“Are you sure this is the right place?” Ulysses asked from the white, Flux-powered Ford Fiesta’s backseat. He looked pretty uncomfortable wearing a tuxedo for the party, fidgeting next to his sister. Mathias didn’t fare any better, sweating under his suit and gloves.
“I told you that it was like a palace,” Perse chirped. She had dressed astonishingly well for the night, wearing a short, sensual black dress, and holding her red hair together with a blue rose. Even Mathias could only stare. His jaw had even dropped when they had picked the Werners up.
And she had been sitting strangely close to him ever since. It made him… uncomfortable. Not that he wasn’t used to her physical closeness, but… it felt weird tonight. He had even suppressed the urge to fish for information with Network, worrying about the answer he would get.
“That’s an understatement, sweetie,” Vivianne said, sitting at the front seat next to the driver, Mathias’ own father. While they would be out on a friendly dinner on paper, Mathias had noticed she had put perfume on.
—- Viviane made a face in front of the mirror. Had she overdone the eyeshade? Victor had seemed interested, but with the memory of his wife still haunting him, he might pull back if she forced too much —
Yes, Mathias had guessed right. His power took out all the surprise.
“Thanks for driving us, Mr. Martel,” Perse said, as the trio stepped down from the car.
“It’s normal, can’t have her be the one driving you guys all the time,” Victor replied. Mathias would have sworn he saw his father smile in the dark. “You sure your date is here, Ulysses?”
“Yeah, she texted me. She just left the house with her brother.”
“All is good, then.” The parents waved them goodbye before leaving them for their own dinner, the car leaving without making a sound. Mathias had to give credit to Concordia. Clean energy for all devices made for a quiet city.
Mathias dusted himself off, before taking a moment to look at the massive mansion in front of him.
Even from blocks away, the glow of dancing lights and the sound of dubstep music made it impossible to miss the residence. Sitting on a small hill, Mayor Brown’s estate stood out for being out of time. An exotic creamy-white house detailed in a neo-Art Deco style; huge picture windows made up the south and west walls of the house, facing the sea. The immense garden surrounding the place smelled of alien scents; Mayor Brown had imported strange, star-shaped red flowers from another world.
Security was state of the art, of course. An electric fence surrounded the palace, and Mathias noticed surreptitiously placed cameras monitoring them right above the entrance portal. The metal doors opened for them without a word, the automated system recognizing their faces. Two large Bullmen bouncers held guard at the entrance, checking the group’s ID before they could get in.
The party was already on as Mathias walked into the garden, Perse putting her arm around his own in a mock gala gesture. He could see that the place was packed with dozens of students and young faces he hadn’t seen. Almost all of them had gathered around an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Hob servants moved around, serving refreshments and food to the humans present.
— chaotic yet formal; politically correct ambiance for now, won’t last long; energy waiting to be unleashed with the proper incentive —
“Here I go — gotta catch’em all,” Ulysses said, leaving to look for his date among the crowd. He seemed entirely out of place in that gathering, not paying much attention to his surroundings.
“I try so hard to set him up with someone, and this always happens,” Perse complained, then rubbed against Mathias, much to his discomfort and amusement. “Good thing I have the best one on hand.”
Mathias could tell that she enjoyed making him uneasy in front of others. Fortunately, he found a nice distraction, noticing Samantha not too far away.
“Look, they’re setting up a stage.”
Indeed, a small group of boys were busy setting up microphones and drums, under the watchful eye of Samantha and another girl Mathias had yet to meet. Orb-shaped speaker drones flew around them, playing dubstep music, and ready to relay karaoke songs.
“Thank you all,” Samantha thanked the boys, which most of them Network identified as her personal fans. She had dressed superbly tonight, wearing a golden dress that rivaled Perse’s own in sheer flair. “You all get a drink for your hard work when you’re finished!”
“Sam!” Perse shouted, as Mathias and her reached the small group. “Have you brought the guitar?”
“Always,” the singer replied, before putting an arm behind the unknown girl’s waist and pushing her forward gently. “Matt, Perse, here is my penpal, Kari Matsumoto. She just arrived yesterday night.”
Kari was a Japanese teenager, smaller than Mathias. As pale as a ghost, her eyes were a sharp, icy blue, and looked deeply thoughtful. While she kept her black hair cut short; a streak of white hair stood out on the left side of her head. She wore a tight black outfit with long sleeves, that reminded Mathias of a ninja or a cat in the way she walked, looking out of place in the crowd.
“Hi, Kari!” Perse said with a bright, warm smile.
The young woman nodded slightly in traditional fashion. “I am happy to make your acquaintance,” she said with a soft and formal voice, in stark contrast with Perse’s booming exuberance.
— Kari observed the crowd from the shadows, rich investors and big names gathering in support of the Grimsour-Matsumoto acquisition. “Target is in sight,” Toshiyami-sensei said from her earpiece, “Dispatch.” —
Kari’s eyes widened slightly, and her head snapped right at Mathias, like a hunter noticing their prey. The suddenness of the gesture scared the young designer to his very core.
— Kari couldn’t shake this feeling of dread. Even if the dojo was empty and silent, something inhuman watched her, piercing her very soul —
“Hi, Mathias,” Samantha said, interrupting the flow of Network’s information. “Perse, can you take over the stage for five minutes? I need to borrow your date for a little bit.”
“Huh?” Both Mathias and Perse said at the same time.
“It will be quick, I promise.” Samantha took a bewildered Mathias by the other arm with a queenly demeanor that brooked no disobedience. The young man followed her almost on impulse, while leaving a surprised Perse out in the cold.
After leading Mathias near the edge of the pool, she put her arms behind her back. One step and they might fall in the water, where a few boys and girls had already taken to moonlight swimming. “Mathias,” Samantha said, as the two sat at the edge of the pool. “I must tell you something.”
Mathias straightened up, remembering her previous message, as Samantha imperiously snapped her finger, a Hob hurrying to serve them two ceramic cups full of a black substance. “What is it?” he asked, looking into the liquid.
“Moonblack,” she replied, as she took her own cup.
“Moonblack?!” Moonblack was a thick, strong black milk produced by Lord Revel’s fairies in the Sphere of Ar. Concordia’s ban on imported products from rival powers meant a drop was worth its weight in gold.
Mathias brought the drink to his lips, finding the taste sweet and pleasing. The powerful drink filled his palate and head with a rush of energy, not unlike that of a caffeine infusion. He could already feel his focus increasing. “So?”
Samantha inhaled heavily before speaking, “My dad told me today that a representative of the Institute would visit Evermarsh High School by the end of the month,” she said, before smiling brightly. “You and I have been nominated for membership by Mr. Barth.”
“Oh.” Well, that wasn’t the answer he had expected.
“You don’t seem surprised. Come on, Matt, it’s amazing.”
“No, no, it’s… it’s great, I’m flattered.” His father would be proud.
The Loctis Institute was a prestigious establishment, dedicated to furthering both scientific and magical research for the Concordian Empire. Anton Maxwell, Mathias’ CEO, had attended it, alongside other big names. All those who had attended it became high-ranking members of the regime or achieved societal success.
But the Institute also produced most of the Empire’s war tech, alongside Grimsour Industries. Joining meant putting his intellect into the service of dragons; he would rather design games instead of war machines.
“Nominated being the key word,” Samantha said. “The Institute is very selective. The representative might decide to pick only one of us.”
“And you want me to back out?” He knew she wouldn’t — she craved competition — but he wanted to see her reaction.
Samantha laughed, “Of course not. I’m actually happy that we’re in competition for the spot. I took the nomination for granted, so the risk of losing it spices up my life. Tell me, Matt, do you play chess?”
“I prefer the game of Go,” Mathias replied, putting his cup back inside the drone alongside Samantha’s after finishing. “Chess is direct and offensive, while Go is more subtle, indirect. It fits my mindset better.”
“Maybe we could play a game later? I really want to have a rival I can match wits with. Everyone always plays nice with me, so it’s fun to fight someone that doesn’t hold back.” She took a look around, noticing the stage was set for her music band. “You know, this will probably be my last party in Evermarsh. Afterwards, I’m either going to leave for the Institute or for a big Arc-City. I really wanted to bring everyone together for one last night.”
“You did,” Mathias said with a smile. “Everyone managed to make it.”
“Except Jack.” Her voice was laced with an undercurrent of venom. “He texted me saying he wouldn’t come.”
Mathias paused. He had a pretty good idea where the boy could have gone. “Are you two…”
“I deserved better than a text,” she cut him off, ending the conversation on a foul note.
Perse’s booming voice resonated across the garden, enhanced by the flying drones. “Is this thing on? Sam, Maggie, we’re on! Matt, it’s Terra Firma calling, I can see that you aren’t paying attention! So pay attention, damnit!”
A wave of laughter spread across the audience, snapping Mathias back to reality and bringing joy back to Samantha. She is so going to suffer, he thought, as Samantha laughed out loud and left him to join her friends.
The Evermarsh Skulls, with Perse as guitarist and Samantha as the singer, assembled on the stage, with the various partygoers surrounding them. Maggie Powells, the drummer, would round out the trio.
… Or would have, had she showed up.
Mathias could tell something was wrong from his spot, as Samantha and Perse began to whisper away from the microphone. Eventually, Samantha made a gesture at Kari, inviting her on the scene. The Japanese girl took the drummer’s place, much to everyone’s surprise.
With a trio assembled, and content that Mathias was paying attention to her, Perse gave the microphone back to Samantha. “First of all,” the diva declared, instantly quelling the crowd with her voice.“Thank you all of you for coming tonight. I’ve got a question for you, though.”
She raised her arm above. “Who wants to put Evermarsh on fire tonight?!”
The crowd erupted, raising their arms.
“Then say with me, three…”
“Three!” the crowd roared. “Two! One!”
“Here we go!” Samantha shouted, Perse unleashing a powerful sound as Kari hit the drums.
And the crowd just went wild.
“With bright light…” Samantha sang.
A bunch of boys distributed alcohol cans to everyone, girls took their dates to dance, and small drones circled the property, projecting holograms in the form of a kinetic lightshow.
The Evermarsh Skulls played with their eyes closed, subsumed in a trance. Perse, especially, moved as if possessed, jumping around with her guitar. Her energy spread to the audience, with multiple people jumping on place with reckless abandon. The very ground shook, shook…
“All will be one… for one is never alone…”
Mathias found himself clapping, entranced by the music. Even Ulysses, ever the detached loner, began to smile and jump in place.
— Osmosis achieved; emotional energy spreading; all are one —
But for Mathias, his heart just wasn’t in it. He only had to take a long hard look at the night sky to understand why. The light of the city blotted out the stars, but the full moon shone a bright crimson.
The young man could see the massive, metallic, red-colored structure covering the moon with perfect clarity. He could see the brightness at the center of the construct, the Flux energy pit whose terrible eruptions caused so many deaths.
Damocles. The seat of the dragon authority ruling Earth, the symbol of their domination. The Doomsday weapon that wiped Russia off the map.
How did it feel, to look at that weapon? To wonder everyday whether it would fire, burning your city and those one loved? How did it feel to hold a party under that bloody moon, to forget oneself in booze and drugs and carry on while pretending everything was fine?
It felt awful.
Yet something else bothered him, the seed of a doubt infesting his mind. He had expected Jack’s last minute absence, since he was clearly involved in his father’s plot. But Maggie? His Network insight pointed in the opposite direction. Why would she be absent?
No, they couldn’t go that far. The Powells couldn’t cross that line. They couldn’t…
As the doubt growed, and the implications became clear, Mathias ran away the rave in a hurry.
Mathias observed the Chemical Plant from afar, hidden in the shadows. While he had run as fast as he could, and had to catch his breath not to collapse, clearly he was late for the real party.
In the darkness of the night, the plant looked like an ominous fortress of rusted steel, ruined by time. Lines of dilapidated structures, of crumbling towers, welcomed Mathias. The plant hidden away like a dirty secret as far away from town as logistically possible. The acid smell itched his throat. His Glass Field let him see swarms of rats tailing him in the dark, or crawling nearby.
Before the Conquest made the previous owner bankrupt, this place had been a nest of jobs for the city, hosting hundreds of employees. It had slowly fallen into decay, the Concordian government abandoning it to focus on building a whole new city instead of repairing an obsolete, toxic ruin. Once the Arc-City would be operational, the plant would finally be razed to the ground alongside the rest of the old Evermarsh, the land turned into fields or factories.
The electric fence had collapsed at one point, leaving a gaping hole for anyone to go through. And they had; half a dozen cars were parked right in front of the fences, mostly police cars and the black Mercedes that picked Samantha up from school.
Approaching as stealthily as he could, Mathias’ Glass Field soon encompassed the cars, and he began to hear people discussing in low voices through his extended senses.
“ — long enough.” The visual sensation sent by Glass Field revealed the speaker as a police member speaking to his partner. As Mathias had worried, both had guns. “My wife was starting to ask questions. Almost accused me of having an affair with you!”
“No kidding?” his female partner replied with a smirk. By now Mathias had moved on the other side of the Mercedes. “She should have a little more trust in you.”
“That is why my husband and I made a point of both being onboard since day one,” another woman said; fashionably dressed for corporate work invited herself in the discussion. She held a dashing man with a confident smile by the arm. “Trust is the foundation of a strong marriage.”
It took a moment for Mathias to recognize the man due to the ambient darkness, until he opened his mouth, “Indeed. If you wife still bothers you officer, I can vouch for your integrity.“ The consummate public figure, Mayor Brown had a way to make you like him, even when his promises sounded empty.
“Thank you, Mister Mayor. I’m just happy everything will be over after tonight.”
His partner seemed less relieved. “I hope it was worth it. Those poor guys…”
“Dregs of society.” Brown’s wife brushed off. “If anything, Concordia ought to reward us for removing those drains of their public finances.”
“Still… that was hard,” said the female cop. “Especially the first few.”
“Necessary sacrifices in the pursuit of a righteous purpose,” Brown reassured the cop. “Your task was the hardest, so it’s okay to feel doubt. I swear though, tonight’s lamb will be our last on the altar.”
The phrasing chilled Mathias to the bone. “Henry should be done,” Brown’s wife said, tightening her hold on her husband. “And I’m freezing.”
“Yes. Let’s start the ceremony.” Without another word, Brown led his group away from the cars and into the plant.
Mathias clenched his fists in suppressed rage. Those people had clearly killed the victims, and seemed about to do it again.
Mathias knew direct intervention was beyond risky. Scratch that, it sounded suicidal when he thought about it. Attacking an armed group was a major step up from his current tests, one that could easily end in his death even with his magic. He could follow his initial plan, taking incriminating pictures anonymously…
No. He couldn’t chicken out now. If he could save an innocent life tonight, he would have to step in.
Besides, fighting Gearsmen, or Troopers, or Concordian forces would prove tremendously more difficult than beating up corrupt cops. He had to start somewhere.
When the group moved far enough away, Mathias activated his Glass Field. Careful not to activate the cars’ alarm, he turned most of the windows into glass dust, drawing it to him. The Mercedes’ stained, reinforced glass he separated from the rest, bringing it to his face and shaping it into a featureless helmet covering most of his skull. The stained glass’ color would hide his face, protecting his identity; since he could see through glass, the darkness outside didn’t bother him. Tiny holes at various points allowed him to breath through it.
Part of the dust, he shaped into an armored plate over his chest, like a bulletproof vest. With his power active, the glass moved with him like a second skin. The rest, he transformed into a dozen flying daggers.
Still unaware of his presence, Brown’s group had moved around the perimeter, reaching an isolated warehouse with a solid iron door. Mathias looked from afar as he knocked on it twice, then three times.
Henry Powells opened the door; Mathias’ sensed the phone in his pocket, and the gun brushing against it. The young man did his best to listen, in spite of distance; the phone’s screen in his pocket relayed the sound to Mathias. “She is ready.”
“She?” Brown sounded surprised as he walked in, Powells closing and locking the door once the last man had gotten inside.
Mathias approached the wall next to the door, his field covering the warehouse’s interior. Mathias let his senses expand, the warehouse’s windows and lamps relay him sound and sight.
He could scarcely distinguish anything in the dim-lit room. Eight people had assembled inside, most of them cops, the others Brown’s own entourage… and Jack, dressed in a simple white shirt.
Mathias suddenly noticed a ninth person, a woman in a white dress bound and gagged to a chair at the center of the room; her face covered by a bag. She had bruises on her arms. Jack kept watch on her, his hands on her shoulders.
Damn. He resisted the urge to make all the glass in the warehouse explode in those bastards’ faces, waiting only to get a better picture of the situation.
As he focused on the scene, he received more sensory information, allowing him to better scan the area. He could see big fat rats crawling in corners, as if waiting for a meal to fall for them to devour. The most noticeable feature, however, was the mark.
The group had drawn a crimson, giant ‘M’ right beneath the bound woman, with a dried substance that reminded Mathias of blood. The symbol had been stylized, the edges of the letter looking like flames. The more Mathias looked at this, even through glass, the more unease settled in his heart.
The sight filled with him a primal sensation of fear.
“You are sure about this, Henry?” Mayor Brown’s face had grown pale, slightly disturbed. “I never asked you to go this far.”
“The Maleking appreciates personal sacrifices,” Powells replied. “What greater offering than this one?”
“But… she is your own flesh and blood.”
“She was a mistake that I would have drowned at birth had her mother not gotten in the way. Besides, you said we needed to throw the scent off our back. After she dies, nobody will suspect us. We’ll be the victims.”
“She texted her boyfriend,” Jack warned. “I can lie, say we were attacked. If someone can rough me up a bit, it will look convincing…”
“We will deal with the fallout after the ceremony,” Brown cut in, regaining control of the interaction. He straightened his clothes, brushing off dust as easily as his own buried conscience. “Time for a word of congratulations.”
“You’ve got a speech ready?” Henry smiled.
“Always,” Brown said and cleared his throat, the gathering eyeing him. “My dear friends, after long, hard weeks, our task ends tonight. Each of us struggled in secrecy, and we persevered. At long last, our efforts will yield just fruit with this last offering.”
Mathias had to struggle not to mentally slit his throat mid-speech. For the first time in his life, he considered killing a fellow man.
“Ten years ago, when mankind faced its greatest challenge, many of us lost hope. Soon, we will lose our jobs too, watching machines beat our population, or decide our future for us. Like you, I searched for a light, a way to strike back. I found none.”
Brown made a deliberate pause. “Instead, the light found me. Found us.”
The way he spoke, his eyes possessed with fervor, reminded Mathias of those movie cult leaders. Except Brown was flesh and blood instead of pictures on a screen.
“When the dreams came, when the Maleking spoke to us, I refused to believe his promises. I thought I had gone mad. So did many of you, who shared the same visions. Yet, when I saw with my own eyes, the gifts our Benefactor offered for so meager a price… then I understood. I knew who I was, what power I had been born to deliver unto the world.”
That fact disturbed Mathias all the more.
“Now, the Maleking will grant one of us the gift of power, and in gratitude, we shall give him his due.” Brown extended a hand at Jack in a dramatic, symbolic gesture. “Jack, the sacrifice.”
Mathias winced, as Jack removed the bag from his victim’s head. Although he had long guessed the identity of their victim, seeing her bruised face and gagged mouth awakened him to the danger ahead.
“My, Maggie, smile a little.” Jack grabbed a sharp knife from his belt, ready to slice his sister’s throat with unnerving serenity. “Today, I enjoy being an only child.”
Now at the moment of truth, Mathias only spoke two words, echoing through the screens and the windows.