Chapter 5: Glitch

Akane stood, her sailor blue duster falling down gently against her calves. She was just as Kazuma had seen the previous evening; still with the same sporty, faerie-like air to her and radiating confidence.

'I didn't think I'd be seeing her so soon…' he thought, still stunned by the avatar's appearance.

"Well, preoccupied or not, the point is that you nailed this jerk!" The violet-haired avatar's remark caused King Kazma's ears to flick, pushing him out of his stunned train of thought. "And speaking of jerks, congratulations on the tie from your fight last night!"

"Yeah, nice job handling Fenghuang Lei," the dragon said with a smirk full of jagged teeth. "Too bad you didn't beat him, though."

"He holds the Seventh Ranking in the OZ Martial Arts Championship – I'm lucky I managed to tie with him at the last minute. He wasn't a particularly friendly opponent."

"No kidding," the dragon snorted. "I caught the play-by-play last night before Dad kicked me off the computer. That guy had some nerve trying to pull a dirty trick like that. I would've clobbered him!"

"Nah-ah-ah, Allen~!" The violet-haired girl patted her leviathan companion on the hide with a giggle. "Maki would have clobbered him; you would have flattened him!"

'Maki?' King Kazma raised an eyebrow. 'Who's that?'

"And you, Sukima, would have turned him into a crater," Akane joked with a small smile.

The bespectacled girl gave the faerie-like avatar a rogue grin. "Sure, if I'd been there. Too bad they don't hold too many group battles out at the coliseums. It seems like I've always got something gone on during those competitions."

"Is that what happened the last time?"

"Actually, we both had something going on," the dragon, now identified as Allen, admitted. "Suki and I had finals to worry about, so Dad limited the amount of time we could spend on OZ."

"Yeah, and he was trapped in the office a lot, so he wasn't able to relay any messages for us." The girl now known as Sukima sighed. "And I'm taking a couple of summer courses this year, so I don't get much of a vacation. College is fun, but the work can be a total pain."

"But you get straight A's, so it's worth the effort," Akane pointed out, earning her a deadpanned expression from the clearly older account holder.

"Just because the work is easy doesn't mean it isn't time-consuming," Sukima stated bluntly. "The only class I've ever had trouble in is Chemistry, and I'm staying as far away from that subject as I possibly can."

"And in the meantime, she just up and blows the grading curve in psychology," Allen joked, earning himself a smack upside the head. In response, he contorted his serpentine features into a goofy kind of look with his large eyes crossed and his long, forked tongue sticking out. His expression was comical enough that King Kazma snorted with suppressed laughter. Kazuma had to stifle his owned amusement so as not to attract his mother's attention.

"Anyway –" Sukima shot the dragon a dirty look "– now that we've got a bit of a break until I go back to school, how about we actually try to break our own record this time?"

"Heck yeah!" Allen cheered, coiling himself into an almost pretzel-shaped twist. "I wanna see what they've got horded up as the final level boss!"

"I'm curious about Level 150 myself," Akane said, grinning a little. "I say let's go for it."

"Okay, then let's –" Sukima's cheer was interrupted by the screeching sound of metal-against-metal. The trio froze, eyes widening at the sound. King Kazma's ears twitched.

"Uh… what was that?" Allen asked.

"Dunno." Sukima's chartreuse eyes narrowed and darted around. "Think the 78th Level's boss came out to play?"

"The boss for Level 78 isn't a mech," Akane said lowly, echoing the rabbit king's thoughts exactly. The fae avatar's shoulders tensed visibly. "I hope this isn't a technical glitch."

'It had better not be a glitch,' Kazuma thought apprehensively. Even though he was an amateur game developer, he was better protected than most when it came to his computer programs and applications. The Exhibition Games had been ranked as one of OZ's safest MOGs, second only to the OZ Martial Arts Championship and various other OZ-sponsored events that played host to significantly more virtual players than the fourteen-year-old's gaming platform.

Kazuma wasn't stupid; he knew enough about the virtual world to keep on his toes when it came to safety features. Tips from his uncle, Tasuke, helped out a lot in that respect. It paid to have a relative who specialized in electronics.

Akane and her two companions backed up and tensed defensively, eyes trained on the fallen mecha for Level 77. King Kazma's eyes narrowed as he watched the boss rise noisily.

"Is that thing supposed to still be moving?" Sukima demanded, voice slightly panicking.

"No," Akane answered, teeth gritted. "It's easily incapacitated by a sharp blow to the right side of its neck – there's a small piston you can jam that'll freeze up its functions. There's absolutely no way I missed it."

Kazuma and his avatar gawked at her words. 'How the heck did she figure that out? That wasn't an easy weakness to come up with!'

"Crap," Allen hissed, coiling up behind the two girls. "Looks like King Kazma upped the ante on this one."

"I don't think so, Al," Sukima said, holding her left hand out to the side. Kazuma was surprised to see a bronze staff with a twisted coil at the top suddenly materialize. "This game hasn't been updated since before the last time we played."

That had been well over four or five weeks ago, Kazuma thought to himself. He frowned heavily at his computer screen. What was going on with the battle mech?

The lumbering monstrosity managed to right itself before turning yellow-lens eyes onto the three avatars, electronic mechanisms whirring loudly enough for all of them to hear. King Kazma remained unnoticed from his position with the Eye in the Sky, eyes narrowed and mind moving at a rapid pace as time seemingly froze in those surprisingly few seconds.

'What's going on here?'

Kazuma's answer came in the form of three wild shouts and the sound of metal crunching against what might have constituted as concrete as the mecha's right arm came slamming down to where the trio had been. Akane, Sukima, and Allen had managed to scatter barely one second before the limb came in contact with the ground, sending up sparks and virtual debris.

"Plan! Now!" Allen yelled.

"Try the usual formation and see if that works!" Akane instructed, skidding to halt to the far left of the mecha. "Sukima and I will take the offensive; Allen, you handle defense!"

"Roger that!"

The dragon coiled and then darted out like a shot, nostrils flared and teeth gritted as he charged towards the mecha. The intended target quickly threw out an arm, slamming it into the dragon's skull with a sickening crack and shoving him off to the side.

Allen shook aside the sudden disorientation and coiled again, tendrils of smoke billowing out from between his teeth. His eyes flared momentarily and he charged again, this time ducking his head out of harm's way and maneuvering the rest of his body stealthily to avoid further injury. As King Kazma watched, the dragon succeeded in coiling around one of the mecha's arms and part of the upper body.

He cackled as the 77th Level's boss struggled to break free. "Got him!"

"Great!" Sukima cheered, barreling through the virtual dust that had kicked up in the scuffle. She twirled her staff furiously in her right hand, the top of it glowing pulsating amber. "Now to down this guy!"

The violet-haired avatar leapt effortlessly to close the remaining distance between her and the intended target, chartreuse eyes alight with some kind of energy the champion fighter could only attribute to the thrill of the battle. The staff arced and she looked ready to throw it as if it were a javelin.

But the unexpected happened, and the mecha regained its footing; in one swift movement, it swung the arm Allen was attached to and sent the bewildered dragon crashing into the older girl's avatar. With a yelp of astonishment, Allen accidentally loosed his hold on his opponent and was sent sprawling out onto the arena's floor, just barely missing Sukima.

Kazuma cringed, but looked on in horrified fascination. Out of the corner of his peripheral vision, he caught sight of something blue flapping in-between dust clouds. King Kazma's eyes darted in the direction of the movement, scanning intently for any further sign of the other female fighter.

His answer came quickly as Akane swept up from the billowing dust and sprinted up behind the mecha. Her jaw was set and her face determined - it was evident that she was aiming to win. Violet eyes were focused directly on the mecha's neck, just where the boss's Achilles' heel – the piston – was located.

Without warning, the girl's intended target spun around, flinging its arm at a dangerous speed. One fleeting look of panic crossed over Akane's face just before she narrowly dodged the flying appendage. She hit the ground fully, and was forced to roll over before a metal foot came crashing down where her head had just been.

King Kazma gaped at the scene in stunned horror. This wasn't supposed to be happening! Even if Kazuma didn't come around to check up on the Exhibition Games regularly, Sakuma and Kenji ran daily system checks per his request – one of the perks of having played a role in Love Machine's demise was being allowed a certain amount of leeway with OZ administrators. If there had been any glitches, Kazuma would have been alerted immediately, and the problem would have been dealt with as efficiently as possible. There was just no way something would have escaped the moderators' attention!

"Leave her alone!" Allen shot out again, aiming for the mecha's legs. The arm flung out again, crashing into the dragon's skull and sending him flying once again.

"Allen!" Sukima screeched, looking after the younger avatar in evident shock. While her back was turned, the mecha took the opportunity to throw its arm out once again, slamming into the violet-haired avatar's back and sending her skidding with a shriek.

"If you want to play dirty, then pick on someone who knows how to fight back!" A brown-booted foot slammed into the back of the boss's metal skull, causing the monstrosity to pitch forward and nearly lose its balance.

Akane jumped onto the behemoth's shoulders, eyes ablaze in evident fury. One half-gloved hand quickly slammed down onto the piston on the side of the mecha's neck, fully jamming it into its body.

The mecha shuddered and froze, seeming to cease all functions. Akane sighed heavily and slumped against the prone form. Kazuma sighed as well; he'd been really worried for a second there.

"Did you get him?" Allen called out, eyes rolling around dizzily as he lifted his head up. Bits of cyber debris fell out of his mane.

Akane looked up to answer, but was interrupted by the familiar sound of screeching metal. Disbelief waved over her faerie-like features, and she suddenly found herself being ripped from the mecha's shoulders. The avatar let out a shrill yell as she flew across the arena and squeaked upon hitting against the large wall. Kazuma's eyes widened as Akane let out a low moan and slid down, leaving a full-body imprint as evidence of the impact.

She shook her head dazedly, and snapped her attention up to the behemoth lumbering towards her. She attempted to get up, but found the task to be far from easy thanks to the injuries she'd sustained.

'Crap,' she couldn't help but think, and cringed against the wall as the mecha pulled its arm back for a punch.

The expected blow was never delivered – to the fighting trio's shared astonishment, a white and red blur sped in front of Akane and a fist went directly into the mecha's jaw, sending it reeling back.

Their rescuer jumped back before crouching into a fighting stance, red eyes narrowed in his opponent's direction.

"Oh, my god…" Sukima gasped. "It's King Kazma!"

"What the heck‽" Allen gawked as he watched the champion fighter deliver another blow to the mecha before it could recover, and slamming a roundhouse kick into its side. "When did he get here‽"

"He's the administrator for this game setup – why wouldn't he be here?" Sukima snapped, eyes glued to the fighter as he dodged an incoming blow. Akane leapt off to the side, her own eyes trained on the fighter as well.

King Kazma rounded on mecha again, each blow sending the behemoth reeling. With another blow to the jaw, he sent the boss pitching backward. Seizing the opportunity, he jumped up and grabbed at the mecha's head, twisting it around with a violent jerk. The sound of snapping cyber cables and popping bolt filled the virtual arena before he leapt aside, landing gracefully in front of his opponent.

"That's how you play dirty," he muttered angrily, eyes glaring. The mecha collapsed, sending waves of virtual dust and wind all over, blowing his ears back. King Kazma merely narrowed his eyes against the debris, now satisfied that the monstrosity would not be getting up again.

"Whoa…" he heard Allen breathe. A quick glance to the side revealed that the dragon avatar had slinked up closer to the battle, and was now looking over the champion's shoulder with bulging eyes.

"Just what the heck was that, anyway?" Sukima asked in an awestruck voice, appearing on King Kazma's other side.

"Technical glitch," he said tersely, taking a step forward and frowning down at the fallen mech at his sneakered feet. "It must've shown up after the moderator's ran their system checks earlier. I'm going to have to report this and temporarily shut down the Exhibition Games until I can figure out what happened."

'Damn it,' he internally fumed. 'How did something get by Kenji and Sakuma?'

He turned around and gave the two an apologetic look. "I'm really sorry about this, you guys."

"Don't worry about it," Sukima said with a dismissive wave of a gloved hand and a suddenly brighter tone of voice. "If anything, we should be thanking you for saving our butts back there."

"Yeah, really," Allen agreed, thumping his tail against the ground for emphasis.

"He's the reigning champion in the OZ Martial Arts Championship for a reason, after all." King Kazma looked to the side. He was surprised to find Akane grinning up at him.

Kazuma's fingers hovered over the keys of his laptop in sudden hesitation. What was he supposed to say to her?

"I saw your battle with Fenghuang Lei the other night," he finally managed after a moment. "I was really impressed; he isn't the easiest person to beat."

Akane's smile went from somewhat admiring to immediately embarrassed; she shifted her gaze off of the champion and looked off to the side. "As I said before, I was just really lucky. He holds the Seventh Ranking in the OZ Top Ten. I'm barely in the 1000 range."

Allen snorted loudly, issuing little puffs of cybernetic smoke from his nostrils. "Are you kidding me? You've got enough talent to make it up to the OZ Fighting Hundred if you'd just get out there and start kicking tail!"

"You mean starting with yours?" Sukima taunted, thwacking the dragon on the head with her staff.

"Hey!"

"I'm not all that great, Allen!" Akane protested.

"I thought you were pretty good," King Kazma said without thinking. Akane looked at him incredulously. He raised a hand to halt any forthcoming protests. "And the fact that you found out this level boss's weakness is pretty impressive, too. I'm surprised – not many people had that figured out."

Akane shrugged. "If you study an opponent long enough, you eventually find out its weak points. It actually took me several tries before I finally figured it out." She frowned and looked over to the mecha in question. "Well, at least I thought I had it figured out."

King Kazma frowned as well, though more at Akane's crestfallen expression than the actual incident. "Like I said, I'll have it taken care of. I'll have to send out an official alert on the message boards to let everyone know that the Exhibition Games will be closed for a while." Kazuma sighed over his laptop; he hated it when nothing went right.

"I guess we'll just have to check the message boards then." Sukima let out an exasperated sigh. "Still, thanks a ton for handling that boss. We owe you one."

He waved the offer aside. "You really don't need to –"

"Actually we do," Akane interrupted. Violet eyes looked up at him sharply. "Even though you're the administrator of this game, you weren't obligated to bail us out like that. If you need anything, just feel free to ask us. I'm Akane, by the way."

"Yeah, I know," he said, feeling a bit sheepish.

Allen wrapped one claw around the fighter's shoulder and squeezed lightly. "I'm Allen and the girl with the stick –"

"Staff!" Sukima corrected.

"– whatever!" He stuck his forked tongue out at her. "She's my big sister, Sukima. We're usually online on the nights and weekends, but feel free to send us a message anytime and we'll back to you as soon as we can!"

"Definitely," the other girl agreed.

Kazuma wracked his brain for a way to respond. In truth, he disliked massive amounts of attention and tended to avoid contact with other OZ members outside of his family, Kenji, and Sakuma – he had far too many fans milling about to contend with comfortably. These three, however, were a bit different. They sounded like they sincerely wanted to repay him for assisting them, and not just because he was the top competitor in OZ's Martial Arts Championship.

And he was pretty curious about that Akane girl…

"Tell you guys what," he said after a moment's thought; "after I get the issue fixed, how about we all test the Exhibition Games out before I officially reopen it to the public?"

Allen and Sukima exchanged excited looks with one another; Akane raised an eyebrow.

"Seriously?" Allen's face was suddenly mere inches from King Kazma's face.

"Seriously."

The dragon let out a cheer that came across more as a roar and twisted around happily. Sukima burst out laughing.

"Well if Allen and Sukima like the idea, I'm in." The white-furred fighter had to look down a bit to find a cinnamon-colored hand extended toward him, a grinning Akane just beyond it. He accepted it gladly and took her hand, effectively sealing the deal.

Yet in spite of the handshake he shared with the female fighter, Kazuma couldn't help but feel somewhat uneasy as his eyes trailed back to the motionless mecha lying on the arena floor. Glitch or not, Kazuma knew in the back of his mind that nothing out of the ordinary would have escaped either Kenji's or Sakuma's attention.

The idea that something had gotten past them bothered him considerably.


*MOG – multiplayer online game