"Welcome to the fifty-second Mage Games!"

The magically amplified voice of the announcer rang through the enormous stadium, managing to cut through the roar of the excited crowd, a wall of sound that Sery could feel vibrating through her body. Paradoxically, the sensory overload of the cheering seemed to blunt her awareness of her surroundings; even Foria, sitting right next to her, disappeared unless Sery turned to look.

Sery's enna sense was locked down tightly as a result of her blocking her natural emission of mana particles by thickening her enna's walls. Out of curiosity, she had briefly opened the sense earlier, and the sheer number and strength of the mages gathered to compete had blazed in her senses like hundreds of small suns.

She had closed her magical eye after a single second, but it had seemed to her that Ariela's enna stood out even among these elites.

Hundreds of performers danced across the stadium in intricate formations while an enormous band played lively music, exciting the crowd even more.

"Please welcome our competitors!"

As the performers streamed out of the stadium through one set of gates, another opened on the opposite end and the competing guilds entered, carrying the banners of their guild emblems. The roar of the crowd waxed and waned as particularly famous individuals made their appearance in the procession.

All of the banners bore certain similarities: the background colour represented the magic of the guild head, electric blue for energy, green for life, deep purple for dimensional, and brown for materials. The symbol itself was usually depicted in a neutral black or white, though other neutral colours were used as the guilds attempted to stand out from the basic template.

The guilds were ordered from oldest to newest, and some of the most famous had been around since the aftermath of the Archmage Wars, some seven hundred years ago. Eterna, at sixty-odd years of age, was by no means a new guild, but newly established guilds rarely had the strength or the resources to compete, so their infinity symbol did not appear until near the end of the procession.

Eterna's banner was distinctive in that it boasted two background colours, electric blue for Ariela and brown to represent Devlin. The symbol was embroidered in bright silver thread that matched the guild mark on Sery's wrist, a subtle message for those few who knew how Source magic reacted to the mark.

The colour reminded Sery that the main reason Eterna had gone through all the trouble of registering, training, and competing in the Mage Games was to counteract the destabilizing changes her presence had caused. If it were not for the knowledge that her magic had also benefited the guild's earnings and boosted the town's economy, she might have left Eterna for somewhere her presence would be less disruptive, even if it meant leaving the safe haven Veltyen had created for her.

Her guilt faded as Veltyen smiled and waved at her as he passed their section of the stands. He had taught her that she had value, that she was more than just a magic source or a burden to be cared for. She waved back, somewhat surprised he had been able to pick her out from the crowd without being able to sense her magic.

After all the guilds finished a circuit of the stadium, a woman took to the main stage, the entire left half of her hair a solid silver. According to the programme, this was Cindra Asverei, the head of the Roswan branch of the guild association. She raised a sceptre carved with the four-ring symbol of the Mage Games. "I declare… the Mage Games open!" she cried. A spark flew from the sceptre, and on cue, a huge fireworks display launched from behind her, filling the air with dazzling lights and adding yet another layer of sound to the clamour.

Sery applauded along with everyone else but was starting to feel exhausted from the sensory overload. Thankfully, while the band resumed playing, many spectators began to leave their seats and exit the stadium. Sery stuck tight to Foria as they navigated the packed crowds to return to their campground.

"Phew! No place quite as crowded as the Games," Foria commented, fanning herself with a programme as they reached open air.

Sery nodded, listening carefully because it seemed that her hearing was fainter than usual.

The supporting side of the Eterna delegation returned to camp earlier than the competitors and got to work preparing a simple dinner; more than one person lamented that Maurio could not be in two places at once. By the time Veltyen and the others had returned, they had cooked all the ingredients to make a variety of wraps.

Sery had eaten similar foods before, but she had certainly never wrapped her own. The task looked simple enough, but somehow one side or the other was never tight enough to hold the filling securely and she ended up with half of it in a lopsided imitation of everyone else's neat wraps, half spilled over her plate.

A low chuckle that Sery would recognize anywhere. She looked up as Veltyen sat next to her, eyes bright with amusement. She smiled back, somewhat embarrassed at the contrast between her work and the two neat cylinders Veltyen carried on his plate, but pleased that he seemed to be less careful around her recently, unafraid to laugh at her as he would any of the other guild members.

Sery did her best to scoop the rest of the filling into the wrap and ate quietly as the guild discussed the events to take place the next morning, Taine's Bloom and Asher's Powerspeed competitions. The Powerspeed competition was one of pure explosive magic power and did not require outside support or any particular strategy once the competitor decided what spell he was going to use. As far as Sery could tell, Asher had not done a practice run of the activity since he had decided to compete, but he seemed extremely confident that he was going to win.

"Hey Sery, do you mind charging me up just a bit more for tomorrow?" the dimensional mage asked, and Sery willingly took his hand. As usual, it felt like the mana particles she pushed into Asher disappeared to somewhere else as soon as they entered his enna; it still seemed inconceivable that they had been transferred to the future and could be called back for use. Asher had explained that the further in the future he had to store the magic, the less efficient it was. He usually stopped storing magic more than three years in the future, where there was approximately a 50% loss in the act of moving the mana particles forward – and another 50% lost when bring brought back. Judging by how much she was pouring in when he had already been at that mark, he was pushing past four years.

A second after Sery felt the lightheadedness that warned her she was overdepleting her enna, arms wrapped around her waist and wrist and pulled her back, breaking the physical connection with Asher. "Enough," Veltyen said, staring at the other man with a look halfway between a frown and a glare. Veltyen highly disapproved of the amount of magic Asher took in a single transfer, the energy loss associated with his method meaning that while he functioned as a five-star mage, the cost to Sery was several times as much as it took to restore a regular five-star enna.

Sery took a deep breath as the dizziness faded, then looked towards the remaining food, now piled on a buffet table, the expenditure of magic making her hungry as usual.

Gaze softening, Veltyen gave her his second neat wrap and went to make himself another one.

At the other end of the gathering, Taine was carefully checking over the packets of labelled seeds he had brought for the competition, separating out the extras from the mix he would need to create his living art installation. Two of the helpers enlisted for the Games were going to participate in the preparation phase of the competition, hauling water, fertilizer, and a single statue while Taine spread the seeds himself.

"Let's all turn in early," Devlin suggested. "Good luck to Taine and Asher tomorrow."

"And let's all do our best to support them," Ariela added.

There was a chorus of goodnights as people dispersed to get ready to sleep. Sery finished her food and did the same, going through the unfamiliar action of crawling into a sleeping bag. The setting was unfamiliar, but after retrieving her horse plush, Whisper, from the foot of her bedroll, she was able to slowly drift off to sleep.

*/*/*

Veltyen accompanied Magewhisper as the stallion pulled his magical platform, now loaded with various gardening tools and sacks of fertilizer. Their destination was an area of clear land a fair distance's walk from the main stadium, separate sections marked off for each Bloom competitor by simple pickets.

Taine and his helpers were already in place, surveying their assigned plot and discussing last-minute adjustments to the overall plan. Despite the fact that the competition was about to begin, there were almost no spectators; people tended to gather to watch only after the growing phase was about to begin, as there was not much to look at during the preparation phase.

"Good luck," said Veltyen as he unloaded the last pile of supplies.

"Thanks. Don't worry about sticking around; just bring everyone by when the magic starts flying," Taine said with a good-natured smile.

"Will do."

Despite his words, Veltyen did stay until the start of the competition was announced and everyone got to work preparing the ground and planting their seeds. Veltyen did not know exactly what kind of scene Taine was planting, but it was quite obvious even to his inexperienced eye that the healer-turned-botanist was placing far fewer seeds than the other competitors, who scattered handfuls at a time to cover large areas in between carefully spaced seeds that Veltyen assumed would be some kind of larger plant to draw focus. Taine's helpers also seemed to have several times more fertilizer to spread than the other groups, making Veltyen wonder what kind of plants Taine was using.

His only clue was the statue Taine had commissioned to use in the scene. It was of a young man down on one knee, staring upwards at something that seemed to catch his whole attention. The only guess Veltyen could come up with was that there was going to be something tall for the statue to stare at.

Shrugging, he made his way back to camp with an eye on the time so he could return as things started growing.

An hour later, most of the members of Eterna gathered at the site, along with a sparse crowd of curious spectators – even the growing phase of the competition was not very popular; watching plants grow to full size over the course of an hour was not particularly exciting, and people tended to wander through the exhibits throughout the Games after the competition was over.

"One minute warning!" cried the announcer. "Assistants off the field!"

While a few groups worked frantically to the last few seconds before the assistants sprinted off the plots of land, Taine's helpers had finished early, their job simple compared to other projects that required the placement of dozens of decorations. They took their gardening tools with them, clearing the space of everything except a large watering can and several barrels full of water.

Taine crouched in the earth, hands dug into a pile of soil. To Veltyen's eye, it seemed that he had basically buried the entire plot with a thick layer of fertilizer.

"Begin the growing phase!"

Within a minute, slender sprouts of green began to poke out of the ground all over the competition area. The judges' eyes seemed to snap to Taine's work in particular, and after a minute, Veltyen noticed the difference: around the healer's hands was a pair of slender saplings.

"Is it unusual to use trees instead of smaller plants?" he asked.

Beside him, Sery nodded. "It's hard to get them to grow to full size," she explained.

The plants continued to grow, not quite fast enough to see movement, but visibly taller if he looked away for several seconds. Taine's pair of saplings began to curve towards each other, forming the beginnings of a spiral as they gained height. In only ten minutes, they had surpassed his height, beginning to tower over the shorter plants of his competitors.

Looking around, Veltyen saw that while most of the competitors were deeply focused on their own work, a few noticed Taine's trees and became visibly unnerved. Based on how one man ran over to his supplies and began to scatter more seeds, he was even making last-minute alterations to plans that had no doubt been carefully drawn over weeks to months.

"That seems like a bad idea," Ariela murmured, nodding at the frantic competitor, who now had his own sapling poking out of the ground. The mage seemed quite pale and unsteady on his feet, likely due to pushing his magic to the limits.

In contrast, Taine looked as serene as he usually did, generously watering his trees as he pushed them for even more height. At some signal he seemed to sense from touching their trunks, he left them alone after they were about twice his height and held his palms out to the rest of the plot. Dozens more saplings sprouted out of the ground; at this point, it looked like the judges' eyes were going to bulge out of their sockets. He guided them to growth just as easily as the two original trees, though they made less progress with his power spread between so many.

After a similar amount of time, Taine returned to growing the spiral twin-tree he had created, continuing to generously water his trees. He alternated between the twin-tree and the rest multiple times, the result a respectable grove of mature trees with a huge twin tree towering over the rest, one that looked several hundred years old.

After Taine was satisfied with the height, he sent climbing vines to blanket the twin-tree, thorny ones that bloomed with roses as well as more threadlike tendrils that seemed to bunch together and fall in a straight rope after they reached the top. At the place that they gathered, the twin-tree's branches began to bulge and reshape themselves, taking on the form of a young woman, the vines hanging from her head like impossibly long hair.

Taine crouched next to his statue, judging the angle and adjusting its positioning until it looked like the stone man and wooden woman were staring into each others' eyes. Almost as an afterthought, he populated the ground with small patches of grass and wildflowers, completing the picture of a piece of old forest straight out of a storybook, with a storybook scene to match.

"I didn't think Taine was this competitive," Ariela murmured dryly, looking around at the other life-mages, who seemed quite defeated with the difference in the scale of magic between their projects and Taine's. The one who had started his own tree had not been able to make it reach the height of even one of Taine's lesser trees, and was struggling to finish his bird-themed exhibit.

"He always did like to get perfect scores on his exams, though, didn't he?" Devlin asked.

Ariela laughed. "That's true! Good thing he entered something with a point-based scoring system.

"But… this looks like he used thousands of times more magic than the others," Veltyen protested. "How is this even possible?"

Ariela answered. "Well, one, he's the only four-star mage here. Plant magic is lucrative but doesn't necessarily require much power if your main goal is to strengthen plants rather than force growth as your regular job. In addition, the reason he and I met in school was that we both had a particular focus on magic efficiency. In my case, I manipulate the waste heat from my previous magic effects to power the next reaction. In his, he lets the plant – or body – do a lot of the work itself, providing all the nutrients that are necessary and taking breaks for the tissue to catch up to the growth."

"I think he magically enhanced the seeds beforehand," Devlin added. "It's not against the rules, but it is very difficult. Compared to his work on scar removal and hands-free surgery, though, it's very doable."

"Time! Competitors off the field for judging to commence!" cried the announcer. Taine walked calmly out of his exhibit, slightly pale but nowhere near as exhausted-looking as most of the competitors.

The judges walked through each display with a clipboard to jot down notes. Veltyen felt rather sorry for the other mages, who had created interesting and pretty scenes that were now being literally overshadowed by the twin-tree.

The scores were announced by category and individual judge: "Taine Sillei's project, Let Down Your Hair, Difficulty: 100, 100, 100, 100, 100, 100. Health: 100, 95, 100, 100, 100, 100. Harmony: 93, 90 100, 98, 95, 99. Overall score: 296.25."

Eterna's group erupted into applause, which Taine acknowledged with a smile and a wave.