Chapter 59: Inner Conflict

Previous Chapter

“Come to us, Martel.”

Mathias opened his eyes and found himself in a dead mental world. 

A mindscape. A mental world recorded in Dis’ databanks, as an extension of the caster’s mind. It was the acme of Blue Spells, a private universe of pure thought, where the caster could invite or trap other, lesser minds.

Yet Aster’s mindscape was nothing but a white, endless field. A silent, immaculate landscape, under a cloudless blue sky; a lifeless world without warmth, without soul, without spirit. Not even shades of people existed in this bleak vision, showcasing the Minister’s complete lack of connection to anyone.

Minister Aster was a cold, soulless thing. He always had been.

It didn’t matter, Mathias decided, as six gargantuan shapes materialized around him, a tribunal of Concordia’s elite. Each shone with one of the six colors of sorcery, except for White. He is my superior, and I must obey. That is the way of things.

This confirmed Ace’s rumors that the Grandmaster never left her fortress; she didn’t even do so psychically.

“Welcome, my fellow ministers,” Aster opened the meeting, manifesting as a blue titan, “Welcome to my mind.”

“What a dreadful sight,” the Golden Prince said, the majestic dragon’s yellow light dimming as in took in the sight. “So lifeless…”

“Minimalist,” Aster replied. “What was unnecessary, I destroyed.”

“Still, maybe you should add more colors or background music for guests…”

“I didn’t come to this mindscape to discuss decoration,” said Grimsour, the Orange Minister. Due to appearing mentally, he didn’t wear his trademark power armor, manifesting as an elderly, lean and mean hob with orange fur. “How long has it been since we gathered all together?”

“Since we discussed this case for the first time, two years ago,” said a voice that sounded like a thousand small voices speaking at once. 

Although he had seen pictures of him from back from the golden age of Concordia, the years had greatly changed Minister Loctis. The creature in front of him was a dragon so thin, Mathias could almost see the bones beneath the lustrous black scales. He was small, smaller than Smokefang, with atrophied wings who couldn’t carry him. Mathias couldn’t clearly see his features, a shade of both Blue and Green obscuring the dragon like a veil; yet he could clearly see the bright light in his yellowish eyes, and bright intellect behind. 

It was also the first time Mathias could see the most elusive of the six Ministers, Brina the Violet. He instantly recognized her as the cold, blonde human he had seen challenge another warlord back at Mammon’s casino. A woman whose beauty was just as unnatural as Manah’s, Brina embodied the warrior queen archetype instead of Manah’s ladylike royalty, carrying herself with an emotionless frown and a battle stance. 

That woman killed as easily as she breathed. Her icy gaze settled upon him, like a hawk eyeing a dove. 

As for Blackcinders, she was exactly how the sorcerer always pictured her: seething with hatred. “We should have killed him the first time around,” she said, her immense body casting Mathias in her dreadful shadow. “We should still.”

“He is an asset,” Aster replied. “A useful asset. Thankfully, none of the bounty hunters you sent after him removed him from the board, or this operation would have been a bust.”

“It could still be. Is he even under your control, Aster, or just tricking you?”

“My Lock is supreme,” Aster insisted. “Melusine checked a week ago, and not even repeated Counterspells or Black Spells undid it. My Maze has no flaw, no weakness.”

“You shouldn’t feel so proud, Aster,” the Golden Prince replied, gazing at Mathias with a wary, disappointed eye. “You took his free will away from him.”

“‘Free will’ is nothing more than an electrochemical signal of your nervous system,” the Blue Minister defended his decision. “It is an illusion of a feeble brain, unable to correlate the true nature of the world: that all atoms have their place, and that every single movement comes as a reaction of what came before. That all is predetermined. Free will does not exist, and therefore it has no value.”

The Golden Prince flinched as if slapped instead. Apparently, he hadn’t supported the project, and neither did Loctis. “He should have been offered the opportunity to join us without involvement from your Lock,” the Green Minister said.

“Your Maxwell did offer him one,” Blackcinders snapped, “He turned it down.” 

Mathias almost spoke up, but a glance from Aster silenced him. These six titans held his life in their hands, and he would have to wait for his turn. 

“I meant to say, that we should have recruited him two years ago,” Loctis explained his thinking further. “Of course he refused the offer. We obscured our side of the Terminal affair, and let him open to the influence of the Maleking, and now Manus.”

Would he have listened back then? Even Mathias wasn’t so sure. While he understood now the logical benefits of Concordia bringing civilization to Terra Firma, he had been too quick and emotional two years ago. 

“The opportunities of catching Manus off guard outweighed his use,” Aster pointed out, and he had been proven right. 

“Whatever,” Grimsour interrupted with impatience. “That was two years ago. This is now.”

“Yes,” the Blue Minister agreed. “I gathered you so Mathias could answer your questions on his infiltration—”

“The one where he infiltrates us?” Blackcinders rasped. 

“His infiltration of the so-called Player Insurgency,” Aster continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “Mathias, if you would…”

The young man nodded, the eyes of the Ministers setting on him. “Around two months ago, as you were informed, I was invited to join this ‘Magik Online’ system, completing requests of unknown benefactors in exchange for sorcerous powers. Too small-minded and without the Minister’s guidance, I accepted, betraying Concordia of my own free-will. I gained the power of Network, defeated the Malebranche insurgency in Evermarsh, and then fought Lord Smokefang for the Occult Matrix.”

He marked a pause, then turned to the Red Minister. “I beg for your forgiveness, Minister Blackcinders,” he said, sincerely. “I regret what happened, and I will submit to any punishment you see fit once this is over.” 

Blackcinders replied with a vengeful gaze, but then said, “He couldn’t even kill a human right.”

“Need I remind you Halcyon was a human?” Loctis said, irked by his colleague’s contempt. “Your reaction is unbefitting of a dragon. All species deserve respect, even those weaker than us.”

“As for punishment, Mathias, your circumstances are… unique,” the Golden Prince said. “We will see if we can be lenient.”

“You cannot be serious!” Blackcinders said. “Do you want to forgive the murderer of a dragon? What kind of message will it send to our population?”

“I did it out of my own free-will,” Mathias insisted. “I deserve it. However you call it, I was a terrorist.”

“I will take full responsibility for the death of Smokefang,” Aster said. “I could have activated the meat’s trigger phrase beforehand, but I saw fit to leave him to ingrain himself deeper in the insurgency.”

“You knew he would kill my son?!” Blackcinders’ eyes flared with fury. 

“I gave him a thirty percent chance of killing Smokefang, and twenty percent chance of a mutual kill,” Aster replied, without a hint of regret. “The end result strengthened the insurgency’s trust in his loyalty.”

“Your son was collateral damage,” Grimsour said without any sympathy. “Soldiers die all the time in the line of duty so the Empire may prosper. Deal with it.”

The dragoness froze, a statue immobilized by restrained rage. “I will not forget this, Aster,” she promised.

“Mathias, please continue,” Aster said. “Explain what happened after the Evermarsh incident.”

“I ingrained myself in the graces of both Mammon and the Shadow Queen, both working with the Maleking,” he explained, Loctis’ head perking up with rapt attention. “Recruiting a team of sorcerers, and then decisively identified the ringleaders as the so-called ‘gods’ of Terra Firma’s mythology, and the Administrator as an artificial intelligence similar to Manus.”

“Or maybe Manus himself,” Aster said.

“I also…” Mathias struggled to find words to explain that part. 

“I know of this ‘Load Feature’ of yours,” Loctis said, his countless voices giddy with excitement. “I thought only Wyrde could activate an Occult Matrix, and she did so under very specific circumstances. Simply amazing.”

“With three Terminals under our control, we might have well be invincible,” Grimsour said with great confidence. 

“I shudder at the potential,” Loctis agreed. “I would very much like to examine your ability, Mathias. Risking you in the field is foolish.”

Aster didn’t share his viewpoint. “We will see. After the ‘parallel timeline alignment,’ Melusine activated Mathias’ trigger phrase early, to check if my Lock had been disabled. Thankfully, its effects carried over, but while they exchanged in details, both were unable to fully hack into the Magik Online System; we could send false sensory feedbacks, hide our conversations, but little else. I locked his memories of the encounter after he dropped his protections, and the Administrator put him on probation. Thankfully, Mathias successfully convinced his backers to endorse him.”

“About these backers, they are the same ruffians bothering my activities in the Chinese Protectorate,” Grimsour grumbled. “I thought we killed all these rats during the Pacification. We should have been more thorough.”

“We purged many,” Aster conceded. “But not all of them.”

“The Neurotowers have siphoned much of their power, and will finish them within a decade or so,” Loctis said. “Logically if they want to stop the inevitable, they have to act now. How, however, eludes me.”

“Even with ten thousand sorcerers at their command, we can field a million on Terra Firma and a thousand times more Gearsmen, should the need arise,” Blackcinders replied. “They have no hope of winning a direct confrontation.”

Aster nodded. “Exactly. They must have another resource we are unaware of, and so, I want your approval to continue the infiltration until we learn it. Better, we have a golden opportunity to decapitate both the Malebranche’s leadership at the Midnight Market, and cripple the Manus insurgency on Terra Firma.”

“Manah asked me to destroy a base in Oceanis, in order to win her trust,” Mathias said, turning to the Golden Prince. “It is your dominion, is it not?”

The Golden Prince bristled as Mathias spoke, for a reason the young man didn’t get. “The institute studying the Worldshaker? It is a matter of utmost security for the local population.”

Loctis shrugged. “We can easily sacrifice it. We struggle with a dead end already, and the Worldshaker’s kept ignoring us so far.”

“I had my reservations over Aster’s project,” Grimsour admitted. “Especially once you informed me Martel and the Shadow Queen operated in the Midnight Market, where I am scheduled to go soon. However, the information he provided more than makes up for the trouble he caused.”

“The trouble caused?” Blackcinders’ eyes flared with anger. “He killed my son, a noble dragon of Concordia, and he did it out of his own will! He inspired the rabble who now keep rising up on Terra Firma!”

“And he will just as easily demoralize them once fighting at the forefront of our forces,” Aster replied. “He could very well become our ‘Player Killer.’”

“I can help identify Players on Terra Firma,” Mathias proposed. “I have access to their forums. I could gather information and relay it to you, Minister.”

Blackcinders ignored him entirely. “If this Magik System is linked to this ‘Administrator,’ whom we all know is Manus in disguise, then that damn machine could take his powers anytime. He’s a faulty weapon.”

“Melusine is already designing a workaround,” Aster replied without elaborating further. “With help from Loctis here present.”

“Yes,” Loctis said. “I will handle it.”

Blackcinders must have trusted the older dragon’s expertise a great deal because she completely dropped that argument without further inquiry. “Your blind faith in your Lock’s infallibility will be your undoing, Aster,” the Red Minister lambasted her Blue colleague. 

“This is not faith, merely knowledge,” Aster said, turning to his asset. “Martel, would you kill your own team, if we asked?”

“Yes,” Mathias replied, and he meant it. “Without hesitation.”

“Even Solomon?”

His hands bristled almost imperceptibly, his subconscious reacting on its own. Only sharp Brina noticed though. “I would regret it,” Mathias admitted. “And I would try to preserve his life if I can.”

“But?” Aster said. The more Mathias had spoken, the more the Golden Prince’s scowl had deepened. 

“But for the sake of the Empire, I would do it.” He couldn’t let his feelings get in the way. Manus and its pawns threatened billions, trillions of innocent imperial citizens; and he was ready to make sacrifices to protect them.

Besides, he had to see the bigger picture. Concordia was good to Terra Firma. It would empower the citizens, share advanced technology with them, give them peace. The sacrifices were worth it; he would offer his own life if needed.

“The perfect citizen,” Aster said. “Loyal above all, and bringing the light to those who need it.”

“I am still not convinced,” Blackcinders rasped. 

“You never will,” Aster replied. “No matter. Shall we leave the matter to a vote, once more?”

“Brina,” Blackcinders immediately turned to the Violet Minister. “You argued for his death last time. Will you do so again?”

Death.

The woman embodied it just as much as Celia. Her eyes hadn’t blinked for the entire meeting, her unnatural focus unbroken. Blackcinders expected her to want him dead as much as she did. 

Brina spoke three words, her only ones in the entire meeting. 

“Let Aster fail,” she said, the shadow of a smile at the edge of her lip. Her voice sounded like that of an angel, but so cold, so lifeless, it could have frozen hell over. She had the look of someone who knew a secret she refused to share and took amusement in it. 

I amuse her, Mathias realized. She thinks I will turn against the Blue Minister, and it amuses her.

Even Aster looked chilled by her reaction, and Blackcinders reeled back. “Prince?” Aster turned to the Yellow Minister, not even asking for his colleague’s reasoning. 

“I cannot condone state-sanctioned brainwashing of this magnitude. Especially not after what I heard. You transformed him into a Gearsman, Aster, just one with skin instead of steel.”

“I did not brainwash him,” Aster insisted. “I aligned his values. The core is unchanged, the direction corrected.”

“Why do you not Maze the whole world then, Aster?” the Golden Prince replied angrily. “Call it however you want, this is brainwashing, and while I never interfered with your duties for the sake of the Empire, this project crossed a red line and will keep going further the longer it continues. I propose we exfiltrate Martel for his safety and lift your Maze off him immediately. We will judge him fairly for his actions, by the rule of law.”

“Agreed,” Loctis seconded his colleague. “His Save and Load power is too precious to be risked in the field.”

“He transformed a population center into Pandorians and erased half his allies last time he activated it,” Blackcinders growled. “Using it again would be madness, Loctis.”

“Must I remind you Wyrde’s use of matrixes is the main reason our Empire remains unchallenged?” Loctis replied, the Red Minister answering with a growl. 

“Abandoning the infiltration would be a colossal waste of resources,” Grimsour said. He struck Mathias as the most utilitarian of the Ministers, after Aster himself. “Imagine if we could get our hands on that system they developed, think of the potential.”

“Most of his work is done,” the Golden Prince argued. “He already paid his family’s debt to the state. What more should we ask of him? That he dies fighting the Maleking?”

“Nothing of the sort,” Aster said. “His usefulness will end with the Crimson Epoch after we deal with the Maleking and his Horsemen before their revolution can seize the offensive. However, I need your cooperation, especially for Oceanis, since it is your dominion. Or would you rather have Arcadian Reavers raid its shores next?”

The Golden Prince hesitated, the threat of the Maleking allying with the Reavers needling him as much as Mathias’ own situation. “Then I will support the infiltration,” he said, adding a caveat. “But only if I have your solemn vow you will release him from your enthrallment once the Crimson Epoch over.”

“I second that proposal,” Loctis said. “I demand that you deliver him to me safe and sound for research once this is done. Otherwise, I will have to ask for his immediate exfiltration again.”

“Then I vow to remove my Maze from Martel and have him exfiltrated after the Epoch,” Aster replied, although Mathias knew he probably didn’t believe a single word of it. The Minister would always find a way. “Blackcinders. You are outvoted.”

The immense black dragon silently glanced at her colleagues, then glared at Mathias with seething malice. “If he gives me the slightest hint your Lock slipped up,” Blackcinders said. “I will kill him.”

“Noted.”

“I want his team, too.”

“You shall have it,” Aster promised. “In fact, I was considering offering them to you, as part of my plan.”

— … f… y… —   

Mathias frowned. He could have sworn he heard someone speak in the back of his mind. 

“Neither Manah nor the Administrator will believe it if the mission in Oceanis goes too well,” Aster told Blackcinders, who now listened with rapturous attention. “And we need to thin the herd of Players to seize their server for research later. I propose we do both. After Mathias lead his team to successfully destroy the base, in a twist of fate, you fall upon them like a hawk and slaughter them.”

“They are all barely Dot Three at the moment,” Mathias said. “They are no match for you, Minister.”

“Mathias will barely escape the disaster, gaining the sympathy of his backers for losing his team and yet bravely keeping on the fight. Taiyougami’s defenses will be weakened enough for us to slaughter the population there, with inside help.”

The Red Minister stayed silent for a moment, before letting out a heavy sound from her nostrils. “I will kill them all.”

“Except Martel,” Aster pointed out.

“Agreed. For now.”

“We can end this meeting then,” Aster said. “I will keep you updated on our next moves.”

Blackcinders exited the mindscape first, followed by Grimsour. The Golden Prince shook his head regretfully after sending a last glance at Mathias, then vanished. Brina herself just smiled at him and left without a word. 

Only Loctis remained behind, turning towards Aster. “I would like to have a private chat with him, is that possible?”

“You are in my mind. True privacy is next to impossible, and I will have to report to the Grandmaster.”

“I have nothing to hide to Wyrde,” Loctis replied. “But I do not want the other Ministers to hear of it. Mostly Blackcinders. You know she will not behave.”

“I understand. Very well. I will return him after you are done.” 

The Blue Minister’s projection vanished, leaving the great dragon alone with Mathias. The younger sorcerer looked up at the co-founder of Concordia with heavy apprehension. “What is it, Minister?”

“I would like to exchange further with you on that Save and Load feature. Melusine’s report said you heard a being of light speak to you during the transfer, is it not? Can you describe it to me further?”

What a strange question. Didn’t he know more than Mathias himself? “It looked like a combination of all the colors, except Black,” the sorcerer explained. “I knew, almost as an instinct, that it was a creature of sorcery incarnate.”

“Mmm… and what it did say?”

Mathias could remember it clear as day. “I see you, Shroud. Always the fool eager to challenge fate, no matter the iteration. But remember… I own you, now and forever.

“Remember, and iterations. Odd choice of words, did you met it before?” 

“No, not even when I interacted with the Matrix for the first time.” 

Instead of being disappointed, much to Mathias’ surprise, the Green Minister seemed even more curious. “Do you know that Aster failed to report it, the first time Melusine pre-activated your trigger phrase in the Neurotower? Even though he had access to all your memories? Neither Melusine nor Wyrde perceived it either when they survived the jump. Only when you gave him your full report did we learn of it. Even looking inside your memory with his Lock, Aster cannot find, nor witness, the incident in question. He reported Ashmal trying to make contact, but not that entity.”

“Ashmal?” Mathias frowned.

“Ashmal, the Archmage of Black. The first of the Pandorians. The same person who wrote Dis: Worlds of Power.”

So this was the black entity who contacted him twice? “Looks like he has seen better days.”

“You should say brighter days.” His answer amused Loctis, who apparently had a sense of humor. “He stumbled on Pandoria during his travels across the plane and emerged from it as darkness itself. He is a cautionary tale, Mathias. If you do not master the Black, the Black will master you.”

“That would imply it can be mastered at all.” From what he had seen, Black consumed and left nothing but fear and pain behind.

“It is possible, if exceptionally hard. I am a minority, but I believe Black provides a key function in our universe and thus is no more evil than the other colors. Albeit the most dangerous by far. Anyway,” Loctis stressed the word, “if Aster could see that force of annihilation, why didn’t he notice the first entity? Perhaps because it controls both sorcery and Locks.”

“It could be something else. A bug, or a hallucination. It could be anything.

“Oh, I have a theory, but you will find it crazy. Do you want me to tell you still?”

“You are Concordia’s brightest mind. Nothing you say is crazy.” The Minister sounded like he loved to debate new ideas. 

Loctis let out a heavy sigh. “I can’t wait to have a conversation with Wyrde on your case, it was just plain wrong to authorize… this. Maybe I stayed away from governing for too long. Whatever. You probably will not care for what I am about to say, but when you regain your free will, I hope you will remember it so we can have a proper debate. I think you met Dis’ equivalent of the Administrator.”

A super Administrator, which oversaw sorcery itself? “Like the god of sorcery?”

“Or the Cosmocrator, whatever you want to call it. My current theory on the escalation syndrome is that part of its personality bleeds into the colors and taints the sorcerer.” 

“All the sorcerers who escalate go violently mad, however. You say they all channel the same persona? That would make that Cosmocrator a tyrant.”

“I never pretended it was a force of good. If anything, the message you carried would attest to that.”

They had begun to drift into philosophy. “If the source of all sorcery is evil, then why isn’t the universe a living hell?”

“Maybe it is, and we don’t notice.”

Mathias shrugged. “That sounds a bit too far stretched, to be honest. And no power surpasses the Grandmaster’s.”

Loctis didn’t reply at once to that. “In the absence of proof for or against, all we have are our beliefs and intuition. In time, I will get to the bottom of this apparition.” 

“I wonder why you reached that conclusion though.”

“Manus and I believed it probable, back when he still worked for Concordia. Although he believed that ‘cosmocrator’ to be dead, leaving the spot empty for someone else to take over. You know, I should have known he would escalate and go crazy when he started to entertain that thought…”

Mathias instantly noticed an oddness in the dragon’s rambling. “He.”

“Ah. Yes, him,” Loctis confirmed. “Manus began as an attempt from Wyrde and I to revive our late best friend by copying his brain patterns in digital form, and even if we realized we failed the second our baby uttered his first sentence, I could never imagine him as an it the way my mentor did.”

Aster’s projection returned. “It is time,” the Minister said, either pressed for time or annoyed by Loctis’ words. 

“Do not die, Mathias,” Loctis wished the young Player good luck. “We have too much to talk about when you can argue back.”

And so, he vanished. 

“Do you understand what is asked of you?” Aster asked his pawn.

“Earn the trust of Manah and these so-called gods,” Mathias said. “Gather information, lead the Guild to Blackcinders, and leave them to die.”

“Yes. Do whatever they ask, even missions against Concordia’s interests. We will pay them back tenfold in time. I will also download in your mind a list of Outsiders aligned, covertly or overtly, with our Empire. Use them to prevail, and to deal with your ‘teammates,’ should the need arise. I will also send Melusine to back you up in Oceanis, and to prevent Blackcinders from going off-script.”

“Yes, Minister,” Mathias gave him the Concordian salute. “I will not disappoint.”


Mathias opened his eyes, sitting on a golden throne. 

Nothing but a second had passed in the waking world.

“So, handsome?” Ace asked at his side, with Sol on his right. “Where do we go now?”

He looked at her through the glass visor, before glancing at the Majestic Sun’s monitors, showing life in the Lair. Amaterasu showed Kari around, like a queen with her puppy; he resisted the urge to call Aster’s fleet early and finish off that enemy of the state. 

Maggie Powells, whose demand of a favor Mathias remained wary of, was trying to track down Sun Wukong in the depth of the Lair, but the monkey had so far avoided her. Mur toyed with the newborn dragon in Baihu’s area, Mathias wary of his influence; they would have to exfiltrate the dragon because the fiend tainted him. 

And Stitch tinkered with the Lifeforge; sometimes he glanced at to an empty spot as if listening to someone who wasn’t there. 

Interesting. 

“We will first go to Oceanis, before we exhaust Manah’s patience,” Mathias said. They could apparently teleport back and forth from the Lair to the Midnight Market. “Afterward, I guess we can attempt a quest to gain more Spellcoins?”

“I found one which should put everyone behind it,” Ace said, sending it to him through Magik. 

The Dragon Exile

Difficulty: Dot Three (Hard)
Sponsor: Desert King.

Most dragons have fallen in with the Empire’s doctrine of conquest and assimilation, but I recently became aware of one exception; a dragoness present since the earliest days of Concordia, and who opposed the rise of Grandmaster Wyrde. The dragoness has been condemned to exile and house arrest on the distant, icy planet of Nibiru, but may prove a tremendously useful ally if freed. After all, she was there when Concordia was founded, and may sow discord among it… 

Rewards: Eleven Spellcoins + New Ally Unlocked

It was for the greater good… “Nice,” he said. “I’m curious to see a dragon opposed to Concordia. It’s a pleasant surprise.”

Ace smiled, but her lips didn’t reach her ears.  

He instantly tried to peek inside her mind with Network, just in case. Maybe he was simply paranoid, but she was one of the few teammates he didn’t know enough to fully predict. 

It didn’t work.

While he gave no outward sign of anger, Mathias tried again, only to fail. It wasn’t that it returned without anything. His Lock hadn’t triggered at all. 

Network refused to activate, the same way it refused to in Manah’s presence. Did his subconscious refuse to activate the Lock? 

Damn, maybe he hadn’t been vocal enough in his hatred of dragons. He should make a comment about-

— “I will flay him with a blade of glass.” — 

The sudden memories gave him shivers inside his own brain, the hatred they held straining against his own loyalty. Emotionally-charged memories started rushing to his mind, threatening to overwhelm him from within. 

Was…

— “I will flay him with a blade of glass.” — 

The doppelgangers.

The doppelgangers! With the Network time limit reaching its week-long duration, the clones had started dispelling, and their memories remained unaltered. And the old him had made dozens of them. 

— “I will flay him with a blade of glass.” — 

No matter, he would deal with them the same way the old him did, compartmentalize, shift them away. He started putting them in the back of his mind, behind the mental walls Aster had crafted to isolate his old allegiances, and then-


Shroud awakened in the back of his own mind. 

It was perhaps the strangest experience he had ever experienced; an absolute lack of sensation in his entire body. He didn’t feel his legs, or limbs, nor even his own heartbeat. He was an outsider to his own flesh. 

He could see through ‘his’ eyes and hear through ‘his’ ears, but he could barely understand what was going on as if watching a movie alternating between English and a foreign language. He knew different parts of the brain managed sensory feedback and the ability to make sense of them; maybe he had only managed to circumvent some of Aster’s protections?

The memory overload from the doppelgangers didn’t overwrite the Parasite—Shroud decided to call the parasitic persona occupying his body that—the way he hoped it would; at least he could ‘hear’ himself think instead of existing as a confused subconscious noise, struggling to maintain its own existence. 

Now he had enough mental substance, Shroud quickly pieced together what Aster had done to his mind. 

He had turned it into a maze. 

That was how Aster’s Lock worked. It created a labyrinth of mental walls, separating memories and parts of the brain from one another. 

People were the sum of their memories and experiences, emotional souvenirs creating beliefs, and beliefs resulting in actions; but rearranging them, Aster had reshaped Mathias, created a shell personality loyal to Concordia and in control of ‘his’ body. 

But Aster couldn’t erase memories; he could only hide them behind mental walls. That must have been how Shroud had ‘forgotten’ most of his meeting with Melusine; the memory still existed, Aster had just made it impossible to access it. And by hacking Shroud into tiny pieces, Aster had reduced him to a mere subconscious whisper. 

By shifting the clones’ memories away in a single place, behind the mental walls, the invader had allowed Shroud to pull himself back together after Aster had all but psychically mutilated him. Ironically, his old compartmentalization habit had saved him. He wondered if that kind of event happened to Blue Sorcerers overusing their gifts. 

Shroud immediately attempted to take back control of his body; to blurt out the truth to Ace while it was still time, or to write a message on Magik Online if he couldn’t. 

Mental walls prevented him from accessing his motor functions and held against his efforts. 

Shroud raged at the situation, unable to get past Aster’s intrusive firewall. “Mindshield,” he ‘spoke,’ trying to eject the false personality from his brain. He didn’t feel even the slightest feedback of sorcery. 

Shroud remembered the battle with Melusine. She had been able to sabotage his Lock to a degree, but not his spellcasting. The sorcerer didn’t fully understand how the Magik Online System worked, but the two powers could work apart from one another to a degree.

Which meant while Network remained loyal to Shroud after he could piece himself back together, only the parasite could spellcast. 

Shroud was in the passenger’s seat. He was a disembodied spirit along for the ride, while the false persona Aster had crafted remained firmly in control. And the second the Minister would notice his continued presence, he might just destroy Shroud, maybe for good this time. 

Shroud raged at the situation. 

Two years.

For two fucking years, Blue Minister Aster had that trap waiting in the back of his mind, turning him into a weapon against his own friends and allies. The Administrator had been right; he was compromised, and he hadn’t even known it!

Damn it, why didn’t anybody notice? The Administrator suspected the truth, and he had Stitch run every test under the sun for mental tempering— 

Stitch hadn’t reported anything. 

An expert doctor with a considerable battery of sensory spells hadn’t reported anything wrong. Could he have been in Concordia’s pocket the whole time? Or had he noticed but didn’t report because he worked for someone else? Who else could be a thrall of Aster? 

How many brainwashed agents did he have among Players? 

Shroud decided to focus on other matters than paranoid rambling. He had no proof, and he was short on time; the Concordian personality intended to throw the team and the entire station to the wolves. He had to regain control as soon as possible, or at least warn the Dragonslayers. 

With the only weapon he had left. The one he had since the very first day. 

Only Network. 

Previous Chapter


Voting for MagikVoting button

Kindle Ebook

As the Volume II of Magik Online enters its final arc, “Invisible Ties,” I would like to thank my beloved patrons on Patreon, Alex Pruitt, Saul Kurzman, Dex, Warwick Robertson, BlissForgotten, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, and Daniel Zogbi.