As the spear threatened to make its way past three layers of solid light and supernaturally dense glass, Shroud wondered how things had gotten out of hand so quickly. Even holding the spear with both hands, he couldn’t match the invisible force moving it.
The spear’s pressure pushed him against the nearest wall of Stitch’s institute, trapping him between the steel and the drilling weapon. “Mathias!” Sol fell down from the skies to help, as he once did against Kresnik.
However, turning his back on Storck turned out to be a mistake, the vampire exiting his bat swarm to tackle him in the back with inhuman strength. The flying knight crashed to the ground, where Lyber kept engaging the rest of the group. Before Sol could pull himself back up, the werewolf lunged at him, smashing his helmet against the pavement with a sickening sound.
As he raised his metal hand for a brutal coup de grace, Maggie shot the beast in the arm with a lightning bullet, while Kari jumped on his back to stab him with his silver scalpel. Lyber let out a growl, abandoning Sol to try to toss her off him. Mur, meanwhile, still struggled with Storck’s bat swarm, keeping the imp isolated.
Lugh didn’t even spare them a glance, his impassioned eyes set on only Shroud. “If my prey has a heart, Gae Bolg will pierce it, always,” the Reaver said. “This is more than sorcery, sapiens. This is destiny.”
Shroud would have answered with a clever retort, had he not been furiously trying to save his own life.
Kari, who had noticed his plight, leaped off Lyber and ran alongside the surface of Stitch’s building, quickly reaching the roof. Her body surrounded by Oversoul’s bright aura as she attempted to claw at Lugh.
Its eyes shining with a violet hue, Lugh’s hound let out a howl and moved; space itself twisted around the beast and its rider, and the two shifted position on the other end of the roof, away from Kari’s strike.
Before the hunter could retaliate, Storck’s bat swarm fell upon the roof, targeting all fighters present. While Kari sliced them one after the other with her ethereal claws, Lugh simply ignored them, but they successfully scratched the giant hound’s tough hide.
“Fuck off, Lugh!” a flying Storck said, as he oversaw the duel from above. More vermin emerged from the nearby buildings to swarm the battlefield. Rats, alien centipedes, and other chitinous critters Shroud had never seen on Earth; a few climbed out of Stitch’s broken windows to crawl to the roof, and towards Lugh. “We saw them first!”
“Filthy undead, how dare you let your measly greed interfere with Lugh’s sacred hunt?!” the hunter sneered at the vampire like a nobleman looking down on stinking dog shit.
“How dare you let your stupid hunt get in the way of our greed?!”
Shroud felt the pressure of his approaching death vanish, the spear flying away after piercing through half of his defensive layers. “Fine,” Lugh said, as Gae Bolg returned to his hand. “Lugh will hunt all of you tonight. A werewolf’s hide should be worth one hundred points at least.”
Having his hound twist space again, Lugh and his mount moved through the air like a fish through water; now that he could observe it more closely, Shroud realized this wasn’t teleportation, not really. Lugh’s hound simply reduced the space between two points, like a shortcut, allowing them both to move between them at great speed.
The hunter appeared right above Storck, his spear piercing the vampire through. Or it would have, had Storck not turned into a bloody, crimson mist at the last second.
On the ground, the flood of vermin crawled towards the fighters, a tide of flesh and claws. Sol, still clearly groggy from his previous beatdown, cast a Heal spell on himself before standing back to his feet. Opening his wings and channeling the faint light around with Quasar, he unleashed a bright flash around himself, repelling the vermin flood. “Grab me!” he ordered as he flew towards Mur and Maggie, the two grabbing his legs as the knight flew upward, away from the rats and the animals and away from Stitch’s institute. The knight let his allies fall on a nearby roof, safe for now.
Lyber, ignored by his ally’s swarm, backed off a little, then ran towards the roof and leaped at it with immense strength. The monster landed in front of Maggie, the whole building quaking under the stress of his impact.
Unfortunately, they had moved so far, they were but a glimpse at the periphery of Shroud’s vision, and out of his range. Now free to move around, and reconstituting his armor where Gae Bolg had pierced through it, the Blue Sorcerer flew back towards an outnumbered Kari, firing light beams around, searing away at bats and rats aplenty.
— Warning, Lock interference detected. —
The Network flash came from nowhere but stopped him dead in his tracks.
— Oversoul successfully disabled. —
“What’s happening?” Kari said, visibly panicking, as her golden aura receded into nothingness, leaving her to the mercy of the swarm. Shroud flew right behind her, using his lightshards to create a barrier shielding them from the ever-growing swarm. The air seemed to grow frostier by the second, his breath turning into mist.
— Warning: Lock intrusion ongoing. —
Shroud opened his Network feeds to check.
They had turned identical, someone watching back at him through them all. The blurred picture of a white helmet, similar in design to Sol’s armor; but more streamlined, perfected. The visor shone with bluish light, the shadow of two eyes watching back.
“So you became a functional Terminal, Mathias.” A deep, background echo made the figure’s voice unrecognizable: it did sound strangely pleased.
“Who the hell are you? And how can you use this channel?” Shroud attempted to use Network on the figure, to gather information…
— Hostile Terminal’s Lock refused connection. —
“Agent Melusine, from the Blue Ministry. Your Lock is called Network, correct? What a fascinating power you have, and you have barely scratched the surface.”
— Warning! All active Grant Spells have been disabled. —
Holy… “Someone is hacking our Locks!” Shroud told Kari, as the bats and the other critters kept hammering at his light shield. How could it happen?
“I told you we should not rely on it,” the girl replied, her eyes seemingly looking at an invisible text. She was probably looking into Magik Online’s Compendium for a new offensive option.
Above them, tired of failing to stab Storck’s mist form with his spear, Lugh eventually lost interest and turned around, his hound space-leaping in Shroud’s direction. Storck’s red mist abandoned them, to join his partner in the fight farther away, but the flood of vermin below continued to climb the walls of Stitch’s institute.
Hurriedly, Shroud opened the Magik Online browser in search for Beastmaster.
Magik Online hacking attempt detected!
“Magik Online?” the Concordian said on the other end of his Network feed, astonished. “What is this?”
… No no no!
Magik Online hacking attempt, repelled!
“Manus,” the figure said, a note of anger in its voice. “Still up to your old tricks. Do you even know what kind of evil you owe your powers to, Mathias?”
Ignoring that saboteur, Shroud purchased Beastmaster, the spell spreading through him and his glass shards. He could sense every vermin, every bat, every tiny animal. He could sense them the same way he sensed his own limbs, his fingers, his tongue. Each part of a greater whole, an extension of his consciousness.
Shroud couldn’t see through all of them at once, nor did he have feeds like with Network. The feeling was similar to his own Glass Field, a new sense, unlike anything he had used before. He felt surrounded by noise, with each individual having their own signal, thousands of voices shouting a single thought: eat, eat, eat!
His own signals subsumed them, an overwhelming song drowning weaker voices and forcing them to follow his tune. He pushed away a weaker song, Storck’s own, his lightshards amplifying his power like antenna.
The world became his orchestra, and he a maestro of thoughts.
He couldn’t hear Kari’s signal, but he could sense Lugh approaching; perhaps because the Reaver was a bit too much in touch with his bestial side. He tried to subsume the hunter’s mind, but his own voice stood strong, refusing to be silenced. Lugh’s signal was too strong, too focused on his hunt, too complex for Beastmaster.
His monstrous hound, however…
With a mere mental command, Shroud had the dog bite at its master’s ankle. He could feel the diffuse feedback of the teeth unable to pierce the indestructible skin.
“Failinis?” Lugh snarled in surprise as the hound forcefully tossed him off its back and into the swarm below. The hunter splattered vermin with his fall, which soon crawled on him.
“Kill him,” Shroud ordered to all beasts in the vicinity, his command becoming the only thought on their minds. The bats and vermin on the roof left the duo alone, switching targets for Lugh. The giant hound itself teleported onto its former master, intent on devouring him.
“What happened? Your connection to your Lock grew stronger.” Melusine seemed confused. Apparently, the saboteur couldn’t see everything that happened on his end.
“How can you hijack Network?!” Shroud snarled back, this person’s intrusion into his trump card unsettling him on a deep, personal level. Without the Heal spell…
The Concordian figure on the other side remained silent, Shroud turning to Kari as he dropped his shield, the last of his new minions having fled. “New spell?”
“I’m looking,” she replied, without explaining herself. “Is Lugh—”
“No,” he replied. He could feel members of his thought orchestra die like flies, their voices silenced in mass.
Time is broken.
The universe turns pitch black. The stars dim out, swallowed by hungering darkness. Past, future and present become one. Causality is abolished. None of them matter anymore in this dark world. There is no life, nor death. Nothing remains.
The Man of Glass and his niece move away to look to the roof’s edge, to assess the Reaver’s situation. They are phantoms, flickering and ready to vanish at anytime. The shadow climbs the wall on the other side, undetected; his dark claws piercing the steel and leaving oil dripping. In this sinister world, he alone is real.
He has been watching, waiting, silent like a serpent and patient like a stalking panther. The moment has come. He moves to action. He walks towards his niece and her ally, and they do not see him. In the glitched time, he both does and does not exist. The beasts die around him when he touches them, the feeble embers of their soul snuffed out by the gnawing void within. Each second costs him and the world much, but he does not care. He has found his light, and he will not be denied.
Time is unbroken.
“—Can’t pierce his skin…” Shroud stopped his sentence, flying above the roof’s edge, looking down on Lugh tossing away rats and bats with his spear, his own hound circling him.
Strange. He didn’t remember moving there. Neither did he remember the figure facing Kari—
Shroud’s head jerked around in confusion.
Kari had frozen on the spot. Her face had whitened, drained of color. She stood still, trembling in fear, her eyes trapped in an expression of absolute, distilled despair.
The figure facing her from the other end of the roof was a vision of death.
A gaunt, tall statue of rusted, black iron in the vague shape of a human skeleton, clad in black, tattered robes. Its face was a ghoulish metal mask, hidden beneath paint of red and black and a Japanese Kasa hat. Its eyes devoured the meager light around them, even Lightbringer unable to pierce the veil of darkness that now surrounded them.
It smelled of rot and rust; its feet dripped thick black oil with every step. A black aura surrounded it, alongside cold, silent wind.
“Kari…” it rasped, its voice echoing with the nauseating echo of a rusting slaughterhouse grinding fresh meat. It moved like a broken puppet, revealing rotten, skinned flesh joined with oily cables at the neck and the joints. “Kari… I’ve found you again…”
Just looking at it gave Shroud the chills, made his breath heavier. His whole body, every cell, every bone, recoiled at the sight of that twisted horror.
He knew, instinctively, that the thing in front of him shouldn’t exist; that he faced an anathema, the antithesis of life itself. Neither dead, nor alive, nor even undead.
This creature shouldn’t exist.
“Kari…” it repeated, advancing menacingly while his target stood completely paralyzed.
This broke Shroud of his primal dread, or at least enough to focus again. He aimed his lightshards at the newcomer threateningly. “Who are you?” What are you?
“Recursion,” it answered, the world drowned in darkness.
Time is broken.
He feels a little more of his internal fire fade away, consumed by darkness. Black is merciful, giving a chance to change one’s fate; Black is merciless, hungering for payment. Each second in this dark world is a day shaved off his remaining time.
He reels with disgust at the face of her ally. A white American. Shameful that she would associate with this foreign vermin. He thought he had taught her better.
The Man of Glass’ swords of light move in the darkened timeline, looking for him. A shadow in the darkness, the Pandorian moves unseen, untouchable. He faces his light. He touches her hair, the hole in his heart briefly warms with a strange, buried feeling. Paternal pride. Twisted love. It makes the pain fade away, but only for an instant.
He cannot keep existing without this brief respite. He needs to have her for himself, forever. Only then, will he find peace. He puts his hands around her neck and starts strangling her. He drains the life out of her, her magic, her essence, her everbright soul. Soon, he will leave only a pitch Black hole behind, a reflection of his own decaying soul.
Time is unbroken.
Once again, Shroud awoke after an ellipse, his lightshards on the other end of the roof.
The monster had teleported right next to Kari and started strangling her. Choking her windpipes with gaunt, iron fingers. His friend didn’t even struggle, still frozen.
Reacting quickly, Shroud impaled the horror through the chest with multiple lightswords, forcing it to release its hold and pushing it away.
He sensed his own magic quickly leave his shards, drawn into the horror’s black aura. They decayed into inert glass before they could toss the monster off the roof. The shock still made it fall, laying on the ground like a mangled doll.
“Yoshikage? Kari?” Shroud tried to shake his friend out of her trance by holding her shoulders with his hands, to no avail. “Kari, what the hell is going on?”
“U…” Her voice died in her sore throat, a mere whisper. “Uncle…”
A Magik Online message suddenly popped up at the edge of his vision.
Side Quest: One for All, updated!
Difficulty: Dot Three
A good team leader puts his men first, for his strength is that of the group. One rises only by lifting others up. Help Yoshikage fulfill her side quest.
Help her send her uncle Toshiyami to his final death.
Rewards: Network Synergize Upgrade (3/3).
Failure: Final Death of Kari Matsumoto.
“Toshiyami?” Shroud spoke out loud.
This shook Kari out of her frozen expression, but not in the way he had wanted. Instead, she began to struggle for breath, trembling and holding her chest.
Kari Matsumoto, the stoic badass that fought a dragon at his side, was having a nasty panic attack.
“Kari, Kari, get your act together,” Shroud tried to shake her out of… out of whatever PTSD event went through right now, and failed. As the horror began to rise back up, to its feet, he shielded his despondent friend with his body, prepared to stand his ground. “Kari, any idea how we can beat this thing?”
Damn. He could open a gateway to the Palace of Shadows to evacuate with Kari, but that meant leaving the rest of the team stranded; and that creature may follow them even there.
“He’s glitching time,” Melusine answered through the Network feed. It sounded as disturbed as Shroud himself. “Recursion, Dot Three. It corrodes the space-time continuum around the user for a short time, erasing the present for a few seconds.”
“You’re joking, right?” Shroud replied.
“No,” Melusine replied. “You acted during the timespan, but you do not remember it. He can, and it allows him to adjust his actions.”
Shroud took a long, deep breath, and then voiced what he already suspected. “Violet powers are bullshit!”
“This is not Violet, Mathias. This is…”
The monster rose back, a long sword of black energy manifesting around his left hand.
“This is Black. The color of entropy and paradox.”
An eighth color? “How can I counter it?”
“You can’t, but it is very Flux-taxing. Meaning it cannot use it all the time or else it will fail to sustain itself. This seems to be a recent Pandorian and starved, so its reserves must be relatively low.”
Shroud didn’t understand half of what she said, but he understood enough. If the monster ran on a limited juice, he had to turn it into a battle of attrition. “If I redirect the swarm—”
“No, Mathias, that is a bad idea,“ Melusine said. “It can drain Flux on contact. Animals will recharge it. Your glass and light weapons will inflict more damage than what it can absorb.”
“Why are you telling me this?” he asked, suspicious. With it disabling Network, he couldn’t assess its intentions.
“I don’t want you to die,” the agent replied. “You would better run away.”
No. Kari couldn’t move, refused to. With Network disabled, he couldn’t contact the rest of his team either, if they had even managed to fend off Storck and Lyber. He was on his own.
Besides, he was done running away from bastards like this after Mammon. “Did she tell you?” the horror rasped, swinging his blade of darkness. “How she let me die?”
“Don’t worry, I will finish the job,” Shroud responded by launching a volley of lightshards at it.
“Did she tell you?” The shambling monster repeated, his black aura expanding. “Disruption Wave.”
The darkness expanded, turning the shards inert and hitting Shroud like a tide.
It was like Kresnik’s counterspell, but ten times more painful. Information he couldn’t manage overloaded his brain, and canceled his flight, making him fall next to Kari while holding his skull.
Then, he saw two words, two words that extinguished his hope and made him fall into despair.
A/N: even the reality-damaging power of Black Sorcery cannot erase my thanks to my patrons on Patreon, Dex, Warwick Robertson, BlissForgotten, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, Daniel Zogbi.
Finally, friends and I recently opened a youtube channel on web serials, web comics etc… we just put out a video on “The Wandering Inn” as part of a series on web serials, if you want to check it out.