Chapter 16: Plans gone awry

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“My apologies for the lateness,” Mathias said, as he closed the church’s doors behind him. “Family matters.”

Mur sneered at his words, standing among the gargoyles, while Kari crossed her arms, her back against a pillar. “Trouble?” she asked him.

“Maybe. I have a sort of job interview forced on me.” Dad’s lobbying for his Institute membership had paid off. Mathias had been summoned to the Dynamis’ HQ for an interview, although why that place he didn’t understand. His eyes settled on Booz, who had sat near the church’s pedestal. “Thank you for joining us today. I hope you didn’t have trouble finding this place.”

“As long as I make a profit out of it, I don’t care,” the hob replied. “I set the protections in place.”

Mathias had Glass Field negated when he had walked inside the church. With Concordia now aware of their existence, protecting the confidentiality of their meetings from magical intrusions seemed like a nice investment.

He had sent messages to Maggie, asking her if she would like to come, only for her not to answer. Mathias guessed she was practicing with the Evermarsh Skulls. He hoped her activities wouldn’t interfere much with their own; Shroud needed more muscle.

Sol cleared his throat, standing on the church’s pedestal. “My fellows, I wish to congratulate all of you for this mission, for we all deserve it.” His eyes set on Mur for a second, who replied by sticking out his tongue. “We gave a powerful blow to Concordia by stealing that machine. Enough that Smokefang himself decided to pay us a visit.”

“Is the artifact secure?” Kari asked, sitting on a bench. She alone was aware of why they had recovered it, and she looked at Mathias’ pristine hand with interest.

“I absorbed it during the fight,” Mathias admitted.

“Absorbed?” Sol raised an eyebrow.

“I dunno. Network interacted with it as expected, then the machine floated towards me and fused with me. It called me a terminal during the process.” The young man checking his Magik account. So far, he hadn’t noticed any notable differences since the event, no new feature besides the increased paycheck—

Wait, no.

He noticed new words on his main account, phantom words floating beneath his parameters.

Modded feature installation… please wait…

Estimation: seven days, four hours, fifty-three minutes…

“You don’t look any different,” Sol said, jolting Mathias out of his thought. Unfortunately, he couldn’t reveal those changes in public without violating the privacy policy. “Odd. I assume we have no expert on ancient magical machines among our friends?”

“Guess what, I know one,” Booz said, drawing eyes on him. “I was wondering about presenting him to you.”

“Wormson?” Mur let out a growl. “That shifty, double-faced creature? Mur doesn’t like him.”

“Mur doesn’t like anyone,” Booz replied, the gargoyle letting out a growl. The merchant focused on Mathias, the only one who could pay him. “He’s a sorcerer too. Green, a strong Green.”

Wormson? That was the name of the individual he had seen Booz deal with through Network. Another sorcerer unaffiliated with Concordia, and he didn’t tell them?

Booz must have read his mind from the look on his face; Mathias promised himself to work on that. “You didn’t ask, and I didn’t trust you then. Not sure if you were a long-term client, or some stupid kid who would dig his own grave biting off more than he could chew.”

“I hope my money changed your mind,” Mathias replied.

“It did.” Booz’s smirk reminded me of those old car salesmen. “Wormson has a patron, a big player at the Midnight Market. If you must deal with him, you must deal with her, too.”

“I don’t like what that implies,” Kari spoke up immediately, while Booz shrugged. “Conditions.”

“She is a foe of Concordia. The kind of person you kids dream about growing up into. She’s also looking for spellcasters to bolster her forces, and asked me to send them her way. If anything, I think she will indulge you just to gauge you out.”

Mathias wondered when this piece of information would come into play. “I appreciate your honesty on the matter,” Especially since the hob could have kept that tidbit to himself.

“I’m a professional. I serve all clients equally, and I don’t favor any. I don’t push agendas at the expense of one or the other. She is a powerful person, and for your own good, squishies, you should remain wary of her. I tell you because I think Wormson is the best bet you have for that engineering problem of yours.”

“Who is this patron?” Kari pushed, clearly skeptical.

“Can’t say. She’s very elusive and few meet her in person. Those who serve her call her the Shadow Queen.”

Although he remained outwardly the very picture of stone silent, Mathias could see subtle microexpressions on Mur’s grim face. A split second, a moment of recognition that lasted for but an instant.

— “–the new player in town, the Shadow Queen. Lugh says she’s from Cocytus.” Mur stopped drinking his Moonblack cup, listening to the conversation behind him. Arcadian Reavers playing roulette with somebody’s skull. “She’s got Mammon’s favor, too.”

“I hope Lugh will hunt her,” the other reaver said, “Been awhile since we had a worthy prey.”

Cocytus? The name echoed in Mur’s mind like a curse. Did she serve his old master? He had to check. Maybe this was his chance to redeem himself. —

The Blue Sorcerer promised himself to look deeper into that later; calling out Mur before everyone else would only make him defensive.

“You said she opposes Concordia?” Sol asked. “In what way?”

“Heard of Green Mandrake? The rebels that fought Concordia when they attacked their home sphere of Darkthorn?” Multiple nods answered Booz’s question. “She provided them with weapons and funds since day one, and from what I gathered, she evacuated the remnants off-world to continue the fight after the scalies crushed them.”

“Mmm…” From the way she acted, remaining in the shadows and supporting other groups, that woman sounded like a mastermind using proxies to do the dirty work. That presented both advantages and disadvantages: more leeway for the proxies, but she wouldn’t mind sacrificing them to keep herself safe.

Mathias looked at his allies. While Mur seemed curious, both Sol and Kari were apprehensive at meeting a force they didn’t understand. Even one opposed to Concordia.

The young man’s thoughts turned to the future. Even if he could fund his small team for now, they remained that; a small team. The four of them could remain a thorn in the dragons’ feet, but little else. Shroud needed fighters, allies, influence. He needed an army. If the Shadow Queen could help him with that, perhaps it was worth a shot meeting her.

Yet the sorcerer remained wary to ally himself with someone who brought their own strings. For all he knew he could trade one interstellar master for another.

So far, while he had had some success, Mathias had only reacted to circumstances and events, letting others dictate his course of action. He couldn’t expel Concordia from Earth if he only played one move ahead without a grand strategy.

“What are the keys to Concordia’s control of Earth?” Mathias asked everyone present. He had a fairly good idea but wanted to hear everyone’s viewpoint.

“They have dragons?” Mur responded, as if stating the obvious.

“Fear,” Kari said. “Fear and sorcery.”

Sol took a moment to think, considering the question under various angles. “The superweapon they put on the moon to deter rebellion, and the UB system running their infrastructures.”

“You got it all wrong, squishies. Think why they came here, besides dragon ego. Flux. Seven towers to harvest it, and the Gates to hold them. Remove their access to other worlds, cut off the juice, and you’re set.” Booz scratched his small beard. The hob’s answer was the most insightful so far. “So long as they hold them they can bring as many troops and resources as needed. Control what comes in and out, and you rule the place.”

“What about the Towers?” Out of all the Concordian infrastructure, those were both the most visible and mysterious. Even Wyrmpedia had little to offer on them, compared to UBs and Gates.

“The Flux Towers come in seven colors around the world,” Sol spoke. “The same color as the Concordian Ministries. Not a coincidence, I suppose?”

“No,” Surprisingly, Mur had wisdom to share. “Sorcery is fueled by Flux energy, which itself comes in seven colors. The seven Neurotowers extract it, which the Concordians then steal. In awe of the power Flux granted them, the scalies themed their government after those colors. Their Ministers are extremely strong in each of their main color, too.”

“Extract from where? Our very planet?” Mur shrugged at Sol’s question, and Mathias’ Network didn’t give him any information. The gargoyle had no idea. “Did Concordia even build the towers? Their rising from the ground do coincide with their arrival.”

“Concordia do not build Flux Towers, they scavenge them,” Booz replied. “Towers exist all around the universe, including worlds unspoiled by Concordia. Yours activated on their own, bringing your dirty sphere to the doorstep of the Concordian Empire as a side-effect rather than an intent.”

“Then who built them?” Mathias asked. “Some ancient civilization? Clearly they aren’t of human origin, and neither was the artifact we found. And you imply they slumbered for a long while beneath our feet.”

“Gee, you think I have the answer to a mystery the greatest sorcerers couldn’t crack?” Booz snorted in annoyance. “All I know is that the towers are the source of magic on your tiny rock; their energy powers the spells that you use. If anything, you should know more than I do.”

“Why those questions, Mathias?” Sol asked. “Did an idea cross your mind?”

It did. Network provided him an insightful picture of the situation, how the whole Concordia occupation of Earth worked. Mathias thought about situations paralleling their own, a smaller state facing a superpower. The Vietnam War, Afghanistan — twice — even Ukraine before Concordia’s assault cut that one short.

The recipe was always the same; support from the locals, use of the terrain to gain an advantage, a war of attrition… and support from rival powers.

“The main line of defense of Concordia on Earth are their UB,” Mathias said. “Universal Brains are techno-organic computers created after Concordia’s central artificial intelligence Manus went bonkers. Their network administers the Arc-Cities, space ports, interdimensional portals, and most Gearsmen. Each UB is a single neuron of a giant brain that spans the entire empire.”

“How do you know that?” Mur snorted, doubtful.

He didn’t. Network allowed him to intuit it. The battle with the Gearsmen had shown they shared a common intelligence, alongside techno-organic elements. Combined with the few elements publicly available on UBs, Mathias had enough to map out the system. “I know. The question is, what do we do with them?”

“Eat them.” Mur’s flat tone made Mathias unsure if he was joking or not.

— In spite of the few screws in the gray matter, Mur found the flesh golem’s brain strangely tasty. Tasting moist and soft, like it was full of sweet sugar. Like pudding. —

Holy, shit, he wasn’t!

“We could capture one and study it,” Unlike his fellow, Sol hadn’t bothered to hide his disgust at Mur’s suggestion. “A captive UB would give us insight into Concordia’s core intelligence. Especially if your Network can work on them.”

“My thoughts exactly. Smokefang set one UB in the Arc-City nearby, which will be our next target. The first of our campaign. Concordia relies on its infrastructures: UBs, Towers, Gates, and Damocles, to rule. By disrupting one after the other, we will weaken them enough that a strong push could topple them.”

“Mur says you forget one big problem. Take this world from them, and they will send a fleet to retake it. Bigger than the one that put your North Hemisphere on fire last time. The scalies believe they have a duty to unite all worlds, everywhere, under them. They call it the Dragon Mandate. If it exists on paper, Mur has yet to wipe his ass with it. They never to give up a prize, ever. They will spare no expense, because it’s not about resources. It’s about destiny.”

The more he thought of it, the more the answer to the dilemma became clearer. “We do need off-world allies,” Mathias decided. Other powers had managed to remain outside of Concordia’s domination. If they could play one against the other…

“The closest one is Lord Revel’s Arcadia, but you squishies will want Concordia back after a week of his arrival,” Booz warned. “Dragons are greedy, but Revel is vicious.”

That limited their choices. At least the Shadow Queen had supported a rebel movement not so different from theirs. “If the Shadow Queen can help us take down the infrastructure holding the occupation together, then it may be worth meeting her,” Mathias decided. “Whether we work out a deal or not.”

“I will arrange a meeting,” Booz said. “Anything else? Time is money.”

“Yes,” Mathias said. “I need a personal, handheld weapon.”

Booz laughed. “Why? You’re an all-powerful wizard. Pretty sure your spells kill better than Red Flux Guns.”

“That is exactly the problem. I rely entirely on my powers; as considerable as they are, I faced at least one enemy which could counter them. Without my power, I am no longer an all-powerful wizard. A weapon would even the odds.”

“Unless you’re taking on Gearsmen, a Red Flux Rifle would help in nay, any situation.”

“Nice, but I would prefer weapons that do not rely entirely on Flux.” If that energy powered his spells, and Kresnik could counter them, then perhaps his barrier protected him from those shots. It had protected him from Kari’s claws and Sol’s sword. A Counterspell might also cause the weapon to misfire.

All in all, in spite of his immense power and resilience, Smokefang at least left Shroud the ability to fight back. Kresnik could disable him with a word, and was hence the greater danger. “Also, I need a long-range weapon. Nothing like a spear or such.”

“Very specific. Got a target in mind?”

“A white werewolf immune to magical effects.”

“Kresnik,” Mur clarified.

Booz paused at the description. “You’re hunting John Kresnik? Big fat target.”

“You know of him?”

“Can’t count the number of colleagues he caught and sent to Electon. Wolfie’s got a sharp nose for criminals, and he’s nigh impossible to fight off one-on-one. Especially if you’re a magic user. He’s a White Dot Three.”

“Meaning?”

“Means he’s an experimented sorcerer in the use of White Magic, which enhances or disables spells. Unless you’re a stronger magician or have a powerful Lock, he counters every magic you can throw at him. No offense, he took on bigger fishes than you and he’s still kicking. Mur here can tell you that.”

“Mur sent him flying to his dog house,” the gargoyle boasted.

“You seemed to know him,” Mathias pointed out.

“We survived a few run-ins with him,” Booz said. “Kresnik hunts like a rabid dog until he catches you. We are the few who managed to slip through the cracks, and I intend to keep at it.”

“He must have a weakness. Money, emotional…”

“Nah. He’s everything Concordia wants in a citizen: no life outside of duty, incorruptible, smarts and power aplenty.”

“Can silver bullets get past his barriers? He’s a werewolf right?”

Booz laughed. Apparently, werewolf movies had it all wrong. “Nah, ‘cause his spells are unrelated to his innate biology. Can see why you would rather avoid close combat though. He’s tough and skilled.”

“He dispelled your spell,” Mur complained. “I hoped for more.”

“He didn’t,” Mathias countered. “Not fully. I still had access to your Network feed and the Berserk spell was still assigned to you. He disabled Berserk, but not your ability to cast it.”

Mur considered the news. Apparently, he hadn’t thought of recasting the spell in the heat of the melee after Kresnik disabled it. “Mur will kill him for good next time.”

“I’ll look into my stash,” Booz said. “Your best bet is a Orichalcos weapon, from Oceanis. Those are laced with strong magic, perhaps enough to hurt Kresnik. Orichalcos’ very hard to gather, so you’ll need a custom order.”

“How much will it cost?” Mathias pushed.

“A lot,” Booz replied with a grin. “Give me time.”

“Then that’s it. Everyone else, we gather all we can on the Arc-City nearby. Entry points, weaknesses, defenses, anything that can help us take the UB. I say we meet in one week here. Same hour?”

“Sure thing, boss,” Mur replied, his tone heavy with mockery. The others simply nodded.

“Then one last thing. I hope we don’t get there, but prepare to leave Evermarsh on short notice.”

This did not bode well with Sol, who tensed. “Leave Evermarsh?”

“Got attached to this muddy hole?” Mur taunted him.

“Yes, I did.” The priest’s eyes settled on Mathias next. “Some have families there.”

Mathias felt Kari’s gaze on him too, guessing he shared conflicting sentiments. He had to show a strong front.

“Our goal is to release Earth itself,” this time Shroud spoke, not Mathias. “This is a great sacrifice that I ask to some of you. That I agree. Understand, however, that the foe we face covers our entire planet. We will have to move, to fight overseas, even outside our atmosphere. You will be asked to forge alliances with other enemies of Concordia so we can supply our people with weapons; to take the fight back to Imperial dominions across the stars; and to spread the gospel of revolution on Earth. The next phase of our strategy requires complete focus from all of you.”

He took a deep, deep breath. “Also, with our last stunt, Concordia is on our case, and they have a long reach. There may come a moment when they identify one of us, and the rest will follow. After what we did to Smokefang, they will offer no quarter.”

The grim silence that followed was answer enough.

Kari and Mathias left the church soon after. “You’re growing better at it,” she said as they closed the door behind.

“What?”

“Leading. You sounded more decisive. Confident.”

Surviving a fight with dragons helped with the self-esteem. He wondered if it had had an impact on his relationship with Perse. “I sense a ‘but’ coming,”

“They sensed your hesitation,” his fellow player said. “About leaving. You are still not one hundred percent committed. Until you are, neither will they.”

Mathias fell silent. True, in spite of his own pitch, he himself hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Dad wouldn’t leave Evermarsh without a very good reason, and he had friends there. A job. A girlfriend. Leaving… would be tough.

Mathias pushed back those thoughts, trying to focus on the future. “Up for filling a new Quest after my interview? We’ll need a lot more spells to assault a fortified city.”

“Sam asked me to help with some things,” Kari turned down his offer politely.

Too bad. He would have liked some back-up. Perhaps he could find an easy quest that did not involve stealing a protected artifact?

As if to answer his thoughts, a familiar sound echoed in his mind, one he had grown fond of. Opening the Magik browser, Mathias checked his message, one sitting at the top.

Major Update!

Sender: the Administrator

Mathias exchanged a knowing glance with Kari. “You got it too?” He clicked after she nodded, reading.

Congratulations, Alpha Testers!

Your collective success across Earth proved greater than even I, the Administrator, expected. Enough to convince old and new Sponsors to invest in Magik! We are flooding with Spellcoins and Quest proposals!

So what does this means for you? Three things.

First, that means with a few exceptions, I won’t send you Quests myself anymore, except to new Players in need of a gentle tutorial. You have proven yourself experienced enough to not need soft adventures tailored to show you the ropes.

Instead, Sponsors will send you their own Quests and fix the difficulty levels and rewards as they see fit. You will find yourself with more options than ever before, and some Quests may even conflict with one another. You can now adjust your playstyle in whichever direction you like. Side quests will remain automated, due to their Lock-bound nature.

The second major update is that, with so many Sponsors joining, we wish to experiment with a new system, the “Party/Guild/Team/Legion” (our Sponsors are currently debating the definite name). We are working out the details but it will be huge, and come with the “Lair” feature. More soon.

The third major update is that you can now Level-Up. Meaning, you can increase your Dot Level. That’s right, you will gain the ability to access Dot Two, Three, Four, and ultimately — if you survive that long — Dot Five spells in our Compendium. The option and conditions to increase your level are right next to your wallet.

Until next time,

The Administrator and the Magik Team.

Mathias’ heartbeat accelerated, as he immediately checked his main interface. A new icon had appeared right next to his Spellcoins wallet, a golden button with the word “Level-Up!” written there. With a click, blue text materialized in front of him.

Magik Online interface, allowing for spell and quest selection.

Level-Up

Next Level: Dot Two, Adept

Conditions to Level-Up:
– Complete three Dot Two or higher difficulty Quests (2/3)
– Complete one Side-Quest (Complete)

“More questions,” Kari spoke, less enthusiastic than him, “And so little answers. They know more about us than we do them.”

“I can understand the secrecy. The destruction of Magik would spell the end of the best weapon against Concordia, while your end means they must find a new team.” Cold, but pragmatic. “How many main Dot Two Quests did you fulfill?”

“Two.”

Meaning they could level-up with the next quest, before assaulting the Arc City. A question did bug him though. “Why not grant us access to the full arsenal, or make us pay for spells?” he wondered out loud. “More options would make the fight easier.”

“They do not produce the Spellcoins that power the website,” Kari pointed out. “The Sponsors do.”

Mathias wondered what kind of entities could turn digital currency into spells. Certainly nothing human. He moved to the Quest Board next, checking the new quests available.

The Player expected three, perhaps four new Quests.

He found thirty-six waiting on the board.

They came with various difficulty levels, noted next to the title. New symbols followed the request, such as jackal heads, glass peacocks or lotus flowers; each representing a sponsor, he guessed. Mathias first checked one of the new, easy Dot One quests.

Send the Dead back to Death

Difficulty: Dot One
Sponsor: Jackal Mummy

The Undead are a plague that followed Concordia to Earth, disrupting the cycle of nature. I wish them gone. Eliminate at least ten undead and allow them their final rest.

Rewards: Four Spellcoins.

Ten undead? He didn’t even know where to find one!

The Temple Restored

Difficulty: Dot One
Sponsor: Her August Majesty

The dragons’ disregard for ancient traditions insulted our honor and violated our most honored cultural taboos. Restore the imperial shrine in the emperor of Japan’s house and hold prayers there for one hundred and eight consecutive days.

Rewards: Four Spellcoins + Her August Majesty’s personal favor.

Mathias thought it was like a linear JRPG, when it had been an open world game all along.

Easy money sounded nice, but he needed Dot Two or more to level-up. He checked the more difficult proposals.

Tinker Tinker

Difficulty: Dot Two
Sponsor: Misunderstood Genius

I want to examine how Gearsmen work to create better golems, and smashed up remains won’t cut it. Infiltrate Concordian factories, take a picture of Gearsmen schematics, and post them on Magik.

Rewards: Six Spellcoins (Level Up)

Nice. Strange, but nice. Then — then… he found a title that caught his interest.

Dragonslayer

Difficulty: Dot Two
Sponsor: Romulus

In spite of our patronage, a worthy hero has yet to prove his mettle by slaying a dragon. Correct that. Kill a dragon, and teach them fear.

Rewards: Nine Spellcoins (Level Up).

Mathias reread the text, a smirk on his face. “Challenge accepted,” he said, “Smokefang’s days are numbered.”

Kari didn’t share his enthusiasm. She looked distant and thoughtful… Well, more distant than usual. “What is it?” he asked her.

“My Doom Sense is acting up.” Mathias raised an eyebrow. “A Yellow Spell. It allows me to sense lethal threats.”

He should have looked more deeply in his opposite colors’ available spells. “How close is it?” Was it linked to her own Side Quest?

“Not immediate… I can’t quite explain, it’s diffuse,” a frown deepened on her face, “Be careful, Mathias-san. Danger is close.”

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A/N: Thanks to my Patrons: Daniel Zogbi.

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