Chapter 38 – It Begins
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The week passed slowly. I stayed hidden in Bella's room. Lilly and Bella would bring me food and I would sneak out in the middle of the night to shower. I had them run errands for me like submitting my choices I wanted to compete in and picking me up a cheap mace. They would also fill me in on the rumors about me and what the guards were doing, which was surprisingly little. The guards did not seem to be searching for anybody and were just going about their daily duties. The rumors about me did not spread like I thought it would. While they knew I could summon, there was no mention about it happening in the dorm.

I had little to do other than to practice 'Group Healing' and perfect my personal display. I struggled hard to perfect both and by the end of the week I managed to pull my aura into four sections. It felt like a dull blade was being pushed into me with each successful separation. Thankfully, once I mastered separating a piece of my aura it did not hurt to do it until I tried to divide it again. My display, while not complete, was pretty close to what I wanted.

In the center of it, was a girl holding two bottles; one for my mana and one for health. They would empty as I was wounded or consumed by my magic. Above her stands five generic people. I should be able to connect people in my group to them, in theory at least. Once connected I could just use the display to monitor their health. However, it had conditions for it to work. The most important was getting the person's permission. I had not been able to test it yet.

When I was exhausted I borrowed Lilly's "video" player. The videos she had were of her favorite hero group. They explored dungeons while wearing video recording crystals for money. I got the impression that it was close to an idol group for this world. All of them were pretty, tough and filled the boring sections with chatter that made those watching feel for them. As I watched them, I did my best to observe how their healer moved and cast. Trying to use it as a benchmark that I should aim for.

The day of the tournament was today. The school students were all crowding toward the colosseum. Excited chatter filled the air. I had my hood up as I walked in the crowd. I could hear people supporting their friends which made me smile. Somethings never change and seeing people supporting others washed away some of my concepts of this world. I realized that my original conceptions of this world may have been a little overly pessimistic. However, I can't really be blamed for that considering how I have seen the children vying for power and those in power abusing it in attempts to use me for their own ends. Hearing the cheerful voices certainly brought back a more lighthearted perspective of this wild world.

With a smile I made my way to one of the many entrances. There I had to reveal that I was competing and soon I was ushered into a side passage that led to the floor area. I had taken it before for class so I knew where it led. Once I arrived I saw dozens of students gathered with a few professors. Some I knew, others I did not. Each of us was handed a talisman that was to be worn outside of their armor. To end any scenario, I simply had to remove the talisman I was wearing.

I could see other groups scattered around the Colosseum floor entrances. There must be hundreds that had turned out just to compete. But that was nothing. The stands were full. It felt like the entire Capital had turned out to watch. The noise was so loud that the teachers had to shout to be heard. We all got a schedule that covered the next couple of days.

I looked and noticed I had twenty minutes before my first match. It was the main event and was broken into three parts; endurance, damage, and if anybody was left, dungeon exploration.  There were points given for each event as well as awards. To be presented as the number one competitor you needed to put your body at risk to get these points.

Dressed in my leather armor and with my bow in hand, I made my way to the center area. The black plates I had seen before, while sparring, were placed in a checkerboard formation. Around twenty people stood in the center of each slab. I was expecting more people since it was the main competition. A booming announcement started up once we all had a spot. It was broadcasted so everybody in the stands could hear it. I felt like I was at a monster truck rally. The booming voice happily told us that other than death and amputations, all other injuries would be real. We simply had to endure. The last man standing would be the winner of this event. We were then given a chance to bow out if we wanted to or prepare within the next five minutes.

Nobody was allowed to have a pre-summoned critter but I did see some with animal companions. They ranged from wolf cubs to armored drakes. The better animals usually represented the level of wealth and not the level of talent.

I watched three students leave after the announcement. We were then given another five minutes to prepare. I cast "Golden Armor", "Blessings of the Goddess", "Aid", and "Coat of Arms". Others also cast. The most noticeable was a girl that had lightning dancing across her skin and hair.

I glowed like the sun by the time I was done. I noticed that before it clasped itself to my cloak the 'Coat of Arms' still had the Golem surrounded by wind but it was slightly darker with thunderclouds above it. It looked like it was about to start raining on the golem's earthy skin. I heard the crowd shouting out a countdown as I finished. Hearing them shout 'ten!!...nine!!..." got my adrenaline pumping. Cheers erupted throughout the crowd as it got closer to zero.

At zero, the world I saw faded out. I no longer stood inside the colosseum. Instead, I stood on a plain. The wind blew, the grass rustled and then tiny orange heads began to pop out of the grass. They ran on all fours and looked like plucked chickens. They opened their brown beaks and let out a wail. The beaks looked like little saws. The points were hidden while their bills were closed but looked like they would take a piece of flesh with every bite.

Their call brought more and more. I did not stand still. I released arrow after arrow. 'Prediction' allowed me to hit the ones I wanted but with every one that fell three more took its spot. Soon I did not need a skill to hit. There were so many that hitting was not an issue. I heard another wobble like call and they changed. It looked like an orange wave. I was about to be over run.

I dropped the bow and pulled my mace. I just needed to outlast the other students. I clubbed the first couple that got to me into paste but I soon found myself knocked over and on my back. Soon all I could see were orange asses and ... well, they were male. They bit and clawed at me but could not get through my armor.

Time passed and I was glad it was not based on how many you could kill. I was pretty sure two was going to be the lowest score. Soon I felt the ground shake, dislodging a couple of the orange critters but before I could make use of it, more filled into the gaps they had left. More shakes came as if something gigantic was moving closer to me. I heard the thudding sounds as the shakes got worse, followed by an explosion.

The explosions repeated until finally the critters turned into orange goo and I saw a giant version of the orange bald chickens slamming its beak at me only to be stopped by an invisible golem. Its outline only appeared briefly on contact and it looked like it was missing its arms. Each time the beak hit there was a resounding explosive sound. The last hit had left a big gouge in the golem's chest, shifting it to the right. The last thing I saw was an orange paw landing on my head. I was kind of glad it was over. I felt a little traumatized by my view when I was supine.

When I could see again, I was still in the supine position on the obsidian slab. I had a few scratches along my arms from claws that had managed to dig in right before my death. My bow and mace were lying beside me. Above me, screens floated, allowing the audience to view what was going on. On them only about a half a dozen still battled on. It did not take long before the giant thing killed them all.

Kids around me complained about how unfair it was. I thought it was a fair fight since we all had the same opponents. The only thing I could see them doing better was letting us pick our order. Allowing us to start with what we deemed to be the best one for us. It was just some competitors were able to deal with substantial numbers, while others could ignore minor damage, and others were better at dealing a lot of damage to one thing. The ones I heard complaining the most were in the latter category and got swamped early on. They were all covered in cuts and bite wounds that were, in my opinion, poorly wrapped up.

***

A handsome man lay on the hospital bed. There were no machines or fluid bags around him and for the last month he simply laid there, unmoving. A nurse would check on him from time to time. His eyes slowly opened and softly his voice could be heard, "Finally, I found you."

***

In Misery Jungle, a section of ground began to crumble.

On the side of Bloodbath Mountain, a cave started to emit a reddish light.

In the Foothills of Claws and Bones, the monster graveyard of the bones of countless beasts and fallen heroes started to take the shape of an ancient mausoleum.

In the Endless Lake, a shadow moved deep below the surface.

In the Settlement of Forgotten Virtue, a person began to cough up blood.

In Shrubbery Forest, a small poodle made out of wood and leaves stood in front of towering monstrosities barking out its orders.

In Vicious Valley, a landslide just ended revealing a door etched in runes.

In the Grasping Marshes, an adventurers group was sucked under the slimy water, never to be seen again.

Along Clearwater River, a withered tree directed its roots into the water.

In the Wicked Lands, dozens of hooded men stood around a slab of stone. A girl, tied to it, cried and screamed as they chanted. Silence came right after they stopped chanting.

Across the land many things began to change.

***

In the Capital City of Brightmore, an old man sat behind a desk looking at a vial half filled with black liquid. He would turn the vial and watch the liquid slowly move about within, only to turn it back to watch it again. His eyes never leaving it. A hard knocking on the door of his office broke him out of his trance. It came again after a short pause. Putting away the vial he said in a stronger voice than his declining body would indicate, "Enter."

A middle aged secretary walked in holding a stack of papers. "Chief Barton, here are the files on the students you requested. Do you need anything else?" she said, placing the papers on his exquisitely carved desk as she spoke.

"Not at the moment but come back before you leave. I might need some assistance later." He watched her nod and walk out, shutting the door as she left the room. He took out the vial one more time. The need to hold vial was growing stronger as his desire overcame his restraint.  Power, who would not want it? His friend, Bryan, had sold him this vial for a hefty sum yesterday.

He worked for an Earl by the name of Clemens. According to his story he snuck into Clemen's office and managed to procure this vial. In his haste, he spilled a bit of it but even so, what remained was worth the price. One look at it and he knew it held the power he needed to fix all his problems. It was just a shame that some was lost.

Barton's merchant guild had not had good years. The fact that the King had just punished his family for something they had not done did not help. Now a branch family is rising up threatening his son's inheritance. He would not go down without a fight and the first step is growing in power to remove the competition. Settling on the matter, he began to think about what traits his new secretary will need to do the job best. It would be a shame to have to train a new one but some costs needed to be paid.

***

We got a short break before the next test. After a half-hour we were led back. We all stood on the black tiles waiting to be put into the scenario they created. Of the seventeen that was in the last challenge only fifteen remained. I spent my time trying to come up with a way to at least place in the next challenge but I did not have a lot of hope. My best bet was to summon up a critter to fight for me but it would reduce my mana a lot. If I wanted to last through this competition, I would need to preserve my magical abilities.

Sadly, I realized that the cost of the summons varied not only on type but also how many critters I summoned. That meant, I could summon two or three critters but when the free-for-all came I would have very little mana left. I needed to decide if I should try and do well in both or go all out in one. My other problem was I had no idea what most of the summoned creatures could do. I did not summon anything in the week prior. I could not risk it.

I finally decided to place my hopes on the last challenge and not the one coming up. I simply could not deal enough damage and the five minute preparation time was not enough for me to summon anything good. I needed double that time to even get something.

I inquired on how to end the attack assessment after settling on my plan. I still wanted as many points as I could get but not at the cost of depleting my mana reserves or taking too many wounds.

I stood on the onyx plate and the world dissolved around me. I stood in an open field, again, but this time there were thousands of critters roaming around it. Birds of all shapes and sizes flew in the air. Critters and other creepy crawlies moved across the land like a black carpet shifting in the wind. Further out, big quadrupeds frolicked about. They moved nimbly which amazed me since their skin looked thick. Much further out, giant shapes moved in a grey mist.

This test was all about killing. We had twenty minutes and everything you killed gave you points. The tougher it was would equate to more points given for the kill. It was just your bad luck if you could not kill it. I ignored the bugs. They were probably there for area affect attacks. The birds were likely for precision attacks. The armored beasts, I guessed, might be for piercing attacks or high damage. God only knows what the heck that mist held and I did not give it much thought since it was unlikely to come into play with my meager attack powers.

I pulled my bow and shot arrows into tiny fire birds. They were only about the size of my petite fist. They darted about, weaving through the others. Out of the twenty arrows I shot, sixteen hit my targets. They burst into flames leaving nothing behind as the arrow went into them. The rest of the arrows bounced off a bird the size of a bus. It glared at me like I was breakfast and I almost shit my pants. It did not attack and I made a vow in my heart to do everything in my power to not hit it again. That thing gave off a 'I am powerful' vibe.

The prediction skill had a lot to do with my success. I took the other quiver of arrows I had out of my cloak. It held thirty basic arrows. I could not afford better and it was not like I was an archer so I spent most of my money on rations and explorer gear. The fact that I lost all twenty arrows to fire birds hurt.

I took my time shooting the birds that were the next size up. My first couple of shots were flicked away by their long tail feathers and I had to aim at their heads to get the arrows to hit. Even so I only managed to down two of them before running out of arrows. I was going to fly up and whack a couple but that gigantic bird kept circling as if it was just waiting for me to try. I comforted myself that there was not a lot of time left anyway and waited for it to end.

When it ended and I was back on the black plate, I was met with a window displaying "+1 fear resistance". That damn bird had a fear effect? I saw my name at the bottom of the list. It was not a shocking result. I would have skipped the whole thing but any points are better than none. We were then given another half-hour break. I simply relaxed and ate the lunch I stashed away. Once time was up we were brought back to our space.

As the world faded away, I found myself standing inside a room of mannequins. Each one was dressed or equipped differently. Some looked like warriors with various armors and arms, while others looked like mages in robes and staffs. Every generic type of adventurers was represented. As I took it all in, a monotone voice resounded in the room, "Pick your party brave adventurer."

It seemed pretty straight forward except they did not say how big the party should be. Could I select all of them, laugh maniacally and level the dungeon? It seemed unlikely. I began to pick out four that would fill out a standard party and ended up with a tank that had full plate armor, an ice wizard, a trap finding thief and an all-rounder that could fill in were needed. As I went to pick the archer a voice sounded again. The simple statement of "Each selection after this will increase the dungeon difficulty," shattered my villain like dreams of raiding the dungeon.

I gave up on the archer. I had a bow and every arrow I shot in the last challenge materialized by my feet when I reappeared in the real world so if I really needed range I could make do. Settling on my decision, I walked to the door leading out.

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