Chapter 28:

Chapter 27. Initial Clashes

Zero to Hero

"Come on, Ken! Time to go kick some butts!" Candace exclaimed eagerly.

"You all better cheer loudly for me when it's my turn," Tina reminded us once again.

"Eww. I don't want people to think that I know you! I'm only cheering for Ken," Candace quipped, her playful tone masking her genuine affection.

"Abigail! Make sure she cheers for me!" Tina shouted.

Hearing the pair arguing loudly had strangely become a comforting part of my morning routine as I greeted the trio and enjoyed a delicious breakfast prepared by our fancy hotel service.

"Remember your promise, Tina. The moment the protection artifact shatters, you surrender. I don't think I could face Lovetta or your parents if you end up losing an arm or leg," I reminded the hot-headed wolf girl once more as we arrived at the stadium.

"Yah, yah, yah. Stop nagging!" Tina replied impatiently, brushing off my concerns with a wave of her hand.

Having secured four seats in a prime spot, Tina and I joined Candace and Abigail in the stands as the tournament began. Unlike the biannual tournaments I participated in for years at Dragonspire, where the event was broadcasted worldwide and attracted thousands of participants, this event featured only 70 contestants.

With matches occurring one at a time and no time limit, only ending when a contestant surrendered, was unable to fight, or was incapacitated, the expected duration of the tournament was three days. The atmosphere, compared to what I was accustomed to, felt much more primal and intense.

"Why do you get to have the first two rounds off? Who did you pay off?" Tina demanded, her frustration evident.

"It's called seeding, Tina. Because I'm perceived to be strong, I get to skip the first few fights, whereas weaker contestants like yourself get to prove your abilities against lesser opponents," I explained calmly, bracing for Tina's inevitable complaints about the perceived unfairness of the situation.

As the announcer put on a show for the crowd and signaled the start of the tournament, a soft voice whispered near me through the loud cheers of the crowd.

"How much are you paying?" Carla's voice cut through the noise, catching me by surprise.

"Oh, hey Carla! Good to see you've come around on that deal!" I replied cheerfully, pleased to see the elf beauty sitting next to me.

"I'm not here for chitchat or to be your buddy. My grandfather wants to know how much you're willing to pay for that VIP access," Carla snapped back coldly, her tone devoid of emotion or niceties.

"Fair enough. You know how I earn my money with my holy level in earth magic. Name your price, and as long as it's not outrageously predatory, I'll make it happen," I offered, eager to secure the coveted VIP access.

"I'll let my grandfather know," Carla replied before abruptly vacating the seat next to me, disappearing as swiftly as she had appeared. Caught up in the excitement, the trio hadn't even noticed Carla's appearance or our new deal.

Compared to the high-level fights between top-tier fighters and heroes that I had witnessed for years at Dragonspire, the battles I was witnessing now felt primitive and lacked refinement.

While I found little amusement in the low-level battles, the girls and most of the crowd cheered loudly, fully embracing the tournament as a welcome distraction from their daily lives. Meanwhile, those with a gambling addiction placed bets on every match, watching with bated breath.

After a few matches, it was Tina's turn to step onto the stage, and the wolf girl jumped up excitedly from her seat, ready for her battle.

"Remember, Tina. The moment that protection spell breaks, you surrender, or I'll figure out a way to send you back home," I reminded her sternly, hoping to prevent her from doing anything reckless.

"SHUT UP! Don't try to break my concentration!" Tina snapped back, brushing off my warnings as she focused on the upcoming fight.

Watching Tina being introduced to the crowd and their enthusiastic cheers, I couldn't help but feel a surge of pride for the ecstatic girl waving frantically at the audience. I decided to join in on the cheering, letting go of any lingering annoyance.

Thankfully, my worst nightmare was avoided. While Tina was far from strong enough to win the tournament, her training with Lovetta and the chieftain had prepared her well enough to perform admirably in her first match.

Guarding her vitals and darting around with her characteristic speed, I was genuinely impressed with Tina's growth as a fighter and how she had learned to target her opponent's vital areas, a marked improvement from her battle with the corrupted bear a month prior.

After some back and forth, Tina landed a decisive slash that drew blood from her opponent, who lacked any sort of protection spell. Seizing the opportunity, she pressed her blade against her opponent's neck, prompting his surrender and eliciting loud cheers for the wolf girl.

"How was that? Happy you bet on me now, Abigail?" Tina gloated, her confidence soaring.

"You forced me to bet on you winning the entire thing! Not just this one match... How are you ever going to beat Ken?" Abigail retorted, her skepticism apparent.

"I'll just make him forfeit!" Tina replied gleefully, her optimism undiminished.

"Openly admitting that you'll cheat when thousands of people have wagered a large sum of money on the fights will not go well," I interjected, shaking my head at Tina's audacious comment. How did she expect to fare against someone like Carla, who obviously wouldn't just lose to her on purpose?

"How do the fights compare to Dragonspire?" Candace interjected eagerly, deliberately interrupting Tina's celebration.

"They're definitely more brutal here. Everyone at school gets a protection necklace, and the match ends the moment someone's protection spell is shattered. While the matches so far might not be high-level, I can see the potential for excitement when the fighters are more evenly matched," I explained, reflecting on the differences between the two arenas.

As the matches continued, the announcer eventually declared a two-hour lunch intermission before the action would resume in the afternoon.

"You talked with that Carla girl and made a deal? Since when? Did you secretly sneak out at night to meet up with lovers? Is that why you're always so hard to wake up in the morning?" Candace bombarded me with questions as we left the arena to grab lunch at a nearby restaurant, weaving an elaborate story in her mind.

"She literally sat next to me and discussed the deal. But she came and disappeared within a minute while everyone was caught up in the excitement of the tournament," I replied, hoping to quash any false rumors before they spread.

"Did you guys see how awesome I was? I was waving and dodging, and BAM! Slashed him into that surrender!" Tina exclaimed happily, brandishing her fork like a weapon.

"It was a decent match, but your opponent was also weak," I responded, attempting to temper Tina's ego to prevent her from doing anything reckless.

Of course, my words of caution were swiftly dismissed, and Tina continued her boasting, oblivious to the curious glances from other diners.

After a satisfying lunch, we strolled leisurely back to the stadium, preparing for the afternoon matches. Tina was scheduled for another bout, while I enjoyed the day off from fighting. However, Tina couldn't resist complaining about my apparent advantage of two rounds of byes.

Returning to the stadium, we chatted with some familiar faces from the day before, and I reluctantly succumbed to Tina's demand to visit the betting booth.

"Bet 10 ounces of gold on me winning the next match!" Tina demanded eagerly.

"I've got no money, and even if I did, I'm not supporting your gambling addiction," I retorted firmly, surrounded by hopeful gamblers praying for a stroke of luck.

"Come on, Ken, let's bet on Tina. She actually has better odds to win," Abigail chimed in, whether in defense of her friend or to drag me into the same fate remained unclear. Eventually, I relented and placed a few ounces of gold on Tina.

Returning to our seats for the afternoon matches, the crowd remained lively, mirroring the enthusiasm of my companions. However, while they were engrossed in the matches, I spent most of my time scanning the stands, searching for Carla and pondering if she was even present or if our conversation had been a brief, calculated encounter.

"10 pounds of gold," a sudden whisper next to me jolted me from my reverie.

"Hey, Carla. I was wondering if you would turn up. You know there's no way I could conjure 10 pounds of gold anytime soon. Is he willing to settle for some diamonds? Platinum?" I replied, attempting to negotiate with the enigmatic elf.

"10 pounds of gold first thing tomorrow or no deal," Carla insisted firmly, her voice devoid of emotion.

"A pound of gold is the most I could conjure by tomorrow without any serious side effects," I reasoned, hoping for a compromise.

"No deal then," Carla stated before disappearing, leaving me puzzled and uncertain about our arrangement.


"Why are you spaced out? Start cheering for me!" Tina snapped, bringing me back to the present as her second match of the day was announced.

"What's wrong, Ken? Why are you spaced out?" Candace asked, concern evident in her voice.

"Not sure what happened, but Carla showed up, and our deal is no longer on the table," I explained, still trying to process the sudden turn of events.

"Are you sure she isn't just messing with you to distract you?" Abigail chimed in, her words making me consider the possibility.

"Who knows... She's like a shadow, appearing and disappearing at will. Oh well, let's watch this match and stop worrying about the elf. You know we won't hear the end of it if we miss her match," I replied, deciding to focus on the tournament for the time being.

Similar to her first match, Tina dominated her opponent with ease, drawing cheers from the crowd and jubilant exclamations from herself.

"TOLD YOU! Betting on me was the best move! Bet more on me tomorrow!" Tina exclaimed triumphantly, ignoring my cautionary words.

"Calm down, Tina. You're gonna turn into a gambling addict if you keep this up," I warned, but my words fell on deaf ears as Tina continued to revel in her victories.

As the day came to a close, we collected our winnings from the betting booth and headed to a nearby restaurant to celebrate Tina's success.

"We are back, Yami! Guess who is the best fighter ever!" Tina shouted happily upon our return to the hotel room, greeted warmly by my faithful companion.

After spending some time alone outside with Yami for a nighttime run so my pet gets some exercise, I returned to the hotel room, reflecting on the events of the day and pondering my next move regarding Carla. With the night growing late, I settled into bed, hoping for some clarity in the morning.