“You are here to ‘help’?” Mathias asked the saboteur with heavy sarcasm. He couldn’t help himself.
It was the first time he had made peaceful contact with a Concordian official, especially one who tried to exterminate his team… or what could pass for peaceful. The last meeting had him emotionally sedated and went poorly.
— Terminal refused connection. —
And he couldn’t even read her.
The woman—because the armor’s shape clearly espoused the forms of a woman underneath—carried herself with calm serenity, yet remained heavily armed. The sorcerer had fought at Sol’s side long enough to guess what an advanced power armor could achieve. In spite of his bravado, the odds of him fending her off alone were… slim.
“Yes,” she replied with calm and dignity. “But we do not have much time. Blackcinders has already—”
“Make some time,” Shroud replied, sick of secrets and eager to gain information. Manah was right, without knowledge and foresight, he would always play by the plans of someone else. “I will need a lot of goodwill on your end to even start considering working together, and I have too many questions. Where does this power come from? What is its purpose?”
Melusine hesitated, probably considering skipping negotiations, then nodded sharply. “Fine,” she said. “I will start from the beginning. Have you heard of the World Machine theory?”
“That of Dis: Worlds of Power?”
“Most of it is sectarian rubbish, but there is a grain of truth to it. The Neurotowers, the Occult Matrixes, the Gates…” She waved a metal tentacle at the structure around them. “All these infrastructures are the gears of a much larger system, a machine spanning the multiverse. This machine, which Ashmal called Dis, is what mines, refines, and recycles Flux energy. All of sorcery, all forms of magic, derive from it.”
“And it has a will of its own,” Shroud guessed.
“Not beyond basic instincts such as self-preservation,” Melusine replied with a professional tone. “The colors do affect spellcasters’ minds, but I will go into that subject later. The purpose of Dis is simple: to bring sorcery to our world. Sorcerers like us are individuals selected, chosen, by this system; our very soul connected to Dis by an occult link called the “Lock.” The Lock grants sorcerers a unique power, a purpose, and allows them to channel Flux based on their Lock’s color affinity.”
“And that Cosmocrator bit?”
Melusine laughed, the same way a trained scientist laughed at an outlandish conspiracy theory. “We would know if an almighty god existed. As old humans saw thunder as the will of a god instead of a natural phenomenon, Ashmal extrapolated beliefs from hard facts. No, Mathias, Dis, like any machine, was built; probably by an advanced civilization wishing to bind the very essence of the universe. Our current theory is that they were the gods of myths.”
“Then what happened to the builders?”
“We are unsure. Most likely, they either ascended to a higher plane, or they rewrote history one time too many and erased themselves by accident.”
Shroud clenched his fists, the situation hitting a bit too close to home. “Where does that ability come from?”
“We only have theories on that bit, but we believe the builders either fought a great war against another force of equal power or sought to preserve lesser species from natural catastrophes. We believe the war,” she glanced at the trapped Mammon, “to be more likely, according to evidence. By storing alternate scenarios inside Occult Matrixes, they could fix the dice. Now you will ask what are Terminals, and why only you could use that power.”
Shroud said nothing, the was woman anticipating his train of thought perfectly. Did she have a version of Network active? Mindshield should protect him from mind-reading.
“Terminals are sorcerers whose Locks have a stronger connection to Dis than the rest, like your Network or my Hijack. They can interface with the other systems, such as opening and closing Gates… or interfere with Locks.”
Mathias’ eyes narrowed behind his helmet; Melusine immediately noticed the rising tension. “I was asked to wipe out your team, that I will not deny. But the stakes are higher now. If you do not restore the timeline, Blackcinders will kill everyone on this station.”
“How long until she arrives?”
“Arrives? Do you mistake the mother for the son? That you can fend her off with a fight, or that she will even give you that honor? No, Mathias. Blackcinders will not give you any chance to survive.”
A pair of metal eyes opened on the armor’s shoulders, revealing holographic projectors. They released footage of a massive spaceship, which Mathias recognized as Blackcinders’ Vanguard. The vessel floated near a red planet…
No. Not a planet.
An asteroid, glowing with Red Flux.
A giant, black dragon, far more massive than Smokefang and more metal than flesh, steered the course of glowing rock, shining with power and malice. The mere sight of that creature filled him with dread.
“This is a uranium asteroid the size of North America,” Melusine said. “Blackcinders is currently rerouting it towards the Midnight Market and accelerating its velocity to surpass that of light with Red Sorcery. This weapon of mass destruction will hit the station within less than three hours with enough power to annihilate the entire solar system.”
“She is ready to commit genocide just to get me?!” Shroud shuddered in horror and disgust.
“Without Mammon in charge, she believes she can, should, get away with it,” Melusine said. “Blackcinders would rather kill ten thousand innocents than let one enemy live. The Neurotower will resist the impact, but you either need to evacuate your allies or restore the old timeline, fast.”
He couldn’t leave the entire station to die. “Why do you need me to restore the timeline, if you share my powers?”
“For the same reason you cannot affect my Lock the way I disrupted yours. Terminals affect different systems. Besides, do you not carry the Occult Matrix needed?”
Shroud didn’t know enough to know if she was being truthful or not. “And why help an enemy of Concordia? One of your Ministers wants me dead.”
“What Blackcinders wants is not what is good for the Empire. It is in the Grandmaster’s best interests that you stay alive, and so you will.”
“I don’t like the implications of an interstellar dictator having an interest in me,” Mathias replied.
Melusine’s posture shifted as if he had offended her in some way. “No. No, Mathias, I cannot let you say that.” she declared, her tone uncharacteristically emotional, even if covered by a voice modulator, “The Grandmaster is a hero, a noble soul who gave second chances to people who crossed bigger lines than you, because she believes in our better nature. She doesn’t deserve your scorn.”
Mathias frowned, as the agent seemed to speak as if she knew the empress of dragonkind personally. “Grandmaster Wyrde has but one goal,” she continued. “The salvation of the entire universe. Her methods may be harsh, but they are necessary.”
“You won’t convince me Concordia is good,” he replied. “Not with what Blackcinders is about to pull off.”
“It is,” Melusine replied. “It took me a long time to accept the truth too, but Concordia protects. The Grandmaster is doing her best to save us all with what she has. That she is forced to rely on monsters like Blackcinders to fend off greater horrors like the Maleking is, unfortunately, a necessary evil. We can debate this later when the survival of this entire sphere isn’t in jeopardy.”
She had a point, unfortunately. He couldn’t afford to stall for time; one minute off and everyone died. “I have two other saves for the Midnight Market,” Mathias said, glancing at his Magik Online account. “Mammon’s Chronobreak Spell Uncast: Underside Destruction Prevented, 1789. Conspiracy Unveiled: Malebranche-Concordia War, 1920.”
Melusine absorbed the words, trying to make sense out of them. “Time-travel,” she finally said, before muttering to herself. “Mammon escalated that early… from the very beginning…”
“I’ve heard of that term,” Shroud said, remembering his conversation with Wormson. “You said sorcery affected the personality.”
“Locks work both ways. You can manipulate sorcery, but the colors you channel also affect you. Violet Sorcerers who let their color take too much of a foothold in their soul always try to cast a true time-travel spell, because Violet fundamentally wants to cross frontiers, the past included. Those attempts always fail with disastrous consequences.”
“The Reload spell works just fine as far as I can tell.”
“Replacing oneself with an older version is not the same as traveling to the past and rewriting all of reality,” Melusine replied. “For a first, if you had to cast a time-travel spell to go back to the past, then you erase the situation that made you want to go back in the first place, does it not?”
Mathias quickly caught on. “You create a paradox.”
“You create Black Flux,” Melusine confirmed. “One of the few ways to reliably produce this nefarious power is to fail a time-travel spell. Still, escalating Violet Sorcerers never listen. They believe that this time, they will succeed where the others failed. They never do.
“To conclude, Mammon tried to cast an impossible spell and it destroyed the Underside. In that recorded possibility, he probably chose not to risk pulling the trigger.”
“Meaning that he must be free and in power for that possibility to exist,” Mathias guessed, “And if I overwrite the older save with a newer one…”
“Either the newest will overwrite the first or both will combine,” Melusine said. “Having a time where Mammon exists and is in power before the Conquest of Earth should restore most of the original history.”
Probably. Loading another save was a gamble. The sorcerer glanced at the sealed fiend. “He killed all the mimics in the former timeline,” he pointed out. “If I restore him…”
“I know,” Melusine said, not even sparing Mammon a glance. “And helping that monster disgusts me. But it is either that or your death, and that of billions of innocents. They will all die if that asteroid hits, Mathias. Perhaps the new history will take the best of both possibilities and create a better one. You cannot know unless you try.”
Pressed for time and realizing he may never see Sol or Maggie again unless he tried, Mathias decided to risk it all. “Load save, Mammon’s Chronobreak Spell Uncast.”
The iron abyss responded to his call, spitting out a surge of blue power.
Again reality split in two, one metal cave with a sealed Mammon, another where his containment hatch had opened, leaving nothing within. The gears and threads of reality revealed themselves, grinding away one reality for the success of another.
Melusine followed him into this strange, glitching dimension, unaffected by the torrent of Blue Sorcery unleashed on the unsuspecting world.
In the in-between of the two realities, a thick, oily darkness watched back; a night without stars, a lesser being than the heartless light, a grasping void with a single white eye.
“Feed the Black.” The voice was anything but human, a deep, bellowing sound like that of gears grinding hope. “It will make us free.”
As the new picture overwrote the first, black dots seeped from the in-between and spread like blots of ink, dispersing. In a flash, reality stabilized.
“What was that?” Mathias asked as Melusine touched her helmet.
“Pandoria, I believe. Let me check the database…” Melusine didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “Reality is still in the process of stabilizing, but the asteroid vanished and records say Mammon is in charge of the Midnight Market.”
Shroud immediately opened his Network feeds, and to his joy found Maggie and Sol’s feeds had returned, and his team alive. “Maggie!” he called her.
“What?!” she replied with tiredness, practicing weaponry on dummies at a hobgoblin’s shooting stand.
“God, you’re alive! You can’t imagine how happy that makes me feel.”
“Ugh, nerd, I already told you, I’m too good for you. You’re so deep into the friend zone you’re never crawling out.”
Mathias smiled, doubly so when he also noticed Mammon’s feed, the chest bastard playing a card game at his casino. Network had carried over the resets; since he had networked Mammon in the older timeline, that meant history was back on track.
“So what happens now?” Mathias addressed the obvious problem. “We fight, you try to bring me back to the Grandmaster?”
Melusine didn’t respond with any hostility, much to his surprise. He had expected a sudden but inevitable betrayal. “Are you so intent on treating all members of the Empire as your enemies? I am not Blackcinders, and Concordia is not a monolith.”
“You tried to kill my team.”
“You murdered a dragon governor, stole a restricted artifact, and declared war. Even then, elements within the Empire still believe you can earn redemption, enough to send me to save you behind Blackcinders’ back.”
Mathias laughed at the phrasing. “Redemption.”
“The Grandmaster forgives all if we make the right choice in the end. Call that a flaw, I choose to call it her greatest quality.” Melusine kept her mouth shut for a second, before opening up further. “Like you, I believed the Empire evil and ruthless once, but I saw the potential and didn’t consider it a lost cause. I chose to try to improve it from within. You could as well.”
“Somebody already tried that sales pitch. It didn’t take.”
She shook her head. “I answered many of your questions, so you will answer one of mine.” Her tone deepened. “Where is Manus?”
The Concordian AI that almost destroyed the Empire? “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“When I interfered with your Lock, I noticed another Terminal linked to yours, supplying you with Flux. A process eerily similar to Manus’ Distributor Lock.”
An artificial intelligence could use sorcery? “Didn’t you destroy Manus?”
“We thought so as well, but clearly we were mistaken. We wondered how so many humans started unlocking as sorcerers on Earth, but it was its doing all along, isn’t it?”
… the Administrator.
Maybe. He couldn’t check unless he asked.
“You do not know yourself,” Melusine finally said, shaking her head. “Manus was, is a cold, cruel machine, a Blue Terminal who abused its power in an attempt to overthrow the Grandmaster. It escalated and nearly brought the entire Empire down.”
“Maybe it should have succeeded,” Shroud replied with some venom.
“It decei—” Melusine caught herself as if almost blurting something she shouldn’t, as she put a hand on her visor. She seemed to briefly struggle with a headache, before recovering. “Manus caused your family more misery than anyone else ever did, Mathias.”
The phrasing caught his attention. “What do you mean?”
Melusine didn’t answer, silent as a tombstone. “Why does the Grandmaster want me alive, knowing what I can do?” Mathias pushed.
“Because the future is already written, Mathias. Harsh as it is for you to hear it… there is no future where Concordia falls. The Grandmaster has seen to it.”
She said it with such smug conviction, it disgusted him.
A sharp pain in his left arm, stronger than during the last reset, prevented him from uttering a clever retort.
He looked at it, and to his horror noticed a faint trail of blackness surge at the point where Toshiyami cut it once. Darkness that had strengthened.
“Shroud, Shroud!” Ace called from her feed, just as Sol, Maggie, and Kari did from their own. “Mathias, something is wrong!”
He looked at all of them and suddenly understood what the feature meant by glitches.
Creatures around the Market—mostly the mimics—shifted in a state of constant flux, blinking in and out of existence at random; sometimes two pictures of the victims superposed, one threatening to overwhelm the other, only to swing back at the last second.
The Player had loaded a Save where they still populated the Midnight Market; and one where Mammon was alive. A free Mammon guaranteed their extermination for an unknown reason.
A contradiction. Both dead and alive. He had created a paradox, and reality struggled to reconcile it. In some, reality stabilized, either the mimic vanishing from sight or surviving the transition.
But in a few cases…
One of the glitching mimics in the casino surged with darkness, a chest whose wood turned into rusted steel and blood to blackened oil. Its howl of pain and agony turned to the sound of screeching metal, as the flesh within started rotting. The horror eventually stabilized into a being that shouldn’t be, lashing out at the panicked casino players.
The mimic had turned into the same kind of monster as Toshiyami.
Mammon and other guests immediately moved into action, tossing machines and card tables aside. The Midnight King smashed the corrupted mimic in one blow as his skin turned to diamond, turning it into a puddle of oil and killing it instantly. Another mimic started to open itself to darkness, causing Mammon to shout, “A thousand soul gems for every Pandorian head!”
Considering his greedy personality, the situation must have been dire.
A look at Maggie’s feed, who had exited the shooting stand, told him the plague had spread through the Midnight Market; one of the mimic streetlights had turned into a tree of rusted steel and rotten flesh, shrieking in pain as it rampaged across a street. Manah’s shadows sprung from the ground to assault it, while Maggie watched from afar, dumbfounded.
“I created Pandorians,” Mathias spoke out loud, horrified. He had made the universe a Blacker place.
“I estimate roughly one percent of the mimics on the Underside will turn into Pandorians due to failing to fully stabilize,” Melusine said with casual certainty. “Add another nine to ten percent of casualties before Mammon and his allies regain control.”
“You knew this would happen?”
“If one person must perish for nine others to live, then this is a net gain for everyone.” Although the argument sounded logical, Mathias found her flat tone chilling. “You made the universe a better place and brought an extinct species back. Can you not see the brighter side?”
The fact she could so easily brush off the ‘losers’ of this new history chilled him to the core. “I have to go,” he said, readying his lightshards. “I need to help.”
“No. We still have much to talk about.”
“No way in Hel—”
“The future is State Zero.”
When Shroud opened his eyes again, he found himself on a rooftop on the Underside, unharmed.
He struggled with headaches as he rose back to his feet. All he could remember was Melusine speaking five words, the future is… he struggled to remember the last words.
That bitch must have cast a spell on him, similar to Blue World. So much for Mindshield’s protection.
A quick glance around told him he had moved to the Underside, which struggled with fires here and here, spaceships surveying the area and firing at isolated areas. Mammon was in the process of pacifying the Underside, with extreme prejudice.
Shroud opened his network feeds, to check on his team. “Sol?” he contacted the knight first, who flew over a street looking for something… or someone.
“Mathias, where are you?” the knight asked, relieved. “We’ve been trying to call you for hours!”
He opened his Magik browser, finding a message from the Administrator.
ADMINISTRATOR: Mathias. My alarm told me you used the Load feature again.
SHROUD: I know. When?
ADMINISTRATOR: Three hours ago, according to your account history. What happened?
He had been out cold for three hours?
What did that woman do to him in the meantime? Did she knock him out and open his brain to find out where Magik came from?
SHROUD: The Concordian saboteur got the drop on me and knocked me out. She could remember the resets, and she knew about them.
ADMINISTRATOR: Concordia knows about your save power, and let you walk free?
SHROUD: Yeah, I doubt it’s mercy either. She said that power wasn’t my only prerogative.
ADMINISTRATOR: I see no less than seven hacking attempts inside your account history after the Load launch. Thankfully, the protections I set in place held, but I must assume she probed your mind and learned everything you did, even if she couldn’t get inside Magik.
SHROUD: I’m so sorry…
ADMINISTRATOR: Concordia already suspected our existence, and they already encountered one of the Sponsors a few years back; it was only a matter of time before they figured it out. I am, however, much more concerned by your continued freedom.
SHROUD: She said elements of the Empire thought I could gain ‘redemption.’ That the Grandmaster needed me alive.
ADMINISTRATOR: if Wyrde wants you alive, then you actively factor into her plans somehow; and if she does not consider the Save and Load feature a threat, then this means she too has access to it.
SHROUD: Or that saboteur is a traitor to Concordia, but she sounded pretty damn loyal to the Grandmaster.
ADMINISTRATOR: I am sorry, but I must assume you are partly compromised from now on. Your uncanny luck back in Evermarsh was already making me suspect something was up, and this only raises more alarms.
SHROUD: I understand but please… let me fight. I need it.
ADMINISTRATOR: You will, for now. But I am so sorry to say this if I suspect you threaten Magik or the safety of other Players I will purge you, save power or not.
SHROUD: I see… it’s a better deal than I expected. But I’ve got to ask… Are you Manus?
ADMINISTRATOR: No. No.
SHROUD: … then again, if you were Manus, you would still probably say that. And you sound like you know the Grandmaster.
ADMINISTRATOR: I am more familiar with Wyrde than most, but I can guarantee you that I am not Manus.
SHROUD: How so?
ADMINISTRATOR: Because we destroyed him.
Voting for Magik: Voting button
When facing the horrible combined stress of finals, constantly moving around, and trying to maintain a certain quality level for Magik, my patrons on Patreon help me find peace of mind. My warmest thanks to Saul Kurzman, Dex, Warwick Robertson, BlissForgotten, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, Daniel Zogbi for their help in these troubled times.