4 The Thirteenth Momen
Twenty-one years old – This exact moment right now, I'm experiencing my Thirteenth Fucking Awesome Moment.
It's the final seconds of the Beta Tournament of Champions Last Battle, and my mind has reached a level of clarity I didn't know was possible. It's as if the scarlet-armored swordsman across from me has slowed to a crawl, his every move and countermove telegraphed eons in advance so I have infinite time and space to choose the perfect attack.
The roar of the crowd hasn't faded to the background; instead, I hear each individual cheer and chant and heartbeat thundering at me from every corner of the arena.
My hands are steady—
My hands. Are steady. Both of them. Steady and firm and perfect and whole.
—and my heart is calm, and when the crimson sword thrusts toward my chest, I dodge with a light twist.
Half a centimeter separates life from death, but it might as well be half a league. I will never allow that blade to hit its mark.
My curved blades, so pitch-black they look more like dagger-shaped voids, rend through the air with such speed that by the time the scarlet swordsman feels the first slash, all seven moves of my Chakra Burst skill have landed.
He doesn't even have time to feel shocked before the last dregs of his HP drain away.
As the triumphant music sounds and my name flashes high in the arena, all I know is that fucking awesome moment number thirteen is all the sweeter given I never believed I'd get another.
Today, the beta ends, and I am the champion.
Tomorrow, the real game begins, and I am reborn.
The scarlet swordsman regens (regenerates) in the special raised section of the stands reserved for tournament participants, leaving me alone in the center of the Coliseum.
I half-expect to hear chants of "Maximus! Maximus!", but I'm probably the only weirdo my age who watches old turn-of-the-century films.
The arena starts shaking, and I barely have time to think, 'Oh shit. Is this where the man-eating tiger leaps out of the trapdoor?' before a section of ground starts rising. Up, up, I soar twenty meters into the air atop my own mini-mountain. I play it cool, but it's a serious struggle to keep my balance. After surviving this long, however, I refuse to be taken down by a damn mole hill.
A black, pixelated rift opens in the sky, and a deep, booming voice reverberates throughout the arena: "Congratulations, player. Your glorious victory heralds the beginning of a new era!"
Cheers fill the Coliseum, so loud the air vibrates with the force of the crowd's enthusiasm. It's probably a coding glitch, but it feels pretty damn cool regardless.
A colossus of a man crosses through the rift and falls to the arena in a perfect Superhero Landing crouch, his fist leaving a small crater. I know science and physics and whatever is all, "Landing like this is actually real dumb," but man, if it doesn't look badass as hell.
When the avatar stands, I realize why I've been raised so high. Next to this Titan, I'm minuscule. He's pure, rippling muscle covered by scraps of gold cloth wrapped toga-style. A giant eagle sits on his shoulder and dazzling flames halo his head and enshroud his fists.
In Greek mythology, he's the Titan who stole the fire of the gods to help humans, only to be punished for eternity. For defying the gods, he was chained to a rock where, every day, an eagle would come eat his liver, only for it to regrow back to be re-eaten the next day.
Greeks, man. Savage AF.
According to this sweet book on world mythology Xiuying gave me for my eighth birthday, Prometheus is seen as the father of human civilization, a lone genius striving to improve humanity through the arts and scientific advancement.
And excuuuse the fuck out of you, judgey dude who looks all skeptical that I've read a book. I've read books. Just not boring ones. I swear, if teachers assigned decent stuff, like sci-fi webnovels or sports manga (gay vibes or no, that shit is solid) or even a bajillion-page fantasy series full of swords, magic, and questionably appropriate sex scenes, I would have graduated first in my class.
Teachers think all us gamers couldn't find symbolism if it danced in front of us wearing shiny nipple pasties, but the truth is, we are the kings of literary analysis. We scour entire worlds looking for scraps of symbolic details that might lead to major quests. We have full-on Socratic seminars on forums debating map motifs—granted, the spelling leaves a bit to be desired, and there's a lot more insulting of mothers than I assume old Socrates and his pals were into, but that might be because those dudes were into marrying their moms.
If Oedipus had had access to internet porn, things might have turned out different.
At any rate, it doesn't take my sophisticated gamer brain long to figure out who's controlling this avatar. Who else could be a scientific innovator determined to improve humanity?
Thankfully, my face only alternates between two expressions—surly frown and smug-ass smirk—because internally I am fanboying REAL HARD, and if I looked as giddy and starstruck as I feel, it would permanently damage my image.
Hey, I have an image. People think I'm mysterious, okay? Broody, even.
(Also 'an arrogant asshole' and, according to my sister's best friend in middle school, 'a scrawny punk with the soul of a cantankerous old man.')
Currently, I'm feeling happy and proud, so smug-ass smirk it is. When I catch sight of my avatar in one of the holo-projections designed so everyone in the arena has a perfect view of the action, even I want to punch myself.
Prometheus raises a fiery hand and with a voice that rumbles like distant thunder, greets the crowd: "Good afternoon, intrepid players. I am Zhao Jianyu."
Boom, called it. Pretty sure my smirk just got even smirkier.
"Thanks to all your hard work, Viren's Refuge has reached new heights and will successfully launch at midnight, China Standard Time, December 31st."
More deafening cheers. This time, I'm right there with them, screaming my brains out.
Luckily, Zhao Jianyu's Prometheus voice is loud enough he doesn't have to wait until the cheers die out, or he'd never make it through his speech. He turns his giant form to stare down at me. It's only mildly terrifying. "Dregs, as a reward for your exceptional effort and talented display, I am gifting you the V-Haven you're currently using, as well as a full year's subscription to Viren's Refuge and a special in-game gift."
If avatars could faint, I'd be making like a damsel in a too-tight corset and straight-up swooning right now.
"Th-tha-" I stutter. My mouth's suddenly too dry, so I swallow twice, then cough like an idiot. Finally, I manage to get out a simple, "Thank you, sir!"
I mentally smack myself and sigh. Real smooth, Eric Lieu.
"Furthermore," Zhao Jianyu continues, ignoring my idiocy, "every other player in the Adventurer Top 16 and the Lifestyle Top 5 will receive a free six-month subscription and unique in-game gift. The other adventurers who ranked in the Top 100 will also receive in-game gifts."
The lucky players jump to their feet, screaming and fist pumping. I even see some hugging, and one guy who tries to take advantage of the jubilant mood by kissing the gorgeous spear warrior next to him. He technically succeeds . . . before she stabs him in the groin with a dagger she'd been hiding somewhere. Which she then leaves lodged to act as a conductor for her spear's lightning attack.
I have never been more simultaneously terrified and turned on in my life.
For obvious reasons, the area around the brutal beauty suddenly clears out, so she uses the tip of her spear to flip the crying guy down a few rows. Then she sits back in her seat, calm as you please.
I can't help it. I burst out laughing. Sucks to be that guy, for sure, but it was a total dick move on his part, so I can't find it in me to feel sorry for the jackass. Besides, it's not for nothing she made it to the semi-finals of the Tournament of Champions. He really should have seen this coming.
She looks up then, and our eyes meet. Too late, I realize the sounds from the arena floor are still being amplified throughout the stadium. Her electric violet eyes make phantom goosebumps run up my arms; Viren's Refuge hasn't coded that particular simulation, but I feel it all the same. I shiver, but I don't look away. On the contrary, I stare back as intensely as she's staring at me.
Silvery-white hair falls past her shoulders; the lavender-tinted ends curl just below the curve of her gleaming breastplate. More streaks of lavender are visible in the elaborate braids she uses to keep her hair out of her eyes, tied together in a high half-knot in back.
Her high cheekbones are tinged the palest pink, her lips only a shade darker. Her dark violet eyes are even more vivid nestled within her fair, peaches-and-cream complexion.
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She's the kind of beautiful that inspires lovesick men to write shitty, angsty songs.
She's the kind of terrifying that inspires dickless men to write shitty, angsty "A woman's place is in my kitchen wah wahh I'm a wanker" blog posts.
Speaking of, the wanker she electrocuted is finally upright. He's red-faced in affronted fury, and he slaps away the helpful hands of his friends holding him up. He whirls around, leaps onto the stone bench, and shrieks, "You bitch!"
Without thinking, I grab the dart from my belt and throw it straight at his boots. A small explosion knocks him into the air, and a dagger thrown from the opposite direction hits him square in the junk. Again. This time, he flies clear out of the stands and crashes onto the arena floor.
Sighing, I examine the dart automatically returned to my fingers. "Pity they fixed you," I mutter. "I could have juggled him right out of the stadium!"
Laughter fills the arena, and I remember, yet again, that everyone can hear me.
NPC guards cart the groaning idiot off who cares where. I catch the pale beauty's eye and see two more daggers ready to fly from those long, graceful fingers. I grin, totally enamored by her decisive-yet-elegant violence.
What can I say? I'm a battle maniac.
The barest hint of a smile quirks up one corner of her mouth and she lightly nods her thanks.
I shrug to say, "You would have handled it fine on your own."
She rolls her eyes to say, "Obviously," but then nods again to add, "but even so. Thanks."
I cheekily wink a "You're welcome," and she responds with the single-most unimpressed eyebrow raise I've ever seen. I laugh again. She crosses her arms and shakes her head.
Zhao Jianyu pointedly clears his throat. I jolt back to reality.
I think I just flirted with a girl.
A hot girl.
A super hot girl who stabs people and electrocutes them with lightning blasts, and I think I'm in love.
And thus I discover an entirely new kind of Fucking Awesome Moment.