You are just experience points, and I am leveling up.
Jack’s words echoed in Shroud’s mind, as he flew circles around the dragon, avoiding streams of flames. The sorcerer had grown certain that the snake had practiced his flight since their last encounter. The reptile moved more gracefully than before, and kept his distance instead of rushing in towards the sorcerer.
He had learned a lesson from their last confrontation.
With dragonfire raining down on the enclosed space, the park below had become a smoldering inferno, with only a few areas untainted; not even hardened steel could resist the raw intensity of Smokefang’s breath. Water couldn’t extinguish his flames, the lake below turning to steam on contact.
— How easy do their cities burn, thought Smokefang, raining death and flames upon the monkeys’ city alongside his mother’s ships. He would cook the primates inside their homes, smoke them out. —
The Network memory, that of the destruction of Atlanta during the Conquest, filled Shroud with hatred and disgust. The sorcerer could feel the heat rising, smoke filling the air. Had the dragon, unable to land a hit, instead settled on asphyxiating him?
He had to finish this as quickly as possible.
Unleashing a volley of light beams at the dragon, Shroud watched dejectedly as most of them bounced back off the beast’s scales. Distance wouldn’t cut it.
Up close and personal then.
Instead of running away, Shroud suddenly switched direction, dashing at Smokefang and closing the gap between them. The dragon, surprised and wary, kept his current position and tried to push him away with a flap of his giant wings. Although the wind offered some surprise resistance, Shroud moved close enough get Smokefang inside Glass Field’s range.
Next, the sorcerer turned some of his lightshards into claymores of light, sending them to impale the dragon. Smokefang, suspecting a trick, dived to dodge most of the projectiles like a giant falcon. In spite of his size and weight, he avoided quite a few.
But not all of them.
Swords sliced through his scales with some effort—those aiming for the belly and neck more easily than the rest of the body—and reached the flesh beneath. The dragon let out a pain-filled squeal, thick dark red blood dripping from his wounds.
Shroud ordered his lightswords to keep going, but they struggled to worm themselves deeper into the monster’s flesh. It seemed the cursed beast’s insides were as tough as the hide outside. Still, like living shrapnel, they cut their way through. Shroud only had to reach an organ to finish him off.
Letting out a howl of agony, Smokefang retaliated with his fiery breath. Yet, instead of unleashing it as a straight line of fire, his breath took the shape of a large rounded burst; like a bursting balloon, it left no room for Shroud to dodge around.
The sorcerer moved backward, retreating to avoid incineration. While the burst soon dissipated into harmless fireworks, it forced Shroud farther back than his Glass Field range could allow him to maintain control over his shards.
His lightswords turned back into normal glass shards; still embedded in Smokefang’s body, but harmless for now.
“You, you… you tried to kill me.” Besides the obvious anger and fury, Shroud noticed another, new feeling in Smokefang’s voice.
The creature had never fought for his life in his entire, miserable existence.
“That’s the goal, genius,” Shroud replied, his tone ominous. He carefully modeled his tone this way to cow the snake. The more he unbalanced him, the greater the odds were he would make a mistake. “You tried to kill my friends, tried to condemn me to Electon, and you thought I would play nicely?”
“If you kill me, you will never find peace!” Smokefang responded with threats and outrage. “To strike against the universal master race is a violation of the natural order! Concordia will hunt you to your death!”
“Good. It will save me the trouble of hunting your kind down.”
The dragon responded with a stream of fire that Shroud easily avoided, trying to dash back to close combat. Before he could, Smokefang quickly retaliated with a rounded burst, once again forcing him back. “Ten, twelve meters,” Smokefang said, keeping his distance. “That is how far your range goes.”
Only for Glass Field.
Should he cast Mad World on Smokefang? The dragon would lose all reason and become easier to approach but on the other hand… fighting irrational, living artillery in a closed environment sounded borderline suicidal.
Smokefang must have thought he considered using Blue World, for he began to gloat. “And your mind trick will not work again! I had Captain Kresnik cast a protective spell on me this morning!”
One not powerful enough to block his weapons, though. He also doubted it would protect the dragon against Mad World when top-tier Imperial infrastructure fell to it.
In the end, he risked too much by turning the dragon mad; the sorcerer needed him doubtful and fearful, not savage. “Because you can’t cast it yourself?” Shroud taunted him. “How does it feel, to rely on mammals to stand a chance against me?”
Smokefang’s eye flared with malice before the dragon responded with venom of his own. “I was too busy signing your mother’s arrest warrant.”
Shroud’s eyes narrowed beneath his helmet, his lightshards letting out a crimson glow. Lightbringer seemed to echo his own murderous thoughts. “Where is she?”
“Where trash goes to die.”
— Alice Martel. Smokefang tried to remember the name as he looked at the file’s name. He must have approved her arrest at some point, like countless vermin over the years, but he couldn’t remember for what.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t find out, the mammal’s file was protected beyond his Dot clearance level. The fact that slippery Maxwell knew more than he did filled him with rage. —
“You don’t know.”
The dragon opened his maw, unleashing a fireball instead of a direct stream of fire. He fired one, then two, then a rapid volley, like a Gatling gun.
Unable to dodge in time, Shroud created a beehive barrier around him and turning lightshards into shields. The fireballs detonated against the shields, shattering some and melting a few; one hit his barrier head-on, the detonation making him shake.
He began to scoff, smoke filling his lungs even with his armor helping him filter the dust. Ashes burned his throat from within, his sedative-induced headache worsening.
Having reinforced his armor with multiple layers of glass and light, Shroud himself weathered the onslaught, recreating his barrier faster than Smokefang could destroy it.
Only when almost all his surroundings were darkened by smoke did the sorcerer guess his foe’s plan.
— Yes, Smokefang thought, noticing the blinding of his enemy’s protection among the cloud of smoke. A direct line of fire. Just a little more smoke to cover the last of the shards, and the vermin would not see it coming.
After he dared try killing a dragon, his mother would forgive him for carrying out the death sentence himself. —
Magik Online had granted him Network, so that he may understand others. The more Shroud understood Smokefang, the more he hated him.
Reacting quickly, Shroud called upon one of his shards, channeling Lightbringer to create a new shape around it; a light construct in Shroud’s own image, with its own beehive barrier.
Shroud himself canceled his own barrier and dimmed the aura Lightbringer produced around his armor. While he could no longer turn invisible by manipulating ordinary photons through Quasar, he managed to vanish in the smoke; struggling to hold his breath so as not to cough and give away the trick.
As he guessed, Smokefang fired a sustained, line of fire at the decoy’s direction. Having realized his fireballs wouldn’t break past Shroud’s protection, he must have thought a sustained, focused attack would.
His fiery breath bathed the decoy in flames, piercing through the barrier and melting the glass shard at the center of the light construct. The false Shroud collapsed into harmless particles of light, while the dragonfire kept coming, melting a steel wall.
The biodome began to work again, the lamps lighting up one by one. The central UB system was finishing its reboot. He had to finish this now.
The real Shroud, exploiting Smokefang’s blind spot, emerged from a cloud of smoke on the dragon’s left. Moving stealthily, he suddenly made another rush towards the beast, breathing in air and smoke in equal measure. Smokefang heard him, and the beast suddenly turned his face at Shroud to incinerate him.
Dashing to the side, the sorcerer tried a new trick on the fly: creating solid replicas of himself and leaving them behind as he flew. While quickly vanishing after losing contact with his body or shards, the phantom images hovered in the air, distracting the beast.
To outsiders, it must have looked as if he had multiplied.
Predictably, unable to identify nor incinerate the real sorcerer, Smokefang fell back on the defensive, gathering his breath for another circular burst.
Oh no, you don’t, Shroud thought, his vision blurring.
At the last moment, Shroud unleashed the full radiance of Lightbringer through both his armor and shards. A powerful, blinding flash of light, as overwhelming as a star.
Smokefang put his claws on his lone eye on reflex with a pained whine, protecting himself from the searing flash.
“Your flames… may burn like the sun…” Shroud coughed, echoing Smokefang’s boast from their previous fight as he closed the gap between them. “But I shine… I shine… brighter!”
Shroud positioned himself right behind the dragon’s back, in the narrow space between the wings; the one spot the monster couldn’t reach either with his claws or teeth.
He sensed the shrapnel inside the dragon’s flesh, turning them back into light swords.
Smokefang let out an agonizing scream and tried to throw the sorcerer off his back. Shroud held on, guiding the shrapnel through the beast’s flesh and then bloodstream. He couldn’t fathom the pain Smokefang must be experiencing right now; enough to feel an ounce of pity for the lizard.
“Burn it to the ground. I want every accomplice, or potential accomplice, of those terrorists dead.”
No. No pity.
“That feeling of helplessness… that crushing fear of unavoidable death…” Shroud coughed. “After ten years of it… perhaps you will comprehend… the depth of the hate I feel for your kind.”
“I am stronger, bigger, smarter than any ape!” Smokefang clung stubbornly to his pride, even in the face of death, “A member of the universal master race!”
After some seconds of dragon rodeo, Shroud’s shards made enough progress to sense a beating, powerful sound nearby. “I’m near your heart, Godzilla… it’s over. You’re just coins.”
You are just experience points, and I am leveling up.
Jack’s words grew louder in his head, disrupting his focus, filling him with doubt.
That, and the quake shaking the fiery inferno that the biodome had turned into.
The lamps above them died out, while the ceiling slowly widened. Gears creaked as multiple gates of layered steel opened above Shroud’s head, soon letting sunlight inside. The smoke went up through the opening.
Smokefang, screaming in pain, suddenly flew towards the exit, the wind blown by his wings taking Shroud by surprising and pushing him away. With the newfound vigor of a cornered rattlesnake, he managed to escape Shroud’s range.
Fuck! “Coward… fleeing when someone… stands up to you!” Shroud pursued the dragon, in an odd reversal of their last battle. He needed to get him back in range before the gate could widen further.
He had to short-circuit the machinery again before Smokefang could escape through. Consequences be damned.
“Mad World,” he whispered, his voice reverberating through his glass like a sound crescendo. His sorcery spread like a virus, stopping the gates before they could get big enough for Smokefang to pass through.
The dragon let out a breath of fire, furiously melting the steel. Gone was the glow of sanity and fear in his lone eye, replaced by feral madness. The slit pupil noticed Shroud, and the beast jerked around and dived at him like a falcon.
Taken by surprise, Shroud fired a volley of light swords at the dragon’s wings, while Smokefang retaliated with a large fireball. The sorcerer’s projectiles shredded the thin fabric of the dragon’s wings, ripping holes through like paper.
Shroud managed to conjure a barrier as the fireball came within inches of his face, but the resulting shockwave hit him head on like a hammer. His vision blurred as his body fell spiraling, Smokefang’s massive body crashing.
Concussion… Even with Premium Thoughts, Shroud started losing control of his flight. He tried to stabilize, slowing down his fall but unable to stop it. The ground grew closer and he put his hands before his face…
His right arm went numb, and his body tumbled among the ashes. Even if his armor protected him, he could feel the heat searing his skin. He had trouble keeping his eyes open, seeing only fire around him.
And body parts.
He saw his father’s corpse next to him, his blood on his own son’s hands. His mother laid next to him, peaceful and pristine in death, her long blonde hair grayed by ashes.
Can’t pass out, he thought, trying to focus and stand. He collapsed to his knees, cooking inside his own armor. Must focus. He couldn’t distinguish anything around himself but ashes, smoke, and flames.
A vision of Hell.
“Hell is more than fire and brimstone, my child.” A shadowy lamb watched from the flames, a dark blur at the edge of his eye. Whether it was another hallucination or the real thing, Shroud couldn’t say. “You humans say that Hell is other people. You’re wrong. Hell is disconnection. From God, from others. In short, Hell is freedom.”
Shroud ignored him, the ground shaking. He could hear Smokefang approach, the heat increasing.
“What did you hope to accomplish today, throwing yourself at the wyrm? Do you hope to die in your attempt, going out in a blaze of glory and sparing your friends from retaliation?” The Maleking’s shadow shook his head in sadness. “This would be so much simpler if you cared only for yourself.”
You are just experience points, and I’m leveling up. “And end up like Jack? Slippery slope…”
“Silly, only fools think they can become someone else! Everyone goes mad in their own unique way!”
Shroud clenched his fists, managing to rise to his feet. “Did you send him… after me?”
“No. But I did not forbid him either.” The shadowy fiend slowly dissipated into smoke. “Follow the advice of an old friend of mankind, Mathias. Ask yourself what led you there. Why you choose war rather than peace. Because if you have a why to live for, you will bear any how.”
And then, he was gone.
Must… breathe. His light armor flickered alongside his consciousness. With his remaining will, Shroud opened his Magik Account, finding the Purge spell he had seen when he lost his father. He purchased it.
“Purge,” he spoke, a green glow surrounding his body. His head cleared up, his lungs purged of the smoke and the carbon dioxide gas. He breathed deeply, smoke filling his throat again. “Purge.”
Each time, he cast the spell as he breathed, cleaning himself of the smoke as soon as it entered his body. He found the strength to rise again and stand, both from the strength of his legs and the will sustaining his sorcery. The hallucination of his parents disappeared.
“Kirai? That’s your reason?”
“I sense a burning wrath like mine, unnurtured lust, a slight dash of greed… and a shining, beautiful jewel of pride.”
Greed and ego?
“By agreeing to use our platform, you also subscribe to our core policy of:
– Becoming the greatest magician you can be.
– Championing the cause of freedom whenever possible.
– Fulfilling the Administrator’s requests.”
A quest, and a promise? Justice? The salvation of mankind?
Somehow none of those sounded right.
He heard Smokefang coming long before the behemoth’s massive shape emerged from the inferno.
Even with both wings shredded, and his left one limp and broken, the dragon remained a fearsome, terrible beast. His massive hide cast Shroud in its shadow, the fiend roaring with primeval strength.
How could knights with steel sticks ever defeat such a force of nature?
Smokefang was already dead. Shroud could sense the shrapnel still inside his flesh, the internal bleeding. Without medical attention, the beast would perish even if the fight ended there and then.
But reduced to a rampaging volcano in lizard form, Smokefang no longer cared for survival. He only wanted one last duel among flames.
Shroud remembered that day when it all started, waiting in his virtual dungeon for a fight that would never come. How he had wanted this climactic confrontation, the opportunity to test his skills.
Ulysses was right. He wanted to fight. To get his hand bloodied.
In the end, he had signed on to slay dragons.
The dragon lunged at Shroud with his maw open, his teeth sharp spears. The sorcerer barely had the time to jump to the side to avoid being bitten in half. The beast continued with the relentless assault, offering neither quarter nor respite.
Shroud turned the shrapnel inside the dragon into lightswords again, but Smokefang ignored the pain. With lightning quickness, the beast grabbed Shroud with his left claw and pinned him to the ground, his maw open for a final bite.
The sorcerer fired a light blade with his remaining hand, impaling Smokefang’s eye and fully blinding him. The beast let out a roar, crying tears of blood yet didn’t release his hold. Instead, he widened his maw further, taking a deep breath in preparation for cooking his prey alive.
As he watched his promised death by dragonfire approach, his life flashing before his eyes, Shroud asked himself one last time, why? Why should he keep living? Why did he fight the law, why did he agree to read that mail that changed his life?
… because he wanted to feel strong.
Because he loved the intoxicating feeling sorcery gave him, of gaining strength after years of helplessness and weakness. Because he craved the power to change this unjust, unfair world. Because he wanted to protect his friends and family instead of watching them die.
He wanted to be the final boss, the almighty king in the invincible castle. The one above all, whom nobody could hurt again.
His mind as clear as the coldest ice, Shroud gathered his remaining lightshards into a sphere of light-infused glass. As he saw the fire coming at the end of the tunnel, he obstructed the dragon’s open gullet with his projectile, making the dragon choke.
You shouldn’t have threatened my friends.
With a loud burst, Smokefang’s neck exploded into blood and flames, the head sent flying like a cannonball into the flames.
Smokefang’s headless body stood for a few seconds, showering the sorcerer with dried blood dust before collapsing to the side with a loud noise. Shroud laid there for a second, his breath slow and difficult. He half expected the monster to rise again, or for Kresnik to suddenly appear and dash his hopes.
Instead, he heard a familiar sound, and a message flashed before his eyes.
Quest: Dragonslayer, completed!
You have earned nine Spellcoins!
You gained a level!
Channeling a dome of light around himself to get free from the corpse’s hand, Shroud hovered above his defeated enemy, glancing at his bloodied head untouched by the flames.
Shroud knew there would be no turning back from this.
He had killed a dragon.
That alone made him an existential threat to Concordia. The Empire couldn’t allow him to go free after that. He had declared war on them, on the order they represented. Smokefang’s words rung true. They would hunt him to the death.
His, or theirs.
And beyond that, he had taken his first life. He had tried to kill Jack but didn’t get to do it. Shroud could rationalize it as much as he wanted, it didn’t change the fact he had killed a sentient being in cold blood. He had crossed a line.
The rush of combat subsided, leaving him with a strange, cold feeling. Guilt? Regret? He couldn’t put a finger on it.
And it scared him.
As if to comfort him, another message followed the first. It sounded more melodious, and even more awe-inspiring, than the Quest reward ringtone.
You have reached Level 2 (Adept)!
You can now purchase Dot 2 Spells at the Compendium + Fuse Dot 3 Hacks!
Lair feature unlocked!
The Maleking was wrong. Freedom wasn’t disconnection.
Freedom was power. Freedom was unlimited possibility.
Unwilling to have the city reboot and cage him in, the sorcerer flew through the opening in the ceiling; leaving the fiery grave behind with no Gearsmen to stop him. While it angered him to leave the UB behind, he was physically and mentally exhausted. He would better fall back for now.
Soon, Shroud emerged out of the Arc-City, flying under a twilight sky. He took a breath of fresh air, and it felt amazing.
On Evermarsh’s beaches and docks, people had gathered under the twilight. They had come to look at the Arc-City in alarm after seeing the smoke rising from it. Shroud wondered if Perse and Ulysses were among them.
Network sent him their fears, their confusion… and some of their hopes.
The message would soon spread.
Humans could slay dragons.
Voting for Magik: Voting button
Thanks to my beloved patrons, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, Daniel Zogbi. By their will, April’s Quest will be “Dreams of the Crimson King,” published as chapter 26.