“Mathias, I am sorry to say this,” Solomon declared, finally finding the courage to breach the important subject. “But it would be better for everyone if you did not touch alcohol again.”
“Kari already beat you to it, thank you,” Shroud grumbled.
“Ignore them, Shroud,” Mur replied, “Mur found you a funny drinking buddy, would try again anytime. Although Mur didn’t understand half of what you said.”
“I can’t remember,” Maggie said, slightly disappointed. “I lost consciousness after you broke that guy’s fingers for cheating at cards. You’re fucking violent, man.”
“Why didn’t you cast the Heal spell on me?” Shroud asked, annoyed.
“You didn’t let us get in range,” Kari said. “You are surprisingly fast and dangerous when drunk.”
The sorcerer brushed off the matter to focus on the rusted building in front of them. Doctor Stitch’s clinic towered at three sprawling stories tall, its wooden double doors darkened by age. The narrow, steel-meshed windows let out some sparse light at ground level, while the rest of the place appeared dark. It smelled of rot and chemicals.
The surrounded area felt just as ominous, surrounding the group with falling iron buildings, half of them ready to collapse. Enormous bats and alien, furry vermins the human couldn’t identify had made their lair in them; only his lightshards and Sol’s own Quasar light provided a measure of light.
Even in his new, improved glass armor, and surrounded by his fully-armed team, Shroud didn’t feel safe.
“Shroud-san, we are in danger,” Kari said.
“I know, Kari.” The more they stayed in the Underside, the more it creeped him out. The place’s silence weighed heavily no matter where they went, alongside the distinct impression of pervasive tension.
“I purchased Doom Sense again,” she said. “I feel danger.”
“How close?” Shroud asked, immediately on guard.
“Diffuse. But intense.”
Like the day Jack destroyed his life. “So it’s not from the clinic nor immediate, but close.”
Shit. Mammon? Someone else? “We will summon a door to the Palace of Shadows as soon as we are done,” Shroud said, turning to the rest of the group. “Cast magical buffs if you have them, and stay grouped.”
“Sure, her guv’nor,” Maggie replied, both hands on her holsters. Shroud dispersed a few lightshards as far as his range could allow in the surrounding area, to intercept intruders. Sol covered their rear, firmly wielding both his sword and shield.
“Stop being pussies,” Mur replied, hopping towards the door and knocking on it. “Stitch! Clients!”
It took a few moments before Shroud heard the sound of the door unlocking, the owner opening them. “Mur,” a hollow, cavernous voice echoed as the owner stepped out to welcome them. “So good to see a returning customer, and I see you brought me more test subjects.”
As it turned out, the doctor had died long ago. It hadn’t stopped him.
A tall, gaunt, and lanky figure, the withered, shambling corpse before them moved with an odd, aristocratic grace. Grey, half-rotten flesh sparsely covered its ancient bones; while the figure had a humanoid shape, the body proportions differed from humans, standing a head taller than Sol in full armor, with longer arms than legs, and the shadow of leaf-shaped ears. Cold lights flickered in his empty eye sockets, and sweet perfume covered the scent of rot that followed him. The corpse wore a heavy black leather coat, blood-soaked gloves, and a strange triangular hat.
“Doctor Nathaniel Stitch?” Shroud asked to be certain.
“Himself,” the creature replied with a courtly bow. How the undead could speak without lungs, Shroud had no idea. “Welcome to my house, please come in freely.”
“You are an undead.” Kari seemed very disturbed by the revelation, tensing up; Sol too had visibly tensed. “A corpse.”
“A wight,” Stitch corrected her. “The world is so full of secrets to discover, I could not let death get in the way of my curiosity.”
“Were you—” Shroud began, leaving his sentence hanging.
“Human?” It seemed to amuse him. “Oh, no, never human. I lived as a Svartian Elf before the Arcadians exterminated my species during one of their Grand Hunts. Ah, it goes so far back, my mortal life seems little more than a blurred dream. But please, come in. We can continue this conversation while sitting.”
The group exchanged gazes before Mur grumbled and walked inside. Shroud and the rest followed, Stitch closing the door behind them.
Stitch led them through a vestibule and a shadowy hall, and finally, into a dimly lit, white morgue. Multiple containers laid embedded in the walls, near three operation tables and chairs; only two windows made the place seem less oppressive, their glass entering Shroud’s range and giving him a view of the area outside.
The corpse of a reptilian humanoid lay on an operation table, its chest opened and its organs exposed, surgical tools laid next to it. Clearly, they had interrupted the doctor in the middle of a dissection. Maggie put a hand on her mask, visibly ready to throw up.
“Nice catch,” Mur said, hopping on an unoccupied operation table like a perverse squirrel. “Where did you get it?”
“He sold me his corpse while alive,” the doctor said, putting the dead flesh back in a container after noticing the rest of the group’s unease. “For science.”
Shroud glanced at Maggie and Sol; the first moved towards the windows, while Sol kept watch over the main entrance. “Do you expect trouble?” Stitch asked as he offered the rest of the group chairs before sitting him. “I must warn you that I will not tolerate trouble inside my establishment.”
“Just security,” Shroud replied, sitting next to Kari.
“Bounties,” Mur clarified.
“Ah. I do not keep up with the news, and I do not ask questions.” The doctor seemed more interested in Mur’s current state than where the group came from. “What happened? Did my tail fail you?”
“Mur fought a good fight and lost his previous skin. Your enhancement served him well.”
“And you have come to get a new one? I could graft it. I have been considering a new necrocraft design.”
“Is this what you sell?” Shroud asked. “Body upgrades?”
“Sell?” He sounded downright insulted. “I do not sell anything. As an undead, I have very little needs and I am independently wealthy.”
— Stitch overstepped the severed limbs of his dead kindred, glancing at the killers’ wall of trophies with curiosity. They had nailed the matriarch and her guards with spears and spikes, after scalping them. The doors of the family vault laid bare open for the plunder.
Reavers did not care for money. And thankfully, neither did they care about hunting the walking dead.
He had warned his kinsmen to run when the Arcadian ships had darkened the skies, but in their foolish greed, they had picked a fight they could never win. At least, as the only “living” inheritor, he would make use of it. —
Network worked on the undead. Good. “Then, if it is not greed that drives you, what does? Curiosity, as you said?”
“Curiosity, and morality,” the wight replied. “For my so-called ‘clients,’ improving them is payment in itself. By testing new procedures and transplants on them, I can push the boundary of my knowledge and improve their life.”
“He also tests out defects on us,” Mur grumbled.
“With their consent,” Stitch defended himself. “I have strong ethics.”
I seriously doubt that, Shroud thought.
“He is good, though,” Mur said. “Very good. The doctor can rebuild you from head to toe, given enough time.”
“Physical perfection is more than a dream, it is a moral obligation,” Stitch continued with a cold, dead kind of enthusiasm, “For what separates the sick from the healthy, than a doctor’s perseverance?”
While clearly lacking in restraint, having a field surgeon that did not rely on the Heal spell could be a boon to the group. Shroud gave him a point for that. “But enough of me,” Stitch said. “What can I do for you?”
“We are the Dragonslayers,” Shroud said. “A resistance movement from Earth.”
“Some mud ball colonized by Concordia,” Mur clarified, drawing a few glares.
“Ah, alright. You wish to free your homeworld from the dragon authority? I reassure you that your intentions are none of my concern. I do not take sides. I will happily graft weapons on any of you. I could add a fire gullet to your girlfriend if she wishes.”
Mur snickered, while Kari remained impassible, lost in her thoughts. “But you will not hesitate to do the same for Concordians,” Shroud pointed out, ignoring the imp.
“My only loyalty is to knowledge itself,” Stitch replied.
Point subtracted. Or was it? “What do you think of sorcerers?”
“I owe my current happy condition to one. To my shame, I admit I have yet to figure out how they work.”
“What if you could cast spells?”
Stitch let out a sound which the sorcerer took for a low chuckle. “That would be a dream come true. What I could learn, the bounds I could push… I would only be limited by my creativity.”
— “The Seeker of Life is thought to be an extragalactic Green Archmage whose power grew unchecked, eventually subsuming its home galaxy,” Stitch read out loud. He had noticed he memorized texts better if he did. “Although clearly mad by sane lifeforms standards, none can deny the biological exploit that is the living sphere of Venefica.”
Mad? This was not madness. This was brilliance. If he only could wield that power, he would abolish sickness, death, all those cursed defects life did not bother correcting. —
“Alas, if I had the gift it would have awakened centuries ago,” the wight said with sorrow, giving Shroud an opening.
“What if we could help you with this?”
This drew the good doctor’s interest. “Impossible,” Stitch replied. “No one can create sorcerers. Or at least, not that I know.”
“We can potentially give you magical abilities,” Shroud remained evasive, before specifying in a way that would guarantee maximum interest. “Green ones.”
The wight’s empty eye sockets looked at Shroud straight in his own eyes. “Why are you here? Certainly not for enhancements.”
“I was considering a more permanent form of employment,” Shroud said. “We are looking to widen our organization, and a field surgeon would be a welcome addition to our forces.”
“Speak for yourself nerd,” Maggie said. “No way I’m letting that creep cut me open.”
“You are a Sorcerer Rainbow,” Stitch guessed, not looking at the rest of the group before focusing on Mur. “Mur?”
The imp smirked. “Reinforce,” he said, bathing the operation table in an orange glow.
The undead watched the scene with rapt interest. Since Stitch truly had had Mur as a client before, then he knew the imp hadn’t been a sorcerer. “How?” he asked Shroud.
“My Lock allows me to license my spells,” Shroud said, careful not to mention Magik yet. They would need to vet that doctor first.
“I am listening,” the wight said, no longer able to hide his curiosity.
Now that he had the fish hooked, Shroud held on to it. “What is the most important thing when it comes to choosing someone, Doctor Stitch?”
“Skill?” Stitch guessed.
“No,” Shroud responded. “Trust. Skill and bravery are good, but an organization like ours cannot work without loyalty.”
“Like the mafia,” Maggie said in the background. “Sol even looks like the Godfather.”
“I am not comfortable with that reference,” Sol replied.
“Whatever,” Shroud said, his focus on Stitch alone. “While I have no doubt about your skills, I need to see if we can rely on you. Especially since you have no personal stake in the matter.”
“I understand perfectly,” Stitch replied. “I am a very simple undead. If you truly have the power to grant me sorcerous powers… then so long as I can keep experimenting, gather knowledge, and test the limits of this magic, then I will happily lend you my exclusive services. We can even sign a Soul Contract if needed.”
Shroud guessed he meant the Yellow spell Contracting, which he had seen. “Is that the usual around here?”
“For important matters, yes.”
Shroud doubted it would be necessary, or useful. Contracts, even magical ones, could be broken. Subtler bonds, carrots and sticks, that would ensure cooperation even without direct supervision.
Stitch’s carrot was the opportunity to further his knowledge, to hold the promises offered by sorcery. His stick was losing access to it. While the driving reason differed, much like Mur, Stitch would probably behave to keep access to Magik Online.
“That will not be necessary,” Shroud decided. “You will have to agree to other rules to maintain your powers, but no need for additional contracts.”
“I see. If this can reassure you, as an undead being, there is little that can tempt me. I do not feel desire, and neither do I feel fear. I am no biophiliac and the pleasures of the flesh do not interest me. I also do not judge others, and so am not judged.”
Pragmatic, laid-back, and focused. Amoral enough to go along with Mur and Maggie, amiable enough to reach to Kari and Sol, and a voice of reason able to temper the group’s conflicts without taking sides. “What can you bring on the table, Doc?” Mur interrupted.
“While I have an estate, steady funds, and contacts, my greatest treasure is my knowledge,” Stitch replied, “Besides biological, cybernetic, and necromantic sciences, I am well-educated as only an immortal can be. I can reasonably defend myself in a fight, especially with knives, although I must admit I have no formal combat training. And of course, if I sign with your group exclusively, I will assign my biological stockpile to your exclusive use.”
“Good,” Shroud said. “Now tell us why we shouldn’t hire you.”
Stitch seemed amused by the question. “My potential for crude violence is limited. I am a healer, not a warrior, and my aim is atrocious. I am, however, very difficult to put down permanently. I may save lives but it is doubtful I can take some.”
Sorcery would help cover that. “What do you guys think?” Shroud asked, although he had already made his decision.
“Mur votes yes. Free healing and grafts.”
“As long as I don’t get experimented on, I’m fine, nerd.”
“I admit fighting with a corpse does disturb me a little,” Sol said. “However… he seems without greed or pride, nor any ill-feeling. If he is reliable, then I will keep an open mind.”
“I trust your judgment, Mathias-san,” Kari replied. “But we do not have much time. Closer.”
Shroud nodded. “Very well,” he said, deciding to accelerate the interview, “If you accept, in exchange for magical gifts, you will fight exclusively for the Dragonslayers, and for the freedom of our homeworld. Our secrets will remain between us, and no breach will be tolerated. No compromise can be made with Concordia or those who stand by it. Is that alright with you?”
Stitch nodded slowly, Shroud putting an arm on his cold shoulder and feeling the jolt of Network activate. He then quickly assigned him the Heal spell. “You should be able to heal on touch now,” Shroud told him.
“I felt your power.” Shroud guessed as an undead, Stitch was more attuned to sorcery. “A pleasure to serve under you, sir…”
“Shroud,” the sorcerer replied as he rose up, before pointing at the other members. “Yoshikage, Sharpshoot, and Sol. Welcome to the Dragonslayers.”
“Mur will show you the ropes,” the imp told the doctor. “If you graft me a new stoneskin.”
“Agreed,” Stitch said with chilling enthusiasm.
While the two discussed how to cast spells, Shroud’s glass sent him vivid images of two shapes outside the clinic.
One was a black werewolf, even bigger than Kresnik; this one didn’t bother to dress, instead having replaced his left arm with a mechanized one. The other was a bloodied mummy of some kind, clad in bandages with sharp iron spikes protruding from his flesh.
The two figures stayed outside, hiding near a steel building. Waiting.
“Nerd…” Maggie said, grabbing her guns.
“I saw,” Shroud replied. “You can hit them from here?”
“Yup, if you open the windows.”
“Who would defy Mur?” the imp said, itching for a fight. Mammon’s humiliation had made him eager for violence.
“Some sort of bloody pincushion and a werewolf bigger than Kresnik with a metal arm.”
“Storck and Lyber,” Stitch identified them. “Customers of mine.”
“Bounty hunters,” Mur said, then added with disgust. “They work for the sadism almost as much as the money. Must be after our bounty.”
Fuck Concordia. “Do we retreat?” Sol asked while Kari activated Oversoul, and Stitch grabbed scalpels among his instruments. They could still open the path to the Palace of Shadows if needed.
“They haven’t realized we noticed them yet, and it seems they intend to ambush us after we exit the building,” Shroud said. “You told us we should not let enemies pick our fights. I say we have surprise on our side for this one.”
“Storck is a vampire and vulnerable to sunlight,” Mur told Shroud. “You and the old man can create it, no?”
“I have a silver scalpel for the wolf if needed,” Stitch said, having zero remorse about fighting a former client. “I doubt I will be able to use it myself. I also have an experimental safety blanket in my vault below.”
Somehow, he made safety sound dangerous. “Then Sol, Maggie, and I will focus on the vampire, the rest of you take the werewolf,” Shroud said. “Kari, take the scalpel. Doc, you get your safety blanket and you risk yourself only to heal our injured. Consider this your field test.”
“Agreed,” he said with a jaded voice.
Then, Shroud launched the attack with a blast, shattering the windows.
Maggie fired bullets with both guns, one charged with Red Flux at Storck’s head, the other normal. The werewolf, showing surprising reflexes, shielded his partner’s head with his metal arm, deflecting it; the other bullet ricocheted on the nearby building, hitting the bandaged humanoid right in the spine.
“Nice shot!” Shroud complimented Maggie, flying out of the building with Sol in tow. No wonder she hadn’t charged her bullet, or else it would have pierced through the building.
“Can I change my nickname to little goddess of guns?” the girl replied, jumping out of the window and into the street. Kari and Mur soon followed, while Stitch, less athletic, simply decided to go through the main entrance.
“Lyber, Lyber, what’s going on?” the bloody pincushion complained. “I can’t feel my legs anymore.”
“I think the bullet broke your spine, Storck.”
“Aw, that human bitch, I was going to jog next morning!” Storck’s body started levitating, his legs hanging on like dead meat. “Good thing I can fly.”
Channeling Lightbringer through his lightshards, Shroud fired a few light projectiles at the duo, aiming specifically for Storck. The vampire, flying with speeds that would rival an eagle, dodged around, while the werewolf took them head-on; the beams burned the fur without searing the flesh beneath. Sol flew after Storck to intercept him, channeling Quasar around his blade. Maggie began to channel Biosurge through her guns, coating her weapons with lightning.
“Hello, hello, good evening, this is Lyber, and this is my partner Storck,” the werewolf said with a roar, noticing Mur and Kari and lunging at them, “We are here to violently murder you, but do not mind us.”
“Nothing personal,” the other said, bats exiting the nearby building to gather around him in a massive swarm. The vampire vanished behind a shroud of vermin, Maggie’s lightning bullets vaporizing the poor bats. “We are doing this in the name of love.”
“Love?” the werewolf responded, surprised, as he failed to smash Mur with his metal hand, the blow going through the steel pavement.
“Yes, Lyber Lyber. Our love,” A bat swarm moving towards the Dragonslayers, “of money!”
Shroud created a dome of light around him and Maggie, the bats crashing against it like bird shit against a windshield. Sol himself ignored them to chase after Storck, while Mur jumped on Lyber’s back to claw at it. The imp was already growing metal plates.
Moving with her usual amazing speed and lethal precision, Kari closed the gap between her and the werewolf, slashing below the neck with the silver scalpel. She narrowly missed the artery as Lyber jumped back, but the scalpel cut through the flesh like butter.
A Magik Online notification suddenly popped up right before his eyes without warning.
Quest: The Night of the Hunters, started.
Difficulty: Dot Three.
The sacred hunt has begun under pale stars; prey becomes predator, and predator becomes prey. Nothing pleases me more than this fair struggle. Survive the night with all Dragonslayers alive, and you shall be duly rewarded.
Rewards: Twelve Spellcoins for each Dragonslayer.
Bonus: Kill all of the five hunters (reward: Celestial Bow and Arrows).
Failure: one of the Dragonslayer dies.
A new challenger soon joined the fight, partially answering his question.
Space above the clinic ripped in half with violet light, a gate across dimensions widening. A monstrous hound stepped out of the rift and on the roof, its eyes glowing with purple light; a golden humanoid rode on its back, carrying a long silver spear.
“Lugh,” Shroud said upon recognizing the rider, dispelling the dome so Maggie could keep firing back at Storck without interference. “You are here for the bounty, too?”
Lugh’s face morphed into a regal, lion-like grin. “There is a bounty on your head?”
He didn’t know? “Then why are you here?”
“It is not why I am here that you should ask.” The hunter raised his spear, aiming for Shroud. “It is, why not?”
Firing his weapon with superhuman strength, Lugh sent the spear flying at Shroud so fast, his eyes almost couldn’t follow. Thankfully, he flew out of the way.
Then the spear switched directions at the last moment.
Before Shroud could react, it hit him right in the chest, started piercing his armor, and tried to reach for his heart.
A/N: after a thorough medical examination, I was found cured of my incurable illness by the amazing power of my patrons on Patreon, Dex, Warwick Robertson, BlissForgotten, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, Daniel Zogbi. I have the utmost respect for their healing power.
The picture comes from Zombie Portraits, by Sacchetto. I found it the closest picture of Stitch, and I can only encourage you to check out the rest of the artist’s work.
As always, a vote from you dear readers on TopWebFiction is always appreciated: http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=magik-online