Shroud opened his eyes, for the first time in a long, long while.
He could feel the cold, metallic ground beneath him, the pulsating, drumming sound of automated machines repairing metal walls. He could smell the faint scent of rust and blood, and sense the soreness in his body; the Player was himself again, and it felt good.
He rose back to his feet and found it a strange sensation. After existing as mere information, physical movement alone had become pleasurable. How could Aster ever forsake this simple pleasure? Shroud would never understand. It was like living half a life.
Shroud turned around, finding himself in some sort of metallic corridor with a large, dark glass window on his left. Three corpses laid nearby, those of hobgoblins in lab coats showing the Concordian insignia on their back; they were covered in blood and lacerations as if a savage tiger had torn their flesh apart.
Had he done it? Where was he?
His mind was still clouded, with holes in his memories. Either Aster’s premature death had permanently damaged some of the memories affected by his Lock, or it was just the shock of regaining control, but he couldn’t remember what his body did while under the Minister’s control.
He peeked through the glass windows, seeing only an underwater abyss on the other side. A dark, sinister trench, lit up by a faint, unnatural blue light; monstrous salamanders the size of cars, multicolored amoebas, and a titanic leviathan passed nearby, barely sparing him a glance.
The Institute Base. Below the surface of Oceanis.
Shroud glanced around himself, noticing the eye watching him above. “Mad World,” he cast, the sound reverberating with the power of his sorcery. The camera eye glitched at once, turning inert, and the lights died out in the room.
It felt good to use sorcery again. Although considering the underwhelming results, it appeared Concordia had partly protected their technology against that spell.
Shroud immediately opened Magik, and contacted the Dragonslayers on their discussion feed..
SHROUD: Guys? Guys?
No answer. Their accounts were still active, but none answered. He checked Network, finding that the feeds only showed darkness. Melusine. She interfered with his Lock again, isolating him.
Fear growing in his heart, he turned to the Administrator instead.
SHROUD: Where are the others? Deeper in the base?
ADMINISTRATOR: Safe, for now. You separated to cover more ground.
SHROUD: This is a trap. I wasn’t myself. Aster controlled me, but I beat him. Blackcinders is coming, and Melusine is interfering with Network.
ADMINISTRATOR: You beat Aster?
SHROUD: Blew him up. It’s a long story, but we don’t have much time. The others are in danger.
ADMINISTRATOR: I know. Yoshikage informed me of the visions you sent her, so I took care of calling for help.
Thank the gods… now that he knew they existed, he could say it without sounding like an idiot.
ADMINISTRATOR: But the situation is not quite optimal. Concordia set anti-teleportation wards around the base, so teleporting out of it is impossible without accreditation, except for Ace’s Lock. Help will arrive to evacuate you soon, but until then, you have to stall.
SHROUD: You will not tell me where are the others.
ADMINISTRATOR: Not yet. I cannot be fully certain you are truly yourself again yet.
Shroud himself didn’t know what he wanted anymore himself.
Shroud considered buying Teleport, but the wards preventing it meant it would be wasted money. He could also purchase Dot Three spells, and try testing them in the field.
However, in the end, Shroud decided mastery trumped power, and he instead purchased Intuimotion and Dirt Call once more. As he turned towards the windows, he attempted to mentally affect the glass within, and as he heard the familiar sound of two spells merging, he knew he had succeeded.
Glass Field was his to wield once again.
His senses expanded through the windows and his glass armor, giving him a good view of the abyss. He realized he was in a structure built on an underwater Neurotower, deep below the ocean; he could see dark, giant shapes under his location, waiting at the bottom of the sea.
With little choice, Shroud decided to explore the base further, the sight reminding him of his previous descent into Mammon’s tower.
The base’s corridors were uniformly built the same way, with windows showing the abyss on the left, and cubic, lab chambers on the right. Each of these experimentation rooms had windows of their own built into them, allowing Shroud to peek through.
As the sorcerer walked further into the depths of the complex, Shroud realized he had underestimated the sheer size of the complex, and number of operations taking place within. Most of the cubes contained artifacts or samples, like the ancient stone Kari had upgraded her Lock with on Earth; but the deeper he went, the more the experiments became increasingly bizarre and disturbing.
In some chambers, the researchers had carved salamandrakes corpses for dissection; and on a closer look, Shroud noticed some ‘corpses’ still twitched even as their brains were widely exposed, metal chips implanted among the neural pathways. In one cube, a slime of coalesced water moved on its own, striking at the window in an attempt to break it; in the one right next to it, a bullman’s corpse had its head replaced with a metallic device, walking around like a morbid puppet.
Many cubes kept various prisoners and beasts sealed within them. Many had suffered extensive mutilation or alterations, from arms replaced with metallic tentacles to brutal surgery that would make Mengele blush. One hob seemed to have fused with another, with extra arms and heads. The sight made Shroud want to vomit, doubly so since most of the prisoners came from Concordia’s own species.
The Institute was experimenting with Concordia’s own population, and he began to notice a trend he didn’t like. Most of the experiments focused on brain surgery or motor experiments. As if that laboratory searched to understand what made bodies follow the brain’s orders.
He could have used Glass Field to break the cubes open and release the tortured, twisted creatures within, but he doubted they would treat him kindly. If they could think for themselves at all anymore.
From what he saw, better that they all drown and die in peace.
Shroud eventually passed in front of a cube thrice bigger than the others, peeking through the window. The room contained distortion in space itself; reality appeared to condense, to bend, at a focal point. A tear in the very fabric of reality, rougher than the Gates, pulsating with blue light and power.
The rift offered the vision of a bluish reflection of the facility, except instead of Shroud, a group of salamandrakes watched back from the other side, waiting with venom in their eyes. Could this be some kind of Gate? Except that one led to another timeline, another reality? How far could sorcery go? How many places, how many universes could it reach?
Shroud reached the end of a corridor, and the steel, opened doors of an elevator. Another eye camera watched him from above the entrance, but Shroud knew that what looked through was no UB. It was a human intelligence.
A familiar one.
At this moment, Shroud sensed a faint, mental signal through the Network pathways, a silent invitation to a meeting long overdue. He could sense Melusine calling him through their bond, inviting him to climb down the elevator to meet her.
Shroud would answer.
The Administrator called him before he could enter, though.
ADMINISTRATOR: Mathias, if you go that way, you will nothing but tears. You already freed yourself from Concordia’s grasp, do not fall back into it.
SHROUD: I know. You knew. You knew and you said nothing.
ADMINISTRATOR: I wanted to protect you, Mathias. This is what I was created for, to protect Players. Even from themselves.
SHROUD: Stitch told you. When he tested me, he noticed brain tempering. But you did nothing.
ADMINISTRATOR: I need absolute proof before I can take action. I am the Administrator. I assist and protect the Players. This is part of the parameters that bind me. After the Manus fiasco, I asked that stronger fetters be put on me. I hoped you would find it in you the strength to prevail, or that I could find a solution before the damage became irreparable. You have a purpose to serve in all of this.
SHROUD: Then, if you are meant to protect the Players, you know the danger she poses so long as she serves Wyrde. She is a Terminal, and she knows how to hack into Magik.
ADMINISTRATOR: Mathias, if you meet her, someone will die. It may be you, it may be her. But with Blackcinders coming, someone will.
SHROUD: I’m fine with dying if it means stopping her and Wyrde.
ADMINISTRATOR: I understand. Which is why I urge you to turn back because I have been there before.
SHROUD: Have you, Halcyon?
He could have sworn the answer shook the Administrator to the core, for the artificial intelligence took several seconds before answering.
ADMINISTRATOR: I am not. Halcyon. I emulate him, that is all. I am not him. I will never be him. He is gone, for good, and nothing will change what happened without dire consequences. One should accept the past instead of obsessing over it.
SHROUD: You are damaged goods. A broken Terminal.
ADMINISTRATOR: I suspect I will always survive a jump, but I am the corpse of a corpse. I can still access Manus’ Distributor Lock, but not at one hundred percent. Manus in its prime could oversee infrastructure spanning a galaxy and wage war with the full might of the Concordian Empire; I can barely supply a thousand Players worldwide. If I had Melusine restore me the way she did with my template, I could do far more. Your Grant Spell features can provide far more power with far fewer resources.
So it knew the true nature of Network. It always did.
ADMINISTRATOR: We share the same origin, Mathias. Your Lock is strictly superior to all others because Manus customized it this way. It was meant to be a tool for godhood and universal domination, and so far you have barely tapped into its true potential. In time, if you follow the path Manus set for you, you could create your own Neurotowers and matrices, harness Flux independent from the larger Dis system, maybe even create your own. You can even affect Magik Online to a degree.
SHROUD: You did not choose to accept the Save and Load feature. My Lock imposed it on Magik Online because it derives from it. I am the true Administrator.
ADMINISTRATOR: Not yet. The Players’ Locks, yours included, are artificial. A Lock is still needed to safely use Flux in the first place, but since Magik Online takes care of the Flux distribution through me instead of the normal channels, Players can spellcast even when their Lock is being interfered with. However, artificial Locks are less potent and need to be nurtured. Sidequests guide Sorcerers towards getting more in tune with their Lock, uncovering dormant abilities. They will reach an ‘Overlock’ stage, where their Lock no longer needs to rely on Magik as an intermediary. There is a strong risk of escalation if Players skip these steps, so I strictly restrict them. If I lifted them, you would gain Administrator privileges, but there would be a price.
SHROUD: That is why you left me get away with so much. I am your back-up.
ADMINISTRATOR: Yes. Magik Online will always need an Administrator, and should I fall, I would rather have human overseeing humans. Your Network could perfect Magik Online, and overcome the limits of my Distributor.
SHROUD: I am sick and tired of lies and manipulations. Wyrde, the Maleking, Aster, Ashmal, you… it is as if everyone tries to pull me in their direction. I am thankful for the chance you gave me, but that doesn’t make hiding that secret from me right. Just as hiding secrets from my friends wasn’t right.
ADMINISTRATOR: I understand, more than you think, but the truth is that, at this moment, you are indeed a pawn, Mathias. I am sorry to be so blunt with you, but this is the truth. You are a pawn with limitless potential, and whoever controls you will win the board. But you can change this. Your future is in your hands, and you alone should decide it.
SHROUD: Great. Then you should understand why I must do this. I will never be free unless I confront her and learn the truth.
ADMINISTRATION: I do understand, and I cannot stop you. That is freedom. But I will repeat it, this is a choice that will only bring you great anguish, and I will have to permanently destroy your account and Lock if you fail, Mathias. Your Network is too powerful and dangerous to fall into Wyrde’s hands, especially if she realizes you can influence Magik Online with it.
SHROUD: I know. Do what you must. If it comes to it, can you inform the Dragonslayers of the truth? The full truth.
ADMINISTRATOR: I will, but please, inform them in person.
That was the plan.
Shroud stepped into the elevator, the doors closing behind him.
As the elevator went done, with glass windows allowing him to peek outside, Shroud began to gain a clearer view of the abyss below, of the pulsating cables fueling the Neurotower… and of what they held prisoner.
Two immense creatures, similar to the salamanders he had seen swimming in the water or waiting beyond the gates, were trapped by the cables, hooked on them like a twisted life-support system. Unlike their smaller kindred, considering the distance, these two titans probably measured more than one hundred meters each. Their scales had turned white and lifeless, colored energy flowing out of them and into the tower.
And the more he observed, the more he realized that was no reef abyss he faced, but a spine. A spine of the same metal that made up the Neurotower, buried below dirt and stone. Shroud couldn’t fathom the size of the creature that-
— Terminal detected. Awaken Worldshaker: Taurvi the Destroyer? —
The Network flash came abruptly, but he anticipated it. He delved deeper, asking the system for more information.
— Awakening the Worldshaker will result in the extinction of 97,98 percent of all life on the planet’s surface within a twenty-four hour period. All souls will be harvested by Neurotowers for the purpose of Flux production. Genetic data will be harvested for the purpose of renewing the population through Lifeforges. —
A cycle of life and extinction. Where did the Flux go?
— To the Dis System. To the creation of new Gates and new Worldshakers, so distant worlds can be reached. –
Who ruled the Dis System? Who profited from this?
– Guess who, Shroud? –
That mental retort came not with the informal data flow of Network, but a haughty, mocking voice. When Shroud attempted to draw more information, Network sent him a normal signal.
— Awaken Worldshaker: Taurvi the Destroyer? —
Who built it?
— Awaken Worldshaker: Taurvi the Destroyer? —-
Realizing that whatever entity controlled the Dis System had stonewalled him, Shroud wisely stopped bothering the immense creature.
He was so exhausted of all of this. Exhausted of the secrets and the intrigues, of the larger forces, invisible trying to take away his choice, to push him in the direction they wanted.
Before, when he thought he fought to save and avenge his mother, Shroud could take it. As the Maleking once told him, if he knew why he could bear any burden.
But if it had been for nothing… what was the point? What was his why? What was his reason to go further?
Deep down, Shroud already knew.
The elevator reached its last stop, the metal doors opening to reveal a large, rectangular room, an immense and pristine underwater cathedral of metal and glass providing a perfect view of the abyss around itself. The ground resonated with a metallic echo as Shroud walked through, finding the area deserted.
That cathedral was at the very bottom of the trench, and through the glass, Shroud noticed stone, Greek-like ruins, forgotten under the sea. Temples, houses, buried underwater for centuries, if not eons.
It must have been an Observatoire or laboratory of some kind, only for the Institute to empty it when Aster informed them of the operation. They had taken everything of value with them, leaving only silence and empty space.
Shroud picked a metallic sound coming from above, although he already noticed her through Glass Field.
Using her armor’s tentacles to crawl on the ceiling while keeping her arms crossed, Melusine watched him, her face hidden behind her helmet. Yet, now that he knew the face behind the mask, he recognized her subtle posture, one of absolute confidence in her intelligence and mastery of a situation.
“We called the first entity ‘Lifeform: Poseidon’ and the second ‘Lifeform: Cleito’,” said Melusine, as she descended on the ground, landing on her legs and walking toward him. “These are the ruins of Atlantis, taken eons ago from Earth and brought to Oceanis.”
Shroud adopted a wary stand, causing Melusine to stop when she was within five meters of him. “And the machine?” he asked her, unwilling to let her approach further.
“A Worldshaker. An engine of creation and destruction meant to protect the towers, even if it must wipe out all life on the world; in time, they are sent through space to build more towers, spreading the Dis System across the cosmos. Other of these creatures slumber on Terra Firma, beneath the arctic, below the Bermuda Triangle, or on the dark side of the moon. Concordia lost entire fleets and hundreds of sorcerers putting one down in the past.”
So it was true what Ashmal said. The entity who built the Neurotowers was no friend of life, at all.
How many gods like these two suffered in the bowels of these structures, the life drained out of them to fuel the immense infrastructures of Dis, its Gates, and its sorcerers?
“Mathias…” Melusine trailed, clenching her fingers nervously.
“Take off your helmet,” he interrupted her, still on guard. “I want to see it with my own eyes.”
“While this is very cliche… don’t you already know it to be true?”
Still the same grown-up sci-fi dork. Shroud would have chuckled, had the situation not been so tense. “Take off your helmet.”
Silently, Melusine grabbed her helmet, removing it to the sound of automatic securities lifting themselves.
She hadn’t aged at all.
Still the same beautiful blonde hair, which she kept short now, and the same piercing eyes full of motherly pride and intelligence both. Same beautiful smile, same expression, same everything.
Alice Martel looked exactly like her son’s last memories. In fact, she looked a bit younger.
“Green Sorcery treatments,” Alice said, her voice unmistakable without the helmet’s voice alteration. “We hope to mass produce an immortality treatment, available to all, within the next fifteen years.”
How long he had wanted to see her, alive and sound.
In his fantasies, it had been a warm, epic reunion, with Mathias bursting her out of prison before tearfully taking her in his arms. But now, at this very moment, a bitter taste had filled is mouth.
“We,” Shroud repeated. “I hoped… I hoped you had been under a Maze effect, that you were yourself again.”
“Is that you want to hear, sweetie? That Aster controlled me? That I was brainwashed like you were? That I had no choice, no agency? That I freed myself so I could rescue you?” Her smile turned sad for a moment. “It would make you feel better, but that would be a lie. You saw the connections created by Maze.”
And she wasn’t among them. The file had been right.
“You were with them.” He still couldn’t believe it. “You were on that plan all along. What are you, an agent?”
“I am the Vice Blue Minister. Technically, with Aster’s demise, I will soon be the next Blue Minister.”
That was way higher in the hierarchy than Shroud expected. No way she wasn’t complicit in most of Aster’s operations through the cosmos. “How could you raise so high in the hierarchy in so little time? Especially after… after…”
“After I fucked up everything? You don’t have to sugarcoat it, sweetie. Terminal privileges, my skills, and the Grandmaster’s trust. I told you, Mathias, that she is a good person. She gave me a second chance when nobody else would have trusted me. She allowed you to live, Mathias, even considering what you represented.”
“I was your price,” Shroud guessed, quiet fury making him clench his fists.
“Blackcinders would have killed you if Aster and I hadn’t convinced the Grandmaster to give us a chance. I hoped that Aster’s Maze would never activate, that Manus was gone for good, and that you could live a normal life with your father. But you had to accept that offer.”
“For you,” said Mathias. “For you. I did it for you. To find you, to avenge you.”
“I know,” she sighed. “I know, sweetie, and I love you for it. We were both mislead, you and I, choosing revenge and making a deal with the same devil.”
“Why?” Shroud asked. “Why the hell didn’t you tell us?”
“Because you were my weakness. If it was known I lived behind that helmet, others like Manus would have struck at me through you and your father. And there are even worse forces at work out there. The Maleking is marshalling for war, Mathias; he has been scheming against Concordia for decades, and the rediscovery of Earth only emboldened him. It was safer that only a few select members of Concordia’s leadership be aware of our relationship.”
“So Concordia could keep you in check by threatening me?”
“They didn’t… Mathias, it stopped being about you alone. This is about our family, about everyone. This is about the world.”
“You know. You know what Wyrde is planning. You support it.”
“State Zero. History erased and rewritten. A first draft erased, replaced with a better one. Imagine, Mathias. An Earth where 9/11, the Holocaust, and Blackcinders’ massacre never happened; an Earth where war, crime, and disease never existed, where immortality is available to all, our air pure and clean, and the stars our only limit. A world where your father is alive and well. A utopia where there is no famine, no poverty, no conflict. A universe with no Maleking, no Reavers, no Powells to spoil it. A future that looks straight from a dream.”
“How many will die?” Would Maggie Powells have to take her brother down with her?
“Why bother caring about them, Mathias? They will never have existed. It will be painless, like falling asleep. Besides, if they vanish, then they were undesirable in the first place.”
“So if I vanish, that will be for the greater good, right?” Shroud deadpanned.
“You will not,” Mom, no, Melusine said. “I oversaw the calculations, specifically so we can all enjoy the fruits of our labor. Also, you are a Terminal. You will always survive.”
“That was rhetorical.”
“I figured. You imply that I am selfish? Maybe. Who is not? But overall, the greatest numbers will benefit from it. Innocents will benefit from it.”
“You’re toying with a power you do not understand nor fully control.”
“And with that power, the Grandmaster will create a present where no son ever loses his father to a psychopath who should have been smothered at birth. I am doing this is for us, Mathias. For our family. Everything I did, I did it for Victor and you.”
“I don’t want that future, Mom!” Not when it would be built on the bones of Maggie, of Sol, of the countless trillions Wyrde would deem unnecessary in her ‘heaven.’ “And Dad wouldn’t want it either!”
“You do not speak in your father’s name, young man,” Alice warned.
“You said you did it all for our family,” Shroud replied, the sheer realization of what his mother had turned into almost too much to bear. “So did I… I thought they took you, that they held you in a cell… and now… everything I did… was it for nothing?”
“Of course not, sweetie. You did great. You can still do great. The more Terminals we have, the more we can reduce errors and paradoxes during the reboot.” She extended a hand at him. “Mathias, come with me. The Institute has designed a server prototype, similar to Magik Online. We can keep your powers active. We will need you to protect Earth from the Maleking, until we are ready to wipe him from existence once and for all. Solomon is also welcome. If you come, he will follow. We can make everything right, together.”
“I blew up Aster,” Shroud replied. “How will you make that right with Concordia?”
“It’s okay, sweetie, we can cover it up. I intended to take him down myself at one point, after what he did to you. We can make it work.”
More lies. More deaths. Where would it stop?
Where would he stop?
“There is something controlling these towers, these Gates, and these weapons, Mom!” Shroud argued. “It is using you, and Concordia, to sustain itself, piggybacking on the Empire’s back to spread to more worlds! The more you use that technology and sorcery, the more it controls you!”
“Nonsense. The Grandmaster studied this system far longer than either of us, and she never found any proof of a central will behind it. Neither did I.”
“Could be the remnants of Manus, or hallucinations, or a sorcerer’s prank,” Alice dismissed it, her tone disdainful and arrogant. “I refuse to believe a godlike being would allow such a chaotic, random, unjust universe to exist.”
“Mom, that’s the entire point! Don’t you see? The Saves consume entire alternate timelines to work! Every time one is used, something never comes back! I’m sure it’s the same with the energy these towers harvest? Where do you think it goes? Who does it feed?”
“The loss is caused by Black Flux, itself caused by bugs,” Melusine replied. “Hence why it is so critical you join us, Mathias. We can eliminate them, ensure most people survive the transition.”
“Who gave you the right to pick who lives and who dies?”
“It is for their own good. Mankind’s good.”
“Who are you to choose for everyone else?!” Shroud snarled back, “Who elected you?”
“Since when did men know what was good for them?” Alice replied with cold disdain. “We were within an inch of destroying our own planet before Concordia arrived, even after scientists warned us thirty years ahead. As for elections, which country dropped atomic bombs on cities?”
“Which one dropped a meteor, Mom?”
That silenced her for a few seconds before she offered a weak explanation. “That is Blackcinders’ crime, not the Grandmaster’s fault.”
“And who appointed Blackcinders to her post?”
“You have seen Lugh, and the Maleking—”
“Blackcinders is no necessary evil and you know it,” Shroud cut her off. “Mom, Wyrde is bad. Manus knew it, enough that he thought removing her was the key to peace. Maybe she thinks she is righteous and that this is for the greater good, but Concordia, as it is now, has too much blood on its hands for it to be true. She is a cold-blooded dictator, and her actions speak for her.”
“We would be both dead without her, Mathias.”
“We wouldn’t have been in danger at all without her! The whole universe fears Concordia! All of mankind lives in fear, with a doomsday weapon pointed at them!”
— Terminal refused connection. —
“Do not dare peek into my mind, Mathias.”
“Like you did in the Neurotower?”
“It was that or you died!” Alice argued back. “You would have been dead long ago if it weren’t for my protection!”
“Fine,” Shroud conceded, somewhat. “You had a bad hand and you tried to play with the cards Concordia gave you. But now? You have sorcery. You could leave. You could strike back.”
“No. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.”
She couldn’t? Why? Did they strap a bomb on her or something? No… no stick. A carrot. “You need Wyrde,” Shroud realized. “You’re like me. A prototype.”
“Mathias, you do not know—”
“You gained a Lock during the battle with Manus,” Shroud guessed, the micro expressions on his mother’s face enough to confirm it. “But you can’t draw Flux by yourself. You need another Terminal to supply you… like Magik and I.”
She had accepted the chance to be a sorcerer, so long as she served another’s goals.
In the end, they weren’t so different.
His mother pointedly avoided confirming his hypothesis, but the silence was an answer in itself. “Mathias, I get it, you have people you care about. So do I. I will do anything to see your father returned to us. I can do far more at Wyrde’s side, guide the reboot properly.”
“There shouldn’t be one,” Shroud replied. “I’ve tested it, tried to make my life better with it. Twice. And I’ve seen the cost. It’s just not worth it, Mom.”
“It is!” Now she was shouting in exasperation. “Why can’t you see it, sweetie? Solomon, that Werner girl, they will be fine if you cooperate. Your father will be fine if you cooperate.”
“Maybe,” Shroud conceded, before turning her words back at her, “But this is no longer about us, Mom. It is about the world.”
“Then you should understand.”
“Viviane Werner. Ulysses Werner. Perse Werner. Gavin the Hob. Maggie Powells. Solomon Nicholae. Samantha Brown. Kari Matsumoto. Saga Freyson. Murmur the Imp, Booz, Nathaniel Stitch, Baihu the Tiger.” He finished, his mother silent. “I networked them all. I saw life through their eyes. I saw their struggles, their fears, their hopes. Through them, I could overcome Aster. I cannot let them die.”
“Sacrifices have to be made, Mathias. The happiness of too many people hinges on this.”
“Maybe. But not the sacrifice of others. Or else it is no sacrifice, just selfishness. And even if somehow, everyone survives the transition, then we will be just like the puppets kept upstairs, or like Aster’s thralls, just with a few extra steps! We will live but we won’t be alive.”
“But all will be right.”
“You can’t just erase your mistakes, mom!”
“I didn’t make a mistake!” Now she started shouting back, her pride wounded. “I was misled. I was tricked. I didn’t make a mistake.”
At that moment, Mathias saw his mother under a different light, the arrogance that drove her, her perfectionism. She and Wyrde would condemn the entire universe rather than live with their faults and wrong choices.
He couldn’t walk that path.
He had made many mistakes, foolishly risked his life, but that was what made him stronger. He had come to accept his shortcomings, to try and work around them. That was what it was to accept responsibility.
“Mom, I can’t join,” Shroud shook his head. “Nothing you say will make me do so.”
By now, her smile had faded into subdued irritation. “You are just as stubborn as when you were young,” she said. “You are making a grave mistake, Mathias. Wyrde will not give you any more chances after this. The leash will go off.”
“Then come with me instead,” he extended his hand, while she retracted hers. “The Administrator can give you sorcery.”
“Don’t you see that this is a trap, Mathias?” Melusine shot back. “Have you read the legends about the gods who power Magik Online? Do you want these rapists and murderers back in charge? Because that is what they want, to be worshipped again. They use you as cannon fodder, while they remain hidden. You shouldn’t look forward to their return.”
Maybe. Maybe no. But he would choose them over Concordia any other day. “Mom, they are almost extinct,” he said. “This is not an attempt to regain power, but the last dance before the curtain’s fall.”
“That is what they said to you.”
“This is the truth,” Shroud insisted. “Species working together, sharing resources… isn’t that what Concordia was supposed to be? Mom, if you really fight for mankind, then come with me. Put power back in the hands of man.”
He could forgive her, for everything, for Aster and whatever else she had supported. He could forgive it all, if only she choose right.
But she didn’t take the hand.
She didn’t even hesitate.
“I told you, Mathias, this is about the world. About mankind. Even if I love you, sweetie, I will not give up on paradise. On your father. State Zero will happen, and you will be part of it, whether you want it or not.”
“I can always be brought back, is that it?” Shroud frowned behind his helmet. “You can always bring me back if I die now, like Dad?”
Her cold silence was an answer in itself.
No way around it then. “I won’t let it happen.”
“You want me to fight you? You think it will solve anything? Wyrde will launch State Zero, with or without us, Mathias. We will improve the process, but she doesn’t need us. All you will do if you win is increase the collateral damage during the transition.” She put on the helmet, her motherly voice replaced with an artificial one. “I will not raise my hand against you, sweetie. But neither will I protect you anymore. If you are so set on this foolish path, then we have nothing more to say.”
“So you will just run away again?!”
She stopped moving, as still as the iron golem she looked like. “Goodbye, Mathias,” she said, vanishing in a flash of purple light and leaving him to die.
Shroud stood alone in the watery abyss, looking up as he saw a great, fiery shadow, swimming towards the cathedral. A dragon with fire in her eyes.
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