The following morning was difficult. Even in my sleep, I was able to feel how my unusually heavy head was warming up the pillow, forcing me to toss and turn and sniff with displeasure. How did they put up with me at work? I’d fenced off half of my office, accommodated some unfamiliar people there, and on top of that, I organized parties on a regular basis. But who would dare argue with the executive who’d managed to double the turnover of the branch office? One shouldn’t argue with such a person, but try their best to befriend them instead.
It seemed like the first person who wanted to take advantage of my friendliness was here now.
“Hello, my name is Julie.” I was about to go to my main office and look for yesterday’s coffee, when, having obviously seen me through the glass, a very attractive girl turned into a fury. Her eyes were aflame, her hair practically floating around her, and her whole body was shaking with rage… I wondered which department girls like her worked in.
“Dan.” There was something familiar about her face and the way she moved. But where from? I had never seen her before.
“Do you recognize me?” She spoke without much confidence, as if she wasn’t used to communicating with people politely. Surprisingly, I actually recognized her after that question. Julie Kaas—she was some awfully famous local actress and celebrity.
“Of course.” I was awesome. I could see a person just a few times on some posters and immediately recognize her in real life. I didn’t know that famous people like her worked in our company. What did she do? Maybe marketing, or PR? “So, what do you want?”
I finally voiced the obvious question.
“I would like to join your team!” So, she wanted to be transferred to my branch of the company. And why wouldn’t she? She seemed so determined. However, going over a few details wouldn’t hurt.
“And why would I want to work with you, Julie? By the way, I hope you don’t mind me calling you by your first name.” Let’s see what she would say about her strengths and weaknesses. Although, honestly, I had already decided to give her a job—how could I refuse such a trivial demand when such a pretty girl was asking?
“I could go on for a long time about how you would be making a huge mistake if you decided to say no, but I will tell you only one thing instead: I personally know Oswald, and he’s allowed me to approach you with this request. Otherwise, it would’ve been too insolent of me to make you take all the responsibility. So, the only remaining question is: do you want me on your team? All the technical issues are either settled, or I will deal with them myself.” She had such a serious look on her face, but such cute dimples. Wait, Oswald—I knew that name: one of Pantheon’s bosses was named Oswald. It would be a pity if it turned out that she was his protégé and they were trying to put pressure on me with his authority. It was always like that. They couldn’t just ask for a favor without having some big shot behind them, and then just say thank you after that—instead, they would try to put pressure on you to demonstrate their importance. It seemed like accepting help and asking nicely was a lost art.
“I am not interested”. If this was how it was going to be, they could just as easily organize everything on their own. I was sure she would succeed, having such a powerful backer, but I had no reason to indulge these girlish whims.
“But why?” And again, there was such a childish astonishment in her voice, as if she’d understood nothing. Yeah, that’s a likely story.
“Do you think that after all of this…” I just couldn’t find the words to describe my attitude toward such situations. “… I could work with you? On the same team? Do you think I don’t understand what’s brought you here?”
“You’re right.” People like Julie could change their attitude very quickly. Just a few moments ago, she’d looked like an offended, beautiful woman, but now, it seemed like such a cute girl was standing in front of me, bursting with honesty. But I definitely hadn’t expected what came next. My unexpected guest turned out to be a psycho. “I know I haven’t had the best reputation: a girl who does movies, tied to dozens of scandals, a lot of them involving married men, rumored to have participated in bloody rituals connected to Satanism and spending a month with a tribe of cannibals. Yes, a few of my first opponents from the “Pantheon” eventually ended up in a mental hospital after I played my games with them. If that came out, it would be difficult to wash off the stain. But, look at it from another angle: yes, this is my dark side, but you can use it to your advantage.”
I found myself unable to stand it any longer. I quickly told her that I agree—if psychos, even ones with good connections, wanted to work under my command, they would do so. I didn’t care. I only hoped that her workplace would be far away from me, but I wasn’t going to check that right now. The lunatic jumped, hugged me tightly, and then ran off, saying that she had a couple of matters to settle. She was free to go and I could finally have some breakfast. Working first thing in the morning wasn’t healthy.
“Oh, it’s noon already,” I heard Vasily’s voice coming from behind the wall. It seemed like the others had started waking up too. That was good, maybe one of them would deal with the matter of food. Although, I could just ask Emma to do it, and get at least some benefit out of having a personal assistant.
However, she wasn’t at her desk, again. It was a good thing that Mamontov had decided to take matters into his own hands, and literally ten minutes later, a young man arrived on a scooter, carrying ten boxes of pizza, along with drinks. The girls weren’t really thrilled about this, not even Christina, even though this was her national dish, so they waited an hour longer, until a limo from a famous restaurant brought their food.
After having breakfast, we were finally able to return to analyzing the previous round. As it turned out, I hadn’t been bad at all. But Samantha got accused of disrupting the formation and constantly running to my aid. They’d turned it all around—first they’d praised me, and then rubbed it in my face that I had Samantha to thank for all of it. But I couldn’t nag them: the girl was being scolded and she was clenching her fists hard—if I didn’t know better, I would’ve totally believed them. It was obvious that they wanted to put me in my place as a preventive measure, seeing as these aristocrats couldn’t live without their class issues. Next in line was Alessandro, who, as it turned out, had completely lost his lane, but had killed three enemies while he was on his way to help me. How did they do it—they were scolding each other and yet I was the only one who felt like a loser.
Christina and Vasily were next, but we didn’t have time to deal with them—the lunatic from this morning came back. She walked over to us as if she were at home and, not paying attention to anyone, she slipped into an armchair.
“What! Are! You! Doing! Here!” I was sure Christina could’ve easily voiced Gandalf with such a performance, and the implication of her words was very obvious. But what was she so mad about? I agreed with her, this girl was a bit weird, and she didn’t have the best manners, but that wasn’t a reason to lose one’s temper.
“I came to join my future teammates. Dan has already accepted me as the sixth member, so, if something happens to any of you, I can replace you.” What did she just say? So, she hadn’t come here because she’d wanted a job? What a trap!
Why was everyone so silent? Was this normal? Of course, I was against crossing the line, but I didn’t really want her to join us. The girl was a proven psycho. I had goosebumps from just standing next to her! Finally, Samantha looked like she was about to say something—but no, she stayed quiet. Were all of them in this together? Oh, to hell with their weird hobbies…were they really having fun at my expense? Of course. They’d surely arranged all this earlier. Then, they’d quickly played this scene out in front of me, and the matter was settled. I hated being manipulated in such a rude way. But fine, the main thing was that I had figured it all out and could use it to my advantage in the future.
“I almost forgot to tell you,” using the lull in the conversation, Julie shocked us once again. “I have information about the next round. Oswald said that the preparation time would be reduced to an hour and our next opponent would be the team of Yan Shaotian, the leader of the Black Dragons.”
What was so special about that? The rules hadn’t really changed for us: we’d never trained much, so the fact that we had only an hour to prepare wouldn’t do us any harm and the name of our next opponent was completely useless information. To plan your strategy relying on someone else instead of on yourself—wasn’t that a weakness? Why was everyone so alarmed after having heard this unnecessary information? Maybe there was something I didn’t understand. It was better for me to stay silent.
“You know Oswald?” Christina was the first to attack her with questions.
“Are you sure we have just an hour? That’ll force us to drastically change the system of our preparation.” That was Samantha.
“The legendary Shaotian—the one who became the chess and Go world champion at the same time?” It would seem that Vasily knew the guy.
“Is it true that there were deleted bedroom scenes in “The Green Forest”?” What was Alessandro talking about? And why did he have that foolish smile on his face?
“Yes.” The French girl smiled cunningly. “That’s the answer to all 4 questions: I do, I’m sure, it’s him, and there are indeed deleted scenes.”
“Well, I don’t really like you…” I didn’t like where Christina was going with this. “…but the information you possess could come in very handy for us. I never doubted the decision of our leader, but now I’m even beginning to understand why he’s done this.”
What a woman. She’d understood and justified something that I myself didn’t understand, but still considered very stupid and dangerous. On the other hand, the scrutiny that had been like a weight trying to bury me alive was gone, and my decision to accept this Julie as a backup player was now considered to have been a good move. Oh, to hell with it, I just wanted everything to go on as usual.
Next, we were given a brief overview of our future opponent’s team. Shaotian himself was a warlock—that was a dangerous and very tricky class. He could turn others into animals, completely depriving them of their skills, he could transform into a demon and gain new abilities, and he also had poison and the ability to weaken other players. Next was Yang Yun, his younger cousin, who usually chose a paladin. Together, with one of them having access to potent dark magic and curses, and the other wearing heavy armor and wielding crowd control, they were a real killing machine. The other three members of their team were powerful mages, capable of supporting a powerful attack from a distance, as well as using portals to ensure they could get around the battlefield quickly. In general, they were a very serious enemy, and ordinary tactics wouldn’t work against them.
“By the way, considering that they still haven’t announced the start of the next round, maybe we could organize a small tournament to see who the 5 main players should be.” Julie, taking advantage of the general confusion, seemed determined to improve her position. Without any tact, she’d gone for it, just like that. I hoped she could see the look of disapproval on my face. “I think it’s perfectly clear who the number one among us is, of course.”
Is she looking at me?
That was polite, but it would mean that I would be left out of an internal competition, like I was already punching above my weight by just hanging out with them.
“Okay then, have fun,” I waved my hand, having decided not to play these power games, and I went back to sleep. After that nutritious pizza, I was feeling a bit drowsy, and I could barely keep my eyes open. I had once heard that taking a daytime nap prolonged your life, so I figured that I shouldn’t deprive my body of such a precious endeavor.
Unfortunately, the moment I closed my eyes, Christina’s agitated face appeared—when had she developed this habit of constantly spoiling everything?
“Dan, the start of the next round has just been announced. The battle starts in an hour.” What was she talking about? An hour? But I wanted to sleep so much.
“Fine, then I will sleep during that one hour.” Seeing that no one else was getting ready to wake me up, my body relaxed and returned to the embrace of Morpheus. Fortunately, the dream I had been having until I’d been woken up hadn’t disappeared. That was good, and once again, there was Samantha, Christina and even Julie, but here, unlike in reality, none of them wanted to talk to me. Not at all. Here, we were kissing, and then Kaas pulled out a knife, smiling like a lunatic. She started approaching me while dancing. What was she about to do? The music was becoming louder… Opening my eyes, I realized that was my alarm clock I’d set for 1 PM. I’d used to sleep until dinner, and upon realizing this, I’d decided to somehow deal with that. It came in handy. In the meantime, I remembered what had happened before. I realized that I’d almost slept through our battle—it was only 20 minutes away.
What friends I had: after I’d gone back to sleep, no one had even tried to wake me up. They probably wanted to leave me as the spare player; after all, they hadn’t deceived me into accepting their crazy friend into our team for nothing. Without wasting any more time, I put the hoop on quickly and immediately found myself in the game.
The screen with the minions’ settings appeared—I had to be fast to ensure my place in the game didn’t get taken away. I quickly arranged their positions and then jumped to the next stage. Thank God, the next one was the choice of heroes, so I’d made it in time. The fifth spot was mine. I quickly glanced at my allies. Hah, I’d gotten there before Alessandro.
“Nice move.” What was Vasily talking about? Oh, I got it. Since we were both Russians, he was just happy that I was one step ahead of the Italian. It was nice to have someone around who was kind of on your side.
The player Dan Kornev has been forced to use the hero “Lancelot”.
“They predicted what we’d do and used their hero replacement.” I didn’t understand what Samantha was talking about… but they’d changed my hero again. Honestly, I didn’t see the point—Lancelot was really cool, maybe even more powerful than Orpheus. All 4 of his abilities were about attacking. What could be cooler than that? Why did everyone else have such gloomy looks on their faces?
I glanced around—this time, relying on the information we’d received from Kaas, we’d tried to form a squad of killers. Julie was Faith, Samantha was the Joker, Christina was our only long-range fighter, the archer elf, Robbie, and Mamontov had picked some cowboy named Chuck, who had a beard and wore a hat. And I was Lancelot, the knight of the Round table, wearing heavy, shining armor, and wielding a sword that reflected the sunlight.
The battle starts in 60 seconds.
There we were, in the starting field. But why was everyone so tall? Why were my hands so thin? And what was this pink thing that seemed to be everywhere around me?
That morning, right after landing in Australia, I went to Dan’s office to wait for him. It was my first time seeing him in person. He was an ordinary man, no one would think that he was a genius at first sight. His hair was disheveled, his clothes wrinkled, and there were traces of some kind of… furniture on his face. However, his appearance wasn’t the most important thing, and someone like me had to keep that in mind at all times.
Although, of course, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if he’d just freshened up a bit. Even though I had been on a plane all night, I hadn’t let it affect my appearance. Not even the nerve-racking trip to the Cretan residence of Oswald Perez, one of the founders of “Pantheon” and, apparently, one of my fans, had meant I could allow myself to not look presentable. Once, after the premiere of “Naked Life”, he’d invited me to visit him and offered help in case I had any difficulties, which, at the time, had seemed like a joke. Yes, the help such people could provide was almost infinite, but who could have imagined that I’d end up having problems I couldn’t handle any other way.
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To be honest, after my last defeat, I’d been prepared to do anything, but the conversation we had was pretty calm and quiet. At first, it had seemed to me like there was a hunger in his eyes, but after hearing me out, Oswald had quickly shifted to business mode and then simply agreed to my request to join Dan’s team. True, he had two conditions—Kornev himself had to agree to it, and it had to happen before the next round started.
I’d feared that he wouldn’t be in his office, but I got lucky—there he was, right in front of me, giving me an appraising look. It was so natural. If it had been anyone else, I would’ve slapped them, but in this situation it wasn’t even insulting. As my friend from the Christian student camp, where we’d done things that had been completely unrelated to anything its name might imply, had once said: this was a real man.
“Good afternoon, my name is Julie.” Where had all my confidence, that was always so helpful, gone? It felt like I’d spent the last bits of my energy on going to his office and seeing him. And what now? Behave like the damsel in a romance novel and fall into his arms?
“Dan.” I’d thought that Oswald had the power to put everyone in their place with his presence, but how could he even be compared to this hardcore manipulator? He was pretending that this was the first time he was seeing me. Well, I knew how to play those games, too.
“Do you recognize me?” I tried to hide all the anger in my voice. How could he not remember me after all our fights! I’d immediately looked through all the information about our main opponents, and the rest of my team had done the same.
“Of course.” He stopped playing. That’s what I’d been afraid of. I was afraid that I wasn’t a significant enough obstacle to warrant him paying me any attention.
I was finally able to blurt out exactly what I wanted. It felt like I’d been less nervous when I’d landed my first role. Despite all of that, I still felt like he had some affection for me. Or was that just wishful thinking? I guess I’d jinxed it, because he asked me why he should accept me as part of his team? The b*****d hadn’t even paused before asking that! Was this even possible? He had devilish self-confidence. And when he suggested calling me by my first name, it was like an order to tell him what I wanted right away. His voice was so powerful, as if he were able to answer absolutely any question. And did I really like this overbearing power? Yesterday, I hadn’t even been sure that this would work till the very end, but fortunately, my acquaintance with Oswald had helped me get the meeting, and then his agreement. But was Dan making up his mind about this on his own? How could anyone believe in themselves that much? He probably had connections, too. It would be a pity if that turned out to be the case, because then my ace of being an acquaintance of one of the owners of the game that hadn’t even been laid out on the table would already lose half its value. However, I had to tell him—he was hardly interested in my value as a player, but maybe my abilities of a different kind would appeal to him… It was impossible to have too many of those, after all.
“I am not interested.” It was the second time during this conversation that I felt like a misbehaving puppy that had been caught by the scruff of its neck and had its nose pushed into a puddle of water. Damn, I was talking about huge benefits for him and he was just looking at me like I was crazy, without throwing me out or leaving. So, he still had some interest in me. Could it be? But no—I’d already had too many men and women in this life and couldn’t really consider my body valuable anymore. Also, Dan was obviously in a league where something like that could only be suggested as a fun way to conclude the deal. By him, of course, not by me.
“But why?” Was that my voice? Oh gods, was I about to have a meltdown? That hadn’t happened in so many years!
“Do you think that after all of this…I could work with you? On the same team? Do you think I don’t understand what’s brought you here?” I had to give him some credit, he still hadn’t made a decision, but he had already managed to somehow find out about my sins. But had he found out about all of them?
“You’re right,” I still managed to pull myself together.
“I know I haven’t had the best reputation: a girl who does movies, tied to dozens of scandals, a lot of them involving married men, rumored to have participated in bloody rituals connected to Satanism and spending a month with a tribe of cannibals. Yes, a few of my first opponents from the “Pantheon” eventually ended up in a mental hospital after I played my games with them….”
I told him everything except the most important secret—I hoped that was enough.
Like an immature girl, I waited for an answer and didn’t know where to put my hands. He stood in front of me, quietly pondering, while I was ready to do anything for him. Break the law, deal with undesirable people…Was this really me? The girl in a white dress with a huge pink bow, whose dad had brought her to school on his shoulders on her first day. But I didn’t have a family anymore, only a desire to overcome all my limitations and push past the framework of what it meant to be a human. Due to the fact that I had only one ideal to guide me along this path, I had to do everything I could to be allowed to follow him.
When one of the local, eccentric stars showed up to see me today, I’d at first thought she was just one of the ordinary thrill seekers. People like that sometimes came to me, hoping to lure in a big fish. I must say that it usually ended in both sides being pleased—I got to relax and they got the opportunity to tell their friends that they’d tried it and that it had gone far enough. But this time, it was different—the Kaas girl had wanted to be transferred to another team. At first, I’d wanted to kick her out, but after hearing whose team she wanted to join, I changed my mind.
Old man Nikitin was already giving a lot of attention to that guy, so why not give my bosom buddy an extra headache? I hoped this girl wouldn’t let me down and that she could drive Kornev insane. And, obviously, that I would get to sit back and see it all happen, enjoying every second of it.
The morning started off terribly. First, Mamontov had ordered that monstrously unhealthy food, then Christina had commented on my skills in the game in front of Dan. She even tried to add in a hint about my relationship with him—honestly, I hadn’t expected her to be so cruel. It was a good thing that Dan had understood everything and given her such a nasty look that del Mayo immediately stopped talking about unnecessary things. But these were all mere trifles: just as I was getting ready to take my revenge on the Italian, she appeared. Julie Kaas—the attractive French girl who’d slept with half of the “Forbes” list, and also one of our recent opponents. What did she want? Would she threaten us? She might, things were never quite right in that b***h’s head.
She had to be lying, Dan couldn’t have let her join our team, surely. And why had I agreed to him being the captain of our team, when it was obvious that, despite all of his brilliance, some vile ladies might try and take advantage of his innocence? Interesting, had something happened between them? No, Dan wouldn’t stoop so low, especially taking into consideration all the rumors about this Kaas. Still, he obviously believed that she could prove useful to us. Although, in my opinion, such a snake needed to be crushed, and the sooner it happened, the better—she’d already hinted at some possible “accidents”, and so blatantly stated that they would befall us girls. What now? Was she trying to take over the leadership position or even take Dan for herself? As if I would be so easily scared off! Maybe I didn’t like it, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t play hardball.
Should I avoid arguing with her? Christina said it right when Kaas had started sharing information with us: we didn’t always understand Dan’s actions immediately, but sooner or later, the reasoning behind them would become obvious, and our captain had never made a mistake so far. That was one of the reasons why I lov… Okay, I had to get it together. And that arrogant lady seemed like she’d figured out what Dan was interested in—insolence. He was even looking at her with some interest as a result. If she went too far, it could be dangerous. But no—people like Kaas were weak precisely because they didn’t know when to stop.
Dan ended up putting her in her place in such a beautiful way: he’d just said “have fun” and left. Kaas had obviously been getting ready to get cocky in front of him: she would need to get used to the fact that no manipulation technique worked on that man. While you behaved normally with him, he wouldn’t put pressure on you in return, but if you tried to be cunning in order to provoke a reaction you could benefit from, you would receive a much stronger answer.
After that, Dan went to sleep, and we organized a series of spars in the game’s demo version—as it turned out, Kaas was very skilled. Unfortunately, I ended up in 3rd place because fighting people one-on-one weren’t really my thing. Christina and the new girl earned an equal number of points. This was actually the first time I’d been rooting for del Mayo. Alessandro got last place, which wasn’t a surprise—he was the slowest among us when it came to analyzing things, and his responses to situations didn’t always work out. What’s more, he’d turned out to be a fan of this actress—who could’ve expected that?
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The next round was announced. Here, I had to admit, if it hadn’t been for the information we’d gotten from Kaas, having almost no time to prepare could’ve thrown us off. Instead, we’d thought everything through, and we seemed to be ready. Nobody was guaranteeing us a victory, but at least we’d be on equal footing with our opponents. All that was left was to tell Dan about our plan, but Christina, who’d gone to get him, returned alone and with some kind of depressed expression on her face. I didn’t even want to think about what might have happened in there.
It was time to go. We’d already started choosing our heroes, but Dan was still absent, and I thought I understood why. He wanted our enemies to become nervous and use the “hero replacement” ability early or forget about it altogether. But no—they waited till the very last moment and managed to pull off their plan. They were professionals, after all, we shouldn’t underestimate them. And unlike our previous opponents, they were much more cunning, putting our leader into the avatar of a pure warrior. On the one hand, it seemed like a good thing, but on the other, such a simple character significantly limited his ability to maneuver and make unexpected decisions—all the things that actually made Dan so strong.
This battle will be a difficult one.
Jesus Christ! What was this mess of bows and ruffles from which a blushing girl’s face and a huge sword was sticking out? When had Lancelot started looking like a little girl in a sailor suit?