As the violet light of the teleportation spell dissipated, Solomon looked at the crossroads with a frown, using Quasar to create a makeshift orb of light. “This is the place?” he asked, casting light on the darkness.
“Yes, it is,” Booz replied, standing next to their Mapmaker transporter, a bullman clad in purple robes. “Be patient. The Shadow Queen will receive you soon.”
The bullman turned to the hob smuggler. “I will be back in one hour to pick you up, would that be enough? I have a few commands in-between.”
“Yes, yes, do so.” Shroud delighted at understanding them speak in English; he had worried Babel would translate words into Concordian Common instead of his native language.
The bullman vanished in a purple flash, leaving the group alone in the dark. From what Shroud had gathered, the bullman himself was no spellcaster, instead using items imbued with teleportation spells—his robes probably. Shroud suspected sorcerers among the Mapmakers used the White-colored Encode spell he had seen among the Compendium.
That implied a lot of magical firepower.
“Mammon rules as king, but he is not the only faction on the Market,” Mur had told them, “The Arcadian Reavers are also numerous, led by Lugh, one of Lord Revel’s sons.”
Lord Revel was a powerful interstellar warlord, who ruled a region of space, Arcadia, outside Concordian control. His species was infamous for raiding other worlds for plunder, slaves, or sport. Even imperial worlds near their borders suffered from incessant raids.
From what little he had heard about Revel, Shroud thought it wise to keep their distance from that faction. “A brotherhood of space pirates,” Sol dismissed them.
“You wear one of their suits of armor, old man,” Mur replied. “The Mapmakers administer the Market’s teleportation routes and transportation, and so their leader, Zenia, has a lot of clout. She’s ice inside and out. Then there’s the Shadow Queen.”
“Should we fear any of them?” Shroud had asked. They were wanted men and gargoyles now, and he had enough on his mind to worry about local politics.
“All the big shots will be busy recruiting teams for Mammon’s Crimson Epoch. He always offers a unique prize, and I heard rumors the current one is the biggest yet.”
“We have been waiting for hours!” Mur the imp complained, sitting on Maggie’s shoulder like a squirrel. It reminded Shroud of a twisted Pokemon parody. “Mur wonders if she really wants to see us.”
“I would kill for a drink,” Maggie complained. Only Kari remained silent, resting with her eyes closed. Their last battle had tired her out more than Shroud had thought.
The Blue Sorcerer kept his arms crossed, his back turned on a blackened, tagged wall; he had come in full armor just in case. The Mapmaker had teleported them away from the chaotic, maddened cacophony of the populated area to an empty street corner in-between three silent desolate buildings; on the other side of the “coin.”
This face of the sphere looked nothing like the golden glory of the other half of the market. To begin with, since it didn’t face bright stars like the above, darkness and the bitter cold ruled. Only a distant multi-colored neurotower, identical as the one on the above, provided some measure of light.
They were probably both halves of the same structure, reshaping gravity itself and keeping both halves habitable. Under the normal laws of physics, the group should have frozen to death twice over already.
Buildings, those he could see in the darkness through his lightshards, were built in the same style as the other half, but of poorer metal. Rust covered everything in the vicinity, like a dead machine long abandoned. The disturbing silence also contrasted with the buzzing activity above.
He found himself opening his Magik account on impulse, checking the new spells available.
Activation: Active, Voice Vector.
Invites an Outsider from another plane of existence and whose true name the user knows to teleport to their location; the target cannot be located on the user’s plane when the spell is cast. The Outsider instinctively knows who the caller is, can choose to refuse the call, and is under no compulsion to obey any order.
Call Piper of the Demon Sultan… so that was the spell the Crimson King had used to summon back-up. No wonder the beast had just rampaged around.
Activation: Passive, App Switch.
The user becomes immune to all hostile attempts to affect their mind, emotions, and nervous system from spells up to Dot Four, unless boosted by the Pierce spell or a Lock; all non-magical mind-affecting effects simply fail. Previously cast spells will remain active.
Activation: Passive, Thought.
The user can create and cover themselves in an alien, symbiotic layer of skin. The Secondskin provides enhanced strength, protection from harm, and a minor healing factor when worn, but the user feels any damage inflicted on it.
Activation: Active, Voice, Mutual Consent.
The user can forge a magical contract with a partner, which include supernatural penalties when broken. The two contractors must agree to the terms of the oath and its penalties, which can include a variety of effects such as ill-luck or even death.
Activation: Active, Thought.
The user can turn his breath into any inorganic gas, from a fiery breath to toxic fumes. The user suffers no ill effect from the breath but cannot produce organic material.
Activation: Passive, App Switch.
The user’s speed and stamina exponentially increase as they move, with no upper limit; their body and anything in direct contact with it suffers no effect from friction or inertia. Inactivity disperses the accumulated energy, which must be built up again.
Activation: Active, Thought, Limb Vector.
Creates a sharp blade of Flux around one limb of the user’s choice, which also inflicts a temporary, secondary effect on those it cuts based on the caster’s color affinity: weakening spells (White), sensory overload (Blue), fatigue (Green), irrationality (Yellow), paralysis (Orange), ignition (Red), or loss of balance (Violet).
Shroud had cracked the price formula, or so he thought. The price of a dot one spell, multiplied by the spell’s dot level. Blue spells came cheapest, at six; his allied colors, White, Green, and Violet, eight; and opposed colors cost ten.
After investing in Heal and Babel and being refunded by the latest quest, he had enough Spellcoins to buy a Dot Two spell of his personal or allied colors. Considering the noticeable jump in power from Dot One, Shroud doubted he would spend Spellcoins purchasing weaker spells.
He shuddered to think of what high-level sorcerers could achieve.
“This is bullshit,” Maggie kept complaining. “How can someone be hours late for a meeting?”
“Patience,” Booz grumbled, straightening up. “You squishies are so quick, thinking everyone’s got time for you. The Shadow Queen is a big fish, so she will receive you when she wants.”
The girl grumbled. Not that it helped; so far they had no place to rest, and were out of money for temporary accommodations.
If the Shadow Queen failed to show up, they would have to figure something out. Hire themselves as mercenaries, or sell their services as sorcerers. Thanks to his Grant Spell feature, Shroud could probably make a killing in licensing his magic the same way the Mapmakers did.
The thought brought him back of his original plan, to create a rebel cell in Evermarsh. While kickstarting a revolution in his home city was obviously out of question now, perhaps this alien world could be a fertile ground for recruiting. He still had two accounts to deliver, and he had no idea how many people he could empower with Grant Spell.
Now that he thought of it, his level-up had also unlocked the Lair feature. He quickly checked that part of his account, finding it now accessible.
Through our Lair feature, a Player Guild can gain a custom, private headquarters from a patron Sponsor, which they can access anytime. A Lair can be upgraded to provide players with various additional benefits, such as weapons, servants, and magical protections, as befitting of their Sponsor’s nature.
However, to earn the ownership of a Lair, the Players must conquer it. The Lair’s Sponsor has set traps, ordeals, and fearsome foes to challenge Players as it wishes. Each Lair has a throne room occupied by the Sponsor’s chosen Champion. Only by overcoming the Champion and claiming the throne, will ownership of the Lair pass to the Guild and earn them an audience with their Sponsor.
While Players can choose any Lair to tackle on our list, only one Guild can challenge a given Lair at a time. When summoned to the Lair, the Guild will be unable to escape the Lair. Only through death or victory will they achieve freedom.
– Have all accounts assigned and the Guild fully assembled.
– Moderator must at least be level Two
A private dungeon, with bonuses? Awesome! He immediately checked the available Lairs on the list, which were in the shape of pictures with a text description beneath.
The first image was of a mythical flying island covered with wind turbines, floating above what appeared to be a gas giant; a golden palace stood at the center of the island. A familiar Sponsor owned the place.
Elysium, the Weather Palace
Themes: Greco-Roman myths, Weather, Eternal War, Human Civilization.
Ordeals: Mythological creatures, warriors of past ages, magical weather, golems.
A palace built by a warlike, agrarian deity over the domain of a defeated weather spirit, to celebrate the first triumph of civilization over nature. Now an abode for the souls of deceased warriors from all wars across history, Elysium will challenge all those who seek to test their skills.
The next picture represented a bottomless abyss in what seemed to be a dark, terrible sea. On a second look, Shroud realized those were not rocks surrounding the abyss, but sharp teeth.
The Mother’s Maw
Sponsor: Mother of All
Themes: Sea, Chaos, Madness, Dreams, and Nightmares.
Ordeals: Sea monsters, parasitic slimes, living nightmares, children of chaos .
An abyss in the gullet of the Mother of All, at the bottom of which her avatar waits. While the Mother looks down on the sane and the meek, she respects unbridled strength above all; only by slaying the mightiest of her dreams, will humans earn her favor.
The next picture showed a perfect replica of Earth’s Moon, pre-Concordian Conquest.
Kyotsuki, the Hollow Moon
Sponsor: Moon Boy
Themes: Moon, Illusion, Skill and Intellect, Food.
Ordeals: traps and illusions, moon creatures, magicians, food elementals.
A hollowed moon hidden in the darkness of space, created after Concordia turned the original one into a superweapon. Created to test the mind and will more than the body, the Hollow Moon is a maze whom no one can defeat without wits aplenty.
The list included dozens of such dungeons, each more different than the last. From icy wastelands to strange constructs to rival Escher, the Dragonslayers could find whichever place fit them best. The fact the group still had no idea who their mysterious backers even were made meeting one even more appealing.
The conditions bothered him a bit though. Assigning two Magik Online accounts was no trivial task; he needed competent people, loyal to the cause of a free Earth. Since they would be working with them for the long-run, the Dragonslayers would have to do an extensive screening.
Shroud glanced at his existing allies and wondered if it would work. The latest Quest had shown him that while they packed a wallop in term of power and could work fine in the heat of battle, they still needed to work on cohesion and teamwork.
There was also the matter of Mur. The imp had been fidgeting on Maggie’s shoulder since they arrived, anxious at meeting the Shadow Queen even more than everyone else. This made Shroud suspicious. “Mur,” the sorcerer spoke, remembering a tidbit of information. “What is Cocytus?”
The imp froze. “How do you know that name?”
“I heard the Shadow Queen came from there,” he replied without providing an answer. Booz seemed as lost as the rest of the group, so he probably knew nothing.
“Who told you?”
You, through a Network flash. “Answer my question, Mur.”
“No,” the imp replied, on the defensive. “Mur will not answer any more questions.”
“Are you keeping secrets from us?” Solomon asked warily, his hold on his weapon tightening.
Shroud’s thoughts exactly. “Mur, no racism or anything on my part, but you alone are not from Earth. You were a mercenary from another world, and while I believe in your integrity, I would like to know if previous affiliations of yours might threaten us in the future.”
The imp remained silent, before raising his head in surprise, as Kari stood before him in a protective manner. “I am sorry, Sol-san, Shroud-san,” she spoke. “Mur is entitled to his privacy.”
That stance she took… She was willing to fight them over this? Maggie eyed both halves of the team, unsure which side she should pick.
“I would understand that argument, but me keeping secrets recently destroyed most of the few friendships I had,” Shroud replied. “I can’t have this team suffer the same fate.”
“I keep secrets too,” Kari replied, “Will you use your Lock on me to guess them?”
Shroud frowned behind his helmet but didn’t answer.
“You stopped looking into my memories when I asked you to,” Kari continued. “Even if your power activates often on its own, you respected my privacy then. Just as I respected yours. Because we trust each other. We fought with Mur-san and he had many opportunities to betray us, but he didn’t.”
“For now,” Solomon replied. “And I agree with Mathias that keeping secrets that may affect the team is a recipe for disaster. It fosters mistrust.”
“Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Sol reeled from Kari’s answer. “This is different.”
“It is not,” she replied. “I am sorry, Sol-san. Pointing fingers will not help.”
Either it was no secret from anyone, or anyone was entitled to their private life. The group couldn’t start making exceptions without risking further division.
Sol looked at Shroud, trusting him to make the decision as the Guild Master. How odd that he found himself in that position, in spite of being younger.
The Blue Sorcerer briefly weighed the pros and cons of pushing the issue, before deciding the team’s unity was worth more, both short and long term. “Sol, back off,” he said, putting a hand on Sol’s arm to make him stand down. “I won’t ask further, and I will not use my Lock. I will respect your privacy.”
“Mathias…” the priest looked ready to dispute it, even as Shroud broke the physical contact.
“Now is not the time to fight each other,” said Shroud, before looking at the imp. “I will trust you for now, but I must warn you. If you kept information that endangered the group, I will deal with you myself.”
Mur let out a growl. “Mur wouldn’t have it any other way.”
A deep shadow passed over the back alley, suddenly casting it in an even deeper, thicker darkness. The metal moon passing over the alley, probably. Only Shroud’s Lightbringer-empowered armor outshone the artificial night, with even Sol’s lighted sword vanishing into the shadows.
The darkness persisted. It had swallowed the night and every tiny speck of light.
Lightbringer’s description said non-magical darkness shouldn’t affect him.
“Sol? Guys?” Shroud immediately let out a blinding flash of light, trying to illuminate the area.
The shadows drowned his radiance, and no one answered.
Fuck. Shroud unleashed his lightshards in every direction, trying to either find his friends or locate whoever had attacked them. Some of his shards hit a hidden stone ceiling that wasn’t there before and didn’t find the wall he used to stand near to.
“I would prefer if you did not damage my home.”
The feminine voice came from behind him.
Shroud immediately turned around, furiously trying to figure out how his shards missed. The sight of the creature made his mind stop working.
There were cute women, pretty women, and beautiful women. And then were beauties whose mere face could start wars and launch a thousand ships. Women whose mere smile could make men fall in abject adoration.
This woman was the incarnation of beauty.
A Snow White made real, with long, lustrous raven hair, skin white as snow, and deep, visionary eyes. Her red lips promised untold pleasures. She reminded Shroud of Eva Green in her youth, polished and perfect like a Greek statue.
She wore a black, expansive dress meshing with the shadows, woven in the style of a spider’s web. Velvet gloves kept her hands warm, and she stood with a regal expression. She was the ideal queen, royal power embodied.
… and she felt wrong.
She felt wrong, in a subtle way. Her face too aligned, the hair too well-groomed, her visage lacking any microexpression. Her eyes didn’t blink, and she stood unnaturally straight.
She was something trying a little too hard to emulate humanity.
And in spite of the ambient darkness, he could see her clearly. As if the shadows avoided touching her. Even after facing a dragon, Shroud found speaking in her presence to be a greater struggle. “Where are my friends?” he managed to blurt out.
“Outside. It is you whom I summoned to my palace of shadows, as your group’s leader.”
This was bad. It reminded him of his meeting with the Maleking. “So, the title of Shadow Queen is no exaggeration.”
“I rule the night,” the woman confirmed her identity. “And all those who call it home. The shadows are sworn to my will.”
“And you are human?”
She smiled, one that put Shroud on edge instead of making him fall for her. “More or less.”
No, not human. Human-looking.
— She ruled a land of eternal winter, on a world without heat. The stars had dimmed in the skies, darkness ruled eternal, and THE SHADOW LOOKED BACK —
Shroud recoiled, a phantom, painful sensation spreading through his brain. Like someone had jammed an icy spike inside his own skull.
“I do not appreciate mindbreakers.” The Queen’s eyes shone with a bright yellow glow, similar to Kari’s aura. Except the woman’s magic shone brighter than the sun, the purest shade of yellow, next to whom Kari’s aura looked like a dim lamp.
He could feel the raw intensity of her magic, the overwhelming pressure saturating the air. A supernatural chill spread through his flesh, her power taking hold over his very bones.
“S-S…” He had troubles starting his own words as if an invisible hand choked him. “Sorry, this is my Lock. It activates often without warning.”
“If it peeks into my mind again, you will die.”
Her polite tone made the threat so casual, Shroud believed it very seriously. The light in her eyes dimmed, and Network fell entirely silent around her.
Whatever subconscious will commanded his magic, it had taken the Queen’s warning to heart.
Holy shit, she was strong.
“I will not allow you to use your powers on my men and guests either,” she laid out the ground rules, the invisible pressure and the chill diminishing. “I forbid mindbreaking inside my palace, unless with my prior approval.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “You are untrained.”
“Self-taught,” Shroud defended himself, amusing the queen. He must have looked very childish saying that. “I assume it means mind-reading?”
“Blue Sorcerers entering other minds are called mindbreakers. The harmless ones read thoughts; the dangerous ones reshape them. Concordia employs many of them, and while I do not think you are malicious, I will not take any risk.”
Even if its effects had diminished, Shroud still reeled from her power. Her roof, her rules. “I won’t. I swear.”
“Good.” She looked satisfied with his answer. “Why are you here?”
The danger had passed, so far. “I heard you oppose Concordia.”
This time her smile was genuine. “I do.”
“Nothing personal. I have no grand tale of revenge or loss to tell. But I am not blind to the danger ahead. The Grandmaster will never stop until every star, every dimension bends to her will. One day her reach will threaten my own people. I intend to stop Concordia before this bloated monster of an empire grows that far.”
Connecting the dots with the Network memory, she probably ruled an empire in the depths of space. One that Concordia will invade in a few decades. “Why are you here instead of building forces on your own territory?”
“This sphere, the Midnight Market, is an interstellar hub. A crossroads of goods, travelers, and powers. A place where fortunes are made, and alliances forged, Mathias Martel. Or is it Shroud now?”
“Shroud.” His eyes narrowed. “You know who I am.”
“Concordia’s Red Ministry issued a bounty on you and your group’s head. A very large one. It will not be long before you have hunters and exiles after you.”
Reassuring. “And you research everyone on Concordia’s public enemy list.”
“I have found that the Empire’s enemies make good friends of mine. I know each member of your team is a sorcerer; that your group drove off John Kresnik, a famous Magister; and that you personally committed the ultimate crime. You slew a dragon.”
“Not a crime,” Shroud replied. “A declaration of war.”
Her smile widened, reaching her ears. “That is the mindset I look for. I can see us becoming good friends.”
Shroud had the odd feeling she may be just as dangerous as an ally than as a foe. “I must warn you that freeing my homeworld remains my priority, alongside my companions’ safety. They will probably tell you the same.”
“That is fine. The more Concordia loses ground and resources, the happier I am. Of course, my help will not come without conditions.”
He didn’t expect it to. “An exchange of services? There must be another reason why you called me alone.”
“I told you the rare mindbreakers flocked to Concordia’s intelligence ministry. Which is to say, I had none in my employ and a task for one. The information I received about you would make me believe you are perfectly suited for it, lack of training aside. Find comfort in that this project’s success will harm Concordia for years to come.”
Had, he noticed. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I will assist, with pleasure.”
“I also have a few missions your group can undertake on my behalf. I need to observe you longer, to see where you can be best deployed. You shall serve as the middleman until further orders.”
She was already treating him as her employee and behaved as if expecting him to obey. Shroud made a note to emulate her tone and posture, for it clearly helped with authority. “And in exchange?”
“I will arrange accommodations for you and your group. You will be fed, bathed, and clothed as my guests. It will offer you some protection, but no one is ever safe in the Midnight Market. You will receive funds, information, equipment, and guidance for your own war effort.”
Straight and to the point. He could get behind that. “Then we have a deal, Shadow Queen,” he said, extending his hand.
She chuckled lightly, a glittering sound that sounded like a glass bell. “My enemies call me Shadow Queen,” she said, graciously shaking his hand. He didn’t feel any Network jolt from the contact. “My friends call me Manah.”
Manah. What a nice name. Shroud hoped never to make an enemy of her.
He had the feeling he wouldn’t last long if he did.
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A/N: I would like to thank everyone who pledged to me on Patreon, Warwick Robertson, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, Daniel Zogbi. Your support is always appreciated.