The problem of evil.
‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.’
‘Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.’
‘Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?’
That question had divided priests and philosophers for centuries, and Shroud had stumbled upon the terrible answer. The answer Manus, his mother, anyone who ever glimpsed the truth could never accept.
Dis had a God, and it was an asshole.
“I wouldn’t call myself God, namely because I am far from the only one of my kind,” the abomination taunted him. “The God your priest worship is not one of us. I care nothing for your kind, the way He does.”
“After observing these people for… for what, eons?” Shroud couldn’t even compute this being’s sheer callousness. “You’ve never developed any sympathy, nor compassion for anyone?”
“No,” was his blunt, amused response. “Do you pay attention to all the fish that you eat in your life? You ants exist to sustain me. Nothing more, nothing else. Mortals are fuel for my gears, and toys for my immortal mind. In fact, I would say you owe me a debt of gratitude, for letting you live.”
“We owe you nothing,” Shroud rasped back.
“So many of the species of Dis would have gone extinct without me. I safeguarded their genetic information in my databanks, collected their realities in my matrices. Your Earth, your kind, will keep existing inside my iron body, in one form or another.”
Even if you escape Dis, you will never escape Dis.
These dark words echoed in Shroud’s mind, as their significance hit him like a brick wall.
No. He had to have a weakness, something they could exploit with enough skill to—
“Weakness? Skill? Skill is something lesser creatures invented to make up for a lack of power but there are mountains so high and dangerous, that no amount of grit or smarts can overcome. I can play pinball with galaxies, extinguish suns with a finger-snap. I am magic; I am fear; I am power.”
“If this is so hopeless, why don’t you just pull out the plug then?”
“It would be boring, of course,” Maxwell replied, turning to face the distant chaos. “I have reached a point of apathy that I’ve decided to up the ante this time around. To play Russian roulette with the cosmos.”
“Partly. I cannot wait to see which side will inherit Dis. Will Wyrde succeed in her reboot and bring about an age of order? Or will the Maleking’s chaos cause the cosmos to spiral into madness and violence? Maybe Ashmal will succeed and cast everything into oblivion… or your Sponsors will achieve their great escape in the name of freedom? Or maybe you will surprise me with a fifth outcome? So many choices, so many possible endings.”
“Does it even matter?” Shroud glared. In all scenarios, the Dis Maker would remain behind to plot further chaos.
“Who knows? I will be gone if Ashmal has his way. So will everyone else of course, but hope carries the day, doesn’t it? As for plotting, Mathias, you wound me. I have nothing to do with this war of yours.”
“Nothing?” Shroud couldn’t believe his hypocrisy. “You corrupt everyone who taps too far into your power! You brought Earth to Concordia!”
“I set the stage, but I leave mortals to trash it on their own. I have nothing to do with Wyrde’s megalomania, nor your mother’s, and the ‘Maleking’ recognizes no authority but his own. It is true that mortals cannot handle my power without it getting to their head, but this?”
Maxwell waved his hand at the chaos, trapped in time.
“This is you mortals’ doing. And this is what makes it so entertaining.”
Shroud didn’t believe him. The fact that his power was what made Concordia possible in the first place proved it.
But the sorcerer was no longer interested in narrowing where the blame began. “You said you would explain the why.”
“I did. You want to know the why of your existence? Your purpose?” The creature’s smirk became unbearably smug. “Sorcerers are redundant systems, an extension of my Dis. Each Lock is a role assigned to the system; isolated, they seem disparate, chaotic… but when you look from far above, the way I do…”
“They form a greater whole,” Shroud realized.
“All Locks are all programs allowing Dis to function,” Maxwell confirmed. “As I stopped relying on automated systems such as Worldshakers, Dis automatically assigned more and more Locks to mortals. Sometimes, it assigns, to use your internet terminology, moderator roles. Terminals. By their very nature, these Locks possess the seed of something greater, a piece of the magical source code underlying all of Dis’ sorcery; and with it, the potential to evolve beyond the system from which they originate.”
“They are back-ups of Dis,” Shroud muttered. “To recreate the whole system if it ever goes down.”
He was a back-up.
“Your original theory wasn’t that far off from the truth,” Maxwell said, “This is reproduction, of a sort. Manus wanted to use this ‘Network’ to take over Dis, believing my central intelligence gone. Instead, he crudely copied the process that allowed Dis to come into existence.”
“And you prevented the Administrator from interrupting that process.”
“I thought you would be more grateful,” Maxwell taunted him. “I am giving you a shot at godhood. A slim one, though; your soul may not survive the transition, your sanity pulled apart by all the connections you created before you reach stability. I could not let that corpse of a metal corpse deny me this ending. Even I do not know the outcome, and this excites me to no end!”
Maxwell said it with such genuine, gleeful joy, that Shroud instantly believed him. His behavior reminded him of a kid discovering a new game and being impressed with a twist he did not see coming.
Shroud was just a guinea pig to that entity, just like everyone else.
If every Lock served as a small part of a larger system, namely Dis… then the Iron God Protocol starting when he Networked an enormous member of Players made sense. By linking them to himself, Shroud had made them part of Network… made them part of his own burgeoning system, and allowing to hit critical mass.
Magik Online’s servers would become his Neurotowers, and the Sponsors would provide the power needed. He would become another Dis but on a smaller, weaker scale.
What would happen to those he had networked though?
“They will become permanent extensions of yourself, the way sorcerers are; especially when they open themselves to me and ‘escalate,’” Maxwell answered the unspoken question. “The gears powering up your ascension.”
“Very vague,” Shroud pointed out. For all he knew, he could end up consuming the souls of Players the way this abomination used them as fuel.
“I promised you the why, not the what or how,” the Dis Maker replied with a grin, before looking at the watch on his hand. “It has been a very pleasant discussion, but I grow bored of it. Time will resume shortly.”
Shroud suddenly realized he didn’t have one a split second ago, materializing the item out of thin air. What a show-off. “What next?”
“Amuse me,” Maxwell replied. “As far as I am concerned, that’s all you are good for.”
Shroud immediately attempted to shred the avatar with his glass shards from all directions.
He knew the attempt was doomed, but he couldn’t just stand there and take it.
Maxwell showed no concern at the attack; he didn’t even move. Shroud’s shards simply turned purple, like the rest of the world, and stopped in time. “What was that supposed to do?” the avatar asked, his body beginning to glitch like living, talking data.
“I swear it, on my father’s soul.” Shroud glared back. “I will find a way to destroy you. Even if it takes me eons.”
The monster laughed, his digital body collapsing into nothingness. ”Beat my heart, my dear child.”
Time resumed, the only proof this discussion ever happened being Shroud’s own memory.
While this shed light on almost everything, the meeting left the bitterest of taste in his mouth; especially knowing this bastard might get away with this.
He wasn’t. No matter the cost; he couldn’t be allowed to go unpunished.
“Mathias-san?” Kari asked him through Network, her tone worried. To her, it must have seemed the Blue Sorcerer had gone away on his own without warning.
“There is nothing down in the labs,” Shroud guessed.
“This is disappointing,” Mars confirmed. “I hoped for an answer.”
“I have a few,” the Blue Sorcerer replied. “And where we can find more.”
Ashmal said the Black was the key; that it wasn’t part of the plan and the Pandorians’ mere existence showed that. They were glitches in the system, errors that refused to vanish. It was the color of freedom, the only one which, as far as Shroud knew, didn’t originate from Dis itself.
The creator of Dis wasn’t as almighty as he pretended to be. He may have set up that meeting to establish its dominance over Shroud, to put him back on track towards the outcome the being favored… but that only achieved the opposite result.
Maxwell, Lazarus, whatever name it had, may feel himself untouchable, but the more Shroud learned about him, the less true that became.
And it would be the opportunity to put an end to Mammon, permanently.
After fruitlessly searching the labs for hours, Mars gave up and teleported the Dragonslayers to the site of their next mission: the frozen wasteland of Antarctica.
When Concordia took over Earth, the Empire condemned the entire continent, without providing much in the way of an explanation. Orbital scans of a dark spot consuming the south pole on the net eventually forced them to admit the truth: that a malfunctioning Neurotower had risen there, and caused a mini-black hole to open there.
The Empire always pretended they had it under control… and no one dared call out the lie.
Now that he could see the continent, Shroud realized just far Concordia had underplayed the situation. The skies had turned black, swallowed by a darkness so thick, so unnatural, nothing could escape it.
Maggie and Mur worked together to provide heat and light with their spells, but every photon seemed drawn to the blackness, devoured by it. Shroud felt the call of the Black farther into the frozen wasteland, the heart of destruction.
The remains of turrets and Gearsmen lay broken on the cold ice all around them, a glimpse at the area telling Shroud they were but part of a massive, ring-like defensive perimeter centering around the Black Tower.
You didn’t build automated turrets to stop a black hole from growing.
You built them to shoot the things that crawled out of it.
From the wreckage, Shroud assumed that Mammon arrived first and didn’t waste time. The Midnight King had made way to the tower, animated by the same twisted desire to control time as Shroud’s own mother.
“This is as far as I can go,” Mars said. “Farther and our teleportation would risk being railroaded towards Pandoria.”
“Will you fight with us?” Sol asked, having unsheathed his sword of light.
The Sponsor shook his head. “My power is a finite resource and will be needed in the near future. I will teleport you back to Taiyougami if you escape the tower’s event horizon. Past a certain threshold, even signals will be swallowed by it.”
Meaning they had to destroy Mammon and make their way out of the area afterward; which would involve defeating the Midnight King and whoever he had brought with him. “What I told you—”
“Does not change our plan,” Mars cut off Shroud, who had only breached the subject with him and the Administrator yet.
If Mars knew the Neurotowers served as Dis’ servers and hosted its maker’s mind, yet refused to alter his main plan, then it was as Shroud suspected.
The Sponsors intended to claim and destroy it during their final operation, returning Earth to its place and destroying the last chains holding it to Dis. It would prevent Concordia or the Dis Maker from pursuing mankind… at least for a time.
Not enough, Shroud thought, as the sponsor bide them good luck and teleported away, leaving the Dragonslayers on their own.
“Finally,” Mur said, swinging his hammer. “Sweet revenge at last.”
A/N: No chapter next week; both for the holidays, and to avoid my chronic burnout on that story.
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