Maggie Powells hated weakness; in others, and especially in herself.
“Open the fucking door!” She smashed the church’s closed gate with her fist. Her throat still sore from the smoke. “I know you’re hiding here!”
This time, though, she wouldn’t lie down. She wouldn’t be a victim, from Jack, or anybody else, ever again.
Her perseverance paid off, when Matsumoto abruptly opened the door, grabbed Maggie by the arm, and pulled her inside.
Maggie found herself facing a red knight’s blade, a monster straight out of Hell, and Kari herself, as the Japanese girl closed the door behind her. “Who else followed you?” Kari’s tone was drier than usual, less patient. She was also dressed strangely, in a black ninja-like suit with a white mask attached to her belt.
They looked geared up for war.
“Nobody.” The Werners and Sam were recovering at the hospital. Seeing Gearsmen coming to arrest her brother, Maggie had made her way to the church as soon as she could. After spending so long in the scalies’ custody after the chemical plant fire incident — she was not eager to repeat the experience.
“Your phone?” Kari asked, her tone terse and no-nonsense. “They can track you with it.”
“Threw it away,” Maggie snapped. She wasn’t stupid. “Where’s Martel? And Jack?”
“Both were captured,” Kari said. “I could not help. Too many Gearsmen, and Kresnik.”
“You’re letting Concordia keep the nerd?” Maggie spat. If she had magical powers, she would already be at their throats. “They’ll kill him.”
With luck, they might kill her brother first.
“There is no dishonor in fleeing a battle that cannot be won, so you may survive to win the war.” The way Matsumoto sounded, she was quoting someone else. “Dying for nothing, that is dishonor. I pick my fights; I do not let the enemy choose mine.”
“I concur,” The knight spoke with Sol’s voice. Where did the priest get such awesome equipment? Booz, Maggie guessed. “You would have been captured if you had gone alone. Together—”
“There is no together,” the giant monster replied. “Mur’s leaving.”
“You’re fleeing?” Sol spat out the words.
“No gain, no work. The sorcerer is gone, Mur does not do charity. The tinmen will be here any minute, and Mur would rather leave this stinky planet behind. Which he will soon.”
“And your contract?” Sol sounded torn between anger at the beast’s cowardice, and seemingly anger at himself for needing to negotiate with it in the first place. “Is your word worth so little?”
The gargoyle showed his fangs. “Say that again, and see what happens.”
Sol pointed his sword at the beast’s throat. “Is your word worth—”
“Enough!” Kari snapped, her voice so loud it caused both arguers to stop before they could come to blows. “Keep your wrath for the Gearsmen.”
Come to think of it, Maggie had never seen Matsumoto raise her voice. Another sign things had really gone to shit today.
“Why are you here, Maggie-san?” Kari asked Maggie, leaving the others to glare at one another. “I told you and the others to seek refuge.”
Where? Mom was a vegetable since Henry—she refused to call him dad, even in her own mind—beat her one time too many times, and Jack had gone demonic. As much as she hated to admit it, the church was the closest thing she had to a home now. “Nerd saved my life, twice. Don’t like it, but I gotta pay him back. He could give powers, so I thought—”
“I can’t,” Kari cut her off midway. “You cannot help.”
“I can. I know how to use firearms, and I’m not afraid to fight.”
“Bullets will not help.”
“Booz can sell me weapons,” Maggie replied, insisting. “I can help.”
“She might,” Solomon argued for her. “Mathias’ account with Booz remains full. We could make use of it in his name.”
Kari shook her head. “You will die if you come with us, Maggie-san. I cannot afford to fight and protect you all at once. We are going to war, and none of us may survive it.”
Maggie frowned. “Where did they take the nerd?”
“To Smokefang. To the Arc-City.”
That new, shining fortress city meant to replace old Evermarsh. Surrounded by the sea, staffed by an army of Gearsmen, and Smokefang lived there.
Yeah, it gave even Maggie pause. Fort Knox pre-Conquest would be an easier target. “You can sneak in. I mean, you’re a fucking spider-ninja.”
“Too many scanners and checkpoints, and I do not know where they keep Mathias-san. Or how long they will keep him before they send him somewhere else. Infiltration will take too long.”
“A frontal attack is our only recourse with such little time,” Sol added. “Booz mentioned a resource which may be our only way to stand a chance.”
“Great, and Mur can return home while you keep the tinmen busy,” the gargoyle said. “Mur will not waste more time.”
The sound of a ringtone resonated inside the church. Maggie couldn’t believe her ears, and eyes as Kari brought a smartphone out of her pocket. “The Beatles? You use the Beatles as a ringtone? Oh, and you got nerve after the ‘they can track you’ part.”
Kari’s eyebrows furrowed. “I like John Lennon,” she defended herself, before picking it up without answering Maggie’s second jab.
The more Kari listened, the more she frowned. “Understood.”
Kari didn’t answer Maggie’s question. Instead, she put the phone in the middle of the group and put on the loudspeaker. A robotic, digitally altered voice came out.
“Solomon Nicholae, Maggie Powells, Murmur the Imp.” The gargoyle let out a growl at that. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. Since most of you lack or discarded wifi compatible equipment, we must requisition Yoshikage’s phone.”
“You do not have a smartphone?” Kari asked Solomon.
“I only use the church’s anchored phone or my laptop,” he replied, sounding a little unhappy at that. Maggie wondered if he even had the credits for a smartphone. “Who are you?”
“The Administrator. I will transmit to each of you an invitation. A Magik Online Invitation.”
“Solomon Nicholae, Maggie Powells, Murmur the Imp. Your dedication to opposing Concordia, as well as your desire for freedom, has pleased our sponsors. As such, we would like to invite you to Magik Online. Magik is a free-to-use platform dedicated to giving ordinary people access to magic. Through our app, powerless humans and imps alike—”
“Imp?” Kari repeated, the gargoyle glaring back at her while sulking in a corner.
Maggie paid them no mind, wholly focused on the words coming out of the phone as the voice promised them ‘a thousand spells in their pocket.’ She had trouble grasping the whole deal.
A magical website? That was the nerd’s secret?
“You can give me magical powers,” Maggie said, making Mur’s eyes shine with greed. “If I fight the scalies.”
“No. That would be the standard offer. Instead, we offer you to beta test our new Guild system.” The robotic voice sounded joyful at the last words as if rejoicing over a private victory. “To ease the burden on our systems and allow more Players to participate, we have introduced the Guild system. Players can now form Guilds of up to seven members, one for each color, with Quest rewards being distributed among members, alongside a host of other advantages. Guilds are given a dedicated Magik Server for optimal performance, linking their accounts under the authority of a moderator. The Shroud account, considered the most promising for leadership, is pre-registered as Guild Moderator.”
“Mathias,” Kari’s answer was more precise.
“The Guild Moderator administers the various accounts on behalf of the Administrator. For safety reasons, the Moderator’s account cancellation means all linked accounts are frozen until a new Moderator is chosen by us. The same will happen if the Guild as a whole is considered compromised.”
“We fail to rescue the Shroud, and no powers?” Mur rasped.
“That may happen,” the Administrator replied.
“May or will?”
“We can only advise you to assist your Guild Moderator if you wish to fully enjoy the perks of our platform.”
“Why him?” Mur rasped.
“To prevent Mathias’ Lock from falling into the Grandmaster’s hands, we may have to destroy his account, a permanent loss of resources. Our sponsors are already invested in his future and so wish to keep him on the board.”
“Who are you?” Sol pushed. “What are you? If we are to accept the deal and fight on your behalf, we need to know more.”
“I cannot answer those questions. Magik Online’s offer is non-negotiable, take it or leave it.”
Maggie could understand the hidden reasoning. “We’re expendable?”
“No. We do everything we can to help our own. But we must safeguard the secrecy of our system from all potential dangers, including Player leaks.”
“While we fought with him, why extend that invitation to Mur?” Solomon asked. “He does not fight for mankind.”
“And proud of it!” Mur replied, delighting in taunting his ‘teammate.’
“You misunderstand, Solomon. We fight for a free Earth, not for mankind.” the Administrator explained. “While humans will probably benefit the most, we are willing to extend the use of Magik to those who embrace our values. Including non-humans sympathizers.”
“The problem remains. He is a mercenary.”
“Your worries are understandable. However, we did an extensive investigation on Murmur, and we believe he will be an excellent Player. We have the means to deal with him should he prove us wrong.” Mur remained silent at that, unwilling to open his mouth for once. “Now, we do not have much time, and I need your explicit consent for our procedure to work. Will you join, or will you not?”
“I’ll join!” Maggie said without thinking. This was the chance of a lifetime, secrets or not. If she could wield the same powers as Mathias or Jack, she wouldn’t have to rely on anyone else ever again.
“I will join,” Solomon added, sounding more tentative than truly convinced.
“Mur will say yes.” His eyes turned to Kari. “If she agrees to the same group deal.”
“I made the deal before, as a first-time Player,” Matsumoto replied. “I am not required to join the Guild.”
“If Mur is to bind himself to this group, Mur will not tolerate ambiguity. We share the rewards, and we share the risks. No one on the fence.”
Kari hesitated. The deal presented more disadvantages than advantages for her since she risked the loss of her powers in case of failure. Finally, though, she nodded to herself once, then once again, with more confidence. “Alright.”
“Then Mur will grace you with his might.”
“Then it’s settled,” the Administrator replied. “Welcome to Magik Online.”
A flash of bright, red light erupted from the phone, swallowing Maggie whole; at the edge of her sight, she noticed Mur bathed in orange light and Solomon in a white glow.
Connection to Dis established.
Lock selected: SPELLGUN.
As red, 3-D words began to appear right before her eyes, Maggie smiled to herself.
Thank you for your trust, Maggie.
Your account name is: SHARPSHOOT.
Opening Magik Browser.
Damsel-in-distress no more.
Booz shrugged, carrying his disc with him as he sat on one of the church’s benches. “You’re nuts,” he said. “You are all nuts.”
“Mur thinks this is a good plan. A brave, glorious plan.” After discovering what his Lock ‘Adamant’ did, the creature had been in an incredibly cheerful mood. He had willingly went with every suggestion for the battle plan, even Solomon’s.
She couldn’t blame him. Maggie herself couldn’t wait to test her powers. It was as if her Lock had been made for her. Besides it, she had invested almost all her money on the spells that could make her a better shot: Timesense, Intuimotion, and Stockmight.
“It’s a suicide run. Madness. Teleporting you inside the Arc-City like my merchandise?”
“It is possible, is it not?” Sol asked. His voice sounded firmer, now that he had applied the Peak spell to himself.
“They do not protect their entire fortress, no. They leave rooms unprotected to summon supplies or outside reinforcements. Guarded rooms, to prevent exactly the kind of madness you want to pull off. They will sound the alarm, and you will face an army of Gearsmen in short order.”
“We’ve fought one before,” Kari replied.
Booz didn’t comment. “They will track me down. I will have to close up shop. And that is if it was a one-way trip, but you want me to teleport you out right afterward? This stunt of yours has a ninety percent chance of failure, and if you succeed, everyone involved will get on Concordia’s shitlist for the rest of their life. I will take no part in your foolish plan.”
“You would have us in your debt,” Maggie pushed. She would have just put a gun against his head and made him behave, but they needed his full, willing cooperation.
Booz grunted. “I told your friend back then, the Red Goblin does not do favors. Still no.”
“How much?” Sol asked. “How much to compensate you for your trouble?”
Booz let out a growl, “More than you own.”
“Mathias made sure that I could manage his account and finances, in case he was arrested,” Sol said. “I hold his account, and the digital device filling it regularly. You could walk out of this conflict a rich hob, Booz. Rich enough to leave Earth and retire. Your price will be our own.”
Booz scratched his cheek. “Any price?” he asked the rest of the group. “Mur?”
“Mur is happy to oblige.”
That sentence alone seemed to shake Booz more than any other argument. “What the hell did they do to you?” Maggie knew him they had him. While he overplayed the risks involved, no hobgoblin would never turn away a good deal. “I want everything.”
“The full account?” Sol asked.
As Kari took over the discussion, explaining to Booz the finer points of their plan, Sol looked at Maggie. “Victor.” Maggie tried to remember who the name belonged to. Martel’s dad. “Did he… did he suffer?”
The sight of Martel’s father getting torn in half by Jack remained vivid in Maggie’s mind. “He got blown up trying to save us. He died a hero.” Then, she added, lying. “Quick and painless.”
Sol didn’t buy it. “I failed the parents, I cannot fail the son.”
“You couldn’t help.” Even she hadn’t believed Jack would come back as… whatever monster he had turned into.
“I could have. I should have known others would target Mathias’ friends and family, with the new path he chose. I lacked vigilance.”
“You’re storming an Arc-City, that’s gotta makes up for it.”
Sol shook his head, still blaming himself. “His mother asked me to watch over them, and Victor died. Maybe my sword will make a difference, but—”
“But nothing.” She couldn’t stand self-pitying. “Nerd’s alive, and you can still save him. You’re can’t let those regrets and fears control you.” That was how Jack and his kind worked.
“Mmm…” The knight changed the subject. “You will never be able to return to this place if we succeed, Maggie.”
Good riddance. “That sounds like an attempt to change my mind.”
“No. I stand by what I told Mathias last time. I will support you whatever you choose, so long as you are fully informed of the consequences and yet still remain firm.”
“You know what I want? I want to be strong, to live my life the way I want it. My family tried to kill me twice, and I couldn’t do anything to defend myself. I had to be saved. Do you know how it feels?”
“I assume you must feel relief.”
“First, then the awfulness comes. ‘Cause you were a piece of furniture in your own life, to be fought over by others. Or a toddler. I don’t want to feel that way ever again. And with these powers, I can finally take charge of my life. Any way I choose.”
Mur raised his stony head at her words. What was that in his eyes? Empathy? “You gonna say something, stone-head?”
“Mur likes you a bit more now.”
“Cute, Murmur, but I’m taken.” Or was. After today she doubted she and Ulysses would remain an item if they truly had been one in the first place. Anyway, gargoyles weren’t her type.
The monster responded by bringing his face near Maggie’s, his fangs within an inch from her face. “Do not call Mur that again. Ever.”
Maggie held his gaze, and Sol seemed to make a move to protect her, before stopping himself. He had understood she didn’t want a knight. “I won’t,” she told the gargoyle. “But threaten me again and I will burst your brains out.”
The monster smirked back.
Booz’s eyes shifted from one member of the group to the others, as he typed on his holo-disc. “The things I do for cash.”
“Guys? Can you hear me?”
Maggie raised her head in surprise, as the nerd’s voice echoed inside her own skull. So did Mur, Sol, and Kari. “Son, are you alright?” Sol spoke first, full of concern.
“What?” Booz asked, left outside the loop.
“Shroud is talking to us,” Kari replied. “Where are you?”
“Still inside the Arc-City. I broke out on my own.” Matt sounded… different. Colder. “Kresnik is coming to the church, with troops, and Smokefang gave them the license to kill. I think you’ve got less than an hour at best.”
“Let them come,” Maggie replied, toying with her gun. “I’m magic now, too.”
She could have sworn the nerd made a contrite face on the other end of the line, as she stole his line. “Yoshikage?”
“They received the same gift we did a few minutes ago,” Kari replied, careful not to mention Magik Online in Booz’s presence. “Check out your own account.”
Mathias marked a short pause on the other end. “Alright.”
“We were preparing to rescue you, Mathias,” Sol said.
“Then escape Evermarsh? The worst case scenario?”
“Yes. We are almost ready—”
“I’m not escaping yet. There’s something I must do first.” Before the group could protest, Mathias cut them off. “It’s better that we divide the enemy, force them to fight on different fronts. Let’s regroup in the swamp, I will send you the coordinates through a private message, give me until nightfall.”
Sol paused. “You think you can escape the Arc-City on your own?”
“Madness,” Booz commented, even if he could only understand half the conversation.
“Yes. I figured out the Hack trick.” The what? Maggie thought. “Try to modify a spell with another in a way it shouldn’t, and it may happen. It’s all about creativity. I also short-circuited the local UB, it may help.”
“Understood,” Kari replied, taking his word at face value. “Nightfall.”
“Nightfall. Don’t die.”
Then he cut the communication as abruptly as he started it.
Not that Maggie could blame him. After what he went through, he probably didn’t care for niceties today. “So, we’re getting ambushed soon,” she stated what everyone thought. “Any ideas?”
“They are already here,” Matsumoto replied, a yellow aura manifesting around her. “I can sense my death.”
Before Maggie could ask her what the fuck she meant, the church’s stained glass windows exploded into a volley of shrapnel. A Gearsman flew through the destroyed window, its eye crimson red.
To Maggie, it was as if time slowed down around her. Like those Matrix movies. She could perceive every moment, the slight timing of each shard falling—
Huh? She thought, a text flashing before her eyes.
New Hack created!
Components: Timesense + Intuimotion
Activation: Passive, App Switch.
You gain supernatural reflexes, agility, accuracy, and aim. You can also predict movement with near perfect accuracy, allowing you to make shots with supercomputer levels of mathematical complexity.
Nice! Although Maggie didn’t fully understand what the text said, she immediately put her spell to use.
In a split second, before anyone else could react, she reached for her gun, a red aura coloring it crimson. “Spellgun!” She felt the power surge within herself, gathering at the tip of her fingers and into her bullet. Was this how Jack and Matt felt? That overwhelming feeling she could snap the world open with a fingertip?
She pulled the trigger, her bullet firing off like a crimson star. It hit the Gearsman through the torso, went through while melting most of it, before continuing its course. The defeated machine fell on the church’s bench, dead and broken.
It felt awesome!
Maggie’s triumph lasted only a few seconds, as an explosion resonated outside. More Gearsmen smashed through the windows, landing in the middle of the room.
Something was wrong, however. One crashed on its own face as if losing control of its flight; another stomped on it, seemingly intentionally. Booz, that wise snake, had immediately taken cover behind a bench, while Sol, Mur, and Matsumoto moved to engage the machines.
Next, Kresnik, that wolf bastard, broke the church’s door open with a kick, the wooden gate falling to the ground with a loud crack. He looked pissed, white blood and oil sprayed on his jacket.
“Maggie Powells. Of course, you would be their accomplice,” the giant wolf spoke upon seeing her. She could see his lips move before they actually did, which she found distracting. “You should not have perjur—”
Maggie shot him in the head before he could finish.
The bullet bounced off him, but the werewolf’s face made it worth it anyway.
Voting for Magik: Voting button
A/N: thanks to my beloved patrons, Bald Guy Dennis, Karolus, Matt Savage, Sam, Floodtalon and Daniel Zogbi.