On the distant frontier of the Concordian Empire, there was a gas giant called Algol. An ethereal, silent world the size of Jupiter, so far away from its sun that it looked like a faint moon in a black sky.
A dozen satellite planets, each the size of Earth, orbited around the blue and white sphere. One of them was Nibiru, a world of ice and iron. A prison at the very end of an immense galaxy, where temperatures reached absolute zero.
Had it not been for Mur’s Heatriser providing them with heat, or some members using protective spells to shield themselves from the cold, the group would have frozen to death on landing. Long before the battle with the local Concordian forces.
Hundreds of Gearsmen laid around them, broken by spells and brute strength. Shroud had taken a few hits, his glass armor bent at some sides from resisting blasts, and he had his summoned creatures secure the perimeter with Mur. Their target, a giant dome of reinforced glass, lay before them, covered with fading snow.
“You’re not fighting at full power, handsome,” Ace reproached him. Maggie, whose guns were steaming, had saved his life twice during the battle. “You’re distracted, reckless.”
No. He was mourning.
“You’re thinking of Kari.”
“She hasn’t woken up, even with the Heal spell,” he said. Taiyougami watched down on the icy planet, having shot the orbital defenses on arrival. Much like light itself, the space station could move at tremendous speed through space at times, allowing them to flee Oceanis to the other side of the galaxy in the blink of an eye.
“Stitch is taking sweet care of her. She will recover. If he can’t help her, nobody can.”
“That’s precisely what I fear.”
Ace realized her mistake at once. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I know. But I’m still afraid it will end the same.” He glanced at her, noticing she cast no shadow. “Why did you try to save me back then?”
“You’re seriously asking me that? Why I would try to save a friend’s life?”
“You were a better woman than me. Hell, I think you would have been a better leader.”
“You didn’t know me that much, handsome. I’m surprised you even care all that much, since we only knew one another for a few weeks.”
“I’m surprised you are so okay with being dead.”
“We live, and in the blink of an eye, we are gone. It is how we lived, and what we left behind, that matter. Not us.” Ace shook her head. “You may think you are a bad leader, and maybe you are right… but you’re the only one this group has. Absolutely nobody else wanted the job. I never challenged you for control of the group because, in the end, you are the one pushing us forward. I go along with the flow; you try to set it. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but sometimes, you set the right tempo and we dance as one. That is life. You don’t win all the time.”
“When have I ever truly won? I feel like everything I did just served the ends of someone else.”
“When you killed Smokefang, wrestled control back from Aster, or saved your team from Mammon? Who were you fighting for then?” She shook her head, patting him on the back, although he felt no contact. “Don’t call yourself a failure.”
“I could revive you,” Shroud said, glancing at his Load feature, “I could alter the past.”
“Are you ready to pay the price though?” she asked, glanced at Maggie and the others.
No, he wasn’t. “That’s the path to become Wyrde.” And mother.
“Yes, handsome. You’ve got to accept that sometimes, you lose, and move on. But a battle is not the war. You have much to do, Shroud. Don’t give up no—”
“Nerd,” Maggie approached him, interrupting the late Violet Sorceress. “Who are you talking to?”
Ace’s hallucination vanished, leaving him alone in his mind again.
“Ace,” he said. Shroud could have lied, said it was Stitch, but he was so sick of lies he couldn’t manage a white one anymore.
“Alright, You’re creeping me out. What the hell was that? Hallucinating? Talking to yourself?”
He suspected overuse of Accel Premium Thought had allowed him to create a vivid mental representation of their late teammate. Or lack of sleep and depression caused him to hallucinate.
Shroud knew he should take it as a warning, but he couldn’t bring himself to care the way his friend did. He hastily changed the subject. “The favor you asked from me, what was it?”
“Don’t hide, Mathias. You’re not fine, at all.”
Don’t hide, don’t run. That was what Mom always did. “Where do we go next?” he replied to Maggie.
“We kick Concordia’s ass.” She glared at me. “Don’t tell me you were bullshitting about that grand talk of freeing Earth for mankind? Or did you just care about avenging your mom?”
“I mostly cared about avenging my mother,” Mathias replied bluntly. “But my motivations have changed. Even knowing she is on the other side, I intend to take down Concordia. Especially since she is on the other side. I meant, where do we go, as the Dragonslayers? As a group? Ashmal has a window into my mind, Melusine can hack our Locks, and our secret safety net is gone. Now, it’s kill or be killed.”
“It was always kill or be killed with Concordia.”
“But Blackcinders and Wyrde will now treat me as a priority target. I am too dangerous to the Grandmaster to be left alive, and I killed Aster.”
“Nerd, if you’re considering disbanding the group and running away to protect us like some selfish would-be martyr, I’m going to kick your ass so deep even Perse won’t have gone that far.” She crossed her arms. “We all knew what could happen when we followed you. Ace did. Full disclosure here, she knew and she was ready to die. We talked about it.”
“I know,” Shroud replied, who didn’t want to talk about it any further. “What was the favor you wanted from me?”
She frowned at him but answered. “I want to settle things with my brother.”
With Jack? “Settle or settle, settle?”
“I dunno, nerd,” she sighed. “Like you and your mother, I suppose. I won’t ever be free from his shadow until I confront him.”
Jack was probably in an interstellar prison somewhere, but from what he had gathered, the Maleking was gathering his forces to strike soon. Jack among them. “We will cross paths on Earth,” Mathias foresaw. “He will come to us, I believe. Not the other way around.”
“Why do you sound so casual about it?” Shroud didn’t answer right away. “Nerd, you’re scaring me. You’re just so cold and depressed, it’s not like you at all.”
“Au contraire,” Shroud turned to look at her dead in the eyes, so she could see the intensity in his own through the transparent helmet, “I have never been so determined.”
She couldn’t find her words, and Shroud flew toward the dome. With Glass Field, he created an opening and moved through. He heard Sol and Maggie follow him, but didn’t pay them any attention. He was a ghost walking on auto-pilot.
The dome covered a small, protected biosphere, a perfect copy of the park he had fought Smokefang in back in Evermarsh. This place must have been a prototype of the arc cities, a self-sustaining world meant to keep Concordian’s citizens safe and docile.
A dragon waited for him, resting on the artificial grass near a lake, with her head on both hands. The creature was the smallest dragon Shroud had encountered yet, with eel-like deep blue skin. She had fins for wings, and her horns cackled with thunder.
“Guests. The troublesome kind.” The dragon spoke with a womanly, deep voice, kinder than Blackcinders but as resigned as Shroud’s. “Have you come to finish me off?”
“That depends,” Shroud said, landing in front of her. “Are you loyal to Wyrde?”
“I would not be here if I was.” Her eyes settled on Shroud, then Sol, then Maggie, as they came into sight. “Are you agents silencing a liability, or would-be liberators? In the first case, while there is nothing proper about it, try to kill me properly. I am sick of this place.”
“The second case,” Shroud said. “Our superiors thought you might enlighten us on Concordia.”
“I wondered if this day would come. You do not smell like Midgardian humans. You are earthlings, are you not? The lost cousins of Midgard’s manlings. Has our lost homeworld been located?”
“It was conquered, ten years ago,” Shroud said, the dragoness raising her curious eyes to look at them better. “How long have you been here?”
“Since the Gintargo Rebellion.”
“That was more than three hundred years ago,” Sol pointed out.
“Is it? I have had little contact with the outside world. The Golden Prince, that soft-hearted weakling, often sends me holo-books to read, but they are censored or out of date. Loctis often visits when he wants advice, although he doesn’t listen all the time.”
“Weakling?” Maggie chuckled.
“He should have opposed Wyrde’s design as I did, but chose to close his eyes,” the dragoness replied, with an irritated tone. “My name is Gungnir, the thunder spear. Welcome to my gilded cage. I would offer you grass or fish, but I am not sure you earthlings eat it.”
“Gungnir? Like Odin’s weapon?” Sol asked, ever the cultured man.
“Whom?” The dragon seemed to vaguely recognize the name, but little else. “I forgot where my name came from. What are yours, little earthlings?”
“Shroud,” the sorcerer introduced himself. “They are Sharpshoot and Sol.”
“Hmm… not your true names. You have had terrible experiences with dragons, haven’t you? I can see it in the way you look at me.”
Shroud said nothing, while Sol cleared his throat. “Blackcinders savagely killed one of our own,” the priest said. “And nearly destroyed our planet, a decade ago.”
The dragon didn’t seem very surprised, although she sympathized. In fact, she seemed almost as saddened as the humans in front of her. “Has our dream fallen so low?”
Sol told her about Concordia, about the Conquest of Earth, and Wyrde’s plans. Shroud zoned out, his eyes moving to his previous discussion with the Administrator before they landed there.
ADMINISTRATOR: Mathias, I cannot let you access this area. Especially not in your current state of mind.
SHROUD: The mere fact that it exists and that Ashmal can alter the system means you intended for it to be used. I would not have won against Aster without it.
ADMINISTRATOR: Like Loctis, I believe that color has a role to play. It makes Hacks possible and may prove instrumental in countering Wyrde’s control over timelines. But if you do not master it, like the other colors, it will master you. It was meant to be a weapon of last resort when faced with an urgent situation.
SHROUD: Doesn’t State Zero count then? You can kill me if you fear it gets out of line. I don’t care anymore.
ADMINISTRATOR: That is exactly why I am wary about giving you access to that color. I barely allowed you even to exit on a Quest. You were never mentally stable, and now you have hit rock bottom.
SHROUD: Maybe. But the alternative is that I pump into Ashmal’s power directly by accident. Doing it in controlled conditions would be the safest option.
ADMINISTRATOR: There is no safe option with Black.
SHROUD: How can anyone master it if it is only unlocked during an emergency? If no one is given time to experiment with it under controlled conditions, of course that color masters you. You never learned how to use it.
ADMINISTRATOR: I will ponder it, but for now, my answer is a firm no.
SHROUD: I see. What about the other proposal?
ADMINISTRATOR: I will allow you to make modifications to parts of my source code, under Mars’ supervision. If your knowledge of AI can complete me the way Alice did, then this would help tremendously with protecting our system from her.
SHROUD: I learned from Mom. What she created, I can finish.
ADMINISTRATOR: I understand. The sponsors will never fully trust you anymore, however, especially since your own died on Oceanis, so your editing privileges will be very minor.
“-Wyrde was always too proud for her own good.” Realizing the conversation had taken a new turn, Shroud returned to the real world.
The dragon exile exchanged details with Sol about the early days of the Empire. “But she was brilliant, the greatest mind our kind has ever produced. Loctis was her apprentice and always at her side, while Halcyon was a human explorer whom they befriended while studying the Neurotowers. The three were thick as thieves since before I knew them, forming the perfect balance. Wyrde had the vision and the drive, Loctis provided the creativity needed to make it a reality, and Halcyon kept them grounded.”
“When Halcyon died, the balance was broken,” Solomon guessed.
“Halcyon was murdered by one of Gintargo’s leaders during the war, and Wyrde never fully recovered from it. Without him to keep her grounded, she became more and more obsessed with the ancient technology slumbering beneath our world, and Loctis was too shy to restrain her. I had already been quietly shelved back then when I protested the Grandmaster office had no check to its power, but it wasn’t until then that my criticism earned me a house exile in the galaxy’s backyard.”
“She couldn’t stand the idea of dragons disagreeing with her vision,” Shroud said. How many had suffered the same fate as Gungnir, exiled and forgotten by their own empire?
Even back then, Wyrde had a nasty tendency to rewrite history in her image. She had just upgraded her methods.
“Midgard was a world of constant conflict back then, and we dragons created Concordia back then to establish peace, and guide younger species towards uplifting,” the dragoness told them. “It was intended to give them back the power to govern themselves with time, after a proper tutelage. I started protesting when we couldn’t agree on when, and after Gintargo, when became never.”
“You think she can pull it off?” Maggie frowned. “This isn’t some mad scheme?”
“Wyrde thinks she can, so she will try. That is all that matters.” The dragon shook her head. “I always found it worrying that every person who tinkered with that technology, from the Seeker of Worlds to Ashmal, went mad. Wyrde thought she could succeed where they failed, that she could master it; I replied that her mindset would let her the power to master her instead.”
“Looks like you were right,” Shroud said grimly.
The dragon shook her head. “There are others like me dispersed across space,” she said, “We are few, and most of my kindreds have been too indoctrinated by Wyrde to consider changing their ways, but we could turn a few. Loctis, especially, is a keystone.”
“He looked like Wyrde’s stooge last time I saw him,” Shroud replied, irritated.
“Because he is too attached to Wyrde to defy her openly. She is his mentor and the one who gave him a chance when many looked down on him. But I guarantee you that if any dragon regrets what Concordia turned into, it is Loctis. The Golden Prince may be kind, but in the end, his faith in Wyrde is stronger than his conscience.”
“Do you know where the other exiled dragons are located?” Solomon asked her, the dragoness predictably shaking her head. “We will try to find them, and you are welcome to come with us.”
“With pleasure.” The great being rose up. “Our reckoning has been long overdue.”
Shroud watched the dragon walk away, Maggie guiding her outside. He almost followed her, when he received a new notification.
ADMINISTRATOR: After much consideration, I decided you were right about one point. That color will always destroy us if we do not study it. While I still believe that we will never be fully safe from it, having you be our experimental tester for the Forbidden Area would be much better than allowing Ashmal to exploit your despair in a moment of weakness. It may give you an edge against Melusine, maybe against Wyrde, as this is the one color she always disdained.
SHROUD: You know what Ashmal wants me to do with it, though? There are risks that it corrupts my Lock. The only reason I’m even considering it is that we’re running out of options.
ADMINISTRATOR: Which is why I demanded Mars to check on the proposal, and if approved, your moderator role will be transferred to Sol.
SHROUD: Good. It couldn’t be anyone else.
ADMINISTRATOR: As for corrupt… I wouldn’t say that. Mathias, I will ask you again. Are you truly sure you want to do this?
SHROUD: I am not alone. Not like Wyrde, or Ashmal. And you are still allowing me to access it, so you know only I have a shot at mastering it. Do the other sponsors even know?
ADMINISTRATOR: No. I have many safeguards, but assigning this color was Mars’ and my choice alone. Do not make me regret it. I still believe you will make or break our revolution, but as you said, your safety net is gone.
SHROUD: I know. That’s why you allowed it.
Shroud glanced at Sol, seeing that the priest had been informed of the decision. “Mathias,” he spoke up first. “Do not do this.”
“This is the only way to stop her, and you know it.”
“No, it is not. We can adjust our tactics, prepare better-”
“They have mastered all the other colors and can sabotage our own Locks whenever they feel like it. Manah accepted us with the Oceanis base destroyed, and the Maleking is clearly gunning to invade Earth in the near future. Our world will be at war again, except ten times worse than the Conquest. All bets are off, Sol.”
“The fact they are willing to cross lines, does not mean you have to imitate them. How will you be different from them then?”
Shroud wasn’t sure he was. He wouldn’t pretend he was better. If he started thinking so, he would fall into sorcery’s insidious trap.
“I’m tired of being weak, of running, of being a pawn. It is the color of freedom as much as entropy, Sol. This is the only weapon we have against that magitech of theirs, and I’m ready to pay the price for it.”
“I told you once that making mistakes was part of growing up, Mathias, but if you go there, you may never come back. I…” The priest shook, the first time Shroud had seen him truly perturbed. “I do not want to put you down the way Kari had to with her uncle.”
“You won’t.” Shroud sensed the root of the problem. “Sol, I don’t intend to die. If you think I’m letting the last fiasco drive me to some kind of suicide run, hoping that I die avenging the others, you are wrong. I’m done fighting for the dead. I’m fighting for the living.”
The priest prepared to speak up, but Shroud kept going on.
“I want to end that cycle once and for all, to see Concordia fallen or reformed, and to witness a better future than the one Wyrde has in store for us. That is what I am ready to fight for. That is the only choice I truly made of my own, and I know this will never go away. I am Mathias Martel, I am Shroud, and I will never stop fighting, until the battle for Earth is won.”
If Ace’s death, Alice’s betrayal, and Blackcinders hadn’t broken him, then nothing would.
“But then what, Mathias?” Sol asked. “Once the battle is done, what do we do?”
“We rebuild. We live.” Shroud glanced above his head. “We make a life for ourselves in that universe full of stars.”
“Well spoken, Martel.”
Shroud had already noticed Mars sneaking in before he spoke up. Both Players glanced at the sponsor, clad in his shining armor. “I am glad to see the recent events haven’t tarnished your determination,” the war god said. “I have come to give you my blessings, as your acting sponsor.”
“You wanted that post, even before Amaterasu…” Shroud trailed. “You wanted to oversee us.”
“Your group always had potential that should have been nurtured with the proper guidance. Especially you, Shroud. Network was always oriented towards Blue, as it was customized by Manus, and thus never meant to fit you. You were to fit it. As I observed you, Mathias, I realized you were a darker shade than blue. The reckless drive to learn the truth, the urge for absolute freedom, the potential for chaos and change in equal measure, the determination to survive at all costs… those are the purview of Black.”
“You think it will fit me more?”
“You will not know until you try. And the fact remains, what alternative do we have? According to your debrief, you would not have overcome Aster without it, and we will need all weapons available to prevent State Zero.”
“You know the risks though,” Sol said, perhaps the sole voice of reason.
Mars shrugged. “There is no such a thing as a victory won without risks, priest.”
Realizing that he was outvoted, Sol turned to his protegee. “Mathias.” The grandfather he never had put a hand on his shoulder, warm and firm. “I want you to know that, whatever you do, wherever you go, I will always be by your side.”
“I know. Never will I leave you behind, old friend.”
Mars raised a hand, and the procedure began.
Moderator role transferred to: Sol
Forbidden Area opened to: Shroud.
You can now access the Color Black.
Take down Wyrde, and mom, and end their ambitions for good. Protect the Earth, so the people he loved could live free and safe.
That was all that mattered.
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And this concludes Volume II. A large player database upgrade has been done. It was… huge.
Full disclosure here, I have experienced serious fatigue from the Dungeon Crawl Arc on. The reception to the Aster twist was mostly negative and it hit me a bit more than I thought it would. I wrote the latest chapters with mostly a negative mindset to meet the week quota, and I think it hurt the overall quality (it doesn’t help that it sharply contrasts with the very positive reception Vainqueur the Dragon is getting so far).
I will probably return to that volume once the story is ended, to rewrite elements with a better, fresh mindset. Or maybe not.
I will take a week off Magik because the new number of Patrons (mostly coming from Vainqueur) was so goddamn huge, the upgrade took me the equivalent of a day of work to finish. Volume III will conclude the Magik Online saga, albeit probably not the Dis Universe; especially since it should be much more action packed as the various factions finally collide, with Earth’s fate on the line. I intended the story to stretch longer, but the more I advance, the more I want to give this story a definite conclusion.
And that’s pretty much it. I hope you enjoyed the volume, even if it had its highs and lows, and see you soon on October 9th for Volume III, “Our War for Earth.”