Chapter 41: Gathering Shadows

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Sitting in his dark room, his cloned arm still itching terribly, Shroud did some reading before bed.

Dis: Worlds of Power had proved an invaluable source of information, which he kept devouring with rapt attention.

Angels are among the most difficult beings to bind without the use of force, as they rarely answer calls. Unlike fiends, who relish opportunities to access the material universe, Angels are picky about whom they assist. Angels ask of their summoner to worship their titular deity, Yahweh, and to live a virtuous life following their God’s principles. Summoners who do not fulfill those criterias, angels ignore. However, while difficult to summon, angels never ask payment nor bargain for their service, and show true altruism towards those they consider virtuous or innocent.

So only Sol could reasonably summon angels. The chapter detailed the strict hierarchies angels followed, from the four archangels to minor guardian angels, then explored the question of fiends. The book noted that demons were paradoxically easy to bind, as they followed the same passions as mortals, and so happily allied with mortals, at least for a time; but since they respected power above all, only forceful sorcerers could keep them in check long-term. Shroud would study them, if only to better fight the Maleking – whom the holo-book lacked any information on, much to his surprise – but he would remain wary not to summon one without extra care. Mur’s very existence may prove that one could work with fiends, they remained dangerous.

The chapter on elementals disappointed him. While he finally identified the creature the Brown conspiracy had summoned, an hellfire elemental called the Candlemaker, elementals were limited by their core element; glass elementals, those he had researched the most, saw the universe through glass echolocation for example. Those alien senses and mentality made them resistant to Blue sorcery and difficult to negotiate with.

He remembered his interactions with entities like the Candlemaker and the Crimson King; he had received a feedback from Network, unlike mindless Gearsmen, but only a sensation of wrongness.

Network worked by sending him memories or perceptions of those he spied on; if the Candlemaker and the Crimson King used alien senses too far away from his own, then Network might simply be unable to interpret the feedback in a way Shroud’s human brain could understand. The Candlemaker had noticed him hiding through heat signatures, and probably saw the world through them; while Network then worked on Jack, because he remained human enough, with sight, ears, touch. Same as with Mur.

So he could in theory use Network on elementals, but he couldn’t get a read from them. And he absolutely refused to recruit minions whose intentions he couldn’t read. Too risky.

Overall, anthropomorphic outsiders such as fairies, fiends, and similar seemed his best bet; close enough to humans to exchange with, and vulnerable enough to Blue Sorcery to create synergies with his abilities.

“You seem to have a found a new passion project, Shroud.”

Shadowy Manah, showing up.

Manah’s voice made him raise his eyes from his ‘book,’ finding the Shadow Queen sitting on a throne of solidified darkness near the fireplace. “I’m just thinking of the applications, especially with my Lock,” he replied, his tone a bit frosty. The more he stayed in her company, the more wary of her he became.

“You wish to recruit muscle. Wise. The Call spell I assume?”

“You know of it?” His team had discussed it openly, so she may have overhead.

“There exists a far more powerful version, Summon, but you would need to be in Mammon’s league to use it.” She seemed to support his initiative though. “The key to discussing with Outsiders is to remember that each of them have their own agenda, and that while they may share certain characteristics, they are all individuals with their own uniqueness. Two succubi may feed on sex and desire, one may be a diplomat, and the other an assassin.”

“Did you summon Outsiders in the past? Your minions seem… home grown.”

If his joke registered, she didn’t show it. “I didn’t, but I bound a few through soul contracts. They can be either be surprisingly straightforward, or insidious as only immortal monsters can be.” She abruptly changed the subject. “I heard that you recruited that undead, Stitch, and you have been exchanged a lot with Ace recently.”

“Do you monitor us?”

“Of course. I would not have learned of Lugh’s attack otherwise.”

Why would she reveal that piece of information? Did she think her methods so full-proof, they couldn’t counter them? “I am telling you this for the sake of honesty,” she said, as if reading his mind, “I believe our relationship will be more fruitful if we agree not to lie to one another.”

“Keeping secrets is still fine though?”

“This is our trade, Shroud. We deal with information and knowledge, and we turn it into power.”

Taking a deep breathe, he looked at her in the eyes. “Did you ally with the Maleking?”

“Yes.” There was no hesitation in her voice, no shame. “I do not serve him as others do, but we collaborate against Concordia. I heard of your problems with some of his agents.”

That was an understatement. “And Mammon?”

“That I cannot say yet. But you are smart, and starting to see the bigger picture.”

He was, and he didn’t like it. “What are we to you? Clearly expendable.”

“Of course not. I would not have helped you against Lugh otherwise.”

“You seem to have found a way to profit of it, and you didn’t help against the others.”

“I would have intervened should the other hunters overpowered you,” she said, “As for Lugh, I intended to capture him at one point. This simply sped up my timetable.”

Capture? Not kill? “So what was it? A test?”

“No, Shroud. That was training. It always was.”

The Moderator squinted. “You knew Mammon would abduct my team. You set me up.”

“I wanted you to give you a taste of what kind of opponent you will be up against, should you continue down your current path. I also wanted that incident to teach you a lesson about foresight and overconfidence, but it seems so far not to have stuck.”

“You could have had all of us killed.”

“But you prevailed, and are in a better position than before. In our harsh world, intentions do not matter, only results.”

He wasn’t sure if he agreed with that. “What lesson would you have taught me?”

“I have studied your file. Considering the nature of your abilities, you could have easily infiltrated Concordia, used intrigue and spy-craft to inflict greater damage. Instead you chose the path of open warfare. I believe it sub-optimal.”

“Perhaps,” Shroud agreed, “But I wanted to fight.”

“You could do both. While I prefer to remain in the shadows before striking, other leaders lead from the front. No. Your problem lies deeper. I believe you are a natural tactician, but a poor strategist. Very good at short-term planning and seizing opportunities, but poor at long-term schemes. You are inherently impulsive.

“Unfortunately, unless you contain your impetuosity, prepare, and plan ahead, you are bound to be a pawn in someone else’s strategy. As for confidence… Mammon was overconfident and this gave you an opening. The same applies to you. You wield great powers, but you rely almost entirely on them and luck, leaving you open to surprise and the whims of fate.”

Maybe she had a point. Thrice he had been taken down by surprise attacks that negated his main advantages, leaving him little to fall back on. “The strength of a Blue Sorcerer isn’t firepower, but information control,” Manah continued, “Blue Sorcerers accumulate resources, build organization, and decide the outcome of a fight before they engage. You have immense potential, but unless you learn to use your sorcery the way it is meant to be used, you are condemned to mediocrity.”

“I’m working on it.”

“Not enough yet.”

Shroud raised an eyebrow. “Why are you telling me this?”

She gave him a genuine smile. “You may not believe me, but you remind me of myself once. When I was young and green.”

Shroud had troubles imagining her as a young ingenue, and not only because her human appearance was clearly a mask. When she rescued them from Lugh, Kari had seen her as a geisha, Maggie as a black-skinned woman, and Stitch as a walking corpse.

She took a form reflecting the watcher, like the shadow she commanded.

“I also heard you were looking for an Occult Matrix.” His head perked up with interest.“Mammon has a few in storage, as does the Institute branch I send you to infiltrate. Make that what you will.”

“About it…”

“I am securing the use of a smuggling route from Mammon,” she brazenly interrupted him, “You will have access to a Gate linking both Oceanis and the Midnight Market for as long as the mission lasts; which you are free to confront in any way you wish.”

“About it,” Shroud insisted, “I would like a delay before we are deployed there. To prepare, to recruit; we just expanded and I want to test my team first.”

“It would be hypocritical for me to advise caution and then rush you,” she said, “I will grant you a delay, but do not waste my time.”

He wouldn’t; and when they would have the Lair, they would be in a better position to bargain. “Also, for the occult matrix… the reason I am interested in those items, is that I can interface with Network, and I would like to experiment. Could it be possible…”

“To intercede with Mammon so you do not have to?” His visceral aversion to dealing with the mimic amused her. “I could.”

“But you won’t?”

“You would miss an opportunity to grow. I believe Celia invited him to a tea party, and she has been asking to see you again. You should find Mammon in a good mood.”

She brushed away his questioning. “This is your true test, Shroud. Prove to me that you learned your lesson, and that you can play the game.”

Shroud replied with a quick nod, as she vanished into the shadows once more.

When he was certain he was alone – although that didn’t make that much of a difference – Shroud opened his Magik browser, moving into the Whisper messaging and the private ‘Dragonslayers’ text chat Kari set up yesterday. He typed with his mind, making no sound nor giving any hint of what he was up to.

SHROUD: confirmed. She can spy on us, and both she and Mammon know the Maleking.

YOSHIKAGE: how can she listen in?

ACE: Shadows, from what I heard. She isn’t called their queen for nothing.

SHROUD: no mention of Magik or our private plans outside this messaging board. All sensitive information go there. The Administrator said this was secure, we will put that to the test.

YOSHIKAGE: did it go well?

SHROUD: I can’t read her, and I hate it. She’s a cipher, but I’m pretty sure she’s on no other side than her own. Neither the Maleking’s, nor Mammon, nor ours. She can swing either way. She also says there is an occult matrix in Oceanis, and she can arrange us to go there.

DOC: I must point out that, this being a Concordian territory and you being wanted criminals, this will prove excessively dangerous.

THE MUR!: we don’t need her anymore. We should leave her and seize the Lair.

SOL: I agree with the imp. Now we are seven, we can tackle it and leave this viper nest behind us.

SHARPSHOOT: you and Mur agree on something? Hallelujah!

ACE: while I’m the new one here, I suggest doing another quest before seizing a Lair.

THE MUR!: Mur still wary of you. You work for Mammon.

ACE: from what I heard, you worked for far worse clients in the past.

THE MUR!: Mur ended old deals when he signed for this one. You still work for Mammon now.

SHROUD: which gives us a windows into his operations. Drop it, Mur.

SHARPSHOOT: why wait? For the Lair?

YOSHIKAGE: because you, Sol and Mur are one Quest away from Leveling-up. And we can’t leave the Lair unless we win.

ACE: I messaged the Administrator about Lairs and here is what it said: ‘Your Guild can challenge the Lair anytime the Moderator requests, and are teleported there the second I receive the demand. You cannot escape until the Lair is conquered, and no two Guilds can challenge the same lair at the same time.’ A few have already been requested, so our pool has grown smaller.

SHROUD: I checked the conditions for level 3. We need to conquer a Lair after reaching level 2.

YOSHIKAGE: which means Lairs are meant to challenge level 2 teams. Half our team is one quest away from it.

SHROUD: Stitch struggles behind however.

DOC: this is fine. I am more interested in exploring the limits of my current options than adding new ones. I am especially curious about my Lock’s applications.

Shroud shuddered, remembering that moment Stitch downloaded his Lock, Inseminate.

Stitch began to fiercely throw up, and for a second Shroud worried he might collapse. Instead, the undead spat out a large, green shape on the ground, causing Maggie and Kari to recoil in disgust.

A strange, insect larva the size of a big rat, languished on the ground. The creature had the vague shape of a greenish human heart, with sharp mandibles, six exoskeletal legs, and eight fly eyes covering most of the body. It was both horrifying and vaguely cute, like the mix of a Pokemon and that creature from Alien.

“Fascinating,” Stitch said, grabbing the creature like a toddler, “This seems to be an necrotic lifeform capable of growth, and born of my own innards. I will call it, subject Angelique.”

“What the fuck?” Maggie asked, ready to throw up.

“I name my subjects in alphabetical order,” Stitch replied, misunderstanding her question, “Not, let see if I can spit more…”

The good doctor had ended up spitting up and adopting an entire litter, much to everyone’s revulsion. Well, Mur had asked if he could eat one, and Stitch had sounded vaguely willing to indulge him.

DOC: I am also fascinated by those ‘Hacks.’ This is the first time I hear of such a feat in my long, long unlife.

ACE: far as I know, you need two spells of the same Dot level but from different colors to trigger one. Hacks can be used as components for stronger Hacks.

SHROUD: how do you know that?

YOSHIKAGE: there’s an entire subforum about Hacks on Magik’s message boards.

SHROUD: seriously? Where?

YOSHIKAGE: Voice of Incubus, Field Reports, Hack Recipes discussions. Players post formulas there. I posted Killer Sense and Hands of Slaughter there.

SHARPSHOOT: I tried trademarking my Thunderling there, but someone beat me to it. Bugger.

THE MUR!: Mur will do some shopping.

SHROUD: me too. I didn’t know we had a forum about them.

YOSHIKAGE: there’s more Players organizing on Earth, and they are very active. You should check them out. Even if we are light-years away.

SHROUD: soon, Kari. Soon.

ACE: about that, what is your plan?

SOL: yes. Now we are assembled we can plan beyond living to fight another day.

SHROUD: even if I’m wary of the Shadow Queen and even more of her allies, the UB intel she is collecting could prove tremendously useful. We know that network is one of the key infrastructures allowing Concordia to hold Earth, uncovering its secrets could help tip the balance in our favor. Also, the Crimson Epoch. If Ace’s info are correct, multiple powers hostile to Concordia will gather then. Including the Maleking.

YOSHIKAGE: I did some research. Revel’s territory borders Earth’s star cluster.

ACE: and Lugh is his grandson.

SHROUD: … The Maleking works with Mammon. Manah is involved with both, and so happens to steal Lugh’s soul. Whose grandfather is a tyrant whose territory borders our home.

SOL: I have a terrible feeling about this setup.

SHROUD: me too. I’m starting to see why the Sponsors want the Epoch closely supervised.

ACE: so we play the long game handsome?

SHROUD: for now. We accumulate resources, we secure our lair, those information, and the Sponsors’ favor, then we return to Earth with an action plan to take it back. But we start by securing the Lair first. We need our own headquarter.

YOSHIKAGE: and the truth.

SHROUD: yes. I’m tired of being in the dark.

THE MUR!: Mur wants to see who those Sponsors are too.

DOC: do Lair contain quests? This would solve our various problems neatly.

ACE: I can ask the Administrator.

YOSHIKAGE: It would be safer. The saboteur is still after us.

SHROUD: Yes. It can counter our Locks over a wide radius, and at inopportune times. We have to take its interference into account if we do quests on the Market, while we could level up without risking an ambush inside the lair.

SOL: sorcerers able to counter our spells have been our most dangerous opposition so far. Is there a way to defend ourselves against them?

THE MUR!: The Mur way. We see them, we smash’em before they see us. We are seven and we have the power. Those stupid enough to get in our way get what they deserve.

SOL: I would feel safer with a certain defense.

DOC: I can look into it. While my knowledge of sorcery is purely theoretical, I could foray into magitech.

SHROUD: I can introduce you to Wormson. He is an expert in Sorcery, from our discussions.

DOC: with pleasure.

SHROUD: then we will prepare a few days before tackling the Lair. This may be the time to purchase and practice new spells, especially Hacks.

ACE: about that, does that group has rules? Do we coordinate about which spells we purchase and specialize in, or we remain free about our choices?

YOSHIKAGE: everyone has their own style. Maggie-san buys in bulk, Mur hoards them, Sol invests warily…

DOC: Hacks being created by individual innovations, having everyone explore their options in their own way seems more productive than planned purchases.

SHROUD: probably, as long as we train together and share information.

ACE: roger that.

Shroud closed the message board, returning to Worlds of Power. The crystal offered a list of individual Outsiders to summon, and he had to bite the bullet on that one, test Call. Maybe start with a bestial creature, which Beastmaster could leash?

Ultimately, while he made the decision to purchase Call in time, he decided to put it off until they had secured an headquarter of their own first. Summoning creatures seemed dangerous, and he felt endangered by Manah watching his recruitment process. For all he knew she could summon them back under her control.

He considered what she told him, about embracing the power of his color and use it the way it was meant to. Gathering information, soldiers, and resources before striking.

He had a few ideas.

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I would like to send a special thank you to my newest Patron, Saul Kurzman, who joined the growing ranks of new players in Magik Online’s database. And of course, I thank all my other Patrons fighting to free Earth, Dex, Warwick Robertson, BlissForgotten, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, Daniel Zogbi.

I updated the Hack Recipes page (so you can see new Hacks designed for Patrons accounts), alongside adding a FAQ page in the community menu, which contains questions asked on Discord and answers provided there.

On a sadder note, I will be in exams from the 8th of June to the 24th, so I will not publish on Friday during that period (I will still publish a chapter on Friday 7th, and Wednesday 12th and 19th). The two chapters a week publication rate will return as usual afterward. Thanks for your understanding.

2 Replies to “Chapter 41: Gathering Shadows”

  1. “You knew Mammon would abduct my team. You set me up.”

    Called it. The major players are been set up, and it seems Earth will be embroiled in war once more. And of course, the mystery of the timeline save is slowly unraveling. Good luck on your exams.

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