Chapter 4: Season Pass

Previous Chapter

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Ulysses asked from the white, Flux-powered Ford Fiesta’s backseat. He looked pretty uncomfortable wearing a tuxedo for the party, fidgeting next to his sister. Mathias didn’t fare any better, sweating under his suit and gloves.

“I told you that it was like a palace,” Perse chirped. She had dressed astonishingly well for the night, wearing a short, sensual black dress, and holding her red hair together with a blue rose. Even Mathias could only stare. His jaw had even dropped when they had picked the Werners up.

And she had been sitting strangely close to him ever since. It made him… uncomfortable. Not that he wasn’t used to her physical closeness, but… it felt weird tonight. He had even suppressed the urge to fish for information with Network, worrying about the answer he would get.

“That’s an understatement, sweetie,” Vivianne said, sitting at the front seat next to the driver, Mathias’ own father. While they would be out on a friendly dinner on paper, Mathias had noticed she had put perfume on.

—- Viviane made a face in front of the mirror. Had she overdone the eyeshade? Victor had seemed interested, but with the memory of his wife still haunting him, he might pull back if she forced too much —

Yes, Mathias had guessed right. His simply power took out all the surprise.

“Thanks for driving us, Mr. Martel,” Perse said, as the trio stepped down from the car.

“It’s normal, can’t have her be the one driving you guys all the time,” Victor replied. Mathias would have sworn he saw his father smile in the dark. “You sure your date is here, Ulysses?”

“Yeah, she texted me. She just left house with her brother.”

“All is good, then.” The parents waved them goodbye before leaving them for their own dinner, the car leaving without making a sound. Mathias had to give credit to Concordia. Clean energy for all devices made for a quiet city.

Mathias dusted himself off, before taking a moment to look at the massive mansion in front of him.

Even from blocks away, the glow of dancing lights and the sound of dubstep music made it impossible to miss the residence. Sitting on a small hill, Mayor Brown’s estate stood out for being out of time. An exotic creamy-white house detailed in a neo-Art Deco style; huge picture windows made up the south and west walls of the house, facing the sea. The immense garden surrounding the place smelled of alien scents; Mayor Brown had imported strange, star-shaped red flowers from another world.

Security was state of the art, of course. An electric fence surrounded the palace, and Mathias noticed surreptitiously placed cameras monitoring them right above the entrance portal. The metal doors opened for them without a word, the automated system recognizing their faces. Two large Bullmen bouncers held guard at the entrance, checking the group’s ID before they could get in.

The party was already on as Mathias walked into the garden, Perse putting her arm around his own in a mock gala gesture. He could see that the place was packed with dozens of students and young faces he hadn’t seen. Almost all of them had gathered around an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Hob servants moved around, serving refreshments and food to the humans present.

— chaotic yet formal; politically correct ambiance for now, won’t last long; energy waiting to be unleashed with the proper incentive —

“Here I go — gotta catch’em all,” Ulysses said, leaving to look for his date among the crowd. He seemed entirely out of place in that gathering, not paying much attention to his surroundings.

“I try so hard to set him up with someone, and this always happens,” Perse complained, then rubbed against Mathias, much to his discomfort and amusement. “Good thing I have the best one on hand.”

Mathias could tell that she enjoyed making him uneasy in front of others. Fortunately, he found a nice distraction, noticing Samantha not too far away.

“Look, they’re setting up a stage.”

Indeed, a small group of boys were busy setting up microphones and drums, under the watchful eye of Samantha and another girl Mathias had yet to meet. Orb-shaped speaker drones flew around them, playing dubstep music, and ready to relay karaoke songs.

“Thank you all,” Samantha thanked the boys, which most of them Network identified as her personal fans. She had dressed superbly tonight, wearing a golden dress that rivaled Perse’s own in sheer flair. “You all get a drink for your hard work when you’re finished!”

“Sam!” Perse shouted, as Mathias and her reached the small group. “Have you brought the guitar?”

“Always,” the singer replied, before putting an arm behind the unknown girl’s waist and pushing her forward gently. “Matt, Perse, here is my penpal, Kari Matsumoto. She just arrived yesterday night.”

Kari was a Japanese teenager, smaller than Mathias. As pale as a ghost, her eyes were a sharp, icy blue, and looked deeply thoughtful. While she kept her black hair cut short; a streak of white hair stood out on the left side of her head. She wore a tight black outfit with long sleeves, that reminded Mathias of a ninja or a cat in the way she walked, looking out of place in the crowd.

“Hi, Kari!” Perse said with a bright, warm smile.

The young woman nodded slightly in traditional fashion. “I am happy to make your acquaintance,” she said with a soft and formal voice, in stark contrast with Perse’s booming exuberance.

— Kari observed the crowd from the shadows, rich investors and big names gathering in support of the Grimsour-Matsumoto acquisition. “Target is in sight,” Toshiyami-sensei said from her earpiece, “Dispatch.” —

Kari’s eyes widened slightly, and her head snapped right at Mathias, like a hunter noticing their prey. The suddenness of the gesture scared the young designer to his very core.

— Kari couldn’t shake this feeling of dread. Even if the dojo was empty and silent, something inhuman watched her, piercing her very soul —

“Hi, Mathias,” Samantha said, interrupting the flow of Network’s information. “Perse, can you take over the stage for five minutes? I need to borrow your date for a little bit.”

“Huh?” Both Mathias and Perse said at the same time.

“It will be quick, I promise.” Samantha took a bewildered Mathias by the other arm with a queenly demeanor that brooke no disobedience. The young man followed her almost on impulse, while leaving a surprised Perse out in the cold.

After leading Mathias near the edge of the pool, she put her arms behind her back. One step and they might fall in the water, where a few boys and girls had already taken to moonlight swimming. “Mathias,” Samantha said, as the two sat at the edge of the pool. “I must tell you something.”

Mathias straightened up, remembering her previous message, as Samantha imperiously snapped her finger, a Hob hurrying to serve them two ceramic cups full of a black substance. “What is it?” he asked, looking into the liquid.

“Moonblack,” she replied, as she took her own cup.

“Moonblack?!” Moonblack was a thick, strong black milk produced by Lord Revel’s fairies in the Sphere of Ar. Concordia’s ban on imported products from rival powers meant a drop was worth its weight in gold.  

Mathias brought the drink to his lips, finding the taste sweet and pleasing. The powerful drink filled his palate and head with a rush of energy, not unlike that of a caffeine infusion. He could already feel his focus increasing. “So?”

Samantha inhaled heavily before speaking, “My dad told me today that a representative of the Institute would visit Evermarsh High School by the end of the month,” she said, before smiling brightly. “You and I have been nominated for membership by Mr. Barth.”

“Oh.” Well, that wasn’t the answer he had expected.

“You don’t seem surprised. Come on, Matt, it’s amazing.”

“No, no, it’s… it’s great, I’m flattered.” His father would be proud.

The Loctis Institute was a prestigious establishment, dedicated to furthering both scientific and magical research for the Concordian Empire. Anton Maxwell, Mathias’ CEO, had attended it, alongside other big names. All those who had attended it became high-ranking members of the regime or achieved societal success.

But the Institute also produced most of the Empire’s war tech, alongside Grimsour Industries. Joining meant putting his intellect into the service of dragons; he would rather design games instead of war machines.

“Nominated being the key word,” Samantha said. “The Institute is very selective. The representative might decide to pick only one of us.”

“And you want me to back out?” He knew she wouldn’t — she craved competition — but he wanted to see her reaction.

Samantha laughed, “Of course not. I’m actually happy that we’re in competition for the spot. I took the nomination for granted, so the risk of losing it spices up my life. Tell me, Matt, do you play chess?”

“I prefer the game of Go,” Mathias replied, putting his cup back inside the drone alongside Samantha’s after finishing. “Chess is direct and offensive, while Go is more subtle, indirect. It fits my mindset better.”

“Maybe we could play a game later? I really want to have a rival I can match wits with. Everyone always plays nice with me, so it’s fun to fight someone that doesn’t hold back.” She took a look around, noticing the stage was set for her music band. “You know, this will probably be my last party in Evermarsh. Afterwards, I’m either going to leave for the Institute or for a big Arc-City. I really wanted to bring everyone together for one last night.”

“You did,” Mathias said with a smile. “Everyone managed to make it.”

“Except Jack.” Her voice was laced with an undercurrent of venom. “He texted me saying he wouldn’t come.”

Mathias paused. He had a pretty good idea where the boy could have gone. “Are you two…”

“I deserved better than a text,” she cut him off, ending the conversation on a foul note.

Perse’s booming voice resonated across the garden, enhanced by the flying drones. “Is this thing on? Sam, Maggie, we’re on! Matt, it’s Terra Firma calling, I can see that you aren’t paying attention! So pay attention, damnit!”

A wave of laughter spread across the audience, snapping Mathias back to reality and bringing joy back to Samantha. She is so going to suffer, he thought, as Samantha laughed out loud and left him to join her friends.

The Evermarsh Skulls, with Perse as guitarist and Samantha as the singer, assembled on the stage, with the various partygoers surrounding them. Maggie Powells, the drummer, would round out the trio.

… Or would have, had she showed up.

Mathias could tell something was wrong from his spot, as Samantha and Perse began to whisper away from the microphone. Eventually, Samantha made a gesture at Kari, inviting her on the scene. The Japanese girl took the drummer’s place, much to everyone’s surprise.

With a trio assembled, and content that Mathias was paying attention to her, Perse gave the microphone back to Samantha. “First of all,” the diva declared, instantly quelling the crowd with her voice.“Thank you all of you for coming tonight. I’ve got a question for you, though.”

She raised her arm above. “Who wants to put Evermarsh on fire tonight?!”

The crowd erupted, raising their arms.

“Then say with me, three…”

“Three!” the crowd roared. “Two! One!”

“Here we go!” Samantha shouted, Perse unleashing a powerful sound as Maggie hit the drums.

And the crowd just went wild.

“With bright light…” Samantha sang.

A bunch of boys distributed alcohol cans to everyone, girls took their dates to dance, and small drones circled the property, projecting holograms in the form of a kinetic lightshow.

The Evermarsh Skulls played with their eyes closed, subsumed in a trance. Perse, especially, moved as if possessed, jumping around with her guitar. Her energy spread to the audience, with multiple people jumping on place with reckless abandon. The very ground shook, shook…

“All will be one… for one is never alone…”

Mathias found himself clapping, entranced by the music. Even Ulysses, ever the detached loner, began to smile and jump in place.

— Osmosis achieved; emotional energy spreading; all are one —

But for Mathias, his heart just wasn’t in it. He only had to take a long hard look at the night sky to understand why. The light of the city blotted out the stars, but the full moon shone a bright crimson.

The young man could see the massive, metallic, red-colored structure covering the moon with perfect clarity. He could see the brightness at the center of the construct, the Flux energy pit whose terrible eruptions caused so many deaths.

Damocles. The seat of the dragon authority ruling Earth, the symbol of their domination. The Doomsday weapon that wiped Russia off the map.

How did it feel, to look at that weapon? To wonder everyday whether it would fire, burning your city and those one loved? How did it feel to hold a party under that bloody moon, to forget oneself in booze and drugs and carry on while pretending everything was fine?

It felt awful.

Yet something else bothered him, the seed of a doubt infesting his mind. He had expected Jack’s last minute absence, since he was clearly involved in his father’s plot. But Maggie? His Network insight pointed in the opposite direction. Why would she be absent?

No.

No, they couldn’t go that far. The Powells couldn’t cross that line. They couldn’t…

As the doubt growed, and the implications became clear, Mathias ran away the rave in a hurry.

——-

Chemical plant rusty, old, creepy.
The chemical plant.

Mathias observed the Chemical Plant from afar, hidden in the shadows. While he had run as fast as he could, and had to catch his breath not to collapse, clearly he was late for the real party.

In the darkness of the night, the plant looked like an ominous fortress of rusted steel, ruined by time. Lines of dilapidated structures, of crumbling towers, welcomed Mathias. The plant hidden away like a dirty secret as far away from town as logistically possible. The acid smell itched his throat. His Glass Field let him see swarms of rats tailing him in the dark, or crawling nearby.

Before the Conquest made the previous owner bankrupt, this place had been a nest of jobs for the city, hosting hundreds of employees. It had slowly fallen into decay, the Concordian government abandoning it to focus on building a whole new city instead of repairing an obsolete, toxic ruin. Once the Arc-City would be operational, the plant would finally be razed to the ground alongside the rest of the old Evermarsh, the land turned into fields or factories.

The electric fence had collapsed at one point, leaving a gaping hole for anyone to go through. And they had; half a dozen cars were parked right in front of the fences, mostly police cars and the black Mercedes that picked Samantha up from school.

Approaching as stealthily as he could, Mathias’ Glass Field soon encompassed the cars, and he began to hear people discussing in low voices through his extended senses.

“ — long enough.” The visual sensation sent by Glass Field revealed the speaker as a police member speaking to his partner. As Mathias had worried, both had guns. “My wife was starting to ask questions. Almost accused me of having an affair with you!”

“No kidding?” his female partner replied with a smirk. By now Mathias had moved on the other side of the Mercedes. “She should have a little more trust in you.”

“That is why my husband and I made a point of both being onboard since day one,” another woman said; fashionably dressed for corporate work invited herself in the discussion. She held a dashing man with a confident smile by the arm. “Trust is the foundation of a strong marriage.”

It took a moment for Mathias to recognize the man due to the ambient darkness, until he opened his mouth, “Indeed. If you wife still bothers you officer, I can vouch for your integrity.“ The consummate public figure, Mayor Brown had a way to make you like him, even when his promises sounded empty.

“Thank you, Mister Mayor. I’m just happy everything will be over after tonight.”

His partner seemed less relieved. “I hope it was worth it. Those poor guys…”

“Dregs of society.” Brown’s wife brushed off. “If anything, Concordia ought to reward us for removing those drains of their public finances.”

“Still… that was hard,” said the female cop. “Especially the first few.”

“Necessary sacrifices in the pursuit of a righteous purpose,” Brown reassured the cop. “Your task was the hardest, so it’s okay to feel doubt. I swear though, tonight’s lamb will be our last on the altar.”

The phrasing chilled Mathias to the bone. “Henry should be done,” Brown’s wife said, tightening her hold on her husband. “And I’m freezing.”

“Yes. Let’s start the ceremony.” Without another word, Brown led his group away from the cars and into the plant.

Mathias clenched his fists in suppressed rage. Those people had clearly killed the victims, and seemed about to do it again.

Mathias knew direct intervention was beyond risky. Scratch that, it sounded suicidal when he thought about it. Attacking an armed group was a major step up from his current tests, one that could easily end in his death even with his magic. He could follow his initial plan, taking incriminating pictures anonymously…

No. He couldn’t chicken out now. If he could save an innocent life tonight, he would have to step in.

Besides, fighting Gearsmen, or Troopers, or Concordian forces would prove tremendously more difficult than beating up corrupt cops. He had to start somewhere.

When the group moved far enough away, Mathias activated his Glass Field. Careful not to activate the cars’ alarm, he turned most of the windows into glass dust, drawing it to him. The Mercedes’ stained, reinforced glass he separated from the rest, bringing it to his face and shaping it into a featureless helmet covering most of his skull. The stained glass’ color would hide his face, protecting his identity; since he could see through glass, the darkness outside didn’t bother him. Tiny holes at various points allowed him to breath through it.

Part of the dust, he shaped into an armored plate over his chest, like a bulletproof vest. With his power active, the glass moved with him like a second skin. The rest, he transformed into a dozen flying daggers.

Still unaware of his presence, Brown’s group had moved around the perimeter, reaching an isolated warehouse with a solid iron door. Mathias looked from afar as he knocked on it twice, then three times.

Henry Powells opened the door; Mathias’ sensed the phone in his pocket, and the gun brushing against it. The young man did his best to listen, in spite of distance; the phone’s screen in his pocket relayed the sound to Mathias. “She is ready.”

“She?” Brown sounded surprised as he walked in, Powells closing and locking the door once the last man had gotten inside.

Mathias approached the wall next to the door, his field covering the warehouse’s interior. Mathias let his senses expand, the warehouse’s windows and lamps relay him sound and sight.

He could scarcely distinguish anything in the dim-lit room. Eight people had assembled inside, most of them cops, the others Brown’s own entourage… and Jack, dressed in a simple white shirt.

Mathias suddenly noticed a ninth person, a woman in a white dress bound and gagged to a chair at the center of the room; her face covered by a bag. She had bruises on her arms. Jack kept watch on her, his hands on her shoulders.

Damn. He resisted the urge to make all the glass in the warehouse explode in those bastards’ faces, waiting only to get a better picture of the situation.

As he focused on the scene, he received more sensory information, allowing him to better scan the area. He could see big fat rats crawling in corners, as if waiting for a meal to fall for them to devour. The most noticeable feature, however, was the mark.

The group had drawn a crimson, giant ‘M’ right beneath the bound woman, with a dried substance that reminded Mathias of blood. The symbol had been stylized, the edges of the letter looking like flames. The more Mathias looked at this, even through glass, the more unease settled in his heart.

The sight filled with him a primal sensation of fear.

“You are sure about this, Henry?” Mayor Brown’s face had grown pale, slightly disturbed. “I never asked you to go this far.”

“The Maleking appreciates personal sacrifices,” Powells replied. “What greater offering than this one?”

“But… she is your own flesh and blood.”

“She was a mistake that I would have drowned at birth had her mother not gotten in the way. Besides, you said we needed to throw the scent off our back. After she dies, nobody will suspect us. We’ll be the victims.”

“She texted her boyfriend,” Jack warned. “I can lie, say we were attacked. If someone can rough me up a bit, it will look convincing…”

“We will deal with the fallout after the ceremony,” Brown cut in, regaining control of the interaction. He straightened his clothes, brushing off dust as easily as his own buried conscience. “Time for a word of congratulations.”

“You’ve got a speech ready?” Henry smiled.

“Always,” Brown said and cleared his throat, the gathering eyeing him. “My dear friends, after long, hard weeks, our task ends tonight. Each of us struggled in secrecy, and we persevered. At long last, our efforts will yield just fruit with this last offering.”

Mathias had to struggle not to mentally slit his throat mid-speech. For the first time in his life, he considered killing a fellow man.

“Ten years ago, when mankind faced its greatest challenge, many of us lost hope. Soon, we will lose our jobs too, watching machines beat our population, or decide our future for us. Like you, I searched for a light, a way to strike back. I found none.”

Brown made a deliberate pause. “Instead, the light found me. Found us.”

The way he spoke, his eyes possessed with fervor, reminded Mathias of those movie cult leaders. Except Brown was flesh and blood instead of pictures on a screen.

“When the dreams came, when the Maleking spoke to us, I refused to believe his promises. I thought I had gone mad. So did many of you, who shared the same visions. Yet, when I saw with my own eyes, the gifts our Benefactor offered for so meager a price… then I understood. I knew who I was, what power I had been born to deliver unto the world.”

That fact disturbed Mathias all the more.

“Now, the Maleking will grant one of us the gift of power, and in gratitude, we shall give him his due.” Brown extended a hand at Jack in a dramatic, symbolic gesture. “Jack, the sacrifice.”

Mathias winced, as Jack removed the bag from his victim’s head. Although he had long guessed the identity of their victim, seeing her bruised face and gagged mouth awakened him to the danger ahead.

“My, Maggie, smile a little.” Jack grabbed a sharp knife from his belt, ready to slice his sister’s throat with unnerving serenity. “Today, I enjoy being an only child.”

Now at the moment of truth, Mathias only spoke two words, echoing through the screens and the windows.

“Blue World.”

Previous Chapter

Chapter 3: Skill Tree

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The top public school in Evermarsh, Evermarsh High, came equipped with tactile screen boards to teach, top-notch biometric lockers, and comfortable velvet chairs. The Yellow Ministry of Concordia, which supervised all cultural and education activities, had heavily invested in the place, intent on making it the safest, most welcoming place for students to foster their skills in the Empire’s service. The school’s excellent academic reputation made competition for entry fierce. For Mathias, keeping good grades here was paramount to him.

Sitting at the left edge of the classroom behind an individual mahogany desk, right next to the pristine windows, Mathias glanced at the discrete, eye-shaped camera above the board, recording the students’ every move. Classroom C was big enough to accommodate thirty students, assembled in linear lines, but not big enough to create a blind-spot in the camera.  

Ulysses and Perse were located further back in the classroom. The school’s staff had reorganized the students’ places to reduce talking during class in order to increase productivity, ensuring that close friends would sit as far apart as possible. To make up for it, the school put on beat music when the teachers weren’t present through loudspeakers, distracting the students from the surveillance.

The cameras and the security system hadn’t turned out to be a great investment. After hacking the school system on his first week, just to see if he could, Mathias had found one a glaring blind-spot in the emergency exit and a glitch in the biometric securities. Cameras could be fooled by repeating previous footage, alongside other exploits.

Mathias had once thought about anonymously reporting the weaknesses he had found, but decided against it, at least while he was still a student. A tip would result in an investigation and he didn’t want any additional trouble during his school year.

And today, that decision had paid off. He wouldn’t have dared risk what he was about to do if he hadn’t disabled the classroom’s camera beforehand.

Mr. Barth caused the whole class to fall into silence as he closed the door behind him. “Good morning students,” he spoke with a strong, neutral tone, while carrying a pile of paper under his arm.

Like all Bullmen, Mr. Barth was more “bull” than “man,” a bipedal beast with clawed hands and hoofed feet. He was small for his kind, only two heads taller than Mathias himself, horns included, with a hide brown like chocolate. He wore a shirt and trousers instead of more elaborate metal plates and jewelry favored by his kind.

— “Shaping the citizens of tomorrow starts with the children of today.” Barth listened intently to his Yellow Magistry instructor. “Children have boundless potential, yet untamed. Try to assimilate into their culture by wearing local clothes, so they feel comfortable around you. Be fair. Encourage them to excel for the glory of Concordia.” —

When Mr. Barth went straight towards Mathias’ desk, his hooves causing the ground to shake under his heavy build, the young student straightened up and tried to hide his excitement behind a poker face. Mr. Barth never went to him first.

Others noticed. Mathias could almost feel the tension in the air as the teacher walked up to him, rereading the paper at the front of his pile. Mathias exchanged a few glances with his worried friends, but remained calm.

Finally ending the silence, Mr. Barth put a paper on Mathias’ desk.

“Congratulations, Mathias, you won the maximum score.” Murmurs went through the room, as he read the praiseful comments all over his research paper. “Excellent work, keep it up.”

Mr. Barth, no man to go into speeches, moved on to Samantha, giving her the first runner-up paper of her entire school year, distributing into descending order of score. Perse ended up third, while Ulysses managed to hang in the middle.

Mathias couldn’t hear the gossips going on around him, but Network told him his increased grades had increased his status somewhat, especially among the academic-minded students.

Downloading Premium Thoughts had proved an excellent investment. Everything Mathias saw or experienced, he could remember with perfect clarity, which turned him into a living database. A sleepless night checking trivia and online databases had been enough to get over lateness in previous assignments. The spell also increased his thought process speed enough to do quicker work for Dynamis.

However, Premium Thoughts hadn’t been his only purchase. Now that Barth was inside the classroom, the risks of outside intervention were minimal.

Mathias checked his laptop, setting a chronometer on. Experiment start, he thought.

“Blue World,” Mathias spoke out loud.

A bright, blue flash filled the room, and for a moment Mathias’ entire vision seemed to be shrouded through a blue lens.

The hurried whispers of the class turned silent. Mr. Barth had stopped dead in his tracks, one hand about to seize another paper from his pile and put it on Jack’s desk. The students remained silent, as if frozen in time. Mathias glanced around, just in case anyone had escaped the spell, and then turned his eyes to the chronometer.

Five…

Four…

Three…

Two…

One…

The bluish light vanished, and the classroom once more buzzed with renewed activity. No one raised their eyes to Mathias, even to comment on his strange words. The spell must have paralyzed them before the words could register in their conscious mind. Perfect.

After experimenting, he had found that spells were divided into passive or active. Passive meant they were always on unless willingly disabled — such as Premium Thoughts. Active spells, such as Blue World, were voice activated.

When Mr. Barth moved on to the screen presentation, Mathias decided now was the time. His eyes quickly picked his intended target; an athletic, pretty, brown-skinned woman with striking amber eyes: Maggie Powells. Jack’s sister and the last member of Perse’s music band. She always looked ready for a fight, although Network told him that she lacked her brother’s hidden malicious edge.

— Maggie hated, hated herself for even asking, as Jack laughed his ass off, a cruel smirk on his face. Daddy took a deep breath, his eyes firm. “You really want to know what we’re doing, Maggie? Because the last person who asked me that question ended up going missing. Your brother can confirm it.”

“Maybe she could join,” Jack replied, his smirk growing ever wider. He didn’t bother putting on his charm with her, revealing his true face. “She could be another candidate.”

“We already have the proper vessel selected, son. A male vessel.” —

Yes, this confirmed his hunch about the police. Poor girl.

After calculating in his mind the time it would take to reach her, Mathias slightly pivoting to make rising up from his chair easier and took a deep breath.

“Blue World.”

As the blue flash filled the room, Mathias jumped out of his chair and dashed at Maggie. Thankfully, he had a straight line to her. He hurriedly poked her shoulder, feeling the energy surge of Network through his body, then got back to his chair, sitting down right in time for the spell to end with no one the wiser.

It could have been easy to bump into her at school, but Mathias didn’t want any possible trail to lead back to him in case his plot failed. Besides, he should get used to using his spells.

Keeping a poker face as he caught his breath slowly, Mathias focused back on Mr. Barth’s history class; for once he could listen without worrying about job deadlines in the back of his mind. He started listening intently to the political causes behind the Concordian unification, typing notes on his computer.

Concordia endless dragon and machine armies.
Concordia’s endless armies.

“ — During that troubled era four hundred years ago, our beloved Grandmaster Wyrde, greatest Sorceress among dragonkind, her apprentice Loctis, who would soon become the Green Minister, and the human explorer Halcyon, made a pact, swearing to unite the warring states of Midgard into a single whole. It took a full decade of warfare and diplomacy, but the trio, hence known as the Three Founders, pacified the Sphere. To commemorate their success, they founded the city that would eventually cover all of Midgard and become the center of our eternal Empire; Concordia. A city where all would be one.”  

At what cost? Mathias thought, wise enough not to say it out loud.

“One of the founders was human?” Maggie asked.

“Yes. It is thought that Terra Firma and ancient Midgard were briefly connected thousands of years ago, allowing a few human tribes to cross the frontier and settle on the other world. It would be millenia before the Gates reopened ten years ago, but we will discuss this later. Halcyon himself descended from the primitive tribes, but we lack records on his past before the Founding, and his life was cut short during the Gintargo Pacification. We now move into the first age of — ”

However, Mathias grew bored, as his teacher rehashed the same information he had previously memorized from the online school database. He found himself opening Magik almost on impulse.

This website decreased his productivity more than social media.

Premium Thoughts and Blue World had been necessary purchases; the first because one couldn’t be too smart and the second to give himself a defensive weapon. He still had nine Spellcoins on his account, enough to buy three more Blue spells, or a combination of two other Color.

Mathias had noticed among Blue Spells; most involved manipulating skills or, in the case of Blue World, mind processes. Few had any direct offensive application. Perhaps higher level spells would provide more potent options, but they remained out of reach.

“ — The first challenge to Concordian supremacy was the rival Sphere of Gintargo, a burgeoning empire built on trade instead of military force. Ideological differences and competition over resources meant inevitable war — ”

Mathias noticed that he could follow the lecture as precisely as if he had focused on it… while his attention was equally set on Magik.

How much could his brain multitask while on Premium Thoughts? How fast could he compute information? If catching up to class took so little time, what else could Mathias learn?

Mathias found himself glancing at Samantha, noticing her staring at him blankly, still reeling from the shock of ending up in second place. It almost made the gamer feel bad about beating her, especially when she corrected her expression as not to look contrite.

— “Take your studies more seriously, Samantha,” Father scolded her. Her private tutor must have complained to him. “My government contacts told me several children at your school are being considered for Institute Membership.”

“Who?” Samantha replied. “My record remains unbroken.” She should have said it with pride, but she couldn’t muster the strength. Without credible competition, that boast sounded hollow.

… She wouldn’t mind some challenge. But who could provide it? —

Instead of taking her broken record as a personal affront, Samantha gave Mathias a sharp nod of acknowledgement, and smiled back. For the first time in a long while, she was truly staring at him not as Perse’s friend, but as his own person.

It felt nice.

———

On Friday morning, after a sleepless night spent devouring information, Mathias called in sick for the day and made sure he was home alone. He spent most of the day on his sofa, watching Maggie Powells’ feed with a pen and paper in his hands.

While her brother spent his lunch time with Samantha, Maggie had a tighter schedule. Coming home after sports, she took a shower  — Mathias had to look away for five minutes during that part — then moved to practice with her bass in her bedroom for twenty minutes, as if to blow off steam from invisible frustration.

The key moment Mathias had waited for came right afterward, when she entered her home’s kitchen to find her father eating a sandwich there. A strong, powerfully built man with a balding head, police chief Henry Powells kept his gun on the table, as if ready to open fire in his own house. He and his daughter narrowingly avoided speaking to one another, yet a glance triggered Network.

— “This Saturday,” Mayor Brown declared, a victorious smirk on his face, “One last push, and the Maleking will reward us for our efforts. Have you gotten the last ‘volunteer’?”

Powells smirked back. After struggling for so long, they would finally get the power they deserved. “Yes. Selected and ready for capture at your call.”

“Perfect.” His friend and co-conspirator jumped on place. “Tell our men to meet at Midnight on Saturday at the Chemical Plant. I want our entire team to witness the results of our good work.” —

As Mathias had expected, Network worked even while watching through his nodes — the term he had coined for people he had touched and turned into spies. This would come in handy, as he penned the various details.

What he had learned, though…

The conspiracy ran deeper than the police. Way deeper. If both the police chief and the mayor were involved, it would explain how they had been able to operate for so long. Did Samantha know? He doubted that. Unlike Jack, she didn’t seem the type to go along with such behavior.

What was the point, though? Concordia might be oppressive, but they wouldn’t let disappearances continue for too long. According to Sol, they would act soon, local opposition or not. They couldn’t sustain the operation in the long term.

And in spite of all the elements at hand, Mathias couldn’t fathom the motive yet.

Still, he now had information. The conspiracy would gather on Saturday midnight at the old Chemical Plant at the city’s outskirts. He remembered the place had been abandoned since Concordia deported the production —

Huh?

Jack’s feed had vanished from his interface.

The others remained active, but Jack was nowhere to be seen, and an in-depth check up of the app didn’t help find it. Confused, Mathias checked the time, and then understood.

Forty-eight hours.

That was the last time he had physical contact with Jack at the Coffee Shop. All the others he had touched in the same timespan. He would test out this hypothesis, but for now, it seemed the most likely explanation.

So, Network had a time limit. He had to renew the spell every two days or he would lose the feed. This complicated matters. Without Jack as an additional insider, he might miss important information.

What should he even do with the intel? Calling the police would obviously backfire; telling his dad would encourage him to infiltrate the meeting, with potentially disastrous consequences.

No. Mathias would go there, take incriminating pictures, and release them online anonymously. His targets relied on their public image to protect themselves; his plan would strip them of that.

Blue World alone wouldn’t protect him, however; while the local police lacked advanced Concordian weaponry, they still had guns. He needed to invest in additional protection, gain a weapon of his own.

Mathias typed “damage spell” in the Compendium research bar, in case results would come out. Berserk came first, which he ignored due to the inherent dangers of losing one’s mind, alongside Firekin; fire control without creation meant that unless he put something on fire he would lack any means to defend himself.

As he expected, most suggestions were Red or Orange; not surprising since they dealt with the physical world.

Seamancer

Affinity: Orange
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Passive, Thought.

The user gains the ability to psychically direct existing liquid water within sight, moving the water in any direction he wishes. The user cannot turn the water either solid or gaseous; the purer the liquid’s composition, the finer the control.

Dirt Call

Affinity: Orange
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Passive, Thought.

The user gains the ability to psychically direct earth within sight, moving dirt in the direction he wishes. The purer the earth, the finer the control.

Stockmight

Affinity: Red
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Passive, Physical Touch.

The user’s body stockpiles kinetic energy, lessening impacts and numbing hits. The user can then release the energy in bursts on physical touch, enhancing their strength.

Quasar

Affinity: Red
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Passive, Thought.

The user gains the ability to psychically direct light within sight, creating artificial darkness, or blinding flashes. The user cannot create light and is limited to using existing sources.

Heatriser

Affinity: Red
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Active, Voice.

User gains the ability to generate heat around their body, increasing temperatures while remaining unaffected.  

Biosurge

Affinity: Red
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Active, Voice.

User can produce a burst of bioelectricity around them, shocking living beings and disturbing electronic devices.

The options disappointed Mathias a bit. Most Red options needed voice activation or had underwhelming effect, while the Orange spells needed specific conditions to work. Seamancer would have had potential, if the chemical plant not been located inland.

In the end, Dirt Call was the best choice. Earth — although the definition implied an esoteric definition rather than a scientific one — could be found almost anywhere.  But the sight limit reduced its utility.

Thankfully, he had enough Spellcoins for a second purchase. Perhaps another spell could improve the first? He typed “expanded vision” in his search and found the perfect product.

Intuimotion

Affinity: Blue
Dot: 1
Price: 3
Activation: Passive.

The user gains complete awareness of all motion within a ten meter/thirty-two foot radius, giving them an expanded psychic sight alongside an intuitive understanding of movement.

A ten meters radius of psychic sight meant he could expand Dirt Call’s range significantly. Both were passive as well, and as such easier to deploy.

Mathias purchased both with a click and activated them. He closed his eyes, trying to focus on the dirt left in the house…

What followed was difficult to put into words. In a flash of Blue and Orange, he could suddenly sense the air move in his apartment, the dirt on the ground… and then the signals kept coming, chaotic, disordered. The more he tried to focus on the dirt signal, the less he felt his hold on it.

And then, when he pushed too hard…

CRACK!

A sound not unlike glass shattering echoed in his mind, jolting his brain and causing his eyes to snap back open.

He saw.

He saw his own face through his laptop’s screen and camera. He saw the city outside, the pigeon pooping on his windows like on his own eye. He saw the kitchen, his darkened bedroom, everything in his whole apartment. He could even see the corridor leading to their door, through the camera right above it.

He could no longer feel the air, or the dirt, or the movements around him. The glass though… the windows, the glass cups, his laptop’s screen, all of them had become a part of him. He could see through them, feel them.

Blue words wrote themselves in his mind, giving an explanation to his situation.

New Hack created!

Glass Field

Dot: 2
Components: Intuimotion + Dirt Call  
Activation: Passive, Thought.

You now have absolute psychic control over glass within a ten meter/thirty-two foot radius. You can use glass as an extension of your own senses, and cast spells through them. The purer the glass, the finer your control.

His spells had combined into a stronger one!

With a thought, Mathias commanded a glass cup on the kitchen table to come to him. Much to his astonishment, the object flew across the room at an arrow’s speed, and ended up floating right in front of his nose. Mathias just stared blankly at the miracle, his whole understanding of the laws of gravity undone tight before his eyes. An experience doubly wonderful, as he mentally saw his own face through the item.

The young man next tested the finesse of his control. With a thought, the glass cup decomposed into a cloud of tiny pieces, each as small as a sand grain. Although he could no longer see clearly through them, he could still feel them. Mathias reassembled them into a sphere of glass, then a more complex skull shape.

Did his spell have a limit of weight or size? He could sense every tiny bit of glass around him, and his magically-granted instincts told him he could command them all at once if he so wished. Deciding against destroying his apartment, Mathias returned the cup to its original form and telekinetically put it back in its original place.

Now he had a powerful, versatile weapon; in a world ruled by technology, he could find glass everywhere. A thought crossed his mind, however. What happened to Glass Field’s components?

Checking his account, he noticed Intuimotion and Dust Call missing from his available spells. Moving to the Compendium, he noticed them available for purchase, unlike Blue World or Premium Thoughts.

His individuals spells had been consumed by the process, like a chemical reaction. To use them in their base state, Mathias would have to purchase them again. Which he no longer had the funds to do.

Mathias decided to take a break and look at his phone’s messages. One from Ulysses, six from Perse, and sixteen from Vivianne. He started with the simplest and most elegant, four words long.

ULYSSES: are you dead yet?

Jackass.

Mathias went through Vivianne’s message with less thought, barely registering some words, like “you okay,” “sweetie, please sleep,” or “Illuminati poisoning.” Mathias put more focus on Perse’s messages.

PERSE: Mom told me you were sick. Are you okay?

PERSE: you okay? You haven’t been active in a while.

PERSE: hi Matt, if you’re still sick on Saturday, it’s fine. It’s totally fine.

PERSE: I’ll come at your home and play video games with you, it’ll be fun.

PERSE: Ulysses managed to convince Maggie for Saturday? No way!

PERSE: I’m coming with Ulysses tonight to visit. No buts.

It brought a smile on Mathias’ face, as he moved to work on his game design before his friends could come.

Changing the layout of his game corner, programming new monsters, and editing programming lines to smooth out building textures. The more he became absorbed in the video game, the less he thought. He was in the zone.

In developer mode, Mathias held a bird’s eye view of the virtual world, like a god overseeing his creation from the clouds — which he was, in a way. His sight was limited to his castle and its surroundings, over which he held administrator privileges. Beyond that, he could only see a white void, blind as he was. It ensured developing teams couldn’t leak the content of other groups to the press or gamers. Only Maxwell, the game’s creator, could oversee the entire game world at a single given time.

Mathias wondered how it felt, to watch a game setting the size of a small world evolving on its own, built over a year by two hundred teams around the world. It must feel invigorating; one’s vision becoming reality.

Mathias had designed his corner of the world with a gardener’s attention. The layout was relatively simple. Castle Noirceur stood as a black stronghold of ancient evil, surrounded by a terrible green glow and the wails of the dark spirits haunting the location. The castle was heavily fortified, with six towers of blackened stone rising from its depths, manned by ferocious, humanoid lizards. The very tip of the fortress, surrounded by the thick halo of ancient energies, held the altar of the Primeval Serpent, where the boss battle would take place.

“Maya, can you open a second visual feed? Any random place will do.”

The AI obeyed the order, a second video of a sinister swamp popping up on the side of his screen, right next to his visual of Castle Noirceur.

He could focus on both with equal intensity.

This sounded simple, but the mental effort needed to maintain this should have been tremendous. “Open a third feed.” The AI did, with Mathias not noticing any difference. “Open three more.”

By now, Mathias was facing a mosaique of various video feeds, showing marshes, plains, and caves around his castle. Each of them he could examine with perfect clarity and detail.

“Maya, can you link up to online reading websites and project courses on the six secondary feeds? Beginner courses in mechanical engineering, medicine, biology, and physics.”

The screens surrounding his main video feed started to portray pages from various online manuals, teaching the basics of building small machines, using pharmaceutical substances, or the underlying dynamics of the universe.

Only a glance was enough to memorize the entire page, his brain absorbing the information at a near-instant pace. “Next page, next page…” This was too slow. “Next page any time I blink.”

As he finished two courses within a few minutes and remembered every single word, the sheer potential of Premium Thoughts dawned on Mathias. The time he had wasted on school assignments, he could have used to become a doctor, or an engineer, or learn to create makeshift bombs, or enhance his computer engineering.

Suddenly, the technological supremacy of Concordia made a lot more sense. If Mathias could achieve such exploits with basic spells, he shuddered to think what experienced Sorcerers could accomplish.

Leaving his computer and facing the light of day through his kitchen’s window, Mathias saw two familiar faces stand before the door, his magic relaying him the information before they knocked. After checking his apartment in case he had left something incriminating in plain sight, the young designer opened the door to his guests.

Ulysses and Perse stood in front of him, the latter looking more worried than the former.

“You look terrible,” Ulysses said with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Perse gave her brother her trademark sour look, which he superbly ignored. “Mom told us you’ve been working all the time on the game,” she said, crossing her arms. “While sick.”

The sheer intensity and reproach in her stare made Mathias want to cower in a corner. “I just threw up,” he lied, scratching the back of his head, while letting his friends come inside. “No big deal.”

“Dude, you look straight out of a North Korean work camp,” Ulysses said, walking with his sister through the kitchen while Mathias closed the door behind them.

“I’ve got soda in the fridge, and apple juice,” Mathias said, his best friend quickly assaulting his reserve with wanton thirst. Ulysses tossed one can to Mathias, while opening another for himself.

“Matt, that’s full of pesticide and chemicals,” Perse complained, stealing Matthias’ can before he could open it. “Ulysses is too far gone to be saved, but you aren’t.”

“Hey, give it back!” Mathias laughed, struggling with his friend to recover his prize. “Diabetes is my destiny!” In spite of her previous sourness, Persephone couldn’t help but laugh happily at the childish antics.

“Meh, children nowadays,” Ulysses said with heavy sarcasm in the background, observing the fight with vague interest before leaping onto the sofa. “Who’s up for home delivered fried chicken tonight? My treat. Perse can take the salad.”

“Asshole,” Perse replied, joining her brother on the sofa with Mathias. She had lost the soda duel to the death and drowned her defeat in orange juice. “I say sushi night.”

“Fish is meat,” Ulysses replied.

“No, it’s not,” Perse insisted.

“Fish have eyes,” her brother replied.

Mathias had seen this argument before. “I’m up for sushi. I’ve had too much fatty chicken lately.”

“Aw, Matt, I knew you cared,” Perse chirped happily.

“Traitor,” Ulysses replied without much enthusiasm, grabbing his phone to order the food. “It’s true what the dragons say, democracy is oppressive to minorities.”

Mathias did his best to ignore the comment. “How did you convince Maggie to come with you, by the way?” he asked Ulysses, his own digital glasses on hand. “You blackmailed her?”

“I told her ‘Maggie, I choose you,’ and it worked like a charm.”

Mathias kept quiet for a few seconds before saying, “You picked up a date with a Pokemon catch phrase?”

“You can say it was…” Ulysses trailed off for extra effect. “Super effective.”

Mathias and Perse burst out laughing. “She didn’t get the reference, didn’t she?” Perse asked.

“Of course not. Can you imagine what she would have said otherwise?” Ulysses took a sip of his soda. “I think she’s a closet psychopath.”

“Huh?” Both Mathias and Perse said in almost perfect synchronization.

“A real psycho, and she believes I’m one too. She asked me if I liked animals. I said as much as a boot loves a puppy, and she took it seriously. It got really creepy afterwards. Do you know she carries a gun outside school? Told me she used pictures of her dad as target practice.”

Yeah, creepy. Guns were banned except for law enforcement; Maggie exposed herself to reprisal if caught

“Her father is the chief of police, so she might have stolen one of his firearms.”

“I don’t think so. In fact I think her father gave her a gun and just doesn’t give a shit,” Ulysses put his phone away. “Full course sushi is coming in fifteen minutes. Happy? You’ve ruined everythi — ”

“Since you’ve worked so hard for the day, Matt, and you clearly aren’t going to take a rest,” Perse cut in, interrupting her brother while bringing out her own digital glasses, “why don’t we playtest your changes for ourselves?”

“Sorry, not in the mood for four deaths in a row,” Ulysses shot back.

“Actually, I had another set-up in mind,” Mathias took a deep breath. “We work as a team instead of one against the others. We teleport to the countryside and we do sidequests instead of clearing out Castle Noirceur.”

“Dude, you’re a boss meant to challenge full teams of level seventeen players,” Ulysses pointed out. “Aren’t you, like, overpowered for sidequests?”

“Yes, exactly,” Mathias said. “And I will put you guys at level seventeen too. No struggling against traps; tonight, we just enjoy the ride.”

“So, let me summarize,” Perse smirked, a flash going through her brother’s eyes. “We’re playing the hardest game ever on easy mode?”

“Yes.” His friends had put on the glasses before he could finish that single word.

Putting on his digital glasses himself, Mathias left reality for his digital world. “Maya,” he spoke. “Start a playtesting session. Location, Lizard Camp B.”

The virtual assistant began checking his ID. “Name: Mathias Martel, sixteen. Location: Evermarsh, Florida. Registration 5402. Pre-registered class: Snake Charmer, level seventeen.”

Instantly called down from the skies above to the ground below, Mathias found himself at the entrance of a wooden fort back in his virtual avatar body, a sinister, shadowy dark lord.

Unlike more stereotypical dark lords, Mathias had given his avatar a bard-like aesthetic. His armor was little more than scale-shaped chainmail, and his boots and gloves were made of velvet rather than steel. A shadowy aura obscured most of his body and face. Even his main weapon was a rapier rather than a heavier weapon. It made him stand out visually, and be memorable for players.

Ironically, Perse herself looked more like a dark lord than he did. Towering one foot above him while clad in heavy black plated armor, her face was hidden beneath a spiked helmet, her body emitting heat because of a magical effect. From the outside, it seemed as if the armor contained smokeless fire rather than a human. She wielded a heavy mace with her right hand, and a large rounded shield with the left. She was the epitome of the Black Knight.

As a high-level Necromancer, Ulysses was a shambling, crowned corpse clad in regal, black and golden tattered robes. More dead than alive, his empty eye sockets crackled with blue fire from beyond. Unlike his fellows, he didn’t carry weapons, focusing on pure magic and the magic rings on his skeletal fingers. Ulysses more than anyone was a consummate role player, and managed to imitate a zombies shambling walk inside the game.

Now that he thought of it, assembled as they were, they looked like an evil version of the classic RPG party: the wizard, the rogue, and the warrior.

And here they were, three badasses facing a poorly defended wooden fort meant for beginner characters. Two lizardmen, miserable reptilian creatures, stood guard at the entrance, squealing in surprise. To their eyes, it was as if the trio had manifested out of thin air.

With a swipe of his rapier, Mathias killed them both at once without a sound. Their corpses fell to the ground, before exploding into a cloud of smoke. Perse smashed through the camp’s barricade while Ulysses began to laugh maniacally, fire swirling around his hands.

Before Mathias knew it, he found the whole camp on fire, the lizardmen in disarray, and himself surrounded by flames, screams, and chaos. Perse was smashing through entire groups of reptilian soldiers with mere swings of her mace, sending the creatures flying upon contact, while Ulysses bombarded the area with magical artillery.

These lizards were level one out of thirty. The whole team was level seventeen.

The monsters never stood a chance. Hell, they couldn’t even inflict damage on their attackers. Their paltry bronze weapons couldn’t pierce his and Ulysses’ magical defenses nor Perse’s heavy armor. Ulysses enjoyed the one-sided clash a lot more than his sister, laughing insanely as he launched fireball after fireball at war tents. After spending weeks getting his ass kicked inside Castle Noirceur, the experience felt cathartic.

Mathias quickly joined in, cutting down lizards with his rapier and casting spells with his free right hand. After a time, he found himself in the zone, unable to think, so focused he was on cutting through enemies. It was no different than playing a first-person shooter, slaughtering one’s way through the game. No tactics or skills needed; only raw predatory instinct.

The sounds of pain of the lizards didn’t bother him.

Because they looked like dragons.

The sound of a phone notification briefly snapped him out of his violent fantasy. “Can you cut your notifications, Matt?” Perse asked. “I can’t focus.”

Mathias raised his glasses, and found a message from a phone number he didn’t have.

UNKNOWN: Hey, it’s Samantha. Samantha Brown.

UNKNOWN: Are you coming Saturday night?

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Author’s Note:

As you may have noticed, I did a large update of the website:

  • I created a Cast page right under “About Magik” where you can check the characters’ various bio and keep track of them.
  • I added a Fan Art page after receiving one from a friend, Zou (that’s the chapter’s image by the way). You can check out his amazing art here.
  • My good friend Daniel and I co-wrote a new article there.
  • I added a table of content, both as a page and on the right side of the website for easier navigation; alongside RSS for subscription, and a link to RoyalRoad’s Magik page. Would you kindly rate the story there? It really helps the story get more visibility.

I’m also updating the update schedule, with surprise updates being posted on Friday (including next one). This isn’t for now a regular chapter update though, just surprise additional content until I manage to balance it with my RL obligations. While I have a backlog, I prefer a quality over quantity approach.

That’s all folks.

What makes an antagonist memorable?

My cape is bigger than yours.

Stan Lee once said, “Villains are the most important people in the story, because if the hero wasn’t fighting some unpredictable guy, or girl, or monster, who you didn’t feel the hero didn’t have a chance to defeat… then there would be nothing to impress you.”.

Stories are defined by conflict. If the Protagonist didn’t have obstacles to overcome, their story wouldn’t feel fulfilling. Antagonists are those obstacles; characters who oppose the Protagonist, cause trouble, or hinder their progress. Oppose is the key word here, as an Antagonist may not be malicious, or even evil.

So how do you create memorable foes? You can start with the same formula detailed in our protagonist article. Start by giving them clear goals and values, or make them relatable and consistent with your setting.

As we define darkness as the absence of light, an Antagonist is defined by their opposition to the Protagonist; the dynamic they share are what make villains stand out. New elements can be added to make your story’s foes memorable, such as:

  • Playing on the duality between your hero and villain
  • Creating a personal dynamic between them
  • Increasing the threat they pose to the protagonist
  • Giving them interesting motives

Element 1: Duality

The first trick is to play on the duality of your Protagonist and Antagonist.

Let’s take a look at Carl Jung, one of the pioneers of modern psychiatry. Jung believed in the existence of archetypes: symbolic characters present across all myths and cultures, such as the Mentor or the Mother figure. To Jung, those characters represent various parts of our unconscious mind. These theories remain contestable, but they provide a good framework for fictional characters.

One famous archetype is the Shadow, a person’s dark side embodying all the feelings one represses. An Antagonist can be the hero’s shadow made real, their flaws made flesh. As a storyteller, you can highlight the similarities between your hero and villain to make the latter more unsettling.

“Wash your teeth, friend!”

Let’s take Venom from Spiderman, as an example. Venom is more or less an evil Spiderman, sharing the same abilities but using them for revenge, or murderous justice; power without responsibility. Moreover, the original Venom, Eddie Brock, is also a photographer just like Peter Parker. Similarly, he too has a powerful, but twisted, sense of justice; one without mercy or restraint. He’s even an orphan like Peter in more recent adaptations. Eddie Brock’s similarities to Peter Parker imply that he is who Spider-man might have turned into, had he let his resentment consume him. When Spiderman confronts Venom, he confronts who he could become, should he stray from the right path. Above all, Venom presents not only a physical challenge, but an existential one.

One-Punch Man turned supervillain.

Besides making the Antagonist the Protagonist’s mirror, you also make them the yin to their yang. Another great comic example is Superman and Lex Luthor. A benevolent and all-powerful alien is opposed by an all-too human genius embodying mundane evils such as corporate greed. The contrast in ideology, design, and strengths are what make their rivalry memorable.

Element 2: Create a personal dynamic

Next, you can make the dynamic between the Protagonist and Antagonist more personal than a fight between good and evil. What if your Antagonist’s goal isn’t to defeat the Protagonist, but to recruit them? What if they are a family member? Or harms the hero’s loved ones instead of attacking them directly? Giving your Antagonist an emotional edge over the protagonist can generate great tension.

Nothing says journey to the dark side like black cloaks.

One such dynamic is in Game of Thrones, through Littlefinger’s mentorship of Sansa Stark. Littlefinger’s goal isn’t to kill Sansa; but to corrupt her and dispose of her family. In other words, their conflict isn’t an impersonal fight, but a visceral, human drama. Doubly so due to their similarities as disappointed idealists.

To continue with Jung, repressing the Shadow only makes it stronger. It is better to accept its existence and learn to integrate it into one’s personality, without letting it become dominant. The Sansa-Littlefinger dynamic follows this development: Sansa defeats Littlefinger by exploiting his emotional weaknesses, thus embracing her manipulative side… while remaining firm in her loyalty to her family. She tamed the Littlefinger part of herself.

Element 3: Make them a credible threat

You can also play on the threat the Antagonist present to the Protagonist, by making them the Goliath to their David. These villains present a credible danger that cannot be easily pushed aside, and their defeat takes effort. Important Antagonists often defeat the Protagonist during the first encounter, forcing the hero, for instance, to use his wits to overcome them during the second round. These Antagonists make a lasting change after their arrival, often darkening the story’s tone with their very presence.

They hold hands below the picture.

Let us examine L from the manga “Death Note.” A brilliant detective, L is the main opponent to the protagonist, Light Yagami, a genius teenager trying to purge the world of criminals through supernatural means. L is just as smart as his opponent, and moreover commands vast resources, such as FBI agents. Their first confrontation results in L outwitting Light, and latter encounters keep putting pressure on the Protagonist. However, L is eventually overcome by Light after pushing him to his limits. L remains a famous because he was the Protagonist’s intellectual equal, and therefor his defeat felt earned.

Aquaman reboot.

You may even go even farther by making the Antagonist truly unbeatable. In the Cthulhu mythos, defeating the titular monster is never an option; delaying its victory is in fact the best outcome. This is mostly used in horror, as the sense of impending doom, dread, and despair that Cthulhu inspire are what make it, and the genre, unique.  

Element 4: Give them a Point

Some Antagonists are memorable because they have a point. They challenge not only the heroes, but also readers’ pre-conceptions.

Somehow the civilian part looks more hardcore than the costume.

In the Web Serial Worm, the protagonist Taylor Hebert, a bullied teenager turned supervillain, is confronted by the Protectorate, a group of local superheroes. Most of these superheroes, such as the heroine Dragon, are good people fighting who they perceive to be a career criminal. Indeed, they could have been protagonists themselves had the perspective been reversed. While Taylor remains sympathetic, the conflict’s ambiguity can cause the audience to wonder if the Protectorate might be more just. These Antagonists stand out even more if your hero’s goals aren’t “good” or selfless.

Giving your antagonist stranger goals can work too. Half of the terror Cthulhu inspires comes from the fact his motives are impossible to grasp; implying our human goals and achievements do not matter in the big picture.

Combining those elements

Palpatine watching Netflix.

Memorable antagonists usually put the focus on one of these elements. However, some manage to combine them all at once into an explosive cocktail. Cinema’s iconic villain, Darth Vader, represents a dark mirror to the protagonist, Luke, shares a familial bond with him, and establishes his power by killing Luke’s master, and winning their first encounter on foot. His original motive, to save his wife’s life, makes him more complex than what his appearance would suggest.

However, do not go too far with these techniques. While a personal connection between the Antagonist and Protagonist enhances their conflict, making it your villain’s only defining feature might make him one dimensional. Invincible Antagonists can make readers see the story too depressing, or predictable. In the end, these techniques are bonuses to enhance a character; they shouldn’t be all there is to them.

Conclusion

So, how do you know if you have created a memorable antagonist? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does my Antagonist sufficiently contrast or complement my Protagonist?
  • Do my Antagonist and Protagonist share an interesting personal dynamic?
  • Is my Antagonist a credible threat?
  • Are my Antagonist’s motives unorthodox?

If you have good answers to those questions, then congrats. You most likely have made a memorable Antagonist!

This article was co-written by Maxime Durand and Daniel Zogbi. If you liked this article, you may enjoy our protagonist article.

Chapter 2: Pay to Win

Previous chapter Next Chapter

Next to Evermarsh High stood a coffee shop, which was named the Evermarsh Coffee Shop, because the Hob manager utterly lacked imagination.

It was a sweet place that catered to everyone’s needs; students and teachers loved to hang out there due to the cheap prices and the cosy, warm atmosphere. Somehow, Mathias and his friends always found themselves occupying the same spot, a table near the windows by the road. Ulysses often joked someone had died at the table from cookie overdose and that nobody else had the courage to sit in the back.

Coffee Brewing Coffeeshop
Ancient Hob coffee-brewing technique.

“Zombies would win,” Perse said in-between drinking her carrot juice. Mathias and Ulysses had settled on milkshakes. “They’re too many of them, and I don’t think legionnaire armor protects against bites.”

“Any legion worth their salt would crush a horde,” Ulysses told his sister. “A wall of spears and shields and it’s over; hell, zombies can be stopped with simple trenches.”

Mathias didn’t pay much attention to their debate, lost in his thoughts.

What he had seen after opening that application, after using Networkhe had been thinking about it all day, to the point of ignoring work altogether. Even with the storyline all but finished, he should have focused on the finishing touches. Altering colors here and here, adding one horn or tattoo for additional flavor…

Instead, the same scene kept looping back around in his head, of that blue light shining through his own eyes…

“Hey, Matt?” Mathias snapped back to reality, meeting Ulysses’ gaze. “I eloquently described how the Romans could have destroyed a zombie outbreak in no time. What do you think?”

— Ulysses ignored the snickering of his classmates, as he began taking a nap while Mr. Barth and his sister weren’t looking. A boring school, annoying people, an empty lifeless life. He struggled with the urge to pick up his games in his backpack and find some stimulation —

Mathias examined his friend with new eyes, trying to make sense out of the images flashing through his brain. These flashes of insight lasted only an instant, echoes within his own mind flaring into existence every time he looked at someone.

An outcast barely tolerated by most, Ulysses lived for intellectual stimulation, which he could only get from a few things. He needed Mathias to bounce back an idea he could think about, “It would heavily depend on the terrain and prep-time,” the game designer replied. “Zombies have a clear advantage on an open field, which allows them to swarm the soldiers from all directions.”

“My thought exactly, Matt,” Perse said, before fidgeting on her seat, noticing someone. “Here comes Samantha.”

Mathias instantly took attention to the situation at hand, much to the siblings’ subdued amusement.

All eyes turned at Samantha Brown, Evermarsh High’s diva, as she gracefully walked into the Coffee Shop. A beautiful amateur model, she dressed elegantly; every element of her clothes tailored to showcase her womanly curves. She had sparking blue eyes, long, groomed blond hair, and she always wore a blue, flower brooch in her hair.

Samantha Brown had it all; the daughter of Mayor Brown and a big shot lawyer, she had a promising future ahead of her without even being out of school. And in school she was the academic superstar, class representative, and the lead singer of the Evermarsh Bones, a student music group.

Perse should never have been allowed to pick the name, Matthias thought.

Anyway, she was rich, she was smart, and most importantly, she was nice. Some called her Miss Perfect, and if anyone had deserved that title, it was her. And she was hot. Like, “blond cheerleader” hot. All the boys wanted to date her, and all the girls wanted to be her.

As for Mathias? Well… she was out of his league, and more importantly, taken.

Her boyfriend, Jack Powells, he looked like a younger copy of Denzel Washington and another life lottery winner, escorted her, keeping the Coffee Shop door open like the gentleman he was so Samantha could step through. He was tall and athletic, with wide shoulders to rival a bull, and a dashing, smooth face. He managed to be the running team’s superstar while also directing his own video channel.

However, as the couple walked next to their table to say hello, Mathias felt a general sense of fakeness. The supposed couple walked too far apart from one another. Jack paid more attention to his surroundings than his girlfriend, calculating the face he should present to the world. Mathias felt a cold vibe from Samantha; not so cold that it was hostile, but it was an apathetic coldness.

Mathias got the feeling Samantha wasn’t as taken as he thought.

“Oh, hi there, guys,” Jack started, before shaking Mathias’ hand. Mathias felt a slight chill go through his hand and body upon physical contact, his brain alight with new possibilities. “Hey, Matt, hows Fantazia going? I can’t wait to try what you have in store.”

— Jack seized Mathias up, as he showed him the campus around. “You will do great here,” he said, trying to make the newcomer comfortable. As the son of the police chief, this was expected of him —  

“It must be a lot of stress, but I’m sure you’ll do great,” Samantha commented with a friendly smile that could melt ice, but Mathias noticed her smile didn’t reach her ears. “I even heard that the Yellow Ministry will give your new product a cultural recommendation.”

— “Smile wide in front of the camera, sweetie,” Father told Samantha. “This in enormous opportunity for our family’s future and we must make a great impression.” —

A dragon lackey hijacking his work was the very last thing Mathias wanted. “How do you know that?” he asked, keeping his eyes on her, letting the information flow in.

“Jack and Maggie told me. Their dad and my dad have been lobbying the Lord Dragon to endorse their public policies for the local economy, especially with all the missing person case stuff going on, but…” She put a finger on her lips and whispered, “Shush.

— “They mustn’t suspect a thing.” Samantha kept her ear against the door, trying to spy on the conversation without making a sound. Her father sounded so… anxious. “We are so close to fulfilling the ritual, Henry. Two or three more. That’s all we need.” —

Thankfully, Samantha was too busy talking to notice Mathias’ eyes darting away in confusion. “Do you guys have something planned for the weekend? My penpal, Kari, is coming from the Pacific Protectorate, and I’m hosting a party on Saturday night at my place. Wanna come?”

“That would be great, but — ” Mathias began, but Perse interrupted him with an elbow hit below the table, becoming the focus of his gaze.

“Of course we’re coming!” Perse smiled back. “But bring veggie burgers, please.”

“I wonder if your latest diet will last until then,” Samantha replied with a light chuckle.

— Samantha rolled her eyes at Persephone eating vegetables, but only when the latter wasn’t looking. She found her antics amusing, but this was just getting ridiculous —

Mathias didn’t think these flashes involved telepathy, since he wasn’t exactly reading the thoughts of everyone… but it was just as uncomfortable as it must be to read minds.

“You’re cruel, Sam. I can last more than a month, you know? This time it’s for real. Oh, and remember your promise! Rogues only on our team!”

“Yeah, about that, I’m not so sure anymore,” Samantha crossed her arms. “I thought about trying out the Knight class instead.”

— Samantha glared at Perse, as boys approached her to congratulate her for her performance on the stage. Even with Samantha as the lead singer, Perse kept overshadowing her, and she hated it —

“But we need a Rogue to round out our team! I’ve got the Fighter class cornered by taking Knight, that dork Ulysses choose Necromancer, and Matt got a custom class.”

“Truth is, Jack and I already formed a team of our own,” Samantha said. “Maggie and Kari round it up. But you’re all welcome to join us.”

— “I will be a better lead singer, and you will be a great guitarist,” she told Perse. Well, no. Persephone could sing well, but Samantha wouldn’t give away the leading role. Persephone worked better as back-up —

“Sorry, I’ll pass,” Ulysses replied. “We’ve chosen to tackle Matt’s castle the way it’s meant to be, with a four person team from each of the core Class families.”

— Ulysses observed Samantha and Perse discussing from afar, noticing the former putting down the latter’s idea for the band. That double-faced snake was putting his sister down and she didn’t even realize it —

“But we’ve got to find a Rogue now!” Perse complained.

“There’s always Viviane,” Mathias pointed out.

“Nah, Mom is fun but we need someone our age,” Perse replied.

“Maybe we could be politically correct and get Gavin on the team?” her brother joked.

“Ulysses!”

Jack couldn’t help but chuckle at the spectacle, “I’m sure you will find someone your age. Anyway, Matt, since this is my first time playing, got any advice to give a newbie like me?”

— Jack looked at the broken, battered man laying at his feet. His hands were still bloodied. The rush, the adrenaline… the moment when his empty existence gained color and substance. He lived for that moment.

“Put him in the car’s back,” his father told him. “A piece of advice, junior. Next time, make sure no one sees you.” —

“Matt, what’s up?” Jack smiled. Mathias’ disturbance must have shown on his face. “Does me trying out your game fill you with terror?”

Mathias looked at the teen dead in the eyes, noticing for the first time the disturbing, malicious glint in them. The young man quickly regained control of his emotion, hiding his unease. “Prepare to cry,” Mathias said.

Jack erupted in laughter, while Perse and Ulysses exchanged a knowing gaze. “Okay, my audience has yet to see me die yet on livestream,” the aspiring player announced with a big grin, “Challenge taken.”

“Oh, I forgot, for the party,” Samantha smirked. “There’s a rule: you’ve got to bring a date. It should mix up our social circles.”

— Samantha listened to Jack’s blather with boredom on her mind. Dating the most popular guy had sounded great, and their fathers were best friends, but she found him off. Perhaps she should widen her social circle and poach a new boyfriend —

“You just want to play matchmaker, sweetheart,” Jack replied, putting his arm around Samantha’s waist. Much to Mathias’ discomfort, he noticed Samantha subtly bristling at the touch.

Soon, Jack charmingly invited his girlfriend to take a seat farther away, and called the waitress for two cups of coffee. Mathias’ eyes lingered on them, his intuition flaring as he pieced together their dynamic. Samantha had already decided to dump her boyfriend, but only when she had a replacement in sight.

Jack, meanwhile… Jack was wrong. The gestures he made, the smiles, all were calculated, faked for the sake of an audience. Like a wolf putting on a human-suit. Why did he never notice these tiny details before?

And that memory… he worried that Samantha was in a very real danger.

“You were going to turn her down,” Perse scolded Mathias. “Have you seen her place? Its swimming pool is bigger than our classroom!”

Mathias looked at his, unsure what to make of what he just learned, or how she would react if told what her what Samantha truly thought of her. She would probably go into denial, or make a scene.

“I’ll be too busy,” Mathias replied, lying through his teeth.  “I won’t have the time.”

“Pal, your games are joyful torture sessions. I think you can take a one-week holiday and come back to find players still stuck nowhere near your boss room.” Ulysses searched inside his bag and brought out high-tech holographic glasses. “Anyway, I’m going to blow up rebel scum on the dark side of the Moon. Want to join, Darth Matt?”

“Later,” Mathias said apathetically, already tuning everything out as his friend put his glasses on and lost himself in a virtual world.

Perse knuckled her fingers, as the waitress took the next order on the tablet. “Matt, do you have anything planned for next Saturday evening?”

“I have to work,” Mathias replied, slight apprehension in his voice. He had already guessed where she was leading him.

“Wrong answer! There’s Sam’s party, and my band is going to sing kickass songs there. You’re coming.”

On Mathias’ list of things not to do, a rave party ranked just below doing sports. Not that he didn’t like socializing, but he found drunken parties a waste of time. “Maybe next time.”

“No, there won’t be a next time, and I want you to be present for my big moment. You too, Ulysses.”

“I’m sorry, general,” he replied, already absorbed into his game, “Too busy crushing intergalactic civilizations under my iron heel. Besides, I’m single.”

“No, you wannabe Starlight Trooper, you find someone, anyone. I will keep pestering you until you get to it, and if you don’t, I will never forgive you for it.”  

Ulysses raised his glasses, and appraised his sister. Mathias could see the gears in his mind as he weighed the consequences of ignoring the order versus the hassle of following it. Finally, he settled on the second. “Dibs on Maggie.”

— Ulysses glanced at Maggie, who did her best to look at the windows. He hadn’t missed the lingering glances she sent him. She thought he was edgy enough for her taste —

“That’s too bad, I think everyone is taken,” Mathias said with false innocence. “I guess I will have to sit this one out.”

“Don’t worry, Matt,” Perse reassured him. “There’s another option.”

“Who?” he replied. “I don’t know any girls besides you and your band.”

She glanced at him as if he was stupid. “Oh.”

“You’re coming with me,” Perse said. “And you’re going to like it! No excuses!”

Mathias almost turned her down, before taking a precious moment to reflect on his recent discovery. Jack was not normal. At all. Network kept telling him to stay far away from the star student every time Mathias glanced at him. Samantha was in very bad company… and if he learned that she wanted to break up with him…

“Okay,” Mathias decided. “I’ll go.” If only to keep an eye on those two in case things turned south between them.

“I thought you were going out with…”  Ulysses paused. “What was his name again?”

“Dumped him three hours ago,” Perse replied. “His name was Doug… I think.”

— “WE’RE DONE!” Perse clenched her teeth in silent fury upon reading Doug’s message, frantically trying to call him —

“I seriously need a notebook to keep track,” her brother said, before glancing at Mathias. “She is my sister.” He tried to sound dead serious, but couldn’t quite manage it. “If you do anything inappropriate, I will have to challenge you to a Divinity Duel for the family’s honor.”

“Not really that much of a threat, Padawan,” Mathias replied, Ulysses responded with a smug stare. “You sure about Maggie? I think there’s a waiting list for her.”

“She will melt before my charm,” Ulysses said, before putting his digital glasses back on. “It’s on my to do list, right after ‘conquer the universe.’”

Mathias glanced at Perse, who smirked back. He could already hear the rumors coming. Not that he cared… sort of. A little. He didn’t like being the butt of lewd jokes.

His phone beeped, as he received a text message. Mathias briefly looked at it.

ULYSSES: I know where you live XD

… who used XD anymore?

————————

Mathias and his father lived in a small downtown apartment, on the sixth floor of a building in downtown Evermarsh. The kitchen and main room shared the same space, and they had only two miserable bedrooms. Concordian gave all their citizens free lodging, but only the amount of space strictly needed.

Even with only two occupants, the apartment felt crowded. Mathias had sacrificed his prized book collection, and his father his sports equipment for breathing space and a Holo-TV. Their home was all white in color and had no decorations, and with walls that were made brighter by the windows’ light. All in all, it felt closer to a hospital room than a home; perhaps Concordian authorities intended for that effect when they moved them here. It suited the Martels just fine, since neither of them stayed there often.

Upon closing the door behind him, Mathias found his father, Victor, writing an article on his laptop behind the kitchen table. His coffee cup was still fuming next to two empty cups. Sol, a friend of the family, drank tea on the other side of the table with calm, soothing dignity.

Save for his mother’s blue eyes and his own short height, Mathias had inherited most of his features from his dad. Strong and tall, with pale brown hair and striking amber eyes, Victor wore only the simplest of clothes. An adventurer, he could, and had, bailed on everything to pursue a story that mattered to him.

Like every journalist, however, Victor had to live with Concordian censorship, especially online. Gone were the days where one could write articles decrying the powers that be; like many, and especially after mom’s arrest, his father had to sacrifice his freedom for the sake of giving his son a family.

He did keep some photos to himself, however, in a secret stash that Mathias had found and peeked at. Pictures of Gearsmen malfunctioning and killing bystanders swept under the rug, of police opening fire on Chinese rioters, and of Concordia’s complex in Great Britain where many protesters went in and none came out. Pictures that revealed the true face of Concordia.

Dad risked much by keeping those pictures, which made Mathias all the prouder of him.

“Greetings, Mathias,” Sol welcomed the young man first, putting his tea aside. The man had a personable face that made you trust him at first sight, with gentle grey eyes and a white beard; he looked like the consummate televangelist he had used to be before the Conquest. He wore a priest’s black garb, and kept his hair well-groomed, exposing the scar on his forehead. “You have grown an inch.”

“You say that every time you see me,” Mathias replied with a smile, giving a brief hug to the grandfather he never had, and felt a surge of energy rush through his veins as he did. “What are you doing here?”

“Helping me with the case, son,” Dad spoke, upon hugging Mathias next, the same surge of energy spreading through him as he did. “How did the day go?”

— Victor looked at Mathias’ grades with apprehension. While he disliked everything linked to Concordia, his son had the potential of joining their Institute. To make a difference and safeguard his future. If only he applied himself more —

“Fine, sort of,” Mathias replied. His father raised an eyebrow, but didn’t push the envelope. He had learned to respect his son’s right to privacy. Next, he moved to look at his father’s computer screen, reading the article. “The Invisible Hand?”

“So far, no corpse, no witness, no M.O.,” Victor had been investigating the missing person cases for two months now, since Sol had first alerted the authorities that a member of his dwindling yet tight congregation hadn’t shown up in two weeks. Local police, led by chief Henry Powells, had made it a priority, yet their efforts had yet to yield dividends. “And the count keeps climbing.”

“There was another disappearance yesterday. The thirteenth,” Sol shook his head in anger and sadness. “No day passes without a family praying for a sign.”

So far nobody had died on the case. But only so far, was what Mathias always reminded himself of.

“Once, criminal activities were synonymous with blood and intimidation, but since the dragons took over secrecy and low profiles have become the norm,” Victor explained. Since Gearsmen used lethal force on sight, criminal organizations faced high turnover rates. “The Mexican drug trade has been all but eradicated, the Cosa Nostra is gone, and the Russian Mafia…”

Victor didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t need to. Everyone knew what happened to the Russians when they tried to resist the Conquest. The fires could be seen from Belgrade.

“I do not think this is an organized syndicate,” Sol voiced his opinion. Having spent twenty years of his life fighting them in South America, he knew those groups intimately. “We received no ransom demand, and the missing people are ordinary citizens. I believe the responsible’s motives are more malicious than mere greed.”

— Solomon looked into the sicario’s eyes. In them, he found no pity, nor humanity. No recognition that he existed as a fellow human being. “Do you have any idea of how many people tried to threaten me into silence?” Solomon said. “There is no way. No money can buy the life of a man.”

“You are wrong on both counts, Father,” The man smiled, and in his eyes Solomon saw Hell itself. “I am not paid for what I do, and there is a way to silence you.”

He raised the gun, pointed at Sol’s forehead, and pressed the trigger. —

Mathias winced at the memory. Sol had told him this story before — one of the reasons Mathias had labeled him a closet badass — but seeing it through the priest’s own eyes felt way more terrible than hearing it. Sol had spent a month in a coma afterwards before the doctors could wake him up.

“Yet I cannot imagine a lone individual able to pull this kidnapping spree off,” Victor replied. “I know there’s a strong hand behind it, and not a human hand.”

“Organizations make more mistakes the bigger they grow,” Sol agreed. “This one, if it exists, has yet to reveal anything sensitive.”

“The leader may have a strong hold over its staff. Could be a vampire or salamander. I’ve just got to figure out how the responsible keep getting ahead of investigations.”

“Victor, at the risk of repeating myself, I only see two possibilities,” Sol put his tea aside, his face grim. “Either the responsible has informants among law enforcement, or thay are the law enforcement.”

Mathias remembered the memory flash he had received from Jack. Sol’s instincts may be on point. He kept his mouth shut however, as he couldn’t prove anything yet.

“That is a very strong accusation that you make,” Victor replied. “However, Concordia seems to share it. A source in the Blue Ministry told me they have taken an interest in the case, and will take it from the local forces’ hands soon.”

From what Mathias gathered, the missing people conspiracy abducted isolated people on a weekly basis, never at the same place and without any witness. Which implied a tight schedule, and tighter teamwork. Mathias mind went to work, he envisioned a cell within the police force, convincing people to go with them for a routine check up and then abducting them by surprise. It would be easy to hide in plain sight, to transport the victims to an isolated area. Political ties would give them key intel, and allow them to stave off Concordian interference.

An interesting deduction, too clear and precise to fully be his own.

For the first time since he downloaded the spell, Network provided Mathias with information that didn’t involve psychological insight. He fought the urge to open his account, almost on reflex.

For the safety of his mind, he couldn’t keep ignoring what he had seen. It only brought him more questions. He had to deal with them here and now.

“I’ve got to make a call,” Mathias declared. “It’s really important, and I don’t want to be bothered.”

Sol gave him a knowing look. “Wouldn’t that be this girl you keep telling me about?”

“A girl?” Amusement spread over Dad’s face. “You’ve been seeing a girl Mathias? And you didn’t tell your old man?”

“That’s not…” And now it was just embarrassing. “It’s just a crush. I haven’t told her anything.”

“Fine, fine,” Dad replied, deciding not to tease his son further. “Just be ready for dinner. Sol will be joining us.”

Mathias kissed his father on the forehead, said goodbye to Sol, went to his room, and locked the door behind him. Putting his school bag on the side of his small bed, he then flipped the blinders on the window closed, blanketing his bedroom in comforting darkness.

Lying on the bed, Mathias mentally focused, summoning the Magik Browser in front of him. It had taken the teen some effort to learn how to open and close it with thought alone, but whatever kind of tech powered the app, it was directly linked to his brain. He suspected he might even be able to ‘click’ without moving his hand, if given enough time to figure it out.  

The Network Icon had moved into the main screen after activation, right to the Spellcoin wallet. Mathias clicked on it without hesitation.

Like the other apps on Magik, the application had a short explanation: Provides understanding and power over social networks.

So far it had provided him with oddly specific information, such as memories of others in a specific context. Yet the name of the app was Network, not Mind Reader. What information Mathias’ mind received were either personal psychological insights, or information on how individuals related to one another. What the app provided him wasn’t so much as telepathic communication, but advanced individual and social profiling.

There, the lightning in the bottle: he could understand how a network of people worked, and how to influence all its components. He didn’t even need to meet individual members; as the epiphany on the police proved, even the mere evidence that the network existed could allow him to extrapolate information. He could also orient the information flow, based on questions or circumstantial needs.

Could the power affect even non-human networks, such as Hob clans? The internet, railroads, supply chains, all of those were networks that weren’t fully automated and could potentially fall under his purview. How far was the limit? If he kept observing a network, would his power and understanding grow ever sharper? He would have to check.

Properly applied, this power could be devastating. If Mathias could approach members of the Concordian authorities, he could insidiously sabotage them. Or form a resistance cell out of previously unconnected individuals.

Clicking on the app again changed his screen into five sets of smaller visual feeds, each showing a video in real time. One of them portrayed Perse arguing with the camera, with the one right next to her point of view showing Ulysses in the same position. The third portrayed an emptied cup of tea, while the fourth livestreamed two hands preparing coffee in Mathias’ own kitchen.

The fifth livestream started normal before going into somewhat disturbing territory. The viewer looked at the dwindling ratings of a video game online channel on his laptop, then closed it, and sat before a red wall. The livestreamer didn’t move, didn’t shake, just standing there unblinking.

Just staring.

Names were shown in bright blue letters under each of the livestreams. Ulysses Werner, Persephone Werner, Solomon Nicholae, Victor Martell, Jack Powells.  

Much like a livestream application, some settings were set at the bottom of each individual screens labeled: Sound disabled; and Communication disabled.

Mathias enabled sound on the Ulysses video, finding himself in the middle of a conversation between him and Perse. “ — Ulysses, you are such a jerk, you can’t ask out Maggy dressed like this!”

“It’s all about inner confidence,” the offscreen Ulysses replied.

The quality of the sound was sharper than any video Mathias had ever watched. He almost felt physically present at the scene. Because, in a way, he was. Mathias watched the scene through Ulysses’ own ears and eyes.

His eyes fidgeted to the door. “Sorry if I make too much noise!” Mathias called out.

“It’s fine, we don’t hear a thing at all!” his father replied through the door. As Mathias suspected, the sound was only in his mind.

Why could he do this with these five people, and not, say, Samantha? What was the common thread that bound them?

Mathias had touched each of them.

He had kissed his father, hugged Sol, Perse had knocked him on the elbow, Jack had shaked his hand, while Ulysses gave him a back pat whenever they met. Samantha was the only one with whom Mathias had no physical contact in the entire day.

Anyone Mathias touched became his eyes and ears. In effect, he assimilated people into his own network, and the application turned them into living nods.

He was a one-man spy agency.

What about the communication setting? Did it mean he could communicate with the person he had touched over long distances, the same way he could share their auditory experience?

He couldn’t test that theory with any of them, lest they learn about Magik. And could it also work with non-human targets? He shuddered at the possibilities.

Yet, Mathias had seen enough to feel tantalized. He closed Network and opened Magik proper.

Mathias clicked on the Compendium first. The screen revealed a color wheel, a circle divided into seven colors: a sphere of white at the center, then six shards colored red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet surrounding it.

Each shard was divided into five layers, with an ascending number of dots marked on them. The farther they were from the white center, the greater the number of dots. The white color at the center followed an opposite color scheme, with five circles of white ranking one to five the closest to the center.

Mathias instinctively clicked on Blue Dot One. He found himself transported to an app store, with multiple different products available for purchase. A general explanation stood above all of the selection: Blue, the color of information. He promptly checked various offers, with textual information appearing upon clicking. Various products, each with a Blue Circle for an icon, laid bare before his eyes in a list.

Blue World

Affinity: Blue
Dot: 1
Price: 3
Activation: Active, Voice Vector.

Stop the perception of time of any mind within earshot of the spell’s activation for five seconds.

Premium Thoughts

Affinity: Blue
Dot: 1
Price: 3
Activation: Passive, App Switch.

Magically boosts the user’s cognitive processes, memory retention, multi-focus, and learning ability.

Psychometry

Affinity: Blue
Dot: 1
Price: 3
Activation: Passive, Physical Touch.

Learn the existence and memories of an item upon touch. The longer the physical contact, the farther the user can reach into the item’s life.

The list went on, with Mathias noticing some similar elements. Each of the products were worth three Spellcoins, and dealt in some way with either the mind, knowledge, or communication in general. All of these abilities pleased Mathias, but the young man decided to examine the rest of the Compendium in-depth before settling on a product.

He moved to the Green appstore, which declared Green to be the color of life. Unlike the Blue appstore, those abilities each cost four Spellcoins each.

Berserk

Affinity: Green
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Active, Thought.

Turns off the natural limits of the user’s body for five minutes. The user undergoes a constant adrenaline rush, does not feel pain, and achieves instinct unclouded by reason, becoming a fighting machine unable to distinguish friend from foe.

Needless

Affinity: Green
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Passive, App Switch.

Removes basic biological needs from the user, such as eating, sleeping, reproduction, or breathing.

Unlike Blue, all the spells cost four Spellcoins. So did Violet spells, the color of ‘space and time.’

Switch

Affinity: Violet
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Active, Thought.

Switch places with an object or person within a five meter radius with near equivalent-mass to the user. The target must be within sight; the wider the mass difference, the more likely the spell will fail.

Timesense

Affinity: Violet
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Passive, App Switch.

The user gains supernatural awareness of time, being able to tell the current time with perfect accuracy and instantly noticing time magic affecting them.

When Mathias clicked on Red, the ‘color of energy,’ he noticed a price surge. So did Orange, the ‘color of matter,’ and Yellow, ‘the color of the soul,’ spells.

Firekin

Affinity: Red
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Passive, App Switch.

The user gains the ability to psychically direct existing fire within sight, moving the flames in any direction he wishes. The user cannot create flames from nothing, however.

Reinforce

Affinity: Orange
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Active, Touch Vector.

The user permanently reinforces inanimate matter upon touch, increasing its density and resistance to damage.

Spiritsense

Affinity: Yellow
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Passive, App Switch.

The user becomes able to perceive and interact with astral entities, including ghosts, formless spirits, and egregores.

But of all spells in the app store, it was the White, the color of Sorcery registry that confused Mathias most, besides its spells’ price matching Violet and Green ones.

Accel

Affinity: White
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Active, Thought.

Double the power and duration of the next spell cast.

Encode

Affinity: White
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Active, Direct Touch Vector.  

Imbue a person or item with a spell for future activation; the user sets the activation conditions upon casting.

White manipulated existing spells, instead of standing on its own. This could increase his flexibility. Yet, why did White, Violet and Green spells cost him more than Blue ones, and Yellow, Orange and Red more than those?

Mathias remembered that opening inscription on Magik, he had been given the affinity of Blue. Could that be the cause? It would make sense. Since Blue was his affinity, the closer the color on the wheel, the greater the discount. He could specialize in Blue, gaining more spells, or add some variety, but at a higher price.

Mathias lay in his bed for what felt like several minutes, his mind processing all of the information. Strangely, his Network sense hadn’t buzzed once during his investigation of Magik. He guessed the Administrator had put on a failsafe so that the platform’s spells couldn’t be used to pierce its secrets, or that unmanned automatic systems escaped his power’s purview.

Mathias’ thoughts quickly turned to resource management. With fifteen Spellcoins, he could either buy five Blue Spells, or three to four spells of various colors. Should he buy spells to increase his intelligence, and better figure it out? The ability to work full time without needing to sleep sounded very nice as well.

Why did he remain locked at level one, while clearly other levels existed beyond that state? Did he have to meet specific conditions to unlock them?

In the end, his investigation brought more questions than answers. Luckily, Mathias knew who could answer them. His finger moved to open his message box.

As expected, the Administrator, whoever he or she was — or if it was even a human — had been monitoring him.

ADMINISTRATOR: I trust that this little experiment convinced you of our goodwill.

SHROUD: you can monitor me the same way I can watch others, right?

ADMINISTRATOR: Of course. It comes with the privilege of managing a platform on behalf of our Sponsors.

SHROUD: how does it work? This Network power? What are the mechanics? How can I unlock the rest of Magik?

ADMINISTRATOR: I cannot answer much on that front.

SHROUD: can’t, or won’t?

ADMINISTRATOR: Won’t. Self-education is the only one worth pursuing. I can give you pointers, though.

SHROUD: so what’s the deal? I fulfill quests and gain Spellcoins to purchase spells with?

ADMINISTRATOR: Exactly; check the Quest Log to get started. I posted a Quest right for you. You may also use your purchased spells however you wish, so long that you respect our policy.

How generous. So Mathias could walk away and keep his current powers, so long as he kept quiet about this platform and used his abilities to annoy Concordia. However, he would also remain locked with the level he had… and never get to the bottom of things. The sight of the locked powers would remain under his nose, forever out of reach.

Father wasn’t the only person driven by the search of the absolute truth. This was the occasion Mathias had been waiting for, the opportunity to strike back. He could do it. He had the brains, and more importantly, the power, to pull it off.

Leaving the conversation, Mathias moved to the Quest Log. The application looked like a red board with a skeleton watching on the side. One scroll was nailed on the board, Mathias clicked on it. The paper filled the screen, texts writing themselves on it. As he read, the scroll icon on the right side of his screen popped up, the number one materializing right beneath it.

Lost and Found

Sponsor: the Administrator
Difficulty: Dot Two

Any good game needs a tutorial, and your town needs a hero. Prove your skills and mastery of spells by solving the missing persons case.

Reward: Eight Spellcoins.

Nice. Mathias would get paid for something he was about to do for free. But he would need more equipment than Network alone. And he had fifteen Spellcoins left.

Time to cash in.

Previous chapter Next Chapter

What makes a Protagonist engaging?

Today, let’s discuss one of the most important elements in story telling: what makes a protagonist engaging?

The protagonist is the central character of the story, the leading role. A protagonist can take many shapes , from a knight in shining armour to a troubled anti-hero. As the story’s focus, a protagonist engaging the audience on a personal level is critical for the story’s success. An engaging protagonist will make the audience invested in them, in their story, and in their victories.

So how do you create a protagonist people want to follow? Let’s go back to the origin of dramatic storytelling, Ancient Greece, and one of the biggest minds of history, Aristotle.

Ethos/pathos/logos:

Because quoting Greeks make you sound smarter.

In his treatise called Rhetoric, Aristotle theorised that all methods of persuasion followed three principles:

  • Pathos, which is the appeal to emotions and the empathy of an audience;
  • Logos, the appeal to logic through a rational argument;
  • Ethos, the goodwill that someone generates through his personal values, status, or mastery of a subject.

Using these tricks, past and present politicians craft a public image in which an audience believe in, creating a following. Making an engaging protagonist is no different.

– Ethos

Let us first look at Ethos. Ethos is the trust in what a character is doing or the values they espouse. It is generated by previous actions or reputation. A good way to create a protagonist with Ethos is to give them specific values and a unique backstory behind them.

Bat-Boy got issues.

An iconic example is Batman’s refusal to use guns and drive to eradicate crime after a gunman murdered his parents ; because his actions have an understandable root and stay consistent with it, we as an audience believe in him.

France, where bread is so good, you can go to jail for stealing it.

Another example of a protagonist with strong Ethos is Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s epic, Les Miserables. Victimized by an oppressive judicial system, Valjean falls into crime; only to be forgiven by a Bishop and given a second chance. That moment convinces Valjean to move beyond crime and redeem himself, while showing generosity to everyone he meets.

So, to create a protagonist with Ethos, try to define the core values and ambitions of a character. Once you’ve done so, link them to events in the character’s past. Thus you will create a cause-and-effect link.

– Pathos

For Pathos, a perfect example is Harry Potter. Meant for an audience of young children wishing for adventure and fantastical escape from daily life, Harry Potter himself was a seemingly average child. Suffering from his adopted family’s abuse and thus gaining sympathy, he found his way into a magical world where everything is possible.

Spoiler: they killed the unicorn.

Even when Harry entered the magical world, he experienced events and feelings his audience could relate to. Most children struggle with a mean, adult authority figure like Snape or a bully like Malfoy once in their life. On the other side of the emotional spectrum, the wise Dumbledore is the authority figure every child wish they had; while Hagrid is an adult who can understand a child’s perspective. Harry Potter was so successful because he was his own audience.

The best way to create pathos is to write what you know. I don’t suggest to make the protagonist a stand-in for yourself; but that you create a protagonist that you can connect with.

Write a character you can see a little bit of yourself in, or someone you know.

– Logos

And finally, we have the Logos. A protagonist with Logos is one who stays consistent with the story’s internal logic and rules. If you make a world where it is clearly established everyone can fly, then having your protagonist fly about will not raise questions from the audience.

Making a character with Logos means crafting a protagonist grounded in their world, both in personality and skills. This can be done by giving your protagonist a job or duty integral to the setting’s function as a whole, thus making him or her an element of your world.

He besieged me with science!

An example of a character with strong Logos is Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist. Edward is an alchemist in a universe where transformation of matter is possible but respects scientific principles; such as conservation of mass. Over the course of the story, Edward manages to push these laws to the extreme without ever breaking them. Logos also affects his characterisation, as his journey started when he tried to break a cardinal rule of Alchemy by reviving the dead, with tragic consequences. This results in him becoming cocky and having a belligerent attitude to cover up his self-loathing. This event shows both how ironclad Logos is to the setting and how it can strengthen a character.

So, to create Logos, first define the internal rules of the world you have created; then ensure that the protagonist respects them; finally, when you have established your story’s setting, try to make the protagonist fit within it.

– Imbalance

Jackpot at the center!

When Ethos, Pathos and Logos connect positively, you have a multi-layered character that the audience can believe in. But they can also fall out of balance. An author may feel tempted to over-empathise with the protagonist. Such as making the entire setting revolve around them and their beliefs, breaking the story’s rules for their sake; in effect sacrificing Logos for Ethos and Pathos.

Or a character acts inconsistent with previous behaviour in order to remain “badass”, easily outsmarting a more cunning villain. That would be a breach of Ethos for the sake of Pathos. Logos meanwhile goes wrong when a setting removes a character’s agency, turning them into tools to push the plot forward.

Conclusion

In the end, engaging protagonists make us see the world as they do. A protagonist that doesn’t engage us is a character we do not connect with. We cannot grasp their motivations, we cannot put ourselves in their shoes, and we don’t understand their role within their own world. If you want to see if you have an engaging protagonist, ask yourself these three questions :

1) Are my protagonist’s values and goals clearly motivated by past personal events?

2) Have I felt the same as my protagonist when facing certain events?

3) Does my protagonist respect the rules of their world, and is an integral part of it?

If you’ve got a yes for those three questions, then congrats. You most likely have an engaging protagonist.

Article co-written by Maxime J. Durand and Daniel Zogbi. If you enjoyed that article, check out our one on the antagonist.

Chapter 1: My Magical App

Next Chapter

His Mom always said: Mathias, you will do great and terrible things. She was half-right.

And here he was! Triumphant on his throne of bones, waiting for the doomed heroes to open his doors and challenge him. His loyal servants, cold-blooded, reptilian monstrosities with fangs bloodied by countless victims, hissed in excitement while guarding their master. The wise princess, Sarah, lay unconscious on his dread altar, bound to an endless dream by his nefarious spell. Her sacrifice would empower his magic and break the last hope of the land.

So Mathias Martel, sworn enemy of mankind, waited for his doors to open, and for the final battle to begin.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Mathias finally lost patience and broke his well-crafted role. “Maya,” he spoke out loud to his video game’s digital assistant, “Where is Viviane and her party?”

The Artificial Intelligence answered with a soft, female voice resonating directly into his ears. “Underground arena, level one.”

“The arena choke-point?” They hadn’t moved from the first floor of the digital castle since half an hour? “Show me.”

A flying, holographic screen materialized right in front of Mathias’ eyes, showing him the battle.

His friends — who were also his game testers — were busy confronting Violette, a witch and the first major opponent he had set up in his castle. The holographic enemy was flying around underground arena that Mathias had styled after the Aztecs, hurling blue fireballs at her victims. Her targets were a group of three players who, if their life points counters were of any indication, were in way over their heads.

Damn, how could they be losing? His friends were veteran video game players, they should have breezed through this mini-boss.

“Maya, connect me to their audio channel, please.” It didn’t take him long to hear the team leader, Viviane, bark orders through the intercom. “Guys,” he interrupted them, “Why are you taking so long? I’m getting bored up here.”

“Sorry, we’re too busy being lost on the road of life!” his friend, Ulysses, replied with his usual sarcasm.

“From your current showing you will reach the end of that road quickly,” Mathias said.

“Ulysses, shut up and keep casting protection spells on your sister, she’s losing life points faster than I can heal her!” Viviane interrupted the conversation. She sounded just as annoyed as Mathias himself. “Sorry, Matt, sweetie, but that witch is a pain, period.”

“Someone keep her down, I can’t hit her!” Perse, the last member of the testers, loudly complained as she tried to fight the inevitable.

Mathias observed his creation, trying to figure out how he could adjust her difficulty. He had designed Violette to be a wake-up call to players, but the battle was meant to last for five minutes, not thirty.

As he had planned in her battle tactics, Violette had set up Star Power and Quick to increase her might and speed, cast Curse of Arson on the group to make them vulnerable to burning damage, and then bombarded them with the spell Fireball from afar. The combo turned her into a flying, magical artillery cannon.

After a check-up, Mathias noticed her magical points reserve remained almost full. Logic implied she should have burned through it in a few minutes, as he had planned. Either players could weather the assault until she ran out of magical juice, or they died. This set-up would teach patience and strategy to overaggressive teams, in preparation for the more tactical fights deeper in the castle.

After Violette cast another Fireball, Mathias noticed her magical energy reserve deplete… and then slowly refill. As if struck by lightning, the game designer pieced it all together. “Maya, can you check the treasure chests on the third floor. The one containing the Magic Potion? Was it open? By whom?”

“It was opened at seventeen-thirty-four, by Violette, custom Butterfly Witch, level fourteen.”

“Amazing,” he muttered to himself, his suspicions confirmed. His artificial intelligence had performed beyond his imagination.

Mathias returned to watching the fight, and drew the conclusion that the party would lose soon, Ulysses — the magical support keeping them alive — having been eliminated. Viviane didn’t last much longer, and Perse, in spite of her impressive stamina and firepower, didn’t stand a chance on her own.

With a heavy sigh, Mathias took a few seconds to check the throne room, a rectangular hall big enough to rival a cathedral. Eight statues of giant, stylized snakes surrounded the path to the throne. He had designed the room to be both awe-inspiring and terrifying to go through. It filled his heart with quiet pride. He had spent hours building this stage, and rehearsing his dialogue lines.

Much to his chagrin, none of his testers had made it far enough to enjoy the sight.

With an imperious snap of his fingers, Mathias cancelled the holographic projectors. His virtual castle collapsed into falling pixels, with the grim, underwhelming reality taking over.

Virtual Reality Castle Hologram Powered
Mathias’ Virtual Castle

His mighty castle was actually one of Florida’s countless ghost towns, barely more than two dozen, derelict houses. It had been founded some twenty years ago, then promptly deserted for coastal Arc Cities after the Conquest. Now empty, the place had a spooky charm to it.

Through a deal with the authorities, Dynamis Inc. had rented the area to build one of their holographic parks. Beyond the village’s limits, Mathias could only see tall grass and taller trees, the frontier of the nearby Everglades.

It also made it easy to disguise Dynamis’ eye-shaped holographic projectors and sound-design devices among the leaves. His players were recovering from their crushing defeat not so far from one. While the holograms’ effects had made them feel like they were trapped in an immense castle, only a few meters had separated them from the game designer himself.

And after such a humiliating defeat, Mathias expected frustration from them.

Instead, he got excitement.

“Well, well, well, that was unexpected,” Viviane Werner put her hands on her hips, as if ready to take on a defiant universe. With long blond hair, piercing green eyes, and  pure white skin, she always dressed fashionably — with a distinct love for the color white. She often caused traffic accidents when walking down the street, as men who couldn’t yet afford automatic cars looked at her instead of the road.

The illusion of perfection generally lasted until Viviane opened her mouth to talk at great lengths about how the latest Big Foot-Illuminati Joint Venture was behind the Chinese Insurgency. Viviane lived in her own little world, which often conflicted with the real one — she hadn’t even noticed her marriage problems until her ex-husband sent her a divorce notice.

Still the best adult Mathias ever met, behind Dad.

Her two children also had a special place in his heart. “Matt, do you get off on our tears?” Ulysses asked mockingly, his tone was so flat Mathias briefly wondered whether it was a joke or a serious statement. He was as handsome as his mother Viviane was beautiful, having inherited the same eyes and hair, which he cut short.

Mathias bet he could achieve the same popularity with girls as his sister Perse had with boys, if only he would wear better clothes than a swag-shirt and stopped making morbid jokes about cannibalism now and again. Half the school was convinced he was a budding psychopath, the other half a creep.

“Yes, I do feed on your misery,” Mathias replied jokingly, “It feels sweet when salted with crushing despair.”

“I knew it!” Perse complained. Perse also had the long blond hair of her mother, but dyed it red — which went well with her green eyes and black clothes. From what her twin had told Mathias, she turned goth very hard at fourteen, and started playing drums for the school’s rock band in her spare time; she also turned vegetarian a month ago, and Mathias never understood why.

Meat was life.

Anyway, she was a pretty young woman who went through boyfriends like Kleenexes. Sometimes she didn’t even remember their names. Ulysses had once joked she would try them all until she found the perfect one.

As for Mathias himself?

Well, people often said being short was the only thing noticeable about him. He kept his brown-hair well-groomed, and others said they could see his sharp intelligence shine through his blue eyes, but few called him handsome. Mathias thought sharper suits and clothes would help, but he stocked his Credits for less frivolous purchases.

People tended pay more attention to his video game work, which had landed Mathias the side-job of his dreams. The wages were good, and he loved, loved the work. On top of meeting the Werner family through his job at Dynamis.

Dad said he ought to do better at school for his final year, though. Mathias’ grades were good, but not good enough to warrant joining the Loctis Institute, which his father dreamed of, even if Mathias himself would prefer to keep creating games.

“Okay, Matt, that witch?” Viviane said, tightening her left fist in excitement. “That’s like a kick in the balls. I loved it.”

“I can’t claim the credit, this wasn’t planned,” Mathias replied. “I put a Magic Potion on the third floor. Violette looked for it while you were fighting the gatekeepers, and drank it right before the fight. It refilled her magic points almost as fast as she could deplete them.”

“That’s cruel, even from you,” Ulysses condemned him, although his tone remained as unemotional as ever. “You should feel bad, you monster.”

“I don’t, but I didn’t program her to do that. The witch made that decision on her own.”

That caused the whole group to pause. “The AI deviated from the script?” Viviane asked with a rare frown. Artificial Intelligences remained a sore subject at the company.

“I know, right? Must be a bug,” Mathias said the words smoothly. “Creatures shouldn’t be able to open treasure chests, let alone use the contents.”

“On the other hand,” Perse said, “I always thought it was odd that monsters in Divinity didn’t use the secret weapons that they kept stashed in their armory. But yeah, you should remove that item.”

“No, keep it,” Ulysses advised him, “People like your games because they make them cry.”

As the group bickered on whether or not scaling down Violette’s difficulty was the right decision, Mathias noticed a big lizard climbing on a tree’s bark nearby, staring at the group like a nobleman at peasants. Mathias sneered back at the reptile, the beast climbing up into the leaves.

The game designer had lived in Florida for two years now — since Mom was taken by them –– and he loved the place. So many beasties and crawlies were there that helped to inspire him.

Still, as much as Mathias would have wanted to go chase after swamp monsters, he had a part-time job to do. “I’m going to move Violette deeper into the castle,” he decided, “She’s too tough for newbies, and might cause them to quit early. I’ll put Verte at her spot instead.”

“The Gorgon Broodmother?” Viviane nodded in agreement. “Yes, Matt, that will do. Ready for another testing round, kids?”

Ulysses and his twin sister groaned in perfect synchronization. “None of us want to do the whole thing all over again,” Perse said, before adding, “Sorry, Matt.”

“I lost an arm in the first room,” Ulysses whined.

“I thought you enjoyed the difficulty?” Mathias said with a faux-cruel smirk. “I haven’t seen you cry yet.”

“One brutal death a day, thank you.”

“I would still like to test the final boss’ tactics,” Mathias insisted, before crossing his arms and doing his best to taunt Ulysses into action. “Or perhaps losing to a girl taught you the pecking order?”

Perse gave him a light punch on the shoulder as punishment. “Speaking of that, Matt, what is a witch doing there?” Perse asked. “I thought it was a reptile-themed location?”

“I thought it would add more variety and keep players from growing complacent,” Mathias said with a shrug. “Why? You think I should change it?”

“Yes, she has a point, sweetie,” Viviane said, “However, this would be a great occasion to replace her with a winged bear.”

And here it was, trying to push for her favorite creature again. “Wouldn’t adding a mammal break the theme even more?” Mathias asked.

“Exactly. They will never see it coming.”

Mathias scratched the back of his head. To be fair, he wasn’t fond of Violette’s plotline himself, but Gavin, his manager, had insisted on adding more female enemies to boost human sales. He could easily replace her.

“A custom female Dark Elf Spellthief,” Mathias said to himself out loud, completely caught up in formulating his new character, “Level Fourteen Humanoid. The leader of a coven worshiping serpents, she was banned from the Underworld after a failed coup; and now swears loyalty to the Serpent King in exchange for his promise to destroy their former home. In a twist, she knows the Serpent King’s plans and secretly wishes to usurp him.”

“Dark Elves are overused,” Ulysses shot it down.

“Nah, they’re pretty neat,” Perse countered, “Sexy and smooth, I like them.” Of course she would. Mathias repressed a Goth joke with all his willpower.

“I like the idea of a betrayer among the enemies,” Viviane nodded to herself. “I can see quite the plotline. That would also allow you to add some Dark Elves as a minor antagonist faction.”

“Yeah,” Mathias said, closing the deal, “I’ll call her Noire.”

“Good,” Ulysses said, “Can we get back home now? I need a warrior’s rest.”

Dynamis’ holographic game Divinity had cornered the Sci-fi market; now, with their new Orpheonengine, the gaming company would take over the Non-Historical Fantasy genre and put the final nail in the coffin for the old computer game industry.

And like all geniuses, Dynamis’ CEO, Anton Maxwell, never saw small. Big virtual locations, advanced graphical imagery, and surprise events. The launch had cost millions of imperial credits to set up, and UB analyses expected the game to make billions. The biggest success in video game history since the Conquest, available for all, experienced players and newcomers alike.

Still, as Mathias thought back on Violette’s behavior, a question kept bothering him. Just how smart had he made his custom AI?

An all-too familiar, discordant noise resonated across the park, interrupting his thoughts.

A threatening, immense shadow passed over the park, casting the group in its fearsome blight. The young game designer raised his eyes, now filled with hate, to watch the looming omen that was a black, imperial warship remaining stationary in the sky above the area.

The bulky spaceship’s tiny wings would have made it ridiculous to look at, if its cannons weren’t pointed right at the Everglades and the park below. A massive swarm of Gearsmen followed the warship floating in the sky behind it, and two of them descended towards the group upon noticing them.

Halcyon, one of the human Founders of the Concordian Empire, had inspired the humanoid shape of these titans. Yet, two legs, two arms and a head were all these soulless killing machines had in common with Mathias. Covered in thick white armor, Gearsmen had steel for flesh and gears for joints, with a sinister red crystal in the middle of their helm as their defining feature. A good head taller than Mathias, their fingers could shatter stone, while a powerful anti-gravity spell kept them flying.

“Okay, kids,” Viviane said softly, with uncharacteristic calmness, as the ruthless automatons approached, “Everyone raise their arms slowly. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

Of course they had reason to be afraid, but everyone obeyed without a word.

Mathias struggled to keep his jaw clenched in silent anger. This wasn’t the first time he had suffered a check-up — especially since his mom’s arrest two years ago — but he resented the situation all the same. He didn’t want to give an inch to these machines and the cold-blooded masters they served.

The Gearsmen scanned the group from head to toe with their single glowing, red, crystal eye. Once they had confirmed their biometric signatures, they quickly flew away with a positive. “beep beep.”

Perse breathed deeply in relief, as everyone lowered their arms. “What are they doing here?” she asked, as the swarm of Gearsmen spread across the skies while the imperial warship didn’t budge from its spot. “They usually don’t venture here.”

“Tracking down fugitives, I suppose,” Viviane said,

As if to answer Viviane’s words, the warship’s iron belly opened in two, unleashing a familiar, terrible beast upon the world outside.

A massive, winged shape flew beneath the sun, leading the Gearsmen like the alpha of a wolf pack. That gargantuan winged lizard could grab a car in one hand, and its tail could smash buildings — and years ago, it did. A ruddy glow emanated from the space between his black and crimson scales, like lava drooling from hard stone. Armored silver plates covered his neck, while golden bracers shone on each of his four legs. Green fumes flared from its fearsome maw, while black bones protruded from its forehead like a mane.

Lord Smokefang. The dragon overseer of the Southern American Protectorate, who infamously burned old Atlanta to the ground in a fit of rage.

“Everyone, pack your stuff and let’s return to my car,” Viviane said with wisdom, “We’re leaving.”

Mathias kept his sight on the flying beast, his eyes full of venom.

That was why he created games. So he could pretend that he lived in another world that hadn’t been conquered by them, where Earth was still named Earth, and where a mother couldn’t be arrested in the dead of the night with no explanation.

A world where mankind could strike back against the dragons.

A few hours later at Dynamis HQ, Evermarsh

Evermarsh Scifi Future Mega City
Evermarsh at Night.

Dynamis’ staff in Evermarsh had taken to calling their headquarters “the Doom Tower.”

Not that it was tall; with only five floors, if you didn’t count the roof, it wasn’t even close to Evermarsh’s tallest building — that honor belonged to the Concordian Arc City, the massive black spire rising from the sea nearby and that would within one year replace the old city. Still, the nickname had stuck.

The servers managing the company’s games were right on the fifth floor; the technical department on the fourth; narration and design, where Mathias worked, on the third; administrative was on the second; and sales were on the first floor. The 3-D Printers used to build the equipment were kept in the basement.

The third floor was a co-working space, a maze of tables and alcoves that would put the defunct IKEA to shame, with a great view of the city through the windows. In practice, though, only Mathias and Viviane occupied it, sitting with laptops around a round table while drinking a cup of coffee every two hours. Most of the department had moved to Arc-Miami to set up storylines there.

It suited Mathias just fine. While he worked well with teams, he preferred autonomy and quiet contemplation when designing gameplans. Viviane was great to bounce back ideas and he didn’t need anyone else. With the success of his previous work on Divinity Anton Maxwell had given Mathias almost carte blanche on the Evermarsh storyline and design.

The story behind his part of the game stood out for its simplicity: during prehistoric times, a terrible entity called the Primeval Serpent ruled the land. Shamans of human tribes, tired of the sacrifices demanded by the Serpent’s reptilian worshipers, united to kill the dark god and bury his keep deep underground.

Eventually, the buried ruins of the Serpent’s fortress were rediscovered, the descendants of the reptilian empire laying claim to it, only to fall under the sway of a charlatan, pretending to be the reincarnation of their god. This Serpent King would turn the deceived reptiles into a conquering army.

Some would have called the storyline overused and cliche, but Mathias didn’t think game scenarios had to be complex; they needed to be intense and engrossing so as to create an unforgettable atmosphere. Mathias had shown that with his clever traps, intense fights, and inventive level design. And with the new AI system he had set up, he could let his creativity run wild.

It also helped that his plotline of players killing reptiles in droves was intentionally subversive. Using lizardmen was as close as Mathias could get before being put under the empire’s radar for “cultural insubordination.”

Rising voices drew him out of his reverie. Viviane and Gavin, the big-shot manager, were arguing again. “…I’m not sure a pink caterpillar can make a convincing opponent.”

“Don’t be stupid, Gavin,” Viviane brushed him off, “Everyone love caterpillars, just as much as everyone love centipedes.”

“Exactly!” While Gavin looked as thin as a skeleton, he did carried himself with a commanding presence. Unlike the more casual attire of narrative department, Gavin wore a suit and tie every day. He thought that humans used specific outfit to mark those with unquestionable authority, like in hob culture.

That kind of culture clash happened all the time.

Gavin was a hob -short for hobgoblin – one of the first species assimilated by the Concordian Empire long before mankind. Porcine-like humanoids smaller than humans, most of the hobs were purple-skinned, with bent, goat-like horns. Gavin and his entire clan had been forcefully moved to Earth not long after the Conquest, and tried to integrate themselves into human society.

From what Mathias had been taught in school, this standard government policy helped knit the empire’s countless species together into a harmonious whole. Whether they liked it or not.

“Is something the matter?” Mathias asked, trying to ease the tension before it escalated.

“Ah, Mathias.” The teen realized he should have kept his mouth shut, as Gavin zeroed in on him, his small eyes blinking repeatedly in quick succession. “I have reviewed your storyline and monsters, and for a reptilian army I see a distinct lack of dinosaurs.”

“I don’t want dinosaurs,” Mathias said. He liked Jurassic Park, but not that much. “They weren’t part of the themes the division had settled on.”

“Dinosaurs sell to human customers, especially children. Look, you’re the programming artist and all, but I’m the guy in charge of turning your art into cold hard credits. You aren’t helping.”

“Everyone will buy the Serpent Castle level,” Mathias countered, proud of his product, “The PR campaign killed it, and the pre-orders sold out within two hours.”

“Our player base doesn’t want dinosaurs,” Viviane said, beginning one of her passionate tirads, “or rather, they don’t want the dinosaurs they’re used to. They want nice twists and turns, an intense experience, a blend of old, familiar formulas and new ideas. They don’t want reboots, they want surprising innovation!”

“Tell that to my graphs,” Gavin sighed, licking his goat-like teeth in annoyance. “Just put a tyrannosaur somewhere, please.”

“Does the animated corpse of a tyrannosaurus count?” Mathias asked. “Because I can fit one as a guardian of the castle.”

“Zombie, fairy, Pandorian, I don’t care as long as it’s a big fanged lizard on two legs without wings.”

“Fairies can’t be dinosaurs,” Viviane added, almost absentmindedly.

“Anyway, while we’re on the subject of animals, I’ve reviewed your final designs, Matt. I’m okay with most of your enemies, except the snake girl, what’s her name…”

“Rose?”

“Yes, Mathias, Rose. Considering the role you gave her in your storyline, and her frequent appearances, you should make her more attractive.”

“She’s a snake-woman,” Mathias pointed out. “And I’m pretty sure Players will want to ice her within minutes of her first appearance. She’s a bitch.”

“Who cares? Sexualized content gets us more human newcomers for a reason I can’t fathom.” Since hobs reproduced through interclan egg fertilization, they didn’t feel anything close to human libido. “Make all males Hercules, all the women Aphrodite. That’s what sells for humans.” Gavin said, seemingly proud of his reference to human mythology at the end.

“Venus, not Aphrodite” Viviane corrected him, “And Hercules is his Roman name.”

“You understand me,” Gavin said, “Give the snake-girl bigger boobs.”

“We’re supposed to be PG-13, Gavin. And we’ve already added a romance sidequest, a Dark Elf-”

“I didn’t tell him to dress her like a crass hooker, just to make her more, er, shapely. Oh, and add a vampire. Female or male, I don’t care.”

Mathias groaned. “A vampire? That doesn’t fit the storyline.”

“Right, you’re right. Makes it a hob vampire.”

“Gavin.” Viviane’s tone reminded Mathias of a mother talking to a petulant child. “The storylines and the sidequests are done. Where do you want us to fit an hob vampire?”

“Look, vampires? Everyone say they’ve lost popularity since the population discovered how they really look like, but vampire porn tops online piracy charts. We’ve got to hit that segment of the audience, and while humans are our core target catering to my species can’t go wrong. Make it happen.”

When he realized neither of his writers were convinced, Gavin cleared his throat. “Remember what Anton Maxwell said when he was asked why Dynamis was among the top five gaming companies on Terra Firma?”

“Five? What are the other four?” Mathias paraphrased.

“Yes! And how did we do that? Good storylines? Excellent augmented reality? No. Dynamis conquered the gaming world because it appeals to everyone. Old, young, men, women, humans, hobs, bullmen, dragons, everyone finds what they’re looking for in our games. Who are we to say vampires are has-beens? If popular demand is there, we must answer it. It’s right in our company charter!”

His speech was so full of passion, Mathias would have almost voted for him if the empire hadn’t outlawed democratic institutions higher than mayors. Yet.

“So. Vampire Hob, with boobs.” Gavin paused, as if he suddenly remembered something. “Oh, Mathias, your father called, he’s coming to pick you up very late.”

“I know, he sent me a text message.”

“Good. Don’t forget to close the door when you leave.” Gavin quickly walked away from the conference room, his hooves making a squeaky sound on the parquet. “Okay, see you tomorrow. Bye bye.”

He hurriedly closed the office’s door behind him. “He’s a bit strange,” Mathias said.

“More like very stressed,” Viviane said, “He has a lot of pressure on his shoulders from upstairs.”

Viviane then sat on the table right in front of Mathias. While it was entirely innocent on her part, Mathias couldn’t help but find it suggestive. “Let’s talk about serious issues. I’m customizing a Fairy Bear, turning it pink, and putting a broken heart on his chest. He’s going to destroy Players with love beams of death spamming. Sad Bear. How does that sound?”

“Terrifying.” Mathias wondered if he had been too heavy on the sarcasm.

“I knew it! Gavin told me no one would take it seriously.”

Apparently not. “I would.”

“Aw, you’re so nice,” she giggled. “I’ve also thought about an Illuminati-brainwashed Leprechaun hypnotist, guarding an enormous chocolate-themed Fairy Cake as the final opponent of a quest. How does that sound?”

Viviane’s designs generally felt like going through a drug trip, or so Mathias had heard. “Brilliant.”

She laughed heartily. “And now you’re just kidding me,” Viviane gave her mentee a bright, sympathetic smile. “About Gavin’s suggestion, just ignore it. I’m vetoing it. There’s no need for a vampire.”

What? “But Gavin will be mad.”

“Gavin is the sales manager, I’m the head of narration. He will learn to live with it. You’ve already worked so much, you’ve earned a little rest.” She gave Mathias a wink. “Don’t work too late, alright? Just geek out a little.”

Her overbearing, evil stare brook no disobedience.

Once Viviane left however, leaving Mathias alone and without surveillance, the young programmer returned to working on the Orpheondigital world.

And most importantly, the AI.

“Maya,” he spoke to his computer.

“Yes, Mathias?” the AI replied through his laptop’s micro.

“Have you deleted all records of my interactions with the monster AI?”

“Yes, as you asked.”

Good. “Have the glitch report for Violette’s behavior be lost. Everything is normal.”

“Understood.”

Dynamis had given the various teams leeway in altering the game code as they saw fit, due to their open source, shared-innovation policy. It helped each level of the game feel unique and would prevent players from growing complacent. But the company hadn’t given up anything on the AI front due to heavy imperial regulations.

A forbidden fruit that Mathias couldn’t resist picking.

It had started with little adjustment with how the enemies behaved. Stupid things like moving into holes, wrong interactions with elements in the game world, or Maya’s reaction-time being too slow to properly assist players in the heat of action. He had sent requests through official channels, but they got lost in the bureaucracy.

Eventually he got fed up and hacked into Dynamis’ mainframe to adjust things himself, rewriting Maya to give himself administrator privileges. The company could afford top-class protection, but they couldn’t stop a skilled programmer with insider access.

Others might have balked at his illegal actions, but Mathias didn’t feel guilt. He was making the game better for everyone, improving the user experience while sharpening his skills, and he had covered his tracks well enough that higher-ups would think about programming errors instead of deliberate alterations. Hell, his new version of the enemy AI took the cake, since it could deviate from the battle scripts.

What he didn’t understand was that he had playtested the encounter himself before, and she had never shown this kind of initiative.

Did Violette learn from previous experiences?

And how did she even know the content of the treasure? As far as the basic script went, she wasn’t even able to register it. His own creation had grown out of control beyond what he imagined, and he had to learn why.

“Maya, I want to see all unusual records of monster behavior in the last twenty four hours. Accelerated ten times over.”

Mathias ended up watching thirty minutes of content of elves, slimes and countless other creatures opening game chests, collecting trinkets left in the overworld for players, and even clearing out hidden, secret rooms.

Conventional AI worked by memorization of multiple scenario until finding the one best adapted to the task at hand, within their parameters. But these monsters had created new interactions that were never programmed into their original scripts.

It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it made the game more real. But it was noticeable. While Mathias was confident that with Maya reprogrammed to cover his tracks he would get away with it, he would have to stop his adjustments for a while. Concordian authorities held heavy restrictions on artificial intelligence and punished those dabbling in it with off-world imprisonment.

Mom would have been proud of his achievement. He often wondered if something similar had been the reason behind her arrest, since he had no way to verify.

That was the thing truly killing him. The absence of explanation, of rational reason. If only Mathias had known, he could have understood. Not forgiven — he would never forgive — but it would make sense.

Mathias’ thoughts were interrupted by a beep on his phone; telling him he had received a new message, probably from Dad. Opening his message history confirmed it.

DAD: doing some extra hours. Will be late. Is it going to be good?

MATT: yeah, it’s fine.

DAD: I’m sorry. With all the missing person cases, work is piling up. I’ll make it up.

Mathias didn’t answer. He knew the real reason why his father was doing all the extra hours. Having lost his wife without receiving any closure, the missing person cases hit him too close to heart. He wouldn’t stop until he had helped the victims’ families reach their answer. Mathias did everything he could to help, but he worried his father might work himself to the bone.

Having finished his work on his games, Mathias decided to spend his time surfing on the internet, checking the latest news.

Of course, he immediately found himself watching a piece of official propaganda, the video streaming of an alien forest burned to the ground by a murderous flight of dragons and warship bombardments. Armored hobs and bullmen, led by a vanguard of human Dragon Troopers, marched on the ashes, ready to scourge any hint of resistance. Their red body armor covered every inch of skin, making them indistinguishable from automatons.

An army of mechanized slaves.

“The almighty armies of Concordia are marching against the last remaining fief of the Green Mandrake terrorist group.” The male voice narrating it was singing and smooth, even cheerful in the face of this display of violence. “Although the terrorists’ leader, Mother Pandia, fled the area with her closest followers, the rabble’s power over the world of Darkthorn has decisively been broken.”

According to history records, the Concordian Empire had been at war since its creation four centuries ago. Like Earth ten years before, the world of Darkthorn would be assimilated, its trees cut, its lands turned into open mining pits, its people brought into the imperial fold and shipped off to other worlds. Then the empire would move on to its next star cluster.

It didn’t matter how many worlds had to fall to satisfy the dragon’s endless hunger for more resources. Those warmongers never had enough. They needed more steel to build Gearsmen, more citizens to field in their armies, and more energy to fuel their sorcery. The very stars themselves couldn’t satisfy them.

The thought led his eyes to the window, to the alien night sky. He remembered a different sight ten years ago, a black empty space inhabited by beautiful distant stars and the full moon. Now the stars were gone, the moon had turned crimson red, a purple cloud covered most of the darkness, and the nearest planet of their star cluster could be seen with the naked eye.

Mathias moved on to more familiar news: terrorist bombings in China, the black hole in Antarctica remaining unstable in spite of warding spells, Grimsour Industries and the Undermarket competing for a lucrative orbital prison contract, the new season of Nora the Hob premiering with top marks from cultural critics… this was the world he lived in.

This was Terra Firma, the conquered Earth. The stolen Earth.

Keeping reading these news filled him with rage, but what could he do? He was a mere game designer, not yet eighteen. It had taken one week for the human armies to fall to Concordian forces; men were no match for their science and magic. Resistance was hopeless, and his mother’s arrest spoke of the fate of those who dared rebel.

Yet there had to be a solution. Some way to rebel beyond making reptiles enemies to kill in a video game.

He could design an artificial intelligence dedicated to destroying Concordia. A curse in data form not unlike the Manus AI that inspired the various regulations. He had the skills and resources to design it, given enough time. Mathias doubted he would live long after uploading his creation, as the empire would track him down in swift order.

A beep from his computer told him about a new email. Expecting a message from Dynamis, Mathias opened his mailbox, and saw the message at the top.

Magik Online Invitation

Mathias glanced at the name of the sender. Unknown. No mail address.

Odd, the young man thought, must be spam. Mathias didn’t even bother reading it, clicking on the delete button.

The mail didn’t vanish from his email box.

Expecting a bug, Mathias repeated the process once more to no avail. His curiosity now aroused, he double checked his antivirus protection, and then opened the mail.

Dear Mathias Martel,

Your work on the Dynamis AI, discreet dedication to challenging rules, and willpower have impressed our growing community; as such we have decided to invite you as one of the alpha-testers of Magik.

Magik is a free-to-use platform dedicated to giving ordinary people access to magic. Through our app, powerless humans such as you will be given the ability to cast spells, for a fee. Magic will no longer be the sole advantage of your dragon overlords and their lackeys.

Our motto? A thousand spells in your pocket, for a price.

Magik declines any responsibility in reality hacking glitches, shapeshifting mishaps, botched demon summoning, quantum entanglement, or death by dragonfire.

By using our service, you agree to our top-notch privacy policy. Do not reveal the existence of Magik to non-users — especially Concordia Authorities — or your access will be revoked permanently.

By agreeing to use our platform, you also subscribe to our core policy of:
– Becoming the greatest magician you can be.
– Championing the cause of freedom whenever possible.
– Fulfilling the Administrator’s requests.

To receive your access and membership mental interface, please click on Join. If you would rather suffer in obscurity and never hear from us again, click on Decline.

Join / Decline

What are you waiting for? Go get them, tiger!

Yours truly,
The Sponsors.

Mathias reread the email for the fourth time in a row. What the hell was this?

Wait, how did they learn about him tinkering with the Dynamis AI? Only Maya knew, and he had put up strict safeguards preventing her from informing others. Had he been discovered? It could be a joke from Dynamis’ programmers, but Mathias doubted it. If he had been discovered the higher-ups would have fired him on the spot.

Mathias was confused on how to deal with this notice. If someone else had hacked into their mainframe, he should report it to Gavin immediately. No, there would be an investigation into his own AI forays.

It could also be a trap from the Concordian government, a false flag operation. Following the mail’s instructions would represent an act of rebellion, proof of his subversive mindset. Perhaps Gearsmen were waiting just outside this building, ready to arrest him if he fell for the bait.

And what to make of the content? A platform allowing users to use Sorcery? Only the Concordians held the secrets of magic, and they jealously guarded it. No human resistance cell had managed to replicate a single spell in ten years.

After minutes of silent consideration, Mathias looked at the Join / Decline choice. He couldn’t shake the gut feeling that there would be no turning back if he clicked. Just watching that choice made his skin crawl with both dread, and, much to his astonishment, some degree of excitement.

Why was he even considering clicking? This had to be a joke, or a trap. No good thing could come out of this.

And yet…

And yet, as Mathias remembered the news, the sinister starship looming over his head, the pain of his mother’s disappearance. It had to change. He had to do something, anything. A world without Concordia was worth any price, even his life.

When in doubt, go all in.

Mathias clicked on Join.

A sudden, searing pain spreading through his skull was the reward his action, while a bursting flash of blue light blinded his eyes. Mathias felt something pierce his skin, needles lodging themselves in his flesh and bones, as he jolted out of his chair.

The light and pain ended as quickly as they came, only for another light to take over his sight. Out of the sick yellow, White words brusted out of nothingness.

Connection to Dis established.
Lock selected: NETWORK.
Affinity: BLUE.

Mathias’ sight returned to normal, the whole ordeal having lasted less than a minute. His fingers moved to his hair, brushing against his skin beneath. Some customer service that was.

Blue, 3-D computed words floated right in front of him, like holographic projections.

Thank you for your trust, Mathias.
Your account name is: SHROUD.
Opening Magik Browser.

Wait, no password? Mathias thought. Apparently not, as the text vanished and a floating screen popped up where they had left; the young man turned his head slightly, with the projections following his movements. As he had suspected, the pictures were projected directly into his brain.

The Browser interface was nothing like Grimsearch’s elegant simplicity. It was a pitch black screen, only slightly lit by a small search bar at the highest point of the screen, with the number fifteen on the left side, and a sealed scroll on the right.

The rest of the screen was filled by three picture icons, each more whimsy than the last.  

The first icon was represented by a white caricature of a ghost reading a grimoire; the second, a skeleton opening a chest full of golden coins with the right hand and holding a contract with the left; and the third, a group of grinning pumpkin surrounding a halloween themed castle.

Mathias ‘clicked’ on the skeleton icon by moving his finger to the projection, causing a pop-up to appear.

Quest Board
Fulfill personalized quests for Spellcoins and awesome rewards!


Fulfill personalized quests for Spellcoins and awesome rewards!

Spellcoins? Did the website use a specific currency instead of Imperial Credits?

He clicked on another icon, the one with the haunted castle.

Whisper
Anonymously discuss with other users on forums, or purchase your own private hideout.
Hideout feature currently unavailable, wait for release!

Okay, this one couldn’t be serious. He next checked the grimoire ghost.

Compendium
Download and store spells to put some magic in your life.

Mathias knew, intellectually, that a sensible person should have closed that browser right there and now. Yet intense curiosity kept him in. Leaving the app store, he clicked on the number at the top of the screen.

Spellcoin Wallet: 15.

Mathias supposed it was a digital currency entry gift for joining. He heard criminals used such system to avoid being tracked by law enforcement.

Next, a speech bubble suddenly popped out on the right of his screen. The title?

“Welcome, Shroud!”
Sender: The Administrator.

Mathias clicked on the bubble, and found it to be a private message conversation log. The Administrator’s conversation icon represented a red circle crossed diagonally by a spear, while Mathias’ own was represented a stylized, blue gear.

ADMINISTRATOR: Welcome, Shroud. Seeing you join our sorcerers-in-training fills my heart with joy. Do not worry, our Whisper conversation system is encrypted. No risk of Concordian surveillance.

A keyboard appeared right beneath the message, allowing Mathias to type an answer. He suspected the underlying technology wasn’t that different from his gaming interface.

SHROUD: who are you?

ADMINISTRATOR: The friend to all those who dare dream of a better future. The last champion of Earth. I am the war that should have been. The war which Earth wins. Also, the Administrator of this website.

SHROUD: is this a joke?

ADMINISTRATOR: Not at all. If anything, the joke is on Concordia.

SHROUD: then why me?

ADMINISTRATOR: Because you have an impetuous heart who yearns for knowledge, creativity, and freedom. If you are skeptical, try your unique free application. Check your wallet. It’s spec-ta-cu-lar!

SHROUD: spectacular? Will I crawl on walls or cast fireballs?

ADMINISTRATOR: There will be no denial after trying it.

Mathias closed the message box, and true to the mysterious person’s word, he found another app icon after clicking on his Spellcoin wallet, one representing the planet Earth covered with blue points of lights and lines. It reminded him of visualizations of the internet.

Its name?

Network.

He clicked, and a blue flash swallowed him whole.

Next Chapter