King Mathias The Fourth’s Soul Casino
As he looked over at the sign at the base of the Neurotower, Shroud didn’t know what to make of it. He didn’t know what to make of everything.
“Are you going to stand there for another hour?” Ace teased him, blissfully unaware of the gravity of the situation.
“Mur thinks he loves himself too much.” The imp, in his Pitborn form, had taken the role of a bouncer in this new history and kept watch over the casino’s Gate. His new job hadn’t affected his behavior in the slightest.
“Where is Kari?” Shroud asked anxiously. The pain in his left arm had receded, and his Network feed of his friend showed him only darkness. Stitch’s one showed him safe, experimenting with his ‘children’.
“Still in a medical coma,” Ace replied. “Stitch said she should wake up in a week or so.”
“She fought the good fight,” Mur said, with uncharacteristic respect. “She is strong, she will endure.”
The Blue Sorcerer figured the night of the hunters had happened, but due to being two people short it was won at a greater cost. “Ace, this is going to be a strange question,” Shroud began, “but do I have a biography running around?”
“Of course you do. You even made an holo-movie out of it, remember?”
Urgh, did he take all of Mammon’s antics when he replaced him? “I would like to watch it,” Shroud said, as he walked through the Gate and into the soul casino, finding it relatively unchanged compared to the previous timeline. That didn’t make sense. If Mammon had been erased like he worried Maggie and Sol had been, then that whole casino should have never existed.
No. Not erased. Sealed. That meant that chest bastard existed somewhere. Celia had said the same and wanted him free. “Where is Mammon?” Shroud asked Ace.
“The seal, you mean?” Ace frowned, answering his question with another question. “What is Network?”
— “Do you know some shape-shifters are so skilled,” Skins began. “That they can fool even close friends?” —
“My Lock, which connects people and allows me to observe you from afar,” Shroud replied, guessing what she did. “Right now it’s telling me you’re prodding to see if I’ve been replaced.”
“You haven’t,” she said, still worried. “An infiltrator would show more skill at deception. But you are acting very, very suspicious.”
“I think someone messed with my memories somehow,” he said, the real explanation probably being too complicated. “Maybe Melusine.”
“Messed up enough that you want to rewatch your whole life?” Ace clearly didn’t believe him. “Be honest, please.”
Shroud sighed, as he tried to find the best way to word it. “I used that Load feature, and apparently it transported me to an alternate history. Yours.”
To his amazement, Ace actually seemed to believe him, or at least didn’t reject his words instantly. She could probably tell he believed in it based on voice alone, and perhaps she was curious enough to entertain the possibility. “Alternate how?”
“I wasn’t king of the Midnight Market, Mammon was.” Ace chuckled at this, unaware of the irony involved. “And Blackcinders, as far as I know, isn’t about to invade.”
“Never heard of the Midnight Market. The mimics call this sphere Mimicworld, and it stuck. They are adorably simple-minded.” Ace arched an eyebrow. “Sol and Maggie, they were our teammates in the other history?”
She caught on fast. “You’re taking the news surprisingly well.”
“I am not a skeptical person, and I have seen sorcery just as worldshaking. Even then it does surprise me. What do you remember from the old history?”
“Concordia conquered Earth.”
“It did, ten years ago,” she said. “That’s when you emigrated to Mimicworld, thanks to a kind smuggler’s help.”
Was that the divergence element? “Can you elaborate further?”
“I apologize but I am not an expert in your life,” Ace teased him. “From the broad strokes, your father emigrated with you to Mimicworld, and stuck rich there, while your mother stayed on Terra Firma to continue her research. You inherited your dad’s business empire, and thus control of Mimicworld after buying it from the previous king.”
The mention of his father warmed his heart. “My parents…?”
Ace’s saddened face dashed his hopes. “Your father died, hunted by Lugh, and your mother was arrested by Concordia for a reason you never learned; you killed governor Smokefang when you confronted him during your investigation.” His crushed reaction had fully convinced her of his goodwill. “Alternate realities… and we join forces in two of them. I thought the odds that we would meet would be much lower.”
Shroud didn’t understand either. If four thousand years of history had been rewritten, why were events so eerily similar? He would have expected more divergences, especially if his parents emigrated on another world far from Concordia.
Glancing around the bustling of Mammon’s former casino confirmed his questioning. While there were some visible changes, mostly mimics making up most of the cash machines and devices, overall the structure hadn’t changed much.
A Magik notification popped up.
You have an urgent message from: Administrator.
Shroud immediately opened it.
ADMINISTRATOR: Mathias, do NOT use that modded feature recklessly again or the consequences may be dire.
SHROUD: Wait, you haven’t been affected?
ADMINISTRATOR: I was, but my memories of an event a few years back did not add up the way they should, enough to make me suspicious. I checked your account history after our conversation and it recorded the event. Even looking at it with my own eyes I am taken aback. You merged an alternate timeline with ours.
ADMINISTRATOR: Blue rules over possibilities. So, imagine a major possible event that didn’t happen in our world, but was recorded and locked away. Those are the “saves.” When you loaded it, you reincorporated that isolated possibility into our timeline, overwriting the old reality with a new one.
SHROUD: So I didn’t time travel, I just edited the present.
ADMINISTRATOR: in simple terms, you jumped sideways rather than backward.
SHROUD: But why were changes so… minor? Shouldn’t an event happening four thousand years ago, I dunno, change more around the universe?
ADMINISTRATOR: This is only a theory, but I believe the save system tries to keep the changes to a minimum to safeguard most of the timeline. You only had access to one matrix, which only records events around the Midnight Market; other devices save timelines in distant places and aren’t under your control. So when you loaded a localized save, the overall system behind it tried to align the changes with the wider multiverse and minimize them. Mammon was involved in too many events to be removed without altering history too much, and the feature said you would be unaffected; reality compromised by putting other people, including you, in Mammon’s place across history.
SHROUD: And since my history changed, I never met Maggie and Sol and so never recruited them.
ADMINISTRATOR: It is worse than that. Your account says you formed a team in a city called Evermarsh, so I assume you met these two here in the previous timeline?
ADMINISTRATOR: I tried to find them, looked into all records available, and didn’t find anything. I did come back with info on a city called Evermarsh, a Florida city wiped out by Smokefang during the Conquest. The invasion was apparently bloodier this time around, perhaps because Mammon interfered in some way in the previous history.
The sorcerer felt an icy chill go down his spine, as the sheer weight of the horror he unleashed dawned on him. Maggie, Sol, Perse, Ulysses, Vivianne, Sam…
SHROUD: I killed them.
ADMINISTRATOR: Maybe. I cannot say. I am sorry, Mathias.
SHROUD: But Sol was with us when the Conquest happened. My family, I mean.
ADMINISTRATOR: He could have chosen to remain on Earth, or made a different choice that led to his death during the chaos of the Conquest.
SHROUD: Holy shit… the other save recorded a human extinction event in North America, and a Cheyenne asteroid. Both during the Conquest.
ADMINISTRATOR: It is possible that in an alternate timeline, the defense of Cheyenne Mountain was successful enough that Blackcinders dropped her asteroid there instead of Moscow, and that in another, she annihilated Earth as she warned.
SHROUD: I could have wiped out the entire human race. This feature is extraordinarily risky. Perhaps intentionally so. What is the point to record an apocalypse with the possibility to unleash it, if not to use it as a weapon?
ADMINISTRATOR: It can be a defense system, actively isolating a dangerous event away from the timeline. Or maybe neither.
SHROUD: And who makes those saves in the first place?
ADMINISTRATOR: I do not know… but Concordia probably does. That would explain why they were so interested in that artifact. I am as clueless as you.
SHROUD: I have to try and bring back Maggie and Sol.
ADMINISTRATOR: I understand, and I cannot fault you for trying… but whatever the case, this system is tremendously powerful, but you should use with extreme care and if possible, never Earth saves. Do not, under any circumstance, tell anyone else. I need to discuss with the Sponsors to see what to make of this. I will set an alarm that will warn me and transfer your account history if it activates again.
Shroud closed the feed, the weight of guilt on his shoulders still as heavy as before.
He should have raged and fallen in despair, but he stood still, his mind clear. It was a terrible thing to say, but after what happened to his father and the ordeals he had gone through, he managed to keep his wits.
He remembered Manah’s words, about not letting his emotions cloud his judgment. He couldn’t let anger or sadness steer him the same way Jack’s atrocities did.
If Shroud maintained a laser focus on the matter at hand, gained information, he could find a way to repair what he did. He had to.
The more he considered the Administrator’s words, the more the theory about the system minimizing changes had merits. His father meeting a smuggler, ending up in Mimicworld, gaining enough riches to own an entire sphere in less than a decade, while his mother faced the exact same fate as the first time around? That sequence of events was technically possible, but one implausible coincidence after another.
The system had simply found it easier to arrange it than change everything else.
He needed to meet the other person most impacted by the current changes. “Ace.”
“Answer me,” he demanded, “Where is Mammon?”
As it turned out, Mammon’s casino had been built into the Neurotower itself, and the more one went deeper, the stranger the area.
The glamorous areas covered well-guarded floors that only Shroud and his trusted few had access to—which meant only Mammon and his close allies ever saw that far in the old timeline.
Shroud and Ace walked down the innards of the tower, pulsating walls of alien metal. Immense transparent pipelines transported colored light down, like blood veins. Mechanical hearts pumped the substance up and down into gear-like mechanisms.
While Shroud didn’t see any trace of organic material, the world structure seemed… alive. Breathing Flux. Breathing magic. Sorcery saturated the very air, tainted by colored hues.
Yet, no matter how strange his surroundings, Shroud remained obsessed with the Administrator’s words.
Fusing two timelines and trying to change as little as possible. If Lugh had killed his father in this reality, it would provide a logical chain of events leading to that fateful night… he could see the hands of the save feature at work, combining elements to create a new history.
And if they knew, why did Concordia research this technology? What could they plan to do with it?
The fact that two friends vanished as collateral damage only fueled his desire to understand that power and undo his decision. Shroud had already lost a father to his mistakes. He wouldn’t lose two teammates.
The metal corridor ended before a forcefield of various colors, blocking the path. Ace brought a knife and threw it at the structure, the item vaporizing on touch. “Mammon is behind it, from what I heard,” she declared. “Good luck getting past it, however.”
Shroud prodded at this barrier with Network and didn’t have to wait long for the feedback.
— Terminal access demand registered. Access to Terminal granted. —
The forcefield drained of most of its colors, turning only blue. Shroud warily touched it, his hand going through it. Ace, more careful, threw another knife at the barrier, which too vanished upon impacting.
“Color discrimination,” the woman said, disappointed. “I thought only earthlings did it.”
Shroud crossed the forcefield, leaving his ally on the other side. He also glanced at the Network feeds, and found them obscured; either the tower interfered with his Lock or…
“Wait for me here,” he said. “If I’m not back in two hours and do not contact you with Network… I guess you can declare me dead.”
“I would rather avoid it,” Ace replied dryly. “Just send me a message.”
Would the saboteur let him? He doubted so, but he had the feeling she didn’t announce her presence so obviously to set up a violent ambush. “I will if I can.”
Shroud walked along further into the metal womb, alone.
Shroud found it slightly ironic that in spite of having a power whose effectiveness relied on connections, it isolated him even from his team. Did it say something about the deeper purpose of Network, or his own?
The more he progressed, the metallic corridors grew wider; an invisible pressure weighted on his shoulder, as a colored mist started filling the tunnels.
As he moved further within this miasma, the Sorcerer felt the power fill his bones. The vision provided by Glass Field intensified, grew sharper; the song of Beastmaster extended farther and farther, and his thoughts accelerated. His spells gained in potency and power by mere osmosis.
He had stepped in the womb of sorcery itself, and it empowered him.
The sorcerer felt a call from below, an invisible force pushing him to continue. When the path bifurcated, he took turns without understanding why. The compulsion grew stronger, enough to make him brush away thoughts of going back.
Technological tumors burst from the walls, dripping colored mist. Golden fibers carried bluish pulses of information below his feet, the fibers of a brain spanning the Midnight Market. His brain computed strange turns in the corridors, mathematical complexities that his obsolete human mind worked feverishly to comprehend.
At long last, he reached a cavity, maybe the bottom of the Neurotower. A dome that could fit multiple stadiums within, with a metal abyss opened at the center, a pit spitting out sorcerous bile. The mist had thickened, yet he could see a strange structure integrated to the ceiling above him. An immense sphere of metal and solid energy, integrated into the tower-structure, yet clearly a later addition. A jail whose prisoner struggled fruitlessly to escape.
Shroud ignored it, walking towards the iron maw that called him. He floated towards the crater, gazing down into the abyss and facing the blinding, divine light down.
He belonged there.
All his life, his entire existence, every event in his worthless human life had only one purpose; to lead him to this furnace of sorcery, to become one with this glorious machine and take his rightful place as supreme ruler of all existence.
His mind was clear of all doubts. He no longer cared about his friends, about Concordia. They were below his notice. They hadn’t been chosen to wield this power, to Save and Load and Network; they weren’t worthy.
Only this technology, this abyss mattered. Only he could wield it to its full potential. He would learn how to use it, master it, unlock all of its ancient secrets, then he would emerge to network them all. Every dragon, every human, every tiny creature in the farthest corner of creation; his touch would spread like a virus that would infect the world. A networked would network another until all joined the ranks of his slaves.
He would synergize them until he subsumed their disgusting free-will and their rampant, disordered thoughts; until their minds were echoes of his own, automatons that would obey only the divine lightning of his will. A perfect universe, where all were one.
That was his destiny. To become a great iron god that would dominate the cosmos.
“This is not me.” The words left his mouth on their own, and he repeated them with more strength. “This is not me, this is not me.”
The structure affected his mind through Network.
It didn’t matter. He couldn’t deny the truth, the truth that the light would provide if he descended within. The power to rewrite history, to create a beautiful world where Mom and Dad were alive; he could erase all his mistakes and lows, keeping only the highs. A world where he ruled as emperor, as the One Above All.
He glanced at the light deeper into this iron abyss, down the maw that would digest him a man and spit him out a god. He just had to fall into the furnace of sorcery, let his imperfect flesh burn and reveal the shining metal beneath…
“This is not me!” Mathias repeated more strongly, turning away from the abyss, from the tower’s insidious call.
He was a man, in control of his fate, which was to become one with the iro- which was to save his friends. Friends he could bring back by giving himself to—whom he could bring back by focusing.
Mathias focused on memories of his human life, which the call tried to drown in glorious visions. He focused on the kind face of Solomon, of Maggie, of Kari, of Ulysses and Perse and all those who would worship him once he became the greatest magician—once he turned his back on the abyss.
He was in control, not this tower. Yes, he was in control. It was meant to obey him, to fuel his ascension to the one abov—to fuel Magik Online. He opened his browser but wondered why settled for this knock-off when real power welcom—when the power threatened to brainwash him into a monster. He searched for the Mindshield spell, which he wouldn’t need because he was strong enough to master—because he needed protection.
Mathias purchased Mindshield, and cast it immediately, the power of the tower empowering his spell enough to make a layer of Blue Flux visible on his armor.
As if putting on earplugs to drown out a cacophony, the prideful thoughts lessened in potency, becoming background noise. Much to his horror, Shroud could still hear them, even with the spell protecting him; at least he could finally think for himself again.
What did Wormson say? That Blue Sorcerers thought themselves gods when they escalated and fell into madness?
Mathias had come perilously close. Another minute without protection in this heart of sorcery, and he would have never returned to sanity. Celia had told him Blue was control, efficiency. The more he channeled that power, the more his thoughts turned to control alone.
He needed to think as Mathias Martel while down there, to connect to his old, normal life and remain firmly grounded. The tower’s power, Network itself, threatened to subsume him if he wasn’t careful.
Mathias turned his back on the abyss and whatever horror laid at the bottom, focusing on the sphere above him. A forcefield similar to the one that protected the Occult Matrix on Earth, yet used here as containment.
The sorcerer gazed at a spirit of gold, a living storm of dust and gemstones. While the formless entity lacked shape, it often appeared just a tiny bit ready to solidify into a crown, a torso, hands…
— The spirit of Conquest struggled fruitlessly against its prison, raging against the fate that had him imprisoned. He could feel the life above, the flesh within whom he could incarnate to become whole… —
Mammon wasn’t a mimic; or rather, only half of him.
Infernoid. Like Jack. The fusion of a fiend and a mimic into a single horror.
Could that explain Mammon’s strange sorcery? If the fiend wielded one color—probably Orange—and the host another, maybe it could combine them the same way Hacks did?
Wait. The mimics making up most of that world didn’t exist in the timeline where Mammon freed himself. Had that bastard had exterminated his own species somehow, in the old history?
“Serves you right,” Mathias taunted the imprisoned creature, who kept banging against his prison. The entity tried to speak to him, but no sound emerged. The dust shifted into the shape of a lock and a key, then a crown.
Trying to tempt him into opening the prison, eh?
Through the all-sides vision provided by Glass Field, the sorcerer noticed another person walking into this iron purgatory. “Well,” Mathias said, readying his lightshards. “Up for more?”
“I have not come to fight.” Melusine walked within his range, revealing themselves. The armor matched that of Sol but streamlined, sleeker and closer to the skin. Instead of the knight-like look of the priest’s attire, this one reminded Shroud of a warrior queen, espousing the humanoid, feminine form below. Four telescopic tentacles hung from its back, ready to strike. “I’ve come to help.”
“Of course. Did you believe that power to be your only prerogative?” The agent, a woman, shook her head. “But we do not have much time. Blackcinders will attack soon.”
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