Chapter 25:

Chapter 24. Veiled Atrocity

Zero to Hero

The scene before me was difficult to describe. Vile specimens of humanity roamed about, their laughter mingling with the clinking of chains as they perused the captive individuals, treating them as mere commodities to be traded.

“Candace, keep an eye on Tina,” I murmured urgently, attempting to rein in my own rising emotions.

“You seem familiar. Have you visited our establishment before?” approached an elf adorned in a resplendent suit soon after our arrival.

“Not in this city, no,” I replied, striving to maintain composure in my voice.

“What are you in the market for today? An elf? Lizardman? Or perhaps a merman?” the elf inquired, casting an assessing gaze over our party.

“Do you have anything more exotic?” I inquired, seeking to gauge the extent of their inventory.

“Unfortunately, our most exotic offerings are reserved for our VIP clientele at our private auctions,” the elf responded, showing little inclination to elaborate.

“Master! Aren’t I—a fire fairy—sufficient for your needs? You paid a handsome sum for me, yet you already seek another diversion?” Candace interjected, playing her part astutely.

“A fire fairy? How much did you pay for her?” the elf inquired, his curiosity piqued.

“Who remembers such trifling details? Money is inconsequential. If you have nothing of interest to offer, we shall take our leave. I am bound for Yelwraek city soon, where I expect better prospects,” I declared nonchalantly.

“Oh, the offerings here in Aenwyn are unparalleled in Yelwraek, if not the entire continent. It’s much simpler for such enterprises to thrive here than in the capital—provided money is no object for you,” the elf remarked, before I interrupted him with a casual display of wealth.

Fumbling with the weight of the gold I tossed him, the elf swiftly concealed the bounty, glancing around to ensure his associates hadn't observed the exchange.

“Typically, only esteemed customers with a significant history of purchases receive this information. Listen carefully. There's a monthly tournament, and the victor is granted a wish by the organizers. I'm certain you can surmise who oversees such affairs,” the elf whispered discreetly, all the while feigning interest in showcasing the establishment's wares. He advised me to enlist at least four of their top competitors to stand a chance at victory, as many within this circle harbored aspirations of attaining VIP status.

“Are the fights rigged, or could an outsider win?” I inquired further, probing for details.

“Ah, so you have your own fighters as well? The matches are entirely legitimate, though the bracket does tend to favor the regulars,” the elf responded, offering insights into the system.

As we continued conversing to glean as much information as possible, I noticed Tina gradually recovering from her initial shock. Anticipating that the situation could spiral out of control if we lingered any longer, I swiftly concocted an excuse and ushered the girls out before matters escalated beyond my control.

“HOW COULD A PLACE LIKE THIS EXIST? THEY'RE SELLING PEOPLE LIKE ANIMALS!” Tina erupted in a fit of rage shortly after we departed from the area.

“I knew it was a mistake for you to come along. Slavery isn’t explicitly prohibited anywhere, Tina,” I attempted to reason with the furious girl.

For two millennia, the world had known peace. While slavery had never been officially outlawed, in the absence of war as a pretext, the abhorrent practice persisted primarily through secretive means. Hence, even in the absence of explicit prohibition by any kingdom or law, slavery endured, shrouded in secrecy, throughout history or else they ended up suffering the fate of the vampire race.

“Do you understand now, Tina? It’s a persistent issue that has persisted for as long as humanity has existed,” I explained.

“So what? Are you suggesting I should simply accept that people are being bought and sold like livestock? That I should stand idly by?” Tina retorted defiantly.

“What do you propose to do? Throw a tantrum and risk falling victim to enslavement yourself? Without power, you can’t effect change, Tina. Even someone as formidable as Zishell can't be omnipresent to halt all injustices in the world.”

“Why can’t you be strong enough to at least save all those you see!” Tina demanded, her frustration palpable as she laid blame for my perceived lack of power.

“Stop it, Tina. Ken is doing his best. At least he isn’t wallowing in self-pity like before. Let’s focus on helping Abigail before worrying about others,” Candace interjected, coming to my defense as she always did.

“Let’s grab some lunch first. Then, to figure out who or what we're dealing with here, we should check out that stadium and see what this monthly tournament is about,” I suggested, hoping that food might alleviate some of the bitterness in our hearts.

Still weighed down by what we had witnessed, we ate our lunch in silence, the girls unusually subdued for the first time since our journey began.

“Shall we head to the arena?” I prompted, breaking the silence as we lingered after finishing our meal.

With Abigail leading the way, we traversed the bustling streets, the everyday hustle and bustle of the city contrasting sharply with the darkness we had encountered.

“How does this stadium compare to Dragonspire?” Candace inquired, her interest sparked despite the somber mood.

Though the girls remained melancholic, the sight of the massive stadium lifted their spirits slightly.

“Our old stadium could seat around 80,000. This one looks slightly smaller, but not by much,” I informed them as we circled the perimeter, scouting for an information booth.

“Hello. Could I inquire about the upcoming tournament?” I addressed the elf woman stationed at the entrance of the stadium.

“Of course!” she replied cheerfully, launching into an explanation of the tournament's workings.

According to her, the tournaments were monthly affairs, typically spanning three days depending on the number of participants. The next one was slated to commence in five days, with registration closing the day after today.

“The sign-up fee is 5 ounces of silver, and the bracket will be released the day before the tournament starts. Contestants are allowed to make bids on all the matches except the ones they are competing in,” the woman explained as I paid the entry fee, her assurances of fair fights echoing in my mind.

“How do you ensure someone doesn’t bet against themselves if the odds are too great?” I inquired, skeptical of the system's integrity.

“We have measures in place to prevent that. Rest assured, the fights are all fair and square,” she assured me, brushing off my concerns without providing any actual details.

“Make me some money, I’m entering too,” Tina demanded, her competitive spirit overriding any reservations she might have had.

Not in the mood to provoke Tina today, I obediently paid her entry fee as well.

“To determine the seeding and ranking, please head into the stadium for an aptitude test,” the woman instructed.

“I guess we will finally see just how strong you actually are after all the boasting,” I remarked, curious to witness Tina’s abilities firsthand.

“I bet I’m at least divine level,” Tina replied confidently, though it was clear she had little understanding of what that meant. At least her mood seemed to be improving.

Following another staffer, we were led onto the actual arena floor, where the girls marveled at the sheer size of the stadium and the potential audience it could accommodate.

“What are those stone things?” Tina asked, a sense of nostalgia washing over me at the sight.

“They're pretty cool. When you use your spell on the stones, it doesn’t care about the actual power of the magic but determines how much you have enhanced your spell,” I explained, recalling my own experiences with similar artifacts.

“That seems pointless. Why does it matter how well you enhance your spells if they're not strong?” Candace queried, puzzled by the concept.

“Well, back then, strength wasn’t the only factor. Most of the things we did in school were just for show, to make the nobles and royals look good,” I elaborated, reminiscing about my days at the academy.

“So this stupid stone thing won’t even tell how strong I am?” Tina grumbled to the staffer as we approached.

“Oh no. We have two types of artifacts here. One determines how well you can enchant spells, as this young man explained. But this new model, developed after the awakening, will tell you just how strong you are!” the staffer clarified.

“Really? How does that work exactly?” I inquired, intrigued by this new artifact and its capabilities.

“It’s not perfect, of course, due to the wide variety of magic types that exist. But those artifacts use the heroes as the baseline. For example, if you use ice magic on the water stone, it will compare your strength to Zishell’s ice magic, which is, of course, his strongest. The same holds true for the physical artifacts,” the staffer explained.

Learning that the new artifacts would compare my fire magic to Valentina Branimir, air magic to Thallan Silvyr, earth magic to Julius Gaeleath, space magic to Sylvester Gilliam, speed to Nolan Bileth, endurance to Siveril Sarmyar, power to Osmar Fleming, and water magic to Zishell Yelvaris — the hero who had driven me to despair — I was overcome with curiosity and fear regarding just how weak I might be compared to them.

“Let’s have a competition, Candace! You're always bragging about your stupid fire magic. Let’s see how strong it really is!” Tina exclaimed, returning to her usual self once again.

“Ah! Just watch my fire magic be on par with the hero! That will show you for being so disrespectful towards me!” Candace retorted, her competitive spirit reignited.

With the pair back to their usual bickering, my mood couldn’t help but be lifted alongside them. I, too, wanted to know just how strong my current self was, especially compared to the legendary Zishell Yelvaris.