When Li Xuan’s growing limbs left him gangly as a newborn foal, and a touch of baby fat still lingered in his cheeks, his parents took him to their family’s hometown to visit his grandparents. Out behind the house his grandparents lived in was a small shed, buried beneath a blanket of creeper vines and trellised roses.
Under a chorus of cicadas, Li Xuan wandered inside during a summer afternoon so hot his shirts soaked through with sweat as soon as he slipped them on. The little shed was filled with the broken things his grandfather liked to tinker with, and Li Xuan poked around curiously, trying not to mind the way his hair stuck wetly to his neck.
Amid the piles of castoff junk, Li Xuan found a mirror. Perhaps heat or damp had warped the backing; the glass was whole, but the mirror didn’t show his reflection properly. Instead, standing inside the mirror was a blurry shadow, indistinct and unformed.
Li Xuan laid his hand against the warm glass; the shadow inside the mirror reached back.
Prior to the Glory Alliance’s sixth season, Li Xuan was unaware of Liu Hao’s existence.
It was an understandable lapse. Season Five had been a tumultuous time for Team Void. Just as Li Xuan had taken up the positions of both captain and core, preparing to charge toward the title of ‘First Ghostblade,’ another Ghostblade of equal skill had appeared on his team, stubbornly refusing to change classes.
Wu Yuce stood now at Li Xuan’s side, wearing Void’s team uniform. “They’re ready for us at the post-match press conference.”
“Thanks for letting me know,” Li Xuan answered, getting up with a smile, careful to keep his body language open, his hands and shoulders loose and relaxed. You could never tell when someone was taking pictures, and he was determined not to give the media any ammunition against his teammates.
When Wu Yuce appeared, Li Xuan couldn't deny he felt a sense of frustration, and even a little anger. Did he need a replacement after playing for just one year? Was this heaven laughing at him?
And what about Li Xuan’s dream of number one Ghostblade? How could he become number one when his competition was right beside him? Li Xuan still laughed bitterly at himself whenever he thought of it.
Management had treated Wu Yuce coldly, and perhaps they had expected Li Xuan to follow suit. Li Xuan can’t say the idea hadn’t tempted him. It would have been an easy outlet for his feelings, and Li Xuan’s position as captain gave him the power to suppress Wu Yuce if he chose.
In the end, whether Wu Yuce’s skill threatened his position or not, Wu Yuce was still a player on Li Xuan’s team, and Li Xuan would treat him fairly. Suppressing his personal emotions, Li Xuan worked to bring Wu Yuce into the team as he would any other player.
Wu Yuce’s rookie performance on stage was superb, and he put forward his own ideas about playing a Ghostblade. Between the two of them, slowly, a new partnership had been born.
The post match press conference went smoothly. It wasn’t Li Xuan’s first loss against Su Mucheng and Ye Qiu- Ghostblade boundaries were naturally countered by a Launcher’s extreme range - but he had hoped Void’s new partnership would give them an edge. The two of them would work harder on their coordination, and another chance for victory would come with the next match.
Li Xuan handled most of the talking during the press conference. Wu Yuce spoke little in front of the media, and always with care to defer to Li Xuan. This was a sign of his sincerity toward Li Xuan, so Void’s captain always made sure to give Wu Yuce’s contributions during the match their deserved appreciation.
When their allotted time was up, it was Excellent Era’s turn to come up as the victors. Since Ye Qiu didn’t appear at press conferences, it was the job of their new vice-captain to stand in.
Li Xuan studied this new colleague, a Spellblade player who’d been promoted from benchwarmer to powerhouse vice-captain. Liu Hao had a sharpness to his face, but was otherwise unremarkable, and he handled himself well in front of the press.
“I’m going to wait here until Excellent Era finishes so I can meet their new vice-captain,” Li Xuan told his partner. “Did you want to wait with me?”
“No,” Wu Yuce replied, turning away. “We’ve already met.”
“You don’t like him?” Li Xuan guessed, sensing his teammate’s reluctance.
Wu Yuce pursed his lips. “We debuted in the same year, but we’re not close. I’ll meet you back at our preparation room.”
Li Xuan leaned against the hallway wall, watching Liu Hao take questions, and felt a little concerned. Wu Yuce avoided answering because he believed Li Xuan should make his own judgement, but Li Xuan thought he wasn’t wrong about his teammate’s attitude. Wu Yuce didn’t like Liu Hao, and after knowing Wu Yuce for a year, Li Xuan trusted his partner’s judgement for people.
Still, it was best that all the pro players got along. Li Xuan respected Wu Yuce for valuing that principle, and he’d give Liu Hao an honest chance at making a good impression.
Soon enough, Excellent Era’s press conference ended. Li Xuan approached Liu Hao with a hand outstretched, and introduced himself. “Congratulations on your win. I’m Li Xuan. I wanted to introduce myself since we’ll be seeing more of each other in the future.”
Liu Hao seemed pleased by the attention, and shook Li Xuan’s hand eagerly. “I was hoping to talk to you today, Senior. I’m Liu Hao, Excellent Era’s new vice-captain. Please take care of me.”
Li Xuan didn’t find Liu Hao’s lack of nervousness odd. Li Xuan knew he was considered one of the more approachable senior players in the league - Chu Yunxiu joked he was ‘nonthreatening’ - but Li Xuan simply preferred it when others felt comfortable with him.
The two players made polite conversation, and Li Xuan asked Liu Hao all the usual questions about his goals and how he was handling his new responsibilities. Liu Hao seemed normal enough. If he had any flaws that Li Xuan could see, it was that Liu Hao had a tendency toward self-aggrandizement and kept excessively flattering Li Xuan. Maybe Liu Hao and Wu Yuce just had a personal disagreement?
Li Xuan relaxed and started to plan how he could politely end the conversation, but Liu Hao didn’t seem willing to let him go so easily.
“Thank you for being so supportive, Senior.” Liu Hao continued to talk. “Some of my teammates think I’m overreaching.”
“Wanting to make All-stars or wanting to be considered the best player of your class isn’t wrong,” Li Xuan assured him. “Plenty of players have the same goals, including me! Personally, I don’t think ambition is a bad thing. If you play well because you're motivated, Excellent Era can only benefit.”
Then Liu Hao smoothly slipped in the words, “We really have a lot in common. I also know what it’s like to be suppressed by another player.”
Li Xuan was momentarily at a loss. “I’m not sure what you mean?”
Liu Hao had a meaningful look on his face. “I want my talent to be recognized, and so does Senior, but neither of us get the recognition we deserve because of the people standing in our way.”
Li Xuan instantly understood. Feeling a little sick, he explained, “Wu Yuce doesn’t have any desire to take my place. He just wants to play Ghostblade.”
“Of course, of course,” Liu Hao replied, waving his hand like he knew Li Xuan was only saying that to keep up appearances. “I admire Senior for handling his problem so well.”
The feeling of nausea intensified. “Wu Yuce is not a problem. I think we’re even becoming friends,” Li Xuan said.
Liu Hao patted Li Xuan’s shoulder. “Naturally. I see Senior’s honest feelings.” The knowingness in his eyes made Li Xuan want to claw his hand away.
In that moment, it felt like Liu Hao could see every time Li Xuan had struggled to overcome his shameful, ugly feelings, and all of his hard work had been made meaningless, stripped away, because Liu Hao could see how those ugly feelings still lurked in the darkness of his heart, emerging again and again from the shadows no matter how hard Li Xuan tried to be a better person, to make them go away.
“Well, I’ll see you around Senior. It was nice chatting with you. I look forward to our next match!” Liu Hao said, and walked away before Li Xuan could recover from his horror.
When he went back to his team, Wu Yuce frowned as soon as Li Xuan walked into sight. “Are you alright?” he asked.
Li Xuan felt like scrubbing his skin off. “I don’t like Liu Hao either,” he answered, and went to get his bag.
After chasing off Liu Hao, Wu Yuce closed Void’s preparation room door, and frowned at his partner. “Why does Liu Hao seem to think the two of you are friends?”
Li Xuan ransacked his brain for an answer better than, ‘I fucked up.’ Failing in the attempt, he gave his vice-captain a weak smile. “I really wish he wouldn’t.”
Wu Yuce scoffed. “Then tell him to get lost. After losing to Excellent Era, I don’t want to listen to Liu Hao comparing himself to Samsara’s new Spellblade.”
“We’re all pro players, we should try to get along with each other,” Li Xuan said, aware of his teammates around him listening in. He leaned over and zipped up his bag. “Let’s drop by the backstage smoking area and see if we can catch Senior Ye before he leaves for his hotel.”
Wu Yuce read Li Xuan’s meaning, and kept his silence until they were walking side-by-side through the underbelly of Void’s stadium.
Stubbornly taking up the argument again, Wu Yuce continued, “I’m serious. He makes you uncomfortable. You don’t have to tolerate him.”
“I kinda do,” Li Xuan reminded his friend, hands in his pockets. “We have to interact professionally on stage. Besides, I see him three, maybe four times a year? What’s the point of upsetting everyone?”
Wu Yuce looked like he wanted to continue arguing his point, but Li Xuan sped up and said, “You think Senior Ye might want to go out for a snack?”
“Senior Ye never pays for anything.”
“So that’s a yes?”
The two Ghostblades found Ye Qiu right where they expected, lounging on the ash-stained bench tucked in the tiny smoking area. To their surprise, Su Mucheng was also there, wrapped in a jacket against the Autumn night’s cold.
Ye Qiu raised his unoccupied hand when he saw the two pro players. “Yo, what brings you two here?”
“Saying hello, of course, before you drag your old bones back east again!” Li Xuan replied, going to hug Su Mucheng. She grinned, and reciprocated with a squeeze, before going after Wu Yuce.
Ye Qiu took his cigarette out of his mouth. “I’ve given you younglings a good beating to reflect on, what’s left to do here?”
Li Xuan clicked his tongue. “Elders shouldn’t be so hasty. We’ll take that Best Partners title from you two soon enough!”
“Oh? Did I not put enough fear into you this time, Li Xuan?” Su Mucheng asked sweetly.
Both Ghostblades visibly cringed. Getting beaten up by Su Mucheng’s Launcher was a familiar and traumatizing experience. Li Xuan waved his hands, “No, no, we’re fine. Believe me! Anyway, do you both have time for a meal?”
“Sure,” Ye Qiu said, putting out his cigarette and brushing himself off. “We were about to leave anyway.”
Su Mucheng’s face suddenly closed off, her back going stiff. “Liu Hao, you and the rest of the team can go on without us. We’ll make our own way back.”
Li Xuan turned to find Excellent Era’s vice-captain standing behind him. In that split second, something in Liu Hao’s expression made the unease in Li Xuan’s belly squeeze tighter.
The three from Excellent Era stared each other down a fraction of a moment too long, all the while outwardly staying relaxed and friendly.
“Of course,” Liu Hao said with a smile. “Be careful, Captain.”
Void’s Ghostblades took Excellent Era’s duo to a teahouse, where they bought snacks for their guests and talked about inconsequential news and Glory meta.
Li Xuan did not mention anything about the scene with Liu Hao, nor ask why Excellent Era’s vice-captain disliked its best duo. This was the most considerate action he could offer. Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng would not want to be interrogated about team affairs, and Ye Qiu never accepted help anyway.
When Void faced Excellent Era in their spring away game, his attention remained on the match, as it should, but he remembered glancing at Excellent Era’s bench during the break between the group arena and the team battle. Su Mucheng sat alone in the corner while her teammates wound around her like she wasn’t there. No one stopped to speak to her.
Void came up short again against the Alliance’s best duo, as they always had. Another failure, never quite measuring up despite all their hard work.
Ye Qiu had already slipped away when Li Xuan went to look for him afterward. Liu Hao kept Li Xuan for half an hour before he could extricate himself. The image of Su Mucheng by herself remained before his mind’s eye the whole time.
“Did you think something felt...off in the team battle tonight?” Li Xuan asked his friend and partner once they were back at the club building, leaning back in his chair and watching the replay for the dozenth time.
The two Ghostblades were more than qualified to give their opinions. As a support class, Ghostblade players required a strong awareness and grasp of the overall battlefield situation.
Wu Yuce paused to think. “Their coordination may have been a little stiff,” he finally answered.
“Yeah.” Li Xuan tapped fingers on his desk. “Maybe it was just an adjustment the team is making for playoffs.”
It was not an adjustment. Excellent Era lost badly in the first round.
The reporter held out his recorder, eagerness shining in his eyes. “Captain Li, how do you feel about your first win over the Alliance’s Best Partners?”
Li Xuan pushed down the bile in his throat. Could this even be considered a win, when Excellent Era had almost handed Void the victory? The only good thing in Excellent Era’s team battle tonight was Su Mucheng and Ye Qiu. Whatever Excellent Era’s PR said, their problems weren’t because Ye Qiu’s condition had deteriorated.
He kept his professional composure in place, and replied, “We may have beaten Excellent Era, but Su Mucheng and Ye Qiu’s coordination and tacit understanding remains as strong as ever. I don’t feel we’ve overcome their partnership.”
Visibly disappointed, the reporter sat back down. Obviously, he’d hoped Li Xuan would tear into his opponents. Blood in the water made good headlines.
Li Xuan would celebrate tonight’s win for his team’s sake, but the taste of this victory was sour, and turned his stomach. Li Xuan didn’t count the victory as his own.
“Go ahead without me,” Li Xuan told Wu Yuce when they finished.
His best friend demanded an explanation through a single look.
Li Xuan smiled genuinely for the first time tonight. Wu Yuce still didn’t talk much in front of the media, but now it was because the tacit understanding between them was so strong he didn’t need to.
“I’m going to see Excellent Era,” he said simply.
Wu Yuce studied Li Xuan through narrowed eyes. “I’ll give you a half-hour head start, and message you every fifteen minutes after that.”
“Thanks,” Li Xuan said, bumping his partner’s shoulder. The constant messaging was an escape route - it would give Li Xuan an excuse to leave if he needed one.
Li Xuan didn’t intend to interfere in Excellent Era’s affairs. Among the top-level gods, there were many who had closer relationships with Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng, and Ye Qiu hadn’t reached out to any of them.
Why was Li Xuan going then?
Even Li Xuan himself couldn’t explain clearly. Call it...the need to confirm a suspicion.
When Li Xuan knocked on the door, Ye Qiu was not in Excellent Era’s preparation room, and neither was Su Mucheng, but Li Xuan hadn’t come to see either of them.
Liu Hao displayed precisely the right mix of disappointment and steadfast endurance, and received Li Xuan with all the graciousness of a good loser.
“Senior, thank you for taking the time to come see our captain.” Liu Hao shook his head regretfully. “I’m afraid he’s not here right now. He’s taking some time by himself…after today’s loss, he’s probably lost the Best Partners award to you and Brother Wu. ”
For an instant, Liu Hao’s eyes glittered with pleasure, and it hit Li Xuan that Liu Hao enjoyed the idea of Ye Qiu in pain. Liu Hao wanted to hurt Ye Qiu, and he was happy to use Li Xuan as his instrument.
A tremendous revulsion struck Li Xuan, and he barely kept himself from leaning away.
Liu Hao once confided to Li Xuan that he felt he was being suppressed, and after witnessing the tension between Ye Qiu and Liu Hao last year, Li Xuan had formed a suspicion. Reality exceeded his thoughts - he’d expected resentment, but the pleasure he’d seen in Liu Hao came from unrelenting malice.
Shocked, Li Xuan listened to Liu Hao continue talking, and numbly gave responses. Perhaps because he sought to detach himself from his present, Li Xuan’s awareness spread out.
Liu Hao’s teammates were scattered across the room, isolated in ones and twos. The mood was desolate - far heavier than it should be. Top players should know how to adjust their mentality after a loss, but none of Excellent Era’s players spoke, and they avoided each other’s eyes.
And all the while, Liu Hao kept talking, as if he couldn’t tell there was something badly amiss.
A sense of wrongness struck Li Xuan.
Team? What team? This whole room was an unhealed wound. Li Xuan could barely restrain himself from trying to draw out whatever scraps of team spirit remained in Excellent Era. If this had been Li Xuan’s team, he couldn’t have stood there indifferently like Liu Hao was now.
What was Liu Hao doing? Couldn’t he see his team needed him?
Disgust welled up in Li Xuan, and a deep loathing took root.
Liu Hao hadn’t been wrong when he said they had a lot in common. Li Xuan couldn’t deny it. There was a certain similarity in method reflected between the two of them. Both of them worked hard to connect with other people, and also shared a strong desire for recognition.
As much as Li Xuan didn’t want to admit it, even now the question of who was the better Ghostblade hung between himself and Wu Yuce. Li Xuan was learning to live with that, and the ugly, tiny bit of satisfaction that came from knowing he held a slight lead in the public’s opinion.
However, Li Xuan was very clear on one point: those were feelings that shouldn’t be indulged. His teammates should never pay the cost of his ambition.
Void’s captain may have personally disliked Liu Hao before, but this went beyond his bottom line.
Liu Hao sighed regretfully. “It’s a shame, I would have liked to fight beside you and Brother Wu. I think I would’ve made All-stars this year if it weren’t for the team’s performance.”
Barely hidden underneath is an indictment of Ye Qiu, whom Excellent Era had not-so-subtly blamed for their failures.
Li Xuan bit back his instinctive response. If your team isn’t performing well, do you deserve to be voted into All-stars?
Ye Qiu retired, and nothing held Excellent Era together anymore.
“How does it look?” Yu Wuce asked, coming up behind Li Xuan as his best friend watched the match replay.
“Not good for Excellent Era.” Li Xuan couldn’t feel regretful about the removal of Void’s greatest opponent, but to see Excellent Era fall so far...well, the Golden Generation had debuted under the shadow of Ye Qiu and Excellent Era’s triple championships. It was the loss of something , that was certain.
With the match finished, the replay switched to the press conference. Li Xuan grimaced, but didn’t jump the video forward.
From his interviews, Sun Xiang didn’t seem like a bad kid - arrogant as shit, but wasn’t everyone arrogant before their seniors knocked sense into them? Unfortunately, Sun Xiang’s senior was Liu Hao.
When Liu Hao made a particularly blatant grab for credit, Wu Yuce openly scoffed, gaze flicking in Li Xuan’s direction.
“You know Liu Hao,” Li Xuan answered, biting off his words with an irritation meant only for the two of them to hear. “Anything good is because of him, anything bad is someone else’s fault.”
The two of them watched until Excellent Era made way for the victorious 301 Degrees. “I don’t think we’ll lose to the current Excellent Era,” Li Xuan predicted.
Void didn’t lose. They didn’t even come close.
Sun Xiang had talent, but Team Void’s nemesis had always been the spear and the cannon, not the Battle God. As soon as Void made adjustments in the team battle, Excellent Era’s attempts to regain control lost effectiveness.
Linked together, Li Xuan and Wu Yuce wove ghostlight into every corner of the battlefield, and the unbroken net of their control made Excellent Era’s fractured remnants into a pitiful feast for ghosts.
That night Li Xuan left his booth with no doubt that Excellent Era would be relegated.
Despite spending a sea of ink on the subject, none of the league’s outside observers could explain why a team with Excellent Era’s skill could not win.
When Excellent Era’s players emerged from their booths, Li Xuan looked across the stage at Liu Hao, and swallowed down the loathing hot and caustic in his throat.
Every time Li Xuan looked at the award certificate hanging on his wall, he choked on bitter laughter.
Even for the little award of Best Partners, Li Xuan couldn't compete using his own strength. He had to wait until Ye Qiu retired and left before he could pick it up.
The tacit understanding between Li Xuan and Wu Yuce was no worse than the understanding between Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng, but Excellent Era’s duo always seemed to win the award for Best Partners without any competition at all. Their so-called strongest competitors, in reality, had never managed to exert any pressure on them.
The reason was simple. Void's Ghost Duo, when placed in direct confrontation with Excellent Era's Long Spear Short Cannon combination, always came up inferior.
As Void’s shotcaller, Li Xuan carried primary responsibility for their losses, and he’d fallen short every time, coming close, but always failing.
In six years, what had Li Xuan achieved? Void had never won the championship. They'd never even entered the finals. Even for an individual award like Best Partners, they'd been beaten down for so long. There was no way that Li Xuan didn’t feel anger in his heart.
Li Xuan couldn’t even stand at the peak of one of Glory’s twenty-four classes. “Number one Phantom Demon"? It sounded cool, but if you did the math there were roughly three pro Phantom Demons, which meant Li Xuan was the number one of three people. First among three, was that anything impressive?
To this, Li Xuan could only shake his head and laugh bitterly. Of course, to be the number one Phantom Demon meant that out of the millions of Phantom Demon players, he was the best. But Li Xuan truly had no interest in using those outside of the pro circle to comfort himself.
Number one was number one.
Li Xuan had always wanted to become a true number one, but after so many years he was still just the number one Phantom Demon. He couldn't even earn the title of number one Ghostblade, and the one blocking him from obtaining that title was Wu Yuce, his teammate, closest friend and best partner.
What was up with this? Sometimes, Li Xuan would mock himself with these thoughts.
But even if they were best friends and partners, the question still remained. In the end, which of them was the best Ghostblade player? Who was stronger? Who was the true number one Ghostblade?
In the past, Li Xuan had been very sensitive about this topic. Regarding his slight lead, although he'd never said it aloud, he had been secretly pleased.
But now, Li Xuan was numb to it. After so many years, the question no longer interested him.
If he became the number one Ghostblade, then what?
What good was being the First Ghostblade? Would it help his team reach the playoffs? Would it give Void a championship? Would it strengthen his partnership with Wu Yuce?
It wouldn’t. So Li Xuan would let go of the dream of First Ghostblade, and pick a new dream.
Number one of the league, the absolute number one, seemed pretty good to him.
Of course, this dream of being the unquestioned number one was far more difficult than the dream of number one Phantom Demon. Li Xuan was even less likely to achieve it, but it was a dream he could seek wholeheartedly, without guilt.
Li Xuan would need to work hard if he wanted opportunities to reach toward his goal, and since Void’s main roster was gaining a strong new rookie this season, there was more than enough work to keep him busy.
Void had great hopes for this newcomer. Ge Caijie was an Exorcist, and the Ghost Duo’s new helper, taking the place of their former melee frontliner who’d retired. Because of this change, many of Void’s tactics needed to be reworked, taking the load off Ge Caijie until he gained the experience to carry more tactical weight.
While all of Void’s players needed to adjust their cooperation after a new teammate joined, Li Xuan needed to work the hardest.
Even though Li Xuan’s Crying Devil was the core of Team Void, it was never his other teammates coordinating around his Ghost Boundaries. Void’s players relied on Li Xuan to read the field and send out his Phantom Demon’s skills to support them instead. Then Wu Yuce’s Carved Ghost smoothly filled in the gaps between Li Xuan’s cooldowns, creating Void’s signature ‘Dual-Linking Ghost Boundaries’ tactic.
In order to pull off this arrangement, Li Xuan always devoted himself to learning what kind of support a new teammate needed, so when the time came he could remain as the invisible tie connecting Void together.
Ge Caijie would be Void’s vital short-range DPS, functioning as the focal point of their offense and executing tactics in coordination with the Ghost Duo. The summer passed in a blink, spent on innumerable practice sessions working Ge Caijie into their lineup, sometimes with the full main roster, but just as often the two Ghostblades and the rookie by themselves. On top of preparing for their new rookie, Li Xuan had reports to fill out, matches to plan, normal training to complete, and a team to build.
So it completely slipped his mind that Liu Hao had not joined the rest of Excellent Era’s players in relegation.
Frankly, Li Xuan preferred to think about Liu Hao as little as possible. Any mention of Thunderclap’s new captain left him deeply irritated and tense.
Unfortunately, Li Xuan could no longer avoid the unpleasant reminder during Void’s first game against Thunderclap. Now that Liu Hao was Thunderclap’s captain, Li Xuan had even fewer excuses to avoid him than before. During their five-minute pre-match conversation, Liu Hao took the chance to act in his usual overly familiar, ingratiating way while making numerous faux-humble allusions to his change in status.
Li Xuan exerted all the self-control he possessed to keep any trace of disgust out of his face. Whatever their personal feelings, pro players should make an effort to get along. As Void’s captain, Li Xuan should work especially hard not to harm his team’s reputation. He would be polite and professional to Liu Hao, and then Liu Hao’s pettiness would not cause his team trouble either.
Liu Hao also hinted that he was shopping for a position in another team. Li Xuan pretended he didn’t understand. Someone like Liu Hao had no place in the kind of team Li Xuan wanted to build.
After making a few discreet post-match inquiries, Li Xuan found he was not the only team captain Liu Hao was sounding out. Clearly, Thunderclap did not satisfy Liu Hao’s ambitions.
Li Xuan could have been sympathetic toward Liu Hao’s desire for success and position, but not after knowing Liu Hao had spoiled his best opportunity through his own actions. Only a handful of teams held Excellent Era’s prestige, and Excellent Era’s fate would warn away most teams who thought of offering Liu Hao a position.
“Liu Hao tried Tyranny too?” Wu Yuce remarked, tilting Li Xuan’s wrist to see his phone screen.
“Mmm. He didn’t dare approach Han Wenqing, but he tried Xinjie. Xinjie shut him down before he could get out more than two words,” Li Xuan said, scrolling through the messages. Turning to his partner, Void’s captain laughed. “He didn’t dare try Yunxiu either.”
“A rat is good at sensing danger.”
Li Xuan laughed again, immediately sending Chu Yunxiu a message sharing Wu Yuce’s response. “She really might have gone after him! Su Mucheng confided in her more than the rest of us.”
The two Ghostblades were hanging out in the team lounge, the last of Void’s players still awake. Wu Yuce was always restless after a match. After so many years, it had become Li Xuan’s habit to accompany his best friend until Wu Yuce’s focus relaxed enough to allow him to sleep.
Li Xuan leaned back in his chair. He supposed he could have tried transferring teams to make himself more successful, like Liu Hao. Void wasn’t the only team who could use a Ghostblade - even Tiny Herb had one on their roster.
In the past, Li Xuan always immediately rejected the option. He was a cautious person by nature, who avoided taking risks. Transferring teams would not necessarily work out in his favor. However, that logic was only half the reason why Li Xuan never seriously contemplated the idea.
Whenever Li Xuan tried to imagine himself leaving Void, Li Xuan felt deeply unwilling. The seniors who had chosen him from the Challenger League and raised him, the teammates and friends he was responsible for, and his partner and best friend beside him now - all of these people would have to be left behind. Li Xuan had been unwilling in the past, and he was even more unwilling now.
For another year, Li Xuan wasn’t voted into the top ten at All-stars. In all the years he’d participated, he’d never managed to break this ceiling, hovering between tenth and twentieth place.
Was this his limit? Would he remain stuck here for the rest of his career, watching his team fail to reach the finals, and himself fail to reach the ranks of the top gods?
Li Xuan didn't want to be a side character. He watched as the others who debuted in the same season won championships and honors one by one - Zhang Xinjie, Yu Wenzhou, Huang Shaotian, Zeng Xuan, Su Mucheng, Li Yihui - even Fang Minghua had gained a championship.
What did Li Xuan have?
Li Xuan wasn’t a master tactician. He wasn’t a champion. He wasn’t even a true number one. Even the title of Best Partners came to him only as an afterthought.
A cup with steam rising from the rim was plunked down by Li Xuan’s elbow. “You’re thinking too much again,” Wu Yuce said, taking a seat on the empty chair beside him.
Li Xuan gave a sheepish smile. “You can tell, huh?”
“We’ve been partners for five years. Who knows you better than I do?” Wu Yuce answered. “I saw the light on in the training room. When you’re up late it’s always because you’re worrying.”
Li Xuan ran his hands over his face. “Guilty,” he laughed, and pushed the papers in Wu Yuce’s direction. “The level 75 update has been generating extra work for everyone. I try to keep up with the reports, but we spend all our time fighting for Bosses, or training, or playing matches...”
“Let me take a look,” Wu Yuce answered, pulling the papers toward himself, and reading them over with his usual intensity.
Li Xuan sipped the hot water Wu Yuce had brought him, cupping his fingers around the warm mug and soaking the heat into his palms. “ Xiao Ge’s progress has also been good. I was thinking I’d revise some of our training plans before our match against Seaside.”
Wu Yuce glanced up from the papers, and raised an accusing eyebrow.
“Tomorrow,” Li Xuan added hastily, raising his hands in surrender. “We’ll do it tomorrow.”
While the two partners laid aside the reports, Li Xuan allowed his thoughts to wander. As a pro player, he was barely into his prime. It would be years before he needed to consider finding a replacement.
However...Ge Caijie was serious and reliable, and Li Xuan felt that perhaps once he and Wu Yuce retired, Ge Caijie might make a good captain.
If Li Xuan could never bring Void to the peak, maybe Ge Caijie could.
Walking the darkened halls with his best friend by his side, Li Xuan felt perhaps that was alright.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, Ye Qiu and his band of Boss-hunting misfits turned into such an incredible public nuisance that they single-handedly increased the number of pro player match mistakes.
As long as their rivals suffered equal injury, the pro players could endure Team Happy’s harassment. The Alliance’s attitude was much less sanguine, and the chairman called a meeting of the top ten teams to discuss the situation.
Li Xuan and the other captains were less than pleased with the extra demand on their time during such a crucial part of the season. Li Xuan felt even less pleased when he arrived at Alliance headquarters, and ran into Liu Hao, captain of tenth-ranked Thunderclap, at the door.
The low-grade, background distaste that came with being forced to endure Liu Hao’s presence pressed against Li Xuan’s tolerance. Li Xuan reminded himself of all the reasons he should avoid making a fuss, smothered his irritation, and sat down.
Liu Hao sat down two seats away.
Li Xuan flattened his palm against his thigh, dodged as many of Liu Hao’s attempts at conversation as he could, and hoped the meeting would start soon.
The Alliance’s desire was simple: they wanted the pro players to let go of the in-game competition for Bosses and concentrate on their players’ condition. Reality was less simple: the teams could not afford to give up the Boss materials without a fight.
The instant the chairman finished speaking, Liu Hao decisively brought up the topic of Ye Qiu.
Li Xuan’s loathing prickled under his skin, but he and the other team captains didn’t show much of a reaction. They sipped on their tea, peeled their tangerines, or peeled their bananas.
Liu Hao wasn’t wrong. Ye Qiu was the main culprit in this fiasco. However, none of the team captains uttered a word, hoping to avoid increasing Ye Qiu’s might.
Only Liu Hao said it directly. Li Xuan fought a frown. It seemed like Liu Hao’s personal grudge against Ye Qiu may not have ended with Excellent Era’s relegation.
Of course, Liu Hao’s eagerness wasn’t just because of his grudge. According to Void’s guild, Thunderclap was doing poorly at snatching bosses. Thunderclap’s performance reflected on Liu Hao’s reputation, so Liu Hao would obviously do his utmost to push the blame onto Ye Qiu.
Tearing down others to benefit himself, like always. Li Xuan’s irritation spiked before he consciously calmed himself.
Void’s captain tried to focus on the meeting. Unfortunately, the chairman had misunderstood the situation. He thought the teams were seeking out Ye Qiu, when it was Ye Qiu who wouldn’t leave the in-game pro players alone.
Li Xuan and the other team captains looked at one another, both dismayed and bemused.
Liu Hao once again rushed out excitedly: "Why don’t we ally together? If we see Ye Qiu, we first get rid of them before doing anything else?"
The chairman glared at Liu Hao, but Liu Hao was so excited that he didn’t notice. He even looked at everyone expectantly.
Another stab of loathing struck Li Xuan. Couldn’t Liu Hao let his grudge go? Whatever resentment he held towards Ye Qiu, hadn’t it been satisfied by his former captain’s retirement?
Then Li Xuan remembered the look of malice he’d once witnessed on Liu Hao’s face, and knew that Liu Hao’s grudge would long outlive his former team.
Li Xuan felt intensely uncomfortable. He held no objection to Liu Hao’s plan in theory. He was very willing to hunt down Ye Qiu’s team. Happy had killed poor Li Xun before his teammate had even left the city, and Void needed those Wild Boss materials. Their teams were competitors, and this was a matter of team interest.
However, Liu Hao’s primary motivation was his personal grudge, not his team’s needs. Using the current situation as a pretext, he hoped to manipulate the other teams into going along with his intention to harm Ye Qiu. Li Xuan detested being used as Liu Hao’s borrowed knife - and when he glanced around, he could tell he wasn’t the only one.
There were many furrowed brows, narrowed eyes, and tight shoulders among his fellow captains - but business came first.
Once they explained the true situation to the chairman, Liu Hao immediately suggested again, "Let’s ally together and get rid of Ye Qiu!"
This time, Liu Hao saw the chairman glare at him. He instantly shrunk back and didn’t dare let out a peep.
It didn’t help the anger rising in Li Xuan’s chest.
Li Xuan understood Liu Hao’s feelings. The yearning for public recognition, the frustration at being good but not good enough, the jealousy, envy, and insecurity born from standing beside a rival you could never defeat...yes, Li Xuan understood all those things as clearly as his own reflection.
How many seasons had Li Xuan sought the title of first Ghostblade and failed? How many times had Void’s ghost duo been miserably beaten by Ye Qiu? How many years had they lost the title of best partners to Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng?
The desire to destroy his rival - Li Xuan felt revolted at the very idea.
Li Xuan understood Liu Hao’s feelings, but they didn’t justify what Liu Hao had done. The moment Liu Hao allowed those darker impulses to control him, he had betrayed Excellent Era and his teammates.
It wasn’t fair to blame Ye Qiu for being so skilled, or fault Su Mucheng for being so eye-catching. Excellent Era hadn’t deserved destruction because Liu Hao felt overshadowed by his teammates.
And frankly, if they were counting grievances, Li Xuan felt that he held the greater share. So if Li Xuan could deal with his feelings like an adult, why should Liu Hao act this way?
Li Xuan had spent the last five years fighting the worst parts of himself. Liu Hao wasn’t even trying.
Eventually, Yu Wenzhou’s suggestion of forming a team specifically to handle Ye Qiu was accepted. As the team captains began coming up with proposals to handle Team Happy, Liu Hao was the most fervent contributor and actively came up with many plans.
This should have been an easy discussion. If it had been conducted in a professional manner, not one of the team captains present would have been troubled.
Liu Hao was not professional. Liu Hao didn’t even bother hiding his relish as he spoke of various schemes to crush Team Happy,
Li Xuan listened to Liu Hao talk, and Li Xuan listened to Liu Hao talk some more, and like the Ghostblade he was, Li Xuan read the battlefield.
Chu Yunxiu had hidden her balled fists underneath the table.
The pleasant expression on Yu Wenzhou’s face had turned stiff and fixed.
Wang Jiexi was leaning away, as if to distance himself.
Han Wenqing’s scowl had deepened until everyone sitting nearby flinched away.
Zhou Zekai had shrunk into himself, even more silent than usual.
In front of Ye Qiu’s friends, Liu Hao planned with joyful malice how he wished to destroy Ye Qiu, and the tension in the room coiled tighter and tighter.
Li Xuan watched, and weighed, and remembered the ruins of Excellent Era. He considered everything he knew of himself and Liu Hao, and then he opened his mouth and delivered the most precise strike at Liu Hao he was capable of.
"You punk, are you planning on destroying Happy? Who would have thought that even after leaving Excellent Era, you still care about them so much."
The release of tension as Li Xuan watched Liu Hao panic, afraid he’d been seen through, was deeply satisfying.
"Ah... what are you talking about!" Liu Hao stared at Li Xuan like he thought Void’s captain was about to drag him out and take him apart in front of everyone.
Li Xuan didn’t reply, because he’d already accomplished everything he wanted - a warning to Liu Hao, and a reminder of his boundaries.
Liu Hao feared nothing so much as the idea of having his true nature exposed. Now that Li Xuan had raised the accusation in public - and even tied in the sensitive subject of Excellent Era - Liu Hao wouldn’t dare act excessively against Ye Qiu gin-game, and he’d also be too worried to say anything more about destroying Ye Qiu in front of the other captains.
As Liu Hao flailed to cover himself, the other team captains relaxed, and the mood eased. They quickly finished their work, and there were even a few laughs and smiles as they concluded.
Liu Hao stayed quiet for the rest of the meeting, and left quickly afterwards.
Most of the team captains exchanged significant looks with each other once he’d gone. They weren’t blind to what Liu Hao had done in Excellent Era, and they’d keep watch on Liu Hao to ensure he pursued Ye Qiu and Team Happy exactly as far as appropriate, and no further.
Yu Wenzhou stopped Li Xuan as he was heading out. “Do you have time for a meal? We haven’t caught up in a while. I’ll pay, of course.”
If not for the hint of gratitude in his smile, Li Xuan would think Yu Wenzhou’s request was as innocuous as it sounded.
“Can I join you?” Chu Yunxiu broke in. She patted Li Xuan’s shoulder. “We’re all Golden Gen captains, we should stick together.”
Blue Rain’s captain promptly agreed, and the three of them began chatting as they left together.
As expected, Liu Hao’s name appeared on the transfer list that summer.
“Wind Howl?” Li Xuan muttered to himself, and glanced at Wu Yuce. “Didn’t Tang Hao pay attention to what happened to Excellent Era?”
Seated next to Li Xuan on the couch, Wu Yuce shook his head. “Some people can only learn from experience,” he replied, and got up to look for drinks.
Li Xuan doubted that Liu Hao’s stay at Wind Howl would last more than a few years. Tang Hao wasn’t perceptive, but neither was he stupid. He’d figure things out eventually, and once Wind Howl ended Liu Hao’s contract none of the other upper-tier teams would take him. Liu Hao would spend his remaining career wandering alone between mediocre teams, expecting someone to hand him the fame he felt he deserved.
It was a little sad.
Pushing those thoughts out of his mind, Li Xuan leaned back against the couch and caught the drink that Wu Yuce tossed at him. His partner sat down beside him, and opened the cap of his own drink.
Their teammates were scattered around the common room, napping or listening to music or scrolling on their phones. Ge Caijie glanced curiously toward the two Ghostblades on the couch. Li Xuan smiled reassuringly at him, and the young player settled more comfortably in his chair, going back to his music.
Surrounded by the team he’d helped build, a sense of contentment suffused Li Xuan. Under the summer sun, he clinked his bottle against Wu Yuce’s, and drank.
Many years later, Li Xuan returned to his family’s hometown after his grandfather passed away. Waiting for the movers his parents hired, he wandered outside, and found the small shed again. The roof sagged, and the structure leaned a little, after so many years, and the paint had worn bare. The roses had died, leaving the skeletal trellises behind, and the creeper almost smothered the little wooden shed under its weight.
Li Xuan pushed the door open, and coughed in the stale, musty air. After his grandfather’s health worsened, the shed had gone unused, and gradually been forgotten. No one had been in to clean for years; the smell came from old water stains on the ceiling. Dust lay thickly on the piled junk and tabletops, and on all the other half-completed projects his grandfather had left behind.
A pale shape moved at the edge of his sight, and Li Xuan startled.
His pulse remained quick as he picked his way toward the corner he’d seen the movement, but it was nothing more than an old mirror with a rotted frame, covered in spiderwebs. The dust was so thick he could only make out a dim outline reflected in the glass.
He’d forgotten about this mirror. An old memory made Li Xuan raise his hand, palm out, but the glass was far too filthy to touch.
Letting his hand fall, Li Xuan turned away.
There was nothing to be afraid of. It was only a reflection.