“I hate making speeches.” Shesmu looked at his teammates one by one; the few torches at the sides of the room couldn't break the veil of shadows surrounding them. However, he could see that they were fidgeting. Whether it was due to the anxiety of what was to come or the chilly, night breeze, Shesmu didn't know.
“You really don’t need to do it, Shes. We’re not rookies, we already know what to do once the game starts.”
Shesmu shook his head.
“You know what, Cain? Fine. Let’s just skip the pep-talk and go straight to the strategy.”
“It’s not as if you’re any good at them, leader,” A purple-haired girl cut in. Everyone chuckled, easing the tension. Even Shesmu couldn’t help but smile.
“Okay, okay. You guys can laugh at me all you want, we still need to go through with the strat.”
Shesmu coughed twice, continuing with a more serious voice, “The most important thing that you need to remember is this; don’t engage with Crescent unless it’s absolutely necessary. Their whole team’s strategy will revolve around securing an Arcane Scroll for him.”
Shesmu glanced over his teammates before stopping at one man. His dark robe merged with the dimly lit surroundings. His abrasive ocean colored eyes looked down at the floor, while his hand played with his blood-red hair.
“Cain and I will stop them from doing that. The rest of you will proceed with the strategy as normal. Okay, that’s it for now. We will meet on the battlefield.”
Shesmu’s teammates teleported out of the room one after the other. Just as Cain was about to join them, Shesmu tapped at his shoulder.
“Cain, stay for a bit. I need to talk to you about something.”
Shesmu looked all over the dimly lit room, with frowned eyebrows. “Damnit, Dawn and their trashy aesthetics.” He snapped his fingers and a fireball appeared. The spell danced on his hand before flying to the top of the room, illuminating it.
“There, much better.”
His eyes fell back on Cain, carrying within them a thousand emotions.
“Ehm, how do I say this? Are you still thinking about retiring?” Shesmu finally asked.
“Shes, we have already talked about this, haven’t we?” Cain responded. “Today is the finals, keep your head straight, okay?”
Shesmu understood that nothing he could say would change Cain’s mind. He was always like that. As such, he just sighed and said, “Okay, let’s focus on the match. Go, I’ll come after you.”
Cain nodded. His body turned into a torrent of shiny particles before he disappeared as well.
With Cain gone, Shesmu clenched his fists.
The walls echoed his screams but Shesmu paid them no heed. After relieving the pent-up stress on his chest, Shesmu issued a command within the depth of his mind.
Access restricted area. Code name: Wonderland.
A cold metallic voice responded in his head. Access granted. Welcome, Shesmu, Captain of Black Moon.
With those words, Shesmu also disappeared from the chamber.
* * *
“Eva, hurry up! We’re gonna be late for the game!”
“Okay mama, I’m coming, I’m coming!”
Eva closed the door of her room behind her, sprinting towards Sophie. Her emerald green eyes were reminiscent of her mother’s, and her cute, short brown hair reminded Sophie of her olden days.
“You know, Papa will be really happy to know that you came to cheer for him.”
“I know, Mama,” replied Eva in a soft voice. “Now, let’s go. The game has already started.”
Eva sprinted to the gaming room, leaving Sophie behind. The latter just smiled and followed after her daughter. The gaming room had three capsules in it. One was already being used by Mark—or as he was known in the gaming world, Shesmu.
Eva opened one of the capsules before hopping into it. Sophie walked towards her daughter to make sure everything was ready. Once she checked, Sophie kissed Eva on the forehead, making the latter embarrassed.
“Mama, I’m no longer a child! Stop treating me like that!”
“Oh, so you’re an adult? A seven-year-old adult?” Sophie grinned at the expense of her daughter. “Anyway, I’ll see you on the other side. You remember how to reach the stadium, right?”
“Yes, Mama! We’ve done this like four times already!”
“Good, then see you on the other side.”
Eva closed the lid of her capsule. Sophie entered her own capsule. And after closing the lid, she was submerged in a brown warm liquid.
Finishing her mental command, the darkness surrounding her slowly shifted into a blinding light. At the same time, a female robotic voice sounded in her head.
Boot… System Ω9 13.5 Active – Ashes of Gods
The blinding light slowly gained focus, and the deafening silence transformed into shouts, cries, and cheers of a million fans. Sophie looked around her to see a stadium filled to the brim.
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.
Looking at them, Sophie couldn’t help but feel hyped too, with all of the energy in the air. Eva popped into existence beside her, snapping Sophie out of her reverie.
“Mama, did you find any seats?” She asked.
“Ehm, we have reserved tickets, remember?”
“It’s okay.” Sophie took hold of Eva’s hands before teleporting away.
They soon appeared sitting on two chairs, right in the front seats. The gigantic screens were in front of them. They felt oddly intimidating to Sophie.
The cameras focused on an enormous explosion. From within the debris, a man clad in red robes zigzagged his way through a forest. He made sure that his pursuers would have a hard time tracking him.
“What a terrible turn of situation!” The caster shouted at the top of his lungs. “Just as we thought that Blood Cross was going to secure the Arcane Scroll, Shesmu and Cain appear out of nowhere and crush their hopes. Their whole team was decimated by their combined assault. Only Crescent remains.”
“Ah, the game just started and they already got wiped out,” Sophie lamented.
Eva turned to look at Sophie, confused at her mother’s statement. “Isn’t that good? Papa’s team is winning.”
“Yeah…” Sophie scratched her head, trying to think of a way to explain her feelings to her daughter. “It’s just not fun, you know? When the game is too easy.”
“Hmm, I see…” replied Eva, looking downwards.
“Well, you’ll understand it once you become old enough.”
“Ehh, really?” Eva asked.
Sophie spared her daughter a smile before focusing back on the game. Crescent made his way to the entry of a canyon.
The crowd was hyped already, the cheers were deafening. The announcer added oil to the blazing fire consuming the stadium.
“The fight for the World Serpent is nigh. It’s a seven against one situation, but in the run of this season, we’ve seen Crescent single-handedly flip the flow of the whole match alone. Will he finally step into the pantheon of AOG, alongside Shesmu, his most dangerous enemy in this clash of titans?”
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’s looked on anxiously, hoping that Crescent 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.
Eva stared at her with a toothy smile.
“Mama, what is this Serpent that the caster 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. She struggled to no avail. She couldn’t escape the deadly bear hug, 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 leaned forward, beckoning Eva to return her attention to the game.
“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 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.
“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 that even makes sense? Are these two guys related or something, like lovers and stuff? Why 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.”
That only served to confuse her further. She returned her attention to the game, deciding to cast her worries aside. The caster’s voice was able to distract her. She looked at the screen, thinking it had displayed her father only a couple of minutes ago.
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 focused on one player. Clad in a red robe, he jumped from one rock to the next as he made his way through the Canyon.
It was Crescent.