another seal broken, another letter opened. More words, read aloud.

To whom it may concern,

I have heard tale that you have been afforded the great honour of being advanced through your bracket due to your great skill. I will not be here long. I am arranging a gathering, a banquet, a feas-


“I’m not going,” Kadri cut herself off and put the letter aside.
“W-wait,” Hendrik insisted, grabbing the letter. “What if it’s from… oh… nevermind, it’s signed L.A.M. They say they’ve booked the entire King’s Repose for tonight.”
“I’m not accepting any fancy dinner invitations from someone I’ve never heard of before.”
“Isn’t that how we met?” Sigrid joked.
“Dad dragged me along to that,” Kadri explained quickly. “Aspects I hated that dress.”
“You don’t suit dresses in general,” the Consul added.
“Guess tha’ means I’ll tal’ to ‘Elga about gettin’ some food up ‘ere for ya?”
“Some pork belly?” Hendrik intervened.
“I’ll see wha’ I can do,” the halfling stated with a nod.
“Pasta?” Sigrid asked.
“Wha-”
“Chicken for me please.”
“A’righ’ calm down, you’ll get what I decide if you don’t stop messin’.”
 

Baconhands

The Traveller
Kadri hadn’t meant to miss the opening ceremonies, at least not initially – her decision had been two-fold. One: her body ached something beyond sore, and two: the opening ceremonies were always the same and thus held little value for someone who made a career of travelling around the island taking part where she could. And so, with the excuse of the former, she lay in bed until midday, reading The Saga and occasionally massaging the scales on her forearm which were the epicentre of her pain. Such was the issue with being lineaged – for those apparently descended from one of the ten Aspect Dragons, spells were innate, or so modern theories taught, and in times of great stress or emotion words and techniques for an entirely new spell could come to mind and if one’s body was not ready, and it rarely ever was, it would be placed under immense stress. It wasn’t the first time it had overwhelmed her; it would not be the last.

Coming to the end of her chapter, Kadri bookmarked her page and placed the book down. She stood and stretched, stripped and washed, and combed her hair and dressed. With a sigh, the mage took a glance in the mirror and adjusted the sleeve on her tunic so that only a couple of her scales were peeking out of the end of it. Slinging a canvas bag over her shoulder, she pulled the hood on her mantle over her head and proceeded out of her room and down the stairs of the inn. Oskar caught her attention before she left, and in the brief conversation with the halfling innkeeper it was revealed that both Hendrik and Sigrid had already headed to the Arena; this was information that had confirmed what Kadri was suspecting – Hendrik’s free-for-all qualifier was taking place in the early afternoon and she knew that he liked to get there early to prepare. This had the issue, that she had raised with him many times, that he would often over think everything and ultimately let his nerves get the better of him. But years of travelling and competing with Hendrik had shown that he was not willing to alter this ritual just yet and Kadri had all but given up on trying to force the change through.

Despite the fact that many of Kaunu’s residents and visitors were at the Arena or taking part in the festivities around the city, the streets were still abundant with people. A tide that ebbed and flowed at the whims of a scant few, the flow of traffic was reasonable, but choppy, and Kadri found navigating the crowds ran its own risks of distractions. Even down quieter roads, small canvas covered carts and shop windows were flushed with shining baubles, masterfully woven clothing, and immaculately baked goods which all called Kadri’s attention away from her destination.
“Fried potato chips!” One stall-owner called, “Three flavours! Great spectator food!”
“Honey ale, straight from the finest trading republic in the Commonwealth!” Another shouted.
Kadri could not help herself. One silver ring and eight copper rings out of her purse, and she was the proud owner of three paper bags of chips and a litre bottle of honey ale.

As she got closer to the centre of the city, the volume of people increased sharply, and so too did the volume of noise. Despite the fact that the vast majority of them would be in the Arena, the Guild always made sure to put on additional events and activities for those that could not get in to see the fights and experience the tournaments in their full glory, and, as of recent years, had tried to make sure as many as possible could see the contests without being in the Arena. A large wooden stage had been erected overnight in the middle of the plaza. It was circular in shape, so that everyone surrounding it could see what the performers were doing. As it stood, a human mage was creating a thick mist in the middle, and two others were projecting images from within the colosseum onto it, creating a rudimentary, blurry picture of the current contests taking place. Such a thing, Kadri knew, could not be easy to maintain, and she had a measure amount of respect for those magi that tried to include as many people as possible in the tournaments. Various games and merchant’s stalls dotted the perimeter of the plaza outside of the Arena, the people working them swamped by dozens of customers that were trying to garner their attention, but it was very clear that most people were focussing on the centre stage.

It was because of this that Kadri was able to manoeuvre deftly around the circumference of the plaza towards the side of the Arena. There was a raucous cheer as the lineaged made it about half way around the swarm of people, and Kadri glanced to her right up at the stage, catching a glimpse of a wild, fair-haired, bare-chested man wielding two hand axes as he launched a barrage of blows at three opponents who had tried to surround him. In a blur of movement, he felled the first, the second, and the third, and yet another cheer roared throughout the plaza. Kadri smiled; the energy was infectious.

With renewed vigour she made her way to an unassuming door on the side of the Arena, where two Guild officials, dressed in black robes and bearing a golden-eye badge, stood. One of them was significantly younger than the other and was about Kadri’s age; he looked remarkably bored, slouched as he was beside his superior who was standing as straight as a pole. When Kadri approached, she lowered her hood and both of them regarded her with recognition. Suddenly the younger one’s back was straight, his chest out, and his chin up. Only then did Kadri notice the bag at his side, a small book and quill pointing out of it.
“Good afternoon Miss Laar,” the superior said.
“Good afternoon, Ivar,” Kadri responded, painfully aware that the younger hadn’t so much as blinked since he’d noticed her.
“You missed the opening ceremonies.”
“Spontaneous spell.”
“Figured as much.”
“Are we at capacity on this side yet?”
“No, no. Feel free to go in-”
“Sorry,” the younger interrupted, fumbling around with his bag and getting out the book and quill. His cheeks were flushed red, his shoulders were tense, and Kadri immediately felt awkward. “You’re Kadri right?”
“I… am,” the lineaged confirmed. Ivar Ironside shot a glare in his subordinate’s direction.
Please don’t ask for my signature, please don’t ask for m-
“If it’s not any trouble,” he continued, “can I get your signature before you go in.”
Kadri stiffened. Every swear ran through the lineaged’s mind in but a few seconds. This had been a comparatively new phenomenon, imported from travellers from the Empire of Alba and the Commonwealth and Kadri loathed it. It was normal for performers in those countries, as Sigrid had told her, to be hounded for memorabilia, for signatures, for anything by people obsessed with that sort of thing, and now top competitors in Volk were starting to get the same treatment. It was still relatively rare, however Kadri had heard nightmarish stories from Eikfyr, Sylvee, and others whereby random strangers would deliberately track them down to acquire these commodities. Such people were looked upon with distain by most of Volken society, but there was a growing traction to it; to some merchants from overseas, certain signatures were worth increasingly ridiculous amounts of coin. It was fortunate the Guild had not embraced such things, not yet at least, and that many prominent competitors had denounced the practice as a perversive and destructive foreign tradition.
And yet, Kadri did not want to be rude; she could see the hope and respect in his eyes, and she was sure this would be some sort of highlight to his day. Part of her could see Hendrik doing this sort of thing if he weren’t so attached to competitive culture. Ironside, the grizzled veteran of a man, intervened before she could answer. He smacked the book from his subordinate’s hand and it flopped to the ground with a disturbed ruffle.
“Ignore him,” Ironside rumbled, pressing a boot onto the back cover. “Head inside, Miss Laar.”

“Did I miss anything?” Kadri said, taking a seat next to Sigrid. She offered her a bag of chips which the Consul waved off. The lineaged withdrew the paper bag and placed it on the bench between them. The honey ale subsequently presented was not rejected.
They were sat in The Competitors’ Quarter, a large part of the Arena reserved specifically for contestants and their sponsors. Guards hired by the Guild, more often than not chosen from those who had a raiding or sailing background, distinguishable by black tabards with a golden eye embroidered across its centre, separated the Quarter from the seating of the general public. In comparison to the rest of the Arena, the benches were sparsely populated, and were cushioned in some parts. Kaunu was the only city that did this and Kadri always felt a little uncomfortable sitting there. This discomfort was made worse by the encounter outside, and the mage from Tallinn couldn’t help but feel at least some members of the crowd were looking at her.
“Hendrik’s already gone to prepare, he went about fifteen minutes ago,” Sigrid explained. “Opening ceremonies covered the same stuff as usual; Volk’s glorious past, the raiding tradition, maintaining constant vigilance, preparing for a war that will never come etcetera etcetera.”
“And in the matches.”
“Free-for-alls haven’t produced anything spectacular. No upsets really. Couple of mage matches have happened but they’ve been less than spectacular.”
“That’s because we’re going on later,” Meera’s voice joked from behind them. The tiefling plopped down on the other side of Kadri, and the human offered her a bag of chips, which the newcomer took gratefully.
The somewhat despondent figure of Bjorn was beside her, and he took his seat silently, doing his upmost to avoid looking in the direction of Kadri and Sigrid. For a few moments, no noise passed between them, save for the occasional crunch of a chip being eaten, and the scratch of a quill as Sigrid worked out the odds of yet more matches going forwards.
“Thanks,” Bjorn muttered.
Kadri didn’t even so much as spare a glance at him. Meera smacked him with her tail.
“Ow!” He protested.
Sigrid stifled a laugh. Meera stared daggers at him.
“Fine,” Bjorn conceded begrudgingly. “Thank you, Kadri, for intervening.”
Kadri allowed a pause before finally taking a quick look in his direction. She’d never noticed before that sitting down, she was taller than him. Maybe he was slouching? “One,” she started, folding her arms under her chest, “you deserved to be humiliated after everything you were doing and saying.”
“That’s,” Bjorn started to protest, but the glares of the tiefling, the Consul, and the lineaged of Arbuzs shut him down, “fair.”
“Two, swallow your damn pride when someone way better than you challenges you.”
“Yep.”
“Three, you owe me. Big time. I lost a whole day of sparring because of you.”
“I-I agree,” he said meekly.
Kadri finally turned her head fully to look at him. A despondent expression tattered his normally proud features, and his eyes were cast down at the floor. Kadri didn’t feel like pitying him; the lineaged hoped that the more guilt he felt, the more of a chance there was that the lessons he so desperately needed to learn would stick.

A massive cheer swept the crowd as purple and black flames roared into existence in the middle of the battleground. Though they bore a resemblance to fire, they lacked the intense heat that should have accompanied such a phenomenon. When the flames disappeared, a man, clad in the black and gold robes of the Guild, stood where they had once been. A lithe frame, with short black hair, he turned to the audience as he spoke, showing the horrific scars on his face to all the spectators.
“Ladies, gentlemen, beings of all persuasions,” a noble voice echoed around the Arena. “We humbly present to the Everwatching, the next competitors in the non-magic tournament!”
There was another cheer, albeit it was less enthusiastic.
“Eight individuals will display their martial skill, but only two will advance into the brackets to compete for the glory of the Everwatching’s favour!”
“Couldn’t he skip this?” Sigrid whispered to Kadri.
The lineaged smiled. “You’ve been here long enough to know the Guild would never give up its most entertaining traditions.”
“Let me introduce your competitors! Please welcome: Svend Bloodaxe!” There was a cheer. The black-purple flames returned and the Prince of Volk, clad in chain male and half-plate, appeared as they simmered, a traditional raiding helmet hiding most of his features. A large round shield, a decorative serpent on its front, was on his left forearm and in his right, he wielded an immaculate-looking axe.
Five more names, five more flames. Five more cheers, five more appearances. In total four humans, including Svend, a dwarf, and a halfling were on the field. All of them wore heavy armour, all but one had a shield and a sword or an axe.
“And the last of Volk’s children for this bout: Hendrik Thorsson!” A final cheer. Kadri and Sigrid, where they had before just sat and clapped, rose to their feet as Hendrik appeared. The armour he wore was notably in worse condition than the rest of his competitors; it was ill-fitting half plate over top a shirt of chain mail that had a few rings loose. He had a longsword that he wielded with both hands, but even from afar the blade looked dulled and blunted. Even so, the crowd cheered, and Kadri sent small sparks flying into the air to add to his fanfare. Both she and Sigrid saw Hendrik turn his head towards them and give them a little awkward wave with his blade.
“Our last contestant comes from distant shores,” the Announcer continued. “Born in the Empire-”
Jeers and hisses abounded – even Kadri, Meera, and Bjorn joined in.
“-of Alba, competing too for the Glory of the Everwatching – Leo ach Marn!”
There was a genuine attempt at a cheer from some elements of the crowd, though these were mostly drowned out by the dissenters. When the flames disappeared, the crowd fell into a hush. Broad-shouldered, tall, and muscle-bound, the Alban’s presence was dominating. Most of him was covered in plate armour that was as black as night save for its gold trim, but he eschewed a helmet, and his visage was awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure. For instead of skin ach Marn had draconic scales, darker than even his armour, and his head bore a snout instead of a nose. Dragonborn were rare in Volk – black dragonborn were essentially unheard of. Two sapphire eyes scanned across his opponents methodically, and he gripped his zweihander in his gauntlets.
Kadri had to tear her eyes away from him; Hendrik must have felt the presence even more so. But he had taken to gripping his long-sword just as Leo had, and a fiery determination was in the human’s eyes. At this, the lineaged smiled – in tournaments, for better or worse, it took a lot to intimidate the amateur warrior from Tallinn, an attribute that even the most prejudiced lineaged could admire.

“For the Glory of the Everwatching!” The announcer cried. “Begin!”

Hendrik stayed back, waiting for his opponents to make their first moves, and sure enough, four of them started to duel, clashing shields, trading swings, all in an effort to incapacitate their opponents. It did not take long for the first elimination to happen. The dwarf parried with his shield, pushing one of the human’s swords aside. The aggressor stumbled, their defence wide open, and the dwarf cut upwards with their axe, catching the human in the lower jaw, causing blood to spray from the wound. As they fell, the purple-black flames engulfed them, and the dwarf turned to find a new opponent to the delighted cheers of the crowd.

A war-cry alerted Hendrik to the fact he was being charged. He stepped and pirouetted, bringing his blade down to sweep the legs of his incoming opponent. His swing was obvious, and his opponent dodged back; the advantage of reach had granted Hendrik a moment’s reprieve, and he took up a defensive posture, taking half-steps backwards to place distance between him and the shield-wielding warrior.
“D’you know how to wield that thing boy?” she taunted, taking measured steps forwards.
He wound back and swinged, putting far too much of his shoulder into it. She deflected the blade with her shield and Hendrik lost his balance. She swung for his head and by sheer luck, Hendrik fell into the dirt, the axe-head barely missing his head. He scrambled to get back onto his feet, turning just in time to raise his sword and block the incoming blow. The amateur was unable to block the incoming shield, however, and a distinct crack rang out as it slammed into his face. His nose bled heavily.
He could little afford to be distracted, however. The axe came at him again, and Hendrik bid a hasty retreat backwards, desperately trying to block, parry, riposte, pirouette, trying every move that came to mind to ward off the attacker, but the swings did not abate. One last shove from her shield and Hendrik was forced onto his rump, his back against the wall, having traversed the entire arena. His sword was thrown from his hands, and he sat helpless, waiting for the incoming blow. It was a blow that would not come. He looked up to see his opponent gasp and then get wreathed in flames. And out of the fire strode Leo ach Marn.
Hendrik reached for his sword, feeling the hilt in his hands a wave of relief washed over him and again, at the last second, he raised it in time to stop the dragonborn’s blow. It was heavy however, and Hendrik's muscles screamed in the instant he had tried to resist it. Instinct took over, and Hendrik kicked with his right foot, as hard as he could, his leather boot clashing with the steel armour at the aggressor’s knee in a conflict that only had one outcome. Hendrik let out a cry of pain as bones he hadn’t been aware he had until that point broke. Hendrik looked up into the dragonborn’s eyes, fighting off tears, and saw a measure amount of respect pass over the foreigner’s features. Then the blade came down and, with the sounds of metal bending followed by a wet crunch it was over.
 

Baconhands

The Traveller
Kadri and Sigrid watched with a mixture of awe and horror as the warrior from Alba brought his great blade down on their friend. Where the crowd cheered again, even in spite of their previous hostility towards the black-scaled dragonborn, Sigrid barely muffled a cry and Kadri felt lightning crackle along her scales as she bawled up her fists. Despite his track record, and their years of witnessing it, it never got any easier seeing Hendrik be so roundly beaten. Even safe in the knowledge that as they sat down, dejected and angry, that Hendrik was being seen to by a physik in the employment of the Guild, no doubt a lineaged of the Aspect of Poisons and Medicines, a great anxiety settled over them both. It was not unheard of for a major tournament to not have at least a couple of deaths, despite the great skill of the physiks. These tended to be due to magically caused injuries, but serious enough wounds produced similar results.
Kadri moved to go and find him, and Sigrid similarly stood to follow her. But Meera grabbed her rival by the hand and tugged firmly, pulling her back, which caused her to stumble. “You know they don’t let people see the wounded,” the tiefling reminded them.
Kadri hesitated and looked at Sigrid. The Consul hesitated before she resigned herself to sitting back down. “Hendrik doesn’t like it when we dote over him, Kadri,” she articulated after a moment. “Probably best if we let him find us when he’s ready.”
The lineaged sighed, resigned, and took her seat once more. Thus, the duo found themselves watching as the rest of the free-for-all unfolded, a growing anxiety and unease in the pits of their stomachs that was only compounded when Prince Svend and Leo ach Marn emerged the victors of the bout. The crowd cheered, but only Svend basked in the adoration of the crowd. The dragonborn retained his poise, resembling a solemn commander who was presiding over a conquered battlefield. He did eventually raise a gauntlet, which drew an almighty cheer, louder even than that of the applause for the Prince, and slowly spun to greet the crown. When his intense gaze found Kadri and her friends, the lineaged felt all time stop. The experience of a hundred battles was in those cold, unfeeling eyes; a history of bloodshed and calculated cruelty that he was projecting in all his muscles and tendons as he turned in triumph. It was only now, as he beheld her and she beheld him, that she felt true fear, for it felt that as he stood there in his blood-specked but otherwise untouched armour, that he was judging her, or even worse, daring her to avenge her friend’s defeat.

“Kadri,” a voice said. When she didn’t respond, it repeated, “Kadri.”
“Sorry, yes?” She turned her head to find Eikfyr and Sylvi sitting behind them.
“He is getting better,” Eikfyr assured her hesitantly. It was only by the tone of his voice she knew he was talking about Hendrik.
“I know. But not fast enough,” Kadri opined. “He refuses to practice what he needs to. All the non-lineaged have gotten so much more… aggressive recently.”
“Fuck off we have,” Sigrid joked, though her heart was only half in it. Even so, a small amused exhale left Kadri, Meera, and Eikfyr.
“There are tensions around the Nineteen Islands apparently,” Sylvi explained. “A lot more Training Fields and Mustering Grounds have been built in Volholm, and I’m sure the other cities aren’t going to be too far behind. Now you have the consequence of everyone getting better.”
“Is that why you think he’s here?” Kadri practically growled the question as she indicated to the black-scaled dragonborn just before flames engulfed him and he disappeared. The crowd mobilised soon after, with hundreds of people making for the exits.
“Foreigners have always come to test their might in Volk,” Bjorn said, “because we have the best warriors.”
“Here here,” Eikfyr concurred, slapping Bjorn’s shoulder with a crack as it impacted.
This assertion did not bring much comfort to Kadri, but there was little she could do except to try and force her concerns from their prominence in her mind. This task proved impossible; that glare, that visage that Marn had projected was burned into her psyche. The distraction did eventually come after a couple of minutes.

Hendrik, wearing a short-sleeved tunic, his left shoulder bound and his arm in a fabric sling, descended the steps and limped toward the group. No matter how many times they’d seen him recover from such injuries, there was no end to the relief and excitement that washed over both Kadri and Sigrid when they saw him. The lineaged had taken to her feet, had run up, and pulled her friend into a tight embrace that did bring a wince of protest from the beaten warrior.
“Sorry!” Kadri apologised, stepping away.
“It’s fine!” Hendrik insisted. “Physik said I’ll be back in working order in a few hours.”
Sigrid was more aware of his injury, and her hug was looser but equally appreciated by the injured competitor.
“That was a tough bout,” she said.
“Are you kidding?” Hendrik asked with a smile as he moved and sat down. Sylvi and Eikfyr greeted him with nods; Bjorn did not acknowledge him, and Meera flashed him a fanged smile before elbowing her companion. “I don’t think I stood a chance of getting through in that free-for-all. I didn’t so much as get off a single swing.”
“You kicked that Dragonborn’s knee,” Sylvi reminded him off-hand. “That would have been good if you had proper armour of your own.”
“I don’t think I could have beaten him even with proper equipment,” Hendrik insisted. “I need to get better. Once I’m out on the open sea, with the guidance of the Aspects, I’ll get the experience I need. Who knows, maybe the next monarch will let us go raiding again.”
Kadri smiled a half-smile designed to reassure Hendrik, but she couldn’t stop herself from exchanging concerned glances with Sigrid. The prospect of Hendrik going on an actual battlefield terrified them both, but it was something that he had set his mind on for years, despite their attempts to persuade him otherwise. When the announcer’s voice echoed around them everyone’s attention turned toward the Battleground, as a raucous symphony of cheers and jubilation erupted around the Arena.

The day passed without many surprises; Sigrid scratched away in her ledger with quill and ink and set money into various pouches with the assurance and ease that should have belonged to a merchant three times the Consul’s age. Hendrik cheered and booed with the crowd, his energy mimicking the majority of the spectators despite his injuries and it was hard for anyone around him not to be infected by his enthusiasm. Bjorn’s match was won by the metal wielding mage without too much issue, and he didn’t bring out anything new – Kadri made a mental note of this. Meera followed her companion’s success though much more spectacularly. While Bjorn had manipulated metal into many conventional weapons that followed his whim and overwhelmed his opponent, Meera had bathed herself in flames that emitted such an intense heat that Kadri could feel it from the other side of the Arena. This protected her from her opponent’s comparatively weak magic, and at one point these flames took the form of great wings that had lifted the tiefling into the sky, and from this vantage point she’d lashed at her opponent with fiery whips and launched explosive balls of fire downward. She’d embodied a devil, relishing in the destruction of some poor being that had crossed her. Their tactics were repeated for their second bouts, ensuring them both places in the top sixty-four.
After their juniors’ successes, Eikfyr and Sylvi left, stating that they were going to look for a fellow lineaged named Ida Seltsdotir, whom they had arranged to meet at the Arena, and failing that, as it was apparent that she was not going to show up, they would meet outside the city to do some last-minute training.
The trio from Tallin stayed until the last match finished, coincidentally the victory that secured Lengvar Leifson’s place against Kadri. He created illusions of himself that appeared to be able to still cause injury, and this overwhelmed and confused his opponents. With this last nugget of information, the three friends then returned to the Squire’s Choice, where the Consul promptly paid out various winnings and processed new wagers, and Hendrik received dozens of reassuring comments about his bout from well-meaning strangers. After eating a full dinner, a slice of roasted pork with steamed vegetables, Kadri took an early night, determined to sleep off her unease from the last couple of days and prepare herself for her first bout. Sleep did not find her easily, but it eventually lulled her into a comfortable darkness, and despite all that had happened, Kadri slept, and slept well.

“Ladies,” the announcer started.
Kadri rolled back her shoulders and loosened up her arms.
“Gentlemen.”
Kadri reached the tips of her fingers from one bare stone wall to another.
“Creatures of all persuasions.”
A charge ran along her scales, a single branch of lightning scarring the stone where it had leaped from her body to the bare walls.
“Our next bout pits two of Volk’s lineaged children against each other for the glory of the Everwatching!”
A cheer, distant and muffled, reached her ears.
“From the great fisheries of Volholm, a son of the Aspect of Light, Lengvar Leifson!”
Another almighty roar. It lasted what for an age. Kadri closed her eyes. She inhaled. Flames, purple and black, licked at her boots, crawled up her trousers, and soon covered the lineaged entirely.
“And the rising star of Tallinn, daughter of the Aspect of Lightning, Kadri Laar!”
Kadri felt the flames leave her. Thousands of cheers, thousands of eyes, all of which she could feel directed at her. Part of her relished in it, most of her tried to drown it all out. She exhaled, and opened her eyes, finally setting eyes on her opponent: a fair-skinned human, with copper dragon scales covering his otherwise exposed right forearm. His hair was dark and long, and fell over narrow shoulders that were proportionate to his slim frame. Like Kadri, he wore a sleeveless vest, though where hers was blue and had an embroidered silver trim, his was white and gold. Like Kadri, he was not basking in the cheer of the crowd, but training hazel eyes on his opponent. And like Kadri, energy was radiating from his scales.
Good, Kadri grinned a vicious grin. I hate it when it’s easy.
Kadri had barely noticed the announcer had disappeared.

“For the glory of the Everwatching! Begin!”

Kadri raised her hand, focused and mentally canted, and lightning sprung to her fingertips, and then launched in a line towards her opponent. Rather than impacting Lengvar, it passed through him, striking the other side of the Battleground. She spun in place, taking in her surroundings, and to her displeasure found not one, nor two, but five exact copies of her opponent. All of them reached back with their right arms, lips moving simultaneously as they canted and light flaring across their scales. Five spears of radiant energy formed, and as they whipped their arms forward, they flew toward her as if launched by ballistae.
Lightning struck, and there were two simultaneous flashes: one encasing Kadri in blue-white energy, the other behind one of the copies. The incantation was already on her lips as she twisted and threw her hand toward the Lengvar closest to her.
Bal!
Bolts coursed down from her scales to her finger tips, a ball of crackling purple and white energy forming rapidly between them and then barrelling forward once it reached the size of her fist. It tore through the immediate copy of her opponent, and it shimmered, revealing the mirage for what it truly was. Barely had half a second passed when she formed a fist, and the ball of lightning stopped in its trajectory and hovered equidistant from all of the mirages, the effort of which drew a grunt from the lightning lineaged. She opened the fist, her fingers spread apart, and the sphere of electricity broke into five branches that lashed out at the five Lengvars, striking all of them in the shoulder. It was not as powerful as she’d have liked, each branch sapping energy away, but it had the desired effect nonetheless. She heard her opponent let out a grunt, and the four fake Lengvars flickered for a brief moment as the scent of cooked flesh wafted through the air. Her grey eyes settled on the real one; just one mirrored image separated him and her.
There was a look of recognition on his face, and his lips moved again. The four fake humans, now shimmering slightly as the effort to maintain them increased after they were struck, flew towards him, forming a square of faux bodyguard around him, all five of their shoulders smouldering. His scales flashed, obscuring him for a moment, and when the light faded, all four of the clones were wielding golden-white weapons. The front two bore shield and axe, the back two, bows with arrows notched and strings drawn. The real Lengvar focused, and as he stepped closer, so too did his mirages.
“Viyamá.” Kadri uttered.
Clouds coalesced over her five opponents. A bolt fell downwards, but one of the Lengvars was already in motion at the direction of the original, raising his shield and absorbing the barrage of electricity. This clone flickered in and out of existence, and the strain of maintaining him was written across Lengvar’s face as he gritted his teeth. The two ranged mirages let loose with their arrows, and Kadri instinctively dodged. The two radiant missiles slammed into the wall behind her with two solid thuds that splintered the wood and sent dust rising into the air.
Kadri took to running; she knew better than to stand still.
The projectiles came for her, one after another, whistling past her ears as she launched small bolts from her hands, aiming at the shield clones to force Lengvar to fatigue. One of the arrows landed in front of her, spraying dust into her eyes, and a cry left her throat as they instinctively squeezed shut. Her step faltered, and an arrow bludgeoned her midriff, sending her flying and then rolling across the Arena.
As soon as she regained her breath, she forced herself onto her now scraped knees, a hiss leaving through gritted teeth as they stung.
“Gatás!” She cried, battling her instincts in order to force her eyes open.
She raised a shaky hand, and lowered it, a bolt of lightning connecting the heavens to the earth in a line between her and her opponent. Each arrow shot towards her was intercepted, fizzling into harmless energy around her. It was a delaying tactic, buying her precious seconds as she clambered to her feet. Her vision returned to her, but it was blurry. The Lengvars had closed the distance, and they stood barely five metres from her. They could break into a charge and she would be forced to fight all of them up close.
And that is precisely what they did.
Instinct directed her. She had to break apart this formation.
“Viyamá!”
Another bolt, the same shield clone moved to block and defend its creator. This time the mirage shimmered and then burst into shards of light as it became impossible to maintain. The advance staggered for a moment, then continued, the clones forming a triangle around the real Lengvar. Again, Kadri uttered the incantation, and again a bolt struck down from the heavens, but this time, as the shield-Lengvar went to protect the original, the lightning hit one of the archers, and it too burst.
Now the advance came to a halt. An arrow launched towards her, but the lingering bolt of gatás intercepted it.
She moved her hands, and directed them towards the last archer.
“Atalikas,” she uttered, a smile tugging at her lips, even as she grunted with effort. A small bolt leaped from her scales toward the last archer, and the lingering lightning twisted violently and launched towards the clone. Either Lengvar was not paying attention, or wasn’t able to react fast enough. The mirage burst, leaving only one mirrored image and the original behind.
There was a moment, as clear vision returned to her for a second, where she saw contemplation and fear battle for dominance over her opponent’s features. Then it shifted to determination. The fake Lengvar charged and swung, but it met only air, as two simultaneous flashes signalled Kadri’s teleportation.
She envisioned a shortsword, pulled it from her scales, and as she landed, reversed her grip and stabbed backwards. The blow struck true.
“Well fought,” she whispered, withdrawing the strike and turning to see the mirage disappear and Lengvar collapse to his knees, a cauterised wound through his lower back. Black and purple flames consumed his body, and Lengvar Leifson disappeared from sight.

A thunderous applause rocked the Arena. Caught up in the moment, she turned, bowing to all four of the cardinal directions in turn. When she faced the contestant’s quarter, her eyes found Sigrid and Hendrik pressing themselves against the railing, whooping and clapping, while Eikfyr, Sylvi, and Meera were performing the same actions from their bench. Bjorn was not even so much as standing. As the flames started to paw at her clothes, she felt the ache in her muscles settle in, and she cast one last glance over the stands, spotting the black-scaled dragonborn, Leo ach Marn in the stands. She refuted his glare with one of her own, but it was not him she was looking for. Despite her frantic searching, she could not find Magnus. A low, rumbling anger started to build in her body, that she vowed would be unleashed in their bout.
I am worth your time you pompous prick.
 

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