“Shroud!” Sol called through Network’s interface, diving to rescue him.
Not that he could process it. All the visual feeds assaulted Shroud’s sight with sound and information, a confusing concerto of lights and sound which his mind could no longer comprehend.
And the ground below grew ever closer, a promise of imminent death. His heart raced, fear overtaking him. “Glass Field!” Mathias shouted in panic, unable to stop his fall and regain control. That light had disabled his spells. “Glass Field! GLASS FIELD!”
Sol grabbed him at the last second, breaking the fall and saving his life. Shroud’s head stopping just short of the forcefield.
Sol barely had time carry Shroud next to the forcefield when a white wolf bolted at them like an arrow, running on all fours. The knight left the helpless Shroud and moved to deal with the beast, fiery sword in hands.
“Accel Counterspell.” The werewolf raised his left hand and unleashed a pulse of white light from his palm, hitting Sol. While his majestic wings and weapons remained unperturbed, the knight lost control of his trajectory and put his arms in front of his chest on instinct.
The werewolf pivotied mid-course, hitting Sol in the stomach with a roundhouse kick. The sheer might behind the blow sent the Sol flying backwards, hitting the remains of the drilling machine and bending the steel on impact. Had Sol’s armor not protected him, the blow would have no doubt killed the man.
The werewolf’s firm, judging eyes set on Shroud next. The sorcerer took a step back, but the beast still covered him in his fearsome shadow.
“Suspect,” the Kung-Fu Werewolf howled; he sounded less intimidating when Shroud mentally called him that, but not by much. “This is John Kresnik, Captain of the Blue Ministry. You are under arrest for terrorism, attempted theft of forbidden artifacts, violence against officials, resisting arrest, property damage, and illegal practice of magic. Surrender alongside your accomplices now, or suffer the consequences.”
The threat, and the tone brought him back to his encounter with the fiery fiend. But this time, Shroud refused to show weakness. “Quasar!” he snarled back, his magic remaining as impotent as before. Standing tall, he tried to cast another spell. “Blue World!”
“Your magic is gone,” the werewolf replied, his tone growing impatient, “Get on your knees, with your hands behind your head. Your sister sold you out.”
Shroud blinked behind his helmet. “My sister?”
“She told us everything,” Kresnik replied. “We know you are Jack Powells.”
… why did he let Ulysses ask Maggie out first?
Shroud’s mind raced furiously for a solution, until he noticed Kari’s visual feed. A plan forming in his mind, the sorcerer looked the werewolf in the eyes. “Then you know I’m gonna wreck you,” Shroud said with the most arrogant tone he could muster, trying to goad the werewolf into attacking, “I wonder how your white fur will look as my new carpet.”
The werewolf shook his head in disappointment and took a step forward, unaware of the true danger closing in on him from behind.
Kari, claws extended, leaped on his back and attempted to stab Kresnik. Her hands bounced off the Kung Fu Werewolf’s fur harmlessly, but the impact threw him off balance. He responded by tossing her off his back with a snarl.
“Mur!” Shroud shouted through his feed, hoping the berserk beast would listen. “Back us up!”
With a spiteful, mindless snarl, Mur bolted at the group, running on all fours. Kresnik noticed Mur coming and spoke two words. “Rain Counterspell.”
This time, instead of a direct pulse, Kresnik unleashed a wave of white energy all around him in a circular fashion. He hit both Kari and Mur; while Kari seemed groggy, her claws and aura remained active.
Mur, meanwhile, downgraded in size, Berserk disabled. He stopped mid-motion, as if waking up from a nightmare. “Kresnik?” Mur seemed taken aback, a little subdued.
“Vile imp,” the wolf replied, his tone ominous. “You, I will not regret killing.”
Mur replied with a feral hiss and a swing of his hammer. “Try Mur, and die!” Kresnik dodged the hit by sidestepping it, the gargoyle’s weapon smashing against the ground raising a dust cloud. With lightning fast quickness, Kresnik answered with an uppercut, causing Mur to stumble. Kari, having regained her senses but having lost some of her speed, attempted to cheap-shot the werewolf by hitting his ankles. The beastman dodged with a simple backflip.
Before Shroud knew it, they engaged in a furious claw fight, Kari matching Kresnik’s obvious greater strength with superior agility and relentless aggression. She strikes to kill, Shroud thought, reduced to being a powerless bystander on the sidelines.
However, Kari’s hits failed to inflict any damage; a closer look revealed a white energy layer above Kresnik’s fur, a protective shield stopping all attacks. “Glass Field!” Shroud shouted, trying to help, and his magic refusing to activate once again.
“You have a strong Lock, but you’re still a child,” Kresnik told Kari, while Mur tried to flank him. “Pierce Arcane Blade.”
White energy swirled around Kresnik’s right hand, taking the shape of a long blade of light. The clear shape it took matched Sol’s own sword, a true masterwork of quality.
Bringing a sword to a fist fight, Kresnik slashed at Mur with it, the light cutting through his stony skin like butter. Smoke erupted from the wound instead of blood, but the gargoyle’s angered face told Shroud it felt no less painful.
By now, Sol had recovered and joined the fray, charging with his sword and shield up. Kresnik grabbed the knight by the throat with his left hand and launched him at Mur’s face like a projectile, before moving to gut Kari like a fish. His fellow sorcerer backed away, losing ground.
Reluctantly leaving the wolf to his allies, Shroud focused on the artifact. With the Gearsmen coming, they couldn’t waste a second. Trying to find a way inside the forcefield and finding nothing, he resorted to scanning it with Network.
— Scanning timelines. Infinity equation stable, occult variables predicted. Threat to module, manageable. —
Complex mathematical formulas, data, and blue pixels formed most of the memory feedback. Shroud didn’t understand a thing, unlike every other memory he got from Network. He tried to push again, letting the information come in.
— Dis Terminal detected. Lock: Network. Compatibility scan positive. Defensive measures dropped. —
Without warning, the blue forcefield dissipated. Yet Shroud barely paid attention; his eyes were transfixed on the strange item floating toward him, the complex circuitry, the math and the data filling his brain.
His mind had taken a backseat in his own brain. He registered the sounds of the battle, of Kresnik wiping the floor with Sol, and Kari calling Shroud’s own name. To him, they all sounded like distant static.
He only had eyes for the metal sphere in front of him, bathing him in its blue light. His hands raised without his even thinking it, grabbing it like a cherished treasure. From up close, it looked no bigger than a soccer ball.
— Starting quantum integration process. —
The sphere’s blue light intensified, blinding him. Blue data undid reality around him in a chaotic, aimless maelstrom. He didn’t even register the winged shadow looming above them, circling the area like a vulture.
— Threat to integration process detected. Defensive measure selected: save state. Safeguard timeline archived. —
Shroud was in the mine, and yet he wasn’t in the mine. Other images superimposed on the world around him, skyscrapers, forests, melting pools blinking in and out of existence. His entire world had turned blue.
And then, with one last flash, nothing.
— Integration process successful; defensive measures discarded. Timeline converging. Terminal fully operational. —
When Shroud regained control of himself, the artifact was gone, his hands holding empty air. Wait, where the artifact had gone?
Letters in blue appeared in front of him, as if to answer his questions.
Congratulations! By assimilating the Occult Matrix, your account has gained a new funct –– ERROR ERROR CRITICAL ERROR –– PLeASe RELoaD –––
The message blurred out, then popped into nothingness.
Shroud didn’t have much time to ask himself more questions, as the fearsome shadow blanketed him, strong winds pushing dust against his helmet.
No. Not wind.
The flapping of wings.
“You foolish ape,” Smokefang thundered, his voice a wicked boom. “You thought you could outwit a member of the universal master race?”
The dragon hoovered above Shroud, his neck extended and his head back against the sun — his posture proud and godlike. The snake must have practiced it daily.
“Hey!” Shroud pointed a finger at him. “I patented that pose, Mushu!”
The dragon either didn’t hear him over the winds, or just plain ignored his comeback. “I knew you filthy invaders would have a method to recover that artifact, and behold; I won two prizes with one move.”
From up close, dragons were big.
Very big, strong enough to crush Shroud with one blow, and close enough to try. Well, here goes nothing. Shroud hoped that whatever happened with the artifact had canceled Kresnik’s witchery. “Glass Field!” he shouted, then once more, louder. “Glass Field!”
His power finally flared to life again, the reassuring sensation of control over the glass making up his costume. “Premium Thoughts!” The pain in his head stopped, his brain sorting out the information overwhelming his ears and sight. Controlling the glass within his usual radius once again became possible. Most of it had fallen out of his range, but he called back enough to create an orbital ring around him.
“Cute,” Smokefang mocked him, the beast building up green fire in his maw. “What are those toothpicks supposed to do?”
Gathering multiple shards into a len, Shroud answered the inquiry with another spell. “Quasar!” He fired a beam at the dragon’s smug face.
The laser beam bounced off his scales like a splash of water. “The might of a thousand stars stands behind me!” Smokefang boasted, before unleashing a fearsome roar. “My breath burns brighter than the sun!”
“Now you’re just exaggerating.” Shroud barely had the time to fly away before Smokefang unleashed a cone of green fire at him. The torrent of destruction hit the spot where the artifact used to be, melting the stone itself.
The flames were so hot, Shroud could feel the heat a dozen meters away from the path of destruction. Not that Smokefang gave him any respite. With speed and agility belaying his immense size, the dragon flew after the sorcerer like an hawk after a harmless dove. “Come back here, flying monkey!”
On the ground, his friends weren’t faring much better. Leaping around with supernatural agility, Kresnik exploited the fighters’ obvious lack of synergy; dodging a blow from Mur that ended up hitting Sol, or using one as a shield against the other. Only Kari avoided his blows, but failed to inflict any damage. Upon noticing Shroud take to the skies, she spoke to two words to herself, a green glow surrounding her body as she did. “Peak, Wallcrawl.”
Snarling at the dragon pursuing him, Shroud launched a shrapnel volley at the giant reptile, who shrugged it off. Even attempts at targeting the wings, the most vulnerable parts, failed to inflict any damage.
Fortunately, Smokefang didn’t use his breath to retaliate, even as they circled the battlefield. Neither could he catch up to Shroud as long as he stayed on the move.
— Smokefang snarled as he circled the battlefield, finding no angle to kill the trash on the ground without hitting Kresnik as well. He couldn’t risk harming a decorated war hero to burn three ruffians whom the lycan was crushing without effort anyway. —
Even knowing that, the situation could hardly be worse. Kresnik could disable their magic with a word, Smokefang was a freaking giant dragon, and no one could harm either of them. Blue World might work, but Shroud couldn’t use the spell without targeting his allies as well. He and Smokefang were locked in a stalemate.
Unless… While he couldn’t hurt the dragon, he could perhaps make him hurt himself instead. If you can’t beat them, have them beat each other.
“Yoshikage, Mur, Sol, prepare to run out of range in thirty seconds,” Shroud ordered through Network, before positioning himself at the right angle. Then, mimicking Smokefang’s own arrogant pose, he looked like he was about to try firing another beam at his opponent.
“You’re mine!” Smokefang snarled, claws extended for the kill, knowing that the photon beam would have no effect on him.
Shroud instead snapped his fingers, withdrawing all light around the dragon, trapping him in darkness. The sudden lack of vision took the dragon aback and made him lose control of his trajectory, while Shroud dodged the flying behemoth.
On the ground, his fighters, forewarned, leaped out of range. Kresnik, that lightning fast bastard, managed to jump to the side, his boss crashing against the ground in a cataclysmic landing, raining debris and tons of dust. “A lizard fell, and broke his everything,” Shroud taunted his foe.
Kresnik’s distraction left a short window Mur exploited. “Mur’s mighty strike!”
Swinging his hammer with both hands, Mur hit Kresnik right in the chest with all his strength. The blow failed to get past the barrier protecting the werewolf, but hit him hard enough to propel him backward like a baseball ball during a home run. The Concordian officer ended his flight into one of the open pits, falling into the darkness.
As Smokefang let out a snarl of rage, still blinded by darkness, Shroud decided to call it quits. “Mur, Sol, fall back to the meeting point! Yoshikage, with me, other way! I’ll cover our tracks!”
Sol gave him a nod, winded and still panting from the exhaustion. “Take care, son.” He retreated into the woods, Mur following him after one last, disappointed glance at Kresnik’s pit.
Looking through all his remaining shrapnel, and with enough range to cover most of the area, Shroud unleashed Quasar’s full might. The light receded around the open mine, blanketing the whole area in darkness just as the Gearsmen vanguard from the city reached it. Unable to perceive anything, the machines circled the skies, trying to locate an opening.
Shroud hid both himself and Kari under an invisibility veil as they escaped into the swamp, the Blue Sorcerer flying around the trees while Kari leaped from branch to branch.
Without a direct line of sight, either through his glass or eyes, most of the shadowy dome began to collapse behind them. “Kill them all!” Smokefang snarled, flying out of the darkness like a demon rising from Hell. His eyes were ablaze with wounded pride. “Kill!”
The Gearsmen, now darkening the skies with their numbers, began to rain beams on the mine at random, uncaring that they might hit even Kresnik himself. Thankfully, Network’s video feed showed Mur and Sol crawling through the mud, safe from the onslaught.
Shroud’s moment of relief last only a second before the heat began to rise around him, green flames filling the edge of his vision. Flying above them, Smokefang blasted the swamp with massive fireballs at random, blasting trees and wildlife alike. The dragon had abandoned his former cockiness, reverting to his true nature of a primal, savage predator.
He intended to smoke the Magik users out, lowering his flight within inches of the trees to better catch them. The monster would set the entire Everglades ablaze at this rate, cooking them alive.
“Give me an opening,” Kari whispered through the Network feed, hopping around until she was within leaping distance of Smokefang himself.
Gathering his remaining glass into a hunting horn, Shroud uttered a warning through his feed. “Yoshikage, cover your ears!” Then, with a deep breath, he put his lip on his improvised instrument.
Two words resonated across the Everglades, filling the skies with a blue flash.
Suddenly paralyzed mid-flight, Smokefang stopped raining death and devastation, although his trajectory remained stable.
Kari, with strength and speed beyond that of any human being, leaped at the dragon, swirling on herself, all claws extended. The human bullet reached the left side of Smokefang’s face, the claws grazing the scales and cutting the eye like a bursting tomato.
Blue World ended as Kari landed back into the forest, Smokefang letting out a pained scream upon regaining control of his mind. The flying lizard put his claws over his face, blood rushing down his scales, abandoning the pursuit.
The still invisible Kari returned to Shroud’s side, managing to keep up with him even on foot. Behind them, the skies turned green, and Smokefang’s outraged screams became a distant noise.
A pleasing, victory sound resonated inside Shroud’s own mind, new words writing themselves before his eyes.
Quest: The Maleking’s Favor, completed!
You have earned eight Spellcoins! + 1 Bonus Spellcoin for humiliating a dragon.
Flying farther and faster, Shroud allowed himself a laugh, as he and Kari left victorious.
At long last, Concordia had lost a battle.