Everyone stood still at that moment. A child, of all people, had proven himself to be the most level-headed figure amongst a band of experienced warriors. In one single response, the boy had made the most valid point of the entire night. What was the point of bickering now? Time is the most vital asset of this objective and all everyone had been doing was wasting it to entertain an emotionally unstable girl and a psychopathic pooch. Even they took a moment to realize what they were doing. Leah shamefully hid her blade back into her hood and wiped away the tears that had fallen during the discourse. Bates, on the other hand, scowled and cursed at the boy silently. He knew he was in the wrong but he hated the idea of someone else pointing that out. And, like that, both rivals sat down on their pillars, simply wishing for the game to start already. The boy, noting the drop in tension, calmly sat back down and dozed off once again.
"Hooo... that was smooth", the overcoat lady whistled.
"How ridiculous. I must thank you for that", the young swordsman declared while nodding his head in approval.
The man, too, showed his gratitude towards the boy.
"I apologize for having you pick up my slack. You have my thanks, Tortoise."
The boy's right eye shot open for a second. It was hidden, the man noted, but there was a spark of rage inside the boy as well. A smirk appeared on his face once more. He continued.
"And it's just as he said, my dear guests. If there are no more questions—"
Another hand rose up. This time, it came from the feline duke.
"I am Cesare Vega, Duke of the Perrault Kingdom and head servant of His Highness. If it's of no trouble, I would like to clarify one thought."
The feline's voice was soothing, nothing like the wolfman who was still grumbling to himself. His reserved posture and body language indicated respect towards the host and to everyone else present. His overall demeanor could best be described as golden. It was evident he was brought up from high nobility, but he appeared to fit the role of a butler better than a duke or knight willing to participate in a fight against barbarians.
"My good sir, I'm a bit troubled, you see. Along with me, I have brought a few magic scrolls that I had hoped to utilize to my advantage."
Cesare reached into a handbag and took out three rolls of parchment paper, sealed with blood-red wax. Immediately, reactions came out within the participants. Some, like the overcoat lady and young swordsman, showed great concern for what they saw in the feline's hand. Others, like the twins, had no clue what they were looking at. And, of course, there were still those who chose to remain asleep.
"However, I recall you mentioned something about a limit during our previous encounter. Could you please elaborate on that?"
This caught the man off-guard. He didn't hesitate to admit his mistake.
"Oh, you're right! I apologize for my forgetful mind as this is truly an important piece of information to know."
"Ha, ha, don't get too worked up about it. It had only occurred to me moments ago as well", Cesare responded kindly.
The man turned to face the rest of the crowd.
"As Mr. Vega pointed out, there is a certain limit to the number of magic scrolls that may be taken by each individual. In the past, this wasn't an enforced rule, but recent evidence has shown the overwhelming unbalance that comes with its freedom. Of course, limiting simple spells such as Arcana and Thor would be pointless since their powers rival that of regular weapons of war. However, greater spells such as Airmed, capable of resurrecting the dead, or Shiva, powerful enough to destroy countries, are obviously prohibited. These are two sides of extremities so a compromise is only fair. Thus, you may only carry with you three scrolls that are of Tier 3 or lower."
A wave of murmurs and frustrated sighs came from the twelve. Tier 3 spells fell slightly short of what would be considered middle-of-the-road. They were capable of healing wounds and causing small explosions but were nothing compared to Tier 4 and beyond. One by one, the participants reached into their parcels and threw out scrolls of varying sizes and contrasting colors. As they hit the ground, the scrolls disintegrated into ash and disappeared without a trace, indicating their deactivation. Some had brought more than others and as they continued to ditch one after another, their growing frustration showed much more clearly. Finally, when everyone met the requirement, Cesare bowed his head.
"That is all, good sir."
The man, too, bowed his head.
"I'll admit, I feel very guilty for not properly informing you all sooner. But, like all things, we must move on. I'll answer one more question before we begin."
The final hand of the night belonged to the overcoat-wearing lady, who appeared the most annoyed out of the twelve.
"Miss, what is—"
"Oh, don't give me that shit! What the fuck is all this about three scrolls? Do you know how much I spent on those stupid spells? More than goddamn needed, I tell you what."
"I believe we just finished discuss—"
"That's not the point, you dick! I don't understand how we are allowed to take any weapon we want and wear any type of armor we want, but we can't bring whatever scroll we want! This is a load of bullshit!"
"Ma'am, I'm sorry you feel this way, but—"
"You know we're out here representing our own nations and you know far too well that some folks here are strong enough to take on armies, let alone simple individuals! You got some nerve to—"
"Aw, will you just shut your clam, Hooky?"
The pixie-like boy had finally perked up and appeared bothered by the remarks that came from the lady he nicknamed Hooky. This small detail of his brought up confusion among some of the participants, the man included. And, as if they all had the same thought, they looked down towards Hooky's hand. A surprise, to be sure— her non-existing right hand had been replaced by a rather large silver hook. Again, it seemed no one had noticed anything during the discourse.
"I don't want to hear anything from you, brat! I saw you throwing out your scrolls as well, so we can at least stand on the same grounds here, right?", Hooky cried in response.
"Yeah, but you're not even letting the poor man speak. He's trying to be nice, so let him do his job, alright?"
Hooky grumbled and glared back towards the man, who now started to regret his choice of picking her.
"W-well, then. Miss Hooky—"
The lady's face became immediately flushed.
"Don't call me that! Jasmine! Jasmine Kidd! That's my name and don't you forget it! Oh, hell, if you wanna give me the respect I deserve, it's Captain Hook, got it?!"
The pixie boy covered his mouth, trying his best not to laugh out loud.
"... Right. My apologies, Miss Kid. As I was trying to say, I wish I didn't have to change the rules in the way I did, but I had no other option. The rest of the game would follow a path of unfairness for everyone else and considering the already present contrast of skill between each one of you, it would be negligent of me to not limit its use."
"See, Hooky? All you had to do was listen. Now you know why you can't go shooting fireballs and lasers at other people all willy-nilly", the pixie boy sneered.
"I told you to zip it, fairy", Jasmine retorted back.
A thought crossed the man's mind. He thought best to address it there and now.
"Oh. And there's one last thing I must mention before we continue on tonight..."
His voice became low-pitched and his manner of speech slowed down. His smirk became almost demonic.
"Your Tale will not be limited by any means. Feel free to abuse your God-given gift for your own victory."
Everything went silent once again. Jasmine and the pixie boy both stared at the man with the same shocked expression. Cesare, who was receiving glares from multiple directions, maintained his attention towards the man who had just uttered a universal taboo. Leah and Bates had severed their glares at one another and quietly kept to themselves, realizing the weight that came with the man's statement. The rest of the participants were all thinking the same thing. What the man said was possibly the most important piece of information he could've given, not scroll tiers or anything else discussed previously. Skill and power determined your level of combat. Scrolls and weapons gave you an edge against the competition but ultimately remained balanced. Tales, however, could determine whether you'd live or die, no matter the circumstance. Tales were given to those the Gods chose to be worthy. In other words, the twelve participants each possessed a Tale. Predicting a winner among them was now impossible.
"With that, I conclude this overly drawn out introduction. Let's not waste any more time. Ladies and gentlemen, I wish you all best of luck. I am the Story Teller and welcome to the Fairy Games."
From his hands, a black mist spewed downward towards the ground of the colosseum like water pouring out from a spilled glass cup. As soon as it touched the surface, the mist scattered, tearing off and creating roots that sought life form of which to devour. They began spiraling up each of the pedestals as the contestants watched in horror. The white-haired boy, however, kept his gaze locked upon the Story Teller. A faint orange glow appeared from within his right pupil but before anything else could come of it, his body was devoured by the darkness. The game had begun.
--- END OF CHAPTER ONE: THERE ONCE WAS A GAME ---