The Champion is PlayingCode Hero

The Champion is Playing
Code Hero

The main character appeared to be in the future, and he is ready to show female aristocrats and heirs of ancient houses the spirit of a player from 2010s.
They have a better education, they are smart, they are cunning, but they know nothing about how to play, given the standards of our time!

Prologue

THE ORPHEUS CLASS

Taking off the hoop that had just taken me into virtual reality, I had to sit down for a bit. Going from one environment to another so quickly caused my body to tremble and I almost crashed to the floor. These latest news were really surprising. I could only wonder whether my past life had just been a memory from a game. Or was it merely a coincidence? Anyway, the best way to figure it out would be to put the hoop back on my head. I was sure that the answers were hidden somewhere in the game.

“Emms...” I called out to my assistant. I needed to make sure no one would disturb me. Even though the package had arrived through official channels, there simply wasn't any information available about any virtual reality hoops, therefore, it would be better to stick to a more cautious approach.

“Mr Kornev, I have already asked you several times to not use unprofessional nicknames!” she replied, her voice harsh. I’d gotten really unlucky with her, the woman kept snapping at me. I’d seen the assistants of my employees, and they behaved like good servants: they were dedicated, they made coffee... this one just kept lecturing me.

“Fine, fine. Please make sure no one disturbs me today, I’ll be working overtime.” When I heard a grunt of confirmation from the other side of the line, I locked the door.

Here we go, I’m ready.

Enter

The world around me lost its colors, same as last time. While sinking into the darkness, I saw a message written in blood red letters hanging above me: “Choose your class”. This time, I had to make a choice. Maybe a necromancer, considering the fact that it already had a place in my heart? No, a mage was not really my thing: I didn’t know why, but there was just no appeal for me there. Which meant that, just like before, I had to choose some sort of warrior class—a barbarian immediately caught my eye, and the system moved me closer to the figure dressed in fur and armed with a huge battle ax. Or maybe I could choose something completely new? A knight in shining armor? Considering how many of those I’d crushed recently, I didn’t think so. An archer? It was a sneaky approach, fighting your enemies from a distance, but as they say, whatever it takes to win a battle. And what was this button for?

You have enough development points to create an individual class for your character.
Do you wish to spend one thousand development points?

I had no idea how I’d gotten these and if I should’ve maybe saved them for future use, but an individual character class was always better than a generic one. I had to try it.

You have created the Orpheus class.
Confirm?

Well, of course! I hadn’t spent one thousand points for nothing! Even though I believed that it would’ve been more fair if the game developers had provided some kind of description of the classes, because relying only on a character’s appearance didn’t seem that useful or professional to me. I’d even say there was definitely some kind of trick involved.

A moment later, I was already inside a real world, or, to be more precise, a virtual one, but it met all the requirements. There was the Sun, grass, wind, land covered in stones and other players running around. They didn’t kill me while I was just standing there and blinking in confusion, so I figured they weren’t enemies. There were a few paths leading from the central area to the woods: a female lizard was sliding down the first one, a slug in armor and a stone giant were moving along the second one, and along the third one, something with very long ears had just jumped up and started traversing along the branches of the trees along the path.

“I wish you all a good hunt.” According to the highlighted icon on the map, it was the slug that had sent this message to everyone. “Is there anyone here from the ‘Brotherhood of Steel’?”

Is that some kind of local clan? I figured it wouldn’t be bad for me to tag along in the beginning. Maybe I should try and lie to them? On the other hand, considering that I didn’t know anything about this game, they’d definitely catch me lying right away, and it would only get worse.

“Oh, hell.” Without waiting for an answer, the slug sent another message: “Three players from the Black Dragons clan are against us. It seems like today is the day we lose. A group of noobs stands no chance against a well organized team, and I can’t carry you alone”.

“I’m on my own.” It just so happened that I’d been writing my message at the same time as this nervous guy, but sent it after him, while he’d already managed to write one more. But it wasn’t really my fault, it always took some time to figure something new out.

Then, suddenly, everyone went silent, and it seemed it was because of me. I was apparently the master of demoralizing my allies.

Never mind, man, it’s time to move.

But first, I had to check what sort of class I’d gotten. Orpheus—I remembered this hero’s name from Greek myths, but I couldn’t remember what he was famous for: was he the one who’d gone to the Underworld, or had he played some kind of musical instrument? It could just be that the second option was something I’d come up with because of all the game sounds I was hearing. I looked around me once more, making sure that nothing was going on, and then I started examining myself from each angle.

A pair of pants, a coat, a wide hat—it was all made of some kind of metal-coated fabric, however, it wasn’t even slightly uncomfortable. And in my hands, I saw something that seemed unusual—a sword. Why had I received this weapon used in close combat when my armor had clearly been made for a more long-range fighting style?

A portal suddenly opened up and a bunch of creatures that looked like monster frogs appeared right next to me. The creatures were gigantic, about 6 feet tall. I almost attacked one, but the system showed me they were allies.

What the hell is going on here? What am I supposed to do in this game?

“Hey, Orpheus, stop standing there and doing nothing! It’s about to begin!”


Chapter 1. The Most Difficult One

Dan
An elf had decided to end the silence by sending that message. Should I follow him? He seemed to be the friendliest one there. However, after seeing the frogs dividing into four groups among themselves, I started thinking that maybe I had a direction of my own that I could follow in this game.

I wanted to rush forward—explore the world around me—when a blinking interface icon caught my attention. Of course, it turned out to be worth clicking because the world around me instantly became better and clearer: the system suggested that I should learn an additional skill. It turned out I already had one available.

Zero Shot
The most basic attack of the Orpheus class: deals 10 damage and weakens the opponent (1 charge inflicts -10% speed). Maximum number of charges you can stack: 3.

Considering that, at level one, I had only 100 health points, it didn’t look very promising. However, the new skills were much more interesting.

Reverse Thrust
It seems to be impossible to use this skill without a gun barrel, but for an Orpheus, impossible is just a word. When the reverse thrust is activated, it releases a jet of flame at the enemy that causes 5 damage and increase your speed by 50% for 10 seconds

Cursed Bullet
When a living being dies, the power of death concentrated and gathered in a special manner produces a unique bullet. Your attacks carries its destructive energy within it, crushing your enemies.
1 charge: 50 damage
2 charges: 90 damage
3 charges: 150 damage

I had no clue why bullets and shots were being mentioned, given the fact that I was a swordsman! This had to be some mistake. I knew something would go wrong, it always did. But overall, it didn’t look so bad: at first, a few Zero Shots, then, a Cursed Bullet, and the enemy would surely die. But at this point, it seemed I could only use my sword. Without even looking, I chose one of the available skills—well, let's go.

At the beginning, when I’d first seen my skills, I’d wanted to follow the elf, but now, however, I was ashamed because I had no idea how to use my abilities. So, I took the fourth path, an empty one, following the frogs that were jumping ahead. It was all very realistic, like in Pantheon. I just wished that my old friends could’ve been here with me. All of a sudden, not letting me get lost in my thoughts and making me jump aside, a few archaic towers rose from the earth: they were wooden, with copper cannons placed at the top, with huge frogs next to them, ready to fire. Everything looked like it was a real world, however, there were some problems if one applied common sense.

I thought of going deeper into the woods, instead of following the beaten track—but, obviously, the only goal here was to have a quick battle between the two sides, and if you didn’t participate, your development would slow down and you would become an easy victim for any of the enemies. And given the fact that they had a well-organized team—it wasn’t really an easy choice to make. Should I give up, like the slug had said? Well, that was one thing that wasn’t going to happen! I hadn’t known much in Pantheon either, and I’d managed to get to the bottom of it. Here, not only money was at stake, but my memories, too. Therefore, throwing in the towel was not an option.

All I needed was a good strategy. What had I learned by now? We had a base, and a few paths leading away from it. On those paths, groups of monsters and other players could be found; and I guessed that it was pretty much all the same for our opponents. What else? Oh, yes, the towers—they were a sort of support point for us. If we were fighting against artificial intelligences, I could try and lure some of them into their attack zone, but that definitely wouldn’t be a surprise for other players.

Think, Dan, think.

I had no solution, which only meant that I didn’t have enough information. So I decided to move forward with three goals in mind: to figure out what was going on, try to kill the enemy heroes, and to not die. The plan wasn’t really great, but it was better than nothing.

However, a surprise was waiting for me just around the corner: I managed to avoid a hole in the road and, just for a second, found myself under the branches of the roadside trees, when electricity ran through my suit, which changed its color to match the environment, and my body somehow dissolved into thin air. Invisibility, not bad—after that, I continued running forward with my mood significantly improved.

After a while, I was at the battle site—staying invisible, I observed the first clash in this game. A group of allied frogs met the enemy army. Small but quick snake people fought with knives, cutting their opponent’s membranes, and leaving them with bloody wounds. The frogs, armed with clubs proportional to their size, were striking slowly, but if they managed to hit the enemy, it would take away half of their health points. All in all, regardless of the tactics, their forces were equal. And that was when an enemy hero interfered: something appeared for a moment from the bushes, spat out acid that immediately covered all of my frogs, and then went into hiding again. It meant that other players could be invisible too, and what was really annoying was that their skills were actually working. The green spots stayed on the frogs for some five seconds and took away one third of their health. If we kept going like this, we’d soon lose, but I wasn’t going to lose hope. Staying invisible, I walked around the field getting ready to try and kill that player if he showed up again.

Who could’ve known it would be worth it to try and get closer to him and that our invisibility would stop working. Fortunately, all of this turned out to be a surprise for the both of us: the snake missed with its spitting attack and I managed to luck out and approach the enemy and cut its throat with my sword. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be happy about, considering that I’d only caused 5 damage and there weren’t any wounds on the opponent’s smooth skin. It was clear that it would be better if I didn’t get hit by the special attack of my opponent, so on the backswing, I tried to punch the snake’s body with the hilt. Maybe the strength I’d gained at the Pantheon was gone, but I still had some memories of close combat. However, it didn’t have quite the effect I’d expected.

Skill Reverse thrust activated.

A jet of flame shot out of the handle of my sword, slightly burned the snake’s face, and then, like a rocket engine, pushed me into the woods. I hadn’t been taught how to fly a jetpack, but what had just happened seemed to be something similar to that. So, ten seconds later, when I stopped sliding, I was already deep in the forest and I could hear the sounds of battle coming from far away.

It looked like my skill had worked, but how? I tried to hit an imaginary opponent with my sword—it had no effect. Maybe I needed a real opponent? How about trying to shoot? I aimed the blade forward, looking like I was aiming at an imaginary enemy. And suddenly, the lower part of my sword changed its shape and I became the happy owner of a sword-pistol.

Skill Zero Shot activated.

Two rays of light shot out and moved toward a massive bush some 30 feet away from me. It looked like either a target wasn’t really necessary for the activation of skills or... The outlines of the bush disappeared and two giant beasts, covered in ulcers, appeared in its place.

Cursed bear, level 3

Looking over their crooked paws, the monsters immediately rushed toward me, and considering that each of them had 300 health points, I didn’t think it would be easy to deal with them. On the other hand, they weren’t human beings with inherent cunning, but simply programs—I could deal with that.

I waited for them to come closer and then hit each of them in the face with the handle of my sword, activating Reverse Thrust. I still only had some 10 seconds until they caught up with me and I had to concentrate on not tripping over some roots or bumping into a tree. I managed it, and with the third activation of my jet accelerator, I successfully adapted to the rapid movement. The bears received three charges of my Zero Shot which slowed them down by 30% and deprived them of the chance to get any closer to my priceless self, even during the time my haste ability was on cooldown. Basically, it was very simple—the main thing was to hit them in proper order and not let the debuff disappear.

You have killed a Cursed bear, level 3.
You have reached level 2.
You have received 1 skill point.
You have received 250 gold.

After defeating the first opponent, my health was automatically fully restored and even better, thanks to my increased level, it was now up to 200. I used my skill point to get a new ability, and as I did so, some runes appeared on the surface of my sword-pistol and the corpse of the first bear turned into ashes, becoming a part of my weapon. My finger reflexively pressed the switch that had appeared on the weapon and, instead of the unusual rays of light, darkness came out of the sword’s end. Followed by a sound that resembled a howl, it drilled into the body of my last opponent and reduced its health from 140 points to zero.

You have killed the Cursed bear, level 3.
You have reached level 3.
You have received 1 skill point.
You have received 250 gold.

One more level. As it turned out, I wasn’t that bad at this—I used my additional skill point to upgrade my Cursed Bullet, immediately increasing its power by half. Now I could return to fighting other players—this time, I had something to fight with. But as it turned out, I’d lost my way for a while, during my jetting around the area, and I hardly had any idea of where I’d come from, but fortunately, the sounds of battle showed me the way. Ten seconds after the end of my fight against the bears, my suit once again blended in with the environment. So that was how it worked.

What’s more, I was happy to notice that, by leveling up, I’d become faster. I reached the closest path very quickly and a familiar sight appeared in front of me: the small snakes had defeated the last frog and were now aiming for a tall cannon tower. A shooting noise caught my attention as two of the snakes were blown to pieces. Such an attack deserved respect—it seemed that it wasn’t so easy to deal with the local artillery. Or was it?

At that moment, the enemy hero appeared from the bushes, but this time, it was a different one—a huge beetle wearing a suit of armor. It immediately raised its horns and rushed forward at the speed of a lightning bolt. The whole wooden construction of the tower swayed and the latest shot of the brave frog division missed its target. The enemy hero wouldn’t be able to use that kind of ability again any time soon, but it was obvious that if I didn’t do something, he’d destroy the whole place. Fortunately, I was able to attack from a distance: three Zero Shots followed by a Cursed Bullet. The energy from the corpse of the recently killed bear was enough to activate the skill and the enemy’s health was reduced by half. However, at that moment, I found out that he wasn’t alone. Just a few seconds after I attacked, a dark-skinned figure holding big, curved daggers in her hands appeared right behind me. What is this, some kind of a dark elf? I had no idea what she’d wanted to do, but it took me less time to hit her with the hilt of my sword than it took for her to take a full swing. I activated the jet stream again, slightly burning her white brow and forehead, and rushed to the side. With such a skill at my disposal, I was hard to catch, at least for these two.

But suddenly, I saw a third foe—a mage with a bright scarlet cloak who banged his staff against the ground. Vines burst out of the ground and trapped my legs. They didn’t reduce my health points but I couldn’t move, and the dark elf was already rushing toward me to punish me. That overgrown beetle looked like it was thinking about doing the same thing. Having no other choice, I fired two shots at the approaching assassin—fortunately, the vine trap wasn’t meant to last forever, and just when I’d thought that it was all over, it disappeared. In the end, it didn’t turn out so bad—I again hit the elf with my sword and hurried to hide in the woods. The game seemed to appreciate my actions and rewarded me with one more level up and 500 gold. This time, I decided to upgrade the thrust that had helped me so many times.

Should I go back? Or maybe look for a clear path? There were three heroes all gathered here at once, which meant that other places should be safer. And then my gaze met some familiar bushes—the ones that had bears inside of them.

I raised my sword, aimed and fired. Just as I’d thought, it was an illusion—behind the green cloud that was fading away into the air, a huge ogre was standing, beating his chest. He was level 8.

I was probably rushing things too much, if I’d ended up attacking such a huge monster.

Then again, slowing down my opponent and speeding myself up proved effective once more. I won and even leveled up at the same time. Even though I hadn’t really been confident about my speed, and the swings of the ogre’s bat had gotten very close, everything went pretty smoothly. It was like riding a bicycle, your experience wouldn’t just disappear. And now I was sure that I could beat any opponent that specialized in close combat. Of course, what I should do against enemies using ranged attacks remained to be discovered later.

Having defeated the ogre, I decided to go back and check on those three enemy heroes, in case they’d decided to split up. That wasn’t the case, but at least the tower was still there. What I was glad to see was that their level hadn’t changed. They were level 4, while I was now level 5—those monsters hiding in the bushes had helped me a lot and I believed I was doing fine. The main thing was not to relax. However, I couldn’t deal with that gang alone, so I just fired a few shots from behind the bush, turned around, and ran into the forest again. For now, I’d use the hidden monsters to level up—it was both faster and safer.

The next thing I came across was a family of boars—I didn’t level up after defeating them, but I earned 300 gold. Running past the tower, I again checked on those three, and, following the tradition, fired a shot at their backs. It looked like they knew where I was coming from this time, but they couldn’t find their way around quickly enough and also deal with my speed. I wasn’t foolish enough to get close to them at my normal speed and only went in when accelerating. Hiding on the opposite side, I kept looking for some suspicious bushes, and I found them soon enough. The eight thugs that had gathered at the fire made me run around a lot, but in the end, I managed to reach level 6 and had the chance to get a new skill.

Sword’s Song
Only those who can stand up for what matters to them can be truly free. By calling on the ghosts of the swordsmen of the past to witness your power, you can freeze time around them for 2 seconds.
Damage: 300

It was weak, considering that my Cursed Bullet was already stronger at this point, but alright. I knew where I could test it: running toward my three friends that had almost finished off the protectors of the tower, I used my new skill and just ran away. I didn’t want to fall into the vine trap once more and die.

I didn’t receive any messages saying that I’d killed someone, but I got some experience and money. I had reached level 7 and now had more than 2,000 gold.

Now I just had to figure out where and on what to spend it.


Emma Sullivan
That was the first night Dan had decided to stay late in the office. Honestly, I’d already been starting to doubt my decision to start working with him, but after that, my faith in his genius instincts was restored. I had personally learned in advance that they’d decided to bring serious changes to the market, it wasn’t for nothing that my mom had special people working for her in the treasury, after all, but how had he figured it out? Although, I believed this was probably an exaggeration, so far, he most likely only had suspicions. What he did tomorrow would determine his competence.

Of course, I understood that he’d implemented an ingenious and delicate way of working with people throughout our branch and it said a lot about his level, but he needed to demonstrate his skills in other areas, too. At least enough that I wouldn’t lose interest in him. There were a lot of geniuses in this world, but I wanted something special for myself.

“Emma!” It was my mom again. She kept calling me every night to try and persuade me to come back. “You obviously don’t understand: if journalists find out that a member of a royal family is living somewhere at the outskirts of the world, carrying around forged documents, it would be a scandal”.

“That’s why we have Eric,” I said, smiling to myself. No matter how this adventure ended, I really liked it so far. Also, the way I was managing to push Dan’s buttons without letting him figure out who was behind it was really priceless.


Marat Abramov
Sarah had laughed when I’d decided that my character would be a slug, and look what happened. She had already been eliminated, and I’d held out until the very end of the qualifying stage. This new game was something special indeed. Of course, every time I remembered all the documents I’d filled, all their rules and conditions I’d agreed to, it gave me the creeps. In fact, I believed that if I tried selling information to anyone or posting it somewhere on the internet, it would all be over pretty quickly. In every possible meaning of that expression. It wouldn’t mean anything that I’d ranked 13th on the list of the richest heirs in the world, that wouldn’t stop them. I even understood these people, damn it: anyone who had access to such technologies would easily feel like a god.

And what could these gods offer to the winner? The chance to become one of them? Of course, that was only my guess, but it couldn’t all be like that. At the beginning, few dozen battle royales happened—it was a good way to eliminate the weak ones. After that, only 200 players had remained in the game, and they’d gathered us in a virtual area and taken off our character’s masks, bringing us back to our human forms. It was so weird to see that my allies and opponents were people I’d done business with, or people I’d met at royal or presidential receptions. A few big groups were spontaneously formed right away. The Brotherhood of Steel—along with me, it was an alliance of strong European players, connected by their old family ties. The Black Dragons—this was mostly the Asian clans that had acknowledged the supremacy of The Great China’s emperor’s son. The Foreign Legion—this group had gathered very ambitious young leaders who, on the one hand, didn’t have good enough connections to get a place in the first two groups, and on the other, were audacious enough to believe that they could achieve something on their own. There were also a few secretive clans who preferred staying hidden, and I knew nothing about them so far. But what could they possibly be hiding? Only their weakness, perhaps.

From that day on, players’ skill started increasing very fast: by meeting in the real world, players had a chance to use their wits and think of strategies and player combinations together, so that they would be ready for whatever comes their way if they were lucky enough to be placed in the same team. And when the time for the next game came, well organized teams of two or three people easily defeated single players.

However, I hadn’t been so lucky today: I was alone, and I’d had three opponents. Three damned opponents from one clan! The brothers Zhen, who were both mages, a giant caterpillar in armor called Gaudi, and the human hero Pericles, and, of course, the incomparable Julie Caas, whose character was an assassin named Faith. I had never been able to understand why she’d chosen to play with the Asians, however, they had only benefited from that. It seemed like I couldn’t win this battle, which meant that my dream of making the playoffs would have to be forgotten.

“I’m on my own”, said the message written by some random guy. What a strange character he had—Orpheus? I’d never seen that one before. And his words... It sounded like the motto of the Legendary Lone Players. They were said to invite only those who could win any battle on their own.

Maybe I still had a chance?


Julie Caas
We’d already secured our place in the playoffs, but my clan leader still wanted to strengthen his position and remove as many players from the other clans as possible. So, as usual, we’d fight at full capacity. And being a dark elf assassin, I had to say I loved my job. If the fans of the most famous French actress knew that she loved cutting the throats of her enemies, they’d have been shocked. I found the Europeans to be too soft when it came to this matter, and for that reason, I’d decided to join the Asians. Those guys not only shared my interests but also appreciated them.

In the beginning, everything went on as usual: moving past the low levels quickly, we formed an attack group that couldn’t be stopped, either by the NPC towers or the enemies who weren’t well trained. I even felt a little sorry for that guy from The Brotherhood of Steel, because without his clan’s support, he stood no chance. Although, even if there had been five of them, they still wouldn’t had stood a chance—I was just too good to lose.

And then this strange player appeared. Who was this Orpheus guy? I’d never heard of him. It seemed strange that he’d managed to pass through all the qualification rounds unnoticed. Apparently, he was experienced, as he’d already managed to reach level 3 and collect a few artifacts—with a quick series of attacks, he took away almost half of Gaudi’s health points. However, that wasn’t enough to beat me. Having decided to show off a little bit and finish this guy off elegantly, I showed up behind his back, but as I came out of invisibility, he immediately hit me in the throat with his sword hilt. It was my fault, I should have expected this: the shorter the blade, the less time it takes to swing it, therefore, he could reach me faster. And that jet of flame in my face—even a falling meteor wouldn’t knock you down so efficiently. It was good that there were three of us—Pericles, who kept himself hidden at a distance, immediately trapped him with vines. At that point, all I needed was to get to him and straighten out the misunderstanding caused by our first clash.

Two strikes, each of them slowing me down by 10%. But why only two? He’d fired three shots at Gaudi at once, and this time, he’d had time for more, but he was just standing there, doing nothing but waiting. Damn it! It had already been too late by the time I figured it out. He’d just wanted to slow me down enough for me to get close to him at the exact moment when the vines disappeared—and then he activated his reactive sword once again.

Looking at him, I completely forgot about Gaudi, who had cast a fireball in this direction. I could only be angry with myself when that fireball hit me in the back and took away all of my health points. But he couldn’t have calculated that as well. Or could he?

Taking advantage of this unexpected return to the starting point, I upgraded my weapons and armor, and went back to my lane. One death couldn’t have stopped us from winning: having a good strategy was so much more important than getting lucky. And that guy wouldn’t kill anyone else in this battle because I was ready to get my revenge.

“He’s back!” Pericles took a few blows from the bushes, and we were once again forced to stop our siege. Despite the fact that we’d set down an observer ward to notify us of his return, he was just too fast. We couldn’t focus on attacking the tower when such a dangerous opponent was nearby, but he didn’t attack us again. That bastard, it seemed like he was trying to break us mentally. His first attack had been successful, and now he was just imitating it, trying to prevent us from getting any further. The worst thing was that, somehow, he was succeeding.

He fired again—fine, this time I would not respond to his provocation. Gaudi and Pericles jumped back, getting ready to retaliate while I continued to attack the tower—we were behind schedule, it should’ve been destroyed by now. After that, I’d have enough money to afford a cloak of absolute invisibility—without being able to hide during battle, I felt quite helpless.

Now, I should stand aside and wait for that prehistoric ruin to strike. Our opponents’ minions were frogs, which are, as everyone knows, famous for being slow. On the other hand, their attack power was really high, and if they scored a hit, it wouldn’t be good.

Wait, what? I can’t move? It seemed that the bastard had taken advantage of the fact that I hadn’t moved away and paralyzed me. Did that mean that all of those random attacks had been meant not only to slow us down but to trap me, too?

You have been killed by the frogs’ cannon.

Two times in a row, he will pay for this!


Samantha Hollins
It had only been a week since the tournament had ended, but to me, it seemed like an eternity. Time was passing by so slowly, despite the fact that there had been so much going on. Suddenly, my father was trying to exclude me from the company management, while my grandfather, on the contrary, was supporting me. But for some reason, I didn’t really care at all about that.

Alessandro had called me yesterday and suggested we meet. Had I really been expecting a call from someone else? Now I couldn’t wait for tomorrow—I was really interested in the reason behind all the fuss. On the other hand, after meeting Dan, del Mayo had changed a lot: who he was back then and who he was now were two completely opposite things, like heaven and hell. It turned out that it wasn’t for nothing that I was thinking about my old ally and partner: Dan had just sent me an email, and he wanted to meet me. For a while, my brain froze, slowly thinking about why he wanted to meet me so unexpectedly and banishing all the uncalled-for fantasies. I put the painting away, even though paints and a canvas could always calm me down.

“Samantha!” The door swung open like someone had kicked it, and like a fury, Christina burst in.

I had no idea what she was doing here. And why was she behaving like she was at home? And who’d let her in, anyway? On the other hand, just try and stop someone like her.

“Christina?” I decided not to get up from my armchair, where I had been sitting for the last half hour, with my knees close to my chin, but she just approached me, grabbed my shoulders and simply pulled me back into reality.

“Look!” What was she showing me? It seemed like some online stream of some kind of game. The graphics were good, at the same level as Pantheon. It was interesting how advanced they’d managed to make it. This looked like some new technology, not available to the general public. If you invested in them, you could earn millions.

“Geez, look at that face!” Having realized that I was thinking about something else, Christina zoomed in so I could see the picture better.

What did we have here? A man in a coat, with a hat and a sword for some reason, and his face...there was something familiar about it...

Is that Dan?!