Maggie shot Jack in the face, the powered bullet bouncing off his skull with a crack.
The furious monster which she had once called her brother let out a mad wail, as he erupted like a volcano. The flames making up his body extended in all directions, bathing the area in fire.
Maggie felt the fire lick her skin and clothes, but didn’t feel any burns. Jack’s power couldn’t overcome Kagutsuchi’s blessing.
She surged forward, channeling all the pent-up rage and frustration she ever had buried in her heart; years of abuse and overwhelming anger at his repeated murder attempts powered her as much as adrenaline did. She shot him thrice more in the chest, lightning coursing through her body as she activated her other spells.
Realizing his flames wouldn’t win him the day, Jack called upon other spells. “Magnawave!” He fired a crimson beam at his sister, but her enhanced reflexes allowed her to dodge. “Stockmight.”
This time, her bullets didn’t quite work; the impact’s energy absorbed by her brother. He immediately attempted close-combat, his fiery claws extended to tear her throat apart.
“You have vexed me since the day you were born!” he snarled, as she moved fast enough to dodge.
“I should have shot your psycho-ass dead years ago!” She responded with bolts of lightning, but his peculiar body somehow made him immune.
None of them could truly harm the other, or not with their conventional abilities.
Unfortunately, the chaos on the battlefield around them had only intensified, and Concordian forces moved to put them down.
Two orange armored sorcerers floated above them, casting a spell. Within seconds, they launched a volley of stones at the duo as fast as bullets. Both of the Powells jumped into the pit containing the Worldshaker to escape, the projectiles devastating the spot where they used to stand.
Maggie landed on the thick, black metal structure, as did Jack. No sooner did he land, that he propelled himself at her by channeling explosive flames through his feet. Maggie sidestepped at the last second. The green light he emitted began to grow stronger, bathing the area in dangerous radiation.
Maggie had cast Adaptator on herself, a Dot Three Green Spell allowing her body to adapt to dangerous environmental conditions. She could have survived a trek through Chernobyl, maybe the direct aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. But there were limits to what life could endure through.
A group of rebooted Gearsmen pursued the siblings into the pit, raining beams upon them. None of the blasts damaged the burned Worldshaker, nor did the central intelligence care about waking it up.
While Maggie kept dodging, the slower Jack took a beam head-on, retaliating by blasting one of the attackers above. The Orange Sorcerers followed the Gearsmen, reinforcing them with spells.
Jack and Maggie temporarily halted their blood feud to focus on the meddlers, retaliating with projectiles of their own. The Orange Sorcerers, showing extreme teamwork and coordination, summoned a shield of stone to protect themselves, leaving the Gearsmen to attack. Since beams didn’t work, the machines landed on the ground next to the Powells and moved to smash them.
The Concordian sorcerers cast more spells to enhance the Gearsmen, allowing the machines to move faster and turning their fists to diamond. Jack melted them before they could reach him, but Maggie had a much harder time. Unlike her brother, the empowered machines could match her in speed.
Maggie then aimed her shots to hit the eyes of the Gearsmen, blinding them; while they shared senses, once all of them were damaged, they would prove useless.
While Jack was kept busy by Gearsmen, the Concordian sorcerers targeted Maggie, raining sharpened stone shards at the speed of bullets. Running for her life, Maggie ran across the surface of the Worldshaker, but the number of attacks overwhelmed her. One of the Gearsmen managed to exploit an opening and hit her in the chest.
Without her Powersurge, the blow would have thorn Maggie in half. Instead, it shattered some ribs and sent her to crash against one of the pit’s cliffs.
Dizzied, Maggie couldn’t rise back up fast enough, as the Gearsmen moved to smash her dead.
A ray of energy saved her by blowing up the creature. “Mine!” A furious Jack cackled, before aiming at Maggie himself with cruel spite.
The watcher had seen enough. He was finally within range.
Time is broken.
Rushing in the darkened time, the man of glass grabs Maggie out of the blast’s way, averting fate. Magical, mirror blades rain on both Jack Powells and the Concordian sorcerers, impaling one of the former through the visor and tearing off one of the latter’s arms.
Lacking his ally’s protective spells, he cannot allow himself to get close to Jack’s radioactive body. He casts a Heal spell on himself to counteract the effects before they turn lethal, before dropping Maggie at a safe distance.
Time is unbroken.
As Maggie regained control of herself, she was welcomed with the sight of Shroud standing protectively in front of her, and Jack screaming at a lost arm.
He had rushed as quickly as he could to her location, while still coordinating the overall assault from afar. “Heal,” he cast on his friend, while Jack moved to reattach his arm to himself. One of the Concordian soldiers fell dead on the Worldshaker’s surface, while Kari jumped at the other from behind, both crashing outside the pit.
His teammate didn’t appreciate his help, at all. “Get out of here, Matt.”
“Get out of my fucking way!” she snarled at him angrily. “He’s mine! I don’t need your help!”
“Come on, sis, don’t spoil my fun,” Jack replied, glaring balefully at Mathias. “I’ve been looking forward to completing my set of dead Martels for a long, long while!”
It took a lot of willpower for Shroud not to fall for the taunt, but he shrugged off. “The only one dying today is you, Jack.”
“So you don’t care about your dad?” Jack taunted him back, blasting the last Gearsman in the way apart. “I figured you would be a bit like me, to be one of the chosen.”
Shroud ignored the madman’s ramblings, eyeing the Network feeds of the other Dragonslayers, who were moving into position. Meanwhile, the Arizona Zone’s vines had started overwhelming the Gearsman colossus, while the Players’ summoned creatures helped tear it apart. After the initial shock of the Malebranche’s arrival, the Magik Online players had managed to seize back control of the battle’s tempo.
“What are you trying to do here, Jack? Wake the Worldshaker and blow up the US? We won’t let you.”
“You think you can take me on, Matt?” Jack threatened, gathering a sphere of Red Flux in the palm of his hands. “Last time we fought, you could barely hold your own.”
Funny. That wasn’t how he remembered it.
“Soundwave!” Maggie spoke with anger, her words reverberating into a sonic shockwave carefully directed at her brother. The vibrations extinguished some of the flames making up Jack’s body, revealing a charred, black skeleton underneath. The Red Sorcerer powered through though and launched the sphere at his nemesis.
Using Mirror Master, Shroud called upon a tentacled beast from another plane and turned it into a shield. The sphere exploded on impact, vaporizing the creature, but allowing the two sorcerers to run away.
“Get back here, sis!” Jack snarled, his flames once again covering his body and turning green. Maggie moved to intercept him, without waiting for her ally.
“Maggie, stop!” Shroud shouted at her.
“Fuck off!” she replied circling around Jack while firing bullets at him. Jack retaliated with atomic rays, whose greenish light melted stone and metal on contact. In spite of her immense speed, Maggie was only a breath away from instant death.
Unfortunately, she moved in ways that made it impossible for Shroud to avoid friendly fire. Since Shroud’s Synergize should prevent it, that meant she did it intentionally, to keep him out of the fight.
“You’re not him!” Shroud shouted back. “He’s dragging you down to his level!”
“I can take him on by myself!” Maggie charged more Red Flux into her guns, turning two bullets into crimson shooting stars. Jack’s protective spells tanked the blows easily enough.
You can’t, Shroud wanted to say, but wisely shut up. She couldn’t defeat fire with fire, and almost all her offensive spells were Red ones. Energy. Jack was made of that stuff, knew it; as much as he knew he couldn’t win without dividing his foes. If only his sister wasn’t blinded by her rage, the same way Mathias had been.
She was regressing; she had reached out to him when he lost his father, learned lessons, only for her to throw them away.
Jack had a way to get under people’s skin.
Shroud flew above the battlefield to get a better vision of the area, unleashing a storm of glass shards upon Jack when he saw an opening. They would melt upon close proximity, trapping him the same way he had done so on Concordia.
“You think this will work twice, Matt?” Jack taunted him, before letting out a sinister wail. “Soundwave!”
His words turned into a brutal vibration, shattering all shards in close proximity and even making Shroud’s armor crack in spite of the distance.
However, what surprised him the most was a bullet missing him. A warning shot.
“Get the fuck out, nerd!” Maggie pointed a gun at him, and another at an amused Jack. “I’m not going to ask again! I don’t need your help!”
“I don’t need anyone!”
“And look where this led him!” Shroud replied, pointing a finger at the fiery abomination.
The words made Maggie wince, while Jack cackled. “Powerful?” the madman taunted, forming another sphere of red flux in his palm. “Can’t believe you’re still listening to him, sis. Then again, you were always the one to cry to Dad whenever things went wrong.”
“Shut up!” Maggie snarled back, Shroud sensing his opening slip away.
“Do you want to become that, Maggie?” Shroud continued, sensing her doubts. “A hateful monster with nothing, no one? Pushing people away is not strength, Maggie. It’s weakness born of fear. Fear of others, of yourself. Jack is afraid, Maggie!”
While his words made Maggie confused, they infuriated Jack. “I’m not afraid!” the monster snarled, firing the sphere at him instead of his sister.
Shroud moved shards around the sphere like a prison, containing and redirecting the sphere towards the skies, the explosion blasting clouds. “Maggie, if you really want to fight on your own, then…” He pointed a finger at his helmet. “Shoot me down. Because I’m never going to stop.”
“What the fuck, Matt—”
“I’m never going to stop being at your side!” Shroud continued. “Just like you came for me against Smokefang, Lugh, Blackcinders! Don’t you see, Maggie? You have nothing to prove to Jack! By making friends, by getting people to care for you for who you are, you have already beaten him!”
“What did you dare say, Matt?” Jack tried to intimidate him, as the bully he was.
“He isn’t happy, Maggie!” Shroud ignored his old rival, “He is alone and miserable! And since he can’t be happy, he hurts people and drags them down to his level! He’s making you regress because it helps him feel powerful!”
With fury in his eyes, Jack pointed his palms to the ground, unleashing a stream of fire from them and propelling himself at Shroud.
“Now!” the Dragonslayer shouted.
Immediately, Sol and Mur jumped into sight from the edge of the pit to intercept Jack; the first protected by a white barrier, the second by Adamant’s armored plates. Surprised, Jack attempted to blast them, but Sol sliced at him midfall, cutting ribcage bones.
“Crimson Requiem!” Jack’s hand stopped powering his flight and instead moved to grab Sol. Mur acted faster, smashing his chest with his hammer. The sheer power of the blow perforated Jack’s chest and propelled him afar.
All three landed on the Worldshaker’s surface, or to be more precise, Sol and Mur landed, while Jack crashed.
“Are you alright?” Sol asked as he regrouped with the rest of the group.
“You cowardly weaklings!” Jack hissed, struggling to get back to his feet. “You can’t even fight me by yourself, sis!”
But Maggie didn’t answer. She looked down at her brother, then at the other Dragonslayers, a veil lifted from her eyes.
“Gone deaf, huh?” Jack shrugged before forming another sphere in his palm.
A crimson bullet hit it before it could finish forming, dispelling it.
“You don’t like that, do you?” Maggie finally spoke up, both guns pointed at her brother. “Seeing my team help me. It really gets under your skin. You hate it.”
“Fuck off, sis.”
“That’s the real you there, right? The petty bastard bullying his little sister because she had it better than you?”
“I’m the strongest. I was chosen!”
“She has allies willing to take a stand and risk their lives for her,” Shroud replied. “Who fights by your side, Jack? Chosen? Open your eyes. You are alone. As the Maleking promised, you are already in Hell.”
“That’s where real power is!” Jack snarled back with disgust, before glaring at his sister, unaware of the figure slipping up behind him. “You’re weak! You could never be strong by yourself!”
Said the guy who needed a fiend to gain power, Shroud thought, but Maggie put him down without help. “No, you’re the weak one,” the sorceress shook her head. “I see it, now. Me, Matt’s dad… you always attacked people who couldn’t fight back. You never put your life on the line, like I did. You’re a fucking coward.”
“Shut your mouth! I saw you cry in fear in that warehouse… who was the coward back then?”
“And who’s the one struggling to stand up today?” She looked down on her brother with disgust and a hint of pity. “You’re making me forget… Ace. You’re making me forget what matters. Trying to make me like you. But I’m not. I will never be as fucked up as you. And if accepting help makes you feel miserable, then I’m going to do it! I won’t allow you to dictate how I live ever again!”
Jack glared back, but the fire in his eyes wavered. Shroud sensed his emotions shift through Network. His anger changed into doubt as he looked at the Dragonslayers’ united front, then a hint of envy.
But just as swiftly, these conflicting emotions fed his fury anew.
“I’m in Hell? I will show you Hell!” Jack snarled, his fiery body becoming blinding light. “Fire and brimstones!”
A golden claw beheaded him from behind, extinguishing his flames—and his life.
Having slipped closer to Jack while he was busy ranting, Kari revealed herself in her golden glory. The hellish fire making up the monster died out, and within seconds, only charred bones remained behind.
“All that power, wasted,” Mur looked down on Jack’s corpse with contempt.
“Power you cannot control is no power at all,” Shroud replied. In the end, Jack was too unstable and crazy to make good use of the gifts given to him.
Once, the Blue Sorcerer thought he would feel some catharsis at the sight, but the outcome had only left him unsatisfied… empty, even. His father’s murder had been avenged, but he didn’t find any joy in the act.
The Blue Sorcerer turned to Maggie, who had been denied the final blow. “Are you happy?”
“No,” she replied bluntly. “It’s… nowhere near as satisfying as I expected.”
Sharpshoot had thought her brother’s death would give her closure, but it didn’t. She would have to live with it.
“Let’s move on,” Shroud ordered, the Dragonslayers dispersing to return to the fight. With the Worldshaker undisturbed, they still had the Concordian and Malebranche forces left to deal with. Maggie followed after a last glance at her brother’s corpse, before throwing herself into the battle.
Shroud received a notification from the Administrator.
ADMINISTRATOR: I understand what is happening, Mathias.
SHROUD: Network is usurping Magik. I can already redistribute accounts to others.
ADMINISTRATOR: Yes… and no. You have already been granted Administrator privileges by Magik, but this is no usurpation… it is a fusion.
SHROUD: Come again?
ADMINISTRATOR: Network and my own Distributor Lock were meant to merge into the ultimate Lock, as Manus intended. Concordia interrupted the process before it could finalize, but it has now started again.
SHROUD: But if it’s anything like what Manus intended, then one of us will overwhelm the other.
ADMINISTRATOR: And your Lock overpowers mine.
The Administrator was dying.
No on his watch.
Shroud immediately closed his eyes, focusing on the pathways of his Lock, the invisible connections binding them together. He left his body to become pure information, his sight replaced with the thousands of people whom he oversaw.
Network had acted up, overtaking Magik Online’s connection like an invasive plant worming its way into a wall. The same process which had taken down Aster now repeated itself on a grander scale, with a few key differences. The mental distance between his own Lock and Magik had reduced, the hub of connection drawn closer to himself.
His mind slipped through the pathway linking him to Magik Online, hoping to halt the progress.
But his Lock refused to obey him.
He had always suspected his power had a will of its own, and this just confirmed it.
Returning to reality, Shroud cursed, even as the Players managed to blow up the Gearsman’s colossus chest plate, revealing a UB guiding it. One spellcaster managed to blast the thing with a fireball, causing the titan to stumble and collapse.
SHROUD: I can’t stop the progress. Network no longer obeys me.
ADMINISTRATOR: It is because your Lock is incomplete. Now I see what is happening. What you… what we are becoming.
SHROUD: An archmagus?
ADMINISTRATOR: Another system. Another Dis.
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