Beads of sweat dripped down Shesmu's closed eyelids as his heart raced within his chest. He heaved in rapid breaths, still recovering from his exertion. He tried to slow his breathing as he straightened himself, gazing upward; the sunlight pierced his eyelids before he eased them open. Strange runes floated within his hazel irises.
His gaze fixated towards the sun, a screen stood beside the star. He read the star's description when strands of black hair settled across his face, obscuring his vision. Shesmu coated his fingers in aura, feeling the familiar buzz of power as the green light raced along them. With a lazy wave of his hand, the nuisance hair strands floated free, spiraling to the floor, perfectly bisected.
"Shes, it's almost time."
The voice of his friend made Shesmu turn. Clad in a pitch-black robe, he had blood-red hair and abrasive ocean-colored eyes. Strange sigils floated within them, similar to Shesmu's own. All the while a sky blue, semi-transparent interface floated beside his face.
HP: 500000(+7 Shield)/500000
MP: 10 Cores/10 Cores
Shesmu nodded at Cain when a feminine voice chimed within his mind.
[Leader! World Serpent is at 40%. How are things going there?]
Shesmu responded to that voice in his mind. [We're on the way, Fate. We just killed five of them but three escaped. They just entered the canyon and are going for the Serpent. Crescent is one of them, so stay sharp.]
[That's good! As expected of Leader and Cain. The game is now practically over. If they go for a steal, we just turn and clap their buttcheeks!]
Cain nodded and hummed in response.
[Well, we'll be on our way. Once they go through the chokepoint, we'll close their escape route.] Shesmu added.
[Haha, it's not as if they have a choice. If we secure the serpent buff, they're basically dead. Their only choice is to challenge us even though it's a do-or-die situation... Well, it's more like a die-or-die situation!]
Shesmu felt the joy in Fate's voice. This was the part she enjoyed most— checkmating her enemies, and laughing at them as she did so. That was the only exciting part for her when competing in regionals.
[The game is already over. Make it clean.]
Fate pouted at Shesmu's words. [Leader, you're no fun!]
Understanding that this discussion would be endless, Shesmu terminated the telepathic connection. He then examined his surroundings, noting that every object he saw had a blue screen describing it. Annoyed, he issued a command within the silences of his mind.
'Deactivate World Eyes.'
The scenery brightened without the presence of those irksome, blue screens, putting Shesmu at ease without any visual noise.
'Activate Party Mode.'
Blings assaulted Shesmu's ears as multiple add-ons appeared. In the top-left corner were his HP and Energy Bars. At the bottom-right were the same bars but of his teammates'. With this, Shesmu could effectively monitor his comrades' statuses any time he wished. They were all in the green, with the exception of one. That portrait was greyed out, a picture of a boy named Winter.
'Even without him, they should be fine.'
With one hop, Shesmu stood and Cain trailed behind. "Hey, Shes. What do you think of Crescent?" Cain asked.
Shesmu looked up, his thumb idly scratching at his chin. "Oh, I really like him actually. High compatibility with the ether field, insane reaction, and he is a Tier-V space-time mage. He is crazy good."
Cain nodded in agreement, staying silent as he did. It looked like he wanted to speak, but his speech seemed to be lodged in his throat.
"What are you thinking? Want me to poach him?"
Cain remained silent for some time before responding. His voice and confidence built up momentum as he spoke. "Yeah... if it's possible."
Shesmu looked up, lost in his thoughts. Finally, he responded. "Okay, sure. I'll talk to the manager later about it. Vez is thinking about retiring, so we do need a good substitute."
Cain didn't break his silence. Shesmu understood automatically that he was in complete agreement.
A digital 2D map appeared in the bottom left of Shesmu's vision field. Multiple red dots closing in on a clump of blue ones, drawing closer by the second.
"They're closing in on Fate and the others. We need to hurry."
Cain nodded, then the two jumped onto a tree branch each. They took off to intercept the enemy. From the corner of his eye, Shesmu noticed the all-familiar red-eyed crow, looking at them from a distance. He smiled and whispered, "Eva, Sophie..."
* * *
The crow kept watching, discerning their every movement, or possible ones. Its red eyes shone with a deeper hue. Within its pupils, a magic circuit resided. It was connected to multiple screens which displayed the figures of Shesmu and Cain to a stadium filled with a burgeoning crowd.
The crowd's cheers reached the clouds, so enthusiastic and loud. The stadium was split into two camps where one half wore red, while the other wore black. Both camps raised opposing flags engraved with the emblem of their chosen champions.
"Blood Cross!" The red-clad fans shouted.
"Black Moon!" The fans clothed in black reciprocated loud and aggressively.
In the midst of it, a couple, whose presence was ephemeral, looked fervently at the screens. They were a little girl and a woman in her late twenties.
"Papa!" The little girl pointed at the screens. Her mouth opened wide, her eyes glistening with amazement.
The older woman heard the little girl's shout despite the roaring noises around them. She jumped in joy and clapped her hands together.
"Yes, Eva. That's papa, right? Papa is amazing!"
Looking at Sophie's exaggerated demeanor, Eva blushed before rolling her eyes.
"There you go again, mama. Papa didn't even do anything yet! How is that amazing?"
Sophie flinched at Eva's deadpan expression. That cold-hearted response froze her in place. She looked down before her daughter gave her back hope.
"But, it's cool…"
Her daughter's barely audible whisper was heard. Sophie jumped up once again, her enthusiasm restored.
"That there are so many people rooting for Papa and his team. It's cool."
The mother's expression softened. She smiled before returning her focus to the screens floating high above the stadium. They no longer displayed scenes featuring Shesmu and Cain. Instead, it focused on the team clad in red whose members were running through a canyon.
The crowd was hyped already, the cheers deafened the ears. The announcer added oil to the blazing fire consuming the stadium.
"Blood Cross is becoming desperate—Crescent is leading them towards their final stand! If Black Moon manages to secure the Serpent buff, they can march their way into their enemies' core. Blood Cross needs to make it happen and they need to do it fast! They're down five members since the last skirmish. It won't be an 8v8 fight anymore. It'd take a miracle for them to win! Let's see if they can orchestrate a miraculous steal!"
The whole crowd was collectively on the edge of their seats. Black Moon's fans were assured of their team's victory and kept hollering the names of their favorite players, while Blood Cross' looked on with anxious eyes, hoping they could turn the tides. Eva's mother gazed around the crowd, taking in their expressions. She shook her head. Her attention was misplaced, but she regained composure when she felt a pulling at her cuff.
She turned around towards Eva who stared at her with a toothy smile.
"Mama, what is this Serpent that Mr. Voice just talked about?"
"Ah, yes," Sophie responded. "The World Serpent. Hmm, do you remember when we talked about the game Papa plays?"
"Yes, I remember it." Eva nodded repeatedly. "You said there are two teams. Each team has a core that has to be defended. It's hidden in a dungeon." She paused as a question occurred to her. "Are the dungeons like ones in the shows?"
"Eva is such a smart girl!" Sophie's eyes brightened. "You remembered everything I told you perfectly. Ah, I love you so much!" she pinched Eva's cheeks, causing her to tear up with how enthusiastically she was pulling.
"Mama... you're hurting me."
Sophie quickly retracted her hands, looking abashed. She hurried to hug Eva and apologize. "Sorry, Eva. Mama just loves you so much she couldn't help herself but to pinch your cute cheeks. Here, I'll cast a spell to heal them. You'll feel better."
Eva nodded and stopped sobbing. Her mother caressed her cheeks as she cast her spell.
"Eva wuryath ihu," she chanted softly. The tone of her voice made Eva smile before turning puzzled.
"Mama, you always say that chant but you never told me what it means."
Sophie grinned at her daughter's question. "Well, that's a secret."
Eva's annoyed expression provoked her mother to hug her again. Eva struggled to escape her mother's grasp but to no avail. She couldn't escape the deadly bear hug exerting force, so she had to think of a way to outwit her mother. She experienced eureka. The idea brought a smile to her face.
"Mama," Eva essayed a question. "You still haven't told me about the Serpent, yet."
"Oh, you're right." Sophie nodded, distracted. The reminder served its purpose, making her mother finally release her. Her mastermind plan to outplay the demon lord that was her mother had worked brilliantly! It was perfect! Eva made a winning pose in her head, waving to imaginary fans in a graceful fashion.
"Oh, yes!" Sophie continued. "The Serpent. As I already explained before, the two teams need to defend their own core while seeking to destroy the opposing one. That's how you win the game, Eva."
Noticing something, her mother suddenly leaned forward, beckoning Eva to return her attention to the game. She smiled before focusing on Eva once again.
"So, each dungeon has a strong, mean, ugly guardian. It is a most difficult task to kill this beast. No one team is strong enough to slay it. As such, our heroes shall travel a dangerous path, and defeat numerous monsters in their journey…"
Sophie's phony speech made Eva doze off. She finally snapped out of her daze and exclaimed.
"Mom! Don't go into your bard mode. Just tell me what the Serpent thingy does!"
"Ehh, okay." Sophie dropped both her shoulders and her tone. "So, there is this Serpent Boss thingy, and if they kill it, the guardian becomes weaker. Then they go and kill the guardian, that's it."
Eva showed a puzzled expression at Sophie's explanation.
"So, let me get this straight. You kill the Serpent, and the guardian becomes weaker, right?"
Sophie nodded smiling.
"Yes, exactly right."
"So, can you explain to me how does that even makes sense? Are these two guys related or something, like lovers and stuff? Else, why in the hell would killing a serpent make the guardian weaker?!"
Eva's barrage of confusion-filled questions surprised her mother at first. "Hahaha!" She let out gales of laughter. "You're totally right Eva—what does defeating a serpent have anything to do with the guardian? I wonder about it too. I don't know."
The laughter didn't really help Eva, instead confused her further. She returned her attention to the game, deciding to cast her worries aside. The engaging caster's voice was able to distract her. She looked to the screen, thinking it had displayed her father only a couple of minutes ago. It effectively kept her focus on that screen. Sophie watched her by her side. Eva's sudden intense focus paired with a slightly ajar jaw made her giggle before her own attention returned to the display. The camera, at the moment, focused on three players. It was the red team. Their steps were quick, and eyes focused.
* * *
"We're close, prepare the array," one of the players, apparently a leader, issued the order.
The duo accompanying him answered, "Will do, Crescent."
Crescent nodded in response to his teammates' before his eyes refocused. The camera followed the path of his eyesight. It showed the exit of the canyon—their ultimate goal.
Beyond it, a fight of epic proportions took place. A beast with three serpent heads faced down with five fighters. Its ghostly hiss reverberated through the air, causing its opponents to flinch. It spewed a thick fog of dark, green poison from its leftmost head.
"Fate, Vez, blow your load." A knight in golden armor spat out orders. "Truth, detox." His hair was black, and eyes green. His chiseled face was proof of the thousands of battles he'd fought.
"Gotcha, Leo." A purple-haired girl responded, planting her staff on the ground before her as she chanted a spell.
"Leave it to me!" A silver-haired man opened his grimoire causing a dark magic circle to appear on the terrain beneath him.
A priestess in the rear of the party chanted one prayer after another as the fog of poison encircled them, before engulfing the party. At the very moment, a golden magic circle shone beneath them. The radiant light illuminated, all nullifying the dark gas poison. In the center of the magical circle, the priestess floated. Her white robe fluttered, as did her golden hair. Her visage was truly the definition of noblesse and grace.
"Nice timing, Truth!" The black-haired knight praised. He returned his attention to the World Serpent. "Mages, slow. Rev, scout for Blood Cross."
"Roger that," a man covered entirely in black responded curtly. His shadow rippled like water before he descended into it. Once he'd disappeared, the rest of the party focused on the boss. An HP bar floated above the World Serpent's head. Only 10% of the monsters HP remained, causing its bar to glow red. The camera panned up, zooming out to capture the entire body of the World boss. It slowly rotated around it.
* * *
It then averted to a new subject—a team of three players hiding behind nearby rocks at the exit of the canyon.
Crescent, the leader of his team, was going over the details of his plan, one last time. "Remember to time the cloak buff at 7%. The moment I go in, teleport to the other side of the canyon. Draw their attention. I have the array ready, and if I combo it with my dark star, I can one-shot it at 5%. They don't have the raw burst to out-damage me with their comp."
Crescent patted both of his teammates' shoulders, psyching them up.
"Vain, Yorth, we've gone over this hundred of times in practice. Think of it as another practice session, no pressure. We'll win!"
Crescent looked back at the Serpent, his eyebrows furrowed. "Guys, it's time. Yorth, cloak. Vain, TP*!"
The duo jumped into action. Yorth opened a scroll before biting his thumb. Blood flowed and Vain formed a circle on the scroll. He chanted as the blood shone.
While Yorth channeled the array, Vain chanted a spell.
A dark egg-shaped portal appeared before Vain. It rippled like the surface of a lake. At the same time, Yorth's scroll dimmed in its luminosity, and as it did Crescent started to fade. Gradually he became more spectral before entirely vanishing.
Yorth and Vain jumped into the dark portal, while the invisible Crescent soared into the air, coming closer to his target: The World Serpent.
Meanwhile, Rev, who was tasked to scout for his team, felt a strange magical energy surge within the exit of the canyon. His eyes darted towards its source. Two players stood atop the edge of the canyon, charging a spell towards the boss. Rev was prepared to intercept them when he stopped dead in his tracks.
'Crescent isn't there!'
That realization filled him with an ominous feeling. He summoned two orbs: one golden, the other blue. The orbs moved up and down, left and right, circling him in a spiral that seemed infinite—and they fused. A new, bigger orb was created by their union.
The completed orb pulsated, radiating a wave that encompassed the whole field. Suddenly, Rev turned his gaze to the air towards a specific location. He bit his thumb and he cast the blood that oozed out on the mysterious orb. Its blue began tinting more towards purple. The orb shone with a myriad of color aura.
Rev shouted a simple incantation, "Revelation!"
Another pulse surged to fill the field. Rev detected a presence and dashed towards it. As he did, an ethereal figure appeared right where he'd sensed something. The transparent figure appeared like a ghost or djinn. Gradually he took corporeal form. He'd found the missing Crescent!
Crescent looked at Rev in surprise. His eyes focused on the orb beside his opponent which resulted in the shock fading into annoyance. At that moment, multiple fireballs appeared around him as he swiftly drew a magic circle. The fireballs shot towards Rev like missiles. Rev watched incoming attacks, responding by nullifying his momentum and redirecting it midair. He started zigzagging with incredible speed, and before anyone could notice it, afterimages appeared.
The fireballs Crescent had launched all missed their target, hitting nothing, and passing harmlessly through the afterimages. Rev took out a kunai, casting it towards his opponent. Crescent, who was layering one magic circle atop another, was forced to end his chanting, breaking his spell. He created a hexagonal ethereal shield to block the kunai. However, Rev's weapon easily broke through Crescent's shield, to pierce his shoulder.
A black and green aura encompassed Rev, further increasing his speed. Crescent, still hurting from that kunai, was shocked by the display of speed. He desperately began chanting a spell as Rev closed in. Rev reached him in half a second. His knife was coated with a dense black aura, ready to strike. Rev swung his knife to slash Crescent, intending to slit his belly open. He was confused when Crescent disappeared.
Behind a rock, one of which littered the exit of the canyon, Crescent hid, grimacing in pain. Blood continued to flow from the injury he'd endured. He wrenched out the kunai still lodged in his shoulder to throw it to the ground. He summoned a red potion. The moment he drank it, the gruesome injury started to heal. First, the cracked and chipped bone, then followed by his muscles, veins, and finally his skin. After the healing process was complete, his shoulder was repaired, good as new.
"Where do you think you're going?"
Air stuck in Crescent's throat, dread consuming him. Rev stood behind him. He casually bent down to take up his kunai stabbed into the earth. He turned it to reveal a seal which was carved on its blade.
"It's a shame you didn't look closer at this. Perhaps then you might have had time to prepare. Your teleport skill is still on cooldown, it's checkmate."
Rev's black and green aura surged. Crescent fled, soaring into the sky because he sensed impending violence. Despite his attempted flight, Rev's speed overwhelmed him. The moment he took off the ground, Rev had followed. Two slashes were the only things he saw and felt. Just from them, his HP bar reduced by half. Three magical circles formed a triangle beneath Crescent. He then chanted a spell in a language foreign to Rev.
He didn't want to leave anything to chance, so upon noticing the magical circles, he flung his knife towards Crescent, who was still chanting. By the time the knife reached him, it stopped but an inch away from his vulnerable throat. Deafening silence enveloped the world. It was like the calm before the storm, the silence but a prelude to a horror yet to come.
A thundering explosion engulfed both players. Crescent was sent flying above. It took time before he could stabilize his trajectory. Dust filled the air. Rocks below crumbled and fell, filling the canyon as a result of the explosion. Crescent couldn't see anything. He couldn't determine where Rev was nor what state he was in.
A murderous intent gave Crescent pause. He turned to see the cloaked figure of Rev. Crescent formed a shield to defend himself, however, his opponent easily broke it. Rev, once again, became a flash of green and black light. He rocketed through Crescent multiple times, further damaging him with each hit. Rev accelerated every time he struck successfully. Soon it felt as if he was hitting Crescent from every direction at once.
Looking from above, Rev formed something that appeared to be a dark green star, Crescent becoming its core.
Crescent's HP was chipped down until it reached 10% causing his bar to glow bright red. Crescent attempted escaping from the brutal barrage by invoking multiple shields. However, they were all destroyed instantly. Left with no other choice, he summoned a red orb from his inventory.
Rev dashed towards Crescent, intending on finishing him, but he noticed the newly summoned orb. It transfigured into a ball of fire and then stretched. It finalized its form after taking various types, becoming a flame eastern dragon. The dragon roared with supreme might. It trained on Rev immediately, its jaws opened wide. Just before biting down into him, it exploded becoming a surging wave of fire.
The explosion turned the sky crimson with flames. The air itself burned, creating a thick cloud of smoke. Crescent examined Rev, still breathing heavily after that surprise retaliation. He detected no sign of movement. Reflexively, knowing his opponent's fighting style somewhat, Crescent looked up. Above him, Rev was on the offense again already.
Rev dove at him at an insane rate. It could not be blocked, and there was no time for a reaction. Intuition could not save him. Rev's kunai plunged deeply into Crescent's chest with a wet thud as they collided. The force of this final strike drove his opponent's corpse to crash on the ground, digging a grave for him in the process.
Crescent's HP was zero.
Rev landed beside Crescent and clinically eyed his opponent's corpse with cold diamond-like eyes. He sheathed his knife and recalled his aura from it. Crescent's corpse slowly collapsed into colorful dust; first, his feet, followed by the rest of his body. However, right before his face collapsed, a mocking smile caressed Crescent's lips. Rev stared blankly at the spot where Crescent had left the world. His heart sank, the smile bothering him. Cold sweat dripped down his back. Rev turned towards the site of the main battle, back towards the World Serpent. Its HP was at 5%. He heaved a sigh of relief, feeling foolish over worrying for nothing, even if the smile was peculiar. Relieved as he was, the golden and purple orb he'd summoned told him his job was not over yet.