A war cry burst from the barbarian’s lips as he ambled toward me. His leather boots kicked dust up from the arena floor as he moved in a slow circle, trying to get his back to the sun and diminish my line of sight. It was a good trick, but there was just one problem with that. I knew what he was trying to do.
Even if I could keep him from blinding me, that hulking axe of his would do some major damage. If he hit me with that, no amount of blocking would keep my head from getting caved in like a casaba melon. Unfortunately, I was only good up close. I’d have to engage him sooner or later, and since his arms were longer than mine, I’d have to be quick. Even a cursory blow from him would mean trouble since the wardings on his gauntlets let me know he had ogre strength.
That said, I’d done this dance a million times before. The key was to not get frazzled. No, I had to stay calm. If I was calm, I could win. At least in theory. Unfortunately, it was always easier to tell yourself to be calm than to actually calm down. On the other hand, it was always a lot easier to piss the other guy off.
“Have you heard the one about your mother?” I asked, a grin melting across my face as I stepped back, trying to put space between me and his big axe. The muscles in his legs twitched as I spoke, letting me know he was about to attack. “You probably have, it’s huge.”
Another snarl tore from his throat as he leapt toward me, huge twin bladed axe cleaving through the air in a shower of red energy. I stepped to the side, slipping into a shadow as the axe passed through where I’d been and reappeared behind him, driving my daggers into his back before following up with a quick kidney punch.
He stumbled forward, stunned from the blow as I unloaded everything I had left, stabbing him in the back with my dragon bone daggers and sending him flying across the arena floor like a comet of fire and blood. As he crashed to the ground lifeless, the crowd went wild. I grinned as I sheathed my twin daggers and took a bow.
A cry of outrage exploded from the computer station across from me as the angry form of my opponent, Two‘ Manchu, leapt from his seat and flung his headset at the huge movie screen displaying our match in fury.
“You cheated, Kahn!” he snarled, calling me by my character’s name as he marched toward me. It probably would have been a little more intimidating if he wasn’t a five-foot-nothing Asian guy with spaghetti arms, but you work with what you’ve got, I guess.
To be fair, I wasn’t much better since most of my time was spent in front of a computer screen or in an arcade. Let’s just say I didn’t consider working out a productive use of my time. Still, as he came charging toward me across the stage at the EpiX! Games! PVP World Championship, my heart beat like a hammer in my chest. I didn’t want to get into a fight with anyone if I could help it, let alone in front of an entire crowd of people.
“It must be hard for you, not being able to rage quit in front of all these people, eh?” I asked, standing up and trying to appear bigger than I really was while running a hand through my short black hair. “Besides, hitting you in the back is hardly cheating. Haven’t you heard? Rogues always do it from behind.”
Before I could say more, a too cool for school guy in his mid-twenties wearing expensive shades and a blue muscle shirt came walking toward me with his hand out. My jaw nearly dropped. It was Crash Overdrive. The reigning Titan Gate PVP champion, and the guy I’d face in the final round now that I’d just beaten Two‘ Manchu.
To be fair, I’d never expected to get this far, and I was still in sort of a daze. I’d mostly just played back at my dorm with a bunch of other drunks, and I’d joined the contest on a lark. Then I started winning.
“I guess I’ll be seeing you in the finals,” Crash said, offering me his hand. Two‘ Manchu had stopped in his tracks, and I wondered if it had something to do with Crash having acted like he didn’t exist. The two were in the same guild and had been buddy, buddy right before the match.
“Guess so,” I said, taking his hand. He squeezed hard, like he was trying to prove something.
His gaze darkened as he leaned in close to me and whispered into my ear. “Don’t get too comfortable winning. That shits about to end. I’m not afraid to sweep the leg.” He heaved a breath that smelled like Doritos and Red Bull into my face as he stood back and raised my hand into the air like I was the reigning WWE champion.
I wasn’t sure how the hell he planned to sweep my leg. I mean, we were in a video game tournament, so unless he was going to hack the entire contest, I wasn’t sure how he could cheat.
Still, Crash had been one of the developers of Titan Gate. It was possible he knew some secrets I didn’t. If that was the case, I might be in trouble. That said, I still doubted he’d cheat. While he was known for being a slightly underhanded player, no one got this far in a tournament like this and reigned this long as champion based on anything other than skill.
“I look forward to playing against you, Crash.” I flashed him the grin my mother always described as cheeky, but which was just normal for me and pulled my hand away from his grip. “It’s always nice when you see legends fall.”
“I doubt that’s going to happen for you, but it’s always nice to dream, kid.” Crash scowled at me, but before he could say more, an absolute diva stepped in front of him, and I suddenly forgot he even existed.
She was dressed like Tifa Lockhart and had long brown hair and blue eyes that made me want to fall into them and never come out again. The rest of her was nice too, but I knew if I started looking her over too much, she might get the wrong idea.
I wasn’t the type to start slobbering at the sight of a pretty girl, but as Tifa stepped up to me and smiled, I forgot how to breathe. My vision tunneled so all I could see was her as her lips parted into a smile that could launch an armada.
“Hi,” she said, and I was already planning our wedding. We’d have three kids and a dog, but not a really big dog. Something smaller, like a Jack Russell. It’d have a lot of energy so the kids would have to walk him.
“Hello,” I replied pleased I’d remembered how to speak. “How are you?”
“Good,” she said, moving close to me and gesturing toward a big burly guy wearing a nametag that said “Frank.” He was holding a giant television camera, and as my vision moved to encompass both him and her, everything clicked into place, and not just because her badge said “Press.”
“So, you’re a reporter?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“How’d you guess?” She socked me lightly in the shoulder, and I rubbed the spot despite myself. “It was the badge, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to play cool, which was hard because I wasn’t cool enough to talk to reporters. Truth be told, I was really new to the whole “make money playing games” thing. As I said before, I’d joined on a lark. I never expected to get past the first round, let alone to the finals, and OMG I was in the fucking finals. I was so screwed.
Then again, I’d watched thousands of YouTube videos. I’d seen Crash play before, and while the bastard was good, he always hesitated when using his Night Elf’s endgame skill. I never understood why, but there was definitely something off with his micro when he transitioned from Night Stun to Killing Tempest. If I could exploit that and execute my rogue’s Revering Vendetta, I could win.
Glee shot through me, and I must have looked stupid because Tifa tapped me on the shoulder with one red-gloved hand.
“Aaron, are you listening to me?” she asked, one eyebrow quirked in confusion.
“Sorry, I just realized I can beat Crash.” I smiled, wanting to jump on my private rig and test out what I thought I’d discovered.
“Care to tell me about it?” She gestured to Frank who looked bored. “We can go somewhere more private and do an interview for IGN.”
As much as I wanted to say no, I couldn’t. I hated when I upset people, and it wouldn’t take that long to do the interview. Besides the final match wasn’t for six hours. We had plenty of time.
“Sure,” I said, and she practically squealed with delight as she took my hand and led me toward a room at the far end of the stage. It had a big sign over the top that said “Press Room.”
I took a deep breath and tried to ignore how good her hand felt in mine, nor how long it’d been since I’d touched a live girl. At least three months. That’s when my girlfriend had left me for that douchebag on the football team. I was still pissed about how it went down, but she was a bitch, so good riddance. She’d had great tits though…
“Just through here,” Tifa said, opening the door for me and ushering me inside. I stepped into the darkened room and before I thought to ask why it was so dark inside, the door closed behind me, leaving me stranded in darkness.
“What’s going on?” I asked, whirling around to find Tifa silhouetted against the darkness.
“Nothing,” she said, reaching up and touching my face with one hand, right before she used her other hand to jab me in the neck with a hypodermic needle.
“Why?” A small squeak leapt from my throat as my vision went hazy, and I started to collapse to the ground. As my head bounced off the cheap carpet, Tifa knelt down next to me. She caressed my cheek as everything faded to black.
“Because Aaron. You’re our only hope.”