Time was broken.
Darkness and silence swallowed the Midnight Market; the cacophony to which he had grown used to end, replaced with an eerie silence. The lights diminished, swallowed by a starless night; he could only see people and the flux infrastructures, the lights of their souls and lifeforce.
Alone in this quiet world, Shroud walked down the street, watching aliens, fairies and supernatural creatures queuing near a teleporter. He watched them laugh, bicker, and speak words he couldn’t hear; golem guards forced the crowd back, checking to see if they had tickets or specific entry devices.
He slipped past them without anyone noticing, even shoving off a centaur while at it. Nothing changed in these people’s behavior. They followed a script; a pantomime. Fate, or causality.
Recursion allowed him to exist outside this script, and interfere from the safety of the darkened time.
Black came easily to him. He didn’t know if everyone could make use of it so easily, which allowed them to fall into the color’s trap, but Shroud could wield it perfectly. Doubly so when he cast the Ruin Mode spell, although that one came with problems of its own.
As he waited near the teleporter for the spell to end, Shroud sensed a presence. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but someone was watching nearby. He looked around, yet found nothing.
Recursion usually lasted for ten seconds, twenty with Accel; and with Accel Premium Thoughts and Powersurge on, it felt like five minutes.
Spell modifiers were pretty much the only spells that meshed well with the color. According to the Administrator, Black usually overrode other sources of magic, and Shroud had yet to trigger a Hack to prove him wrong. The darkness did not play well with others.
Then, how to explain that its very existence inside Magik Online allowed people to combine spells into Hacks? How could it allow two spells of different colors to fuse, yet itself couldn’t mesh nicely with another? Another paradox.
That made figuring out the limits and rules of Black much harder than even Blue. Shroud understood the gist of it: Black was entropy distilled, paradoxes, and freedom from all rules, even those of physics. It controlled negation, frost, and space-time violations. But the spells he had delved in differed widely from one another.
Time was unbroken.
The spell ended, and as light returned to the world, Shroud found himself right in front of Manah.
“So it was you,” she said, the crowd and the guards looking disoriented near them, as they realized they had skipped time. “I would rather that you do not use that sorcery around me, Shroud.”
So she could sense him in the darkened time. He had expected as much. Toshiyami had met his demise there when a god confronted him. That she recognized the spell though… “Why couldn’t I see you there?” he asked her.
“Without light to cast it, no shadow can exist,” Manah replied. “You use a darkness so thick, light and shadows are swallowed by it… and you too may follow suit.”
Ah. “Your body is your shadow,” Shroud guessed, looking down at her feet, and noticing the thick, spider-like shape she cast. “There you are.”
“Sharp,” she said. “But sharp enough to master such sorcery? I do not know.”
“I expected a stronger reaction,” he said, as a golem guard approached to check on them. “You sound remarkably apathetic about it.”
“I have allied with worse forces,” she replied, and Shroud couldn’t deny it. The golem, a gold titan taller than a Gearsman, examined both of them, then invited them into the teleporter. She offered him her arm, and he took it with great class. Her contact was cold on touch, but also somewhat comforting. “We have VIP seats.”
“Have we?” Shroud mused as the duo stepped into the teleporter. “I thought Mammon didn’t want to see me since Ace’s death.” He said she was worth a hundred Shroud, and that if he saw him again without Manah’s protection, he would have the Dragonslayers killed as his ‘transaction price’.
Not that Shroud disagreed that he would have traded his life for his friend in a heartbeat, but the way Mammon had phrased it—phrasing Ace like a possession rather than a person—reminded him why he despised that monster.
“I and a foul friend of yours convinced him to change his mind.”
A foul friend of his?
Shroud only knew one person to whom Mammon listened, and he didn’t want anything to do with him.
In a blink, the teleporter transported them to a luxurious, gold-plated lounge, with a transparent rounded glass view of the outside. Shroud recognized some of the dignitaries present; a gorgon-like being with green scales and snake hair, the Darkthorn terrorist and resistance fighter Mother Pandia; the four-armed Horseman of War Graff; Wormson, who waved a hand at him from a bar.
One figure stood atop the rest, so tall, its horns reaching the ceiling. A misshapen centaur with silvery and black fur, the beast had the lower body of a horse, a muscled humanoid torso, a silver lion’s head, and ivory deer horns. The entity was both eerily graceful and monstrous and carried a heavy black mace surging with power.
Lord Revel, patriarch of the Arcadian Reavers.
The creature noticed the duo but did not move an inch. He seized Shroud with his piercing blue eyes, a lion looking down on a human interrupting his reverie.
“Lord Revel?” Shroud asked, unsure how to address the fact his team indirectly led to his son’s death.
“To hunt, or be hunted.” His very voice sounded like a dozen different animals roaring at once. “One cannot appreciate one without experiencing the other. Whether you kill or are killed, you should look forward to it.”
The fact he said it with calm glee sent shivers down Shroud’s spine. “Not everyone can respawn the way your kind does, Lord Revel,” the sorcerer replied, Manah keeping to her silence. He was in no hurry to provoke this archmage but knew being obsequious would anger that proud, predatory beast.
“Only the strong and the worthy, I bring back,” the centaur replied, refusing to acknowledge Manah’s presence. “That the shadow queen broke my rules irk me. Your kind fascinates me, young one. You were barely crawling out of the mud when I left, and now you can fight the mightiest of my children. Amusing.”
“You come from Earth?”
“Once upon a time, it was my home. When I was a weak king, the prey, the hunted.” Shroud noticed micro-expressions of disgust and fury on the lion’s kingly face as if he remembered a past he would rather forget. “Long have I wanted to hunt back on my former kindred left behind. Soon I will.”
— The Dagda walked over the corpses of the Tuatha Dé Danann, of his kindreds lost to the machine he broke. Their blood covered him, and he left it behind with every footstep as he walked into the gate, in search of strength. —
The spark of madness in his eyes told Shroud no one was truly safe from this creature’s depredation.
He couldn’t be allowed near Earth, ever.
Manah took him away from Revel, moving toward the windows. “Grimsour declined to attend.” Shroud noticed his absence.
“He was warned of our trap,” Manah replied, unaware of the Aster fiasco. “We will get him in time. How is your group?” Since they had their home base, Shroud had become the only member of the group she now interacted with; and often, she did through Doppelgangers.
“Not fine,” he admitted. The team had taken a hit with Ace’s death, in more ways than one.
Kari was giving him the silent treatment ever since she learned he beta tested the Black feature. Considering what happened to her uncle, Shroud couldn’t blame her, even if it hurt. He was just happy the doctor could save her life and allow her to recover.
Stitch was growing more reclusive, spending more and more time studying the lifeforge. While nothing extraordinary so far, the Moon Rabbit had told Shroud she often noticed the scientist speaking to himself. He ordered a Doppelganger to follow him, just in case.
Sol was growing into his role of moderator, although he focused more on having the group do low-risk quests around the Midnight Market than do anything near risky as the Oceanis job. Shroud suspected he both wanted to strengthen the group in preparation for the war, and partly avoid true danger. It helped him purchase the overpriced Black spells, but they hadn’t made headway into fighting Concordia.
Mur was the least affected, although the imp wanted to test out the Black feature and applied to the Administrator for a beta test of his own. Maggie missed Ace almost as much as Shroud himself, perhaps because they had started building a budding friendship beforehand.
“I told you our relationship would work well if we agreed not to lie to one another,” Manah said, inviting him to look through the glass view. Shroud’s Glass Field didn’t activate, making him realize this was another material in disguise. “I am glad you took it to heart.”
“Then it is about time you tell me more. I did as you asked, and lost a friend over it.”
“Yes,” she agreed, watching through the window. Shroud’s eyes followed her gaze.
As it turned out, the lounge overlooked a massive stadium that put everything from Earth to shame from above. Crowds cheered on the stands of an immense colosseum, with the arena itself separated from them by a forcefield. Two monsters, one giant, magma-like elemental and a skeletal sorcerer fought for the masses’ enjoyment, casting spells and unleashing fireballs on sandy ground. Monitors on the ceiling showed footage of the battle in real-time, with camera golems retransmitting the scene across the universe.
To think Mammon built that arena in the artificial moon orbiting the market… no spell could compare to absolute wealth.
As he looked at the masses present, Shroud could sense their resentment through Network, their boiling thirst for blood. They knew these games were but a sideshow for a grander, more brutal spectacle, and they waited for it with trepidation.
“The chaos with Lugh, you orchestrated it,” Shroud said. “You wanted to obtain his soul as leverage.”
“Is that a question?” While Manah’s human face did not bulge, her shadow grew thicker. “Malacoda wanted to hold all the cards, a jack, four knights, a queen… and an ace in the hole.”
Shroud tensed at the mention of Jack but didn’t interrupt.
“Revel is a master of Violet Sorcery,” Manah explained. “His spell sustains the immortality of his kindred, allowing them to recover from injuries so long as they maintain his favor. He can open gates around the cosmos at will, allowing his raiders to hunt everywhere.”
“Even inside Concordia’s territory?” Shroud guessed.
“The core regions are protected by sorcery so strong, nothing can get through. The outer parts of the Concordian Empire though…”
Including Earth, went unsaid.
“Wyrde has made her lair in your world, moving a sizeable bulk of her forces to that solar system,” Manah said, proving herself well-informed and aware of how Shroud thought. “We will fight her there.”
“With my planet caught in the crossfire.”
“I have no pity for your kind,” she admitted bluntly. “While I understand your attachment to your home, the entire galaxy is at war. This cannot be avoided. I promise you though that I have no intention of conquering or destroying your planet the way Concordia did. I want Wyrde, and that is all. Once our common foe destroyed, we shall part ways, hopefully forever.”
And here Shroud thought she had grown attached to him. “Do the people gathered there share your intentions though?”
“No,” she replied. “Hence why you should prepare to defend your freedom when it comes to it.”
“Which side are you on?” Shroud asked. “Yours alone I suppose.”
“My world’s, the same as you.” Sound came out from below, Shroud realizing the fight had ended. The skeletal lich had crushed the magma elemental, cooling it off into coal, with golems taking both of them off. “The true show is about to begin, pay attention.”
Shroud briefly glanced sideways, noticing Revel, Graff and a few others had vanished. His eyes returned to the arena below, as rancid smoke and sulfur erupted from the sand.
It had started.
A tall, demonic figure rose from the smoke like the devil out of hell, the lights of the arena focusing on him. A black, reptilian humanoid, with a long, spiked tail and black bat wings, this incarnation of evil had seven white skulls for heads; each with sharpened fangs for teeth, and a single black horn in the middle of each forehead. His eyes were red as blood and full of malice, yet his confident posture reminded Shroud of a true king.
The Maleking had taken a new shape. Perhaps his true one.
“My sweet friends, welcome to the show!” The demonic figure made a broad, royal gesture to the crowd, as his faces showed up on the various monitors. “I am Malacoda, the Maleking. I am the New God. I am sure you heard many terrible stories about me… all of them true.”
Shroud clenched his fists. He knew this day would come, but it infuriated him all the same. “Is it…”
“A projection,” Manah answered. “But the real one will be freed soon.”
The stadium, maybe even the galaxy, held its breath as Malacoda began his speech, surrounded by hellish smoke.
“Let me ask you a question.” His voice was no longer that of the playful, cruel lamb Shroud had grown used to, but that of a calm and collected public speaker. “Is not a person, entitled to their freedom? To think, to decide what is right from wrong? To choose the life they want to live, without someone else telling you what to do? Freedom is a beautiful thing… and yet it grows scarce, for one power wants to steal it away. The corrupt empire known as Concordia!”
The monitors showed a picture of Concordia’s invasions across the cosmos, of dragons burning cities, of Gearsmen patrolling the skies; and the crowd booing in response. Shroud noticed a Magik Online notification coming up.
SOL: Mathias, you are watching this?
THE MUR!: About time.
“Using their sorcery and technology, Concordia conquers worlds in the name of peace, strip them of their names, and its inhabitants of their rights. Below the speeches, there is only greed. Some of you believe they will be safe, if they hide in the darkest corners of space, even as Concordia’s borders expand with every new solar cycle. You are mistaken. Now the so-called Grandmaster schemes to take even free-will away, creating a universe where no one can rebel against her. Not will… can’t.”
The monitors switched to show pictures of cold, barren worlds, of stars dimming out. Shroud frowned behind his helmet, not understanding the significance.
“Using the Neurotowers under her control, Wyrde channels the Flux from other areas of space to power her utopia, stealing away your heat, your souls, your sorcery… leaving cold and black darkness behind,” Malacoda explained. “To what purpose, you ask? To channel a great spell, a sorcery work so great, the galaxy will fall to it.”
“Is that true?” Shroud asked.
“Yes,” Manah replied. “They started draining my region of space a few years ago.”
“It has been four hundred years since Concordia started despoiling the galaxy for the sake of its greed! But by stealing the energy of their enemies and neighborhoods, they weakened the seals which kept me trapped, until they became paper-thin!” Shroud expected an evil laugh, but Malacoda, as a true demagogue, remained calm and businesslike. “Long have you prayed for a savior, a power which would topple Concordia… and you will wait no longer! I stand with the people!”
The masses erupted in cheers.
If the Maleking wasn’t, well, the devil incarnate, Shroud would have gotten behind him. Knowing many species had no idea who the Beast of the Apocalypse was, it didn’t surprise him he would enjoy much greater popularity outside Earth than on it.
“I, Malacoda, stand against Concordia! For while I am the New God, but I have no desire to rule. I desire only not to be ruled! I dream of a universe where one’s species does not determine your station in life, only one’s might and cunning! A universe where there is only one rule: do as you will!”
The world of chaos which Manus foresaw.
“I come to you with a message, to both you and Concordia. Not a message of words, but one of blood. Dragons, you are outnumbered! You are outmatched!”
The smoke dissipated, revealing four figures standing behind Malacoda, his four riders of the apocalypse. Mammon, the cruel mimic king of the Midnight Market, waved at his adoring public. Graff, the mysterious Horseman of War, eyed the scene with a tactician’s focus. Little Celia grinned in excitement, the other horsemen putting more distance between them and her than each other. Lord Revel remained eerily thoughtful, lost in his own world.
“We, the Malebranche, will begin a heartfelt struggle to achieve freedom for all beings across the cosmos!” Malacoda raised a first. “The age of dragons is over. Now is the time for action!”
And so, he spoke the words Shroud had dreaded to hear for months.
“We, the Malebranche, declare war on Concordia!”
The world erupted into cheers and roars, deafening Shroud himself.
“But a war needs weapons, great trump cards to turn the tide against Concordia’s magitech! It is with pride that I announce we developed two! First, we found a way to grant sorcery to all!”
Shroud froze. Did they reverse-engineer Magik Online?
As it turned out, no, but as the monitors revealed pictures of Jack Powells’ rampage and other similar monsters, Shroud realized that Malacoda’s solution was much more terrible. “By fusing fiends with mortals’ souls, we found a way to ignite the spark of sorcery! The vessel gains all of the power, and keeps their free-will! Sorcery will no longer be the sole privilege of Concordia! If you join us, accept Hell in your heart, and become an infernoid, you too can aspire to ultimate power!”
The spectators whispered among them, and Shroud could sense through Network that many considered the deal… when people were desperate enough, even a fiend could be mistaken for a savior.
“Second… Mammon, if you would kindly…”
“With pleasure.” Mammon crawled at the forefront, waving his hands at the monitors, the screens showing a blue star alone in the cosmos. “Here is one of my old suns. Observe.”
Shroud focused, noticing an object flying towards the star. A thick black, needle-like missile, with the emblem of an icy heart—the organ, not the symbol—engraved on it.
The missile exploded once it reached the sun, unleashing a dark orb of Black Flux like a sunspot. The darkness grew like a cancer, engulfing the entire star, swallowing it whole. Within seconds, the black orb devoured the sun, before collapsing on itself, leaving nothing behind.
“I present you, the Black Flux Bomb,” Mammon declared, his composure cracking a little to reveal a hint of glee behind. “Black holes in a cigar! Destruction incarnate! All it consumes in its blast vanishes forever!”
This was way worse than he thought. “You knew,” he hissed at Manah. “You know what he is. What he will do with these weapons.”
“What other choice is there?” she answered back, “No one else can defeat Concordia, Shroud. In the best case scenario, they will wipe out one another.”
“At what cost?”
“As long as my world survives,” she replied. “Any price is worth it. Would you not do the same for Earth?”
Shroud frowned but didn’t answer.
“Our war will be a war of annihilation!” Malacoda continued. “We will wipe out the dragons down to the eggs, every last one of them! Billions will die, so trillions may live in a world cleansed of the wyrms! This is but the beginning! Together, we gathered a great and terrible army, from all corners of space! Undead, fiends, mercenaries… Reavers.”
Lord Revel cleared his throat, Malacoda inviting him to speak up. “I, Lord Revel, address all Arcadian Reavers across space. I have decided who will be the target of our Great Hunt. The dragon race has proven itself the most dangerous game of all. Each dragon head will bring you fifty thousand points.”
Having met Gungnir, the Dragon Zodiac, and learning not all dragons supported Concordia, Shroud couldn’t condone it.
“And,” Lord Revel added with disturbing casualness, his fellow horsemen looking at him in surprise, “for proving themselves a worthy, obstinate prey, I declare Homo Sapiens this season’s secondary game. One thousand points per head.”
Manah’s frown told Shroud this wasn’t part of the script.
The Sorcerer immediately opened the Magik Online chat again.
SHARPSHOOT: Did he just declare he would exterminate our entire species?
SHROUD: Evacuate the Midnight Market now. Knowing Reavers, they will come after us the second this event ends.
SOL: Not without you, Mathias. I will wait for you outside the arena so we can teleport to Taiyougami.
“If you are brave, if you want to follow the path of freedom and chaos, then take arms!” The Maleking raised his reptilian hands in a theatrical manner. “Take your anger, your hatred, and your sorrow, and let them fuel the flames of war! We thirst for the blood of the brave! Never forget how Concordia has trampled us! Concordia must be destroyed!”
“Concordia must be destroyed!” Mammon raised a fist, the crowds imitating him, “Destroyed!”
“Destroyed!” the people sang, as the dignitaries in the lounge clapped. The people on the stands rose, with fists raised. “Destroyed! Destroyed!”
Shroud wasn’t the only one not to applaud though.
“It is time you return home,” Manah told him ominously, too low for the others to hear. “Before he does too.”
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