As Mars and the Dragonslayers, with the startling exception of Stitch, gathered in the command room of Taiyougami, Maggie Powells voiced what everyone thought deep down.
“The Malebranche’s minions already took the words of their leaders to heart,” Shroud spoke up. He had received the memory feedback of twelve of his Doppelgangers, ambushed and killed by bestial Arcadian Reavers.
If any human had made their life in the Midnight Market, they were dead or soon would be.
“Riots and acts of violence have erupted all across the cosmos, including in Concordian territories,” the Administrator told the group through one of the monitors. “Our Players in outer space have already reported fleets gathering in the regions outside of Concordia’s control. They will make their move soon.”
None were more worried than Sol, who had taken Shroud’s place as Moderator and sat on Taiyougami’s throne. “The antichrist,” the priest muttered. “A false savior, heralding the apocalypse… as said in the Book of John. Armageddon is upon us.”
“Your silly prophecies will not help, old man,” Mur replied, the imp more joyful than the rest of the team. He alone relished the idea of fighting an interstellar war. “Only strength.”
“Thanks to this display, we have now identified all of the Horsemen,” Mars said with his usual composure. “Celia is Death, Graff is War, Mammon is Conquest, and Lord Revel is Famine. All the players on the Maleking’s side have been revealed.”
“I am not so sure,” Shroud replied thoughtfully, a hand on his chin. “Manah implied Malacoda also had an ace in the hole.”
“The Black Flux Bombs,” Kari replied, giving him a heavy gaze that betrayed what she thought of that color.
“Perhaps,” Mars conceded. “But the Maleking strikes me as the kind of planner to make multiple plans he can fall on and adapt, rather than stake everything on a single strategy.”
“Will they really make use of these bombs though?” Maggie asked. “I mean, we had atom bombs for decades and we only really used them when the world was ending. It could be for show.”
“This is the end of the world, Maggie,” Sol replied.
“The Maleking will use any weapon needed to win,” Shroud said, having already seen him scheme with Mammon. Mur nodded at his words, having personal experience with the archdemon. “But I doubt he wants to destroy the Earth. In all likelihood, he wants to claim it for himself. To him, Earth is his home as much as it is to the Sponsors.”
And from what he gathered from his brush with Revel, the king of the Arcadians shared the feeling.
“Which does not bode well for Earth either,” Mars replied. “We want to coexist with mankind, the Maleking wants to paint it red.”
“Good,” Mur replied, drawing glares. “Violence will free your cowardly people. The weak will break, the strong will rise to claim glory.”
“Can we even count on you, Mur?” Mars asked, suspicious of the imp’s previous affiliations.
Mur shrugged. “Mur banished,” the imp replied. “Mur made a vow. Mur cares not if he fights his old kindred, so long as he can rise to the top.”
– Mur looked on, saddened, as he watched his old master’s declaration. He had missed his chance to take Graff’s spot before the deadline; the Maleking will now ride with them to devastate the world.
… More chances to prove his worth. –
“How do we win?” Kari spoke up, scowling.
“Earth cannot survive a prolonged conflict,” the Administrator said. “Nor do we have the manpower to secure its long-term independence from both powers. While we can feasibly, albeit with great difficulty, take back the planet, we cannot hold it for long. As it is, Earth cannot be free.”
“What?” Maggie frowned. “Then what was the point of it all?”
“As it is.” Shroud picked up the words. “Not as it was.”
Sol understood as well. “You can return Earth to its original place?”
“So we’re just going to run away?” Maggie asked, not that enthusiastic about it.
“We cannot decide the end of this conflict by ourselves, and neither should we,” Mars replied. “The safety of Earth and its continued freedom has always been our main plan. We have a plan to send it back where it belongs, in the safest areas of space.”
Freeing Earth was one of his goals, but he refused to live in a universe where Wyrde or Malacoda could run amok unmolested. Concordia also had to be taken down, so they couldn’t run State Zero, now or ever again.
The sorcerer kept that for himself, but Mars’ eyes told him he guessed his true intentions.
“How can we teleport an entire planet?” Maggie asked the obvious question.
“We have a plan, but we cannot reveal it this soon,” the Administrator replied. “It will be ruined if any detail reaches the ears of Wyrde beforehand.”
“You do not trust us,” Mur snarled.
“We do, perhaps more than we should,” Mars replied, the imp spitting on the ground. “Our plan matters little if Wyrde succeeds in casting her rebooting spell. We also need to secure Earth first and ensure neither Concordia nor the Malebranche can track us down. This means destroying Concordia’s key infrastructures on our world, from their doomsday moon weapon to their UB grid, and fending off the Maleking. In short, you will have more pressing concerns to deal with.”
“What is the situation on Earth?” Sol asked. He hadn’t kept up with forums as much as the rest of the team did.
The Administrator activated the Command Center’s screens, showing up areas around Earth, from the Grand Canyon to the ash-covered ruins of Russia, to the bustling Arc-City of Neo York.
“Players have secured a strong presence in five key areas: Neo York, Rome, the Amazonian Forest, China, and the Zone in the southwest United States,“ Mars explained. “Other areas are falling under our influence, but these are the places where can, or will soon be able to challenge imperial authority. Concordia mobilized its army to deal with the Chinese resistance and the Players protecting the zone, and counterintelligence forces in the others.”
“The Zone?” Sol asked.
“An expanding magical zone originating from the Zion National Park,” Shroud explained. “One of the Players lucked out and gained a Lock allowing him to control an entire geographic area. After his Lock Upgrade, he gained the ability to expand it. The Zone gives numerous advantages to our allies there, and great penalties to Concordian forces.”
“It has reached Grand Canyon and will soon hit Las Vegas,” Mars continued. “The Grand Canyon is home to sensitive Concordian facilities of an unknown nature, and Players have engaged its defenders to take them over.”
“Concordia is gathering forces on Earth to secure it from the Malebranche, and to protect Wyrde, who has taken residence in the White Neurotower in Greenland,” the Administrator finished, showing pictures of Concordian frigates orbiting Earth. Much to Shroud’s displeasure, he noticed Blackcinders’ Vanguard among them. “We suspect she needs this Neurotower to launch State Zero, but we yet lack the firepower needed to take her on.”
How long until the Malebranche engaged them in the skies? It had been two hours since Malacoda’s declaration of war, and he had been preparing for it for decades as far as Shroud knew. They should expect an attack in the next few days at best.
“Our key priority is to reinforce these Player strongholds in preparation for the Malebranche’s invasion; with luck they will destroy Concordian facilities without us needing to waste our forces,” Mars explained, “To do so, we have recalled all Guilds back to Earth, even those doing Quests in space or across the planes. You have already been sent new Quests.”
Shroud glanced at his Quest Board, finding the one mission which interested him most.
Together We Stand
Difficulty: Dot Three (Hard)
Sponsor: Voice of Knowledge.
Where Concordia fails in its mighty mission of unity is in understanding its people. The empire does not understand the need for true teamwork. Instead it cows people into following orders like the tyrants they are! Show them what true teamwork looks like. Show them what a legion can do! Take out 50 Concordian bio-soldiers as a team utilizing your skills and those of your brothers in arms.
Rewards: 15 Spellcoins + 1 Bonus Dot Three Spell.
Time to meet Ulysses again.
“So, the tribulation has ended,” Sol said, overdoing his role of Moderator. He clearly tried to act like a solemn leader but didn’t quite manage to. “It is time to return home.”
The word sounded strange. To Shroud, it felt like years since they left Earth for the Midnight Market. Things would come around. Would he see Evermarsh again? He didn’t feel all that nostalgic, but he wanted to meet with his old friends, check on them.
“Taiyougami will remain hidden for now,” Mars said. “As will the other Lairs, until the time is right.”
“So we will have the critters ready to stand around and watch do us all the work?” Maggie deadpanned.
“Taiyougami’s inhabitants will take the field, as they did against Blackcinders,” Mars promised. “But in time.”
Shroud had a pretty good idea of what the Sponsors’ plan entailed, but kept it to himself.
In any case, the Second War for Earth might become as bloody as the first.
The Blue Sorcerer left the meeting soon afterward, intending to check on Stitch. Kari quickly caught up to him as he teleported to the forest area. “Shroud-san,” she said.
It was the first time she spoke to him outside of a meeting, after learning he beta-tested the Black color. “Kari,” he replied, unsure what to say next.
His friend proved just as uncomfortable as he was, struggling to find her words. Finally, Kari spoke up before Shroud could. “Mathias-san, this color destroyed my uncle.”
“Your uncle destroyed himself,” Shroud corrected, “I am well-aware of the risk involved, but…”
But if he had been more powerful…
“But I would not have been wounded, if you had it,” Kari glared back at him, “You think that.”
“Yes,” Shroud replied honestly. “You almost died back there, and without Stitch’s expertise, you would not have made it at all.”
“You almost did not make it through half our quests,” she pointed out, “We do dangerous work.”
“And it will become even more so.”
“But we aren’t alone,” Kari replied. “You taught me that I could rely on others. Don’t retreat inside yourself, thinking you alone carry that burden. It never helps.”
“I know,” Shroud replied, as they reached the Bai Suzhen’s island, now transformed into a breeding pen for monsters. They would see use in battle soon enough. “That’s why I want to see them again.”
“I want to see Sam too,” Kari nodded.
“Do you believe what Incubus said on the forums?” Shroud asked her. “That she joined Concordia.”
“I do not know,” she admitted. “Maybe. Maybe not out of her own choice.”
Aster was dead, his moles released from his power, but other Blue Sorcerers might have picked up the slack. Especially with Melusine involved.
On the other hand, Ulysses had always pegged Sam as an opportunist, and with time having cooled off his feelings, Shroud was inclined to believe him. He could see her joining the Empire in search for stability after the string of disasters which hit her recently.
To be honest, Shroud wasn’t thinking all that much about Sam.
He thought about Perse and the Werner family, first and foremost.
“Kari, I am not stopping using Black,” he said, “But so long as you are here… I don’t think I will turn out the way your uncle did. Wyrde and my mother became what they are because they thought they were special snowflakes, and thus immune to sorcery’s secondary effects. So long as I constantly check myself, and that you can pull me back, I think we can make it work.”
“And if I cannot pull you back?”
Shroud gave her a knowing glance, and Kari stopped speaking to him again.
They found Stitch at the place where he spent all his time lately: the Lifeforge. The scientist examined the device with strange, new organic tools Shroud had never seen him use before.
“Mmm?” Stitch raised his head, hearing them approach. “Sir?”
“You missed another meeting,” the sorcerer pointed out. The Green Sorcerer’s singular obsession had creeped out even Bai Suzhen, who had dropped her pond to meditate in the Northern Area. Truth to be told, it started to worry Shroud as well.
He hadn’t received any worrying feedback from Network, but still…
“I apologize for the inconvenience, but I am on the verge of a breakthrough,” the scientist replied, with a hint of dismissiveness. “I believe this device records the genetic data of the life it drains, then sends the information back to a database of some sort.”
Shroud immediately picked up the implications. “You could trace the source collecting this information?”
“Mayhaps,” Stitch said. “At least, I may connect to that database. Imagine it, sir, a record compiling everything there is to know about life. Knowledge that even the Seeker of Worlds could only dream of.”
“What purpose is there in collecting it?” Kari asked. “Preserving extinct species?”
No. Shroud didn’t think the entity behind Dis had any such intention. It gathered the genetic data for the same reason it harvested entire worlds.
To improve itself.
“Stitch, I must warn you that every person who tried to tinker with that technology on their own went mad, and your current obsession worries me,” Shroud said.
“Sir, I am always this focused when a subject interests me, and the possibilities-”
“I understand,” Shroud cut him off, “I truly do. I meant that you should not work alone on this. My Network might help uncover some of that technology’s secrets, and protect you from its harmful effects.”
“Your assistance is welcome, Sir,” the doctor replied, “But I cannot, in good conscience, delay my researches waiting for you. This database may contain the secret of life everlasting, of a world without death. Imagine it.”
Shroud remembers catching sight of Stitch talking to himself, back when he had fallen under Aster’s control. The seed of doubt wormed in his mind, and the Blue Sorcerer realized the problem might be worse than expected.
He would have to take actions.
As the teleportation spell ended, Shroud looked up to Earth’s sun dawning on the red cliffs of the Grand Canyon national park. The smoke coming up from some of Concordia’s installations in the horizon did little to negate his joy at the sight.
He never knew he would miss his home planet so much.
“Finally!” Maggie shared the feeling, stretching her arms under the natural light. “Non-artificial fresh air! I hated that space station!”
“Yeah, that’s called nowhere, space,” a deadpan voice spoke up.
Shroud and the Dragonslayers turned to face the welcoming committee, a group of teens, armed adults, and soldiers in power armor wielding the American flag proudly painted on their chest. A familiar face led them.
“Welcome back, Matt,” Ulysses crossed his arms at the sight of his old friend, but couldn’t suppress a smirk.
Good to be back home.
Voting for Magik: Voting button
Thanks to my patrons on Patreon: Charles handgis, Rob Riv, Mattijn Jelle Lucas Wagt, Pergamon, Christian Pettersen, Bob Xander, cale lechmere, damien, Elvis Malkic, Nelson Crockett, GenericKane, Jeb, J, Noah Williams, Sikkin, charter, James Short, nicholas Maa, Maxwell Margetts, Colby, Ethan Bell, Vodairo, Arvid Hedebark, Jeb, Filip Passeri, omar crooke, The Golem Crafter, Aubrey Craye, Bob Johnson, Sebin Paul, Tyrell Facey, ParoxysmDK, Zadaine, Johans, Calvin Miner, Sebas Tian, Shirwa, Anthony, Audrick CK, John, Andrew Kahn, DenverDrew, 白酒鬼, Aubrey Craye, SugarRoll, Oskar Nordström, Lucas Oparowski, Owen al-ali Pereira, Trevor Sales, Calvin Miner, Zack, Tycho Green, Augustus, Rory, John Settler, CptJimmy, Sharuy, Christopher Batko, Prateer Panwar, Winston May, Bob Smith, Erik Levin Fisher, DemonKingBaka, Cody Adam Carroll, Ze Feng, Christian Simon, Michael Kilby, PbookR, Guy Smith, Joseph Caywood III, Oskar Paulins, Glader, Filip Passeri, Alawill, Bob Smith, John Carroll, Kenneth C. King, Revive3pls, mohammedd, Bobo Bo, Logan, Nanooki12, Patrick C, Colin Ford, Tab, Alianok, David Madden, Markus Pawlak, Zool, Clarence Odunsi, Gabriel Sontag, Arkeus, Manu, Quentin, John, Tasoula, Andrew Parsadayan, Corgi McStumperson, Daniel Nemtok, Moonspike, Igor Mikulik, C. Wilbs, Hamed Al-Ghamdi, RepossessedSoul, Kevin, Zeuke, Dhalmeida, Parker Groseclose, Nick, Mackoy, zed, Daniel Mackie, James Walsh, Athra, Chris M, Seadrake, Jim of Trades, Tae, Koen Hertenberg, Enaz the Great, Evan Cloud, Alex Pruitt, Saul Kurzman, Dex, Warwick Robertson, Johnathan, Rhodri Thornber, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, and Daniel Zogbi.