Chapter 27:

LEVEL 27: Championship Part 2—The Sun Palace and A Study in Poor Writing

CREO: Game of Creation

Where was the armor? The death god everyone was rooting for? The dreadful and viscous leader of Team Upstart had been replaced by a thin, dainty girl with leaves in her hair and bare feet. A trail of sparkles followed her steps and her eyes were a piercing green.

“Match 2: WhiteWitch vs Pluton!” Kuu gestured to the girl in white when it said Pluton’s name, leading to more confused murmuring.

“They act like they’ve never seen an alt avatar before.” I said. Still, it was unusual for a top player like her to suddenly switch from her main avatar in the tournament final. Especially with such a radically different look. What was she thinking?

“She only uses that avatar when she’s sad.” Sieg said. “I don’t care about your fight or anything, but maybe that crown meant more to her than you thought.” I ignored him—what did he know about me, or her?

Pluton’s world took shape in the arena, sand sweeping the ground away until a desert extended under a sunset sky. A golden palace in the Egyptian style rose out of the sand, towering toward the sun. Lucy ascended the shining steps and entered past the ornately carved doors into a vast hall. At the end of the hall sat Pluton on a throne, its back shaped like the sun.

“You like games, Puzzle Witch?” She said, her voice echoing through the hall, her tone filled with the bite of spite. “We’re in the land of chance. If you’re lucky, you’ll reach my throne and claim victory, if not…” The pillars lining the sides of the hall briefly showed their true form as cobras.

“I’m game.” Lucy said, removing her avatar’s hood to reveal white hair and cat ears. “Do your worst!” Pluton snapped her fingers and a roulette wheel rose from the floor. Instead of just black and red, this wheel had a different color for every space, each inscribed with a hieroglyphic—so there were no easy bets. Lucy pointed to the purple space. “That one.”

“You sure? You didn’t think about it long.”

“It’s all chance, right? What would dwelling on it change?”

“Fair point.” A stone dropped into the roulette, bouncing past each color until it slowed, looking like it was going to stop at the blue space inscribed with a falcon. At the last moment, Lucy shot the stone with a bolt of magic and it sprang into the air, landing back down toward the green space. She repeated the process until it landed at the desired purple space. “Cheater.” Pluton said with a growl.

“You never said it wasn’t allowed.” Adam was becoming a bad influence on our teammates. Lucy stepped forward to the next challenge. An enormous stone tablet rose before her. Carved into the stone were 3 wheels and a lever.

“Try to cheat at this one.” Pluton said. Lucy pulled the lever and the slot machine flashed to life. Buttons blinked under each reel—she pressed the first and its reel stopped. A hieroglyph of Osiris. The pressure was on. Lucy looked at the reel as it spun, her hand hovering above the button, ready to strike. Tap. Osiris! The third reel spun even faster. After a moment of trying to catch sight of the hieroglyph, Lucy punched the reel, making it stop—but not completely—letting her manually spin the reel until the image of Osiris appeared and she let the reel rest. Pluton scowled and banged on her throne.

“Why do you encourage him?!” she yelled across the hall. “You think you’re his friend? CREO ate away at who he was, and you help that addiction.”

“That’s not fair.” Lucy said, crossing her arms. “I’ve got every right to be here and compete. We’re all responsible for our own decisions. Besides, Kai’s not the same idiot he was before. He’s still an idiot, but not as severe as before.”

“But if you ask him why you’re here, why your team exists and competes, what does he say?” Lucy backed away a step.

“Is it so wrong to want to win? To prove yourself?”

“It is when that becomes your whole reason for being.” A platform rose from the floor. “Last challenge. Ever heard of Senet? It’s an ancient Egyptian game—the goal is to move all your pieces through the board before your opponent. 30 tiles, we move in an S shape, moves are determined by these—” Four popsicle sticks appeared in Lucy’s hand, one side black, the other white. “Throw them, and the number of spaces you move is determined by what color sides land face-up.”

“Got it.” Lucy threw the sticks—3 black, 1 white.

“Move one space and throw again.” 3 white, 1 black. “3 spaces and end your turn.” Pluton threw and got 4 white. She moved her piece to the same space as Lucy’s and knocked it back to the beginning. “Only one piece per square at a time. And I get to go again.” The fire in Lucy’s eyes intensified. She didn’t like losing games or being taunted.

“Thanks for your thorough explanation, Rin.”

Senet takes longer than Rin probably expected, as there’s a space toward the end that your pieces have to land on exactly before they can be taken off the board. It was a splendid opportunity for bathroom breaks and a trip to the concession stand. I wanted katsudon, but I had to make do with the American fare of hot dogs and jumbo pretzels.

“This is a weird CREO.” Teo said once we’d returned to our seats.

“Yeah, I’ve never seen Pluton use games like this. She doesn’t seem very good at it either. What’d she say the plan was for this world, Sieg?” Sieg and Adam were busy playing on my old hand-held game device and weren’t paying attention until Lucy screamed in frustration.

“Forget it!” Lucy rushed toward the throne. Rin didn’t acknowledge her, instead throwing her sticks and landing on the necessary space to win the game. The throne melted away, and the desert whipped itself into a sandstorm, which soon cleared away to reveal a pristine mountain range reflected on a clear blue lake. The view appeared from behind a window in a lavish Victorian lounge, the doorways extravagantly carved, ornamental light fixtures juxtaposed by floral wallpaper, and a grand piano in the center.

“Oh, Darling.” A man wearing a top-hot who bore a concerning resemblance to me (only with much more sparkly eyes) took Rin’s arm in his. “How do you like the view, dear? Only the best for my bride to be.” Oh God. What was Lucy thinking? Rin tore her arm away.

“Alright, what’s the challenge? Puzzle Witch?!” she called out to no avail. Then a scream sounded from the next room. A young woman in the puffiest dress I’d ever seen lied on the floor—dead.

“Not to worry.” Lucy entered the room, dressed as Sherlock Holmes, complete with duster coat and smoking pipe. “I’ll solve this here mystery. What say we make this into a contest, eh?”

“So I just have to figure out who killed her before you?”

“Correct. The victim and killer are randomly assigned, so we’re in the same boat. There will, however, be 3 clues that will lead to the killer’s identity. When you’re ready, come back to the scene of the crime and name your man or woman.”

“Oh, the tragedy!” My lookalike said, swooning in an exaggerated gesture. “What are we to do? I’d like to get married, but with all the murdering going around, where am I to find a caterer?!” How was she not embarrassed by that horrible dialogue?

“Perhaps we should start with you, then, dear.” Rin said. “One look at the girl and it’s obvious she wasn’t killed violently, no blood. So poison, then. Perhaps you wanted to break off whatever engagement we’re in and used murder to do it?”

“S-surely you jest! I can prove my innocence—look! Before she died, the girl seems to have written something, a name—but the letters are scrambled! Huh, maybe you can solve this puzzle.” I was struggling to stay in my seat as the world learned how terrible a writer Lucy was. She’d mentioned wanting to write a more complex story of her own, but I never thought the result would be so… bad. ‘Upstairs read the dead girl’s note. Upstairs Detective Rin went. A cluttered study stacked with bookcases and old papers lining the floor greeted her.

“She doesn’t expect me to sift through all this…”

“Psst. Hey, over here.” Rin looked at the antique desk with so many books piled the surface was hardly visible. From under a sheet of paper peeked a mouse. “Over here, in the desk drawer.” The mouse said. Lucy had quite the imagination.

“Why should I trust you? Perhaps you’re the killer, little mouse.” The mouse stood back, his paw on his chest.

“Me? How would I go about poisoning someone?” He held up his paws. “Maybe I won’t help you after all.” He turned his back to her and flicked his tail.

“Fine, sorry. What about the drawer?” The mouse’s tail pointed to the other side of the desk.

“It’s a puzzle lock. There’s a clue inside, I just know it.” After toiling with the puzzle blocks, Rin opened the drawer and uncovered a marriage certificate between the dead girl—Winifred Humplestump (brilliant name) and Gregory Fiddlefaddle (also a first-class name). On cue, Mr. Fiddlefaddle—a heavy-set middle-aged man with a monocle burst into the study.

“What’s all this? Who are you to rifle through my things, miss? And is that a mouse on my desk?” The mouse squeaked in fright and scurried off into a hole in the wall.

“I don’t have time for this.” It was possible Lucy was drawing out dialogue and such to make Rin take longer, thus lowering her score, although it was a little sketchy of a tactic. Rin blasted a hole through what was obviously a bookshelf door (the book that was supposed to open it was sticking out so obviously). Rin rushed into the secret dungeon and found a vial of poison. She held it up to the light and nodded. “I know who the killer is.”

Back at the scene of the crime, the body of the girl was missing, as was the handsome fiance. Lucy waited at the front entrance.

“Figured it out, eh?”

“No fingerprints on the poison—the girl faked it to get out of her marriage and ran off with my ‘fiance’.”

“Correct. Now’s the fun part—catch them before they escape. They should be boarding the train right now.” Rin flashed out of the inn and ran through the dimming twilight as village lights twinkled on and the whistle of the train sounded in the distance. She reached the train station as it pulled away. She chased after it, grabbing onto the caboose and rushing through the dining car, spilling trays and bowling over old women. The train approached a tunnel glowing with white light—the end of the line. Rin ran faster, checking the faces of every passenger until, in the last car, just at the last moment…