The sun nearly blinded Steve as he exited the cabin of the ship along side his newly met acquaintances. He was still unsure about the young man called Shade and exactly what he was, but he seemed some odd mix of Human and something else with his smooth features and average height. Beside him strode the young druid girl with her three bears at her heels, and her raven setting gingerly on her shoulders. She had been largely quiet on their journey across the great sea, so Steve had not heard her name. She was somewhat dainty in stature, but he knew all to well the ferocity that druids, even small ones, could be capable of when needed.
Steve scanned the other faces as he made his way off the ship and onto the dock, and waited for his bag to be retrieved from below decks by one of the ship’s Elven crew members. Most of them he had not talked to, and the rest he had only brief interactions with. From what he had gathered, most of them had been sent the same invitations that he had received, that being an offer of free room and travel to take part in the King’s Tournament as part of the week long celebration honoring the marriage of the Princess of Terminus to some foreign Prince whom Steve had only vaguely heard about.
Shortly after stepping off the ship, he and the other passengers were all instructed to wait a moment until the local magistrates in charge of incoming travelers could greet them. While they waited, Steve noticed with uncertainty that a young somewhat attractive looking elvish girl seemed to be looking at him, and as she approached with her long golden hair waving in the slight sea breeze, she smiled warmly at him, and several of the other passengers.
“Welcome to Terminus!” She said with glee as she reached out and took Steve’s hand, and placed a small gold coin in his palm, then moved on to do the same as she approached Shade, Tommy, and then the druid girl. She even paused before the girl’s bears, and pet each of them in turn, and to Steve’s surprise, the Bears seemed perfectly at ease with the gesture. But of course, the druid girl was openly wary of the action.
“What’s this for?” The young druid asked uncertainly.
“A gift!” The woman began. “In celebration of the coming wedding!” Steve did not believe a word of hers, and he sensed almost immediately that the coin he now held was imbued with some form of magic. Before he could even open his mouth to protest such a gift, not even remotely trusting such a gesture, the woman turned and began walking away. As Steve moved to stop her, he stopped short as a passing wagon moved to block his path, and when it finished going by the woman was gone like some storybook cliché.
Examining the coin in his hand again, Steve focused on it for a moment studying its magical energy, and realized he was right to mistrust it, since the coin was cursed. He quickly tossed it behind him and off the side of the dock into the water below, but paused when he never heard it splash. He felt a slight weight shift in his jacket pocket, and felt at its pocket, then pulled out a very familiar coin and stared angrily at it. It was the coin he had just tossed away. He tried several more times, and the others beside him seemed to try as well, and each time the threw the coins away or attempted to give them to someone else, the coins vanished and reappeared in their pockets. Whatever the cursed coins were doing, they were stuck with them, for better or worse.
Eventually the magistrate arrived, and looked over their invitations, then waved them through the checkpoint with instructions to head to the Royal Courtyard where they would be given instructions about the tournament. Shade attempted to ask the magistrate about the blonde haired woman, but the man had no idea to whom he had been referring to, and had Steve not been there himself, he would not have believed the woman existed either. When they arrived at the castle a short twenty minute walk later, the palace guards inspected their invitations, and then escorted them to the courtyard where they were instructed to wait.
In the courtyard, there were a variety of rare flowers and a single cherry tree which was just beginning to blossom, and a few scattered stone benches, two of them occupied. The first held a tiny gnome who seemed relatively well geared as a wizard, but his wide eyes and twitchy reactions to every sound and movement around him made him seem as jittery as a newborn bird. The second sat a large half-orc man who seemed to be too focused on sharpening his broadsword to notice them arriving. In the far corner, a pair of humans seemed to be arguing softly to each other about something, but neither seemed to be very well equipped. The man seemed like some form of Blademaster, but he wore no armor over his clothing as a typical soldier would. The woman he argued with seemed much younger than he was, and wore a simple grey-blue robe tied at the waist with a sky-blue sash, and her long brown hair was pulled into a tight pony-tail at the nape of her neck. Steve could not make out what they were arguing about, but it seemed the younger woman was winning.
They waited for about five minutes before the guards returned, escorting in a few more guests. One of them caught Steve’s attention right away, as he instantly recognized her holy aura and the divine features in her narrow eyes and slightly pointed ears, accentuated by her silver and gold plated armor. It had been a long time since Steve had encountered one of the Descendants of the Divine, the race of beings myths claimed had given birth to all other races, but he could recognize one anywhere. As the woman walked past, Steve noted with curiosity the darkly robed man who walked beside her. By all appearances he seemed a normal human man, but he wreaked of the smell of death, and his robes radiated a dark aura that made Steve quiver slightly. Whether from fear or excitement, Steve was not sure, but he was distracted before he could continue his line of thought when Shade tapped him on the soldier.
“So, what do you think she gave us these coins for?” Shade asked.
“Beats the hell out of me.” Steve said in as even a tone as he could. “Probably some mage who got bored and thought it would be funny to screw with the foreigners…” He added.
“Well whatever the reason…” The druid girl grumbled as she squatted beside them and rubbed one of her bears’ head. “I’m not thrilled about this mark she left on my bears…” She continued as she gestured to the bear’s tongue which now had a blackened tattoo with a design exactly matching that of the dragon on the coins.
Steve opened his mouth to ponder a theory aloud, but was stopped short when the guards once again returned with one more man, this one clad in strange plates of overlapping flexible armor that seemed lacquered in some form of clear hardened fluid. The guards had one more to their number this time, this one dressed in finer armor which was polished to mirror shines. A Captain or some such, Steve guessed.
“Welcome to Terminus Royal Palace!” The brilliantly dressed man began. “I am Sir William, Captain of His Majesty’s royal guard. As indicated in your invitations, you have all been invited here to participate in the King’s Tournament beginning tomorrow, where each of you will do battle in one on one combat until there remains one champion. The prize for this champion will be one hundred thousand gold.”
“What are the rules?” The Half-Orc asked.
“You may use any magic, weapons, or techniques at your disposal. Fights go until either someone is rendered unconscious, or yields.” The Captain then added “Protective spells will be in place to prevent you from killing your opponent, so feel no need to hold back.” He glanced around at the men and women in the courtyard. “If any of you wish to forgo participation in the tournament, you are under no obligation to fight. You will still be housed in the palace, and are free to join the royal family for its evening feasts. Feel free to enjoy the festival as well.”
Steve glanced around, but no one seemed to want to leave.
“Very well then, if you will all follow us this way, we will escort you to your rooms.” Sir William said finally when no one objected to participating.
As the others began slowly filing their way back out the courtyard, Shade leaned in toward Steve and spoke softly. “We’ll meet up at your room after we get settled. Something here doesn’t feel right.”
As they walked past the Divine woman, just her very holy presence made him feel uneasy, and more so by her apparent closeness to the black robed man beside her. He whispered his reply softly. “You have no idea.”