Cain’s words echoed through the area, causing all the competitors to straighten their backs and stick their chests out. Compared to just a few minutes ago, the number of people have been reduced by way more than half, leaving about three hundred to five hundred people. It’s hard to get an accurate count. Mirta, the elf girl who was even smaller than me, bit her lower lip and stared up at Cain. Did she dislike him?
“While the first test was highly efficient, I have no doubt the spectators are cursing me for showing them such a boring round,” Cain said with a chuckle. “This one will be more interesting to watch.” As he spoke, his hands were moving in circular patterns, and the world was distorting. The ground shifted until everyone was standing in a neat straight line. A massive black pillar fell from the sky, slamming into the gray earth, but oddly enough, it didn’t make a sound as it landed. “Behold, a pillar.”
No one said a word as Cain hovered in the air. I hope he wasn’t waiting for a response to that. A few seconds later, someone called out, “What about it?”
Cain smiled. “I’m glad you asked,” he said. Oh lord, my image of Cain is changing by the second. I thought he was a valiant hero, but his need for attention is almost as bad as Lucia’s. Are all strong people childish? No, I can’t judge Cain by a singular display. I’ll believe in my childhood hero. “The goal of this test is simple: to see how well your talent translates into actual ability. Attack the pillar. The further it goes, the higher your rank. Did I mention the ranking process begins now? Remember, only the top hundred people will get prizes.”
“Then I’m starting first?” a voice asked from the front of the line. Lucia and I were somewhere near the back, but the man’s words were still transmitted clearly. Without a sound, the ground shifted upwards and a staircase was created with every person on their own step, allowing those in the back to see over those ahead.
“Begin,” Cain said. “One at a time.”
The first man nodded and walked up to the pillar. He was a human without any distinguishing features. If my life were a story, I’d mistaken him for generic fodder character A. Generic fodder character A let out a shout and punched towards the pillar. His fist was set ablaze and increased in speed. A loud cracking noise echoed through the air … followed by an ear-piercing scream. Generic fodder character A fell to the ground, clutching his arm while letting out sobbing noises. The pillar hadn’t moved.
A few people sucked in their breaths and stared at Cain. He shrugged. “I never said it would be easy. Next!”
A demon stepped down from her position and approached the pillar, eyeing it like a mercenary would eye a beast. She crouched next to the pillar and slammed her hands on the ground. The earth rippled like water, and dirt surged up like a wave. Smart. If you can’t move the pillar, move the ground beneath it. It’s a shame it didn’t work; the pillar remained unmoved as the wave of earth passed around it like water would pass a rock in a river. The demon sighed as she stood up and shook her head.
“The pillar moved by a millimeter,” Cain said from above. A scoreboard appeared in the air, two names appearing on its list. Besides the feminine name, there was a number one. Beside the generic sounding name, there was a zero. “Next!”
And thus, generic character after generic character attacked the pillar with all they had. After a hundred people had gone, the new high score was six millimeters, achieved by a person erupting a volcano underneath the pillar with a combination of third and fourth-circle spells. The next person had a familiar face. Wasn’t that—“Ah!” Lucia said. “It’s the acorn stew hater. Down with the heretic!”
Acorn stew’s not a religion!
The lionkin turned his head and glared at us. So it seemed like everyone’s voices were transmitted easily throughout this plane. Mirta gasped when she saw the fiery look in the lionkin’s eyes. “My mother was right! Beastkin men will target me because I’m adorable and helpless looking!” She gulped and hid behind Lucia, her actions causing the lionkin’s face to darken.
The lionkin shook his head and roared, a surge of qi billowing out of his body. Cain’s eyes lit up as he rubbed his chin. “A peak spirit warrior. At such a young age too. It’s a shame his presence makes little girls cry.”
The lionkin, who was in the midst of walking towards the pillar, collapsed upon hearing Cain’s words. He shook his fist at the sky. “It’s not like that!” he shouted. “Your words hold a lot of weight; please, don’t slander me like this!”
Cain shrugged. “Just attack the pillar. I’ll still reward you if you end up in the top hundred.”
The lionkin hung his head and trudged forwards, his earlier momentum gone. Poor fellow. First he encountered Lucia, then he … encountered Lucia again. Am I the actual poor fellow for sticking by Lucia’s side? Another roar shook the plane as the lionkin charged towards the pillar, opening his arms like he was going to hug it. “Path of Desire: Lion’s Charge!”
“See, even your path reveals your true colors,” Cain said, raising an eyebrow. “But you moved the pillar 15 millimeters, not bad. You’ve more than doubled the previous high score.”
The lionkin snorted as he stopped releasing his qi. He glared at Lucia before stepping off to the side where all the other contestants who had finished were waiting. A few of the lionkin’s lackeys let out praise and fawned over him, but Mirta wrinkled her nose and said, “I can do better than 15 millimeters.”
More generic cannon fodder went, none of them passing ten millimeters. The next person of note was Daniel. He interposed three seventh-circle spells and unleashed them at once, blasting the pillar back by three whole centimeters. His face fell upon seeing the result, and he muttered, “What is this thing made out of?”
“A legendary beast’s bones,” Cain said from above, crossing his arms over his chest. “You did well, doubling the previous pervert’s record.”
After another hour of waiting, it was finally Mirta’s turn. Which meant my turn was next, then Lucia’s. Mirta gulped and looked at Lucia before walking down the steps, approaching the black pillar. Currently, the top hundred was filled with scores of three and four, with a noticeable gap between the twentieth and twenty-first score which jumped from four and a half to six. “I can do this,” Mirta said as her sword appeared in her hand. Due to its weight, she nearly fell off the step, but she managed to catch herself at the last second.
“Do your best, Ilya Number Two!” Lucia shouted. Stop calling her that! Does Lucia really see me the same way as she sees this girl? I’m not as clumsy or naïve as her! Lucia nudged my shoulder. “Hey, you should cheer for your little sister too.”
“She’s not my sister! Elves and demons aren’t even vaguely related.” And, honestly, I don’t see Mirta doing well at all. Compared to all the other people who went before her, she’s super tiny. She might be talented enough to step onto this stage, but there’s no way a five or six-year-old child can translate that potential into actual results.
“For my grandmother!” Mirta shouted, her tiny high-pitched voice echoing through the area. She struggled to lift her greatsword into the air above her head and waddled to the pillar. A green light encompassed the blade, and dozens of golden lines burst to the surface of the sword like veins on an arm. The greatsword rumbled, emitting noises like a growling dragon as the faint image of a reptilian head appeared in the air.
“A dwarven-forged weapon of the highest class, enchanted with a divine inscription created by a high elf,” Cain said, his eyes lighting up. “I didn’t know Marilyn had broken through to the peak of the divine realm.”
“Roar with all your might, Y’terasi,” Mirta shouted and swung the greatsword down. The edge of her sword touched the pillar, and the world fell silent as the aura encompassing her blade disappeared. Everyone held their breaths, unmoving. …But nothing happened.
“Was that it?” someone behind me asked. “That—”
An explosion went off, cutting off the rest of his words. Mirta flew backwards while the pillar remained in place, a violent vortex of wind expanding between the two. Faint sounds of a roaring dragon filled the whole plane as a transparent claw extended from the vortex and smacked the pillar, causing it to lurch forwards.
“Two centimeters,” Cain said while waving his hand. A bubble of wind caught Mirta before she could crash into the ground. “It’s a pity your strength isn’t strong enough to bring out the full potential of your sword.”
“That was amazing, Ilya Number Two!” Lucia shouted, pumping her fist into the air. “Introduce me to your grandmother later so she can enchant my stuff too!”
Wait. That wasn’t supposed to happen. How could Mirta push the pillar back by two whole centimeters!? That’s second place! “Mr. Thunderfire, aren’t enchanted weapons cheating?” There was a rule about magic tools. Shouldn’t this fall under that? There’s no difference between the two!
“Do you think its cheating?” Cain asked, raising an eyebrow.
I could tell everyone behind me, except for Lucia, was nodding as well. “A magic tool allows a person to cast a spell that they might not normally be able to. An enchanted weapon allows someone to do the same. If a magic tool isn’t allowed, why are enchanted weapons?”
Cain gestured towards Mirta. “If I gave you her weapon”—Mirta’s eyes widened and she hugged her sword to her chest, or the hilt at least since it was too big—“would you be able to do the same?”
“Well, no. Enchantments have restrictions. If I were an elf, maybe.”
“Then, if this sword were a magic tool, would you be able to do the same?” Cain asked, a faint smile on his lips.
I think I know what he was getting at. “In other words, since the weapon can only be used by Mirta, it’s allowed?”
“Correct,” Cain said. “And if you don’t like that answer, then it’s also because I said so.”
Is that really how the strongest person in the world should behave? Because he said so? Power comes with responsibility! He’s just like Lucia! Give me back my childhood hero. Lucia bumped me from behind. “It’s your turn,” she said, pointing at the pillar. Right. Focus. Even if Mirta gets special treatment, that doesn’t change the fact I’m aiming for tenth place. How far do I have to hit the pillar? One centimeter, I hope I can do it. No! It’s not I hope, it’s I will! Wait, I should aim for one and a half centimeters since Lucia hasn’t gone yet…. In the end, isn’t it just doing my best? Distance shouldn’t matter, just hit it as hard as I can.
But first, I should make sure of something. “Mr. Thunderfire, are consumable items allowed?”
“Are they magic tools?”
“Then they’re not against the rules.”
Great. “Hey, Lucia. Can I get a bone of focus and all the bones of strength you can spare?”
“I demand an equivalent exchange of hot chocolate later,” Lucia said. A pile of bones that nearly towered over the pillar appeared in front of me. They exuded a dense qi that could almost be touched, and it felt like I was facing a divine beast. There were a few shouts, but I ignored them as I stowed the bones in my ring, consuming the focus one first.
Magic, though seemingly complex, is actually simple to use. Everyone’s body has certain points that influence how mana transforms when it passes through: the heart creates a dense thick mana suitable for earthen spells. The head creates bright mana suitable for light spells. The bladder creates a, well, liquid-like mana perfect for water spells. By circulating mana through these points, spells are created. The number of times you can circulate your mana through a point in one spell depends on the number of circles you have. Five passes through the heart and four passes through the lungs create the fifth-circle spell Sandstorm.
It’s possible to circulate your mana through all the manipulation points in your body, giving it every single attribute, but your mana will stretch thin by then. The first-circle spell that combines every point in someone’s body is called Chaos Orb. The second-circle spell is Chaos Spike. Chaos Spear is the third. No one’s been able to achieve more than three full circulations, or if they have, they didn’t write down the results. People generally focus on one or two spell types because it’s easier to circulate their mana to them more times. But if I have a near infinite supply of mana thanks to the bones of strength Lucia’s provided, wouldn’t I be able to circulate my mana through all the points in my body six times? Mana might be consumed at an exponential rate with every circulation, but it’s feasible!
Today, I, Ilya Pentorn, will go down in history as the first person to cast a sixth-circle spell of the chaos attribute! …Or I’ll be the idiot that blew herself up after consuming a hundred divine bones of strength—a prime example of things not to do. I really, really hope it’ll be the former. I mean, in theory it should work. …Right?
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