Summer Growing, Shader’s Day 10, Year of the Lion number 428; August 5, 1739 Agathon; Linne 182
My original plan was to write this sweeping journal entry about the glory and splendor that is Featherscar, Mirascai. I set out this morning to find one of the highest points to look out over the city and just take it in. But it didn’t happen that way. Since when do things ever work out like I plan? I should know better.
This morning it was foggy. The city is built in a depression. There aren’t any mountains, but there’s the “high lands” and there’s the “low lands.” We’re not talking an enormous difference; maybe a couple hundred feet at the most. The high lands are fertile – farms, ranches, all that. One road goes north to Abvindevil in neighboring Aimach. Another road goes west toward Reaverglen, on the Ekronyl river.
Featherscar lies in the coastal low lands. It’s beyond what the eyes can see, but to the south is famed Robgarde Island, home to the strange birdfolk called Kenku. To the east is Peers island.
Ah crap. Here I am going on about boring stuff when today’s events were nothing of the kind. But at the same time, I feel like I need to frame my words and comments in context otherwise they won’t make sense. Let’s just put it this way: if you haven’t visited Featherscar at least once in your life, you should. It is unlike any other city you’ve ever been to. I’ve ever been to. Just go. Make the trip. It’ll be worth it. Maybe.
In the middle is the largest man-made structure I’ve ever seen. I thought Shrinehall was wondrous (you should visit Shrinehall, too), but Shrinehall was built in and around natural geographical formations. The Arena isn’t. It is a stone and brick monument to everything that is wrong with the world, encapsulated into a single place. Seriously.
No matter where you stand in Featherscar, unless you’re inside a building or standing behind one, you can see the Arena. Its tall walls stand a hundred feet tall and hundreds of feet across. Compared to the river dyke from Hiltmar, it would require at least twenty or thirty of those just to match the exterior. I’m told it took over twenty years to build, and I’m surprised they did it that quickly.
Along the outside are great columns and etched into them are scenes of battles. Gladiatorial fights. Each column memorialized some hero or legend that won more than a few matches. Most eventually died on the dusty, sandy, bloodstained grounds. When you’re the champion, everyone wants to defeat you.
I’m honestly trying to hide my distaste for this and be objective. I simply can’t. It’s disgusting. It’s horrendous. This morning I was naïve and uneducated. Now, I’m not – at least as far as this city goes. This is the largest city I’ve visited in my journey so far. Despite the eyesore, this city features some of the most glorious and fantastic man-made architecture I’ve ever seen.
The wealth in this city flows quickly. There is a dark underside they don’t hide very well. While the games, the blood sport, takes place, people gamble on the outcome. Every aspect of the event is up for wagering. They bet on the winners and losers. They bet on how many people show up. They bet on how many guards are killed. They bet on what part of the arena floor, be it the north end, the south end, or the center, where the fight ends. They bet on how many swings a swordsman takes before taking down his foe. If you can think of it, they bet on it. Bookkeepers track all the bets using magical ledgers and gold changes hands faster than anything I can compare it to.
There was a light rain in the early morning hours and as the sun rose, it lifted the moisture from the streets and turned it into a fine, puffy white mist. The air had an odd odor to it. The vast market which lies in the shadow of the Arena was open early and already bustling. Throughout the market were leaflets and fliers advertising upcoming bouts. Signs were nailed to the sides of buildings, and something that surprised me – there was one stall where one of the gladiators met with fans, for which they paid a few coins just for the privilege.
I was drawn to a tent bearing the sign, “Tabaxian Crafts.” I went in to find a half-elf tending the counter. Tables and shelves were filled with a wide variety of useless trinkets and crafted items. Most were carved from wood, enhanced with brightly-colored fabrics. One shelf had a dozen hand-carved figurines that sort of resembled tabaxi. The man behind the counter said nothing as I examined the wares. I’m sure he knew what I was thinking: not one bit of the crafts in this shop were of tabaxi origin. I finally left the shop without making a purchase. I wandered the market for an hour; spent a few coins on a pastry and another coin for a ripe fruit.
Near one of the Arena gates was a gathering. The Arena wasn’t open yet, but already people were lined up at the gambling houses and ticket counters. By this gate, however, was quite a spectacle. A man who was at least ten feet tall was talking to those gathered around him. He was laughing and joking, answering their questions and, using a large feather quill, marked leaflets and flyers with his name. I looked over someone’s shoulder and saw that this was Bornin, one of the Arena champions.
When I got close enough, I could tell his face, chest, and arms were deeply scarred. Some of the wounds were more recent, but he didn’t seem to care at all. He’d point to a scar and tell a story about it. He seemed especially fond of the little children, and was very gentle with them. One young mother allowed him to kiss her baby, which was a shock to me. I was momentarily afraid he’d bite the kid’s head off or something! Then he spied me. “Oh, tabaxi-folk! Your kind doesn’t come through here often!” I looked around a moment hoping he wasn’t talking to me. I mumbled something, but he said, “Come hither, pretty thing!” The crowd parted and someone behind me nudged me toward the giant. “What’s your name?” I told him. “What brings you to Featherscar? Come to see me fight? It’s a great day when I meet a new fan!” I started to shake my head when someone pressed something into my hand. I looked down and found two tickets. Section 127, Row B, Seats 3 and 4. “Just for you and your companion, wherever he might be,” Bornin said. “I’ll be sure to give you a wink, and maybe something more.” The people in the gathering laughed and cheered. Someone near me said, “Hey, I’ll be your companion for the day!”
I walked away somewhat bewildered. I looked again at the tickets. Their value was 25 gold pieces each, and the small print on the back said they entitled me entry through the VIP gate. I was still new to the city and I didn’t know what to expect. I found the VIP gate and showed the man guarding it the tickets. “Where’s your friend? Ticket’s like this shouldn’t go to waste.” “I came alone,” I replied. The man laughed, “One should never be alone in a place like this.”
Then I thought… Of all the people I can trust in a strange place, find someone you know to be dishonest, because then they’ll not have anything to hide. I went back to the Tabaxi Craft shop and walked up to the half-elf. “My name is Kabize. I was just given two tickets to the Arena, and from what I can tell, they are good seats. Perhaps if you were to join me, I can share a little about tabaxi culture.” I showed him the tickets and he quickly agreed. “I am Arthil. Business is slow today. I’ll gladly close the shop for the day and join you. Indeed, these are fabulous seats.” He reached below the counter and pulled out a sack of coins, “We’ll probably need this. Since you’re covering admission, I’ll cover the costs within. And yes, I know little of the tabaxi, and I know that none of these trinkets were made by your kind.”
We talked more on the way to the Arena. He explained that most of the trinkets were made by family members. It wasn’t the most lucrative business, but he got by. He knew it was dishonest, but he was pretty sure his customers knew the crafts weren’t genuine tabaxi. He seemed reasonable enough. I was going to ask more about his family when we arrived at the VIP gate. The guard let us in and we were directed to a stairwell where another guard examined our tickets, ripped them in half and gave us the stub. We first went up a flight of stairs then down another. The inner corridors of the Arena were confusing, but there were plenty of uniformed ushers to make sure we got to our seats.
The seats were in a section separated from the others. Most of the seating was bare stone benches. These seats not only had backs, but were covered in cloth and slightly cushioned. More uniformed workers offered us something to drink and brought around trays of snacks. Arthil pulled out his money pouch but the server said that this was all included in the price of the seats. “Sit back and enjoy the day.”
Our seats were close to the arena floor, with only one row of seats in front of us. All the seats around us were occupied, but those around me didn’t seem to be interested in conversation. Not that we could say much because it was loud! The first fight wasn’t scheduled to start for almost an hour, so to fill that time, troubadours performed, bards played, heralds heralded, poets and orators… orated. Some of the performers were talented. Some were just okay. The crowds mostly seemed disinterested as they found their seats, bought and paid for drinks and snacks (only those in boxed sections didn’t have to pay extra), and dealt with the bookies. One of the bookies came to our box and presented the day’s fighting schedule. Arthil wagered a few coins, but was surprisingly conservative compared to some of the others. I noticed he placed his largest bet on Bornin – five silver pieces. Based on the odds, he said that if Bornin won, he’s get his five silvers back, plus 2 or 3 additional. “It’s not a lot, but that’s what happens when you bet on the current champion.”
Finally, the real games began. It was appalling! For the first bout, they brought out four men who had been accused of various crimes. They each carried a shield and a sword, and wore a simple open-faced helmet. On the other side of the grounds a gate opened and out came two beasts. I’ve never seen anything like them before, but the flyer we were given said they were “raptors.” I always thought raptors were some type of bird. Not these. They were like wingless dragons that stood as tall as a man, moved quickly, and used their claws and teeth as they fought. The crowd silenced a bit and I could hear the four men talking to each other, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Then three of them pulled away from the fourth. The raptors saw this and together they closed on the one. He fought bravely, but was quickly and easily overwhelmed. While they feasted on his remains, the other three men ganged up on one of the monsters. Their swords seemed almost useless against its tough hide but the creature was injured. It turned from its meal and struck back. One of the men was thrown against the wall and remained motionless when he landed. The other two stabbed at it, but didn’t see the other raptor circle around behind them. The first of the two was cut down from behind. The other’s body was ripped apart and shredded within moments.
The entire battle was over in less than a minute. A man in a blue robe stepped out onto the field and blew into a device. The two raptors came to him and knelt. He turned and they followed him off the field. Workers came out and cleaned up the grisly remains of the four conscripts. A dance troupe came out and performed a couple numbers while the bookkeepers made their rounds paying out winnings.
Before too long, a herald came out and rallied the crowd over the next fight. I looked at the schedule and saw that Bornin’s fight was the last one of the day. It seemed everything led up to this one, which was expected to be the most exciting. Bornin was more than just a big man, he’d been the champion for two seasons and was going for his third.
I really don’t want to detail the rest of the battles. It was all the same – men against monsters, monsters against monsters, men against men. Each battle ended when one side or the other was lying dead. Arthil mentioned that the clerics sometimes brought fighters back to life if they’d been killed. I can’t imagine it. You die before thousands of witnesses, and they bring you back to life so you can do it again? I felt the bile rise just thinking about it.
Between the hot sun, the proceedings, and, of course, the endless stream of performers between each fight, by the time it was Bornin’s turn, I was extremely tired, hot, and disgusted. If it weren’t for Arthil, I might have left early. The crowd around us stood up and cheered when Bornin came out onto the field. Across from him two men in black robes entered. The herald said they were lawgivers from Aimach who had strayed across the border and were captured. The crowd hissed at them and shouted epithets.
The lawgivers carried wooden staves. Bornin carried a giant axe in each hand. Halberds. Not axes. He held them high as the crowd’s applause came to a crescendo. Finally, the herald stepped away and the fight commenced. The challengers pointed their staves toward Bornin and bright lights erupted from them streaking toward the giant. The magical bolts hit him, but he seemed to absorb the impacts as he rushed toward them. They separated enough that he couldn’t get to both at the same time and continued to pelt him with arcane energy.
When Bornin closed on the first, the man tried to duck away when the two blades arced toward him from opposite sides. He ducked under one, but was hit squarely by the other. It seemed a magical shield blocked part of the blow, but he was still thrown several feet from the impact. As Bornin brought his blades around to strike again, his victim rolled around trying to avoid the fierce blades. The other caster concentrated hard and summoned a demon from hell.
On Bornin’s next strike, his victim had nothing left. The blade severed his head cleanly. The demon, however, was closing in and threatening. Bornin turned to face it and laughed aloud. “You call upon the minions of Vigila, yet you call any magic a crime in your country? You deserve what you get!” Instead of attacking the demon as it blasted the giant with a ball of flame, Bornin threw his axe at the caster, hitting him square across the chest. This caused his concentration to break and the demon vanished. Before the lawgiver could muster another spell, Bornin was on him, smiting him with his other axe, using both hands to deliver the most powerful blow he could.
With both challengers lying dead on the field, Bornin turned to the crowds and bowed. Flowers were thrown down. Bornin walked to the bodies and picked up their staves, then walked over to the seats near me. “My guests! Thank you for coming! I hope you have enjoyed the day.” He tossed the staff upward, right to me. I caught it easily, but I really didn’t want it. It was splattered with fresh blood and it belonged to a man who had just lost his life only to entertain the masses. I handed the staff to Arthil and said, “I don’t want this. Take it to your shop and sell it if you want.”
I’d already decided that I’ll be finding passage first thing in the morning. What I’ve said about Featherscar is true. It is a sight to behold. Once in your life you should visit, and if the Arena is something that interests you, so be it. For me, however, it’s not. I’m moving on. There’s still a lot of world to see and I’d prefer to leave this part of it behind.
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This entry in Kabize’s Journal is the first to one to go under another person’s eyes before posting! Thanks to Chelsea Merritt for taking the time to review the entire story and put a red pen to it. Over the next few days, I’ll be going back through the previous posts and making the corrections she identified. She also has an artistic friend she might talk into providing a little artwork for this story!
While the concept of the Arena isn’t new, I want to give a nod to Ken St. Andre who found a way to turn the arena experience into a role-playing game experience, with his Tunnels & Trolls Solitaire Adventure, Arena of Khazan. In one of the TrollsZine! fanzine issues, I contributed a sequel to Ken’s adventure titled Beneath the Arena. I also designed a board game (unpublished) based on this. Those who play-tested it stated that it’s better than the published board game (which I’ll not name here), mainly because mine isn’t constrained by a historical setting and focuses more on the battle than it does the intrigue.