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Born of Fire (We Shall Not Fall)

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He picked up the contract and something was wrong, wrong, wrong, so wrong, he’d been uncomfortable since he walked in but this was a whole new level, something was not right. His hand had shaken for a moment as he’d given One Autumn Leaf away, but he’d steeled himself, he’d solidified his resolve. He shouldn’t be shaking anymore—he was prepared for this, he knew what was coming—but he was, not noticeably, but he could feel the start of tremors, and not just in his hands. There was a sickening lurch as his body seemed to fight itself, the page almost swam in front of him, everything felt a little clammy, a little uncomfortable, he was starting to sweat—

He was too hot.

He couldn’t be too hot, the room was climate controlled, it was winter, his coat was much too thin to cause this, where was the heat coming from?

Heat.

He was in heat.

His first, fairly stupid, thought was that it was impossible. His last heat had been almost eight years ago, when he’d first presented, back when he’d still had Su Muqiu…

Ye Xiu used the dull ache of that memory to pull his mind back to the present. He may have been on the best suppressants money could buy since he’d first presented, but he remembered what a heat felt like, and this was it. He lifted his gaze from the paper he’d just grabbed—was it really only a few seconds ago?—to see Cui Li watching him closely, his smile sinister.

Cui Li was a beta, like almost everyone else in the room. He’d have no reason to guess what was happening unless—

Unless he caused it. It must have been on the contract, some kind of contact-absorbed heat-inducer. Ye Xiu felt sick, and not just from the way conflicting chemicals were wreaking havoc on his biology. Cui Li had known him since he was 15, and this—this was an assault. Pushing him out of Excellent Era, he could understand. This? What even was the point of this? Everyone else in Excellent Era was a beta, had been since Wu Xuefeng left, at least before…

In the unreal vagueness of his peripheral vision, Ye Xiu saw Sun Xiang slowly get to his feet. His face was vaguely confused, a little dazed, because he—

Sun Xiang was an alpha.

Sun Xiang had presented as an alpha midway through last season. Even if he were the type to care overmuch about learning self-control, there was little chance he’d have the experience necessary to resist the chemically-induced heat of an older omega, especially one with the backlash of breaking through eight years of stacked-up suppressants.

Okay, this was fucked up.

The horror of exactly what Cui Li was hoping to cause with this chemical assault snapped Ye Xiu back into the moment again. Stay on as a training partner? If Sun Xiang marked him, Cui Li probably thought he wouldn’t have any choice but to help him take over as the Battle God. Well, Ye Xiu wasn’t going to allow that.

Ye Xiu shot an arm out to grab Su Mucheng’s sleeve. “Get me out of here,” he said bluntly.

Su Mucheng spent maybe a half-second confused. The other team-members went silent. Sun Xiang took an unsteady step forward.

Su Mucheng’s eyes widened, then narrowed with determination. She spared no more than an instant to look at Cui Li with disgust before grabbing Ye Xiu’s hand firmly and turning toward the door.

Ye Xiu could already feel his head clearing, the open door right in front of them.

“Wait—” Sun Xiang called, befuddled, but Su Mucheng decisively snapped the door closed after them and began striding down the hall, tugging Ye Xiu after her.

Su Mucheng waited a few moments in silence as Ye Xiu’s breath evened before trying to speak. “The contract?” she asked quietly.

“Mm,” Ye Xiu shuddered, then abruptly stood upright and started walking more beside than behind her. He’d almost seem okay again, if it weren’t for how pale and sweaty his face was.

“Is it…” They turned a corner. Somewhere behind them, it sounded like a door violently opened. “Can it be stopped?”

“No,” Ye Xiu said decisively. “I’ll have to deal with it in my room.”

“Are you set up for it?”

Ye Xiu shrugged. “Enough. I never planned on it happening, but I’m not so naïve or lazy as to skip having a backup plan.”

“Do you have a plan, then?”

“Hm?”

“Is there…” Su Mucheng didn’t really want to ask, because Ye Xiu wasn’t fond of talking about it, but it needed to be done. “Is there anyone you want to call?”

This wasn’t something she could help him with, and after so long without, his body was not going to be kind to him.

Ye Xiu sighed. “I may be set up for the worst, but you know I haven’t given much thought to relationships outside of Glory. I guess Han Wenqing is the obvious option.”

“Obvious?”

“Sure. He won’t care that I’m an omega, he’s old enough to have decent control, and he’s mean-looking enough to scare anyone else away.”

That got a smile from Su Mucheng, despite the circumstances.

“So yeah, obvious. Even if he doesn’t want to stay with me, he’d probably at least be willing to guard.”

She nodded. “I’ll call him.”

They’d returned to the room they’d left together not long ago, on their way to a meeting that was always going to end badly. Even so, neither of them could have guessed it would end like this.

“I’ll stay here until he gets here,” Su Mucheng told Ye Xiu.

“That’s going to be a while, Mucheng.”

“I won’t leave you alone,” she returned, face set in sharp determination. “And you know better than anyone, I can’t be moved.”

Ye Xiu laughed and let go of her hand to ruffle her hair. “True. Okay, I’ll be troubling you, then.”

Ye Xiu opened the door of his room and flicked the switch for the fan system he’d only ever misused as a smoke ventilator.  Halfway in, he paused. “Mucheng,” he said, hand on the doorknob, back to her.

“Yes, Ye Xiu?” Su Mucheng answered quietly.

He half-turned to face her, giving her the slightest edge of a smile. “I’m not retiring.”

The door closed after him. Su Mucheng blinked, then smiled. Excellent Era wouldn’t manage to break Ye Xiu. They’d get through this.

For now, though, she had a phone call to make.

 

When Han Wenqing arrived at Ye Qiu’s door, he found Su Mucheng, face set with determination and more than a hint of irritation, facing off against a thoroughly bewildered and increasingly frustrated Sun Xiang.

Move,” the boy snarled. He said it like it was supposed to be a command, a proper alpha command, but there was nothing but rough vocals behind it. Su Mucheng was entirely unmoved.

“Leave, Sun Xiang,” she said, with the air of someone who had said this rather a lot already. “There’s nothing for you here.”

“No, I need—I need…”

“You don’t need anything, boy,” Han Wenqing said, coming up behind him.

Sun Xiang whirled around, teeth bared at the appearance of another alpha. His eyes were a little wild, looking somewhat heat-dazed, though no sign of heat escaped from the door behind them. He faltered as he registered the frankly thunderous look on Han Wenqing’s face. “You—”

Han Wenqing didn’t care to hear whatever addled nonsense was going to come out of the boy’s mouth. He was a bit taller than Han Wenqing, but undoubtedly less fit. Han Wenqing grabbed his lapels and hauled him away from the door.

Sun Xiang yelped and flailed, but Han Wenqing simply shifted his grip to the fabric at the back of Sun Xiang’s neck and dragged him down the hall. “Is there somewhere I can put him?” he called back to Su Mucheng.

“The practice room two halls down to the left has ventilation and a door that locks. It should be open now.”

Han Wenqing grunted his understanding and continued on, pulling Sun Xiang out of sight. When he reached the door, he opened it, tossed Sun Xiang in, hit the automatic lock, and slammed it closed again. He grabbed the handle through Sun Xiang’s first few attempts to get out, keeping it from unlocking again. As out of it as he was, Sun Xiang stopped trying shortly afterward, pounding the door instead.

Stay there,” Han Wenqing growled, his voice actually carrying the alpha command. Behind the door, Sun Xiang went silent.

Heat haze made people stupid, so he was unlikely to figure out that the door locked from the inside any time soon, even after Han Wenqing left. He wouldn’t think to try it again.

That taken care of, Han Wenqing stalked back to Su Mucheng and the seemingly innocuous door.

“Thanks,” Su Mucheng said when he got in earshot. She looked a little exhausted.

Han Wenqing nodded curtly. “Was he bothering you the whole time?”

Su Mucheng leaned back against the door. “It took him a little while to find us, but yes.”

Han Wenqing’s brows drew together, which had the side effect of making him look more than a little murderous. Su Mucheng, as was her wont, didn’t react. “He may be young, but he should at least be able to properly issue an order.”

“Oh, he did.” Su Mucheng’s smile took on an edge of mischief. “It just doesn’t work around me. I was taught by the best, after all.”

Han Wenqing didn't bother asking for further clarification. An answer that explained nothing? Taught by the best, indeed.

Su Mucheng’s face sobered. “Are you going in?”

He eyed the innocently closed door. “Why me?”

“You’re an alpha he can trust,” Su Mucheng said truthfully. She didn’t think now was the time to bring up the usefulness of his scary face.

Han Wenqing looked back at her, brow furrowed. “Did he say that before or after the heat started?” It didn’t really sound like something Ye Qiu would say.

Su Mucheng frowned. “It was after it began, but he was still coherent. I don’t think he’d have any regrets, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Really? If I marked him, it would be difficult for us to continue on different teams. Excellent Era has been doing poorly this season, but he isn’t the type to abandon his team.”

Su Mucheng’s mouth twisted bitterly. “But they’re the type to abandon him.”

Han Wenqing stared. Surely not. Surely Excellent Era wasn’t trying to push out Ye Qiu. That was insane. Any team would be eager to have him. “They’d prefer to face Ye Qiu onstage,” he said, his tone making it clear what he thought of that decision. Han Wenqing might have the most experience, but Excellent Era would know better than anyone what a terrible thing it would be to face Ye Qiu. They were already in 19th place. Were they trying to get relegated?

“They were forcing him to retire.”

It took Han Wenqing a moment to identify the feeling building inside him as rage.

(They want to take him from us, his hindbrain whispered, snarled. Han Wenqing, as was his cultivated habit, ignored it).

“And as if that weren’t enough, they actually put heat inducers on the contract. Well, probably it was just Cui Li that did that. The rest of the setup feels much more like Tao Xuan’s doing, but Cui Li… He’d probably want Ye Qiu to continue contributing to the team, if he could. Not as the main player, but letting Sun Xiang change classes to inherit One Autumn Leaf was always going to be a bit of a risk. If Ye Qiu was tied to the successor of the Battle God, things would go much more smoothly for Excellent Era.”

Ah. So that’s why Sun Xiang was here. He’d thought it a little odd.

Wait. Excellent Era did this to Ye Qiu? He hadn’t asked for any details before coming over, so this…this was really too unexpected.

“You’re not staying here,” he told Su Mucheng. He refused to make it a question.

Su Mucheng shook her head firmly. “They can’t keep us here, now, and even Ye Qiu can’t brush off them hurting him like this.”

It occurred to Han Wenqing, then, that Ye Qiu had picked up that contract. He’d fully planned to retire, likely without a word about this to anyone, without even defending himself.

It was unbelievably frustrating.

“We haven’t had time to talk it through yet, but he did say he won’t retire—”

“Come to Tyranny.”

“I…” Su Mucheng was startled. “Really?”

“Tyranny has never cared about dynamics. We’re the obvious choice.”

“You have that kind of authority?” She sounded skeptical.

“For you and Ye Qiu, I’m sure the boss will be able to see my point of view. It’s not a bad move.”

“There will be complications, you know. The Alliance will probably have an investigation.”

“Then we’ll deal with it. You don’t have to do this alone.”

That seemed to be the right thing to say. Su Mucheng exhaled slowly, then gave him a soft smile. Han Wenqing had never realized her usual smiles were superficial, but with this one to compare it to… He suddenly felt like he was actually meeting Su Mucheng for the first time.

“Thank you.”

Han Wenqing only nodded in response.

“Are you…okay with helping him with the heat, then?”

Han Wenqing blew out a frustrated breath. “Was this always his contingency plan?”

Su Mucheng bit her lip. “No, he said he’d never considered it before.”

He’d thought that was the case. It had none of the intimidating coherency and obvious convenience of Ye Qiu's usual scheming.

“He did say that if you didn’t want him, he thought you’d at least be willing to guard.”

Han Wenqing snorted. “Wanting him isn’t a problem. But I’m not going to take advantage of this to get him, either.”

“So you’ll guard?”

It wasn’t optimal. Guarding would stop anyone else from bursting in on Ye Qiu, and if his physiology could register that an alpha was at least in the general area, it might ease up a bit. But as messed up as Ye Qiu’s hormones undoubtedly were, the fever he’d run until an alpha showed up to help or the heat ran its course could build up enough to cause permanent damage, or even be deadly. And if Ye Qiu survived only to suffer from migraines that made him unable to look at screens for the rest of his life…

Han Wenqing couldn’t imagine anything he’d hate more.

“I’ll go in.” Even if he couldn’t help Ye Qiu through the heat, he could be close enough to lessen the reaction. It would have to be enough.

Su Mucheng didn’t question him. “I can still guard for a little longer. I should be able to keep it from getting out of hand before you can settle in.”

Han Wenqing stared at her. He had no idea what she was talking about. Was she not actually a beta either? But an alpha’s ability to command and an omega’s ability to manipulate wouldn’t help much in a situation like this, especially from a distance.

Whatever. Su Mucheng’s oddness was an issue to figure out later. For now, he had a distressed omega to simultaneously help and resist.

It was going to be a long night.

Inside the room, pheromones struck him like a physical assault, despite the running fans.

(Omega, something in him crooned, gasped, wailed. Han Wenqing grit his teeth. It didn’t sound like classification.

It sounded like identification.

An identification of someone specific.)

The room did not appear to contain anyone, but it did have a bed that housed a giant bundle of blankets, which was close enough. “It’s me,” Han Wenqing told the pile. Ye Qiu would recognize his voice.

The pile shifted until Ye Qiu’s head was sticking out from the top. “Old Han,” he said, sounding remarkably unaffected despite his mussed hair and fever-glazed eyes. He made no move to further remove himself from the blankets.

“Get out of there.” He didn’t use a command, because doing so without permission was fairly rude, and he wasn’t sure how it would affect Ye Qiu’s unbalanced state anyway.

Also, his hindbrain seemed really fond of the idea, and he was fairly set on doing the opposite of whatever it suggested for the duration of this encounter.

“Mm, no. It’s warm in here.”

“Warm” was probably a bit of an understatement. Ye Qiu’s body temperature had been rising for multiple hours now, and would probably keep doing so until it was replaced with the heat of another person. Ostensibly someone he could trust, though it seemed more like having a trusted person nearby, guarding, would partially mitigate the effect, while having someone physically present would largely counteract it, regardless of their relationship.

In any case, “too warm” was a far more accurate descriptor for Ye Qiu. Blankets might seem to help, but they weren’t a person; if Ye Qiu’s body could be tricked that easily, Han Wenqing was sure he wouldn’t be here.

He sighed and strode over to Ye Qiu, tugging the whole mess of blankets off of him in one motion.

“Hey,” Ye Qiu complained, already starting to shiver.

Han Wenqing lifted him up by the back of his shirt and sat him in his lap, pulling him back against him.

“Hmm.” Ye Qiu must be really out of it, because he didn’t even protest the rough handling. His fever-bright eyes closed as he tipped his head back against Han Wenqing’s shoulder.

After a few moments of silence, Ye Qiu shifted again. “Hmm, not good enough. Needs more contact.”

There was no way for Ye Qiu to know that quickly if this would be enough to work or not. “You’re just trying to get me to take off my shirt.”

“Yup,” Ye Qiu said, completely shameless. “It’s hilarious. What kind of pro gamer has an eight pack?”

“What kind of pro gamer doesn’t take care of their body at all?”

“What a completely unfair and baseless assumption for you to make. We can’t all look like aggression personified.”

“I just lifted you up with one hand.”

“Yeah, but you’re shredded.”

“I’m really not.”

“I can feel your abs through my shirt. Both of our shirts, actually. You can’t tell me that’s not excessive.”

“A steady body is the foundation of a steady mind.”

“Not the muscles, Old Han, the shirts. Having two shirts is excessive.”

“There are two of us.”

“I am cold, Old Han. Take it off.”

Han Wenqing sighed, then removed his shirt. It was warm enough in the room that it really didn’t matter much to him. Ye Qiu’s shivering slowly eased a little, settling into a bone-deep trembling instead.

A long, silent moment later, Ye Qiu’s eyes drifted open again, still a little hazy, but noticeably more focused as he turned his upside down gaze on Han Wenqing. “Well, alpha? Aren’t you going to help me?”

There went any hope that this would be enough to settle the heat. Ye Qiu would never address anyone as “alpha” when he was in his right mind.

(Mine, mine, mine, his hindbrain shrieked. Stupid. Ye Qiu, by his very nature, belonged to no one.)

Han Wenqing closed his eyes and took a deep breath, which was a mistake. Ye Qiu smelled amazing. He gave himself a moment to make sure he was definitely not going to do anything stupid and permanent, then tipped Ye Qiu far enough forward to reach his neck and settled his teeth against his nape.

Ye Qiu went still.

Han Wenqing had expected it, but it was still weird to feel someone like Ye Qiu go completely motionless against him. It wasn’t fear; it was the natural reaction to the moment before an omega received a claiming mark, when all the myriad functions of a heat settled into this one, end goal: Get a mate.

He didn’t bite. Alphas had a similar end goal to their ruts, a similar driving instinct, but he wasn’t in rut. He could ignore what every molecule in his body wanted him to do, because this wasn’t about staking a claim.

It was about making sure Ye Qiu didn’t get any more hurt than what Excellent Era had already done.

Han Wenqing breathed out, and the spell was broken.

“Wow, going for a mark right away? Pretty forward of you,” Ye Qiu said, a little like he was laughing at him, but this close Han Wenqing could feel his heartbeat racing. He wondered, suddenly, about all the different kinds of masks Ye Qiu wore, how unaffected he really was in all those interactions he’d seemed so firmly above.

Was it that Ye Qiu let nothing touch him, or that no one could see when the hits landed?

Han Wenqing was immediately overcome with the intense, impossible urge to make sure Ye Qiu never needed a mask again. Impossible, because Ye Qiu would never be happy with someone else fighting his battles for him, and he wore misdirection like a favorite coat.

But maybe, he thought. Maybe he could make a place for Ye Qiu where he’d never need a mask at all.

Han Wenqing brushed his nose against where Ye Qiu’s pulse had finally slowed, then pulled far enough away to speak. “I won’t bite.”

“Really?” Ye Qiu asked, somewhere between curious and disbelieving. “Isn’t it in your motto to advance bravely?”

Han Wenqing didn’t know if Ye Qiu was purposefully referencing the rest of the motto, “defeat Ye Qiu,” but the implication was there regardless. Something in his chest twisted painfully at the misuse of what had always been a mark of respect. “There’s a difference between fearless action and forceful action, Ye Qiu. You can’t consent, and at this point, neither can I.”

(His hindbrain screamed at him to bite, bite, bite, there was little he could want more than the man before him, if he bit he could have him—)

He wondered if there was a way to say “I don’t want to hurt you” without sounding condescending.

He couldn’t think of one.

The involuntary trembles were back, but Han Wenqing didn’t want to leave the conversation here, didn’t want to put his teeth on him again until Ye Qiu could trust he wasn’t going to do anything. He put a hand on Ye Qiu’s collarbone, pressing him back against his chest. Ye Qiu’s breathing hitched, then calmed, with Han Wenqing’s hand up against his throat.

(Got you, his instincts purred. Safe, I’ve got you. He had to admit it was nice to know that Ye Qiu, despite the circumstances, didn’t register him as a threat.)

“A false bite tricks your system into thinking it’s about to get what it wants. It’s the best way of controlling a heat without permanent effects,” Han Wenqing explained, ignoring his restless, unruly emotions, as he always did when it came to Ye Qiu.

“Assuming the alpha doesn’t actually bite.”

“Yes.”

“And you won’t?”

“I won’t.”

“Okay.”

And that was it.

(Perfect, his instincts murmured. He wished he could tell them to shut the fuck up.)

Ye Qiu turned his head toward Han Wenqing, nose brushing gently along the side of his face. “Is a false bite really all I’m going to need, though?” Under his hand, Ye Qiu’s shivers weren’t getting any worse.

But they weren’t getting any better, either.

“Unlikely. Just do whatever you normally do for your heats.” Unless he spent them with someone else (No one else, like a snarl), which Han Wenqing wasn’t thinking about.

“I normally don’t have heats at all.”

Han Wenqing took a moment to absorb the true idiocy of that statement. “You don’t have them. How long has that been going on?”

“Since the beginning, so something like eight years.”

“This is your first heat. In eight years.” Since the pro scene started, then. Ye Qiu really didn’t know how to take a break.

“My second heat ever, actually.” He sounded astoundingly unconcerned, given both his current position and the absolute absurdity of what he was saying. “Pretty impressive, right?”

Han Wenqing, for the sake of his own sanity, ignored the question. “You can’t keep doing this.”

Ye Qiu radiated amusement. “You can’t tell me what to do.”

He could. He could, but he wouldn’t. Ye Qiu wouldn’t be held by any mere alpha command anyway, of that Han Wenqing could be sure.

“I can’t.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ye Qiu smile.

Jerk.

Ye Qiu’s breath hitched suddenly, almost imperceptibly, his teeth gritting together against the likely rising discomfort. His voice, however, remained largely unaffected. “Well, it certainly sounds like you’ve studied this,” in that same, almost teasing tone.

“I have. Ignorant alphas are at best useless, at worst a danger to themselves and others.”

“Right. I’ve never bothered, so why don’t you tell me what to do?”

Did Ye Qiu ever stop tormenting people, or was it just ingrained habit at this point? “No one’s ever been stupid enough to suppress that long. Heat inducers are volatile enough as it is. Just follow your instincts.”

“My instincts?” How did Ye Qiu manage to look so dangerous? “I thought you didn’t want to get involved, alpha?” Ah. Because it was the heat talking.

“I won’t. We’re both adults, Ye Qiu, there’s no need to be so circumspect. I don’t care what you need to do to make this less terrible for you.”

“Hmm. Alright, Old Han. Don’t regret it.”

Han Wenqing didn’t bother to respond, settling his teeth against Ye Qiu’s skin. He wondered when Ye Qiu would learn that he was never going to regret being able to help him.

 

(It occurred to him that, whatever decision Ye Qiu made when he called Han Wenqing here, he hadn’t truly expected genuine help from anyone. He’d just decided whatever action Han Wenqing chose to take was one he’d be willing to accept.

Who taught Ye Qiu to value himself so little? All the world called him a god, and he barely treated himself as human.

Perhaps, in setting him so far apart from the rest, the world had done him no favors.)

 

Tao Xuan hadn’t originally planned to be at Excellent Era for Sun Xiang’s arrival. Though he’d finally found a replacement for that tyrant Ye Qiu, he wasn’t that interested in the kid. Not to mention, as a fellow alpha, it would be better if he let Sun Xiang get familiar with Excellent Era before they had any real contact.

However, he couldn’t ignore Cui Li’s call. Apparently he’d decided to try his hand at getting Ye Qiu tied to Sun Xiang. He had to admit, it wasn’t the worst idea—even Ye Qiu would have difficulty escaping a claim once it was set. It was hard for an omega to bring something like that to court, and Ye Qiu had clearly always been hiding from something. He wouldn’t risk showing his face over something that couldn’t be changed, right? And it really was basically impossible to change without significant funding, funding he knew Ye Qiu didn’t have. A complacent Ye Qiu, teaching the new Battle God without interfering with Excellent Era any further?

Definitely not the worst idea.

On the other hand, it hadn’t worked, so this was definitely the worst outcome imaginable. They’d be lucky if Excellent Era survived this: Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng undoubtedly out of the picture, and Sun Xiang possibly thrown off, too. Even if he didn’t feel betrayed by the attempted manipulation, Sun Xiang was young enough that getting caught up in a heat haze without any kind of outlet could really mess with him, for who knew how long.

There was a reason Tao Xuan hadn’t thought to do this, and it was because the consequences of failure were just too severe.

(And, a little, for the young boy he once admired, who led Excellent Era to victory for the first three years of the Alliance, despite everything that tried to pull him down. Tao Xuan was a businessman, and he resented Ye Qiu’s many failings, but even he wouldn’t have thought to hurt him like that, no matter the benefit.)

There was a knock on the door, and then Su Mucheng entered, smiling her usual, pleasant smile. Tao Xuan felt a little of the tension ease out of his shoulders. Ever since he’d first met her, all those years ago, Su Mucheng’s smile had been endlessly refreshing. It was on the list of things he was reluctantly giving up for his plans, because he’d never expected she’d smile at him again after—

Wait. Ye Qiu’s day of reckoning had already come. Something was off about this.

“Mucheng,” he acknowledged. He wouldn’t know what it was if he didn’t engage.

“Tao Xuan,” she returned, agreeable as ever. “I’m here to talk about the situation with Ye Qiu.”

“This really isn’t the time,” he told her firmly. “There’s a lot going on right now that requires my attention.”

“Oh? Isn’t it Ye Qiu that you’re worrying so much about?” Her smile sat easily on her face, gentle and sure.

“There’s nothing to worry about there, I hear,” he said with confidence he didn’t feel. “Nothing permanent happened, right? And his retirement announcement has already been planned out. It’s really very moving.”

“But Ye Qiu didn’t sign the contract, and he won’t be out before noon tomorrow.”

Tao Xuan actually didn’t have any idea what intensity of heat had been induced, so that was good to know. It was much easier to work on contingency plans when he knew what he was up against.

“I’m sure we can work out something so he can sign later.”

“Oh, you needn’t worry about that. He has no intention of signing the contract at all.”

He’d been devising plans for that very eventuality, but it certainly wasn’t optimal. If Ye Xiu didn’t let this go, it would definitely come out that he was an omega. As Tyranny’s rival, Excellent Era was the focus of more scrutiny than any other team for the way they treated those with dynamics. No matter what lip service they said about being supportive, wasn’t their entire team made of betas, including their ace?

But their ace wasn’t a beta. Originally, Tao Xuan had agreed with Ye Qiu’s reasoning behind not sharing his dynamic, but as time went on and people kept commenting on Tyranny’s “accepting” team structure, Tao Xuan couldn’t help but rethink it. Would it really be so difficult for Ye Qiu to let them tell people about his dynamic? How hard could it be, when he never interacted with anyone in public anyway?

Sun Xiang was a chance for them to finally publically show that they were just as progressive as Tyranny. It was actually probably all the preparation for this PR campaign that gave Cui Li his idea. People mostly objected to using alphas as the core of the team due to their frequently overly aggressive natures, and Sun Xiang really was a young, unstable alpha. Having Ye Qiu to temper that and help train him to be a proper Battle Mage would be nothing but good for the team. And, if they could swing it as a proper alpha-omega pair leading Excellent Era, it would mitigate the concerns of some of the sponsors and fans.

Now it was just a mess. A mess they could come out ahead of if Su Mucheng just didn’t make any more noise about it until after the press conference. Once an investigation was initiated, Ye Qiu would be unable to make any major public statements, unable to compete, unable to play for long enough to almost certainly effectively end his career.

“Isn’t this something Ye Qiu should bring to me himself, then? Mucheng, stay out of it.” His last words were a proper command, just to make sure this wouldn’t come back up later. It wasn't something he'd normally do to one of his players, but, well. Su Mucheng would probably pay to terminate her contract before the next match, anyway.

Su Mucheng’s smile didn’t falter. “No, I don’t think I will.”

Tao Xuan stared. That…was not supposed to happen. He’d never had a command fail before. Other alphas might have poor control over their abilities, but he was a CEO. He wouldn’t neglect this point.

“I stayed out of it with your original plan, as you tore this team to shreds trying to claw him out, because he asked me to.” Her empty smile intensified at Tao Xuan’s startle. “Yes, he knew what you were doing. He couldn’t stop you, couldn’t change it, and when he realized you were willing to kill the team to do it, he already knew he had to leave. He was always going to. He loved this team more than anything, except maybe me. Certainly more than himself.”

Tao Xuan severely doubted it. If he loved this team so much, why hadn’t he made the effort to support them? Instead he hid from everyone, wouldn’t even speak with the team reporter in person. Those were not the actions of a captain who cared about his team.

Still, he could use this. “If that was his decision before, don’t assume he’ll change his mind now. Whatever he said, he probably didn’t have the time to think it through. Let him say what he needs to say when he gets out.”

“I’m already here to say what needs to be said.” She started to cross the room. “Besides, I have a few things to say, myself.”

What a headache. “Not now, Mucheng. Leave.”

She continued toward him, unperturbed.

Now Tao Xuan was really shocked. Physical commands were far more reliable than anything that required interpretation, and almost never failed. “How…? Betas aren’t—betas don’t have…” He trailed off. Betas didn’t have anything, really. “Aren’t you a beta?” he asked helplessly.

“Oh, didn’t you know, Tao Xuan?” Her smile was beatific. “We betas are not nothing, we are negation. Maybe most don’t know how to use it, but you know who raised me.”

He did know. Su Muqiu was a charismatic alpha from the start, and Ye Qiu was cunning and manipulative even before he presented as an omega and had to raise a beautiful teen on his own. Not to mention the years she’d lived without adult help, the siblings and eventually Ye Qiu relying on nothing but themselves to live. Su Mucheng grew up with two older brothers, both fully invested in her ability to protect and support herself in anything she wanted to do, no matter what.

She leaned in close, delicate hands supporting her on his desk. “Your alpha posturing doesn’t work a bit on me.” The edge to her smile forcibly reminded him that many deadly things cloaked themselves in beauty. “So let me tell you what I came to tell you, okay?”

She actually waited for him to indicate his agreement before she continued.

“Ye Qiu will be invoking the Safe Haven clause.”

Tao Xuan sighed and nodded resignedly. It was, after all, what he’d planned for.

“I will be doing the same.”

“You—what? Mucheng, betas don’t have Safe Haven clauses.” This entire conversation had thrown him so off balance.

“Oh? Did you not read the contract I signed? It’s modeled after Ye Qiu’s, so of course it has the same clause in it.”

Now that he thought about it, her contract did have that extra clause in it. He’d forgotten about it because frankly, for a beta, it was completely irrelevant. “Even so, you can’t invoke the clause. The Safe Haven clause is designed to let omegas—or alphas, I suppose—remove themselves from employers that try to take advantage of their dynamic without permission. Nothing can be done to you, so it doesn’t come into effect.”

“I think you’ll find that the actual phrasing is that should the employer take advantage of an alpha or an omega’s dynamic, the contracted player is free to leave without repercussion. It never says the contracted player has to be the alpha or omega being taken advantage of.”

Tao Xuan began to sweat. That really was the wording that clause used, because the idea was that if an employer created an unsafe environment for their employee, the employee would not be bound there. If a beta player had a Safe Haven clause, they really could use it this way.

“So.” Su Mucheng smiled sweetly. “I’ll be making my statement at the press conference tomorrow, instead. I’ll just let my fans know that I can’t continue working in such an unsafe environment.”

Tao Xuan was speechless. This was a really difficult situation!

He’d thought he wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of manipulation, with Ye Qiu still recovering. He should have realized Su Mucheng would have picked up something from living with him all this time. Now, even without Ye Qiu interfering, he was facing the threat of Su Mucheng’s many fans turning on Excellent Era after hearing that they mistreated such a beauty. Even just female fans of Excellent Era in general might abandon the team if they thought there had been cases of sexual harassment! He couldn’t just explain the situation as something between Sun Xiang and Ye Qiu, either, because Sun Xiang was the future of Excellent Era! Cui Li had already taken a huge risk, trying to get Sun Xiang affected by Ye Qiu’s pheromones. No matter how he tried to spin it, if he said Sun Xiang was at fault, Sun Xiang would either defend himself, making Excellent Era’s situation worse, or lose popularity as an aggressive alpha. Since he was their new core, that wouldn't be good for Excellent Era, either.

“Ah, wait,” Tao Xuan said helplessly. “Even if you’re leaving Excellent Era, burning bridges like this won’t look good for you.” Finally, an idea came to him. “Not to mention, using the Safe Haven clause is just a technicality. If we contest your claim, you won’t legally be allowed to say anything about the clause without having it count as slander. Even if you won, going to court would put a huge dent in your reputation, career, and finances. If you’re determined to leave”—and he knew, with her attachment to Ye Qiu, she was; he’d long been prepared to lose her too—“there’s no reason to make such a fuss over it.”

“Well,” Su Mucheng said, her expression still completely pleasant, “I suppose this is the transfer window. If you don’t want it to be obvious that we had a falling out, you could always approve my transfer to a different team.”

Tao Xuan fought a grimace. When he thought about losing Su Mucheng, he really hadn’t thought there was any chance of her going somewhere else. Still, this was a much better option than the mass hysteria that would occur if Su Mucheng, with her pretty face and soft demeanor, started acting like a victim. “If you can find a team to take you, I won’t draw it out. Beyond that, I don’t want to hear any of this ‘unsafe’ nonsense again.”

“Sure,” Su Mucheng said blithely. “I expect they’ll contact you tomorrow. Goodbye, Tao Xuan.” That said, she cheerfully turned around and left the room.

Tao Xuan grimaced. He’d hoped she wouldn’t be able to find a team to her liking in time. Who would have guessed she already had one lined up?

 

“You’re going to play Glory.” Han Wenqing didn’t know why he even bothered being surprised by anything Ye Qiu did anymore. It was all ridiculous.

“Of course. It’s not like I can sleep.” Ye Qiu moved them over to his desk, where an account card was already set out.

“First-edition? What account is this?” Did Ye Qiu still have smurfs from Excellent Era’s club with him?

“New account. I don’t have One Autumn Leaf anymore, but this isn’t the end for me. I can build up a new one.”

There was no way Ye Qiu was as unaffected by this as he seemed. Han Wenqing consciously did not let himself grip him any tighter. “You don’t need to build your own account. Tyranny can give you one.”

“Who says I’m going to Tyranny?”

Han Wenqing gave Ye Qiu an unimpressed stare in the reflection of the monitor screen. Ye Qiu would know better than anyone that Tyranny was the best place for him to go, once everyone knew he was an omega. And if he wasn’t going to retire quietly, there would be no hiding that he was an omega.

As for whether or not Tyranny would take him, Han Wenqing offering their resources was a clear enough message already.

“Okay, okay, I’m probably going to Tyranny. It doesn’t matter, though. Tyranny can’t give me this.”

“Oh?” As old and powerful as Club Tyranny was, that was quite the claim to make.

“It’s a viable unspecialized.” There was an odd mix of pride and wistfulness in the statement.

If there was a time to ask about it, this certainly wasn’t it.

“You want to play unspecialized?” he asked instead.

“Yeah. You remember how domineering a true unspecialized could be, right? It wasn’t convenient to raise the character before, but now I’ll have plenty of time. Besides, tonight is the opening of the tenth server.”

He did remember the unspecialized class. The lag-time between weapon changes made it functionally useless in a high-end battle, but if Ye Qiu said it was viable, he had no reason to doubt him. Ye Qiu had never needed to pretend at capability.

“Don't bother with the tenth server. If you go to an older server, Tyranny can give you whatever you need. It’ll be much faster,” he said bluntly.

“I don’t need faster. I’m going to be building this character from the ground up, so slowly growing with it is better. Besides, why take from Tyranny when I can take from the other guilds instead?”

How very like Ye Qiu.

“Tyranny isn’t so poor that we can’t easily spare whatever resources you want.” (Your alpha can provide for you, his instincts insisted. It was very irritating, because Han Wenqing was trying to make a completely legitimate and unrelated point.)

“It’s not just that,” Ye Qiu replied, head tilting further back into Han Wenqing’s shoulder. They’d been talking long enough that he was probably beginning to get uncomfortable again. “An unspecialized needs to go to the Heavenly Domain to gain experience after level 50, so people are going to notice when I get there no matter what. When people notice a pro-level player who has lots of time on his hands and is proficient enough in all classes to play unspecialized, they’re going to think of me.”

“So? Tyranny’s fans will get over themselves.” It was frankly unbelievable that Ye Qiu was even bringing it up. Was the heat somehow affecting him in this way, too?

“As if I care what fans think.” Ye Qiu’s complete dismissal put Han Wenqing a little more at ease. “The Alliance is going to have a no-contact policy during the investigation, so you won’t be able to interact with me, and directly getting help from Tyranny would be too much of a connection for them to ignore. If you don’t want to weaken my claim and therefore my ability to get back into the Alliance, you’re going to have to leave well enough alone until they clear me.”

“Why should they care if I contact you?” The Alliance didn’t tend to care at all what the pro players did in their free time, so long as it didn’t reflect poorly on them.

“Well, you’re going to speak up on my behalf, right?” Ye Qiu sounded completely unconcerned about stating as fact something they hadn’t even discussed yet.

“Are you aware that that’s annoying?” Han Wenqing couldn’t see how he’d have missed it, but it was worth asking.

“What, you aren’t?” Ye Qiu actually sounded surprised.

“I am. But it’s annoying.”

“It’s annoying that I assume you’re a good person?”

“Ye Qiu.” He could see Ye Qiu smirking a little, so he definitely was doing this on purpose. When battles of words with Ye Qiu got to this point, it was always better to redirect. “How long will this investigation take?”

“Shorter than it could be. I have lawyers.”

“You couldn’t pay the termination fee, but you have lawyers good enough for an omega defense case.” Why was Ye Qiu always so incomprehensible?

He wasn’t actually expecting an answer, so Ye Qiu’s response caught him off guard. “My family doesn’t care for my gaming, but we’re still family. Not to mention, they’re very big supporters of omega rights. There’s no way they’d let this pass without a fight.”

 “…Alright.” Han Wenqing had never heard anything about Ye Qiu’s family before, and now wasn’t really the time to ask.

Ye Qiu had already gone through all the steps necessary to transfer his character to the new server. When midnight struck, he logged in and made his way through the necessary quests, slowly working around the larger crowd.

By the time he finished, Ye Qiu was level 7. He learned some basic, low-level skills, carefully allocating his points because he wouldn’t have the usual chance to reassign them at level 20. He didn’t have any trouble deciding which he would use, which made Han Wenqing think he’d actually put some thought into this already. If any other pro had to choose the skill allocations for an unspecialized, it would definitely take them much longer.

It wasn’t until Ye Qiu reached a storage chest in a warehouse that Han Wenqing understood what made this unspecialized viable.

The Myriad Manifestation Umbrella, even at level 5, was clearly a work of genius. Ye Qiu flipped through some of the forms, likely just for Han Wenqing’s benefit, but he had already seen enough to know that it was an equipment worth designing a whole character around.

Ye Qiu didn’t seem happy at all, looking at it. His hand was actually shaking, and this time Han Wenqing could tell it had nothing to do with the heat.

Ye Qiu paused for a moment, grief settled onto his face like an old friend, before he finally took action. “Let’s start!” he said lowly, and Lord Grim leapt to obey.

Han Wenqing didn’t know what those words meant to Ye Qiu, or whom he was speaking to, but Ye Qiu’s face was already brightening. Clearly, he found something worth smiling over in new beginnings.

Ye Qiu quickly arrived at Green Forest dungeon, where he easily found a party and arranged how to split the drops.

“What do you need drops from a boss like this for?” Han Wenqing had to ask. Ye Qiu had turned off his microphone after he finished his conversation with Sleeping Moon, so he wasn’t worried about being overheard.

“My weapon’s only level five, you know! It has to be built up step by step, too,” Ye Qiu told him.

“You actually have a plan for it?” Having a silver weapon was one thing, but knowing exactly how to upgrade it was a different matter entirely.

“Didn’t I say this was a viable unspecialized? How would it be viable if the weapon didn’t have a way to grow?” Ye Qiu said seriously.

“Maybe you were still trying to figure it out.” It would certainly explain why he wanted to go slow.

“No way. This weapon has been fully researched until level 50 already.”

“And after that?” A level 50 silver weapon was certainly better than a level 5 weapon, but it still couldn’t go onstage in the Pro Alliance.

“…I’ll figure it out!”

Didn’t he just say that he wouldn’t need to do that? Han Wenqing glared, but otherwise didn’t bother with a response. Speaking wasn’t possible with his mouth on Ye Qiu’s neck, and pulling away too often might affect Ye Qiu’s ability to play. It was already pretty impressive that Ye Qiu could play at all.

To Ye Xiu, it felt a little like lightning. He was simultaneously buzzing with electricity and clear-headed, a bizarre sort of heightened quietness that was really odd to work through. He’d never felt anything like it before.

“Speak, why type?” Sleeping Moon asked after he typed out a “ha ha.”

Ye Xiu shivered at the brush of Han Wenqing’s teeth against his neck. “There’s someone else here, so it’s inconvenient.”

Sleeping Moon didn’t push it.

When they got to the Midnight Phantom Cat, Ye Xiu unmuted himself. It was common for new players to get wiped by a hidden boss, and he didn’t want to be too uncaring. After all, the hidden boss wouldn’t have appeared if he went in without them.

He warned them as soon as it showed up, and then Sleeping Moon’s plot began.

 

Despite all the years Han Wenqing and Ye Qiu had played Glory together, he’d rarely had the chance to watch Ye Qiu play. Usually, if Ye Qiu was playing, so was Han Wenqing. For this battle, even though it was against the low-level Midnight Phantom Cat, Han Wenqing couldn’t help but find Ye Qiu’s hands beautiful.

He was probably at least a little affected by the heat, but it had always been true that Ye Qiu had lovely hands. For all that he didn’t bother to take care of the rest of himself the way Han Wenqing did, Ye Qiu knew how to keep himself in good condition to play. Han Wenqing had long admired Ye Qiu’s ability, but he’d never had the chance to appreciate the way Ye Qiu could turn Glory into an art, either. In fact, most people thought of Ye Qiu’s play style as somewhat plain, even crude. Those people had clearly never had a chance to see what Glory looked like from Ye Qiu’s perspective.

Ye Qiu’s luck was good: A skill book actually dropped.

It wasn’t necessarily the most important thing in the world for Lord Grim to get extra skill points, since he didn’t need to spend them on the expensive higher-level skills, but it wasn’t good for him to have as few as he likely would, either. In the game it wouldn’t matter much, but in the pro scene, every point counted.

Ye Qiu exited the dungeon to a wall of spam calling him a shameless novice and a newfound inability to join a party. Ye Qiu’s face didn’t change, but he was at least a little irritated. Han Wenqing knew Ye Qiu was the kind of person to put teamwork and coordinating with others above everything else. In fact, he would almost reflexively point out problems when people tried to push through Glory alone. Claiming he’d care so much about a low-level hidden boss’s first kill that he’d wipe out the rest of the team was beyond ridiculous.

More importantly, it undoubtedly reminded him of his situation with Excellent Era. This guy purposely failed to coordinate, tried to take him out, and then blamed him in the aftermath? It hit a little too close to larger issues. Ye Qiu sat back with a sigh.

Han Wenqing found himself tensing, drawing around Ye Qiu like his body could be enough to protect him from the world. (They were attacking what was his, how dare—)

“Don’t do that.” Ye Qiu elbowed him in the side. “I’m playing, stay still.”

Han Wenqing grunted his irritation, but settled back against Ye Qiu again. This wasn’t the first time Ye Qiu had faced words meant to hurt him, and as trash talk went it was honestly a fairly weak attempt. There was really nothing for Han Wenqing to get so riled up about.

(His instincts, of course, disagreed. But fuck them anyway, they were hardly useful here.)

Ye Qiu didn’t need a party to complete the dungeon, even if he did need one to get the materials he wanted. He sighed, but controlled Lord Grim to enter the Green Forest dungeon alone.

Who would have thought that the same guy from before, Sleeping Moon, would step in front of him?

Ye Qiu casually greeted him and managed to completely enrage him with his overall lack of caring. Ye Qiu couldn’t get the materials he wanted right away? So what? He could easily get them later. He couldn’t do the dungeon as part of a party? It was actually more convenient at this stage for him to gain experience alone. Something small like this held little meaning to Ye Qiu.

So, of course, Ye Qiu tried to add himself to the guy’s party. After all, he still wanted the hidden boss materials, and Sleeping Moon’s party would be the only one that knew everything Sleeping Moon accused Ye Qiu of was a lie.

Han Wenqing could tell they were plotting something nefarious, but Ye Qiu wasn’t worried and neither was he. With Ye Qiu’s skill level, if he actually had to worry about these low-level dungeons or these even lower-leveled players, Han Wenqing would have been disappointed. He was only paying attention at all because it pulled him away from the incessant whine of his instincts, so close to what he wanted.

Ye Qiu flawlessly hijacked their plans and procured himself some laborers. Really, tacticians were all a little too much.

Ye Qiu, as the original, was obviously the worst of them.

The group gave him the position of party leader, the best equipment, uncommon materials, anything at all that he wanted as he guided them through first clears and hidden bosses, turning their mediocre capability into a group that could compete with the top guilds. Han Wenqing might have even been impressed with Ye Qiu’s ability to coordinate with pretty much anyone if he weren’t so busy staving off irrational jealousy at a bunch of random players.

The sun rose. The heat abated. The others logged off.

“Come to bed with me,” Ye Qiu told him, and Han Wenqing was too tired for his hindbrain to even try for the innuendo.

They slept.

 

Sun Xiang came aware in a practice room, standing in front of the locked door. Had he been trying to open it? He didn’t even know how he’d gotten there.

His head was pounding, like what everyone said a really bad hangover felt like. He wasn’t so unprofessional that he’d drink excessively like that, but anyone could hear stories.

This was not how he thought he’d wake up.

How…?

Ye Qiu. The meeting room, getting One Autumn Leaf, and then the club had insisted that Ye Qiu retire, and he’d agreed—which was insane, why wouldn’t he just break the contract? The Battle God had been the height of the Pro Alliance since its inception, surely he had the money to do it—and then he’d grabbed that contract and gone so still it was almost frightening. And then there was the unmistakable air of an omega in heat, and Ye Qiu was telling Su Mucheng to take him out of there, and just like that he’d gotten away.

Ye Qiu was an omega. What the hell. Not just that, Excellent Era had actually induced a heat in him. Nothing else accounted for the rage visible in Su Mucheng’s demeanor before she dragged Ye Qiu away. How could Excellent Era do that? Not just to Ye Qiu, who was obviously their past, but to Sun Xiang? Why had his new team decided to assault him like that?

Did they… Maybe they thought Sun Xiang wouldn’t care? Omegas were vanishingly rare, and one like Ye Qiu was practically unheard of. If he’d woken up to find such an omega was his…

“Don’t you want Ye Qiu under you?” Cui Li had asked.

Of course Sun Xiang had agreed. Obviously, he wanted to best the so-called Battle God. That’s why he was transferring to Excellent Era at all.

Had Cui Li taken that as confirmation that Sun Xiang would be okay with it?

Sun Xiang thought of the player behind the Battle God, a little shorter and leaner than he’d originally imagined, with eyes that flashed gold when the light hit them just right—

Sun Xiang looked down at his clenched fists. He would have been just fine with having Ye Qiu under him.

 

Ye Qiu would never admit to having an alert on his phone for his own name. It sounded way too pathetic. For the most part, he ignored the things that came up: Ye Qiu and some girl win best partners, again, Ye Qiu didn’t show himself for All Stars, again, Ye Qiu’s team lost…again? He wasn’t really sure what was going on there. Still, he at least skimmed whatever came up before dismissing it as unimportant.

This was definitely not unimportant.

“…Ye Qiu went into heat in a practice room, endangering himself as well as alpha Sun Xiang, who was there to talk about a possible future with Excellent Era. The club is very disappointed in Ye Qiu for acting irresponsibly and hiding this kind of important information, which pertains to his own health and the health of others. Since the issue did not only affect Ye Qiu, there’s no way to avoid the Alliance investigating the matter. Excellent Era will do its best to keep it from getting out of hand out of respect for the effort Ye Qiu put into Excellent Era for so long, but Ye Qiu unfortunately cannot participate in the Pro Alliance until the investigation concludes. Sun Xiang was willing to step in and take over One Autumn Leaf…”

Ye Qiu didn’t care about this Sun Xiang or even One Autumn Leaf in the least. What had happened to Ye Xiu? Ye Xiu hadn’t completely cut contact with Ye Qiu after he left. After so many years of being together, the sudden distance was overwhelming, and Ye Qiu found himself angrily messaging his brother on QQ more often than not. Ye Xiu didn’t usually respond, but he’d replied enough that Ye Qiu had a general idea of what was going on in his life. When Ye Xiu told him he’d presented as an omega, Ye Qiu had insisted he come back and at least pick up a family credit card for supplies. Health supplies for omegas weren’t cheap, and no matter what, their parents would want him to have them. Besides, it’s not like online charges to a credit card would automatically give away Ye Xiu’s location.

Of course, he hadn’t expected Ye Xiu to also take Ye Qiu’s proof of identity when he returned, but that was a different matter.

Ye Qiu immediately messaged Ye Xiu, but received no response. He supposed it didn’t actually matter; whatever had happened, there was going to be an investigation, and Ye Xiu would need the best lawyers.

The Ye family had the best lawyers.

Ye Qiu went to inform their parents. He had a brother to protect.

 

The Glory community was a mess after the announcement. Some people felt pity toward the poor, pathetic omega. People who hated omegas were angry at being “cheated.” They’d actually supported someone who was just an omega for this long? How could they accept that? Many fans of Excellent Era as a team, already angry over the poor performance this season, chose to blame the declining quality on this revelation. Their captain was actually an omega? No wonder the team was in such dire straits! Good thing someone else was taking over the Battle God now. People who were fans of Ye Qiu above all wouldn’t accept the club’s statement. Just like that, the God of Glory was gone? Wouldn’t ever play in the Alliance again? This was too much.

The majority of fans just didn’t know what to feel. Ye Qiu was unquestionably the peak of Glory. But he was an omega? He’d randomly gone into heat when an alpha showed up?

Of course, people pointed out that the only other non-beta captain, Han Wenqing, had been rivals with Ye Qiu for years. It couldn’t be that Ye Qiu went into heat as soon as he saw any alpha. Was it just Sun Xiang? Had Ye Qiu’s biological clock had enough of him putting it off for Glory? Some people started using this to say that the lack of omegas in professional gaming was completely justified. Look what happens when you ignored nature! Others thought this meant Sun Xiang was some kind of super alpha.

The most conflicted group of fans actually wasn’t Excellent Era’s fans, but Tyranny’s. Tyranny had a strong history of saying dynamics were unimportant, and was the only club to purposely use an alpha as their core player. This was a huge attraction for two very different kinds of people: people on the side of “dynamics are irrelevant,” and people who believed in alpha supremacy. It was obvious that these two factions would not agree about how to react to the news. People who thought dynamics were irrelevant, and even those who just respected the long-term rivalry between Han Wenqing and Ye Qiu, looked at the whole announcement with suspicion. How had Ye Qiu hidden his nature for so many years? He wasn’t so sloppy as to just forget he needed to hide it, right? Either Excellent Era was lying about not knowing, or something else had happened to break through Ye Qiu’s suppressants. They were, of course, still Tyranny fans, so they were immediately suspicious of Excellent Era. Besides, wouldn’t looking down on Ye Qiu be looking down on their captain, who had acknowledged him as his rival this whole time?

The other side of the fans immediately started making comments about how gross it was for Ye Qiu to hide his nature like that, tricking people into thinking he was actually a good player. These fans immediately started calling for Han Wenqing to put Ye Qiu in his place. All kinds of lewd comments started showing up, and even people who only wanted to treat Ye Qiu as the enemy used this chance to look down on him. They were still fans of Tyranny, so they obviously wanted to see Excellent Era go down in flames.

These two groups of fans completely couldn’t reconcile their points of view. In an argument this heated, reason melted away like thin slivers of ice. The fighting even spread over into the game, especially in the Heavenly Domain. Even the top experts of the various guilds had an opinion they wanted to defend.

The clubs were at a loss.

The flames burned on.

 

Han Wenqing woke to sunlight caught in Ye Qiu’s hair and a face more peaceful than blank in sleep. It almost made him wonder if Ye Qiu kept that dead-looking expression on all the time to keep people from noticing how lovely he could look.

Pet cradle hold protect his instincts whispered, sounding somewhat forlorn.

Well, that seemed pretty alright. He could let himself do that.

At least until Ye Qiu woke, anyway.

 

Ye Xiu opened his eyes to sunlight. This was, considering when he went to bed, not optimal. In the back of his mind, instinct he hadn’t heard from in years purred contentedly.

It was a very odd feeling.

“I have to leave,” Han Wenqing told him, sitting up. Was he taking his hand out of Ye Xiu’s hair, too? How long had it been there? How had he not noticed? “I’ve been away for too long already, and I still need to talk to the club about transferring Su Mucheng.”

“Okay.” Ye Xiu didn’t question whether Tyranny would really take Su Mucheng. On the one hand, Han Wenqing was not the type to idly speculate. If he said Tyranny would get Su Mucheng, they would get Su Mucheng. On the other, there wasn’t a single club that would turn down the opportunity to have Su Mucheng on their team. It wasn’t like Su Mucheng was a helpless flower, either; she probably had her own plans for getting out of Excellent Era in motion. Under the circumstances, there wasn’t much they could do to keep her. “I’m going to go talk to Tao Xuan.”

Han Wenqing stopped getting his things together. “You’re what.”

“I need to make my leaving the club official. Don’t worry, I’ll bring Mucheng. This is probably something we should do together anyway.”

Han Wenqing nodded shortly and stood up. “Tell me if you need anything.” It was more of a command than the usual polite, accommodating tone people used.

Ye Xiu smiled a little. “I’ll think about it.”

Han Wenqing huffed, then walked over to the door. “Someone from Tyranny will come to negotiate Su Mucheng’s transfer soon.”

Han Wenqing opened the door, as if he meant to leave without any further interaction. It was weird to think that his normal farewell, “See you onstage,” was no longer applicable. In fact, he’d likely never say it to Ye Xiu again.

But Ye Xiu would at least still have a chance to go onstage again, which might not have been the case if it weren’t for Han Wenqing’s help.

“Thank you, Old Han.” It wasn’t the kind of thing he could let pass without mention.

Han Wenqing looked back at him for a moment, his brows furrowed in a way that miraculously did not make his face look particularly homicidal. He nodded, and then he left.

Ye Xiu looked around the room at the few things he’d bothered to accumulate over the years. He couldn’t count on Su Mucheng to pack up for him; she’d be moving her own things out of Excellent Era soon enough.

If they were truly leaving Excellent Era, though, there was something even more important he needed to do.

 

It was only when he unconsciously tapped out a cigarette to smoke on the way to Tao Xuan’s office that he realized he hadn’t smoked all night. He didn’t even have a headache.

Weird.

 

Meeting with the two almost-siblings was awkward. Tao Xuan would have liked to avoid it, but at this point it had to be done.

Much as he’d wished it for years, Ye Qiu couldn’t just magically disappear, taking all his problems with him.

“If you decided to accept responsibility for what happened, I’m sure we could spin a good story for this. You don’t have to make us part on bad terms,” he told Ye Qiu.

“Me? Originally, I never wanted to part from Excellent Era at all. This wasn’t my plan, Tao Xuan.”

Tao Xuan felt his face go sour. “Don’t act like this isn’t related to you! You’re the one who wouldn’t cooperate this whole time, fighting against the club every step of the way.”

“I was never trying to fight you. From the beginning, I said I couldn’t do advertising for you. I’m not the one who changed my mind.”

“You must have known Excellent Era needed someone more attention-grabbing to stay relevant,” Tao Xuan insisted. Someone as calculating as Ye Qiu couldn’t have failed to see where Excellent Era was falling short of the other teams. “Fans follow the people who stand out. Nothing incites excitement like an irreplaceable splendor. Special techniques! A single hero standing above the rest! People call Zhou Zekai the best, but he hasn’t even won a championship. How could you be losing to him? You had what you needed, you just didn’t use it. You must have seen what gains you could have made with just a little effort to stand out!”

Ye Qiu smiled. “Yes, but I don’t want any of that.”

“What do you want?”

“Victory.” Ye Qiu’s eyes were direct and sure, as always when it came to Glory.

“You…” Tao Xuan deflated. “You’re not going to get that anymore. Excellent Era won’t take you back.”

“I wouldn’t come back if you asked, after this, not even if you desperately needed me. Some things can’t be overlooked.” Ye Qiu’s tone was casual, as if the end of over seven years of dedication really wasn’t a big deal. Despite what he’d just said, Tao Xuan couldn’t help but feel frustrated.

“Don’t worry, Excellent Era won’t be desperate anytime soon.” The media frenzy wasn’t good now, but they wouldn’t have started it if they couldn’t weather it. “No matter what, we set our sights on the future. We will not be tied down by our past. Those who stand in our way will be kicked aside mercilessly.”

“Yeah, you’ve done a great job of that,” Ye Qiu said half-heartedly.

Tao Xuan nodded sharply, looking down at the papers at his desk. Ye Qiu stood up, frame small in his oversized coat, and Su Mucheng followed.

“The league isn’t going to go back to only caring about victory,” Tao Xuan said suddenly, not looking up.

“I know,” Ye Qiu said. He sounded somewhat resigned. “But I’m too old to keep moving forward.”

“You could have had a graceful end,” Tao Xuan couldn’t help but point out. “It didn’t need to be…messy, and public.”

“What end I have is my own decision.”

Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng turned around and started to walk out. Just before they got to the door, Tao Xuan made his decision. “Ye Qiu.”

Ye Qiu half-turned to look at Tao Xuan, but didn’t otherwise respond.

“For all these years’ sake, I’ll grant one wish of yours.”

“Oh?”

His almost waifish appearance, with Su Mucheng’s slight figure at his side, gave Tao Xuan a nearly painful feeling of nostalgia. “Even if you want to take One Autumn Leaf with you,” he finished.

“That would be…costly.”

“If you set the price, I won’t make it any harder for you,” Tao Xuan promised.

Ye Qiu watched him for a moment, then nodded. “Dancing Rain, then.”

“Dancing Rain?” Tao Xuan asked, startled. With Su Mucheng leaving anyway, losing Dancing Rain was not much of a blow. If Ye Qiu had chosen One Autumn Leaf, it really would have made things difficult for him and Excellent Era. It could have done them some good with PR regarding Ye Qiu, but not much else. Sun Xiang would only be placated with One Autumn Leaf, after his unpleasant start with Excellent Era, even if they were willing to create another Battle Mage to fit him. Not choosing to take his character with him…was Ye Qiu really not coming back to Glory?

Tao Xuan felt a little bad that he was relieved.

“Yes,” Ye Qiu said tiredly. “If this is really where we and Excellent Era part ways, we can’t leave Su Muqiu behind.”

“Right,” Tao Xuan said, and his heart felt heavy. “How about…450,000 yuan?”

He’d said they could set the price, but… It didn’t feel right to ransom Su Muqiu’s memory from them.

Ye Qiu looked him in the eye for a moment, then nodded decisively. “It’s good.” Even Ye Qiu’s perpetually dead-looking face couldn’t avoid the melancholy in this last interaction between them, after all this time. “That sounds just fine.”

 

They stopped for a moment, after the door closed. Ye Xiu took a deep breath in, then exhaled heavily and dropped his shoulders. Su Mucheng joined him as he walked purposefully down the hall, having rather literally closed the door on that section of their lives.

After a few moments of silence, she couldn’t hold back anymore. “I didn’t expect that to work.”

“Oh?” A faint smirk made its way onto Ye Xiu’s face.

“Yeah, with everything he tried to do, I didn’t really think he’d give up on Dancing Rain so easily. Not even for sentiment. Not without some sort of extenuating circumstances to push him into it, anyway. He can’t have given up on Excellent Era already.”

“Well, if there are extenuating circumstances, they’re of his own making,” Ye Xiu said, completely unbothered. “It’s not like I purposely let all kinds of poor, distressed omega pheromones loose. I’ve always been very careful with my suppressants, before that drug blasted through them. So careful, in fact, he probably has no idea alphas need to guard against it. It’s just never come up.”

Su Mucheng’s eyes widened. “So that was…”

“I make such a pitiful omega,” Ye Xiu said, so blandly anyone would be hard-pressed to take him seriously. “How could he leave me, so woeful and bereft, no kindness to sustain me, without even a chance to have an account again…?”

Su Mucheng broke into bright laughter. This could have been a sad moment, and in some ways it still was, but like this, it really wasn’t so bad. Ye Xiu lost One Autumn Leaf, but instead he would play Lord Grim, and finally fulfill the dream Su Muqiu had built with so much hard work. They were leaving Excellent Era, but they were doing it together: Ye Xiu, Su Mucheng, and Su Muqiu’s memory, all.

 

Last night, Ye Xiu had done more than just read through guides and decide what he was going to do about losing One Autumn Leaf: He’d looked around for where he was going to go after he left Excellent Era. It turned out there was actually a good option just across the street, a little internet café called Happy that was hiring. It offered food and shelter, which was good enough for him. He’d certainly survived on less before.

He asked the girl at the front desk if he could speak to the boss, and she directed him to a computer near the middle of the café. Apparently the boss, Chen Guo, wanted to be somewhere she could keep an eye on everyone after Excellent Era’s inflaming announcement.

Ye Xiu arrived to find a woman cursing heavily at an opponent in the arena. She lost badly, and the look she gave him when he walked up was absolutely foul.

“Computer?”

“Uh…” Should he really ask her about employment right now? She didn’t look like she was in a hiring mood.

“Then sit down!” She’d already stalked off before he could say anything else.

On the computer, a rematch had already started. He might as well win the match for her and log out. It was unlikely coming back to yet another loss would put her in a better mood.

Ye Xiu breezed through the competition and logged off, then looked around to see if he could figure out where she’d gone. It hadn’t been too long since she’d walked off, right?

Chen Guo was actually standing right beside him, staring with wide eyes. “How long did you use it?” she asked.

“Just 30 seconds! I was actually looking for you, but I didn’t want to leave it when the duel had already started,” Ye Xiu hurriedly explained.

“For me?” That was surprising enough that it sidetracked her from how impressive this guy’s win was.

“Yeah, I actually was hoping to work here. You’re hiring, right?”

“Ah…yes…”

“I feel I match all of the qualifications, and work and pay aren’t a problem. How about it? Consider it for a moment, boss.”

It was always good for an internet café to have high-level experts around, in case someone came by wanting to sweep the field. Besides, she’d just been thinking she wanted to compare notes with him. This was the perfect excuse!

“Then you have to beat me in a duel in Glory,” Chen Guo said.

“What? There’s a condition like that?” It wouldn’t be good for him if there were! The only account he had right now was level 18. As an unspecialized, he could probably beat her in fixed field, but he’d seen how angry she was when she lost before. If he beat her with a level 18 account, would she even still want to hire him?

“I’m adding it now,” Chen Guo told him.

Ye Xiu stared blankly at her. It only now occurred to him that winning the duel as fast as possible so he could go after her might have made him look a little suspicious.

“I…don’t have a max level account.” Hopefully that would be enough to put her off.

“Oh? Are you starting over on the new server?” There was no way someone as good as he was could have started playing Glory yesterday, right? It had to be starting over.

“Something like that.” Ye Xiu almost laughed. Yes, it really was just a new beginning.

“Okay, I’ll let it pass then,” Chen Guo told him. “You want to become a network manager? Actually, what’s your name?”

Had he really not introduced himself to her yet? “I’m Ye Xiu. Yes, I’d like to be the night shift manager.”

Ye Xiu? Had she heard that right? “Let me see your ID.”

“You need that too?” Even if she was doubting him, wasn’t checking his ID a little much?

“I have to make sure you’re old enough for me to hire you,” Chen Guo invented.

What kind of age limits could she have? Ye Xiu didn’t exactly look old, but no one would mistake him for under 18. Still, he handed her his ID without complaint.

Chen Guo immediately checked the name. Of course, it really was Ye Xiu. Just because this guy was an omega who was good at Glory didn’t mean he was automatically Ye Qiu, Chen Guo berated herself.

It would be good to have someone who actually wanted to work the night shift. Right now, everyone else took turns doing it, so they would all be grateful. Still, as an omega… “Is the night shift really okay for you?”

“It’s no problem. I like working at night.”

“A lot of Glory fans come here, though,” she pressed.

“I got that idea,” Ye Xiu agreed.

“I’m saying it might be a problem for you!” Chen Guo couldn’t stand it anymore. This guy was still looking at her without any comprehension. “Night shift works alone, you know! With the news about Ye Qiu that came out today, the atmosphere around dynamics isn’t too good.”

“Oh, that.”

‘Oh, that’?! Here she is worrying about him, and that’s his only response?

“It’s okay, I have suppressants. Usually people can’t tell I’m an omega,” Ye Xiu assured her.

Then why could she tell now? Chen Guo really wanted to ask, but questions like that were really too rude. Now that she thought about it, questioning his capability like that was a little too rude, too. Chen Guo had always had this kind of big sister mentality, though, so she couldn’t really help it. She’d already had to kick out a lot of people for getting aggressive or making a fuss after Excellent Era’s announcement.

“Okay, you’re hired.” Chen Guo didn’t want to think about it anymore, so she left it at that. If this guy was looking for work anyway, with things the way they were now, she wouldn’t say her café would be any worse than somewhere else.

“Thank you very much, boss.”

Chen Guo didn’t waste any time showing him where he would be staying. “There’s an alpha girl that lives here too. Is that okay for you?”

“It’s fine.”

“You’ll be sleeping here, then.”

“What?” She was pointing to a small bed crammed into the side of the storage room.

“Eh, it’s a little lacking. Just put up with it for now. The advertisements you saw were actually pretty old, so I’m not really in need of new hires right now.”

“Oh, so it’s like that! No problem, no problem. This is pretty good.”

Chen Guo felt a little bad, now that he was approving so readily. “In your free time, you can go on the computers and play. Don’t worry, employees don’t have to pay.”

“Boss, you’re very generous!”

Chen Guo coughed. “Like I need to care about one computer among a thousand!”

“What’s the flow of customers like?” Ye Xiu asked.

“Not bad. Enough for me to be satisfied,” Chen Guo told him. “Of course, there won’t be as many in the night shift. It’s mostly university students pulling all-nighters and Glory players. There’s not much to say, really. You’ll see when it’s time.”

“Got it.”

“Will you be alright working all night tonight?”

Ye Xiu thought about it for a moment. Yesterday and even today so far had been exhausting, his body not at all prepared for the stress it underwent. “I can sleep some before my shift, if you like? I’m used to pulling all-nighters, so I doubt there’ll be a problem. In fact, I’m only awake now because I had some business I had to attend to.”

It would be a bit of a stretch to say he normally pulled all-nighters; as a pro player, he had a fairly set schedule, which included morning practice. However, he’d had no choice but to spend last night awake, and he’d really rather have slept through to evening today.

“Okay, I’ll let you sleep.” Chen Guo didn’t want to irresponsibly assume he could handle it alone, but she’d already doubted him often enough today. Besides, he really did look like the kind of person who stayed up all night and slept during the day, skin pale and almost sickly looking. “I’ll have food for you when you get up.”

“Thanks, boss.”

And with that, Ye Xiu went to sleep in his new bed, in his new room, at his new job, ready to make a new start.

 

When Ye Xiu woke up it was dark, but not so late that he was worried about missing his shift. Chen Guo was already treating him as one of her own, making sure he had food before he started his shift and keeping him company as he ate.

“Is it okay if I play games while I’m working?” Ye Xiu asked. It seemed likely, given there was a girl currently watching K-Dramas at the desk, but it didn’t hurt to ask.

“Sure, sure. Glory, right?” He might play other games too, but with a low-level account and his familiarity with PKing earlier, it was a reasonable assumption.

“Definitely,” Ye Xiu laughed.

“So, how good are you actually?” Chen Guo had to ask. It had been eating her since she’d first seen that unbelievable win.

“Pro-level,” Ye Xiu said unconcernedly. He’d already decided that trying to hide it would be inconvenient in the long run and look suspicious anyway, so he might as well come out with it at the beginning.

“Oh?” It was the kind of boast anyone could hear from expert players, so it was hard to take it seriously. “Why aren’t you already on a team, then?”

“You really have to ask? Look at the news, boss!”

“So it’s like with Ye Qiu?” Chen Guo felt like she might have been a little tactless, bringing it up now. Who didn’t know about the trouble Ye Qiu’s dynamic was causing, even retroactively? Which team would want to deal with this kind of trouble for a new player? It was just hard to remember that this listless-looking guy was actually an omega, especially now that his scent had gotten too weak for Chen Guo, as a beta, to distinguish.

“It’s exactly like with Ye Qiu,” Ye Xiu told her. “I am Ye Qiu.”

“You…” There was a very brief moment in which Chen Guo actually considered it, before realizing he must be teasing her. Hadn’t she already seen his ID? Her expression darkened. “You! What are you trying to pull, saying something like that? As if Ye Qiu would come over to an intenet café right after that announcement. Especially one so close to Excellent Era! How stupid would he have to be to walk into dangerous territory like this, right after a heat? Could you not look down on my God like this? Just because you’re an omega who’s good at Glory doesn’t mean you can take advantage of other people’s circumstances!”

Ye Xiu managed to disguise a laugh as a quiet cough that went unnoticed under the rant; it definitely wouldn’t earn him any favors. It wasn’t like anything she’d said was wrong—he just wasn’t worried about anyone coming after him. And really, would people be taking this chance to pretend they were him? He couldn’t think why anyone would do that.

“Don’t go making comparisons like that, okay?” Chen Guo was still lecturing him. “What if someone believed you? It’s not like I employ bouncers here!”

Ye Xiu thought she was seriously overthinking it at this point, but it wasn’t like he cared either way. “If you don’t want me to say it, I don’t have to say it.”

Chen Guo deflated all at once. “Well, good,” she muttered. She was a little embarrassed about her outburst now. It was only because she’d actually considered it earlier that she’d thought so much about it, and ended up saying all of her reasons at once. With his ID as the foundation of truth, the rest of it fell into place pretty easily.

“Did you want to tell me anything else before I start my shift?” Ye Xiu asked.

Chen Guo was surprised to see that it was actually fairly close to 11 already. “Oh, sure.”

Ye Xiu had already figured out that, as easy as Chen Guo was to anger, she seemed to let go of things just as easily, too. She finished explaining everything he’d need to know about his job before leaving him to use a random computer until it was time for him to switch with the girl at the desk.

Seeing as there wasn’t anything more time-intensive he could to do, he might as well check his messages. He opened his QQ to countless notifications, all of which he immediately ignored. What was slightly harder to ignore was that one of his contacts now read “Stupid Older Brother You’d Better Answer‼”

His little brother was so adorable.

Ye Qiu had actually left him multiple messages since the press conference yesterday. “Is this true??” was the first, followed quickly by “How did your relationship with your team get this bad???”

Honestly, Ye Xiu would like to know that too. He hadn’t thought Cui Li hated him to that extent.

On the other hand, Cui Li was a beta. It was possible that he didn’t even understand the severity of what he’d tried to do.

It seemed that after that first outburst, Ye Qiu was able to calm down some and move on to messages with an actual purpose. “The family lawyers have been alerted. You better have a blood test ready for them.”

He did. He’d done it as soon as possible to make sure it would register all the influences properly, which was why he’d held off on taking his suppressants again for so long. He’d done it in the city, but with his own ID card, no one had thought it too weird.

The next message gave him pause. “Mother and Father say you’re required to make a comeback now, by the way.”

What was the right response to this? Laughing? Crying? After so many years of telling him gaming was not an honest profession, they were actually going to insist he return to it?

It made sense, of course. Their biggest problem with him had always been that he didn’t make an important impact on society. His mother was an omega, and she and his father were very intent on using their influence to further omega rights. If it came out that their heir was off playing video games instead of doing something “useful,” wouldn’t that just make omegas look worse?

So he hid himself from the world, long after he’d stopped seriously hiding from his family. It wasn’t a hardship. He only ever wanted to play Glory anyway, and being recognized as an unattached omega was generally inconvenient.

Now, he was embroiled in a high-profile omega discrimination case, challenging stereotypes in retrospect with his early success. Making a comeback would be hugely important to public perception of the case.

Of course, Ye Xiu wanted to return to Glory for his own reasons. But at least his goals lined up with his family’s now.

“Do you need me to come over?” was the last message his brother sent. Really, he was too cute, getting so worried about his older brother.

“You should definitely go to Excellent Era and fight on my behalf,” he responded. “You can finally make good use of your name! If you tell them you’re Ye Qiu, I can be in two places at once.”

“Shameless‼” came the reply, much sooner than he was expecting. “My ID says I’m a beta, you know!”

“I’m very familiar with that. It’s always been its most useful trait.” How else could he have signed up for the Alliance as a beta? He told Tao Xuan it was an old ID that he hadn’t changed yet after his presentation, and he’d completely bought it.

“You! Just because I’m defending you right now doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven you for that yet!”

Ye Xiu sent back a cool emoji. He could almost hear Ye Qiu’s enraged shrieking.

It was at least a few minutes before Ye Qiu could bring himself to send another message. “Whatever, you shameful brother. I’ll show up if I have to, but I assume you don’t want to get into the name thing right now?”

“I have a new job around a lot of people, so it wouldn’t be convenient.”

“Okay, okay, I understand. We’ll handle it for you. Are you really fine, though?”

“When am I not? I don’t need my baby brother worrying after me. How’s your work with the family going, anyway?”

“Come home and take over already!” was his only response.

“You said our parents want me here. I’m actually free.”

“…”

Ye Qiu abruptly logged off, and Ye Xiu couldn’t help but laugh.

 

When Ye Xiu logged on, Sleeping Moon was missing.

“Is he making trouble again?” he asked the others.

“Not really, it’s just…” Sunset Clouds didn’t seem to quite know how to explain it.

“He couldn’t stop talking about the Ye Qiu thing, so we eventually told him to go cool off. It was making dungeoning really hard,” Seven Fields told him. “He kept saying there must be something wrong with the club. He couldn’t believe it.”

That guy was actually his fan? Ye Xiu almost laughed. “Oh? There are people who think that?”

“What, you don’t agree, brother expert?” The three of them were in the “don’t know what to think” camp, so they were hoping brother expert could clarify things a little.

“I do, I do. I just didn’t know anyone else would.”

How could brother expert not know? It’s not like it was a completely uncommon point of view, though it was getting a bit drowned out by the huge conflict within the usually well-organized Tyranny fans. The others wanted to ask him, but in the end, they didn’t say anything.

Since it would be hard to clear the Spider Cave’s hidden bosses with just the four of them, they went to the Skeleton Graveyard instead.

Ye Xiu had long ago realized that dungeoning with the others was not a great way of getting materials, but he wasn’t too worried about it. If he really wasn’t able to collect the necessary materials before he returned to the pro scene, Tyranny would definitely get them for him. Sure, it would be better if he could get them sooner himself, but it wasn’t like he had to rush. In fact, at this point he didn’t even need to be worried about his family’s expectations. There was no reason for him to stress at all.

Since his weapon was a top-tier silver weapon, it would remain far above others for a long time. Even if his level got high enough that the umbrella was only equal to a same-level green equip, Ye Xiu was very familiar with the fact that green equipment was more than good enough if you had the skill to back it up. By the time he got to the point where he seriously needed to upgrade his weapon, at least some of the materials would be things he could buy.

Even though he didn’t need to worry about materials, he was naturally going to keep trying to collect them. Skeleton Graveyard had something he wanted, so the group of four went in on their own.

Soon after they started the dungeon, Chen Guo startled Ye Xiu with her sudden appearance, saying she couldn’t sleep. She watched him for a while before she had to say something.

“Do you think Ye Qiu could really be an omega? I mean, he’s so good…”

Ye Xiu didn’t respond, adeptly handling the monsters in the dungeon as he pressed forward.

“Sorry, that was rude,” she realized. “They wouldn’t just make that up anyway, it would be seen through too easily. But if that’s the case, someone there must have already known, right? The Alliance doesn’t let people use fake IDs, and Ye Qiu had to sign the contract with someone.”

Ye Xiu was silent.

“But, if he really is an omega, I was thinking…there might be a reason for this. I’ve watched all of Excellent Era’s battles. I feel like Ye Qiu and One Autumn Leaf aren’t as strong as they were back in the day. There are experts everywhere, and high-level accounts that don’t lose to One Autumn Leaf, but people still pushed all of their expectations onto Ye Qiu. That’s a lot of pressure for one person to carry.”

Ye Xiu was still silent.

“Suppressants aren’t the most reliable, right? That’s why so many people don’t use them. If Ye Qiu was under a lot of stress, it might have burned through his suppressants. I don’t think he would have forgotten about them, after all these years. But so few people understand omega biology, maybe Excellent Era didn’t know that it wasn’t his fault? Maybe it’s all just a misunderstanding?”

“Seven Fields, turn back a bit. You’re too far forward. Sunset Clouds, you and Drifting Waters stand together. I can handle this side by myself.”

Chen Guo flew into a rage, shaking Ye Xiu violently and yelling at him, but his face didn’t turn away from the screen and his playing never faltered. When she finally let go, he coughed loudly, then asked “What did you say?” before shouting toward the headphones, “Seven Fields back. Move back.”

Seeing as he wasn’t even angry about her outburst, what more could she do? She was still annoyed she hadn’t gotten a proper accounting of his skill yet, too. Claims of being pro-level didn’t count, even if his reasons behind not being an actual pro player were more legitimate than most.

So she made an account on the tenth server. If she wanted to see his skill, she’d just have to do something herself. His complete lack of attention toward her was grating, but not unreasonable, she realized. It was Skeleton Graveyard, and they were down a person. She turned back to her infuriating leveling instead.

Some time later, she pulled out of her tired and irritated grind through the lower levels to Ye Xiu trying to get her attention for a very specific guide he’d forgotten to look up. She’d never even heard of a 100% drop method for the Skeleton Warrior’s saber, but after she looked it up she had a good idea of why. Beyond it being a mere ornamental weapon, the qualifications for the drop weren’t easy.

Ye Xiu seemed remarkably familiar with this oddly specific guide, and he only needed a glance before he apparently had all the information he needed.

What followed was an absolutely stunning display of skill. She already knew he must be good at PKing, but this was on a whole different level. 24 hits done in 20 moves, precisely hitting the same location with four Double Stabs to bring it up to 24, while he completely took on the boss alone. What kind of legendary ability was that? Was he really a pro-level player who was barred from the pro scene by an accident of birth?

Then he went and ruined all her sympathy for him by asking if she was going to be pulling an all-nighter, because he wanted to smoke.

How was this guy an omega? Chen Guo couldn’t see it at all.

Then again, what did she know about omegas? It wasn’t like she’d interacted with that many before. With the news about Ye Qiu and this new, infuriating Ye Xiu to consider, she was just about ready to renounce everything she’d ever heard about them.

Chen Guo decided to give up on staying awake in the face of Ye Xiu’s nonsense about smoke. Really, this guy. Even his concern was annoying!

For Ye Xiu, smoking was an ingrained habit. Strangely, he didn’t have much of a headache yet, but his timing for how often he smoked had been set up over years of routine. The mystery of the disappearing headache was one he didn’t need to bother with for now.

With the help of the level 5 Chasing Haze, he was able to farm Midnight Phantom Cat Fingernails by himself. On his last entrance into Green Forest, someone called Blue River invited him to help break a record.

Ye Xiu’s eyes lit up. This was exactly the kind of thing he needed! Ye Xiu couldn’t properly join any guild for the same reason he wasn’t joining Tyranny: It could be seen as breaking the Alliance’s rule not to interact with the pro scene. Even if they only paid him in materials the whole time, wouldn’t it still look like he was working for the club? Tyranny was the worst option because he was actually going to join Tyranny once he returned, but joining any of the other guilds would be a bit too careless, too.

Little things like this couldn’t be considered working for a club, though, and the clubs could certainly afford to pay him. He could already give his umbrella the level 15 lance form, and one quick dungeon run would give him a lot of the necessary materials to upgrade it even further.

Though Frost Forest could hardly be considered an exciting dungeon, Ye Xiu really loved all of Glory. Without the pressure of deadlines or quotas to meet, he could freely enjoy playing with his new unspecialized character. It was a bit melancholy, thinking of what Su Muqiu could have done with Lord Grim himself, but procuring resources with odd jobs felt very true to his memory. Even breaking records like this, with casual use of overwhelming skill, brought him back to the days when Su Muqiu would call him away from dueling to break some record or other so he could get his hands on the orange equip rewards. The umbrella shifted to a gun as he flew over the goblins’ heads, and Ye Xiu let himself laugh.

 

Lord Grim was odd. He had the energy and enthusiasm of someone new to the game, but the clear, tactical knowledge and ability of someone who had played Glory for years. He treated the acknowledgment of others as if it were his due, but didn’t seek the fame or recognition that most experts were so hungry for. When Blue River had made that mistake with the Wave Wheel Slasher, he didn’t waste effort on mocking him, only instructed him as if it weren’t common knowledge. He didn’t respond to mockery, using pure skill to show why he deserved to be listened to, without so much as an “I told you so” when others admitted their faults.

And that weapon! What on earth was going on with that weapon?

“Don’t you think…he’s too strong?” Lunar Grace asked. Blue River spent a moment trying to deny it, then gave up. What could he say? Lord Grim was obviously far beyond him.

Why had such a troublesome expert shown up in the tenth server?

 

After all the work Endless Night put into finding and interacting with Lord Grim, he wasn’t getting much out of it at all. He had to push Lord Grim into showing his ability at all—which was seriously bizarre, Lord Grim was doing the opposite of keeping a low profile, and people who wanted to be noticed usually also wanted to prove themselves—and then Lord Grim had made him pay for it. And now it turned out that what they’d paid for was just an online guide!

“Brother, you’re not nice! Did you trick us by using a guide?” Endless Night typed furiously.

“I wouldn’t. I wrote that guide,” Lord Grim replied.

The author of the guide was literally One Autumn Leaf. If he was going to lie, he could at least make it believable! “What are you boasting for? That guide was written by the God Ye Qiu.”

“Right, that’s me!”

Shameless! Too fucking shameless. Who would sink so low as to use Ye Qiu’s name right now, and against Tyrannical Ambition? Was he trying to cause an argument on their end? As if God Ye Qiu would be messing around in the new server after the announcement today, setting records and telling people who he was left and right.

Lord Grim immediately dodged out after saying that, making good his escape.

Endless Night was starting to regret ever contacting him in the first place.

 

The news of Su Mucheng’s transfer, a record-breaking 8 million yuan, broke the next day. Tyranny had already planned to hold a press conference to address the news from Excellent Era and the strife amongst their fans, but this gave them a proper, team-relevant excuse.

Of course, no matter how stunning Su Mucheng’s transfer was, it couldn’t beat the revelation of Glory’s top god’s dynamic.

“Han Wenqing, how do you feel about the news from Excellent Era concerning Ye Qiu? Do you feel betrayed, to know that the rivalry you’ve held for so long was with an omega?”

“I don’t care at all about Ye Qiu’s dynamic,” Han Wenqing stated coldly. “Tyranny has never believed that dynamic has anything to do with ability, and we aren’t going to start now. I am disgusted by the way Excellent Era has twisted events in their press conference to implicate Ye Qiu. He was assaulted while under their care. They should have taken responsibility for it.”

“Assaulted?” A murmur of surprise swept through the reporters. “Why do you think Ye Qiu was assaulted?”

“Because I was there,” Han Wenqing stated bluntly. “Someone used heat inducers on him, and he called me to guard him.”

Tao Xuan stared at the screen. He was what? He’d had no idea Han Wenqing had been anywhere near Excellent Era that night. He’d thought it was a little weird that Tyranny was the one to pounce on Su Mucheng, but Tyranny wasn’t afraid to throw their money at things, and Su Mucheng was nothing if not a good investment. It wasn’t that out of left field. But now it turned out that Han Wenqing was in on the whole thing?

Tao Xuan threw down the papers he was looking at in disgust.

“That’s…a very serious accusation,” the reporter said, shocked.

“It’s what happened. I’m not going to lie to spare anyone’s feelings. Ye Qiu had at least seven straight years of suppressant in his system. He couldn’t have ‘accidentally’ gone into heat. He’d have had trouble going into heat even on purpose.”

“Even if this were true, why would Ye Qiu have called you to guard him?” one reporter asked skeptically, and maybe a little angrily. This really was a very serious accusation, and no matter how poorly Excellent Era had been doing this season, they were still one of the mainstays of the Alliance. Of course at least some of the reporters here were fans.

“Ye Qiu and I have known each other for ten years. I’ve made both my dynamic and my stance on how alphas should behave very clear. It would be stranger if he didn’t call me, in a situation like that.”

There was nothing the reporters could say to that. It really did make sense.

If Tao Xuan had known that Han Wenqing was there that night, he definitely would have handled it differently. Su Mucheng could be dealt with, and Ye Qiu wasn’t likely to make a public statement, but Han Wenqing? Of course he wouldn’t stay quiet. They should have just said that Ye Qiu had to quit the team for health reasons, avoided the whole fiasco. Su Mucheng might have told Tao Xuan that Ye Qiu wasn’t willing to retire, but to avoid it Ye Qiu would have had to bring the issue to the Alliance himself. He wouldn’t have had the resources to properly remove himself from Excellent Era, and there’s no way he’d be able to make a public statement after he brought charges against them without hurting his case. Sure, fans would have considered Sun Xiang as an inferior and unfortunate replacement for a while, but eventually they would have gotten used to it as Sun Xiang brought them the wins Ye Qiu’s lack of cooperation with the team couldn’t.

It wouldn’t even have been a lie, because heats were health-related. Ye Qiu would have been stuck contesting the issue for years.

Tao Xuan had a headache.

Cui Li’s decision to use Ye Qiu’s nature against him had brought Excellent Era nothing but trouble. Tao Xuan would defend him, because that’s what was most likely to make sure Ye Qiu couldn’t return to the Glory scene, but at this point he honestly didn’t want to.

 

Before the press conference started, Su Mucheng asked Club Tyranny what stance they wanted her to take. She was hoping to make her transfer to Tyranny as smooth as possible, which meant starting to coordinate with them right away.

“I don’t know about you,” Han Wenqing said, turning to face her, “but I’ve had enough of Ye Qiu’s self-sacrificing nonsense. I’m going to defend him whether he likes it or not.”

Su Mucheng’s eyes widened a little, and then she smiled. How long had it been since she’d had someone other than herself who wanted to support Ye Xiu? How long had she had to helplessly watch him be weighed down by all the people who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand him? Yes, it was about time she said something in the way of defense about her dear brother. He always wanted her to look out for herself first, so that was what she’d do. In this case, she’d argue that defending Ye Xiu was a completely selfish act, if she had to. But she really was tired of watching him let the world treat him unfairly.

“Su Mucheng, there are rumors that your transfer to Tyranny was to get away from Ye Qiu’s improper advances. Can you comment on this?”

Where had these rumors come from? If Ye Qiu is an omega, his partner must actually be an alpha? Omegas are naturally promiscuous? Ye Qiu is the source of all problems, including Su Mucheng’s transfer? Who came up with the idea of Ye Qiu pursuing Su Mucheng?

Su Mucheng couldn’t help it, and wouldn’t try: She burst into laughter, startling the reporters. “I’m sorry, the idea of Ye Qiu making inappropriate advances toward me is completely ludicrous.”

Did she want to defend him like Han Wenqing did? To let other people know how incredible he was?

Yeah. She really did.

“After all, he’s the one who raised me to not tolerate anything of the kind.”

Pandemonium.

“Are you saying that Ye Qiu actually raised you himself?” one reporter finally managed to ask.

“Well, he’s been involved in my upbringing since I was 12, but it was basically just him from when I was 15. He initially didn’t tell anyone about being an omega for my sake—he didn’t want the undue attention or vulnerability that would come with such an announcement when I was still underage.”

Everyone could do the math. Su Mucheng debuted when she was 18, so the first three years before that, Ye Qiu must have been raising her as well as leading his team and winning championships, while hiding his dynamic so he didn’t have to put more pressure on Su Mucheng or himself at the same time.

“I—uh…” The reporters were clearly not prepared for this. “So, if you’re that close, how does he feel about your abandoning him for Tyranny?” This question, prepared ahead of time for the player who had won Best Partner with Ye Qiu since her debut, was even more relevant now, right?

“Abandoning him? Ye Qiu not only approved of my decision, he gave me Dancing Rain so I could continue playing.”

“He gave you Dancing Rain?” At this point the reporters were just stunned. The All-Star account, Dancing Rain? Gave? What was going on at Excellent Era?

“Yes, Dancing Rain was the account he set me up with when I said I wanted to start playing Glory, to join him in the pro scene. When it became clear we would both be leaving Excellent Era, he made sure I could take Dancing Rain with me.”

The reporters looked like they were going to explode. This was so much more information than they’d ever gotten about Ye Qiu, or even Su Mucheng, considering the previous complete lack of data concerning her family.

Su Mucheng smiled radiantly. Their faces were absolutely incredible. Zhang Xinjie would likely get the press conference back on track soon, so Tyranny could say what they came here to say: Su Mucheng was not transferring just for show, and they did intend to make her a part of the team.

Until then, though, she would enjoy the chaos.

 

SmokeRises

So, Ye Qiu, knowing he couldn’t protect the girl he raised anymore, entrusted her to Han Wenqing? Han Wenqing, whom he called over when he went into heat? Is anyone else seeing this? 

 

Can’tBeatDestiny

I ship it

 

StarlessNight

The rival of a top alpha turns out to be an omega all along?? What kind of drama plotline is this? 

 

BattleDrunk

In the old days, alphas and omegas would sometimes have contests of strength as a part of courting. Just saying. 

 

HeavenlyAmbition

So they’ve been courting for years????

 

FallenStar

HANYE IS REAL I’M CRYING

 

ThousandLi

Okay, I’ve never been a fan of Ye Qiu (how many times did he keep Tyranny from the championships???) but I also never thought there would be an omega that could play Glory well enough to be worthy of Han Wenqing. I’m so torn…

 

UnstoppableForce

What, you think just because he’s an omega it’s fine to like him now? How can you even call yourself a Tyranny fan? Tyranny is always talking about how dynamic doesn’t matter! Don’t be gross. Ye Qiu is still the main enemy! Defeat Ye Qiu!

 

SmokeRises

But didn’t Ye Qiu call Han Wenqing for help? And isn’t Han Wenqing defending him now? I’m not saying we have to like him because he’s an omega, but it doesn’t seem like their relationship is nearly as contentious as the media always made it seem.

 

NightHunt

The media? Han Wenqing’s motto is to defeat Ye Qiu. I don’t feel like it’s a stretch to say they’re in a "contentious relationship."

 

MountainHermit

Doesn’t matter anymore. He can’t play until the Alliance clears him, and who knows how long that will take. Court cases in the defense of omegas can stretch years unless you have really, really good lawyers, and basically no one does for things like this. By the time the court case finishes, how old will he be?

 

BattleDrunk

Wow, you don’t have to go that far…

 

MountainHermit

I’m just saying it like it is. I’m not saying it’s fair, but honestly? We can write Ye Qiu off at this point.

 

UniversalQueen

Hey, uh, I’m gonna give the sad train a miss becaauusee: We finally have some backstory for our goddess??? And it turns out she was raised by Ye Qiu himself??? TODAY HAS BEEN AN AMAZING DAY.

Also hi I guess I’m a fan of Tyranny now

 

AutumnHerald

Yeah, I’m definitely here for Su Mucheng and Han Wenqing giving us the truth about Ye Qiu.

 

Of course, the reporters would be remiss in their duties if they didn’t ask other pros what they thought about the situation. However, the pros might as well have coordinated their responses, because the result was unanimous: They were on Ye Qiu’s side. He was actually an omega? So what? Had it helped any of them win against him more easily? More importantly, Ye Qiu was assaulted, and his team completely failed to support him. As for whether or not it was true—who would believe Han Wenqing was lying? He wasn’t the kind of person to play games with the media or public opinion. Yu Wenzhou, Wang Jiexi, and even Zhou Zekai were quoted expressing their disappointment in and disapproval of Excellent Era’s actions.

Huang Shaotian, usually an easy target for quotes, was apparently forbidden from commenting entirely.

With the pro circle so firmly on Ye Qiu’s side, most of the fans followed suit. Quite a few were actually relieved, knowing that they hadn’t really misjudged their idol’s personality. Some who wanted to keep looking down on him in general actually became more supportive of Excellent Era as a team. The poor fans of the original team Excellent Era, the one that had created the first and only dynasty all those years ago, were at a complete loss.

Excellent Era had to release another statement just to handle the situation. “We apologize for sharing information before we had all the facts. We didn’t want to keep fans in the dark about Excellent Era’s internal matters, and in the process we may have done a disservice to our former captain. The Alliance is looking into the situation, so rest assured that an impartial group will be handling it. Unfortunately, the fact remains that Ye Qiu cannot compete until the investigation concludes. We hope he’s doing well, and that a satisfactory conclusion can be reached in these trying times.”

If they hoped this would stop people from signing petitions for Ye Qiu’s return, they were sorely disappointed.

The only other thing Excellent Era could do to stabilize the situation was to point out that Sun Xiang, their new captain, core, and inheritor of One Autumn Leaf, was an alpha, so they obviously couldn’t be discriminating based on dynamics.

There were quite a few in the Glory scene who found this an unbelievably weak defense. Who didn’t know that the situation between alphas and omegas was entirely different? There may have been only one alpha captain all these years, but he wasn’t the only alpha playing Glory competitively. As for omegas, up to this point there hadn’t been even one.

Or at least, not one that anyone had known of.

 

Ye Xiu woke in the afternoon, having gone to bed shortly after his shift ended. He got the food Chen Guo had left and went downstairs to play, but somehow the atmosphere was even weider than it was yesterday. When Chen Guo showed up behind him, he felt oblidged to ask what happened.

“Didn’t you hear? Ye Qiu was actually assaulted!”

“…Who said that?” They must be talking about the issue from Excellent Era, because he certainly hadn’t otherwise been assaulted recently. He couldn’t believe anyone at Excellent Era would have made a slip like that so soon, though.

“It was in Tyranny’s press conference. Han Wenqing said so.”

“…Did he.” It wasn’t even a question, because of course he did. He should’ve known.

“What, you don’t believe him?” Chen Guo was already starting to look angry. Clearly she’d had time to form her own opinion on the matter.

“Oh, I do. It’s very like him to just say whatever he wants.”

“That’s not even the most interesting part, though,” Chen Guo went on, apparently forgiving him in the face of more interesting news. “It turns out that Su Mucheng was actually raised by Ye Qiu!”

Ye Xiu choked on his drink. “Han Wenqing said that?”

“No, Su Mucheng did! She said that he approved of her going to Tyranny, he taught her how to play Glory, he hid himself for her… It’s so much!”

“Han Wenqing’s influence is way too powerful…” Ye Xiu muttered. How long had Su Mucheng been with him? One day, maybe? Already, she was sharing all kinds of information they’d kept secret before. Sure, there was no need now, but was there really a need to tell anyone else about it, either? Let alone everyone else.

“Well, I’m glad,” Chen Guo said. She sounded kind of mad again. What had he done now? Was his reaction lacking? “This is the most personal information we’ve ever gotten about Su Mucheng. Whatever, just come with me. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

 

Tang Rou and Ye Xiu had barely had time to greet each other before Chen Guo was setting them up to fight, but Tang Rou didn’t mind. It wasn’t that she was trying to avoid Glory; it really just wasn’t complicated enough to hold her attention.

Besides, Ye Xiu’s interactions with Chen Guo were more than enough to give her some insight into his personality. Tang Rou had always heard that omegas were capable of manipulating others into agreeing with them of their own volition, but Ye Xiu did nothing of the sort. He somehow managed to immediately get Chen Guo angry without even trying.

Honestly, Tang Rou wouldn’t have known Ye Xiu was an omega if Chen Guo hadn’t already told her about it. Whatever suppressants he was on, they must be extremely good.

When it came time for them to fight, he beat her without trouble. He won again, and again, and again and she wanted nothing more than to vanquish him. She knew he was an omega, and she knew that well-bred alphas did not want to vanquish omegas.

Well. It wasn’t like she’d ever cared much for her image as a well-bred alpha. This, here? This could hold her interest.

She would find a way to surpass him, no matter how long it took.

Chapter Text

The next day was a match day, and the broadcast chose Excellent Era’s match to highlight. With all the drama around Excellent Era, how could they not? Not to mention, One Autumn Leaf’s change in player was huge news. Everyone wanted to know what would happen to the old powerhouse Excellent Era after this.

Chen Guo had always watched Excellent Era’s matches, and while she didn’t have many good feelings toward them right now, she didn’t want to purposefully avoid the match, either. Many people here were still fans of Excellent Era, and everyone liked some drama. However, she did keep a few more people than usual to watch the customers, afraid the heightened emotion might lead to more aggressive actions, the way it had shortly after the announcement.

Sun Xiang went onstage first for the group arena, and Ye Xiu blew out a short, disappointed sigh.

The reaction was so at odds with the riled up emotions of everyone around them that Chen Guo had to ask. “What’s wrong?”

“They really shouldn’t have sent him out,” he said plainly.

“Why not?” If Chen Guo was honest, watching One Autumn Leaf fight again was the only part of this match she was actually looking forward to. “He’s their best option right now, isn’t he?”

Ye Xiu shook his head. “With his dynamic, it’s not a good idea.”

“What, you have something against alphas?”

“No?” Ye Xiu looked at her like she’d said something extremely strange. “He was hit by a heat haze recently, right? Alphas that get hit by a heat haze, especially younger ones, can end up with heightened aggression for a while. Their instincts basically lash out against the idea of being not good enough, or having their intentions thwarted. A competition like this is the last thing he should be participating in, if he wants to recover. And that’s just under usual conditions, let alone a haze involving heat inducers and breaking through suppressants.”

Chen Guo had never heard about any of this before, but she wasn’t exactly an expert on the subject. She turned back to the match, looking for any indication that Sun Xiang wasn’t in perfect condition.

She really couldn’t see it, though! On screen, Sun Xiang defeated Yang Cong with the kind of hand speed alphas were known for, then brutally dispatched the second player as well. The crowd seemed to have completely forgotten their misgivings, wildly cheering for One Autumn Leaf to dominate the field.

Xu Bin came up next, and started carefully positioning himself, then frantically dodging the moment Sun Xiang moved toward him. Chen Guo looked over at Ye Xiu. The crowd was in hysterics, but Ye Xiu looked nowhere near amused.

“It’s going fine, isn’t it?” She thought so, but she really wouldn’t know when it came to dynamics. “Wouldn’t winning help him get over the frustration a little?”

Ye Xiu glanced at the screen, then back to her. “Not like this.”

“What’s wrong? His opponent is running scared, right?”

“Exactly. Running. His first opponent drove up his hand speed, the second fell quickly to play on his arrogance, and now Xu Bin is forcing Sun Xiang to keep up that ridiculous hand speed for as long as possible. They probably only mean to play on his lack of synchronization with a new team: drive up his excitement, get his hand speed out of control, so no one will be able to coordinate with him. Everyone at 301 is a beta, so I doubt they knew enough about his dynamic to devise this strategy based on it,” Ye Xiu told her. “However, this kind of frustration is the absolute worst thing for Sun Xiang right now. It’s going to work out for them—in fact, if Sun Xiang can’t manage to rein in his hand speed, at this rate he’ll probably cramp up—but it’s also going to make the lingering effects of the heat haze much worse.”

“It can’t really be that bad, right?” Chen Guo looked back at the match uncertainly. Sun Xiang had gotten frustrated enough to taunt Xu Bin, but Xu Bin hadn’t bothered with a response.

“I guess we’ll see,” Ye Xiu said dully.

It didn’t take long for her to get her answer. Xu Bin fled out of range yet again, and One Autumn Leaf suddenly spasmed on the screen, executing a bunch of random actions at once.

The crowd went silent in shock.

“Did he…is he okay?”

The commentators were dumbstruck. “It appears that Sun Xiang just…slammed the keyboard?” They couldn’t bear to make it a statement. No pro player would do that, and Sun Xiang wasn’t so much of a rookie that he’d make that kind of mistake. He’d won Best Rookie last season! He was already being talked about as a god-level player. He’d even inherited One Autumn Leaf, the Battle God! Who could call him inexperienced?

Xu Bin was too far away to immediately take advantage of it, because he hadn’t actually been expecting an opening like this to appear. But with several of One Autumn Leaf’s skills on cooldown at once, how could he not take the chance to bring One Autumn Leaf’s health down a little more?

Ye Xiu sighed and stood up.

“Where are you going?” Sun Xiang may have made a major mistake, but the battle wasn’t done yet, and Sun Xiang hadn’t actually given up the fight. In fact, he was quickly regaining the advantage.

“Smoke.”

He didn’t even need to smoke right now, but he couldn’t watch this. One Autumn Leaf was the account he’d raised himself, and that kid…none of this was his fault. But there was nothing Ye Xiu could do for him now. In fact, just seeing Ye Xiu might make it worse.

He blew smoke up into the sky, watched it trail away into the night. Who at Excellent Era would notice? Tao Xuan, maybe, if he could fish himself out of the legal proceedings long enough to figure it out. But that was it. There was no one else there who knew even the first thing about dynamics.

Inside, Sun Xiang managed a 1v3, against the odds. Ye Xiu turned away.

 

Excellent Era’s team competition was a massacre. Those who wanted to say Excellent Era didn’t need a trash omega like Ye Qiu couldn’t speak up, and those who were just looking to follow the Battle God even after Ye Qiu’s departure were bitterly disappointed. After all, though Excellent Era hadn’t been doing well this season, this was much, much worse. Sun Xiang may have pulled off a 1v3, but what kind of pro player hit the keyboard during a match? It was just too childish. Somehow, what should have been a crowning moment of the match didn’t feel impressive at all.

In Tyranny’s match, Su Mucheng appeared in an individual round, making it clear she would be part of the team from now on. However, she did not appear in the team match; Tyranny wasn’t so reckless as to immediately put her into a group she had never worked with before. She won her individual match beautifully and brutally, drawing a lot of praise from both her personal fans and fans of Tyranny alike. She may have been a core member of Excellent Era and Ye Qiu’s partner, but who would turn their nose up at a beautiful talent like her? Especially since her transfer had such noble reasons behind it.

Su Mucheng had always been a crowd favorite.

 

Happy really wasn’t far from Excellent Era at all; the guild leader and three of the pro players found Ye Xiu there that night, after the power outage was fixed.

There hadn’t been a chance for any of them to interact with him since that moment in the conference room revealed his dynamic, and it was clear Liu Hao had a lot to say about it. He couldn’t manage to keep up the pretense of an amiable interaction for long.

“From the first day I joined the team,” Liu Hao snarled, “you always beat me down. And now I know why! So afraid I’d stand over your weak, biddable self, you couldn’t bear to give me a chance to succeed. Scared I’d take your position from you, who were never meant to lead. Did you really think you’d get away with it forever? Look at where we are now. The one on the team is me. The one who’s been kicked out is you! I’m the team vice-captain, and you’re a small café manager. 1800 a month? Too hilarious.” He laughed, sounding more than a little mad.

Ye Xiu just watched him, silent. Omegas weren’t actually more likely to be influenced than anyone else—they were just marginally more likely to be affected by an alpha’s commands than betas. In fact, it was betas that were less likely to be affected by dynamics than anyone else, but people were so eager to heap anything extra on alphas and omegas and call betas neutral that they entirely missed what qualities betas themselves had.

It wasn’t worth arguing. Liu Hao hadn’t understood anything he’d said before, and he wouldn’t suddenly start understanding it now, when he thought he had even more reason to write Ye Xiu off.

“Mister.” Tang Rou actually stood up to face down Liu Hao’s manic laughter. “Whatever personal grudge you think you have, we don’t allow this kind of behavior here.”

“What behavior?” Liu Hao was already past the point of caring about Tang Rou’s beauty or his own reputation. “Laughing? Pointing out basic truths like omegas have no place in Glory? When I think about how long I had to listen to this guy—”

“If you’re only here to harass him, leave.”

Liu Hao’s eyes went wide. Somehow, he’d managed to miss that this girl was an alpha. Whatever his thoughts on omegas, everyone knew attacking someone on an alpha’s home ground was asking for a fight. He was lucky she’d stopped at a command.

Tang Rou definitely had some ability, too; Liu Hao, face slowly edging from unhinged to furious, unwillingly turned around and started to walk away. Chen Yehui, who had been grinning along with Liu Hao’s cruel laughter, looked stunned as he, too, turned to leave.

Wang Ze and Fang Fengran, though similarly wide-eyed, did not move.

Ye Xiu glanced at Tang Rou out of the corner of his eye. A qualified command? That was a rare skill, normally only seen in high-class, well-educated alphas, who had actually studied how commands worked. Ye Xiu felt that this girl’s background definitely wasn’t normal.

More importantly, though, if Wang Ze and Fang Fengran weren’t leaving, they must have some other reason to stay.

“Yes?” he prompted, when waiting for them to speak got nothing more than awkward shifting. Really, these children.

“We…didn’t know,” Wang Ze said finally. “We wouldn’t have…”

Wang Ze was the kind of person who cared about looking beautiful. Attacking an omega the way they had, regardless of their feelings about him personally, couldn’t be considered beautiful or classy in any way.

“That was the point, wasn’t it?” Ye Xiu said blandly. “No one knew. It was barely relevant. Don’t bother regretting it for a reason like that.”

Wang Ze and Fang Fengran didn’t seem to know what to do with that.

“In fact, you shouldn’t bother with regret at all,” Ye Xiu told them. “Regret is a useless emotion. Instead, focus on being better. Support your team. Improve your playing. It’s the prerogative of the young to excuse bad decisions as part of learning, so learn.”

The two exchanged an uncomfortable glance. “Learn…what?” Fang Fengran finally asked.

Ye Xiu was surprised. Since when did they want to hear anything like that from him? Maybe it was just guilt? There was no way their opinions about him had changed that much in the few days he was gone.

Well, it wasn’t like it mattered to him either way. He told them what they did well, and how they could still be better, and didn’t think much of whether they would listen or why they even asked.

When he finished, the two of them were watching him, brows furrowed as if trying to figure something out.

“Are you…actually helping us?”

“Yes?” Was that not obvious? What else would he be doing, giving them advice like that?

“Why?”

“Didn’t you just ask?”

“Yes, but…you didn’t have to, right?” How was it that the two of them still looked so confused?

Luckily, Ye Xiu wasn’t the type to care about whatever misunderstandings might be happening in a conversation. He’d go on with what he thought they were saying, as usual. “But I could. So I did. What other reason could you need?”

After another moment of silent interaction, the two nodded. “Thank you…Senior. We’ll be going now.”

“Okay. Good luck.” Ye Xiu watched them go, bemused. What had gotten into them? From the beginning to the end, they’d just looked awkward being here. What had they been looking for, by staying?

Ye Xiu shook his head and walked back over to the reception desk, where Tang Rou was still standing.

“You didn’t have to do that earlier,” he told her. “I could have gotten rid of them without a command.”

“Yes, but I wanted to,” she said unconcernedly. “And GuoGuo has a no-harassment policy anyway, I’m sure she’s told you.”

“Did she?” Ye Xiu tried to think back to their earlier conversations. “She might have, I don’t remember. Even if she didn’t, it’s not like I’d just let people harass customers.”

Tang Rou shook her head, amused, but it wasn’t long before her smile slid as her delicate brow creased in thought.

“You’re…actually Ye Qiu, right?”

Tang Rou had heard all about the situation with the Battle God and Ye Qiu’s being an omega when she’d asked about classes earlier. She wouldn’t have already forgotten the existence of such a huge scandal: The top god of glory, also the first known omega pro player. As for whether or not there would be a second, it probably depended a lot on how Ye Qiu’s case ended.

“Oh?”

“You called them pro players, and they said you were their captain before. I think only one person recently left the captain position, and it was when the team found out he was an omega.”

Ye Xiu laughed. “Yeah, that’s me.” He didn’t bother with any denials; he’d already decided hiding it was too much of a pain, even if Chen Guo hadn’t reacted as he’d expected.

Tang Rou was surprised at his easy agreement. She hadn’t been sure if he would want her to even ask about this, so she purposely chose to bring it up now, with no one else around. However, he didn’t seem concerned at all. “Does GuoGuo know?”

“I told her the first night, but she said I’d better not say anything again. She seemed really worried that she’d need bouncers.” Ye Xiu smiled carelessly.

“Okay.” Tang Rou thought it was odd that Chen Guo didn’t fawn over Ye Qiu at all, given the way she’d seemed so upset at what happened to him still, and kept talking about him like a god while looking down on him in person. Maybe Ye Xiu was just that good at pissing people off, that Chen Guo couldn’t manage to see him as a god now that she knew him in person.

Actually, it seemed quite likely Ye Xiu would have cultivated that reaction himself. He appeared entirely disinterested in image or social norms.

“Come come, level already,” Ye Xiu said, breaking her train of thought. “I still need to show you the Frost Forest dungeon.”

Yes, completely disinterested in social standards, or really anything else outside of Glory.

 

Morning came with Tang Rou still determinedly soloing the same dungeon over and over. While Tang Rou used Lord Grim to clear Frost Forest, Ye Xiu used her phone to call Su Mucheng; she had messaged him on QQ asking him to call her. Her messages were the only ones he would always check, a habit formed when he was nominally taking care of her. She took care of herself just fine and could catch up with casual conversation when they met at the end of the day, so if she actually had to send him a message it was probably something he should see.

Even though they didn’t live close enough to have their casual conversations in person anymore, he wasn’t going to start ignoring her.

“You played well last night,” he told her after she picked up. Even though the broadcast hadn’t shown Tyranny’s match, Ye Xiu was able to look it up online later.

“Of course! I can’t let people speak poorly of us,” Su Mucheng replied cheerfully.

“Us?”

“What, didn’t you hear? You raised me, so whatever I can do must be partially your doing.” Her voice managed to carry her mischievous smile perfectly.

“These guys have it all wrong,” Ye Xiu muttered. Su Mucheng may look like a pretty flower vase, but only because it was useful. If people needed an example of Su Mucheng deviating from his own decisions, they need only look at the announcement of him “raising” her itself. And, despite his teaching her how to play, they had completely different playstyles.

“How are things going on your end?” Su Mucheng asked, a little more serious. She didn’t like being so far from him with everything that was going on.

“Mostly fine. Excellent Era seems to be up to something in the new server—maybe trying to establish themselves as a strong team in the minds of new fans? It looks like Liu Hao, Fang Fengran, and Wang Ze set the record for Frost Forest. It’s easily the highest in all ten servers.”

“Oh? They put that much effort into that kind of low-level dungeon?” Su Mucheng really was surprised. Who would bother with using three pros to compete against normal players?

“Yes, well, I have to do the same. I was hired to break the record, but Excellent Era cleared it first with that unreasonable time.”

“Oh.” Su Mucheng immediately understood the situation. “You need my help?”

“Even if I did, how could you give it?” Ye Xiu waved her off. “You have a new team to integrate into! That’s going to require most of your time.”

Su Mucheng was undeterred. “Zhang Xinjie is very meticulous, so it’s actually not hard to fit into his plans. More importantly, you know what kind of robot he is! Practice happens when practice happens, and nothing more. He goes to sleep so early, too. It wouldn’t be hard at all for me to make some time for you.”

“Mucheng…”

“Besides, it’s important to learn to work with you, too. Aren’t you going to rejoin the Alliance with Tyranny next season? Unspecialized can’t be that easy to coordinate with!”

“Oh? It seems like you really thought about this.” It was true that an unspecialized, as an entirely new “class,” would be harder to coordinate with, but there wasn’t much he could do about that before the investigation ended.

“Of course I did. I actually already have an account.”

Ye Xiu almost choked. Why were they even having this conversation, then? It looked like she’d decided long ago. “Did you forget already? You’re part of the Alliance! Even more, you’re part of Tyranny! How would a launcher account helping me not be suspicious?”

“It doesn’t matter if they think it’s me! They’ll definitely turn a blind eye.”

“You want to blind them with the shine off your pretty face?”

“Of course not. Now that everyone knows you helped raise me, there’s no way they could keep us apart.”

That…actually worked. One of those unspoken societal rules was that it was cruel to separate an omega from their child. Obviously this extended to “adopted” children. Even though Su Mucheng was the furthest thing possible from his child, the way she’d said it in the press conference…

“Clever,” Ye Xiu approved.

“Isn’t it?” Su Mucheng returned brightly. “I thought you’d appreciate it.”

He really did. It was nice to see Su Mucheng doing more to support her own goals. “Still, how will you level? I’m going to be leveling up pretty quickly. The boss here is great, she actually lets us use the computers for free, and I can play almost uninhibited all night. Really good conditions! There’s no way you’ll keep up on top of all the work you’ll be doing to fit in with Tyranny.”

“Don’t worry about me!”

“Weren’t you just saying I should be concerning myself with Tyranny? What about the team? How can I encourage slacking like this?” he asked mock seriously.

“I’m sure Captain Han would agree this is important,” Su Mucheng replied unconcernedly.

Well, sure, if she asked him… No matter how much control Han Wenqing had, he’d still been there for the entirety of Ye Xiu’s heat. It probably wasn’t very good for his mental state, and he might actually approve of someone he trusted going to “look after” the omega that was no longer near him.

“Really, it’ll be fine,” Su Mucheng said more seriously. “I know my duty to this team, and I won’t shirk it. Let me play with you a little, okay? We’ve never had to go this long without seeing each other before.”

Ye Xiu sighed. “Okay, okay. As usual, there’s no changing your mind when it’s set on something. What name did you choose?”

And so the tenth server adventures of Lord Grim and Cleansing Mist began.

 

Cleansing Mist wasn’t excessively high in level, so Su Mucheng clearly hadn’t been using a leveling service, nor had she directly obtained an account from Club Tyranny. However, she was high enough to join Ye Xiu in leveling and in helping teach Tang Rou whenever she could. They were busy, but with constant leveling and Su Mucheng’s help with explanations, they were able to get where they needed to in order to break the record within two days.

Everything progressed smoothly, until Su Mucheng decided to use Delivery Gun on the record-breaking run.

“Don’t use Delivery Gun! That guy’s definitely from Club Tyranny,” Ye Xiu reminded her.

Su Mucheng knew what Ye Xiu was trying to say. A female launcher that could execute Delivery Gun? Even if she hadn’t just transferred to the team, making her fresh in everyone’s minds, people would guess she was behind it. “Does it matter if he knows? Excellent Era already used pros for the record.”

Ye Xiu almost laughed. As if they wanted to use Excellent Era as an example of what to do. “Not all the records I set can be for Tyranny. Didn’t you want to stick around for the others?”

“Fine, fine.” Of course, she couldn’t be known to help set records for other teams so soon after joining Tyranny. There had to be a limit to what people could turn a blind eye to.

They put on a little show for Crowd Lover’s player, and moved on to break the record.

 

Excellent Era took the record back. Tyranny was enraged.

If this had been any other server, things definitely would have escalated madly into a guild war. In the Heavenly Domain, the fires of Excellent Era’s and Tyranny’s press conferences had yet to fully burn out. Here, with everyone so low-leveled and so many new players, people restrained themselves to extreme bitterness.

But it was really extreme bitterness.

 

During their next match, Excellent Era performed so horribly there was almost a riot. Chen Guo decided then and there she couldn’t bear to show their matches anymore. The property damage wasn’t worth any amount of customers! She’d somewhat thought tempers would cool over time, but if anything people were getting angrier as time went on with no proper explanation or resolution, and she couldn’t blame them. Besides, the more she thought about the situation, the more she felt like Excellent Era couldn’t be forgiven. She’d always been a fan of Su Mucheng above all else, so it wouldn’t be much of a hardship for her to turn to watching other matches. Maybe not Tyranny’s so directly, not in City H, but she might be able to work her patrons up to it.

Meanwhile, if Ye Xiu had needed any more conclusive proof that Hateful Sword was Liu Hao, this would have done perfectly.

Of course, he hadn’t bothered to drive Liu Hao away. If he was “undercover,” he wasn’t causing any other trouble. Besides, getting the record back again wouldn’t be difficult.

Ye Xiu thought, perhaps uncharitably, that Liu Hao’s “devoted little helper” façade was the most real help he’d gotten from Liu Hao since he started at Excellent Era. As for the scarcity of guilds looking to hire him now, he didn’t care. As long as at least one guild would pay his prices, he was doing fine.

Since the beginning of Glory, Ye Xiu had never had to worry about establishing a reputation.

 

Ye Xiu opened up QQ to find one of his contacts was now “Are you okay? What happened?”

It wasn’t his brother, since he’d already had this conversation with him. The only other person who knew he’d actually respond to this kind of communication was Wu Xuefeng, who had seen him sigh and read through his brother’s messages often enough to know he didn’t flat-out ignore them.

Did he respond? Not necessarily. But he didn’t ignore them.

“I’m fine,” he sent back.

It didn’t take more than a minute for him to get a reply. “What was Tao Xuan thinking, pulling something like this? Has he lost his mind?”

“It was actually Cui Li that did it, but I agree the question stands. How he thought hitching me with Sun Xiang was going to work out for him, I really don’t know.”

“So he really was trying to set you up with Sun Xiang.”

Oh, right. No one had actually said that publicly, so unless Wu Xuefeng had been talking to Su Mucheng, he wouldn’t know.

“That’s going way too far. How can Tao Xuan defend him? Has he really changed so much?”

“Eh, he just wants to keep me out of the Alliance. He’d honestly been setting this up for so long, I can’t even imagine what he’s feeling now.”

“…‘So long’?”

“Yeah. He probably only didn’t get rid of me sooner because he didn’t have a successor for One Autumn Leaf.”

“That…” Wu Xuefeng was definitely not happy. It had only been maybe four and half years since he left. “So long” really didn’t leave a lot of time between his departure and Tao Xuan turning on Ye Qiu.

How could things have fallen apart so quickly?

“It’s not like I didn’t see this coming. He wanted me to do advertisements, I didn’t want to do advertisements, there’s not much to be done about a conflict of interest like that.”

“Little Mucheng did advertising though, right? I’ve seen her in a few.”

“Yeah, Excellent Era wasn’t exactly in dire straits financially. But if he could have an ace that did show himself, it would be better than one that didn’t, right? Especially since I don’t have a flashy playstyle.”

“Simple and direct gets results.”

“Alas, my lack of results.”

Wu Xuefeng sent him a rolling eyes emoji. Only Ye Qiu would think getting to the playoffs every single season was a “lack of results.” As for Tao Xuan… He couldn’t even consider a championship enough of a result, and Ye Qiu couldn’t do better than being the best.

“Whatever issue he has with you, he shouldn’t be supporting something like using heat inducers on an omega. That’s disgusting.”

“Agreed.”

“Do you need any help?”

“No need, my family is handling everything.”

There was a fairly long pause. Ye Xiu wasn’t surprised. By the time he left, Wu Xuefeng had been aware he was hiding from his family. The names Ye Qiu had used to get his attention on QQ were frequently variations of “You need to come home!” or “Unfilial brother, at least tell us you’re alive.” Along with his avoidance of publicity, it wasn’t hard to guess.

“They’re supporting you?”

“Yeah, they even want me to make a comeback. A complete reversal of opinion, now that it suits them, but definitely useful.”

“That’s good, then.” Wu Xuefeng had long ago decided he wouldn’t pry into Ye Qiu’s family situation, since it didn’t seem like a pleasant topic for him. “You’re safe now? It doesn’t look like you followed Little Mucheng.”

“I’m safe, don’t worry. I got a different job for now, a little more suited to laying low than hanging around Tyranny.”

“Okay, if you’re sure. You know you can call on this brother whenever, right?”

“Of course.”

Wu Xuefeng had always been like that, the kind of dependable person that could be counted on in any situation. They didn’t speak often, but when it came down to it, Wu Xuefeng was always there.

(Wu Xuefeng, who let Ye Xiu sit with him after Su Muqiu’s death, day or night, to help settle half-suppressed instincts that were searching for a missing alpha. Wu Xuefeng, who could handle any mistake before it turned into a problem. Wu Xuefeng, who called a young, grieving boy “Captain” with no hesitation.

Wu Xuefeng, who never took his blank face for lack of caring, and addressed his insistence that they needed him to win the championship with “How could I be that important.”

That Wu Xuefeng.)

Ye Xiu sighed as he closed the conversation. It was always nice to hear from Wu Xuefeng, but that wasn’t what he’d logged on to do.

He clicked on Huang Shaotian’s name, despite the daunting “99+” next to it.

It wasn’t like he needed to read any of it to ask him to come.

 

InfiniteVoid

Damn, have you guys seen Boneyard’s record on the tenth server?

 

ObsceneScene

Does it…look like they’re trying to bully Lord Grim?

 

UnmatchedQuality

A high-level player that Excellent Era wants to fight? Does anyone else think this might be Ye Qiu?

 

GodlessPilgrim

Ye Qiu isn’t allowed to play Glory right now

 

ForestWalker

No, he just can’t participate in the pro alliance. He could be in the game.

 

FallingLeaves

Okay, but remember that he’s involved in an investigation? If he ever wants to return to the pro scene, he’d have to come out on top there, and everyone knows finding lawyers for that kind of thing is next to impossible. Besides, who’s better at strategizing than the first master tactician himself? He’s probably busy doing it himself. And maybe recovering, who knows what his health is like after dealing with that poisoning

 

GodlessPilgrim

alleged poisoning

 

IndomitableWill 

Fuck off, when has Han Wenqing lied? Ever?

 

RiseAbove

More like would that trash omega dare show his face in the game now that we all know what he really is?

 

RiverRun

Okay guys, let’s not get into that again. The point is it’s probably not Ye Qiu. So who is it??

 

FlowerPlains

Maybe it’s an alpha out to fight EE in Ye Qiu’s place?

 

WaningMoonlight

Han Wenqing???

 

ForestWalker

Not Han Wenqing, stupid, he still has to play in matches. It can’t be any of the real pros, we all know that.

 

SeventhStar 

Alphas don’t get as many chances to be part of the Alliance, maybe he’s not a team player?

 

BattleLute

Fuck, what do you think a dungeon is? “Not a team player,” could you be any more stupid?

 

SleepingCat

inb4 lord grim just lowkey takes the record back

 

DiamondRough

On top of that record? No way, right?

 

Ye Xiu didn’t have to explain the story behind his weapon to Huang Shaotian; from “a long time ago, my friend and I made it together,” he had already deduced everything.

And shared it with Ye Xiu as he went, out loud, as he was inclined to do.

“You’re planning on starting from the bottom up again?” Huang Shaotian asked, finally concluding his monologue.

“Yup!”

“And you can’t even give it to a club to level up for you because of the investigation. Damn! Excellent Era went really far in getting rid of you. I don’t understand. I really don’t understand.”

“Initially, they just wanted me to retire, take the blame for the bad team performance.”

“Retire?! Are they crazy? If we talk about your matches, I’ve seen them all. It’s clear the team was at fault and you were isolated by them. Was it Liu Hao’s schemes? That guy’s like a hungry wolf. Just one look and you can tell he’s up to no good. You’re too careless. Did he resent you for being an omega? Was that it?”

Ye Xiu sighed. “He didn’t even know.”

“Then what is it? What is it? How could they be thinking of retirement?” Huang Shaotian started chattering angrily in the background as Ye Xiu turned to the poor, lost Steamed Bun Invasion.

“Steamed Bun, there’s nothing else for today. If you want to go to the Arena or dungeon, go ahead!”

“Okay.” Steamed Bun easily left for the Arena, which had managed to become one of his favorite places in the game.

“Oh yeah! Let’s go for a round. Let me see how great your weapon is!” Huang Shaotian said.

“With that account?” Ye Xiu laughed.

“What’s wrong with this account? It’s level 27, like yours. The weapon is a bit lacking, but I’ll make do!”

“This account’s an unspecialized, though,” Ye Xiu reminded him.

Of course, now that Huang Shaotian thought about it, trying to fight an unspecialized’s 120 skills with his seven sub-class only skills was much too unreasonable.

“Take out your Troubling Rain and let’s try it out in Fixed Field,” Ye Xiu offered.

“How is that okay?!” Huang Shaotian panicked. “That would expose me. If someone saw, how am I supposed to explain it? And what about you? Aren’t you not supposed to interact with the Alliance? Isn’t setting the record like this getting hired? It’s fine, it’s fine. We’ll battle some other time! Do you have anything else you need? If there’s nothing else, then I’m going back.”

“Go, go,” Ye Xiu said. He really was too noisy…

Huang Shaotian shut down the computer and carefully slunk over to Ye Xiu at the reception desk. As usual, his furtive actions and motor mouth didn’t line up at all.

“Blue Rain would take you, you know. We don’t give a damn about your dynamic. Who would care about something stupid like that? And you’re not old enough to be disappearing yet, okay? If you can get out of the legal blocks, we’ll definitely let you join.”

“If I joined Blue Rain, what about Mucheng?”

Huang Shaotian stared blankly. There was really no chance of Tyranny giving up Su Mucheng now that they had her. “You…fuck! How did Tyranny get their hands on you two first? They already have an alpha, what do they need an omega for? Blue Rain needs a girl, too! What were you doing, being so hasty with your decision like that? Not even one day, didn’t even look at any other options, and now you’re stuck with it for what, a year? Year and a half? What kind of negotiation is that?! Aren’t you supposed to be a master tactician? Let me tell you, our team captain would never draw such an irresponsibly fast conclusion. He takes his time with everything, but at least he gets it right! You’ve clearly gone mad, directly throwing your lot in with Tyranny. How are you going to deal with that when you come back? When are you coming back, anyway? You can’t take too long, you know. If you need help, just say it. Don’t wait around until you’re old and decrepit!”

“You’re in such a rush for me to come back and destroy you?” Ye Xiu laughed.

“Fuck, you’re too arrogant, aren’t you?” Huang Shaotian yelled.

“What’s the current record for our duels again?”

Huang Shaotian coughed and shifted his gaze to the black sky outside the internet café. “Ah…tonight’s weather is pretty good!”

He stood there for a while, staring outside, before finally turning back to Ye Xiu with a serious expression. “You have to come back.”

“Who needs you to say that?” Ye Xiu already had Lord Grim. He definitely wasn’t done.

“If you have any trouble with anything, contact me. Legal fees, medication, whatever,” Huang Shaotian continued earnestly.

“Give me back my Vampiric Lightsaber and the fee for two hours of Internet,” Ye Xiu said plainly.

Huang Shaotian was finally speechless, a full moment of silence.

“I’ll give you the Vampiric Lightsaber later!” Huang Shaotian slapped the money down on the reception desk, then turned around and faded into the night.

 

“There’s an 80% chance he’s Ye Qiu,” Wang Jiexi told the players who’d gone after Lord Grim last night.

“Ye Qiu!” Xiao Yun’s face went ugly. He played a Battle Mage himself. What Battle Mage hadn’t studied Ye Qiu’s guides and playstyle? Xiao Yun was one of those who felt supremely wronged when the information about Ye Qiu’s dynamic came out. He didn’t dare say anything, with Wang Jiexi’s public support of Ye Qiu, but he had a lot of pent-up anger and frustration about the situation. Being tossed around with Vanishing Step last night had only exacerbated the issue.

To be beaten so badly, by an omega

Wang Jiexi called Ye Qiu “the greatest Boss in the history of Glory,” but Xiao Yun could no longer see it.

 

“If your entire team goes up and your team gets wiped out, wouldn’t that be an even bigger blow? Is this…okay?” Ye Qiu laughed, completely unconcerned.

The members of Tiny Herb roared in anger, suddenly fired up again after the fear of fighting Ye Qiu alone and embarrassment at fighting Ye Qiu together.

“Your words came at the perfect time,” Wang Jiexi said. They really did. Nine versus one was still complete overkill, but the team no longer saw any problem with it.

Had Ye Qiu done it on purpose? He actually might have. He didn’t need to point out to Wang Jiexi the psychological effect this would have on the players, but he did anyway. Clearly he was thinking about it even more than Wang Jiexi was. Wang Jiexi had backed himself into a corner, and Ye Qiu flawlessly granted him a way out.

It was a very…omega thing to do. Not that Wang Jiexi could talk; he thought about his team’s condition and mentality more than most. Taking care of people and wishing them the best was absolutely within his nature, and he wasn’t an omega at all. But psychological manipulation was the purview of omegas, and seeing this kind of dynamic-coded behavior from Ye Qiu after the announcement was…odd.

How had they not noticed before?

Or was it only now that he was looking for it that he started seeing what had always been a perfectly normal aspect of Ye Qiu’s personality as related to his dynamic instead?

Wang Jiexi pushed it out of his mind. If Ye Qiu cared about raising others, he’d always been that way, and whether or not it matched with stereotypes was irrelevant.

 

Xiao Yun couldn’t handle Ye Qiu at all. The casual mockery at the beginning, the early stages when he was so sure Ye Qiu’s era was truly of the past, then being used as a teaching dummy and then teaching material—his attacks became a mess as his anger and desire to win increased.

He was an alpha! He should be able to defeat an old, washed-up omega like this! He’d spent so long looking up to this man, and it turned out it was all a lie. What aggressive and tyrannical personality and playstyle? Wasn’t Excellent Era in the relegation zone when he went into heat and was kicked from the team?

Wang Jiexi called him back, and he fumed.

“I already knew everything,” he said, when Wang Jiexi asked if he’d been listening to Ye Qiu. He was done learning from that guy.

“Then why did you take it as trash talk?”

Xiao Yun went silent. Trash talk? Looking back at that match, hadn’t Ye Qiu perfectly riled him up? Using Xiao Yun as a teaching dummy when he was already so angry about learning from Ye Qiu in the beginning, rubbing Xiao Yun’s origin and false world views in his face…

Fucking omegas and their manipulation.

 

“Are these players all experts?” Tang Rou’s Soft Mist walked over to Lord Grim to ask.

“Yeah,” Ye Xiu replied.

“How good?”

“They’re a bit worse than me.” Coughs immediately sprang up, but Ye Xiu ignored them. “If you keep on losing, will you cry?”

The members of Tiny Herb were speechless. How was this guy an omega again? Humility? Nurturing? Where could any of that be seen? Okay, maybe directly saying they were on Ye Qiu’s level would be seen as baseless bragging, but did he have to come out with it so bluntly? And what “little sister from a café,” he was actually going to teach her by letting the defending champion team bully her until she cried?

For the younger members of the team, it suddenly made perfect sense that not a single pro player had guessed Ye Qiu’s dynamic over the years, no matter how well they knew him.

 

“Big-eyed Wang, you’re not going to try?!” Lord Grim sent.

The team was immediately angry. What kind of disrespect was this?! Who was he to call Wang Jiexi “Big-eyed Wang” just like that?

Except, after they thought about it, they realized—Who was he? Ye Qiu! “Big-eyed Wang” was what the seniors had called Wang Jiexi back when he first started in the Alliance, and hadn’t Ye Qiu been there since the inception of the Pro Alliance? He couldn’t get more senior if he tried.

How was it so easy to forget this guy was Ye Qiu?! He just finished completely destroying them in the arena, too!

Somehow, he just didn’t have the aura of a god…

He didn’t have the aura of an omega, either, and that was the association the media had been putting its full weight behind ever since Excellent Era’s announcement and Ye Qiu’s disappearance from the pro scene.

But, here he was, trash-talking their captain like it was natural.

And then the fight between his unspecialized and Wang Jiexi’s unpredictable magician style began, and no one could care about what aura Ye Qiu did or didn’t give off at all.

 

Ye Qiu let them tie. There was no way, with a character as undeveloped as a level 27 witch against a fully-formed unspecialized with a silver weapon, that Wang Jiexi could have won. He had only brought out his magician playstyle halfway through the battle, and he wasn’t so arrogant as to presume that it could make up for all his disadvantages and completely topple Ye Qiu in half a battle’s time. Not even exhaustion could account for Ye Qiu needing to draw the match, and fighting to a draw wasn’t common in the first place. It was so clearly a setup, it practically screamed Ye Qiu’s superior control of the situation. His ability to calculate damage to get the result he wanted was absolutely insane.

Wang Jiexi didn’t find it exceptionally surprising; Ye Qiu had always been like that. He didn’t want to snuff out anyone’s passion for Glory. Despite how thoroughly he sometimes outclassed his opponents, he never tried to make them feel like they shouldn’t even play.

“Everyone knows what type of person Ye Qiu is,” he told his team. “Learn from him. Learn everything. His experience, his knowledge, even his trash talk. This is the Glory Textbook. Study well.”

Put like this, the players of Tiny Herb finally realized that they had fallen into a trap, with all the media speculation and God Ye Qiu’s lack of personal statement. Who was he? An omega that had been attacked? A beaten, old god? Of course not! This was Ye Qiu. No one would dare to say they could definitely beat him—in a one on one, in strategy, in coordination, in trash talk, whatever venue, he was one of the best.

Nothing about his demeanor said he was done. Could he defend himself in court? No one knew. But no matter what he was facing, he definitely hadn’t fallen.

 

The next day, Wang Jiexi tried his hand at recruiting that “little sister,” whose potential and quick growth had easily caught his eye. She was, almost unbelievably, completely unmoved but his offer to join Tiny Herb. She wanted to improve, to become a better player, and apparently nothing else at all. Wang Jiexi had no choice but to leave the option open and privately lament her attitude on the subject. Mental toughness was a blessing for eSports players, but a curse for anyone hoping to negotiate with them.

Tang Rou, on the other hand, knew that she was already in the best position for her goals. She wanted to become stronger more than anything else, and right now she had the Battle God himself living with her full-time. Wasn’t that entire team of pro players paying exorbitant prices for a chance at a single battle with Ye Xiu, in which they were utterly decimated without suspense? What they valued so highly, she had free access to, along with his personal teaching. Clearly she was coming out on top.

As for whether or not she wanted to join the Pro Alliance instead of just improving, she could think of that later. If Ye Xiu really left and took all of the good competition with him, she’d revisit the idea. For now, she was set.

(Tang Rou did not know of the specialized training she could receive at an official club, but even if she had, she wouldn’t have cared. Life at Happy was good. She found that Ye Xiu’s commitment to bettering himself above all else fit with her mentality perfectly. What Pro Alliance? Pro players might be better than what she’d seen before, but were they any better than Ye Xiu, who was right next to her? Not at all. All they could do was further illustrate the gap between them, and with him right here, she had no need of that.)

 

When Qiao Yifan came to request guidance from Ye Xiu, at first he was surprised—this boy was already in a championship team, and Ye Xiu was just one person—but once he thought about it, the reasoning behind it became clear. Wang Jiexi was always very thorough in taking care of his team, but with all the effort he needed to put into his successor, how could he spend time on a lackluster assassin? Qiao Yifan’s position was really too unfortunate. No one that young and still full of potential should be as beaten down as this boy sounded, so Ye Xiu sent him off to learn more about Ghostblades, and prepared to accept another student into his dungeoning party. Qiao Yifan cared enough to pursue a new path in Glory, and that was enough for Ye Xiu.

Nothing was worthier of support than love of the game.

 

Full Moon Guild’s record for Desolate Land finally came out, but Tang Rou had already moved on to a much more irritating issue. In that final, record-setting run, Ye Xiu had completely suppressed the final Boss, Toya, to the point where the rest of them were hardly more than audience members to a great play. The confirmation that he was even farther beyond her than she thought had made her feel defeated, but that wasn’t the real problem.

No, the problem for her was that when he had the chance, he didn’t do it again.

“Hey, why aren’t you playing seriously?!” She didn’t like it when people hid their strength.

“I’m always playing seriously,” Ye Xiu told her, unconcerned by her anger. “You mean why am I not playing like last time? I’m sure you know a little about cost-benefit analysis. Burning out my body to fight a low-level, nothing boss like this is a complete waste.”

Tang Rou frowned. “What do you mean, burning out your body? How old do you think you are?!”

“I’m actually pretty old for eSports, you know. At my age, I can’t recover from the strain of high-activity nearly as quickly or completely as younger players,” Ye Xiu told her.

Tang Rou couldn’t accept this explanation. “Even if that’s true, don’t you have some kind of increased regenerative ability? You aren’t like normal people!”

She was obviously referring to the regenerative ability omegas should have as part of dealing with heats, but from across Toya’s courtyard, Steamed Bun gasped. “Boss is an alien?!”

Tang Rou was struck speechless. She’d actually forgotten that the others could hear their conversation, so it might be inconvenient to bring up Ye Xiu’s status as an omega. Apparently it didn’t matter, though? Steamed Bun was just too unfathomable.

“Soft Mist is misinformed,” Ye Xiu told Steamed Bun, suppressing his mirth. “If I had a partner, I might have better health than most people. As it is, I’m a very normal person.”

“You can get alien partners?! Where?!”

Ye Xiu gave up on holding back laughter.

Tang Rou couldn’t even complain. She’d definitely brought this upon herself.

 

Poplar Beach was an alpha, and an aggressive one at that. He was good at PvP, with his fast hands and quick decision-making, but he didn’t have the steadiness and willingness to cooperate to be good at dungeoning. And, of course, the moment Ye Xiu pointed it out, he had to deal with this slight to his pride in the Arena. He was pretty much a classic example of why people didn’t think alphas were suitable for true high-level work in Glory.

He spammed the world chat with challenges to Lord Grim, whose response of “When I have time” was so clearly dismissive it was hard to see Poplar Beach as anything other than an uppity child. This was the real reason Poplar Beach would never make it as one of the Five Great Experts of Blue Brook Guild: No matter what pull he had with the younger players, he liked being arrogant far too much to keep up a good image in the long-term.

Lord Grim proceeded to brutally trash both his dungeon record and his character in the Arena.

Poplar Beach logged out, and he didn’t log back in.

 

Once Changing Spring left, Yu Wenzhou started quizzing Huang Shaotian about the weapon he must have seen when he set the Boneyard record. Of everything uncovered in Changing Spring’s visit, the existence of that weapon was easily the most important.

“This type of weapon paired with Ye Qiu. A true unspecialized…” Yu Wenzhou paused for a moment, then turned to Huang Shaotian seriously. “You met with him, right? Did he say if he’s coming back?”

“He’s coming back.”

Yu Wenzhou didn’t bother doubting Ye Qiu. Who would know better than he, one of the master tacticians who learned by studying Ye Qiu, that Ye Qiu was brilliant at making things go his way? If he said he would come back then he would, regardless of what obstacles he faced. For Blue Rain’s future, it wasn’t particularly good news; Ye Qiu was a formidable opponent. But in his heart, Yu Wenzhou couldn’t help but think…

It would be good for Ye Qiu to return.

 

“He’s Ye Qiu.”

The gathered experts from Blue Brook Guild all reacted with some level of disbelief, sure they had misheard, but Changing Spring remained firm.

Lord Grim was actually that God Ye Qiu!

Blue River had always thought all they hype about dynamics was exhausting and childish. If it didn’t affect their playing, how could it be important? So when he thought of Lord Grim being Ye Qiu, his first thought wasn’t “Lord Grim is actually an omega,” but “I have Ye Qiu on my friends list.” God Ye Qiu! Whom he could talk to any time!

The other Five Great Experts were not so easily distracted.

“At least it doesn’t look like he’s particularly helping Tyrannical Ambition…”

“Yeah, after us, Tyrannical Ambition is in the worst position. Are we sure this is Ye Qiu? Wouldn’t he be a little more lenient toward the Club that’s defending him?”

“The team captain said so,” Changing Spring reminded them.

“Tyrannical Ambition probably doesn’t know, based on my interactions with Cold Night,” Blue River said. “He’s probably acting alone for now.”

“As if Ye Qiu needs a full guild backing him to cause us problems…”

No one could argue with that.

“Since these are tenth server matters, it’s up to you, Blue Bridge,” Changing Spring said suddenly.

“Right! Blue Bridge, you can do it!” said Flying Brushstroke.

“To have God Ye Qiu as your opponent… It was nice knowing you.” Chilling Nightfall didn’t bother with optimism.

“We’ve got nothing else to do, so we’ll be going back first?” Dawn of Ice asked.

“Yeah, we can head back. We still have to run Moonlight Forest, right?”

“Right!”

“Blue Bridge, good luck! Remember to pay attention to Lord Grim’s weapon,” Changing Spring urged.

The four others went offline as if Ye Qiu were actually chasing them, not just present in the same server.

Blue River was speechless. What kind of situation was this? When the news about Ye Qiu had come out and all of the Heavenly Domain went to war, Blue River counted himself lucky to be heading development in the tenth server instead. Who would have thought this god would appear here, too?

Right, Ye Qiu was actually here, and he spoke with Blue River semi-regularly. What was his life.

“If I ask Lord Grim for a signature,” he mused, “would that be bad?”

“Fuck, are you kidding? Even if he’s God Ye Qiu, he’s also a difficult opponent for us!” Bound Boat reminded him.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Too shameful.”

Still, it was a pity Lord Grim’s ability made him everyone’s opponent.

 

The addition of Qiao Yifan made dungeoning so much smoother. Having another pro player to watch over the team’s situation and adapt accordingly was a blessing, even if the boy was still fairly new at actually using his observations. Most importantly, Qiao Yifan was everything Ye Xiu could ask for in a team helper. He was quick, eager to learn, skilled, observant, happy to coordinate but with the motivation and game knowledge necessary to not rely blindly on whatever Ye Xiu said. Truly, a player worth cultivating. Tiny Herb may be too focused on their young witch to give him the attention he deserved, but Ye Xiu had plenty of time and was always happy to teach others about Glory.

With Qiao Yifan and Su Mucheng to help him, Steamed Bun’s incomprehensible decision-making and Tang Rou’s natural dislike of coordination wouldn’t cause him any problems. Taking the Line Canyon record was a breeze.

 

No matter how separate from the fans guilds usually were, Chen Yehui didn’t dare to contact the leader of Tyrannical Ambition about forming an alliance against Lord Grim. They already didn’t have good enough relations that they could talk regularly, and now Tyranny’s official stance was that they supported Ye Qiu. They might even know about who he was! He didn’t want anyone to tip Ye Qiu off, so he searched for the other guilds instead.

Blue Brook guild directly rejected the alliance, which was both surprising and a little irritating. Without Blue Brook and Tyrannical Ambition, these two great guilds, the alliance would be significantly weaker than he’d hoped. Who would have thought the two in the worst situation here would actually be impossible to coordinate with?

Whatever. The alliance was mostly a ruse, anyway. What he really wanted was to pit his enemies against each other and profit in the fallout.

 

News of the inter-guild alliance shocked Cold Night. Shouldn’t they have waited until Tyrannical Ambition was truly screwed over before making their move? They hadn’t even contacted him about joining!

Now that he thought about it, that lack of invitation was pretty suspicious.

Then the alliance failed to eliminate Lord Grim, and was wiped out itself. That was…a clearer show of force than any other. Cold Night almost couldn’t believe his spies. What kind of insane group did this Lord Grim have?

Lord Grim started killing leveling teams at Line Canyon whenever he ran into them, provided they were from the guild alliance that had tried to stop him. Cold Night started sweating. How good was Lord Grim’s understanding of the inter-guild alliance’s machinations? Would he assume Tyrannical Ambition was in on it, even though they weren’t? Would he attack their leveling teams as well?

It never occurred to him that he might need to warn Jiang You not to engage on his own.

 

Jiang You happened to run into Lord Grim and his team casually massacring some of the strongest teams in the server. His first thought was that this was a good opportunity: If he came in and saved them, and then they teamed up together to take down Lord Grim, wouldn’t that slow down Lord Grim’s leveling speed? Presenting a united front with other guilds against Lord Grim could only help Tyrannical Ambition at this point. Jiang You even had four of Tyrannical Ambition’s best with him; there wouldn’t be a better time to get the drop on Lord Grim.

(It was unfortunate that Cold Night had decided not to bother Jiang You with any of the information on how that had turned out for everyone else.)

“Oh, it’s you?” Lord Grim said as they entered the fray. “You weren’t even on the list, you know.”

And then he absolutely beat them into the dirt.

Lord Grim and Cleansing Mist were showing astonishing coordination, employing a dead angle strategy along with Screen Cannon to keep their opponents helplessly suppressed. It wasn’t like these strategies were secrets, but to pull them off so smoothly against opponents on their level…

Not even the pros they’d dueled with before had beaten them this intensely. Sure, part of it was a matter of their attitude going in, but skill like this wasn’t an accident.

Who the fuck was Lord Grim?!

 

It seemed Tyrannical Ambition had finally called in their pros: Zhang Xinjie appeared in the game, then asked to fight a team competition against him. That in itself was a pretty clear indicator that Han Wenqing had yet to be alerted; Zhang Xinjie wouldn’t have wasted time setting up a match if he knew who he was.

Well, if the game was almost up anyway, he might as well get a little more out of it.

“Are you free at 9 tonight? PvP,” he messaged Su Mucheng.

“Oh? With whom?”

“Zhang Xinjie.”

Su Mucheng sent a cried-laughing emoji. “That should be fun. He won’t try to call me in, right?”

“I doubt it. I couldn’t use my weapon at the time, and we didn’t exchange any spoken words. He’s unlikely to assume my identity just because I outclassed some experts, even if they did have his leading on their side.”

“So that’s why he took time off this afternoon!” Su Mucheng laughed delightedly. “I think I saw the guild leader going to talk to Zhang Xinjie during lunch, too.”

“You noticed something like that?”

“Everyone was acting so surprised to see him, I couldn’t have missed it! But he wouldn’t have done that just because we wiped out his team once last night, right?”

“Well, we did KS a Wild Boss from them, too. They probably went mad with anger and then called him in. In any case, he asked for a team PK with betting, and I agreed.”

“We’re going to obliterate him, right?”

“Of course we are.”

 

Zhang Xinjie analyzed the improbably competent players in front of him. Ye Qiu, Huang Shaotian…Su Mucheng? If it really was Ye Qiu, the probability of her joining him in the game was high.

If it really was Ye Qiu, a lot of things about this situation would need to be reexamined. Quite possibly, things were not at all what the experts from Tyrannical Ambition thought. Ye Qiu was unlikely to be actively sabotaging Su Mucheng’s team, and Su Mucheng was a consummate professional who had no reason to turn on the team that had stood behind her against Excellent Era. In fact, if Ye Qiu was ever able to return to the Alliance, it would make the most sense for him to come to Tyranny, and he wasn’t so shortsighted as to fight them now without reason. It seemed the circumstances of their conflict would need to be looked at much more closely.

He told Jiang You to set up another match. He didn’t want to baselessly confront Su Mucheng, in case Ye Qiu had just raised another highly skilled launcher behind everyone’s backs. If he could do it once, who was to say he couldn’t have done it again?

However, he would certainly need Han Wenqing’s insight to proceed.

Han Wenqing was still in the practice room, running a conventional practice with his Desert Dust. Zhang Xinjie wasn’t surprised; recently, Han Wenqing’s hand speed had been off, and he was likely still trying to determine where the problem lay.

This time he missed the rock, Desert Dust falling and the screen going black. The last time, he might not have. Han Wenqing’s top hand speed had been fluctuating unpredictably, which was concerning for any pro player, let alone one whose playstyle revolved around pushing to the limit, aggressive and fearless.

Han Wenqing was still a pro, of course, and could regulate his hand speed in a match well enough that he wasn’t having problems performing. However, if he had the speed, he wanted to be able to use it. It didn’t help that the times when his hand speed increased seemed to correlate with an inability to think as clearly as he’d like. He felt overwhelmingly frustrated, like he was looking for something else in his playing, but he wasn’t sure what.

That irritating feeling (Where? Where? Where is—?) would not leave him alone.

Zhang Xinjie watched his captain struggle with the training program without comment. He’d done his research on the subject, but it mostly existed in generalities, rather than anything specific to eSports athletes. Alphas and omegas were not built the same way as betas: The way their bodies worked, the way their brains worked, was a little different. This was a fact that had been studied many times before. In a stable situation, they had bodies less likely to break down under age and stress; they were designed to deal with high-stress heats and ruts, designed to be able to create offspring longer than betas.

However, the reality of high-stress heats and ruts could not be avoided with the mere existence of a body more capable of handling it. While medications and suppressants meant to deal with an alpha’s rut were safer and had fewer side effects than those for an omega’s heat, they weren’t without their problems. They were only a weak substitute for what biology had optimized both alphas and omegas for: a mate. Without some kind of balance, alphas and omegas broke down even faster than betas.

Han Wenqing had, through his own control and careful conditioning, maintained himself well enough that his alpha-quick hand speed hadn’t deteriorated as much over the years as most alphas’ did. However, there was only so much he could do to counteract his nature. Not to mention, even as a beta he’d be old enough that his hand speed would probably be starting to fall.

Han Wenqing’s visit to City H had thrown his body out of whack, causing fluctuations in his ability that were frustratingly difficult to predict. Whatever he had done in City H, it probably hadn’t been as straightforward as the guarding he’d said he’d done in the press conference.

Really, issues like this should be waited out, not pushed through. But Han Wenqing only ever pushed through, so Zhang Xinjie stayed silent.

Han Wenqing would put aside his own problems when he needed to focus on the team, as he always did.

“How did it go?” Han Wenqing knew that Zhang Xinjie had been called over by the head of the guild to assess some players’ PvP ability, but not much more than that.

“We lost.”

“Lost?” What kind of absurd situation was this? Zhang Xinjie and Tyrannical Ambition’s experts, losing to a normal player?

“The opponents’ strength far exceeded my expectations.”

Far exceeded? There was only one person he’d expect to hugely exceed Zhang Xinjie’s careful preparations, if only because Zhang Xinjie wouldn’t be expecting it at all. “Let me see the recording.”

Zhang Xinjie got the recording from Jiang You and started playing it. Han Wenqing immediately zoomed in on the opponents, completely ignoring everything else. The moment Lord Grim came into focus, he knew exactly who it was.

“Ye Qiu.”

Zhang Xinjie was surprised at the quick deduction. Lord Grim hadn’t even done anything big yet. Was this the effect of having spent years as rivals, or perhaps something to do with the recent interaction of their dynamics? “That has the highest possibility, yes. I set up a second team competition to gather more information—”

“It’s Ye Qiu. I saw him make Lord Grim.”

Zhang Xinjie paused. That hadn’t even occurred to him as a possibility. He wanted to ask for clarification as to how Han Wenqing could have witnessed Lord Grim’s creation, but the only time Han Wenqing had seen Ye Qiu recently was during his sudden trip to City H. Asking about what happened during an omega’s heat was simply not done. Even more so, asking the alpha who had guarded him for its duration would be plainly foolish.

“Should we withdraw from the match?” There was no reason to believe Ye Qiu would have given the account he made to someone else. The situation would require further analysis before he gave any recommendations to the guild, but gathering information was no longer necessary.

“No. You already set it up. We’re going.”

Zhang Xinjie agreed without trouble. Even if they lost the match, the materials would mean nothing if they were going to someone they already intended to invest in.

Han Wenqing hadn’t looked away from the replay yet, watching each of the high-level participants show off their ability. When it got to the blade master’s incredible move, he frowned and rewound it, playing through the moment at least three times. The longer he looked at it, the more his expression darkened.

 

Plantago Seed joined the alliance against Lord Grim for the sole purpose of getting others to waste effort trying to fight Ye Qiu. It was, after all, Ye Qiu. If Tiny Herb’s main roster couldn’t defeat him, the combined might of six guilds, two of which definitely weren’t even trying, would be completely ineffective.

And Excellent Dynasty had almost certainly created this alliance for the same reason Plantago Seed had joined it. Putting this much effort into hunting down a single person, as if trying to silence him? They had to know it was Ye Qiu.

More interestingly, Tyrannical Ambition hadn’t joined either. Excellent Dynasty acted baffled, but if Tyrannical Ambition knew who Lord Grim was as well, it would actually make sense. They seemed to be currently in the worst position, but Ye Qiu was unlikely to attack them directly. Hadn’t he helped them beat Excellent Dynasty’s record in Frost Forest? And get the Goblin Merchant first kill? Everyone knew that Ye Qiu wasn’t allowed to deal with the Pro Alliance, but if Tyrannical Ambition knew who he was, they might be acting oblivious to get away with sabotaging the other guilds and using his help whenever they wanted.

It was something to keep an eye on, anyway.

 

Once Ye Xiu saw that the Striker was now the leader of Tyrannical Ambition’s group, he had a good idea who was controlling it. The high-level fight that followed, playstyle so familiar after years of rivalry, only confirmed it. He threw the Striker that was definitely backed by Han Wenqing to the ground, too close for him to Quick Recover.

“If I didn’t give you a little black and blue to look at in the mirror, you might get arrogant on me,” Ye Xiu laughed. He didn’t bother continuing the attack, now that he was sure who it was.

“Who’s arrogant?” Han Wenqing returned, pressing forward again. Though they could only hear one half of the conversation, the spectators couldn’t help but agree. Actually waiting for Han Wenqing to stand up? Lord Grim was asking to lose. “You didn’t even bring someone to coordinate with today.”

“My helpers couldn’t make it.” Lord Grim did a quick hop to the side, neatly pivoting around his punch.

“I thought you said you couldn’t have outside helpers.”

Behind Han Wenqing, Jiang You and the others froze. Han Wenqing knew Lord Grim? Had talked to him before?

They started sweating.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“That Flowing Tree.” Han Wenqing, despite having never interacted with the character before, sounded irritated.

“Oh, him? He just shows up randomly, and once he’s here I might as well use him. I don’t call him over, he just really wants to fight me.”

“Cleansing Mist?” The spectators thought he might have been slightly less irritated, but it could just be their wishful thinking.

“You mean Mucheng, my darling little sister, whom I raised alone, suffering many tribulations—”

“Stop talking.”

Ye Xiu laughed and rolled out of range of his next attack.

“Fight back already,” Han Wenqing admonished, sending out a Front Kick only to meet air. Lord Grim had sent out anti-tank missiles almost before he had completed the roll, skimming across the ground quickly. Aimed that low, he didn’t have much chance of hitting the Striker, and he clearly wasn’t looking for a chance to counterattack.

“I didn’t bring four cheerleaders here because I wanted to win, Old Han.” Ye Xiu reminded him.

“Why not? You could use some practice coordinating against professional opponents.” Of course Han Wenqing would be irritated that Ye Xiu hadn’t gone into this fight intending to make it hard for him. He always did like a challenge above all else.

“An unspecialized coordinating with low-level characters against low-level characters is too much of a waste,” Ye Xiu told him. “Think of the power imbalance! We’ll have more chances for that later.”

Han Wenqing’s response was a Collapsing Fist, the strongest skill of a Striker at this level.

“Why so eager to end this? We all know how it’s going to go. Do you have to attack so ferociously?” Ye Xiu complained.

“I don’t attack any other way,” Han Wenqing stated bluntly.

Ye Xiu laughed. “True. But really, we could just have a normal conversation. If you want me to lose, I’ll just lose already.”

Han Wenqing made an irritated noise. “Don’t fight so halfheartedly.”

The watchers were stunned. This was half-hearted? Han Wenqing, despite largely ignoring damage to push forward, had a hard time landing a hit on Lord Grim, and he said Lord Grim was holding back. How good could Lord Grim be?!

“What halfheartedly? Don’t be ridiculous, I’m wholeheartedly prolonging the inevitable,” Ye Xiu said blandly. “You, slow down already! I know you like to go all out, but this is such a small match. You don’t need to waste effort like this.”

“I don’t believe in slowing down,” Han Wenqing returned, bullheaded as ever.

Obviously not. Han Wenqing really was too reckless when he advanced, pushing himself to counter an unspecialized at a mere level 33. There was a reason the unspecialized “class” was originally considered something like a bug, even before the Myriad Manifestation Umbrella. Ye Xiu sighed. “If you aren’t going to take care of yourself, I’ll do it for you. I’ll be heading out first.”

With that, he withdrew from the match, and forfeited the competition between himself and Tyrannical Ambition for records.

The abrupt end left the spectators reeling. Lord Grim had been in nowhere near an unwinnable position. It was what they had wanted, but it didn’t feel nearly as satisfying and they’d thought.

Han Wenqing snorted and pulled off his headphones. “We’re done here.”

“Who is he?” Jiang You couldn’t hold back his curiosity anymore.

“Ye Qiu.” Han Wenqing never had any thoughts of hiding it.

“God Ye…” Jiang You trailed off in shock. He’d been trying to fight against that Ye Qiu?! “What do we do, then?”

“Nothing. He’s backed off now.”

Jiang You had to worship him. One interaction, and Ye Qiu backed down? Maybe some of the rumors going around Tyrannical Ambition weren’t as far-fetched as he’d thought. Han Wenqing really knew how to take charge!

“He won’t be back to trouble us again?” Getting free of the biggest menace of the tenth server was way too exciting.

“Did I say that?” Han Wenqing asked coldly. “It’s Ye Qiu. Give him whatever he wants.”

Jiang You wanted to cry. How could his captain shift so suddenly like this? Give him a little warning! “That…”

“Don’t fight someone who’s on our side.”

Han Wenqing left Jiang You still standing there, absolutely stunned. On their side? It certainly didn’t feel like it, when he stole records and uncommon materials like an insatiable void!

But Jiang You wasn’t completely useless when it came to matters like this, or he wouldn’t have become the head of Tyrannical Ambition in the first place. If Ye Qiu would really come to Tyranny as soon as he could, weren’t these materials going toward building up one of their team’s characters? That was definitely a silver weapon, transforming the way it did.

Then…the materials were already being used for their intended purpose? Was the entire act of bargaining for them just a farce?

Jiang You felt dizzy. Why had Ye Qiu gone to so much trouble to hide everything if he could have just asked?! They’d even fought him more than once! When Ye Qiu got back to the Alliance, how was Jiang You supposed to face this god?

When he got back to the Alliance. Right. Ye Qiu couldn’t be associated with them now. So of course he was freelance, hiring himself out to whoever asked first, so long as they could help him develop.

Jiang You sighed. How did this all get so complicated?

And if he really wasn’t trying to ruin Club Tyranny, could Ye Qiu be at least a little less of a thorn in the side?!

 

Han Wenqing left the room in a remarkably good mood, considering how unfulfillingly the battle ended. He hadn’t realized how on edge he’d been until the nagging feeling of wrongness abated. Tension eased, mood lifted, thoughts focused. For the first time since he abruptly left City H, his head felt completely clear.

(There he is.)

Chapter Text

With Ye Qiu out of the way, Tyrannical Ambition could finally set the record for Line Canyon.

Misty Castle set the record right back.

“God, is this because of you?” Cold Night didn’t know how to address Ye Qiu. He was an omega, but he was the top god of Glory, but he was Tyranny’s hated rival, but Tyranny was supporting him now… It was way too confusing.

Ye Qiu didn’t hide anything, directly telling Cold Night about his new guide-selling business.

“Couldn’t you sell them only to us?” Cold Night asked, or maybe complained. Even he wasn’t sure.

“How is that selling? Isn’t that the same as working for you? You know I can’t do that.”

“…” Cold Night couldn’t say anything. It really was the same, if you looked at it like that.

“Think of it this way: I’m getting the materials, but I don’t even need to get them all from Club Tyranny. Nice, right?”

Too evil! But Cold Night had been working with inter-guild politics long enough now that he could appreciate coming out ahead like that.

Since he knew that he wasn’t really losing the materials, Cold Night didn’t hesitate to buy the guide from Lord Grim. This turned out to be a good move, because even after they had the guide, they still needed to consult Ye Qiu for some parts of it. Ye Qiu didn’t mind, even going so far as to help them adapt the strategy for their own class setup since it didn’t match the one in the guide.

It was a somewhat surreal experience for all of the seasoned players. Ye Qiu had been Club Tyranny’s enemy since before the pro scene even existed. To have him as a resource now, patiently walking them through the guide, was an almost uncomfortable departure from the norm. Club Tyranny was led by Han Wenqing and Zhang Xinjie as their core gods, neither of whom were comfortable or approachable existences. Since when did the gods of Glory casually interact with normal players like this? Let alone Ye Qiu, widely famous for interacting with absolutely no one on the outside.

When Ye Qiu casually said he had to leave and logged off, it was almost a relief.

 

“Girl, you and I aren’t the only ones playing the game!” Wind Following Sword laughed gleefully.

Tang Rou felt dejected. She had no fear of facing multiple opponents, or opponents with more experience. But she wasn’t stupid, either. Facing multiple players on top of the higher-leveled monsters was outside the realm of her current capabilities, no matter how fast her hands could move.

“You’re quite right.”

At this moment, a voice appeared at her side, both in the game and in real life. Ye Xiu had arrived.

“It’s a game!” he continued. “There’s nothing shameful about calling for help if you’re in trouble. See, this guy did it even when he had the advantage. That kind of awareness and decision-making is something you should learn from!”

Tang Rou glanced over at Chen Guo, who was putting some effort into earnestly looking at her own screen as if this all had nothing to do with her. Undoubtedly, she had been the one to alert Ye Xiu. She must have known that, no matter what, Tang Rou would never take the initiative to ask for any kind of assistance.

(“You only won because of your daddy!”

Tang Rou had been quite young. She didn’t remember what the award was for anymore—of course she wouldn’t. The moment the boy had said that, the award had become meaningless. A short moment of pride, followed by a lifetime of rejection. Now, she disliked even the word “cooperation,” because what it meant to her was only this: The results did not belong to her. Victory in a group was not her victory, and she could not claim it so.

So of course, when others tried to swoop into her business, Tang Rou was always unwilling. It had never felt like this before, this feeling of being pulled out of crisis at the last moment. Working with others consistently left her feeling either frustrated and useless or irritated and cheated, depending on the ability of the people involved.

Where would there have been space for warmth?)

Tang Rou had to admit, through the fight that followed, that she didn’t understand. This hadn’t been a direct challenge to her as an alpha, but it was still her own challenge, and she should have felt humiliated at receiving outside help.

Maybe it was the way Ye Xiu did it, starting with reminding her that she was playing the same game her attackers were: a multiplayer one. He didn’t insist on working together with her, merely breaking apart the group her opponent had gathered and dealing with the extras, allowing her to continue where she left off.

She faced Wind Following Sword with Lord Grim and Cleansing Mist standing casually beside her, and somehow, incredibly, it was still her victory.

 

Wind Following Sword made sure to emphasize to Chen Yehui that he’d been 100% sure of his victory when he’d made the choice to attack Soft Mist. He had no idea Lord Grim would follow before he could fully eliminate her.

“Omegas are always scheming and bringing trouble so they come out on top,” Chen Yehui commented disdainfully.

Wind Following Sword didn’t say anything, but he couldn’t help but think—he’d definitely started that conflict himself. It seemed pretty clear Ye Qiu was just retaliating…

Well, there wasn’t any need to contradict the guild leader about how much blame he should be shouldering. Concerning the outcome of the battle, Wind Following Sword also felt unwilling.

Chen Yehui’s orders to obstruct Ye Qiu provided him with the perfect chance to counterattack. No matter what kind of god Ye Qiu was onstage, in the game he was just himself: an omega with no backing or resources, out of practice when it came to in-game machinations. He may be a Master Tactician when it came to 5-person competitions in a controlled environment, but this here was the wilds of a true massive multiplayer game. When it came to the vastness of the world, what could one man do?

 

Wind Following Sword honestly hadn’t expected Ye Qiu to directly confront him, given the way he’d seemed to be running around like a headless chicken for the past hour.

“It’s just a Spinning Spiderweb Formation,” Ye Qiu laughed, unconcerned.

“You’re definitely worthy of being called God Ye. You know your stuff,” Wind Following Sword mocked.

“But you don’t. Did you know I was the one who created the Spinning Spiderweb Formation?” Ye Xiu was still smiling.

Wind Following Sword was startled. Was he really? It had been a long time since Wind Following Sword had found this formation, and so many techniques and guides were written by Ye Qiu back at the beginning of Glory, how could he possibly take note of all of them? In the end, though, who made it didn’t matter. Ye Qiu had come up with many of the techniques that existed in the pro scene as well, and it wasn’t like his identity made him immune to them.

“So what if you made it, you’re still caught in it, aren’t you?”

“In a fight of me against myself,” Ye Qiu said casually, “who do you think is going to win?”

“Are you saying there’s a flaw in the formation you made?” Wind Following Sword sounded derisive, but the foundation of his confidence had already been shaken. Ye Qiu’s question only had one answer.

“I’m saying no one can be perfect all the time.”

With that, Lord Grim obliterated Wind Following Sword and the competition between strategy and creator began. Wind Following Sword took a deep breath and looked at the detailed map he’d found online to support his positioning. This wasn’t his first time using this formation, and he genuinely believed in its efficacy. Even Ye Qiu couldn’t escape from the unbreakable combos he’d made, so why should his formation be any different? Wouldn’t Ye Qiu fighting himself just lead to a stalemate?

In the end, it wasn’t Ye Qiu against himself, though. It was Ye Qiu against someone else implementing his ideals. He didn’t even have to beat perfection, he only had to beat a pale imitation.

No one could be perfect all the time, and Wind Following Sword didn’t have the qualifications to be called perfect in the first place. He wasn’t without flaws, and he didn’t have the skill to make up for it.

He stared helplessly at the screen, devoid of messages about Lord Grim’s location. He just—he was unwilling. Again, he didn’t want to accept this.

Chen Yehui told him to do it again, and despite having failed so miserably twice now, Wind Following Sword had no choice but to put his all into obstructing Ye Qiu one more time.

 

Ye Xiu, having experienced a couple hours of being stifled, was not so kind as to quietly wait for them to do it again. In fact, he wasn’t even kind enough to just take himself elsewhere. If they didn’t want him to get any Christmas thieves at all, there was really only one appropriate response.

“How many Christmas thieves do you think there are in Sin City?” Ye Xiu casually asked Chen Guo.

“What are you planning on doing?” The two thieves he’d collected, already significantly above Lord Grim’s level, were chasing after him, but he still hadn’t gone to fight them.

“Should we count them?” His voice was clearly as bland as ever, so why did Chen Guo suddenly get an underlying feeling of mischief?

She watched, dumbstruck, as he shot another thief and actually started counting out loud. “You’re crazy.”

Ye Xiu laughed and continued on.

 

Several hours and a few hundred Christmas thieves in, Ye Xiu’s attention hadn’t wavered in the slightest, but he was pretty much out of Christmas thieves to collect.

“What are you going to do now?” Chen Guo asked excitedly.

Ye Xiu grinned. “I’m going to jump up.” It had been a while since he’d had any kind of reason to pull this off, and with an unspecialized it would definitely be an all-new experience. He was looking forward to it.

“Damn, do you think you’re Su Mucheng?” Chen Guo called out.

Tang Rou furrowed her eyebrows. Hadn’t Chen Guo excitedly talked to her about the relationship between Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng for a long, long time, that first day back? If Ye Xiu taught Su Mucheng how to play, there really shouldn’t be much question about whether he’d be able to do the same thing.

Ye Xiu just laughed. “Oh, so you’ve seen that video?”

In fact, Tang Rou was entirely correct. Not only had Ye Xiu taught Su Mucheng how to climb this clock tower, he’d actually come up with the method of climbing the clock tower as a way to help Su Mucheng train her precision. Climbing the clock tower was hailed as showing peak usage of Aerial Fire because it was, in fact, designed to force peak usage of Aerial Fire.

After Su Mucheng had asked to learn how to play Glory, Ye Xiu had obviously wanted to start teaching her. Unfortunately, he was also busy navigating the quickly-developing Pro Alliance, leading his team, and researching his opponents. Being the captain of the championship team was a full-time job, especially considering the updates Glory’s developers kept pushing out, and he couldn’t afford to devote all his time to bringing up Su Mucheng as a pro-level player. So, for much of the time, he had to give her tasks instead.

Su Mucheng was a great student; he showed her how to do it a few times, and she easily remembered all of the steps. He told her to make a video of the process once she could pull it off consistently enough that she’d call it “perfect.” Since Su Mucheng was hard-working and completely devoted to becoming a pro-level player capable of supporting Ye Xiu, he was sure she wouldn’t duck out on this task.

It also served the purpose of making a tutorial video, something Ye Xiu hadn’t had the time for since he started focusing on the Pro Alliance. He’d kind of missed it, so it was nice to have Su Mucheng pick up his slack there.

And, if Dancing Rain had a little bit of a reputation in the community before she joined Excellent Era, all the better.

Not only could Ye Xiu climb the clock tower, he didn’t look the slightest bit stressed doing it. Chen Guo’s hands were sweating just watching the casual way he flew from foothold to foothold, hardly giving any sign of looking where he was going.

As he climbed, Ye Xiu idly considered what other skills an unspecialized might use to climb the tower, given how plentiful his array of options was. Using Shadow Clone for its instant movement would be pretty funny, if it left his clone to fall tragically back to the bottom in his place. It would certainly give the vultures watching something good to see. Still, he hadn’t actually practiced that kind of thing before, and there was no harm in brushing up on his Aerial Fire. As a gunner he was a bit underleveled for the attempt, but he was also in possession of a silver weapon designed by one of the greatest in-game weapon designers who had ever lived, so he wasn’t worried about getting the necessary height.

Waiting for him at the top of the tower, which she had obviously climbed alone despite being similarly underleveled and not in possession of a silver weapon, was Su Mucheng and an overstuffed bag of mana potions.

As breezily as he’d climbed the tower, the Christmas thieves really were in hot pursuit, so the two of them got down to their murderous business.

“Can you hold on?” Chen Guo couldn’t help but ask, seeing how Ye Xiu’s playing had significantly increased in speed.

“Just barely!” Ye Xiu replied, but he grinned as he said it. Lord Grim darted from place to place, dealing with the Christmas thieves as they clambered their way over the edge. Su Mucheng helpfully called out their locations as they appeared.

“Hey, are your cooldowns really that long?” he finally asked her. He didn’t remember the last time he’d seen her attack.

Su Mucheng laughed brightly. “They’re not! But isn’t it more fun like this?”

“Are you trying to mess with me?”

“Okay, okay, I’ll help,” Su Mucheng said, blasting several thieves away with some well-placed Anti-Tank Missles.

“Can you really spend this long with me? It’s Christmas Eve, doesn’t Tyranny have something planned?” Ye Xiu asked. This was the main reason he’d said something about it.

“The person who raised me is going through such trials, how can I let him stand alone?” Su Mucheng replied cheerfully.

Ye Xiu paused for a moment before running Lord Grim over to the next Christmas thief to climb up. “You’re really…milking that for all it’s worth, huh?”

“I’m kidding, I have to show up a little later for the sponsors, but I asked to maximize my time with you and they were pretty okay with it. It’s considered helping to raise a character and contributing to the team, so I’m good.”

Ye Xiu laughed, and didn’t ask any more. Su Mucheng could take care of herself, and he was sure she wouldn’t be so willful as to pointlessly offend her new team.

 

Chen Yehui snorted when he received the report of Lord Grim stealing a Christmas thief’s aggro from a Tyrannical Ambition player. Were they really going to blatantly help Lord Grim like that? What fools! Not only would that make them the target of the other guilds, it was practically exposing Ye Qiu’s identity. It could even be counted as a violation of the Alliance’s demand that Ye Qiu stay away from the Pro Alliance.

Then he received the report of Lord Grim stealing the aggro from Blue Brook Guild’s players. Then Misty Castle, Herb Garden, 301, Blossom Valley, Howling Heights, Void Walk, Royal Heritage, Parade…

In the end, 12 guilds were working with Lord Grim. This wasn’t an exclusive alliance at all.

Except Excellent Dynasty, which had started this, and Samsara, whose leader couldn’t stand Lord Grim, every major guild was accounted for.

 

When 7 AM came and went without any sign of Ye Qiu slowing down, Chen Yehui had a terrible thought. Ye Qiu had always been known as someone who had plenty of energy, pulling all-nighters seemingly without a care. At the time, Chen Yehui and Liu Hao had even used that as an excuse to attack him. But in actuality, Ye Qiu was an omega. Omegas were designed for endurance, more suited to it than betas or even alphas, whose greater energy reserves were more suited to sprint-like bursts.

Ye Qiu wasn’t just capable of pulling off feats of persistence, he was optimized for it.

“Tell me when Lord Grim goes offline,” Chen Yehui told the next in line to take over his character, but he didn’t have a lot of hope. Still, Ye Qiu probably hadn’t often felt the need to go longer than 24 hours, right? Even if one was physically capable of it, without practice, wouldn’t it be difficult? He could only hope that after 24 hours, Ye Qiu wouldn’t be able to go on as he had at the start, flawlessly pulling hundreds of monsters and climbing the near unclimbable clock tower every half-hour.

As far as he knew, omegas usually crashed after a heat finished; they weren’t actually designed to go on forever. A point would come when Ye Qiu would have to stop.

 

Ye Xiu was not, in fact, a robot. Going a full day without rest, performing the same actions over and over, of course he’d felt somewhat tired long ago. However, it’d been some time since he’d been able to participate in an event like this in-game. Previous Christmases had been spent at Excellent Era’s events, awkward and uncomfortable with a team that didn’t seem to like interacting with him. He was definitely Excellent Era’s captain, but without the backing of the club and with a vice-captain that actively hated him, things like following his orders, even showing him respect, were long of the past. In an environment like that, even day-to-day activities were a little exhausting.

A Christmas like this, spent in the game he loved, playing with his silver weapon and casually thinking of new ways to combine various class skills to get the best effect, was already so much better than the ones that came before. The players he worked with appreciated his presence, and his hard work. He got to spend time with Su Mucheng whenever she was on, talking about what their lives were like now, listening to stories about the people of Club Tyranny, and comfortably working in silence when they didn’t have anything to say.

Ye Xiu would not have made a career of a game he did not love whole-heartedly. 36 hours doing what he loved best? Not an unthinkable strain at all.

 

Chen Guo remembered just in time not to ask Tang Rou if she really thought she could stay up the whole night. If Tang Rou took it as a proper alpha challenge, the accompanying adrenaline spike would make it so she really might be able to tough it out! Alpha challenges ignored overall health to push maximum performance in the moment, which made relying on them a poor choice in the long run. Unfortunately, Tang Rou was already a really competitive person! She was the type to relentlessly pursue anything she wasn’t already best at to prove her ability. If Chen Guo gave her an excuse, she’d definitely turn it into a challenge just to prove she could power through.

“Sleep for an hour, and when you’re good again you can continue to the end,” she said instead.

Tang Rou, reluctantly, agreed.

“And you?” Chen Guo asked Ye Xiu. She didn’t know how he was doing, since his lifeless look wasn’t any different than usual and he had yet to make a mistake.

“Can I take a day off?” he asked instead of answering.

“For what?”

“Sleep.”

Chen Guo stared at him. She’d heard omegas could persevere longer than most, but she didn’t actually have any idea about what was reasonable for them. Though she had heard something about how they tended to crash afterward. Then, wasn’t asking her for a day off now already too late? He was going to fall asleep regardless, wasn’t he?!

Still, it was true that the strategy was impossible without him, and she was pretty invested in the whole operation despite its lack of benefit to her. Chen Guo huffed and gave him the day.

 

Ye Xiu easily provided directions to Club Samsara, much to Chen Guo’s surprise. “You’ve come here before?”

Beside her, Tang Rou shot her a confused look.

“Yeah,” Ye Xiu agreed nonchalantly.

“Oh, have you been to a lot of matches?” Chen Guo suddenly felt that it was really sad. As an omega, no matter how many matches he’d been to, this guy never had the chance to take the stage.

Tang Rou watched Ye Xiu nod along with a growing feeling of helplessness. Ye Xiu wasn’t lying, but at this point it was clear Chen Guo didn’t know whom she was talking to at all.

 

The Rookie Challenges were modeled after alpha challenges, an age-old tradition that was already an ingrained part of society. Proper alpha challenges were once regarded as the ultimate form of competition, a specific challenge accompanied by some reasoning or stakes that had to be honored at the conclusion, no matter who the victor was. The Rookie Challenges obviously weren’t anything so serious, and rarely even involved alphas, but the framework was still there.

Tang Hao, though, was clearly evoking the imagery of the real challenges this event had been named for. Though Lin Jingyan was a beta, Tang Hao’s brutal and serious “the junior succeeds the senior” was a clear challenge, a declaration of stakes. He wanted to prove his superiority with this battle.

As a young alpha, Tang Hao’s hand speed and reactions were naturally a step higher than Lin Jingyan’s. The match was direct and intense, not well-suited to Lin Jingyan’s shrewd and efficient style, nor his years of experience in making use of his environment. Simply put, Tang Hao was not giving him a chance to do anything but face off in mechanics, a battle Lin Jingyan would certainly lose. All he could do was wait and hope Tang Hao would make a mistake.

In the end, even the supposed mistake was a trap, and Lin Jingyan lost.

When they met in the middle of the stage, Tang Hao only repeated his earlier assertion, as if in confirmation.

The junior succeeds the senior. What’s under triumphs over what’s above. Was Tang Hao trying to say this was the age of alphas? Was he saying it was time for alphas to climb to the top, after being largely kept away from that position for so long? His innately higher reaction speed and more precise mechanics gave him this match, there was no doubt about it.

Was it time for the older betas to fade into obscurity?

 

Tang Hao’s clear callback to alpha challenges, as an alpha himself, was big news. The audience hadn’t even finished discussing it before the next rookie was announced: Sun Xiang, another alpha making waves even as a rookie.

Sun Xiang with One Autumn Leaf, challenging Han Wenqing with Desert Dust.

“I want to settle this, right now,” Sun Xiang said, his voice carrying an almost angry vehemence. “You know why.

Shocked silence, and then pure sound. Tang Hao may have called up the image of an alpha challenge, but this was a real alpha challenge, actually made to an alpha, and therefore capable of holding some weight. Such a thing had never happened before in the history of the Rookie Challenges.

It wasn’t that it was the first time Han Wenqing had been challenged during the Rookie Challenges—for all that he intimidated people, everyone knew he was very well controlled and unlikely to take the rookies as putting forth a real challenge against him. As one of the oldest gods of Glory, many people idolized him, and he’d never turned his competitions needlessly brutal. However, Sun Xiang was clearly actually challenging him, with the implication of real stakes—and Han Wenqing was not the type to back down.

The reporters were having a field day. A scene like this had never appeared before in the Glory Alliance. Alphas fighting over an omega, who happened to be the top god of Glory? It didn’t get juicier. They were even both using god-level accounts to do it!

The audience was even more riled up, screaming like they’d just witnessed a murder in broad daylight. Screams of ridicule, screams of encouragement, screams of outrage, the audience had everything. Even, though they were less obvious, the awkward people who still couldn’t figure out how to react.

Chen Guo was one of those people, caught somewhere between excitement at this old rivalry and being unsure of which side to cheer for. Su Mucheng, her favorite, was at Tyranny now, and the Excellent Era she’d supported for so long had already severely wronged God Ye Qiu. But how could she so suddenly turn on One Autumn Leaf? Sun Xiang and Han Wenqing went up to their platforms without any further exchange, giving her no time to think about it.

Next to her, Ye Xiu’s eyes narrowed.

This all felt…excessive. Sun Xiang didn’t give even the slightest nod to courtesy, which made no sense. If Sun Xiang were not an alpha with some control over himself, he never would have been made captain of any team, nor been given One Autumn Leaf, regardless of his skill. Tao Xuan hadn’t known anything about Cui Li’s plan, so he must have had some reason to believe Sun Xiang could take on this responsibility alone. If he replaced Ye Xiu with another god-level player that couldn’t be used for advertisement, wouldn’t that be too much of a waste?

Maybe Tao Xuan had just hated Ye Xiu that much, but he couldn’t believe it. Tao Xuan wasn’t that bad of a businessman, to make a losing deal based purely on emotion. Nor was he some kind of blind alpha supremacist, to believe having Sun Xiang instead would just be inexplicably better.

This was more than an increase in frustration could account for, wasn’t it? Sure, it had only been a month, and there wasn’t much research on this situation in the first place, but Han Wenqing hadn’t technically gotten anything out of that heat, either, and he was pretty much fine at this point.

No, something was wrong.

 

From the moment the match began, there was no doubt about this being a challenge between alphas. The monitors started tracking the hand speeds of the two players as they rose and rose, the broadcast helplessly trying to show a slow-motion replay in the corner of the screen to give the viewers a better idea of what was happening. Despite the intensity of the attacks going back and forth, neither character was losing much health, and the breaks between actions were not at all long.

Regardless of their feelings about the people involved and what they were fighting over, the audience couldn’t help but be hooked into this high-level battle. In the history of the rivalry between these two characters, there had never been a battle at this speed. Ye Qiu was not an alpha, so he couldn’t participate in a challenge like this. Even if he could, no one would use an official challenge as part of a match. Though it brought about peak performance for a short time, immediately afterward the alpha would burn out, having used all their energy in a single burst of ferocity. A challenge during the individual or group sections of the match would inevitably ruin them for the team competition. In the team competition itself, issuing a challenge would put alphas out of step with their teammates. It was for this reason that no alpha other than Han Wenqing had been named a captain in all the previous years of Glory. Han Wenqing’s coordination with Zhang Xinjie meant that, should someone manage to throw him off with a challenge, the team wouldn’t immediately be left bereft. On top of that, Han Wenqing was one of the most stable and controlled alphas in Glory, known for his ability to completely disregard his instincts if necessary. Naturally, attempts to throw Tyranny off in this way had petered out long ago.

While it was true that an alpha could play solely in individual matches or the group arena, putting their body through the stress of challenges repeatedly wasn’t healthy, and no one wanted to cripple themselves that way. Because of this, alphas that intended to pursue Glory seriously trained themselves to avoid taking trash-talk as a challenge and therefore ruining their condition.

Still, this was All-Star Weekend, not a match, and this challenge was no accident. While Han Wenqing had the advantage of years of experience, making him capable of using the boost from a challenge in the best way possible, Sun Xiang clearly came into this challenge prepared. Challenges usually caused a drop in calculative ability in exchange for speed and hyper-focus, leading to heightened aggression without wildness—in other words, viciousness. Alphas foolish enough to believe that the boost of their dynamic alone would allow them to take down any opponent had frequently met their end at Ye Qiu’s superior awareness and decision-making. Here, Sun Xiang was bringing out his best mechanics without becoming caught in tunnel-vision, a clear sign of his ability to control the effects on his condition.

It was an overwhelmingly impressive fight. Recordings of this challenge would be played as one of the pinnacle matches in all of Glory for years to come.

 

Even moving at this speed, the match took over a full ten minutes.

Tang Rou was extremely focused on the battle. This wasn’t just a high-level match with a top Battle Mage, the class she played, but a high-level match between alphas. Ye Xiu was willing to show her a lot of things, but this was beyond his capabilities. He’d explained to her the merits and drawbacks of using an alpha’s abilities in competition, but something like this could only truly be understood through observation and one’s own experience.

In the last second of the match, a Sky Strike up and an Eagle Stamp down met, pushing both characters away from each other. Evil Annihilation lifted as the magic accumulated around it condensed into the form of a rising dragon. The ultimate took over the screen, a testament to Sun Xiang’s ferocity—but when it cleared, Desert Dust was the one still standing.

He had lost to Han Wenqing’s last-second Dashing Jab, a mere level 10 skill.

 

No matter how it had come about, the result was that Sun Xiang lost, if only barely. Han Wenqing didn’t pull any punches in the post-match conversation, either, as anyone could expect. Han Wenqing never pulled his punches.

“If that were Ye Qiu then, at the very least, he wouldn’t have missed that Rising Dragon.”

The audience was quickly approaching a riot.

“Inconsiderate,” Ye Xiu muttered, hunkering down as if to hide from the raucous clamor of the crowd. “Some of us have to actually sit in this audience, Old Han.”

With all the noise around him, his complaints went unheard.

 

“Excellent Era is saying that the challenge Sun Xiang issued was solely about his pride as an alpha captain, not related to Ye Qiu at all. Having participated yourself, do you feel cheated at this sudden change in stakes?”

Han Wenqing looked like he was seriously questioning the intelligence of the reporter. “Are you telling me you expected Ye Qiu to be impressed that I won a single match against a rookie that can’t even measure up to his own level of skill?”

Put like that, it really did sound ridiculous. This was Ye Qiu they were talking about, sometimes referred to as the God of Glory and absolutely thought of as the peak of the Pro Alliance. There wasn’t a single person who could claim to match his achievements. Even so, Excellent Era’s stance was more than a little shady. What was Sun Xiang’s pride as an alpha captain supposed to refer to? Who was the most alpha? The most captain? How could it possibly be “settled” in a challenge? Was one of them supposed to quit being captain as a result? It was just too preposterous.

“You mean you don’t feel you won the right to pursue Ye Qiu in this competition?” one of the reporters goaded. No one wanted to give up on this story, especially on a pretense that thin.

“This isn’t the dark ages, and Ye Qiu is not a trophy to be fought over. He can’t be ‘won,’ and he’d likely ignore anyone who tried,” Han Wenqing answered disdainfully.

“Are you saying you agree with Excellent Era’s claim as to what that challenge was about?” another reporter asked incredulously.

“I’m saying it makes more sense than the idea that Ye Qiu would care in the slightest about a challenge issued by someone who has never bested him, whether it be in a one-on-one fight, in overall achievements, or in pure technique.”

Amidst the silence that followed, somebody smothered a mean laugh.

 

Excellent Era having made the statement on Sun Xiang’s behalf, citing a need for him to recover after the challenge to explain his lack of appearance, whether or not anyone believed it was up to the individual. Despite Han Wenqing ostensibly supporting that interpretation of events, most just took it as ridicule of Sun Xiang’s original intentions. Changing the stakes of a challenge after the fact was truly giving up any semblance of face, and no one who watched the event believed it was about anything other than Ye Qiu. There really wasn’t any other obvious conflict between Sun Xiang and Han Wenqing to foist it off on. Would Sun Xiang really have expected “you know why” to convey his intentions for anything else?

Even Sun Xiang’s fans couldn’t believe it, many of them criticizing Excellent Era for releasing a statement that would harm Sun Xiang’s reputation.

Tao Xuan figured Sun Xiang was harming his reputation just fine all on his own.

 

“What are you doing?” Han Wenqing watched Su Mucheng scan the crowd with binoculars, then wave brightly.

Actually, was there any reason to ask?

“I didn’t know he was coming,” Han Wenqing said instead. He wasn’t annoyed. Really.

(Why didn’t he say something, whined his instincts, which had been more irritating since Sun Xiang’s challenge the day before. Han Wenqing pushed them away again.)

“Yeah, his boss sprung it on him pretty last-minute.”

Han Wenqing followed her line of sight, but whatever section she was looking at was too far away for him to get a clear view of any of the audience. He made a vague noise of assent and left it at that.

Su Mucheng could get away with this kind of blatant rule-flouting. He couldn’t.

 

When it was Su Mucheng’s turn to call out the seats, her face was bright and innocent like the warm sun.

Ye Xiu didn’t trust it.

“It’s really me?!” Chen Guo was about to pass out, she was so excited. She was going up on stage! Her idol had called out her seat number, and they were going to play together onstage!

“Number 19 or number 23?” Su Mucheng was now mumbling. Tang Rou looked over at Ye Xiu, a little disconcerted. If he actually went onstage, that wouldn’t be good, right? Tang Rou knew that, no matter how mysterious “Ye Qiu” was to the outside world, he wasn’t really the type to put a lot of effort into hiding himself, either. There was no way the pro players wouldn’t recognized him if he came onstage.

Given the challenge between two of the alpha players yesterday, wouldn’t taunting them like that be pushing their luck a little too far?

Ye Xiu had already settled back into his listless appearance, clearly having come to this conclusion even earlier than she had. Su Mucheng only wanted to tease him a little, not actually make his life difficult.

“Number 23!” Su Mucheng finally said.

Tang Rou made a soft sound of surprise, well-hidden under Chen Guo’s jubilation. How did she just now realize that meant she would be going up instead?

 

Tang Rou’s skill didn’t go unnoticed by the pros, especially once they learned she’d only been playing for a month and had previously helped someone else with the Heavenly Domain Challenge. What was the Heavenly Domain Challenge if not a test of mechanics? Clearly this girl wasn’t someone ordinary.

It had to be said, even if alphas could go faster than most others, the Heavenly Domain Challenge still wasn’t easy for them to beat. Speed did not guarantee precision; APM and effective APM were not the same thing. One’s decision-making and good judgment had a lot to do with success in the various tests involved, so having a good sense of timing and the presence of mind not to rush blindly was absolutely essential. Of course, this was concerning having the skill to pass the challenges purely on one’s own merit; passing with luck was common enough for anyone, not just alphas. Passing once was still counted as passing.

Still, if she could be said to have helped someone else pass the challenges, clearly she wasn’t doing it with luck alone.

 

Once Tang Rou had returned to their seats and Chen Guo had left for the bathroom, she finally had a chance to confront Ye Xiu about the issue of his identity.

“I thought you said you told GuoGuo who you were,” Tang Rou said reprovingly.

“Oh? Why do you think I didn’t?”

“She doesn’t act like she knows at all. She even thought you’d want to go onstage! Why did you say you told her?” Tang Rou could understand if he’d wanted her to keep it a secret, but he hadn’t seemed protective of his identity at all.

“I did tell her. I even told you what kind of response she gave: ‘Don’t say that again.’” Ye Xiu actually had the gall to look a little amused.

“So…she didn’t believe you.”

“Nope.”

Tang Rou shook her head helplessly. She was well-acquainted with Chen Guo’s stubbornness. “You really should have made that clear sooner…”

“What for?”

Tang Rou was stumped. She wanted to say that she could have cleared up the misunderstanding, but… What could she have done to explain to Chen Guo? Maybe point out all the pros that flocked to Ye Xiu in the game? And it wasn’t like Ye Xiu would be helped by people associating him with the highly controversial “Ye Qiu,” anyway. Why should he have put any effort into a losing battle that gave him no benefits?

“Okay, then,” she finally said. There wasn’t any purpose in pursuing the topic further. “Are you going to meet up with anyone else while you’re here?”

“Maybe! If Mucheng wants to, I’m sure she’ll find a way.”

Tang Rou frowned. “What about that other alpha player, Han Wenqing?”

“Hm, that’s probably not too good,” Ye Xiu responded casually. “I’m still banned from interacting with the Alliance, you know. Coming here is already pushing it a little. Besides, Old Han managed to kick up such a storm yesterday, I’m sure the media is watching him like a hawk. They’d be expecting us to meet up, for his health, if nothing else.”

“…His health? Do you need to do something?”

“He seems fine,” Ye Xiu waved it off. “We met in the game before this, and Mucheng would tell me if he’d really been adversely affected after yesterday. I’m sure you know this already, but don’t look down on an alpha’s resilience. If they self-destructed every time they were involved in a challenge or didn’t have an omega nearby, that would be a pretty terrible adaptive trait.”

Tang Rou nodded. She actually did know that, of course. As someone from a high-class family, she’d obviously been educated in dynamics even before she presented. Afterward, her father had hired people to specifically tutor her on her new attributes so she wouldn’t be disadvantaged. While he himself was a beta, he’d always put his full backing behind everything she was involved in, so long as she allowed it.

Still, with the sheer intensity of the challenge yesterday, she’d thought there might have been something more to what was going on there. Maybe it was just their personalities?

 

Tang Rou was, rather suspiciously, the first audience member to be called onstage to challenge a pro. She struggled through the opening of the match, unable to get the better of Du Ming with her limited experience. Though she had a few moments of brilliance, she really was too new to the game to have much depth to her fights. Since she couldn’t win that way…

Tang Rou’s hand speed increased. If she couldn’t surpass his experience and judgment, she might as well use this opportunity to test something else entirely: how much she could achieve with pure speed.

Within a minute, she was already feeling the effects. This result was definitely not comparable to the kind of intense battle she’d witnessed just yesterday, between two alphas exhibiting high-level decision-making despite the speed involved, a fierce battle with no retreat lasting over ten minutes. Admittedly, her complete lack of rhythm meant she might be moving faster than both of them, but she was definitely doing less.

But Tang Rou didn’t think about this. What she could use now was only speed, so what she would use was speed, for as long as she could. She was supremely focused on this one goal, defeating this one opponent before her.

Six minutes later, Du Ming could not hold out any longer. The match ended.

Together onstage, Du Ming was aware that this girl was an alpha. However, how could that save him any face? Many normal players were alphas, did this mean they could win against beta pros? Not at all!

Even knowing her dynamic, he had to ask for a rematch. If he didn’t show that her victory was a fluke, how could he hold his head up in his home stadium?

Of course, Tang Rou would accept.

This time she lost, giving her an idea of the true limit of pure speed. Still, it wasn’t nearly enough data for her. “Can I fight you again?”

The host was dumbstruck, trying to find a way to refuse her when Du Ming had already invalidated the rules. He could easily tell that this girl was an alpha, so he didn’t want to oppose her too intensely. He’d obviously had a bit of training in this area; anyone hosting a large gathering of people had to be well-versed in dealing with people of different dynamics, and this was already a competitive, fighting-type game. He knew turning it into a conflict definitely wouldn’t be good.

In a situation like this, where the two players walked off to compete again even without his approval, he could only look for outside help.

“You’re her friends, right?” he asked of Chen Guo and Ye Xiu. “Could you please call her to come down?”

Chen Guo just laughed him off.

The host had really been hoping that Tang Rou would have someone with her, maybe even an omega, who could corral her. Unfortunately, the two responding to him were both pretty clearly betas.

In the time it took him to run over here, the match had ended again. Unbelievably, it was again Tang Rou’s win.

Tang Rou felt like she had a much better grasp of how to use her speed this time through, striking a balance between outrageously fast movement and accuracy that made better use of her abilities. Still, if her opponent hadn’t let down his guard after his win, she definitely couldn’t have succeeded. It definitely still wasn’t enough.

Again! The challenge sent and received, they started another match.

“Forget it, I’ll call her down,” Ye Xiu said. He knew that after Du Ming’s two losses, there was no way it would be Samsara to stop the fights. Besides, as the fifth and sixth matches went by he could tell she was quickly passing the point where trying to learn this way would help her at all. Even when one gained experience, there had to be some kind of foundation for it. Right now she was just blindly persevering.

The seventh match ended even faster than the previous two, but Tang Rou still went to accept the eighth.

“That’s enough!” Ye Xiu said, pressing down on her hand to prevent the motion.

“I can win.” Her gaze was strong and determined, not at all showing the fatigue or discouragement one might expect after so many consecutive public losses.

Ye Xiu didn’t deny it; everyone had seen that she was technically capable of winning. “You can win, but so can he. For every ten matches he wins, you’ll win one. What purpose does that serve? If you only wanted to prove that you could win, you’ve already done so.”

“I can beat him!” Tang Rou insisted.

“Beat him?” Ye Xiu laughed. “You misunderstand. This isn’t an alpha’s challenge, with a definitive end, nor a real-world fight. In Glory you don’t compete until the player falls; you compete until the character falls. If you just persevere, rely on your naturally faster hands or stronger constitution to outlast him, he’ll still have more victories than you. In the end, he’ll still have won.”

Tang Rou stared blankly at him for a long moment, then shifted her gaze to her Battle Mage.

“Don’t forget, amongst the pro players, there are many, many players who are just as determined and tenacious as you are. Don’t look down on others!”

Tang Rou understood. Before she fought Ye Xiu, she thought her hand speed would be enough to win, no matter how experienced the opponent. Even afterward, due to how easy her battles in the Arena usually were, it was hard to remember that other people had abilities like her own. Fighting Tiny Herb had given her a broader outlook, but even then, she didn’t see them the way she did Ye Xiu, since he beat them so easily.

She’d been too narrow in her view. She liked to think she could outlast anyone, but was that true? Ye Xiu was not any less determined than her. In fact, he’d found what he loved and pursued it relentlessly for years, which was more than she could say by a lot.

Though she wasn’t sure what to think of this now, she knew that she needed to back off and gain some perspective. She logged out and stood up.

“What’s wrong? You don’t dare fight me?”

Ye Xiu was speechless. Du Ming had gotten close enough to know that this girl was an alpha, right? What kind of stupid move was this?

If Tang Rou had been fighting him with skill and shrewd precision, or trying to coordinate with a team, maybe challenging her wouldn’t be dead stupid. As it was, Tang Rou had only been using speed from the start, and had already shown that her top speed could give Du Ming problems if he wasn’t careful. So what was this kid doing, willingly inciting her into overdrive after he’d already tired himself out? Even if Tang Rou had the same training as alpha pros in resisting challenges, in this situation she’d have no reason to force herself to back off.

As expected, Tang Rou immediately turned around. She was too well-bred to do anything as unsophisticated as baring teeth or showing any other outward signs of aggression, but this was not something she could ignore.

Well, Ye Xiu would just have to bet on her having the kind of control upper-crust society members tended to, so she’d be willing to respect his own decisions. After all, she knew his ability, and Du Ming had already made a stupid enough move today that he wouldn’t feel too bad about it.

“How about I give it a try?”

The host listened in disbelief to the following conversation, in which this guy unconcernedly tried to take over. On the one hand, this definitely wasn’t what he was hoping for when he’d asked the girl’s companions to go up. On the other, the challenge from Du Ming hadn’t immediately thrown the situation into worse chaos, so somehow this guy had already gone beyond what anyone could expect of him.

In his headset, the broadcast team was yelling at him to get the next challenger onstage. This…this was probably good enough?

The man in the booth audibly called for the account card. From the girl? No way, right?

The host started sweating.

“It’s my challenge!” came the immediate response. Tang Rou’s voice, in an impressive show of her good upbringing, only had the barest hint of a growl in it. However, it was still unmistakably the voice of an aggressive alpha.

“Don’t be fussy…”

The audience had the sudden feeling that this guy had a death wish. With the emphasis Tang Rou had put on “challenge,” everyone had already guessed that she was an alpha. This wasn’t too weird—Glory was a combat game, so it was fairly popular amongst alphas.

This unknown guy arguing with her, though—that was not the smart way to deal with a provoked alpha. What was he thinking?

And yet somehow, despite the clear scuffling noises that had intermittently been transmitted over the speakers, he finally logged in unscathed. “What kind of skill distribution is this…” he muttered, and then the speakers were cut off again.

It wasn’t like the pros were the only ones to have noticed, over these past battles, that the skills Tang Rou used were all low-level skills. Some even felt bad for whoever this guy was, picking up a weird, unbalanced Battle Mage like that.

Not for long, though, because regardless of the skill distribution, this guy was kicking ass.

 

Han Wenqing recognized the setup, a near-perfect mirror of the Rookie Challenge the day before. As he’d thought, the dragon raised its head and chomped on Du Ming.

Han Wenqing’s grin was not kind.

In Excellent Era’s section, Sun Xiang shot to his feet as if struck.

 

“Do you think they planned it?” Though Huang Shaotian wasn’t trying to be loud, Han Wenqing had no difficulty hearing him.

Something in Han Wenqing was incredibly pleased that they hadn’t planned it. Just yesterday, Han Wenqing had made a point of saying that Sun Xiang’s challenge was out of place, given that he couldn’t even measure up to Ye Qiu. Today, Ye Qiu pulled exactly the move Han Wenqing had referenced, as if to drive home his point: Sun Xiang had no business competing for the favor of someone he couldn’t surpass himself.

This was why there was a history of alphas and omegas competing as a form of courtship—because challenges were what alphas understood best, and because omegas were not weak. You couldn’t have what you didn’t have the strength to hold.

Of course, alphas competing with each other was just as common. Few people could claim to be the absolute top of their field like Ye Qiu could, so it was completely normal for there to be more than one alpha that could surpass them. If competing directly with an omega couldn’t prove anything, competing with the other suitors worked too.

“Using Dragon Raises Its Head in that situation was very normal,” Yu Wenzhou told Huang Shaotian.

This was true. However, from the beginning of the match up until then, Ye Qiu had been totally in control of the situation. If a perfect mirror of yesterday’s battle occurred, it was because Ye Qiu had designed it that way.

Something smug and contented curled up inside Han Wenqing’s chest, radiating warmth.

(No one else’s, his instincts echoed, murmured, faded. The restless feeling from the challenge yesterday finally settled. He said. He chose.)

 

Onstage, the host was still dazed in the wake of this sudden development. “He really seemed like a beta,” he said randomly.

The crowd booed. Ye Qiu played as a beta for over seven years, of course he had some way of seeming like a beta. If he “seemed” like an omega, would it have been a secret that long?

This host was really off his game today!

“That’s… He’s…” Chen Guo was stunned. How many times had she thought it was a shame Ye Xiu was an omega, and had never had a chance to actually go pro? He’d called himself pro-level without a hint of doubt because…because he was actually Ye Qiu, at the top of the Glory scene?!

Her head was reeling. What had he said that day? “It’s just like with Ye Qiu. I am Ye Qiu.”

Was that…serious? Could he really be Ye Qiu?

 

Leafling

It’s him!!! Finally there’s some news from God Ye Qiu!!

 

EatenPastries

Wow get rekt Sun Xiang, Ye Qiu comin onstage all like “I will not bow”

 

StillHere

An alpha getting that from an omega they just tried to have a challenge over, can you even imagine what he’s feeling right now?

 

BigDipper

Eh, Sun Xiang already got his ass handed to him by Han Wenqing yesterday. Maybe this message was for Han Wenqing

 

SinkingOasis

But Han Wenqing never asked Ye Qiu to submit to him?

 

ShatterGlass

So it means something else?

 

FallIntoWinter

Do you think we can take this as confirmation that the case is going well??

 

RisingHeights 

It’s literally just a move, don’t read into it so much…

 

ExcellentEclipse

What “Just a move,” I’d like to see you pull off that “just a move”

 

StarFragmentation

Yeah, and Han Wenqing said he was waiting for his return!

 

FlattenedLand

And how would Han Wenqing know? Didn’t he just say that they aren’t allowed to be in contact?

 

LightningWave

Waaaiiit, guys, remember the stories about alphas and omegas having telepathy after they’re mated? Do you think…

 

WaterMissiles

What?? They’re actually mated???

 

WinterPine

I mean, he only said Ye Qiu called him over to guard, not that that’s all they actually did…

 

PalmFronds

Uh, pretty sure an alpha wouldn’t just pretend not to have gotten like, the omega in Glory. Any alpha that just got a mate would say something

 

OceanPath

Han Wenqing’s never been just “any alpha,” though. He wouldn’t be so crass, right?

 

ThreeRivers

Mentioning getting an omega isn’t any more crass than directly talking about a heat…which he definitely did do

 

WolfPack

Yeah, Han Wenqing doesn’t pussyfoot around the media, if he said he went there to guard he went there to guard. No way he talks about Ye Qiu calling him over because Ye Qiu didn’t want anyone to jump him and then jumped him, that’d be a dick move

 

FallDamage

Breaking through seven years of suppressants though, would he really have been able to resist a heat like that?

 

FightingKing

Are you trashtalking God Han? Meet me in the arena, scrub, I’ll take you any day

 

RecedingTides

Holy shit, shut up. This whole conversation is irrelevant. Those are just stories, everyone knows there isn’t actually a telepathic bond between alphas and omegas, that’s just stupid

 

LightningWave

You don’t know that

 

TyrannicalVictory

The Alliance wouldn’t allow pairs to play if that were a thing. Han Wenqing (and fine, I’ll admit it, Ye Qiu) love Glory way too much to risk it like that

 

PresentToDate

What, so willpower can just overcome biology now? Idiot

 

SilentSnowfall

That’s…literally what Han Wenqing talks about all the time. If people were actually slaves to their biology, the whole “dynamics are irrelevant” standpoint would have fallen apart long ago…

 

Ye Xiu, far from sneaking back like a thief, actually just casually entered his room, giving them the most blasé reminder not to stay up too late Chen Guo had ever heard and then disappearing.

“You!” Chen Guo could no longer contain herself, pounding against Ye Xiu’s door until he opened it again.

“What’s wrong?” he then had that audacity to ask.

“You’re acting like everything is normal!”

“How is it not normal?”

“You’re Ye Qiu!” she accused. Was he going to act like that hadn’t happened at all?

“Yeah, I’m normally Ye Qiu.” He didn’t look the slightest bit concerned.

Chen Guo was flabbergasted. He wasn’t wrong, but that… “Explain yourself!” she finally said, throwing her hands up into the air. She’d had a few thoughts while she was waiting for him, wondering how to address her infuriating worker who was also the god of Glory who was also an omega who’d recently been attacked and fought over. In the face of his usual irritating blandness, though, she really couldn’t do anything other than her usual irritated scolding.

“Sure,” he said, nodding along. “Explain what?”

Luckily, Tang Rou was able to get the whole conversation moved into his room and back on track again without waking the whole hall up.

“If you’re Ye Qiu, what’s up with ‘Ye Xiu’?” Chen Guo finally asked. It was the main thing that had driven her conviction that he wasn’t Ye Qiu from the start.

“Ye Xiu is also me!” Ye Xiu told her readily.

“Why do you have two names?”

“It’s complicated.”

Ye Xiu then, unbelievably, showed no sign that he was going to say any more. Chen Guo glared at him steadily, slowly clenching a hand into a fist. Her fury was almost tangible.

“It’s a secret,” Ye Xiu finally said helplessly.

“Then…which one is your real name?”

“Guess?”

Tang Rou put a hand on Chen Guo’s arm in the hopes of restraining the eruption. Rather than lose her cool entirely, Chen Guo paced back and forth for a moment. She finally stopped at the window, took a deep breath, and then actually guessed.

“The hotel accepted your current ID, so it must be a real ID. But I’m sure the Pro Alliance checks your ID as well, just that I don’t know how rigorous they were about it when the Alliance first started. Su Mucheng said you hid your dynamic for her, so you must have found a way to enter the Alliance with an ID that said you were a beta. You haven’t gone out in public all this time, but you aren’t really a secretive person, either, or you wouldn’t have just told me you were Ye Qiu when we met. That means there’s some other reason you can’t appear frequently under the name ‘Ye Qiu.’ So…‘Ye Qiu’ is the name you put on your fake ID?”

“It wasn’t a fake ID,” Ye Xiu told her. That wasn’t really a version of events he wanted getting out there—he hadn’t forged anything, and “Ye Qiu” did exist.

“Then…” Chen Guo thought about it for a long moment, now actually getting a little into the mystery of it. “You changed your name afterward? I know some people will issue official IDs with beta classifications at around 18. If you presented late, you could have used that ID. But you couldn’t use that ID forever, because everyone has to apply for a new ID at 20.”

There were no cases of presentation happening beyond the teen years. Carrying an incorrectly marked ID after 20 was, due to the danger dynamics can pose to oneself and others if hidden, against the law.

“So, because you needed a new ID anyway, you changed your name to ‘Ye Xiu’? That way no one would make the connection between the famous ‘Ye Qiu’ and the omega ‘Ye Xiu’ whenever you went out and had to present an ID.” It would also explain his unwillingness to disavow “Ye Qiu” as a real name. Even if it wasn’t his anymore, up to 20 years of familiarity would mean it was still a name that carried some importance.

Ye Xiu was quiet, so Chen Guo turned back from the window to face him. “Your name is legally ‘Ye Xiu’ now, right?” she concluded.

Ye Xiu seemed to find humor in this. “It is.”

Chen Guo let out a long breath. The whole thing was so precarious, she couldn’t really imagine anyone doing as she’d said in real life. Then again, Ye Xiu’s entire existence seemed to be made of things she couldn’t imagine anyone else doing in real life, so it wasn’t that different. And she really couldn’t think of another way they’d both be real IDs that matched Ye Xiu.

Thinking through what she’d just analyzed, something even more important occurred to her.

“Wait…does the Alliance know that? Aren’t they pursuing legal action against ‘Ye Qiu’?”

“They do not. And, yes. Yes, they are.”

 

It was only a technicality, so of course that wasn’t the whole defense, but the look on their faces when a well-dressed, well-mannered Ye Qiu walked through the door followed by no less than three of the top omega-defense lawyers in the country was absolutely priceless. And that was just the omega-specific lawyers that had come along. The Ye family’s reach was far greater than that.

“Ye…Qiu?” No one knew what to say. Was it this guy? Really? He seemed completely different, and what kind of financial backing was this?! Excellent Era knew exactly what kind of situation Ye Qiu was in financially, and it was not a “multiple top omega-defense lawyers” kind of situation. Not to mention that outfit, even his bearing—had he been lying about a lot more than just his dynamic, over the years? “What is going on?”

“Yes, I’m Ye Qiu. As for what’s going on—Chairman, I’ve been told to inquire first as to the state of your heart condition.”

 

Ye Xiu had given Ye Qiu all the information he needed on Excellent Era, on the people involved in the case and the likely angles of attack his old team would pursue. Ye Xiu wasn’t anything close to a lawyer himself, having never received even a high school education, but he was not stupid in these matters by a long shot, either.

Ye Qiu, sharing all the same genes and having received much more formal education, was no fool either. Their parents wanted Ye Xiu to make an impressive comeback, so of course they weren’t going to put the burden of a complicated court case on Ye Xiu’s shoulders. Even Ye Qiu wouldn’t be too involved with the process, though he secretly didn’t mind getting the chance to express to Ye Xiu’s aggressors exactly how he felt about their vile scheming. No, the Ye family had lawyers for a reason, and they would do their jobs beautifully.

 

The next day, Chen Guo thought of something she just couldn’t wrap her mind around.

“Did you really raise Su Mucheng?” she blurted out suddenly. There wasn’t going to be a right time to ask, and she had to know.

“Ah…that?” Ye Xiu looked over from where he was giving Tang Rou tips on playing a Battle Mage. “I wasn’t her parent or anything, obviously, but we did live together for a long time. We met a little over ten years ago, now.”

“How could someone like you raise someone like her?” It was impolite, but just thinking about the shameless way Ye Xiu ignored others’ opinions and took what he liked without compunction made the connection to the friendly Su Mucheng she’d finally met in person yesterday impossible to fathom.

Ye Xiu snorted. “I wasn’t going to ruin your image of her like this, but really… I want you to think back very carefully to how the event started yesterday. Mucheng found me in the crowd. Then what did she do?”

“Uh…waved?”

“No, when she picked people from the audience later.”

“She…” It wasn’t random! Chen Guo had gone onstage, but hadn’t Su Mucheng taken a while to decide between Tang Rou and Ye Xiu? And Ye Xiu was trying to avoid publicity right now. “Oh…that…”

“Doesn’t she seem very like me?” Ye Xiu prompted, smiling.

“You ruined her!” Chen Guo was aghast.

“She was actually like that before I got to her, though. She does terrifying things while smiling. Terrifying. I never taught her that!” Chen Guo was shaking him, but Ye Xiu didn’t seem to care.

“You do terrifying things all the time!”

“But not while smiling! It’s completely different.”

Is looking dead inside really any better? Chen Guo cried in her heart.

 

During the weeks that followed, Ye Xiu taught Tang Rou about fighting in the water of Thousand Waves Lakes. Tang Rou, as always, wholeheartedly threw herself into this new type of training. While Ye Xiu watched over her fights and idly drifted around, killing his own monsters, he talked with Luo Ji about the mechanics of Glory. Even though it wasn’t the best place for Concealed Light to level, Luo Ji wasn’t too concerned about it. He was much more interested in personally watching Lord Grim’s attacks and seeing how the environment responded to them. Since they were in the same party, he could even stand directly inside the attacks as they were happening to see how they interacted.

“I can never dodge it!” While the two were messing around on the side, Tang Rou was still figuring out how to deal with underwater monsters.

“Your movements in the water are slower, so your judgment and timing need to be different than they are on land. Telling you the numbers won’t help you. You just have to gradually get used to it!” Ye Xiu knew that for this kind of thing, there was really no replacing experience.

“You know the numbers?” Luo Ji was instantly interested.

“I do…” It wasn’t just for water; Ye Xiu was only able to calculate damage and aggro as effectively as he did because he knew the relevant numbers. Having a feeling for it was definitely the best way of fighting in general—constantly calculating would be a huge waste of mental effort and reaction time—but for the kind of precision Ye Xiu occasionally needed, instinct wouldn’t be enough.

Luo Ji delightedly started asking for details. Ye Xiu didn’t have any problem with it and directly started explaining it to him.

Even knowing now that Ye Xiu was God Ye Qiu, Chen Guo was shocked at the kinds of things he knew. Not just calculations for attack speed, damage, and aggro, even visual effects propagation was included.

“You even need to know that?” Chen Guo exclaimed.

“Of course!” Ye Xiu told her. “Zhang Jiale might be most famous for using visual effects as part of his style, but the best pros should all know this kind of thing. Hiding one skill behind another, blending into the environment—in high-level battles, the details really matter.”

Chen Guo had heard commentators exclaim about brilliant usages of effects and the environment before, but it hadn’t occurred to her what level of understanding the pros would need to pull off the plays those commentators lauded. Getting the sun in the opponents’ eyes just by casually standing with your back to it? Glory maps weren’t so simple!

“They all do those kinds of calculations and equations?” Chen Guo couldn’t wrap her mind around it.

“Oh.” Ye Xiu hadn’t quite understood her question before. “Maybe! Experience is still the most important factor, so I don’t know how many pay attention to the numbers. Usually, there really isn’t any need.” Carefully figuring out modifiers was more on the end of research and development or pursuing the limits of ability than common fights. There was a reason he didn’t bother telling Tang Rou about it: It would really only slow her down if she decided to stubbornly start calculating everything now.

Though Luo Ji eventually went back to a more appropriate leveling area, Tang Rou and Ye Xiu passed the days with this kind of routine, practicing and leveling up while Ye Xiu collected another round of payment as the dungeon record toll booth. Only when the Spring Festival came did the pattern change, as Tang Rou packed up her things and made her way home. Ye Xiu watched her go with a complicated expression, but when Chen Guo asked if he would leave too, he only shook his head.

“No need,” he told her. “There are plenty of computers here.”

How could the number of computers matter? But Chen Guo didn’t press, only welcoming him to accompany her for the new year.

 

Though Ye Xiu had been the one to suggest they go shopping for Spring Festival decorations, by the time they headed back he was clearly relieved. So when Chen Guo saw a fresh-faced, elegantly dressed Ye Xiu standing at the door to the Internet café once she’d put down their items, she was more than a little surprised.

“May I ask if Ye Xiu is here, or perhaps Ye Qiu?” the man asked. Though his face was identical to Ye Xiu’s, everything from his build to his tone of voice was vastly different. His frame was a little more filled out, as if he actually took care of himself, and his entire demeanor was polite and refined. Everything about him gave the feeling that he’d be very comfortable to talk to.

“You are…” Honestly, Chen Guo didn’t really have to ask. He had to be at least a relative, but with that level of resemblance he was almost certainly a legitimate identical twin.

“I’m his younger brother,” the man told her. “Might I ask who you are?”

“Oh, I’m the boss here. Ye Xiu should be here.”

“I’ll wait,” the man said, nodding genially.

“What do you go by?” Chen Guo asked, sitting down across from him.

“My name is Ye Qiu.”

“You…” Chen Guo was completely shocked. “You’re Ye Qiu?”

“I always have been…”

Chen Guo was struck speechless. When Ye Xiu returned a minute later, instead of pointing out the guest, she immediately rounded on him. “You said Ye Qiu was originally your name!”

Behind her, Ye Qiu made an affronted noise.

“I said nothing of the sort,” Ye Xiu told her, then casually looked over at his younger brother. “You actually came over?”

“You did, you said you changed your name to Ye Xiu later!” Chen Guo insisted, not willing to give this up lightly.

“No, you asked if my legal name is Ye Xiu now, which it is. In fact, it’s always been Ye Xiu,” he explained.

“You!” Words could not describe her stifled frustration at this man, so Chen Guo fumed in silence.

“I’m bringing you back for New Year’s,” Ye Qiu told Ye Xiu, not paying much attention to Chen Guo’s rage. He was well aware that Ye Xiu just had that effect on people.

“Why would I go back?” Ye Xiu asked, completely unenthused.

“Now that you’re finally doing something with your life, there shouldn’t be a problem, right? Mom says you should come home, you’ve been away for much too long already,” Ye Qiu said self-righteously.

Ye Xiu gave him a long look. “She just wants to interrogate me about my alleged child, doesn’t she.”

Ye Qiu was silent for a moment before he reluctantly replied: “Yeah, pretty much.”

“I’ll give it a miss.”

“You really should go home, though,” Ye Qiu urged. “Even just a few days would be fine.”

“You know our parents would notice if I went home instead of you, right?”

Chen Guo couldn’t believe this guy would even bring up a scheme like that. Did he think everyone was as shameless as him?

Unexpectedly, the calm Ye Qiu up to that point suddenly exploded into motion, throwing himself forward to tightly grip at Ye Xiu’s coat. “You bastard! Not only did you steal my stuff back then, now you even have approval to leave home and you still won’t give me a chance?! Even if they notice, they probably wouldn’t say anything if we just switch out for the holiday, okay? You’re so unfair!”

“Oh? You’d definitely come back afterward?”

Ye Qiu glared at him stiffly, still gripping his coat. “…Even if I didn’t, I’d still show up for the legal stuff. That’s enough, right? They aren’t going to personally get involved, that’d make it look like they pulled strings, so they couldn’t really come after me.”

Chen Guo found that beyond every upper limit of shamelessness was actually another level of shamelessness. Just when she thought Ye Xiu had definitely pushed too far, Ye Qiu made it clear he’d been right there with him the whole way. Not just blatantly switching sons for the New Year holiday, even carelessly running away afterward?

She’d really underestimated the similarities these twins shared.

“Don’t be ridiculous. As soon as the family had an idea where I was, they could have forced me to come back long ago. The only reason they didn’t is because eSports has a time limit. Once I couldn’t play anymore, I’d have to come home anyway.”

“But you got to play for a while!”

“Sure, because that was my only goal from the start. So, what do you want to do after you run away?”

“Uh…” Ye Qiu stared at him blankly.

Ye Xiu clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “If you don’t have anything you’re running toward, you might as well stay where you are.”

“Sure, you can say that. You already got permission to do whatever you want.” Ye Qiu, a fully grown and otherwise elegant man, actually managed to seem a little petulant.

“Right, my dream lines up with what they want now, so it’s all fine. All you have to do is find yourself something you actually want to do and make it relevant. Here, your big brother will even help you out: Find something you like and then throw your weight behind me, the face of omega rights in a whole industry, once you get amazing at it. Done.”

“You…” Ye Qiu clearly didn’t know how to react to this.

“And, since I’m going to be your front later, it’s better if I stay here to work now, right?”

Chen Guo suddenly realized that the whole conversation had come back to where it started. Was Ye Xiu just saying all of that to get out of a trip home? In the end, nothing had changed, right?

“Whatever, fine,” Ye Qiu finally said. “I’m not only here for that, though. The situation with Excellent Era has gotten to the point where you need to show up personally, at least for a few days. I need to update you on what’s going on, and you’ll have to meet with the lawyers for a bit.”

“Hmm, okay. I’m doing something else first, does it need to be right away?”

“It’s not too rushed…”

Chen Guo watched, rather stunned, as the two previously arguing brothers fell seamlessly into seriously discussing something about legal issues and public perception, as well as who exactly had been involved so far. Though Ye Qiu hadn’t been personally involved immediately after the event, they’d sent one of their best, though less well-known, lawyers in to handle the case. Once they’d wrangled out some suitably vague nondisclosure agreements, discussions started in earnest, and Ye Qiu and the rest of the lawyers were able to descend with impunity.

“Those guys looked so sour, you should have been there—no, actually it was good you weren’t, the fact that you weren’t even there made them feel so much more stifled. Absolutely brilliant. And just, their expressions—” Ye Qiu seemed to have forgotten all about his earlier refined air, gleefully telling Ye Xiu about all the ways he’d been able to make Excellent Era miserable over the past month and a half. Under his vicious and occasionally outwardly begrudging exterior, Ye Qiu emanated an indefinable sort of “praise me!” air that Chen Guo, as an only child, didn’t entirely understand.

Still, something about the interaction made her think that they were actually…really good brothers. The two of them would occasionally devolve into arguing, but she had to admit that Ye Qiu looked much more lively than the calm and serious “upright” image he’d had when he first arrived. So really, despite Ye Qiu’s loss of composure earlier and the apparently long gaps between the times they’d seen each other, she could only think that their relationship was actually very good.

In the end, Ye Qiu decided to stay the night and head back to the estate the following morning. Chen Guo obligingly led him upstairs to look at their living quarters, only remembering once she got there that Ye Xiu still lived in that little storeroom.

“Really a one-person bed,” Ye Qiu said of his brother’s living arrangements.

Chen Guo felt a little awkward; strictly speaking, it wasn’t a good idea for an omega to stay in a side-bed in a storeroom. It wasn’t set up for betas to live in, let alone alphas or omegas who usually had more requirements. Since Ye Xiu had never brought it up, she’d pretty much forgotten about it.

Ye Qiu didn’t actually look concerned, though, casually turning away to discuss where he himself would sleep.

When the two made it back downstairs, it was to find Ye Xiu gaming without a care, the various things they’d purchased still piled haphazardly where they’d left them.

“What are you doing?” Ye Qiu asked, going over to look. “Shouldn’t you help with this stuff?”

“I’m working!” Ye Xiu replied, still focused on the computer.

“What ‘working,’ you’re just playing a game,” Ye Qiu grumbled. “How come my work is all politics and legality when your work is just messing around?”

“Bad luck?” Ye Xiu suggested blithely.

Ye Qiu groaned.

“Lack of skill?” Ye Xiu offered next.

“Don’t make things up, I’m good at tons of things that aren’t gaming. Like actually acting as the heir of a family, or holding conversations that don’t make other people want to punch me.”

“There you go, that’s the real difference between us,” Ye Xiu agreed. “You back off, I step up, and only one of those things gets anything done.”

“Speaking of differences, I saw your alpha at the proceedings the other day,” Ye Qiu said, completely ignoring Ye Xiu’s inflammatory words, as one eventually learns one must. “He’s scary. Didn’t even look twice at me. There I was, all ready to awkwardly explain that I wasn’t the person he was looking for, but your alpha took one hard look at me and walked away.”

“He’s not my alpha,” Ye Xiu said, not looking up from the game.

Ye Qiu smirked. “And yet you know exactly who I’m talking about.”

“Or I don’t have an alpha, so it doesn’t matter who you’re talking about,” Ye Xiu replied blandly.

Ye Qiu sulkily came over to help Chen Guo with the goods she’d bought. It seemed, like everyone else when it came to Ye Xiu, Ye Qiu just couldn’t win.

 

Dinner that night was composed entirely of dishes Ye Qiu liked to eat, making Chen Guo feel a little moved at the show of familial care. Ten years, they’d lived apart, and Ye Xiu still knew all of his little brother’s favorite foods.

Though Ye Xiu said he didn’t drink, Chen Guo and Ye Qiu still indulged moderately to celebrate the coming new year.

“So, get this,” Ye Qiu told Chen Guo animatedly. He was excited to have found a conversation partner as worked up over the whole legal affair as he was. Ye Xiu, in that regard, was wholly disappointing. “In the middle of arguing that making use of Ye Xiu’s heat to turn the public against him was an attack on his character without sufficient justification, motivated by his dynamic, that Tao Xuan guy actually tried to say it was a one-time thing, not indicative of a trend. When I brought out the definition of harassing an omega in the workplace, you should have seen his face. I’ve never seen one person go through so many shades so quickly before. Undermining an omega’s authority in the workplace without due cause is classified as discrimination, so of course the years that bastard put into tearing Ye Xiu down count. As an alpha, I can even get him for using his dynamic to suppress an employee, which could get him banned from positions of authority hereafter if it goes on his record.”

“Good!” Chen Guo slammed the table appreciatively. She really didn’t have any good feelings toward Excellent Era anymore.

“That’s going a little far, isn’t it?” Ye Xiu commented. Trying to frame Tao Xuan as some kind of alpha supremacist might net them more losses than gains in the end, if they couldn’t pull it off, and Ye Xiu didn’t think they’d find much to back it up. Besides, Tao Xuan wasn’t really a bad businessman; destroying his future too seemed a little unfair. For everything he’d done for them when they were younger, Ye Xiu at the very least wouldn’t pile false accusations on top of his legitimate faults.

“The bastard tried to hunt you out of the industry with everything he had, no way we can’t get evidence that he used his dynamic in the process. Besides, anyone spineless enough to attack an omega just because they can deserves what they get,” Ye Qiu said, tone heavy with disgust. “If you were an alpha, he’d definitely have been too scared of blowing things up to try anything.”

Ye Xiu wanted to say Tao Xuan wouldn’t use the advantages of his dynamic that way, but he remembered Su Mucheng telling him about Tao Xuan’s attempts to command her to let the matter of Ye Xiu’s induced heat go. He wanted to say eight years of support, regardless of his dynamic, showed Tao Xuan didn’t care for such things, but was it really eight years? How long was it after he’d promised Ye Xiu could hide that he started resenting him? How long had it taken before conversations with Tao Xuan were something to be avoided, an unpleasant chore of dodging his less than subtle hints to take at least a few contracts, make at least a few concessions? Not even a full season, right? Su Mucheng’s joining the team had brightened Tao Xuan’s demeanor for a while, but how long was it before the resentment returned? How long had he been undermining Ye Xiu’s position on the team, now?

Years, wasn’t it?

Ye Xiu had always felt somewhat sorry over his inability to work with Tao Xuan on this, but it was his own face, and he’d already given everything else to the team. He gave his all to building them up to victory, and in return Tao Xuan had torn it all down.

Why? He had Su Mucheng willingly making him tons of money, he had Ye Xiu to lead them to success, why had it not been enough? Why had he chosen to sabotage the team and alienate Su Mucheng, just to get rid of Ye Xiu?

Ye Xiu wanted to say that Tao Xuan was an upright person who just had business on his mind more than victory, that their split was predestined, that it would have happened with any other businessman too. He wanted to say that Tao Xuan’s defense of Cui Li in this matter had nothing to do with Ye Xiu’s dynamic and everything to do with his fear of Ye Xiu’s abilities.

But if Ye Xiu were an alpha, could Tao Xuan have done all this? Gotten everyone else to disregard him, made their conflict into an actual challenge of authority—he wouldn’t have dared. If Ye Xiu were truly a beta, could Tao Xuan have made a whole court case of his unsuitability, his “irresponsibility,” despite how clearly he had been the one least at advantage there? Of course not. And prejudice that stemmed from convenience was still prejudice.

Ye Xiu wanted to say that Tao Xuan hadn’t acted out of personal grievances. He wanted to say his dynamic had nothing to do with it.

But he couldn’t.

And as always, if he couldn’t make a winning argument, he’d walk a different path. “Are you saying I don’t already strike fear into the hearts of my opponents? I’m disappointed in your lack of faith, little brother.”

Ye Qiu spluttered indignantly.

 

The next morning found Ye Qiu already at the table when Chen Guo awoke, his best guess at what kinds of things they’d have for breakfast already spread out.

“You must be Ye Qiu!” Su Mucheng exclaimed cheerfully once she, her overstuffed poppers, and her long strings of apologies had been invited in, waving to the man seated at the table. Chen Guo could easily confirm that the relationship between Su Mucheng and Ye Xiu wasn’t normal; even at a glance, Su Mucheng could tell Ye Qiu wasn’t him.

“Oh, is this my niece?” Chen Guo was too flustered over her idol appearing to notice that Ye Qiu had gone a little fake around the edges.

Su Mucheng laughed, waving her hand dismissively. “It was really more of a ‘big brother’ kind of raising than a ‘parent’ kind of raising, so it’d probably be more accurate to say you’re my older brother by extension.”

“It’s true that Ye Xiu isn’t really the mothering type,” Ye Qiu allowed, unable to pass up the chance to poke at his sibling.

“Not really,” Su Mucheng agreed with good humor. “Though he does tend to hover a little, always trying to take responsibility for things he doesn’t really need to. My own blood brother wouldn’t care so much that I wanted to walk a few blocks at night, but you know Ye Xiu. He has to casually invite himself like it’s not a big deal. Can’t let anyone catch him caring.”

Ye Xiu’s specific brand of obliquely caring about other people was actually one of her earliest memories of him. When he’d brought his luggage to their apartment and started unpacking, she’d peeked in on him curiously, only to find him quietly grumbling over what appeared inside.

“A credit card and some pocket change? Really, what were you thinking? Sleep under a bridge? Buy an apartment and assume our parents aren’t going to notice the related address? Not a single thing in here is related to a skill you could make money with, either. Just with this, I can tell exactly what the outline of your plan looked like: ‘leave,’ ‘go to new city,’ ‘procure apartment,’ ‘make money’ followed by a whole row of question marks, and then just: ‘success.’ Idiot. There isn’t even a heavy coat in here, do you think summer lasts all year, or were you just expecting to have failed by then? I have half a mind to follow your stupid plan and get caught just so you know how badly you prepared…”

When she’d finally heard from him about how he’d come to be living with them, she’d thought it was the funniest thing ever. Even after he’d left, he was still complaining about his younger brother’s inability to take care of himself properly.

“Ye Xiu isn’t up yet,” Ye Qiu told her. “Did you tell him you were coming today?”

“Yeah, he said it would be fine when I messaged him about it,” she said cheerfully. “I asked him if he was going to see his family over the holiday, and he said you’d come to the internet café already.”

“Oh, he actually responds to your messages? Clearly he holds you in high regard, that guy usually doesn’t even read mine.” Ye Qiu was undeniably disgruntled, even if he was doing his best not show it.

“No, he does,” Su Mucheng assured him, looking a little amused. “Over the years, every time I saw him get a message from you, he read it right away.”

“He even reads it and doesn’t respond! What a good brother,” Ye Qiu said disdainfully. Still, he seemed a little pleased by this information.

At this point Ye Xiu came down the stairs, waving to Su Mucheng who’d finally made it over from Q city. “You came?”

“Yeah!” Su Mucheng walked over to the stairs to greet him.

“Is that guy still here?”

The moment Ye Xiu turned to look for Ye Qiu at the table, Su Mucheng struck. “Happy New Year!” she cheered, pulling her backup popper out and popping it in his face.

Though Ye Xiu had quick reflexes, avoiding that amount of colored paper while cornered on the stairs was clearly impossible.

“Success!” Su Mucheng threw her arms up in the air jubilantly. “My long night of hard work was not in vain!”

Ye Qiu laughed uproariously behind her. He suddenly felt that having a younger sibling to team up with wouldn’t be bad at all.

 

When Su Mucheng and Chen Guo asked him to help them set off the fireworks, Ye Xiu realized he didn’t already have a cigarette in hand. He blew smoke into the air, watching them gambol with their fireworks as he actually started giving some thought to where his addiction might have gone.

 

The combination of Su Mucheng’s transfer away from City H and the general lack of scrutiny employees exhibited around this time of year meant Ye Xiu wasn’t too worried about taking Su Mucheng out clothes shopping. Though they spent time together in the game, it was really so much less interaction than they’d had over the past ten years that it was a little uncomfortable. Being able to casually walk around and eat together came as a welcome relief.

 

On the seventh day of the Spring Festival, the broadcasting company showed the match between Excellent Era and Tyranny. The matchups today had all been planned at the beginning of the season for maximum excitement and, while these two teams were shockingly nowhere near the same level of competitiveness this season, most people thought it was still a match worth watching.

“A lot to see in this match today!” Pan Lin started his commentary. “Old rivals Excellent Era and Tyranny take the stage, but a lot has changed since their last conflict. Ye Qiu may be gone, but One Autumn Leaf and Desert Dust continue their longtime rivalry through Han Wenqing and Sun Xiang, the only two alpha captains in the Glory Pro Alliance. This is the first time Sun Xiang and Han Wenqing will be facing off against each other since their match during All-Star Weekend. Dancing Rain, One Autumn Leaf’s best partner since her debut during season 4, has switched sides and is now supporting Tyranny’s Desert Dust. Su Mucheng herself is facing off against her original team for the first time since she left after the incident with Ye Qiu drew clear lines between the partners and the team he carried for so many years.

“Coach Li, do you think this previous familiarity will have some effect on the match?”

“With tensions high, it’s much more likely for mistakes to appear. A lot will depend on if they can they keep themselves from falling apart to chase grudges.” Li Yibo kept it vague enough that he could be talking about anyone: Sun Xiang, Han Wenqing, even Su Mucheng who had good reason to blow up at her old team, if she wanted. “However, if both sides can keep a cool head, we should be seeing some interesting counter-strategies from people who know each other well. Excellent Era and Tyranny are already the oldest enemies in the Alliance, with many years of research poured into their conflicts. With the addition of a player changing sides, their knowledge of each others’ abilities and tendencies should reach new heights.”

Li Yibo said this, but no one was expecting the way in which old strategies would return.

“They’re…they’re actually using Screen Cannon…” This wasn’t an unusual deduction to make during one of Excellent Era’s matches. However, the team he was referring to was their opponent, Tyranny!

The fans of Excellent Era and Tyranny watching the match felt somewhat lost. Screen Cannon? The incredibly difficult to handle tactic used by Excellent Era for so many years, coming from Tyranny?

When Su Mucheng arrived at Tyranny, at first she only participated in the individual competitions. Her transfer had really been too sudden, making using her immediately a bit of a bad move for someone who prepared far in advance like Zhang Xinjie. Su Mucheng was a very talented player, but adding her to the team would require a whole new set of considerations. Tyranny had never had a Launcher before, let alone Glory’s number one Launcher, who would necessarily be a major component of the fighting force. With her fearsome and intense individual competitions, Su Mucheng had quickly been accepted by Tyranny’s fans, despite her previous allegiance. Han Wenqing’s clear support of her helped that along as well.

However, it was only now that Tyranny’s fans were seeing who, exactly, they’d brought on their team. Not just any beautiful, ferocious Launcher! She was the number one Launcher in the Pro Alliance! The Best Partner of the Battle God! A core component of Excellent Era’s strategy for several years now!

Once they’d gotten over the shock, many fans of Tyranny were filled with a vicious sort of glee. Payback! It was finally payback! Excellent Era didn’t even seem to have a strategy anymore, torn apart from their core, with a Battle God that not only lacked a partner, but didn’t seem willing to partner with or even receive support from anyone else on the team.

“Are they trying to turn Tyranny into Excellent Era?” Chen Guo turned to ask Ye Xiu. Unlike the commentators, he didn’t appear particularly surprised.

“Of course not. It’s just that Su Mucheng and Screen Cannon are actually really well-suited for Tyranny.”

As a longtime fan of Excellent Era, Chen Guo had some trouble wrapping her head around this statement. “How?”

“Well, people tend to cast Tyranny as a very aggressive team—”

“Because Han Wenqing is an alpha?”

Ye Xiu snorted. “No, because he forcefully removed the word ‘retreat’ from his dictionary.”

Chen Guo, caught between confusion and laughter, landed somewhere in the realm of a hacking cough.

“Still,” Ye Xiu continued, apparently unconcerned by the wheezing, “if I had to characterize Zhang Xinjie as a tactician, the first word I’d use is ‘defensive.’”

Chen Guo paused in wiping the tears from her eyes. Did she hear that right? Tyranny’s Master Tactician was…defensive?

“Why is it that Tyranny, despite having two shot-callers, has never had any trouble with disagreements in leading?” Ye Xiu asked her.

Chen Guo just shook her head. This was one of the oft-debated issues of Tyranny’s team. They alone had a team with two shot-callers; they alone had a Master Tactician that was not captain, nor the leader, nor any type of offensive player at all. How could they be so sure it wouldn’t cause problems at a crucial point in the competition?

Ye Xiu didn’t keep her in suspense. “Because Zhang Xinjie plans heavily in advance for how to respond to the opponent, but it’s overwhelmingly response that he favors. Han Wenqing favors action, and is the captain, in the end. So Zhang Xinjie sets the general battle plan, several overall strategies they can use against the opponent in different scenarios, Han Wenqing follows these where appropriate and makes his own decisions about how and when to enact them, and Zhang Xinjie reacts to the opponents’ reactions to Han Wenqing. If the situation manages to go outside of Zhang Xinjie’s meticulous planning, Han Wenqing chooses a plan of action and Zhang Xinjie comes up with the optimal way to achieve it. Han Wenqing is the impetus, Zhang Xinjie is the framing. Together, their active and passive tendencies in shot-calling make a well-balanced team.

“People see Tyranny as aggressive because Han Wenqing has an aggressive playstyle, and his decisions win out in the end. Zhang Xinjie is prepared to accommodate him, because he knows what type of person Han Wenqing is, and what kind of decisions he’s likely to make. This is what you call real cooperation, a deep and unspoken understanding of each others’ actions, whether or not they match your own.”

“So…Su Mucheng…” Chen Guo still wasn’t sure where she fit into all this.

“Su Mucheng is, generally speaking, a support-type player. This means that she fits well into Zhang Xinjie’s kind of plans. She also is very practiced at keeping an eye on the whole field, which is useful in a team like Tyranny that can change course with Han Wenqing’s decisions at any time. I imagine Zhang Xinjie is pleased to have such a perfect asset fall into his hands. With her level of awareness and their usual style, Screen Cannon is a really good choice for Tyranny. It brings together support for an aggressive frontline and maintaining control over the field.

“As for learning strategies beforehand and adapting to the whims of a forceful player…Su Mucheng has a lot of practice!”

Chen Guo was reminded that the person speaking to her now was really Ye Qiu, the Master Tactician and Battle God, while Su Mucheng was his Best Partner since her debut. She really would have a lot of practice.

Suddenly Chen Guo realized something. “Did you just imply that it takes a combination of Zhang Xinjie and Han Wenqing together to equal one of you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ye Xiu said dismissively. “One Autumn Leaf can’t heal.”

 

Ye Xiu slaughtered his way to the Heavenly Domain, the most efficient player to complete the Heavenly Domain Challenge in Glory’s history. As soon as the game company confirmed that Lord Grim was not hacking, the “is this Ye Qiu” debate fired up again, this time across the entire Glory player base. The same points were brought up as before, and the tenth server veterans of this debate made their way to the boards with their old conclusions. They also could now confirm: This guy was on all the time, and apparently he’d had that silver weapon from the start. Multiple people had seen him using it; he’d never tried to hide it at all.

Not to mention, he was actually online and playing the night of Ye Qiu’s heat! This was a matter of public record—anyone could see that several of the first kills in the server had gone to Lord Grim. With proof like that at hand, the discussion quickly turned to who this expert could be, how quickly the teams would gobble him up, which teams had been notified, whether or not he’d already made any deals… It must be the birth of a new god, many people sighed in admiration. Going to the Heavenly Domain at level 50? That was making Glory history! It had never been done before! Everyone was extremely interested in this new player.

Though all of Glory was in an uproar over his arrival, Ye Xiu didn’t care at all. Once he finished all the prerequisites, he casually entered the Heavenly Domain.

A veritable flood of friend requests arrived practically the same second he did.

“Accept my friend request already!” Chen Guo pestered him as she piloted Chasing Haze to where Lord Grim had appeared.

“How should I find it?” Ye Xiu asked helplessly, gesturing at the ever-increasing list of notifications. At this point, only a machine would be able to handle them individually.

Ye Xiu sighed and chose to clear all the invites.

Chen Guo and Ye Xiu watched, disbelieving, as the computer actually froze.

Chapter Text

After Ye Xiu’s loud and obvious entrance to the Heavenly Domain, every single club knew who was behind Lord Grim. If the clubs were going to make a move on him, it was going to happen now. It would be as easy as asking any of the people in the tenth server if they thought Lord Grim would be a legitimate threat if he entered the Pro Alliance—yes, definitely. Obviously. Watching a powerhouse be raised right in front of their eyes? Could they really do that?

Unfortunately, with that question came an even more unpleasant one: Could they really stop it? It was Ye Qiu, and if he actually came back to the Alliance, he’d have to be allowed to interact with the clubs again. That meant that, at some point, Tyrannical Ambition would throw their full support behind him. Even if they started an all-out guild war, they wouldn’t be able to stop Club Tyranny from helping Ye Qiu finish leveling his character and building his weapon.

Realistically speaking, none of the clubs had any thoughts of fully suppressing Lord Grim. On the other hand, how long had they all been enemies? They wouldn’t just give up so easily. If they couldn’t stop Lord Grim, they could at least get more data on him! The more they could learn about this whole new “class” and character in advance, the better off their teams would be. And if they harassed him enough, it would probably at least hinder his development.

Of course, they still had their reputations to defend, too. Really bullying an omega? Who wanted to support a team like that?

So if they were going to even attempt to push down Lord Grim, they had to do it now, before anyone could officially help. Before anyone officially knew who it was they were trying to bully.

And even then, bullying Ye Qiu?

It was a long shot.

 

If the clubs could think of all this, so could Ye Xiu. He chose his leveling area so he’d be able to see anyone coming from a long distance away and kept his guard up.

Chen Guo didn’t have so many thoughts. “What are you being so cautious for?” She even seemed a little exasperated. “In the Heavenly Domain, of course there are going to be a few aggressive players, but what do you have to worry about? This is you we’re talking about.”

“It’s because it’s me I have to pay attention,” Ye Xiu refuted. “Don’t just look at how well we and the clubs are getting along in the tenth server. Lord Grim will almost certainly be a serious competitor for their teams in the future, and the Heavenly Domain has a much higher drop rate. How often does a pro character stroll around, 20 levels under the cap, literally incapable of calling on a guild for serious backup? They’re not stupid; there won’t be better conditions than this.”

“Then…your situation is really dangerous?” Chen Guo started to get worried. If he was the enemy of all the guilds, they wouldn’t try to team up to take him down again, right?

“It’s not so bad.” Though Ye Xiu was being careful, he was still logged in and leveling, wasn’t he? If he were actually in danger of losing the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella, he wouldn’t bother; he was in no rush to take a loss. “With so much attention on Lord Grim, any characters the clubs might want to send after me have to be characters they’re willing to throw away. That really limits their options, at least for right now. It shouldn’t be so exaggerated.”

On top of that, in this location and with this distance, if he saw an army coming for him, he’d just log out before they could force his character into battle.

So when he saw five unknown players approaching, he was wary, but not worried. Chen Guo explained to him the circumstances of their guild, once their guild tags came into focus, and it became clear what kind of meeting this was going to be. Since he went through the Heavenly Domain Challenge, all the club guilds would have long since learned Lord Grim’s identity, but it wasn’t the same for those outside the Alliance. If they thought they could contend with club-backed guilds, there’d be no harm in coming to talk to him.

After going through the normal courtesies for meeting someone new, Loulan Slash started his tactful probing for Ye Xiu’s identity.

It was safe to say that he was not at all expecting the result he got.

Ye Xiu’s casual claim was followed by a loud crash and a louder, even more excited yell: “God Ye Qiu!”

The person speaking put out an emoji to make it clear who they were, rather unsurprisingly turning out to be the Battle Mage of the group. Judging by the strength and apparent sincerity of the exclamation, Homeward Bound’s player was one of those who didn’t take the reveal of Ye Xiu’s dynamic to heart. Not everyone in the world cared so much about dynamics; many betas felt divorced from the issue entirely, to the point where it was more a random curiosity than something to get caught up about. It hardly affected them, anyway.

“Is this for real?” someone finally muttered.

Ye Xiu smiled. “It’s real.”

“Can you prove it?” Loulan Slash asked. This was really outside of his expectations.

“I don’t need to prove it. It’s up to you if you want to believe me,” Ye Xiu laughed.

“Ah…” Right, there really didn’t seem to be any reason for him to bother?

Suddenly, one of the other players spoke up. “You can’t be Ye Qiu, you were online during his heat!” With how often this argument had come up in the forums, it was no surprise one of them would have looked into it. It was a little more surprising that he’d blurt out such a thing, though, seemingly without thinking.

Chen Guo startled. “That’s right, when you came here your character was already level 18. You actually played while you were in heat?!” She knew without a doubt that Ye Xiu was Ye Qiu, so her surprise was on a much higher level than the doubt of Heavenly Justice. In fact, she was so surprised she just exclaimed aloud instead of sending a private message.

“Nothing can beat my love of playing Glory, so it’s only natural I would.”

Of course Ye Xiu was being facetious, but if she took the time to think about it, Chen Guo would already be embarrassed for bringing it up at all. It was way too rude to ask what happened during an omega’s heat.

Loulan Slash politely ignored the whole aside, especially since it was his group that started it. “Whether or not you’re Ye Qiu, you should be thinking of joining the pro scene, right? I’m actually thinking of making my own team, and I’ve been preparing for a while. Are you interested?”

Though Loulan Slash sounded somewhat young, his composure wouldn’t lose to many of the current team captains in the Alliance. Ye Xiu thought that, as people he could have dealings with went, this guy was not bad. “Well, I really am Ye Qiu, though. You should know my circumstances are a little special.”

Loulan Slash sighed. “So you really are joining Tyranny?” Even with Su Mucheng there, even with Han Wenqing’s public support of Ye Qiu, it was hard to believe these two eternal rivals would actually be on the same team.

Ye Xiu’s grin was audible. “I’m legally obligated to have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Legally obligated…that’s right, currently Ye Qiu wasn’t allowed to interact with anyone officially part of the Alliance! That meant that whatever understood agreements there might be, nothing could have been signed yet. And while no one would look down on Ye Qiu’s abilities, legal cases could not be solved with quick thinking alone. “I could help you out with the legalities, you know. If you need any support getting back into the Alliance, only a new team like mine would be able to give it to you.”

“It’s fine, the legal side of things is already being handled.”

Lord Grim was almost constantly online, so Loulan Slash couldn’t think what kind of situation it might be for him to say it was already being handled. Still, it wasn’t convenient for him to push any further on the matter, so he left it there. The two added each other as friends and the group from Heavenly Justice left them to their leveling.

The next three “visitors,” though, were not so kind.  Spellblade, Striker, Elementalist—it wasn’t hard for Ye Xiu to guess who these three open accounts belonged to. He and Chen Guo ran, partly because Ye Xiu didn’t want to deal with them, partly to confirm their identities. Sure enough, the three were pros who wouldn’t make low-level mistakes with stamina and followed them easily. Chen Guo wouldn’t leave, so Ye Xiu set her up on outcrop and waited for the three to catch up.

Ye Xiu’s understanding of coordinating with a Launcher was unparalleled: Even using one hand each, it was more than enough to take care of a Striker, which was also his most familiar opponent. As for the Spellblade and Elementalist, he mostly avoided them—he wanted to cause a misunderstanding, not actually fight all three pros to the death alone. Even Ye Xiu would have trouble with that.

The pros ran, as he’d meant them to, assuming Chen Guo was Su Mucheng due to the outstanding synergy between his right and left hands. As one of their former long-time core teammates, of course Su Mucheng’s style of support would be familiar to them.

Actually, they could be forgiven for making the mistake. It wasn’t so simple as Ye Xiu emulating Su Mucheng’s playstyle; it could even be said that it was Su Mucheng’s playstyle. Ye Xiu had trained Su Mucheng like this: as an extension of himself, until she knew exactly what he wanted most from a partner. Rather than training on her own, Su Mucheng had decided to learn from how Ye Xiu would support himself, if he could play both sides at once. In her mind, this was the fastest and surest way for someone who knew so little of Glory to become his best support.

This hadn’t been the original intention for Dancing Rain’s position in the team. Su Muqiu had originally wanted to use a Launcher’s superior range and his own grasp of timing to control the field with his interrupts, leaving the enemy helpless to Ye Xiu’s attacks. Unfortunately, this kind of playstyle wasn’t one that Su Mucheng could afford to pursue. Since she’d only started playing Glory at all during the second season of the Alliance, it had already been too late to build up so much experience in the game, especially experience related to working with Ye Xiu. She wanted to be someone he could rely on, and while Su Muqiu’s playing could have been relied on like this, hers could not. Instead they came up with the idea of Screen Cannon—if she couldn’t anticipate her opponents’ attacks, she could anticipate Ye Xiu’s attacks, where he most needed support, when he most wanted to block his opponent’s view.

She had her own abilities, of course, and she could come up with her own plans, but when she started it was things like this, figuring out what kind of support Ye Xiu needed and giving it to him. Now that she was in Tyranny, things were different. She couldn’t just think about what Ye Xiu needed. Luckily, Zhang Xinjie was there to give her very specific guidance on how he wanted her to fit into the team, and Su Mucheng was very good at following. Still, to become exceptional, learning how to work with others would always be most important. She didn’t know who else of Tyranny would be staying next year, so she focused most of her attention on the core of Han Wenqing and Zhang Xinjie. Before, understanding how to read Ye Xiu’s strategic intentions was enough, and it couldn’t lead her wrong. Now, she knew things would be more complex. If she wanted Ye Xiu to have a place there when he returned, she had to put the effort in to make it for him. Her support was meant to bolster his position, not drag him back with awkward-fitting edges and added responsibility.

So even if Su Mucheng devoted much of her evenings to Ye Xiu, those parts of the day that fell into Zhang Xinjie’s schedule were devoted to Tyranny alone, and she didn’t skimp on extra practice, either. She couldn’t spend all of her time doing something as mundane as leveling with Ye Xiu. But the members of Excellent Era knew nothing about this, and easily assumed Chasing Haze was just a random max-level account borrowed from Tyranny, same as their own from Excellent Era.

They’d come out today to harass Ye Qiu, somewhat because Liu Hao could not let him go so easily, somewhat in the hopes of assisting Excellent Era in their legal conflict as much as possible. They didn’t know how Ye Qiu could have enough time to level that character and make so much trouble for management that their faces grew more drawn every day, but any amount of trouble for Ye Qiu should be good news for their side so long as no one discovered it. Taking just three pros on open accounts should be conservative enough. Even if Ye Qiu wasn’t leveling Lord Grim himself, losing experience would still be troublesome for him, and make his return take even longer.

Of course, being outside of the NDA wall, none of them knew that it wasn’t Ye Qiu himself slowly bringing Excellent Era to its knees.

Not the Ye Qiu they knew, anyway.

 

“Are you really Ye Qiu?”

Ye Xiu had called Loulan Slash and his group back shortly after Liu Hao had run off. If Excellent Era wasn’t going to give him a break with just this amount of publicity, he could always set himself up for more. The defense of Su Mucheng apparently flouting the law wasn’t impenetrable by a long shot.

“I am absolutely the Ye Qiu you’re thinking of,” Ye Xiu replied sincerely.

“It…seems like you’re implying something?”

“You’re too suspicious.”

After considering it for a moment, Loulan Slash realized that he really might be too suspicious over this. Wasn’t Ye Qiu acting as a beta all these years? He might really have some kind of pseudonym he’d been working under, for so many official sources to have believed him a beta. A false ID or a borrowed name, if Ye Qiu could hide his dynamic, it would make perfect sense for him to hide other things, too. So long as he was the person everyone meant by “Ye Qiu,” it wasn’t really a lie no matter how he said it.

“It doesn’t really matter if I’m Ye Qiu or not,” Ye Xiu said when Loulan Slash was quiet for too long. “Pulling me in will definitely benefit you.”

“That’s hard to say,” Loulan Slash laughed. “Don’t you already have the club guilds watching you? It seems they’re just waiting to cause trouble!”

“Aren’t you entering the qualifiers for the Alliance for next season?” Ye Xiu returned. “You must have prepared already to have them as enemies!”

“How did you know?” Loulan Slash asked, surprised.

“Just a random guess.”

Loulan Slash didn’t put too much thought into it; since the god had already guessed and it wasn’t something he needed to hide, he might as well admit it. “We’ve already registered, and it doesn’t seem like we’ll have any problems.”

“Then you want to make an announcement soon to attract the eyes of the players,” Ye Xiu prompted.

“Lord Grim really is a huge topic right now…” Loulan Slash considered it. “If you really are Ye Qiu, then this opportunity is huge.”

“I am.”

“God Ye Qiu is okay with publicizing himself now?” Since the secret of his dynamic was out, it might be that Ye Qiu no longer had a reason to hide.

“I don’t think I ever said I’d help you with that, no?” Ye Xiu replied.

“Yes… Well, having your name is already more than enough.” Besides, if Ye Qiu didn’t come out himself, and really wasn’t joining their team, then the hype of his situation would only benefit Heavenly Swords. If he were actually joining, the situation really would be more complicated. Defending an omega was nothing easy.

It was only after Ye Qiu brought up the idea of using his joining the guild for publicity that Loulan Slash fully thought through the marketing issue. No other team had had to publicly defend keeping an omega on their roster before, and Tyranny had already long established itself with its stance of “dynamic doesn’t matter,” so they wouldn’t draw too much new support that way. Then there was the fact that their five core players didn’t have room for Ye Qiu to take a permanent role as the core; it would end up looking like they were coddling him, and probably bring even more hate.

All of that was outside the main concern, the fact that Tyranny had practically already claimed Ye Qiu as their own future teammate. If he ended up in Heavenly Swords, what would that look like? Making a personal enemy of Tyranny right from the start was a bit much, even for their ambitions. As for Han Wenqing himself…

“This won’t cause problems with Han Wenqing, will it?” Loulan Slash finally had to ask.

“Why would it cause problems?” Ye Xiu didn’t understand.

“Even if we’re all betas…” No one on the Heavenly Justice side seemed to know how to say it. They had the kind of backround that meant they weren’t ignorant of dynamics by any means, but it didn’t make discussing it any easier.

“Old Han has nothing to do with my decisions.” Ye Xiu snorted. “He has neither the right nor the inclination to mess with my plans for no reason.”

They didn’t know what to say. Wasn’t having your mate stolen enough of a reason? Fights had been started over much, much less.

Amidst the uncomfortable silence on their end, someone on Ye Xiu’s end had something to say. “So you really aren’t dating?” Chen Guo blurted out.

Ye Xiu gave her an exasperated look. Sister, could you learn to control your mouth a little better? This was already the second time today!

“We legally aren’t allowed to interact, how would we be dating?”

Ye Xiu answered genuinely, since he figured Chen Guo’s outburst was an accurate indication of Loulan Slash’s hesitation as well. Really, what was up with these people? Was it just too blinding to have an alpha and omega be good friends? It wasn’t like guarding was so rare!

Admittedly, that wasn’t quite what Han Wenqing had actually done. But as far as anyone else was concerned, that was the situation, so it was functionally the same thing.

Still, public perception being what it was, it was understandable that Loulan Slash didn’t feel comfortable rushing into a decision. He and his group left Ye Xiu to his leveling, promising to get back to him soon with their decision.

Ye Xiu put all of his focus on leveling in the meantime, taking advantage of the period when he was still hot news to get as far through the awkward 50-54 level range as possible. Though they remained inconspicuous enough, he knew the guilds were keeping an eye on him, waiting for the frequency of random encounters and people coming to pay respects to Lord Grim to calm down. Since they still had the option of sending out a few pros to harass him, they were waiting for Su Mucheng and her Chasing Haze to inevitably leave him alone.

However, Chasing Haze was almost constantly there, and they started to grow suspicious. Maybe it wasn’t always Su Mucheng on the account? But if not, who else would it be? Someone else from Tyranny? Just a random player? In the time since Excellent Era’s initial panic over Chasing Haze’s coordination with Ye Xiu, someone had finally brought up that the name sounded familiar, and they’d tracked down all the relevant information about her. The famous video, the All Star Event, even a little asking around at the Happy Café where they’d found Ye Qiu not long after he left Excellent Era got them the information that the account belonged to the Internet Café’s boss. But that meant very little: The original owner of the account didn’t have the skill Chasing Haze had shown recently, so it had to be someone else playing. If Su Mucheng was the one using the account, it was undoubtedly in Qingdao by now. But, as a pro player, Su Mucheng simply could not sustain the hours Chasing Haze was spending online, so there had to be someone else at least some of the time.

But if it wasn’t always Su Mucheng, how would they know the difference? Seriously facing the combination of Su Mucheng and Ye Qiu would cause enough of a disturbance that they’d be very unlikely to get away with it, so the answer to this question was very important.

In this mire of uncertainty and hesitation, three days passed without incident, and Loulan Slash finally came to his decision.

 

The interest in Lord Grim, of which the clubs had been patiently awaiting the decline, was suddenly stirred up again with the news of his joining Guild Heavenly Justice, a rare player guild that could stand on equal footing with the club guilds. In itself, this news was annoying but not strange; Ye Qiu would have to have some backing while he leveled up, and choosing the one guild not in the Alliance that didn’t necessarily need to fear the club guilds was obviously a good choice. Troublesome, but not overly surprising.

When the eSports platform announced that Heavenly Justice would be forming a team, though, that was something else entirely. The buzz on the forums raised to even greater heights, discussing the future of Lord Grim in Loulan Slash’s team, how good the team would have to be to have roped him in over the club guilds, how much money might have been involved in the transaction. The clubs, though, were at a loss. Wasn’t Ye Qiu joining Tyranny once he got back?

Tyrannical Ambition, which had long since been told to treat Ye Qiu as on their side, couldn’t help but bring it up for clarification.

“He can’t join Tyrannical Ambition right now, it’d violate the rules of the Alliance,” Han Wenqing said impatiently. Jiang You had caught him on the way back to the practice room from lunch, and he did not seem pleased.

“You’re really this calm about it?” Jiang You couldn’t help but ask. The whole of his core guild employees was in an uproar about it, and more than a few had some choice words to share about Ye Qiu’s fidelity. After all, this was a major issue for them, and none of them had forgotten the pain of Lord Grim’s early days in the tenth server, no matter how quiet he’d been recently. “If it were my omega—”

The words died in his throat, and he hated that he couldn’t go back in time to strangle them a little sooner; the look on Han Wenqing’s face could easily kill a man.

He could almost feel the hand crushing his windpipe.

“He’s no one’s anything, and he can make his own choices.” Han Wenqing’s tone was ice cold, and did not allow for argument. “Don’t go bothering him. Focus on your own projects.”

In fact, his tone didn’t even allow for further conversation. Han Wenqing decisively dismissed him and walked away.

Jiang You sighed in subconscious relief and turned, a little sullenly, to go back to the guild.

And was met with Su Mucheng, who’d come up behind him on her own way to the team’s practice room.

“Hello, Brother Jiang,” she said, with a bright smile.

Jiang You had the distinct feeling that he was very close to death.

“Keep up your good work!” Su Mucheng patted him on the shoulder as she went past, and Jiang You felt his knees go weak. He didn’t understand! She was clearly just a young woman, practically a little girl, and a beta at that. Why did he feel like his cultivated aura of supremacy was completely useless in front of her, even more so than against Han Wenqing?

The two major players disappeared into the practice room, but it took Jiang You a long time more to push himself to return to the guild. Keeping those in the know from infecting the rest of Tyrannical Ambition with their inexplicable outrage was going to be a trial.

At least, now that Heavenly Justice counted as a rival team instead of just a player guild, the problem of how to deal with them was out of his hands.

 

The rest of the clubs had much less to work with. Previously they’d felt themselves somewhat safe behind the ban of the Alliance against Ye Qiu. Even if he was supposed to join Tyranny, he could only rely on himself to do so, and who knew how long that would take? Harassing him during his development to keep him from stirring up trouble should have been more than enough, for someone who couldn’t directly get any backing.

Who could have guessed he’d find a loophole like this? Loulan Slash’s team was only set to join the Alliance, not actually in it yet, and on top of that the guild leader was known for having deep pockets. If he helped Ye Qiu on the legal front, wouldn’t that mean Ye Qiu really might return to the pro scene? Wouldn’t that mean Ye Qiu would become a threat to their in-game operations now, rather than later?

From the beginning, the pro players had told their clubs that Ye Qiu would find a way to figure it out, but to some extent they’d thought the players’ confidence a misguided extension of their respect for Ye Qiu’s ability onstage. Now that it seemed their team might be right, the clubs could only focus their efforts on gathering as much information on Lord Grim as possible.

For now, though, they could only wait for all the attention to die down.

 

The first piece of advice Ye Xiu gave Loulan Slash when they talked that night was to prolong the attention they’d get as much as possible. If they wanted to assimilate themselves into the balance of power of the club guilds, they could only rely on the attention they had now to restrict the movement of the other guilds against them.

The second piece of advice regarded the process of turning popularity into team fans: If they wanted to have a steady group beyond relying on their performance, they would need to rely on their team’s features. Loulan Slash was very willing to learn, if a little uncomfortable with how much they seemed to have overlooked. It had to be said that he’d considered their plans for joining the Alliance and marketing their team quite thorough, before.

“A feature…like having an omega on the team?”

Ye Xiu didn’t think of Tao Xuan and his bitterness. They’d agreed on his avoiding publicity from the start; Excellent Era’s “feature” should have been their hidden god.

What could Ye Xiu do if they didn’t make use of it, too caught up in what could have been?

“It could be. I wouldn’t recommend you try to make use of that yourself unless you really plan to bring in an omega, though.”

“Of course not, it was just an example.” Loulan Slash wasn’t stupid when it came to public relations—if they chose to hype up the idea of bringing on an omega and then didn’t follow through, he could tell they’d only earn enmity on both sides, with no long-term benefits.

In the end, what features Heavenly Swords would have couldn’t be determined so quickly, so they could only focus on advertising and gaining popularity. Their influence steadily spread, and the clubs all grew more and more displeased. Was this under Ye Qiu’s guidance as well? Was he planning to join as an executive, to bring them headaches that way since he couldn’t return to the stage? Ye Qiu had been there since the creation of the Alliance; what trick hadn’t he seen? What scheme couldn’t he pull off? Everyone knew about the manipulative ability of an omega, too. What kind of opponent would Ye Qiu, openly working as an omega, be? Wasn’t the purpose of keeping Ye Qiu away from the pro scene to make sure he didn’t endanger anyone else with his dynamic again?

Hey, Alliance brothers, wasn’t this loophole a bit too big?!

But Lord Grim hit level 52, showing that Ye Qiu wouldn’t be satisfied with just that, either. He was definitely going to return to the stage. On the pro players’ end, things were getting more and more confusing. They obviously knew who Lord Grim was, but wasn’t Ye Qiu definitely going to Tyranny? Tyranny hadn’t said anything about the situation yet, either. What was going on?! Of course, the pro players had their own chats for this kind of thing. How could they stay quiet?

“What’s he doing!!!!” one pro sent out, opening the topic.

“Is he still here?” Considering this was the general chat for pro players, this was an important matter to be clear on.

“He is!!” someone sent a screenshot to prove Ye Qiu was still in the chat along with an “astonished” emoji. Since Ye Qiu wasn’t allowed to interact with the Alliance, many had assumed he’d already been kicked. On the other hand, now that they thought about it, no one could remember seeing such a message?

“Go ask him then?”

“You can’t, right?” someone else sent a doubtful reply. There was a reason they’d thought he wasn’t there anymore.

“I think it’s just professionally?”

“Ye Qiu! Come out come out come out come out come out come out!” Huang Shaotian, who had an interest in the matter and was nosy to boot, came out and caused trouble himself. From there the operation to drag out Ye Qiu sped up, all the way until Chu Yunxiu showed up and suggested Huang Shaotian try tagging him directly.

Unfortunately, Huang Shaotian’s long list of “@Ye Qiu”s got no response.

“Maybe he really can’t come out?” someone doubted.

“This isn’t even really the Pro Alliance, right? Aren’t all the retired pros here too? At this point they probably even outweigh the number of active pros.”

“If they never say anything, can they still count as being here?”

“They haven’t been kicked, anyway, so you can say that they’re here.” Several of the pros already knew about Ye Qiu’s antics in the 10th server. If playing a game with more regular players than pros “didn’t count” even when he directly met with them, then a chat group with a minority of active pros wouldn’t count either, right?

“He’s here, he isn’t here, what is it??? Why won’t he respond! What do I need to do, cast a summoning circle?? Set up an altar?? Offer a blood sacrifice???” Huang Shaotian raged.

“Try @Lord Grim,” Chu Yunxiu suggested reasonably.

“Hey! Who called me?” Ye Xiu immediately arrived.

The chat exploded, greetings and emojis of hysterical laughter flying back and forth with a speed worthy of pro gamers as the conversation progressed. Despite Ye Xiu’s deliberately obtuse behavior regarding Huang Shaotian’s eternal desire to fight, it didn’t take long for the whole wave of pros to enter the game to witness Huang Shaotian’s match against Ye Xiu.

Of course, Ye Xiu would never lose out on a good opportunity. Huang Shaotian had to go up against all of the soon-to-be pros of Heavenly Swords first to reach this “final boss.”

Once the fight started, though, it only took one transformation of the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella for all the pro players watching to come to the same conclusion:

If they couldn’t get a good understanding of this weapon, they’d be in trouble.

 

Sun Xiang didn’t learn about the whole matter until much later that night. He’d been caught up with R&D for hours, arguing about the changes they wanted to make to One Autumn Leaf’s silver equipment, so he already wasn’t in a great mood.

If the changes had truly been about “matching his playstyle better,” as they’d claimed, he wouldn’t have had a problem. However, Sun Xiang was well aware that his playstyle wasn’t anything revolutionary, nor was it significantly different from Ye Qiu’s. After all, who else would he have learned from?

No, what they were really trying to account for was his performance in the team matches. Ye Qiu had been one of the most aggressive players in the Alliance, but he still knew when to back down, how to get away from opponents that carried a number advantage. Sun Xiang never backed down in matches, even when he was surrounded by the other team. This was considered classic alpha behavior, so none of them were surprised; the salience of Han Wenqing as a successful alpha pro certainly had something to do with the association as well. However, Han Wenqing coordinated with his team even as he pushed forward. Sun Xiang didn’t, and what R&D saw was that he wasn’t Ye Qiu, to miraculously make his escape with limited or no support at all.

One Autumn Leaf was already optimized for the best possible Battle Mage playstyle: parrying others’ attacks with attacks of their own. This was the best way to generate chasers, but parrying with another attack was not the same as the Guard skill: Technically speaking, it still counted as a hit. Most of the chaser-generating attacks were low-level skills, meaning they had short cooldowns and even shorter start and ending animations, but with that came low attack priority. Parrying an opponent’s hits using those attacks often meant eating a bit of damage and taking the status effect as well. To counteract this, the best possible configuration of silver equipment for a Battle Mage would resist status effects as much as possible, with tanking pure damage as a side goal.

The changes the R&D Department wanted to implement weren’t so great, just a little more focus on tanking damage than resisting status effects. But how could Sun Xiang not see what this meant? They didn’t trust him to evade damage the way Ye Qiu did, nor get himself out of the situations Ye Qiu had. They wanted him to hold on longer, waiting for the team to catch up and give him the support necessary to turn the situation around.

Sun Xiang didn’t want the team to catch up, to be “saved”; he wanted to handle the opponents on his own. He was better than them, so he should be able to. Hadn’t Ye Qiu thrown himself into nearly unwinnable situations when the need called for it?

What was worse was, Sun Xiang knew what they meant. He wasn’t stupid: He knew Excellent Era wasn’t doing as well as it should, and he studied the competitions they failed seriously. Sun Xiang preferred parrying and fighting up front, but it wasn’t like he didn’t know how to dodge or take advantage of his surroundings. It wasn’t like he didn’t know that getting surrounded by the opposing team was a bad idea. Earlier this season, hadn’t he pulled Conquering Clouds into 8th place? They’d fallen again since his transfer, but he couldn’t have managed that much without knowing something about how to fight in a team competition.

So why couldn’t he do it now? Even he didn’t know. He didn’t want to just “hold on” until his teammates could get there—he should be driving the battle himself! So why was it that in every single match, he lost control? It never felt like it at the time, but when he loaded One Autumn Leaf, when the opponent slipped away before him, when his teammates lagged too far behind, he couldn’t hold his frustration. His playing naturally sped up, his movements grew quicker, and Excellent Era was left behind. He couldn’t let his opponent get away, even when he normally would have recognized it wasn’t worth following the bait. He blocked out everything else that wasn’t the goal he was chasing. He tanked attacks he didn’t even know he was taking.

Sun Xiang knew better, he did. So why was this still happening? Why was R&D calling it his “playstyle” like there was nothing more to say?

In the end, R&D won, letting him try the version of One Autumn Leaf’s equipment they’d made with the adjustments for at least the next round. Sun Xiang returned to his room, pissed, only to find that he’d missed Ye Qiu finally showing up again, and even personally fighting in the arena with Huang Shaotian in front of hundreds of other pro players. At this point, all that was left were the recordings, and Sun Xiang was livid. He locked himself in his room to watch the whole recording from Huang Shaotian’s perspective, again and again. As he did, his frustration with being unable to play the match himself rose and rose. Ye Qiu was somehow everywhere, but he still wasn’t here. Once again he slipped through his grasp as if taunting him. Why? Either disappear or stay, but this kind of hovering on the edge was too frustrating!

Sun Xiang tossed his headphones away, pushing back from the computer with a snarl. He felt angry, he felt sick, he felt like he would crush his mouse if he spent another second holding it.

He went to sleep.

(In the morning, he knew, he’d pick up the recording again.)

 

News of the pros flocking to Lord Grim leaked the next day, reporters rushing in droves to get a statement from each of the players explicitly listed as present. People immediately started guessing again that Lord Grim was Ye Qiu, analysts and professionals chiming in with the level of skill necessary to play a class like an Unspecialized. Though the media had carried a lot of articles associating Ye Qiu with standard omega qualities since the reveal of his dynamic, professionals were professionals. What skill level Ye Qiu had, anyone who thought about it properly would know. Still, due to his special circumstances, there was enough doubt that only about 70% were willing to name Ye Qiu as the most likely player, even if they didn’t have any good alternatives.

The pros were all completely clear on Lord Grim’s identity, but they still prevaricated a little, keeping just a step away from saying it so directly. Whether this was to protect the plausible deniability of Ye Qiu’s banned interaction with the Alliance or just because there was no point committing themselves so fully, everyone, with one notable exception, suggested but didn’t outright confirm that Ye Qiu was Lord Grim.

As for the questions about Ye Qiu’s dynamic and other difficulties? None of the pros cared to say anything. They came to see if Lord Grim was Ye Qiu on their own because it seemed likely, nothing to do with anything else.

Excellent Era’s response, though, had Chen Guo spitting in rage.

The essence of the statement from the club was that, although they’d had some suspicions as to Lord Grim’s identity, they’d gone to watch the match because they’d assumed he couldn’t be Ye Qiu. After all, Lord Grim had been in conflict with Excellent Era in the 10th server more than once, and Ye Qiu was not allowed to have contact with the Alliance as of now. This conflict with Excellent Dynasty was not just “contact” but direct attempts at oppression. After seeing the match, they continued, they no longer felt comfortable, from a legal standpoint, commenting on the issue. Club Excellent Era couldn’t make any rash moves while still in arbitration, so they’d leave the issue at that.

“‘Don’t feel comfortable commenting on it’?!” Chen Guo fumed. “Where did they not comment on it?!”

The boards were already erupting, fans of Ye Qiu and Excellent Era at each other’s throats for what Ye Qiu should be “allowed” to do while away from the Alliance. Could one person be described as “oppressing” a whole guild? Wasn’t he just playing the game? The other side was equally full of rancor. Attacking Excellent Dynasty the moment he could? What level of petty was that? Wasn’t that just looking down on all the support he’d received for so many years?

On the side of those less personally invested was the discussion of whether Ye Qiu’s involvement with Heavenly Justice was the real meaning behind his Dragon Raises Its Head, and the source of his apparent confidence in his return at that point.

Once again, though, the group most divided was Tyranny’s fans. Some said it couldn’t be Ye Qiu because he was going to join Tyranny, some said it was Ye Qiu and he’d always been using Tyranny, some pointed out that Han Wenqing was listed as there but hadn’t made a statement, even though he didn’t usually avoid the media for this kind of thing—did that mean it was Ye Qiu so he couldn’t, or it wasn’t Ye Qiu so he didn’t care?

Then someone came in with “in any case, isn’t it just an omega selling himself for money? What’s there to be so worked up about?”, setting off an explosion across every single camp at once.

In short, the forums were a mess.

Chen Guo was following the discussion threads, feeling angry and choked up but with nowhere to vent it. Though she hadn’t signed an NDA herself, she knew better than to spread around any of what Ye Qiu had told her online. Even just the fact that Ye Xiu didn’t need any kind of monetary help with legal issues would be too much, if anyone believed her in the first place.

Just when she thought she couldn’t take it anymore, Ye Xiu returned.

“Where were you?!” she asked immediately. This whole storm was happening, Excellent Era had released that kind of statement, and the main actor had been nowhere to be found all day.

“Excellent Era,” Ye Xiu said nonchalantly, stopping her in her tracks.

Excellent Era?!

Chen Guo shook herself out of her daze and started up again even as Ye Xiu moved to open himself a computer. “What were you doing there?! Did they call you over? Are they trying to make trouble?!”

Ye Xiu held in his laughter at her “ready to fight” look, like she’d take on Excellent Era with her own two fists if they tried to show up at her café. “My brother already said I needed to come by, didn’t he? I figured today would be the best time.”

Chen Guo hadn’t even considered the legal aspect, since she knew Ye Qiu was handling it. But, if she thought about it, there really was a time when Ye Qiu had told Ye Xiu he needed to show up?

“How is today the best time, though?” Chen Guo didn’t understand. “Isn’t it the worst time, with Excellent Era causing you problems? You couldn’t even say anything back!”

“I can’t play anyway, so I might as well do something else,” Ye Xiu explained. “It’s not a good idea to make an appearance now. And I don’t need to say anything back; it’ll be handled on its own soon.”

“What do you mean?”

“Check the news!”

Chen Guo had done nothing but check the news, so she was stunned to find that there really was a new report. Team Heavenly Swords had been announced! And the spokesperson had made the situation clear: Heavenly Swords had not recruited the former captain of Excellent Era, Ye Qiu.

“This…then you planned this from the start?” Chen Guo was lost. Suddenly she thought of something. “Is that why you told your brother you had to do a few things first? So you could set this up?” She was truly shocked. “You were planning this from all the way back then?!”

“How could I have known there would be a new team ready and willing to use me for hype?” Ye Xiu asked helplessly. “I only thought that when the wave of attention from my Heavenly Challenge waned I could skip the most dangerous days afterward to throw them off. In the tenth server, I wanted to stay ahead of the guilds in leveling so I could make dungeon guides. In the Heavenly Domain, there’s no need for any rush, and the full might of the guilds is no joke to contend with. Better to lie low a little! They can’t be bothered with one person forever.”

“Then…why did you decide not to now?”

Ye Xiu grinned. “If I can boldly go around with strong backing, why would I bother with lying low? They’ll get over themselves just the same.”

Chen Guo thought that Ye Xiu was severely underestimating how aggravating he was.

But in the end, what did she know of club guild machinations? Maybe he was right.

 

By morning, Excellent Era had readied a response to Heavenly Swords’ statement. Essentially, they asserted that whether or not Lord Grim was Ye Qiu, they would face any opponent calmly: Excellent Era wasn’t scared of anyone. In fact, their earlier unwillingness to comment left them quite the way out; they didn’t have to back off of anything they’d said at all, technically speaking. However, that same supposed reticence left them open to another line of assault entirely. Of course they’d made it clear they thought Lord Grim was Ye Qiu in their last press conference, but doing so could only mean one thing: They, at least, had reason to believe Lord Grim was Ye Qiu.

Most obviously, this was a testament to Lord Grim’s skill, or conversely how badly Excellent Era fared against him. Essentially, Excellent Era had admitted to being “oppressed” by some random person. How the mighty have fallen! There was no shortage of mockery. Second, their belief meant Ye Qiu was doing so well against them legally that they genuinely thought he had time to run around the game, doing as he liked. If he were just ignoring the legal issue until he could get Heavenly Justice’s support, Excellent Era would have tidied him up already, wouldn’t they? Certainly they wouldn’t be just waiting on his convenience.

So, against all of Excellent Era, in a legal case that was certainly outside of a pro eSport player’s area of expertise, Ye Qiu was really doing well? Before, people had trouble giving any weight to the idea that he would return. Now, though, didn’t it seem like they could actually expect something?

The rest of the pros didn’t care either way and went with the flow, the clubs sending out their main players to act as signboards. Even Tyranny actually sent Han Wenqing this time. That alone was enough to get the boards buzzing, but it wasn’t the end of it, either.

“Did Heavenly Swords ever say Lord Grim wasn’t Ye Qiu? Of course he’s Ye Qiu. Who else could he be?”

The reporters wanted to weep with joy. Han Wenqing! No matter what anyone else was doing, they could always count on Han Wenqing to say things straight!

“Then will he be joining Heavenly Swords once he’s allowed to associate with the Alliance again?” one of the quicker reporters asked. “How do you feel knowing Ye Qiu has joined Heavenly Justice?”

Han Wenqing’s reply was so cold it knocked the reporters into stunned silence: “As opposted to what.”

What could they say? Joining Tyrannical Ambition? Obviously Ye Qiu wasn’t allowed. Then, did that mean Ye Qiu couldn’t join Tyranny because of the case? Was Han Wenqing in such a bad mood because Ye Qiu was really joining Heavenly Swords?! But his face was too scary, no one dared to ask anything else…

In fact, Han Wenqing’s instincts really were bothering him about this, which was part of the reason he came off as so intimidating. But he could tell Ye Qiu had a plan, and Heavenly Swords had already said they weren’t recruiting him. What more could he ask? His instincts didn’t understand things like “context” and “long-term planning,” so he could only let them settle down themselves.

In the meantime, though, his mood really wasn’t great.

 

FireAndFlame

Look how mad our captain is, that bastard Ye Qiu really must be joining Heavenly Swords! What an ungrateful ass!

 

Unbreakable

I guess he doesn’t…owe Tyranny his participation…

 

FlowersOnTop

fuck owing anything, he put his kid in Tyranny. He’s definitely going to join!

 

PiousHeathen

Heavenly Swords is a rich team, and not part of the Alliance yet…maybe he joined so he could deal with the legal issues? Since we know for sure he’s Lord Grim now, that means he really wasn’t dealing with it himself before. Maybe he needed the support, and the Alliance already made it clear he couldn’t get it from any official team.

 

Electrifaction

Okay, I was mad about Ye Qiu from before, and he’s always been Tyranny’s enemy, but I’m actually more mad about this??? How dare he go somewhere else?????

 

EatAnEmpire

fuck him, this is exactly why we don’t want him on the team. flighty gold-digging whore

 

DarkHorseWin

You know, people like you are probably why Tyranny didn’t fight harder to get him. They don’t want to alienate the fans. This is your fault, assholes

 

HealingLight

We don’t even know what kind of views Heavenly Justice has about dynamics? How could he just join them, Tyranny is obviously the safer bet!

 

RisenKing

Han Wenqing deserves a high-quality omega

 

Falsity

don’t be gross

 

FallenStar

I SHIP THEM TOO HARD THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE

 

 “Is he trying to cause trouble for you?!” Chen Guo was incensed.

“Of course not; he’s just like that,” Ye Xiu explained. “Besides, it’s not like I actually am joining Heavenly Swords, so there’s nothing wrong with people knowing I play Lord Grim. It would have come out eventually.”

“But what about the issue of your fighting Excellent Era in the tenth server?” she pointed out. “Isn’t that going to be a problem for you legally?”

“It won’t be a problem.” Ye Xiu shook his head dismissively. “Excellent Era can say what they like, but it’s not breaking any rules for me to play the game.”

“But what about your reputation?” Chen Guo continued to insist. “Didn’t you say public perception of this case was very important?”

“I really did do all those things, though,” Ye Xiu said. “Besides, I never provoked them myself—it was always Excellent Era coming first to find me. In fact, this really works against them more than anything else, once someone looks into it. They must really be panicking, to have shot themselves in the foot this way.”

“What do you mean?”

“Excellent Dynasty came to attack me the second I left—what do you think that looks like?”

Chen Guo was stunned. “…Ah.”

“So you see? It’s no problem.”

“Then why did he only do it now?” Having had everything explained, Chen Guo couldn’t understand why it’d taken this long. “Last time they sent out Zhang Xinjie to comment, even though he wasn’t actually there for the match.”

It had actually been a pretty funny interview; when the reporters had asked the same question, Zhang Xinjie calmly said that he had the full VOD of the match, so watching it then or later made no difference. Of course, since Zhang Xinjie had implied that he had enough data to predict Lord Grim’s identity, a few people had remembered that Han Wenqing was not supposed to purposely interact with Ye Qiu during this time, so it was probably just protecting that. But now, only a day later—wasn’t this turnaround a little too fast?

“It’s probably because I went to testify already,” Ye Xiu explained. “The strict rules on not interacting are mostly to prevent colluding or unduly influencing each other. Now I’m only not supposed to interact with him on the same level as anyone else in the Alliance, rather than as witnesses in the same case.”

The case would be going through arbitration rather than directly to court, since arbitration was much faster. The rules for arbitration were often much less standard, but since the Alliance was involved they wanted to make it as clear-cut as possible, and had imposed all kinds of regulations on the matter. To a large extent, the issue was being handled internally, so they could set the stage however they wanted. This was much more reliable than trying to go through official channels, which were unclear on their guidelines for cases and required long wait times. The Alliance had so many fans to answer to—they couldn’t keep this stain on their reputation dragging on, no matter how the case was settled in the end.

“He would know about that already?”

“Probably. Mucheng knows, anyway.”

Chen Guo, feeling like she finally understood, turned back to her computer, only to be reminded of all the increasingly vulgar cursing going on in the forums. “Hey!”

Ye Xiu was already setting himself up at a computer. “Hm?”

“Even if it’s normal for Han Wenqing to say this kind of thing, couldn’t he have had a little more restraint?! Look at what the forums are like now! How is this okay for your reputation?!”

Ye Xiu leaned over her shoulder to read the threads, his face completely calm no matter how insulting they got. Actually, Chen Guo hadn’t meant for him to look at it—she just got too fired up. It was way too embarrassing to make someone read something so vulgar about themselves.

But, “Isn’t it good this way?” was all Ye Xiu said, laughing a little as he pulled away. “I have all kinds of attention now.”

Chen Guo was flabbergasted at his nonchalance. “Negative attention! Can’t you see they’re cursing at you?!”

“It’s fine,” Ye Xiu said, waving her off and loading into the game. “It was inevitable, anyway.”

“Your identity coming out or Tyranny’s fans cursing at you?” Chen Guo wanted to say that there definitely would have been better ways to break the information that didn’t end in so much strife and backlash on Ye Xiu.

“Both,” Ye Xiu replied, completely uncaring.

“What do you mean ‘both’?” He had to get cursed at?

“Think about it yourself!”

Chen Guo fumed. “Just say it!”

“I’m busy!”

“What could you be busy with? You just logged on!”

“Ah, well.” Ye Xiu seemed a little nonplussed, but was definitely legitimately focused on his screen, and already tapping away. “I seem to have a welcoming party?”

 

It was only after he said it that Chen Guo remembered something else that had swept across the forums since last night; something she might, in fact, have been obliged to mention.

At a truly bizarre hour of the night, or perhaps morning, One Autumn Leaf came online to post a single message to the world chat: “Where is Lord Grim.” It was eerie.

It didn’t seem like something someone would actually post, whether an employee of Excellent Era or Sun Xiang himself. Wild theories of One Autumn Leaf coming to life to find his old master started popping up in the threads, despite what Heavenly Swords had said the day before about not recruiting Ye Qiu. Maybe One Autumn Leaf didn’t know about that? Excellent Era had seemed pretty sure in their previous press conference, and this might be One Autumn Leaf’s first clue to Ye Qiu’s whereabouts.

In less than an hour, fanfiction of One Autumn Leaf hating Lord Grim for taking Ye Qiu from him, and soon after fic shipping the two instead, began to spring up. The minds of Glory’s public in regards to this top god could not be contained. Some even took this as direct evidence that Lord Grim really was Ye Qiu, and the characters brought to life by this God of Glory were going to fight some kind of great battle the moment they met. A few went as far as to describe it as a love triangle.

Hearing about this, Ye Xiu was baffled. “Do they even know how many accounts I’ve played on? If they all came to life they’d form their own clan already!”

No matter how absurd it might seem, the situation caused enough of a stir that Excellent Era had to bring it up in their press conference earlier. They calmly explained that One Autumn Leaf had been with their R&D Department at the time of the post, and they were still looking for whichever employee had overstepped their bounds this way.

By then, it was actually true that One Autumn Leaf was with R&D, but only because Sun Xiang had been called in first thing in the morning to give the account card back. He’d been very resistant to the idea, but begrudgingly accepted the use of one of the club’s other accounts instead.

Chen Yehui couldn’t help but think that Cui Li must have a grudge against him, to throw this hot potato to him instead. He helplessly provided the account to the fuming teen, then called Liu Hao to come join him in the hopes that he’d be able to handle it better.

As for if Chen Yehui had a grudge against Liu Hao? Well, a little. The man seemed to have forgotten all about him the moment they’d successfully ousted Ye Qiu.

But mostly it was out of helplessness. If not Liu Hao, was there anyone else?

By this time, Lord Grim wouldn’t be hard to find. If Sun Xiang had an account, there wasn’t really any way to stop him. That one message had sparked a cascade of investigations, people who wanted to help out their Battle God or just join in the fun showing up to give what information they had on where and when Lord Grim had last been seen. By the time he actually logged in again, a huge number of fans and passersby alike had already gathered at the publicly stated location, easily concealing the club’s open accounts with less harmless intentions.

Which is how Ye Xiu came to log in directly into a milling pool of people, and to great fanfare and announcements on the world chat, despite what time he’d spent off to avoid exactly this scene. Especially since at this point public opinion had swung right back around to “Lord Grim is probably Ye Qiu,” and everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of him.

Ye Xiu only hummed when Chen Guo finished her explanation, fully focused on the city he was continuously dodging through.

“Are they really chasing you?” she couldn’t help but ask. That whole mob running after him at once? That was a little much.

“It’s just the pros left now,” Ye Xiu said, as if this were not even bigger news.

“Pros?!”

“Of course. You didn’t think they were just hoping a mob of casual players could take me out, right?”

Chen Guo thought it was a perfectly reasonable assumption, that hundreds of players might be too much for even Ye Xiu. If she’d mentioned it, Ye Xiu could have told her—of course it was too much to fight them all at once, but why would he need to do something so foolish? Glory was big; there were many places to run, and not many with the skill to follow.

“Who’s after you, then?” she asked instead.

“Given the class composition and the complete lack of subtlety in the current pursuit, it’s probably Excellent Era.”

“Excellent Era doesn’t need to be subtle?” Chen Guo really couldn’t follow all these ups and downs in public relations. Shouldn’t Excellent Era be the club that most needed to be subtle about attacking Ye Xiu?

“It’s not about if they need to, it’s about if they can,” Ye Xiu told her, taking Lord Grim over a wall. Not long after came the sound of someone crashing directly through it, a high-level skill with an undoubtedly correspondingly high ending lag. “Right now, my guess is that they cannot.”

“They,” of course, actually referred to just one person, but one person was enough. He wasn’t at all easy to overlook.

“Ah! In front of you!” Chen Guo suddenly yelled. Though Ye Xiu had far escaped his casual pursuers, he now seemed to be headed blindly toward another group.

“Don’t worry.” Ye Xiu laughed. “I called them over.”

Called them over? But it hadn’t been long since he’d shown up online, could whoever he’d called really be that fast?

In fact, she’d forgotten that Heavenly Justice wasn’t like her, needing wait on the news to report information, or the forums to heat up with discussions about it. Heavenly Justice had their own information network, and had long since known Ye Xiu would be in trouble once he logged on. Since they were working together, how could they not come out to help him?

Sun Xiang’s hand speed was exceptionally fast, but could that make his character run any faster? Of course not. His account had access to Chaser buffs and was of a much higher level than Lord Grim’s, but he had none of Ye Xiu’s canniness. When it came to using the terrain to its best advantage, his reckless charge was severely lacking. By the time Ye Xiu met up with the open accounts from Heavenly Justice, he’d actually left Sun Xiang far enough behind that they could set themselves up and let their stamina recover a little. Of course, it also let the rest of Excellent Era catch up with Sun Xiang, but Ye Xiu had never hoped to deal with Sun Xiang so quickly that their separation would be much help.

Though Ye Xiu was playing the role of gunner in their impromptu team, Heavenly Swords’ battle-hungry Elementalist Ocean Ahead was so excited to engage Ye Xiu thought it best to let him lead them off. He taught Heavenly Swords’ group as he went, since regardless of whatever Sun Xiang’s goal might be, there was no need to waste such a prime opportunity.

Sun Xiang was too much for Heavenly Swords’ three frontliners on their own, even with the assistance of their Elementalist, and it showed. They flew backward out of the opponent Elementalist’s Heavenly Lightning, followed shortly by the charging of an Electric Wave Formation from within its depths. The coordination of these players seemed not bad from Heavenly Swords’ perspective, but on Excellent Era’s side, things were not so smooth.

“What are you doing?” Sun Xiang asked, voice cold. He Ming and Liu Hao had naturally stepped in to coordinate, but as far as Sun Xiang was concerned, they were not meant to interfere at all.

He Ming, who initially put down the Heavenly Lightning, had already forgotten that Liu Hao had explained their presence as “having fun” and “watching the show,” playing to Sun Xiang’s arrogance and desire for an audience to make him accept them. As far as he and the rest of Excellent Era were concerned, they were just here to support Sun Xiang and harass Ye Qiu. From that perspective, Sun Xiang’s reaction was completely unexpected.

Liu Hao hadn’t forgotten his own claims, but he was also more aware of Ye Qiu’s ability than anyone else. If they wanted to succeed, it had to be before Ye Qiu could make his move. Of course, he wouldn’t think to interfere without a reason on hand to placate Sun Xiang. He still had to live with this proud captain, after all.

“We’re just clearing out the extras for you,” Liu Hao explained. “Ye Qiu keeps trying to slip away, and now he’s even sending other people up to fight; isn’t that just getting in the way of the main point?”

Sun Xiang snorted. “No need. I can handle them all myself.”

Before Liu Hao could argue, the point was made moot by the rattle of machine-gun fire and the growing ball of electricity fizzling into nothing. Outside of the effects of He Ming’s Heavenly Lightning, Ye Qiu had still accurately determined Liu Hao’s position and interrupted his attack.

Now that Ye Qiu had made a move, Sun Xiang couldn’t be bothered with Liu Hao anymore, leaving him to curse behind him as he stepped out of He Ming’s skill and directly into the opening stance for a Level 70 Battle Mage skill: Rising Dragon Soars the Sky.

With no setup, how could Ye Xiu be caught by something like this? He drifted to the side, casually sidestepping the move—but the dragon’s head followed him.

Lord Grim flew backward, but landed steadily on the ground. Though Ye Xiu hadn’t expected Sun Xiang’s move, he wasn’t so shocked that he’d make a mistake in his playing.

Meanwhile, Sun Xiang was feeling extremely pleased with himself, and the various witnesses’ immensely shocked reactions only fed into this more. He’d dreamt of this moment for a long time, and his only regret was how few people were here to see it. If it could have happened at the All Star Event, in front of everybody, that would have been perfect.

Still, the witnesses were only insurance. There was only one person who truly needed to see it right now—at most, two. Sun Xiang didn’t care for the rest of the players here: He only had Ye Qiu in his eyes. From the moment he succeeded the Battle God, this former god’s shadow had been everywhere, an inescapable specter in Sun Xiang’s life and work, chasing him even into his dreams. No matter where he went or what he did, Ye Qiu’s shadow was there.

Sun Xiang didn’t want to live in shadow, nor with a ghost of a presence.

The real person, though, did not seem to have any great reaction. While other sounds filtered through his mic to the game, proving it was on, he’d made no response himself.

“Well?” Sun Xiang provoked, impatient. “How do you like the taste of my Dragon Raises Its Head? It’s not bad, right?”

More than not bad, Sun Xiang knew it had even surpassed Ye Qiu’s own. That was the whole point, after all—to definitively beat him, in a way no one else could match up to or contest.

“Not bad,” Ye Xiu said, calm as ever. “To have picked it up in just the time since All Stars, you’re very talented.”

Chen Guo shot him a weird look. Why was that phrasing so…well, not exactly careful, but distinctly nonabrasive? Was this guy actually moved by Sun Xiang’s performance? Chen Guo didn’t understand much about this aspect of dynamics, so she started to worry.

“Not only that, now I can do it better than you.” Sun Xiang wouldn’t let the comparison go unmentioned.

Behind the screen, Ye Xiu spared a short moment to scold whoever let Sun Xiang come into Glory after him. He didn’t seem anything like controlled enough to have passed off his current intentions as harmless, and neither side needed the complications of what Sun Xiang was so clearly implying: a genuine pursuit. Hadn’t the challenge fiasco at the All Star Event told them enough? Why were they still letting this build up?

Frankly speaking, Ye Xiu was already doing more than his fair share by working to avoid a confrontation of this nature from the start. Of course, it wouldn’t look good for him if someone decided he’d been riling up Sun Xiang on purpose during this case, too, but at this point trying to cast Ye Xiu as the instigator would require more inverting black and white than Ye Xiu could expect anyone to get away with against his family’s lawyers. Mostly Ye Xiu just didn’t want to deal with it, especially because at least a few people at Excellent Era knew where he was, and might manage to slam their heads into a wall hard enough to think of sharing the information. Given Sun Xiang’s incredibly weird behavior, Ye Xiu didn’t have much hope at all that such a thing would end calmly. Better to avoid the issue entirely, if at all possible.

Unfortunately, Ye Xiu couldn’t let the implication stand as it was, either, as that would have equally deleterious effects. “So what?”

“So now I’ve won,” Sun Xiang retorted, a hint of a growl creeping into his words. He’d come here with a purpose, so the words he’d long been planning to say fell out of his mouth easily. He wouldn’t let Ye Qiu wiggle out of this one. “Didn’t Han Wenqing say if it were you, he would have lost? But I’m even better than you. As of now, no one could say I lose to anyone.”

Definitely a pursuit. It would have been nice if Sun Xiang were just caught in some weird, long-lasting irritability.

“The challenge ends when it ends, Sun Xiang,” Ye Xiu reminded him. “There are no what-ifs. You grow, but so do other people.”

“You think old players like you and that guy are still growing?” Sun Xiang cut in disdainfully. “As fast as me?”

“There are many ways to grow, some of which specifically come with age,” Ye Xiu replied. “But it’s where you choose to grow that matters. Dragon Raises Its Head, I made up on a whim. I never use it because it’s barely ever useful. What are you putting so much effort into it for? Would the same opportunity really appear in another match later? Don’t bet on it.”

These words were only partially for Sun Xiang, because Ye Xiu had no way of knowing how rational he might be at this point. Because, no matter what Sun Xiang was like, he still had a whole team behind him. If they could recognize his irrationality, maybe get him some help if necessary, they might be able to guide him better. Sure, they hadn’t seemed to have managed much guiding so far, but they could have just been distracted. Maybe, somehow, they just hadn’t noticed.

Ye Xiu wasn’t one to assume that everyone knew the same things he did, especially when it came to dynamics: He was well aware of the advantages of his background. What seemed obvious to him, like Sun Xiang’s downward spiral and complete lack of reasons to legitimately chase after Ye Xiu, could have just been overlooked somehow. It was more possible than likely, but it still was possible, so he’d at least give them the chance.

The moment Liu Hao stepped forward instead, Ye Xiu knew he was doomed to be disappointed.

“Do you really think you can compare to him, even now?” Liu Hao sneered. “Your little show of Dragon Raises Its Head in the All Star Competition won’t be enough to keep you relevant. You’ve already been completely replaced. What else can you do to prove yourself?”

“I don’t need to prove myself,” Ye Xiu said lazily. Lord Grim was already pulling away from the group again. “That’s a child’s role, not a veteran’s.”

The dig was meant for Liu Hao, still desperately trying to “prove himself” with flashy and useless schemes after all these years, but it was Sun Xiang who responded. “Face me properly,” he snarled. “Then we’ll see who still needs to prove himself.”

It occurred to Ye Xiu that Sun Xiang was just…really bad at trash talking. “With a level difference like this, what could a win or loss mean?” Ye Xiu said reasonably. If Sun Xiang could get it in his head that Ye Xiu needed to level unhindered first to make the match fair…well, it was a long shot, but definitely worth a try.

“Then we take this to Fixed Field!” As expected, Sun Xiang did not let it go.

“I don’t have time to play around with you,” Ye Xiu dismissed.

“Fixed Field or here and now, you can’t get away from it this time,” Sun Xiang snarled. “I’m challenging you directly.”

“What, do you think I’m an alpha?” Ye Xiu’s response was immediate and decisive. “I don’t accept.”

Omegas weren’t like alphas, who often reacted instinctively to a challenge. Randomly beating up an omega wasn’t courting: They had to choose to accept the competition as well.

More importantly, a challenge to an omega was different from a challenge to an alpha—win or lose, to accept the challenge was to accept the alpha’s suit. No way Ye Xiu would let the situation get so messy, so long as he could avoid it.

Sun Xiang’s Battle Mage ran forward like he hadn’t heard him, ready to engage with Lord Grim. Ye Xiu used the recoil from Anti-Tank Missiles to fly backward even as he spread them out to block Sun Xiang’s advance. Sun Xiang squeezed past and into the path of a grenade, which he effortless batted away.

This ability was too shocking to anyone who understood Glory. Chen Guo had to explain its significance to Tang Rou, who’d come over to see what was going on during all the talk of challenges earlier. Since Ye Xiu lived in her “territory” and was a good friend, she’d long since regarded him as one of her people: If some alpha was trying to harass him, she obviously wouldn’t ignore it. Unfortunately, without a Heavenly Domain account of her own, she was relegated to the role of a spectator.

“Is that necessary?” she asked, once Chen Guo finished describing the difficulty of the micro.

Ye Xiu couldn’t help it; he laughed. “You’re right, it wasn’t necessary at all. Too many excessive movements will leave too many openings.” Even in a situation like this, he still had time to explain things to Tang Rou.

“Oh yeah? I don’t see you making use of them!” Sun Xiang mocked.

“Sorry, I wasn’t talking to you,” Ye Xiu admitted honestly. He didn’t follow up on the topic, knowing laughing in this situation had already been pushing it, but even that much was enough for Sun Xiang’s face to go green with fury. Not only was Ye Qiu mocking him, he was largely ignoring him. It was just too dismissive for Sun Xiang to handle.

The following exchange was brutal, fast, and precise—too precise, unless Sun Xiang knew exactly what kind of stats Lord Grim had. “Even researching this, what is your goal? I’m not your opponent!”

He meant in the Alliance, once again trying to snap Sun Xiang or the others from Excellent Era out of whatever weird reality they lived in where they had to chase him down no matter what, but it wasn’t the only way those words could be taken. Sun Xiang lunged toward him, fury in every motion, but found himself frozen.

Spike Trap?

When had Lord Grim set it down?

Almost instantly, though, that was the least of his concerns; from outside his direct field of vision, Loulan Slash used a Wave Wheel Slasher Sun Xiang couldn’t dodge. The timing was too precise for it to have been anything other than a deliberate coordination.

“Despicable!” Sun Xiang roared

“Didn’t I already say this wasn’t a challenge? Don’t get the wrong idea! From the beginning, Glory isn’t a single player game.”

The players from Heavenly Swords had already seen how Ye Qiu rejected Sun Xiang so cleanly and clearly; given the circumstances, it was already the kindest and most definitive action he could take. So when Ye Qiu messaged them on how to coordinate against Sun Xiang’s attack, none of them had hesitated to agree. With their backgrounds, they could tell that Ye Qiu was trying to avoid the situation where Sun Xiang, instinctually or otherwise, took their conflict as accepting the challenge. None of them thought about whether they could win, or if “ganging up” would lose them face. Since it had already gotten to this point, what did losing on a few open accounts matter? Wasn’t it still good experience? How would they still have room to care about face when the opponent had long since stomped his own into the dirt? Little Bei in particular was extremely passionate about getting a chance to fight back against Sun Xiang, who seemed to see no problem at all with harassing his god. Ye Qiu was already being so tactful about this, and he still found time to call him despicable?!

“Trying to defend yourself this way is too unsightly,” Liu Hao sneered. With how long he’d been looking forward to Ye Qiu’s getting put in his place, he couldn’t accept this turn of events quietly. “Aren’t you just sending other people up to fight because you’re too scared to face it yourself?”

“Who said I wasn’t going to fight? It’s a multiplayer game, not a spectator sport. And there’s nothing wrong with your side stepping in too, you know.” Ye Xiu shook his head. “You’re always like this; no wonder none of you can get anywhere onstage. If you don’t step up, don’t mind if we just win.”

Liu Hao and He Ming bristled at that, but Shen Jian and Zhang Jiaxing were struck with a harsh realization. Wasn’t Ye Qiu exactly right? How long had it been since they’d seamlessly worked together in the game, even for something as simple as that move that caught Sun Xiang between Lord Grim and Heavenly Swords’ Berserker? When Ye Qiu was still there, they’d grown used to ignoring his commands, or conveniently mistiming them, to the point where Ye Qiu didn’t give instructions that required precise timing anymore.

But they’d still had Su Mucheng and Ye Qiu to watch, a coordination so beautiful it won awards year after year. They’d still had a captain that would bail them out of any kind of trouble they got themselves into, no matter how absurd. Before this season, before Ye Qiu’s end became obvious and inevitable, they never would have thought of standing aside during a battle.

When had they become bystanders in their own profession?

Ye Qiu didn’t wait for their epiphany, though, rolling on without a care for Excellent Era’s reactions. “And you.” Lord Grim turned his gun on Sun Xiang’s Battle Mage, which had just been violently expelled from Wave Wheel Slasher as it came to an end. “Are you really a pro? Can’t you see that we have the numbers advantage? When are you going to recognize that this game just isn’t designed to let a player win alone? If you think excelling at Glory is about a burst of solitary play, I really have nothing more to say to you.”

Sun Xiang sneered. “If you’re that eager for your defeat, I’ll humor you. There’s no way your group of weeds could match up to my Excellent Era.”

He Ming took that as his cue to react, but the moment he moved Lord Grim changed his aim to interrupt. Ocean Ahead threw out his own skill, Heavenly Lightning covering the range in which Excellent Era had just gathered. Sun Xiang’s attempts to escape it were denied by Heavenly Swords at every turn under Ye Xiu’s direction. Once the skill ended, Ye Xiu called the rest of his group to make a tactical retreat.

Sun Xiang had just about reached the end of his rope. From chasing Lord Grim earlier to Ye Qiu’s complete dismissal of Dragon Raises Its Head to his rejection of Sun Xiang’s challenge to this absolute mockery of forcing him back using these nothing players even after inciting Sun Xiang to get his own side involved, Sun Xiang had been riled into a fine frenzy. The moment he realized Ye Qiu was going to slip away again, he snapped.

“How long do you think people will put up with this kind of coy behavior from an omega slut who runs to the first alpha that offers a bit of backing? You think no one knows how to find you? If you can’t stay put your damn self I will track you down and hold you there even if I have to chain you to the bed and put you to the only use you’re good for!”

Ye Xiu didn’t pause for a moment in his retreat; under his direct orders, neither did the players of Heavenly Swords, movement only stuttering for an instant of disturbed confusion. The rest of Excellent Era, though, to a one, stopped mid-motion.

Could…could that really be said? Could someone say that kind of thing to anyone, let alone Ye Qiu?

It had to be said that pro gamers raised in training camps and casual gamers who only played online had completely different experiences when it came to trash talk. Gaming was their profession, and above all they had to be marketable and within Alliance rules, so they wouldn’t have the chance to develop the crude habits netizens might have. The environment was completely different. Losing one’s cool was already seen as a bad move for a beta player; for alpha players, it could end their chances of advancement entirely. As for omegas, there weren’t any! Even the worst things that could be said about omegas by professional players could only be said to betas or alphas. On the level of genuine threats, younger pros had almost no experience at all.

So when it came to something like that, said to someone like Ye Qiu, the God of Glory, it was too shocking for words.

Liu Hao recovered first. Wasn’t it just talking down to Ye Qiu? That poor excuse for an omega had fooled them so long, it was as much as he deserved. Still, it had taken him long enough that Sun Xiang had almost arrived at the next intersection. “He Ming,” he prompted the Elementalist. “It might be an ambush.”

“Right.” He Ming wasn’t much worse off than Liu Hao, quickly pulling himself back into the moment and Teleporting after Sun Xiang to cast a protective Ice Wall.

Shen Jian, though, was much more rattled. As a Striker, he’d studied Han Wenqing’s style and interviews thoroughly, which obviously included his opinions on dynamics. He immediately recognized that Sun Xiang’s comment had gone way too far, especially because Excellent Era had never had a particularly discriminatory environment. And while Zhang Jiaxing hadn’t exactly been studying the face of dynamic equality in eSports himself, he’d been at Excellent Era longer than Shen Jian, and pretty much picked up the attitude there. It was an atmosphere mild enough that Tao Xuan had felt no qualms about immediately introducing the young alpha Sun Xiang as their new captain.

As Tyranny’s rival, Excellent Era’s treatment of dynamics was scrutinized more than other teams’ in the first place. Even more so, though, the attitude at Excellent Era had always been comparatively open, likely due to their captain’s influence, now that Zhang Jiaxing thought of it. Even beyond the simpler aspects of letting prejudiced humor fall flat and avoiding related mocking conversation, Ye Qiu had always known a surprising amount about dynamics, and was completely capable of explaining it to the rest of the team when necessary. If anyone bothered to think about it at all, they might have attributed it to his familiarity with Han Wenqing, but in light of Ye Qiu’s dynamic it was probably his own knowledge coming into play. Either way, in the absence of ignorance, serious prejudice was much harder to build up and maintain.

On the whole, they didn’t even really make dirty jokes. Sun Xiang was never part of Ye Qiu’s Excellent Era, but the rest of them didn’t immediately change their natures, either. Besides, if there was something all of them understood, it was that Sun Xiang’s trash talk was not so high level. He might be naturally provocative, but he was definitely not the type with a face thick enough to bring in a bed, especially right off the bat. So what was this? Did he actually mean it? The tone had been shockingly, disturbingly serious.

Thinking up to here, the two of them were definitely genuinely worried. Because, if Sun Xiang actually meant all that, chasing someone down and locking them away…could he still be counted as sane?

No matter what their thoughts, on the other end of the street the situation was still developing. Sun Xiang was raging at He Ming and Liu Hao for trying to hold him back from their imaginary ambush, slipping away after the retreating shadow of one of Heavenly Swords’ characters.

Just as He Ming started out the window to follow Sun Xiang, a shadow fell from above and waylaid his character, forcing him to the ground.

“He was really there!” Heavenly Swords’ Grappler expressed his surprise. When Ye Qiu told him to drop from the roof in an Aerial Twist, he couldn’t help but doubt that he’d actually hit anyone.

For Ye Xiu, though, this was nothing too impressive. As his former teammate and shotcaller, Ye Xiu couldn’t be more familiar with He Ming’s timing for actions like this, even if the Elementalist was now under Liu Hao’s direction. Especially between players that coordinated so often, doing something like giving the exact timing of movements was usually too much. Knowing what Liu Hao would order and He Ming’s own particular tempo, telling Night Tide when to use this skill was all too easy.

He Ming immediately requested help, but with Ye Qiu and all of Heavenly Swords against him, how long could he last? Ye Qiu even commanded a Heavenly Lightning into the building he’d just exited, erasing the last of He Ming’s hope. Even when Liu Hao and the others caught up, they’d have no choice but to go around…

Before they could think of a solution, He Ming’s icon went grey. Liu Hao shouted out a curse, and even dared to yell at Sun Xiang in the team chat, but received no response.

After some hesitation, Zhang Jiaxing’s Cleric cautiously climbed toward the eaves of the roof to check on the situation below. Still, the moment his head poked out, he heard the sharp report of gunfire and the eaves shattered to bits in front of his face. Liu Hao ordered him aside and took his place, charging up an Electric Wave Formation for them to use as a safe space to descend.

Once the electric ball appeared, so did Ye Qiu’s Lord Grim, as Liu Hao had expected. He wanted to laugh at Ye Qiu for being too late to do anything, but then, he wasn’t even facing them to try…

In that time, Liu Hao missed the ethereal ball of energy glowing in the same place as the electric ball visual effect from his own Electric Wave Formation. Too late, he realized that the glow didn’t quite line up, but by then he was already being drawn upward. Zhang Jiaxing and Shen Jian had no choice but to leap backward to avoid the range of this large-scale knockup skill. In that time, Ye Xiu landed and lobbed a grenade in Liu Hao’s direction, sending his character crashing toward the streets below.

Ocean Ahead wasn’t idly waiting by after a single Elemental Power, either; the moment Liu Hao landed, he was once again caught in Heavenly Lightning. On the roof, Zhang Jiaxing overcame his discomfort at the whole situation to at least try to Silence Lord Grim with a Sacred Fire. Ye Xiu wouldn’t be so stupid as to run into it, though: He used Shadow Clone Technique to dodge the skill and pounce on Zhang Jiaxing’s Cleric in the same motion.

Shen Jian’s instinct to protect the Cleric won over the inherent awkwardness of joining in the battle on Sun Xiang’s “side,” so he controlled his Striker to rush over. Unfortunately, with a Sacred Fire suddenly lighting up in his own path, he had no choice but to retreat again. Who would have thought that the second he did Lord Grim would jump on him instead? His umbrella spear jabbed forward, pausing long enough to circumvent Shen Jian’s Empty Handed Blade Block before continuing into a Circle Swing.

“You’re looking down on me too much,” Ye Xiu laughed. “You should know how much experience I have against Strikers!” The Circle Swing completed its arc, slamming Shen Jian’s Striker into the ground, and directly into the path of Loulan Slash’s Wave Wheel Slasher.

Fuck, who’s looking down on you?! Shen Jian thought miserably. I just couldn’t think of anything else to do!

Wave Wheel Slasher didn’t last too long, but for a Cleric surrounded by enemies, every second counted. Not to mention that Wave Wheel Slasher could damage other nearby opponents, and didn’t block allies from using AoE attacks on them both. Fire Storm sprung up around them, cutting off their line of sight on top of the damage.

Liu Hao freed himself from the Heavenly Lightning and decisively ran after Ocean Ahead, who was still standing in the shadows of the window across from the roof where the beatdown was taking place. Elementalists were originally a long-range class, so he hadn’t bothered to change places to join in the assault. Liu Hao came up behind Ocean Ahead, intending to bully him in close range, but the Elementalist directly Teleported away before he could even start the fight. Not only that, Lord Grim even had time to turn his gun on Liu Hao, dealing some damage and interrupting any Formation he might try to set up. Liu Hao could only give up on that plan. A somewhat-distant, partially-shadowed window was perfect for a long-range Elementalist, not so much for a mid-range Spellblade, who even lit up before completing half their attacks. The remaining instant Sword Wave attacks wouldn’t be much use across the gorge between houses, especially with a gunner opponent to hound him.

Despite occasionally splitting their attention between two targets, by the time Liu Hao reached the roof again, Ye Xiu and Heavenly Swords had already brought Zhang Jiaxing’s Cleric to the verge of death. Before he could land on the roof, Lord Grim turned his attention back to him, sending a grenade his way to cover the three Anti-Tank Missiles that would do the actual work of knocking him from the roof the moment he batted it aside.

Liu Hao knew continuing to struggle here would only send him flying again, so he had no choice but to find another way up. Even then, they were all pro players: They could recognize the battle was as good as over.  Liu Hao found another route, but at that point Zhang Jiaxing’s Cleric had already fallen. Now their sole focus, Shen Jian’s Striker’s health fell even faster.

Liu Hao ended up just watching from a distance as the Striker’s health plummeted to zero. A full team with a Cleric against just the two of them, what could he gain by going over there anyway?

A roar of “Where are you?!” heralded Sun Xiang’s return to the battlefield.

“Oh? You’re back.” Lord Grim and the others from Heavenly Justice stood together on the roof, looking down on Sun Xiang’s Battle Mage. “What took you so long?”

Sun Xiang just snorted coldly, but Ye Xiu already had the answer from Little Bei himself. “I told him since you weren’t interested, he should really know when to back off,” the Battle Mage said. “He completely flipped out. God, is this really…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ye Xiu sent in reply. Whether or not it was worth worrying about, there was nothing anyone from Heavenly Swords could do.

Instead, he directed those with him to attack. Loulan Slash led with a Blood Sword, which Sun Xiang powered through with Furious Dragon Strikes the Heart, spearing Loulan Slash and sending him crashing to the ground. He took some damage, but moments later white healing light surrounded him and he’d largely recovered, while the rest of Sun Xiang’s opponents safely made it to the ground.

Heavenly Swords wasted no time in beginning the attack, but Sun Xiang wasn’t in the least concerned. He handled the attacks from all three of them easily, knocking them back or rendering them useless. On the side, he caught the tail end of Lord Grim rubbing his hands together as if in appreciation, or perhaps preparing to do something—and then Sun Xiang’s Battle Mage was in the air.

Countercurrent! A Qi Master’s knockup skill, it couldn’t be interrupted once started, even if Sun Xiang had caught it before it activated. As it was, Lord Grim had already switched the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella back into a gun, blasting him with three Anti-Tank Missiles. Sun Xiang only managed to cut down two before the third sent him into the arms of Heavenly Swords, who were all too ready to receive him. Each of them got a hit in before Sun Xiang could dodge around Loulan Slash’s Earth-Shattering Slash and run toward Ocean Ahead.

In his way appeared a Goblin.

Sun Xiang was stunned, and then furious. Wasn’t this looking down on him too much?! A Goblin? Ye Qiu wasn’t just throwing these weed players at him now, he was even throwing a trash NPC like this in front of him?

The Goblin stupidly raised its hand, ready to throw a rock at him. Enraged, Sun Xiang slashed it aside. This stupid thing actually dared to get in his way?!

Of course it dared; it was just an NPC. But Sun Xiang had long since passed the realm of reason, and was ready to spit poison over any little thing. He viciously dispatched the Goblin, an instantaneous annihilation, but before he could take another step forward he was dragged backward and into the air again. Ocean Ahead, his target, had been able to pull off the slow-cast Elemental Power in the time the inconsequential Goblin had stood in his path.

The players of Heavenly Swords wouldn’t miss such an opening. Once again they surrounded him, activating high-level skills to focus all at once on his destruction.

Sun Xiang finally couldn’t stand it anymore. “Liu Hao, what are you doing?!” Liu Hao himself had insisted that he deal with these extraneous people for him, but when it came down to it he just stood aside and watched blankly.

“Oh, now you remember that you have a team?” Ye Xiu said. He’d rejected this as a challenge, and Sun Xiang had acknowledged the existence of “his Excellent Era” in this fight. Ye Xiu had even heavily implied that even if Sun Xiang won alone, he still wouldn’t consider it a show of true skill in a cooperative game like Glory. Everything he’d said, besides being his true thoughts on the game, was phrased in such a way that Sun Xiang’s alpha instinct to show off should have prodded him into at least attempting to work with Excellent Era. And, technically speaking, it worked; just that, Sun Xiang’s ability to lead a team was really way too pitiful. Immediately he alienated, ignored, and dismissed them, treating them as annoyances at best in the face of whatever plans he’d already decided on. But now that he needed help, they existed again? For a team captain, it was just too disappointing.

Heavenly Swords had finally grasped the rhythm of a true unbreakable combo: one performed in succession by a team. Whenever they revealed an opening, a gunshot used to corral Sun Xiang within their circle again would let them know. Other than that, all Ye Xiu did was heal, letting the three figure out how best to fight together for themselves.

It took Liu Hao some time to come to the decision that he should help Sun Xiang, despite the largely hopeless situation. The moment he did, a gunshot finally sounded for a different reason: Ye Xiu had moved to interrupt him. Liu Hao had no choice but to relocate if he wanted to actually perform an action of some use. He ran around for a bit, trying to set up in a nearby house before realizing the battle had dragged out of range from its window, and eventually just jumped through.

With Liu Hao’s help, Sun Xiang was able to break away from the successive attacks. However, there was no way Sun Xiang would just run and leave it at that. Liu Hao moved to counteract the long-range Ocean Ahead, while Sun Xiang showed off his ability to rack up combos against Loulan Slash and Night Tide, building up his Battle Mage’s Battle Spirit. Ye Xiu focused on healing them up; with Sun Xiang so intent on eliminating the group that had harassed him so relentlessly before, there was no need for him to try to prevent Sun Xiang’s escape. The most he needed to do on the attacking side was support Ocean Ahead against Liu Hao every now and then.

Of course, Lord Grim’s heals were nothing impressive, and Heavenly Swords’ collective health continued to drop. Though it looked like a disadvantageous situation, Ye Xiu didn’t order the others to retreat.

Why not? Of course it was because if they let up for even a moment, Sun Xiang would focus on one of them and wipe them out completely. Sun Xiang crowed his understanding of this, but Ye Xiu was not impressed. If Sun Xiang were really making the smart play, at least one of them would have attacked him by now. Wasn’t he so obviously the backbone of their opponents?

“Still so impatient to die?” Sun Xiang asked coldly, after Ye Xiu pointed this out. “If that’s really what you want, I’ll give it my all for you.”

In a moment, Sun Xiang’s speed raised another level. Under these circumstances, there was no way Loulan Slash and Night Tide could keep up. Sun Xiang rushed to fill up his combo count, bringing his Battle Mage to the seventh stage of Battle Spirit, before knocking Loulan Slash away with a Falling Flower Palm and juggling Night Tide on his way to Ye Xiu.

It was an impressive show, which was undoubtedly the point. How could Ye Xiu have missed the significance of keeping Lord Grim alive so long? When it came down to it, this team competition between both sides had been instigated as the aftermath of Ye Xiu’s rejecting a challenge.

In the case that an omega wouldn’t accept an alpha’s courtship, the only recourse left for the alpha was to otherwise impress the omega enough to change their mind. Having so obviously denied Sun Xiang, Ye Xiu wasn’t at all surprised that this was the way things had gone. Unfortunately, if Sun Xiang thought that Ye Xiu would ever be moved by personal skill in the game, he was completely off the mark. He’d already said it so many times, what more could he do to convince anyone?

Nothing, of course, and Ye Xiu wasn’t much interested in trying, anyway. He wanted Sun Xiang to value Glory as it should be, not Ye Xiu’s personal opinions.

Too bad, in this case, he clearly valued neither.

At the last second, Little Bei intervened, and Ye Xiu’s Lord Grim remained untouched.

“It’s you!” Sun Xiang was incensed. The Battle Mage he’d gone to such effort to beat into the dirt appeared before him again, alive and well. Throwing himself in the way of Sun Xiang’s assault now, telling him to give up on Ye Qiu earlier, Sun Xiang didn’t believe for a moment that there wasn’t something beyond casual acquaintances there between them.

What Sun Xiang had completely failed to consider was that many others who played Battle Mages genuinely revered God Ye Qiu, the most successful Battle Mage in the history of the Alliance. But as caught up in pushing Ye Qiu down as he was, how could Sun Xiang understand feelings like simple admiration? From the moment he seriously began learning to play the class, his intent had been to surpass Ye Qiu, and he’d never doubted himself on that front.

Sun Xiang failed to tech the landing, and was immediately mobbed by the entirety of Heavenly Swords. Even the Cleric had tossed a Sacred Fire his way before healing up her allies, leaving Sun Xiang practically helpless to the assault. Liu Hao wanted to go assist him, but Lord Grim had already moved into his path.

“Ocean, you take care of the other side,” Ye Xiu told Ocean Ahead.

“You want to fight me alone!” Liu Hao’s expression was terrible, but he couldn’t back down here. If he lost to an omega when he had an 18 level advantage, he’d be too ashamed to lift his head anymore. But it was an Unspecialized; frankly speaking, Liu Hao didn’t even know how to prepare himself.

“Have Little Bei come over,” Ye Xiu finished instructing before turning his attention to Liu Hao. “Today is for team practice, why should I waste their opportunity? I’m just here to make sure you can’t run.”

Liu Hao’s chest went tight with fury, but what could he do? With Ye Qiu keeping an eye on both ends of the battle, there wouldn’t be any chance for him to escape. And even if he did, what would he gain? There was no longer an option available to him that didn’t make him lose face. Ye Qiu was only sparing him the smallest amount of attention, almost entirely focused on giving advice and handling the coordination on Sun Xiang’s end, but he still didn’t leave him an opportunity to shift the tide of this battle.

Ye Xiu really was pretty busy keeping things in line, though, so had to comment on Little Bei’s fight when he saw how he was playing. “Hey, fight properly! How many openings do you want to give him? He’s not so bad that you can think of only using your high-leveled skills.”

“You noticed?” Little Bei was surprised.

“Of course! That technique was created by me,” Ye Xiu reminded.

“Which one?”

The conversation quickly devolved into a teaching session, even Tang Rou getting involved. It came to an abrupt end when their punching bag, infuriated to the point of violence at their complete disregard for him as a serious opponent, managed to accidentally disconnect himself with a kick to the power source.

“That’s a pity,” Ye Xiu said, stepping off the character’s back. It was a simple but effective test: If Liu Hao were still there, he never could have stood for Ye Xiu’s doing that. “Well, hurry up and kill him, it’ll be annoying if he comes back later.”

“Weren’t you dealing with Sun Xiang?” Chen Guo had to ask, when it seemed like Ye Xiu would join in on slaughtering Liu Hao’s limp Spellblade. Up until earlier, even while he was teaching, he was still firing off attacks toward the distant battle every so often.

“He’s not doing anything right now,” Ye Xiu said calmly. It was only then that Chen Guo realized the other side of the battle was still visible in the corner of Ye Xiu’s screen: He hadn’t forgotten.

From what little she could see, Sun Xiang was still struggling, but it was in weird fits and starts. With the coordination the three attackers from Heavenly Swords had built up before, along with the support of Thousand Falling Leaves, they were managing just fine for now.

“What’s up with him?” she asked, surprised. “Silenced?”

Ye Xiu glanced over, then shook his head. “Out of skills.”

Chen Guo gaped. “Out of skills?”

“His tempo’s too fast, they’re all on cooldown,” Ye Xiu explained. He didn’t pause in his brutal attack on Liu Hao’s Spellblade at all. “He’s trying to counter three, sometimes four, people at once, if you count my earlier interceding to keep things under control, and he’s too impatient. Using skills to match skills, trying to overwhelm with priority—how could he match up to so many others? He lost track of the rhythm in his rush.” Not all of Sun Xiang’s skills had come to fruition, either; in impatiently starting them and then forcefully canceling to dodge some other skill due to his poor position and timing, he put many of them on cooldown without much gain.

Liu Hao’s Spellblade died without suspense, and Ye Xiu moved Lord Grim and Xiao Bei’s Battle Mage to meet up with the other battle. Lord Grim stayed off to the side, but Sun Xiang wasn’t having any of it.

“Come here and fight me!” he roared. He pushed his Battle Mage past the encirclement in a final burst of effort, ignoring his rapidly dropping health. “Face me, you coward! I won’t let you get away!”

Ye Xiu only opened the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella into its shield form, bluntly resisting his attacks.

“I don’t know what happened at Excellent Era after I left,” he finally said, “but you play like you can’t see anyone else on the field. If this is the best you can do right now…if you think you’re going to keep on with Glory, you need medical help.”

“You…”

Ye Xiu didn’t wait to hear what deranged claims might spew from Sun Xiang next, shifting the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella into a gun and firing point blank into the Battle Mage’s chest, bringing his health directly to zero.

Chen Guo laughed wildly. “Why are you so mean? Telling him to get medical help if he still thinks he can play? Sun Xiang will be furious.”

“It wasn’t a joke,” Ye Xiu said, and Chen Guo finally noticed that his face looked grim. For a battle this high-level, Ye Xiu had kept his headphones on the whole time, only slightly shifted so he could hear her or Tang Rou if they said something. She didn’t know anything about the other half of Ye Xiu’s conversations during the fight, so she had no idea what he meant.

Loulan Slash and his group paused in their quiet relief and awe at having won over Excellent Era when they heard Ye Qiu’s response. Being from affluent families, they were much clearer on what he was talking about.

“Really…still a heat haze?” Loulan Slash asked, doubtful.

“I don’t know,” Ye Xiu replied. “Since then, we hadn’t interacted even once. Even now, not in person at all. But it’s definitely getting worse.”

Loulan Slash’s group was silent. As betas, they didn’t know too much about the situation, no matter what kind of education they had. Something like this was way too complicated to be covered in casual teaching.

This could be seen just from Ye Xiu’s being at a loss; Ye Xiu had more education in these matters than most anyone else, given his family’s usual political activities.

“Is that why he was acting like that?” Tang Rou asked, ever quick on the uptake. Though she could only hear Ye Xiu’s half of the conversation, with context like “didn’t meet but getting worse,” knowing who that was in reference to, it was easy to guess. “Aftereffects of the heat?”

“Somewhat,” Ye Xiu said on a sigh. Though there were extenuating circumstances, Sun Xiang’s own personality couldn’t be ignored. After all, Ye Xiu was quite the extenuating circumstance himself, and he’d put no small effort into directing Sun Xiang’s instincts in a more constructive direction. “You…don’t ever try to impress anyone with your fighting,” he told her. “If someone is going to be impressed, your victory will be impressive enough. When you start thinking about how beautiful or difficult your plays look, you’re already halfway to losing.”

It was normal for an alpha to want to posture: instinctual to the point of habitual, even, whether there was someone specific they wanted to impress or not. But in terms of professionalism and actual success, it really couldn’t stand. “Don’t ever let your dynamic affect your playing like that. Generally speaking, people are not controlled by their instincts unless they let themselves be. As long as you’re aware of it, it’s fine.”

“I know,” Tang Rou said. She may not have had much experience with something as visually performative as eSports before, but she’d always been the type to care about victory above appearances, anyway. She wasn’t worried.

As they talked, Ye Xiu had switched over to QQ to message a contact currently called “The Lawyers Say You’re Good For Now.”

“Look into Sun Xiang’s circumstances, there’s something wrong with him,” Ye Xiu sent.

“What, you think he’s doing something fishy on the outside? They broke the NDA?” Ye Qiu’s reply was fairly prompt; he obviously wasn’t in a meeting.

“No, I mean mentally. Probably medically. Have you traced that heat inducer Cui Li got, yet?”

“No.” It was incredible, how angry Ye Qiu could make a single word in standard print seem. “Of course Excellent Era’s still waffling over whether or not the damn thing even exists, as if we didn’t have all the evidence we need for that. But your blood tests were too vague—it’d mostly burnt through your system by the time you went, which is good, but also…not optimal, on our end. It was conclusive that your system had gone through a massive shock and the suppressants were near entirely flushed out, with traces of the chemical cause, but not enough to reconstruct the catalyst. And that Cui Li guy is more thorough than we thought—he definitely didn’t get that heat inducer through anything approaching legitimate means. He clearly didn’t want this situation getting back to them later, even if you tried to push it after.”

Ye Xiu sighed. It was about what he expected, but it wasn’t good. “In any case, the alpha kid’s not alright. See if you can get him some medical attention, or at least pull him out of matches. He’s getting worse.”

Worse?” Ye Qiu knew as much about dynamics as Ye Xiu did; that was decidedly not normal. “Yeah, okay. I’ll see what I can do. This might delay things on your end, though.”

Ye Xiu sent him a shrug emoji. Though it’d be nice to start working with the Alliance openly, he’d constructed his plans around going it alone. It was no problem.

He, at least, had nothing wrong with his mind.

 

Sun Xiang was scared. It had taken him a while to extract himself from the game, but by the time he could properly recognize where he was, things had settled down. Everyone else in the training room was either avoiding him or completely unconcerned. Liu Hao had left, but it didn’t matter much; at this point, Sun Xiang could tell that Liu Hao knew almost nothing about dynamics at all. Seriously, he’d tried to tell Sun Xiang, an alpha on the warpath, to run, that’d he’d cover for him. What an idiot.

Sun Xiang was thinking about that because he didn’t want to think about what he’d been doing at all. He’d had lapses in rationality before, especially during matches, but this was on a completely different level. What he’d said to Ye Qiu…

Worse, he couldn’t even think about it directly without his blood boiling again. He didn’t understand, but he didn’t know who to ask, either. Everyone related to the team was a beta; the boss, Tao Xuan, was an alpha, but he was busy. If there was anyone else to talk to, Sun Xiang hadn’t been introduced.

But his instincts were out of control. He didn’t know what was happening, his mind seemed to be going, there was no one to ask, he couldn’t help but be scared, which he hated. He couldn’t accept leaving things as they were.

So he’d just…have to muddle through on his own. It wasn’t like it would be the first time.

At Conquering Clouds, they hadn’t had anyone he could talk to, either.

Sun Xiang presented as an alpha halfway through Season 7. He’d never expected such a thing, never paid attention much during what little dynamics studies they’d done in school. He’d already known by then he wanted to be a gamer, and even that he had a pretty decent shot at a future in it in his city’s pro Glory team. How could he have cared about a largely irrelevant subject like that?

But it turned out it wasn’t irrelevant at all, and Sun Xiang was nothing if not diligent when it came to Glory. He’d looked up all the information he could about alphas, how they played during matches, how their dynamic could affect their mood. He’d even studied Han Wenqing’s battles over the years, looked up his interviews, found everything he could about dynamics and their interaction and what kind of image he’d need to present publicly to still maintain a position as the core or even captain of a team. That was his dream, and he knew his skill was good enough to deserve it. He wasn’t going to let something like his dynamic or stupid prejudice against it get in the way of his goals.

There wasn’t much to find about dynamics studies, even less that wasn’t behind some kind of paywall. Still, Sun Xiang had thought he had a pretty good grasp of it. When it came to things outside of Glory, his understanding was much more tenuous, but he’d at least interacted with omegas before. It was a little distracting at times, but nothing he couldn’t handle. If Han Wenqing could carry the responsibility of core and captain as an alpha, so could Sun Xiang. It was as simple as that.

He’d never run into an omega going into heat before, though. He knew nothing about heat inducers, and even less about getting caught in a heat haze. Though he’d run into the idea that someone might try to use that to sabotage him for a match, it was a pretty crude move and not often seen, so he hadn’t put much thought into it. Crazy fans were crazy fans, and while Sun Xiang fully expected he’d be that level of popular in the future, he’d figured it’d come with time. At that point, Excellent Era had already reached out to him about becoming the Battle God, and he’d had much more important things to focus on.

Who could have expected Ye Qiu was an omega? How could he be prepared for a heat haze on that level? He came to that morning alone in a practice room, and he could guess a little of how it’d gone from what he’d gathered later. It was unlikely to have been Ye Qiu who put him there, considering their height difference, Ye Qiu’s clear lack of muscle definition, and his state at that time. Su Mucheng wasn’t likely either, given her own stature and physique. So, given Han Wenqing’s statement that he’d been there to guard Ye Qiu, it was reasonable to guess that he’d been the one to handle Sun Xiang.

Sun Xiang couldn’t stand that idea, that he’d been tossed away by the other alpha like it was nothing. It was humiliating. It was enraging. And since then, Ye Qiu’s presence had lingered over every aspect of Sun Xiang’s life, but he couldn’t find him. He’d wanted to challenge Han Wenqing to make up for this, actually put his careful study of how alphas react to challenges in Glory to good use, but even that wasn’t enough.

What would be enough? Where would this end? Again Ye Qiu slipped out of his grasp without a word. Sun Xiang hadn’t seen a hint of him since then, only heard his voice at the All Star event and seen the effects he left behind wherever he went. He’d wanted to prove himself, at the very least find and talk to Ye Qiu, but he couldn’t even do that.

And now he had, but it was awful. What was worse was that Ye Qiu didn’t even seem surprised, seemed to predict everything Sun Xiang wanted to attempt, and it had been so stifling, the way he interrupted his every intent, all without engaging directly almost at all. Why? Why? The frustration had pushed him into mania, he reached for Ye Qiu through Lord Grim’s blank, uncaring, unmoving face and he slipped away again, again. He couldn’t let this be. Rejection and avoidance, over and over, he couldn’t

Sun Xiang took a deep breath. Why did this matter? Why did he care? He shook his head. It was an unpleasant loss, but he learned from his losses. That was his personal belief, and he always strove to follow it. Dealing with Ye Qiu, truly inheriting the Battle God—it would have to come later. For now, what he needed most was focus, and his own calm.

He couldn’t stand the awkward atmosphere in this practice room even a second longer.

He returned to his room, thought about watching the recording of this encounter, considered his still churning instincts, and thought better of it.

He thought maybe sleep would help, but once he actually got there, Ye Qiu’s unremitting presence followed him into his dreams.

 

In the next match, Excellent Era versus Thunderclap, Excellent Era was absolutely crushed. There was nothing to be said for the team competition at all—even if it had been five random players, or even five players fighting entirely on their own, it would have had better effects. The next week against Samsara was just as bad. It looked like the team had already entirely lost hope in their future.

Tao Xuan couldn’t just leave it like this. At this rate, even if Excellent Era triumphed legally, they’d still have completely lost competitively.

“I heard you offended Ye…Qiu,” Tao Xuan told Sun Xiang, putting on sunglasses to prepare for heading out into public. “It should help if you come along and apologize.”

Privately, Sun Xiang though “offending” was a pretty mild term for it. If he was being honest, it was a hell of a lot closer to a threat. Ye Qiu hadn’t seemed to care either way, but it was what it was. Showing up to apologize might help, but it might not, too.

Still, he wanted to go, so he pressed his lips together and followed. Apologizing would be unbelievably embarrassing, but this was the first indication he’d had of finding Ye Qiu since the day he transferred to Excellent Era. It was just saying he hadn’t meant it, wasn’t it? And he hadn’t. He definitely hadn’t. So that was fine. He could do that much.

His pulse pounded in his temples. He could do a lot, if he could finally find Ye Qiu.

 

With the increase in heat around the topic of “Ye Qiu” again, Chen Guo finally just set aside a room upstairs and had him play there during the day. What if someone looked over and saw that he was playing Lord Grim? Could she handle the damages if there were a riot? Ye Xiu didn’t mind, directly moving upstairs. Tang Rou immediately moved after him; of learning with or without the advice of the God of Glory, anyone could tell which was more useful.

Chen Guo still had a business to run, and in this climate the customers were again more likely to cause trouble than usual, so she couldn’t always spend time with them. All of this meant that, when it came to manning the front, it was often only regular employees. Regular employees, of course, wouldn’t know anything regarding Ye Xiu’s circumstances, so if someone came asking for him on “personal business” they wouldn’t think to stop them.

Little Li, the employee who actually walked the pair upstairs, did get the distinct feeling that something was wrong the moment he opened the door, though.

“It’s okay,” Ye Xiu said, waving away Little Li’s sudden uneasiness. At this point, telling the “guests” to go back would be too awkward. “You can go back downstairs.”

Tang Rou shot him a glance, but he was an adult who could make his own decisions. She thought the air around these two alphas was weird, but he couldn’t have missed it himself. Besides, even if anything happened, there was still her. Neither of them had had the chance to log into the game yet today, so she didn’t even need to make an excuse to stop.

Little Li closed the door behind him, and the room fell into uncomfortable silence.

“Sit,” Ye Xiu said, gesturing to the chairs matched with the unused computer stations. Tao Xuan did. Sun Xiang did not.

Ye Xiu gave him a look, but he didn’t seem to want to say or do anything, so he left it be for now.

Tao Xuan’s eyes settled on Tang Rou. “She…”

“Can stay,” Ye Xiu finished confidently. “She already knows anyway.”

Tao Xuan sighed. “Right. If you really don’t mind…”

“State your business,” Ye Xiu said seriously, expressionless.

Tao Xuan met his eyes just as calmly. “Drop the case.”

“Excuse me?” Though it implied disbelief, the question was more mocking than anything else. Drop the case, like this was all just Ye Xiu being unreasonable?

“Drop the case, and we’ll let it go, too,” Tao Xuan continued evenly. “You can return to the Alliance with no more trouble, and we can focus on bringing the team back up, it’s a win for both sides.”

“Do you think this case is a petty complaint?” Ye Xiu shook his head, disbelieving. “At this point, there are too many people watching. If I don’t defend myself here, it’ll do more harm to more people than anything that could happen to either of us individually.”

“So altruistic?” Tao Xuan said bitterly. Where had that spirit been before, when Tao Xuan had begged and begged for him to reveal his dynamic to the public? To do even one promotional interview? What a hypocrite.

Though Tao Xuan hadn’t said any of that aloud, Ye Xiu still understood. “It’s different,” he said calmly. “Promoting yourself and defending yourself, they’re not the same. One of them I could avoid; the other, I really can’t.”

Tao Xuan took a breath and spent a moment calming himself. Whatever Ye Xiu had done or not done for omegas in Glory before, there was no getting around that he was a public figure now. It wasn’t time to fight. “Even so, you can’t really want to drive us out of the Alliance entirely. Excellent Era is the team you built with your own hands; I’m sure you don’t want to kill it with your own hands, too.”

“I don’t want to kill my Excellent Era,” Ye Xiu agreed. “But my Excellent Era doesn’t play with people’s lives to maximize value, either. An Excellent Era that can defend criminal actions just to keep competition from appearing onstage is not an Excellent Era I can see succeed, either. I certainly won’t sacrifice any more of myself for it.”

Tao Xuan had a headache. It was only a little less backing from the club, a little loss of trust here and there. Hadn’t they still made it to playoffs every year? Until near the end of Season 7, didn’t the team still treat Ye Xiu as their captain? What kind of sacrifices did Ye Xiu think he was making? In the end, didn’t Ye Xiu barely suffer at all? It was just a game, just a single team. Why did he always have to be so serious?

Even now, all this legal action, for what? Hadn’t it just been one uncomfortable night? Wasn’t it over now? Couldn’t he just let it go?!

But Tao Xuan couldn’t say this outright. Instead, he reminded himself of how important convincing Ye Xiu was, especially since he knew how hard it was to ever change his mind. “I understand, and I won’t ask you to just give ground for nothing. We’re willing to make concessions to fix the relationship between us.”

“Oh?” Ye Xiu was skeptical. “What kind of concessions.”

Tao Xuan was relieved. At least Ye Xiu was willing to listen—not always the easiest thing to accomplish. “As a show of sincerity, I thought we’d start with trying to handle the interpersonal side of things. I heard Sun Xiang offended you, so he’s here to apologize. We can be the first to start making amends.”

If Tao Xuan thought that Ye Xiu was going to reach some kind of middle ground, try to “make amends” on his own side, he was hilariously out of touch with the situation. Still, Ye Xiu didn’t concern himself with that, because Tao Xuan had finally gotten to the point of having Sun Xiang in the room. Other than some misguided form of intimidation, anyway, which didn’t match well with his negotiating tone in the first place.

Sun Xiang was still standing by the door, his head down. He hadn’t reacted to any of the conversation so far at all; it wasn’t even clear that he’d heard anything.

“…Did you make him come?” Ye Xiu asked.

Tao Xuan shot Sun Xiang an impatient look. Why was he making trouble? “No, he wanted to.”

He meant it to assure Ye Xiu, but in fact it instantly put him on edge. He hadn’t interacted with Sun Xiang long before the heat inducers kicked in back then, but he knew “prideful” when he saw it. He wanted to come apologize? Not “agreed,” but “wanted”?

“He was a little out of line, but he didn’t mean anything by it,” Tao Xuan said. No one had directly told him what Sun Xiang had said, but how bad could it really be? They were all adults, no need to get worked up over a few impolite words. “You know how young alphas are.”

Ye Xiu shot him an incredulous look, but Tao Xuan didn’t leave him long enough to say anything. “Sun Xiang, what are you doing?” he prompted. “You wanted to apologize, right? Look up!”

This, it turned out, was a massive mistake.

The instant that Sun Xiang raised his head, several things happened at once. First, the others in the room noticed a smudge of blood on his lips; it seemed he’d been biting them the whole time, and managed to cut deep enough to bleed. Second, his sunglasses slid down as his head went up, revealing that his eyes had an animal look in them them that was not anywhere near ordinary. Third, Sun Xiang’s gaze fell on Ye Xiu—and that was it.

Sun Xiang lunged forward, violently reaching out to grab him. Ye Xiu, who’d been on guard from the start, leapt back in time to evade him, which only made him snarl more viciously. Tao Xuan, utterly lost, yelled “What the fuck?!” with extreme feeling. Tang Rou, being a more aggressive and also useful person, commanded a simple “Stop” with all the feeling she could muster as she shifted to intercept. In an instant the room was a mess, overturned chairs, computers in disarray, two alphas growling at each other like back-alley dogs. Sun Xiang’s attention turned to Tang Rou at her command, but he continued forward regardless. A little slower, but even her vehemence wasn’t enough to completely counteract his own alpha nature.

“What—Sun Xiang, stop. Be silent.” Tao Xuan finally got his act together and forced out a command.

Under the weight of two alphas who understood commands and knew how to use them, Sun Xiang had no choice but to come to a halt. His teeth stayed bared, but if he was still growling, they couldn’t hear it. Blood slowly trickled down his chin, and his eyes remained fixed on Tang Rou—or through her, on Ye Xiu behind.

“This isn’t normal, Tao Xuan!” Ye Xiu actually looked angry, a rare concession to facial expression. Still, he kept track of what was important. “Little Tang, get him out of here,” Ye Xiu ordered. “It should be easier once he’s past the door, but get his sunglasses back on, first.”

She was quick to comply, wielding commands as easily as she now did her Battle Mage, and left the two of them alone in the room. She closed the door firmly behind her; Ye Xiu was obviously going to hash things out now. In her opinion, it had been a long time coming.

“I…I didn’t think…” Tao Xuan didn’t have the first clue what to say, but Ye Xiu wasn’t planning on waiting for him.

“Yeah, you didn’t think,” Ye Xiu mocked. “Didn’t think for one second about what was happening on your own team. How could you let it get this far?!”

Tao Xuan wasn’t used to seeing Ye Xiu…righteously angry? He’d argued with the club, but it was always reasonable, always looking at things from both sides. He’d scolded his team, but it had always been constructive, noticing their strengths as much as their faults. This…

Send him to a specialist,” Ye Xiu emphasized, as if he was afraid Tao Xuan wasn’t listening. “If this continues, how is he going to play Glory, hm? What’s going to happen if the media finds out he attempted an assault of his own volition? I don’t know what kind of insane chemical monstrosity Cui Li used that it would affect him this badly, or what you did afterward, but you need to investigate the issue immediately.

Tao Xuan was still stunned by this turn of events. He’d thought it was a heat haze, at worst. He was sure Ye Xiu would have gone back to fully suppressing his dynamic: He’d mentioned many times before that it was more convenient that way. In that case, seeing Ye Xiu now shouldn’t do anything, right? How could things have gotten this bad? He didn’t understand at all.

Ye Xiu’s mention of the media was a convincing threat, but… But the team needed Sun Xiang. The whole point of coming here was that Excellent Era was close to relegations and needed a boost—how could he remove his ace from the team? What could he do?

Tao Xuan had nothing to say and Ye Xiu had already said his piece, so he unceremoniously kicked Tao Xuan out again to take charge of his wayward player. Tang Rou was good, but Sun Xiang wasn’t her responsibility; Tao Xuan needed to clean up his own mess.

He thought about it on the way downstairs, absentmindedly commanding the stiff Sun Xiang to follow him back to Excellent Era. Only upon leaving the building did he remember the dangers of going outside as a celebrity, whirling around to settle Sun Xiang’s skewed sunglasses back on his face—except that they were already settled exactly where they should be, Sun Xiang’s face covered enough to avoid casual recognition amongst a crowd.

Tao Xuan again turned away from the Internet café—Internet café, how bad would it have been if someone saw, how could Tao Xuan have taken so long to remember—and looked down at his hands, the same hands that had reached to shove sunglasses on a face that already held them. Get his sunglasses back on, first. Even when he’d just been attacked, Ye Xiu cared more about Excellent Era’s ace in one sentence than Tao Xuan had managed since the boy had joined the team.

Ye Xiu had always been like that, looking at all the angles. Ye Xiu was good at seeming reasonable. He always had his own explanations, his own way of doing things, and he was rarely ever wrong, so he was hard to argue against. But he didn’t care a whit for business. Long ago, Tao Xuan had learned that he needed to ignore Ye Xiu if he wanted to get anything done on that front. Long ago, he learned that Ye Xiu was convincing, but not necessarily right. So he shut him out, no matter how reasonable he sounded. He believed in the correctness of his own decisions, and didn’t take criticism, or change his course. Business had no space for regrets, nor Ye Xiu’s second-guessing.

How could you let it get this far.

My Excellent Era doesn’t play with people’s lives.

Get his sunglasses back on, first.

For the first time in a long time, Tao Xuan wondered if he was doing the right thing.

 

Sun Xiang crouched in the corner of an empty training room, hands on his head. It hurt. It hurt. Tao Xuan had released him from the commands that bound him, looked at him with a complicated gaze. Opened his mouth, closed it again. Told him to get some rest.

Sun Xiang didn’t want to rest. He didn’t want to dream.

He wanted to wake up.

 

(He sleeps, eventually, as everyone must. He sees eyes that flash like gold in reflected light. They’re full of fire, and he feels so cold, too cold.

In the morning, he runs into Tao Xuan on his way to the door of the building.

Don’t go to Ye Qiu,” he commands.

It catches in Sun Xiang’s chest like a stifled scream.)

 

Chen Guo had been summoned by Tang Rou’s descent, even if she’d been fairly discreet, so the two of them had to explain the whole thing to her.

“He likes you so much?” she asked, stunned.

“What ‘likes’?” Ye Xiu replied, derisive. “That’s not a courtship, it’s an obsession. I doubt I register as a person at all.”

“Oh, you actually know what courting looks like?” Chen Guo was surprised. This guy didn’t seem like someone who cared about that kind of thing at all.

“Half of understanding instincts is having something to compare it to,” Ye Xiu pointed out. “If I don’t know what normal behavior should be, how can I understand abnormal behavior?”

Chen Guo huffed. Of course Ye Xiu would learn about courting only so he could know what might go wrong. What else had she expected?

 

Over the past few weeks, Ye Xiu had noticed a few people tailing him in the game, but it was nothing big to lose them again. He didn’t think much of it until he logged in after his conversation with Tao Xuan to find a burn mark on the ground, and signs of other classes’ attacks, too. His warning to Chen Guo didn’t help much; if even he was having trouble escaping, how could she survive? The skill of the twenty players wasn’t necessarily that high, but whoever was commanding them was certainly troublesome.

Ye Xiu blew back and evaded the different characters, keeping track of their reactions to see which of them might be the commander. If he could find and get rid of him, he could definitely end the fight without much issue.

In the end, it turned out he didn’t need to put in so much effort—one of the characters had Wei Chen’s face.

“Why are you so troublesome? Hurry up and die so I can get my 500!” the Warlock yelled as his greeting. Charming as ever, all these years later.

“What 500?” This was the first Ye Xiu was hearing of it.

“You don’t know? It’s all over the forums, anyone can get a bounty for killing you. Don’t blame this senior, a man has to eat.”

“Liar! Who would put out a bounty out on ‘Ye Qiu’ right now, do they want to tank their reputation? If you’re going to blame other people, at least put a little more effort into it.”

“Of course there’s a bounty! Not everyone is so dirty as you, spouting slander and shifting blame all the time. This senior’s hands are clean!”

Chen Guo couldn’t believe someone who ambushed them with 20 people had the face to say something like that. Who was this guy?

“You go check, I’ll wait,” the Warlock concluded virtuously, coming to a halt.

“Sure, I will.”

When Chen Guo saw that Ye Xiu had actually stopped controlling his character, she had to say something. “There’s no such thing,” she insisted. Since she was following the storm of public opinion related to Ye Xiu, she’d have known the moment something like that popped up. Then she realized that Ye Xiu hadn’t opened a browser window at all, only waiting in front of his screen.

It was the right choice to make; a moment later, a shadow appeared behind Lord Grim to cut downward. Ye Xiu stepped to the side and left a Goblin in his wake, wasting the Assassin’s Life-Risking Strike.

“Damn, even that didn’t hit! You’ve still got reactions like that?! Where is the justice in this world?!” the Warlock roared furiously.

“Nonsense, I was prepared for it!” Ye Xiu didn’t waste any time killing the low-health Assassin.

Wei Chen was only a pro before Chen Guo’s interest in Glory, so Ye Xiu had to explain to her the significance of this guy coming after him.

“Do you think this is Blue Brook Guild moving against you?” she asked, once she understood the situation.

“Not likely, or there’d be more experts…not to mention, they really can’t afford the direct hit to their reputation.” After a moment of thought, Ye Xiu suddenly asked, “Do you have any good-standing friends in other guilds? Have they heard anything about a bounty?”

“Wouldn’t that be too careless?” Chen Guo asked doubtfully. It wasn’t like everyone in a guild would be trustworthy; wouldn’t information get out eventually?

“That’s why I asked about good-standing, I mean long-term players. Even if they were spies for other guilds, it wouldn’t matter if all the guilds tacitly agreed on it. Even Tyranny can’t afford to say anything right now, they’re much too chaotic.” Ye Xiu got his updates from Chen Guo, so he knew that the fans were still too wild for Tyranny to make any major moves. The internal strife was truly a sight to behold.

Chen Guo had been in the Heavenly Domain for a long time, so she did have friends in other guilds. It didn’t take her too long to think of a few possibilities and get a response.

“There really is!” She could hardly believe it. “They put a bounty out for any recorded death of ‘Lord Grim,’ with a bonus for anything related to your weapon…”

“Oh, so it only implies they could kill me themselves? The club still has room to back out by saying it was only asking for information if someone else killed me. Well done.”

Chen Guo was appalled. “What happened? Why are they doing it now?”

“It was probably there from before, but there wasn’t anyone good enough for me to really notice,” Ye Xiu replied, blasé.

Chen Guo snorted inelegantly. Of course Ye Xiu would talk about long-term players in the main club guilds like they were noobs. Those positions weren’t easy to get! None of them would be unskilled, but in front of a god, what could their little bit of skill matter?

In fact, the bounties really were nothing new. They had been put out shortly after Ye Xiu’s fight with Huang Shaotian. The pros had all given their evaluation to the guilds: They needed as much information on that weapon as possible. Of course, information could be gathered in many ways, but this was the Heavenly Domain! If they could get the weapon itself, wouldn’t that be best? Even if the teams that attacked him failed, they would still have seen the weapon in action themselves, and even possibly hindered the development of a future pro character. What was there to lose?

Since Ye Qiu and Lord Grim were both hot topics on the forums still, these bounties obviously had to be kept private. Of course Chen Guo wouldn’t have seen anything about them before this.

With such a severe numbers and level disadvantage, along with the inability to enter a dungeon to escape, Ye Xiu really would have had trouble if Qiao Yifan hadn’t brought One Inch Ash to the Heavenly Domain.

Chen Guo, still running over with Chasing Haze, watched the development of the battle in utter disbelief. The level of shamelessness at play there, she could truly say she’d never seen it before. Even more incredible was how normal Ye Xiu seemed to think it was, even sighing in unison with the Warlock when Qiao Yifan fell for his trick. On the other hand, though, even Ye Xiu had his limits; this guy surpassed them in an instant without even batting an eye, changing tune within a second, encouraging, scolding, even securing a promise to safeguard his weapon and then immediately stripping off his armor and begging for death before Ye Xiu could show up. Chen Guo was genuinely speechless.

In the end, Ye Xiu got the Warlock’s weapon anyway; having died in the game without being able to add Lord Grim as a friend, Wei Chen had no choice but to run to QQ to scold him.

“Don’t disturb me,” Ye Xiu sent back. “You made such a commotion, do you think nobody noticed? I have to deal with all the vultures here to ‘record’ my death. Otherwise, if I died and your weapon dropped…”

“Fuck, if you’re so incapable, why are you even still playing? You waiting to die?!”

“I need more time to study your silver weapon, of course,” Ye Xiu said casually. “How is it? Do you have plans for future upgrades? How about materials, got any to sell?”

“I don’t even have enough for myself, how would I have any to sell?” Wei Chen asked caustically.

“Why would you need materials for yourself? You don’t even have a silver weapon anymore.”

“Fuck you, fuck your mom, fuck your dad!” Wei Chen cursed furiously.

“Honestly speaking, you don’t need this kind of weapon just playing the game. Keeping it would just be a burden to you, so why don’t you let this brother help you sell it? We can split the money. You get a set of weapons and equipment good enough for you to play like a king and I get to upgrade my silver weapon. I actually need this weapon to play properly, isn’t it clear which one is more of a priority?”

“Fuck off, mine is also a priority. Do you know how much effort I put into this just to upgrade it to level 60?” Wei Chen roared.

“If you have the plans for future upgrades, we can increase the starting price,” Ye Xiu continued on, unaffected.

“What price?! That’s my life and blood! It’s priceless! Are you really an omega, can’t even understand this?”

“Of course I am, how could I fake something like that?” Ye Xiu always ran into this kind of “don’t you understand sentimentality?!” attitude once people knew he was an omega, as if that were omegas’ main trait. Obviously it was a natural inclination toward understanding how people thought and knowing how to use it that made up the main part of their differences from the other dynamics, so how did it become this bleeding heart kind of image? In any case, he was used to it by now, and pretty much ignored it.

“Just say you’ve got amazing suppressants, isn’t that what you did already? Hype and lies, this is all just one big diversion so you can rush back to the stage. This senior isn’t going to believe it so easily!”

“Old Wei, who pretends to be an omega for hype?” Ye Xiu asked, amused. “Besides, look at my records. Do I need hype?”

Even though it was an aggravating statement, it was met with a moment of silence instead of Wei Chen’s usual reflexive cursing. And then: “Damn, are you serious? Where did you get such good suppressants, being able to play this long?”

Ye Xiu paused. Plenty of people wondered where he’d gotten his suppressants, but that wording spoke of the true issue very few knew: low-quality suppressants would burn an omega out in a couple of years, slowing their reactions and eroding the dexterity of their hands as their body fought itself to a standstill.

Ye Xiu’s suppressants were high-quality full inhibitors, so he had nothing to worry about. As far as his system was concerned, he didn’t have a dynamic at all—more like a child than a beta, really, not that anyone could tell the difference. Other than that, he developed normally. Reception blockers, though, were different. Full suppressants of that type caused the body to react adversely, sending out the same signal over and over without getting a response. Not to mention that suppressants like those were barely regulated, and had all kinds of side-effects that could even be permanently damaging—in the worst cases, little different from poison. In any case, they were not conducive to maintaining the kind of healthy body and top reaction time necessary for an eSports player.

“How did you know?” He didn’t bother answering the actual question, just like he didn’t for all the people who asked him about the mere existence of his suppressants, in the pro chat or elsewhere. This detail was far more important. Almost no one studied how suppressants would affect athletes, especially eSports athletes. There simply wasn’t a need. He either had some ins with the pharmaceutical world, or…

Wei Chen scoffed. “How else? If this senior could have had some of those, how long do you think I could have lasted?”

Ye Xiu was stunned. He’d had a guess, but…really? Old Wei, an omega?

“Shameless, using them all by yourself!” Wei Chen continued righteously. “Couldn’t you have shared with some of your elders?”

Ye Xiu recovered quickly. “You wanted my teenage self to peddle drugs to an old man like you? No thanks, no thanks.”

“Fuck, don’t make it sound so sketchy. What’s a few rounds of drugs between competitors?”

“In sports, when you start thinking like that, you’ve already lost,” Ye Xiu replied solemnly.

Wei Chen sent him a row of middle finger emojis.

“I’m not a charity, anyway. Would your club have paid for that? Did you even tell them? Acting like you’ve been so wronged when you didn’t even try…”

“They knew about my dynamic at the end, but the suppressants? I’m not like you, how could I mooch off my team so shamelessly? No wonder Excellent Era kicked you out.”

It was good to know that even in this regard Wei Chen still had no bottom line. Which other omega would say a single thing on Excellent Era’s side right now?

Ye Xiu didn’t mind it; he knew how Wei Chen was. Actually, back then, Wei Chen’s mechanical ability had already fallen to the state that it would be hard for him to continue on in gaming no matter what. Better suppressants weren’t a magical cure-all drug; even with an omega’s superior regeneration, Wei Chen would have been behind the others.

At the end of the second season, Wei Chen was more than aware of this. He didn’t want to say anything, didn’t want the way anyone looked at him to change, but he also wanted to try a game without his suppressants, just one time. His last match in the playoffs, he timed it just right for the suppressants to properly wear off in time for the game. Just that one time on stage, he played all out.

He still lost.

When he came out, he smoked one of those older, herbal suppressants onstage and got dragged out of the facility before anyone could notice anything else off.

His team was different, though; how could they not notice when they met up later? Betas weren’t scent-blind, just less sensitive. Wei Chen waved off their questions, though. At that last dinner with the team and top trainees, Huang Shaotian had tried to say something—even Yu Wenzhou seemed like he had something to say, but Wei Chen told them they shouldn’t spoil the end-of-season dinner with business.

Then he casually said goodbye, walked out, and never came back.

Ye Xiu didn’t know all the details, but he’d definitely heard a little about how upset Blue Rain was about their captain’s sudden departure. He’d wondered why Huang Shaotian was so willing to extend an immediate offer for him to come to Blue Rain, was willing to even help him pay for the kind of quality suppressants that would keep him in Glory, if needed, whether or not he joined his team.

It seemed the swordsman had his own regrets from back then he couldn’t let go of.

“I had my time onstage,” Wei Chen continued. “It’s more than many of our omega brothers got. And no one ever found me out, unlike you! So careless.”

“What ‘found me out,’ the boss knew me from before. It’s only because you’re so old that nobody knew.”

“Rubbing my age and your wealth in my face all the time, you really…”

Though Chen Guo, still reading over Ye Xiu’s shoulder, would usually be on Ye Xiu’s side, now her heart hurt for his opponent. For an old god like this, who unfairly lost his chance at the stage, how could age be something easy to talk about?

“I can’t ask for much anymore, you know? It’s just my weapon left now, this last piece of being a pro gamer…”

“No.” Immediate and decisive.

“You fucker! I went to so much trouble, you still can’t grow a heart! It’s empty inside, right? Shouldn’t have even tried, you’re not a human at all. Such a waste!”

“You thought I’d fall for your pull so easily? I only pretended at being a beta, you know.”

“Fuck your sister!”

As their conversation went back and forth, Chen Guo realized that the whole aside had been a setup from Wei Chen just to get his weapon back. For him, absolutely nothing was off-limits to get his way. Regretting his past? Lamenting his age? Wasn’t he just purposely tugging at heartstrings? She felt like she couldn’t watch anymore.

“You want this weapon so bad, but I don’t see you making any deals,” Ye Xiu was saying. “If you haven’t got the materials, what good is it doing you anyway? Why don’t you work together with me for a while. How many pro-level gamers are actually playing around in the game? If we team up, don’t you think getting a few wild bosses would be no problem?”

“What, with just my group and you? Is your brain actually just full of shit?” Wei Chen replied disdainfully.

“Your memory’s already going, old man, didn’t you say that you’d studied my Lord Grim’s situation? You have to know I have Heavenly Justice behind me.”

“Just that wannabe club?” Wei Chen clearly wasn’t impressed.

“Well, I was thinking of getting a few more and making a wild-boss alliance. Right now, they have nothing. If they work with me, won’t they at least get a little?”

“Is that the only tactic you have?” Wei Chen mocked. He wasn’t going to let go of Ye Xiu’s stealing his silver weapon for a long while.

“So long as you work with me, you’ll get what’s yours and even more…” Ye Xiu had been building up to this from the start, because the main point was really the materials. Who knew that it’d take such a roundabout path for the conversation to finally get here?

“This is extortion! Blackmail! Using this kind of thing against me, you’re too much!” Wei Chen scolded.

“Where do you live?”

“What, now you even want to track me down? Too crazy.”

“I’ll send you some better suppressants. Don’t tell me that’s not payment enough, you can’t even find something on this level if you look.” It wasn’t much of a hardship for Ye Xiu, since his suppressants came from the family funds, so he might as well. As for how many and what kind he ordered, they pretty much didn’t care.

 A moment later the response came: “What kind of insane backing do you have, anyway? Fuck, fine, you better not be a scammer.”

His agreement was also able to confirm something for Ye Xiu: whatever Wei Chen did now, he still used some kind of suppressant. His condition at this point…

It explained the stats of his silver weapon a bit, anyway. Death’s Hand, top to bottom, was constructed to play to Wei Chen’s strengths with control and forgive his hand speed elsewhere; a hand to reach where his own no longer could.

There was a reason there hadn’t been any known omegas in Glory at all, and it was not just prejudice or their ostensible susceptibility to commands.

 

Though Ye Xiu and Heavenly Swords had certainly put a lot of thought into their cooperation before it began, there was a certain aspect that Ye Xiu, largely uninterested in the whims of the public, and Heavenly Swords, a group of people coming from various wealthy families, did not consider: spontaneous donations.

Even though Loulan Slash was famous as a money warrior, someone had put out an analysis of how much money Ye Qiu would have to spend to overcome Excellent Era, and it was truly frightening. The Ye family had its own setup for handling omega legalities, so they weren’t spending to build up from a blank slate; if Ye Xiu had truly been alone, though, it would have been more than a little difficult. If they had known Ye Xiu’s actual personal financial situation due to Excellent Era’s neglect and his own generosity over the years, it would have been considered very difficult, and only because one did not lightly bandy about the term “impossible” when it came to the God of Glory.

Given this analysis, and somewhat the general public’s inclination to support and protect omegas, people started trying to donate to Heavenly Justice with the express reason of helping Ye Qiu. Though it had died down a bit after a few days of ups and downs, that still left Heavenly Swords with a bunch of money they couldn’t reconcile themselves to using for their own ends, no matter what Ye Qiu had said about ending his involvement with joining the guild, and later making a single guest appearance. He told them all the benefits on their side, as the people handling the actual PR portion of the process, were theirs to keep, but with such a pointed reasoning attached to the money sent? Their faces weren’t thick enough to just ignore it.

Ye Xiu didn’t mind; right now, the only help he was getting was legal, since his parents were set on the idea of his “proving himself” to the world with his return. For anything related to gaming, he was on his own. After accepting he had immediately contacted an old acquaintance who ran a studio to see if he could find him the materials he needed for the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella.

It was at this point that Mo Qiang finally came though for him, contacting him to let him know he’d used up all the money, and found everything he’d needed on the market—except the Aquamarine. Since there was nowhere to buy, Ye Xiu would just have to farm it himself.

 

Blue River was the only guild leader in the tenth server who casually spoke to Ye Xiu, so he was the first person Ye Xiu asked about the Aquamarine Knight. Actually, there was one other he could talk to, Cold Night from Tyranny, but he usually left that guy alone. After hearing that Tyrannical Ambition had taken down the Aquamarine Knight before, though, Ye Xiu sent Cold Night a quick message asking if he had the Aquamarine in storage.

“Why?” Cold Night sent back cautiously.

“Because I need it.” Ye Xiu wasn’t sure what was up with this guy. Why else would he ask about a specific material?

“Oh. It didn’t drop for us before.”

It was probably the truth, despite the awkward tone of the interaction, but it actually didn’t matter either way. If Cold Night didn’t want to give it to him, Ye Xiu wouldn’t be able to get it without extreme measures he obviously didn’t plan on taking.

“Then I guess it’s about time,” he replied, leaving Cold Night baffled.

Tyranny wasn’t doing so well with Wild Bosses these days, even in the more isolated tenth server; the internal structure of the guild was just too big of a mess. Arguments over Ye Qiu, over dynamics, personal attacks and prejudice, the guild had it all. On the one hand, the fiery nature of Tyranny was nothing new. On the other, as the face of dynamic equality in Glory, they had a fair amount of omegas and more level-headed people in their ranks, too. Although fans of Tyranny were usually strong-willed and hard-headed, it wasn’t to the point that they had an unpleasant reputation.

Now, though, with all this controversy, it was hard to get the group to cohesively work together, which put them a step behind the other guilds. Since their results had been lackluster, he felt awkward saying anything to Ye Qiu about what they did and didn’t have. But then he just left again? Cold Night didn’t understand.

Not too long later, the tenth server as a whole received a message from Lord Grim in the world chat, inviting them to participate in the boss hunt for the Aquamarine Knight. He’d be giving orders via two Weibo accounts, each of which would cover half the classes. Anyone who wanted to join in could follow the relevant account and act on orders as they got them. Orders would begin after the Aquamarine Knight was found, at which point a few teams would be formed of those who showed up and the hunt would begin.

The guild leaders were flabbergasted. Could that be done? Could anyone, at any point, perform a server-wide boss hunt? No, right?! It had to be some kind of trick.

Crowds of people migrated to the Western Desert to wait for the boss and level, while the elites reacted by doing the same to counter. The veterans of the guild mostly followed to the area where Steamed Bun and Soft Mist had gone to level, sure that Ye Qiu’s nonsense about fighting the boss as a server was pointless distraction from his real target: the higher-level boss Almarshan.

Just as they’d thought, when the Aquamarine Knight spawned, there wasn’t an immediate reaction from Ye Qiu’s side. Those already in the Western Desert worked to take it down alone, while the guilds formed into hundred-man teams and stood in an enormous deadlock. Which side would move first? Who would start the battle? They couldn’t wait forever, and it wasn’t certain the first to move would lose, anyway. From that point, the skirmishes between guilds spread out, covering the area and sweeping up the normal players. Normal players already weren’t enough to take down a boss on their own, so how could they survive this chaos as well? The smart ones ran, a few stayed behind to pick up a few dropped weapons before doing the same.

It was at that point that Lord Grim appeared in the world chat again, telling everyone who wanted to join in the fight for the Aquamarine Knight to check those Weibo accounts. Of course, the guild leaders already had people watching the same accounts, but right now they both said the same thing: “Gather at the spawn location.”

The influence of Lord Grim in the tenth server, and even over Glory as a whole, was no joke. The number of people who gathered there grew and grew, to the point where even the guilds would have to be worried about it. What if he swooped in with all of them at the last moment and took the boss? Those they’d sent after Almarshan couldn’t return in time, and even if they did, what if Ye Qiu really was after Almarshan? No one had seen Lord Grim himself, or they definitely would have tried to kill him already. With things so chaotic, so long as they turned off their guild tag, no one would have it in them to blame them, right? And what if they could actually get his weapon for their club?

They still couldn’t tell his plan, but what point was there in allowing those low-level people gather? Wasn’t it normal for the guilds to clear out the area for a boss battle anyway? They might as well just kill them!

As soon as the guilds turned against, them, the Weibos came out with the same command: “Run!”

The whole mass of people turned tail and ran. The guild leaders were at a loss. What was the point of this?! All these random players, why would they so easily follow Ye Qiu’s command?!

In fact, it wasn’t so easy. It was just that those who didn’t want to wait or couldn’t follow along had already been caught up in the guilds’ fighting and died…

But how could the guild leaders have time to think about this? Behind them, the Aquamarine Knight chose another target; they couldn’t afford to forget about him for long, and they couldn’t allow the other guilds to take care of him, either. There was nothing for it, they’d just have to go back to fighting.

The moment they did, another message showed up from each Weibo: “Return!”

Not only were they not hiding their actions, it was posted so publicly! The guild leaders were ready to tear out their hair in frustration. Eventually, they chose to split the troops, half to chase, half to handle the boss. Once again the mass of server people ran, but this time the guild troops chased them, pushing them all into one area. Then the public order came to form groups, and the guilds went on guard, ready to stick to their own teams rather than split up to hunt people down.

Except that it was pointless, because they forgot that the teams they’d left behind to handle the boss were new, and didn’t know how… Already so many of them died, would they still be able to take on the boss with just these? There was no cohesion to their group at all.

“If we can’t, they can’t!” someone finally comforted.

“What ‘they can’t’, you’re talking about Ye Qiu…”

The group went awkwardly silent. On one hand, Ye Qiu was an omega. Who didn’t know that omegas were known for their ability to guide people? On the other, it was Ye Qiu. Who could look down on his ability as a commander? Certainly none of the people here.

There was no way to hold on anymore; the guilds could only run from the boss, but the boss had a cavalry. What could they do? Who let the Glory developers not make any mounts for players?

Those that ran toward the mass of normal players were met with the incredible sight of hundreds upon hundreds of players in formation. Ye Qiu really turned them into a single army?!

They didn’t have time to think about it. With that moment of hesitation, the boss caught up with them, and they were completely wiped out.

The cavalry raced toward this army of players, but they were prepared. “Mages, Ice Wall!” said one account. All of the mages lifted their staffs, and the battle began.

Tang Rou had the better hand speed, so it was her account that ordered the more time-sensitive half of the players. Chen Guo handled the others. In either case, it was actually Ye Xiu giving the commands, voicing them out for the two ladies to transcribe. The method was indirect, but undoubtedly capable of getting the message across to as many players as might want to see it. It also, generally speaking, couldn’t really be interfered with. It was a personal account! So what if it wanted to give out battle orders? Could anyone stop it?

The commands were simple and easy to follow for players of any level, even split by level occasionally for a little more nuance. The guilds could see the messages too, but what could they do? The scene was utter chaos. Disturb the order? What order?

Every now and then, less urgent commands would come along with the message “pay attention, don’t harm your allies!” There was nothing more to be done for it; in a battle this chaotic, a few casualties were inevitable.

Still, what did it matter? With so many players, even if a few died, would it affect the fight at all? In the time the guilds had been messing around, Ye Xiu was even able to assign the different classes into teams so he could give more specific orders for pacing. What was there left to chance? The calls for action settled into a certain rhythm, he didn’t even have to rush with anything.

Under the orders of a single commander through two Weibo accounts, the boss and its subordinates were completely overwhelmed. With a whole server united, how long could a single battle take? The result was unimaginable. Just like that, the boss was defeated…

Even the people who participated couldn’t imagine it. Wild Bosses were so far from normal players, when would they have had a chance to participate before? There was wild cheering and celebration all around, to the point where no one even remembered that there might be drops until much later. By then, of course, Ye Xiu had swept in to take them away.

Lord Grim thanked everyone and contributed to the hype with his own posts of congratulations on the world chat, and the server fell to discussing their unprecedented achievement without struggle. Many of them scrolled back through the two Weibo accounts, rereading the progression of the battle from these posts. It was here! The proof that a whole server could succeed together if they wanted! Even the guild leaders couldn’t help but marvel. A story like this, a whole server taking down a boss by attacking randomly, would remain a conversation point and even bragging opportunity for a long, long time.

 

Meanwhile, Ye Xiu had achieved his Aquamarine. He completed quests for the rest of the day, other than the time he spent with those he’d left behind on the server when he moved to the Heavenly Domain. Though he couldn’t teach them in person anymore, Luo Ji still sent him all kinds of questions and messages, and Tang Rou was with him behind the computer screen if he wanted to teach anything. Steamed Bun was, as always, having fun doing his own thing along with his frantic leveling, but was delighted to get to dungeon with Ye Xiu again. In that manner, a day passed, and Ye Xiu smoothly returned Lord Grim to the Heavenly Domain.

He’d only just finished assembling the level 50 Myriad Manifestations Umbrella when Wei Chen sent him a message with the location of wild boss Swamp Hunter Leipu.

“What’s the situation, then?” Ye Xiu asked. Even after he arrived, he couldn’t figure out what advantage Wei Chen thought he had that they’d be able to get this boss.

“Didn’t you want my help stealing wild bosses?” Wei Chen asked, tone of voice reasonable. “Well, here’s a boss! You go ahead, tell me how we steal it.”

“Do you think we can jump into this kind of thing randomly? What are the reinforcements like, who’s dispatching troops? You want our little team to steal the boss amidst the chaos, first we have to understand the method to the chaos,” Ye Xiu lectured.

“Fuck, who needs you to say all that, do you think I just bought my account? There haven’t been any movements!”

“Really, no movements?” Ye Xiu asked doubtfully. “At all? What, then is it a real negotiation?”

“Who’d believe that?” Wei Chen scoffed. “They’ve been fighting so many years, why would they come to an agreement now?”

Unfortunately for the two of them, that’s exactly what the guilds were doing. With the pressure from Lord Grim’s victory against the Aquamarine Knight on their minds, none of them were willing to bet a wild boss on whether Lord Grim would be able to pull it off in the Heavenly Domain, too. For the first time, everyone genuinely agreed on doing it the peaceful way—everyone knew even Tyrannical Ambition hadn’t been spared any of Lord Grim’s madness so far.

“Fuck, you’re such bad luck!” Wei Chen messaged him as they made their escape from the retreating guilds. “Want to steal a wild boss, you’ll have to stop blocking your own way, first!”

“Don’t be so anxious,” Ye Xiu replied. “Anything with an order can be taken advantage of as much as anything without an order, it just requires being more clever. Okay, we’ll just have to stir up trouble when it comes down to it, then.”

“What, just like that? You’re not going to go easy if it’s Tyrannical Ambition, are you?”

“Obviously I am, what’s the point of stealing a boss from my own guild?” Ye Xiu answered matter-of-factly.

“Look at this shamelessness, doesn’t your guild tag say ‘Heavenly Justice’?”

“Which of your old man eyes sees Heavenly Justice here?” Ye Xiu mocked. “Shouldn’t I be asking you about that Blue Brook tag instead? If it comes to that, are you going to have a problem?”

“Obviously!” Wei Chen scoffed. “Do you know what kind of benefits come with being in a big guild?”

“This plan might lose you those benefits no matter what, so what are you complaining about?” Ye Xiu pointed out. “Or were you not paying attention when I explained the part where you pretend to be from the different guilds? Do you think they won’t look you up?”

“Fuck, then we can’t do this!” Wei Chen didn’t try to save face by pretending. “What if they directly blacklist us from now on?”

“Get new accounts if it matters so much.” Ye Xiu didn’t bother with him. “You can’t tell me the suppressants I’m sending you aren’t wildly overpaying for your services already. And you’ve freed up all that budget, too! You can afford a few accounts.”

“Fuck! Do you know that our accounts all have really high skill points?”

“Oh yeah? How high?” Ye Xiu was from the pro scene, so this kind of thing generally couldn’t move him.

“About 4,700.”

“For all 20?” Ye Xiu exclaimed. A few accounts being on par with pro accounts was no big deal. 20, though? That couldn’t be counted as good luck anymore. “Why are they so high?”

Wei Chen cackled. “This is my guarded secret.”

“What guarded secret, 20 people already know.” Ye Xiu directly ignored that. Skill points were an important aspect of bringing Lord Grim to the stage—if he could get them an easier way, he absolutely wouldn’t miss it.

Wei Chen laughed in a tone of extreme superiority. “You want to know? Let me think of something for you to do for me first, and I’ll consider it.”

“Ancient relic, who has your Death’s Hand?”

“Fuck!”

In the end, Wei Chen had no choice but to explain the existence of his guide for skill book drops. They were still setting up for the wild boss fight, though—they didn’t have time to waste on it. The fastest way to convince Ye Xiu would be to send the data itself, but could Wei Chen do that for free? This was the data he’d spent years collecting, data he intended to use to make money later.

“You want to mass produce these characters?” Ye Xiu asked.

“The results are still unstable for now, but yeah, generally speaking,” Wei Chen replied. “So you can’t just force me to show it to you! That’s too unprincipled. You have to have a limit somewhere!”

“Do you even have the capital to start such a business?” Ye Xiu didn’t get distracted.

“Capital can be built up slowly,” Weo Chen said sagely.

“Not in this case. If you really started putting out characters at a high enough level to be profitable, do you think the game company wouldn’t notice? All they have to do is change a few things and it’d become useless.”

“Then I’ll save up in advance!”

“For what?” Ye Xiu prompted. “How many accounts do you think you can level at once? And all this is only if you can turn your data into something stable. If you can’t, how much would you waste trying to get a few accounts good enough to sell? Your business would be no good at all.”

“What’s your point?!” Wei Chen was in a bad mood. He knew Ye Qiu wouldn’t be saying this for no reason, so it’d be better to get there immediately rather than put up with his nonsense first.

“Give me the data!” Ye Xiu didn’t waste any more time. “Lord Grim needs points, you have a way to get them, it works out!”

“You’re broke, kid,” Wei Chen said bluntly. “I’m not letting you buy it for a pittance.”

“I wouldn’t buy it alone, of course,” Ye Xiu replied. “Sell it to Tyranny! You’re not going to pretend you think they don’t have the money for it, right?”

“You can’t even talk with Tyranny, why should I believe you? Weren’t you just calling this data worthless?”

“Sure, if you went to anyone else. Most teams don’t need characters with as few as 4,700 skill points.”

“‘As few as’?! And it’s not just limited to that, either. My Windward Formation has 4,920 points!”

“If I get Han Wenqing to message you on QQ backing me up, will you believe me then?” Ye Xiu prodded. The number was impressive, but he wouldn’t be easily swayed. If the average was 4,700, then a number that high could only be luck. “How about this, you give me the data just for personal use, I’ll split the gains for this boss hunt.”

“What, you weren’t going to do that before?!” Wei Chen was incensed. “Then what was I even here for?”

“Death’s Hand.” Ye Xiu didn’t prevaricate.

Fuck!” Wei Chen had forgotten again. “But just showing up with a few ideas and you want to take the whole gains from the boss battle? Actually, what am I saying. You’re what, level 54? You can’t win this boss anyway.”

“Why would I be getting this boss? Obviously we’re going to get the guilds to pay us for the boss.”

“You…” Wei Chen stopped. “It can be done like this?”

“Yeah! I did this kind of thing all the time in the tenth server,” Ye Xiu explained. “The guilds have to worry about a lot more than us, especially now that they’re doing this so publicly.”

“Then, should I get a list?” Wei Chen asked. “Damn, such a good idea, why haven’t we done it before…”

“Because you couldn’t command this type of attention?”

Wei Chen sent him back a middle finger emoji.

 

In the end, Blue Brook Guild really did become their target, by Wei Chen’s own design. He was more aware of Changing Spring’s faults as a guild leader than anyone else, so of course he had to take advantage of them. Excellent Dynasty and Samsara, the two guilds still left in the competition, were ambushed by venomous flies, and three of Wei Chen’s group from Blue Brook Guild aggroed the boss without anyone noticing. With the boss attacking Blue Brook Guild and shouts condemning them rising up from all around, their group didn’t look good. On top of that, Samsara’s guild leader sent out a post condemning Blue Brook Guild’s actions, and ordered his own troops to attack.

Blue Brook’s team leader was killed before he could start any kind of discussion. Excellent Dynasty wanted to sweep in after they’d been fighting for a bit and take the boss for themselves, but who knew Samsara would be so fierce? They directly attacked Excellent Dynasty “for justice”; ignoring the boss that was being pulled away by those three Blue Brook Guild players, they turned a boss fight into a slaughter.

Blue Brook Guild’s leader Changing Spring used a teleport scroll to show up and stop the fight with some rationality. Obviously Blue Brook Guild wasn’t actually behind this—who would tank the reputation of their guild for a mere level 65 boss? The other guilds sent out a few of their people to follow the boss, but were picked off one by one with incredible skill by…open accounts? Whose open accounts could get there so fast?

In fact, it wasn’t “so fast” at all—Ye Xiu had long since called in Heavenly Justice to bring in their open accounts, the main crew and some of those they could count as their elites, so long as they had enough unaffiliated accounts for it on hand.

Loulan Slash said if they didn’t, they could just buy some. Ye Xiu really had to admire a rich person’s way of doing things. On the other hand, wild boss materials couldn’t be bought—same with experience fighting one. For their newly organized club guild, it really was worth that much.

In the chaos of their people getting killed from the shadows, the other guilds took advantage of the situation to start killing off some of their enemies as well. In the end, every single one of the people sent our met their end, and none of the guilds left had any idea where the boss was at all. With everything over, the guilds already eliminated took their leave. Even Excellent Dynasty couldn’t take Samsara’s irrational focus on warring anymore and withdrew, leaving only Blue Brook Guild and a suddenly much calmer Samsara.

“Oh, they’ve contacted me,” Ye Xiu said. “Now’s the time, then, Old Wei. Your list for a look at the data, and reserving a buyout later?”

“The whole list?” Wei Chen asked suspiciously. The materials he needed weren’t a simple matter.

“The whole list,” Ye Xiu confirmed. “It’s two big guilds, they can afford it.”

“You’re brutal.” Wei Chen shook his head solemnly.

Ye Xiu gave a world-weary sigh. “As an omega in this society, you really have to be.”

“Shut the fuck up, you were brutal from the start,” Wei Chen immediately denied.

As someone who knew Ye Qiu back when Glory had just come out, Wei Chen had the right to say this. Barring any unusual circumstances, the highly renowned Ye Qiu, at 15, wasn’t likely to have presented yet. Battle Mages had a reputation for being an overbearing class, but who had lead the meta on how to play one? Who was the most famous, archetypal Battle Mage? Ye Qiu was so tyrannical with his One Autumn Leaf, he’d dragged the whole Battle Mage class along with him into the reputation. What idiot would believe he used to be any less cutthroat?

When it came down to it, from the start, Ye Qiu just wanted to win by any means.

“Alright, do it,” Wei Chen said. Ye Qiu would be returning to the pro scene regardless—it wasn’t likely he’d try to use this data to make money on his own, and leaking it around would just be a huge waste. With the risk on his side so minimal and the reward so great, what couldn’t Wei Chen agree to?

 

The list Lord Grim sent the two guild leaders seemed reasonable. Hard to accept, maybe, but within their limits.

Then he sent over part two.

“Are you joking?!” With two blunt guild leaders, it was no surprise they directly sent over their thoughts.

“I agree,” Ye Xiu said solemnly. “But what can I do about it? Look at my level, can I do anything in a boss fight?”

Lord Grim’s level 54 really was a bit too incredible. The fact that he hadn’t just died in the swamp was already a testament to the degree of his skill.

“What should I tell him? I contacted him just now. This dishonest guy asked, aren’t you the ones joking?”

The two guild leaders were speechless.

“See, I told him,” Ye Xiu shook his head. “I said, would the guilds really care so much about a single boss? But he insisted. He said he’d rather kill the boss himself than lose out, as if that made any sense. Wouldn’t he be the real loser there? But, he’s originally not a very logical person. I can only relay his messages.”

Ye Xiu sighed helplessly, and Chen Guo finally couldn’t watch anymore. Since when was Ye Xiu actually helpless about anything?! Not to mention, the whole interaction was completely made up—all he’d done with Wei Chen was promise him the materials!

“That’s disgusting,” she couldn’t help but comment disdainfully.

“That’s negotiation,” Ye Xiu replied casually. He’d muted his mic while he let the guild leaders think. “If you don’t want to see it, don’t look—but, here, haven’t they agreed? In the end, it worked.”

Chen Guo watched in disbelief as the guild leaders actually gathered the materials to give to Ye Xiu before he led them to the boss. Was it really so easy to extort guild leaders?

Of course it wasn’t. Even though Chen Guo had been part of Excellent Dynasty for a long time, she’d never been a part of the upper echelons of the guild. She didn’t understand anything about the importance of reputation and public opinion to club-backed guilds. They were a business! More importantly, they were a business carried by the love of their fans! If they truly let them down so publicly, how much more would they lose?

On top of that, Samsara would make great gains in publicity as well. For a team trying to solidify their position as a genuine powerhouse and a champion in the making, building their reputation in the game like this was extremely important.

When the group arrived at the boss, it had already switched hands to Heavenly Justice’s open accounts. As promised, the boss battle would have nothing to do with Wei Chen’s side. The transition of aggro went smoothly enough under Ye Xiu’s private direction; though Heavenly Justice knew a lot about boss battles, their understanding of passing a wild boss’s aggro couldn’t be considered high-level. Wei Chen and Ye Xiu, of course, had all kinds of practice, starting from the early days of Glory.

Once they had that in hand, Ye Xiu easily slipped away—after handling the material exchange, they were more concerned with the new threat represented by these open accounts than a single player, even if that player was Ye Qiu.

“They aren’t even mad at you?” Chen Guo hadn’t imagined the guild leader would not only be non-hostile, but apparently completely forget about Ye Xiu.

“Who do you think Blue Rain is?” Ye Xiu reminded. “Obviously they can recognize that those materials were almost entirely for a Warlock. I’m innocent.”

Chen Guo huffed her disbelief. “Then why are you still running?”

As soon as Ye Xiu was out of sight, he started taking a roundabout path, using movement skills where appropriate to speed up his travel.

“Is this your first day in Glory? Who just nicely doesn’t attack innocent people?” Ye Xiu dispatched a venomous fly and then pushed himself on. “I’m level 54 in a level 65 area with low visibility, and I’ve incited most all of the major guilds recently. I’m not going to sit around to let them figure out where I’ve gone.”

In fact, Ye Xiu was exactly right. The teams had sent out people to pull an encirclement after they realized it was Lord Grim behind everything. Unfortunately for them, Poison Fang Swamp was quite large, and Wei Chen’s advance departure meant Ye Xiu knew exactly where to avoid. Even 70 or 80 players together wouldn’t be able to cover enough area to stop him, especially when they were unwilling to work together in case one guild reported the others for harassing an omega.

Wei Chen was even more anxious than Ye Xiu, though. He still hadn’t received his materials!

“What are you rushing me for,” Ye Xiu messaged. “I don’t see this document yet.”

“Do you think I was born yesterday? I’m not sending you the data until you give me the material.” Wei Chen was fully aware of how priceless wild boss materials were. Even if Ye Qiu had extorted them from other teams, would he still be willing to casually give them away?

“I’m not you, to go back on a deal so easily,” Ye Xiu mocked. “You can wait until Old Han messages you, if you want. Or you can prove your data is worth it so he doesn’t just reject it out of hand.”

“Fuck, that’s still a possibility?!” Wei Chen was outraged. “Didn’t you say Tyranny would buy it?!”

“Do I look like I’m part of Tyranny right now? How should I know? If you want me to vouch for you, you’d better give me something to look at!”

“Half the data,” Wei Chen said stubbornly. “I’m not giving you all of it before I hear from him.”

“So suspicious.” Ye Xiu looked down on him. “Only half the materials, then. You’re far more shameless than me, I can’t trust you won’t run with it.”

At the same time, Ye Xiu was holding another conversation entirely with Loulan Slash, whose group had finished handing off the boss and were making their own escape.

“God, would we be able to get more bosses?” Loulan Slash sent. “I’m sure you understand, our team…”

“With just Heavenly Justice, it’d be hard to contend with the other guilds directly.” Ye Xiu immediately gave his opinion of the situation. “If we add a few low-ranked teams, though, it should be doable.”

“A guild alliance?” Loulan Slash asked doubtfully. It wasn’t without reason—clearly guild cooperation didn’t often go well.

“Sure, so long as we split things evenly, I’m sure we’d be able to convince a few it’s worth their time,” Ye Xiu said. “Though for me to participate anytime soon, I’d need to have access to at least a few open accounts. I’m sure you understand, taking Lord Grim to a normal wild boss fight is much too dangerous.”

“We can send you some,” Loulan Slash immediately agreed. Right now, their team needed rare materials more than anything else. If Ye Qiu was willing to work with them on a more regular basis, working themselves into the guilds’ balance of power would go much more easily.

Not to mention, they’d just bought a few open accounts for this boss fight, anyway. It would be no problem to send Ye Qiu some.

On Wei Chen’s end, the exchange of data for materials finally concluded. Ye Xiu could tell at a glance Wei Chen wasn’t just randomly making things up, but that wasn’t actually what he most wanted to know from this data. What he most wanted to know, though, could only come from Luo Ji.

“How is it?” he asked.

Too cool,” was Luo Ji’s immediate reply.

Ye Xiu laughed helplessly. “I meant, is it the kind of thing you could analyze more thoroughly?”

Over the time they’d played and talked together, Ye Xiu had come to understand that Luo Ji’s interest in numbers was nothing casual—in fact, it could even be said it was the aspect of Glory that interested him most. Although Ye Xiu had given him help with learning how to dungeon and control his character better to gain more experience, most of their time was spent discussing technical aspects of the game. Luo Ji had been clamoring for more precise data for a while now, but Ye Xiu didn’t have any to give. It wasn’t that it didn’t exist; for the R&D department of any club, knowing how silver weapons affected the environment and various skills required knowing the exact data of the environment and skills in the first place. However, only the clubs had this kind of database on hand, and Ye Xiu right now obviously didn’t belong to one. Even if he knew a lot about it and had even collected some of the data himself, why would he carry it around? Certainly he didn’t have it now.

So, from the moment Ye Xiu heard about Wei Chen’s data, of course he’d thought of student Luo Ji. He’d gathered from previous conversations that Luo Ji was already in his second year at a famous university despite being only around 18, which was a far cry from where Wei Chen’s education likely stopped after the third year of middle school. He’d told Luo Ji that he could think of it as a commission, but the data had to be confidential. Luo Ji saw that this data was for skill books and could immediately tell why.

“I…I think I could,” Luo Ji finally replied. “There’s a lot here to work with, though, so I don’t know how long it’ll take…”

“No worries,” Ye Xiu replied immediately. “Just if you have time, take a look! So long as it’s possible, I’ll believe you can get it eventually. The second half of the data should be coming in a few days, too.”

Luo Ji clearly couldn’t wait to get started, his replies already vague enough that it was likely he wasn’t paying too much attention.

Ye Xiu left him to it. Lord Grim needed to hit level 55 before tonight, or he might really be in trouble. The clubs had their own open accounts, and there were undoubtedly willing pro players. He couldn’t count on his fame to keep him safe forever.

 

The next morning, a level 70 Striker showed up near the entrances to the level 55 dungeon Ye Xiu wanted to run. Usually that would be enough for Ye Xiu to drift away or even head into the dungeon itself to avoid conflict. But, looking at that stance, that rhythm of movement as the character came toward him—Ye Xiu knew exactly who this was.

“This is really pushing what you could call a coincidence,” Ye Xiu commented. He’d only asked for Su Mucheng to pass along his message, not tell Han Wenqing where to meet him in the game.

“That doesn’t matter at this point,” Han Wenqing replied bluntly, and sent a party request. “Talk and dungeon.”

“Charming,” Ye Xiu said with a grin, but last night’s efforts with Su Mucheng’s borrowed open account had already proved leveling would be much, much faster with a level 70 pro on his side. He didn’t mind and immediately got started with both. “So, do you think your boss will go for it? Max skillpoint characters, if we’re lucky, and I have a way to turn the data into a little more than just ‘luck’ on my side.”

“Yes,” Han Wenqing replied, no hesitation.

Ye Xiu was a little surprised. “What, just ‘yes,’ right away? You know how much this is worth, it wouldn’t be cheap.”

“Tyranny isn’t afraid of using money for good quality,” Han Wenqing said, and behind the computer screen, Ye Xiu smiled bitterly. Han Wenqing spoke with such assurance, but it was still early in the day—either his conversation with Tyranny’s boss had been short, or they were at the level of accord where the boss trusted Han Wenqing’s decisions without question. In either case, actually, it showed a level of agreement in how to handle their team that Ye Xiu hadn’t experienced since Excellent Era’s beginning.

“You have the money for it?” Ye Xiu asked instead. Tyranny liked to throw money around, but they’d already been doing a lot of that lately, and PR had been rocky with their guild support such a mess.

“Several of Su Mucheng’s advertising contracts came with her.”

Well. That would do it. There were several sponsors who signed just for Su Mucheng, so their contracts included clauses that related the amount of support to the number of her appearances. In fact, some of them went so far as to have the proviso that Su Mucheng be on Excellent Era or it would violate the contract and leave them free to sign a new one—with anyone, but almost certainly it would go to her new team.

Beyond that, Excellent Era’s reputation right now was not great. If sponsors had contracts they could reasonably pull out of, they probably did.

Ye Xiu may not be interested in advertising, but he understood at least this much. He didn’t continue asking. “I’m looking to buy the raw data, so we can afford to go a little lower. How much would Tyranny be willing to spend? You’re not going to say something crazy like ‘whatever it takes,’ right?”

Han Wenqing snorted. Tyranny was forceful and direct, not stupid. “What you negotiate for, we can afford. I know you won’t make waste of it.”

Ye Xiu paused for a moment, staring blankly at the screen before going back to his leveling. Right, Tyranny was going to be his team, too.

Maybe he’d get to know what it was like to be trusted again.

 

The dungeon progressed smoothly, but it was still a 5-player dungeon being run by two people. It wouldn’t be over so quickly. It could have been over faster, after the discussion of what to say to Wei Chen and how long it might be until Ye Xiu could actually act as intermediary had concluded, but Han Wenqing didn’t seem to be in a rush.

“What’s your twin’s name?” he asked in the lull between them, with no prompting that Ye Xiu could see. Maybe he’d just suddenly thought of it again; after all, Han Wenqing was not the type to overthink whether or not he should say something he wanted to say.

“Right, he said he met you,” Ye Xiu didn’t give it much thought. “His name is Ye Qiu.”

“…Your parents gave you the same name.” Han Wenqing sounded distinctly unimpressed.

Ye Xiu laughed. “Of course not. My name is Ye Xiu.”

Han Wenqing punched away a monster with an unnecessarily high-level skill, clearing the area, then turned his viewpoint to look at Lord Grim as if, should he stare hard enough, he could look right through their screens and see Ye Xiu’s face for himself. “You’ve been using your brother’s name.” It wasn’t quite disbelief, because when it came to “Ye Qiu” there was never any room for disbelief, but it was close.

“Yeah, he’s an actual beta, and I had to sign up for the Alliance somehow, right?” Ye Xiu explained casually. “Using his ID worked out well for me.”

Of course Ye Xiu didn’t see a problem with it. Of course.

(In fact, Han Wenqing knew from the start it was a stupid assertion, that the Ye parents might have, in a fit of insanity, given their identical children names that were complete homophones. It was a stupid assertion, but he’d said it anyway, and not because he’d held out any kind of vague, frail hope.

No, in reality, he just hadn’t wanted to ask someone he’d known for ten years what his name was.

If they’d only known each other online, maybe it would have been fine, but they’d met in person many times; they called each other by name constantly. The name “Ye Qiu” itself was famous, and matched so perfectly with One Autumn Leaf that no one had ever thought to question it. Learning his name was Ye Qiu had made perfect sense. Learning it was not…

They met ten years ago already, had interacted consistently for a whole decade—he’d trusted Han Wenqing with his life. It was just too much to go from that to asking for his name.

So he didn’t.)

“You let everyone you know call you by your brother’s name for eight years.”

“Actually, I was using a bunch of his stuff at 15, so a lot of people ended up calling me his name for the three years beforehand, too. It wasn’t really anything new.”

Han Wenqing thought Ye Xiu had rather missed the point.

“Oh, but you’re going to have to keep calling me ‘Ye Qiu’ where anyone could hear,” Ye Xiu continued. “I work in a public place right now, so if the media gets wind of this it’d be pretty awkward.”

Han Wenqing snorted, but didn’t disagree. “Are you intending to stay ‘Ye Qiu’ publicly?”

“No, I’ll use my own name when I come back,” Ye Xiu said. “But there are some legal things that are more convenient like this for now. We can just say I was using a stage name while I was still acting as a beta, it shouldn’t cause any problems.”

“You don’t think his frequent appearance for legalities will tip anyone off?” There were certainly enough people asking about Lord Grim’s constant appearances when “Ye Qiu” should be busy already.

“Everyone involved signed NDAs, and anyone who just saw him coming and going would be more likely to assume I’d decided to dress up some than that I had a twin who was handling things for me.” Ye Xiu seemed unconcerned. “Wouldn’t that normally be a bit of a reach? And yet Ye Qiu said you didn’t even give him a second look.”

“He looked too healthy,” Han Wenqing said bluntly.

Ye Xiu laughed. “Good thing all the people who might care to keep track of my health are on my side.”

In terms of apparent physical differences, it really was mostly general health that separated the twins. For anyone who wasn’t too close to Ye Xiu, one twin on their own would be more likely to register as “behaving oddly” than “a completely different person.”

It wasn’t, however, the main reason Han Wenqing had known the man before him that day was not his Ye Qiu. If it were just that, even he might have thought Ye Qiu had started taking care of himself more after he left the poisonous environment of Excellent Era. Unlikely as it seemed, it was possible that Ye Qiu would start considering his health. They were, in the end, pro gamers. Health mattered.

No, what had tipped him off most was that that Ye Qiu looked distinctly uncomfortable as they drew nearer. Ye Qiu had never, in all the time they’d known each other, looked unhappy to see him. It was a strange thing to notice only then, and only in contrast to someone identical who reacted so differently, but there it was: Through all their years of rivalry, even the year Tyranny had beaten Excellent Era to the championship, Ye Qiu had never looked unhappy when Han Wenqing approached. Not that he necessarily looked pleased, either; he tended to maintain a certain level of calm expressionlessness, or maybe teasing mockery, occasionally his eyes would light up with the excitement or focus of facing a challenge, a competitor—but not discomfited or displeased. Never, at any point at all, no matter how many others Han Wenqing’s demeanor had cowed, had he shown that kind of trepidation.

(Not to mention his dormant instincts, completely unaffected by the man’s presence, as had not been the case from even the first time he’d met Ye Qiu. As a competitor, as a friend, that one time only as an omega, his instincts had always responded to Ye Qiu as someone important. For this man, they were silent.)

As for how Han Wenqing knew it was a twin, not someone masquerading as Ye Qiu, he’d decided that even Ye Qiu wasn’t so shameless as to hire someone to, with the assistance of a frankly unlikely level of makeup work, pretend to be him for the duration of the case. It was just a complete waste of effort.

Sending an identical twin to act as Ye Qiu, on the other hand, seemed like exactly the level of shamelessness and low-effort he could expect from Ye Qiu, especially to make sense of all the time he spent on Lord Grim, as well as his claim that his family would involve themselves in the case.

Where “Ye Qiu himself showed up but it turns out he’s not the Ye Qiu anyone expected” ranked, though, was hard to say.

Probably not high, unless you counted the years everyone was calling Ye Xiu “Ye Qiu.”

Well. Enough of that. “I’m ready,” Han Wenqing told Ye Xiu.

“So fast?” came his laughing reply. Moments later, Ye Xiu had drawn the aggro of a truly excessive number of NPCs. “Okay, let’s go!”

Han Wenqing’s Striker, Blank Inferno, and Ye Xiu’s Lord Grim fell into step without another word. With the level disparity and NPCs’ comparative weakness, it couldn’t compare to how they would perform together onstage. Still, it was better than nothing, and Han Wenqing didn’t want to wait around for their levels to line up better when he had a chance to start now. His observation of Lord Grim’s style in relation to the NPCs, at least, would be fairly accurate.

In fact, it wasn’t that Han Wenqing had already completely seen through Ye Xiu’s attack patterns; an Unspecialized was not so simple. It was that the dungeon wouldn’t go on forever, and he preferred to learn through action regardless. Their coordination was quite good—few would know each other as well as decade-long rivals—but certainly imperfect. Ye Xiu still knew Han Wenqing, but Han Wenqing knew Ye Xiu as a Battle Mage, not an Unspecialized, and it showed. He’d have to relearn Ye Xiu’s preferences for movement and timing, the distribution and preferred combinations of all 120 skills available to Lord Grim.

Han Wenqing was a pro playing a well-equipped character a full 15 levels above the monsters of this dungeon: There was nothing there that could seriously hurt them. But those 15 levels also meant the strength of their skills did not match, and Ye Xiu was too damn fast on Lord Grim to match his memories.

“What attack speed does that have?” Han Wenqing finally asked.

“Five.”

“Which form?”

“Every form.”

Han Wenqing took a moment to process that. “How long can you keep it up?”

Ye Xiu smirked. “Who do you think I am?”

Han Wenqing felt, without his conscious permission, the corners of his mouth tug upward.

“Everyone else might have to rotate, though,” Ye Xiu continued. “I have such an unfair advantage.”

“Really?”

“Obviously.”

Han Wenqing snorted. “Alright.”

“There’s two players I could probably bring in for it, too,” Ye Xiu offered, with every sign of sincerity.

Han Wenqing didn’t stop him. “What level?”

“A rookie and a trainee, but the trainee mostly just needs real experience at this point.”

“Hm.” Han Wenqing’s response didn’t give a clear indication either way.

“More importantly,” Ye Xiu continued, “they’ve been practicing with my Unspecialized, so the integration might go better. Even pros, or maybe especially pros, would have trouble adapting too quickly, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have them as an option.”

“Okay,” Han Wenqing said, but on Ye Xiu’s end Chen Guo was already talking over him.

“Trainee? Do you mean RouRou?!” Chen Guo was extremely excited. “You think she could be a pro?!”

“Easily,” Ye Xiu replied, pulling the mic away from his mouth but not taking his eyes from the screen. No matter how well he knew Han Wenqing, actually working with him was still new territory that required further exploration. “She has a fairly good handle on her instincts, a lot of drive, and an exceptional thirst for victory. So long as she wants to and doesn’t get bored, she shouldn’t have any trouble.”

Chen Guo was almost vibrating. Someone she knew, someone she had introduced to Glory, might really make it onstage! A year ago, could she have imagined Tang Rou might actually go onstage alongside Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng?!

“Whether she can be a pro at Tyranny is a different matter, though,” Ye Xiu continued, cutting into her thoughts. “There are other concerns, and in the end it isn’t up to me. But her skill is there, and I don’t think Tyranny will easily pass up the chance to use it.”

It was only with his saying this that Chen Guo remembered, everything was different now than it had been a year ago. Ye Qiu was Ye Xiu, and he’d be playing for Tyranny, not Excellent Era. Su Mucheng had already moved there herself. If Tang Rou became a pro with them, it wouldn’t be just a matter of crossing the street to see her anymore. It would be sad, but to become a pro… It wasn’t like Chen Guo didn’t know by now, no one stayed as an Internet café manager forever. If Tang Rou’s next job was something so incredible, obviously she would support it no matter what, even if it meant no more shared meals and long dramas together.

By the time she pulled herself out of her thoughts, Ye Xiu was looking around for another dungeon to join, and Han Wenqing was gone.

“Where’d he go?” she asked, surprised. It had looked like they were actually practicing before, but in just a few minutes it was already over? Could they really have figured things out so fast?

“He wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place,” Ye Xiu reminded her. “Besides, being the captain of a pro team is a job, not just for fun. He can’t disappear all morning to do whatever he wants.”

“Isn’t getting ready for next season’s team important?” Chen Guo argued. Even if she knew it made sense, she didn’t like the idea that Han Wenqing had abandoned Ye Xiu again so quickly.

Ye Xiu laughed. “Not more important than this season’s team. Or what, did you think the whole Pro Alliance would just wait for me to come back? Tyranny isn’t on break! Don’t you want to see Mucheng win?”

Chen Guo humphed. Of course she did! But if Su Mucheng could put the effort in to do both, why couldn’t Han Wenqing?

She had, conveniently, forgotten all about the legal issues again.

“Come on, didn’t you come over to help me level?” Ye Xiu prodded. “The less time I’m out in the open, the better.”

“I’m almost there,” Chen Guo replied, shaking off her mood. Even after all this time, there was still some part of her that thought it was amazing. She was helping to raise a pro character. One that would genuinely appear onstage. And there weren’t many who even could help like this, not many Ye Xiu could trust, but there was her. Amidst legalities, politics, and confusion, there was her.

It was a little thing, but it still meant a lot. For a trust that simple and straightforward, there was her.

 

It didn’t take long for the open accounts from Heavenly Justice to arrive. Ye Xiu immediately logged on to the first one, a Knight, to see that it had decent equipment and Heavenly Swords’ main accounts on its friends list. He’d only just finished checking over the equipment and skills distribution when Loulan Slash sent him notice of a wild boss they’d heard of.

Since he’d only just received the max level accounts, they hadn’t had time to gather any other guilds to help them out yet. If it was just a few lower level guilds, Ye Xiu would have tried anyway, but the situation seemed nothing like that.

“I’ll just go check it out this time,” Ye Xiu told Loulan Slash. Though he was a god, he couldn’t immediately know what situation all of the guilds were in at any given time. Scouting out the balance of power and general maneuvering in these situations would be a good idea for later.

Not to mention, on the list of guilds present was Tyrannical Ambition. While Ye Xiu rushed over, he logged into Lord Grim on another computer to send a message to Wandering Peak, Jiang You’s main account.

“I heard there’s a boss, I’m coming to help out. Where should I meet up with you?”

Jiang You almost had a heart attack. “Don’t!!!!” was his immediately reply.

“?” Ye Xiu was only using Lord Grim to communicate and typing on two keyboards at once was a pain, so he only sent this minamilist kind of message.

“Don’t bring Lord Grim here!” Even after he’d calmed down a little, Jiang You still felt it was necessary to use an exclamation point for emphasis. Even then, it would be too weird to just leave it at that, so he felt he had to explain a little. “It’s still,” he paused. It was somehow really awkward to explain. “There are a lot of arguments right now,” he finally settled on. “And in a boss fight, we can’t afford…”

“Still like that?” Seeing how flustered Jiang You was, Ye Xiu actually took the time to send a proper message. “Well, the passion of the players isn’t weak, so it’ll probably be a bit longer, that’s fine. Don’t worry, for now I’m on an open account, a Knight called Deep Sea Fortress. I’ll be there soon.”

Jiang You was baffled, but that didn’t stop Ye Qiu from showing up with his Knight not long after. His explanation of his identitay as a “passing expert” seemed lazy, but who would guess some random Knight hanging around Tyrannical Ambition was actually Ye Qiu? No one, apparently. At most they would think of Zheng Chenfeng, Tyranny’s own pro Knight.

In any case, the uncertainty made the other guilds wary, the fight began in a mess from a few casual actions, and then a Spitfire showed up in a dazzle of light that matched Ye Qiu’s for skill.

To match Ye Qiu, then…a pro player? A Spitfire god? Zhang Jiale?!

Jiang You felt that his life had gone completely out of control.

Meanwhile, Zhang Jiale was having a similar feeling. Did that Knight just perform a Heroic Leap by jumping off of his grenade?! In terms of skill, wasn’t that a bit too much?!

Zheng Chenfeng certainly didn’t have skill like that. “Who are you?!”

“Oh?” Ye Xiu grinned. “Don’t you know?” Deep Sea Fortress smacked Dazzling Spring down into the boss.

The battle between them was a wild exchange of skills around and through the boss, at least until Deep Sea Fortress could pass Blade Master Lang Rui to Tyrannical Ambition’s own Knights. Under the onslaught of the Hundred Blossoms technique, on this open account with no guild bonuses, Deep Sea Fortress could only fall.

But he was prepared, so the second Dazzling Spring turned around, the Knight jumped up again after the Revive took effect and attacked with a Charge.

“What are you doing here? You can’t really have decided to run to the game to bully noobs. You’re better than this!” Ye Xiu scolded.

“What are you doing here?” Zhang Jiale immediately returned. “You’re not supposed to be with Tyranny, right?”

“I’m a casual passerby,” Ye Xiu said righteously. “If I end up helping Tyranny get the boss, so what? I have my own plans. Even if I were only here to help Tyranny, there’s nothing wrong with preparing myself for the future, either. What about you? Why are you back here with them?”

Zhang Jiale didn’t answer, suddenly dodging out of Ye Xiu’s continuous attacks. Ye Xiu clicked his tongue and immediately retreated, with Zhang Jiale chasing after.

On Tyrannical Ambition’s side, someone moved close to Jiang You and whispered to him. “This Deep Sea Fortress, could he be…”

“Don’t say it!” Jiang You whispered back fiercely, then quickly calmed himself. “I know already, don’t worry about it.”

Ye Qiu was calling for healing, completely ruining the picture of a high-level 1v1. Still, he’d come to help, so Jiang You decisively ordered Tyrannical Ambition’s main force to support him.

With the level of this fight and Zhang Jiale’s liberal use of his own distinctive style, Blossom Valley didn’t take long to come to a conclusion as to Dazzling Spring’s identity and back him up. With Clerics on both sides to heal them, the fight became completely pointless, and Zhang Jiale abandoned Ye Xiu in order to join the conflict between guilds instead.

“What is it with you and running away from things?” Ye Xiu shouted as he chased after him. “So quick to give up!”

“I’ll come deal with you in a bit,” Zhang Jiale said calmly. His attacks fell over the area, making it nearly impossible to see, and the players of Tyrannical Ambition watched helplessly as their health dropped. Fight back against Dazzling Spring? They couldn’t even find him!

Then he abruptly appeared again, all of his attacks focused on a single Knight from Tyrannical Ambition.

“Not bad!” Ye Xiu didn’t forget to praise the Knight for accurately Provoking Dazzling Spring amidst the chaos of lights even as he ran up to start his own assault.

Unfortunately for Blossom Valley and Dazzling Spring, it took too long for the guild to realize what had occurred. By the time they tried to cast a Focus on Dazzling Spring to dispel the Provoke, a second Provoke from an even more distant Knight had drawn him out of range.

Just like that, Dazzling Spring died, and Blossom Valley went wild with rage. Though some might find it moving, Ye Xiu just thought they were too hot-headed. Hadn’t that guy already revived in the city? What did they care so much for?

As for him, he was already back by Jiang You, asking about the situation with the boss and making preparations to take it. At first the Knights and Clerics were unhappy to have been put under his command, but everything changed the moment he instakilled more than 20 players on the front-line in one fell swoop.

Instakilled. Other than something like Life-Risking Strike, which move in Glory would actually let you instakill another player? How would that count as balanced gameplay? But in one moment, this Deep Sea Fortress was able to do it. And not to just one victim, either—over 20 players.

He hadn’t killed every enemy on the frontlines, but amidst the terror he’d caused, a single step forward sent all the other players scuttling back. In just that moment, he’d been able to clear the way for Tyrannical Ambition to set his plan into motion.

Someone so violent, with such overwhelming power. Who could it be? None of them could think of anyone.

Even though he’d just done something so incredible, Deep Sea Fortress didn’t seem to care at all, asking everyone about their cooldowns and preparing to enact his plan. At this point, none of them felt unwilling to listen.

The plan was simple, but involved discernment so precise it still took the players from Tyrannical Ambition a few consecutive Provokes to realize what was happening. Just like that, with Deep Sea Fortress’s impeccable timing, the Knights diligently following orders, and Samsara blocked by Deep Sea Fortress’s Cleric-backed rampage, wild boss Blade Master Lan Rui fell into Tyrannical Ambition’s hands.

Having achieved this, Ye Xiu ran back to where Blossom Valley was still wildly waging war with Tyrannical Ambition, completely ignoring the boss.

“What are you fooling around for?! That guy wasn’t ever waiting for you! See, he’s long since revived!”

In an instant, Blossom Valley was riled up again into even greater madness, charging toward Deep Sea Fortress all at once.

Leading directly to another eight consecutive instakills.

“Would anyone else like to try?” Deep Sea Fortress asked sternly, standing alone with corpses at his feet. No one dared to get close to him.

The players from Blossom Valley hoped their God would suddenly descend from the sky and crush the demon, but Dazzling Spring’s corpse really had long since disappeared. There was only Deep Sea Fortress, and behind him all of Tyrannical Ambition working together to take down the boss.

Blossom Valley, and then Samsara, left without further struggle.

With nothing better to do, Jiang You sent a message to the now motionless Deep Sea Fortress.

“Are you joining us from now on?” he asked. By now, Deep Sea Fortress had left enough of an impression that no one would think it weird if he just said he’d been testing a rogue expert’s skill and now chose to invite the Knight into Tyrannical Ambition.

“It’s not convenient, I’m only borrowing this account for now,” Ye Xiu replied.

Before Jiang You could ask anything about this random account, the chat filled up with a clearly copy-pasted list of materials. “What’s this?”

“My fee!” Ye Xiu responded immediately. “Didn’t I just help you get a boss? This is the price.”

Jiang You’s feelings of goodwill toward Ye Qiu dropped dramatically. “You really need to make us pay for that?”

“Mm, yeah, I still can’t be associated with your club, yet, and I’m not a charity,” Ye Xiu told him. “What are you being so hesitant for, isn’t it for my weapon?”

It was obviously a losing deal, but Jiang You had no choice but to make it. He sent a message to some of the extra members in the guild to fetch the materials. The list wasn’t beyond their capabilities, but it really was enough to make any guild leader’s heart hurt. In the end, did they even gain anything from this boss?!

“Think of it as a morale booster,” Ye Qiu suddenly sent, surprising Jiang You.

“Morale booster?”

“You’ve been having trouble getting bosses because of the inner guild problems, right? But here you go, boss achieved! With an overwhelming victory, and a bunch of people working well together, too.”

Jiang You paused. That was actually true. In the face of Ye Qiu’s ability, even though none of them knew who he was, everyone was equally moved.

“Besidses, ‘payment’ is only an excuse. Just think of it like you sent the materials to R&D.”

Ye Qiu had already reminded him of this before, but it took until now for Jiang You to actually remember that Lord Grim’s weapon was one Club Tyranny would have to develop regardless. In fact, that Ye Qiu was developing the weapon himself was a huge time-saver for them, not to mention the cost of all the materials he’d taken from the other guilds along the way. And that was if anyone else could have even figured out a weapon design like this—from what he’d gathered from his spies in the other guilds, it was likely none of the other clubs felt confident in a half-decent replication.

“Okay, let me know if you can come again,” Jiang You said helplessly. Ye Qiu really came and went as he pleased, regardless of the chaos he left in his wake.

“Sure, but it’s not likely until the case settles properly,” Ye Qiu said. Jiang You had, in fact, completely forgotten about the legal proceedings as well. “There’s still a little more to go yet… Well, anyway, you’ll have time. Good luck!”

Ye Qiu left as soon as he received the materials, leaving Jiang You to wonder what he could possibly mean by that.

 

Ye Xiu, for his part, was messaging Zhang Jiale on QQ. He hadn’t missed that Zhang Jiale revived without a word to Blossom Valley.

“You weren’t there with them at all,” Ye Xiu sent, in reference to their earlier exchange. “You didn’t even try to coordinate. Why were you trying to help with the boss battle, then? Repenting?”

It was a joke, but Zhang Jiale unexpectedly replied seriously. “Yup,” he said. “I owe them.”

Even if it was unexpected, Ye Xiu’s response wasn’t slow. “You owe them, so this is what you’re doing? You’re just confusing them!”

Zhang Jiale was surprised. “I…”

“You’re trying to help the team out of guilt, I understand. But with you still there, coming back to the game, fighting for them without an explanation, how are they going to forget you? How are they going to accept their new core and move on?”

Zhang Jiale didn’t know how to answer. He wanted to help them, but in the end, was he actually just helping himself? Was it all for his own satisfaction?

“If you really can’t let go, come dungeon with me!” Ye Xiu sent a new message. “Research is research, no matter what you’re doing, learning an Unspecialized will be important.”

“You want me to carry you?” Zhang Jiale asked, disbelieving.

“Every single pro right now wants to get a good look at this Unspecialized, okay? I’m giving you an amazing opportunity. Even Hundred Blossoms probably wants to know about it.”

“That…”

“So whatever you choose, it doesn’t matter!” Ye Xiu concluded. “If you come with me, you’ll be doing something useful.”

This time, Ye Xiu didn’t say anything into the pause that followed.

“Fuck, fine,” Zhang Jiale finally replied. He didn’t know of any other wild boss spawns right now, so there really wasn’t anything else to do. And, honestly speaking, every single pro who still had any interest in the Alliance at all wanted a closer look at that weapon. “Which dungeon are you doing?”

 

Zhang Jiale stayed with him through multiple dungeons. The Unspecialized really was something incredible, with so many short and fast skills together at once. Against NPCs, and especially when his opponents were so low-level, Zhang Jiale wouldn’t need the Hundred Blossoms style, but even their normal coordination was quite good.

They’d just entered a new dungeon when Ye Xiu suddenly stopped. “Oh, boss spawned, hold on.”

And then he logged out.

As Ye Xiu made his way to the boss’s location on a Battle Mage called Distant Horizon, Zhang Jiale was aggressively messaging him on QQ.

“Fuck you!!” he began, eloquently. “This was all a plan to keep me out of boss battles?!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, didn’t I already explain why you shouldn’t come to boss battles? Researching an Unspecialized has nothing to do with it! Besides, it’s not like I actually trapped you in there. If you don’t want to see any more of my class, you could just finish the dungeon on your own. It’s a low-level boss, though, by the time you finish there might not be much you can do.”

In Glory, once someone entered a dungeon, they could only complete it, force quit into Critical Illness, or die; there was no costless way to leave. Dying would obviously be a bad move if he wanted to chase after a boss, Critical Illness made a character essentially useless, and completing it would take time. Ye Xiu really had effectively blocked Dazzling Spring from joining the boss battle, but it wasn’t impossible for Zhang Jiale to have another account around, either. If he decided to truly commit himself to Hundred Blossoms again, there’d be nothing Ye Xiu could do about it.

Still, it wasn’t the kind of thing Ye Xiu would worry about, so he didn’t. The information from Heavenly Justice said there were five guilds present already; none of them were Tyrannical Ambition.

In fact, this was Tyrannical Ambition’s greatest issue with boss fights recently, even more than poor coordination: Too many players were in the arena settling arguments, making their information network for bosses much slower than expected for Tyranny’s usually well-organized fanbase. This was one of the main reasons Ye Xiu wasn’t worried about building his own group to take down bosses: If Tyrannical Ambition wasn’t there to take it, better Ye Xiu got some than none of it.

The plan for this boss was easy: Ye Xiu, Wei Chen, and the Warlock’s group would destroy reinforcements before they could arrive at the battle as they made their own way over, and Loulan Slash would lead the charge against the boss itself. Once Ye Xiu arrived, he and Wei Chen split the map and each led a team through the battlefield, causing chaos amongst the other guilds so that Heavenly Justice would have the advantage.

For a low-level boss, the big guilds wouldn’t send out their main forces; a plan like this was more than enough. The boss fell without suspense, and Loulan Slash and Ye Xiu evenly split the rewards.

“Where’s my reward?” Wei Chen groused. “You didn’t see me doing all that work?”

“I saw you playing around alright,” Ye Xiu dismissed. He knew that Wei Chen and his group loved these kinds of battles; it could hardly be considered work for them. “Besides, haven’t you received the suppressants by now? How are they?”

“You’re fucking unfair, is how they are,” Wei Chen complained. “You had something this good from the start, of course you were winning championships left and right. It’s like I can’t even feel it!”

After Han Wenqing had messaged Wei Chen to tell him Tyranny was interested in his data, Ye Xiu and Wei Chen had gotten together to complete the trade. Over the course of their conversation, Ye Xiu had been able to figure out that Wei Chen was doing some kind of really strange setup with his suppressants, using full suppressants only for the intervals between normally-timed heats. With receptor antagonists, though, this wasn’t a bad option—by maintaining a normal rhythm, the signals that had nowhere to go wouldn’t build up to a dangerous degree, and his body would have time to recover frequently. Better yet, between those times, he could at least outwardly pass as a beta.

Inwardly, though, his body would still be at war.

Ye Xiu’s suppressants, as proper inhibitors, kept his system from sending out any signals at all, regardless of where he might otherwise be in his heat cycle. It would feel exactly like removing one’s dynamic entirely.

Of course, Wei Chen’s idea that Ye Xiu would gain some kind of advantage by being an omega under suppressants was completely off-base. They could only make Ye Xiu like any other person, not someone some order of magnitude better.

“So you have them and they work,” Ye Xiu said. “There you go, your reward.”

Wei Chen grumbled, but couldn’t actually complain. He was well aware the suppressants were worth many times more than a guest appearance at a wild boss competition.

By the time they took down the boss, most of the small guilds had already left, so Ye Xiu’s plan was to rope them all in whenever the next boss appeared. Anyone who still showed up on the fringes probably had the determination necessary to join, and in terms of advertising skill, his use of a Battle Mage should be more than enough.

“Hey, I’m coming back now,” Ye Xiu sent to Zhang Jiale on QQ, and got a middle finger emoji in return. But Dazzling Spring was still there when he logged in, and from that Ye Xiu could already see his decision.

Zhang Jiale did not intend to return to Hundred Blossoms as its ace.

 

Heavenly Justice had been especially active lately due to Loulan Slash’s recent publicity, contrasting his and the clubs’ guilds in the wake of the post denouncing those guilds that had made a wild boss the prize of a private tournament. With the addition of the wild boss kill announcement, the players were very excited to contribute to their guild and future team’s development. For this reason, when Conquering Clouds was able to find a mid-level boss and begin slaughtering it, Heavenly Justice didn’t take long to get the same information and follow up.

Ye Xiu came with them on the same Battle Mage account as the last fight, Distant Horizon. Conquering Clouds had no time to try to thoroughly clear the field, either, and could only keep an eye out when new people showed up in the area.

As such, when Distant Horizon appeared, the guild leader was notified immediately. Conquering Clouds had been at the periphery of the last wild boss battle, and come to the same conclusion as everyone else: a Battle Mage skilled enough to be a pro, taking command of the field to run over no less than five other guilds, had to be Ye Qiu.

Speaking of Ye Qiu, Conquering Clouds was in a somewhat awkward position with regards to him. Sun Xiang was originally from their team, and the situation between Sun Xiang and Ye Qiu right now was extremely unclear. Excellent Era had tried to push the idea that Ye Qiu had endangered, maybe even assaulted, Sun Xiang, while Han Wenqing had made Sun Xiang sound like an unfortunate casualty of an assault on Ye Qiu, and then Sun Xiang had publicly challenged Han Wenqing, most likely over courting Ye Qiu himself… Really, the whole thing was a mess.

Ye Qiu, though, didn’t seem to care in the least. He immediately got down to business, stating in no uncertain terms that they were here for the boss, and there wasn’t much Conquering Clouds could do about it. Who could argue with that? Conquering Clouds wouldn’t be able to take on a single major guild’s side-unit for a boss, let alone forcefully push away five other contenders as Ye Qiu had. They were a weak team from the start, though, and managing to get a wild boss in the first place would always have been an unexpected windfall. If he had to leave it to Ye Qiu or whoever else came along, then so be it.

Except, that didn’t seem to be Ye Qiu’s intention at all. He offered them an alliance, in the hopes of contending with even the main elites of multiple major guilds as their own entity.

“How about it? You might as well try, right?” Ye Qiu said. “Tiny Herb is already on their way, you know, we can’t think about this forever.”

What could he even say to that? To actually make an alliance to get wild bosses, one lead by Ye Qiu? Of course it was worth it, even if this boss here would be split three ways. With Tiny Herb on the way, it wasn’t likely they’d have succeeded in getting anything at all on their own in the first place.

As for Ye Qiu taking a full third of the materials for himself, there was nothing to object to. God Ye Qiu was absolutely worth that much.

The boss fell before Tiny Herb could arrive, baffling their guild leader Arisaema. Since when did Conquering Clouds have that kind of strength? They didn’t even have an elite team for wild bosses, right? But in the end, it was still only a mid-level boss, not worth getting worked up about. Small guilds had luck sometimes, too.

The next wild boss reported was level 70, found by Radiant, but they hadn’t gotten too far into attacking it when the bigger guilds showed up. Radiant was a guild that never gave up on pursuing wild bosses, even though their strength definitely wasn’t enough to contend with the larger guilds. Sure, sometimes it got their whole team wiped—in fact, most frequently that was the result—but it also sometimes got them the wild boss, too.

This time was clearly not going to be one of those cases.

Radiant’s guild leader didn’t even make it to the boss before the group in charge of handling it was taken out by the other major guilds.

In his frustration, Guild Leader White Stream was met with Ye Qiu’s Distant Horizon and an offer of a long-term alliance of smaller guilds. The two most recent announcements of wild boss kills by Heavenly Justice and Conquering Clouds was proof enough that they were at least doing better than he was, so it was worth a shot.

Though, if they were doing so well together, and Ye Qiu had already swept through the guilds last time to give Heavenly Justice alone a chance, why didn’t they go for it this time?

“Aside from facing the elite teams being a completely different idea from causing a little chaos in thrown-together second unit teams, Tyranny’s going to get this boss.”

“We can’t fight for a boss Tyrannical Ambition is going to get?” White Stream asked unhappily. He didn’t question how Ye Qiu knew it would be Tyranny; he himself had already received reports that Tyranny had completely wiped out Misty Castle, the guild that had taken the boss from Radiant, the moment they arrived. For some reason they seemed to be remarkably fired up today, and definitely unwilling to wait around and try politics with the other guilds. They were acting like they’d rather die than fail this time, and had the stamina and ferocity to back it up.

“You can if you want, but I won’t join you.”

How was that any different from saying they couldn’t have the boss if Tyrannical Ambition wanted it? From the start, the guild leaders were clear on this point. Without Ye Qiu, or possibly even with his working against them, could they win?

“Oh, another boss spawned!” Conquering Clouds’ guild leader, Yue Ziqin, suddenly said. His guild members hadn’t come here because the information that Tyrannical Ambition was on the warpath had come out early on. On top of the other guilds already present, Ye Qiu had immediately ruled that their current strength was insufficient to take this boss, even should Tyranny fail. “So, are you coming with us?” His relationship with White Stream wasn’t bad, so he just asked him directly.

Radiant had definitely lost out this time, and with this wipe his best players would be in the red for a while. If he wanted to get a boss, especially one he hadn’t even received any information on yet, it was at least worth trying this alliance out. With that in mind, White Stream agreed and they all set off to Sighing Ravine.

Sword Master Kayou, a level 70 wild boss, spawned in such a remote leveling area that it was often the target of the weaker guilds. The complicated terrain of Sighing Ravine made it easy to hide the wild boss as well, a perfect target for guilds who had to “poach” wild bosses out of sight of any others. Parade, who hadn’t tried for the other level 70 boss in the first place, was able to group up, clear a few players, and start moving the boss before Ye Xiu and the others even arrived.

Parade, like many of the other small guilds, had taken advantage of the furor that came with Lord Grim’s appearance in the Heavenly Domain at level 50, joining Heavenly Justice, and subsequent reveal as Ye Qiu in order to grab as many bosses as they could.

Who could have guessed that Ye Qiu himself would arrive as a Battle Mage with three different guilds at his back to force a piece of the action?

But the idea of a guild alliance was good enough that Martial Awareness, Parade’s guild leader, chose to buy in with 80% of the drops from Sword Master Kayou. That idea and the might of the three guilds standing around to watch, anyway.

And so, with that, Ye Xiu was able to gather together an alliance with the capability to rival the big guilds. After the first time they confused a few of the big guilds into not moving until too late, word finally spread, but what could any of the other guilds do about it?

Ye Qiu was never an easy opponent for them to contend with.

 

The days passed in this manner, Ye Xiu playing with Zhang Jiale on Lord Grim between attempts to snatch bosses. Su Mucheng and Qiao Yifan still joined Ye Xiu in his dungeoning when they could, bringing it up to a team of four pros in a 5-player dungeon. It was good for efficiency when it did happen, even with Ye Xiu’s taking the time to guide Qiao Yifan as well, but for the most part it was just Ye Xiu and Zhang Jiale. They would talk sometimes as they leveled, about the game or what they had been doing recently outside of it, catching up a bit after their respective disappearances from the public eye.

Through these interactions, Ye Xiu was able to determine that Zhang Jiale’s stunt with the wild boss was able to catch the attention of a few of the pro teams, and that he was at least considering their offers. Zhang Jiale, on the other hand, was able to determine that Ye Qiu was supremely confident in coming out on top in the legal proceedings. From what he understood of Su Mucheng and Han Wenqing, they had just as much confidence in Ye Qiu.

So then…why had Tyranny contacted him? It was one of his main hesitations concerning their offer. With Han Wenqing, Zhang Xinjie, Su Mucheng, and Ye Qiu on the team, would they really need him? He’d assumed their intent to recruit him was just a backup plan, in case Ye Qiu couldn’t join the team after they’d made all the preparations to work another god-level player into their lineup. But now that he’d seen the Unspecialized in action, it was clear that an Unspecialized and a Spitfire were not at all interchangeable in terms of class composition, so “convenient replacement” was not likely Zhang Jiale’s position in their minds.

“Tyranny offered me a position,” Zhang Jiale told Ye Qiu, finally deciding to just go for it. “Almost immediately after I showed up.”

“They did?” Ye Qiu obviously hadn’t heard, but didn’t seem too surprised or upset, either. “Damn, Old Han doesn’t do things by halves. So? What’s the issue? Why are we even talking about other teams when we could form a whole constellation in Tyranny? Don’t you want a championship?”

“Did you tell them to, then?” Zhang Jiale ignored that last question; every single pro wanted a championship, that was the point.

“No, I just said it might be hard for others to keep up. You should’ve seen by now, an Unspecialized is no joke.”

“Wait,” Chen Guo said from the side, noticing that Zhang Jiale had fallen into a considering silence. “You were serious?”

“What?” Ye Xiu pulled off an earphone and turned to her. “I was serious about what?”

“When you were talking about rotation, that wasn’t just trash talk?”

“Why would I be trash-talking when he was asking about serious concerns for our lineup next season…” Ye Xiu said helplessly. “How does that make any sense? You don’t think we can just toss together anyone and come out with a winning team, right? We have to think about this!”

“Then…is Zhang Jiale a good choice?”

“Yeah!” Ye Xiu didn’t have any hesitation at all. “Visual cover, magic damage, a veteran with good game sense, but from long enough back that he wouldn’t have the same clean and regulated foundation a lot of pros do now that would make it hard to adapt to an Unspecialized. He’s probably at least heard of the Unspecialized playstyle, if not actually fought one before. I can see why Tyranny invited him!”

“Do you think you can win?” Zhang Jiale asked suddenly. “With a whole new class, a whole new team?”

“Absolutely,” Ye Xiu said, turning back to the game.

“Do you think you could win with me?”

“Well, that second-place curse is pretty strong…”

“Fuck you!” Dazzling Spring fired a shot point blank into Lord Grim’s head, but they were on the same team so nothing happened.

“It would depend on what you’re willing to do, and whether or not you can keep up,” Ye Xiu said more seriously. “I think your skills are just fine, but you’re the one who retired. What do you think you can do?”

Then Ye Xiu, having received notice of a wild boss spawn, logged off of Lord Grim and left Zhang Jiale standing alone in the dungeon with his thoughts.

 

The boss that had spawned was the World Tree’s Forest Guardian Vich. A combination of luck and the recent rise in status of the four guilds in the guild alliance, which allowed them to clear the field more efficiently than before, led to their team not having much competition for the boss. When selecting materials this time, Ye Xiu actually chose a few not on the list he’d written out before for the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella.

“What’re those for?” Chen Guo asked.

“Zhang Jiale,” Ye Xiu replied.

“Really? Why?” Chen Guo was surprised.

“Guardian Vich is a gunner, so his drops are better suited to gunners,” Ye Xiu explained.

“Who asked you about that?” Chen Guo waved him off impatiently. “Why are you getting things for Zhang Jiale? You want to bribe him?”

“No way,” Ye Xiu immediately refuted. “I can’t speak for Tyranny right now in the first place, how would I be bribing him? This is for silver equipment research after he joins. Tyranny doesn’t have a Spitfire on their roster right now, so they might not have much in storage.”

“You’re so sure he’ll join?”

“If Tyanny offered him the position, they’re serious about recruiting him. As for him, he’s going to choose us. There isn’t a team with a better lineup on paper.”

Chen Guo could hardly argue with that. Five All Stars on one team? Even just thinking about it was exciting.

Zhang Jiale didn’t say anything when Ye Xiu came back, and neither did he. Right now, Zhang Jiale still needed to think about it, to find a way to face up to the decisions he had made and would still make. It wasn’t a lack of skill that made Zhang Jiale retire; it was a mentality. But Ye Xiu didn’t believe he wouldn’t be able to overcome that stumbling block. Even his reappearance in the game was proof enough of that. No matter how the world cursed at him or threw obstacles in his way, Zhang Jiale couldn’t help but keep reaching for Glory.

Underneath everything else, in Zhang Jiale had always lived the heart of a champion.

 

“I’ve decided to go with Tyranny,” Zhang Jiale said a few days later.

“Oh? Good for you! You’ll finally be able to win a championship!” Ye Xiu congratulated him.

“We have to!” Zhang Jiale didn’t get angry this time. He was completely serious about this. For him right now, this was the most important thing.

“So, do you want to join me to get materials?”

“You’re not even helping Tyranny.” Zhang Jiale was not impressed. “You’re not even using Lord Grim.”

“Look, if Tyranny can’t get the whole boss, a fifth isn’t bad, right? I can’t work for Tyranny right now, and you can see Lord Grim is still only a few levels past 60. With you joining in, level 70 wild bosses will be much easier!”

Zhang Jiale was thinking about it when Ye Qiu suddenly continued, “Only level 70 bosses, though. Otherwise it’s more beneficial for you to just wait in the dungeon for my good news.”

Zhang Jiale raised his gun, but Lord Grim had logged out again.

 

Though his time in Excellent Era had ended fraught with tension, Club Excellent Era now was running as easily and normally as it had when Ye Xiu still lived there. He walked along the halls with his hands settled in his pockets, thinking about the result of this first ruling: The heat inducers did exist, and Ye Xiu had done nothing wrong. After months of concerted effort, the mere fact that it was an assault had been acknowledged.

As for who had done it, that still hadn’t been decided. But since Ye Xiu was assaulted under Excellent Era’s care and, most importantly, they had slandered him immediately afterward, his usage of the Safe Haven clause was valid, and he was allowed to at least indirectly interact with the Alliance again. “Indirectly” because the heat inducer used on him had not been identified, and they weren’t sure he couldn’t still affect other people. Nonsense, really, any doctor could clear him, but it meant he could easily get Sun Xiang medical attention as well, so he didn’t argue it. Until the culprit had been “found” and the origin of the heat inducer disclosed, Ye Xiu would just have to keep his distance.

“Old Ye? You’re back?” Ye Xiu was pulled out of his thoughts by a man with bright, intelligent eyes, leaning back to peer at him around a corner he’d just passed.

“Just passing by.” Ye Xiu laughed. Leave it to Guan Rongfei not to have any idea what was going on, despite being an omega himself. How could Ye Xiu actually be back? “What are you doing?”

“I got called in, they said they were required to tell me I could use the Safe Haven clause.” Guan Rongfei looked a little irritated at having been disturbed from his work. “Really, the time they’ve taken away from my projects just grows and grows…”

“They’re taking up your time?” Ye Xiu was baffled. While Guan Rongfei’s job was, technically speaking, just as an ordinary member of Excellent Era’s R&D team, he could be considered the backbone of research at Excellent Era. His passion for research wouldn’t lose to any pro’s passion for victory.

Guan Rongfei frowned. “They made it harder for me to get materials, I have to personally ask every time, and the team leader even wants to go over every design before I try it! They said it was a new general practice, but no one else is doing it. I barely get anything done anymore!”

Ye Xiu knew enough about Guan Rongfei to understand that “barely anything” was still quite a lot, but in terms of the kind of freedom he’d had before, it was absolutely ridiculous.

“Did something happen?” he had to ask.

“No. Well, Sun Xiang was called in to talk about the changes that needed to be made to One Autumn Leaf’s equipment, but I wasn’t the one talking to him.”

That it was after that that they started restricting his access went unsaid, but was clearly understood. Ye Xiu could immediately tell that this had something to do with how they felt an omega might be influenced by an alpha, but even then the reaction was too severe. If there was really nothing else specific…

“The issues first started after you left, though,” Guan Rongfei said.

Ye Xiu’s mouth pulled into a grimace on one side. As expected, it was more about his reveal as an omega than anything else. The negative feelings caused by the way he left Excellent Era seemed to be bleeding over into everything else, too.

Well, there wouldn’t be a better chance than this. “Do you want to come with me instead?”

“Oh? Where?” Guan Rongfei didn’t hesitate to ask.

“I have a place you can probably stay,” Ye Xiu said. “I can’t pay you anything much, and I don’t have a lot of in-game resources right now, but I’m in the middle of developing the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella and I can make sure you have food.”

“The Myriad Manifestations Umbrella!” Guan Rongfei’s eyes instantly lit up. “When do I start? Can we go now?”

“Wait, wait,” Ye Xiu said helplessly. “You can’t just leave Excellent Era! There’s an order to things. You still work here!”

Guan Rongfei looked impatient. “So I just have to turn in my resignation?”

“I’ll get my brother to send you a lawyer,” Ye Xiu said helplessly. Invoking the Safe Haven clause wasn’t designed to be hard, but with someone of Guan Rongfei’s ability, Excellent Era might really try to fight it, no matter what they were required to report to Guan Rongfei about his freedom to leave earlier. “It won’t take long, okay? Maybe tomorrow. You could probably pack in that time.”

“Oh, right!” Guan Rongfei looked enlightened. “My data, I can’t leave without that. Let me go get it.”

“Not right now,” Ye Xiu reminded. “You can message me on QQ, I’ll get someone else to handle it and come back to get you tomorrow.”

“Okay.” Guan Rongfei agreed, but he didn’t seem happy about it. “But I can start working on it now anyway, yes? The day is already almost over.”

Ye Xiu laughed. “Probably, I think. Remember to answer your messages, though! Otherwise you won’t be able to start.”

“Sure, sure.” Guan Rongfei still looked impatient, but now he looked a little more like he was already thinking about something else. “Tomorrow, right? See you then.”

And then he ran off without another word.

Well, it wasn’t really a problem. Ye Xiu could just send him any other details on QQ later.

 

The place for Guan Rongfei Ye Xiu was referring to was the room for an omega Chen Guo had finally remembered to get for him, a fact she’d introduced to him earlier that day before he left for Excellent Era.

“You want to let someone else stay there?” she asked, disbelieving.

“Yeah! I can just stay in the same room as before. It’s more convenient for work anyway.” Although Ye Xiu did a lot of his playing in the private room Chen Guo had set aside, he still worked shifts at the front desk. Because his main computer was often logged in to one of the side accounts, it wasn’t too obvious that he was the one playing Lord Grim.

“It’s the room I found for you,” Chen Guo insisted. It wasn’t too easy to find rooms for omegas, but after Ye Qiu’s visit she’d felt like she really had to put some effort into finding one. But now he wanted to give it to someone else?! Earlier he hadn’t seemed at all enthused about moving out, but directly giving it away?!

“If it’s my room, what does it matter what happens in it?” Ye Xiu reasoned. “You don’t have to worry about anything else, he’s no trouble at all and I’ll pay for his food.”

Since Ye Xiu’s smoking habit had died down drastically, buying Guan Rongfei his birdlike meals would be no hardship for him. With his personality, Ye Xiu was confident in telling him to order whatever he wanted for food; he’d be able to cover it.

“You can’t get two places to live!” Chen Guo insisted, exasperated. “That’s not covered!”

“Oh, so now the storeroom counts as a place to live?” Ye Xiu asked, looking aggrieved. “Didn’t you just say it wasn’t?” She had, in fact, in one of her earlier, ill-adivised attempts at convincing him to leave. She’d been all set to be a little melancholy about his moving out, but he completely ruined it by not even agreeing to go. “Really, I’m willing to live out of this place for so long, don’t you owe me a backlog of residency anyway?”

Chen Guo spluttered. There was definitely something wrong with this logic, but right now she was having difficulty telling what.

“So, is it fine then?” Ye Xiu prompted.

“Whatever!” Chen Guo threw her hands up in the air. “Do what you want, I don’t care either way anymore.”

 

Ye Qiu was very efficient. By the next day, he’d already let Ye Xiu know that Guan Rongfei was cleared to leave. Under the Safe Haven clause, Excellent Era was even required to give him enough money to sustain himself until he could find another job of similar level, too.

Technically speaking, Excellent Era owed this to Ye Xiu as well. However, they owed him a lot more than just “enough to sustain himself,” so it was better to wait to get anything from them. If he accepted some form of compensation now, they might try to argue down what recompense he should receive later.

With this money, Ye Xiu didn’t have to worry about how Guan Rongfei would be able to keep up with his suppressants. The type he used were not the same as Ye Xiu’s, and there had to be a limit to how many people Ye Xiu could get his family to pay for. They weren’t a dispensary.

Guan Rongfei got set up on the computer in the room Chen Guo had arranged and immediately began looking over his documents, comparing them to the information Ye Xiu had organized for him on the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella so far. The notes included what materials Ye Xiu might have access to right now and what his current thoughts on possibilities for the level 55 Myriad Manifestations Umbrella were, so Ye Xiu left him to it.

Even Guan Rongfei wouldn’t be able to fully understand equipment as complicated as the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella without some time.

 

With the next match day, Excellent Era announced that Sun Xiang could no longer play for the team, “for legal reasons that cannot be further discussed.” They expressed their disappointment in this outcome and their mental preparations for the worst, stirring up another round of animosity toward Ye Qiu. Many drew the conclusion that this was a petty version of revenge and sabotage from Excellent Era’s former captain, casting him in an extremely unflattering light.

The Alliance was no real help in the matter, stating only that they’d come to the conclusion that both Ye Qiu and Sun Xiang should not make physical contact with the Alliance until the matter had been further cleared up. From there, it was easy enough for people to say that Ye Qiu had pulled an “if I can’t, neither can he” sort of scheme, which would undoubtedly end Excellent Era’s season in tragedy.

“They make it sound like you attacked him!” Chen Guo fumed. She remembered the aftermath of Sun Xiang’s trip to her Happy Café, and Ye Xiu’s own analysis of his situation. Obviously Sun Xiang needed to be pulled for health reasons; why couldn’t they just say that?

“Otherwise they should say they attacked him?” Ye Xiu asked with a wry smile.

“Well, they did,” Chen Guo huffed. Sun Xiang’s health issues, both short and long term, were obviously the effect of Excellent Era’s own negligence.

Ye Xiu shook his head, amused. “It’s fine this way for now.”

The Alliance hadn’t specifically said Ye Xiu could interact with the clubs again, but they’d only specifically said he couldn’t interact with them in person, and they’d pretty much agreed there was no logner any chance that Ye Xiu had caused this problem himself. As far as Ye Xiu was concerned, that counted as permission.

He’d messaged Loulan Slash and Jiang You about his shift in allowances, preparing to switch from helping the guild alliance to helping Tyrannical Ambition. He’d tried to return the open accounts Loulan Slash had given him, but Loulan Slash had firmly refused on the grounds that it wasn’t much to them in the first place, and Ye Xiu’s help in setting up a long-term guild alliance for them was definitely worth that much. Ye Xiu had always taken a fair share of the profits from the bosses, but as far as any of the guild leaders were concerned, his role in starting the alliance in the first place and preventing it from falling apart over petty differences was worth more than that. After all, it wasn’t like this was the first time anyone had tried to make a guild alliance.

Wei Chen would be staying on, at least nominally, to join the alliance whenever he wanted to get any other rare materials. By now all of them were aware of his effectiveness as a commander and had no objections. Ye Xiu’s many open accounts and Dazzling Spring, who had only even had the chance to show up for a few level 70 bosses so far, would be changing their allegiance to Tyrannical Ambition.

“You’re bringing Lord Grim?” Jiang You asked hesitantly. Excellent Era’s implication that Ye Qiu had been the cause of Sun Xiang’s withdrawal, and was therefore likely to have sent his old team into relegations, had actually gained him some amount of support in Tyranny’s fans. Excellent Era was their long-time rival, and they couldn’t fault his resolution to strike back. Still, although outright squabbles that needed to be settled in the arena were calming down a bit, the contention definitely hadn’t ended yet.

“Not yet.” Ye Xiu sighed. “Lord Grim still needs to level. Well, and maybe rubbing the Alliance’s face in my joining up with you isn’t in the best move, but we’ll see how things look when I reach level 70.”

Jiang You breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay, then. And…Zhang Jiale is coming, too?”

“Yeah! He can’t get used to an Unspecialized’s playstyle with these side accounts, but at least I can get used to his. Everything I know about the Hundred Blossoms technique relates to avoiding it or taking it apart.”

Jiang You actually started to get excited. Two pros helping them out for their bosses? Wouldn’t that mean they’d more than make up for what materials they couldn’t get before?

“Oh, but he’s still helping Lord Grim level, so it might not always be convenient for him to show up.”

Jiang You groaned. Why did talking with Ye Qiu always give him the distinct feeling of being jerked around?

 

Ye Xiu had messaged Han Wenqing to ask for the club’s warmups the moment he’d been cleared. “Battle Mage and Ghostblade, if you have them,” he sent. “But general is fine if you don’t.”

“We don’t have a Battle Mage or Ghostblade on the roster right now,” Han Wenqing sent back some time later.

“Right, which is why I said general would be fine, too.”

The general warmups didn’t have the same kind of tailored, class-specific exercises a more targeted warmup could, but they weren’t bad, either. Especially since any club’s training camp wouldn’t forget to make sure their trainees had a decent understanding of every class before they went onstage.

“I’ll get it.”

“Oh, and I’m bringing my R&D guy to Tyranny.”

“Your what.”

Han Wenqing’s incredulity wasn’t out of line—nobody had a personal R&D team member working for them, and certainly not one that would follow them wherever they went. If nothing else, no team would just let their secrets go from club to club so easily.

“Yeah, something came up and it seemed like a good idea to get him onboard. I can’t upgrade the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella alone, you know, especially on top of everything else.”

Han Wenqing didn’t pause long. “Alright.”

“What, that easy?” Ye Xiu was surprised. “I didn’t even get to tell you how little he cares about money, yet. Not to mention, calling him the core god of Excellent Era’s R&D department couldn’t be considered flattery. I had all kinds of reasons lined up, and you don’t even care. How loaded are you right now?”

“Tyranny currently has the backing of several companies that either support or want to be seen supporting dynamics equality, and we estimate the number will only increase next season.”

“So what, you’re just not worried?”

“We’re not worried,” Han Wenqing confirmed.

Ye Xiu laughed. How very like Han Wenqing, to not concern himself over trivial matters when it came to the advancement of his team.

Strictly speaking, who the club hired was not the captain’s decision, but Han Wenqing’s willingness to offer a place to Ye Xiu and Su Mucheng that night at Excellent Era already showed what level of influence he had over the decision. Sure, the two of them were good investments in general, but the publicity and PR that would need to go into making the transfer of Tyranny’s hated enemy and an omega to their ranks wasn’t straightforward in the least. But Han Wenqing never backed down, so Ye Xiu never thought to question him.

If Han Wenqing said supporting all the monetary drains Ye Xiu kept introducing wasn’t a problem, then it wasn’t a problem. He was blunt and bold, but not stupid.

 

Almost two weeks into Tyranny’s sudden absolute dominance in wild boss battles, Luo Ji finally messaged Ye Xiu about the data he’d received. He’d somehow gotten his professor involved, come up with a whole mathematical model, and sent Ye Xiu something…totally incomprehensible. He had to tell him to use the same language as his guides, or he really wouldn’t get anywhere. Luo Ji was happy to do so, but any attempts by Ye Xiu to get him or even his professor to accept money for the work were firmly refused, no matter how Ye Xiu tried to explain how much this data was worth.

In the end, Luo Ji settled for asking if he could give him any other data to work with. He felt he’d learned a lot from the experience, especially since it allowed him to work together with his professor on what the man had called an “interesting problem.” It was the only thing Luo Ji would even consider as payment, even if it meant Ye Xiu couldn’t manage to give him anything at all, so Ye Xiu helplessly tossed him in Guan Rongfei’s direction. Ye Xiu didn’t have any data of his own, but Guan Rongfei might. In any case, he definitely knew much more about this kind of than Ye Xiu did, so it would probably be fine.

 

Ye Xiu had some regrets.

All of this?” Jiang You asked, incredulous. “Where did the bunch of materials you traded for at the start go?”

Ye Xiu had exchanged some of his bounty from the guild alliance for Guan Rongfei’s early requests, which included dungeon materials, but at this point he was pretty much out of materials Guan Rongfei was willing to let go of.

“Gone,” Ye Xiu said regretfully. Guan Rongfei’s tests were…extensive.

“Are you a materials black hole?!” The longer Jiang You spoke with Ye Qiu, the easier it got. He wasn’t actually hard to talk to at all, especially if he was on the same side.

Once he’d managed to really wrap his head around Ye Qiu’s skill and allow him his way accordingly, his life had become so much easier. Ye Qiu could and would not be jerked around, but on his own he didn’t actually seem to be trying to start trouble at all. Even his arrogance couldn’t really be counted as arrogance when he consistently backed it up with action.

“Just trying to support a materials black hole.” Ye Qiu didn’t sound in the least like he was joking. “I keep telling him I’m not a whole guild unto myself, but he really…doesn’t care…speaking of, I’m going to need another few boss drops this week, if we can get them.”

Jiang You keenly felt the dead-faced despair communicated through Deep Sea Fortress’s cold, blank gaze.

 

“Captain Ye!”

It wasn’t an appellation Ye Xiu expected to hear as he left Excellent Era after this second ruling, but there it was echoing in the halls regardless. Was there actually someone here who would still call him that?

Evidently there was. Qiu Fei was standing there, just the slightest hint of awkwardness visible around his determination.

“Oh, so it’s you!” Ye Xiu had an excellent impression of this youth. If Excellent Era had let things progress normally, he would have wanted him to take over One Autumn Leaf. Many of the people who’d joined Excellent Era later on had done so with its fame and prestige in mind, but Qiu Fei was more like the original team: He was here for Glory, and nothing else.

Having called out to him, Qiu Fei didn’t seem like he knew what else to say. From the start, he’d never believed Ye Qiu had been at fault for this situation, but the conflict between him and Excellent Era was definitely real. He knew better than anyone that Ye Qiu loved Excellent Era wholeheartedly, so this was hard to understand.

As for Ye Qiu’s being an omega, Qiu Fei himself was still unpresented, so he didn’t have much of an opinion on it. Ye Qiu had always only cared about Glory and victory, so his dynamic really couldn’t be that important, right? It certainly didn’t change any of who he was or what he’d accomplished.

“How have you been?” Ye Qiu asked, saving Qiu Fei from his floundering. “Has anyone been around to help you out recently?”

With Excellent Era so caught up in the legal case and their declining performance, who had time to make sure the training camp was getting the best care? Not to mention, how could any amount of training compare to when Ye Qiu had run over to personally coach him every day? Qiu Fei never complained, and he could hardly blame Ye Qiu for not being there, not least because it had been going beyond his duty to come train Qiu Fei in the first place. Still, Ye Qiu had asked, so Qiu Fei would answer. He shook his head mutely.

“Then, do you want to play a round?”

How was that even a question? Of course he did.

He hadn’t thought Ye Qiu would have a Battle Mage on hand now that One Autumn Leaf had been given to Sun Xiang—Sun Xiang, who was no longer able to play, anyway—but Ye Qiu casually pulled an account card out of his pocket, the same as he had when he’d still been Excellent Era’s captain, and loaded a Battle Mage called Distant Horizon into the game.

The match lasted a full 23 minutes, carefully exposing every flaw and opening in Qiu Fei’s play that he still needed to work on. 23 minutes. How much painstaking care and patience had gone into this match? Longer even than the ones he’d once played when still part of Excellent Era, it was like Ye Qiu was telling him that this was the last time. Qiu Fei’s eyes felt hot, and he blinked them quickly to disperse the feeling.

During the match, all of his pent-up emotions had come out, and he’d ended up venting all the frustration and confusion he’d felt all this time—about his captain, about his team, about his future now that the two things he’d admired so much were at odds. What was the right thing to do? What should he do? But this match here, and Ye Qiu’s taking the initiative to offer it to him, told him more than enough about the person he still admired most.

“Captain…” No matter who else the team had dragged in, Ye Qiu would always be “captain” to him. But, even so… “I…want to stay with Excellent Era.” It was a statement, but also a question, and a confession. He could tell that Ye Qiu wasn’t wrong, that he hadn’t changed. Then the one at fault must be Excellent Era.

Even so, he wanted to stay.

“Good.” Ye Qiu’s firm reply had Qiu Fei looking up in disbelief. Even if Ye Qiu didn’t resent him, he hadn’t really expected him to approve. “In my opinion, you’re the most suited to bring Excellent Era back to its former glory.”

Qiu Fei’s eyes were hot again. “You think I can?” You think it’s okay?

Ye Qiu sighed. “In the end, things are going to be different for Excellent Era. The exact outcome hasn’t been decided, but the direction of it has. You… Whatever happens, I think you’re the right person to bring Excellent Era back to its roots. Of the people here, you’re definitely the one who best embodies the spirit of a true person of Excellent Era.”

If the last of Excellent Era’s founding team said so, then Qiu Fei had no choice but to believe it. His hands clenched into fists, looking at Combat Form’s frozen figure on the screen. A true person of Excellent Era, building themselves up from their own solid foundations, rising again with the joy of competition and victory in their hearts.

“There’s going to be a lot of upheaval soon,” Ye Qiu reminded him. “When this all ends… In any case, you can believe I mean it, right? You’re a good kid. All you need to know is, I haven’t lost hope in our Excellent Era.” Ye Qiu’s eyes were bright with their own fire, as they had always been. “I certainly haven’t lost hope in you.”

Even without saying anything else, “our Excellent Era” was enough to convince Qiu Fei that he was on the right path. Whatever happened to Excellent Era, Ye Qiu couldn’t come back anymore, but Qiu Fei was still here. Qiu Fei would bring their team back again, as it should be.

“I won’t let you down,” he said firmly.

Ye Qiu laughed. “I know you won’t.”

 

With the end of the season came Excellent Era’s relegation, shocking many. Excellent Era’s PR had been on the slant of how this season had been “incredibly disappointing,” that it was an “unprecedented crisis” for them, and though the club had worked their hardest to handle the problems plaguing them, in the end it “could not be resolved” in time.

In short, they were blaming Ye Xiu’s suit.

So it was even more of a shock when, shortly after the main season ended, a result finally came out from the Alliance: Excellent Era’s management had broken their rules regarding nondiscrimination and criminal acts, and they would be investigating thoroughly before Excellent Era could continue as a team in the Alliance.

The news shook fans of Glory everywhere to the core. Han Wenqing had said from the start that Ye Qiu was drugged while under Excellent Era’s care, and earlier Sun Xiang had been pulled from competition, leading some to guess that the heat inducer might have affected him as well. His increasingly erratic behavior in the aftermath of the incident seemed to indicate something of this nature as well, so it was one of the more popular theories put forward beyond “Ye Qiu is now incredibly petty.” But Excellent Era’s management had done it? Not just allowing it to happen or negligently reporting the incident as Ye Qiu’s mistake, Excellent Era had literally criminally assaulted their former captain and ace?!

It was completely unacceptable. Those who’d still been defending the club, or had been swayed by Excellent Era’s consistent PR, were struck dumb. Quite a few posted about the shame they felt for associating with Excellent Era for so long, and turning on their captain. Their captain, who had, like the rest of his time in Glory, said nothing at all throughout this case. Who’d been attacked, slandered, ousted from the Alliance, forced to not contact anyone in his social circle directly, but steadily continued to level up anyway. Their captain who had to turn to Tyranny, their rival team, to save Su Mucheng, whom he’d raised himself, and even there he wasn’t welcome.

What had they all been slandering him for? Why had so many of them been willing to listen to Excellent Era at all, after their early blunders?

In fact, now that they thought of it—wasn’t it that Excellent Era wasn’t supposed to be saying anything about this case this whole time? How had they managed to put out related statements so many times? The Alliance hadn’t ever said a thing about it, so what, that meant it was okay?

Public opinion swung heavily in Ye Xiu’s favor.

“I’ll be bringing Lord Grim to boss fights within the next few days,” Ye Xiu told Jiang You.

“What? Why now?” Jiang You was aware at this point that Ye Qiu easily could have started bringing Lord Grim earlier, but was avoiding it to keep from causing any trouble. Was the Alliance’s public announcement of his situation good enough?

“Heavenly Justice has served its purpose,” Ye Qiu said, as if that explained anything. “Still, it’s best if I show up as already part of Tyranny’s main guild.”

“Isn’t this reversal kind of fast?” Jiang You asked.

Ye Qiu just laughed. “A bit, but people are like that. Besides, the Alliance’s way of announcing things gives me an excellent excuse.”

Jiang You understood that the announcement meant Ye Qiu was definitely free to interact with the Alliance again, but “people are like that”? What did that mean?

It didn’t take long for Jiang You to find out.

 

AggressionProfession

He owes us. Han Wenqing saved him.

 

Endline

He doesn’t owe us anything. Captain Han would never ask him to pay for saving him

 

EscapingWords

I…wrote the fic where he did…I’m sorry okay it was just too tempting!

 

HeatedStones

Oh shit this is good

 

EighteenNeedles

Damn, I know he’d never, but can you imagine

 

NightClouds

Fuck, this is exactly what Ye Qiu should be doing

 

FrozenFields

This is just fiction, okay? Captain Han would treat him right if he came to Tyranny. Tyranny would never poison their own player! Let alone the ace, what the fuck

 

ShatteredSilence

Captain Han would treat him right +1. Ye Qiu belongs in Tyranny!

 

PathOfLight

Who knows what kind of team Heavenly Swords is! Ye Qiu belongs in Tyranny +1

 

TiltedSpires

He can’t just run off to Heavenly Swords after making Han Wenqing do all that for him. Ye Qiu belongs to Tyranny +2

 

ChasmSpear

Above poster, they didn’t say to Tyranny, they said in. Besides, wasn’t Ye Qiu just in Heavenly Swords for convenience? I’m sure this was the plan the whole time. Ye Qiu belongs in Tyranny +3

 

HealthHazard

I don’t give a single shit if it was the plan or what, he’s not allowed to go anywhere else. Ye Qiu belongs in Tyranny +4

 

Lord Grim’s acceptance into the guild would show up as a guild-wide notification, so Tyranny’s fans were alerted as soon as their efforts were heard. There was a wave of welcomes, not all genuinely warm in greeting, but at least all born from genuine satisfaction.

“You…you planned all this?” Chen Guo never thought she’d see the day Tyranny fans genuinely wanted Ye Xiu in Tyranny.

“Pretty much!” Ye Xiu wasn’t actually looking at it at all—his focus was on coordinating with Zhang Jiale against a crowd of the other guilds’ elites. These “elites” posed no trouble for the two pros, but the coordination of two complicated playstyles together did. Essentially, they were using a form of limited practice to get used to working together against these far too easy opponents.

“Since when did you set this up?” Chen Guo couldn’t think how or why Ye Xiu would have planned such a thing. He really didn’t seem to care much about fans?

“Joining Heavenly Justice was such a good opportunity, of course I wouldn’t want to miss it,” Ye Xiu explained casually. Chen Guo glanced at his screen, but it was a dizzying mess of light and dark and motion, much worse than usual. She had to look away again immediately. “Tyranny’s fans may not want to let me join, but no one likes losing out. If I want to go elsewhere after all that setup for going to Tyranny, wouldn’t that be unacceptable too? This way, it works out better for everyone, and we don’t need to waste any time on PR later.”

So, in the end, it was just about not wasting time with PR? Chen Guo felt like she was wasting her emotions here. If Ye Xiu could do something ahead of time, obviously he would. She knew enough about him by now that it was no surprise he’d go this far.

Publicly, Ye Xiu’s move was actually really good. Because the Alliance had never said anything about whether or not he was allowed to work with a team again the first time, waiting until everything had been decided did make it look like he’d joined Tyranny as soon as he could. The elites of the team, though, would obviously notice that the “mercenary” Zhang Jiale had supposedly convinced to join their side before had disappeared, and Lord Grim immediately showed up afterward with the same voice.

It seemed a little ridiculous now, but pretty much none of them had truly believed Deep Sea Fortress was Ye Qiu. Aside from what rules the Alliance had—which he actually hadn’t broken, being a mercenary was being a mercenary—Deep Sea Fortress was just…too tyrannical, even in the way he drew real life aggro… How could they guess he was an omega?

But now that they thought about it, hadn’t Ye Qiu always played like this? Maybe he was always meant to go to Tyranny?

Somehow they felt like they’d just thought something blasphemous.

Now that they knew Ye Qiu was playing with them, some of them on the team felt really awkward. It was practically normal Tyranny culture to curse Ye Qiu; how could they have known he was actually there to hear it? Or, more importantly, that he was spending his time helping them, not just hiding out somewhere as they’d assumed when Lord Grim disappeared.

He didn’t treat them any differently, though, then or now, so they slowly started to relax again. They pretty much all liked or at least had a good impression of Deep Sea Fortress by now, and Tyranny’s fans weren’t the type who liked to think too much about who or what they approved of. Lord Grim now was an amazing player who never shied from battle, same as Deep Sea Fortress, and was always able to knock down their enemies. What was there to not like? Holding onto a grudge against someone on their own team was too uncomfortable.

Those in the elite team who’d thought Ye Qiu should come to Tyranny since long before felt quite vindicated, and even somewhat moved that he’d been there the whole time, helping where he could without asking for credit. This kind of spirit was exactly the sort of forthright perseverance that Tyranny fans loved.

In this way, Ye Xiu’s popularity in the guild slowly climbed without his having to do anything out of the ordinary at all. His efforts were focused on finally completing a deal started long earlier.

After getting into contact with Club Tyranny, Ye Xiu was able to get the go-ahead to negotiate with Wei Chen for the data on skills books. Ye Xiu already had the data himself, but that was only due to his negotiating an advance, and Han Wenqing’s assurance that Club Tyranny would buy it later. Now, that time had come.

After a bit of messaging back and forth, Ye Xiu finally sent Wei Chen his offer for the raw data: 8 million.

Wei Chen sent back a “fuck!”, seemingly before he could stop himself, before continuing it with, “You don’t want the buyout anymore, then? What are you offering 8 million for, shouldn’t it be 16?”

“Are you joking?” Ye Xiu immediately refuted. “For a buyout price, you have to consider how many other clubs would even be willing to buy it! A bunch of raw data they can’t even confirm, with your reputation for shamelessness, who would believe it? I’m already vouching for you for so much, you know!”

“You’re willing to buy it for this much, how could there not be others?” Wei Chen insisted. “You can’t pretend you’re the only ones who would see the value in this just because you found it first. How about I advertise to a few other clubs and see what happens?”

“If you do that, you’re the one losing out,” Ye Xiu replied. “Most of that 8 million is for the buyout price. Think about it, how much could this be worth to Tyranny? Don’t you know how many points Desert Dust has? And how many of those quests do you think he’s already done, especially with Han Wenqing’s personality? What actual use is your average 4700 guide to us?”

“What are you looking at Desert Dust for, take a look at your Lord Grim!” Wei Chen scolded. “Aren’t you ashamed to bring him onstage with skill points like that?”

“Lord Grim is Unspecialized, do I even need skill points to beat everyone into the dirt?” Ye Xiu laughed. “From the start it’s not a class about power. Calm down already, you’re just showing off your ignorance.”

“I don’t believe you, you don’t believe me. Why don’t we just split the difference at 12 million?” Wei Chen finally offered.

Behind the computer screen, Ye Xiu sighed and shook his head. “What a shame!” he said to Chen Guo. “He clearly didn’t have the first clue what this was worth, I obviously could have lowballed even more!”

Can you have a little decency? Chen Guo cried internally. That was Wei Chen’s years of effort! Could you not try to cheat him right from the start?

Ye Xiu really did have respect for Wei Chen’s work and its worth, but in the end, he was still representing Tyranny for this deal. He couldn’t neglect his position out of sentiment; in negotiations with an omega, that was a clear sign of losing, no matter what one’s own dynamic.

The two of them continued to go back and forth, you say this much, I say that much, and Chen Guo began to understand that “haggling like two omegas at the market” was not a saying because omegas were naturally shrewish or given to haggling, but because they were unquestionably better at it. As they progressed and the argument got more particular, any one point might have been enough to convince someone else: “my life’s work,” “my team’s future,” “supporting me into old age,” “acting as a burden before I’ve even started,” lines that might have pulled doubt into anyone else were tossed around without ever seeming to actually land a blow, and Chen Guo was starting to realize they were…having fun with it. Neither of them genuinely expected to move the other with an emotional appeal, and indeed in the end it came down to the advance Ye Xiu had already paid, the amount of work that had gone into collecting the data, the actual use of the data in raw form, and the value of a complete buyout for this kind of thing.

Uncommon materials were almost literally priceless, so no amount Ye Xiu paid now could actually be considered forcing Wei Chen to take a loss, not if what Wei Chen wanted most was his silver weapon. Ye Xiu knew that Wei Chen wasn’t the type to care that much about money, so as long as it could support him, he wouldn’t mind. It was obvious from his reaction that 8 million on its own had been an overwhelming amount to him.

With this in mind, Ye Xiu wasn’t willing to move much from his original number. “Even Mucheng didn’t get more than 8 million! You want to say you’re better than my Mucheng?”

“Fuck, who sells their child in the first place? What kind of argument is that?” Wei Chen left the pro scene before Su Mucheng debuted, so he didn’t know anything more about their relationship than the general public did. Since everyone was saying Ye Qiu raised Su Mucheng, he thought the same.

“It’s not selling, it’s what working with her is worth!” Ye Xiu insisted. “For the teams, it has to come down to what it’s worth. We aren’t giving you a raw deal, you know what you have right now is only worth this much.”

In the end, it was true, but “only this much” was already a near-blinding amount for someone else to imagine. The most expensive player trade so far was in fact Su Mucheng’s 8 million, but they settled on the data alone going for 10 million.

It was the first ever two-digit million trade in the Alliance, but no one else would ever know about it. Even the other players of Tyranny might not hear anything, since player trades weren’t exactly uncommon, and they were currently going through a period of transition for their main roster. Next season, who knew what Tyranny would look like?

Ye Xiu sent Wei Chen the contract for him to sign, which had been drawn up in advance by Club Tyranny, just waiting for Ye Xiu to fill in the amounts necessary. At the same time, Ye Xiu organized the guide he got from Luo Ji and sent the final version back to Club Tyranny. From then on, it would be theirs to decide what to do with.

Other than Ye Xiu’s personal use, of course. Tyranny had provided the money, but the uncommon materials were entirely from his own work, and he’d been the one to connect Wei Chen’s work to Luo Ji’s ability. It wouldn’t be wrong to say he had as much right to the final guide as the club itself. Obviously he couldn’t spread it around, but he wouldn’t think to sabotage his own team like that in the first place.

So, when Tyranny’s characters started strolling around Glory that night, sending the whole world into a craze, Lord Grim was doing the same.

 

A week into the break before playoffs, Han Wenqing showed up in-game with a Brawler.

A week, because that was long enough for anyone who was paying attention to notice that Wind Howl wasn’t defending their captain while people, even the team’s own fans, called him a malignant tumor. Given the current atmosphere around clubs treating their players poorly, the absolute disgust and horror with which the pros had treated the announcement of Excellent Era’s actions, it was an abundantly clear sign that they intended for him to leave. If they’d had even the slightest intention of supporting him, they would have immediately done so.

Lin Jingyan wanted to stay. He wanted to remain with Wind Howl, but he couldn’t blame his club for wanting him to leave, either. He had so many talented teammates, and he’d only ever risen to the height he was at through consistent hard work in the first place. He’d never been an incredible talent.

He’d already been considering where else he could go, what else he could do. He didn’t feel like he was done with Glory. He wanted to keep fighting. But where could he fight? What direction did he still have?

He wasn’t at all expecting Han Wenqing’s call, especially when Tyranny should still be preparing for the playoffs. Wind Howl was a team whose main goal was just to make it to the playoffs, maybe win a few games there, but Tyranny was a team that aimed for the championships every year. What were they doing, calling him?

Han Wenqing was a very straightforward person, though, and wouldn’t make him guess. Tyranny genuinely had a place for him on the team. Although they had reason to believe their main roster would rotate, he would absolutely be a major part of it.

The other important point was that he would need to be prepared for the media storm around dynamics Tyranny was ready to support. Their main roster would bring together an alpha, an omega, and, with him, the beta who’d been “overcome” by an alpha during this past All Stars; when Tyranny said dynamic didn’t matter, they wanted to be sure everyone understood they meant any dynamic, not just the rarer ones.

Honestly speaking, Lin Jingyan hadn’t cared much about the point Tang Hao had been trying to make with that challenge. As a beta, he didn’t have very strong feelings about dynamics in general. His understanding of alphas came mostly from Han Wenqing and Wu Xuefeng, both normal, rational people, and when he learned Ye Qiu was an omega he figured it was just more evidence that dynamics didn’t negatively affect one’s ability to play at all. He lost to Tang Hao because of his increased aging, lack of innate talent, and a bad matchup, nothing else. As for its being taken as betas in general being inferior? One would have to completely ignore the age disparity and the context of the competition, first!

The challenge had been largely lost under Sun Xiang’s challenge to Han Wenqing when it came to media coverage, but it had shown up a few times in his criticisms, to be sure. Lin Jingyan may not have cared, but he wouldn’t mind having it made clear that his dynamic wasn’t what lost him the match then.

And, perhaps, it would be nice to have a bit of reminder that a single loss did not necessarily render him obsolete. Especially because the team he’d played with all these years didn’t seem to agree.

And then, of course, Lin Jingyan would have to learn how to work with an Unspecialized. So Han Wenqing had brought him to the game, each on a side account, to meet up with Ye Qiu and, apparently, Zhang Jiale.

Although Lin Jingyan was willing, since his departure from Wind Howl couldn’t be set until the playoffs ended and the transfer window opened, it wouldn’t be good to be seen with Tyrannical Ambition just yet. Somehow, this issue was going to be handled by the simultaneous introduction of…some kind of Battle Mage? A girl Ye Qiu had been teaching in his time away from the Pro Alliance.

When they met up with Lord Grim and a Spitfire called Dazzling Spring, the two were talking with a third character, a Battle Mage called Soft Mist.

Tang Rou had been using the Heavenly Domain Challenge as training for her mechanics before Ye Xiu had received the training software from Han Wenqing, so her quest chain had been pretty much complete before Ye Xiu brought up the idea of coming to the Heavenly Domain with him again. In fact, most of what she needed to do was the consecutive wins in the arena, which she might have been much further along in if not for Ye Xiu’s frequent matches with her on his various side accounts.

“You’ve been training her on all the other classes yourself?!” Zhang Jiale was aghast. “Aren’t you tired?”

Coaching matches were no simple thing, and with so many classes for Tang Rou to learn and only Ye Xiu to play them, it must have been a lot of effort.

“That’s what I asked, but he said he wasn’t doing too much else anyway,” Tang Rou replied for him.

Not doing too much else?!” Zhang Jiale glared at Ye Qiu through the screen. “Stealing wild bosses, leveling Lord Grim, and learning the Hundred Blossoms style is ‘not too much else’ on top of playing coaching matches in multiple classes, hm? Don’t think I didn’t notice, an Unspecialized is not an easy class to play! Are you sure you aren’t pushing yourself too hard?”

“Hm, probably not.” Ye Qiu’s answer was incredibly annoying. What did probably not mean?!

Zhang Jiale didn’t know enough about omegas and their endurance to say anything more on the matter, but in the end, Ye Qiu was not Sun Zheping. He’d lasted seven and a half years without issue, despite being known as just as tyrannical as Sun Zheping, a worthy rival of Han Wenqing. He wasn’t the type to be careless.

“You have to take care of your health,” Zhang Jiale finally settled on. “We can’t have you burning out early, okay? You don’t get to use your age as an excuse, you’re not the oldest on the team anymore.”

“Quit smoking.” Han Wenqing and Lin Jingyan had been in range to hear for a while, but calling out from a distance would still be kind of awkward. As they got closer, though, Han Wenqing had no problem speaking up.

“Yeah, and quit smoking!” Zhang Jiale agreed. “Nobody wants to sit in a haze of smoke all the time, that’s terrible for your health!”

“Does he really smoke so much?” Tang Rou seemed confused.

“Of course he does! Why, does he not do it around you? Old Ye, when did you get so accommodating?”

“When I realized I was going to have a helicopter parent teammate, I really didn’t have any choice,” Ye Xiu said with a sigh.

There was a short pause before Zhang Jiale finally replied. “I can’t tell if you mean me, Xinjie, or Old Han.”

“There’s even three,” Ye Xiu agreed mournfully.

Zhang Jiale, as was rapidly becoming his habit, raised Dazzling Spring’s gun to point at Lord Grim’s head.

“Hi, Old Lin,” Ye Xiu said, completely ignoring him. “So you’re joining us too?”

“Well, nothing official, since the transfer window isn’t open…” Lin Jingyan laughed awkwardly. Getting kicked out of one’s team was nothing good, but in front of someone who’d been treated as badly as Ye Qiu had, Lin Jingyan didn’t feel he had anything to complain about.

“Right, don’t worry. Lord Grim had a reputation for going around with a Battle Mage and a Brawler from the tenth server, but the Brawler is a bit lower level right now. At a glance, this shouldn’t really raise too many questions.”

Lin Jingyan didn’t really know anything about the situation, but if Ye Qiu said it was fine, it was probably fine.

“As for not being official, it’s not like any of the rest of us are either. Alright, let’s go! We’ll try a dungeon together. With so many of us at once, even if a boss spawns, we’ll be able to finish before it takes too long.”

And so, Lin Jingyan joined their group, learning the Hundred Blossoms style from the inside, adapting to Ye Qiu’s Unspecialized play and style of communication in shotcalling, and teaching the Battle Mage girl about Brawlers—a class that, despite her supposed familiarity, she had some incredibly weird ideas about.

Why would anyone need to use Brick that often?

 

Given their close ranking at the end of the season, fans were expecting the matches between Tyranny and Misty Rain to be intense. In the end, they were intense, but it had more to do with Tyranny’s inherent intensity as a team than any difficulty in gaining points, despite its being an away game for them. In the second match, Tyranny’s advantage continued, and they progressed easily into the next round of the finals.

Despite the fact that it didn’t completely match expectations, no one was too surprised by the outcome. Neither side had played poorly, but somehow Tyranny’s aggression had proved stronger; in fact, this lined up with what many thought about Misty Rain, that it was a team that crumbled under pressure in the playoffs. Tyranny practically embodied pressure, so there wasn’t too much to say about it.

The second round of playoffs began with Blue Rain versus Tyranny, and there it became apparent much more quickly that Tyranny had made some changes. Obviously Yu Wenzhou would have put some effort into studying his opponents, but it was impossible to tell from those two matches every aspect of what had changed in Tyranny. Tyranny had separated the close- and long-range characters in Misty Rain, holding them back with Dancing Rain’s superior range. When the close-range characters made it through her firing line, they were entangled by Zheng Chenfeng, who’d been switched from his normal 6th player position to the starting lineup. Zheng Chenfeng initially appeared to be protecting Zhang Xinjie, but by the second match it was clear that Zhang Xinjie was there to assist with controlling the close-range players and keep Zheng Chenfeng’s Mountain Split from falling under the combined attacks of multiple players.

This setup allowed Han Wenqing’s Desert Dust and Zhou Guangyi’s Cold Season to close in on Chu Yunxiu’s cloth-armor Elementalist and Li Hua’s Ninja. Both classes required some amount of time to use their skills—Elementalists in their cast time, Ninjas in the hand signs they had to complete—which proved to be a huge handicap against Han Wenqing, who seemed to be in fine form this playoffs season. In their first match, Misty Rain’s home game, they were baited into this situation; the second match, Tyranny’s home game, the narrow ravine that made up the majority of the map meant they didn’t have a choice. Li Hua could obviously circle around, but which part of the cliffs were out of Su Mucheng’s calculations? If he tried that, her long-range fire would only knock him right back down again.

The setup was a bit unexpected, but it was Han Wenqing’s flashy play that drew the most attention, especially because of the recent public revelation of what Excellent Era had done to Ye Qiu. Many thought that this was just his aggressive alpha nature making itself known. At most, they might think to praise Zhang Xinjie’s tactical sense and Su Mucheng’s coordination.

Now, facing them himself, Yu Wenzhou was clear that the players were not the only thing to have improved for the playoffs. When everyone was focused on Desert Dust, the changes were less noticeable, but if he ignored what was going on with Zheng Chenfeng’s Mountain Split now he didn’t deserve his title as a Master Tactician.

The Knight was too strong for what data they had on him—and what data that was wasn’t nearly enough, either. Although Zheng Chenfeng was a member of Tyranny’s main roster, as the 6th player he was usually rushing in to join the battle in-progress, not an essential member of their lineup. His play time was already much less than others’, and his contributions much less notable. He would follow whatever Zhang Xinjie said to do, usually just lightening the pressure on his remaining teammates by rushing into battle himself. Two- or even three-on-one plays, entangling the opposing team long-term, now even acting as a stolid defense against Yu Feng’s Berserker, Brilliant Edge? Too unusual.

Yu Feng was the pace-setter for Blue Rain, but this time he and Zheng Chenfeng were locked in their own one-on-one battle he couldn’t seem to escape from. Worse, Tyrannical Ambition didn’t support Zheng Chenfeng either, clearly trusting him to handle himself against the wild attacks of a Berserker intent on plowing through him. Mountain Split’s CC skills all seemed to be at another level entirely, blocking or calling Yu Feng back to the fight no matter how many times he tried to extricate himself.

Su Mucheng’s Launcher and Wang Chixuan’s Sharpshooter had more than enough long-range ability to harass Yu Wenzhou without a strong protector, even with Xu Jingxi’s Soul Speaker doing his best to allow Yu Wenzhou to still get his casts in. Both gunner accounts seemed to have increased in stats as well, hitstuns and skill effects consistently lasting longer than Yu Wenzhou had predicted. For someone who relied heavily on timing to make up for his physical shortcomings, even slight differences could be fatal.

In the end, the gunners were able to stifle Song Xiao, Xu Jingxi, and Yu Wenzhou’s attempts to coordinate, Han Wenqing was able to suppress Huang Shaotian without leaving him any openings to turn it around, and Tyranny won their home game against Blue Rain.

In the after-match press conference, the issue of the skills points disparity finally came to light. Han Wenqing didn’t deny the increase in the strength of their characters, but wouldn’t provide any more details on the subject.

The reporters couldn’t speculate on this subject for long, because the next day’s match was Tiny Herb vs. Samsara, the defending champions against a team showing every sign of becoming champions this year. Samsara had won their away game against Thunderclap, winning the individual rounds and group arena, but just barely losing the team competition to Xiao Shiqin’s trademark detail in planning. In their home game, though, Samsara plowed through Xiao Shiqin’s cautious setup, working together to remove Thunderclap’s tactician early on and secure their place in the semi-finals.

Tiny Herb’s first match, an away-game against Void, was an intense competition that they just barely won. Their home game, however, they won handily. Both teams were coming into this first round of the semi-finals off of a straightforward win, making them both seem very mighty. Of course, this was the playoffs. None of the teams would be weak.

The match had many ups and downs, Samsara winning the individual competitions and losing the group arena, even before they got to the team competition. In the team competition, Samsara’s willingness to rely on Zhou Zekai’s outstanding personal performance gave them the win. Wang Jiexi might be as strong personally as Zhou Zekai, but he gave up his individual playstyle in order to better support his team. Samsara had Jiang Botao as a bridge between Zhou Zekai and the rest of the team, allowing him to shine brightly without losing the aspect of cooperation that made a team strong. With Wang Jiexi limiting himself to his team’s performance, there wasn’t much he could do to counter them.

After this came the second round between Blue Rain and Tyranny, Blue Rain’s home game. Obviously Yu Wenzhou would have prepared sufficiently based on his notes from last time, but beyond the three that had become the core of Tyranny’s play this season, the other two starting players had changed. Wang Chixuan and Zheng Chenfeng had both taken the stage in the group arena, but when it came to the team competition, it was Bai Yanfei and Zhou Guangyi who appeared. Bai Yanfei’s Rota cast large AoE skills around the team, manufacturing their own kind of “home field advantage” in this away game. DoT skills were especially unpleasant for a Warlock, which effectively left Yu Wenzhou outside of the light effects that hid the rest of Tyranny. Su Mucheng settled Dancing Rain in the edge of Bai Yanfei’s skills, harassing Yu Wenzhou and ducking behind expertly directed skill effects when Yu Feng controlled Brilliant Edge to chase her. Before he could follow her any further, Zhou Guangyi’s Cold Season flashed out from the light effects, engaging him for a flurry of skills before quickly backing off again.

This time, Tyranny didn’t try to pin Yu Feng down with a single player, since they lacked the advantage of knowing the terrain and having a convenient location to manipulate him into, in which he’d have no choice but to deal with Zheng Chenfeng. Instead, they made it difficult for him to set the tempo: If he stayed outside of Rota’s range, he couldn’t attack, but if he moved within he’d be beset on all sides by the players hiding there. A Berserker’s instinct would always be to push through and take the damage, but Rota’s skills were just as unpredictable to him in damage and effect as the other characters’ had been in the last match.

While Yu Feng was trying to break through to catch Bai Yanfei, Han Wenqing was heading toward Yu Wenzhou under Su Mucheng’s cover fire, much as he had in the match with Misty Rain. Blue Rain obviously wouldn’t sit aside to let this happen; Huang Shaotian dropped in to stop him, only to discover that the charge was an attempt to draw him out all along. Han Wenqing decisively chased after him when he tried to retreat, leaving Yu Wenzhou’s Swoksaar and Xu Jingxi’s Soul Speaker to Su Mucheng’s long-distance assault.

Neither of these strategies were outside Yu Wenzhou’s expectations, so he was calm even as he directed the battlefield from afar, helpless in the face of closing in on the Elementalist’s domain. The problem with vision-obscuring tactics, though, was that they affected both sides equally. Amidst all the special effects, there was no way for Tyranny to notice that Zheng Xuan had left and Song Xiao arrived before he found an opening to pull Zhou Guangyi’s Cold Season from Rota’s cover with Cloud Grasping Fist. Free from the Assassin’s obstruction, Yu Feng was able to push through to Bai Yanfei, finally taking down the core of Tyranny’s formation. As an Elementalist, there was no way for Bai Yanfei to keep up his AoE domain while under the attack of a Berserker, and the field cleared.

But, as the last of the visual effects dwindled into nothing, there was no sign of Zhang Xinjie.

Zhang Xinjie’s Immovable Rock had been the pillar of Tyranny’s structure since his debut in Season 4, always stationed where he could best see the entire field and direct his teammates. Where could he have gone?

In fact, Zhang Xinjie had followed Han Wenqing as soon as he’d been able to catch Huang Shaotian. Yu Wenzhou had obviously discussed the nature of Tyranny’s changes before the match, but focused most on determining what changes had been made to Tyranny’s characters. The view of Han Wenqing as being “more aggressive” in these playoffs due to his dynamic was mostly discarded by them as a misattribution of Desert Dust’s increased strength.

Here, unfortunately, they had miscalculated.

Han Wenqing was, in fact, much faster and more precise than usual in these playoffs. Facing Huang Shaotian, a top god in the Alliance known for his speed, as the oldest currently active god-level pro player, anyone would expect Han Wenqing to be at least some amount slower. Who could have expected him to have so much energy?

Huang Shaotian had communicated the miscalculation to Yu Wenzhou, but there was little they could do when Huang Shaotian was so far from the main field. Blue Rain had chosen a map with a little more open space, a large clearing backed onto a cliff in a forest of large trees, in order to give themselves more options after seeing how Tyranny had favored maps with enclosed spaces during their home games. Unfortunately, this meant Huang Shaotian had to keep moving to stay out of Han Wenqing’s way, and it afforded the perfect opportunity for Zhang Xinjie to provide support without Huang Shaotian’s noticing ahead of time.

Soul Speaker had to protect Yu Wenzhou, but Su Mucheng couldn’t completely pin down both of these players on her own, especially when one of them was Yu Wenzhou. Not to mention that he was no stranger to being focused on by the opponent’s gunners. With Su Mucheng focusing on Yu Wenzhou’s Swoksaar, Xu Jingxi was still able to keep the four teammates in the area in a decent health margin. In this situation, anyone might expect Su Mucheng to turn her focus onto Yu Feng’s Brilliant Edge or Song Xiao’s Receding Tides to save her teammates, but she seemed not to notice their struggle at all, faithfully preventing Yu Wenzhou from getting closer to the fight at the cost of her teammates’ health.

In a race to see whose health would fall first, even the smallest things could affect the outcome, let alone a difference as big as the use of a defensive Paladin over an offensive Cleric. Huang Shaotian fell before he could make it back within Soul Speaker’s range, although he was able to take down a good chunk of Han Wenqing’s and even Zhang Xinjie’s health at the same time.

Zhang Xinjie left before the last of Troubling Rain’s health did, a clear indicator of his trust in Han Wenqing to finish him off. This was not a trivial thing; Zhang Xinjie pursued precision and safety above all else, and Huang Shaotian was known for turning things around at the last moment. Who knew what had given Zhang Xinjie the confidence to take his leave? Or maybe it was just that he’d been calculating Rota’s health the whole time, unwilling to actually give up on their Elementalist: He made it back just in time to cast a Holy Cure and bring Rota back from the edge of death.

Han Wenqing wasn’t far behind Zhang Xinjie, using Desert Dust’s superior movement speed to catch up with Immovable Rock. Bai Yanfei changed Rota’s focus to Yu Wenzhou, who’d managed to move closer through Su Mucheng’s harassment once Rota’s AoE skills were no longer restricting the area, despite her best efforts. Dancing Rain and Desert Dust focused their efforts on Brilliant Edge with Immovable Rock’s support, leaving Cold Season to continue to face Receding Tides mostly on his own.

Yu Feng’s Berserker had taken too much damage earlier in the fight, and spent too long out of Soul Speaker’s range: It didn’t take too much longer for him to fall as well. By the time Zheng Xuan returned to the field from the nearest support region, it was too late for Blue Rain.

In both matches, Tyranny was able to isolate Yu Wenzhou, despite his initial preparations. Blue Rain was a team that favored reaction, but Dancing Rain’s range meant they couldn’t afford to wait for Tyranny to come to them. Han Wenqing might prefer to rush in, but Huang Shaotian, as a player who wasn’t part of Blue Rain’s core defensive strategy, made the perfect target for him to chase down without falling into Blue Rain’s trap. This map wasn’t so simple as just a clearing in a forest, but Tyranny steadfastedly set up their own “home base” and drew Blue Rain in to engage rather than engage themselves. This match was full of unusual actions for Tyranny: Han Wenqing’s going off on his own instead of leading the charge, the stationary setup, Zhang Xinjie’s abandoning his position as control tower, even Zhou Guangyi and Su Mucheng’s using cover to harass and evade. As opponents, it was almost enough to make them question if they’d really just been facing Tyranny.

But, on second thought, it wasn’t so out of character. Han Wenqing almost single-mindedly chasing down a troublesome opponent, an Assassin continuously harassing a Berserker on the battlefield instead of waiting patiently out of the way for the right time to strike, even Tyranny pushing on without a healer without any sign of retreat. What seemed most different was the confidence with which Zhang Xinjie and Han Wenqing, as Tyranny’s shotcallers, left the rest of the team to carry out their tasks. Was this trust in the players? In the strengthened characters? In their opponents’ assumptions? Whichever it might have been, it brought Tyranny to the finals, and ended Blue Rain’s season there. They could only express their determination to come back next year, stronger than ever.

The next day was Samsara’s home game against Tiny Herb. With the advantage of preparation and terrain, Zhou Zekai’s brilliance could not be suppressed, and he pulled his team through to a win. Samsara would move on to the finals, but Tiny Herb’s season ended there.

Qiao Yifan had not been fielded in the playoffs, as he could expect—in fact, he had not been put onstage even once all season. The Club had already notified him that he was not a part of their future plans, and he just…didn’t know what to think. What to do. For someone like him, who had no value at all, which team would take him? He could wait for the rest of the time until his contract expired, but what was the point? Would any offers come in?

Qiao Yifan may have been no one important on the team, but he still was on the team, so he had been as focused on preparing for the playoffs as the rest these past few weeks. When he logged on to QQ, he found a message waiting from Lord Grim.

Lord Grim, who was God Ye Qiu, whom he had as a friend on QQ. Qiao Yifan really couldn’t believe his life sometimes.

“What are you planning to do next season?” Ye Qiu had asked, not at all helping Qiao Yifan distract himself from his problems. “Does Tiny Herb have a place for you?”

It took a while for Qiao Yifan to work up the courage to respond. “No…” he said, and it was so simple, but it still left him feeling so embarrassed.

“Tyranny does,” Ye Qiu followed up not long after.

Qiao Yifan stared at those words for the longest time, trying to figure out what they could psossibly mean. Tyranny? Tyranny…did? Tyranny what? Had a place? For him?! Was that some kind of joke?

“Come with me when the transfer window opens, we’ll get you a contract. I already talked it over with Old Han.”

Qiao Yifan kept staring at the screen, the stark and simple words burning into his eyes until they filled with tears. We’ll get you a contract, said so easily. I already talked it over, like this wasn’t something out of pity, like it was planned. Like he had somewhere to go. Like he belonged.

“Hello?” Ye Qiu sent, and Qiao Yifan blinked his eyes rapidly to try to clear them. He had to respond, of course, although how it could even be a question was still beyond what he could understand.

And yet… “Why?” he still had to ask. It was just too hard to believe, and getting his hopes up when it probably meant something else would be too painful.

“You know an Unspecialized,” Ye Qiu responded promptly. “Right now, that’s something Tyranny really lacks. You’re a good rookie with a lot of potential, and Tyranny has the resources to raise you.”

It was so hard to believe. Tyranny wasn’t just going to take him—they might need him?

“Oh, but I’m assuming you don’t care how often you go onstage. Our roster is going to be a little odd, there’s no getting around it. You don’t mind, right?”

“I don’t!” Qiao Yifan quickly assured. “I definitely don’t.” In Tiny Herb, he hadn’t ever gone onstage. If Ye Qiu was considering fielding him at all…

“There you go, then, you definitely won’t lose out. Come to Tyranny!”

“Okay,” Qiao Yifan sent back, and choked on a laugh, or a sob. The time he’d spent with Ye Qiu, he hadn’t thought anything more of it than that he was incredibly, amazingly lucky, to get this chance to work directly with the God of Glory. Ye Qiu had a court case to settle, and after that he’d be going to Tyranny, where he’d be one of four All Stars. They wouldn’t need a lackluster rookie who was trying to change classes because he couldn’t cut it on the one he was given, that was obvious, so he’d never even contemplated it.

But it turned out, that time with God Ye Qiu was enough to give him a skill few other would have. That time was enough for God Ye Qiu to notice him. That time was enough to change his entire life.

Qiao Yifan had never been more glad that he’d taken the leap that day and asked Lord Grim if he might join him, to learn a little about a Ghostblade, if he could.

 

Qiao Yifan took back his One Inch Ash from the power leveler and joined the others in the game, making a full five-person team. Ye Qiu was there, but also Tang Rou, and even more amazingly Zhang Jiale and Lin Jingyan. Qiao Yifan couldn’t believe that a team with these players would really want someone like him, but he was absolutely willing to work hard to learn how to coordinate. He had to prove that he was worth it.

Zhang Jiale had a lot to teach him about restriction, even lighting and using the environment. When Qiao Yifan expressed interest in learning more specifics about it, Ye Qiu seemed to have a moment of realization.

“Why don’t you contact Concealed Light?”

Of course, he would mostly be doing that on his own time, when he took breaks from the game. In the game, the greatest playoff wars had long since fired up, and Tyranny was not the type to back down. Many of the big guilds would get caught up in this kind of thing, losing out on boss fights during the playoffs. During this time, the biggest winners were the guild alliance Ye Xiu had set up before and Tyrannical Ambition, who still had their team of pro-level players in the level 70 areas. Obviously they couldn’t be sent out to do something as pointless as participate in the guild wars, as the rest of the elite teams must, so Tyrannical Ambition had a huge advantage when it came to boss fights. The guild alliance, having a wide-spread network as a group of guilds largely removed from the rest of the Alliance’s squabbles, was the only entity that could match them for productivity.

 

The first match of the finals was Tyranny’s home game. Tyranny had the edge in character strength, but Samsara was no slouch when it came to individual ability, either. Going into the team competition, Tyranny had only won two individual matches, making the score 2 to 3.5 in Samsara’s favor. Samsara’s lineup was the same as always, but Tyranny’s team was a surprise: The starting lineup included Yu Tian’s Blade Master, a character that hadn’t been fielded regularly this whole season. Who would put a player like that up in the finals? Not even as the 6th player, but one of the starting five?

The map Tyranny had chosen for their home game had a straightforward layout, a valley with ridges on either side with a plain in the middle without any cover. Su Mucheng left the group immediately to gain the high ground, while Tyranny ran forward in a close defensive formation. With Samsara still advancing, Su Mucheng had nothing to do, so the focus of most fans of Tyranny were on these four together. Wasn’t this lineup…really nostalgic?

Zheng Chenfeng and Yu Tian were both Season 3 debuts, but they hadn’t regularly made it into team competitions until Season 5. Still, at that point, this lineup had appeared quite often. Who would have thought it would appear again here, in the finals of Season 8?

In fact, when the main season ended, Yu Tian didn’t expect to make another appearance. He wasn’t like Zheng Chenfeng, who was still on the main roster, even if it was just as the 6th player. In all this time, Yu Tian hadn’t given up on Glory, and Tyranny hadn’t given up on him, but his skill wasn’t enough for him to be part of team competitions anymore, or even necessarily the stage at all. So when the account he’d stayed with all these years had suddenly reached 5,000 skills points and it was decided he’d be going onstage in the playoffs, he couldn’t be more moved. In his last season with Tyranny, he could still be part of their strength.

Yu Tian, Zheng Chenfeng, Han Wenqing, Zhang Xinjie. They’d been together for so many years now, how could they not know how to coordinate? Even with the changes in max level and skills since they’d last coordinated frequently, they still knew each other better than any of the others on the team. Between them, they still had trust.

Choosing a map that had a good position for gunners might seem like a poor idea against Samsara, but it was immediately apparent what the difference between Zhou Zekai and Su Mucheng was: Su Mucheng could afford to hang back, giving cover when necessary and forcing back Samsara’s players; Zhou Zekai, as Samsara’s ace and main attacker, could not. The positioning of the ridge meant Su Mucheng could Aerial Fire her way out of danger of any of the close-range classes, and the plains in front meant Tyranny would be able to move back to her to handle the threat with ease. For a team like Tyranny, this was undoubtedly a good setup.

For the opening of the match, though, the home team had free range to advance as they liked. Tyranny steadfastly maintained their positioning as they pushed forward like an unstoppable force, Han Wenqing heading for Fang Minghua’s Cleric like he couldn’t see anyone else. Jiang Botao had thrown down Wave Formations, but what kind of team was Tyranny? They charged through them as if they couldn’t see them at all.

Samsara couldn’t give up on their Cleric, but with Tyranny’s formation so solid and Han Wenqing’s skill as it was, what could Samsara do to break it? Su Mucheng’s Screen Cannon was used to hinder Zhou Zekai at a distance, and as a Sharpshooter, closing in on the number one close combat fighter in Glory was not a good choice. If he went to deal with Su Mucheng, she was so far from the battle that he would have difficulty having a serious effect on their end, voluntarily throwing himself into a Box-1 situation. For that reason, his closing in on her was no good, too.

Lu Boyuan’s Grappler tried to engage Han Wenqing head on while Wu Qi’s Assassin moved to deal damage from the side, Jiang Botao’s Spellblade preparing to cover their retreat. Han Wenqing either moved faster or had greater priority to his skills than Lu Boyuan was expecting, as he was actually the one thrown behind Han Wenqing instead. Who could have expected Desert Dust to have such proficiency in Grappler skills? Just how much had Tyranny’s characters improved? Wu Qi’s Cold Silence was blocked by Zheng Chenfeng’s Mountain Split while Yu Tian’s Blade Master took on Lu Boyuan’s Chaotic Cloudy Mountains before he could recover from Han Wenqing’s Receiving Throw. Chaotic Cloudy Mountains’s health plummeted. An Assassin taking on a Knight with a shield was a bad idea, so Cold Silence had no choice but to retreat. Han Wenqing’s advance hadn’t paused in the least, closing in on Jiang Botao’s Empty Waves and using Fling to toss him away.

Just like that, Tyranny was able to close in on Samsara’s Cleric, Laughing Song. It was fast and well-coordinated enough that Zhou Zekai didn’t even have a chance to break in. Surrounded by these four players under Su Mucheng’s protection, a Cleric wouldn’t have long to live. Yu Tian had already used an Immortal Guides the Way to blow Chaotic Cloudy Mountains out of their formation so the group could focus near entirely on Laughing Song, with Zheng Chenfeng blocking Samsara’s way or forcing them to focus on him.

In this match, Samsara’s weakness was fully exposed: They didn’t have someone who could break through in a situation like this. Wu Qi was able to get his Cold Silence close enough to go after Yu Tian, a decision Jiang Botao made in light of the certain difference in hand speed the two would have. An Assassin necessarily needed to be fast to be any good, and Yu Tian was an old player that could no longer keep up, likely in his last season. Yu Tian had higher defence than expected, but since Samsara was in the lead for points this match, Jiang Botao was willing to sacrifice a little to get a better handle on his ability. If Tyranny had waited this long to field him, it was likely that they intended him to be a surprise for their final opponents, and he may even be the intended key to their victory. However, needing to keep him a surprise meant that, once figured out, there wasn’t much to him. If Samsara understood him, their victory was practically guaranteed.

Laughing Song fell before Wu Qi could get past Yu Tian, and Du Ming loaded in. Wu Qi’s Cold Silence was now in a bad position, too close to Tyranny to avoid becoming their next target. Assassins were not a tanky class in the first place, so there was little he could do to prolong his life. Du Ming tried to rush in, but his determination was shaken by an explosion in front of him that sent the dirt flying sky-high. Even after he made it around Su Mucheng’s firing line, it was obvious that he was panicked when facing Tyranny’s iron formation of close-range fighters. As a Blade Master, the class wasn’t the problem, but rather the player’s ability.

In the end, Samsara lost their away game, 3.5 to 6. Tyranny’s coordination had been flawless, and the tactics employed completely different than those they’d used earlier this same playoffs season. Such a close-knit, old-school style, how could Jiang Botao have been expecting it after everything else they’d seen? Not to mention, before this Han Wenqing had shown every sign of leaning more heavily on his dynamic, pushing off on his own and using superior ability and character strength to pin down his opponents. Blue Rain had made the mistake of assuming it was the character’s strength improvement they should focus on, so Jiang Botao had intended to learn from them. How could Tyranny turn around now and use character strength and coordination alone? Obviously Han Wenqing’s skill had still played a decisive factor in this match, but the ace making impressive plays was practically a given for any team, nothing special to comment on. It certainly hadn’t been an explosion of ability and solo-play the way they’d seen earlier.

Next match was Samsara’s home game. Yu Tian went up first for the individual matches, supporting Jiang Botao’s belief that he would be playing in the team competition this round: As a veteran, going first would give him the longest possible time to rest before he had to play again. Jiang Botao had set Du Ming as his opponent in the hopes that the young and vigorous player would be able to take a point off of a veteran trying to conserve his strength. Win or lose, though, he’d be able to gather more data on the player’s ability.

Yu Tian and Du Ming played a close match, but whether it was because Yu Tian’s Blade Master was just too strong or the last team competition had left enough of a shadow on Du Ming to cause his “berserk” playstyle to falter, Yu Tian got the point.

Samsara wouldn’t know—which was the purpose of fielding him with that timing in the first place—but that was Yu Tian’s last match as a pro player. Of course he would play well, and give it his all. Even with all his advantages, and Du Ming’s less than perfect skill, it had still been a hard match for him to win. Though this and the previous match with Samsara weren’t even on the same day, Yu Tian could be said to have overextended his ability there, in his last ever chance to coordinate with the other players of Tyranny. In a game that important, how could he dare to let them lose? More importantly, though, he had been a member of this team for so long. He wanted to see them win.

He didn’t pause as he got down from the stage, both because if he appeared too moved it might give away their plans for the team competition and because he was, at his core, a true member of Tyranny. He had no regrets, no last lingering looks to give. He’d done his best for his team. He was satisfied with this ending.

Wang Chixuan was next in the individual matches, a match he also won. This, too, would be his last match for Tyranny, but it was because he’d long since chosen to transfer away. It wasn’t that he didn’t love Tyranny anymore, but that he could see the team would have no place for him from the moment Su Mucheng had transferred to Tyranny. With a gunner like her, how could he compare? When Han Wenqing had spoken to the team frankly about their intentions for the next season, Wang Chixuan was not surprised. No matter what, he knew he wouldn’t have a place in Tyranny’s starting lineup next season, and for someone like him, rotating in occasionally just wouldn’t be enough.

This had been and was still his first team, though, and he was proud to be a part of this final match. He won his individual match and stepped down from the stage with the same determination as ever. Someone from Tyranny wouldn’t need to look back, because their way was forward, with no retreat. He didn’t regret.

Tyranny won their individual matches but lost the group arena, giving them 9 points, just under the 10 necessary for a win. As always, the finals would come down to this last team competition.

Samsara chose a labrynthine map of multi-layered crags, which would force Tyranny to give up on any ideas of setting up their own home base or even using a strong formation like they had the map before. Su Mucheng instantly Aerial Fired her way up onto one of the craggy walls, getting an idea of the terrain and keeping a lookout for Samsara’s approach. The rest of Tyranny, this time consisting of Han Wenqing, Zhang Xinjie, Zheng Chenfeng, and Zhou Guangyi, advanced purposefully as a group, even if they frequently had to pull into single-file to make it through a tight opening. The group climbed their way upward to the central plateau, trusting that Su Mucheng would inform them before they could walk into an ambush.

Zhou Zekai appeared before the rest of Samsara, but his focus was on Su Mucheng rather than the rest of Tyranny. Allowing his team to be pulled into Tyranny’s pace like last time, unable to effectively deal with her Screen Cannon due to her range, would be too much of a mistake. Su Mucheng definitely had skill, but it wasn’t at the level where she could easily match Zhou Zekai. They fought across the tops of the crags as the rest of their teams progressed to an area where they could finally meet.

What turned out to be the deciding factor of this match was the fact that Samsara had chosen to prevent Tyranny’s cooperation, necessarily splitting themselves as much as Tyranny with the map choice. Su Mucheng’s retreat toward her team had seemed like she was losing ground, but in fact she had lured Zhou Zekai into a position where the rest of Tyranny could attack him directly.

Or, more precisely, not the rest of Tyranny as a whole, but Zheng Chenfeng and Zhou Guangyi together. Tyranny paid a lot in health to get the two of them in position to pull off the coordination that had been planned this whole time: Zheng Chenfeng’s Provoke forcing Zhou Zekai to focus entirely on him as Zhou Guangyi charged and completed a Life-Risking Strike.

Zhou Guangyi wasn’t the type to favor this kind of attack, generally speaking, but he was absolutely prepared to do what was necessary for his team. Like many others on the team he’d fought with these past four years, this would be his last match with Tyranny. He and Zheng Chenfeng had practiced this coordination over and over, with the intent to make their last match with Tyranny count. Zhou Guangyi activated Vitals Strike, and was almost overcome with excitement when it actually highlighted a position on Cloud Piercer’s back. Zheng Chenfeng used Provoke, ensuring Zhou Zekai could not turn away from him—but here the difference between theory and an actual opponent made itself known. Even forced to attack Zheng Chenfeng’s Mountain Split as he was, Zhou Zekai was able to put enough movement into Cloud Piercer that Zhou Guangyi couldn’t be sure he would hit that vital area for 200% damage. And if Zhou Guangyi couldn’t absolutely kill Zhou Zekai with this strike, Tyranny would be in trouble.

Glorious Provocation. With this timing, Zheng Chenfeng activated Knight’s Spirit to refresh his cooldowns and used this stronger form of Provoke. Almost a full 8 seconds of directed attack from Zhou Zekai, who had no choice but to continue moving toward him. Zhou Guangyi charged Life-Risking Strike further in the extra time he’d been granted—if he couldn’t guarantee a hit that would take advantage of Vitals Strike, he could only burn away his own health more.

The strike landed in the last moment of Provoke’s effects, a back attack with 40% bonus damage instead of 20% due to his class’s Assassination. Cloud Piercer’s health dropped to 0, removing Zhou Zekai from the match.

The audience was stunned. Team Samsara itself was stunned. This was Tyranny’s plan?

Jiang Botao was a Season 6 debut, and the famous Life-Risking Strike that gave Tyranny their championship in Season 4 was a one-time deal that matched neither the original Ji Leng nor Zhou Guangyi’s style. There was no reason for him to assume such a thing would appear here.

He couldn’t spend any time being shocked, though. Zhou Zekai had been too far from the rest of Samsara, or Fang Minghua would have given him a Focus rather than allow him to be pulled into position like that. Jiang Botao directed Du Ming to load in from the support zone nearest Zhou Guangyi’s Cold Season: If they let enough time pass and the two regrouped with Tyranny, Cold Season might be able to regain his health. In this situation, losing Zhou Zekai for nothing absolutely couldn’t be allowed.

Su Mucheng had left to support Han Wenqing and Zhang Xinjie against the rest of Samsara from the moment she’d lured Zhou Zekai into the correct position, and Zhou Guangyi and Zheng Chenfeng were unfortunately close to one of the map’s support zones. Du Ming rushed them with all the ferocity that had given him his nickname of the Berserk Blade Master, while Wu Qi took a circuitous route to meet up with him outside of Tyranny’s entanglement. Su Mucheng couldn’t see where he was from her position, so she could only warn the two that he’d slipped past them.

Du Ming’s assault made their retreat too slow; they weren’t likely to make it, and Zhou Guangyi was practically dead already. He was clearly dragging Zheng Chenfeng down, given the Knight’s stubborn insistence on fully protecting him from harm.

Zhou Guangyi didn’t want that to be his last act in Tyranny, running away to preserve his little life. Life-Risking Strike was his team’s tactic, but his survival afterward was only a bonus they’d hoped for, not an absolute necessity. Zhou Guangyi was a player of Tyranny! Even if he couldn’t play with his team any longer, he would always have this style in his heart. Those of Tyranny would never cower, never pull back!

“Let’s go,” he sent in the team chat. How could Zheng Chenfeng, someone who’d spent even longer with Tyranny than he, not understand? He didn’t ask him if he was sure. Of course he was sure. Tyranny’s players weren’t afraid of bold choices.

In a single instant, Du Ming’s Moon-Luring Frost went from the attacker to the attacked, as Zhou Guangyi’s Cold Season and Zheng Chenfeng’s Mountain Split turned on him in perfect concert. The assault was intense, but couldn’t last forever: Though he took a surprising amount of damage in that short time, he was finally able to hit Cold Season, removing him from the match.

Zhou Guangyi sat back from his computer with a sigh, flexing his hands in the booth. For a last moment in Tyranny, he felt that wasn’t bad. He truly believed he’d done his best.

Of those watching the match, many had initially drawn parallels between this match and Tyranny’s Season 4 championship match, in which the same character had used the same skill to take out One Autumn Leaf. For some time, Cold Season had carried that reputation above any other, even though the character’s usual style was much more up-front. However, in this last exchange, they were all reminded of what a character from Tyranny looked like. Rather than fall under enemy fire or cautiously retreat, Cold Season was an Assassin like this: one who fought head on.

Without Zhou Guangyi to protect so securely, Zheng Chenfeng was able to regroup with the rest of Tyranny before Wu Qi could make his move. Bai Yanfei loaded in, but didn’t try to join Tyranny directly, instead casting his spells from a crag in a positioning similar to Su Mucheng’s. Su Mucheng was able to Aerial Fire around the crags without issue, but Bai Yanfei had much less mobility on this terrain. Elementalists worked best when able to keep motionless, but he couldn’t expect to stay here forever; Samsara still had Jiang Botao’s Spellblade. In fact, his position was set up this way so that he was mostly out of the way, but if he met an attack he couldn’t handle, he could drop down close enough to Tyranny’s main group to make coordination not too difficult.

It took some time for the last of Samsara’s players to fall, but in the minds of many of the fans, Samsara had fallen the moment Zhou Zekai did. Season 8’s championship belonged to Tyranny. The team held the trophy on the stage, together for the last time in this way. Zheng Chenfeng had expected this to be his last season, but he hadn’t expected to play such a huge role in the playoffs. He could only thank his luck for this, that his Mountain Split had been able to reap the full 5,000 skill points from Tyranny’s upgrades, when other, younger players’ characters had not.

He had had a good career; not outstanding, but good. He’d seen the glory of Tyranny’s championship Season 4 from the bench, and it was all he’d wanted from his time here. If he could truly contribute to winning a championship with Tyranny once, with his own strength, that would be enough. He might be somewhat mediocre in the grand scheme of Glory pro players, but he was Tyranny’s pro player, and he’d loved his team from the start. He’d always hoped to have a chance like this, holding a trophy together with everyone else, celebrating a victory they’d won with their own hands. He was grateful to the character he’d been given all that time ago, the class he’d kept up with, even though it didn’t match Tyranny’s aggressive style very well. A Knight existed largely for defense, but Tyranny was not a team that needed defending. Nor did they need a tempo-setter, nor even a lightning rod. But he’d loved this class, and kept up with it, and in his last year as a pro, it hadn’t let him down. In turn, though pushing this far when he no longer had the skill made him tired, made his hands shake, he hadn’t let his team down.

This last time, he could be a deciding element of his team. Above everything else, he was truly satisfied.

 

In the press conference afterward, even though it was supposed to be a time for celebration and reflection, reporters wouldn’t leave out questions about Tyranny’s future.

“How does winning this championship affect your decision to add Ye Qiu to your roster next season?” One reporter began.

“It doesn’t,” Han Wenqing replied calmly.

“Why mess with a winning formation?” came the immediate follow-up. Obviously, his reply wasn’t too unexpected.

“This change to Tyranny’s roster was decided long before. As far as the club is concerned, Ye Qiu is already a part of our team and therefore our future plans. Tyranny isn’t afraid to move forward; we have no need to go back on our word and cling to previous success so adamantly. In the first place, bringing in Ye Qiu was not a move made out of desperation to win, but an acknowledgment of his ability to help us get there.”

Murmurs swept through the crowd of reporters, as if there was disagreement but no one was willing to step out and voice it.

Han Wenqing ignored them. “Every choice Tyranny makes is always in pursuit of the championship. This year, we succeeded without Ye Qiu. Next year, we’ll succeed with him. No matter what the case, Tyranny will always push forward toward our goals.”

“Why do you put so much faith in an omega?” the next reporter asked. “There’s no precedent for an omega succeeding as a pro player in Glory.”

Han Wenqing looked like he’d just had stupidity redefined for him in a single person. “No precedent? Ye Qiu is the precedent. Whether or not anyone knew about it, he’s always played as an omega. He’s won his championships as an omega. What grounds do you have to say no omega has succeeded in Glory, when the character he raised was known throughout Glory before the Alliance even opened its doors?”

The reporter opened his mouth to respond, but found he didn’t have anything to say. That was different? How, though? Because everyone thought he was a beta? The idea of Ye Qiu’s success as a beta felt completely different from Ye Qiu’s success as an omega…

“Would you say that your dynamic influenced your playing in these matches?” A female reporter took advantage of his awkward silence to step in.

“My dynamic is a part of me, so there will always be some influence,” Han Wenqing said staidly.

The reporter grinned, already planning the article she’d write in her head.

That wasn’t a “no.”

 

Wu Xuefeng and Ye Xiu had a tradition of catching up with each other after the end of each season, usually through some kind of call, either on Su Mucheng’s phone or through QQ. Wu Xuefeng was the type that liked to make sure everyone in his group was doing well, always planning for the future and filling in for shortcomings before even Ye Xiu could find the flaws.

Ye Xiu’s dynamic had always been a point of concern for Wu Xuefeng, possibly due to his own dynamic as an alpha. Ye Xiu hadn’t trusted many with the information about his dynamic, but he’d trusted the original Excellent Era; when Xia Ming had expressed her hesitancy about revealing her omega dynamic to the world, or even to their soon-to-be boss Tao Xuan, Ye Xiu hadn’t hesitated to tell her he had his own suppressants she could use, at least until they won enough for her to buy her own.

They’d taken it well, as he'd known they would: At that point, it’d been clear that Excellent Dynasty’s elite team already consisted of more alphas and omegas than one might find in the general population. Guild leader Tao Xuan, Su Muqiu, and Wu Xuefeng were all alphas, while Xia Ming and now Ye Qiu were omegas. Xia Ming’s concern stemmed from the fact that she didn’t use suppressants at all, both due to the dubious side-effects they could cause and the fact that she lived at home, where she was fully equipped to go through a heat every three months without issue. Being a female gamer as eSports started to catch more attention would be hard enough without adding her dynamic on top of it. Not to mention, their greatest rival Tyrannical Amibition was also creating a team called Tyranny, led by alpha Han Wenqing. If she told everyone she was an omega, wouldn’t they make a big deal about the two of them?

Of course, if they knew Ye Qiu was an omega, they’d make an even bigger deal of it. Competition was a form of courting, and the two did almost nothing but compete, directly or otherwise.

With Ye Qiu’s help, when the time came, Excellent Era appeared to be a team of betas, with an alpha vice-captain who was so well-mannered and unassuming, it was hard to remember he was an alpha at all. Wu Xuefeng only used a mild form of suppressant meant to keep his ruts from occurring for the duration of the competition, so technically speaking, his dynamic was no secret. On the other hand, what was there to care about when the fierce alpha captain of Tyranny was there for comparison? For any who didn’t understand Glory, it was all too easy to overlook Wu Xuefeng.

Tao Xuan set both Wu Xuefeng and Ye Xiu up with rooms appropriate for an alpha and an omega, and Xia Ming used those with Wu Xuefeng guarding when she had heats to rebalance her system in the off-season. If Ye Xiu stayed in Xia Ming’s room and she in his for the duration, there’d be no reason for anyone to suspect it wasn’t Ye Xiu that Wu Xuefeng was guarding.

Of course, by the end of the second season this wasn’t a problem at all, because Xia Ming’s sincerity had finally gotten through to Wu Xuefeng, and the two became a couple.

And, like many in happy relationships, Wu Xuefeng started seeing opportunities for them everywhere.

“I don’t suppose you’re interested,” he said thoughtfully, looking at the arena that contained Han Wenqing. Ye Xiu had just relayed to him their usual interaction, ending, of course, with the eternal “See you onstage.”

“Interested in what?” Seeing him onstage? Obviously Ye Xiu intended to face him in the playoffs, unless Tyranny managed to get itself eliminated first.

Wu Xuefeng just looked at him meaningfully.

Ah. That. “He doesn’t know I’m an omega,” Ye Xiu pointed out, in case Wu Xuefeng had somehow forgotten.

“What does that matter? Plenty of alphas romance betas,” Wu Xuefeng replied.

“There will be no romance,” Ye Xiu said, exasperated. “I still have Su Mucheng to think about! Besides, he hasn’t beaten me yet.”

Wu Xuefeng only laughed.

Ye Xiu eyed him suspiciously; that didn’t sound much like agreement. “Why are you so hung up on this, anyway?”

“Ah, I just worry about you.” Wu Xuefeng sighed. “You could use more people on your side, now that I’m leaving.”

“I don’t need protecting,” Ye Xiu said with a helpless smile. He knew Wu Xuefeng’s tendencies well. “Especially not at the cost of Han Wenqing ordering me around.”

“Ordering you around?” Wu Xuefeng laughed again, this time with a clear slant of disbelief. “I don’t believe for a second you wouldn’t beat him in a tussle for control any day. Whatever, if you’re not interested, you’re not interested. I know you can handle yourself.”

It was the best thing about Wu Xuefeng, that no matter how he showed his support, he didn’t ever act as if Ye Xiu couldn’t handle himself.

Which was not quite the same thing as letting it go.

“So,” he said, in their phone call after Excellent Era lost the next year.

“I told you we needed you,” Ye Xiu said, not without humor.

“So, Han Wenqing beat you,” Wu Xuefeng continued.

“I know,” Ye Xiu sighed. “Next year—”

“And Little Mucheng should be self-sufficient now, probably doing better than you, even,” Wu Xuefeng went on, rolling right over him.

Ye Xiu paused, baffled. “Of course she is, none of us ever doubted her. What’s this about?”

“So, how is it?” Wu Xuefeng asked, still as if he couldn’t hear him, somehow conveying a lurking jocularity with his absolutely serious tone. “Are you suddenly filled with burgeoning lust?”

“…Bro.”

“He’s beaten you now, right? Is your attraction flourishing now that he’s on top? Has the great alpha proven himself worthy of the omega?”

Bro.”

Wu Xuefeng laughed so hard at his put-upon tone that nothing else could be communicated for a full minute.

“Who likes losing?” Ye Xiu finally asked, exasperated.

“Aw, the poor boy has it so hard.” Wu Xuefeng had lost any grip on sincerity with that earlier outburst. “You said he has to win to prove himself, but he’s not allowed to make you lose, either? Your standards are so impossible.”

Ye Xiu could only resign himself to Wu Xuefeng’s amusement at his expense; he’d completely left this opening himself. But how could Ye Xiu have known Han Wenqing would beat him to the championship literally one year after he made such an offhanded comment? Ye Xiu never expected to win forever, but couldn’t this timing have been even a little better?

The comment had been inane from the start, because in fact, under his full suppressants, Ye Xiu got no real input from his instincts at all. If his hindbrain were online, perhaps it would latch onto how attractive it was for an alpha to go so far to win over him, how capable he must be. Perhaps Ye Xiu would be moved, now. As it was, though, he appreciated Tyranny’s ability and recognized that this time they’d come out the victors, but he obviously wouldn’t be overwhelmed with favor for having lost.

Ye Xiu knew Wu Xuefeng was well aware of this aspect of his suppressants; after all, Ye Xiu had been the one to explain to him at length that no, even if “liking someone solely due to instincts” were ever a thing, Xia Ming could not be interested in him for that reason, given she was using Ye Xiu’s suppressants and essentially didn’t have any instincts most of the time.

Now that he thought of it, this whole thing might just be Wu Xuefeng’s getting back at Ye Xiu for ruthlessly mocking him when he finally got together with her. But who asked Wu Xuefeng to harp on at him about “understanding social cues” when the man couldn’t notice Xia Ming’s patient, determined advances to save his life? Ye Xiu wasn’t a saint, okay?

“Not even a little interested?” Wu Xuefeng prodded.

“Pretty sure he’s not even a little interested in me,” Ye Xiu said with a snort. This whole conversation was ridiculous.

Wu Xuefeng laughed again, before suddenly cutting off. “Oh, wait, you’re probably serious. Ye Xiu, what were you always telling me about shortchanging myself?”

“There is absolutely no one but you, ever, who would say I shortchange myself in any aspect at all,” Ye Xiu told him, completely serious. “That is not even a little comparable to you, Mr. Thanks-For-Putting-Up-With-Me.”

“Ah, wait, even more important—that wasn’t a ‘no’ to some interest?”

Ye Xiu leaned his head against the window and despaired.

“How was it?” Su Mucheng asked when Ye Xiu came to return her phone.

Ye Xiu paused, considered all of Wu Xuefeng’s joking, prodding, and oblique attempts at cheering him up, then sighed and shook his head woefully. “He’s such an older brother.”

Su Mucheng laughed herself sick.

This year, the forums were full of “Han Wenqing got Ye Qiu another championship as a courting gift?!” and “Only the best for the peak of Glory” and “Glory’s One True Omega” when it came time for Wu Xuefeng to call.

“So, this time, old brother—”

“How about you shut up?”

At least Ye Xiu could say it was nice that their conversations always started with laughter.

As amused as Wu Xuefeng might be about this whole reversal, he wouldn’t make fun of Ye Xiu for going to Tyranny, nor calling Han Wenqing when he needed someone to help him. Some things really couldn’t be joked about, and Excellent Era’s betrayal was absolutely one of them.

Instead, he asked about Ye Xiu’s future plans in the Alliance, hearing about the Unspecialized dream none of them had mentioned since the announcement of the Awakening update had made a mockery of Su Muqiu’s enthusiasm. Wu Xuefeng obviously wouldn’t have the same kind of personal investment in the Unspecialized the two boys had built together, but he was still a fan of Glory. He still couldn’t wait to see it appear onstage.

“How are the kids?” Ye Xiu asked, once they’d talked through everything on Ye Xiu’s end.

“Still your biggest fans,” Wu Xuefeng said, his voice going fond and warm as always when he talked about his and Xia Ming’s family. “They keep asking me when their pretty uncle is finally going to show up on TV.”

“You told them I’m not pretty, right?” Ye Xiu asked, amused.

“Yeah, but they’re kids.” Wu Xuefeng’s reply was unrepentant. “They’re like that.”

Ye Xiu snorted his amusement and disbelief.

“And their mother being so beautiful—”

“I’m hanging up.”

Wu Xuefeng wasn’t actually the type to gush excessively, but it amused him to pretend at it, and even more to play at irritating Ye Xiu with it. And, to some extent, he just liked complimenting Xia Ming whenever he could, the way it made her sort of glow with embarrassed happiness. Similarly, Ye Xiu’s threats of hanging up were nothing serious; it wasn’t often that he and Wu Xuefeng would speak to each other, so it was important to take advantage of the times they did.

It wasn’t exactly emotional support, but it wasn’t exactly not, either. Ye Xiu had never mentioned Tao Xuan, or anything much about Excellent Era’s fall—never wanted to—but being able to talk with the vice captain that loved Glory and supported him all those years was enough to make it so he could keep going. After all, humans had evolved to be social creatures: Support was important, most obviously in groups containing the rarer dynamics. Before the invention of proper suppressants, it was having a strong community that allowed alphas and omegas to survive their occasionally irrational or aggressive natures, especially outside of a stable, bonded relationship. Betas in particular and their natural neutralization were able to keep interactions stable, so while it wasn’t exactly any kind of delineated “pack-like” or even hierarachical instinct that could be found in other animals, humans had a strong inclination toward social bonds.

Living in Excellent Era as they tried to tear him out of the community he’d built had been painful, watching it self-destruct even more so, but Wu Xuefeng’s yearly interactions were enough. Ye Xiu couldn’t bring himself to lean on Su Mucheng that way, nor his little brother at home, but Wu Xuefeng?

Wu Xuefeng, he could believe would be there for him. He didn’t want to vent emotions, nor ask for help, nor even get any advice; he just wanted to know he was there. The same time, every year, he could be reminded of warm connections, hopeful beginnings, and happy endings; for him, that was enough.

Their Excellent Era had existed. It wasn’t a lie, it wasn’t fake, it wasn’t inconsequential. Their Excellent Era, their Glory, was worth fighting for.

So, until the end, fight he would.

 

Ye Xiu showed up at Tyranny a few days into the transfer window, bringing Tang Rou, Qiao Yifan, and Guan Rongfei with him—and Chen Guo, who was following along to say goodbye to Tang Rou, and maybe Ye Xiu as well if she were pushed to admit it.

And, of course, to see her goddess Su Mucheng again.

Su Mucheng, Han Wenqing, and a few management personnel from Tyranny came out to meet them, but before any introductions or reunions could happen, Guan Rongfei was pushing his way forward.

“Where can I get on a computer,” he said immediately. He was already not pleased with the few hours “packing up” and taking a flight over had cost him.

The manager in charge, recognizing Guan Rongfei as an omega, marked him down for one of the appropriate rooms and told one of his subordinates to take him to the boss to get his hiring sorted out after only a brief moment of surprise. He hadn’t expected the people coming to push things through so decisively, but in the end, he worked for Club Tyranny. People who liked to get straight to the point were not too unusual to him.

Having efficiently dealt with the first of the people who came, he confidently walked forward to join where Han Wenqing and Su Mucheng had gone ahead to meet the others, only to stop in his tracks as he realized the group also contained Tang Rou, an alpha.

“I didn’t realize you had an alpha…” Seeing Han Wenqing turn to him with a face more murderous than usual, the manager quailed. “With you! You brought an alpha here too, and an omega, I didn’t realize…”

The man sweat furiously. It was just some bad wording, did Han Wenqing really need to look like he’d be happy to remove his spine?!

“I thought it was implied?” Ye Xiu didn’t seem concerned at all, despite the pervasive aura of death stubbornly dragging down the temperature. “Everyone from All Stars should have realized I was acquainted with a talented alpha. We weren’t at all subtle.”

Now that the manager thought of it, there really did seem to be such a thing. Wasn’t that why they’d bothered to get an appropriate room set up in the first place? “Ah, well, we actually did know about that, but with the R&D guy…” Even if this lack of information didn’t really seem to be his fault, he couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. This was, after all, his job. “You have to know, getting a room set up for an alpha or omega isn’t easy—”

Fuck.”

Everyone turned to Ye Xiu, in various stages of surprise or shock, and for various reasons. Anyone who didn’t know him might think it odd for an omega to swear; anyone who did know him would realize bursting out with a curse word out of nowhere was not at all his style. He was almost constantly unruffled, even in the face of genuinely unexpected events. Could something like this really bother him so much? Chen Guo even knew that he hadn’t cared in the least about sleeping arrangements in all the time he stayed with her.

Ye Xiu didn’t pay any of them any attention. “Mucheng, let me borrow your phone.”

Su Mucheng didn’t hesitate to hand it over. She didn’t know why he might need it, but the few times he did need to call, he’d almost always come to her for it.

“Hey, little brother—no, of course I didn’t see your message, why would I be calling if I could just message you? Look, I don’t care about that right now, listen up.”

Anyone who’d still entertained thoughts of the great Ye Qiu being a demure omega offstage had their dreams directly shattered. Honestly speaking, though, better now than later. He wasn’t going to change.

“You can get a response later, after I’m done with the things I definitely told you I was doing today. Look, I just need you to check something for me. You know that kid my old team fucked over—not that one, he’ll be fine. No, the alpha—yeah, him. Find out where they put him after I left. What room they gave him, I mean. And if it’s mine I need you to absolutely destroy them.”

There was a long pause, in which there was no sound, and then whoever was on the other end of the line said something loudly and vehemently. “Yeah, that’s what I said. It’s really likely too, it matches the way he was acting and everything, I’m honestly dumbstruck. Did they even get a dynamics advisor? They must have for the case, right? Did you see him?”

Another pause, and then, “well, no wonder. Do as you like, then, I don’t have a problem. No, whatever you feel is appropriate is probably good. Of course that just means ‘don’t bother me with it,’ don’t be stupid. Bye.”

Ye Xiu hung up as everyone stared on.

“So,” he said, turning back to them. “The mystery of the way-too-aggressive little alpha has likely been solved. My room was the only open one set up for a non-beta there, they probably put Sun Xiang directly in it.”

“…They can’t be that stupid.”

“Old Han, they tried to catch me in a life bond because I didn’t make them enough money. They are definitely that stupid.”

“…Fuck.”

“Right?”

Ye Xiu had lived in that room for years, meaning even if he were a beta, only a very thorough cleaning would have completely removed all traces of him. Especially because he had a smoking habit, and filtration systems he didn’t even always remember to use were only so good. The whole room would have reminded Sun Xiang of Ye Xiu, and that was if his living there was the only thing that had happened in that room. Cui Li’s heat inducer guaranteed that, whatever else happened, Ye Xiu would have a dangerously intense heat there, to the point that it might be better to directly replace everything in the room rather than try to clean it. After all, no one knew what side effects the heat inducer might have, especially since it was so potent through mere skin contact. Anything Ye Xiu had touched during that time might cause a problem, and who even knew what he’d been sweating out: Ye Xiu wouldn’t have been willing to live in that room after, let alone push an already-affected alpha to.

Ye Xiu hadn’t worried about cleaning up after himself when he left, because it wasn’t his responsibility to handle the aftereffects of their assault. He left almost immediately. However, if they’d roomed Sun Xiang there that same night, there was no chance they’d been able to do anything more than a cursory cleaning beforehand. Something basic like that might work well enough for a regular heat, but after all of that?

With Sun Xiang living there all this time, using the same computer Ye Xiu had used, sleeping in the same bed, it was no surprise his instincts remained unbalanced and even got worse as time went on: Alphas just weren’t designed to be riled up so intensely on a long-term basis. In that situation, he never had a chance of recovering normally. Even if Ye Xiu had insisted he be sent to get help, how much good could it do, living somewhere like that? A normal heat haze, which should have begun to pass in less than a month no matter the intensity, progressed into an engrained obsession, his instincts unable to let go of an omega that felt ever-present but unreachable.

And all that because Excellent Era, what, didn’t want to tip Ye Xiu off in advance that they were bringing in Sun Xiang, as if he hadn’t already guessed their plans? Because they didn’t want to spring for a hotel for a few days?

But really, it was probably just that they didn’t care to think it through.

(When had his Excellent Era become this?)

“Well, if you only have one other room set up right now,” Ye Xiu said to Tyranny’s manager, “it’s fine to give it to Little Tang. Old Han, you have two computers in your room, right?”

Though it seemed like an abrupt switch in subject, Han Wenqing didn’t hesitate with his response. “Yes.”

“Great. Get a new room set up for me whenever, I’m going to go play Glory.”

The manager stared, dumbfounded, as Ye Xiu gestured as if commanding Han Wenqing to lead the way.

Su Mucheng snickered.

“You—you can’t just commandeer rooms like that!” Chen Guo said, aghast.

“What’s wrong with it?” Ye Xiu didn’t seem the least bit concerned. “The bed should be big enough, since Tyranny undoubtedly does their non-beta rooms right—it is, yes?”

The last was addressed to Han Wenqing. “It is,” he said, after a very short pause. An alpha’s or omega’s room should always have a bigger bed to cater to their ruts or heats; they were always designed to comfortably hold more than one person.

“And I’m sure you aren’t the type to be lazy about upkeep or cleaning, so there’s no problem with someone staying over, right?”

Chen Guo watched in complete disbelief as Han Wenqing said “there isn’t,” without a pause at all now that he wasn’t taken off guard by the question.

“See? Sharing a room is no big deal. And of course I wouldn’t make Little Tang room with him. Old Han, would you rather I stay with her?”

“No.” Blunt as always.

“Yeah, I don’t think she’d appreciate it either,” Ye Xiu said.

“They aren’t together?” Chen Guo asked, truly baffled, after the two had nonchalantly left the rest of them there. Ye Xiu had given them a wave and offhandedly told Su Mucheng to take care of them, to which she cheerfully agreed.

“Nope!” Su Mucheng had been talking things over with Tang Rou, Qiao Yifan, and the manager, so she wasn’t too clear on the context of Chen Guo’s question. Still, she knew Ye Xiu would have said something to her if they’d started dating, so she was clear about her answer.

“But he decided to sleep in the same bed right away?” Chen Guo couldn’t let it go, even though she’d been absolutely sure before coming that Ye Xiu did not consider himself to be in a relationship. “That’s pretty forward!”

“Oh.” Su Mucheng laughed. “Ye Xiu doesn’t care very much about where he sleeps. When he first moved in with us, he and my brother shared a bed, too, but they weren’t dating or anything like that. We didn’t have anywhere else for him to stay in our room, and apparently he and his twin often shared a bed, so he didn’t think anything of it.”

Chen Guo was speechless. Wasn’t there a huge difference between sharing a bed as children and inviting yourself into someone else’s bed as an adult?!

“He wasn’t joking about access to a computer being most important, either,” Su Mucheng continued blithely. “If there’s a computer there and it’s convenient, he genuinely won’t care.”

Chen Guo thought of Ye Xiu’s lack of enthusiasm when she’d found him a very nice room that was, necessarily, further from work than “just upstairs,” and didn’t know if the choked feeling in her chest would count as laughter or incredulity. Could anyone be that oblivious to implications? She knew by now Tyranny wouldn’t treat him badly, would it really kill him to stay in a hotel until they had someplace for him?!

 

In fact, it was true that Ye Xiu didn’t care if he slept in the same bed as someone else, but it wasn’t like he was unaware that it mattered to other people. Ye Xiu wasn’t oblivious to social standards so much as he was uninterested in them. Of course, by extension, his lack of interest led to a lack of comprehensive understanding, because they weren’t anything he thought about, but he did have an idea of what they were. So actually, it wasn’t that Ye Xiu didn’t know that inviting himself into someone else’s bed was a little much—it was that, with such an easy opening, he might as well take the excuse to stay with Han Wenqing.

After New Year’s, he really had gotten serious about figuring out where his cigarette addiction had gone, devoting the time he spent between occasionally exhaustingly laborious Heavenly Domain Challenge quests—being 20 levels under a boss was no joke, no matter what his ability to persevere might be—to looking up his symptoms, or rather lack thereof. The only thing he could find was, as expected, that omegas’ reward paths sort of “reset” when they got a mate, because their alpha essentially replaced any other addiction. Provided that their relationship with their alpha was consistent and healthy, it would be very difficult for an omega to develop an addiction again.

Ye Xiu already knew this, but he also knew that he did not actually have a mate. He didn’t have any of the other normal signs, most notably the “withdrawal” symptoms and inescapable looming dread that came with an omega being separated from their alpha, especially shortly after they’d mated. And, of course, the lack of a bite. Han Wenqing had definitely kept his word in that regard.

The conclusion Ye Xiu had eventually landed on was that while he had not bonded with Han Wenqing, his body had, due to the intensity of his heat and probably how close Han Wenqing had come to biting, gotten further in the process than was normally possible. His brain had kicked out previous addictions to make way for the physical and psychological imprint of an alpha that then didn’t arrive. Without the bite, there was no release of bonding hormones nor withdrawal after he left, so Ye Xiu was left with, as far as he could tell under his suppressants, just a lack of addiction that conveniently refreshed every time he interacted with Han Wenqing.

Though Han Wenqing had said nothing about it, Ye Xiu would guess that he might have had similarly strange reactions after the heat, given the fluctuation in hand speed and shotcalling Ye Xiu had observed in his following matches. Since he wasn’t suppressing his instincts the way Ye Xiu was, he’d bet Han Wenqing had to deal with the initial stages of an alpha bonding—likely the part where the physical and mental imprint of the omega was recorded. Since alphas would occasionally rely on the stable existence of their omega in stressful situations as a method of self-regulation, it was likely that Han Wenqing’s instincts were getting distracted during the match by the lack of bond with Ye Xiu, exacerbated by having no other contact—and, in fact, not even knowing where Ye Xiu was. While it seemed that learning where to find Ye Xiu pretty much put an end to that issue, it didn’t change the fact that Han Wenqing would be most comfortable when his instincts could identify the whereabouts of Ye Xiu.

On top of all that, alphas and omegas in stable relationships had better regenerative ability due to the lack of stress, and while Ye Xiu currently had no plans of getting into a romantic relationship with Han Wenqing, being consistently close would only help them in the long run. So of course, since the opportunity had dropped into his lap, he might as well take it. If Han Wenqing said no, he could just as easily set himself up in a beta room, anyway. He had, after all, spent the last several months sleeping in a storage room. What did Ye Xiu care where his bed was, so long as it let him sleep?

 

Ye Xiu had said he was going to play Glory, but he didn’t actually intend to leave the others alone for getting set up. However, if he stayed, the manager would feel obliged to deal with him first, and his case was obviously more complicated than signing on some rookies. Rather than force them to be in an awkward position while they waited for him to be done, better if at least Qiao Yifan, with his greater understanding of the Glory pro scene an unproblematic identity, could get some things settled first.

He and Han Wenqing returned in time for Tang Rou’s discussions, making sure that signing a second alpha onto Tyranny wouldn’t cause any problems. Both of them were sure it wouldn’t, being more educated and with better control than the average alpha as they were. Tang Rou’s issues with coordination came from her personality rather than her dynamic, and neither were the type to be controlled by instinct.

Ye Xiu found the boss of Tyranny quite admirable—after the two said they could handle it, he didn’t question them any further. He trusted that if there were further issues, they could be handled as the team’s affairs, rather than anything on the administrative end.

That was the benefit of letting the captain be in charge of the team, Ye Xiu thought. As the boss, he could focus on just the business. No wonder they were doing so well.

 

Han Wenqing left to handle other things before Ye Xiu and the boss had finished their talk, which Ye Xiu had expected. Most of the things he had to talk to the boss about, Han Wenqing had undoubtedly covered before, and Ye Xiu didn’t need anyone there for moral support. What was less expected was what the boss said after he’d gone.

“If you’re wronged here, even by him, we’ll help you,” the man said sincerely. “No matter what, we’ll be on the side of justice. You don’t have to worry about any bias.”

Ye Xiu was pretty good at predicting people, but in this case he was genuinely blindsided. Tyranny’s boss would support him, their long-time enemy and part of the reason Tyranny hadn’t been recognized as a strong team that first season of the Alliance, over their captain? Tyranny had to struggle much harder for openly supporting their alpha captain all this time, while Ye Xiu had preferred to hide his dynamic entirely. How would a reversal like that be good for the club? Besides, “Old Han wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s good.” Tyranny’s boss smiled. “That’s my own feeling as well, but I wanted you to know that we’re serious about supporting you. We’ve talked a lot about the PR involved with your signing on already, and it really will be good for business given the image we’ve built up all these years, but that’s not the main point. My older sister is an omega, and my younger sister is an alpha. I pulled together this team because I wanted to see people be treated fairly in the game I love. I’d rather destroy public perception of this team entirely than betray its core purpose.”

Ye Xiu was glad Han Wenqing hadn’t returned to the room by the time he got back. He stood at the wall of window looking out over Qingdao, the city that would be his home for the forseeable future.

“Even with all this, if you want to keep hiding, you can,” the boss had said. “You can go by ‘Ye Qiu,’ and you won’t need to make any in-person appearances. It’s fine.”

It’s fine. How many people had said that to him, after he presented as an omega? Even his family was only supporting him if he returned to gaming exactly the way they wanted him to: triumphant, blatantly an omega, and standing completely on his own. The whole world wanted to see him an omega, but what he wanted was the same as ever.

Victory. Just victory.

Tyranny would give him what he’d asked of Tao Xuan at the start, what Tao Xuan didn’t just deny him, but wanted to drive him from Glory entirely for chasing. Tyranny would support him as himself, and didn’t need him to change.

So, then, now that he actually had a choice—

In front of the world, who did he want to be?

 

When Han Wenqing returned to his room, Ye Xiu was already asleep in his bed.

Ye Xiu. Was asleep in his bed.

His instincts wanted to make a big deal of this, but were oddly incoherent on the whole matter. It probably had something to do with the fact that he’d just finished his rut, in which his instincts had been more agitated and disconsolate than usual for lack of an omega to spend it with. Outside of what felt like the emotional equivalent of a row of exclamation points, omega, home came something like a susurrus, nearly lost in the movement of sheets as he got into bed. Ye Xiu shifted a little at the disturbance, but not much; he didn’t actually wake. Just like the last time they’d shared a bed, Ye Xiu proved to be nearly motionless in sleep.

In the moments before he fell into unconsciousness, Han Wenqing had a vague thought.

Since when did his instincts address Ye Xiu as “omega”?

 

Ye Xiu woke in the morning to find the bed empty. :( said his instincts, startling him. It’d been so long since he’d gotten anything specific from them, he’d completely forgotten they could do that, at least on a personal level. Although, from what he understood, getting what felt like an emoticon was extremely underdeveloped. Clearly, his mind was as unpracticed at turning feeling into something concrete as he was at being prepared for it to happen.

But he’d have to learn how, and the sooner, the better. Yesterday he’d changed his suppressants from full inhibitors to heat inhibitors, meaning the rest of his instincts would slowly come online again. More importantly in terms of widespread impact, it meant he’d be easily identifiable as an omega to anyone he met. He’d made the choice to identify as one, so he wouldn’t leave it halfway. In any case, there were advantages to being “omega” instead of “unpresented” instinctually, especially since using “unpresented” to pass as a beta was off the table.

Even more importantly, there were advantages physically, especially now that he’d physically come to Tyranny. An Unspecialized was a class that took a toll, but in front of an omega’s regeneration when in a stable relationship, it was nothing at all. He and Han Wenqing might not be in a romantic relationship, but after years of association he could easily bet on its being stable, and his instincts had already primed him for it. He’d long since decided he might as well take advantage.

Han Wenqing came back from his morning exercise not long after Ye Xiu had finished getting ready.

“Come get breakfast,” he said simply.

:) said Ye Xiu’s instincts back, and this time he was startled into laughter.

Han Wenqing gave him a weird look, but Ye Xiu only shrugged. “Yeah, okay.”

And so they went.