Chapter 24:

LEVEL 24: Artemis—Ahead of the Battle

CREO: Game of Creation

Defeating him was all I thought about. After the battle of LianHua, 24 hours a day, I planned and worked on a CREO world that would top any I’d made before. It was fine-tuned to his weaknesses, and I would get to face off against him, no matter what… I just had to convince Rin first.

She’d been quiet ever since the battle—only showing up when she had to. She even got close to losing in the semifinals, which would’ve tarnished our team’s otherwise perfect record in this tournament.

“Rin, talk to me. You’ve been so distant.” It was maybe the 40th unanswered text I’d left her. “I have something to show you.” She appeared in my Virtual Hub personal space, the armor of Pluton replaced with her alt avatar—the transparent image of a girl in white, a veil over her face. “Persephone?”

“If it’s the Roman name, it’d be Proserpina.”

“Rin, I hate to see you mope around like this. Can’t you at least come to me and talk about it?”

“The only person I should be talking to is Kaito. He’s the one who’s been hurt in all this.”

“Forget about him—you’ve said it yourself, he’s been nothing but a rotten friend to you. If losing will show him the way, let me have the pleasure.” I summoned my latest CREO world…

KAI’s weaknesses were getting overwhelmed in an ambush and being unable to think through a situation. He was strongest in challenge CREO and in worlds with a clear path to get through. What to do with him? Take the control out of his hands. He showed me the way himself in one of his worlds. I created a labyrinth—the walls randomly shifting continuously, but this version had no set end. Rather, it was a survival CREO in which he’d have to toil against legions of mythical beasts lurking around every corner in unpredictable ways. He was stronger at distances when he could gauge his enemies. In close quarters with limited visibility, he’d be an easy target. Rin didn’t look pleased.

“I don’t want to shame him anymore. Selena, why are we doing this? What do we gain by winning?”

“What are you saying? You just want to quit when we’re so close? You led us to greatness, you made me want to strive for something, gave me a purpose.” I was getting dizzy, and I didn’t know my avatar could tremble like that. “We have to win because I want to prove I was here. I want to show everyone what you gave me, and no one, especially not KAI, should ever take that away.”

“Selena…” Rin took my hands in hers. “Alright. We’ll win—for you. But Kaito isn’t my enemy, he’ll never be.” I said nothing, just grunted. Whatever she said, I wouldn’t forgive that lowlife. A yawn sounded behind us.

“Girls talk too much.” Sieg said from his perch atop my maze walls, leaning back against a pillar, one leg crossed over his knee. “We need to win because that’s what a competition’s for. That’s all. Determining who’s best and putting on a show.” I crossed my arms. This was probably the most I’d heard Sieg talk in the months I’d known him. I wouldn’t waste an opportunity to learn more about him for once.

“So, why did you join us in the first place? Why do you play CREO?” He shrugged, staring at his hand play with a tussle of his blonde hair rather than me.

“It’s a sport I happen to be good at. What other reason would there be?”

“Maybe enjoying the game?” He shrugged again.

“I enjoy a good symphony. CREO is work.” It was like to talking to a wall.

“Well, I don’t get you. CREO’s something special, it’s about possibility, it’s—”

I was abruptly ripped from my team and the virtual world—opening my eyes in the other place. The painful place called reality. The familiar fluorescent lights, the white room, the chemical smell, just as I remembered it. It’d been about two weeks since I last woke up, and even then, I never stayed long. My parents’ faces greeted me with the same sorrowful smiles as usual.

“Nice to see you, Lena.” Dad said. “Been a while.”

“Congrats on making the finals.” Mom said, her hands grasping mine, just like Rin’s were before in the better place.

“Why’d you call me back? I was in the middle of something.”

“The doctors told us you’ve been responding well to treatment lately.” Dad said. “They said you might even be able to come home by your birthday.” There was a time when I wanted to hear those words more than anything, when I would’ve jumped at the chance to see that old creaky house on the wrong side of the tracks again. I could see my cousins and old classmates in the flesh, instead of just their avatars. I could even see our dog, Toby. He’d be old by now, but I wondered if he’d still chase that old tennis ball if I threw it?

“I’ll still be able to do the CREO finals, right?” Is all I said, the only thing on my mind. Winning the tournament and exacting revenge on my friend’s tormentor.

“Of course. But they said you should try to take it easy. If you strain yourself too much, mentally, it’ll be harder for your body to fight.”

“Maybe I don’t care anymore.”

“Don’t say that!” Mom was clutching me so hard it hurt. “We want our girl to come home at least one more time. That was our promise when you came here, that you’d be coming out. You want to break that promise?” I glanced away and sighed.

“It’s so hard. It’s easier in the better world. My life is there. All I have here is pain.”

“You have us.” Dad sat on the bed next to me. “Promise us you’ll try, so we can celebrate together at Jim’s Ice Cream shop after you win.” He exploited the last weakness I had for this world—that ice cream was damn good.

“Can I get as many scoops as I want?”

“You can buy the whole place out if you want.”

“Don’t tempt me, I might.” For the first time in far too long, I shared a laugh with my parents, despite the pain.