The canyon stank of death and ashes.
Shroud oversaw the ruins of the battlefield from above, with Players and other resistance members securing the remains of the Gearsman Colossus, the Worldshaker, and the Concordian facility. Other flyers assisted him in securing the perimeter, and hunt the stragglers.
The contrast between the various armies couldn’t be clearer. After the Players managed to take down the colossus, the Concordians forces had fought to the last soldier with zeal, to the point the Players hadn’t managed to take any prisoners. Meanwhile, the Malebranche had opted to disperse and retreat soon after Jack bit the dust, only for the survivors to spread across the Canyon and harass the human forces through isolated ambushes. Hit and run.
While the Zone provided Magik Online users with additional protections, it would take them days, if not weeks, to eliminate the last of the survivors.
Shroud wondered what had been the plan of the attack. Probably to wake the Worldshaker and set it loose on Concordian forces, but only Jack had made a break for the ancient weapon. The rest had simply… fought for nothing. They didn’t try to secure any areas or take out key targets.
The killing wasn’t a means to the Malebranche. It was an end in itself.
A small group of Players, Stitch, and Sol included tended to the wounded and the dead. The former were provided with healing spells, and the latter gathered. The bio-soldiers, Arcadian Reavers, or advanced Gearsmen would be looted for any useful technology they could repurpose to their own needs, and the humans buried.
Overall, Shroud’s allies only had to mourn three hundred victims, mostly NPCs. They would have suffered a lot more losses without his own Synergy or the Zone’s assistance, but they had walked out of the battle with most of their forces unscathed.
For the first time in history, mankind had won a large battle against Concordia.
Quest: Together We Stand, complete!
You earned 15 Spellcoins and a Bonus Dot Three Spell of your choice!
He would cash in by buying a Black Spell since those cost the most Spellcoins.
It was a cause for celebration, and a part of him rejoiced over it. But the sorcerer had a feeling things would only get more dire from now on.
Shroud absentmindedly glanced at his Network feeds, and a few people to whom he had assigned a Lock after the fiasco. His power recovered the accounts of the dead Players he had networked, allowing him to reassign them afterward. They kept the spells, the Lock, and the spellcoins of the previous holder.
How would he have reacted, if he had that power back when Ace had been alive? If he had a last reminder of her?
Shroud pushed away these thoughts, contacting Atalanta on the ground through Network. “All clear,” he said, after finishing his tour. “The facility is secure.”
“Good,” she replied, but the Moderator’s heart wasn’t in it. “There’s at least one secure place in the world for us, now.”
The sorcerer glanced up to the skies above; the sun was down, leaving way for the alien stars which had replaced the old Milky Way.
The heavens were ablaze. Crimson sparks lit up in the darkness, as did rays of light. Sometimes, he noticed fiery shapes falling to the ground, far away onto the American landscape.
“How bad is it?” Shroud asked, not having checked the Magik forums yet.
“Worldwide chaos. The Malebranche has opened Gates everywhere, and the Sponsors are issuing new, dangerous quests like crazy. Here.”
She sent him a message through Magik.
Flowers of the Apocalypse
Difficulty: Dot Four.
Celia, the Horseman of Death, has been sighted in the ashen ruins of Russia; she is raising millions of victims from the Conquest War as an undead army and will march with it towards Europe. The Violet Minister, Brina, has already moved to intercept her with forces of her own, but whoever wins will not have our interests at heart. Destroy the Horseman of Death, and if possible, the Violet Minister.
Reward: 20 Spellcoins + one free Dot Four Spell.
The Pandorian Syndrome
Difficulty: Dot Four.
Sponsor: Angel Lord.
Mammon’s mothership has landed in Antarctica, near the black hole caused by the corrupted Black Tower. According to our spies, among the items boarded on it are a Black Flux Bomb and countless soul gems. We believe the Midnight King intends to use the tower’s baleful energies to cast a dangerous spell; one which could end the world, before the Maleking even arrives. Stop Mammon, and take him down once and for all.
Reward: 20 Spellscoins + one free Dot Four Spell.
Failure: Mammon casts the darkest spell and/or oblivion.
Celia and Brina in the north, Mammon in the south, both equally dangerous… and these were just some of the most pressing problems. His Network was another, as was Blackcinders’ superweapon on the Moon; and most importantly, Wyrde herself.
A global war had started, and he wouldn’t be able to fight on all fronts at once. He would have to make choices.
“Also, one of the Sponsors is down there. Romulus.”
Shroud immediately returned to the camp, passing over Ulysses and Maggie discussing something, Mur collecting tooth trophies from the fallen, and Kari surveying the canyon from over a cliff, like a hawk.
He found Mars waiting for him in front of the command tent. The Sponsor drew glances from the various people present through his sheer, overmighty presence alone. The military god invited Shroud inside the tent as he landed, his eyes indecipherable.
As the Dragonslayer found himself alone with his main supporter, Mars cast a spell, probably to reduce sound and ensure intimacy. “The Administrator informed me,” he said, “of your problem.”
Shroud nodded, expecting the ax to fall.
“Truth to be told… I expected it to happen,” Mars said. “A part of me even hoped that it would. If you can even gain an ounce of the power of Dis, then this would tremendously help us win the war.”
“It’s a big gamble,” Shroud replied. “We don’t know what the Administrator and I will become should this program be allowed to run its course. I could become a monster, or worse. There are too many unknowns.”
“I know a place where we can get answers. Where it all began.”
“Evermarsh?” Shroud frowned. “No. My mother.”
“Her hidden lab where the incident two years ago happened, in the old Silicon Valley,” Mars confirmed. “Concordia seized the lab and hid it under a Dynamis office, but the past is not so easily erased.”
“Dynamis?” The company where he used to work?
“I do not think this is a coincidence, because nothing is ever a coincidence,” Mars replied. “It was linked to Grimsour’s conglomerate, and it recovered parts of Melusine’s research after her ‘disappearance’.”
Wyrde had always been watching him since that event. Lovely. At least he had met the Werners through that company. “How is California?”
“Under attack, like everywhere.” The deity shook his head. “We coordinate with the other Sponsors the best we can, but chaos reigns supreme. No major city is not facing a Malebranche incursion of some kind, and this is only Earth; even with Wyrde on it, the majority of their forces are spread across the cosmos.”
Shroud could only imagine the scale of the conflict. The mere fact he could see explosions happening outside the atmosphere while on the ground was proof enough. “I believe things may get worse,” the Blue Sorcerer said. “It is no coincidence that Concordia tried to unearth the Worldshaker under the Canyon.”
“Since they can respond to Terminal, we can only assume Wyrde may intend to use them as a weapon of last resort,” Mars noted, frowning behind his helmet. “Can you control them?”
“I don’t think so,” Shroud shook his head. “Once activated, they will act on their own.”
“But you cannot say for certain. This is yet another reason to investigate; with Concordia’s attention distracted by the Malebranche, this may be now or never.”
“Then I will tell my team—”
“No,” Mars replied. “Your group will be needed on other fronts, and the fewer people compromised, the better.”
“Compromised?” Shroud frowned. “You don’t trust my teammates?”
“They have more than proved themselves, but we can no longer afford any mistakes. If they get captured, Concordia has the means to extract information from their brains, as they did yours; and they will be needed there. No, Mathias. We will go together, the two of us.”
Shroud wanted to blurt out the same logic applied to the war god but shut his mouth. He was already in a very precarious position, and Mars commanded Magik Online’s Players. He had become a soldier in a war, and he better should learn to act like it.
But he couldn’t compromise on that part.
“I’m not leaving my team in the dark.” He welcomed Mars’ eerie silence with a steely gaze. “I need them.”
“I enabled you a lot, Mathias,” the war god replied. “But this is war, and counterintelligence can make or break us.”
“They’re part of the reason I beat Aster,” Shroud pointed out. “My power is only as great as my Network’s reach.”
“I thought the fact Concordian did pull that kind of long con would teach you wariness, and the need for information control.”
“It also taught me that isolation brings weakness.” Shroud shook his head. “I have seen too many sorcerers go off the deep end to trust myself, especially with my Lock going haywire. If I escalate the way Jack did-”
“I will pull the plug myself,” Mars said.
“I would prefer my team to be the ones to handle it,” Shroud replied. “I owe them as much, and keeping them in the dark will only shake their trust in me further. Keep secrets from me and us, if you feel it’s best. But I will not leave them behind. We are a set.”
The war god’s peered through him and into his soul, his eyes calculating. Shroud could almost guess his whole thought process, even if Network didn’t activate.
“We all leave,” Mars finally spoke.
“When?” Shroud asked.
“As soon as possible,” Mars answered, putting both arms behind his back. “Time is of the essence, and you will be redeployed on another front right afterward. You will need the Needless Spell. Fifteen minutes, then we teleport away. No being late.”
Shroud bowed respectfully, then left the tent. He didn’t need Network to understand the hidden message.
From now on, there wouldn’t be much time to rest. The next weeks, if not days, would be decisive. A grueling race ending in a confrontation with Wyrde… and his mother.
Thankfully, he only had to step out to find Maggie and Sol; they must have followed him here. “We have to go right now,” Shroud warned them at once. “I’m not sure when we will be back, so travel light.”
“Why are we wandering off again?” Solomon shook his head. “To what point? I do not like it, Mathias. The war is there, but we have no plan yet.”
“Orders from above, I will brief you on the way,” the Blue Sorcerer replied. He glanced at Maggie, who had kept a somber face since Jack’s death. “You’re holding up?”
“Yeah.” She wasn’t, but at least she sounded better than a few hours ago. “I’ll be fine. I’m not alone in this.”
At long last, she had accepted a support system. Shroud couldn’t feel prouder of her; relieved that she wouldn’t go down the same path he had seen other sorcerers venture down.
“There are issues we must address in our group, Mathias,” Solomon admitted. “I’m worried about Stitch. He is carrying himself in battle, but I can tell there has been a shift in his attitude lately. He seems more… impulsive.”
The Lifeforge’s influence must be starting to get to him. How would he react if separated from it? Probably badly. “We must avoid browbeating him,” Shroud said, hoping the trip would give him insight unto Dis and its purpose, “For now, we need to keep the boat afloat by any means necessary, for there is a mighty storm brewing ahead.”
“Mathias, you are the glue holding that ship together,” Solomon countered. “I cannot reach out to Stitch the way you do.”
He would have to, unfortunately. Shroud wanted the group to remain even in case of his own death, hence why he had suggested his oldest friend take over as Moderator. “You will do fine. I may be the glue, Sol, but you are the pillar. Every member of this team respects you, even Mur, and he’s a petty bastard who never listens.”
“Thank you,” Solomon replied with courtesy, ever the humble man. “But when the time comes to confront him, you should participate.”
“Yeah, nerd,” Maggie supported the priest. “You’ve got to practice what you preached me.”
“I know,” Shroud replied. “After the trip, we may tackle one dangerous quest among many; with the chaos around, we may lose our own support system at one point. In this case, we will be on our own.”
“Which quest?” Maggie replied, “We’ve got enemies everywhere now.”
“I strongly feel we should not separate,” Sol continued. “We are only as strong as when we are united; divided, we fall.”
Yes. Shroud would rather fight with his allies close, and on a purely tactical angle, the group had learned to fight together as one unit over time. They would work better as a strike team, rather than spread on various fronts.
But that would mean that they would have to make difficult choices. They wouldn’t be everywhere at once.
“We will stick together, no matter where it leads us,” Shroud replied, his eyes meeting Maggie’s. Something in her gaze told him she would rather interpret that sentence in… another way.
“Matt, after we’re done,” she asked. “With the war…”
“I don’t know,” he cut her off, knowing what she wanted to ask him, but couldn’t spell out. “I don’t know.”
She accepted his decision without a word.
He would have wanted to say yes, but deep down, Shroud doubted they would walk the same path after this conflict. Even though he hoped the trip would enlighten him more, the sorcerer already had a theory for the reason behind this chaos, and it terrified him.
Ashmal had said Dis, and the will at its center was a parasite. Feeding on worlds, on people, and using its sorcerers as tools to spread. A computer virus using the resources of its host to duplicate. To create seeds called Terminals, incubate them in its bowels, and then launching them across the cosmos.
This wasn’t a game, or a conspiracy serving a grand goal.
That was a reproduction cycle.
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