Chapter 41:

Round Two

Red-Black Course

Another week had passed before they knew it, and it was time for Zain and the rest to partake in the tournament once more. As the pair gathered before the stage once more, a nagging feeling of anxiousness arose within the remaining member, which didn’t escape the eyes of the main competitor for the event.

“Easy there now,” Zain patted lightly on Mike’s back. “Just like last time, right?”

“Easy for you to say,” answered Mike with a dried, nervous laugh. “Not like we’re in a good spot from last time.”

Mike only barely got in the top 16 after the first round, taking the dead last spots, while Mitch was already out of the competition, so the former’s worries weren’t so unreasonable.

“Didn’t we agree that only one of us would be enough to win?” Zain tried to add some words of encouragement. “If anything happens, you guys can just sit back and relax.”

“Of course, I know that. But the more people in the final round, the better it is for us. You know, from a statistical point of view. And besides, that’s not the only reason I’m worried... remember?”

Zain didn’t answer the question. The young man knew what his comrade was referring to. The conversation with Jack the week before turned out to open even more questions than they had already expected.

However, he didn’t get the chance to lighten up their spirit, for another pair of arms had already wrapped over their shoulders, along with a stuffy, concealed voice:

“What’s wrong with y’all? Cat got your tongues?”

How did he get behind us? Zain’s muscles tensed as he tried to shake off Leo, but the helmet man’s strength was a lot more than he expected. Meanwhile, Mike, already as nervous as he was, froze in spot.

“Relax, you two,” Leo let out a chuckle as soon as he saw the shift in Zain’s body, “I’m not doing anything. Just here to wish my fellow contestants good luck, that’s all.”

“Yeah, well buzz off, Contractor. You’re scaring my friend.”

“Looks like someone’s got an attitude today,” with a light snicker, Leo continued his taunting for a brief moment. But in the end, the man did drop his overly friendly attitude and backed off from Zain and Mike, waving his hand goodbye as he entered the stage – the first among the remaining sixteen to do so:

“Let’s have a nice match, boys.”

The virtual field was almost exactly the same as it was in the first round. Not only did the grassy field remain the same, but even the colors for each contestant also, with the only difference being the remaining 496 colors of the eliminated contestants had been completely eliminated, and replaced with another pure white canvas.

“Welcome, my dear competitors!” Once again, the holographic screen rose up in the middle of the field, and Bryan appeared to explain the rules once more. “As you can see, this is the second round of the tournament, the Precision round! First things first, if you’d check your inventory…”

“Inventory?” A voice from the back started to question. “We have inventories?”

“It is the same principle as the circle in the first round,” Bryan explained.

Following the instruction, Zain raised his hand and had his palm face upward. If a circle appeared in the first round, then in this one, on Zain’s hand was a tiny scythe – only around the size of his index finger - floating about.

“This scythe here is your main tool for the second round!” Bryan explained. “The rules are simple: use this scythe to cut all the grass of your color! But remember not to cut into your opponent’s zone, or else the point will be for that person! The time limit is the same; after 60 minutes, the top 3 players with the most points will advance to the final round!”

“Question!” This time, Mike was the one to raise his hand. “How will the points be calculated?”

“Similar to last time, my little friend,” Bryan answered, taking out a small remote and pressed the button. From behind him rose a monitor, and on the monitor showed a large column chart, each depicting a contestant of the second round.

“With each root you’ve successfully cut off, you’ll get a corresponding increase shown in your column. Does anyone have any other questions?”

“Yeah, why three?” To the surprise of the group, it was Leo that raised his hand. “Didn’t the original flyer write out the rewards for the top four spots?”

“Ah, yes, that was the original plan,” Bryan awkwardly scratched his head. “But some… unforeseen circumstances have made the finals of four people impossible to do. But no worries, my dear contestants! Even if the finals shall only have three people, the rest of everyone here will have their prize increased as a compensation. Now, any other questions?”

After a brief pause of no one else answering, Bryan excitedly clapped his hands and pressed the remote once more, leaving the main screen to only be the score tracker at last:

“Well, then. Contestants, on your marks! Get set… Start!”

Just like last time, as soon as the signal was given, all the remaining contestants immediately jumped to the action… save for two.

“You find this round odd too?” Mike approached Zain. Due to the last round’s events, Mike’s plot of grass was close to Zain’s, so this round, they had no reason not to team up right from the start.

“Yeah, mainly this thing,” Zain nodded, pinching the miniature scythe with his fingers. “This round’s theme is ‘precision’, and the tool they gave us is tailored for the task… but doesn’t it also mean that the better you place last round, the more of a disadvantage you’ll be?”

“I know, right?” Mike nodded. “It doesn’t make sense. Why would they make a rule that hurts the one at first place? Should we still get on with it?”

“Right now, it’s still our best chance,” nodded Zain. “We know that Bruce is intentionally withholding clear rules anyway.”

As a demonstration, the young man soon stepped forward and started on his plot of grassy land.

The scythe was tiny, so no matter what Zain did, it would cut clean a patch of grass without much effort. He only needed one swing of his arm for a long, crescent line to form on his patch of grass – a patch of red being stripped away from the field and replaced with a lighter, clearer red color.

However, as he looked at the scoreboard, his score did not increase at all. And it looked like the other contestants were also having the same problem, considering their enraged shouting that came after:

“Hey, what gives?” A voice sounded. “I cut my grass already, so why did I not get a score increase?”

“Yeah, me too! This thing is rigged!” Another complained.

Soon enough, Bryan appeared once again on the screen. Contrary to the fuming look of the contestants, the man in the white suit was still calm and cool as ever:

“Gentlemen, I assure you that the tools aren’t broken, and this round is still going on as usual. The reason why your score didn’t increase is, well… you didn’t completely cut the root.”

Only at this moment did everyone listening realized that they had been duped. With a quick glance down their respective plots of land, the contestants all shared a raging fury as they saw their grassy field had returned right to where it was before they did anything.

“What the hell is this, organizer?”

“Yeah, how are we supposed to clear this stage, then?”

“By completely cutting off the root, of course,” without much hesitation, Bryan answered, gesturing further away.

Among the sixteen contestants, three columns were steadily increasing.

The first was Leo’s. Just like the last round, the helmet man was showing a ridiculous pace, having his column grown thrice as tall as the other two, and with barely five minutes passing.

The remaining two were those of Zain and Mike.

As soon as the former saw his score not increasing and the fact that the red hadn’t disappeared from his own field, he had already seen the problem. And this time, with the added information, Zain had already figured out a strategy to combat it.

“So that’s what ‘precision’ meant,” next to him, Mike also mumbled. “They meant for us to completely remove the grass out of the field, root and all, with this tiny scythe.”

“Even if there was only a small piece left, the score wouldn’t be added,” Zain continued. “Sounds fair for a ‘precision’ round, don’t you think?”

“Well, now that we’ve cleared the mystery,” Mike took the initiative and stepped forward, not forgetting to raise his fist to Zain’s side. “Let’s win this round, shall we?”

Replying with a fist bump of his own, Zain let out a confident grin. “You bet.”

Little did the two know, that wasn’t the only rule that had eluded them. And while their score increased, the remaining hurdle slowly but surely revealed itself.

Is it just me, or is this scythe getting bigger?

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