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CHAPTER 3 – OPENING CEREMONY
Shumakai rose precipitously from the western Wild Seas. The island was a rocky, jungle-covered crag surrounding the tall cone of a long-dead volcano. Lying north of the Ogron Abyss but south of the Monster Isles, it was a long sail from the core of the Blue Kingdoms and located in waters avoided by sensible captains. Yet, ships from many nations crowded the isle's small northern bay.
Mighty, oared battleships from Amontet's fleet patrolled the surrounding ocean, protecting the Wizard-Prince's claim on the isle from anyone bold enough to challenge his supremacy. Brutus Maximus doubted any person or nation would be so foolish. Yet, he remained worried.
The former gladiator wasn't actually concerned about enemy raiders. Rather, his worries were the usual ones concerning an imminent event. Thanks to the nearly unlimited resources provided by Amontet, the Tournament Maximus would be the largest and most complex event Maximus had ever staged—bigger, even, than the Games Maximus at the Great Arena in Colossa.
That production—though massive in scale—had been a mere gladiatorial entertainment, confined within the enormous coliseum. This tournament was a sprawling series of challenges, spread over the length and breadth of Shumakai—from the sandbars of the isle's southern prominence to the choppy waters of the northern bay—and encompassing all the jungles, rivers, cliffs, and ravines in between.
And then there was the tower: the Empyrian Keep, Amontet called it. The spire sat atop a rocky bluff near the bay, commanding the best view of the island, but having no windows through which to view it. The carven white edifice, its sides as bright as new-fallen snow, stretched toward the clouds. The keep towered over the jungles and was nearly equal in height to the craggy summit of the isle's lone volcano, which lay several miles to the east.
Though the designs carved on the tower's surface—twining scrolls of waves and clouds—were in no way sinister, the keep still preyed on Max's thoughts. Its lack of windows made it seem more like a monument than a building. And then there was that single door at its base, a door Amontet had warned Max to avoid if he valued his life. The former gladiator felt glad that there would be no need for anyone to approach the edifice until the tournament finale.
All these thoughts raced through Max's head as he strode across the ridge above the reviewing field and the magically constructed grandstand below. Rogina followed close behind him, taking notes, as always.
"I have a question," she said as they walked, "something that puzzles me about the promotion."
"What?" Max asked, glad for the distraction from his pre-game jitters.
"On the posters summoning the contestants to Shumakai, why did you list 'heroes' last among the potential qualifiers?"
"Because I knew it would piss them off, and that would make them show up to compete. Soon, you won't be able to swing a dead jenrat in this place without hitting a hero or want-to-be hero."
Rogina smiled and nodded. "It seems to have worked. A lot of heroes have showed up already."
Max paused in his wandering and regarded the ship-filled bay below. "Really?" he said. "Anyone I might have heard of?"
"Lindy Griffenholt of the Golden Order," Rogina replied.
"That ambitious bitch?" Max said. "I'm not surprised. No matter how much land and wealth she accumulates, it's never enough, is it?"
"Apparently not. There's a former champion as well, the Saikur Valard Goldenwing."
"I remember him from the arena. So, he's come out of retirement to join our little games, has he?" Max sighed. "An old warrior like him should know better. Let's hope he puts on a good show. Who else?"
Rogina checked her notes. "Someone named Crimson, the other heroes seem to know her."
"I've heard of her. I thought she was dead."
"Apparently not," Rogina said. "Either that or your posters traveled to lands even further than your magician promised." She flashed her boss a sly grin.
Max laughed, feeling some of the tension slip from his shoulders. "That would make a good promotion, wouldn't it: Back from the Dead for Your Viewing Pleasure. . . !" He spotted two figures moving near the edges of the throng on the assembly field by the grandstand. "There's Clockwork and Ilsa. We should see how their preparations are coming. Tell me more as we walk." Not waiting for her reply but knowing she would follow, he headed downhill.
"There's a few more," Rogina continued. "A young wizard from the Isle of Prophecy, specializes in fire. I don't remember his name, but he's making quite a ruckus."
"The least talented are usually the loudest. Pedigree or no, I doubt he'll make it past the first stage."
"A dwarf called Botax the Mighty."
"Never heard of him."
"Neither has anyone else. I'm only mentioning him because he introduced himself to me three times. He's not too bright."
"Every tournament needs its fodder, but make sure our healers are well prepped. This is supposed to be an entertainment, not a massacre."
"And then there's someone called Tarkon, a Vortex Gladiator to judge by his armor—and personality."
"King of the Seas, to hear him tell it."
"We'll get a lot of those for this contest, but his presence explains the submarine I thought I saw in the bay earlier. I'm glad he's here to play, not raid."
"He barely talked to me," Rogina said disdainfully, "looked at me like I was chattel."
"In his society, you would be."
"I hope he doesn't win. I hope he goes out on the first obstacle."
Max looked at her, surprised. "An opinion?" he said, joking. "Such lack of professionalism is shocking. I'm not sure I can tolerate it in my staff."
"Shut up," she returned playfully. "Here come Clockwork and Ilsa."
Ilsa Gorvald, Mistress of Beasts, and Herrin the Engineer—known as Clockwork to his friends and co-workers—were a mismatched pair if ever there was one. He was short, dark, and rail thin, dressed in a simple, single-shouldered tunic. She was tall, blond, and muscular, with form-fitting clothes of leather and steel that exposed the washboard of her bare midriff. Both the engineer and the beast mistress looked pleased with themselves.
"How go the preparations?" Max asked. "Will we be ready to start in the morning?"
"She's been a great help," Herrin said. "Since her events come later, she's acted as my assistant. When we're finished, I'll help her to set up her events as well."
"It's good working with old friends," Ilsa said. "We'll give the audience a show they'll never forget."
"I'm surprised so many spectators have showed up," Herrin said, "considering the advertisement was only a call for contestants."
"Max knew they'd come," Rogina said, checking off items on one of her many lists. "That's why he paid the construction wizard's premium for the grandstands and temporary housing."
"If we do this again, we could design permanent facilities," Herrin suggested. "Really make a showplace of it."
"Assuming the island remains in one place that long," Gorvald noted.
"Let's concentrate on getting through this event before we start thinking about the next," Max said. "Give me an update."
Both Herrin and Gorvald straightened, assuming a businesslike demeanor—though they could barely conceal their enthusiasm.
"We've put Tarkanian piranha in the stream at the bottom of the gorge," Gorevald said. "If the contestants lose their grip on the swinging rope, that first obstacle will be their last.
"We thought it a good way to weed out those not serious about competing," Gorvald put in.
"I thought we weren't using live perils until the second stage," Max said.
Rogina checked her notebook. "And piranha aren't on Amontet's list of approved challenges," she added.
"Just a little touch of my own," Gorevald said, beaming, "along with the flock of winged monkeys to keep contestants from simply flying past the obstacles."
"Won't the monkeys skew the results?" Rogina asked. She looked concerned and stopped scribbling notes for a moment.
"I've trained them only to attack competitors that stray from the course and take to the open sky," Gorvald assured her. "Believe me, they'll keep the contestants in line. They'll also act as our medical evacuation unit."
"Won't the contestants love that," Max remarked jovially.
"I wanted to put spikes in the stream rather than fish," Herrin explained, "but Ilsa convinced me that maimed survivors make better object lessons than corpses."
"Thus, the monkey sky patrol," Gorevald added, beaming.
"Good," Rogina said. "This is supposed to be entertainment, not a massacre—or so the boss tells me."
Max grinned, feeling the last of his pre-show tension slip away. "True," he said, "but a little blood-letting is always good for business."
The morning air of Shumakai smelled odd to Brion Wilde as he stepped off of his chartered ship onto the island's black, rocky shore. At first, he wasn't sure what seemed strange, and then it struck him: no animals to be seen anywhere. No birds, no crabs, no small fauna, not even any insects. Everything smelled pristine but dead, somehow—lacking the odor of life and vitality.
Even the throngs of people teaming the island's shore and the lush jungle crouching to the west didn't alter Brion's impression. Lost islands—lands that appeared and disappeared seemingly at random on the fringes of the Blue Kingdoms—often felt peculiar, he knew. But to the elf, even among the lost, Shumakai felt strange.
As near as Brion could tell, none of the other contestants or spectators shared his unease. They went about their business, thronging the stands, setting up tents, hawking their wares—food and gaudy trinkets, mostly—and getting ready to compete.
The assembly grounds were impressive, considering Maximus' people couldn't have had much time to prepare them. The grandstands rose in a semicircle around a charcoal-filled brazier large enough to roast a four-horse chariot. There seemed to be no actual field for combat, so Brion deduced the brazier must be part of a magical viewing device, with the competition taking place elsewhere.
Across from the main seating stood the officials' platform. It was plusher and more ornate than the audience seats—with padded chairs and gilded balustrades—and commanded an unobstructed view of the island, the brazier, and the grandstand.
On the south, between the grandstand and the officials' platform, sat a sponsor's box fit for a king—or a wizard-prince at any rate. Its dais stood taller than the officials' box, and was accessed by a long flight of carpeted stairs. Twisting golden columns, carved with figures of cats and birds, supported a scarlet and gold silk canopy atop the riser. Beneath the awning stood a magnificent golden throne, encrusted with precious stones.
The prince's box stood empty, though the grandstands were already nearly filled, and a few people bustled around the officials' platform.
The magnificence of the assembly area, the stands, and the royal box spoke of both wealth and magic. Clearly, Max's people had been working very hard—and spending a lot of money—to make this tournament happen.
The only thing that puzzled Brion about the setup was the strange white tower to the west of the stands. It seemed both too tall and too elaborate to be new construction. The elf doubted that even the power and influence of the wizard-prince could create such an edifice in so short a span of time. Could the sky-high keep be native to the island? Looking around, Brion saw no sign of other, similar structures.
The elf put his questions aside for the moment; he'd arrived late, and needed to get down to business if he wanted to compete. He quickly found the registrar and signed up for the list of competitors—or banzuke, as the organizers called it—and then he joined the rest of competitors for the "parade of champions."
The procession went off well, despite the motley crowd of entrants and the inherent chaos of last-minute preparations. The crowd's cheers shook the nearby wooded hills, and the contestants took their place in the open area between the grandstand and the officials' platform, in front of the unlit brazier. Brion recognized several people in the crowd, including the Saikur champion Valard Goldenwing and someone who looked like Brion's old friend Crimson. But hadn't he heard she'd died?
There were young faces in the throng, too, including a wizard with orange hair, a pair of scantily armored Midknights, and the green-robed teenage girl with a shaved head standing next to him.
"Quite a spectacle, isn't it?" he said to the girl.
She nodded vigorously. "I'm so glad I came," she replied.
I hope you're glad when it's over, Brion thought. He extended his hand and she shook it. "I'm Brion Wilde, Baronette," he said.
"Yan Zhigong from Wudan."
Brion arched an eyebrow. "Really?"
Just then, a formation of flying monkeys, dressed in blue and silver vests, flew over the crowd dropping a cascade of pink and yellow flowers. The crowd oohed appreciatively, though the small hairs at the back of Brion's neck prickled; he'd hated flying monkeys since a bad scrape in the Monster Isles.
No sooner had the monkeys left, than a tall, blond woman with a blazing golden torch in her hand swooped in on the back of a hippogriff. The woman—whose leather and steel outfit looked vaguely familiar to Brion—landed near the grandstand. Solemnly, she walked up a short flight of stairs and lit the titanic brazier.
The crowd cheered wildly as the ceremonial fire roared to life. Then the woman departed the way she'd come, and Brutus Maximus strode to the front of the official podium.
"Greetings!" he boomed, his voice magically amplified—Brion presumed—by a silver amulet around his neck. "I welcome you to the Tournament Maximus."
The crowd shook the grandstand with thunderous applause and stomping.
"Before we begin, I want everyone to welcome our very generous sponsor . . . the world-renowned Wizard-Prince Amontet!"
Before anyone could applaud, the fire in the huge brazier suddenly blazed bright, and in its center a figure formed. The man was tall and graceful, draped in silk robes of scarlet, purple, and gold. He wore a tall headdress made of gold and decorated with stones set in the shape of an unblinking eye. Sinuous bejeweled bracelets encircled his wrists and arms. His dark eyes blazed with power.
The crowd gasped at the wizard-prince's glory.
Only when Amontet walked out of the flames did Brion realize that the wizard's figure was some kind of magical projection. Still, it was a masterful image, with only a slight transparency betraying its unreality.
The projection of Amontet, still wreathed in fire, walked up the steps to the royal box, turned, and addressed the crowd.
"I bid you greetings," Amontet's avatar said, his voice even more thunderous than Max's. "Compete well, finish the tests, and win my everlasting favor."
He turned and seated himself in the golden throne. As he did, he faded away until nothing remained but the unblinking eye on his headdress. They eye hovered in the air, watching.
He's observing the games from afar, Brion realized. He could be somewhere here on the island, or back home in the throne room of his far-away palace.
Maximus stepped forward again and addressed the competitors.
"There are three stages to this tournament," he said. "Those of you who successfully complete the first stage will move on to the second. Those who do not successfully complete it . . . well, I hope you indicated your next of kin when you signed onto the banzuke!"
The assembly laughed and applauded.
Max continued. "I want to stress that this first stage is not a test of your prowess as warriors—that will come later. This is a test of your fitness and resourcefulness. Those who finish the first course will go on to the next stage of the tournament. Those who do not will go home, either on the decks of their ships or in the cargo holds with the rest of the ballast.
"Look to your left and your right . . ."
Brion did, and Yan Zhigong smiled at him; he smiled back.
"Your opponent is not the man, woman, or sentient standing next to you," Max continued. "Your opponent is the course. We have seeded your path with difficult challenges and deadly obstacles. Only the strongest will finish; the weakest will be lucky to survive. Those that do survive will go on to stage two. Those who outlive that, will go onto the final stage. Anyone who achieves the stage three goal and survives will claim the prize—a single favor from our sponsor, the Wizard-Price Amontet. Truly, this is a reward beyond price! What say you?"
The crowd and the competitors roared as one, shaking the island to its very foundations. Even Brion joined in, feeling the adrenaline surge through his hundred-and-seventeen-year-old body. It had been a long time since he'd felt like this.
Atop the podium, Brutus Maximus beamed and thundered, "Let the games begin!"
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
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