Norton's group headed back to the guild along with me and Faris for my fourth round in the iron badge tournament, one of the most important rounds because there is only a little over one hundred participants, a little over 10% left which means winning this round would guarantee I'll be promoted to rank 3 without a problem.
We head to the training field where the tournament is held and find that the entire venue had been reworked during lunch. The sporadic arenas that were surrounded by bleachers are all gone, replaced by even larger bleachers around the main stage where there are now proper stone platforms that are standing one meter above ground rather than the makeshift fields used until now. With everyone funneled into one arena, the entire venue looks more alive and bustling, with multiple gambling counters set up all around the area in between the stage and bleachers.
"You guys better go find seats fast before it's too late," I warn
"No need, it's probably too late already with so many of us anyways. We plan to watch the action from up close, right below the dueling platform you get assigned to." Norton's group nods in approval at Norton's words.
I look over to the crowds surrounding the one-meter tall platforms and notice everyone there seems fired up while holding a piece of paper in their hands. I realize what they are holding when my gaze moves onto the gambling counters nearby.
"...You just want to keep gambling."
"...Of course not! I'm here to support my friend as close as possible... while also making some pocket change."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm going to go."
I split off from the group and head over to the contestant area and await for the next round to start. Before long, the familiar figure of the guild master steps out on the previous wooden platform and project her voice to the entire venue.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the second half of the iron badge tournament will be resuming shortly, all contestants please find which platform you are assigned and head there immediately."
The guild staff unveils another large board where the names of contestants are separated into nine groups. I spot Kou under group for platform two while my name is under platform three, guess I won't face him yet. I head over to platform number three while trying to spot Kou from the crowd, just you wait.
They are over a dozen contestants and a group of guild staff which I presume to be the referees all waiting with me at the bottom of a flight of stairs that leads up to platform three. We are in a small fenced off area where numerous spectators surround us, all either waiting for the match to start or lining up at the gambling counters to place their bets, with Norton's group being of the latter while they drag my Faris along with them.
One of the presumed guild staff in the group beside me starts walking up onto the stage while holding onto something reminiscent of a loudspeaker.
"The first round at platform 3 between the veteran enhancer, Doris, and the talented fire mage, Andrews, will be starting soon, betting will close in another five minutes! This is the third appearance in the iron badge tournament for Doris. He barely missed the cutoff for promotion previously which he claims was due to bad matchups while fighting in open field that may be disadvantageous for ranged fighters because they are nowhere to run but this time he once again faces the same dilemma, will Doris finally make it through?"
The other guild staff that are below the platform starts calling for the two contestants, confirming their identities and offering them the opportunity to place wagers before one of the staff leads Doris and Andrews up to the stage under the rest of our gazes. It seems the earlier guild staff is just the caster while this one is the judge.
The referees seem to be explaining the rules to the two contestants again before pulling out a small blue flag which he throws into the air after confirming the two contestants are in position. The contestants start moving the moment the flag touches the ground.
"The match begins! It seems like Doris starts the match by keeping his distance and firing a volley of arrows at Andrews! Andrews answers with a strong gust of wind, veering the arrows off course!"
The caster's voice barely reach me over the loud cheers coming from the crowd who are chanting for their favorites. It didn't take long before even louder cheers erupt, challenged by some booing from the people who likely lost their bets.
Doris the archer ended up winning by keeping his distance and flexibility dodging off the spells cast at him while firing off attacks. Immediately after the contestants clear the stage, the caster once again announces the names of those participating in the next fight. They sure are moving things along fast, though I can't blame them with this many contestants to get through.
"Next up, we'll have the famous nature mage, "Bloomer" Luther Portterbello against the newcomer who has risen up in ranks at rapid speed, the ice mage, Aster Estrea!"
Bloomer huh? Having a moniker sounds pretty cool as long as it isn't some horrible name.
The nearby guild staff calls me and my opponent over, letting me spot my brown-haired catkin adversary up close.
Nature Lv. 26
This is the first time I've seen a nature mage combatant, unlike other magic, you aren't able to create something from nothing with nature magic. It only allows you to manipulate plants and trees in your surroundings but not create them, making nature magic very situational in combat strength or so I think.
I show my guild badge and place the maximum bet of 50 gold on myself before making my way up on stage while trying to keep tabs the rates for my match.
Aster 2.17 Luther 1.85
For once I'm the underdog though not by much, but facing someone with a moniker probably isn't going to be a walk in the park. I can't help but think that the easy opponents until now were much more preferable, getting free money from the bets albeit at a lower rate.
The judge leads me and Luther up to the center of the platform.
"I don't think I will need to explain the rules again since you've made it this far so if you don't have any questions head to your spots, the match will start as soon as this flag in my hand touches the ground."
I arrive at my spot under the bustling of the crowds and the loud introductions from the caster who is trying to hype up the match. The referee checks that we are both in place before throwing the blue hand-held flag with an embroidery of the guild symbol on it up into the air.
The moment the flag lands on the stage, I instantly shoot out two ice lances at my opponent but he is prepared and intercepts my attacks by an earthen wall that springs up from the ground in front of him.
"Here we go! A strong start by Aster as he starts with a decisive attack by dual casting with ice magic, his water magic must be really high leveled despite his young age to perform such a feat!" The sound of the caster rings much louder in my ears now that I am on stage and much closer to him.
That wall is pretty thick, I don't think I can break through it while trying to avoid heavily injuring him. I'm going to have to move around it.
As I am slowed down by his defenses and trying to find a way to counter, I see several small objects be thrown over the walls of my opponent, sprinkling the area around.
"There it is! The bloomer has sprinkled his seeds, what will he bloom out today?!"
Before I can react to his move, the seeds on the ground suddenly starts glowing before it quickly turns into a bed of vines. What is this? Are vines even suppose to grow from seeds?
As I get closer to move around the wall, the vines move as if they are snakes and slither my way.
"Look at that! Luther successfully makes bloom of some iron vine seeds, will his opponent Aster be able to deal with it?"
The vines continue traveling towards me while zigzagging around as if trying to dodge my attacks, well try to dodge this. I cast a large water stream of water and flood it towards the approaching vines before encasing most of the vines in ice.
While I admire my work, a ball of stone suddenly hurls itself towards my chest but I manage to cast an ice shield in its path by instinct, I guess all that training in the mornings is starting to pay off. The stone ball smashes hard into the ice shield, shattering the shield and landing on the ground near my feet.
Nature magic and now he can create stone too from earth magic, why can't I get him as my opponent a bit further into the tournament after I've secured my promotion?
More seeds get thrown my way while I busy myself from his sudden attack but this time, I flood the area where the seeds are scattered and freezes them in place. Can't grow in ice right?
Seeing that I'm targeting the vines before it blooms, my opponents decisively give up throwing them near me and instead grows them behind the safety of his earthen wall.
My magic isn't suitable for beating him without risking heavily injuring him especially if he decides to turtle up like that. This may become a battle of attrition, who runs out of steam first.
The matches become uneventful as I keep my distance to deal with the occasional vines that try to bind me while I lob balls of ice over his wall at him which gets blocked by a stone shield he conjured around him.
Visible fatigue is showing on my opponent's face as it pales while he breathes in rapidly. It seems he's near his limit though it hasn't been that long of a fight.
Seeing me still fine as I continue to cast spells, Luther decides to make a last desperate struggle before he runs out of mana, charging at me under the protection of his stone shield. Seeing it's time to end it, I cast another water stream at his path while channeling a large electric current into it at the same time.
Knowing that spending his last bit of mana on defending will earn him nothing, he leaps up while charging all his remaining mana into a stone spear and launching it at me. I've learned my lesson already as I don't half-ass my shield and concentrate on casting the strongest ice shield I can, imagining a bigger and thicker shield with its molecules moving as slow and dense as possible.
His attacks make an impact on my shield with a thunderous sound as the two spells stop in midair. A small part of the tip of the stone spear stabs itself into my ice shield but the entire momentum of the attack is stopped and for a moment everything comes to a standstill, it's my victory. Luther lands on my water stream and is paralyzed the electricity though I think it's also the only reason he's hasn't collapsed yet.
I confirm my suspicion and release my spell as Luther drops onto the ground, it must hurt like hell for him right now after running out of mana. Speaking of which, I really should start working on my mana pool more even though mine is already better than most people. I really do not appreciate the thought of having to experience mana zero again.
"The match is over, the winner is Aster." The judge quickly declares the results of the match before quickly heading over to check Luther's condition under the loud sounds of applause, happiness, frustration, sorrow, and anger. Yep, gambling never changes but it sure feels damn good to be part of the winning side, that's for sure.
I drink a mana potion provided to the winner by the guild and finish up collecting the fruits of my wager and head out to meet with Faris and Norton's group, there's still some time before the next round and I have some time to kill while my mana recovers.
"Congrats, it seems your promotion to rank 3 has been confirmed but don't let that get to your head, I'll catch up soon enough." Norton and his party greets me with congratulations as Faris jumps at me.
"Congratulations master, you did it!."
Staring at the clear blue eyes of Faris looking genuinely happy for me while she is holding onto me, I can't resist and steals a kiss.
A startled Faris swiftly looks down and buries her increasingly red face into my chest as Norton looks on with a smirk while his female party members are watching on in fascination with a blush on their faces.
"Heh, I wouldn't want to ruin your moment but since you've got some time before your next match, why don't we head over to platform two, I heard the Little Merchant Warrior who you have a crush on is about to fight next," Norton says while holding out a wager receipt.
Platform two is just right next to where we were with the identical layout except there is a larger crowd here. We squeeze our way into the crowds to get a closer look at the match.
"The match between the two winner candidates, the Little Merchant Warrior, Kou Hakuren against the Temperate Mage, Ian will be delayed for another five minutes to facilitate for wagers to be placed." The caster on the platform announces.
"This match sure is popular..." I can't help but voice.
"I wouldn't say that it is the contestants that are popular, more like there is free money to be made."
"What do you mean?"
"Anyone who knows about the Merchant Warrior would know that he is the worst nightmare for mages, naturally that will carry on to the Little Merchant Warrior as well."
"...?" I do nothing to hide my confused look.
"You'll see when the match starts."
"Fine, be that way," I say as I turn back my attention onto the stage while hugging Faris from behind, got to be careful in these crowds, they're probably gropers around...
"Master... People are staring..." Faris blushes refuses to fade as embarrassment overwhelms her.
"It's fine, let them do what they want, who cares what they think."
"The match will now be starting shortly, thank you for everyone's patience."
Two people on the stage move toward their positions, a human with short black hair in leather armor wielding a cast spear who I don't recognize which means the other person wearing a pitch-black full plate armor with his face hidden behind the helmet is Kou.
I glance over to see the final rates for the match.
Kou 1.17 Ian 5.88
"...Those rates are pretty brutal." I mutter while giving Norton's receipt for his wager a glance.
"It's already pretty good since his opponent is one of the likely candidates to getting really far into the tournament, the rates are even more brutal if it was against some no-name mage."
The referee confirms their position and proceeds to toss the flag in his hand into the air.
The moment the flag lands, two arrows of fire shoot straight through the arena and zones in on Kou who stands completely still in his black armor. Kou continues to not respond to the attack as it makes its way towards him and lands straight into the middle of his chest.
The expected impact or burning did not occur, Kou remains standing there motionless without having moved a step which agitated his opponent as much as the crowd cheered.
"The match starts off with a fiery opener as Ian dual casts two arrows of fire but it seems there is no effect whatsoever as the Little Merchant Warrior tanks the hit! The might of orichalcum armor is truly the nightmare of mages all around." The caster explains to the cheerful crowd.
Kou starts slowly walking toward his opponent who yells something at him that gets lost in the sound of the venue before resuming his barrage of spells fired off at Kou. The spells soundlessly disappear as Kou continues walking leisurely.
"What's going on? Does that armor negate all magic attacks?" Not able to keep silent I voice my questions to Norton.
"Orichalcum, expensive stuff, it costs at least a dozen platinum coins just for a small shield but it's really effective at absorbing the mana of newly casted spells before they stabilize."
"So basically all spells are ineffective against that suit of armor? Isn't that like cheating? Aren't there rules against that in the tournament?"
"The tournament allows the use of any personal gear unfortunately but he isn't immune to everything, he is still vulnerable to physical force, things not conjured from mana like nature magic, or even spells that have stabilized for half an hour or so wouldn't be negated completely."
Kou steps closer to his opponent who tries to soak him and his surroundings in water before freezing it into ice. The water and ice disappears as soon as it makes contact with his armor as each step leaves a clear footprint in the frozen floor he walks through.
"...So how is a mage suppose to beat him with that cheat-like armor."
"Well...there is a limit to how much orichalcum can absorb at a time, the metal turns more and more white the more it absorbs until it reaches full capacity but seeing that full suit of armor, I doubt it'll reach its limit without a dozen mages working together..." Norton gives me a helpless look.
My attention is brought back to the fight at the loud sound of an explosion.
"Ian desperately struggles to keep Kou away as he launches a hot counterattack! But did it work?"
Steam obscures the arena from the result of the explosion as everyone tries to see the results of the attack. What even caused that explosion?
The steam subsides as we regain our view of the match, Kou is getting up to the side, it seems he got knocked away by that explosion but he seems barely injured.
His opponent Ian took the time to cast a large ice spear when visibility was lost and launches it toward Kou before it lands a meter away from him. He can't have possibly missed now can he? Did he aim that on purpose?
Immediately followed by the ice lance landing, a similarly large ball of yellowish fire shoots straight at the ice lance embedded to the ground beside Kou. This time Kou reacts diligently as a medium-sized, greenish shield appears from nowhere and Kou crouches behind his new shield held toward the ice. The yellowish fireball makes contact with the ice lance as another explosion ring in my ears and the stage is once again filled with steam.
What the fuck was that? Steam explosion? I think I've seen that in documentaries before with thermite and ice though I'm not even sure the same rules of physics apply in this world...
The crowd enters a brief period of silence from the explosion as the clear sound of metal armor rubbing against itself resonates while the steam still obscures the vision for all the spectators. Then the unique sound of metal hitting metal reverberates as the grunts of the man paints the scene of struggle for the owner of the voice that is suffering outside my vision.
Before long the steams clears out as we make out the figure of the man in full plate armor standing over an unconscious man beneath him while the judge is crouched next to him, examining his condition.
"The match is over, the winner is Kou."
Cheers and applause resonate loudly throughout the area as if their hero just defeated the demon king.
"...Master, you can definitely beat him too!" Seeing my troubled look, Faris tries to cheer me up.
"Well even if you don't, you already got your promotion anyway so don't fret about it, it's no big deal. Anyways, I'm going to go collect my winnings, I'll see you in a bit." Norton tries to sound positive while his party members gazes at me with pity.
"...Yea, then I'll make my way to my way back to platform three first to prepare for my next round, see you there." I bring my Faris along with me this time who is still in my embrace since the beginning of the match instead of leaving her off with Norton's party. You're going to be my body pillow while I clear my head.
How can I beat Kou? I can't just let him beat me or run away by forfeiting, I need to think of a plan...
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