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The world around me tumbles, and all I can see is flying snow and evening sky. Then everything blinks out—the next instant, both Tremaine and I have struck out and regenerated a full pace behind the others.

Tremaine turns a murderous look on me. My Speed Burst power-up from Hammie is still in my inventory—and now I use it. It disappears from my hand in a flash of light. The world rushes forward, and I can almost feel the blast of wind against my skin. Right as I yank out my own length of rope, the dragon finally breaks free from the ice. Its gaping mouth roars to the surface.

I fling my rope, aiming to lasso the tip of its nose. One try. Then another. On my third, I manage to swing the loop across the creature’s snout. The dragon pivots its head in my direction, then lets out a furious shriek. A column of fire bursts from its open jaws. I use the momentum from the rope to swing onto its head. My rope becomes a makeshift harness. Below me, Asher and Max are locked in battle.

“Move back!” I say into my comms. Asher’s eyes flicker briefly at me. It’s all the warning he needs.

I yank the dragon’s head down as Asher suddenly breaks free and darts away. The creature shrieks in rage, then lunges at Jena, the nearest player—all she can do is throw her hands up before the creature swallows her in one bite.

Jena MacNeil | Team Demon Brigade

Life: -100% | STRIKE OUT!

The audience bursts into excited chaos. I can barely even hear the announcer’s voice over it all.

A pace behind us, Jena blinks back into existence. Asher is already waiting for her. In a flash, he pounces right as Jena materializes. Before she can get a handle on what’s happening, Asher’s hand closes on the Artifact hovering over her head.

Game over.

The world is engulfed in scarlet and gold as an enormous phoenix bursts into flames across the entire sky.

The audience explodes in wild cheers. “I don’t believe it!” the analysts are yelling over the chaos, their voices cracking from excitement. “It’s all over! Jena MacNeil and the unstoppable Demon Brigade—taken down by the Phoenix Riders in the most stunning upset we’ve ever seen! Oh my God! The Phoenix Riders win!”

Asher throws his head back, lets out a piercing whoop, and raise his fist in the air.

And that’s when I see the black figure again. He’s standing on top of the ice monument, clad in the same fitted black armor I’d seen on him in the Dark World. Zero.

A chill rushes through me. Why can I see him? Why is he here?

The world around us pauses. The dragon I’m struggling to control suddenly stops in midair, frozen, and then fades from view. The landscape darkens into blackness. I blink as the Tokyo Dome itself comes back into view, as well as fifty thousand spectators screaming wildly at the top of their lungs. To either side of me, my teammates come out of their booths.

“That was the most badass move I’ve ever seen!” Roshan exclaims, reaching me first and clapping me hard on my back. I open my mouth to thank him for protecting me, but Hammie hurls herself at me, smothering me and Roshan in a hug. I’m drowned out by the rest of our team piling on top of us. They crush me in, tangled and laughing. Blood roars in my ears. On the other side of the arena, the Demons are shouting at one another, and Tremaine is stalking away from Jena without so much as looking up at the audience.

My first official win in a championship game. But all I can think about is that Zero was there. I saw him. I search for Ren. He is smiling and laughing, too, but his expressions are off, forced. The smile doesn’t touch his eyes. He glances over his shoulder, as if he’d seen something the others didn’t. Then the tension breaks, and he goes back to grinning and hugging the others. He’d also seen the figure.

As I continue to cheer, I bring up the file that I’d managed to grab through Ren’s broken shields. There’s little there, as if I had pulled away before I could properly seize the data from him. But it did manage to grab something, possibly something Zero was communicating to Ren. The name of a program.


What? I frown at it, my thoughts racing, trying to make sense of the name. proj_ice. Project Ice? Does it have something to do with this White World level? HT. HT? Hideo Tanaka. Project Ice Hideo Tanaka. It could be a file connecting Hideo with this opening game level. Right? Or—

Then, my heart skips in terror as I connect another meaning to the word Ice. Oh my God.

Zero wants to assassinate Hideo.

And at that moment, every light in the stadium goes out.


The stadium plunges into darkness. Startled shouts come from the audience. Over the chaos, the announcers try to maintain some semblance of order. “Everyone stay in your seats,” one says, still cheerful. “It looks like we have a temporary malfunction, but it will soon be fixed.”

I stare through the pitch black at a red error message flashing in my view.

Incorrect User Access

The file that had activated now flashes once, then blinks out of existence as it self-destructs. I’m left staring at an empty shell, the only part that’s left of what the in-game object had retrieved. The file had been meant to destroy itself if the wrong user ever got her hands on it. Was the reason why Zero chose to keep messing with levels in Warcross because he has been passing information to his followers this way? And if that was true—who else in the games works for Zero?

But none of that matters at this very instance. While Hideo and I were racing to unlock data from Ren, Zero had been busy, too—glitching the arena itself. He had cut the power.

The security doors up in the balcony seats don’t work right now.

The realization hits me so hard that I can barely breathe. I place a call immediately to Hideo. “Get out of there,” I say in a rush the instant the call goes through. “Your life’s in danger. Right now. Get—”

I don’t even finish my sentence before I see a spark of light up in the balcony seats. It flashes once—twice—and then the blackness returns. People in the audience glance toward it, puzzled, but I know what it must have been.


“Hideo? Hideo!” I say as I try to reconnect my call, but it doesn’t go through. I curse as I fumble my way through the darkness. The security teams have taken out flashlights, and thin rays of light float around the arena, cutting through the black. The NeuroLink’s connection also seems to have gone down, making it so that no one can bring up a virtual grid in their view to see where they’re going. I recall the stadium’s layout from my own memory—and before anyone can come up to me and stop me, I dart away from my station and hurry through the darkness, relying on what I remember to navigate through the space. People protest as I bump past them. It seems like an eternity before I finally find my way to the stairs. I hop blindly up two at a time. As I go, I try to message Hideo.

No response.

As I reach the second landing, red emergency lights flood the arena. Even though they’re technically dim, I squint against them after the pitch blackness. Security cams blink on overhead. The NeuroLink comes back online, my profile rebooting in the corner of my view.

The announcers’ voices ring out reassuringly as they try to organize the audience. “Watch your steps, folks!” The audience doesn’t seem to realize that there was a gunman in here.

I reach the security box at the same time as I see Hideo’s bodyguards clustered around the area. My eyes hunt frantically for Hideo’s familiar face.

I nearly collapse in relief as I see Hideo crouched down in the security box room, surrounded by his bodyguards and colleagues. He looks unharmed. Beside him, Kenn is speaking rapidly to several of the guards in a low, angry voice.

“What the hell happened?” I say as I hurry over. “Where’s the shooter?”

Kenn recognizes me and gives me a grim look. “The security cams up here were looping old footage. Security’s swarming to try to catch the shooter.”

I turn my attention to what Hideo is doing. One of his bodyguards is on the ground, clutching his shoulder and grimacing. Blood stains his hands. I recognize him as one of Hideo’s faithful, ever-present shadows that I’ve seen go everywhere with him. Hideo’s face is clouded with concern, his eyes opaque with that deep, dark fury I’d seen before in his Memory. He’s saying something quietly to the hurt guard, who shakes his head and struggles to push himself to a sitting position. Beside him, one of the other bodyguards shakes his head as he listens to something on an earpiece.

“The police outside couldn’t keep up with him, sir,” he says.

Hideo doesn’t look away from the injured man. “Keep searching.” His voice is frighteningly quiet.

The bodyguard shifts. “They’re saying they lost him in the empty parking structure—”

“Then tear it apart until you find him,” Hideo snaps.

The bodyguard doesn’t hesitate this time. When Hideo glances up at him with a raised eyebrow, the man bows his head quickly. “Yes, sir.” He heads out with two of the others.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Kenn says to Hideo in a low voice. “For the last time—I’ll handle things in the arena. Go home.”