As Manah walked, phantom torches lit up, blue fires without a source revealing a richly decorated corridor. “You and your team will be lodged in the guest quarters,” his host told Shroud. “I will not tolerate any unauthorized guests without prior approval.”
Shroud listened intently while eyeing their surroundings. The castle’s walls seemed to be made of solidified darkness and covered by wooden decorations and expansive tapestries. He often noticed doors chiseled in the walls, almost too imperceptible to notice.
“While the alley is the main entrance, should you find a large enough shadow while alone on the Underside area, a door will open to my palace. It will never appear on the Overside above and I will not be able to help you there.”
“Why so?” Shroud asked, curious.
“As per a deal with Mammon, my influence is limited to the Underside.”
Shroud froze as two forms emerged from the darkness ahead. Humanoid black and white figures wearing Venetian-like carnival masks and hats. Most of their body seemed covered by tight-laced cloaks before the Player realized they meshed with the shadows beneath them. Their eyes shone with a faint yellow glow, and they made no sound while they walked.
“My servants of the night,” Manah told him. “They will do your chores, attend to your needs, and obey basic orders, unless I order them otherwise.”
A powerful mastermind with shadowy servants and a giant hidden palace? Shroud had found what supervillains wanted to become when they grew up.
He did wonder how she knew about Italian fashion.
Manah led him to a large, chiseled door, which opened without any input. The more the sorcerer observed, the more he was convinced the Shadow Queen had some sort of psychic control over her dominion.
Perhaps she even was her palace. With Network muted he couldn’t know for sure.
It implied Network at least had a will of its own. The fact that it kept scanning Kari without warning while muting out in Manah’s presence told Shroud it could at least appraise threats; considering his own friend an easy target while avoiding anything risky in the Shadow Queen’s presence.
The door opened into a circular room, a perfect recreation of those old European noble salons. A group had gathered around a large, black wood table, sitting on sumptuous leather chairs; half a dozen masked shadows attended to them, serving them wine in silvery cups and providing light by holding candelabras.
Shroud rejoiced upon recognizing Booz around the table, but the hob looked at the other guests with a tense expression. The sight put the sorcerer on his guard.
“Good evening, Big Queen.” One of the guests waved a hand at them. A cute, small, pre-teen girl with long blonde hair, crimson eyes, and chalk skin even whiter than Manah’s. She dressed in an elegant, short red dress, carrying a black umbrella next to her chair.
She looked quite the harmless child, yet the very sight of her filled Shroud with an undercurrent of dread. An ominous, background disturbance, a subtle feeling of pervasive danger. As if he had taken the wrong turn to find himself in a wolf’s den.
“Good evening, Little Queen,” Manah replied with uncharacteristic kindness. “Celia, Wormson, this is our new guest, Shroud.”
“Booz told us.” The last guest hid beneath a black, tattered hood and cloak, leaving no part of its body exposed. Its voice sounded neither feminine nor masculine. In fact, it sounded more like a buzzing noise than anything a human could muster. “Hello, new friend!”
“Hello,” Shroud replied, unsure of how to deal with those two. A shadow servant moved two chairs, allowing the sorcerer to sit between Booz and the little girl, Celia. Manah took the opposite spot, between her two allies. “Where are the others?”
“Outside,” Wormson replied from beneath his cloak. “Since I contracted Booz to find you, I offered him tea.”
A cup which the hob hadn’t even touched. Something was definitely wrong.
“Hey, Shroud,” Celia spoke with excitation, touching his arm with her hand. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
Her fingers were cold to touch. His glass armor relayed no heat to him, and worse, she lacked a pulse. “Sure,” he said, apprehensive.
“When you die, do you want to become a lich or a vampire?”
What kind of girl asked that to someone during their first meeting? It reminded him of his chats with Ulysses. Back then, he would have gone with lich without hesitation. Unlimited magical power and all. Now he could actually wield sorcery though… “Can I keep my magic in both cases?”
Celia seemed surprised. Pleasantly so, in fact. “Strange, I thought you were a lich kind of person.”
“Blue Sorcerers usually are,” Wormson buzzed. “Or ghost people. All mind and little care for the body.”
“Exactly,” Shroud replied. “Vampires have a lot of powers and can live relatively unnoticed. Sure they have pretty debilitating weaknesses, but with my magic, I can work around them.”
“A wise choice!” Celia nodded quickly. “Vampires are great! Everybody wants to become ghouls nowadays, it is so annoying!”
“Celia, stop bothering him,” Manah said, the little girl crossing her arms and putting in her chair. “Shroud, this is Celia, a friend, a fellow queen, and the most powerful necromancer to have ever existed. Wormson is my court magus, a sorcerer trained in the art of Green.”
“The best there is.” Wormson turned towards Shroud, revealing its face.
Or lack thereof.
Instead of a face, the sorcerer found himself looking at an entire hive of writhing worms, maggots, and insects, fused together into a gruesome figure.
It took all his willpower for Shroud not to vomit at the hideous sight.
“I apologize for my current state of being.” Wormson raised a hand from below his tattered robes, fingers made of vermin bound together. Shroud felt nauseous. “I assure you this is but a temporary inconvenience.”
“You’ve said that for the last three decades,” Celia pointed out as if she had been there. The more she spoke, the more Shroud grew certain of her true nature.
“A temporary inconvenience,” Wormson insisted. “With useful perks. Like immortality.”
Booz scoffed, almost too low to be noticed. “If I may leave now that our business is done?”
“Certainly,” Manah agreed. “I will see that Wormson transfers you your payment for the task set for you.”
“Your weight in star rubies,” Wormson commented. “Always a pleasure to do business with you.”
“Will be the last time. With those funds and those I got from the kid there,” Booz glanced at Shroud. “I’ve gathered enough to retire on Ozma and go legit.”
“That dull place?” Wormson let out a screech which Shroud took for his equivalent of a groan. “Just skies, steam, and flying metal.”
“Perfect place to live the rest of my life in peace, and under the radar; I have a Concordian bounty on my head now.”
It seemed Booz had been targeted as an accessory for Shroud’s crime. “Sorry,” the sorcerer spoke with sincerity.
“Customer service,” the hob replied, rising from his chair. “I’m just happy we’re not going to meet again.”
Manah glanced at a masked shadow, which moved to escort Booz outside. “Wormson,” she spoke, once the hob out of earshot. “Shroud here is the mindbreaker you asked for.”
“Ah, yes, business,” the monstrosity said, his unwholesome attention now focused on Shroud, “You see, my fleshy friend, a fellow enemy of Concordia recently sent us a gift. A giant, biomechanical brain, taken from a Concordian cargo ship before it could reach its Arc-City destination.”
“A UB,” Shroud guessed, straightening in his chair. “You stole a UB.”
“Forcefully requisitioned,” Wormson replied, letting out a gargled chuckle.
“You should let me kill it,” Celia said. “I could revive it as a nice vampire, or a wight. Maybe a ghost?”
“Would a vampire brain eat blood or brain cells?” Shroud didn’t know if Wormson’s remark was serious or a joke. “Besides it has no soul, which is why our friend could not dreamwalk answers out of it.”
“That’s why I want to try it! This is totally new, and I can’t wait to get creative!”
“We keep it in storage in a crypt below for now. If awake, it tries to warn every imperial within the vicinity to rescue it.” Wormson glanced at the Shadow Queen’s servants. “Did that work out for you, mister?”
The masked shadow nodded.
“See, unlife feels much better,” Celia chirped, siping her red tea and revealing sharpened canine teeth. Shroud suddenly recognized the tea’s smell, and why Booz hadn’t touched it.
Jesus, they scare me, the sorcerer thought, thankful his helmet kept his face hidden. The scene came across as a morbid take on Alice in Wonderland’s tea party to him.
“We want to subvert this creature to our purpose,” Manah spoke, all eyes looking at her when she spoke. She commanded attention without even trying. “I thought Wormson alone could handle the matter.”
“Unfortunately, UB’s are biomechanical constructs, a perfect blend of Green and Blue sorcery,” Wormson explained, reeling from the reproach. “Having neglected studies outside my main color, I need an acolyte. A bluish one.”
“You want me to help you hack into the UB?” That would give them access to Concordia’s main information network.
“Can you help with it?” Manah asked.
“Maybe. A spell of mine affected the Gearsmen, and caused the local UB to reboot, and my Lock…” He briefly paused, Manah inviting him to continue with a sharp nod of her chin. “My Lock allows me to connect with others, like parts of a network.”
“It affected even me,” the Shadow Queen confirmed.
“Even with your unique biology?” Wormson sounded giddy, the critters making up his body chittering. Shroud had to restrain his nausea. “My, that’s a powerful Lock you have.”
“Less than mine,” Celia cut in with childish pettiness.
“We all know how lethal your Lock is,” Wormson replied diplomatically. “But we need the UB alive for it to interface with the Concordian network.”
“What will you use the UB for, once you have hacked it?” Shroud asked them.
“Steal information, sabotage, identify weaknesses,” Manah said. “It depends on what can be done with the machine. Wormson, when can you two start working on it?”
“I need a few days to make adjustments, ensure the UB doesn’t send a distress signal or fight back. We wouldn’t want our lighty friend to fry his beautiful brain.”
“Then you have a little free time,” Manah told the Dragonslayer. “You deserve a rest after such an exhausting journey. My servants will escort you to your room.”
Realizing he had been summarily dismissed, Shroud rose from his chair. Celia waved at him kindly. “Let us have tea one night, Shroud!” she chirped happily. “And bring your friends! We will have a nice time.”
The sorcerer glanced at the blood tea with a shudder. “I’m more of a coffee person.”
“I have some!” she replied with a big, friendly smile plastered on her face, as Shroud followed the masked shadows into the thick darkness. “Bye!”
He didn’t have to wait long until the servant stopped Shroud right in front of a shadowy door. The gates opened on their own, closing right after the sorcerer walked in.
He could have mistaken his bedroom for that of a king’s; his entire old apartment could have fit inside it. Clean, elegant clothes had been placed on a king-sized bed, tailored for him; a finely chiseled ebony desk awaited him, next to a rounded table and two comfortable armchairs. A shadowy door led to another area, a marble bathroom looking straight out of a Roman Villa.
His room even had a chimney, with a green, smokeless, phantom fire producing light in a corner near the bed. The lack of windows made the place feel oppressive, though.
Another fainter shadow door stood near his bed, probably an exit to the outside. He checked on Network to see how his team was doing.
The feeds were obscured by bright violet light.
Shroud immediately surged towards the shadowy door, slamming it open.
The entrance gave way to the rusted alley from before, without Manah’s unnatural darkness covering it. There was no sign of struggle of any kind, yet none of the Dragonslayers were present.
Instead, a woman waited for him, counting cards to pass the time. “Hello there, Mister Glass.”
She was a pretty, freckled creature which Shroud would put around her early twenties, with long auburn hair styled in an elegant swirl bun; she dressed like a rogue with a white and red ensemble with black flowers around the waist, wore high boots, a red coat and a rounded, feathered hat.
Shroud summoned his lightshards, surrounding her with blades of light and sharp glass. “Where is my team?”
The woman smiled, remaining supremely calm. “Careful with those, you might hurt yourself,” she said while putting the card deck in her pocket. Shroud didn’t recognize her accent as anything found on Earth. “The name’s Ace by the way.”
“Where is my team?” Shroud repeated, this time putting the edge of a light sword right below her chin. “Answer or die.”
— Ace waited for Mathias Martel to step out of the Palace of Shadows, enjoying that brief moment when she wouldn’t have to attend to Mammon’s latest eccentricity —
The sorcerer froze. “Mammon?”
“Ah, a mind-reader, wonderful,” Ace said with heavy sarcasm. “I’m going to be very frank with you here, Mathias. You really fucked up. You messed with the big bad upstairs, and he’s not happy.”
“How?! We never met him!”
“From what I gathered, property damage towards a tourist attraction,” the woman replied. “You took his stuff, so he stole yours back with interest. If the Shadow Queen hadn’t taken you to her palace, he would have taken you as well.”
Property damage? But they hadn’t… Shroud paused. The Crimson King? “Mammon is unhappy we trashed the amphitheater?”
“No, he is unhappy you killed his pet without his approval,” Ace corrected. “Guess who summoned it to the Midnight Market in the first place?”
What kind of sick person would consider a murderous abomination a tourist attraction? The same kind that could crush an entire team of sorcerers without leaving a trace. “He left you here to take me on?” Shroud readied himself for battle, but Ace only erupted in laughter.
“No, no, I’m a messenger. I’m supposed to let you off the hook with a stern warning.” She gave him a mischievous smile. “But know what, since you didn’t know the Crimson King was the big boss’ property, and that I like your fashion sense, I guess you have one chance to make this right. And if you want to have that chance, you will follow my lead.”
A Magik notification popped up on the sorcerer’s screen, spelling out to him what was at stake.
Side Quest: Mammon’s Revenge
Difficulty: Dot Four
Sender: the Administrator
Your teammates are in the clutches of death.
Save them, Mathias.
Rewards: Network Upgrade (⅓)
Failure: Death of your entire Guild.
A/N: a big thank you to 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. You’re all amazing.
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