The flight to the swamps happened so uneventfully, Shroud almost expected a last-minute disaster to fall upon him. A flock of Gearsmen firing at him from below, one last-minute ambush from Kresnik, Smokefang’s undead remains rising for another battle.
Instead, he got silence.
He wondered if the warriors felt the same way, after returning from a battle. That pervasive tension, that paranoid inability to accept that the fight had well and truly ended. Would he fully chill out and relax the same way he used to with the Werner? Or would he always look over his shoulder?
He knew the answer to that question.
The sun had almost set behind the horizon, so the sorcerer accelerated. Combining his Glass Field with Lightbringer had increased his speed a little, perhaps because his light coating helped with the aerodynamics. It filled him with pride and a sense of progress.
He found his group and Booz waiting, with a few bags of supplies, at the place where it all began.
The spot where he experimented with virtual reality, before being interrupted by Smokefang’s Gearsmen. The day he received the Magik Online invitation that changed his life forever. The place looked the same as back then, untouched by the Evermarsh conflict. It felt different though; once a place of fun, it breathed sorrow and nostalgia.
Never again will he play with Perse and Ulysses there, fighting virtual monsters, or designing worlds with Viviane. He doubted he would return to Evermarsh.
Yet somehow, Shroud didn’t feel regret. He had made peace with his choices, found his own answer. The Maleking had been right. With a why to live for, he could survive anything.
He landed among his team, who recognized him in spite of his new, more luminous appearance. “Thanks for waiting,” he said. “I’m—”
“Mathias!” Sol didn’t let him finish, moving to hug him. He squeezed Shroud enough to make him gasp in pain. “Thank the Lord, you are alive.”
It hurt! Oh God, pain hurt so much! “Stop, stop…” he struggled to breathe, struggling for air. Sol hurriedly broke off the embrace. “Sorry, just… broken rib and arm.”
Also, a few burns and maybe lung cancer.
“Mathias, what…” Sol panicked. “I have medical supplies in my bag, maybe this can help.”
Unless they had a surgeon on hand, he doubted it.
“Love the new look nerd,” Maggie, no, Sharpshoot, said, whistling. She looked fine for a new sorcerer if a slightly roughed up. In fact, they all seemed to have gone through a hard time, with only Kari alert and unharmed. Her look of absolute confidence brought Shroud some joy.
“You’re late!” a small critter speaking with Mur’s voice said.
— “Mur’s stoneskin!” the imp complained as he looked at his unsalvageable hide. It had taken him forever to grow it, and it felt so comfy! —
“Mur?” Shroud was somewhat torn between amusement and curiosity. Sol didn’t share it though, glaring at the critter with barely restrained contempt. He guessed the gargoyle now looked a bit too close to a fiend from Hell for the priest’s taste. “What happened to you?”
“Mur has to eat to grow big again,” the imp complained. “Many stones and gems and steady protein.”
“Don’t remind me,” Maggie said, before shuddering, “He ate his worn-out skin. That’s self-cannibalism.”
“Snakes do that in the wild,” Kari said softly. “Good to see you safe, Mathias-san.”
“Thanks, Kari,” Shroud replied, back to breathing again somewhat normally. “Speaking of snakes, I had to kill a dragon on my way there.”
“Good, so you whaaaaaat?!” Maggie didn’t fully finish her sentence, as his words caught up to her.
“I killed Smokefang on my way here. Broke a few bones, but worth it. I also disabled the local Gearsmen with a new spell of mine, and I even leveled up.”
Kari looked at him, trying to see if he was kidding. “This is not a joke,” she spoke, her expression unreadable. “You did it. You slew Smokefang.”
“Meh, Mur says dragons are overrated.”
“You killed a dragon?” Maggie blinked out. “For real?”
“This is what you signed on for,” Shroud pointed out. “Slaying dragons. I told you I would.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t think that you would actually do it. I thought it was more of a political statement. Jesus. Sorry, Sol.” Maggie’s eyes widened further, as the enormity of what he did sank in. “Oh my God, you killed a dragon. We are fucked.”
“If you would please leave the Lord out of it,” Sol replied, crossing his arms. “Mathias, you know this means war? The dragons will escalate from now on.”
“We are so fucked…” Maggie kept trailing off.
“I agree,” Booz taunted her, playing with his disc. “Three months, give it or take it.”
“It’s okay,” Shroud replied, brushing it off for more important matters. “Do you have spare clothes? This is embarrassing, but… I am naked below the armor. I would like at least some boxers.”
“Nerd, you disappoint me so much,” Maggie teased him, while Sol hurriedly looked inside the bag, eager to make up for the previous hug. “Choose life, choose underpants.”
Shroud had the feeling they would banter a lot. As Sol brought him fresh clothes though, he realized that changing with a limp arm and broken rib would be a pain.
Well, time to check his new spells. Give me something that can heal my wounds, Shroud thought, the Magik Online interface instantly providing it to him.
Activation: Active, Direct Touch Vector.
The user can heal wounds, whether their own or others, by magically enhancing the body’s healing factor and creating new stem cells. This spell cannot heal damage the body couldn’t recover from naturally, such as a lost head for humans, given enough time and resources.
If he had that spell when his father…
Could there be a spell that could revive the dead among the higher options? Sorcery that could transcend life and death?
Another reason to keep leveling up.
“Heal,” he said after purchasing the spell, a bright green aura surrounding his body in a cloud of energy. He felt the pain vanish, the rib in chest move back in place, sensation return to his hand. The spell cleaned every bruise away, made his skin pristine by purifying it.
It even worked better than normal healing, which often made repaired bones wrongly-angled.
“If you ladies could turn around,” he said, Kari closed her eyes, while Maggie turned around with a groan.
As he briefly dropped his armor to dress, abandoning his warm light for the coldness of the outside world, Sol looked at him strangely. His eyes were undecipherable behind his helmet. “There is ice in your eyes, Mathias.”
“Shroud,” he replied.
Sol remained silent, disturbed, as his protegee finished dressing, putting his shards in the bag for transportation. While he felt comfortable in his armor, he liked the feeling of the wind brushing against his skin.
Mur seemed to understand though, nodding to Shroud with a bizarre expression he had never seen in the gargoyle’s ugly eyes before. Approbation… and a sliver of respect.
Kari hung back, uncomfortable, as she opened her eyes. “You remember what I told you, Shroud-san. About masks?”
Shroud-san. “You said one would bleed into the other.” In hindsight, it seemed almost prophetic.
Kari didn’t elaborate. She didn’t need to.
“I was there when you were born, Mathias,” Solomon declared. “Your mother called you Mathias, at my suggestion, when I told her it meant gift from God. Because that was what she considered you as.”
Shroud remembered that story. “You are not disrespecting her when you call me otherwise.”
“I understand where your feeling come from, or I think I do,” Sol replied. “But you cannot cast off your origins. It is not healthy, and this…”
The priest stopped himself.
— This is not what his father would have wanted. —
But Dad was dead.
Out of respect for the priest, he would not debate it any further with him. But the sorcerer had made his choice and would abide by it.
“Can I turn now, Mr. Modesty?” Maggie complained, breaking the tension to Shroud’s relief. The girl turned around, hands behind her head. “So what’s the plan, nerd?”
“Mom is alive.” Sol’s head perked up. “Concordian officers confirmed it to me. She’s out there, somewhere.”
“Electon,” Sol said, Shroud shaking his head in ignorance. The priest put a hand on his mentee’s shoulder. “We will find her, even if it takes us decades. I promise you. Together.”
Shroud smiled at the grandfather he never had, even if Sol couldn’t see it through his helmet. “Thanks, Sol,” he said, before changing the subject as Sol removed his hand. “Anyway, what happened on your end? What happened to the church?”
“We destroyed it!” Mur made a V sign with his tiny fingers.
Sol glared at the imp, clearly deeply unhappy about it. “I will not suffer a devil gloating about this indignity.”
“You racist, who are you calling a devil? Mur is an imp! That’s different!”
“So you do admit your true, sinful origins,” Sol rasped.
“Old fool, did you think gargoyles grew in the mud like plants? And sinful, what does that mean, some kind of food?”
“I’m sorry for your church, Sol,” Shroud said, interrupting the argument. Having spent so long refurbishing it, he could understand why its loss stung to the priest.
Solomon let out a long, tired sigh. “You know, Mathias, I have been living the life of the knight errant for decades. Fighting one evil after another, first with medicine, words, and kindness; now with a flaming sword. I never stayed long enough somewhere to make it feel like my house. Until that church.”
Shroud wasn’t the only one to have lost his home. “We will rebuild ourselves a new home, Sol. I promise.”
“It’s okay,” the knight replied, trying to show a strong, front of resolve. “Maybe I was just complacent when it was too early to stay my blade. Maybe… maybe the Lord wants me to serve as a crusader, instead of a priest.”
“Maybe,” Shroud said. “You did fend off Kresnik safely.” Maggie’s smile made him pause. “What?”
“We demolished Kresnik!” Mur boasted.
“Made him retreat,” Kari corrected.
Shroud blinked beneath his helmet, glancing at Sol in confirmation.
— Solomon cursed as his sword hit the dirt, the wolf vanishing before he could deal him the fatal blow. He had been so close. —-
“You beat Kresnik.” Even with Network’s confirmation, Shroud couldn’t believe it. “Kresnik. Kung-Fu werewolf.” And they were amazed he killed Smokefang?
“Kung-Fu werewolf?” Maggie smirked. “That’s how you call him in your head?”
“What did you call him in your head?”
Booz lost patience. “Everybody got it out of their system? Anybody? Anything else to say? Then let’s get out of there before Gearsmen come en mass.”
“Agreed,” Shroud said. The future looked harsh and difficult though. In their hurry to leave, the group took the bare minimum. The larger cosmos lacked internet connection, meaning Shroud could no longer draw upon money from Scrooge.exe. They only had each other, and their magic, to rely on.
“Gather around children,” Booz declared, the group moving to surround him, Shroud standing between Maggie and Kari. A lady on each side. Ulysses would have made a joke if he had joined. The thought stung a little.
“You were a drama queen back there, nerd.”
The sorcerer turned his head toward Perse’s best friend. “Excuse me?”
“Behaving somber and dramatic like you lost everything. You’re wrong. You lost everything but us.”
Us. That reminded Shroud of the time Perse first used that word. That feeling of community, of a shared future, warmed his heart.
No, he hadn’t lost everything. He didn’t walk the warpath alone. He had friends. A party. “Thank you, my minion.”
“No way I’m calling you boss, nerd, Moderator or whatever. We still need a band name, though.”
“Mur heard sorcerer groups are called covens or rainbows,” Mur said, Maggie, snickering at the latter. “Mur thinks the same.”
“The Fellowship of Saint-George?” Solomon proposed. “Mathias did kill a dragon.”
Should Shroud boast of it? Smokefang lived and died a bully. Fleeing when threatened for the first time in his sad, pathetic existence. Beneath the pride, the posturing, and his overwhelming might, the dragon perished a coward.
The beast had almost killed him though, so Shroud guessed he could make a title out of it.
“Lame,” Maggie replied. “It sounds…”
“I’m sorry Sol, but it sounds pompous,” Shroud said.
“The Dragonslayers.” Everyone turned at Kari. “The Dragonslayers,” she repeated, firmer this time.
“Mur likes it,” the imp said. “Sounds fearsome.”
It does, Shroud agreed. He couldn’t have worded it better.
“Cliche, but it has a certain zing to it,” Maggie admitted. “And with the nerd over here, we can back it up.”
“A name and a message both,” Solomon nodded.
“Democracy has spoken,” Shroud said. “Dragonslayers it is.”
“You aren’t going to make friends with that name,” Booz warned. “Your loss of life.”
“Shut up, killjoy,” Maggie replied.
“No regrets, Maggie?” Shroud asked his new teammate. While she had no family anymore—if she ever had one—to tie her down to Evermarsh, she was leaving a lot behind.
“One,” she admitted. “I never got to say goodbye to Sam and Perse. It’s like I broke up the band to join another without saying goodbye. That’s a real dick move and no closure.”
Shroud had gotten to say goodbye, but it hadn’t brought him relief. “I see.”
“But you know, the adventure, the fighting?” She touched the gun around her belt, a savage gleam in her eyes. “I think I was born for this shit.”
She took her new life as an outlaw in stride. “We’re in this shit together.” He would have to deal with Mur and Sol’s animosity, lack of funds, and deadly pursuers, but they would endure.
“Hey, you saved me twice, gotta wipe out my tab.” Maggie switched the subject, clearly uncomfortable with the fact she owed Shroud. “How is level two? We got some catching up to do.”
Shroud took a look at the new options on his Compendium. As promised, every Dot Two level had been unlocked for every color. He checked his own affinity, examining the first spell on his feed.
Activation: Passive, Thought.
The user automatically takes over primitive, non-sentient brains within a fifty-feet radius through a telepathic link. This includes most animals, including magical ones. The user can share a victim’s sensory experiences if focusing on them.
“Pretty standard linear warriors, quadratic wizards progression.”
“Uh? What does it mean outside geekistan?”
Shroud smiled, as Booz clicked on his disc. “It means that the dragons are fucked.”
Before Maggie could ask further questions, a violet light swallowed them whole.
Much like when Booz called the Red Knight armor, Shroud watched on as the very foundations of reality collapsed around them. Except, this time, he watched from within, instead of outside, as angles twisted in ways that defied understanding. High and low inverted and the ground became the sky, and backward again. In the split of a second, the dimensions rearranged. Trees were replaced by stone, chiseled walls, the sky by a rock ceiling.
Booz had teleported them to a cold cave, dimly lit by makeshift lamps. Metal crates laid around them, alongside stockpiled supplies and stranger items. Shroud glimpsed monstrous, stone golems and animated black ice statues moving around transporting Flux rifles, spaceship engines, and car-sized fruits.
Built within a nearby wall, stood a titanic archway, made of an undulating black metal radiating with violet energy. The structure pulsated as if as alive as a beating heart. The inside of the gate looked like a pool of water casting a strange reflection, that of an alien world of golden domes, and a two-eyed machine moon; any movement troubled the surface.
A Gate leading to another sphere, another world, perhaps even another dimension. Shroud had never seen one before.
A creature stood watch before it, a five-feet winged, vulture-like being clad in a light-colored suit covering its entire body. Only a Y-shaped clear visor revealed the creature’s visage, that of a black bird with crimson eyes and a sharp beak. The grotesque way it stood, with the head down, made Shroud restrain a chuckle. “Booz,” it croaked in Concordian common. “Who are they?”
“The smelly immigrants I told you about, and Mur. I paid Zenia for their passage with my license closure.”
“Ah, yes, yes. Sad to see a good partner leave us.” The bird turned to the human members of the group. “You can move through the gate and into the Market alright. If you ever want a lift, call us Mapmakers. After six travels, the seventh is free!”
Mur and Maggie exchanged a comment Shroud didn’t hear, besides words like ‘limited offers,’ or ‘poor service.’ Kari took the first step through the gate, the pool-like surface rippling as she walked through. Maggie and Mur followed, with Sol and Booz taking a step afterward. The priest sent one last glance behind him, as if hesitating, before vanishing through the portal.
Shroud closed the march, taking a moment to look at the doorway. What would await beyond that frontier? What new life would he live? As if to answer his thoughts, he received a Magik Online notification and opened it.
You have 524 new Quests on your board.
Which one will you start?
He remembered the first part of the core policy.
Become the greatest magician you can be.
He would reach the absolute top. Unlock all the powers Magik had to offer, become so powerful he will never lose family again to some cruel monster. And then, with that power, he would wipe Concordia off the face of the Earth.
He would find the time to drag the Maleking from his throne somewhere in-between.
With a smile, Shroud took a step and vanished through the pathway.
His adventures had just begun.
A/N: As always, thanks to my patrons old and new, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, Daniel Zogbi. You’re amazing, never let anyone tell you otherwise.
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