Chapter 15:

LEVEL 15: Artemis—The Battle of LianHua Part 3

CREO: Game of Creation

Like the rest of the world, we witnessed the siege of the LianHua Institute of Technology on the news, the story quickly becoming the obsession of the world. Copycat protests sprang up throughout not only LianHua, but all over the world. It was all a distant fascination for me. I only had a faint connection to that world, so it felt like watching a movie—taking in the action from the safety of the other side of the screen. There was constant fighting in that other world—it was chaos, disorganized, and dangerous.

We easily won our match and moved on to the quarterfinals of the CREO tournament, but the day after our match, all the attention and energy was sucked away from us and focused in LianHua. We’d worked so hard too! Pluton’s world was an endless staircase her opponent got lost in, just going up forever until time ran out. Poor guy didn’t realize it was an illusion and all he had to do was go down. Sieg was just as impressive, creating a musical challenge with no visual element—very unusual, but effective. I wasn’t able to physically travel with them because of my condition, but my avatar appeared virtually. Pluton wore a mask the whole time, so her face remained hidden, but I got a good look at Sieg—he was much younger than I realized. I think he even had his parents travel with him. In the end, no one was talking about their worlds, or their brilliant play, nor did they talk about my Tartarus survival CREO, complete with a Cerberus boss fight. Instead, it was all about the losers that were KAI, T3O, and WhiteWitch—a group of nobodies now turned into anti-establishment folk-heroes for some, and malicious criminals for others.

After about a week of the siege, we were approached by Kuu while training.

“Hello, Team Upstart!” The name we’d given ourselves, given that we were all fairly new to the International CREO scene. “Congratulations on advancing in the tournament. Unfortunately, due to the events at the other bracket venue, the tournament may not proceed as scheduled.”

“What a surprise.” Sieg said with deadpan sarcasm.

“If you’re willing, perhaps you’d be able to help resolve the problem.” We all had an idea what he had in mind. I looked to Pluton, who nodded.

“We have to put a stop to it, for Team KAI’s sake. It’s getting dangerous.” Pluton said. To any other observer, Pluton’s avatar never showed emotion—just a dark knight without a proper face—but I noticed the subtle changes in the eyes and the shadows that leaked from the armor. It happened whenever KAI came up, something about him, some connection that always riled Pluton up. I saw sadness and pity in those eyes, along with a deep passion, one that’d drive any action no matter the cost for the sake of that nobody player who lost his crown.

Pluton went first, springing onto the roof. Sieg and I followed, reaching the roof as Pluton crossed swords with that strange boy KAI had with him. Making a child go through something so dangerous was just cruel—we’d have to teach him and his team a lesson. KAI’s teammates changed into their avatars and entered fighting stances, though I had the sense their hearts weren’t in it—they swayed and flinched, clearly exhausted. Why didn’t the former Japanese champion fight? Why was he cowering behind a child? Pluton didn’t show mercy, slashing with incredible speed and precision until the boy was knocked down, but to my surprise, he sprang back up and fired various elements at us. In that moment, WhiteWitch and T3O launched their attack from behind us, creating a barrier that pinned Sieg to the ground, while my arms were restrained with a rubbery, glowing substance.

“What are you people trying to do?!” I shouted. WhiteWitch seemed struck by my words, shuddering for a moment and giving me an opening to break free and kick T3O and his barrier off Sieg. “Watch my back.”

“Obviously.” Sieg produced his conducting wand and created a flock of songbirds made of surging energy, charging at the enemy. Meanwhile, I took aim with my bow, eager to take out the despicable ring leader of this sorry excuse for a team—KAI.

“Kaito!” KAI froze, his eyes growing wide when Pluton called his name. “Why are you here? Why are you fighting for a cause you don’t belong to?”

“H-how do you know my name? Who are you?!”

“Your friend.” Pluton reverted from her avatar’s form, revealing her true self. For a second, I thought KAI was going to pass out—his breath was so shallow as he swayed back and forth, his eyes watering.

“Rin? How could you?”

“You were dead. Shut away in the virtual world like a digital ghost. I wanted to snap you out of it, bring you back to the real world. I thought defeating you would work, but look at this.” She gestured at the war fortress of the campus. “It’s all a game to you, right? That’s what’s going on here, you just wanted a challenge.”

“You’re wrong, they talked me into it!”

“Did they? Or did your puppet?” She pointed her sword at the blue-haired boy she’d been fighting. “I know the secret, I’m not stupid. He acts just like his creator. His face even resembles yours from when you were young. Adam is a reflection of you. His will is your will, so there’s no talking you into anything. He’s nothing more than a shield for you to hide behind.” The blue-haired boy charged at Rin, his body spurting large, multi-colored flames.

“Take that back!” the boy screamed, tears streaming down his face, his attack erratic and relentless. “I’m no puppet, I’m not, I’m not, I’m—” Pluton got a clean hit on him, sending the boy flying, landing on his side in a heap. KAI screamed and rushed over to him, holding the boy up by one arm as he descended into hysterics. It was harsh, and I don’t think she meant to hurt him. Pluton reverted to her avatar’s form, jumped back and joined us, her allies. She was trembling and could hardly stand.

“Rin…” KAI glared at her with spite, the boy slumped across his lap. “You took everything from me, humiliated me, and tore apart my world. That crown is all that gave my life meaning, and you stole it.” KAI’s companions seemed to wince at that. “This siege is over. We’ll leave and let these people get run over, sure. In the end, it didn’t matter what we did here—the systems always win, and people like me are left to struggle in vain. I was stupid to think this world was worth anything, and I was stupid to call you my friend.”

“Kaito…” Rin reverted again. “I never meant to hurt you. I love you, and I just wanted you to move forward.”

“Move forward off a cliff.” KAI picked up the boy, Adam, and managed to get him to his feet. “You okay?” He said to him, his voice a gentle whisper. Adam nodded, stumbling as he walked. His teammates slunk over to them, and the group climbed down from the roof without another word. From our vantage point, we saw them give themselves up to the police while the student protesters finished their escape on ziplines across the nearby river. None of that mattered. It didn’t matter that we accomplished our goal, or that KAI got what was coming to him. My friend was in pain. She collapsed onto her knees, her face a mess of tears. It was rare for me to wish for my physical body, rare for me to curse my condition, but embracing her with the hollow shell that was my avatar would never be enough. Still, we sat with her, my avatar’s arms around her, Sieg sitting off to the side, looking out at the city lights in silence. We sat there for what felt like a long, sorrow-filled lifetime, just us, the smell of night air, smoke, and chemicals, and the sound of my friend’s tears and whispers of regret.

KAI, or Ayakura Kaito, as he was known in this world—I didn’t know what was about to happen to him, but it wouldn’t be enough, not for me. I would beat him, make him suffer, until he’d paid for every tear Rin shed that night.