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Chapter 3: A Token of Defeat

March 29, 2023
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Rom’s belly may have been full for now, but that wasn’t going to help him win next time.

Rom’s hunger had calmed, but he wasn’t satisfied. He made it downstairs just in time for the end of the match.

Cain hadn’t stood a chance. Gontro’s poison heavy team wiped out his inferior creatures in mere minutes. Still, by the accounts of everyone in the tavern, it had been the match to not miss this season.

This feeling was the worst. Rom bought his ticket for this match months ago, and for weeks he hadn’t been able to think of anything else… then he went and missed it. All because of some stupid, backwater cardhead.

Today wasn’t the first day that Rom failed to meet his own loffty expectations at the tables.

None of this would’ve been a problem if he could’ve just won his food. Rom thought about those lost matches as he slipped out of the building, letting his mind drift into some fantasy where he dominated his opponents and had all the mutton he wanted! It was entirely lost on him that he could’ve simply eaten the food his father prepared in the morning instead of leaving his fate up to cards.

As he walked out of the arena, he aimlessly kicked a stone down the dusty street. In the safety of a nearby alley behind the coliseum he was finally alone. He could still hear the crowd in the stands above as they mushed together, trying to work their way towards the exits. He slumped and sat against the brick wall of the arena still tasting turkey on his lips.

He took out his cards and tokens from the satchel slung on his hip. He bragged about them all the time… but he knew they just weren’t up to snuff. His entire deck was made up of weak, secondhand cards and tokens given to him by family. Rom was convinced that being seen buying subpar cards was beneath the Destudo family name, and every single one of the few shields he had got packed away for top shelf Creatures. He’d never been able to afford one of the prize cards that were up to his standards, yet he just couldn’t accept the fact that they were firmly beyond the means of a noob such as himself.

He stacked his cards one by one on the stones next to him, as if counting them would change their quality. Last he held the three dusty tokens at the bottom of the burlap sack. They all looked extremely old and had chaotic,random patterns scrawled across them– as if they were doodled on by a child.

These were his nan’s “most treasured creatures” she had told him in a letter she sent when she died. Rom had never gotten any of them to work right… he in fact didn’t even know what Creatures they held. He had never told that to anyone but his dad, and he continuously told the bullies that beat him senseless in Chance for his lunch money that he was going easy on them. “Using nan’s Creatures would be like cheating,” he’d say.

Alone and lost in thought, his self pity overwhelmed him and his eyes started to well up with tears. The safety of solitude only lasted a few minutes, however, before a rope unexpectedly dropped mere hooflengths in front of him. There were drips coming down around the rope, as if it was raining only right there.

Just as Rom started to look up, he found he didn’t need to. An orc clad in studded leather slid down quite clumsily, but effectively. In the hand not grasping the rope was a stein of ale, and large drips of the booze fell from his beard.

“…Gontro?” asked Rom in amazement. The orc turned with a start, but the real surprise kicked in when he finally perceived the small boy sitting just beneath him.

As a title holder in the SCL, Gontro is obliged to accept any challenge over any dispute. If they can’t find him to challenge him, however…

“Ope, didn’t see you there kid.” replied the Orc before taking one last guzzle out of the mug and tossing it over his shoulder. Rom just stared in amazement. “Don’t mind me. Just a quick shortcut. May owe a few people in Shallowharbor some coin. Too busy for a full day of challenges, ya know?”

“Well you’d beat them all anyway!” beamed Rom.

The Orc paused for a second and turned with sudden interest in Rom. “Yeah, probably… that’s a lot of work though, and I haven’t slept in days. You catch the match?”

Rom looked down suddenly dejected. “No, I… had to run.” He desperately fought off the dam welling up in his eyes. He stiffened his chin and tightened his lips. The result was likely not as “cool” as he expected.

Gontro did pay notice to the boy’s face. “Well, I showed him what was up in like… I don’t know… two minutes? Knew it would be like that. That’s why I kept putting it off.” The orc was walking back towards Rom now. “Cain is a good kid, hated to bend his cards so bad in front of everyone.”

Gontro shook his head with a wide smile full of sharp teeth. “Happy to take that mansion off his hands though.” Standing right over Rom now. “What was so important to miss the Gontro the Great snuffing the dream of yet another random golem operator, or sewermancer… or whatever?”

Rom straightened in his chair and tried his best to look tough. “I stole something.” Rather than the low tone he was aiming for, his voice cracked and left ‘-thing’ a high pitched squeak. He instantly flushed.

“Ooo– tough guy.” Gontro leaned in and gave Rom a playful punch on the shoulder.” You steal the duchess’s pearls right off her neck? Top secret assignment from the Thieves Guild?” The orc spoke in a laughing tone, but stopped abruptly after Rom’s tears returned. “I’m just playing. What did you steal?”

Rom sighed and the tears finally started to fully flow. The child blubbered as he rambled out quick words between gasps.

“I stole a turkey leg. I was hungry. I lost five straight matches for food. Then I missed the match on the run.” Rom’s eyes were cast down to the ground. Totally dejected, he didn’t see the orc’s face light up with a toothy smile.

Gontro let out a barking laugh, “Your old nan and I got into quite a bit of trouble ourselves back in the day.”

Rom looked up, totally shocked free of any thoughts of sadness. “You knew my nan!?” His father never mentioned that nan knew his Gontro the Great!

“Ha! Course I did. This one time she summoned her Cyclops on the main event board to throw us into the governor’s VIP box at the Cobblehearth tournament.” Gontro roared laughter. “We drank at least five casks of wine. Your crazy nan replaced all the wine with Living Liquid, totally packed into every cask.” The orc chuckled fondly and shook his head. “Wish I coulda seen the look on the governor’s face when he filled his cup.”

“She taught me most everything I know about the game.” Gontro’s laughing tone dropped suddenly and a somber look came across his face. “She really was one of the best ever.”

“Good turkey leg?” he abruptly continued. Rom nodded. Gontro nodded in response. “Was a short match. Good turkey leg sounds worth it.” There were several moments of not necessarily awkward silence.

“Nan sent me a letter when I was little, after she…” Rom saw sadness set into Gontro’s face as he began, and again felt tears well up in his eyes. As if physically fighting the tears, he slammed his fist on the pavement next to him, knocking over his carefully stacked tokens.

“She sent me some creatures– said to ‘never underestimate the greatness I could achieve’, but she never taught me anything.” The tears came back in full force and he sobbed into his hands. “She didn’t ever tell me how she got so good. I can never make her junky old tokens summon anything. She just gave me bad ones because I was a kid… probably sold all the good ones.”

“Oh… c’mon kid. Doesn’t sound like Harriet to me.” Gontro put his hand on Rom’s shoulder and looked down with a smile.

“Everyone else has their creature cards. Why did nan leave me these stupid tokens? I’m embarrassed to even play with them.”

“Well we all used tokens for creatures back in the day. Some parts of Tolkheim still do… I think.” Gontro stepped back, plopping down onto a decycling bin behind him. “Magic isn’t just for cards. We used to use coins a lot… like those party poppers I threw before the match! Before lots of people put magic in staves, books, scrolls, rings… hells, even food.”

“Your nan used to be especially fond of magic food. She’d travel all over the world to find the most accomplished foodsmiths.” Gontro stopped as he saw the boy’s expression change as the conversation returned to Harry. “You don’t know a thing about her do you?”

“Not really.” Rom remembered who he was talking to and straightened up, gaining control of himself. “Just that people say she was the best and creatures like hers have never been seen since.”

Gontro let out a roar of a laugh. “Anyone could tell you that. She was the best. Usually a kid knows a thing or two more about their nan than that though.”

“My dad won’t talk about her ever.” Rom thought of the conversation with his father, and his frustration helped stop the last of his tearful sniffles. “It’s all the next order of hooves this. The price at the mana pump that.”

“Sounds like Seri ain’t changed at all. Always was about as adventurous as a rock… but I do envy a man who can find satisfaction in… safer things.” Gontro gestured to the scars on his face. “Probably still blames me for what happened.”

“What do you mean?” Rom asked, suddenly too curious to remember any anger at his father.

“He never told you? Figures. You’d’ve been young to remember–but I was old even back then. I remember you Rom. Your nan and I used to travel together. I was with your nan… on her last N.O.T.E.C expedition.” He stopped abruptly as tears slowly rolled down his leathered, green cheeks.

He continued slower, for the first time with no smile behind his words. “She saved my life. If it wasn’t for her, we both would have been done. The saddest moment of my life was watching helplessly as your nan was crumpled into a ball and thrown off the mountain by the Troll King of the North. Who do you think brought back those tokens and her will?”

Rom stared in astonishment, feeling oddly calmed to see the legendary orc’s sorrow over the familiar tale of his nan’s well-known death.

“I brought them back along with a letter for you and one for your da. Didn’t read em. Just did what Harriet made me promise.” He crossed the alley to put his hand on Rom’s shoulder.

Gontro’s gaze suddenly fell to the tokens that Rom had angrily scattered across the cobblestone. His eyes shone in intense interest for a moment. “Are these the tokens you’re talking about? These three are definitely Harry’s, I recognize her tokensmith’s work.”

He ran his hand across them, lost in memory. But then he stopped abruptly. “They don’t summon anything you say?”

A smile crept across Gontro’s face before he reared his head back and let out a massive, boisterous laugh. “The message! She told you to ‘never underestimate’. She was a prankster your nan… the very best. She’s still yanking your chainmail.”

He pulled a bottle out of his pocket and poured a little onto the token he was holding, rubbing it with his sleeve.

“Is that a potion to power up the creature?” Rom asked in awe.

“Na. Whiskey.” Gontro said as he raised the flask to his mouth. “Neutralizes Goo of Underestimation.”

“What do you-” but before Rom could ask anything, Gontro tossed him the token. It had previously been dusty brown, and looked to be clumsily whittled out of wood. Not anymore. Rom could tell it was the same token… but changed. The engravings were sharp and clean, looking as if carved yesterday. It shined with dull light from intricate metallic patterns laid throughout that Rom was certain weren’t there just moments ago.

“Now THAT’S your nan’s token. She just wanted to play one last joke I guess. Wonder what prank your da had in his scroll.” Gontro chuckled softly to himself. “Go ahead. Try it.” Gontro said, quickly backing away.

Rom unfolded the board in his satchel and quickly got to summoning the creature. The token glowed blue, then purple, then it faded to an eerie black. The black seemed to glow, yet it shaded the area around them instead of illuminating it. Quickly becoming engulfed by the spreading darkness, and not properly able to comprehnd what he was looking at, Rom screamed and shielded his eyes.

Suddenly there was a large BOOM that echoed through the streets and back into the arena. Gontro was tossed backwards like a ragdoll. Rom, handily seated comfortably against a brick wall, had nowhere to be tossed. The surprising force did knock the wind clean out of him, however.

When Rom finally summoned the bravery to look up, he found none of the horrifying, expanding darkness. Instead, a dragon stood on the board over the token. It was a piercing, glossy black. Dark purple scattered in flourishes across its wings and back. Rom craned his head to get a better look and then something unimaginable happened– the dragon noticed him.

The Onyx Dragon was one of the greatest creatures ever seen at the tables. No one knows how Harry acquired it. As far as anyone knows, it’s the only creature of its kind.

It stared intently at the boy. Rom couldn’t tell if it was saying hello or was sizing him up as a snack. Though on his small, personal board the creature wasn’t even quite a hoofheight, he found himself totally frozen in terror by the intimidating gaze of the dragon. Creatures shouldn’t stare at him… right? After stretching out its massive wings and shaking its head free of that penetrating leer, it reared back majestically and regarded Rom with a quite different expression… annoyance.

“You are not Harriet!” pronounced a tiny… yet regal, deep, booming voice from the dragon’s open maw.

Rom wouldn’t have thought he could be more speechless than he was after seeing his useless old token summon such an impressive creature in such an impressive way, but he would have been wrong. After several failed attempts to make words leave his lips, he managed to stammer out a few.

“Y-you can TALK!?”

The creature harrumphed and made a large display of rolling its eyes toward Rom… as if to make sure the boy could see that it was making the effort to roll both eyes, though they were on opposite sides of its face. “To HARRIET I can!” the dragon clapped back before curling up indignantly on the board with its head resting on its tail.

“Rom, I’d like you to meet the Onyx Dragon!” Gontro laughed as he walked towards the board.

“Oh… you!” The creature said with disdain, bristling its neck spines as it slightly turned to look at the orc. “I thought I smelled rotting Porc. Where. Is. My. Harriet!?”

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