Chapter 17. The National Peculiarities

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Dan

Having tried to schedule a cab, I suddenly realized that I had a private jet at my disposal. A whole new plan on how to improve this already perfect date scheme appeared in my head.

From the early morning, after having just picked up Samantha in front of her rental apartment, we set off to the airport. She was trying to say no in a such a cute way, but a surprise was still a surprise. Next thing I knew, we were in the air: it seemed that airplanes became a few times faster: acceleration to the stratosphere and then the landing—I didn’t even figure out the details. The important thing was that during all that time, it was peaceful and comfortable inside of the plane: we spent the additional time on a romantic breakfast, which Samantha missed this morning, as I’d planned.

It was strange enough that an aristocrat like her agreed to spend time with such a perfectly ordinary man like I was. Even if it was, perhaps, out of pity, it wasn’t a reason not to enjoy something I would never get under the usual circumstances. However, there was no time to relax: I had to present the signature dish of the first stage of our date—my crown sandwiches. Two pieces of toast with a fat layer of mayo and ketchup, a couple of very thinly sliced pickles, a large piece of ham, all of it covered with a slice of cheese. Beautiful. Whoever said that only women could sweep a man of his feet by cooking—there was Samantha, frozen under the impression of my masterpiece.

Next, there was a walk, not the best but a necessary stage of our date. Having landed in my hometown, we walked along the river bank till the very end. And again, Samantha looked like she was having a good time. What could be so special about an ordinary walk in nature? But why would she lie so obviously—I was in a bad mood, but that was not the reason to spoil the date.

“Look.” I put my hand on her shoulder and showed her the old wooden bridge stretching over the tributary of the main river. Not less than 60 yards wide, it looked monumental, and it was the main chord of today: “Now, we will play a game”.

We’d had so much fun this way when we had been kids: we would make ships and let them float form the one side, while we were running to the other side to watch whose ship would arrive first. And this was just the right time to have fun. I collected some tree crust that fell on the bank from the pines that grew there and divided them in two equal parts. Samantha sighed—was my company really so unpleasant? It didn’t matter, I tried to show her that not only the aristocrats knew how to do stuff. The girl crafted something similar to a small speed boat, with a couple of spoilers on the back, while I made a real pirate schooner with three sails made of huge burdocks attached to the supporting structure.

“The one who wins gets to make a wish.” As I said that, I realized that we almost hadn’t talked about each other. Having released our boats, we could play a few rounds of “truth or dare”: it could be fun and informative.

However, we didn’t manage to find out who won: as we let our ships flow and walked to the finish line, three strangers showed up from the opposite side of the bridge. They were wearing heavy, leather raincoats. Look at them—sweltering heat on the streets and they were thinking only about their image.

“Now you will walk with us,” their leader said. Wait, was he talking to us? There were no other people on the bridge, so yes, this was definitely meant for us. “If you don’t do anything stupid, we will let you go in 8 hours and nobody will get hurt.”

“They want us to miss he next battle so that “Champions” would be disqualified,” Samantha whispered in my ear.

So, this was an ambush. And what now? Maybe my partner was trained in martial arts? I wouldn’t be surprised and it would be quite useful in right now. It turned out I was out of luck—Samantha only smiled and stepped behind my back. What was that supposed to mean? Was she suggesting I dealt with them? One against three? A fistfight? And this was an option only if they didn’t have any weapons. Last time I was in a fight was in the 8th grade. But considering the state I was in then, maybe that one time shouldn’t be taken into account.

“Aaaaa!” If that was what I had to do, it was better to finish it fast. I yelled and rushed forward.

If I am lucky, they will kill me fast and I won’t be embarrassed much.

However, instead of using any tricks on me, the leader simply pulled out a gun and aimed it at my chest. I wasn’t sure if it was a miracle, but either I managed to avoid the shot by bending down or there was something wrong with his weapon— but the whole trio in cloaks froze in amazement, and I immediately hit the leader’s jaw with my fist. He immediately fell unconscious, and it seemed that I twisted my wrist. Bending down due to the sharp pain, I immediately stepped out from the fight. Fortunately, my opponents weren’t in a hurry to finish me off. They pulled out the same strange guns as their leader, but it still didn’t bring me down. It seemed that, whoever was in charge for the equipment was about to be yelled at. It was the time for me to make my move: considering that my right hand was good for nothing, and I couldn’t even win a child with my left one, I switched to my legs. One of my old friends practiced kickboxing, so I at least saw how the legs could be used. A kick the head, one more in the chest, then the kidney and liver area—but with my stretching abilities I had only one choice. Two blows between the legs and suddenly we weren’t in danger anymore. However, it wasn’t a good idea to stick around.

Having returned to Samantha, I tried to pretend that everything that had just happened, the most importantly the outcome of the fight, had been predetermined but the girl just burst into tears and threw her hands around my neck. So it was necessary to almost die for her, for the coldness and reserve to disappear. It seemed that I was beginning to understand what women were expecting from men.

When we appeared at our improvised headquarters, and told the others about our little adventure, it was decided unanimously, with only me being in favor of abstention, that we shouldn’t provoke any more incidents and that we should stay in my office till the end of the tournament. Christina was sure that those who would risk attacking us wouldn’t find us here. All that was left to do was to win the game.

I suggested that Emma should be our connection to the outside world: they doubted that she would say yes to doing anything slightly unusual—honestly, I sometimes wondered what did she do here at all? But, it was enough for me to share my proposal with her, and she immediately agreed. She even seemed to be relieved.

And then several strange things happened at once. First, Vasily started showing interest in the details of my date with Samantha. The walk, the boats, the fight—he pretended to listen carefully, but I saw that he was just mocking me. I didn’t expect such a thing from him. I thought that we had already become friends, but apparently he was not ready to consider me his equal. After that, Christina dragged me to a separate room and blindsided me with some weird story. It was the end of the world, only the chosen ones would be saved and we had to get places among them. Did she really think I would believe in such nonsense? But why would she do that? Did she just want to mess with me? Or was that some aristocratic joke I had no idea about? In general, I tried to behave as neutral as possible, and then, when I was finally left alone I fell asleep.

The next morning started with a motivational tune similar to the soundtrack from the movie “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” However, it appeared to be only the sound of the timer built in the hoop, reminding me that the next match was about to start in half an hour. One eighth of the game, and we hadn’t prepared. And why hadn’t they warned me that the time of the next battle had already been scheduled? As it turned out, everyone in our team had missed the information about the start. Samantha and I had missed it because of our date, Christina because she simply had gone for a walk, and Vasily and Alessandro because they had been having some training at the time. Each of us had his own ants in their pants. At least, we were lucky that there were only the 5 of us on the team, and the teams had been formed automatically—otherwise, we could have been disqualified. It would be such a shame. Still, not on a whim I’d decided to get to the end and figure out all the secrets connected with me.

Enter

 

Immediately after we entered the virtual reality, a new problem was waiting for us. Our opponents—one of the five members of the Black Dragon clan—used one of the pre-start skills.

The player Dan Kornev has been forced to use the hero the “Captain”

 

“They knew you were our leader and tried to neutralize you”, way to go Christina, just the situation for joking. I was nothing close to a leader, however, the opponents focused on the one who was officially named the head of the team, and weakened exactly that person. At that moment I understood why they named me a leader: if someone should take one for the team, it should be the weakest one, logically. And while the rest of them were discussing our next move, I opened the description of my hero. Let’s see the skills of this “Captain”.

Harpoon

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The Captain throws his hook forward and drags the enemy to himself

Range—20 yards

Cooldown—10 seconds

Lookout

In case of danger, the hero jumps back 50 feet

Doesn’t work through control effects

Salted Bones

Increases health by 15%

Island of Death

The mysterious atmosphere of that place is still vivid in your memory. You can briefly show others what it means to be the sea wolf. The positive effects of all spells and abilities of your allies will last 2 times longer

What a trap! Our opponents really made an effort choosing a hero for me. Not a single combat skill. It was simply a meatshield instead of a hero, and how should I get anything done with this? Even the ultimate, super-skill that was received at level 6 looked like the life was mocking me.

“We’ve decided. I will take Chucky again, Samantha and Vasily will take the Joker and Gaudi to cover the first levels and help quickly earn gold for artifacts. Also, they have some good buffs, and your Island of Death will fit it perfectly. Alessandro, as Caesar, will try to control the mid lane, and you, Dan, should try to block the others as much as you can. What do you think?”

I listened to Christina’s words and frantically tried to imagine what to do next? Was this a failure? I wasn’t fit for anything with this hero, and the others—could the 4 of them win? All that had left for me to do was to believe in them and try not to look so sorry.

“Yeah, sure. I believe I can block the 3 of them with no problem.” When I already had no chances, it was better to fight against more opponents. That wouldn’t be so embarrassing.

“Great.” Was I imagining or did they seem relaxed? “If you are so confident, we will postpone the use of the skills that influence our enemies till the next round of battles.”

Me? Confident? Keep calm, Dan, these are only their snobbish jokes, be calm and natural. Don’t give in.

In the meantime, as we chose the heroes we wanted, the names and the avatars of our opponents appeared on the opposite side. Judging by the focused silence of Christina and Vasily, everything that happened so far didn’t contradict our plan. At least not so much that we had to make any adjustments. Although no, at the last moment, Vasily decided to change Gaudi to Harlequin, having muttered something about the battle being prolonged and that the hero with the main attribute dexterity would do more if he had enough time for development.

All 5 of our opponents showed up, and as it turned out I was already familiar with some of them from the previous battles.

Zhen Po—Gaudi

Zhen Xiao—Pericles

Feng Lee—Caesar

Julie Kaas—Faith

Xiuin Wu—The Witch of Salem

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I had never heard of that last class. Why was my whole team so tense? Was it something dangerous?

After losing Orpheus, my level of sarcasm simply skyrocketed, so as I saw my allies being in confusion, my face broke into a smile and I giggled. It meant that I wasn’t the only one in trouble here.

Samantha Hollins

A date with Dan Kornev. I was sure he would think of something special, but I’d never expected something like this. At first it seemed that his goal was to throw me off my stride: an unexpected start at sunrise, it was good I got up early, then the flight and his barbaric meal preparation. Do people really eat such unhealthy food?! It was weird how someone could get something so terrible out of healthy natural products.

The next thing was the walk— along the bank of an ancient city, which seemed not to be in touch with civilization. Shabby wooden railings, with a breath of eternity, fresh wind from the river and myriads of flower smells coming from the opposite bank that looked very wild. It all felt even stronger contrasted to the vanity of the first hour we spent together. From within, a wave of gratitude arose, and I wanted to cuddle up to Dan, who had arranged such a wonderful surprise—it took a miracle of willpower to keep my hands to myself. I didn’t know how it happened, but being away from civilization, the familiar environment, and my father’s spies who had been following me since childhood—I probably felt free for the first time ever. And I could never forget this.

And then Dan suggested we played some strange game. I didn’t understand the point: wouldn’t it be clear who the winner was according to the construction of the ships and the place from which we let them flow. I sighed heavily and decided to follow Dan’s example. He was very enthusiastic, and after that beautiful walk, he could be forgiven for being a little childish. I quickly shaped the tree crust that he gave me and added a small sail to it, noticing that the wind was blowing steadily to right to the side I needed it. Dan managed to create something monstrous during that time: a few pieces of wood piled on top of each other, high rear deck, like the one the old galleons had, tall, odd sails and a giant keel to keep the balance of all this. How could anyone think such an absurd construction would reach the finish line? Barely holding back giggles, I waited for the go-ahead, and at the same time we lowered our ships in the water.

“The winner gets to make a wish”, Dan yelled at the moment, and I blushed unwillingly. What was I imagining—this was only a friendly meeting: we would get to know each other and there were no other expectations.

In the meantime, the keel of Dan’s ship fell of due to the impact of water, the heavy sails outweighed everything else turning the ship over— only when they were underwater they started moving together with the water current, and my ship was left behind. It was impossible for him not to win, even here!

Heading for the opposite side of the bridge, we waited to see whose ship would arrive first. Because the construction was old and low, there was no way to know what was going on below us. It was some kind of black box—you could imagine anything in advance, there was no chance to know what was awaiting your creation down there and there was no way to predict results. Only luck and coincidence—it turned out that Dan didn’t cheat but was ready to rely solely on destiny. So, it wouldn’t be right to ignore his wish if he won.

When those strangers appeared and ordered us to follow them, the only thing I could do was to curse myself. Really, Samantha, was a date with that man so important that you forgot about the simplest caution? I was happy for the absence of surveillance, but I didn’t think about security at all. And Dan—he couldn’t think about everything. The only thing that pleased me was that the reason we were attacked was the game. If one of us had suffered because of the internal intrigues of one of my relatives, I would never forgive myself. Dan, as usual, didn’t lose his spirits and he even tried to cheer me up with a joke, asking if I was good at martial arts. It helped—I pulled myself together and stepped aside so that I wouldn’t interfere with my…partner solving this small problem.

The fight itself shocked me, never in my life had I seen anything like it. At first, I was surprised that Dan got into a fight so recklessly, but soon the pieces came together: the attackers had neuro-impulsive blasters. When they hit Dan in the chest for the first time without a warning I almost screamed. It was known that everyone who wanted to reach certain goals in life had implants built in while they were kids. The implants were increasing the speed of reaction, thinking, receiving and processing of new information. And neuro-impulsive weapon could block all that and cause a short term paralysis of the whole body and potential problems with nervous system or even brain. Having taken into consideration everything that Dan had already managed to show in the “Pantheon”, he definitely had an implant, and a very powerful one. Therefore, the consequences would be greater.

Would it be better to surrender? A thought flashed through my mind. The most important was that no one got hurt.

And at that moment, Dan somehow bent down awkwardly, took a hit into his right arm that he had extended, and there were no consequences at all. It seemed that he had no implants, but that just couldn’t be possible. Maybe he had some device sewn onto his right hand to help block such injuries. It seemed that someone had thought about our security after all. However the hit that Dan had taken to his device still had influence on his arm. Obviously, he couldn’t use it again to strike, but not that he needed it: with sharp moves he received 2 more punches to his arm, and then he knocked out the last two attackers with a crotch strike. This, of course, wasn’t the most noble punch, but for those who were on the other side of the law, this was still a very gentle move. If the attackers were picked up by the police, then the only punishment for using a neuro-impulsive weapon was death. Yes, endangering the brains of those who could lead our society forwards was an unforgivable crime.

And Dan, well, that winner’s smile suited him so well!

Christina del Mayo

My decision to follow this couple paid off: as I thought, nothing good came out of their walk. More precisely, nothing terrible happened, although now, while rewinding these events in my head, I still couldn’t believe that something like that was possible.

The blonde girl was clearly looking more at Dan, who, for some reason, didn’t show his true intentions. Well, a guy like him couldn’t really just go for a walk with someone. There had to be something else but I couldn’t see it yet. So, concentrating on him during the attack, Samantha probably noticed a potential gadget in his hand. The fact that someone not only managed to polish the theoretical part of that project, but also put it all in practice was worth a lot. However that wasn’t the point here, it was Dan’s movements. For example those two blows that he used to finish the fight. Observing from the side those were just two clumsy kicks, but what was really behind them? After all, one shouldn’t expect that real professionals, even with prototype weapons, would be so easily taken by surprise. First of all, the position—it was so uncomfortable for such a blow, that only a real genius or a complete newbie in fist fighting could go against his own physics. Second, the initial movements—if I had seen only that I would say it was the punch in the shin, and that the attackers tried to defend themselves from something like that. Third, the repeat of the attack—after the first stranger fell down, the second one expected anything but for the previous blow to be repeated, and he paid for it. All of this together, the inconsistency and apparent clumsiness that Dan had demonstrated made him nothing less than a martial arts master. And to reach his level of both physically and mentally—not everyone could do it.

So I decided to show all my cards to him. Having waited until the passion about this little adventure calmed down, I was finally able to take him away from everyone. I was even glad that I could finally share that information with someone—keeping secrets was actually a very, very difficult burden.

Two days after the final battle of “Pantheon”, when I went back to my business and looked through analytics on the world market, it turned out that someone, even though not openly, began to invest huge amounts of money, that weren’t connected on the first sight. I tried to reach that mysterious player, and to my surprise, the meeting was arranged very easily. An expensive restaurant and a huge man in the role of a responder—I got only a few words, “everything is coming to an end, we are leaving; if you want to get everything, prove your worth”. And when the package with the hoop arrived, it finally became clear to whom and how I needed to prove my superiority.

Now that I was saying this out loud, I understood that, observing the whole situation from a side, it probably seemed like a stupid joke, but people with such capabilities didn’t like jokes. Dan’s look was a bit condescending and supportive at the same time. I felt relieved and when he didn’t ask a single question, I realized that he already knew everything. How could I’ve ever thought that a man like him wasn’t informed?

Alessandro del Mayo

Vasily and I wandered around Sydney all day meeting some girls. After the Ice Queen Hollins herself wasn’t able to resist Dan, we needed some confidence boost. And, frankly, this day wasn’t a waste. If it wasn’t for this, probably Mamontov wouldn’t be able to resist saying what was on his mind after Dan’s condescendingly short story about his successes on the love front.

I didn’t know what the girls were doing, but it wasn’t a surprise that we didn’t check all the messages we missed that day. Generally, we almost overslept for the beginning of the next round—this was, of course, odd for us. I wondered if we were recorded and shown online, would such a show be popular?

After that, there was a trap from the “Black Dragons”—yes, we had the same opportunity, but it was too early to use all of our best tricks… As a result, we were backed against a wall: Dan had no chance to take over the mid lane and lead with his new hero, so we had to take over the main roles and let him try to keep the enemies away as long as possible. Fortunately, after thinking for a few seconds, he smiled again—it meant that things weren’t as bad as I thought. Let’s fight a little bit more.

The Witch of Salem fought against us, a hero of the legendary class. Due to rushing, we didn’t prepare nor study our enemy, and now—did we even have a chance?

And Dan almost burst out laughing.

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