Chapter 46:

The Man Behind The Mask

Red-Black Course

That night, Zain and Mike got to the warehouse filled with questions. They had asked Leo for bringing along the rest of their group, Mitch and Jack, but was met with a profound refusal. After being threatened to drop the meeting altogether, the two had no choice but to comply to the contractor’s demands.

Only when the moonless sky was pitch-black did Zain and Mike arrive, riding on the former’s nanobot-motorcycle.

“Standby Mode,” Zain spoke his command. The motorcycle then gradually broke down to a pile of black dust, before gathering themselves into the same pendant on his neck.

“I hope he’s fast,” Mike anxiously exclaimed. “It’s getting really dark out now.”

“It’s midnight, what do you expect?” Zain shrugged.

When the boys least expect it, a voice called them out from behind. “Indeed it is, my friends.”

From the shadows emerged the same cat-eared helmet look that Zain and Mike had been all too familiar with. However, this time, Leo didn’t wear the same leather suit he wore before. His wardrobe was a black jacket with white sleeves and matching black trousers. On the jacket’s back was a symbol of a white cape worn by a large, stylized letter “T”.

“T-That’s… That’s the limited edition, brand-new TSC uniform!” Mike gasped in shock. “How did you get it? They’re not even selling these here!”

“Yup,” nodded Leo. “Fresh from America.”

“I never knew you were such a big fan of them! You gotta show me the store you got this from, man!”

Seeing that the conversation was about to switch to a fanfest of something that he didn’t even understand, Zain quickly interrupted with a fake cough. “Ahem! Mind going back to business, you two?”

“Ah, yes,” Leo nodded. “Well, this jacket is actually important to our meeting… but we’ll get to it later. Now, Zain, Mike. I believe you’re looking for an explanation, yes?”

“Y-Yeah!” Exclaimed Mike. “How good are you, Leo, to able to beat Zain effortlessly like that? Why did you take that warden’s request to capture him? And why did you double-cross him to help us instead?”

With a satisfied nod, Leo turned to the silent hero. “And Zain? Anything else to add?”

“…Who are you?”

“Simple. I like it,” a chuckle came from beneath the helmet. “Now, let’s break down each question one by one, but first…”

The masked man paused for a moment before pressing something on his side. To the other two’s surprise, from his belt came a familiar black-and-white pattern, and before they could even ask, the object had already inflated and separated itself from the belt, revealing a full-fledged soccer ball.

“Wanna play?” Raising the ball up, Leo asked with a grin on his helmet.

“Play? You mean soccer?” Asked Mike. “But there’s no field here.”

“Nah, not an official game. Just kicking the ball around for fun, like what kids do.”

“Uh… sure,” nodded Zain, “I’ll take on that offer.”

“Me too,” seeing his friend agree, Mike nodded as well.

As the three started their soccer game by passing around in a triangle, Leo finally started his answers:

“Now, for Mike’s first question. I did say that I was a contractor, and the job did put me in a lot of situations that required skills. That’s why I’m quite confident to say that I can do mostly anything.”

“Yeah, stop selling that story,” Zain immediately disregard the claim as the ball came to his feet. “I’m not buying that.”

“Well, that is still the truth,” Leo answered, flicking the ball up for a header towards Mike. “But not all of it.”

“There’s more?” The boy asked, kicking the ball to Zain, who then passed to Leo once more.

“Yeah, being a freelance contractor is just a side gig that I do, my ‘left-hand job’, one would say. My main career also plays a lot to my current development, of course.”

“And that main career is?” Asked Zain.

“Hold on, that’s another question,” chuckled Leo. “One by one, remember? Now, onto the second.

Well, there are two reasons that I decided to accept Bruce’s request. One, obviously, is because of my job as a contractor. But the second reason… let’s just say I owe a certain person a favor, and he would be happy if I took the request.

For the third question, it’s because my pride in my main career does not allow me to follow through anymore. Simple as that.”

“What, you’re an officer or something?” Zain gave a sarcastic remark, kicking the ball back to Leo again.

This time, however, the masked man didn’t continue the game. With a skillful instep trap, Leo put a stop to the ball completely:

“Not even close,” he said with a grin. “But I guess I could answer that question, as well as your final question from before… with a story of my own.”

Zain and Mike both nodded without another word, for they knew that this would be their final key to the truth they were looking for.

“Before, there was a young boy. Hailing from the uncharted lands in the south, he followed his parents to the promised paradise of the USA for a chance to remake their lives. However, in a tragic flight accident, both of his parents perished right as they arrived on American soil, leaving the boy alone in a foreign country.

The language barrier hadn’t been a thing for a long time, but that’s only true for the ones at the top. For the poor boy, whose entire savings had all been burned into his family’s travel expenses, he was in a land where he couldn’t even communicate with others. That, combined with his thick accent and small build, was a recipe for disaster.

The boy was ostracized, ridiculed in the orphanage he ended up in. His peers would pick on him, mock him for all kinds of things he did, and for things that he didn’t do. The adults weren’t any better – they’d just ignore his pleas for help whenever he cried out to them. For the boy, every day was like hell.

The boy vowed to prove himself. To get out of that hellscape and achieve his parents’ old dream of making it big.

However, he did not have the business sense of his parents, nor was he particularly bright in academics in general. All the boy had was a passion for the black-and-white ball. But he didn’t give up: even throughout his horrible childhood days, he was still able to learn of examples of old, of athletes growing up from poverty to the top of the world.

Only one thing stood in the way of his path to success – his naturally weak constitution. And the constant abuse from his foster home didn’t help much either; he soon was weak enough to pant for air after only a few minutes of running.

Without even the physical body to achieve his dream, the boy’s future was bleak.

Or so he thought, until one day… that person came.

The boy’s first impression of him was that of a weirdo – a rebellious teenager ‘showing off his personality’ by dyeing half his hair white. However, he was wrong. The young man’s look was fully natural, for one, and he was much more than just a strange youth.

The teenager was filled with dreams and aspirations, as he spent hours and hours talking about his ultimate goal of ‘uniting the world and bringing prosperity to mankind’. While the rest of the kids disregarded his attempt and left to mind their own business, the lone boy remained. He did not know it himself, but the young man’s words struck deep within him. For the first time in his life, he felt like he could do something.

And so, in the end, he couldn’t help but raise his tiny hand:

‘Can I get a happy and fulfilled life in the future too?’

‘Of course you can! What’s stopping you?’ Asked the young man.

‘Well… my health, for one. I’m terribly weak. I’m poor and dumb, too, so there’s no job for me to do.’

‘You just need to broaden your horizon, my little friend,’ the young man let out a gentle smile, then, after rummaging his bag, gave the boy a small helmet – the first gift that the latter had ever received.

‘For you. It’s a new kind of sport I’ve thought of, made so that everyone, no matter the condition, can play. It hasn’t caught on yet, but mark my word, it will be world-famous one day, and once that day comes, you can be the best in the world!’

The young man then adopted the boy, leaving him a new ray of hope. That helmet was a prototype version, made to connect a person’s consciousness straight to a VR world, and the orphanage was his first choice of test subjects. The boy didn’t mind, however, because the first time he went to the virtual world was the first time that he was truly alive, and the first time that he truly had fun.

And so, the boy kept on playing. Slowly but surely, he would be better at the game. Due to his weak constitution, he would think of new ways to play without tiring himself, while working on his actual body whenever he could as well.

In the end, both of their dreams became reality. On the debut of the digital sport, the boy had the honor to be one of the participants, and his insane performance had captured the hearts of fans all over the world. The boy’s reputation grew like a kite in the wind, and along with that, the sport soon overtook everything else to become the number one form of entertainment in the world.

The boy became a legend. His first team became the strongest and most famous. He had achieved his dreams of his younger days…”

“Hold on,” Mike, unable to contain his confusion, interrupted the story. “That’s just Messeo’s autobiography. Why are you telling us this?”

Leo did not answer the question. Instead, the man just slowly removed his helmet.

Beneath was a face in his late twenties, perhaps early thirties. His brown hair was short, but with a slight curve at the end. His Hollywoodian beard showed a sense of class and manliness of a veteran. His maroon eyes were sharp and bright, filled with fighting spirit.

But most importantly, his face was extremely familiar to Zain, and especially Mike. For it was a face that they had not met in person, but had seen many, many times on the news.

The man before them finally raised his hand and spoke in his real, unobstructed voice.

“I guess it’s time for a former introduction. Pleased to meet you, Zain and Mike. I am Team Sacred Cowl’s captain and co-founder, the current best NLS player in the world, Leonardo di Messeo.” 

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