“My apologies for the lateness,” Mathias said, carrying two suitcases and struggling to close the church’s door behind him with his foot. “Had to pick up some stuff.”
Mur sneered at his words, licking his claws while sitting in a corner. “Mur is not paid for wasting time.” Seeing him in the flesh was wholly different than watching a hologram; the creature reached nine feet tall and was wide enough to rival a truck. A mountain of strength and power, Mathias could see him tearing humans apart like kit-kat bars. Dawn hadn’t yet risen, and only candles brought a dim light to the church, making Mur seem all the more intimidating.
Sol stood near the church’s main pedestal as if to ready deliver a sermon and kept wary eyes on the beast. Perhaps Mur looked too close to Bible demons to his comfort.
Kari hid in the shadows, having traded her usual clothes for a dark ensemble covering her entire body. Only, a white, featureless, kabuki mask stood out from the darkness, the dichotomy making her look like a ghost. She seemed to mesh with the shade as if it were an extension of herself.
“Today is the day. We strike at noon.” Mathias had seen the weather, which indicated a clear sky and pure sunlight. Not unusual, since Concordia used machines to control the weather. The perfect time to boost his powers. “Booz should make the delivery in one, two —”
A strong flash of purple light filled the room, swallowing them.
Reality collapsed on itself. The angles that made up the church, the ground, the very foundation of Mathias’ sense of sight, twisted in ways that no human should experience. Down became up, and all was compressed into a purple star.
Mathias’ mind perceived the whole process thanks to Premium Thoughts. He had heard teleportation disassembled matter into molecules and reassembled them on the other side, yet the current event countered that theory. The process affected reality itself, beating it, bending it, warping it. The very infrastructure of the universe, accomodating a group of puny mortals.
In a split second, the light vanished, leaving the Red Knight standing tall in the church.
From up close, the armor was a marvel of technology, the picture of the knight in shining armor, although neither the weapon, shield, or wings were active. The back of the machine was open around the spine, waiting for someone to step inside. A quick look inside revealed the inside of the machine to be covered in a soft, orange matter, covered with golden circuits.
Sol stepped down from the pedestal, approaching his new armor. “You sure you want to do this, Sol?” Mathias asked, a part of him hoping his old friend wouldn’t go through with it; the rest knew that the success of the operation depended on his help.
“It is fine. It has been a while since I wielded a blade, so I hope I am no longer rusty.”
So Kari had been right? He had actually wielded a blade in his past?
— Solomon practiced with the ancient family sword, his ancestor’s armor watching him attached to the wall. —
“You always wanted to become a knight,” Mathias spoke, putting the briefcases aside.
“My ancestor fought the armies of Saladin during the Third Crusade,” Solomon explained, as he settled inside the armor, fitting it like a glove. “Some may call the crusades a dark era of Christendom, and I will not deny the excesses of that time, but I found the idea of the holy warrior inspiring. Especially in our dark times.”
As he finished stepping inside, the armor closed behind him. The Red Knight began to move, looking around, taking a step. Mathias couldn’t see his friend’s eyes through the visor. “It feels light,” Sol’s voice had turned mechanized, almost unrecognizable. “Like a second skin.”
Mathias touched the armor on the arm, sensing the surge of Network activating. Either he didn’t need direct skin contact but only close proximity, or his magic recognized the armor as a part of Sol.
Sol glanced at his arm. “I felt that.”
“The hand contact?” Mathias asked.
“Yes.” Sol took a step back, orange light surrounding his arms. A long blade of solid light manifested in his right palm, as if projected by his hand. A large, rounded shield materialized over his left forearm. Two, angel-like wings of crimson light appeared in his back. Sol looked like the warrior angels from myths.
“Meh, Mur can take him,” the gargoyle responded, unimpressed.
Mathias hoped the gargoyle would prove himself with more than empty boasts. “Okay, we’ve been preparing for a week now,” he said. “I sent everyone the plan, so now is the time to make your points.”
He had suffered through more than a week of complete silence from his other friends, a total absence of contact; he had even called the old police department for news and had been stonewalled. The sheer lack of social interaction had reminded Mathias of how small his friend circle actually was.
Almost ten days in isolation violated all rules of human decency, especially since the victims had nothing to do with the cult. Mathias suspected Concordia kept them in case one of them might be his sorcerer alter ego, but this went way too far.
A secret hope of his was that today’s attack would convince Concordia they had nothing to do with his actions. Give them an alibi. He hoped that Maggie could hold her tongue until then.
“I have a query, yes,” Sol said. “Are you certain your plan to recover the artifact will work? Concordia itself couldn’t break the barrier.”
“It reacted to Network, showing that it is sentient. If it is sentient, then communication should be possible. Perhaps it put up a shield because Concordia attempted to take it without asking for permission.”
“That is a far stretch,” Sol pointed out.
At this point, I can only make guesses, Mathias thought. He couldn’t show any doubt or hesitation. Shroud had to present a strong front to keep the group confident in his plan. At worse, he might adapt and try using Sol’s sword against the barrier. “I know what I do.”
His confident tone made Sol fall silent. That was the persona that would work for Shroud. Confident, always having a plan, so certain of his inexorable victory that it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fake it until you make it. “Any other question? Then I have one for you.”
He opened one of the briefcases, revealing his own costume.
As most of its components were woven with glass fibers, Shroud simply willed its pieces to assemble on his body, covering him like a second skin. His costume was a streamlined sky blue suit, covering his whole body. Detachable plates of strengthened glass covered most parts save the joints, ready to be deployed as weapons.
The helmet was undoubtedly the most interesting part, as it had more steel in it than glass — yet just enough to fly at Shroud’s command. It tightened around the sorcerer’s face once he put it on, an air filter activating. From inside the visor, Shroud watched information appear on the glass screen, mostly biometric data.
The plexiglass visor covered most of Shroud’s visage, with the surface mirroring the outside world instead of revealing the face inside. His foes would see their own face as he attacked them, for the sake of psychological warfare.
He had long wondered about the archetypes he should embody. The armored knight? It was too close to Concordia’s own aesthetic, and Sol had it cornered. The magician in robes? Flashy, yet difficult to take seriously. The CEO, strong and authoritative? Too common.
No. To inspire awe and terror, nothing beat the unknown, the uncanny, the otherworldly. Taking elements from everyday life and twisting them in just the right way to feel memorable, to look humanoid and yet not feel human. Shroud had chosen the path of the ethereal, of the fair folk.
The looks he received told him he had made the right decision.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Shroud declared, hovering above the ground like a ghost for added effect. The helmet’s voice changer altered his voice, a clear and sharp sound like glass breaking. “From Dynamis’ 3D printers, I present to you, the Sinister Shroud.”
With another thought, he had the glass content of the second briefcase pierce through its restraints, surrounding himself with a storm of shards and shrapnel. It had taken him hours to reinforce the projectiles, even with his powers, and they would come in handy.
His allies looked at him with a degree of awe; no doubt that floating among the storm in his costume must look impressive.
“You should wear a cape.”
Mathias paused, staring blankly at Mur. “What?”
“Mur says you should wear a cape,” the gargoyle continued. “It is missing.”
“You can trip on capes,” Kari replied.
“Mur replies that capes protect you from dust and cold and winds. And they look good. Classy.”
“A enemy could grab it,” Kari insisted.
The sheer strangeness of the conversation caused Shroud’s shards to remain still. After some consideration, the sorcerer found a middle ground. Using Quasar to drain the light around himself, giving himself a shadowy aura around his body, ending in an illusory cloak of darkness.
“Like this?” Shroud had to admit, it did make him look as good as Dracula.
“Yes,” Mur nodded in appreciation. “Now you look complete.”
“Now that this is settled,” Shroud declared, setting the shrapnel storm aside. “I will distribute my gifts.”
“Finally!” Mur gnarled, rising up and approaching his leader. With a click, Shroud purchased Berserk, sacrificing the last of his Spellcoins. He then assigned the spell to Mur after touching his shoulder.
“If you say ‘Berserk’ the spell will activate,” the sorcerer said. Or should. “You may not have the senses remaining to deactivate it, so I may have to jolt you out of it if the worse comes to pass.”
He then turned to Sol, granting him a spell of his own. “I grant you Premium Thoughts, which will increase your intellect and reaction time. The effect should apply immediately.”
The knight nodded, his gaze lost in the distance. He looked at different angles of his home with a new clarity, as if noticing details he never did before.
“Kari? If you would kindly take my hand.” Kari stepped out of the darkness at his invitation, her fingers brushing against his and sending a jolt to his mind. Although he wouldn’t grant her a spell, Shroud would need the communication relay offered by Network for the operation’s success.
“Now that we are all set,” Shroud said. “Let’s fight for a pure, blue sky.”
Flying above the marsh, surrounded by an invisible swarm of daggers and cutting blades, Shroud stopped as close as he could to the mine without risking the Gearsmen noticing him.
Through Quasar he had cloaked himself, Sol, and Mur under an invisibility veil of refracted light as they flew towards the target. Sol had mastered his method of flight in quick order, and found no trouble carrying Mur all the way from Evermarsh. Shroud suspected the armor’s link to its holder gave Sol intuitive mastery of its capabilities.
“Yoshikage, are you in position?” he asked her through Network. His own visual feed through her eyes told him she had hidden within sight of the open mine, on the right side in contrast to their own location.
“Yes,” Kari said. “I’m waiting for your signal.”
Shroud nodded to himself, examining the battlefield. Fortunately, Concordia had still failed to pierce through the artifact’s forcefield, and while three dozen Gearsmen were a daunting enemy force, good tactics would overcome them. “Sol, move to the left side. After you drop Mur, engage their fliers before they can take off. Keep them grounded, while I will keep you invisible for as long as I can. Remember to use the codenames.”
“Understood, and good luck, Shroud,” Sol said, moving away while carrying his ally. Shroud could detect him — and keep him invisible — thanks to his control over photons.
Shroud took a long, deep breath. He felt the tension in his twitching fingers, the moment he had awaited for two years within his grasp. Watch me, Mom, he thought. Today, you are avenged.
Raising his hands in a dramatic gesture no one else could see, Shroud expelled all light in the left part of the area, blanketing it in darkness.
It took less than a split second for the Gearsmen and eyebots to react to his obscuring cloud. The machines trapped within the darkness gathered into a defensive line, a few taking flight to escape the encroaching shadows. The machines outside the affected area moved left, while a small cadre of Gearsmen gathered near the artifact to protect it.
Meanwhile, Kari slipped inside the darkness to do her work.
With the troops distracted, Shroud dived towards the battlefield, flying over the machines like a falcon. He sensed glass responding to his call, both his own shards and his enemies’ components. Gearsmen in his range raised their heads upon sensing him approach, their eyes shining with crimson malevolence.
“Concordia!” Shroud’s words reverberated through the glass like a cascade, echoing over the battlefield as he dropped his veil and revealed himself in his full glory. It was a long howl of rage and wrath, of bottled up anger that he accumulated through years, a moment of release after years of helplessness. “Hear me roar!”
All the glass within his range shattered in a cataclysmic explosion.
The patrol eyebots took the brunt of his fury, almost a third of their numbers exploding. Shrapnel crippled their circuits and caused a few to crash on the ground. The Gearsmen within his range suffered as well, their optic visors exploding and blinding them.
And it felt good.
Shroud redirected the projectiles into every opening he found, every unprotected joint, surrounding himself in a whirlwind of cutting death. The power intoxicated him, and for the first time in a long while he truly felt alive.
Overcome by fury, Shroud gathered glass into a diamond-dense hammer, and hit the nearest, blinded Gearsman with it. The machine stumbled at the surprise attack, propelled into a fellow machine. The other Gearsmen he had managed to blind remained where they stood, processing the situation.
Instead of oil, the metal cyclops’ blinded eye shed thick, clear liquid. Through their broken visor, a single, damaged, organic eye without an eyelid, bled.
Sol dropped Mur from his position, the gargoyle joining the fray. Shroud removed his invisibility veil as he landed among the confused machines, further disrupting their line of defense.
“Mur goes Berserk!” the gargoyle shouted at the top of his lungs, swinging his hammer while at it.
No sooner had he spoken the last word, he underwent a subtle, yet impressive change. A green glow washed over his stony skin, increasing the size of his shoulders and whole build. The stony muscles hidden beneath his skin engorged, widening the warrior’s impressive bulk. Yet instead of shouting at the top of his lungs, Mur fell eerily silent, smashing an unlucky Gearsmen with a blow strong enough to make the ground below them tremble. The hammer, which Shroud now confirmed as magically enhanced, pulverized the Gearsman’s torso, shattering the machine into pieces, bolts, and pure white blood.
They’re alive, Shroud thought upon seeing the broken Gearsman’s white blood and hints of strange organs. His Network sense, however, came back with nothing. No. He corrected himself. Techno-organic. Mindless killing machines with some living parts.
Mur moved on to his next victim without hesitation. His eyes gleamed with a maddened, unnatural kind of focus and tension. His entire mind had abandoned thoughts, focusing entirely on fighting.
Other machines had escaped the blast, having been outside Glass Field’s range. Tossing broken eyebots out of its path without any concern, a Gearsman seized a heavy drill, and lifted it from the ground, aiming at a rampaging Mur.
Descending from the skies at high velocity while still invisible, Sol impacted upon the Gearsman before he could launch its projectile, cutting it in half like butter with his sword. The knight wisely remained out of Mur’s range, as the gargoyle decapitated another Gearsman with a furious backhand.
Shroud had to admit. Whatever his faults, the mercenary fought well.
Focusing on his own fight, the Blue Sorcerer checked his surroundings. Maintaining the shroud of darkness hiding Kari’s presence, he watched her slip past Gearsmen through her visual feed, hitting their joints. Unable to fully destroy the Gearsmen, even those he blinded, Shroud had his storm of glass hammer the remaining ones.
Draw aggro. The video game term for drawing a crowd of enemies towards key targets who could take it, while those who couldn’t worked from farther away. Sol and Mur would serve as the diversion, while Shroud and Kari would recover the artifact.
The Gearsmen guarding the forcefield, three of them, flew off as Shroud approached them. Instead of assaulting the sorcerer, they put a respectable distance between them and him after he began to chase them off. The fighters circled one another above the forcefield.
The Gearsmen had guessed his range from his previous attack, and stayed out of it. The realization bothered Shroud. If the machines were smart enough to adapt to his tactics, they might pull off unexpected tricks.
The Gearsmen, now at a safe distance, positioned themselves for attack. Their single eyes shining with a red glow, they each fired a red beam all at once.
Summoning his shards, Shroud created a multi-layer glass barrier in the way, stopping the beams. His barrier melted into a fiery, sluggish liquid which Shroud could no longer control, falling onto the forcefield and dripping off it.
The Gearsmen could attack over long distances, and had an uncanny aim. The narrow space of the mine had prevented them from using those attacks without hitting one another, but they were now free to rain death from above.
Retaliating, Shroud turned a few shards into a lens, and then focused light through them. Firing six beams of light at the deadly machines, he missed two of them, but the third he hit in the head and chest. The Gearsman’s face exploded into broken glass and dried blood, while the chest weathered the beam. The machine lost slight control of its flight, unable to see where it was going.
Unfortunately, light beams took multiple steps to create: gathering the ambient light, focusing it through a lens, and then firing in one direction. As much as he wanted to rain fire down upon his foes, creating multiple beams mentally taxed Shroud. Doing so while maintaining his flight, his control over his shards, and the invisibility veil on Sol was near-impossible. Without Premium Thoughts, he wouldn’t have had enough brain power to multitask that many things at once.
Upon seeing other Gearsmen fly away from Mur to try and encircle him, Shroud spoke through his Network. “Yoshikage, protect my back,” he ordered his allies, “Sol, help me take down those fliers. Mur, can you take care of the Gearsmen on the ground?”
Mur responded with a raw snarl, drawing a sigh out of Shroud.
“Coming,” Kari replied, making her way through the shade. She jumped out of the shadows to ambush a flying Gearsmen, a golden glow surrounding her arms. With a ethereal claw, she ripped the machine apart like a savage panther — or fox — halting their pincer attempt.
“I’m with you, Shroud!” Sol replied, taking to the skies. Shroud guided him in the direction he wished with hand signals, keeping him under the invisibility veil while engaging the two unharmed Gearsmen.
By now, the third, headless Gearsman, had regained control of its trajectory. Unable to fire a beam with its destroyed head, it flew at maximum speed in Shroud’s own direction. Hovering around, Shroud angrily swore as the machine changed its direction to track him down.
How could it do that?! It couldn’t see!
Shroud glanced at the other two Gearsmen. While one kept incoming glass shards at bay with carefully aimed beams, the second kept track of the Blue Sorcerer’s movements, waiting for the right moment to strike. The truth dawned upon him.
Shroud was fighting himself.
The guiding intelligence behind the Gearsmen — probably a UB — could see through these machines and coordinate them the same way he guided his team with Network.
“Sol, take care of the Gearsman trailing me. Fly as fast as you can.”
The knight did as he was told, with Shroud dropping his invisibility veil to distract his opponent. The Gearsman trailing Shroud turned its eye towards the new target, taken by surprise; it tried to fire a beam to defend itself, but the faster knight closed the gap between them. Sol’s sword struck the Gearsman’s head at full speed, impaling it straight through the metal skull.
The headless Gearsman trailing Shroud lost its sense of direction, deprived of its spotter. This allowed the Blue Sorcerer to circle around it, pointing five lenses at the machine. He felt the heat rising as the light gathered within the extensions of his will, firing multiple rays right at the machine’s chest.
This time, the power and minimal range caused the Gearsman’s chest to melt upon impact, the beams going through its metal plates. The magical nature of the attack had prevailed over its Reinforcement spell.
The Gearsman crashed, broken on the forcefield, soon joined by its brethren cut in two by Sol’s relentless assault.
Stopping a red beam with a glass shield soon reduced to worthless slag, Shroud focused on the last flying Gearsman, gathering light for a counterattack. Sol also flew toward the machine, trapping it in a scissor maneuver. The machine focused on Sol, the fastest of them, shooting him with a beam. Yet the knight endured it, his armor deflecting the attack. Like a meteor, he sliced the Gearsman in two broken halves with his blade.
Now in command of the skies, Shroud focused back on Network. “Yoshikage, report.” By now his veil of darkness had dissipated, leaving her with no cover to retreat into. “Is the ground secured?”
“Mur’s working on it,” the girl replied, her visual feed showing Mur brushing off red beams across a wasteland of broken parts and shattered gears. Kari herself stood triumphant among defeated enemies.
Good. With most of the Gearsmen destroyed, they had secured the area for now. Shroud turned to the forcefield, circling it to find an opening. The drill Concordia had tried to break the forcefield with looked damaged beyond use, like a broken tooth.
“Shroud,” Kari spoke through the Network feed, causing the sorcerer to focus back on her. “Trouble.”
Shroud glanced at her feed, witnessing a blur of white racing through the mine, leaping above Mur at impressive speed. The form looked like a giant white wolf with eyes of silver, legs not unlike those of a man, and a jacket tailored for its size.
Damn, enemy reinforcements so soon? “Yoshikage, deal with him.” His friend attempted to intercept the white blur, only for the wolf to outspeed her, aiming straight for the artifact’s location.
“Shroud, look at Evermarsh.” Sol pointed a finger at the distant horizon. Shroud flew upward to see for himself hundreds of small black points rising from the city.
Gearsmen. Hundreds of them.
“We got half an hour before they get here,” Shroud estimated. Perhaps less. “Fifteen more minutes and we evacuate. Sol, a giant white wolf broke past Yoshikage’s perimeter, intercept him.”
“A werewolf?” Sol wondered out loud.
“Clearly not the Twilight kind.” Shroud focused back on the forcefield below him, intent on contacting the artifact. “Where is he —”
“Accel Counterspell!” A bestial howl echoed across the battlefield, and a white light swallowed Shroud.
And then there was pain and screams.
A burning, agonizing sensation flared in Shroud’s skull, the feeling of each and every neuron exploding at once, their connections reduced to nothing. The glass around him fell as a rain of shrapnel, and his armor no longer felt as light as a feather, dragging him towards the ground.
Shit, shit, shit! Shroud’s mind raced as he tried to control his flight. He couldn’t sense his glass, and could barely understand Sol’s panicked shouts. The sorcerer couldn’t focus on them, his eyes looked down.
The ground was calling.