“After a considerable battery of all non-dissection and intrusive brain surgery tests known to my repertoire,” Stitch declared, examining a battery of paper results. “I guarantee that you have no spying device, trap bomb, virus or any particular foreign element in your body.”
“No hidden radio, microphone, nanomachine, alien chest-buster?” Shroud pushed.
“Nothing,” Stitch said. “You are perfectly healthy, and sound of mind.”
Shroud still couldn’t believe Melusine let him go unharmed. Did she cast a trigger spell that Stitch couldn’t notice?
“Alright nerd, now that the medical check-up is done,” Maggie said. “Why did you bring us together?”
He observed the group, gathered in the Palace of Shadows’ training room. Truthfully, Shroud had brought them here to make sure they were all safe and sound. He had checked up on his backstory with Sol and found that much of the history before he made his first Load had returned. He had still lived on Earth and then Evermarsh, still lost his mother to Concordia, still dated Perse, still lost his father to Jack—he couldn’t help but feel bitter about it—and still killed Smokefang in the same circumstances.
Besides the restoration of the Underside and mimics now running around, he had successfully put history back on track with none the wiser.
“After yesterday’s events, I wanted to check on how everyone is doing,” Shroud declared.
“Yeah, last night was freaky,” Maggie admitted. “What the hell happened? One second the chesties act nice, and the next they go bonkers.”
“Mammon is still investigating the cause,” Ace replied, looking at Shroud with a gaze that told him she suspected his involvement somehow. “He hasn’t told me much, but I heard a malfunction in the Neurotower probably turned latent mimic sorcerers into Pandorians.”
The Pandorian plague had been contained by Mammon and the Shadow Queen as Melusine predicted, with some difficulties and not without casualties. If the previous side-effects of the Save feature hadn’t convinced him of the danger, that smaller catastrophe did. Shroud had considered using it to bring his parents back but thought it too dangerous.
While the sorcerer may use that feature again, he would only do so as a nuclear option.
“Mur bought himself a new hammer to smash Pandorians with,” the fiend replied, showing the group a copy of the weapon Kresnik demolished back on Earth. Now with his Pitborn-enhancements, he could easily swing it one-handed. “Mur is considering buying a minigun to go with it.”
“I could empower it,” Sol commented. “I have been experimenting with the Encode spell to add magical effects to items.”
“Mur says yes, but no touching Mur’s hammer. That is for Mur alone to play with.”
Once upon a time, Shroud would have considered such a discussion between those two a pipe dream. Did Synergize encourage them to cover one another’s weaknesses?
“About this Encode spell,” Stitch said, “My long discussions with Wormson bore fruit. I believe that the Encode spell could work as a counter to anti-sorcery spell. We need to test it in the field first, but it appears promising.”
“If you could add effects to my guns,” Maggie said. “I’m almost done testing my weapon quotas, and I’m still sticking to good old bullets.”
“I’ve also researched the Doppelganger spell,” Shroud told the group, “Which allows for limited duplication. I may have found a loophole, but I may need your assistance.”
“Good spell,” Kari agreed. “But limited to one.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” If he could use Grant Spell on them, he would get around it. “Doppelganger.”
One meter to his left, a perfect copy of him, glass armor and all, materialized in a faint flash of blue light. The copy seemed to have gone through a faint lens of blue, the colors of his armor tainted by it.
“Ah!” the double said, bending a little. “That armor is so heavy when you can’t mentally control it!”
“You don’t have Glass Field active?” Shroud asked.
“I don’t think so,” the double replied, “I still have Premium Thoughts on though. My, our, mind is as sharp as ever.”
“I can finally talk to myself without looking crazy,” Shroud joked.
“There’s more than one now,” Maggie said as she facepalmed.
“As if you could take even one of me,” Shroud’s clone replied, showing the same humor as the original. “Or more?”
“We’ll see about that,” Shroud said, touching his clone’s shoulder and networking him. He immediately granted him the Doppelganger spell. “Now is the moment of truth.”
“Doppelganger,” the clone said.
Another double manifested at the clone’s left “It worked!” the third Shroud chuckled happily.
“You’re a bit bluer though,” the first clone said, noticing the slightly deeper shade of blue surrounding his double. “Is that normal?”
“You’re already pushing the rules of that spell,” Ace pointed out. “There’s bound to be side-effects.”
“We will push as far as we can,” Shroud said, as he networked his double and repeated the process.
Five minutes later, following a near industrial process, Shroud began to create clone after clone, granting each new copy the Doppelganger spell, networking the new double, and repeating the combo. The training hall started to overcrowd, forcing the Dragonslayers to take a few steps back as more Shrouds manifested.
With each duplication, the double’s colors turned a little more towards a brighter shade of blue, their features less sharp and substantial, blurred. Finally, when the last clone became so blue as to look like a glitchy humanoid, it vanished into nothing one second after forming.
“Ninety-nine doubles,” Shroud said, bringing the total to one hundred with him included, “That’s the hard duplication limit. Afterward, the clone is too unstable to last.”
“Who will dare defy Shroud?” Shroud Fifty said.
“And Shroud,” Shroud Thirty-Six added. “We are legion, for we are many.”
“Mathias, do not tempt the Devil,” Sol replied grumpily.
“Fascinating,” Stitch said, by far the most impressed of the Dragonslayers, as he examined the bluest of the clones with deep interest. “Quantum duplicates of duplicates…”
“Okay, so you can become a one-man orgy,” Maggie said. “Big deal. None of them can cast spells.”
“The chain,” Kari whispered. “If you break the chain…”
“Yes,” Shroud Seventy-Seven responded. “Thing is… we need one of us to die to check it out.”
“Die?” Sol was aghast by the suggestion.
“Not me,” Shroud, the original, pointed out. “Just a copy. One in the fifties, if possible.”
“Maybe we should draw straws?” Shroud Fifty-Two proposed.
“No need, I volunteer,” Shroud Fifty removed his helmet, leaving his head exposed, and tossed it away. The second he did, the helmet vanished into nothingness. “Here goes my grand dramatic gesture.”
“Our duplicated equipment dissipates if it loses contact with us,” Shroud Twenty noted. “The duplication process must be that unstable.”
Clone Fifty looked into the original’s eyes. “I always knew suicide was the way to go,” Clone Fifty said.
“How can you joke about this!” Sol couldn’t take it anymore. “There has to be another solution!”
“None that I can think of,” Clone Fifty said, “And I’m scared shitless, I need to defuse the tensio—”
The original Shroud, exploiting his clone’s distraction to make his demise as painless as possible, hit him in the head with a lightshard without warning. The clone dissipated as quickly as his equipment.
Shroud felt the sharp pain recoiling through their brain and the memories of the clone meld with their own.
Damn, death hurt!
“Holy cow, you actually did it,” Maggie said, slightly disturbed. “That’s messed up, even for you, nerd.”
Perhaps. He guessed watching people die again and again had desensitized him to those things slightly. “No one else collapsed,” Kari said, the first to catch on.
“Yes, from I what learned on Doppelganger, clones vanish if the original is killed,” Ace said. “Following that logic, since each clone is part of a chain, the death of this one should have canceled half the doubles in the room.”
“I didn’t get the memory of Fifty’s death too,” Shroud Forty-Nine said.
“Only I did?” the true Shroud asked his doubles.
“Okay, I have two theories: either the spell considers you alone the original and only your death will kill us all,” Shroud Eleven said. “Or Network’s Synergy stabilizes us somehow.”
“We will have to wait one week for the effects to wear off for the later,” Shroud Seventy-Five added. “It’s probably the first since no one else got the memory. Maybe the spell considers us all doubles of the ‘root’ Shroud once we dispel, even if we circumvented the rules by creating clones of the clones instead of duplicating the original further.”
“That means we can deploy in the field without risking the others,” Shroud Thirty-One said. “And since the original gets the memories of the other doubles, plus the boost of Synergy, we become a perfectly coordinated one-man army.”
“Or information gathering network,” Shroud Twenty-Two said.
“I could also repeat the process with you guys,” the original Shroud told the Dragonslayers. “Create up to one hundred doubles. Even if they lack Glass Field or other spells, that could give us a ground force.”
“No,” Kari replied flatly. If anything, what happened with Melusine had made her even more wary of using Network than before.
“Mur not cloning himself if he can help. That would dilute Mur’s uniqueness.”
“We would probably start arguing,” Maggie said. “One of me is all you people need.”
“I would definitely appreciate having clones of me to work with,” Stitch replied, much more enthusiastic about it. “If we share memories, then it would make us progress far faster.”
Sol too seemed on the fence about the idea; he could see the merits, but watching his protegee die before his eyes disturbed him. “I may have a solution to the equipment problem,” he said, instead of reaching a decision.
“Encode?” Shroud Seventy-Three guessed.
“Yes. Combined with Reinforce or other items, we could equip clones.”
Equipped doppelgangers would never match the original’s power, but they could make a strong, renewable fighting force. “What about you, Ace?”
“I will think about it,” Ace said. “It might come in handy with work, but Mammon recruited me for my Lock first and foremost, which doubles don’t share. I would prefer to share the original’s company also.”
No sending doubles dating her then. Shroud scrapped that plan.
Further experiments confirmed that separation of any duplicated equipment from the double caused it to vanish, and the spell didn’t duplicate sorcery applying to that same equipment; the armor of each Shroud didn’t carry the faint power of Glass Field with them. Only spells cast on Shroud himself carrying over to copies and never Hacks. The death of one clone didn’t affect the others, but only the original received the memory feedback, no matter the clone’s location in the chain. Obviously, none of the doubles could access Magik Online.
Changing the granted spell to something else than Doppelganger caused the clone’s next duplicate to vanish; perhaps it weakened the connection enough to destroy the double. So Shroud couldn’t assign other spells except to the last member of the chain, whose substance was already so fragile any strong blow would make him dissipate.
Stitch asked for eight duplicates—believing that any more would make his lab work difficult to manage—which Shroud tried to provide. Unfortunately, the duplicates quickly collapsed.
“It seems I can make ninety-nine clones total,” Shroud noted. Perhaps Magik only allocated a certain amount of resources for that spell, and so limited its consumption. After dispelling a few of his own doubles, he managed to duplicate Stitch as asked.
Cloning Sol proved disappointing though when the duplicated power armors failed to work. Neither Flux sword nor systems survived the duplication, perhaps because the Flux powering them hadn’t been duplicated.
“I believe neither Flux nor spells themselves are duplicated, sir,” Stitch suggested after further experimentations, “Only the effects they had. Your intelligence had been increased by Premium Thoughts when you duplicated, as would your body been reinforced by a spell such as Peak. The temporary improvements to your brain remained when you duplicated, but the spell itself didn’t.”
“That would fit what we know of sorcery theory,” one of the doubles said. “Blue cannot duplicate other colors nor Flux itself.”
“That would mean these enhancements cannot be dispelled by a counterspell if they have been made permanent,” another double replied.
“So no mass-produced knights in power armor,” the original Shroud sighed. “Disappointing. We will have to rely on spell-encoded weapons then.” The fact neither his Hacks nor Lock could be copied meant some tasks like working with Wormson could be delegated.
“We still have a small army now,” Sol said, trying to sound positive.
“Imagine if we master passive spells buffing us up,” Shroud Seventy-Nine said. “An army of us with super-strength.”
“A spell, Powersurge, can do exactly that,” Kari suggested.
Shroud nodded to himself, in more way than one. “I will deploy them in the Midnight Market while we are away,” he said. The Administrator had confirmed they could tackle quests and level-up within the Lair. “Does everyone feel ready then? Prepare yourselves. We have our grand trial tomorrow.”
After some brainstorming, Shroud divided his clones into ten teams of nine, and assigned various tasks to them; Stitch was granted nine duplicates to do as he wished with them.
Team One was sent to gather intel on Oceanis in preparation for Manah’s mission. Team Two studied Outsiders, either reading Worlds of Power full time or researching other avenues. It allowed him to cut the research time down. Team Three and Four researched traces of Occult Matrixes, the Neurotowers, and any information on those ancient structures.
Teams Five and Six were sent to train for battle, either on close combat or using firearms. Since Shroud would gain their memories after they dissipate and then create “updated” clones afterward, he could quickly create a fighting force. Team Seven dispersed to keep an eye on Reavers in case of retaliation.
Finally, Teams Eight, Nine, and Ten investigated Melusine.
Since only Shroud could effectively coordinate such a massive operation, he had assigned Sol the Heal spell, more useful in case of sudden danger. Stitch kept use of his clones, working fine with them to turn his room into a laboratory.
Stitch had also proposed to ‘rent’ clones of Shroud for experimentation since they could make renewable test subjects and side effects didn’t carry over to the original. In fact, he had already started using one of his doppelgangers in that way.
Shroud had for now held off on an answer, as for obvious reasons he didn’t want to remember Stitch carving him open on an operation table.
A Magik notification interrupted his trail of thoughts.
Sharpshoot’s Lock upgraded! Homing Bullet unlocked!
When firing a bullet, Sharpshoot can now mentally redirect their trajectory as she wishes.
Ah. He guessed Maggie had used her time well and finally finished her side-quest. Now there was no way in hell she could ever miss. If her target could die from a bullet, she would kill him plain and simple.
Anyway, Shroud opened his Network feed to check on Mammon while he still could. He wanted to see how the Market King had handled the timeline change, and if he remembered anything.
Mammon’s vision reflected how that creature viewed the world; a mosaic of various, smaller feeds, reflecting his countless eyes. The Midnight King moved across an immense hoard of jewels, gold, and trinkets; an ocean of riches that could probably fit a country within.
At the center of this massive hoard, laid perhaps the crown jewel; a towering structure of blackened gold, the size of the Statue of Liberty. The statue represented a fearsome, terrible beast, a feline-like chimera with seven heads each wearing hideous crowns, and ten horns. That horror carried itself with regal authority, yet could only inspire dread and revulsion.
The statue’s eyes shone with a cruel, red light, and a voice came out. “Answer, my Horseman of Conquest, my Maleprince of greed.”
Shroud could have recognized this sinister voice among thousands.
“Lord Malacoda.” According to the change in vision, Mammon had bowed before the statue. His servile, deferential tone contrasted neatly with his previous irritability. “Oh, lawless one, great god of this age, Mammon is always your faithful vassal. You summoned me?”
“I worried about your health, my dear friend,” the voice said, with a strange, concerned tone. “Little birds spoke of strange changes happening on your fief.”
“The Shadow Queen killed Lugh,” Mammon replied. “Pandorian vermin started infesting my realm, but we wiped out most of them.”
“I was more concerned about a Concordian elite agent freely operating on your fief.”
“I sent forces after that mole as soon as I learned of it,” Mammon said. “Did Aster send her to sabotage us?”
“No, I do not believe the dragons suspect your true allegiance yet. Famine did not falter in his duties and covered our tracks well. The Ministers suspect I will make a move during the Epoch, but not what. In all likelihood, that agent was sent after Martel.”
Apparently, the Maleking had agents among Concordia. Shroud figured out as much. Mammon being the Maleking’s servant instead of his ally, not so much. Malacoda… he promised himself to look into that name.
Also, somehow, Shroud found Mammon’s behavior calmer, stabler. Did he put on a fake persona to make others drop his guard, only revealing his true self when among his closest allies?
“I ask you to be careful, Mammon. It is imperative that Martel remains alive and firmly in the Market until the Epoch’s climax.” Shroud frowned on his end of the line. “Throw a few sacrifices to keep the Ministers guessing, if needed.”
“As you wish, lawless one.”
“About the Pandorians, mayhaps our trump card caused it?”
“No, no,” Mammon replied. “The last test went perfectly. No Pandorian rose as a side-effect.”
“Saddening,” the Maleking replied, slightly disappointed. “The optimist in me hoped for more collateral damage.”
“I still do not understand why I did not harvest all those mimics centuries ago…” Mammon grumbled. “It still hurts thinking about all those soul gems lost.”
The Maleking’s heavy gaze made Shroud frown. Did he suspect something amiss? “Why did you not harvest their souls?” the demon asked his vassal.
“I thought… I thought it would be easier to hide among them…” The Midnight Market tycoon struggled to make words. “It hurts just to remember.”
The Maleking seemed to suspect something afoot, for he asked, “Did something unusual happened, prior to the Pandorian plague, however minor?”
“Martel can use the sphere artifacts,” Mammon replied. “Mammon does not remember all the details, but he saw words inside. I asked him to activate the device, yet nothing happened. Useless.”
Now the Maleking had fallen into an eerie silence that chilled Shroud to the core. He could sense the invisible pressure as if the fiend’s eyes could see through Network and looked at him directly.
“Lawless one?” Mammon asked, confused.
“Nothing to trouble yourself with, yet.” The Maleking lost himself in his thoughts, before declaring, without warning, “The Grandmaster concerns herself with long-reaching, complex plans, which may either succeed or fail spectacularly. I prefer to have many smaller ones, which always result in victories that build over time. Different philosophies. Thesis, and antithesis. Out of confrontation, a new future is born.”
“Lord Malacoda, Mammon does not understand…”
“All of this to say that unlike my nemesis, I do consider the possibility of failure. There is always a small chance that what I built for centuries come crashing down. Existence is randomness, after all.” The fiend let out a dark chuckle. “My apologies, I ramble too much. Should events turn irrevocably against us… you have my permission to put that hoard of souls to good use and cast that experimental spell.”
Mammon shuddered with excitation. “At long last… we have enough gems to cast it now, lawless one. No need to hoard further.”
“My reservations stand, my Horseman,” the Maleking purred. “Since we will not have a second chance at casting it, and considering the risks involved, I would rather win with our current strategy. Should demonkind end up on the wrong side of history again, though… burn it all.”
The Maleking said that with such a serene, calm tone, it made the underlying threat all the heavier.
“I leave you carte blanche to decide when and if you cast it, Mammon. Surprise me. The stage will soon be set, and our hour will come. My gift to the universe.”
The statue’s eyes shone brighter, with the fires of Armageddon itself.
“I will show them Hell Unending.”
Shroud closed the feed, meditating on what he had learned.
The sorcerer remembered the first Occult Matrix, back during his first team raid, and the event that followed. He remembered the bright Blue flash that followed, the feedback about a “safeguard timeline.”
What if… what if a save had activated back then?
What if the battle with Kresnik and Smokefang had gone wrong, and someone loaded a save to give Shroud a second chance? Was it Network? But the load feature hadn’t been installed yet, and the Administrator would have certainly mentioned it. And if he truly was unaffected by the save power, he would have remembered a shift in history.
On the other hand, the saboteur had erased three hours of his time, so he couldn’t trust his memories too much on the matter.
The Administrator had said his luck had stretched credibility, and maybe it was on to something. Did the Grandmaster of Concordia or high-ranked imperials actively protect Shroud, shielding him from investigations? Was it the sinister voice he had heard during his first Load attempt?
Most importantly… why did they need him? Because he was a Terminal? To bait the Administrator, whoever it was, into the open? If Concordia suspected it to be Manus, then that would explain a lot. Letting Shroud run around under secret surveillance was a small price to pay compared to catching their worst enemy.
But if so, it begged the question of why did Concordia think Shroud was related to Manus in the first place? The answer was almost painfully obvious when he put all the pieces together.
While he had never learned the reasons behind her arrest, he would have bet his life her research on artificial intelligence had something to do with it; and the saboteur had all but stated Manus had wronged his family somehow.
During the Conquest, Mom had received an alien signal of some kind. Shroud thought it had been an advance notice of the Concordian invasion, but what if it was linked to Manus instead? Perhaps a back-up of some kind?
Shroud had the terrible feeling he was but a pawn in a larger game he couldn’t fathom yet; and that he had been on the chessboard long before he received the Administrator’s invitation.
Manah had been right. He sucked at foresight, and it always cost him; loading that Save in an impulse could have ended far worse. While he doubted he could have obtained information without trying the feature, his lack of knowledge limited him, and worse, perhaps made him indeed a pawn in someone else’s plan.
Shroud had learned the lesson. Impulsiveness was a flaw he had to work on; he was not the master of his fate he thought he was. Other forces worked in the background to push him in their direction, and if he didn’t learn to act with caution and think, then he would be a slave to the whims of fate.
But for all his faults, Shroud had improved. He knew more about Dis, about the system’s purpose, and how to master his latent potential as a Blue Sorcerer. He would learn to gather information, to take a step back and plan.
And he needed to.
Because from what he had seen, war would come to Earth, and fast.
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In these early days before the great summer break, my greatest thanks to my beloved patrons on Patreon, Saul Kurzman, Dex, Warwick Robertson, BlissForgotten, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, Daniel Zogbi.
New quests from them have been posted in the Quest Board, so go check them out!
Anyway, I’m done with finals so I return to the two update a weeks for the summer. Hallelujah. Original picture above by Richey Beckett (click on the link to see his work); I’m pretty sure you will guess who the Maleking is afterward.
2 Replies to “Chapter 45: Before the Lair”
This chapter gives me ‘Echoes’ vibes, with the clones and whatnot. Also, more context behind Mammon’s Chronobreak spell. All very interesting.
Echoes, that goes far back now. That and alternate timelines 🙂 Thanks.