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Hymns to the Young Phoenix

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"sic itur ad astra" ('thus one journeys to the stars')

I. Supplicant

Although most people blindly assume that Qiu Fei wants to inherit One Autumn Leaf, Ye Qiu has never been like most people.

Qiu Fei is barely fifteen when he moves into Excellent Era’s dorms. It’s extremely rare for a trainee to live in the club building, and equally rare to be allowed to finish school through tutors. Both privileges being accorded to Qiu Fei is a sign of how much Excellent Era anticipates from this youth. 

On the first night Qiu Fei sleeps in the dorms, Ye Qiu ambles past Qiu Fei’s new room an hour before curfew, as if by chance, and off-handedly suggests they fight a few matches. After two semesters as a day student in Excellent Era’s training camp, Qiu Fei has learned that most of Ye Qiu’s seemingly careless actions are calculated down to the last detail. His heart feels ticklish when he realizes that today’s timing is too coincidental for real carelessness - a silent sign of Ye Qiu’s care and concern.

Ye Qiu leads him through the vaults of the club’s darkened halls with a thread of smoke trailing behind him. In the soft blackness, following behind and watching the firefly perched between his senior’s skilled fingers, Qiu Fei thinks that it’s better this way - just the two of them, without the eyes in the training camp watching. 

Ye Qiu always feels more real this way. Less unreachable.

They’ve barely booted up their computers before the janitor pokes his head in. Ye Qiu, fingers folded around a new cigarette, gives the man a conspiratorial smile. 

The janitor chuckles, and waves his hand. “I’ll do the other rooms first. But you better play a few more games with me soon, Captain Ye!”

“Brother Wang, we can play any time you feel like losing!” laughs Ye Qiu in return, leaning back in his chair and flicking his lighter.

When Qiu Fei watched Ye Qiu play from a distance, he would have never imagined Excellent Era’s mysterious, godly captain, the holder of three championships, would do something like play with the club staff. It held no benefit to him; Ye Qiu’s skills couldn’t improve from playing such low-level opponents. Only simple, sheer love of Glory motivated him. How many times had Qiu Fei come across the captain playing terribly equipped side accounts, wandering through the game in secret?  Yes, Qiu Fei reflects, Ye Qiu is different from the person he’d imagined behind the arrogant and tyrannical One Autumn Leaf. Isn’t this much better?

The two Battle Mages fight several coaching matches, Ye Qiu patiently guiding Qiu Fei through each decision-making opportunity, allowing frequent pauses to go back and correct mistakes. Every time the two of them duel, Qiu Fei learns something new, whether in technique or tactics. Ye Qiu really is the peak of Battle Mages, his knowledge of Glory deeper than anyone Qiu Fei has ever known.

After their fourth coaching match, Ye Qiu glances at the time, and doesn’t press the button to initiate another duel. His captain’s face is half-shadowed; only the bluish computer glow and the ember held between his fingers illuminate the room.

Xiao Fei,” begins Ye Qiu, “joining the training camp full-time is a big commitment. What do you want to achieve?”

Qiu Fei strangles his instinctive response, because he knows what everyone expects of him, and he knows how presumptuous his real desire is. He whispers it anyway in his heart: I want to be your helper.

Qiu Fei does not want One Autumn Leaf. He does not want to replace Ye Qiu. He loves the Battle Mage class, but he has his own ideas about playing a Battle Mage, and he loves his own Battle Mage account Combat Form the most. In the most deeply hidden nook of his heart, he dreams of taking his own Combat Form to the stage and raising it up beside Ye Qiu to achieve glory.

Struggling with himself, Qiu Fei finally settles on a safer reply. “I want to become stronger, Senior.”

Ye Qiu cocks his head to the side, as if he’s listening silently to the words Qiu Fei didn’t dare to speak. Then he nods, and breathes out a mouthful of white smoke, diffusing the blue screen glow and turning the room murky. “It’s a good goal. If you have skill, then you can obtain whatever else you desire. So work hard, Xiao Fei. That is the most basic requirement for a pro player.”

“I’ll remember, Senior,” promises Qiu Fei, the corners of Combat Form’s account card digging into his palm.

 

 

Then Ye Qiu is gone - without warning, without a word to Qiu Fei, or anyone, about his retirement. 

Qiu Fei isn’t the only one crying in the dorms that night. In the morning he may be red-eyed, but his hands are steady and his play is clean and sharp. Ye Qiu would have wanted it that way.

 

 

Sun Xiang is not enough. Without its captain, Excellent Era falls.

 

 

Ye Qiu has betrayed Excellent Era, hiss the rumors slithering through the training camp. He couldn’t stand Excellent Era’s failures. The captain abandoned us for a new team. 

The whisperers always watch Qiu Fei when they speak: Qiu Fei, the deposed prince, Ye Qiu’s fallen heir-apparent. It was Qiu Fei who had lost the most with Ye Qiu’s retirement. What use is Qiu Fei with Sun Xiang as captain?

Whenever the whispers rise, Qiu Fei merely smiles, and continues playing. The senior he knows would never do such things. Ye Qiu cares only for Glory and pursuing victory. The loyalty Ye Qiu has for Glory, and the feelings he holds for Excellent Era will never weaken. Qiu Fei believes this whole-heartedly, and his absolute faith is untouchable in the face of unproven, baseless rumors.

 

 

Excellent Era makes an announcement: Lord Grim is Ye Qiu, and Ye Qiu has created a team to fight against Excellent Era in the Challenger League.

If the club itself announced it was true, what reason does Qiu Fei have to claim it was false? 

In the Challenger League, defeat means failure. Only one team can survive. If Ye Qiu returns to the pro league this way, he will be stepping on Excellent Era’s corpse.

On the surface, Qiu Fei seems completely unaffected. His peers and trainers watch him train diligently like always.

No one knows the pain and conflict this announcement created in him.

The truth diverges too far from what Qiu Fei knows. Would the ex-captain he thought was loyal to Glory and Excellent Era truly do something like this? Did he really retire to get rid of the team he thought was holding him back? The person who always guided Qiu Fei, who fought for victory, who never gave up, would he really abandon his team at a time like that? What is Ye Qiu trying to accomplish by doing this to Excellent Era? First he abandons the team, then uses them as a stepping stone to success?

The faith Qiu Fei held towards Glory is crumbling. Everything he thought he knew was crafted by his captain. Yet now that person went back on his word. How can Qiu Fei continue to have faith in him?  But to suspect this person is to suspect the beliefs he has always held.

On that day, Qiu Fei’s practice is filled with flaws, yet no one notices. Qiu Fei was always a responsible student. Unlike those who slacked off or got distracted, he didn’t need someone watching over him.

Everything Qiu Fei had given to Glory, what was it all for?

Under the surface, Qiu Fei seethes.

 

 

The media makes a new statement: Lord Grim isn’t Ye Qiu.

Excellent Era makes a counter announcement: Ye Qiu didn’t apply with Lord Grim’s account card, but he is definitely the culprit behind Team Happy.

Qiu Fei refuses to listen any more.

Last time, he believed the club. Qiu Fei’s beliefs crumbled, and he began to suspect everything he’d worked hard for. After the media released their news, Qiu Fei found it in himself to continue believing. When the club’s latest response condemns their ex-captain anew, Qiu Fei doesn’t crumble, but his doubts don’t leave him. His patched, cracked foundation trembles.

It cannot be true. Qiu Fei doesn’t dare believe it’s true.

 

 

It is true. All of it.

And yet, that truth ends up not mattering at all. 

Ye Qiu proved himself not by word, but by action, as he always had. A twenty-three minute coaching match, patient and meticulous, pointing out Qiu Fei’s flaws, his problems, the things he needed to work on. Even when Ye Qiu was still at Excellent Era, the coaching matches they fought had never been so thorough. 

What painstaking care was put into those twenty-three minutes?

If Ye Qiu had wanted to win, it would’ve only taken two.

If he wanted to mock his former student, he didn’t need to exert such strenuous effort. Coaching matches placed far more burden on the teacher than the one being guided. Twenty-three minutes must have been exhausting for Ye Qiu, who wasn’t young anymore.

If Ye Qiu was someone who had abandoned his team, someone who had used retirement to escape responsibility, would he really put so much care into guiding a junior?

Of course not!

A faith that is questioned becomes all the stronger for having been rebuilt. All Qiu Fei’s grief, all his anger transfigures itself.

Ye Qiu’s care was not false. His love for Glory was never false. Qiu Fei does not understand what passed between Excellent Era and Ye Qiu, but he knows one thing: Ye Qiu had never wavered, and neither will Qiu Fei.

 

 

As far as declarations of faith go, punching Chen Yehui in the face is viciously satisfying.

 

 

II. Aspirant: The Shadow

“You’re Qiu Fei?” inquires a disinterested voice behind him, interrupting without regard for Qiu Fei’s ongoing training match.

Finishing off his Sharpshooter opponent, Qiu Fei glances up, hands still poised over his keyboard.

In the glacial air conditioning of the basement training camp, the sweat dotting the man’s upper lip and saturating his polo shirt marks him as a refugee from the summer heat upstairs. He surveys Qiu Fei, evidently unimpressed by what he sees. “Pack your belongings. You’re being promoted to the pro team,” says the staff member in clipped, perfunctory tones. Already shuffling through the papers on his clipboard and moving on to the next trainee on his list, his eyes skip over Qiu Fei indifferently. 

These small trainees aren’t worthy of his attention. They’re being summoned only out of convenience. After being relegated and losing so many veterans, Excellent Era needs bodies to pad out their roster while they win the Challenger League. None of them are even being offered a contract - these substitute substitutes will all be thrown out when Excellent Era enters the Pro League, anyway. 

Watching the messenger turn away, Qiu Fei slides his headphones from around his neck. The gazes of his fellow trainees fall on him, but he doesn’t flinch, well used to their invisible touch. Some are envious of his fortune; others are relieved to get rid of a too-skilled competitor; a rare few are pleased on his behalf. None are surprised. Qiu Fei is unquestionably the best talent the training camp can offer, and the trainee rumor mill has treated Qiu Fei’s promotion as near-fact since Excellent Era’s relegation. 

Some of the other trainees decorate their stations with figurines or pictures, but Qiu Fei has nothing to gather except a bottle of water and a USB drive holding a recording of Ye Qiu’s final coaching match, the paint worn down to the silver metal underneath from too-frequent handling. After tucking the USB drive into his pocket, he pauses, wondering if he should bring his peripherals.

Glancing at the training supervisor, Qiu Fei receives a nod. Uncomplainingly, he crouches down under his computer to unplug his mouse. One of the other trainees snickers quietly. If the team won't even provide these recruits with new equipment, it isn’t hard to see the low position they hold. Showing no sign he’s heard anything, Qiu Fei straightens, and begins coiling the device’s cord.

As the first one to finish, Qiu Fei waits by the door and watches the two other trainees tapped by the staff member hurriedly sort through their things.

Half-caught in a daze, Wen Li, the camp’s best Spellblade, stares blankly at the equipment piled in his arms before the team’s messenger snaps at him and he hurries over to stand beside Qiu Fei. The doubt in his eyes is poorly concealed; he stands awkwardly, as if expecting someone to tell him there’s been a mistake and he ought to return to practice. 

Bai Shengxian, on the other hand, dawdles behind to accept the congratulations of their peers, beaming with a self-satisfied air. He’s another Battle Mage, like Qiu Fei - though in all their duels, he’s never beaten Qiu Fei even once. 

Their training supervisor says a few encouraging words, and without any further ceremony the three of them are led away, clutching their peripherals and personal belongings. From the pale blue-white lighting of the basement, they emerge on the upper floors and blink rapidly under the late August sun.

The staff member sent to collect them gives only a few terse rules. “Morning training begins at nine. You will be on time. The team breaks for lunch at noon. You have one hour to eat. Afternoon training begins promptly at one and ends at six. Obey Vice-captain Xiao and work hard. Cause trouble, and you will be sent back to the training camp.”

He does not ask if they have questions before sweeping through the door of the pro team’s training room. Gesturing at three unoccupied computers in the corner, without another word, the messenger abandons the three trainees in the center of the room.

There is no talk of rewards, or opportunities, or the future.

Already gathered for afternoon practice, a few team members glance at the trio, before going back to their own business. Only Su Mucheng, looking up from her phone, gives Qiu Fei a quick wave and a smile. As Ye Qiu’s former partner, how could she not recognize Ye Qiu’s student?

Qiu Fei smiles politely back, and takes a seat.

He isn’t disappointed by their reception. If he’s taking one step closer to the stage, what does anything else matter? 

After settling in to his station, there are a few minutes left until afternoon practice. Qiu Fei plugs his USB drive into the computer, queues up the recording, and allows his senior to teach him once again.

 

 

The team readies for practice as soon as Xiao Shiqin arrives, a sheaf of papers tucked under his arm from the last-minute club business he’d been asked to handle. Excellent Era’s management is very satisfied with this new acquisition from Team Thunderclap, even at the cost of two experienced players in exchange. Liu Hao and He Ming were a small price to pay to obtain one of Glory’s Four Master Tacticians, especially one who’s willing to adjust himself to match Excellent Era’s powerhouse image.

Surprisingly, rather than immediately joining the seniors, Xiao Shiqin makes for the three ex-trainees instead. “You’re Qiu Fei, Wen Li, and Bai Shengxian?” he asks, sweeping the three new pro players with a genuinely welcoming smile. 

Offered the first positive attention since they’ve been chosen, Bai Shengxian beams, while Qiu Fei nods politely, and Wen Li straightens like a drooping flower given water.

The corners of his lips twitch, but Xiao Shiqin keeps himself calm, knowing the trio would misunderstand a laugh. “Congratulations on your promotion to the team. Excellent Era thanks you for your support during this difficult time, and hopes that you’ll continue to offer us your strength.”

Excellent Era might regard these three as unworthy, but in Thunderclap, talent like this would be considered a precious resource. Xiao Shiqin always believed having an ace would finally give him a championship, and had left Thunderclap in the hope that Excellent Era and Sun Xiang’s strength could bring him that future. But even after transferring teams, he doesn’t look down on these sorts of players. Relying on his tactics, he’d made his name in the Alliance with players who started out just like them. 

“Afternoon practice is usually team-oriented, while morning practice is for individual training. Just for today I’d like the three of you to run some drills instead,” the vice-captain says. Seeing Bai Shengxian pale and Wen Li shrink into himself, he clarifies, “I’ve read the supervisor reports, but I’d like to assess your current abilities myself so I can guide you well in the future.” 

Xiao Shiqin glances at Qiu Fei, curious about the only one who hadn’t shown any nervousness, but continues, “If you experience any difficulties, come to me rather than the captain.”

“Vice-captain Xiao?” Wen Li’s voice unexpectedly rises from the seat beside Qiu Fei - then the Spellblade stops, waiting for permission. 

When Xiao Shiqin smiles and gestures encouragingly, Wen Li returns the smile. “Have you heard if Liu Hao is doing well in Thunderclap? He always showed a lot of concern for the Spellblades in the camp - especially me.”

Wen Li’s honest concern leaves a good impression on Xiao Shiqin, though it leaves him slightly homesick for his mother team. Pushing his glasses up, he assures, “I’m told that Liu Hao has settled in well at Thunderclap. I’m sure your senior would be glad to know you’re still thinking of him.”

“Thank you, senior.” After being shown Xiao Shiqin’s goodwill, Wen Li steadies, relaxing back into his chair.

“What’d you bother him about Liu Hao for?” Bai Shengxian mutters when Xiao Shiqin is out of earshot. “He isn’t even here anymore.” Sucking up to the team’s old vice-captain wouldn’t do any good when Liu Hao would never know about it. Especially if it meant offending the new vice-captain by asking after his predecessor, as if Wen Li was dissatisfied with Xiao Shiqin.

Wen Li doesn’t say anything in response. Qiu Fei doesn’t reply either, leaving Bai Shengxian to unhappily subside himself.

True to his word, when Xiao Shiqin returns, Qiu Fei and the others spend the afternoon running training programs while Xiao Shiqin observes and writes in his notebook. Once they’ve each completed a full set, Xiao Shiqin calls over one of the second string players.

Before the new trio’s arrival, Zeng Shenghe had been the youngest and least senior member of Team Excellent Era, a former trainee promoted only in the last couple of months. Rising from the training camp at roughly the same time Xiao Shiqin transferred meant his arrival had been overshadowed by his senior. Xiao Shiqin felt rather apologetic about this, so he tried particularly hard to look after this junior.  

In front of Xiao Shiqin now, Zeng Shenghe holds his body awkwardly, acting like he doesn’t quite know what to do with his limbs. Combined with his thick glasses and flat expression, it gives him an off-putting, uncomfortable feeling. 

Zeng Shenghe is a true gamer. Put him in front of a computer and he’ll happily play all day. In all other human-based contexts, he’s useless. As the Alliance tries to move away from the public’s perception of pro gaming as a frivolous hobby, Zeng Shenghe’s sort of pro player is increasingly less welcome. 

Because of Ye Qiu’s past insistence on anonymity and the team’s current relegation, Club Excellent Era is trying harder than anyone to improve their media presence. However good he might be, Zeng Shenghe doesn’t fit in with the image they want to present, so it isn’t surprising his sense of existence on the team is null.

Xiao Shiqin understands their intentions, and will comply so long as it doesn’t harm the team’s results. The Challenger League doesn’t require the second string players to do much. Using Excellent Era’s main roster is enough to steamroll nearly all the teams they’ll face. 

Furthermore, Zeng Shenghe is still young, and there are many places he can improve. That makes him a suitable opponent for these new recruits. “Xiao Zeng,” Xiao Shiqin says, “I’d like you to fight a match with each of them.”

Zeng Shenghe is immediately interested. He’d thought the vice-captain wanted him to give them a tour, or even worse, act as a mentor. Individual matches? That he could do! He sits down at an open computer and loads his Elementalist immediately.

The three matches show Excellent Era’s vice-captain a few new things, but Xiao Shiqin’s initial impressions are largely reinforced. Bai Shengxian’s skill is alright, but his temperament makes him overconfident and careless. At the highest levels of play, where talent is everywhere, mentality becomes a wall that some potential players can’t overcome. 

Wen Li’s Spellblade is a pleasant surprise, despite the heavy nervousness he displays under Xiao Shiqin’s observation. For some reason, Excellent Era has had difficulty keeping Spellblade trainees in the past few years, despite their Vice-captain Liu Hao’s careful attention. They either switched classes, were headhunted, or dropped out of the camp. But Wen Li’s talent and suitability for his class aren’t lacking in the least. Again, it’s this recruit’s mentality that might hold him back. It’s clear to Xiao Shiqin that Wen Li lacks confidence in his own abilities. 

As for Qiu Fei...Xiao Shiqin glances at the young Battle Mage, who is almost sixteen according to his file. In the notes left by the training camp supervisors, one phrase appears frequently: ‘already pro level.’ 

Xiao Shiqin doesn’t disagree. If anything, they are underestimating Qiu Fei. 

Qiu Fei's Combat Form inherited One Autumn Leaf's stat distribution, where the Strength and Intelligence are relatively balanced, but Qiu Fei’s playstyle is not a pure copy of Ye Qiu’s. Its roots certainly lay in Ye Qiu’s utilitarian, efficient style. But Qiu Fei’s Battle Mage is more fluid, lacking Ye Qiu’s game-raised wild habits, though it keeps Ye Qiu’s precision and meticulousness. Mechanics is also undoubtedly one of Qiu Fei’s strengths, achieved through countless drill repetitions. 

More importantly, in Xiao Shiqin’s opinion, Qiu Fei’s mentality shows none of the problems of the other two trainees. Skills could be improved, but mental quality was innate to some extent. From what he’s seen today, Qiu Fei seems steady, and incredibly stable for his age. Of the three recruits, he was the only one whose play didn’t reflect any nervousness. Against Zeng Shenghe, he wasn’t indecisive and had taken calculated risks when necessary. 

Not all of those risks had paid off - Qiu Fei had made mistakes, left openings, and misjudged situations - but Xiao Shiqin was left with a generally favorable impression. It’s difficult to discern from a single match against this level of opponent, but Xiao Shiqin suspects that fighting an offensive-oriented Elementalist like Zeng Shenghe is a comfortable matchup for Qiu Fei. He’d like to arrange a dirty-playing opponent and see if Qiu Fei struggled, but Xiao Shiqin would be very disappointed if Ye Qiu hadn’t let his student experience his famous black-heartedness.

Experience is certainly Qiu Fei’s greatest deficit. Qiu Fei can respond well to the immediate situation, but he lacks depth to his play. In veteran players, their instant calculation of cost effectiveness considers not just one move ahead, but multiple moves. The accumulated experience of many, many battles fought allows such judgements to become quicker and more intuitive. Qiu Fei lacks this experience, which means he doesn’t always make the most optimal choice.

Still, Xiao Shiqin is very satisfied. Talent, skill, and mentality - almost no polishing would be required to field him. Qiu Fei only lacks experience, and that will come with time. 

A Battle Mage of this skill, personally trained by Ye Qiu? Any team fielding a Battle Mage would fight tooth and nail to recruit him! 

And Qiu Fei is very  young, with room to improve. Xiao Shiqin, who came to Excellent Era for the sake of a championship, can see possibility here. It’s only a pity that Excellent Era already has an even more talented Battle Mage in Sun Xiang.

Xiao Shiqin sends Zeng Shenghe back to join his teammates, and returns to afternoon practice himself. Watching Sun Xiang’s One Autumn Leaf charge ahead, a glimmer of an idea takes root in the back of the Master Tactician’s mind.

 

 

Xiao Shiqin pauses at Qiu Fei’s shoulder, a few days later during morning practice. “You’ve run that particular training program over a dozen times this week. Can you tell me why?”

“My decision-making still isn’t good enough,” Qiu Fei admits, touching the USB drive in his pocket. Ye Qiu had pointed it out himself during their coaching match. Qiu Fei had been angry at the time, and more reckless than usual because of it, but the criticism still held true.

“You’re already better than most players your age,” Xiao Shiqin tells him, thinking that Qiu Fei felt down-hearted and needed encouragement from a senior. He has a good impression of this young man. Qiu Fei is never late to practice or distracted by his phone, and he needs no urging to work hard. Ye Qiu had been fortunate to teach such a dedicated student.

Qiu Fei doesn’t react, except to smile politely at the praise. Better than players of his age? That doesn’t hold much meaning to Qiu Fei. 

Is he better than he was yesterday? Is he better than his opponents, so he can obtain victory? These are the questions Qiu Fei concerns himself with.

Xiao Shiqin senses he hasn’t gotten the reaction he expected, but he’s not the type to pry. He only looks thoughtfully at Qiu Fei, and continues overseeing practice.

Qiu Fei loads the program again, and is soon immersed in the flow of battle: if the Berserker dodges backwards to avoid his Sky Strike here, Combat Form can follow with Dragon Tooth to either attack or block a skill - Gore Cross or Heavy Hit are both possible - but if the Berserker blocks instead - Guard is on cooldown, and they won’t trade for damage because of the knock up effect, the Berserker is close to triggering Blood Awakening and leaving close range will disadvantage him - Combat Form will gain a Light Chaser, which is good because Colliding Stab will be off cooldown by then...



Give a Master Tactician an unexpected result, and they can’t resist the urge to dig deeper. 

At practice that afternoon, Xiao Shiqin arranges 2v2 matches instead of the standard 5v5. That isn’t unusual. In team battles, if the team splits up or is forced to separate, they can end up fighting an opposing team without the advantage of full strength and equal numbers. Blue Rain is well known for their mastery at 4v5, but all kinds of scenarios have to be practiced, even unlikely ones like escaping from a 1v5. 

Switching partners after each match, the team cycles through pairing up with different teammates. It’s a chance for teammates who don’t often cooperate to try working together. 

When he draws Qiu Fei early in the exercise, Xiao Shiqin is pleased, and slightly anticipatory. The young Battle Mage’s skill has already caught his eye, but thus far, his impressions of Qiu Fei have been formed only through playing him as an opponent. As a member of Excellent Era’s main roster, Xiao Shiqin does not have many opportunities to play beside the team’s second and third string players.

Curious to test Qiu Fei’s abilities, as soon as Xiao Shiqin’s Life Extinguisher and Qiu Fei’s Combat Form spawn into the forest map, the vice-captain leads Qiu Fei on an indirect route, darting from position to position, slowly circling around their opponents. From the prior matches he’s observed, Qiu Fei most often favors direct confrontations, but Combat Form follows Xiao Shiqin’s character without hesitation. 

Giving Qiu Fei an opportunity to show how he handles a more strategic advance, Xiao Shiqin deliberately drags out their maneuvers, playing a cat-and-mouse game with their opponents. Even after a full five minutes without a single clash, Qiu Fei’s patience hasn’t flagged: Combat Form’s positioning is still clean, centered precisely on Xiao Shiqin. Xiao Shiqin can’t help but compare his temper favorably to Sun Xiang, who would already have argued for charging forward.

Xiao Shiqin tests Qiu Fei’s responsiveness a few more times, adjusting Life Extinguisher to break alignment so he can watch Qiu Fei’s response. Without exception, Qiu Fei corrects Combat Form’s location to remain in formation. His repositioning isn’t always the most ideal choice, but it shows Qiu Fei’s awareness of his teammates and willingness to cooperate with their actions - the foundation of team play. Better judgement will come with experience.

Daring to push even further, Xiao Shiqin instructs in the team chat, “You lead, Xiao Qiu.”

Qiu Fei remains silent for a moment, pausing in their current position, then continues their slow, steady advance. His choice of positioning isn’t bad, the meticulousness in his playstyle carrying over into this aspect of his play as well. As he’d hoped, Ye Qiu hadn’t let his student have such an obvious weakness.

When the two finally encounter their nervy, impatient opponents after toying with them for so long, Life Extinguisher and Combat Form handily finish the exercise without either of them hitting red blood.

Once more, a thread of possibility niggles persistently at the back of Xiao Shiqin’s mind.

 

Wen Li is leaning against the back of Qiu Fei’s chair, speculating happily about what’s for dinner - he’s on the cusp of another growth spurt, one that will leave him towering even further above Qiu Fei - while Qiu Fei finishes logging out, the last person in their corner to leave as always.

 Vice-captain Xiao calls out, “Qiu Fei, Wen Li, Bai Shengxian, Zeng Shenghe - stay after practice please.”

The three newbies in the corner glance at one another; Zeng Shenghe’s head pops up incredulously from behind his computer, eyes darting about in alarm.

Xiao Zeng, it’s just some instructions for tomorrow’s practice,” Xiao Shiqin says helplessly.

Zeng Shenghe shuffles over with relief.

Momentarily uncertain if he should laugh or cry, Xiao Shiqin settles for a cough instead. “I’m assigning the four of you a new drill. From now I’m, I’d like you to spend at least an hour during afternoon practice playing 2v2, with the Battle Mages paired together.”

“Paired together?” demands Bai Shengxian, mouth pinching at the corners. He isn’t so confident that he doesn’t understand his skill level; playing beside Qiu Fei, Bai Shengxian can only be compared unfavorably. 

Qiu Fei doesn’t hear the complaint. He’s already pondering Xiao Shiqin’s odd instructions. When organizing a match with class overlap, common sense suggests that you split the two players playing the same class between different groups, not pair them together. Having two players of the same class limits the team’s tactical options - Xiao Shiqin, as a Master Tactician, couldn’t fail to comprehend this principle.

Exceptions exist, naturally. Team Void’s twin Ghostblades hold the distinction of being the only permanent dual class partnership in the league, but Battle Mages don’t have anything like overlapping ghost boundaries. This season’s lineup includes double Witches in Tiny Herb and double Blade Masters in Blue Rain, but this is a temporary roster while those teams train core successors. That wouldn’t apply here. Qiu Fei and Bai Shengxian are barely rookies themselves. 

A memory tugs at Qiu Fei’s mind - a match, one of Ye Qiu’s, but not one he’s watched recently, the recording older and of lower quality. His eyes narrow in thought.

“Yes, paired together,” Xiao Shiqin affirms patiently. “Sun Xiang is Excellent Era’s ace. I want the two of you to learn how to coordinate with another Battle Mage.” Xiao Shiqin’s eyes rest for a moment on Qiu Fei, then he releases the four players for the evening.

Qiu Fei follows the others quietly, head down as he thinks. 

“Are you coming?” calls Wen Li, tormented by the bottomless pit of his teenage stomach. 

Qiu Fei shakes his head. “I’ll eat later,” he answers. 

Wen Li waves goodbye and Qiu Fei walks back to his dorm, where he brings out his collection of Ye Qiu’s match VODs. 

Club Excellent Era archived every official match since the Alliance’s inception, and copies were easy to acquire for the trainees. Qiu Fei’s personal collection is even more complete. He’d even managed to track down a few pre-Alliance tournament recordings where the original Excellent Era had participated, as well as dozens of Arena recordings all the way back to the first server.

Finding the USB drives holding Season One and Two, Qiu Fei puts on his headphones and scrolls through the list of files, hoping that one of them will catch his attention. 

No luck. 

This may take some time, he realizes; there are more than thirty matches in the first season alone, each around two hours long. 

A less diligent person might have given up at this point. Qiu Fei messages Wen Li and asks if the Spellblade can bring him some leftover food. Then he clicks on the first file labeled ‘S1R1 - Jade Dynasty’ and jumps to the team battle.

For Excellent Era’s sake, Qiu Fei would never spare any effort. 

 

 

Though Su Mucheng and Qiu Fei do not seek each other out, there is an unspoken understanding between them. Ye Qiu is their common point, and their faith and belief in him mark them as outsiders in Excellent Era. 

It’s autumn; the days are beginning to shorten, and cold creeps through the streets at night. Su Mucheng and Qiu Fei are alone in the cafeteria on their rest day, both drifting to sit at the same table and sip their drinks.

“You’ve never asked if Ye Qiu is well,” Su Mucheng remarks abruptly, trying to keep her voice even as she stirs her drink. The needle of bitterness hidden inside her words surprises even her.

Qiu Fei lowers his head, gazing into the steam rising from his tea. Then he looks up at Su Mucheng, and his eyes are clear and dark as he answers, “Senior is playing Glory the way he always wanted. Isn’t he well?”

Su Mucheng’s hand stirring the spoon goes still. A laugh escapes her throat; she lifts her hand to cover her mouth as a torrent of giggles follows. 

When she regains her breath, she feels a little relieved. “You really are his student, Xiao Qiu” she says. “I’m glad.”

Qiu Fei’s brow crinkles in confusion, trying to figure out what he’s done.

Su Mucheng laughs more freely this time. Abandoning her drink, she leans back in her chair. “Come find me anytime you like, Qiu Fei. You’re the best company I have here.”

“I will, Senior,” promises Qiu Fei, taking the matter seriously.

Su Mucheng gets up to replace her cooled tea, stirring her usual excessive amount of sugar in the new cup. Watching her reflection in the sludgy liquid, she realizes she’s smiling.

 


Excellent Era’s strength far exceeds their Challenger League opponents. Just one professional player is enough to single handedly dominate the group arena; half the main roster could stand aside during team battles and they’d still steamroll the five normal players. Second string players like Qiu Fei are even more superfluous, but even if they aren’t playing in the match, they’re still expected to attend and support the team.

Qiu Fei is grateful for this requirement. If he’s expected to attend Excellent Era’s match, he doesn’t have to grapple with the question of watching Team Happy’s matches. 

The pro team may be occupied, but the trainees are free to go cheer for Happy’s opponents, and they laughingly boast of how much Team Happy is hated. Though he expected it, Qiu Fei’s stomach feels like it contracts into a ball.

Then an unexpected danger occurs: Ye Qiu’s new team Happy draws the relegated pro team Everlasting in the early rounds. No one is sure of Happy’s true strength, but they’re certain it can’t be higher than an ex-pro team. 

Qiu Fei has faith in Ye Qiu. But even Ye Qiu doesn’t win all of the time.

That Friday evening, Qiu Fei leaves his phone in his dorm. Throughout Excellent Era’s entire match, he stares fixedly at his computer screen with his hand clamped around his mouse, concentrating so intently on their laughable joke of a match that his head is empty of all else.

When the match is finished, Wen Li leans over from his seat beside Qiu Fei and murmurs that Team Happy’s match is still ongoing, but Happy is ahead.

Qiu Fei nods, and continues shutting off his computer, but his grip on his mouse relaxes a fraction.

An hour later, Qiu Fei turns his phone back on, and searches for match results. The breath he’s been holding all evening escapes in a rush - Happy had trounced their opponents 8.5 to 1. That score would be nearly impossible for Everlasting to overcome in their second match.

Placing his phone down on the bed, Qiu Fei pulls out Combat Form’s account card and stares at it, holding the plastic gently between his fingers.

As a member of a rival team, Qiu Fei suspects his feelings are unprofessional. He is an official player of Team Excellent Era. Team Happy is a dangerous opponent with whom they’re locked in a mutual death match. 

When the time comes - and it will, Qiu Fei holds absolute certainty that it will - Qiu Fei will strike at Team Happy and Ye Qiu with a clean heart and no hesitation. Ye Qiu taught him that. That’s how pro players act, and Qiu Fei prizes his own professionalism. 

Yet there is a part of himself that wishes he could sit in Happy’s section in the arena and support his senior. Before, they’d been on the same team and his desire would be welcomed. Now everything has changed. Qiu Fei himself can’t reconcile it. 

But Ye Qiu doesn’t need Qiu Fei’s support. Ye Qiu never cared about other people’s opinions of him. Ye Qiu would continue on his path even if the whole world railed against him. There is nothing Qiu Fei can do for him. 

Qiu Fei isn’t needed at all.

 

 

As Xiao Shiqin half-hoped, half-expected, Qiu Fei’s growth has made him too outstanding to leave in the second string. The young Battle Mage’s lack of experience had been a concern, but he’s already outpacing more seasoned players. 

Promoting him to the first-string above older, more senior players may not create good feelings among those he’ll now outrank, but strength is the ultimate arbiter for pro players. If they can beat Qiu Fei, they can take his place.

Xiao Shiqin is having a late lunch on the team’s off-day, and the cafeteria is nearly empty. Spotting Qiu Fei holding a tray and glancing around the dining hall, Xiao Shiqin calls out, “Xiao Qiu, come sit with me.”

“Yes, Senior.” Without any discomfort, Qiu Fei sits down and begins eating - quite unlike his fellow ex-trainee Wen Li, who always looks vaguely panicked when a superior notices him.

Xiao Shiqin continues his meal, considering the young man in front of him.

Promoting Qiu Fei wouldn’t be an issue. Management has already given their approval. The problem lies in Xiao Shiqin’s plans for Qiu Fei afterward. 

Xiao Shiqin takes off his glasses, massaging his temples. Sun Xiang, to put it lightly, may not take things well. Sun Xiang’s ego would have to be carefully persuaded to accept another Battle Mage with minimal fuss.

But that’s a matter for the future. Xiao Shiqin puts his glasses back on, and smiles at the young player across from him. “Qiu Fei, the club hasn’t overlooked your efforts. It will be announced tomorrow at practice, but I wanted to congratulate you now on being promoted to first-string.”

Xiao Shiqin doesn’t have any misgivings about letting Qiu Fei know beforehand. Qiu Fei is sensible and won’t brag - rather, he might not tell anyone at all. Qiu Fei is single-minded in his activities, only practicing and preparing for the team's next match. He doesn’t leave the club, and he doesn’t seem to seek out others around his age. 

His devotion to Glory reminds Xiao Shiqin very much of Excellent Era’s former captain. It worries Xiao Shiqin a little. Qiu Fei had achieved his current results by pouring all of himself into Glory, which was certainly a good result from the club and the team’s perspective. As vice-captain, Xiao Shiqin ought to be encouraging Qiu Fei. But also as vice-captain, Xiao Shiqin is responsible for managing his players’ state of mind. Qiu Fei is sixteen - this level of single-mindedness, to the exclusion of all else, seems like courting burnout. 

So Xiao Shiqin smiles at Qiu Fei in what he hopes is an encouraging manner. “You can share the news with your friends. A little early celebration is fine, as long as you keep it quiet.”

“Thank you, senior,” Qiu Fei replies, returning Xiao Shiqin’s smile with bright eyes, but his thoughts run in a different direction. 

He’s taking one step closer to the stage. This is the result of everything he’s sacrificed and worked for. Of course he’s pleased! 

But his happiness isn’t quite perfect.

Underneath the table, his hand curls in the cloth of his pants leg. Deep down, Qiu Fei had always hoped to hear those words from Ye Qiu. 

 


Being promoted to the first string isn’t the same as joining the main roster. A player might appear in the individual battles, or perhaps even the group arena, but there is no guarantee they’ll play in every match, or even every few matches.

For a young player like Qiu Fei, it’s still a significant milestone. 

Wen Li is ecstatic when Qiu Fei’s promotion is announced at morning practice. More visibly excited than Qiu Fei himself, Wen Li is already leaning over and planning a celebration in the dorms tonight.

Bai Shengxian adds his own congratulations, but he’s unusually subdued, and he watches the team crowd around Qiu Fei with a complicated look in his eyes.

Wen Li convinces the second string to take Qiu Fei out for celebratory barbeque, which Xiao Shiqin generously pays for. They have team practice tomorrow, so the young players return to the club at a good hour. After a final round of goodbyes, Qiu Fei is left alone to type in the code to his door, and change his clothes.

He’s sinking into his desk chair when a message pops up on his QQ from Bai Shengxian. ‘Can I talk to you?’

Qiu Fei replies that he’s in his room. A minute or two later, there’s a knock on his door. Qiu Fei gets up silently to let Bai Shengxian in. 

Excellent Era is wealthy enough they can offer their players individual rooms. Qiu Fei’s current dorm is roomy enough to accommodate two people, unlike his tiny training camp room, which was hardly large enough to fit a bed.

Standing in the middle of Qiu Fei’s room, Bai Shengxian looks lost, scrubbing a hand through his undercut.

Qiu Fei remains quiet, waiting patiently for an explanation.

Between his skill and his confidence, Bai Shengxian had navigated through the training camp very well. Most people usually call him Little Bai for his round, young-looking face. Qiu Fei isn’t one of them, since the two are acquaintances at best. 

“The club has asked me to change classes to Qi Master,” Bai Shengxian says finally, looking tired.

Qiu Fei inhales sharply. 

Excellent Era’s training camp had not produced any outstanding Qi Masters in recent seasons, and after Guo Yang’s summer transfer, the team would be looking to fill the empty spot. From the club’s perspective, requesting a class change from a young player is an understandable method. Excellent Era has many talented Battle Mages, so why not try using one of them and see if anything good resulted? 

For Bai Shengxian himself, changing class might destroy his career and his chance at becoming a pro player. Young trainees often changed classes, but Bai Shengxian had achieved his present position through his Battle Mage. There is no guarantee that he will become a Qi Master of equal skill, or that he can move beyond that and fully blossom. 

“I’m not going to refuse,” Bai Shengxian continues. “This is the only way I can become a pro player.”

Qiu Fei’s eyelids flicker. His statement is true. With Qiu Fei’s promotion, Excellent Era now has two Battle Mages in their first string roster. There is no room for a third. 

Understanding that his own increase in skill had sealed Bai Shengxian’s present circumstance, Qiu Fei feels a little regretful, but not guilty. Situations like this happened all the time. That was how the pro league worked. If he himself were the one asked to class change, Qiu Fei wouldn’t be angry at his competitor, only grieved that he could not continue with his Combat Form.

“Then I hope you reach your goal,” Qiu Fei tells him honestly. “I’m sorry you couldn’t continue as a Battle Mage.”

“It’s fine. I’m not like you,” Bai Shengxian replies, tone a little sharp. “I don’t care what class I play. I didn’t even play a Battle Mage until I joined the training camp.”

Unsure how to navigate his teammate’s situation without adding insult to injury, Qiu Fei nods, and makes a noise of acknowledgement.

Bai Shengxian’s anger slips away. “When Chen Yehui took us to play against Team Happy, I lost to their Brawler twice after you ran out. I thought he was a noob I could crush. But in the end I was the one who was crushed. And then I was too afraid I’d humiliate myself to try again.”

He runs his hand through his hair again. “When we joined the team, I thought I had another chance to prove myself. But now I’ve been crushed again. This time, I want to try again even though I’ve been beaten.”

Qiu Fei smiles openly. “Then I believe the victory you seek will come to you.”

Cheeks a touch red, Bai Shengxian shrugs. “I don’t have a good reason for wanting to tell you this. I envy you a little, Qiu Fei. I think everyone in the camp did.”

Qiu Fei remains silent. He was used to being envied - for his skill, for catching Ye Qiu’s eye, for having the favor of the adults around him. But envy was not something he could control.

“I’ll be going now. Congratulations on your promotion,” Bai Shengxian says with a wave. 

This time, his words sound genuine.

 

 

“Qiu Fei? Come join Captain Sun and I for a moment,” Xiao Shiqin calls, hoping no one notices the tightness in his smile. He’s prepared several plans for the upcoming conversation, but Sun Xiang’s reaction...well, they’d have to see!

The captain and vice-captain are seated at their computers; morning practice is in full swing. Qiu Fei crosses the room quite readily. On his second day as part of the first string, he’s not surprised that Xiao Shiqin has new instructions for him, but Sun Xiang’s presence is unusual. 

Sun Xiang doesn’t manage anyone’s training arrangements other than his own. Whatever Xiao Shiqin suggested for the rest of the team, he approved. Perhaps he’s here to give a formal stamp of authority to Xiao Shiqin’s actions? 

Standing up, Xiao Shiqin places a friendly hand on Qiu Fei’s shoulder. “Sun Xiang, now that Qiu Fei is part of the first string, I’m hoping that you can offer him some guidance as a fellow Battle Mage.”

“Naturally,” Sun Xiang says, waving a hand in boredom. “You’re not bad. If there’s anything you don’t understand I can explain it.”

“Actually,” Xiao Shiqin says, “I think the team will benefit from you two working more closely together.” He looks at Qiu Fei. “Are you familiar with Shadow Play?”

“Yes,” Qiu Fei answers readily. “A player of the same class shadows the team’s ace, acting as support. The shadow player’s attacks serve as a guide for their partner, filling in any holes and covering up their mistakes. In the Season One finals, Royal Style used a double Exorcist Shadow Play against Excellent Era.”

Not expecting such a detailed answer, Xiao Shiqin nods approvingly. For such a young player to recognize Shadow Play is worthy of praise. In the current era of stars, Shadow Play is rarely seen. Being an invisible shadow requires a very high level of skill. Few players are qualified, and even fewer are willing. Shadows do the ace’s dirty work, allowing the ace to perform more brilliantly, but the existence of the shadow is likely to be ignored. 

“You’re correct,” Xiao Shiqin praises. “Excellent Era obtained their first championship against Lu Liang’s Peaceful Hermit, with Peaceful Hermit’s creator, Guo Mingyu, acting as his shadow. Royal Style made Shadow Play a well-recognized and famous tactic. Of all the pairs who’ve used Shadow Play, Lu Liang and Guo Mingyu’s mastery was the most perfect.”

Qiu Fei looks between himself and Sun Xiang, already catching on. Xiao Shiqin nods again in approval, the corners of his eyes curving upward behind his glasses. 

Sun Xiang looks a little bored. “What does it matter? No one uses a shadow anymore. Why bother studying something useless?” This isn’t factually correct, but Sun Xiang doesn’t consider teams below the powerhouse level worthy of inclusion.

Xiao Shiqin coughs awkwardly, and fiddles with his glasses. “I think Shadow Play would be very suitable for Excellent Era,” Xiao Shiqin forges ahead.

“Oh right, we have two more Battle Mages, don’t we?” Sun Xiang replies, feeling very pleased with himself for sussing out Xiao Shiqin’s intentions. “They can try Shadow Play. I think that’s a good idea,” he says, waving his hand.

“No, Sun Xiang,” Xiao Shiqin answers. “Not with Qiu Fei and Bai Shengxian.” Trying to spell it out so clearly that Sun Xiang can’t misunderstand, he states, “Qiu Fei will be your shadow.”

Xiao Shiqin pauses to allow his intention to sink in. “The two of you -”

“I don’t need someone to follow me around during matches!” Sun Xiang begins angrily, cutting off Xiao Shiqin with an ugly expression. “Do you think I make so many mistakes that I need a whole player to correct them?!?”

The training room goes silent.

Xiao Shiqin remains calm, pushing his glasses up his nose to give himself time to think. “What powerhouse team could afford to do that? Sun Xiang, you’re Excellent Era’s ace. Weren’t you the one chosen as One Autumn Leaf’s new player? Everyone in Excellent Era believes you will carry us forward and restore our place in the Alliance. Using Qiu Fei as your shadow will just ensure there are fewer obstacles in your path.”

Sun Xiang thinks for a long moment. The moment draws out, bowstring-tense.

“He’d better not get in my way,” Sun Xiang says finally, putting on his headphones with a scowl and ignoring the two of them.

Breathing out in relief, Xiao Shiqin tells Qiu Fei in an undertone to switch computers to a station closer to Sun Xiang.

Qiu Fei obeys silently. Wen Li shoots him a sympathetic look and squeezes his shoulder as he goes.

Sun Xiang begins another training program, but only halfway through, his unresolved indignation causes One Autumn Leaf to fail a dodge and topple off the platform. Gritting his teeth, he jerks backwards, glares at Qiu Fei and demands, “Fight me.”

Logging in after installing his peripherals, Qiu Fei unhesitatingly opens the dueling program.

Xiao Shiqin hastens to prevent a scene. “Sun Xiang, you’ll have the chance to assess his skills later today. Qiu Fei hasn’t finished his daily exercises.”

“Then he can finish after this.” Sun Xiang stubbornly insists. Anger, and the need to prove himself boil in his chest. 

Sun Xiang feels blindsided. His skills had been called into question, and suddenly an usurper had appeared in his home ground. What Sun Xiang wants most right now is to show this Qiu Fei his place.

He strains his memory trying to recall an impression of this young Battle Mage, but comes up with sparse details. Sun Xiang knows the names of the second string players, but they aren’t on his level and are sub-par substitutes anyway; he hadn’t considered them to be worthy of his attention.

Excellent Era’s players have abandoned their own training, engrossed in the drama. Su Mucheng leans back in her chair. She’s known Qiu Fei long enough that she isn’t particularly worried about him, but Sun Xiang’s arrogance is certain to make his response excessive.

Xiao Shiqin tries one more time to persuade Sun Xiang to wait, hoping his temper might cool, but it’s no use. Sun Xiang only grows more insistent.

When the countdown ends, One Autumn Leaf explodes out of the spawn point, hunting Combat Form down in a blaze of fury. Qiu Fei manages a single combo exchange before One Autumn Leaf takes advantage of a hole in his defenses, knocks his spear out of the way, and throws him into the air. 

Sun Xiang is sharp, and angry, and focused; Qiu Fei uselessly struggles himself to a quick death.

A second match. Qiu Fei lasts through two exchanges this time, then his resistance is swept away like a broken pier by a tidal wave.

A third match. Qiu Fei is overwhelmed even more quickly. 

Fueled by his restless emotional state, Sun Xiang’s reactions are sharp, and the judgement honed by his superior match experience is employed at its peak. In front of Sun Xiang, Qiu Fei’s defenses are full of openings, his thoughts not clear enough, his attempts at counterattacking worthy of nothing but a sneer.

After the fourth beating, some of Excellent Era’s players wince, or look away. 

Another match. Another brutal loss. 

Teammates do not fight against one another with the same intensity they would face an opponent. As allies, practice matches are meant to improve both sides and mutually improve their skills. Even if teammates intend to fight to their limits, subconsciously they will treat practice matches differently. 

Sun Xiang’s play right now holds none of that reserve. Sun Xiang’s offended pride is treating Qiu Fei as an opponent, with all the ferocity he can summon. To Excellent Era’s players, Sun Xiang’s actions look like a god-level ace bullying a junior.

Sensing the team’s low mood, Xiao Shiqin intervenes, trying to salvage the situation. “I think that’s enough for now. You’ll have more time to get used to one another’s style.”

Even now, Sun Xiang isn’t thinking of how his actions might look to his teammates. His head is full of the need to strike back at the implication that his skill isn’t good enough. Now that he’s tested Qiu Fei and feels he’s made his point, Sun Xiang feels satisfied enough to be willing to withdraw.

But what about Qiu Fei, who had faced an unrestrained god-level player and hadn’t managed to last for a full minute through five matches?

Xiao Shiqin, and a few other players, watch Qiu Fei, who has his head lowered. Being crushed like this is enough to deal a serious blow to a young player’s confidence, or to break their trust in their captain. Would Qiu Fei even be willing to act as Sun Xiang’s shadow after this?

“Thanks to Senior for your teaching,” Qiu Fei says, lifting his face and showing a little regret.

The gap between himself and a pro player really is large! Qiu Fei had hoped that his efforts in the past few months might have closed that gap even a little bit, but he had thought of himself too highly. Ye Qiu is still far ahead of him. Qiu Fei will have to work harder.

Xiao Shiqin examines Qiu Fei’s bearing, until he’s satisfied that Qiu Fei hasn’t been discouraged. He smiles with relief. “That’s a good attitude, Xiao Qiu. See, Sun Xiang? Your junior has excellent fundamentals and great potential. Being able to fight beside you and learn from you will improve his abilities, and bring the team further success.”

Just when Xiao Shiqin thinks he can relax, Sun Xiang says with a voice full of derision, “You’re really willing to become my shadow?”

Xiao Shiqin wishes he could bury his face in his hands, or somehow stop Sun Xiang from talking.

Qiu Fei’s attitude is completely open. “Yes, senior. If the team needs me to play as your shadow, I’m willing. Glory isn’t a single player game.”

Sun Xiang’s expression twists. Ye Qiu’s ridiculous slogan again! Sun Xiang’s memory of his in-game defeat at the hands of Ye Qiu and a band of random players still burns.

Xiao Shiqin tenses, but then Sun Xiang laughs derisively. 

Was this Qiu Fei a follower of Ye Qiu? Then what did Sun Xiang have to be concerned about? Ye Qiu was old and all he could do was run around in-game and cause trouble. Hadn’t Ye Qiu failed at leading Excellent Era and grown weak with age? What use are his outdated platitudes?

Sun Xiang had brought his old team Conquering Clouds out of obscurity through his personal strength. Then he had switched classes and joined Excellent Era to obtain a god level account. He disdains this player who is so willing to stand in the shadows. Qiu Fei might have a bit of skill, but so what? He entirely lacks the spirit of an ace player. He would never be a threat to Sun Xiang.

“I’m the one who will restore One Autumn Leaf to the title of Battle God,” Sun Xiang tells Qiu Fei, raising his chin with arrogant confidence.

“I’m hoping you will, Senior,” Qiu Fei replies honestly. It would have been better if Ye Qiu could remain One Autumn Leaf’s player, but Sun Xiang’s skill won’t disgrace the Battle God. Qiu Fei has reconciled himself to their union.

Thrown by Qiu Fei’s response, Sun Xiang merely sneers and goes back to his practice.

Heaving a sigh of relief, Xiao Shiqin shoots Excellent Era’s rubbernecking players a meaningful look, and the team quickly hunches down behind their own computer screens.

 

 

Sun Xiang has his own professionalism. Despite his lack of enthusiasm, now that he’s agreed to Xiao Shiqin’s plans for cultivating Qiu Fei as his shadow, he won’t actively work against that goal. 

Sun Xiang completes their joint specialized training without holding back any effort, though not always with good grace. If Sun Xiang’s mood during practice is particularly good, Qiu Fei might receive a certain amount of tolerance. More often, the reaction he receives after his mistakes is curt, snapped commands and frustrated insults .

In the early days, Qiu Fei’s Shadow Play is rife with errors. Sun Xiang makes minimal allowances for his new shadow, and Qiu Fei can only struggle to keep up with him. 

As Sun Xiang tells him more than once, “If you’re holding me back, what’s the point of using you?”

Sun Xiang isn’t wrong - that’s why it’s so difficult to find suitable shadows.

Qiu Fei is wrung dry after every practice. All pro players have to learn to coordinate with their teammates, but shadow play adds another level of difficulty. Qiu Fei cannot act without first considering Sun Xiang’s actions in tandem with his own. 

Shadow play multiplies the number of mental factors Qiu Fei needs to keep track of during a team battle. It’s a feedback loop: the ace, the shadow, their teammates and their opponents. Move any one of them and all the rest shift, and Qiu Fei’s current calculative and predictive abilities fall short, even when he strains his situational awareness to his present upper limit. He knows he’s learning, can feel himself slowly improving, but it’s a steep, sharp slope, and progress is bought through repeatedly pushing himself to his limit, taking a step further each time.

Outside of practice, Sun Xiang treats Qiu Fei indifferently. Their interaction is limited to practical, Glory related matters only. Sun Xiang is accustomed to being flattered, and Qiu Fei’s personality does not incline him to seek Sun Xiang’s favor. 

Sun Xiang can ignore Qiu Fei if he chooses. Qiu Fei does not have the luxury. He cannot predict Sun Xiang’s attacks and support his actions if he does not observe Sun Xiang and understand his style. The burden of coordination is placed entirely on his shoulders. 

But it doesn’t have to be.

While the ace controls the direction of Shadow Play, the best shadow and ace pairs possess a tacit understanding that flows both ways. The shadow may stand hidden in the darkness, but the two players are meant to be partners all the same.

Sun Xiang and Qiu Fei are not partners. 

As a shadow, Qiu Fei is an existence that can never be accepted by Sun Xiang. When Sun Xiang wins, won’t people say it was because of the shadow at his side easing his way? 

The victory Sun Xiang desires is not shared, and a shadow can only lessen his glory. 

Qiu Fei can only lessen Sun Xiang’s Glory.

 

 

Ye Qiu taught Qiu Fei the heart of Glory. But it is Xiao Shiqin who teaches Qiu Fei how to be a captain.

Although Excellent Era appointed Sun Xiang as team captain and Xiao Shiqin as vice-captain,  the person calling the shots is undoubtedly Xiao Shiqin. Sun Xiang doesn’t have much desire to bear the responsibilities of a team captain, but he likes holding the title. As a result, Tao Xuan didn’t make trouble by demoting his position. 

Xiao Shiqin is amenable to this arrangement. Coming from a mid-tier team, Xiao Shiqin lacks the arrogance that might cause him to resent fulfilling the captain’s responsibilities while Sun Xiang carries the title. It is results that matter to Xiao Shiqin, as the Master Tactician who has arguably accomplished the least, despite being equal in skill to Ye Qiu, Yu Wenzhou, and Zhang Xinjie. Acting as vice-captain allows him to perform his duties appropriately. Therefore, he is content.

He isn’t a person who gossips much, and he doesn’t have too much interest in understanding the grudges between Ye Qiu and Excellent Era. What concerns Xiao Shiqin is building Excellent Era into a team who can compete for a championship. 

It is Xiao Shiqin who offers Qiu Fei tutoring after practice, borrowing a Battle Mage account from the guild so Qiu Fei can practice the situational awareness and attention-splitting that Shadow Play requires. As the shotcaller for a team with a Battle Mage core, Xiao Shiqin would have spent time practicing this class anyway. Still, Qiu Fei can tell he’s spending far more time than he’d need to stay familiar with its capabilities. It’s clearly for his junior’s sake.

It is also Xiao Shiqin who presents Qiu Fei with a compilation of Shadow Play match VODs, inviting Qiu Fei to watch them together so Qiu Fei can ask questions whenever he encounters something he’d like to copy, or doesn’t understand. 

Because Xiao Shiqin is incapable of turning off his tactician’s brain, their discussions about Shadow Play often run onto tangents of overall match analysis. Ye Qiu was much the same during their coaching sessions, never stopping at explaining how when he could explain why and give his student the tools to teach himself. Qiu Fei is interested in anything that will make him a better player, even if his position as a shadow holds little tactical initiative. He listens with diligence, absorbing Xiao Shiqin’s explanations and tucking them meticulously away in his memory. 

Spending so much time with Xiao Shiqin means that Qiu Fei unintentionally grows to understand the practical day-to-day responsibilities handled by a team captain. While Qiu Fei annotates a match, Xiao Shiqin is often working on reports, or he’ll leave and return hours later after attending planning meetings. And since Xiao Shiqin is Excellent Era’s acting captain, Qiu Fei often overhears him conferring with management or guild employees over decisions that could affect the team. 

Other duties that Xiao Shiqin takes on are less visibly apparent. Xiao Shiqin mediates whenever Excellent Era’s captain-in-name takes offense again to his shadow’s existence, coaxing Sun Xiang into a more accepting frame of mind. Now that Qiu Fei is watching, he can see the ways that Xiao Shiqin manages the whole team’s mood in similar ways. And there are many times when Xiao Shiqin kicks Qiu Fei out of the practice rooms with orders to take a break.

“Dedication is admirable, Xiao Qiu, but even Ye Qiu needed to rest,” scolds Xiao Shiqin.

Qiu Fei smiles, and goes gratefully.

 

 

On the 18th of November, Glory officially announces a massive update: the level cap, untouched for the last three years, will be increased to level 75 during this year’s anniversary of the game launch. Not just that, but there will also be new areas opened, with new wild BOSSes, new skills, new equipment, and new quests!

“Aaaaahhhh, I’m so excited!” Wen Li groans, laying back on his bed and flipping through the teaser screenshots with delight.

“Did you see the clip of Shadow Tactician Shaan?” mutters Zeng Shenghe, nose nearly touching the screen of his phone. He’d turned up without anyone inviting him, but Wen Li had been too pleased to see Zeng Shenghe willingly interacting with other human beings to bring it up.

“Yeah!” replies Bai Shengxian, kicking his feet from where he’s sitting on Wen Li’s desk. “Too bad Excellent Era doesn’t have much use for Nightwalker materials.”

Wen Li considers asking Bai Shengxian to sit somewhere else, but his room really isn’t very big, so he reminds himself that having too many guests is a good thing, and lets it go. “Will you be okay with the new Qi Master skills?” he asks.

Bai Shengxian’s class change has been off to a rough start. Technical skill is applicable to any class, but Qi Master habits and ways of thinking don’t closely parallel those of a Battle Mage. Bai Shengxian has returned to a beginner’s level, below even some of the Qi Masters in the training camp. Transitioning from an attacker role to a more control-oriented class was always going to be a difficult and risky proposition, but Bai Shengxian’s Qi Master style is still more aggressive than the support role Excellent Era seeks. Wen Li worries that management may discard him for that reason even if he achieves good results.

In a more upbeat mood than he’s shown in weeks, Bai Shengxian puffs out his chest. “Just watch me! Nobody else has mastered them either, so at least I won’t be behind!”

Wen Li laughs, and throws a pillow at him, which Bai Shengxian snags out of the air and hurls right back into his stomach.

“Oof,” the Spellblade gasps, momentarily winded. Then he grins. “Look! You’re already acting more like a Qi Master!”

Bai Shengxian gripes and goes back to his phone.

“Qiu Fei?” Wen Li asks, looking up at the teammate sitting beside him on the bed, who’s been quietly scrolling through the news. 

“They haven’t released anything about Battle Mages,” Qiu Fei says, a sigh lingering in his voice.

Wen Li almost laughs, but restrains himself to a smile. “Qiu Fei, please, there’s a limit to how hardworking you should be.”

Qiu Fei lifts his eyes, and glances over at Wen Li. “It’s not just for work,” he says, a bright gleam in his eyes. His body is full of a quietly contained enthusiasm.

“Then that’s okay,” Wen Li replies. The stress Qiu Fei’s under worries him almost as much as Bai Shengxian’s dim situation, but if Qiu Fei can still love Glory like this, then he’s a long way from giving up.

Still, some time to relax would be good for all of them. Wen Li hums, and starts to plan out a dungeon party after the new update - he’ll need permission to use the common room, and maybe Meng Yongming would be willing to join in for the new five-player dungeon, and he’ll need to go shopping for enough snacks....

 

 

December 3rd. The date of Glory’s new twelfth server opening, the level 75 update  - and Ye Qiu’s one-year retirement anniversary, the end of his one year ban from the pro league.

At Club Excellent Era, the day crawls by in nerve-wracking disquiet. More than anyone else, Excellent Era fears their former captain. How can Ye Qiu pass up this opportunity to strike back against them? When Ye Qiu announces his return, who knows what secrets he’ll spill? They fret and worry and plan, rallying the club PR and even gathering the team specifically to caution the players.

Qiu Fei remains at peace. 

The captain will never maliciously harm Excellent Era. Qiu Fei remains in the dark regarding the circumstances of Ye Qiu’s departure, but all this furor and tension suggests that perhaps the captain is better off elsewhere, as much as it aches to contemplate.

“You must not be careless,” Cui Li cautions the team yet another time. “Excellent Era finally has the chance to become great again, without being held back. If allegations are made by a highly-regarded source, you need to mind your answers to any interview questions.”

Qiu Fei’s patience is long, but not infinite. After listening to an hour of similar sly attacks against Ye Qiu, the same outrage that earned Chen Yehui a punch to the face simmers weakly under his skin.

“We assure you that anything shocking is merely intended to sabotage us in the Challenger League,” the manager announces solemnly. 

Everyone hears a disdainful humph. 

Cui Li is startles, and looks around for the source. Once again, Su Mucheng coldly expresses her disgust.

Facing a player of her status, Cui Li finds himself in an awkward position. Su Mucheng’s relationship with Excellent Era fell apart long ago, but Su Mucheng had always been too lazy to bother with them before. Now that she’s made her opinion clear, the Club is powerless to do anything to her since her contract expires at the end of the season.

Xiao Shiqin is about to intervene when Su Mucheng says, "Manager Cui Li, aren’t you overthinking things?"

"I actually feel sorry for you." Su Mucheng continues, heading off Cui Li’s attempt to answer. "You’ve worked together with Ye Qiu on so many things, yet you don’t understand him at all. He’s a pro player and he’s very professional. He has dedicated everything to Glory, to competing. Did you think that because you’ve treated him like this, he’s set on getting revenge? You’re wrong. He’s coming back because this is where Glory lies. He’s in conflict with you because he’s disappointed that you guys fell so far as to drop to the Challenger League. Him treating you as an enemy has nothing to do with you guys being Excellent Era, nor does it have anything to do with you guys forcing him into retirement. It’s simply because that’s the nature of competition.” 

Her smile sweetens to saccharine. “That’s why, Cui Li, you don’t need to worry. Ye Qiu won’t take advantage of announcing his return to say anything bad about Excellent Era because in his eyes, you guys are simply a competitor inherently no different from those ordinary player teams he’s beaten along the way. The only difference is that you guys are a strong team, so he’ll be even more serious and put in even more effort to face you guys. So, Manager Cui Li, if you don’t want to lose, then hurry up and focus on practicing. This meeting is just a waste of time. It’s completely unnecessary, so I’ll be going now."

Su Mucheng stands and leaves the conference room. The door clicks as it closes behind her.

Everyone is completely silent. 

Qiu Fei reflects upon many things - some of the guesses he’s constructed about what transpired between Ye Qiu and the club, memories of his time with Ye Qiu, and his own deeply held goals.

And then he also gets up.

"I’ll be going to practice," Qiu Fei says, tone neither fearful nor defiant, simply firm.

His fellow rookies are aghast. Qiu Fei was only just promoted from the training camp this season. By saying that, it meant he agrees with Su Mucheng. Daring to speak out against the Club’s manager? Too terrifying! Doesn’t Qiu Fei realize Cui Li could wreck his career?

His older teammates, the ones who knew Ye Qiu as captain, carry more complicated feelings. Wariness, certainly. Guilt? Perhaps. Qiu Fei’s actions are too far outside their own expectations.

Ignoring the gazes upon him, Qiu Fei follows Su Mucheng without any rush. 

The low, rolling anger of the last hour has disappeared. Even the stress of learning Shadow Play has eased. Qiu Fei breathes evenly, as if he’s let go of a burden he’s been carrying for a long time.

Outside, he catches up with Su Mucheng at the door to the training room. Su Mucheng smiles at Qiu Fei, and he responds politely back. Then, just as she said, the two of them begin their practice.

Left behind in the conference room, the remaining people stare at one another, occasionally sneaking a glance at Cui Li.

This time, Sun Xiang breaks the silence. "Haha, that child!” he laughs, holding his middle. “He’s really got a personality. How interesting."

Sun Xiang, can you at least try to read the atmosphere? Please understand the issue at hand! Everyone restrains themselves from slapping their foreheads. 

Naturally, Sun Xiang doesn’t notice their fervent wishes for him to get a clue. He’s staring at the door Qiu Fei recently disappeared through. 

Sun Xiang had disdained this shadow since Qiu Fei had been forced to his attention. He looked down on Qiu Fei for accepting such a position, for lacking ambition, for lowering his head instead of using his obvious talent to stand out and fight to receive his proper acknowledgement.

He’d thought it was because Qiu Fei was spineless. Weak. Unworthy of attention. Why else would he accept the team’s will and stifle his talent?

But defying Cui Li in public wasn’t the action of a fearful, weak person. 

Sun Xiang is just a little intrigued. How contradictory! Maybe Qiu Fei is more interesting than he’d thought.

 

 

“I cannot believe you got away with that,” Wen Li whispers at dinner, still horrified. He’d never dare go against a senior, let alone management.

“I only did what I was supposed to do,” Qiu Fei answers. Nothing Su Mucheng had said was wrong. Wasn’t it natural for a pro player to go and practice?

Management wasn’t happy with Qiu Fei, but what could they do? Punish Qiu Fei for going to practice during scheduled practice time? Management couldn’t do that! What kind of message would that send?

Bai Shengxian grunts. “Do you think that’s going to make a difference to the club? Even if they can’t openly punish you, they’ll remember what you did.”  

Wen Li lowers his voice. “What Su Mucheng said about Ye Qiu and the club…”

“Not here!” Bai Shengxian interrupts sharply. “You’re not going to get anywhere in a pro team if you ask questions like that.”

“I don’t know anything,” Qiu Fei admits painfully. 

Su Mucheng said that Excellent Era had forced Ye Qiu into retirement. It was her word against the club, but Qiu Fei’s suspicions had long been growing in that direction. If the captain’s heart never changed, then Excellent Era’s heart must have twisted and rotted instead. 

The other rookie players on the team know Ye Qiu only from his occasional expeditions through the training camp. Holding no strong personal attachment toward this former captain, they believe in the club’s authority and accept management’s statements about Ye Qiu’s retirement.

Yet they were raised under tales of Ye Qiu’s achievements. The training camp may spawn exaggerated rumors of Ye Qiu’s dastardly betrayal, but the lingering awe Excellent Era’s fans once accorded their captain runs even deeper inside the club itself. 

Now Su Mucheng has brought the accusation of betrayal into the open. For Excellent Era’s young rookies, even if they can’t judge its truth, none of them will forget it.

That should have been the end of matters between Ye Qiu and Excellent Era outside of an official match. But management can’t let go of Ye Qiu, not when he keeps setting dungeon records and farming the new cap level dungeons for equipment.

As Sun Xiang’s shadow, Qiu Fei is naturally one of the ten players chosen to challenge the dungeon records, and as guild leader, Chen Yehui is naturally present for in-game matters. Qiu Fei is very gratified by Chen Yehui’s flinch when they pass one another. 

Their first run is a success; Excellent Era’s new record stands above Happy’s. Working against Ye Qiu doesn’t feel entirely comfortable, but they’re direct competitors now, and Ye Qiu would have done the same.

Happy’s counterattack crushes Excellent Era’s attempts to claim the other two level 75 dungeons. At Sealed Mountain Thief Hideout, Happy’s new record for the entire dungeon takes less time than Excellent Era spent to simply reach the final boss.

Xiao Shiqin hopes that everyone will remain calm even after losing this round. He hopes that Excellent Era’s obsession with Ye Qiu won’t drag both teams into a death spiral.

Events do not unfold the way Xiao Shiqin hopes. Once their loss becomes clear, Sun Xiang flies into a rage. He hates how One Autumn Leaf doesn’t have three heads and six arms so he can crush this dungeon with a single finger.

Qiu Fei feels the shift in tempo immediately. Sun Xiang’s violent playstyle opens a hole in their shared defenses, and Combat Form hurriedly tries to patch the gaps.

The harder Qiu Fei struggles to synchronize with Sun Xiang, the more the rhythm goes out of his control. Shadow Play slips through his fingers, and he feels all the ways his skill is still lacking. It’s as if Qiu Fei is watching all his progress evaporate in front of his eyes.

Sun Xiang is their team’s captain. Not only is he failing to establish a proper mentality for a team, he’s taking the lead to push it off balance. By the end of the dungeon Sun Xiang has completely broken away from the team, and Qiu Fei helplessly fails as he tries to follow, a snapped bridge instead of a shadow.

Qiu Fei had always wished to play beside One Autumn Leaf. 

Now Combat Form has become One Autumn Leaf’s best shadow. But this self-centered One Autumn Leaf, who fights as if Sun Xiang can’t even see the teammates beside him, is the antithesis of Ye Qiu’s One Autumn Leaf.

Qiu Fei’s bitter disappointment weighs almost as heavy as his frustration.

Once the team finishes the dungeon, Xiao Shiqin urges everyone to take a break. Spirits low, they remain sitting silently in the training room while Xiao Shiqin and Sun Xiang go confer with management.

Qiu Fie hides his hands in his jacket sleeves, trying to steady himself. 

“We’re not dungeoning anymore,” a disappointed Sun Xiang complains when he comes back to lounge in his chair. Strangely, he is in good spirits, chuckling to himself and repeating ‘Little Thing’ whenever he catches sight of Xiao Shiqin, a joke on the vice-captain’s name.

When he can trust his voice again, Qiu Fei carefully speaks. “Senior.”

Sun Xiang glances up from his phone.

“I didn’t perform well today. Would you do some extra practice with me so I can coordinate better with you?”

Sun Xiang is in a good mood, despite losing the dungeon record to Happy, so he seriously considers Qiu Fei’s request. Before now he’d confined their practice to official training hours. He’s still not enthusiastic about the idea of having a shadow, but Qiu Fei had earned himself some regard by making a fool of Cui Li the other day. And he’s a junior approaching humbly to acknowledge Sun Xiang’s skill. In the end, Sun Xiang’s magnanimity wins out. “Sure, I can spare some time,” he replies, going back to his phone.

“Thank you,” Qiu Fei says politely. Sun Xiang isn’t listening. 

 

 

Inside the pro league, the level cap update had kicked off a mad frenzy of preparations. Leveling the teams’ accounts to 75 was easily handled. However, the changes to stats, skills, and equipment require huge adjustments in strategy and playstyles, all of which need to be figured out as teams continue to play. Not all teams have handled the changes equally well, and the previously stable situation of the ninth season is already in flux.

Compared to the teams in the Alliance, Excellent Era can treat the update much more casually. Their Challenger League opponents aren’t a threat, so Excellent Era can take their time to test out new changes.

For the young players on the team, that bunch of Glory fanatics who aren’t involved with the guild or research departments and don’t play in matches, the new update is practically an early birthday gift. What kind of tricks can they pull with their new skills? Isn’t it fun to have new dungeons to master? New bosses to defeat? What else will Glory show them?

Glory’s Christmas event is a natural outlet for their enthusiasm. Fifty players on a single map fighting over twenty Christmas stockings? Pro players are all PVP maniacs - this event is exactly to their taste!

This year, their participation is even sanctioned by the club as a method of earning equipment and materials. Crushing regular player teams doesn't require much preparation, so Excellent Era’s pro players have unprecedented amounts of free time. Spending it on earning rewards from the Christmas event is building up their team’s strength!

Xiao Shiqin, naturally, makes the arrangements. Most of the main roster forms a five-man team, the maximum allowed size during the event, and the remaining players are assigned to participate as individuals. 

Almost all.

Bai Shengxian is mortified to learn he’ll be forming a team with Qiu Fei. His Qi Master is still gaining its footing, and it’s unmistakably a plan designed for Qiu Fei to carry him through the event.

“Don’t worry about it!” individual player Wen Li consoles him, patting the newbie Qi Master on the shoulder.

Bai Shengxian’s pride is stung to the core. “I’m a pro player, and I’m being carried,” he says in a dull voice, laying his head on his computer desk like he’s lost the strength to hold it up.

“Actually, we’re both the ones carrying,” Qiu Fei tells him. “Since we still have more slots in our team, Vice-captain Xiao asked the training camp to send us a few players with classes matching our main roster.” This way their group would maximize the rewards they earned, farming additional level 75 equipment that would be useful to Excellent Era.

Like a man invigorated, Bai Shengxian regains his energy, straightening up. “That’s fine then,” he comments, trying to play it cool. “Should we go pick them up?”

Wen Li coughs, smiling and stifling a laugh.

When they enter the guild studio, Qiu Fei intentionally makes full eye contact with Chen Yehui. Chen Yehui sneers at him, but breaks Qiu Fei’s gaze quickly, acting a little uneasy. 

Qiu Fei is satisfied with this - Chen Yehui wouldn’t dare thwart club interests - and scans the room.

A friendly-looking fellow who appears a little older than Qiu Fei, perhaps around Bai Shengxian’s age, with his hair buzzed close to his scalp, comes over and lifts a hand in welcome. “Hello brothers, are you Qiu Fei and Bai Shengxian?”

“That’s us!” Bai Shengxian boasts, jerking a thumb at his own chest. “I’m Bai Shengxian. I just got promoted to the team this year. Sorry, but I don’t remember us meeting in the training camp before.”

“I’ve only just arrived,” agrees the trainee, leading them toward a corner of the guild studio with five computers, two of which are already occupied. “I was traded from Tyranny’s training camp a few weeks ago.”

“You’re the Striker - Xie Lianzhi?” Qiu Fei guesses. 

“That’s what my ID card says,” laughs Xie Lianzhi, one hand giving a casual thumbs up. 

Excellent Era wouldn’t exchange one of their own trainees unless the candidate held great promise. If Tyranny is trading skilled Strikers, then the rumors about Han Wenqing’s successor being chosen might finally be true. After selecting the best candidate, naturally Tyranny wouldn’t need any excess prospects. Excellent Era is the only other top tier team to field a Striker as a semi-regular player, making them second-best possibility a Striker trainee could hope for. 

One of the two trainees in their corner is dungeoning as a Cleric. He’s quite young-looking, perhaps even younger than Qiu Fei, who’s sixteen. His short fringe is swept off his forehead and fixed firmly in place with product. Though his back and wrists are relaxed, he’s pressing the keys a tad harder than necessary, and a sly smile plays at the corner of his lips.

Xie Lianzhi leans over the Cleric’s shoulder, and hums in interest. “Comrade Yang, that’s the second time you’ve let the tank drop to 1% health.”

“He owes me one more near-death for accrued interest. He lost control of the aggro twice and blamed the rest of us for it,” the Cleric answers, continuing to play steadily. “Some tanks need to be reminded that there’s only one person on the battlefield controlling life and death, and it’s me.”

Xie Lianzhi leans against the edge of the table, nodding along with him. “Return evil to evil. Comrade Yang is a man of moral character.”

Bai Shengxian chokes. Friend, don’t you have things backwards? Aren’t healers supposed to be caring, nice nanny types? Sure enough, players from Tyranny are all strange!

As if overhearing Bai Shengxian’s thoughts, the other trainee in the corner announces, “We’re all going to die.” He has a dour look to him, which his mathematically precise bowl cut does not soften.

Xie Lianzhi pats him on the back. “We must all learn to accept our mortality.”

“I’m Zhu Jingyu,” says the dour trainee, ignoring Xie Lianzhi. “I’m a Sharpshooter. The degenerate Cleric is Yang Ruilin.”

“Don’t disturb me. I’m only letting the tank’s health drop, I don’t want to kill anyone else,” Yang Ruilin replies smoothly.

“I can’t believe I have to put my life in your hands,” Zhu Jingyu complains. Silently, Bai Shengxian agrees with him.

Qiu Fei, who was trained by Ye Qiu and operates on the assumption that all high-level Glory players are a little eccentric, finds no objections. “Let’s work together well.”

 

 

“Holy shit, holy fuck, Qi Guard is on cooldown, crap crap crap -”

“Told you we were going to die.”

“Haha, it was only one death! Didn’t we get a nice pile of stockings?”

Qiu Fei concentrates on outrunning his pursuers. His teammates really will have died in vain if his corpse drops their biggest haul of the day - thirteen stockings.

“What the fuck was that? Cleric, if you want to DPS, don’t play a healer!”

“The faster our enemies die, the less I have to heal. Obviously.”

“I also believe in this principle. The best defense is a good offence.”

“Tyranny really has rotted your brain, Xie Lianzhi.”

Qiu Fei throws himself behind a snowbank, finally evading the last character chasing him, and waits out the event's ending timer.

“Well done, Comrade Qiu,” Xie Lianzhi congratulates him, ambling over to the Battle Mage’s seat. “Shall we start another set of accounts?”

“We’ll break for dinner,” Qiu Fei decides, glancing at the time and wrinkling the tip of his nose. 

Somehow he’d ended up as the nominal leader of this operation. As one of the two official pro players, seniority dictated that either he or Bai Shengxian assume the position. Bai Shengxian’s efforts are currently completely directed toward his Qi Master, so Qiu Fei assumed the shotcaller position by default. 

As the youngest person present except for Yang Ruilin, and lacking much experience leading others, it’s a new challenge for Qiu Fei. Thanks to the scraps of tactics he’s picked up from Ye Qiu, and Xiao Shiqin’s match analysis rambles, against normal players he’d done alright. But diligent student Qiu Fei wouldn’t be satisfied by such a low standard. The event might only be three days long, but Excellent Era needs to collect as many rewards as possible during that time. 

Perhaps tonight he’ll ask Xiao Shiqin for some pointers. 

 

 

“Spotted the team with nine stockings, shadowing from the west,” Zhu Jingyu’s voice says in Qiu Fei’s ear as a set of coordinates flashes in the team chat.

Nine stockings is almost half the total number; Qiu Fei wonders if this is a guild team. “Keep your distance for now. Bai Shengxian, Yang Ruilin, join up with him and wait for my signal.”

“Got it,” Zhu Jingyu sighs. He doesn’t talk much, and his gloomy personality makes him rather sharp-tongued when he does comment.

Qiu Fei’s team is holding two stockings - enough to throw one down and stop the countdown if all twenty are found too soon, but not enough to make their team a priority target. 

He glances at the clock. “This will be our final run of the event. Today’s the last day, and Bai Shengxian and I have to leave and join Excellent Era’s match soon.”

“That’s a pity,” Yang Ruilin comments. “Senior Qiu is a pleasure to heal. I didn’t have to teach him manners at all.”

“Hey, what about me?” demands Bai Shengxian.

“Alas, no man can delay the coming of winter. I’ve quite enjoyed the past few days,” Xie Lianzhi adds. In-game, his Striker is crouched down beside Qiu Fei’s Battle Mage alt, stalking a second team with six stockings.

“Keep working hard, and I’m sure we’ll play together again,” Qiu Fei says. The three of them are undoubtedly the best that Excellent Era’s current training camp can offer. Whether as teammates or opponents, these three will continue their path toward Glory.

“Yeah, you guys are pretty good,” rushes Bai Shengxian, trying to regain his image as a senior. After spending three entire days together, his training camp-taught instinct to make connections kicks in. “You should come by the pro dorms sometime. A few of us younger players like to dungeon on our free days, and we can never find enough players to run a ten person.”

After a moment of thoughtful quiet, Xie Lianzhi says, “Don’t blame us if we take you up on that.” 

Just then, the countdown starts - someone’s picked up the twentieth stocking. 

“On my signal,” Qiu Fei orders; all of them go silent, double checking their opponents’ positions. 

Three seconds before the countdown ends, just when their targets are beginning to relax, thinking they’re safe, Qiu Fei throws down a stocking to halt the clock, and their two ambushes snap shut. Seventeen stockings - a new record.

That night, in the ninth round of the Challenger League, Team Excellent Era crushes their opponents and secures their slot in the offline tournament.

 

 

“Thank you for keeping your promise to practice with me, Senior,” Qiu Fei tells Sun Xiang, gratitude clear even in his exhaustion. Qiu Fei curls his wrists and fingers in a set of post-practice hand exercises, satisfaction settled into his bones beside the heat of well-used muscles. 

He’d felt it this time: a hint of synchronicity between Combat Form and One Autumn Leaf, a few instances when their actions had clicked and the timing had been perfect.

Sun Xiang blinks. Wasn’t it just an hour of repeating coordinated attacks? Was it worth that much to Qiu Fei? “No problem,” he replies. “It’s just a little bit of time.”

“Then you won’t mind if we schedule another practice?” Qiu Fei asks, a hint of hopefulness entering his voice. If he improves enough, maybe he’ll be allowed to play in the offline matches that start in April?

Sun Xiang stares at him. Wasn’t Qiu Fei treating this Shadow Play business too seriously? Maybe Qiu Fei didn’t understand his own position? 

That must be it, Sun Xiang decides. Trying to act like a good senior, he advises, “Why are you trying so hard? You’re a good player. You can advance without having to be anyone’s Shadow.” 

“But what Excellent Era needs is a Shadow,” Qiu Fei replies. To him, it is as simple as that. 

So that was it! Sun Xiang finally understands. Qiu Fei is young, and it isn’t easy to be noticed if you don’t have an opportunity to play. Qiu Fei is accepting Excellent Era’s Shadow Play as a way to stir up interest among other teams who’d be willing to sign him.

“I get it, starting out isn’t easy,” Sun Xiang laughs, patting Qiu Fei’s shoulder supportively. “Just remember not to get too cocky.” Sun Xiang doesn’t mind Qiu Fei’s ambition, but One Autumn Leaf and the ace position belong to him.

It’s Qiu Fei’s turn to be puzzled. Are the two of them having the same conversation? “I told you, Senior, I don’t have any interest in One Autumn Leaf.”

“Good, very good!” Sun Xiang laughs, already feeling more fond of Qiu Fei. “Anytime you want to practice, just tell me.” 

Qiu Fei is now thoroughly convinced Sun Xiang has misunderstood something, but he isn’t about to spurn Sun Xiang’s offer. “Thank you, Senior.”

“Haha, no problem!” Sun Xiang says. Really, getting along with this junior was quite easy!

 

 

Qiu Fei’s increased status on the team comes with certain social obligations. A substitute-substitute can decline an invitation and spend a quiet night in his room without much fuss. A first-string player who’s also the ace’s shadow can’t evade too often without consequences.

As someone who observes politeness and also recognizes how the social utility of these occasions is necessary for his integration with the team, Qiu Fei naturally goes along when the team organizes their outings from the club. 

Other than the quality of the food, Qiu Fei enjoys very little about these occasions. Now that he’s being favored by Sun Xiang, people have begun seeking him out with eager, overly-friendly attitudes. It reminds him too much of the transient currying for favor he experienced in the training camp. 

Is this really all there is to being part of a team? Empty flattery and endless boasting? Jockeying for position and making convenient connections among those more skilled than you? 

Qiu Fei had always thought Ye Qiu meant something more profound when he spoke of playing together, as part of a team.

I must not be trying hard enough, Qiu Fei decides.

 

 

When there are hard green buds on the trees, and the dirty slush has almost disappeared from the streets, Qiu Fei and Su Mucheng switch to cool drinks instead of hot tea. Su Mucheng enjoys bubble tea; sometimes Qiu Fei will accompany her to the shop two streets down.

“Did you ever try to contact Ye Qiu?” Su Mucheng asks.

“No. I don’t have his contact information,” Qiu Fei admits, sipping his drink. Whenever he wanted to speak to the captain, he could easily find him by wandering through the club. He’d never thought he’d need another way to contact Ye Qiu.

Su Mucheng chews a tapioca ball, and looks sideways at her junior. She reflects a moment longer, then asks, “Do you want Ye Qiu’s contact information?”

Qiu Fei’s hand tightens on the plastic cup. He stops, staring down at the street.

Su Mucheng stops too, looking back at Qiu Fei.

“When we’re both members of the official pro chat, I’ll have his contact information then, won’t I?” Qiu Fei finally answers.

“Mmm.” Su Mucheng takes another sip of her bubble tea.

“Then it’s fine.” Qiu Fei begins to move again. A wind stirs the budding trees and sets the dust aloft.

One day, even if they could no longer fight beside one another, Qiu Fei and Ye Qiu would stand on the same stage. 

 

 

Until the in-person Challenger League tournament begins in late April, Excellent Era’s pro players have nothing scheduled except practice. Bored and suffering from an excess of free time, as spring drags on their outings from club Excellent Era become more frequent.

‘Sorry, I can’t dungeon with everyone this week,’ Qiu Fei messages Wen Li while he’s grabbing a light jacket. ‘The seniors want to go out.’

‘Don’t worry about it. We know you turned them down last week for us,’ comes the reply. 

Fingers hovering above his keyboard, Qiu Fei hesitates so long that another message from Wen Li pops up. 

‘You okay?’ blinks up at him in blue-white light.

‘I’m fine,’ Qiu Fei types, and then goes out.

Ye Qiu had cautioned Qiu Fei against drinking alcohol, a prohibition that Qiu Fei scrupulously follows, but some of the players who are of age - or who aren't - will drink a few glasses. Sometimes more than a few glasses, especially when Xiao Shiqin isn’t present, like he isn’t tonight. And when they drink, things slip out that Qiu Fei, quietly listening and watching from whatever corner he’s claimed, can’t help but overhear.

"That asshole Ye Qiu. If he’d just retired like he should’ve we wouldn’t be stuck here right now.”

“Yeah. Now he has to come running back to the Challenger League and cause more problems for us?” 

“We only did what he had to do. It’s his own fucking fault for making us kick him out.”

“Yeah, why couldn’t Ye Qiu handle the fact he's outdated and useless?”

Qiu Fei realizes he’s driving his nails into his palms. Turning his head, he accidentally makes eye contact with Zhang Jiaxing, the team’s Cleric, who looks uncomfortable. Zhang Jiaxing never speaks when their teammates start talking like this. 

Sun Xiang is leaning back in his chair, playing games on his phone with his feet propped up against the table. Sun Xiang drinks only on significant occasions, and never more than a glass or two, so he’s completely sober and very bored. 

Feeling he ought to contribute as captain, Sun Xiang humphs. “What kind of pro player fights for dungeon records and wild bosses? Does Ye Qiu think his pathetic team can beat us? We'll destroy them!" 

Amid a loud, semi-drunken chorus of agreement, Sun Xiang glances up as Qiu Fei hurries past. “Hey, are you going to pee? Hurry up, or you’ll miss dessert.”

“Don’t feel well,” is Qiu Fei’s terse reply as he shrugs on his jacket, not even zipping it up before continuing to walk out.

“Oh, okay.” Sun Xiang says, waving him off. “Get some rest.”

Outside the restaurant, Qiu Fei slumps against the wall, staring up at a streetlight and struggling to box up his hurt and anger. 

Finally, he pulls his phone out of his pocket with limp fingers, the motion clumsy. ‘I’m coming back early,’ he messages the dungeon group chat.

Instantly, ‘Hurry up slacker, it's time to kick ass,’ flashes on his screen - Bai Shengxian, always heedlessly charging forward.

‘We look forward to your swift arrival, Comrade Qiu. Bring snacks!’ Xie Lianzhi’s accompanying thumbs up emoji is practically his signature by now.

‘We’re running out of instant noodles. And can you buy more of those pickle-flavored crisps, please? Zhu Jingyu refuses to eat anything else.’ Wen Li, habitually looking after everyone.

‘Because I have a working sense of taste, you giraffe.’ Qiu Fei almost smiles, imagining the words said with Zhu Jingyu’s dry sarcasm.

‘Dried squid will earn my mercy for the first big AOE you sit in.’ Yang Ruilin, of course.

‘Peppermint plums,’ with a puppy eyes emoji and three sets of praying hands afterward is the only comment from Zeng Shenghe.

‘Okay,’ Qiu Fei replies, then leans his head back against the wall and closes his eyes. As he breathes, the tight, painful feeling in his chest eases.

 

 

Sun Xiang’s Battle Mage style is not the same as Ye Qiu’s. 

That’s only to be expected. Sun Xiang is neither Ye Qiu’s student nor his admirer. 

Now that Qiu Fei spends more time in Sun Xiang’s company, the difference in personality is equally as apparent. Sun Xiang is straightforward, flashy, arrogant - an ace who charges forward and crushes his enemy with his domineering spirit and skill, not his cunning tactics.

But all Battle Mage styles, no matter how divergent, trace their roots to Ye Qiu. Ye Qiu’s VODs are the teaching materials every Battle Mage commits to heart. Even Sun Xiang, as intensely as he rejects Ye Qiu, can’t escape this.

When Qiu Fei watches Excellent Era’s earliest matches, Qiu Fei is startled to see hints of Sun Xiang in the teenage Ye Qiu - that tyrant-king of three championships, slicing apart his enemies with his sheer strength and inexhaustible youth.

After he’s finished watching the final match, Qiu Fei takes out his earbuds, sits back in his desk chair, and rests his chin on his knees. 

There is a piece of Ye Qiu in Sun Xiang’s Battle Mage.

As Qiu Fei watches Sun Xiang guide One Autumn Leaf during practice the next day, he finds it easier, somehow, to follow in his shadow.

 

 

Playstyle is more or less innate. However, young players’ habits aren’t completely set. Though a fish can’t become a bird, one’s instinctive style can be shaped in a particular direction.

Very young players like Qiu Fei - players whose raw, amorphous playstyles would be evolving constantly anyway - will adapt all the more readily after taking up a shadow’s role.

A shadow may lack independence, but the position demands ability. A strong shadow possesses the technical skill to mimic and coordinate attacks, paired with absolute situational awareness and predictive foresight toward both their partner and the opponent.

Qiu Fei’s natural watchfulness, his meticulousness, and his precision are all encouraged to flourish. Already heavily influenced by Ye Qiu’s ruthlessly efficient style, under the demands of Shadow Play Qiu Fei’s basic skills are refined, and refined again so he can keep up with Sun Xiang. 

Qiu Fei is Sun Xiang’s shadow, and that fact also holds significance. There is much Qiu Fei can learn from Sun Xiang’s technique as a Battle Mage. Qiu Fei copies none of Sun Xiang’s eye-catching flair, but he also learns Sun Xiang’s boldness.

Xiao Shiqin’s tutelage also bears fruit. Qiu Fei always had potential as a calculative player, and that grows more pronounced the longer he acts as Sun Xiang’s shadow. 

True Shadow Play is not passive. It’s true that a shadow cannot make wild moves that would throw off the ace, but neither are they puppet mirrors. A shadow is quiet, unobtrusive, and responsive to the slightest movement of enemy or ally. The immediate decisions they are called upon to make are smaller in scope, almost unnoticeable, but vital.

To eliminate hidden dangers, you must recognize them. To strengthen the ace’s trap, you must understand his intentions. To block off your opponent’s retreat, you must predict where your opponent will run. Correcting an ace player’s mistakes requires a shadow with the ability to identify those mistakes, and choose the best remedy.

“What does good decision-making mean in practice? Making a choice that expands your own set of options, and reduces your opponents’ possible moves.” Ye Qiu said this during one of their early coaching matches, and Qiu Fei remembers those words. Since that final farewell match with his mentor, Qiu Fei has tirelessly worked to sharpen this weakness above all. 

As Qiu Fei’s skill grows, the shadow’s role no longer evades him as it once did. Rather than tickling his fingers while it slips out of his reach, he can slide into the skin of synchronization, the diffused awareness of himself and one other.

Perfect connection bears its own rewards.

Sun Xiang recognizes the increase of his own strength. Excellent Era’s core no longer requires coaxing to accept Qiu Fei’s presence, and the disdainful comments are far fewer in number - though Qiu Fei expects that Xiao Shiqin’s hard work wearing down Sun Xiang is also at play.

Of course, tolerance isn’t the same thing as welcome.

This afternoon’s team exercise is a 4v5. Sun Xiang is leading the quartet, with Qiu Fei by his side as always, while their opponents are commanded by Xiao Shiqin. Targeting the shotcaller is a common tactic, and today Excellent Era is practicing a scenario where their opponents have successfully removed Xiao Shiqin, leaving behind two Battlemages, a Striker, and Zhang Jiaxing’s Cleric. 

The two sides have barely made contact before Sun Xiang’s quartet is off to a bad start. Xiao Shiqin’s group has three long-range classes: Xiao Shiqin’s Mechanic, Su Mucheng’s Launcher, and Zeng Shenghe’s Elementalist. 

As soon as the quartet enters Dancing Rain’s firing line, they’re bombarded with a stream of skills. All of the classes in Sun Xiang’s quartet require melee range, so they have no effective response except to dodge her explosions while maintaining their formation as best they can. 

Advancing closer only intensifies the bombardment. First they enter Xiao Shiqin’s range, adding bullets to the hail of attacks, and shortly afterward a column of fire roasts their Striker, announcing their entry into Zeng Shenghe’s cast range.

Attuned to Sun Xiang’s mood, Qiu Fei can sense the ace’s frustration as they slog forward, forced to double back time after time as they attempt to break into short range. The coordination between the three long-range characters exacts a heavy price on the quartet’s health. Zhang Jiaxing’s Cleric heals as swiftly as he can, spending his instant casts the moment they come off cooldown. He doesn’t have any choice; the three long-range attackers don’t allow him the time to complete a full cast.

Finally, when the edge of their enemies’ formation is within the furthest edge of a Battle Mage’s range, One Autumn Leaf pushes towards the peak of the formation. “Protect the Cleric and follow us,” Sun Xiang orders their Striker in the team chat. Combat Form and One Autumn Leaf immediately accelerate. 

Dragon Breaks the Ranks!

The two Battle Mages of Excellent Era, One Autumn Leaf and Combat Form, execute this high-level move, racing out in sync. After dashing out, they immediately pull apart, approaching from opposite sides of their target. It isn’t a coincidence; this is one of the combinations that the Battle Mage duo have been training to do. Their opponents are forced to pick a target to focus on - in this case, Xiao Shiqin chooses Sun Xiang, because the attacks suddenly veer off to concentrate on One Autumn Leaf.

The force isn’t enough to stop the priority of Dragon Breaks the Ranks, and the two Battle Mages break out of the cloud of smoke, their spears reaching in sync for Zeng Shenghe’s Elementalist.

Zeng Shenghe can’t Aerial Fire away like the two Gunners. He can either Teleport, or try to dodge and hope his teammates rescue him. Strangely, he remains in place. Qiu Fei experiences a feeling of disquiet, but he doesn’t disobey Sun Xiang’s order to target the Elementalist.

Suddenly, the two Battle Mages feel their movements slow down. A split second later, a figure explodes out of the ground, ninjato sweeping out. 

Dragon Breaks the Ranks can be quickly cancelled with no ending lag; One Autumn Leaf and Combat Form dodge in opposite directions, narrowly avoiding Hundred Streams’ water prison, cast by their opponents’ sole melee class, a Ninja from the second string. 

Under a Slow debuff from the Ninja’s Caltrops, which had been hidden under the heavy smoke covering the ground, both Qiu Fei and Sun Xiang tense as Zeng Shenghe’s Elementalist raises his hands, beginning the animation for Magic Shackles.

One Autumn Leaf sluggishly dodges the control spell, but his skill icons abruptly grey out, and below his character’s health and mana bar a debuff symbol appears.

Excellent Era’s substitute Cleric lowers his cross, still faintly glowing with the white flames of Sacred Fire. For the next three seconds, all of the Battle God’s skills are sealed.

Their opponents are already prepared. The Ninja is already speeding toward One Autumn Leaf with Flickering Charge, forming the hand seals for his next attack, and Zeng Shenghe’s Elementalist waves his staff, his next cast nearly complete. 

Judging Zeng Shenghe’s Elementalist the greater immediate threat, Combat Form stabs out with a Dragon Tooth, forcing Zeng Shenghe to dodge and interrupt his spell. 

Elementalists have almost no defenses at close range. Even under a speed debuff, Combat Form’s next attack catches his opponent in a Circle Swing and sends him hurtling toward the Ninja’s back. Then Combat Form chases after his opponents, accelerating to return to One Autumn Leaf’s side as quickly as possible.

From an outsider's point of view, Qiu Fei’s actions are very normal assistance from a teammate,  but in Sun Xiang's eyes, it’s disgraceful! Just these substitutes forced him to require Qiu Fei's assistance?

Sun Xiang’s previous irritation explodes. He may not have access to any skills right now, but One Autumn Leaf still has normal attacks. Sun Xiang’s hand speed goes crazy, peaking within an instant and unleashing a torrent of spear thrusts and blocks that makes the Ninja’s rhythm falter. 

For a moment, One Autumn Leaf’s opponent even doubts whether the Battle God really is Silenced. Then Zeng Shenghe’s Elementalist, who Qiu Fei had thrown at his teammate, strikes the Ninja, and he staggers forward, barely keeping himself from a fall.

How can Sun Xiang fail to grasp such an opening? In an instant, the Ninja is tossed to the ground. His hand speed already at its height, Sun Xiang keeps the two characters scrambling around on the ground through normal attacks alone. Just by himself, the crippled One Autumn Leaf is holding his own with nothing but speed, mechanics, and technique. 

Qiu Fei joins him a moment later, covering the holes in Sun Xiang’s normal attacks with his skills and cementing their control. Two spears glint as they cross at an angle, pinning their enemies to the dust. Just like that, the opportunity their opponents had created so carefully collapses.

The Sacred Fire restraining One Autumn Leaf ends, and Sun Xiang controls him to leap in the air, before hurtling back down with his spear thrust toward the ground. Shattering the Lands!

The ground explodes outward, catching both Zeng Shenghe and the Ninja inside the attack’s range, as well as the nearby Cleric. Their formation - if their opponents’ disorder can be called a formation - is broken. Combat Form seizes the opportunity to charge forward. Shattering the Lands doesn’t have any followup, so it’s up to him to compensate for it.

‘Move to the side!’ Sun Xiang orders in the chat. He intends to pay back the humiliation he suffered with his own hands!

Obediently, Qiu Fei halts, and changes his target to the Cleric. Only receiving a little damage from Shattering the Lands earlier, the Cleric is nearly at full health.

‘Help!!!!’ flashes in their team chat - a message from Zhang Jiaxing, their own Cleric. ‘Under attack, Launcher, Mechanic.’ 

Where had Su Mucheng’s Dancing Rain and Xiao Shiqin’s Life Extinguisher been all this time? Circling around to attack the Striker and Cleric that Sun Xiang had left behind!

At the hands of two All-stars, how long could their teammates hold out after losing so much of their health in their first advance? Not very long at all. The Battle Mage pair’s priority immediately shifts to rescue.

But Xiao Shiqin’s trio intercepts the Battle Mages, blocking their way and stubbornly sticking to their targets.

Sun Xiang knows these three were Xiao Shiqin’s trap to draw his focus. Seeing them still refuse to back down, his heart blazes with anger.

"Get out of here!" All of Sun Xiang’s circling Chasers are sent out, instantly enveloping the Ninja in a barrage of damage. Qiu Fei's Combat Form follows up with a Rising Dragon Soars the Sky, comboing it with Sun Xiang's burst.

The Ninja takes heavy damage from this combo, but Qiu Fei’s Rising Dragon Soars the Sky also pushes him to the side, opening a hole in the trio’s defense.  

Sun Xiang had originally planned on continuing his attack, but then he sees Combat Form force the Ninja back, away from his attack range. Annoyance flickers in Sun Xiang’s heart as he controls One Autumn Leaf to chase after his target, but after the first step, he suddenly remembers that rescuing their healer should be their priority. Sun Xiang immediately turns around and rushes towards Zhang Jiaxing. 

Qiu Fei's Combat Form just quietly follows alongside One Autumn Leaf. Only a professional's eyes would have been able to see the significance of Qiu Fei’s Rising Dragon Soars the Sky.

That Rising Dragon Soars the Sky had interrupted One Autumn Leaf's combo. If this was a direct fight against the three substitutes, it would have definitely been a mistake, but in this situation, the interrupt reminded Sun Xiang of what was more important. Sun Xiang clearly reacted to it. If not, he might really have chased after the three decoys and delayed the rescue of their Cleric.

Luckily, Excellent Era is using a shadow. Sun Xiang will always have Qiu Fei alongside him, making up for his weaknesses.

The Battle Mages arrive before Xiao Shiqin and Su Mucheng can finish off Zhang Jiaxing, but the disparity in damage from the beginning of the fight is too great, and Sun Xiang is exhausted after his burst of extreme hand speed. It doesn’t take much to sweep away the little health remaining to Qiu Fei and his teammates. 

Four versus five turns into zero versus five, but Xiao Shiqin is quite pleased during the review afterward. Sun Xiang’s quartet had lasted much longer than he expected, and Qiu Fei earns an appreciative glance for his efforts.

 


Xiao Shiqin is well aware of Sun Xiang’s limitations. Against an opponent as cunning as Ye Qiu, he employs precautions.

“Sun Xiang - well, his strong point isn’t his tactical thinking.” Xiao Shiqin admits during one of their review sessions. “Do you remember last season’s second match against 301 Degrees?”

Of course Qiu Fei remembers. It was Excellent Era’s first match without Ye Qiu. 

What he says instead is, “Yang Cong baited Sun Xiang into breaking away from the team’s tempo by throwing the group arena, and then used a Box-1 strategy to contain One Autumn Leaf while the rest of 301 Degrees took down Excellent Era’s players individually.”

“That’s exactly the kind of situation that worries me the most.” Xiao Shiqin sighs. “Sun Xiang’s intuition is worthy of a pro player, and his overwhelming strength allows him to break through most surface traps. But his temper is still a characteristic our opponents will try to take advantage of.”

Ye Qiu, hangs unspoken in the air.

“As a shadow, your options are dictated by the ace’s initiative, but I’m hoping I can teach you to compensate to some extent. I want you to understand how another tactician might lay out their traps, even if we both know Sun Xiang will walk straight into them.”

Qiu Fei can’t help his smile. “Senior, I’m afraid my heart isn’t black enough for your tactics.”

Xiao Shiqin laughs until he wipes away a few tears. “Do you really think I’m so black-hearted? Besides, you’re Ye Qiu’s protégé, that’s enough to make anyone gain ten levels in shamelessness.”

The startled half-laugh, half-choke noise that escapes Qiu Fei’s mouth launches both of them into another round of laughter.

Xiao Shiqin pats his junior’s back. “You may be younger than Sun Xiang, but you’re steadier. You watch people, and you think things through. All I’m hoping is that you’ll learn enough to warn Sun Xiang if I’m ever separated from you both.”

“Do you think that’s likely?” Qiu Fei asks.

“Perhaps,” Xiao Shiqin replies noncommittally. Going up against the original Master Tactician, Xiao Shiqin can promise no absolutes. 

“Will it bother you to fight Ye Qiu?” Xiao Shiqin inquires, no judgement in the words.

“Do you think it will bother me?” Qiu Fei returns, meeting the Vice-captain’s gaze with an equal lack of judgement, only curiosity.

“No, I don’t. I’ve known you long enough to know better. But I am required to ask.” 

Qiu Fei sends him a questioning glance.

“You’ll see,” Xiao Shiqin replies mysteriously, pushing up his glasses and emitting a faint sense of mischief. “The club hasn’t overlooked your improvement, Xiao Qiu, and the offline matches are coming up.”

 

 

Qiu Fei has never had cause to visit the upper floors of Excellent Era’s club building before. The training camp occupies the basement, and the middle floors belong to the team. Even R&D resides on a lower floor than this. This high up, only management’s offices and the PR department hold space.

“Don’t be nervous,” Xiao Shiqin tells Qiu Fei, keeping a hand on his junior’s shoulder for reassurance as he steers Qiu Fei through the administrative maze.

“I’m fine, Senior,” Qiu Fei assures him. A dozen emotions assail him, but nervousness isn’t one of them.

Xiao Shiqin laughs, shaking his head. “I should know better by now.” Such a polite and steady junior never caused him any worry when it came to things like this.

They arrive at an expensive-looking door, dark wood with gold-colored fittings, and a secretary waves them through the outer room. At Xiao Shiqin’s knock, team manager Cui Li opens the inner office door - not pleased to see Qiu Fei if the hard set of his mouth is any sign.

Behind his desk, Tao Xuan stands up, acknowledging Xiao Shiqin with a nod. He smiles at Qiu Fei, broad and generous, and extends a hand. “I’m glad we could finally meet, Qiu Fei.”

Qiu Fei shakes the offered hand. Then, at Tao Xuan’s invitation, he takes a seat beside Xiao Shiqin, quietly measuring Excellent Era’s boss. 

If Excellent Era forced Ye Qiu into retirement, then Tao Xuan either tacitly sanctioned the club’s actions, or actively solicited them. Whichever is true, the damage has been done. Ye Qiu is already gone.

“We’ve prepared several copies of the proposed contract,” Tao Xuan begins, leaning back in his chair and gesturing toward the papers in front of the two players. “I think you’ll find it generous. Instead of the usual one-year rookie contract, we’re offering you the three-year version given to established players.” Crossing his legs, Tao Xuan smiles again. “We have great confidence in your potential.”

Tao Xuan needn’t have bothered flattering Qiu Fei; the young player doesn’t register his words at all. The sight of Qiu Fei’s long-held goal in front of him - a contract with Excellent Era, officially stepping onto the pro stage - is enough to make his heartbeat thrum in his temples.

“Sir!” objects Cui Li, trying one last time to persuade Tao Xuan against this offer. Cui Li hasn’t forgotten Qiu Fei’s defiance and cooperation with Su Mucheng, even if his behavior has been otherwise irreproachable.

“Don’t be so doubtful, Manager Cui,” Tao Xuan scolds him, folding his hands in his lap. “Xiao Qiu has been an exemplary team member.”

At first, Tao Xuan had been similarly doubtful of this young Battle Mage. As Ye Qiu’s star student, Ye Qiu’s influence left too great a stain for Tao Xuan to trust Qiu Fei. Tao Xuan had finally put aside one burden, why would he allow himself to willingly take up another? If Excellent Era hadn’t been relegated, Tao Xuan likely would have tried trading Qiu Fei away to another team’s training camp.

Circumstances have changed. Tao Xuan is also a businessman, and he recognizes how Qiu Fei’s talent can be used for the current Excellent Era’s profit. Qiu Fei’s nearly flawless conduct has assured Tao Xuan that Qiu Fei hasn’t inherited Ye Qiu’s stubborn willfulness.

Now the idea of signing Qiu Fei gives Tao Xuan a sense of pleasure. He’s already foiled Ye Qiu’s intention to raise Qiu Fei as his successor. Ye Qiu was forced to leave One Autumn Leaf behind in Sun Xiang’s hands, and now Qiu Fei will be another one of Ye Qiu’s legacies that Excellent Era will own in full. 

Reading through his copy of Qiu Fei’s contract, Xiao Shiqin frowns. “Given Excellent Era’s current situation, I can’t advise my junior to sign a three-year contract, unless a clause is included to nullify the contract if Excellent Era doesn’t re-enter the Alliance next season.”

This was another part of the captain’s duties that Xiao Shiqin had taken up: acting as an advocate for young players signing their first contract. In the current Alliance, the clubs had legal departments for this sort of thing, but the captain’s presence remained traditional in the older teams. Rookies often appreciated a senior’s reassurance, even if a player’s first contract was a celebratory occasion.

“It’s fine, Vice-captain,” Qiu Fei tells him, turning his head. “I don’t intend to leave Excellent Era.” 

“I have full confidence in that, Xiao Qiu.” During the last year, Xiao Shiqin has grasped exactly how much significance Excellent Era holds for this young player. 

But Xiao Shiqin is a cautious person, and Excellent Era has already produced a miracle once by being relegated. “I also believe that Excellent Era will smoothly return to the pro league. Nevertheless, Excellent Era’s future needs can’t be perfectly anticipated. At least consider adding a clause allowing you the option of nullifying the contract?”

“I understand your care for your juniors, Xiao Shiqin,” Tao Xuan interrupts. “It’s a small thing. I’ll have the legal department amend it and send up a new version.”

Tao Xuan and Xiao Shiqin make small talk until Tao Xuan’s secretary delivers the amended documents. Once Qiu Fei and Xiao Shiqin have read through the final version without objections, Cui Li hands Qiu Fei a shining black and silver fountain pen.

Just as Qiu Fei is about to set ink to paper, Tao Xuan’s voice cuts in. “I hope you read the terms thoroughly. Especially how you’re required to accept any advertising contracts the club brings you?”

Qiu Fei raises his head, sensing a change in the atmosphere. “I read it. I understand what’s required of me.” In the current Alliance, taking sponsorships is a necessary part of becoming a pro player. Qiu Fei accepts that price.

Tao Xuan’s smile has an edge to it. He laughs. “Good, good. I can see you’re destined for many achievements.”

Qiu Fei ignores him. This is the fulfillment of Qiu Fei’s dream, and Tao Xuan’s agenda can’t taint this moment.

Once Qiu Fei’s signed the papers, he holds his own copy of his contract in his hands and smiles brilliantly at Xiao Shiqin.

His senior returns the smile, remembering the joy of his own first contract. “Welcome to Team Excellent Era, Qiu Fei.”

“Thank you,” Qiu Fei replies simply, feeling like his heart may burst.

Shaking hands with Tao Xuan one more time, the two official pro players return to the lower club levels. Qiu Fei is still clutching his contract to his chest; the sight makes Xiao Shiqin chuckle. “The team will be taking you out tonight for a celebration. Why don’t you go find your dungeon party friends and give them the good news?”

Qiu Fei nods rapidly - acting his age for once, Xiao Shiqin is relieved to note - pulling out his phone to send a message as he dashes off, still toting his contract like a security blanket.

Xiao Shiqin laughs fondly, and waves after him. It really was good to be young. 

 

 

Just as Xiao Shiqin promised, the team throws a party that evening in Qiu Fei’s honor. Excellent Era hasn’t had much to celebrate this year, and the Challenger League offline matches are almost here, so management takes the opportunity to lift the whole team’s morale by throwing an especially lavish event. 

After a brief speech from Xiao Shiqin and an enormous meal, Qiu Fei’s promotion party begins winding down for the evening. Stuffed with delicious food, Excellent Era’s players are indulging in the sleepy, post meal atmosphere, scattered around the room resting and chatting sluggishly. 

Wen Li, Bai Shengxian and Qiu Fei are no different. Bai Shengxian has buried his head in his arms; only his occasional grumbled reply proves he’s still awake. The other two pro players are in slightly better shape. Qiu Fei has his chin propped up on one hand, heart still singing too wildly for tiredness, while Wen Li is absently drawing in the drink condensation pooled on the table. 

“Qiu Fei, why did you choose a Battle Mage?” Wen Li asks. The lightness of his voice makes the question seem idle, but his finger pauses halfway through a drawing as he waits for Qiu Fei’s reply.

Qiu Fei considers the question seriously. “The first time I played a Battle Mage, it felt...comfortable,“ he says, but that explanation is woefully inadequate. “It felt like I could do anything,” he tries again. “Like my Battle Mage was part of me.”

Other players might try many classes before settling on one to main, but Qiu Fei had unquestionably loved his Battle Mage at first sight. Perhaps Ye Qiu’s One Autumn Leaf drew his attention to the class, but the moment he felt one under his fingertips - the unquestionable rightness and the perfect, effortless unity - Qiu Fei had never looked away again.

Lips forming a melancholy smile, Wen Li ducks his head, continuing his drawing.. “A perfect fit. I know the feeling.” 

Qiu Fei watches his friend, and waits, sensing Wen Li isn’t speaking casually.

“I always liked Mage classes in other games, but it frustrated me how fragile they were. But my Spellblade has plate armor. If the tank makes a mistake, I can step in and keep everyone alive because my Spellblade won’t die from a few hits. Nobody has to worry about me. Whatever our enemies give out, I’ll survive it.”

Exhaling sharply, Wen Li turns his head, smiling helplessly. “But I’m not suitable for a Spellblade, you know.”

Qiu Fei frowns. If Wen Li wasn’t the absolute best Spellblade in the training camp, he’d have never been promoted to the pro team. “Vice-captain Xiao has never said anything like that,” Qiu Fei disagrees. “He’s always been pleased with your talent, and he’s praised your recent improvement.”

Shaking his head, Wen Li wipes his damp fingers on a napkin. “Xiao Shiqin isn’t a Spellblade.”

Frowning harder, Qiu Fei’s brows knit together. Something Wen Li once said niggles at Qiu Fei’s consciousness. 

“You told us that Liu Hao always showed a lot of concern for the Spellblades in the training camp, especially you,” he says slowly. An inkling begins to grow in his mind. 

Eyes narrowing, Qiu Fei looks at Wen Li. “Was Liu Hao the one who told you that you weren’t suitable for the Spellblade class?”

“Mmm,” Wen Li nods. “Senior was always very honest with me about my lack of compatibility. Later, even the supervisors said the same thing. But even though I knew I wasn’t suitable, I still stubbornly insisted on playing one.”

He leans back, giving a self-deprecating laugh. “I gave Senior a lot of trouble, but he was always so nice about it. He’d even help the supervisors point out the mistakes I’d made. And I made so many of them.”

Qiu Fei’s mind flashes back to the ugly things he’s heard his drunken seniors say about Ye Qiu. A suspicion blossoms - Liu Hao was Ye Qiu’s vice-captain, and if Excellent Era betrayed Ye Qiu as Su Mucheng says, then Liu Hao was undeniably complicit.

“I don’t think you should listen to anything Liu Hao told you,” Qiu Fei tells Wen Li. 

Wen Li smiles tightly, not replying directly, as if his incompatibility isn’t the opinion of one person, but an irrefutable fact. 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to ruin the atmosphere,” he apologizes, waving his hand like he’s brushing away smoke, and lifts his glass in a toast.  “We’re celebrating you today!” He shakes Bai Shengxian’s shoulder, trying to wake him up, but only receives another groan. 

A few other teammates drift over, attracted by the hubbub, and the party picks up again. 

But Qiu Fei doesn’t forget. And whenever he comes across Liu Hao’s name in the news, his face hardens into a frown.

 

 

Early on the morning of April 19th, Excellent Era’s fans gather outside the club to enthusiastically cheer on their departing pro team. Like the other qualifying competitors, Qiu Fei and the rest of his teammates will be flying to City B, where the offline Challenger League rounds are being held.

Excellent Era already counts themselves the victor of this year’s Challenger League, and they send a mere eight players to compete, confident that they needn’t expend any more effort. Even if a three-time champion had been reduced to such a level, there was no need to offend their dignity as an old powerhouse. 

The second-stringers Wen Li and Bai Shengxian naturally aren’t included, and neither is Zeng Shenghe with his undesirably awkward media impression. Wistfully, Qiu Fei waves goodbye, surprised to find himself wishing they could come along.

Most of his teammates sleep or listen to music during the flight. Mind crystal-clear and awake, Qiu Fei watches the morning sun rise on the horizon and turn the clouds below a blinding white. His first match as a pro player - his first real match awaits him somewhere ahead, beneath those clouds.

He flexes his fingers, wanting to play so badly he wishes he had a computer in front of him right this moment. 

Soon, the rising sun promises him. Time would never go backwards. The fulfillment of all things would come, inevitably. 

Qiu Fei’s time would also come.

 

 

Though the Alliance provides all Challenger League teams with free room and board, Excellent Era refuses to stay with these grassroots teams and arranges rooms at a different hotel. Qiu Fei attends the official reception with all the competitors, but Excellent Era’s pride as a powerhouse naturally means their players aren’t permitted to mingle.

Disappointingly, the offline matches are pushed back to Tuesday. On Monday morning, Qiu Fei receives a QQ message from Bai Shengxian as he’s getting ready.

‘Have you read today’s edition of Esports News?!?!’

‘We have our first match tomorrow,’ he messages back.

‘I know but have you read it?!?!’

Frowning, Qiu Fei seriously considers whether he ought to turn off his phone until he finishes getting ready. Ultimately, he decides against it, in case the team needs to contact him. 

His phone beeps, showing a new notification. Qiu Fei sighs, and reads Wen Li’s message.

‘Qiu Fei, Esports News wrote an article about Ye Qiu, and it’s not very complimentary. If you think it might disturb your mental state you might want to avoid the news for the next few days.’

Qiu Fei’s brow furrows. He’s already used to ignoring public opinions on Ye Qiu. What happened that both players felt they needed to contact him?

‘Did something come up?’ he types back.

‘Ye Qiu signed up for the Challenger League using the name Ye Xiu, and the Alliance confirmed they’re both legitimate legal identities. He didn’t break any rules, but the fans are upset.’

That was all? Qiu Fei stares at his phone, shrugs, and continues getting dressed.

The captain was the captain, and he would never betray Glory, no matter what his name was.

 

 

Xiao Shiqin makes a cautious arrangement for Qiu Fei’s first official match. By placing him in the team battle, the strength of his teammates will ensure Excellent Era’s victory even if Qiu Fei freezes up completely.

Before they go onstage, Su Mucheng gives him a nearly invisible brush with her shoulder; Qiu Fei quietly murmurs a polite thank you, recognizing the gesture as supportive. 

Being watched so attentively by so many people tickles against his consciousness, a prickling sensation he’ll need to grow used to. But Glory is here to ground him, and Qiu Fei’s slight uneasiness melts away as soon as he loads Combat Form. With the solid, round shell of his mouse under his palm, and the tap of his fingers against the keyboard, Qiu Fei forgets the crowd altogether while he plays. 

Excellent Era’s opponents suffer instant destruction in the team battle; the entire match takes less than twenty minutes. 

Only when the crowd cheers does Qiu Fei remember how Team Happy drew the empty slot in the first round, and Ye Qiu - Ye Xiu? - is probably out there in the crowd.

Qiu Fei wonders if he was watching.

Probably. Their teams are rivals, after all.

 

 

Qiu Fei catches sight of Ye Xiu by accident, turning his head as Excellent Era enters the venue for the second round. 

Excellent Era’s former captain has gathered his new Team Happy around him, and he’s speaking to them in the intent, serious manner Qiu Fei remembers Ye Xiu using to coach his players. 

Qiu Fei’s mentor looks well - no, more than well. The pasty, sickly tone of his skin has improved into a healthier paleness, the hollows under his eyes have lightened, and his face has even filled out a little. He’s actually brushed his hair - it falls dark around his ears with a slight sheen - and his white and red polo shirt is barely wrinkled, suitable for the easy way he wears it.

But that’s not why Qiu Fei’s breath freezes. Ye Xiu’s listless air has lessened, and his eyes are brighter and less tired than Qiu Fei remembers, ever - even in Qiu Fei’s earliest memories as a day student in the club’s camp.

Perhaps the contrast wouldn’t have shocked Qiu Fei so badly if he’d witnessed the change in stages. But the young Battle Mage has not seen Ye Xiu for almost a year - not since before the captain left Excellent Era.

Qiu Fei looks at Ye Xiu and realizes he’s never seen his mentor like this. Unburdened. Content. Not once, in all the time Qiu Fei had known him. 

The price that Ye Xiu has paid to Excellent Era hounds Qiu Fei, ugly and apparent. It hurts to see - to understand the marks that Excellent Era left on their captain, and Qiu Fei had never known.

Qiu Fei really, really hadn’t understood anything.

“Hey, come on,” Sun Xiang calls out, noticing that Qiu Fei has fallen behind, staring fixedly at a single spot. Sun Xiang follows the direction of his shadow’s stare, and sneers arrogantly when he recognizes Ye Xiu.

Abruptly, Qiu Fei finds himself deeply grateful for the existence of Team Happy. It was Team Happy who helped Ye Xiu heal the grief caused by Excellent Era.

With one final glance, Qiu Fei walks away.

After Excellent Era finishes their match, Xiao Shiqin gives Qiu Fei a deeply concerned look, and takes him aside. “Are you alright?” 

“Have I done something wrong, senior?” Qiu Fei asks.

Xiao Shiqin pauses, scrutinizing his junior. Qiu Fei had not played viciously, or cruelly. He had not used a drop more effort than necessary. But Xiao Shiqin had seen cool anger in the way Qiu Fei had meticulously, precisely dismantled his opponents.

Now, as Xiao Shiqin stands in front of Qiu Fei, Xiao Shiqin knows he didn’t imagine it, but he can’t find that same anger any longer. That was not a sign it didn’t exist. Qiu Fei isn’t an expressionless person, but he has a habit of not showing everything he feels on his face.

“You’re done nothing wrong,” Xiao Shiqin assures him, trying to phrase his next words tactfully. “It’s only that our opponents weren’t much, and you were very...thorough.”

Qiu Fei pauses. “I’m fine now, senior.” he responds.

“Alright,” Xiao Shiqin accepts, trusting Qiu Fei’s judgement. “Decisiveness is good, but crushing opponents of this low level isn’t necessary. We simply need to win.”

“I understand,” Qiu Fei nods.

Another player might take that as permission to slack off, but even against opponents like these, Qiu Fei would never use less than his whole concentration and skill. Facing a match without the utmost seriousness and effort would be an act of disrespect. Sabotaging a match? Throwing a match? Unthinkable.

Only through honest victory or defeat can Qiu Fei show his gratitude to the captain.

 

 

When Team Happy loses their third round, the entire stadium fills with heckling and jeering laughter, and Qiu Fei’s heart spasms in his throat. 

He calms himself, understanding upon self-reflection that his feelings are unneeded. Team Happy will be fine. One loss isn’t the end at this stage, and Ye Xiu and his team have faced greater setbacks.

Another worry strikes him. Are Qiu Fei’s feelings outside the appropriate behavior of a pro player? Would they disappoint Ye Xiu if he knew about them? It would be best for Excellent Era if Ye Xiu and Team Happy lost. Does that mean he ought to hope for Team Happy’s downfall?

Qiu Fei considers whether he should ask one of his seniors, and immediately thinks of Xiao Shiqin. For anything involving Ye Xiu, Xiao Shiqin is undoubtedly the most impartial person on the team.

Approaching Excellent Era’s vice-captain in private that evening, Qiu Fei asks Xiao Shiqin in as few words as possible if it was alright to care about what happened to another team, even if they were a threat to you.

Xiao Shiqin stares into the distance, looking troubled. “That…I think that’s an answer we have to give ourselves. We may be pro players, but we have personal feelings too. Caring about what happens to our former team or to our friends is normal. As long as it doesn’t affect our performance when the time comes, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong.”

Qiu Fei nods, immediately feeling more at ease. Fighting Team Happy won’t trouble Qiu Fei. Upon that point, he holds complete certainty. Only fighting at less than his utmost would trouble him.

Thanking Xiao Shiqin, Qiu Fei thoughtfully returns to his own room. Qiu Fei’s feelings won’t go away, and he will simply have to accept that. Whether Team Happy wins or loses, his feelings have no effect on the outcome of the situation either way. 

Then perhaps it’s alright to hope that Happy wins. 

Qiu Fei wants to meet Ye Xiu again. 

 

 

Excellent Era leaves the semi-finals as soon as they’ve won, disregarding the outcome of the ongoing match that will decide who they’ll face in the Challenger League finals. 

Before they can even sit together on the bus, they get the news: Team Happy has won against Team Jade Dynasty. Ye Xiu and his team will be their opponents at the finals.

"That fast?" Seeing the time, everyone in Excellent Era is shocked. Such a swift victory could only result from a significant gap in strength. Even though Jade Dynasty is a weak team in their eyes, doesn’t Happy also count as a weak team on the same level? Yet Happy beat them in such an overwhelming manner? 

On the way back to the hotel, no one in the team talks about the upcoming finals.

Xiao Shiqin gets a headache, already worrying that Excellent Era’s fixation on Ye Xiu, and the fear and disdain his former teammates feel toward him, are tipping the team toward imbalance. But he can’t address the fear directly, or it really will be justified in their minds. 

Not for the first time this season, Xiao Shiqin wonders if he’s made as wise a choice for his future as he’d thought.

Su Mucheng alone appears light-hearted and relaxed; a gentle smile adorns her lovely face. Any of her teammates who see that smile feel uncomfortable and are forced to look away.

As the person Su Mucheng tolerates the most, Qiu Fei has long been assigned as her seating partner for any team events. Su Mucheng’s smile doesn’t bother him. When he’d heard Team Happy had won, Qiu Fei had experienced pure satisfaction. 

A clean, unfettered anticipation curls inside him even now. There is no more reason to doubt, no more reason to worry. This is simply a showdown between two teams for the right to return to the Pro League. 

Whether Qiu Fei helps send his former mentor out of the competition, or Excellent Era is defeated by its former captain, all Qiu Fei has to do is play the best he can. Whatever the outcome, only those results will matter.

(There is no ending to this battle that won’t hurt.)

 

 

The day before the Challenger League finals, Qiu Fei receives a QQ message: ‘I’ve gotten a recommendation for a good cake shop. Want to come?’

That’s how Qiu Fei finds himself inside a tiny roadside shop, on the afternoon of the day before Excellent Era faces Team Happy, watching a heavily disguised Su Mucheng pick out slices of tiny, attractively decorated sweets with great care and concentration.

“Do you want anything?” Su Mucheng asks as the employee packages her selections into a variety box.

Qiu Fei examines the offerings. “The sticky rice cake with black bean paste and hawthorn jelly.”

They sit down on a bench facing away from the street, so Su Mucheng can lower her mask and sample her purchases. Qiu Fei only nibbles at his own cake, folding aside the plastic wrapping and picking at the sour hawthorn jelly on top.

“You know, I have a lot of good memories with Excellent Era,” Su Mucheng says, examining the cake box for her next target.

“That’s why leaving will still be a little difficult for me, even if Excellent Era hasn’t been my home for a long time,” she continues.

Sensitive to the mood, Qiu Fei abandons his barely-touched cake, and turns to watch her.

Picking out a slice of rolling donkey, Su Mucheng pops it into her mouth and licks soybean flour off her fingers. Then she looks back at Qiu Fei. “Tomorrow will be my last match with Excellent Era,” she states, then offers Qiu Fei the cake box.

Qiu Fei barely tastes the piece he blindly chooses and places in his mouth. It was no secret that Su Mucheng’s contract is up at the end of this season, and he’s always known Su Mucheng would leave to find Ye Xiu afterwards. He’ll still miss her company. 

“I wish you the best,” he answers. “Excellent Era will be poorer for having lost you.”

She shakes her head with a twist to her smile, but says nothing. Su Mucheng has always kept herself from placing her worries on her young junior. Let this student of Ye Xiu continue to believe in the Excellent Era both of them love. 

Perhaps that was the only way that Su Mucheng herself could continue believing in the spirit of Excellent Era.

 

 

Tao Xuan treats Excellent Era’s players to an early dinner by renting out the hotel restaurant on the night before their match. Su Mucheng begs off, saying she feels unwell. Qiu Fei knows he can’t pull the same trick, as much as he might prefer a quiet night himself.

The atmosphere is practically celebratory. Team Excellent Era’s journey through the Challenger League has been spotless: in all the matches they’ve played, Excellent Era has never lost a single point. 

There was never any sense of danger at all. Sun Xiang completed a 1v5 in every match they’ve played, and the team battles were won equally easily. Their opponents folded like paper; most of their matches lasted twenty minutes or less, even in the offline tournament. Someone in Esports News had checked against past offline tournaments, and proved that Excellent Era’s perfect match record had never been attained before. 

Their momentary unease after Team Happy’s speedy win passed long ago. Team Happy is still just a grassroots internet cafe team pulled together from random passersby and leftovers that real pro teams didn’t want. Against a weak ex-pro team, Happy’s win wasn’t anything special. 

Tao Xuan circulates around the room, encouraging the mood. Club Excellent Era’s players ought to display the pride of a powerhouse - the only team to ever erect a dynasty,  a top-tier team that is second to none. Entering the Challenger League was practically an accident; their strength is far superior whether you examine the level of their players or the quality of their equipment. All the fans and media agree that Excellent Era’s victory is practically inevitable. Even if it’s Ye Xiu, they don’t need to pay any mind to such a team.

Qiu Fei spends the evening ill at ease, especially when it’s his turn to receive Tao Xuan’s encouragement. The boss’s heavy hand on his shoulder is meant to be friendly, but Qiu Fei is left feeling uncomfortable for reasons he can’t articulate. Luckily, Sun Xiang accidentally rescues him by drawing Tao Xuan’s attention.

After spending the evening being as unnoticeable as possible, Qiu Fei is finally allowed to return to his room for an early rest. Rather than go to sleep, he responds to Wen Li, Bai Shengxian, and the rest of their dungeon group’s good luck messages.

Then he pulls out the flashdrive holding the VOD of his final coaching match against Ye Xiu. Turning it over in his hands, Qiu Fei plugs it into his laptop, and watches the entire twenty-three minutes, noting the many places he’s studied his mistakes, reminding himself how to avoid them.

Then he goes to bed, falling asleep quickly, dreamless until sunrise.

 

 

Early the next morning, the Alliance sends an escort to bring Excellent Era to the new stadium. The location had been moved last minute - the media frenzy surrounding the match has grown so exaggerated that the Alliance arranged a larger stadium with the new projection technology to take advantage.

Though the two teams run into one another a few times while settling in, time ticks down to the match in relative stillness. All the preparations that can be completed have already been carried out. Xiao Shiqin alone will finalize Excellent Era’s player order for the match. 

For Qiu Fei, the afternoon passes unimaginably slowly, measured out in the steady beats of his heart and the glow of his phone screen lighting up as he checks the time.

At 7:30 PM, the lighting in the stadium gradually begins to darken. In the player passageway, Qiu Fei lifts his head. 

When it’s his turn to come onto the stage, Qiu Fei emerges steadily, momentarily blinded by the strong spotlights before he steps forward again, spotting the projection of Combat Form. 

Qiu Fei is mesmerized. He’s adored the Battle Mage class since the very first time he saw Ye Xiu play, and playing one himself intensified and sealed that passion. 

Now Combat Form stands before his player, brought to life wearing the drab, dull armor Excellent Era designed for the Battle God’s shadow.

The pure, delighted fascination that flows through Qiu Fei blocks out the crowd and his present circumstances. He forgets to move forward, staring at the character he loved so much that his heart rejected the number one Battle Mage, One Autumn Leaf.

Combat Form’s holographic projection poses dynamically, breaking Qiu Fei’s daze. Reminded where he is, Qiu Fei hurriedly continues toward Excellent Era’s bench, but he can’t resist craning his neck behind him, watching Combat Form until his character disappears, and the projection switches to the next player in line’s character.

Qiu Fei carries that fragile sense of enchantment until Xiao Shiqin pulls the team aside for their final instructions, and his mood settles into serene anticipation. 

The booing, laughter, curses, and indifferent silence that Team Happy faces are ignored. Ye Xiu won’t care, so neither will Qiu Fei.

Xiao Shiqin leads off as Excellent Era’s first player in the group arena. Their Master Tactician had chosen to go with a very safe player order, and ensuring their performance started well was part of that cautiousness.

It proves to be a sound choice. In his first match against Tang Rou, Xiao Shiqin patiently leads his helpless opponent into trap after trap, while his second match against the equally helpless Deception abandons finesse for indiscriminate bombing instead. Xiao Shiqin’s play today is brilliant, especially the final reversal in his match against Windward Formation. 

Qiu Fei can’t look away. Life Extinguisher's current counter-offensive against Wei Chen can be likened to driving a train, car after car linked together and cleanly crossing the tracks. Xiao Shiqin's movements truly seem like those of a Mechanic, highly efficient and accurate. Each blow achieves its purpose, never failing once - something almost unbelievable on a professional stage. 

Xiao Shiqin hadn’t been unaware of Wei Chen's earlier strategy of utilizing the map. He’d simply beaten Wei Chen at his own game, using himself as an experiment to reveal Wei Chen's plans. In fact, Xiao Shiqin had laid out his counterattack from the very beginning, placing hidden gadgets across the map until he could drive Windward Formation into his traps. Every move he makes now has been precisely calculated - not just in the present moment, but long before Life Extinguisher and Windward Formation even set foot on the field. This is how such a highly efficient offense could be achieved.

Qiu Fei feels he’s witnessing a peak he’s been blindly groping toward in his own play. Every move pressures Wei Chen, giving him no choice but to respond as expected. And each of these responses unfortunately gives Xiao Shiqin more opportunities to make things difficult for Windward Formation, to the extent that basic attacks have become Xiao Shiqin’s main method of reducing Windward Formation's health. 

Yes, Qiu Fei reflects, watching Windward Formation fall. Qiu Fei’s decision-making really wasn’t good enough yet. This is a zenith he can barely comprehend the existence of.

Master Tactician Xiao Shiqin. Qiu Fei has always known that Xiao Shiqin is a player who stands at the apex of Glory, hailed as one of Glory’s four greatest minds. But Xiao Shiqin’s fundamental grasp of Glory has only truly been revealed to his student in this moment.  

The Excellent Era fans in the stadium can’t control their excitement. Their cheers drown everything else out, so even words said face-to-face need to be shouted to be heard. Xiao Shiqin has completed a 1v3, bringing Excellent Era a beautiful opening in the group arena, one that can’t possibly be more perfect. Victory in the group arena is practically guaranteed.

How will Team Happy respond to such a dire predicament?

Over in Happy’s preparation area, Ye Xiu stands up.

Qiu Fei breathes out. The stadium air shakes with curses and vicious booing, but in Qiu Fei’s head the world is quiet. 

Qiu Fei is Excellent Era’s second player in the group arena, and Life Extinguisher truly has very little mana left. Without a doubt, Combat Form will face Lord Grim, and Ye Xiu will likely have near-perfect health. 

The sense of inevitability settling over Qiu Fei’s shoulders seems curiously comforting. Almost a year after their final coaching match, the two of them will meet again on the stage.

That’s all Qiu Fei has ever wanted. 

After a few exchanges between Xiao Shiqin and Ye Xiu, Life Extinguisher's mana runs out completely. Typing out a GG in the public channel, Xiao Shiqin directly withdraws from the match.

At this moment, Qiu Fei stands up. The pulse beating in his throat holds steady, only a touch more rapid than usual. Under the cover of the stadium's cheers for Xiao Shiqin, he silently walks towards Excellent Era's player booth. 

Considering the weakness of Excellent Era’s prior opponents, this probably counts as Qiu Fei’s first real pro battle. Before him now stands Ye Xiu, his former captain and teacher, and Qiu Fei’s first true challenge as a pro player.

Facing the best Battle Mage the league has ever seen as their first pro match opponent, a young rookie could feel justifiably intimidated. But Qiu Fei finds himself in excellent condition. His body feels light, and his mind agile. Flexing his fingers, he tests the eager response of his hands, delighting in his own readiness.

Frankly speaking, this is not a match weighted in Qiu Fei’s favor. Qiu Fei has intensively studied Ye Xiu’s Battle Mage, but Ye Xiu has changed classes, and no one has ever seen a true Unspecialized before in the pro scene. Not even Excellent Era’s seniors can say what facing Lord Grim is like.

Ye Xiu isn’t hampered by the same lack of information. No one would claim to understand Battle Mages better than Ye Xiu, and as Qiu Fei’s former teacher, Ye Xiu is familiar with Qiu Fei’s style. But the Qiu Fei that he knew was the Qiu Fei from a year ago, and no one can predict the growth of young players. There lies Excellent Era’s hope that Qiu Fei’s growth will surprise their former captain.

But all of that is just a minor consideration. This is the group arena. Qiu Fei’s job is not to win. Qiu Fei’s job is to set up the teammates behind him for victory, whether by gathering information on the Unspecialized, by wearing out Ye Xiu, or by taking out as much of Lord Grim’s health and mana as possible.

The map is still Dockside Town. The instant Combat Form loads, Qiu Fei heads directly toward the center of the map, forgoing any attempt at strategic movement. 

In terms of tactics, Qiu Fei doesn’t hold any ideas that he can contend equally with the first and greatest Master Tactician. Any attempts on his part would end in an unfavorable outcome for Qiu Fei and Excellent Era. 

Thus, Qiu Fei’s best choice is head-on battle, and he’s confident Ye Xiu will also seek a direct confrontation. After Xiao Shiqin’s 1v3, Ye Xiu urgently needs to save Team Happy's morale. Ye Xiu’s best choice is to stand and fight resolutely, then defeat his opponent directly - and Qiu Fei is the easiest, best target he’ll receive. 

True to Qiu Fei’s expectations, Lord Grim enters his sight rushing straight toward the map’s center as well. A slight smile appears on Qiu Fei’s face, unnoticed even by himself. 

Dodging Lord Grim’s rifle fire, Qiu Fei controls Combat Form to thrust out one hand, sending out a Falling Flower Palm.

Lord Grim moves and successfully dodges. That’s fine. Qiu Fei didn’t expect that hit to connect anyway.

Tyrant's Destruction! Now that Lord Grim is within his weapon’s range, Combat Form’s spear strikes out in an arc, aiming for Lord Grim’s ankles.

Lord Grim blocks Combat Form’s low-swinging spear with the Blade Master's Guard. Falling Flower Palm had been connected very suddenly with Tyrant's Destruction, and with no other way to dodge, Ye Xiu could only use this solution to catch Combat Form’s spear instead. 

Immediately after Tyrant’s Destruction, Combat Form follows up with a fluid transition to Sky Strike. Lord Grim leaps backward to evade.

This type of basic combo isn’t any threat to Ye Xiu, who must have used it innumerable times himself. Taking advantage of an opening, Qiu Fei has Combat Form release a high-level skill. Blue waves rise and gather on the tip of his spear: Dragon Rises from the Sea!

It still misses. Combat Form follows his opponent, spear outthrust. There were no problems with the execution of his Dragon Rises from the Sea, but Qiu Fei’s precise, perfect execution is the problem. Glory’s Textbook is his opponent, and perfect attacks are predictable.

Another player might have been upset by this realization. Qiu Fei’s mind remains calm. Playing perfectly may allow Ye Xiu to anticipate him, but Qiu Fei also isn't giving Ye Xiu any opportunities to counterattack. His  own attacks may have all been neutralized, but Qiu Fei still holds the initiative and remains on the offensive.

Continuing his advance, Combat Form uses a Sky Strike. Lord Grim attacks to block it, while simultaneously leaping backwards - but because of the knockup effect, Lord Grim's leap backwards goes a bit higher than Qiu Fei expected.

This slight change becomes a turning point in the match. Combat Form thrusts his spear forward with a Dragon Breaks the Ranks - and it misses.

Lord Grim activates the Mechanic’s Rotor Wings and flies towards the sky, dodging the attack, then comes directly back down at Combat Form’s back using Falling Light Blade. 

A back attack adds extra damage, and absolutely has to be avoided. Any senior players watching would praise Qiu Fei now for making such an experienced decision in his prior attack. Dragon Breaks the Ranks doesn't have any ending lag, so Qiu Fei is able to react extremely quickly. Combat Form turns around and stabs with his spear in a Circle Swing. 

Faced with Combat Form’s counterattack, Lord Grim pulls his blade back, turning his attack into a block and neutralizing the Grab - the spear has to hit first before Circle Swing’s grab priority comes into effect.

Lord Grim lands at the rear diagonally, and Qiu Fei’s Combat Form chases after him, sending out a Dragon Tooth. It’s a very normal combo, but it’s timed perfectly.

Lord Grim, who has just landed on the ground, turns around, lifts his Myriad Manifestations Umbrella, and opens it up to form a shield. Qui Fei’s screen is filled with the umbrella’s ribs and canopy, blocking his view.

Knight's Blind Shield playstyle?

Qiu Fei weighs it in his mind. He doesn’t doubt that Ye Xiu can use any class's playstyle, not just Battle Mages. Many of the playstyles for Glory’s classes were created by him. There are so many that it’s impossible to count.

Combat Form retreats one step. As he expected, Lord Grim's Myriad Manifestations Umbrella is quickly retracted. The umbrella tip opens and an artillery shell flies out.

Combat Form's step back helped win Qiu Fei some time to react; the Battle Mage twists his body and dodges the artillery shell. If he hadn't taken that backstep, no matter how fast Qiu Fei’s reaction speed is, he probably wouldn't have been able to dodge.

Dragon Tooth! 

After dodging the artillery shell, Qiu Fei uses a Dragon Tooth, which has just gone off cooldown. This simple skill is the fastest counterattack that can be made at this moment, when the smoke from the tip of the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella still hangs in the air.

But the umbrella canopy once again opens up.

Again?

Qiu Fei doesn’t dare be careless. He once again chooses to retreat one step. However, this time the umbrella canopy opens up until it transforms: Myriad Manifestations Umbrella spear form. It thrusts towards Combat Form from the same angle. 

Also a Dragon Tooth?

In a clash between the same skills, whoever has the higher attack power will have priority. In terms of stats, Qiu Fei believes his Combat Form doesn’t lose to Lord Grim. Lord Grim has no Silver equipment apart from his weapon, so Qiu Fei can roughly estimate his opponent’s capabilities. A Level 70 Silver weapon’s stats won’t be too different from his own Level 75 Orange weapon, but Lord Grim’s weakness is that the Unspecialized lacks armor proficiency.

All 24 Glory classes have armor proficiency. When a character uses armor their class is proficient in, they receive a stat bonus. As a result, even if Combat Form and Lord Grim are wearing same-level equipment, the Unspecialized’s lack of armor proficiency will naturally produce a disparity in stats.

Since both of us used Dragon Tooth, I should win the exchange!  

Qiu Fei verifies this thought in an instant. As a result, he doesn’t retreat and his Dragon Tooth continues forward.

In this way, the two spears clash. The degree of precision displayed is astonishing for the spectators in the stadium to see. However, right when the spears meet, from how the attacks change due to priority, Qiu Fei determines that this isn’t Dragon Tooth.

Yes! Lord Grim hadn't used Dragon Tooth, but another Battle Mage skill: Double Stab.

The first attack lowers Dragon Tooth's striking power, but the first part of Double Stab is weaker in priority than Dragon Tooth. However, after the first stab, Dragon Tooth's speed has been greatly reduced, while the second stab of Lord Grim’s spear comes like lightning towards Combat Form.

Use the first hit to interrupt and the second hit to strike!

Ye Xiu’s words float suspended in Qiu Fei's mind. When Qiu Fei fought his final coaching match against Ye Xiu, Qiu Fei had missed the opportunity to use this technique, which Ye Xiu pointed out to him.

A year has passed since then.

Last time, Qiu Fei missed the opportunity to use it. This time, he’ll be hit by that very technique…... 

Thoughts drift through Qiu Fei's consciousness. Echoes of their coaching match last year lengthen and draw further back, back to a time Ye Xiu was still in Excellent Era and Qiu Fei was still nothing more than a trainee.

Qiu Fei had played a Battle Mage from the very beginning. From day one in Glory, he had loved this class at first sight. 

The year he began playing, Team Excellent Era became the champions for the third time in a row and Ye Qiu's fame soared like the sun. But this God never gave anyone a chance to meet him in person. The only indication of his existence was the character that stood on stage.

Battle God One Autumn Leaf. The heroic pose displayed when he fought was deeply imprinted into Qiu Fei's mind. However, he was different from the other children. His dream wasn't to become One Autumn Leaf's successor. He wished to bring his own character and leave the same mark in battle as the One Autumn Leaf of that hallowed year.

Who takes a young child's dream seriously? As he gradually stood out in the training camp, Qiu Fei became titled as One Autumn Leaf's successor.

This was a position that uncountable trainees envied. However, Qiu Fei's dream never changed. He liked his own character much better. He liked his Combat Form, and in Excellent Era's training camp, he finally got to see God Ye Qiu with his own eyes. 

God Ye Qiu was completely different from what Qiu Fei had imagined. The mysterious God Ye Qiu, who never appeared in public, wasn't as arrogant as most people believed he was. Every day, with a cigarette in his mouth and smoke circling around him, he chatted with everyone at Club Excellent Era. Ye Qiu was the Alliance's number one player, but even Club Excellent Era's janitor could proudly say that he’d fought a match against the Battle God before.

The janitor wasn't lying. Numerous people in the club had played Glory with this God before. Rumors said that whenever Excellent Era’s people got into a conflict in game, if they couldn't win, they would pull Ye Qiu over to play for them, and Ye Qiu would happily go over.

God Ye Qiu dominated the Alliance, but he enjoyed Glory in the simplest and most ordinary ways. Qiu Fei had seen him play on alternate accounts not just once or twice, but innumerable times, and the account was different every time.

When he was caught, Excellent Era’s God would always look at Qiu Fei and smirk with a playful spark in his eye, like the two of them were keeping a secret. "Don't tell anyone! In a bit, I'll gift you a good piece of equipment," the God would always pat his shoulder and promise.

How could there be any good equipment? The alternate accounts that Ye Qiu played on had the worst equipment. Who would have imagined that behind these trash characters stood the God who controlled the most powerful character in the Alliance, Battle God One Autumn Leaf?

The God that Qiu Fei saw with his own eyes wasn't so spectacular that it was impossible to look at him, as he had originally thought.

The real God was very normal and simple, but it was easy to see that his love for Glory came from the heart.

Competition isn’t just about winning; it is a joy in and of itself.

Qiu Fei had always liked this quote from Ye Qiu, and he eagerly awaited the day he could experience the joy of competition himself. He never relented in his efforts, hoping that this day would come sooner. Some of the other trainees laughed at him for being dumb. To them, it was way too early for him to even be thinking about succeeding God Ye Qiu.

That wasn't how Qiu Fei thought. God Ye Qiu's successor? This was just a title given to him by others. As for him, he hoped to stand beside God Ye Qiu on the battlefield, enjoying the match and pursuing victory together! Although Qiu Fei was coincidentally also a Battle Mage and it would be difficult to become a core member with their class overlap, no one ever said that it was impossible, right?

Qiu Fei worked hard to achieve this goal, and the God he looked up to would occasionally come to the training camp to offer instruction or play a few training matches with him. Qiu Fei hadn't lacked that God's guidance back then. Each time his problems would be pointed out before Ye Qiu personally demonstrated how to correct them.

Last summer, when the two met unexpectedly, Excellent Era’s former God had fought a training match of unprecedented standards with Qiu Fei, except this time, Ye Qiu hadn't had the chance to show Qiu Fei how to fix those problems. 

Now, after a year, his teacher has finally displayed the correct way to combo after cancelling a Double Stab. Though it might have been a coincidence, Qiu Fei can’t help but recall their coaching match last year. Is the unfinished demonstration finally being completed in this match? He can’t dodge this strike…

Ye Xiu’s spear hits. 

Immediately, Lord Grim follows up on the hit that Qiu Fei couldn't avoid. Sky Strike! Shuriken! Moonlight Slash! Gore Cross! Earthquake Sword! Shadow Cloak! 

An endless chain of level 20 and under skills with little end lag or starting lag begin pouring out of Lord Grim’s transforming weapon, all comboed at an extremely fast pace.

Qiu Fei finds Lord Grim's combo very alien. He’s very much familiar with these skills, but the combination created from them isn’t something within his realm of study. His mind can’t keep up with the combo. This isn’t just a lack of experience, but like stepping into an entirely new realm, as if he’s playing against a class from a different game.

What makes Qiu Fei feel even more helpless is that Ye Xiu predicts all of his attempted countermeasures, preventing Qiu Fei from fighting back and prolonging Lord Grim’s offense. The few plans Qiu Fei tries to execute are all quickly foiled; Ye Xiu manages to adjust before Qiu Fei can properly put them in motion, and each of his attempts fail.

Will none of these do? Then it seems like I have no choice…

Once Qiu Fei makes a decision, he doesn’t hesitate. The airborne Combat Form times himself to grasp a chance and suddenly twists. Lord Grim pursues with the intent to counter, yet Combat Form's raised spear doesn’t stab towards Lord Grim, but rather at the ground beneath him.

A halo of light descends from the spear and sinks into the ground. Following that, a pulse of magic spreads through the earth, and Combat Form swings his spear in the air. Suddenly, the ground seems to tear apart, and chunks of earth are blown into the air exactly where Lord Grim stood.

The new level 75 Battle Mage skill: Shattering the Lands, a skill that can transfer destructive magical energy, eventually erupting to deliver a sneak attack on an opponent.

Level 75 skills only appeared after Ye Xiu left Excellent Era. Unlike the lower level Battle Mage skills, Qiu Fei mastered this skill independently of Ye Xiu. There's no standard method of using Level 75 skills yet, so every player uses them according to their own thoughts. This is finally something Ye Xiu can’t easily predict. This Shattering the Lands interrupts Lord Grim's offense and helps Qiu Fei balance out the situation, immediately cutting off any possibility of Lord Grim prolonging his offense combo and giving Qiu Fei a wonderful chance to strike back.

Qiu Fei doesn’t waste it. Having interrupted Lord Grim's combo, Qiu Fei immediately has Combat Form strike back. He starts with Dragon Tooth - a typical opening, but still one of the most commonly used for Battle Mages - and completes the attack with the utmost focus he can gather.

Dragon Tooth, Sky Strike, Falling Flower Palm, Circle Swing…These four skills are the lowest level skills for Battle Mages, but the small and simple combo formed through these four skills is something any Battle Mage can use with fluency. Under Qiu Fei's meticulous mechanics, the combo is flawlessly executed. In an instant, the four skills are all used, but they’re still easily neutralized by Lord Grim. Many people know how to execute these skills flawlessly, but their countermeasures have also long since been perfected.

Lord Grim easily dodges the four skill combo, but he doesn’t expect Qiu Fei to suddenly perform another unexpected action, unleashing another level 75 skill.

Cloud Whirling Windstorm!

Combat Form spins his spear, whipping up the winds with a magic pulse, and the attack rages towards his target alongside his spear.

This is when Lord Grim opens up his umbrella, hiding behind it lightly, unafraid of wind or rain.

This time, Qiu Fei doesn’t back down, and instead steps forward when the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella opens up, slamming his attack down against it.

At the pro level, it’s no longer as simple as the skill timing being right or wrong, better or worse. What matters is suitability. Every player has their own style. Every character has different stats. As a result, how a skill is used would be different. The variances from standard combos come from these differences. Pro players will make adjustments to these combos depending on their strengths and their style.

Qiu Fei is no longer that young training camp kid Ye Xiu taught. He’s always dreamt of his character standing on stage. From the very start, he never blindly imitated anyone. He has his own understanding of the Battle Mage and his own playstyle. After another year of growth along with Qiu Fei's own understanding and utilization of the new Level 75 skill, Qiu Fei has finally created his own style.

Falling Flower Palm!

Combat Form slides forward and strikes the Myriad Manifestations Umbrella. Shields not only reduce the damage from an incoming attack, but effects like knockbacks are reduced significantly too. However, the reduction is directly proportional to the shield's weight. The Myriad Manifestations Umbrella can swiftly change into different forms, so the weapon shouldn't be too heavy. Therefore, when the umbrella switches to shield form, Qiu Fei is confident that it will be unable to completely block Falling Flower Palm's knockback effect.

As expected, when the Falling Flower Palm lands on the umbrella, Lord Grim is forced back. The path of Combat Form’s attack had been from bottom to top. As Lord Grim slides back, the umbrella also moves up, leaving a huge hole. Qiu Fei intended for this result, and he attacks with a Tyrant's Destruction. Even though he can’t completely see Lord Grim, Qiu Fei knows that his spear will reach him.

The umbrella suddenly collapses with a bang. Transforming into a gun, the umbrella tip fires a round of bullets. Qiu Fei reacts quickly. Combat Form borrows the momentum from Tyrant's Destruction to twist his body and dodge away. However, Lord Grim uses the same trick, borrowing the recoil of his gun to slide even farther back, causing Combat Form's Tyrant's Destruction to miss.

But Qiu Fei isn't done yet.

Dragon Breaks the Ranks! Combat Form raises his spear and a dragon roars out. 

Ye Xiu has predicted this move already. Lord Grim forcefully changes directions while sliding back, but to his surprise, this Dragon Breaks the Ranks doesn’t move in a straight line - there’s a slight curvature to the dragon’s path. 

Qiu Fei had guessed that Ye Xiu would control Lord Grim to dodge, but which way would he go? Left or right? Qiu Fei couldn’t know, but he still has Dragon Breaks the Ranks move in an arc. He can only play decisively and make a gamble.

Qiu Fei guesses correctly. Lord Grim tries to move away, but in the end, he’s caught in the path of Dragon Breaks the Ranks. Dodging is impossible. With no time left, Ye Xiu can only have Lord Grim use Guard. This purely defensive skill has been completely maxed. Although it can reduce the damage from Combat Form’s attack, Dragon Breaks the Ranks holds a much higher priority. Lord Grim's right hand holding the sword collapses to the side under the pressure. Lord Grim is knocked back and also stunned by the attack.

If that attack hadn't hit, the big opening would have been patched up. But Qiu Fei made the correct guess and grasped an opportunity. 

Combat Form has already started his combo. Sky Strike throws Lord Grim into the air, and Combat Form uses the Chasers generated through his attacks to keep his target afloat and stunned. This is a conventional Battle Mage combo, but also a very difficult one to pull off. Usually, ten hits is considered a satisfactory number for a pro player to manage. 

A Random Chaser Combo would be much easier to execute, while still remaining very formidable. That’s why it’s very rare for someone to execute the original combo anymore. In theory, this original combo is impossible to escape from - Ye Xiu had taken an opponent from 100 to 0 once, creating an infinite unescapable combo -  but the burst from a Random Chaser Combo is much better, and the sequence is easier to perform. In real combat, it's much more practical.

Qiu Fei isn’t choosing this more difficult to control combo in order to show off, but because he lacks any other choice. The Random Chaser Combo requires at least four existing Chasers to pull off. However, Ye Xiu had intentionally limited the number of times they exchanged blows, making it impossible for Qiu Fei to produce many Chasers. Qiu Fei is choosing this combo out of helplessness.

Playing at a steady pace, Qiu Fei meticulously treasures this opportunity he has spent so much effort to grasp. Between breaths, between heartbeats, he counts: 

One. Two. Three. 

The space inside his head has gone quiet. He can’t tell if his heart is beating faster, or slowing down.

Four. Five. Six. 

Time seems to stretch out, to elongate. The harder he concentrates, the more the world seems to crystalize.

Seven. Eight. Nine

He stares at the screen, not daring to relax. He knows the difficulty of this combo and he knows how well his opponent understands it, but it’s exactly because of Ye Xiu’s mastery that he could develop this combo into an unbreakable one.

Ten hits!

The passing line has been reached. Qiu Fei still doesn’t relax. This is a rare opportunity, and he needs to do as much as he can with it.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen....  

The combo continues. Truthfully speaking, Qiu Fei doesn’t feel like it’s that difficult. His brain seems to be frozen. He is no longer thinking. His fingers move instinctively, making it so that Lord Grim never leaves his spear's tip, making it so his Chasers constantly fly about ready to use at any time.

Fifteen, sixteen. Qiu Fei feels excited. He feels like his condition today is extraordinary. Originally, he had been planning on finding an opportunity to end it with a high-level skill when it was about time, but he feels like he can keep going on.

All the way until death? Outside in the stadium, the commentators and audience are discussing this very topic. The viewers may be hoping for it, but Qiu Fei isn’t considering such a thing for even a second.

One more hit!

This is the only thought occupying his mind. One more hit. Qui Fei single-mindedly pursues each hit, and he succeeds hit after hit, all the way until twenty!

Qiu Fei's Combat Form, facing a Battle Mage master, has performed a twenty hit combo.

This is more than enough to make the crowd go wild with cheers. Excellent Era's fans feel incomparably proud. They have such a talented player! They feel like they are invincible!

But on the twenty-first hit, there is finally a slight deviation. 

No one discovers this deviation. Not even Qiu Fei. He has already started his next attack. The commentators and viewers alike are all waiting for this attack to strike.

But when this attack comes, Qiu Fei sees Lord Grim's movements change.

Twenty-second hit?

Qiu Fei is the first to question it.

The attack hits, but Lord Grim has already transformed into smoke. 

Shadow Clone Technique!

When Qiu Fei realizes it, the first thing he thinks of is his back. However, the attack comes from beneath.

Underground Tunneling Technique!

Lord Grim burrows out from the earth and attacks, following up with a Knee Strike to send Combat Form up into the air. The combo starts, and in an instant, the comboer and comboed switch positions. Combat Form floats in the air as Lord Grim starts his rebuttal.

The crowd has been counting Qiu Fei's combo. When they’re about to shout twenty-two, Lord Grim's clone is destroyed and the words become stuck in their throats. In an instant, the combo count is reset. But it’s no longer Combat Form comboing.

When Lord Grim begins his offensive, Qiu Fei experiences the same dizzying speed and incomprehensible skill string as he did before. Combat Form remains airborne, as if suspended there. Lord Grim darts around him, landing different skills on his body continuously - not that Qiu Fei can catch sight of him. 

His screen remains empty, spinning crazily as Combat Form is buffeted first one way and then the next by an opponent who never leaves his blind spot. This is Vanishing Step: a purely high-level technique one can perform only when the user's experience, awareness, and technical skill reach a certain level.

The last time, Qiu Fei unexpectedly used a level 75 new skill to interrupt Lord Grim's combo, but this time, he can’t seem to be able to find a similar opportunity. 

Just then, Lord Grim's figure appears in Qiu Fei's view.

Outside, the commentators are yelling about an opportunity. But Qiu Fei knows better. The so-called chance isn’t actually any sort of opportunity. The foundations to the Vanishing Step are built on finding an opponent's blind spot and attacking from there. Landing the attack is the ultimate goal, and walking into the opponent's blindspot is simply a method to achieve this goal more easily. 

But if you can easily hit an opponent, why expend so much energy finding their blindspot?

The reason Lord Grim has wandered into Qiu Fei's view is because in this moment, there is no need for him to conceal his attack using Qiu Fei's blindspot.

Like watching Xiao Shiqin earlier, Qiu Fei gains the feeling of brushing against a high peak he can only witness from below. 

Using Vanishing Step continuously is extremely tiring, placing a heavy burden on the user. If a player possessed the ability to use the technique like this, keeping their opponent helpless without needing to consistently seek out blind spots, then it would reduce a lot of unneeded mechanics and effort. At the same time, a lot more precision and accuracy would be needed in terms of judgement and awareness. Ye Xiu alone has reached this threshold. No other player in the current Alliance can claim to have reached this stage of mastery with Vanishing Step. It’s awe-inspiring even to think about it.

As Lord Grim’s combo continues, Qiu Fei senses a change, feeling Ye Xiu’s net pull even tighter. Ye Xiu has begun using False Combos, enforcing Qiu Fei’s bonds even more strictly. False combos aren’t counted by the system, but they’re even more difficult to deal with than traditional combos because the theory behind false combos lies in the player being unable to make any sort of counterplay. Paired with Vanishing Step, Qiu Fei is in extremely dire straits.

Outside in the stadium, Excellent Era’s supporters fall uneasily quiet as they watch the combo counter reset again, while Combat Form remains motionless, as if Qiu Fei doesn’t even intend to break free.

The commentators speak disapprovingly of Qiu Fei’s lapses in ability and awareness, how his rhythm is so easily thrown by a single wave of counterattacks, misinterpreting his situation. False combos are easy to use, but even experts find them hard to spot, and the most difficult moment to deal with a false combo is when the combo count resets.

Combat Form's life falls continuously. Hanging suspended in the air, with Lord Grim darting about, Ye Xiu’s attacks don’t stop, but Combat Form does nothing besides steady himself.

When the count resets for the third time and this scene repeats, the crowd starts letting out sounds of dissatisfaction. 

Even if he could hear them, Qiu Fei wouldn’t spare a grain of his concentration. Only the match and searching for openings fill his mind.

A fourth time. The counter resets. Combat Form remains locked in Lord Grim’s combo, unable to break free.

 It really is difficult…...

Unlike what the crowd thinks, Qiu Fei isn’t doing nothing or standing there taking a beating. He’s been trying his best the entire time trying to think of a way to break free from his predicament. He just hasn’t rashly used any skills yet. Mashing random keys when the situation isn’t right is a noob's method. Pro players would never do that, because skills are most threatening when not used.

Qiu Fei remembers these words. These words had been spoken by the opponent in front of him and had helped him eliminate many of his bad habits in the beginning.

Qiu Fei is unable to return the favor to his coach. He can only prove himself through victory.

These are Qiu Fei's thoughts. He doesn’t say them out loud because he knows that the other side already knows. Both sides are going all out in this match. This is the best proof.

What were his old coach's efforts for? Wasn't it all for this moment on the stage?

After Combat Form has been dealt two devastating combos by his opponent, he doesn’t have much health left. At this moment, other players might have given up already. They probably wouldn't go so far as to randomly start mashing their keyboard, but they would almost be at that point. 

However, Qiu Fei doesn’t consider any such thing. He hopes to see this match through with a professional attitude. He will clearly be aware of what he is doing at all times. Those words...were probably also said by Ye Xiu.

It’s just that now, everything Qiu Fei can do has already been completely sealed.

This is a true match. The other side won’t hold back and give Qiu Fei openings in order to teach him. Ye Xiu will do his best not to give Qiu Fei any opportunities at all.

Opportunities are sometimes seized, but opportunities sometimes need to be created!  

Dragon Rises from the Sea!

Combat Form, who has been patiently taking a beating this entire time, suddenly moves. A spear comes downward and magic undulations spread like waves as the spear stabs forward.

It’s just that the direction of this attack is slightly off. Ye Xiu is still using Vanishing Step, so Qiu Fei can’t see him. This attack was purely a guess. Unfortunately, Qiu Fei guessed incorrectly.

Another attack from Lord Grim falls onto Combat Form, but at this moment, Combat Form boldly uses Cloud Whirling Windstorm!

Another high-level skill has been released, but the aim is still off. Quite a few people watching in the crowd shake their heads, feeling like Qiu Fei has given up and started testing his luck.

To their surprise, Cloud Whirling Windstorm's magic undulations, along with the waves from Dragon Rises from the Sea, collide. Clouds and mist form at their intersection. Combat Form's figure suddenly appears hazy, hidden behind a veil of grey gauze.

Everyone watching is stunned. They’ve never seen such a scene before.

New technique?

These two words light up in everyone's minds. The commentators have already started yelling.

Yes. This is a combination created by Qiu Fei while facing Ye Xiu’s complete suppression, ceaselessly seeking an opportunity to strike back.

Lord Grim's Myriad Manifestations Umbrella moves, tearing through the mist and throwing Combat Form down from the air with a Circle Swing. After Combat Form smashes into the ground, two sweeping attacks follow. Combat Form is still unable to break out of the combo. Qiu Fei’s created technique doesn’t seem to be that worthy of praise.

Against another opponent, Qiu Fei might have been able to turn the situation around. Unfortunately, his opponent is Ye Xiu. Experience helped Ye Xiu accurately catch his opponent when faced with an uncertain situation.

The broadcasters and the audience might be disappointed, but Qiu Fei is entirely satisfied since his situation has changed for the better. Ye Xiu was forced to stop using Vanishing Step and false combos. After Qiu Fei created this effect, Ye Xiu couldn't continue his previous combo, which was why he used Circle Swing to pull Combat Form back. Being able to win an opportunity to attack in the final moment is due to his combination of the two new skills.

Unfortunately, he'll most likely lose this match. That’s fine. Qiu Fei hasn’t forgotten his purpose.

Set up the victory of the teammate behind him!

Qiu Fei’s technique has bought him the room to struggle against Lord Grim, to inflict as much damage as possible using the health remaining to him. 

Making his final effort, Qiu Fei fights until the very end. Every bit of mana Lord Grim is forced to use, every bit of health Lord Grim bleeds away - that is a victory, one that Qiu Fei will obtain no matter how undignified and petty the struggle.

Just a little more, just a little bit longer...

Combat Form falls. 

Fingers poised over his keyboard, Qiu Fei stares at Glory’s defeat message.

Half of Lord Grim's health - that’s what Qiu Fei managed to take away. Part came from the back and forth in the beginning, but most of it came from that twenty-hit combo he managed to complete, and the rest from Combat Form’s final struggle at the end.

Stroking the keys with his fingertips, Qiu Fei reflects. Against the best Battle Mage to ever grace the league, against the teacher who knows him best, had Qiu Fei played the best he could?

Yes. Qiu Fei had proved that Ye Xiu’s former efforts were not in vain. He had supported Excellent Era to the best of his ability.

His mind is drawn back to that twenty-hit combo, that beautiful, fleeting moment when time had frozen and thought had become pure action, an inexhaustible flow held within the controls reaching out from Qiu Fei’s own two hands.

The memory of that rush makes Qiu Fei lean back, passing one hand over his eyes. He wishes he could play another match right now; he longs to take up his Combat Form a hundred more times, a thousand more times.

Competition isn’t just about winning; it is a joy in and of itself.

Just as Qiu Fei always hoped, even if it hadn’t happened the way he always imagined, Ye Xiu had shown Qiu Fei the joy of competition.

After Qiu Fei comes down from the stage, the player who stands up is their ace player and team captain of the new generation: Sun Xiang.

"You played well." Sun Xiang actually acts like a captain for once and comforts Qiu Fei, who is returning to the bench. 

Qiu Fei smiles, but doesn’t say anything before returning to his seat. 

His gaze is aimed at Excellent Era's competition booth. On the field, players don’t have any way to communicate with words. Everything is based on their mechanics, attacks, defense, movement, and dodges. In this match, Qiu Fei had given it his all, but still lost. However, there will always be defeat in competition. He might've lost this time, but next time he'll win for certain, no matter who he’s up against.

After giving his encouragement to Qiu Fei, Sun Xiang casually glances towards Team Happy’s bench and raises his voice. "It's just a shame that you left a Ye Qiu with only half his health for me. Even if I win, there will be no honor in it! Well, there's no helping it, seems like all I can do is clear him off quickly!"

Calling this out arrogantly, Sun Xiang walks towards the competition booth with his head held high.

 


But victory does not belong to Excellent Era today. 

Sun Xiang loses to Ye Xiu. Su Mucheng claims final victory in the group arena, but they lose her to Team Happy. And their confrontation in the team battle ends with Sun Xiang alone, standing last of all, surrendering to Ye Xiu’s team.

Glory was never meant to be played alone. Only now, when it’s too late, does Sun Xiang understand this.

Qiu Fei closes his eyes, letting out a breath he’s been holding for a year, ever since he learned Ye Xiu and Excellent Era would one day face each other to the death.

Team Happy has won the right to enter the Pro Alliance. Team Excellent Era will stay in the Challenger League another year. That is how competition works. 

Is Qiu Fei disappointed? Sad? Of course! This is the taste of loss, a whole year of work brought to nothing.

But it had been a good match. Qiu Fei had been the last of Excellent Era’s players to fall, so he’d been able to play almost to the end. At every moment, competing had brought him joy. Even in defeat, that pleasure doesn’t cease to exist.

And yet Qiu Fei’s grief runs far deeper. Will Excellent Era survive another year in the Challenger League? Will All-star players like Sun Xiang and Xiao Shiqin waste another year of their careers swatting player teams? Would any of his teammates at all dare to stay? And if Excellent Era is abandoned by its players, how would it survive?

Qiu Fei fears this moment is Excellent Era’s death knell.

Breathing out one more time, Qiu Fei touches Combat Form’s account card in his pocket, and leaves his booth.

Outside, Excellent Era’s players stand beneath the unceasing cheers for Team Happy, dispiritedly meeting one another’s eyes.

All of them are uneasy when they consider the future. They are Excellent Era, a powerhouse team with God level players and God-level accounts. They have to sink in the Challenger League for another year?

Apart from Qiu Fei, his teammates are all people with at least some renown in the pro circle, and some are even Gods. Yet in that moment, they are failures. This stage is no longer theirs. They don’t have the heart to watch their opponent's crowning, and silently leave the stage.

Excellent Era's bench remains in complete silence. No one goes up to comfort their returning teammates. It’s their boss, Tao Xuan, who charges up to Sun Xiang like a Dragon Breaks the Ranks.

"The match wasn't over, why did you leave?!" Tao Xuan roars at Sun Xiang.

"I couldn't win," Sun Xiang shook his head.

"How would you know that without trying? Even if you couldn't win, you could still tie by defeating one of them and bring us into overtime," Tao Xuan bellows.

"I wouldn't be able to, because Glory was never meant to be played alone," Sun Xiang says.

"You…" Tao Xuan is stunned. This is what Ye Xiu had said to Sun Xiang on the field. Yet at this time, Sun Xiang has used it to retort against him.

After that, no one speaks until the Alliance chairman comes over to give a few words of comfort and encouragement. They’re all sunk in their own shock, contemplating the terrible consequences of this single loss.

As Qiu Fei files out behind the rest of Excellent Era’s players, he looks over his shoulder and sees Ye Xiu with Su Mucheng and Team Happy clustered around him, the golden trophy in his hands.

Standing there is the true Battle God, not One Autumn Leaf. Ye Xiu has always belonged in the pro league, and Ye Xiu was always meant to hold victory in his hands.

Perhaps this disaster is only what Excellent Era has earned itself, Qiu Fei thinks, and resolutely turns to follow his teammates.

 

 

Qiu Fei is not fond of reporters. After being pulled back and forth by conflicting accounts of Ye Xiu joining the Challenger League a year ago, Qiu Fei doesn’t trust the media, and he rarely pays attention to any team coverage. 

Perhaps their stories contain a version of the truth. But if the last year has taught Qiu Fei anything, it’s that the accepted story isn’t necessarily the true course of events. After all, hadn’t Excellent Era lied for over a year and a half and gotten away with it?

Sitting on stage waiting for the post-match press conference to start, Qiu Fei stares out at the roomful of reporters. He doesn’t think he’s imagining the hungry way they’re eyeing Excellent Era’s players and staff.

When the press conference officially starts, no one initiates conversation on Excellent Era’s side. Even Cui Li, the team’s manager, seems struck dumb.

After almost half a minute of silence, some reporters decide they’ve met their quota of sympathy and raise their hands to ask questions.

The members of Excellent Era are still sitting there numbly. In the end, an Alliance news manager begins choosing reporters to ask questions.

"During the match, Su Mucheng suddenly declared that she and Excellent Era were over and sat on Happy's side of the bench. Could you explain why this is? Is there any bad blood between Su Mucheng and Excellent Era?" 

A difficult question for Excellent Era. Qiu Fei doubts anything will come of it. Excellent Era must have plenty of experience dodging uncomfortable questions about their former players.

Sure enough, Cui Li glances at the reporter and replies without emotion, "Su Mucheng is still a member of Team Excellent Era and Excellent Era will convene with the players before making decisions regarding their futures. Before then, there's nothing to say."

"Then may I ask how Excellent Era convened with Ye Xiu when he announced his retirement? From the match today, I doubt that anyone would believe that Ye Xiu is a player who should retire. He's in a surprisingly good state that doesn't lose to any of Excellent Era's players." 

Qiu Fei straightens just a hair, tilting his head to watch Cui Li out of the corner of his eye. This is a question he’s wanted to ask ever since he suspected that Ye Xiu’s split with Excellent Era wasn’t what it seemed. 

Since Ye Xiu had always refused to accept interviews before his return, whatever explanation Excellent Era gave didn’t have any competition for the public’s belief. But after the finale of the Challenger League, who would believe Excellent Era’s story about Ye Xiu’s skill slipping so badly he could no longer play? What is the real truth of Ye Xiu's retirement?

"Manager Cui? Team Leader Cui?"

Fainting dead away, Cui Li flops to the ground, and the press conference descends into chaos.

Qiu Fei frowns minutely.

 

 

It takes three knocks before Zhang Jiaxing answers his hotel room door. 

Whatever Excellent Era’s Cleric finds reflected in Qiu Fei’s face, he allows his junior inside without a word.

Zhang Jiaxing is already wearing his pajamas, but the tight, pinched edges of his mouth and the tense lines at the corners of his eyes suggest that Zhang Jiaxing won’t be sleeping much tonight.

At his senior’s gesture, Qiu Fei takes a seat on the bed. 

Even after Qiu Fei has settled himself, Zhang Jiaxing doesn’t move from where he’s standing in the middle of his hotel room. He seems tired, and perhaps a little lost. The longer Zhang Jiaxing searches Qiu Fei’s face, the more resigned he seems.

Qiu Fei can’t sit still anymore. He has to know the truth. “Will you tell me what happened when Ye Xiu left Excellent Era?”

Zhang Jiaxing bows his head. He is Excellent Era's healer. When Ye Xiu led the team in battle, how many times had Ye Xiu’s One Autumn Leaf rescued him? Watching Lord Grim bravely charge forward today reminded him of when Ye Xiu was Excellent Era’s captain, and of the countless times Zhang Jiaxing’s Cleric had been protected by him.

Su Mucheng had been right when she said that Excellent Era’s players feared Ye Xiu because they felt guilty. 

Zhang Jiaxing makes a decision. “I’ll tell you more than that,” he promises, raising his chin. “I’ll tell you everything.” 

Zhang Jiaxing does not spare himself in the retelling. What Excellent Era did to Ye Xiu wasn’t as simple as a single terrible night, but entire seasons of management-encouraged disrespect and disobedience, building to outright team sabotage. The whole story is laid out for Qiu Fei. Ye Xiu’s increasing estrangement, disregard and isolation from his team under the direction of Liu Hao and his upper management backers. Excellent Era’s players gradually ignoring Ye Xiu’s orders during matches, so Ye Xiu would be blamed for making the wrong call and Excellent Era could blacken his reputation, placing the responsibility for Excellent Era’s decline on its captain’s shoulders when it hadn’t been his fault at all. 

But Ye Xiu’s last night at Excellent Era had been the cruelest. Called in without warning, Ye Xiu was smugly informed of his replacement, insulted, forced into a corner, and left with no option but retirement as One Autumn Leaf was callously ripped away.

By the end of Zhang Jiaxing’s story, Qiu Fei has drawn his knees up, hiding his burning eyes in the soft fabric of his uniform.

Excellent Era wanted to give up on Ye Xiu, but they were afraid Ye Xiu would be a threat to them after becoming an opponent. So Excellent Era had tried to destroy their captain by denying him the one thing he loved unreservedly.

Qiu Fei’s shoulders shake.

But the cost they paid was far higher than expected: Excellent Era’s players had forgotten how to work together. Excellent Era took more than they were given, and the situation had spiraled out of control.

Now Excellent Era itself might cease to exist.

Qiu Fei’s uneven breaths sound too much like sobs.

“Thank you, senior,” he says when his voice is mostly steady. 

“I think you deserved to know a long time ago,” Zhang Jiaxing confesses. He’s sat down next to Qiu Fei on the bed; now he places a hand lightly on his junior’s shoulder.

“Excellent Era could have destroyed the captain's abilities as a shotcaller,” Qiu Fei says after he’s thought a little more. 

More than a year of everyone blaming Ye Xiu whenever a team battle went wrong. Even though Ye Xiu had known it wasn’t his fault, even the strongest conviction might begin to waver, and hesitation is an unforgivable mistake for a shotcaller.

If Ye Xiu’s self-confidence wasn’t so astoundingly secure, if he’d begun to doubt himself... not only his shotcalling, Excellent Era could have very possibly ruined Ye Xiu’s ability to lead a team at all.

“I know,” Zhang Jiaxing answers, mirroring Qiu Fei and drawing his knees up. How could Excellent Era’s players fail to understand the possible consequences for their captain? Even now, Zhang Jiaxing doesn’t make excuses. 

Could Excellent Era’s players have refused to go along with management? 

Yes. But what good would it have done?

Pro players are easily replaceable. There are always far fewer spots available on a pro team than the number of eager players waiting to fill them. In that kind of situation, if one player refused to follow Excellent Era’s designs against Ye Xiu, then management could always find a replacement willing to put aside their scruples and cooperate.

Perhaps if the whole team had revolted, there might have been a chance. But Zhang Jiaxing has always felt that Liu Hao behaved a little too enthusiastically when working against Ye Xiu. Unity may have been an impossible goal.

Zhang Jiaxing himself had debuted in Season Five. Ask a young player to go against their whole team? Was there anything more daunting? He wasn’t a god, and he wasn’t famous. He was only one person. A few words in the right ears from Excellent Era’s management, and Zhang Jiaxing would have found himself blacklisted from every team in the league. 

Going public and sounding the alarm himself? What proof did he have? Excellent Era had been careful. Nothing was written down, or said outright. Management carefully toed the line, going no further than hinting or suggesting, letting people like Chen Yehui and Liu Hao do the dirty work while keeping themselves clean and escaping any blame. 

If anyone had talked to the press, Excellent Era would have played the part of the outraged, heartbroken victim. How could their team’s players behave so disgustingly? Naturally, they would have to make certain those rogues were punished using the greatest harshness the league would allow. Even if the public, by some miracle, believed in Excellent Era’s guilt, the player who reported them would end up with no place in the pro league. No one wanted a troublemaker on their team.

Fighting Excellent Era for Ye Xiu’s sake would have cost the club almost nothing. But it would have cost that righteous player everything

These were all calculations that Zhang Jiaxing had made - that all of Excellent Era’s players had made - when weighing the situation. 

But that didn’t make what they had done right. Zhang Jiaxing is clear on this point. 

Does he regret his choice now? No. He would never have been able to continue as a pro player if he hadn’t gone along with the club’s demands. Asking him to sacrifice his career for someone else’s? Zhang Jiaxing isn’t that good of a person.

He looks at the young junior beside him, who even now seems stricken. Would Qiu Fei have made the same choice? Qiu Fei, who everyone could tell loved and revered Glory, and who chased victory with a terrifying single-minded determination? 

Somehow, Zhang Jiaxing doubts it. Instead of causing him resentment, that thought comforts him.

“Thank you again, Senior. I’ll let you rest now,” Qiu Fei says, staggering as he slides off the bed. 

As Qiu Fei scrubs his sleeve across his face, fine tremors shake his hands. Naturally, he understands the balance of power between a club and its players. So this was part of the reason why Ye Xiu had always remained silent while Excellent Era continued smearing him - to protect the careers of his former teammates. This was also a way that Ye Xiu had chosen to protect Excellent Era.

So Qiu Fei won’t say anything either. He will keep his silence.

“Thank you, Qiu Fei,” Zhang Jiaxing says from behind him as his hand touches the door.

“Senior?” he questions, voice scratching rough in his throat. 

When he glances over his shoulder, Zhang Jiaxing doesn’t seem quite as resigned as before. He even manages a tiny smile at Qiu Fei. “I’m glad we could talk,” he says.

“You’re welcome, Senior,” he replies, though he still doesn’t understand what he’s done.

When Qiu Fei makes it back to his own room, it’s already long past midnight. Leaning his back against the door, he wonders if Team Happy is still out celebrating their victory.

Eventually, Qiu Fei goes to bed. But he cannot fall asleep, and he lays dreamless until sunrise.

 

 

Team Excellent Era’s return to their club passes within a cloud of absolute silence. It follows the players home, then spreads out and swallows the whole building, settling in place and sticking low like stagnant smog. The invisible weight presses down on everyone - from the managers in their high offices to the lowly trainees down in the basement - muffling footsteps, choking speech, stifling laughter. 

Before the team even landed in City H this morning, Club Excellent Era’s spokesman had suddenly announced the club will no longer be answering inquiries from the media. Everyone working on the lower floors knows it isn’t because the club is busy, but because Excellent Era has something to hide. But no matter how much they whisper, no one seems to know what those dangerous secrets are. God Ye’s sudden retirement had stunned everyone, but no one had questioned it at the time because the team was playing so badly. 

Excellent Era’s workers were already worrying whether Excellent Era could survive another year in the Challenger League. Enduring that catastrophe a second time is more than enough to deal with. But knowing that another disaster could arrive with the next news report? 

Already shaken by the team’s loss in the finals, Excellent Era’s hidden misdeeds paralyze their employees. Everyone works half-heartedly that day, or barely works at all. What does it matter? If the club fails, will they even have these jobs anymore? The entire world inside Excellent Era’s walls seems frozen in fearful anticipation of a storm.

The storm breaks in the next morning’s news.

High-resolution photos of former captain Ye Xiu’s tiny storage room bed at Happy Internet Cafe dominate the news websites. The headlines are filled with the shocking story of how Glory’s oldest and greatest god was forced to work as an internet cafe night manager to support himself after leaving his former club. 

Was this really the fate of the first generation God who built Excellent Era's dynasty and made the title of Battle God resound throughout Glory?

Was this what Excellent Era’s founder and captain, who had poured sweat and tears into taking the team to its pinnacle, got for all his hard work after retirement? 

While most of Excellent Era’s people are stunned, Qiu Fei already knew enough of the story that the news doesn’t paralyze him. Zhang Jiaxing explained an open secret among most older members of the pro circle: Ye Xiu doesn’t have anything left from his championship prize money. Ye Xiu’s championship winnings had all been given away to retiring early generation pros who’d ended up in bad situations. 

As for the rest of Ye Xiu’s financial circumstances, Zhang Jiaxing couldn’t explain clearly. But Excellent Era must have known Ye Xiu’s situation better than anyone, and they used that knowledge like a weapon against him. Ye Xiu had been left with no choice except retirement because he couldn’t afford to cancel his contract. 

But the pictures of Ye Xiu’s tiny storage room make everything feel real, adding missing details to Qiu Fei’s imagined scene of that night. It feels like being punched in the gut, everything flooding back into his mind again. 

Qiu Fei isn’t the only one with reddened eyes when he leaves his room this morning. The big websites and internet celebrities are all reposting the story, and Weibo is flooded with reactions to the news. There are people openly crying in the halls as Qiu Fei slips out to get breakfast, and even more wearing regretful and sorrowful expressions.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ye Xiu is the foundation of Club Excellent Era’s prosperity. His overwhelming strength and three championships are the reason Excellent Era still occupies a position as a powerhouse even after falling into the Challenger League. That gratitude was the reason why many people inside the club had taken it extremely badly when Ye Xiu had brought Team Happy to fight them.

Now, everything they thought they understood is reversed. Ye Xiu had worked hard as a professional gamer for seven years and stood as one of the Alliance’s peak gods. Though he refused all business related matters, his salary shouldn’t have been so low he was forced into such dire circumstances. Even an ace in a strong ex-pro team can get a few hundred thousand yuan a year! So why was Excellent Era’s former captain working in an internet cafe, and living in a doghouse? 

Many of Excellent Era’s workers are forced to conclude that their club has deeply wronged their former captain. Otherwise, how could such a terrible thing occur?

Others remain silent, not knowing what to believe, or hoping things aren’t as simple as they seem. They want their former captain and their team to still hold love for one another, but suspect in their hearts this is no longer true.

Some remain doubtful. Ye Xiu, in this situation after retirement? This can't be true. Are you sure this isn’t just a media scam to drive up traffic?

A few - mostly those who cursed Ye Xiu the most fiercely - continue insisting that Ye Xiu is to blame, and claim he’s trying to gain pity and tarnish Excellent Era’s name.

But almost no one pays attention to those rabble-rousers. Excellent Era’s workers aren’t like the fans outside, who only know Ye Xiu through his matches. Many of them have worked at Excellent Era for years, and knew God Ye personally. 

What their captain is like, they understand better than any of those journalists. Ye Xiu never held himself above the club’s ordinary employees, and he never caused them trouble. He talked more trash than anyone, but he seriously and carefully faced his responsibilities. Who among them hadn’t come across Ye Xiu working hard after hours, long after everyone else had gone to rest?

Every word they said against him in the last year now burns in their mouths. All the times they condemned him for betraying Excellent Era have turned into the guilt weighing on them now.

Before ten in the morning, fans begin gathering around the club to protest. By noon, the crowd is massive. All sorts of chants and signs are employed requesting that the club end their silence and give an explanation.

But nothing happens. The secretaries report that Boss Tao and the higher-ups remain closeted away in unending emergency meetings, but no announcements or attempts to calm the situation result. There aren’t even any internal communications sent to help the workers understand the club’s actions. Everyone downstairs has to endure the angry shouts and noise from outside with an unclear understanding of the situation. 

In that unending, tense afternoon silence, Qiu Fei turns to Glory. Opening his laptop, he hopes to find some respite inside the game.

But the forums are full of tearful apologies to Ye Xiu and hateful denunciations of Excellent Era. Angry fans rant even against the club in Glory’s global chat. Qiu Fei logs out even more distressed than before. 

All the fans agree: Excellent Era has betrayed their captain.

But had Excellent Era truly betrayed Ye Xiu?

From the fans’ point of view, the answer is undoubtedly yes. But at the same time, in Qiu Fei’s heart, Excellent Era has never betrayed Ye Xiu at all.

Qiu Fei is part of Excellent Era. Does that mean Qiu Fei is Excellent Era?

Of course not! Excellent Era is bigger than one single player.

Then what if you gathered up the pro team, the trainees and supervisors in the training camp, all the guild employees, the entire silver equipment research department, and every last janitor, cafeteria worker, accountant, security guard, administrator, marketer, manager, and Boss Tao himself? Is that Excellent Era?

Closer, but still too narrow a concept. Those people are Excellent Era only in the shallowest sense. Excellent Era is more than that - more than just the people who work there, or the building they use, or the accounts the team owns. 

Excellent Era is made of the dreams of everyone who has ever considered themselves part of Excellent Era and of everyone in the future who will proudly carry their name. It is a young boy watching a god win his third championship, and it is the team’s victories yet to come.

In Qiu Fei’s heart exists this intangible icon. This is the Excellent Era he believes in - the legacy of those who had handed over their youth, had believed in that red leaf symbol, and had sacrificed and carried their team to victory.

This is the Excellent Era painstakingly taught to Qiu Fei by Ye Xiu, and this is the Excellent Era Ye Xiu was willing to remain with until the end.

Wholeheartedly spit on Excellent Era and abandon it?

That isn’t what Ye Xiu would want at all! 

Excellent Era’s people had wronged their former captain, but those wrongs shouldn’t destroy Excellent Era itself. If you were sincere when you said you wanted to follow Ye Xiu’s wishes, instead of indulging your own desire to feel outraged or seeking entertainment by adding fuel to the fire, then you ought to support Excellent Era on their difficult path forward.

Ye Xiu had carried Excellent Era on his shoulders for many years, but he was not himself Excellent Era any more than Qiu Fei is Excellent Era.

No one person is Excellent Era. Not even the Battle God. 

Excellent Era is far greater than that. And Excellent Era is worth saving.

(But can Excellent Era be saved?)

 

 

On Monday morning, Qiu Fei enters the team’s practice room at precisely nine AM, the normal start time for training.

Excellent Era hadn’t felt they should give too much importance to winning a mere Challenger League championship, so their players had only been scheduled for two days off to celebrate. The club had held such great ambitions, but all of them were directed toward the pro league itself. In hindsight, their actions reflect their hubris.

Qiu Fei waits half an hour in an empty room. No one else comes.

Alone, he returns to his room. 

Esports Home’s Monday issue has published their report on Ye Xiu’s destitute circumstances after leaving Excellent Era. Qiu Fei taps through a few links before putting his phone aside. As the Glory scene’s first great scandal, the news hasn’t died down at all, but grown larger and gained more significance now that the circle’s most reputable outlet has confirmed the story. 

Excellent Era’s fans continue protesting outside the club. The crowd sounds even larger today now that their anger has been legitimized. Qiu Fei can hear them through the walls no matter where he goes inside the club.

He spends most of the day inside his room again, receiving regular updates about management’s lack of action through the dungeon group chat. Except for Zhu Jingyu, a City H native who refused to move into the dorms, everyone lives in the club building. Under the terrible pressure bearing down on the whole club, none of them have the heart to meet up even though they’re all trapped inside while the protests go on.

They aren’t the only ones. Qiu Fei has hardly seen his teammates. As for Su Mucheng, she stayed in City B with Team Happy. 

Qiu Fei misses her.

 

 

The protests continue every day. The clash of silence inside, and noise outside their walls leaves the whole club on edge. 

Excellent Era is still neglecting public relations. They haven’t even made a single move to soothe the situation. Many people inside the club have sensed something strange from Excellent Era's inaction. Going silent and hiding away from the public makes the club seem like a guilty coward in the eyes of the people. It’s the last thing management should be doing right now. So what’s going on?

The tension in the air tightens another notch.

 

 

On Wednesday morning, news spreads inside Excellent Era that the higher-ups ordered a secretary to book their plane tickets to City S. 

City S is the home of Club Samsara. There can only be one reason why Excellent Era is reaching out to other teams when they ought to be doing damage control. All this time, the higher-ups haven’t been salvaging the situation - they’ve been planning to sell the club!

When he receives the news, Qiu Fei closes his eyes, feeling a dull pain in his chest like a knife to the heart. So this is what things have come to.

But all hope hasn’t been lost. Perhaps Excellent Era can find a new buyer, one who’ll restore Excellent Era to its former glory.

However, it isn't easy to find someone willing to accept the current Excellent Era.

Since they haven’t made any attempt to soothe public relations, Excellent Era’s name has been completely tarnished. Not even their glorious dynasty of the past can uphold their reputation. If their name being dragged through the dirt isn’t enough, they still don’t have the qualifications to compete in the Pro League either. This makes acquiring the club more risky for potential buyers.

Disregarding these difficulties, Excellent Era’s facilities, accounts, and silver equipment rank among the best in the league, and this further complicates selling the club. Because of the high quality and large quantity of their hardware, this makes the cost to acquire the team very high. 

But the money-making potential of a team lies in the willingness of their fans to spend money: to drive ticket sales, purchase memorabilia, and tempt sponsors to seek the team out. For a businessman, this draw truly represents the value of the two words "Excellent Era." 

Now that Excellent Era’s popularity and fan support are in ruins, no one will want to buy a team the public won’t hand over their money to, especially since the price will be set high because of their high-quality hardware. In short, the current Excellent Era represents a high-cost, low profit investment.

As for Excellent Era’s valuable hardware, if anyone wants it, they won’t have to purchase the club to seek out what they need. With Excellent Era and Samsara already in negotiations, Excellent Era has made very clear they’ll be opening a clearance sale preceding their disbandment.

After being dismantled like this, can Excellent Era still stay alive?

Qiu Fei doesn’t know.

 

 

June 7th, the last day of the regular season. On this day, Excellent Era holds their first press conference since the end of the Challenger League and confirms the club itself is up for sale. The spokesman uses all kinds of nice words, but the intent is clear: Boss Tao Xuan intends to jump ship.

Inside the club, the overwhelming feeling is anger. Excellent Era could endure this crisis, but the higher-ups don’t even plan to try. Management had brought this situation to such a disastrous state in the first place because they’d sat on their hands and done nothing except protect themselves! The team’s pro players may be able to find another place, but what about the rest of the club? They’ll all be losing their jobs!

For the first time in days, the halls aren’t quiet. The workers come out of their rooms and cubicles and studios, gesturing and talking in low undertones. Their dissatisfaction is palpable.

More fan protesters arrive outside, hurried and unprepared this time, to demand that the team not be sold. This is completely irrational, of course. Do they think just because they ask, Tao Xuan will change his mind? 

Qiu Fei doesn’t judge them too harshly. Even if it’s a pointless, useless action, sometimes that’s all you can do.

The next morning, Qiu Fei goes to the team practice room at precisely nine AM, opens a computer, loads Combat Form, and begins his daily training.

 

 

On days without team practice, the dungeon group maintains an unofficial rotation where they take turns prying Zeng Shenghe off his computer and into minimal human contact. Their eldest member always remembers to eat and sleep, but going too many days without talking to another human face-to-face is, they had all agreed, not ideal.

Qiu Fei and Zeng Shenghe are eating lunch in companionable silence when Bai Shengxian comes tearing through the cafeteria toward them.

 “Did you hear?” Bai Shengxian asks, pitching his tone low and bracing his hands on the table to lean forward toward Qiu Fei and Zeng Shenghe. Qiu Fei pauses and looks up. Zeng Shenghe scoots back slightly, blinking through the thick lenses of his glasses at this sudden interloper.

Not waiting for a response, Bai Shengxian continues, “Old Wang got called upstairs this morning! Word is that he stole some important club papers!”

“Old Wang?” Zeng Shenghe mutters to himself.

“The janitor who cleans the practice rooms,” Qiu Fei explains, brow furrowing. Old Wang was one of the people who’d often played Glory with Ye Xiu. “I can’t imagine him stealing anything. Who did you hear this from?”

Lowering his voice even further, Bai Shengxian darts a nervous glance behind him. “Yang Ruilin. I don’t know where that guy gets his sources and I’m too afraid to ask, but he’s always right.”

“Anyway,” he hastily changes the subject, “Nothing happened to Old Wang. They let him go after questioning him a bit. He couldn’t have done anything on his own anyway, he doesn’t have access to any files.”

Qiu Fei relaxes, remembering the nice man who always looked the other way when he’d stayed late practicing. 

Just then, all three of their phones ding. Look at the news, Qiu Fei reads, and thumbs onto his news app.

“Holy shit,” breathes Bai Shengxian. Behind his glasses, Zeng Shenghe’s eyes have gone wide.

Someone’s leaked all of Ye Xiu’s pro contracts online.

Everything is quite normal, until you reach the parts detailing compensation, and realize the three contracts are identical. 

They shouldn’t be. 

Excellent Era had renewed Ye Xiu’s contract every three years. In the early seasons, player income wasn’t much. Without sponsors, they could barely afford to pay their players the equivalent of a normal job. But once the Alliance’s growth and revenue exploded, the value of talented players has increased many times over. Annual income for All-star level players is now in the millions. 

But Ye Xiu...From the day Ye Xiu had joined Excellent Era to the day he left, their captain had never been paid more than the pitiful salary he’d received the first season he played, while his contemporary Han Wenqing had been drawing the highest salary in the Alliance at a hefty ten million yuan a year.

Qiu Fei covers his face with his hands. Even the weakest substitute player had been better-paid than the Battle God. All the money that Ye Xiu had earned Club Excellent Era over the past eight years, and they couldn’t even pay him fairly in exchange? 

But Qiu Fei knows Ye Xiu wouldn’t care about the money. What haunts Qiu Fei is that even if Ye Xiu had saved every yuan of his eight years of salary, he still wouldn’t have been able to pay the penalty fee for breaking his contract. There had never been any avenue of escape from his forced retirement that would’ve allowed Ye Xiu to keep playing Glory. He’d been trapped from the beginning.

And Excellent Era had known this. Had probably engineered it.

Qiu Fei had thought he was done being disappointed in his team.

 

 

Like a robot on autopilot, Qiu Fei passes his days in an unchanging cycle of practice and sleep, sleep and practice. 

He stops reading the news, except to check if anyone will purchase Excellent Era.

But no one offers. Excellent Era’s own people have lost faith in their team - why would an outsider still believe in them?

Qiu Fei keenly feels time slipping away. The more time that passes, the less likely rescue becomes. Every hour that passes is an hour closer to Excellent Era’s dissolution. 

Wrapped up in Excellent Era’s looming disaster, he honestly forgets about the Alliance’s customary new teams press conference until he opens his phone one morning to see his captain’s name in the headlines again.

‘Ye Xiu: I'm Back,’ he reads across all the major media outlets. Yes, that’s the kind of simple statement his captain would make. Did any more words need to be used to express his return to the pro alliance?

Qiu Fei keeps scrolling through the numerous Team Happy related headlines, until his fingers stiffen, brushing the black-and-white script of ‘Excellent Era's ex-captain strikes back, condemning Excellent Era's boss, Tao Xuan, for abandoning Excellent Era!’

Frantically, Qiu Fei searches for video of the press conference. When he finds the recording, he puts in his earbuds and sits down on his bed, leaning against his pillow, skipping through the preliminaries.

"I want to direct this question to Captain Ye Xiu,” says a reporter. Qiu Fei pauses, finger hovering over the skip button.  “As Excellent Era's ex-captain, I trust you've heard of the recent news that Excellent Era is being sold. What thoughts do you have on this?"

Qiu Fei’s breath hitches.

On the screen, Ye Xiu doesn’t hesitate, speaking steadily. "I believe that Excellent Era won't fall just because of this. Excellent Era has a shining future ahead of them."

The reporter retorts, "But from the current situation, Excellent Era is likely to be disbanded and cleared out in a sale. The name Excellent Era might cease to exist.”

Ye Xiu smiles. "With so many people who care for and love Excellent Era out there, do you really think that the name Excellent Era would cease to exist? I believe that a successor to Excellent Era will appear. Excellent Era won't crumble because of one man's decision. This is because Excellent Era isn't an asset to be sold, but a mindset, even a culture. It exists within the hearts of everyone who cares about and loves Excellent Era. They are the true people of Excellent Era. This is something that no one can sell. So long as they exist, Excellent Era will never fall."

Sitting on his bed, Qiu Fei breaks down, cradling his phone to his chest. The words he’s been wanting to hear for so long, Ye Xiu has spoken them all. As if his teacher’s hand is resting on his shoulder one last time, Ye Xiu has given Qiu Fei one final gift.

After a long time, once he’s cried out his fear and pain and gratitude, Qiu Fei wipes his face and rewatches his captain’s words again, until his heart remembers them.

So long as Excellent Era's spirit lives on, Team Excellent Era will continue to endure. If worst comes to worst, they can always copy Happy and create an Internet cafe, rising back up as a grassroots team. They won’t have Excellent Era's ace accounts or ace players, but they’ll have Excellent Era's spirit. So long as they have that, they are Excellent Era.

 

 

Like a miracle, Excellent Era revives. 

During Team Happy’s press conference, Ye Xiu singled out Boss Tao Xuan’s decision to sell the club as a betrayal of the club’s spirit. “Excellent Era will never fall, but some people already have,” their captain had pronounced.

Within the day, the signs plastered all over Club Excellent Era's walls and held up in the hands of their protesting fans change from ‘Stop the sale of Excellent Era’ to ‘Get out of here, Tao Xuan!’ 

Excellent Era’s fans now have a target. Don’t the boss’ orders control the actions of the club? If Excellent Era’s people committed wrongs, then Boss Tao Xuan is the cause responsible. Their team hasn’t betrayed them, it’s one person and his control bringing the whole club down with him! 

Beg for Excellent Era to not be sold? No such person ever appears again. Thanks to their captain, they’ve already realized that Excellent Era’s sale won’t cause it to collapse. But if Tao Xuan is allowed to continue his ways, then Excellent Era's name will be forever tarnished.

Excellent Era belongs to everyone, but it’s nothing except fixed assets in Tao Xuan's hands. This is Excellent Era's physical form, but not its soul.

Where is Excellent Era’s soul? Its soul resides in the hearts of all its fans. 

Unable to tolerate their team’s shocking scandals, many fans had given up on Excellent Era. However, with the fresh news, their sorrow and disappointment turns to anger. Loyalty once again reignited, they gather together in person and on the web to protect their team. Excellent Era’s fans condemn Tao Xuan while calling for someone who truly loves Glory and Team Excellent Era to take over. 

The fans are always the greatest wealth a team has. No one had been willing to buy Excellent Era in full because the team had lost the support of their fans. Yet now, the fans have saved themselves and their team by coming out to support Excellent Era once again. With their protection, Excellent Era can rise again from nothing and be reborn.

Qiu Fei will need to be ready. When Excellent Era returns, he’ll be there.

 

 

The door to the Excellent Era’s practice room is half-closed this morning. 

After days of seeing no one but himself use the training center, Qiu Fei’s curiosity is piqued. Hearing the sound of voices, he pushes the door open and walks in.

As if he’d never left, Qiu Fei’s captain is standing in the center of Excellent Era’s practice room, a lit cigarette between his slender fingers.

Seeing Ye Xiu, Qiu Fei is startled. "Senior..." He breathes in, and the comforting scent of cheap tobacco fills his nose.

After a moment of surprise, Ye Xiu smiles lazily. "It's been awhile, Xiao Fei."

Part of Qiu Fei desperately wants to rush to his teacher, to reach out and seek the support he’s always received from this familiar person, to pour out his worries and ask all the things he’s wanted to know.

But that’s too selfish.

Ye Xiu has given enough to Qiu Fei, and to Excellent Era. Their paths diverged long ago, and they will never rejoin again. To relentlessly demand anything more from Ye Xiu would hold both teacher and student back, and only add to Ye Xiu’s burden. 

Ye Xiu doesn’t owe anything more to Qiu Fei or to his former team. It’s Excellent Era that owes him too much. Qiu Fei cannot ask anything else of him.

Letting go still hurts.

Gradually, Qiu Fei realizes that Ye Xiu isn’t alone. Tao Xuan is here too, seated at a computer displaying the arena defeat screen and smoking a cigarette of his own. Qiu Fei wrinkles his eyebrows at the two of them: "No smoking is allowed in the practice room."

No smoking is allowed in the practice room? The two stare blankly. Yes, those are club rules, but at this moment, who cares if you follow the rules or not?

One person is the boss of the club. The other is the team's former captain. Both of them slowly put down the cigarette in their mouth. 

Afterwards, they watch as Qiu Fei walks to his usual seat and sits down. He logs into the computer and then begins practicing.

Practice?

Ye Xiu looks at the clock in the practice room: 9 AM. Yes, this is when Team Excellent Era would start practicing in the morning. Usually, the morning was targeted tech practice through a customized practice routine. In the afternoon, they would start practicing Glory for real. Qiu Fei is currently doing this morning routine, despite not knowing if Team Excellent Era even exists anymore.

Ye Xiu is stunned for a long time. Finally, he lets out a smile. Getting up, he leaves the practice room. 

As for Tao Xuan, he just watches as Qiu Fei practices with single-hearted devotion for a long, long time.

 

 

Late that night, Qiu Fei runs into Xiao Shiqin making tea in the cafeteria kitchen. He’d stayed up practicing, mind full of his encounter with Ye Xiu, until good sense told him he needed to stop. Still restless with his desire to play, Qiu Fei hadn’t been able to sleep. Neither could Xiao Shiqin, it seems.

Xiao Shiqin has his hands cupped around his mug, staring at the pale gold liquid with his glasses fogged over. It hasn’t even been a month since the end of the Challenger League Finals and Xiao Shiqin already seems to have gotten thinner.

“Vice-captain Xiao?” Qiu Fei keeps his voice low, unsure if he’s disturbing his senior.

Xiao Shiqin looks up. Technically, his one-year contract with Excellent Era has ended, so Qiu Fei is being especially respectful by continuing to call him vice-captain. “Come in, Xiao Qiu,” he invites with weariness in his tone, taking off his glasses to rub his eyes tiredly.

Quietly accepting the invitation, Qiu Fei comes in and gets a glass of water, then puts it into the microwave to heat it.

“Have you decided what you want to do next?” Xiao Shiqin asks suddenly over the hum of the microwave. “I heard Tiny Herb sent someone to negotiate your transfer today.”

Qiu Fei gives a light shake of his head. “Excellent Era is my home. As long as there’s a place for me, I’ll stay.” 

Xiao Shiqin goes back to staring at his tea, a desolate look in his eyes. 

The microwave beeps and Qiu Fei removes his warm water. He hesitates as he’s about to leave. “Senior, have you decided where you’ll go next?”

Xiao Shiqin won’t stay at Excellent Era. The Challenger League is a waste of his abilities and his limited time as a pro player, but there’s been much speculation about where he’ll choose to go.

“I don’t know,” Xiao Shiqin replies. He’d come to Excellent Era with his eyes set on the future, believing this was his path to his dream of a championship. He had sacrificed a year and made a resolute decision. However, he had completely failed. Their defeat in the Challenger League wasn't a small blow for Xiao Shiqin. A loss in tactics as much as skill, it has shaken his confidence.

Qiu Fei doesn’t think he’s qualified to advise anyone about their career choices. His stubborn rejection of a champion powerhouse team like Tiny Herb would be incomprehensible to most people. Normal pros dreamed of receiving offers like that, yet Qiu Fei had refused without hesitating.

So Qiu Fei doesn’t pursue the matter any further, just nods, adding, “If you have some time before you leave, I’d like to review my match against Ye Xiu.” 

He’s careful to frame his request as conditional and limited to his personal performance only. The team’s loss in the Challenger League is a sensitive topic, and Qiu Fei is mindful of propriety. Xiao Shiqin isn’t technically part of Excellent Era any longer, and there are requests Qiu Fei can make of a teammate that would be inappropriate toward a competitor. The new distance between them feels unpleasantly wide.

Making a noise of assent, Xiao Shiqin wishes him a good night. Qiu Fei slips out into the dark hallway.

 

 

Twenty-eight million, and One Autumn Leaf belongs to Samsara. 

Qiu Fei had thought he’d been prepared. He’d thought he’d already cried enough. But this is the last physical piece of Ye Xiu at Excellent Era, this card their captain loved and treasured and how it must have torn at him to leave it behind. 

The swipe of a pen, and just like that, the Battle God will also leave Excellent Era behind.

This is also part of pro-level competition. Qiu Fei knows this.

It doesn’t help.

 

 

Sun Xiang is the first player to leave Excellent Era, but Qiu Fei knows he won’t be the last. When Sun Xiang seeks his former shadow out before leaving, Qiu Fei is surprised, but not as surprised as he once would have been. Sun Xiang has been different since his loss in the finals.

Excellent Era’s once-captain stands in the door of Qiu Fei’s room, shifting uneasily from one foot to the other with his hands jammed in his pockets, seemingly at a loss over what to do with himself.

“I wasn’t a very good partner for you, was I?” Sun Xiang finally speaks.

Qiu Fei looks at this tall, foolish senior who has his head ducked low and his shoulders hunched, and finds Sun Xiang a little silly - perhaps even pitiful.

Then Qiu Fei remembers how startled he was when Sun Xiang didn’t reprimand him for ‘getting in his way’ during Excellent Era’s final team battle, and all the missed opportunities of the last year come rushing back to him.

Qiu Fei is polite. But he is not necessarily kind. “Sun Xiang,” he calls out - not captain, nor senior.

Sun Xiang startles, and involuntarily looks Qiu Fei in the eye.

Qiu Fei waits until their gazes are anchored to one another, and then when Sun Xiang can’t tear himself free he replies evenly, “Sun Xiang, I would have liked to be your partner.”

And then he waits while Sun Xiang thinks it through, until Sun Xiang understands that Qiu Fei means they were never partners, not once, and Sun Xiang rears back as if he’s been slapped, eyes wide.

“Nevertheless, I have learned much from you,” Qiu Fei continues, without losing his calm tone. “And I thank you for that. Captain Ye always spoke highly of Captain Zhou. I hope that Samsara gives you what you’re looking for.”

Qiu Fei waits for the bravado, for the angry rebuttal. But Sun Xiang simply stands there, looking lost.

Deciding that Sun Xiang can do as he likes, Qiu Fei continues working on the exercises his tutors have assigned. When he looks up again, Sun Xiang is gone.

 

 

Upon receiving a message from Xiao Shiqin inquiring whether Qiu Fei is free in the afternoon, a hopeful guess arises in Qiu Fei’s mind.

When he enters the conference room and sees Xiao Shiqin smiling for the first time in weeks, Qiu Fei’s spirits lift and an answering smile appears on his face. 

“Senior, you’ve decided what you’re going to do?” he asks, sliding into a seat.

Lacing his fingers together, Xiao Shiqin smiles again, watching Qiu Fei conspiratorially over his glasses. “I have. I’m going home.”

“To Thunderclap?” Qiu Fei is surprised for a moment, then warm understanding fills his chest. Many people will see Xiao Shiqin’s return as a loss of courage, or admitting his decision was wrong. But Qiu Fei doesn’t see it that way at all. Xiao Shiqin is just going where he knows he belongs.

“I’ll be leaving in the next few days. Thunderclap is also negotiating for Zhang Jiaxing’s transfer. Our former Cleric retired at the end of the season.”

It’s a good move to strengthen their team. Zhang Jiaxing is a strong player, and Thunderclap has a rare opportunity to acquire a powerhouse team’s healer cheaply because of Excellent Era’s sale. 

Qiu Fei smiles genuinely. “I’m glad he’ll be going with you. Senior Zhang deserves to go somewhere he’ll be treated well.”

“You’re still set on Excellent Era?” Xiao Shiqin asks without censure.

“As long as I can.”

His senior nods with respect. “Then we’d better review our last match. We’ve put it off long enough.”

They turn on the conference room’s projector to watch - and rewatch - the entire finals match. 

Xiao Shiqin must have reviewed it himself dozens of times before. He knows down to the second where each matchup begins, and he drags out a brand new notebook half-filled with notes for the team match alone.

While Xiao Shiqin does most of the talking, Qiu Fei will interject with questions, or the occasional observation. There’s a pleasant familiarity in the routine. When Xiao Shiqin invested so much effort into training Qiu Fei as a Shadow, hadn’t there been many similar afternoons and evenings?

Both of them recognize how this will be the last time.

This final session feels like Xiao Shiqin is trying to teach Qiu Fei as much as possible in one shot. He’ll often use mistakes to segue into more general advice, or he’ll switch to other match recordings to provide extra examples. They discuss numerous hypothetical scenarios, wander off on tangents, and have a long, detailed discussion about their impressions of facing an Unspecialized. 

Their review lasts through the afternoon, spills over into the evening after they order takeout, and finally trails to a finish after nightfall.

“You know, I came to Excellent Era because I thought Thunderclap couldn’t bring me a championship,” Xiao Shiqin confesses as they watch the team battle again. 

It deserves to be replayed this many times; it’s a beautiful, tangled net of Ye Xiu’s tactics, one long string of the first Master Tactician’s intent guiding his opponents from start to finish. Leading a grassroots team, Ye Xiu displays more complex strategies than he did with Excellent Era, showing here the craftiness of small teams, and there the oppressiveness of top teams.

Qiu Fei glances at his senior out of the corner of his eye.

Xiao Shiqin absently touches his notebook, eyes on the video but mind elsewhere. “I thought I needed an ace player, or a god-level account to win. But Ye Xiu didn’t think he needed any of that. He spent an entire year preparing for this match, and Happy is the one who won a championship.”

Xiao Shiqin laughs, and scrubs his eyes under his glasses. “I was the weak point he took advantage of. You know, I realize now that I never really believed in my teammates or myself. Was the thing holding me back from victory always me?”

On screen, Xiao Shiqin’s Life Extinguisher is ordering Qiu Fei to retreat after the two of them pursued the harassing Dawn Rifle.

Qiu Fei's Combat Form visibly hesitates for a moment, but obeys the order nonetheless.

Gesturing at the projector screen, Xiao Shiqin says, “Your estimation of the situation was correct. I was acting too hesitantly and wasted an opportunity. Even though Excellent Era was outnumbered, because of the greater strength of our players and characters, we wouldn’t have needed to escape. Reinforcements would have arrived if we’d held out a bit longer, so Happy wouldn't have attacked too rashly. By retreating, I allowed Happy to fight fiercely without having to worry.”

“You realized the problem as soon as Zhang Jiaxing spoke up,” Qiu Fei replies.

Xiao Shiqin shakes his head. “You grasped the problem before he did. Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Even if the shotcaller is wrong, I think obeying their orders is still the more correct choice in a team battle. An unexpected reaction from a teammate is an opportunity for your opponent,” Qiu Fei answers. 

“A reasonable answer,” Xiao Shiqin says. “But not specific to the situation. Why else?”

“Your experience is much greater than mine. This was my first high level team battle. Assuming my judgement was more correct than yours didn’t seem...” Qiu Fei trails off. 

He is perhaps too accustomed to playing beside Sun Xiang as his shadow. Even when Sun Xiang’s judgement wasn’t accurate, he wouldn’t accept hearing such words from a mere shadow like Qiu Fei.

“I see,” Xiao Shiqin accepts, sparing his junior the need to continue. “Don’t second-guess your judgement, Qiu Fei. Your instincts are good, and you’re naturally thoughtful and meticulous.”

“Thank you, senior,” Qiu Fei replies. Both of them stopped watching the recording long ago, but it keeps playing, throwing flickering light over both teacher and student.

“Truthfully, I always thought it was a shame to use your talent as a shadow,” Xiao Shiqin admits. “But what Excellent Era needs now isn’t a shadow.”

No. What Excellent Era needs now is a core. 

Qiu Fei doesn’t flinch. “I’m willing, Senior.”

Xiao Shiqin feels obligated to point out the difficulty. “It will be a long, arduous road ahead for Excellent Era. You’d have many better opportunities elsewhere.”

“I know. Regardless, I don’t want to leave Excellent Era.”

Xiao Shiqin can’t argue with that. He’s returning to his home too, isn’t he? “Then I wish you luck,” he says, extending his hand.

Qiu Fei reaches out and shakes it firmly. “Thank you.” They both smile. 

“If there’s anything I can help you with in the future, please let me know,” Xiao Shiqin says as the two of them turn off the computer and begin cleaning up. “You have my QQ. Don’t hesitate to use it.”

Qiu Fei nods to acknowledge him.

Taking Qiu Fei by the shoulder until he stops and looks up, Xiao Shiqin says, “When we meet next, we’ll be opponents. But we don’t have to stop caring about other people because we’re on different sides. Don’t forget.”

Qiu Fei breaks into a smile. “I’ll remember, Senior. Thank you for everything.”

On the day Xiao Shiqin returns to Club Thunderclap, Qiu Fei watches the broadcast live. As soon as Thunderclap’s captain sees his teammates and the fans gathered outside the club welcoming his arrival, Xiao Shiqin can’t hold it in anymore, and his tears begin falling onto his glasses. He gets out of the car crying and returns to his old club amidst his fans. 

At long last, Xiao Shiqin has returned home. 

“Good luck, Captain Xiao,” Qiu Fei says respectfully, and turns off the broadcast.

 

 

Crowded into Wen Li’s dorm room, the seven members of Excellent Era’s unofficial dungeon group exchange silent, heavy glances. 

Pro team training camps have always been ephemeral places. People drop out, get promoted, or are traded to teams far away. Pro teams themselves are almost as transient. Your teammate today could be your opponent tomorrow, and pro careers always have expiration dates. 

Everyone present had known their association was temporary. But none of them had expected the bleak finality of being cut off with little hope for the future.

Finally, Wen Li sighs. “My family wants me to come home.”

Yang Ruilin presses his lips together. “Unfortunately, mine as well.” 

“I have ten unread messages from them,” Xie Lianzhi admits, leaning against the wall.

“Same,” mutters Zheng Shenghe from where he’s huddled on the floor, glasses slipping down his nose. 

Qiu Fei tries to remember the last message he received from his parents. He’s not entirely sure they’re aware of Excellent Era’s situation; single-mindedness toward one’s chosen field is a family trait. His parents had never understood his desire to become a pro player, but they hadn’t interfered with his decision. Qiu Fei proved himself responsible and self-motivated at a young age, and his parents have always treated him like an adult. Outside of the occasional message or holiday, he rarely sees or hears from them.

“Then I guess this is it,” Wen Li states with a self-deprecating smile. Except for Qiu Fei, none of the substitutes have received any offers, and they aren’t likely to. Without official match time, they have no public exposure and thus no justification for another team to show interest. 

Leaning back even further, Xie Lianzhi crosses his arms. “It was good while it lasted.” 

Having switched training camps once already, the Striker could try earning a place in another team’s camp. But establishing a place in a new training camp isn’t easy, and newcomers seeking opportunity aren’t welcomed.

“It was too good. That’s why it couldn’t last,” Zhu Jingyu interjects, chin propped up on his fist. His parents pulled him out of the training camp days ago. The pro league is flooded with Sharpshooters, and his skills aren’t outstanding. Excellent Era was probably his only chance of going pro.

In the corner, Zeng Shenghe remains silent, but the depressed air around him deepens. He’s in a similar situation. Elementalists are a common class in pro teams, but a high number of players means more competitors.

Yang Ruilin tsks. “Such a pity. I’ve only just managed to train you into acceptable recipients of my healing.” A healer’s chances are a bit better, but there are still a limited number of spots in the league.

Bai Shengxian turns his head away. He hasn’t spoken a single word to any of them. His Qi Master isn’t pro level, and after six months away from his Battle Mage, his Battle Mage probably isn’t either. Without a buyer for Excellent Era, he’ll never receive another chance at a pro career.

“Excellent Era isn’t finished yet,” Qiu Fei says, raising his voice. The room looks over at him. 

He lifts his chin. “Don’t give up yet. The club can still find a buyer. It will be easier now that some of the pieces are being sold.”

“How likely is that? It’s been such a long time since they announced the club was for sale,” Zhu Jingyu disagrees. 

“It doesn’t matter. I’m staying,” Qiu Fei answers firmly.

“Easy for you to say, at least a team wants you,” mutters Zeng Shenghe, hugging his knees tighter.

“Let’s not fight!” Wen Li jumps in, trying to make peace.

“Yeah. Let’s play Glory together,” Bai Shengxian says. “One last time.”

All of them startle, and glance over at Bai Shengxian. Out of everyone, he’s in the worst position. He still wants to play, even now?

“Yes,” agrees Qiu Fei, sending a faint smile toward his teammate. “Let’s play together.”

‘One more dungeon’ turns into an all-night Glory PvP party that only breaks up around ten the next morning. In the following days, they’ll all go their separate ways. But they’ll have one last good memory of Excellent Era, and they’ll still have Glory. 

And maybe that’s enough.

 

 

The team emblem on the club's main entrance is being removed today. 

Qiu Fei watches as the workers on their ladders maneuver the red leaf to the ground, and watches as it’s loaded into a truck and taken away. Then he turns and goes back inside.

There has still been no buyer for Excellent Era.

That afternoon, Tao Xuan finds Qiu Fei in the team’s practice room. The former boss’ collar is undone, his hair looks like he’s been running his hands through it, and he smells heavily of tobacco smoke.

Qiu Fei isn’t sure why Tao Xuan is seeking him out, but he has never felt comfortable in the boss’ presence, not even before he knew what Tao Xuan done. Eyeing the man uneasily for a moment, Qiu Fei goes back to his practice. The sound of tapping keys fills the room, and eventually he relaxes, forgetting his visitor.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Tao Xuan says suddenly.

Qiu Fei’s fingers freeze above his keyboard. On his screen, Combat Form suffers a quick, sudden death.

Tao Xuan watches the young Battle Mage turn his head, dark eyes faintly wary. He hadn’t paid this youth much attention before. With Sun Xiang as the Battle God’s controller, a spare Battle Mage was just a bargaining chip to be traded for money or other players that Excellent Era needed. Even now, does Tao Xuan know anything about Qiu Fei except what’s written in his file? 

He’s just sixteen, Tao Xuan recalls unexpectedly. Sixteen and already so talented, with such a bright future ahead of him. Ye Xiu had been only a little younger when the two of them first met. 

Faced with this young man, it’s all too easy for Tao Xuan to slip into the past. “I didn’t mean for things to go this far,” he tells this reflection of Ye Xiu.

Qiu Fei tilts his head, studying Excellent Era’s former boss. The complicated, ten-year ledger between Ye Xiu and Tao Xuan, how can he know any of that? Qiu Fei only knows one present truth: this is the man who destroyed Excellent Era.  

“Am I the one you should be saying those words to?” Qiu Fei asks, anger lancing through his voice, and looks in the direction of Happy Internet Cafe. 

Tao Xuan also inadvertently follows Qiu Fei’s gaze, and flinches.

Qiu Fei looks at Tao Xuan one more time. Then he restarts his training program

Eventually Qiu Fei hears Tao Xuan leave. He doesn’t stop playing.

 

 

Qiu Fei can feel Excellent Era dying around him. Day by day, the rooms bleed dry while the staff, players and trainees flee to brighter prospects, and the club’s possessions are dismantled piece by piece. He is reminded of the mummified corpse of a butterfly, eaten out by ants. 

The building grows quieter and quieter, a stuttering, fading heartbeat. Qiu Fei ventures down to the training camp in the basement one day, only to discover the entire floor empty, and the power shut off. Without natural light, the busy, lively setting of his memories has become a yawning, sucking blackness. 

Qiu Fei goes back upstairs.

The cafeteria closes. Qiu Fei can only begin ordering takeout for his meals. The air carries the near-permanent stink of bleach and cleaning products, as workers prepare the building for a new owner.

The last remaining player moves out, and Qiu Fei is left alone in the dorms. That day, Tiny Herb offers once again to buy his contract.

That night, Qiu Fei doesn’t sleep. He walks the empty, darkened halls and imagines he’s wandering the hollowed innards of a great beast, its bones sold to be gnawed on by scavengers. 

In the morning, he enters the team’s training room at precisely nine, and begins practice alone.

Qiu Fei cannot save Excellent Era.

Qiu Fei can only quietly and sincerely persevere, as long as he can, as hard as he can, and hope.

As long as he remains, so will the last person of Excellent Era.

 

 

Tao Xuan comes to visit Qiu Fei with a stranger in a business suit at his side.

He gestures toward the man next to him. “Qiu Fei, this is Xia Zhongtian. He’s buying Excellent Era. He’d like to talk to you.”

Xia Zhongtian extends his hand, offering Qiu Fei a handshake.

All a lost sailor needs is to glimpse a guiding star.

Qiu Fei reaches out.

 

 

The summer sun burns brightly as a businessman and a teenager enter Happy Internet Cafe. Behind them, workers continue knocking down walls in the building that once belonged to Club Excellent Era, renovating it for its new owner.

Ye Xiu is brought over to the second floor lobby by an employee. When he arrives, Chen Guo is sitting together with Xia Zhongtian and Qiu Fei. 

"Senior." This time, Qiu Fei greets his former captain first. Ye Xiu seems more rested, Qiu Fei is pleased to see. 

"Hi!" Ye Xiu waves his hand.

Neither side wastes time with introductions. As Qiu Fei has gleaned from his new boss’ somewhat irate explanation, Xia Zhongtian met the two from Happy when they came to ask for a sponsorship from the company his family owns, Ch'ien Tea Green.

Xia Zhongtian isn’t someone who likes to mince his words. He immediately goes straight to the point. "I'll be taking over Excellent Era," he says. Xia Zhongtian is also someone who holds a grudge. For the people responsible for beating Excellent Era, he won’t waste his time.

"Oh, that's great!" Ye Xiu smiles.

"Congratulations," Chen Guo also says. She points outside the window at the construction across the street. "What are you planning to do there?"

"I'm only taking over Excellent Era. That stuff's not included," Xiao Zhongtian replies.  

"Ah?" Chen Guo doesn’t understand.

Xia Zhongtian waves one hand. "Taking over Excellent Era is a personal matter. With my personal financial resources, I don't have the money to purchase Excellent Era's facilities. I can only guarantee that the name Excellent Era won't disappear."

"You've even got a player with a lot of potential!" Ye Xiu smiles at Qiu Fei, and Qiu Fei returns a soft smile of his own.

"Qiu Fei almost went to Tiny Herb. Fortunately, I had already talked to Excellent Era and convinced him to stay," Xia Zhongtian says, quite pleased with himself.

"Amazing," Ye Xiu says. "Both of you are amazing."

Qiu Fei's heart feels light, like it has wings. Xia Zhongtian, on the other hand, scowls. "Praising us won't do. We'll definitely take revenge on Happy!"

"Hm?" asks Ye Xiu.

"I'll have to thank you for your suggestion last time, but Excellent Era won't be owing Happy," Xia Zhongtian says, pulling a document from his briefcase and handing it over.  

"This is something I've helped you win. It's a 1.4 million RMB sponsorship by Ch'ien Tea Green. The formalities have already been arranged. All you need to do is sign it," Xia Zhongtian continues.

"Arranged?" Ye Xiu skims through the offer. "What if we don't want it?"

Xiao Zhongtian's eye twitches with rage. Chen Guo hastily grabs the papers from him. "He's just joking! We want it, we want it." She quickly signs the contract.

Xia Zhongtian scoffs. "This contract is only for one year. Next year, whether it's renewed or not will depend on you." 

Ye Xiu smiles. "Us? Don't you mean you?" 

"Me? I'm no longer a part of Ch'ien Tea Green. I'm going to lead Excellent Era and beat your Team Happy!" Xia Zhongtian retorts.  

"You'll be playing on stage?" Ye Xiu asks, his smile widening into a smirk.

Xia Zhongtian's eye twitches again. Unfortunately, he can’t personally take revenge on Happy. When he’d played against Ye Xiu, he had been destroyed ten times by Ye Xiu in just five minutes.  

Seeing that they’re about to leave, Qiu Fei calls out to Ye Xiu. "Senior, next time, let's meet on stage." 

"I'll see you onstage." Ye Xiu smiles.

Qiu Fei smiles back. Everything that needs to be said between them has passed in those few words. 

In the tacit understanding between Ye Xiu and Qiu Fei exists a single truth:

Excellent Era has not fallen.

New Excellent Era will continue to compete in the Challenger League. This time, they are no longer a powerhouse, no longer an insurmountable presence to be feared. Fighting with all their strength, only through hard-earned victory can they pass the final test, return to the Alliance, and rebuild Excellent Era’s glory once again.

No matter how long it takes, Excellent Era will return.