For the first time in history, High School 13 had qualified for the Shanghai 16 School Tournament! They had done it! The impossible was made possible! They were going to fight 15 other teams for the title! High School 13 was now officially one of the best esports high schools in Shanghai! “Everyone has a dream, but what if you can make that dream come true?” It was something Lin Feng liked to say. One of his main motivators! The what if was now answered by Ren Rou, Ouyang, and the others who’d fought for this opportunity ever since setting up the esports team. They were jumping up and down with joy! Cheering and hugging and professing their undying loyalty to Lin Feng.
High School 13 had played their matches. Their next would be in the Round of 16 of the main tournament! They stuck around a little longer to see how their potential opponents played before deciding to go and have some dinner together. A team celebration. The rest of their research would come some other time. They went to a barbeque restaurant that served special Belgium beers. It was one of Ouyang’s favourites, if the amount he talked about it was anything to go by.
After the waitress brought them their beers, in full and big glasses, Ouyang turned to Yang Fan. “Do you really think we can win this thing? Even you?”
Yang Fan adjusted his glasses and nodded. “Yeah, I really think we can.” He believed this team could do it. They had the talent and the drive. That golden trophy would be theirs! No one could beat them! They would fight and win! Not for the legacy they’d leave behind at High School 13. Not for the teachers, the students or anyone else but themselves. This was their dream! It was their hard work and never giving up mentality that got them here! And it would lead them to the trophy! Their dream would come true!
Ouyang laughed. He shook his head and raised his glass. “Then first place will be ours! Cheers!”
The players from High School 13’s esports team lost themselves in their joy for qualifying for the Shanghai 16 School Tournament. They forgot for a moment they would still have to play in it. All they’d done was pass the qualifiers. This was nothing. A first, tiny step. Tonji Affiliated High was the only strong team they’d faced so far. A team that never took them seriously and was caught off guard more than anything. A second game against them wouldn’t go the same. Then there were other strong teams like last year’s finalists Shanghai International School and Shanghai High School. These teams had the talent to make it far in higher level competitions, even at the National level. This was the kind of opposition High School 13, a team that averaged at Platinum only a few weeks ago, would have to beat to claim the title. It seemed nothing short of impossible.
“Mhm. It’s good that there’s a challenge!” Lin Feng exclaimed, flushed. He raised his empty glass to the air, another empty one on the table, and said, “How boring would life be if it was easy! Right? Let’s fight!”
However, High School 13 wouldn’t be fighting again that night, or the next day. The main tournament wouldn’t start until a week later. This gave the teams some time to research their opponents and prepare for the matches. Higher quality League games were what the organizers were looking for! The only deviation from this structure, and they’d only learned of this from hear-say, were the semi finals and finals. Those would be on the same day. But all of this was good news for High School 13. They were the ones furthest behind. They were the ones who had the most room to improve. And most importantly, they were willing to put in the time to improve! There was no relaxing. No slacking off. No anything but working their asses off and preparing for the next set of games!
Practice! Practice! Battle! And then practice some more! Through exhaustion! Through setbacks! Through anything and everything thrown their way! They would never give up! They would keep fighting! They would keep improving! And when the main tournament of the Shanghai 16 School Tournament finally began, they’d be ready to show all of Shanghai who the best school was! Battling their way through the rounds and lifting up the trophy! Anything less would be a massive disappointment.
The weekend came and went. High School 13’s esports team spent all their free time practicing. Working hard, just to improve enough before the start of the main tournament. After another long day, Lin Feng got home. He took his shoes off and went to wash his hands, peeking his head into the living room to see what was going on. There were two voices. One belonged to Su Xue, but he also recognized the other one. It was Su Xue’s friend who would come over to mooch for food. Mooch for his food! He’d have to eat twice as fast when she came by!
Lin Feng walked inside the room and stopped for a moment. His foot hung in mid air. There was something different about Zuo You. Something a little more fiery. He looked her up and down and then stared at her hair. “Oh, wow! It’s even redder than normal!”
Zuo You chuckled and winked at Lin Feng. “I just had it re-dyed. Liking what you see?”
“Uhh…” Lin Feng scratched the back of his head. “It’s not very different. I mean, it was fine before…”
Zuo You rolled her eyes, annoyed. “Pfft. No point in talking to a kid. Do you even understand why I dye my hair? Let me tell you. I dye it to my mood!” She pointed at her hair and added, “This is my mood today!”
“You’re feeling really lucky and thinking you’re going to win the lottery?” Lin Feng asked.
“No. Idiot. It means I’m pissed off! I’m fuming! I’m raging! I’m fucking angry!” Zuo You yelled.
Lin Feng raised his eyebrows high and nodded, wisely keeping his mouth shut. He knew better than to argue with an angry woman. So he sat down next to Su Xue and put some rice in his bowl while listening to Zuo You vent. It turned out she had every reason to be upset. Life had handed her a couple of bad cards. Back in the day, she used to work for the editing department of a large corporation. She hated it. Destested it. And wanted nothing more than to find another job. Which she had. She got accepted to the marketing department of another company and worked her way up until she was the woman in charge! But just when everything looked up, when she was enjoying her work life, upper management came to her. Their editing department was lacking in manpower and they couldn’t find qualified replacements for the short term. Upper management knew of her past in editing. So they decided to transfer her over. Temporarily. She had no say in the matter.
“Honestly, you have no idea how terrible an editor’s job is!” Zuo You grumbled. “It’s the absolute worst! I wake up and I have to think about it. I want to have lunch, but I can’t. There is work to be done. I want to go to sleep early, but there is a deadline that has to be made. There is no rest. No fun. Nothing except the next project. And I was just having so much fun with the marketing. All I had to do was take a client out for coffee, charm them a little, and everything else would fall into place. It was fun and relaxed. That’s what I want! Not this constant stress!”
Su Xue looked at her friend, worried. “So, what are you going to do about it?”
“Do about it? What can I do about it? Quit another job again? How’s that going to look on my resumé?” Zuo You asked. She slammed her chopsticks on the table and then wiped away the tears, that weren’t really tears, from her eyes. “I’ll work at this shitty editing department. Work behind my stupid computer all day and night and fight with this stupid fucking video editing software that crashes every ten seconds! I’m going to die from stress before I even hit 30!”
Su Xue didn’t eat. She’d placed her chopsticks down and leaned with her elbows on the table, staring at her friend. “It’ll be okay. You’ll be fine. This is just temporary. I’m sure you’ll get transferred back soon. Just a week or so. They just have to find someone for the position. Right? That can’t be that hard! I’m sure everything will be fine!”
Zuo You curled her lips and looked down at her bowl. Her loud voice turned quiet, even sounding a little weak. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll be so impressed with my skills that they make the transfer permanent. I’m just really good at this video editing. But I hate it. I don’t want to do it. Maybe I should start slacking off… That might help them send me back to the marketing department.”
“You’re actually a good video editor?” Lin Feng asked.
“What do you mean, am I actually good? Of course I’m good! Didn’t you listen? I was a video editor at my last job! They tried everything they could to keep me! I’m that good!” Zuo You grinned. Though she didn’t pat herself on the shoulder, it very much felt like she was from the expression on her face to the tone in her worse. She then put up her index fingers and pointed at Su Xue. “Speaking of which. You’re still dead set on that streaming stuff, right? It won’t ever work if all you do is stream a little. You need more. Have you thought about recording some videos and putting those up? You know, a vlog, commentary, reaction videos, those kinds of things?”
“Huh?” Su Xue blurted out, sitting up straight. “Posting videos? What do you mean?”
“Posting videos is what I mean! Every popular streamer has a video channel! If you want to become like them, you have to get one too! There are people who get really popular just making videos! You don’t even have to stream! All you need is some content and a good video editor. And well, you got me! You can be like that guy Smut Sentinel. He’s been getting crazy popular by making all sorts of funny and sexual jokes while doing commentary. His videos are already averaging in the hundreds of thousands of views!” [mfn]The name of the video content creator “鉴黄师” translates to something like porn viewing master, basically a reference to a specific government censoring position whose sole job is to scour the internet for pornographic content.[/mfn]
Su Xue glared at her friend, sitting back in her chair and far away from Zuo You. “What. Are you saying I should copy him? Make some sexual jokes? Wear a sexy maid costume?”
“Is this even a question?” Zuo You asked, her voice thick with ridicule. “Of course that is what you should do! Tell me. What is better than a guy making sexual jokes? A hot girl making sexual jokes, obviously! Oh. But I don’t mean you should copy him. All I’m saying is that his thing works. There are plenty of other styles that also work. You just have to find what works best for you. And I’m serious here. This could really help your stream.”
Zuo You grabbed up her chopsticks again and looked at her bowl, which still had some rice in it. Then she looked back up at Su Xue and continued, “I’m not telling you to stop streaming. Just make the videos on the side and send them to me. I’ll handle the video editing and special effects. You don’t have to worry about it. If the video tanks, whatever. Lesson learned, right? But if it does well, you’ll get more viewers, more fans. Your stream will become more popular. There are only ups to this plan!”
“That does sound good,” Su Xue admitted. She turned to Lin Feng and asked, “What do you think?”
Lin Feng had just stuffed a big piece of red braised pork into his mouth. He looked up and nodded. “Shounds god rto me.”
Zuo You started smiling. This was her chance. The kid was eating and her friend was interested. She said, “Plus, you won’t have to worry about finding any original source material. You got the kid. He’s pretty damn good at the game. Just have him play and you can commentate on his gameplay! It’s a match made in Heaven!”
“I’m not sure about that. That feels a little dishonest,” Su Xue countered.
“What dishonest?” Zuo You chuckled, shaking her head. “Other commentators do this all the time! They invite a professional player to make the gameplay while they talk. It’s just how these things work. But you got no connections. All you have is Lin Feng. But he should be good too. I saw him play against my friend. He’s good. So that’s good.” She turned to Lin Feng and nodded at him. “What do you think? Think you’re good enough to help Su Xue?”
What Zuo You asked of Lin Feng wasn’t as easy as him playing a few matches on the same Champion. Other video content creators invited famous players in different roles who played different Champions to get different perspectives. This was impossible for Su Xue right now. She could only rely on Lin Feng and his Champion pool. But Lin Feng didn’t seem one bit worried about this. He just laughed and pumped his fist into the air. “No worries! I got this! My Champion pool is really deep! I can play anything!”
Shanks Looked Deep Into His Soul, and I'm Not Sure We Like What He Found
We wanted to do something a little different and more fun for this thought. Because let’s be real guys, trolling you lot is getting too easy. We need more of a challenge. So we’re going to try a bit of collaborative storytelling.
It was a long and dark December, from the rooftops I remember. There was snow, white snow. Devshard walked alone on that crisp Autumn morning with that Coldplay song on repeat, filling his ears with harmony and melody. But even the rhythmic pounding of the bass drum proved to be an impotent salve for his soul. Writhing. Fluttering and flying. Across an unending churning of turmoil. Searching, seeking, praying frantically for the smallest island upon which it could find peace and rest. What he wanted in that moment, with the music, was to be vibing. But his thoughts and his feelings were reeling. Upheaving. The up-and-down of his mind racing and pacing, keeping tune to the beating. Of his heart.
It all started last evening. In the beginning, it seemed like a nuisance. A lot like a bit of ringing in the ears or the pins-and-needles tingling in your foot. Ignore it, that’s what he was thinking. When he first heard about it. But then it changed to a stinging, started pricking, the whole thing compounding and complicating. Gone were any thoughts of him sleeping. So he started walking. Just moving. Something to ease the aching. But it wasn’t really helping.
Devshard walked all night, not caring or knowing where it was that he was going. The only thing that mattered was a need, one that was all-consuming. He needed to find the point, still lost despite all his revealing. Where had he gone wrong with all his planning and scheming? From his perspective, they were climbing. Everyone was supposed to be happy. Feeling the high that they’d been riding. Together. But now, everything was crumbling. They were past the point of retreating.
Devshard had walked through town, dirt, and woods. Across pavement and road and cobbled, stony dirt. He found himself at the edge of a cliff. Standing. Looking. Questioning.
“Where did it all go wrong, and why didn’t I know it was happening?” He threw the question out to the empty skies. The horizon. Towards potential divine beings not predisposed to answering.
Then he heard a sound. Cutting through the dying echo of his question.
He turned around.
No one was supposed to find out. It was never meant to be this way. Shanks sat on the edge of his bed, hands over his face and head hung low. He glanced over at the suit beside him. It had brought him so much joy, but now it was his undoing. The catalyst of his worst nightmare coming to life. When did it start? he couldn’t help but wonder.
The pressure of translating daily was getting him and he was struggling to cope. He needed an out. A release to the feelings he’d been bottling inside him. The one day Devshard had sent him a video. He found it odd. Intriguing. Hilarious. But more importantly, he saw the answer he’d been searching for. The people in it were free. Unrestrained. Untethered by the grind of daily existence. Of the societal pressures that weighed down on them. So, he grew curious. And that curiosity led him down a rabbit hole.
First it was just watching videos. Then a little dabbing into community forums. And finally, he spiraled. He ordered a gimp suit and pony mask off Amazon and committed himself fully to the Pony Space. It was freeing. He wanted to trot majestically! He wanted to gallop and race! It was odd, he knew it was. He also knew there were many who thought the only people who were people were the ones that looked and thought like them. But there was more to life! Sometimes, abandoning your humanity was the only way to find your bliss. And his bliss, his soul, was that of a pony. He wanted to pound the earth with his hoofs, feel the rhythm. Feel the beat. He wanted to neigh with all the voices of the mountain, and paint with all the colors of the wind.
He wanted to tell Devshard. He really did. But when he first told Sietse about it, the first response was, “DON’T FUCKING BREATHE A WORD OF THIS TO DEVSHARD! EVER!” He didn’t understand. Devs was the guy running around telling everyone to be who they really are, to be okay with themselves. The Pony Space was odd, but it made him feel okay with himself. He really thought Devshard would understand. But Sietse didn’t. So they agreed to keep the whole thing a secret from Devshard. But he knew it would come out one day.
He enjoyed being around like-minded individuals. But he knew verdant lush fields of this paradise wouldn’t last. Couldn’t last. One day, this secret would be found out. He was prepared for that day, though. He would make people understand. Until then, he was content to keep up this farce.
It was a long and dark December,
From my sofa I do remember.
A video that played on repeat
Of a horse walking to the beat.
Its suit so tight around the curves,
And tack in full adorn.
It was no porn,
But a job that truly serves.
My eyes went round,
My night in ruin.
It was I who’d found,
A truly disturbing human.
The video came in a direct message. I clicked it open. Just another one. That’s what I thought. A funny video. Someone eager to share their joy. Never did I expect what I saw. I wasn’t prepared. Not for this. The images are still haunting me. A horse that wasn’t a horse. A man that definitely wasn’t a man. A disturbing combination galloping across the grass. The joy on his face. The pure bliss. It hurt more than I dare to admit. I wanted to ignore it, I really did. And still do. But the thousands of views and upvotes had me reconsider. The viral video we were looking for was finally there. But is this what we wanted? The sad answer was no. This wasn’t what anyone wanted. This was an abomination that should’ve never seen the light of day. It had. And with every refresh, that number of views kept rising.
Discord was going mental. But he was still asleep. The other half that made the whole. He was in bed, peaceful and ignorant. There had to be an explanation. Something. Anything! To have this whole thing make sense. So I called Shanks, the … who’d created yet another mess. A mess for me to clean up. He answered, blissfully ignorant. He’d seen the video, seen the comments, and sounded even a little proud of it. “What’s the problem?” A catchphrase I’d heard too many times before. “This is the problem!” I could feel him grow distant. He wouldn’t admit it. His voice went quiet. Then he left me with one short sentence before hanging up, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
The day grew late. The hours went by and the views kept going up. There wasn’t much time left. Devshard would find out soon, and then it would start. The yelling. The screaming. The arguments of a lover’s quarrel. I knew them all too well. More than once I found myself in the middle of them. These two knew love only in their own special way. But I still had to navigate through it, find a path that was safe to walk for me. So I grabbed my phone. I dialed his number. I heard his voice on the other end of the line. I said the words. “He’s a horse.” Devshard said nothing. Not a word. There was just silence. Then he said, “I’m going for a walk.” Then he hung up.
Shanks hung up the call. Then he turned to his suit, mask, and harness. If Devshard wouldn’t understand, he would make Devshard understand. He’d seen the loving relationships the other ponies had with their jockeys. He strapped on his hoofs as he continued thinking about it. A few had tried to tame him, but he’d repelled all their advances. Because there was only one person in his heart. There was only one who could be his jockey. And that was Devshard. Shanks got up from his bed and put on his Pony Suit. The choice was clear. He steeled his resolve. He knew where Devshard was. They’d always shared their locations with each other on the phone. He hadn’t turned it off. That was a good sign. He wants me to find him, Shanks thought.
Shanks opened the door, then set out into the morning mist. First he started out at a trot just to warm up. Then after the powerful muscles in his hindquarters and legs were warmed up, he broke out into a full gallop. His mane toosed in the wind as he raced towards Devshard. Over road and through forest. He stopped at a stream to catch his breath and take a few sips of water. And then he made his way up the hiking trail. Following it. Finally he made his way to the top. And he saw Devshard’s silhouette off in the distance. He stopped. Long breaths past in and out through his lungs. He willed his stallion heart to beat slower. He wanted to be ready when Devshard first saw him. Saw who he really was. He wanted Devshard to witness him in all his glory, a proud descendant of Pegasus.
He approached quietly. Taking care to make sure that his hooves didn’t even snap a twig. Then. When he was 10 feet away from Devshard’s back, he called out, “NeeeiiiiiiiggGGGGHHHHH!”