Chapter 26:

Chapter 25. Trials of Power

Zero to Hero

"It’s one ounce of silver to have your abilities tested if you didn't pay the entrance fee for the tournament," the staffer announced, his voice cutting through the air and halting Candace mid-sentence, just as she was about to demonstrate her magic.

"Do you fancy a go at it, Abigail?" I inquired, sliding a coin across to the staffer.

"Nah, I'm not much of a fighter. My abilities aren't exactly top-tier material. I'm just hoping to find a dependable man who can look after me and my family," Abigail replied with a hint of wistfulness in her voice.

"EWWW! Putting all your chips on a man? You'll just end up like my sister - disappointed," Tina chimed in with a sneer.

"Is she truly disappointed though? It's unfair to project your own feelings onto your sister," Abigail countered.

"Of course she's disappointed! Imagine your lover vanishing without a trace for years. How could she not be?" Tina snapped back.

The conversation once again veered into disparaging remarks directed at me, but I chose to remain silent, letting the storm of words subside. Finally, with a collective sigh, the trio settled enough to proceed with the testing.

"Do I really have to undergo all these tests? I simply want to gauge how my ice magic stacks up against Zishell's," I queried the staffer.

"Unfortunately, for the tournament participants, we require comprehensive data to ensure fair ranking and bidding odds," the staffer explained apologetically.

"Fair enough," I conceded, joining Candace and Tina to have my abilities assessed, a process I hadn't undergone since my years at the academy.

As we progressed through the tests, Tina's results were intriguing. While her elemental magic was typical of most beastmen, her mastery of physical enhancement was remarkable, particularly considering she lacked formal training. It was a testament to her innate talent and dedication.

"I can't believe you are at master level on all your physical enhancements. Lovetta was barely at expert level when she was your age," I marveled, genuinely impressed by Tina's prowess.

"Watch me, Ken! I'm about to unleash my extra-powerful fire attack!" Candace interjected, eager to divert my attention towards her.

In stark contrast, Candace possessed only moderate physical enhancement abilities but displayed a commendable mastery of not just fire magic, but also the other three basic elements.

"I had no idea you were advanced in water, earth, and air magic as well. Why do you only use fire magic then?" I inquired, genuinely curious about her choice.

"Ugh! It's frustrating that my fire magic is barely at master level! I'm a FIRE fairy, for goodness sake! Naturally, I'll focus on my fire magic," Candace replied, her reasoning leaving much to be desired.

"It seems you two are evenly matched in your enhancement abilities," I observed.

"But she's older! This homewrecker is way older than me. By the time I reach her age, I'll surely be at holy level," Candace retorted, with a hint of defiance.

"I don't have a father who's a super-strong chieftain or a gifted sister to train with. Besides, the real measure of our strength lies in how we compare to the heroes. This test doesn't hold much significance," Candace argued, raising valid points that Tina chose to dismiss.

With the testing for the two girls completed, all eyes turned to me, anticipating my performance on the traditional tests, which, as expected, aligned precisely with my predictions.

"Wow! Holy level in every single area! You must be one of the blessed ones to possess such formidable abilities," the staffer exclaimed, clearly impressed by my skills.

Despite the admiration from the staff and my peers, I couldn't shake the feeling of being minuscule compared to the true top-tier individuals. My current strength barely matched that of my former self from five years ago.

Transitioning to the new artifact slabs, identical to the ones I was accustomed to, we proceeded in sequence once again, aiming to gauge our strength against the top heroes.

"Just so you're aware, for this artifact to register, you'd need to be at least 1/1000th the strength of the hero," the staffer clarified, a detail overlooked previously.

Unfortunately for Tina, and likely most others who accessed this artifact, she fell far short of the required strength to leave a mark.

However, Candace's firepower proved exceptional. Despite her modest proficiency and limited ability to enhance her basic fire magic, she impressed everyone by achieving .12% of the strength of the hero, Valentina Branimir, in terms of fire magic.

"If you work on refining your mastery and mastering enhancement techniques, your fire magic will be unstoppable," I commended Candace, genuinely impressed by her display.

"Impressed? I could teach you a few tricks in bed tonight," Candace quipped with a mischievous grin.

"You've never even done it before, have you? Where did you learn those tricks?" I teased back.

"Stop flirting with her!" Tina interjected angrily, clearly displeased that Candace's strength surpassed hers, albeit only in terms of raw fire power and not in actual combat prowess.

Taking a deep breath, I focused all my energy and knowledge into a singular point.

"FIRE BLAST!" I roared, unleashing a massive fireball that illuminated the entire stadium, startling the onlookers.

"15%! The highest ever recorded here at Aenwyn!" the staffer shouted with excitement.

"Wow. More than 100 times stronger than even my fire magic, and I'm supposed to be the fire fairy," Candace remarked with a hint of admiration.

"Were you holding back against that wolf in the forest?" Abigail queried.

"I didn't want to set half the forest ablaze. Just enough to assert my dominance," I replied with a smirk.

As I progressed through the other tests, I found myself at about 15% of the strength of every hero, except in the domains of earth, water magic and speed, where I only managed to achieve about 1% of Julius and Zishell's capabilities. Shocking, my speed was only at .5% compared to the speedster hero Nolan.

"So strong, yet still such a loser," Tina remarked with a hint of disdain.

"Strong? I'm only as strong as 1% of Julius and Zishell, and this isn't even combat; it's merely the power of my abilities. You want to see true strength? Let me show you what my ice magic can do," I retorted, feeling the need to demonstrate despite knowing the vast disparity between my abilities and the top-tier heroes.

Unsure if the girls grasped the magnitude of the power gap between us, I summoned all my energy and unleashed an ice spear at the stone.

"Sorry, your ice magic didn't register at all," the staff responded after inspecting the stone, a stark reminder of my insignificance compared to Zishell's mightiest magic, which left me unable to contain a burst of laughter.

"It's okay, Ken. You don't have to be the strongest. I'll still go back to Miodod with you, and we can live a simple life," Candace comforted me with a gentle pat on the back.

"Raw strength-wise, you're undoubtedly one of the strongest contestants we have ever had! I wonder how this will affect the betting odds!" the staff exclaimed excitedly as he escorted us out, having gathered all the necessary information.

"No way this thing isn't rigged. There's nothing stopping someone from deliberately losing, and with all artifacts permitted, a wealthy individual could easily secure victory through financial means. It's going to be tough to secure a win," I lamented, voicing my concerns about the integrity of the competition.

"Do you have a plan?" Abigail inquired as we wandered the streets in search of a place to dine.

"Once the brackets are released, we'll bribe some of the top contenders and hope for the best," I replied, uncertainty looming over the upcoming tournament.

"I can't wait to see you compete live! I bet everybody will recognize you once they witness your prowess in the tournament!" Candace exclaimed joyfully, skipping along in high spirits.

"Make sure to cheer the loudest for me when I kick some butts," Tina chimed in, equally excited as she mimicked shadow fighting against imaginary foes.

With the duo in much better spirits than earlier in the day, I was grateful that we could enjoy our meal with everyone back to their usual selves.

"Oh crap! I totally forgot to let Yami have a go at those artifacts. I guess we'll have to go back so I can gauge her power," I suddenly remembered during our dinner, still puzzled by how this wolf managed to teleport halfway across the world with the fairy girl.

After a satisfying meal, we wandered the bustling streets, engaging in lively discussions and debates before returning to our upscale hotel to retire for the night.

Learning the true extent of my weakness compared to Zishell was bitter to swallow yet oddly relieving. No longer burdened by the 'what ifs' of the past five years, the desire to ascend to the top, no longer a possibility. While the guilt of my absence from the girls' lives would persist, the aspiration to reach the pinnacle of strength and fame was now laid to rest.

best I can do with the online things >=(