Chapter 57: The Trap

Magik Online will only update on Wednesday until further notice. See the note at the page’s end for more details.

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The goat of the Zodiac glanced at the Dragonslayers, gathered in front of the command center’s room, having gathered all emblems but his own. “I see you completed every trial,” he said. “Including mine.”

“Will you fight us next?” Shroud asked, half-expecting a surprise final battle. He had asked the team to cast buffing spells before returning to the north area, just in case.

The Goat shook his head. “As a wise man once said, to win without fighting is the acme of skill. You learned the lesson I intended to impart.”

“Gifts always come with strings attached,” Solomon guessed. It felt so strange to watch him without his armor, and just his priest garb for protection. He looked so vulnerable.  

“Even mercy.” Shifuyáng tightened his hold on his cane. “Our masters granted you a gift, but with it comes a duty to shoulder. To them, to us, and to your planet.”

“We figured it out,” Kari said. “You hope to return to Earth before this is over.”

“I hope that in time, the old and the new can live in harmony,” the Goat replied. “I was one of the early supporters of that Magik initiative for this reason. Our similarities outweigh our differences, I keep saying. But my mistress will tell you more in person.”

“Before we go, I meant to ask you a question,” Shroud said. 

“How do I sense your ability and counter it?” The elder goat smirked. “The frontier between the mind and the soul is thinner than you believe. Your Network does not only latches on a target’s mind but also their soul. Perhaps it needs to in order to function, or it is the seed of an ability you have yet to unlock. Individuals with strong spiritual awareness can sense the artificial connection, and if skillful enough, turn it against you.”

“Like sending signals overloading it?” Stitch butted in the conversation, always curious. 

“Yes. I believe our young friend lacks the full mastery of his power, which makes him vulnerable to a counterattack. You should try to practice it.”

“Good to know,” Kari said, Shroud coughing in embarrassment. 

“Did Matsumoto just tell a joke?” Maggie asked, the shadow of a smile near Kari’s lips. “Wow, the Lair adventure really did a number on all of us.”

“That was the point,” Ace guessed.

“Indeed,” Shifuyáng confirmed. “You have proved your strength through your trials outside this place, but a strong body is worthless without a keen mind and a spirit of brotherhood.”

Yes. The group had grown, both as individuals and as a team. 

The goat glanced at the beasts and remaining monsters the group brought with them.  “Only the seven chosen may proceed further. Bring out your emblems.”

The group did so, while Shifuyáng seized his own, the final key to the truth.

The emblems, animated by a sorcerous power, flew on their own out of everyone’s hands and inserted themselves into the command room’s locks. Once all of them did, the gate unlocked and opened, revealing an undulating portal not so different from the one the group used to reach the Midnight Market.

“After you,” the Zodiac Goat invited them forward.

“I am so pumped up to meet the Sponsors, at last,” Ace said, her hands shaking in excitation. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”

Shroud too. 

At long last, they had everything to prevail. They had minions, a base, interstellar allies—albeit difficult ones—and a functional team. They had all the tools to make a comeback, with style.  

They paid the price for it. Sol’s armor hadn’t recovered from Baihu’s thrashing, and even Stitch did not believe he could salvage it. Maggie’s confidence had taken a hit. But they would manage. They had found the right team formation, the right niche to occupy for each member. While Shroud remained wary of overconfidence, they would manage. 

Even Mur shared their enthusiasm. “Mur, too. Finally, Mur gets to meet the big bosses.”

“I wonder who they are,” Maggie said. “Tentacled aliens?”

“I know,” Kari said. “Shroud-san does too.”

The sorcerer nodded. “How many do you think were real all along?”

“All of them.”

Shroud glanced at Sol, whose somber expression told him he too suspected the truth. 

“You know, and you didn’t share?” Ace gave them a mirthful smile. “You devil liar you.”

“It’s just suspicions for now,” Shroud replied. “Until we confirm—”

“Mur done wasting time,” Mur said, hopping into the gate with great impatience. “Mur wants action!”

Shroud sighed, as Ace laughed. “Come on, handsome,” she said, giving a light tap on the back. “Let’s not make our Sponsor wait.”

The Blue Sorcerer nodded, as Ace, Kari, Stitch, and Maggie walked through the gate.

Shroud and Sol didn’t follow at once. “Aren’t you coming, Mathias?” the priest asked.

Shroud silently glanced at the spot where Baihu had harmed him, then at his friend’s forehead. “I remember you told me we each had guard angels when I was a child,” the sorcerer said. “I wondered why they hadn’t protected us from Concordia. I guess they just weren’t ready back then.” 

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Solomon replied, guessing what weighed on his mind, “You feel guilty for what almost happened.”

“What happened,” Shroud stressed.

“What happened is that you kept your cool under pressure, and acted as a leader should,” Solomon replied with a warm smile, “I am proud of you, Mathias… and if your parents were here, so would they.”

Would they? He wasn’t so sure. 

Shroud brushed these thoughts aside, as he stepped into the gate alongside his oldest friend.

As soon as he did, Shroud found himself teleported inside a massive dome bigger than a football stadium, whose golden walls provided light much like under a bright day’s sun. The builders embedded a hundred screens into the dome’s walls, providing pictures of the various areas and its inhabitants, from Baihu’s fortress to the island the guild used as their base. 

A giant server equipped with half a dozen monitors stood at the center of the dome, right behind a much smaller golden throne. While mostly made of a strange black metal, the server’s circuits shone with all the colors of sorcery, from white to orange to green… and sometimes, faint spots of black. 

Shroud guessed they just found the Dragonslayers’ own server.

An Asian woman, beautiful and radiant as a star, waited on the throne right in front of the server. Literally. She radiated faint light, from her pristine, porcelain skin to her burning eyes. Wearing regal white robes and an ornate, sunlike hairdress, the entity smiled at their entrance, the warmth in the room increasing slightly in response. 

Another figure stood at her right side, a tall man clad in crimson Roman armor, wearing a shield and a bloodied spear. Shroud recognized the figure as a perfect lookalike of antique statues of the Roman god Mars, patron of Rome. He looked more human than his compatriot, but the fearsome aura emanating from him brimmed with strength. 

“Welcome home, my chosen.” The lady rose from her throne with aristocratic elegance, as all Dragonslayers stepped into the command center. “Congratulations. I am Amaterasu, goddess of the Sun, Empress of Amatsukami, protector of Japan, and the Sponsor of this Lair.”

“I am Mars, god of war,” the man replied, his voice somehow reminding Shroud of Nicholas Cage’s. “Although you know me as Romulus.”

The server’s monitors lit up, casting a blue light. “And I am the Administrator,” a voice came out of the screen. “Welcome home, Dragonslayers.”

“A computer?” Sol couldn’t hide his surprise, although he hadn’t blinked at Amaterasu’s revelation. 

“I am a magical artificial intelligence meant to assist Players and manage the Sponsor’s system,” the Administrator replied. “In other words, I am Magik Online itself.”

An artificial intelligence? The Administrator was an artificial intelligence? Could it be… “Manus,” Ace muttered, suddenly claimed by a very rational fear.

“No, I am not Manus,” the Administrator said. “It was my son and father both, in a way. It is a long story, whom I share with Shroud.”

“Fear not,” Amaterasu said, her voice vibrant and warm. “We are your friends. All of us.”

And then they showed up on the screens.

Forty creatures more varied and awe-inspiring than the last watched them, from a tentacled King in Yellow to a feathered serpent with rainbow scales. Shroud recognized a few, from his own interest in myths and legends. The lame smith Vulcan, the monstrous dragon Tiamat, the jackal-headed Anubis, the fearsome Set… 

“Do you see that?” Shroud asked with genuine surprise. Ace especially smirked widely in excitation. 

“The fucking hell?” Maggie exclaimed. 

“Angel…” Solomon held back tears, as he noticed the lone angel among the group.

“Yes, shepherd.” The angelic figure smiled upon the priest. “I am Archangel Uriel, guardian of Eden. The Lord praises you for your courage and faith, Solomon.” 

Solomon fell to his knees, crying. “Lord… You didn’t abandon us.”

“We never did,” the angel replied with kindness. “The Lord was with you, all the way, and He will watch over you until the end.”

“We are the Sponsors, forty-two divine powers from a dozen pantheons, united against the great evil that is Concordia,” Amaterasu explained. “As we did long ago when we still walked the Earth, we empowered heroes to slay dragons.”

“You will be the vanguard of a new age,” Mars commented, “Where Concordia at long last meets its match.”

Incredible. The very gods of myth, empowering an artificial intelligence to provide spells? This was everything he hoped! This was…

“The future is State Zero.”

The Minister’s words echoed in his brain, his vision tainted by a blue hue. 

Aster's brainwashing lock activates.

For a brief instant, his reality shifted, replaced with a mental maze of data, of pictures and words; a physical representation of his brain, a mental palace where his memories, his values, everything that made him him, were archived. 

The maze shifted, walls closing off memories and unlocking others. Some of his values were isolated, others aligned to fit a new design. The invasive Lock rewired his brain, in the shape designed two years ago.

Loyalty towards Earth shifted to the eternal Empire. Hatred of Concordia, shifted towards those who would threaten its peace. Memories of emotional moments that may compromise his clear mind were locked away behind a mental firewall.

In the blink of an eye, before he could react, his mind was no longer his own. The Mindshield couldn’t stop this process, implanted long before he purchased the spell; long before he ever heard of Magik Online. 

The script was written long ago; a trap two years in the making, meant ensnare all those caught in it; an infection incubating inside a foreign body, before ravaging it from within.

As the maze of his mind finished rearranging, Mathias thought clearly. He was in the Hall of the Minotaur, and it watched back at him.

“It is time,” Minister Aster’s voice echoed in his brain. “Do you remember, meat, the side you were born to serve? Do you remember your purpose?”

He did.

To destroy Manus’ insurgency from within, and create the Grandmaster’s pure, perfect world. 

He returned to reality, his thoughts aligned. A mental projection minotaur stood by his side, his voice his alone to listen to. “Observe.”

“How long?” Mathias asked out loud.

“Soon,” Amaterasu said, misunderstanding the question. 

“As long as needed, meat. I have waited two years for this, you can wait a few minutes.” 

“I sense danger,” Kari whispered to Mathias, too low for the Administrator and the deities to listen. “Intense.”

“My Doom Sense as well,” Stitch whispered too. “Very sudden.”

“Stay on your guards,” Mathias replied with a tone just as low, secretly removing all the spells he had granted to this Guild, just in case. “We may be a mistake away from an early grave. Either we pass their test or we die.”

“Champions, who protected the dead on my behalf thrice,” the jackal god Anubis announced, “You are worthy of Level Three.”

“Seconded!” spoke a skeletal black man wearing a hat and a dark coat, while the tentacled monster in yellow robes muttered a sound which even the Babel spell couldn’t translate. The deities voiced their approbation one after the other.

“The Sponsors are in agreement,” Amaterasu said.

“And their connection to Dis is mature enough for the upgrade,” the Administrator commented. “I will level them up.”

“I hoped they would take my Lair,” Mars said. “My chosen guild is good, but I feel a stronger kinship to the Dragonslayers.”

“How can it be?” Solomon asked, rising up and removing tears. “How can you…”

“How can we exist alongside your One God?” Amaterasu guessed the reason behind his confusion. “As you said, your myths hold some truth, but they are not accurate. They are stories your kind told itself to make sense of the world.”

“Long ago, we faced an enemy we could not fully defeat and had to leave Earth in mankind’s hands, with stories the only leftovers of our presence,” Mars continued. “For eons, the enemy laid dormant, until the towers rose again. Now we can no longer hide.”

“Earth is no longer in its place,” Amaterasu continued. “Taken from its place, dragging our realms with it.”

“Its place?” Stitch asked, taking notes on his small notebook. 

“We are in the bowels of Dis,” the Administrator spoke. “A multiverse different than the one mankind originally came from, a dimension which grows by consuming others.”

“Hell, Asgard, Olympus, no sanctuary is safe,” Mars continued, the pieces falling in place in Mathias’ mind.

“When Earth vanished,” Mathias guessed, when he wanted to say Terra Firma, “You and your realms were dragged with it.”

“The time for hiding is over,” Mars declared, “The only option is to fight as one.”

“No demon among you,” Mur noted, finding one missing among the Sponsors. Clearly, the angel would rather have ignored him as well. “You are few.”

“Deities shed much blood during the Godwar, and we Sponsors remain a minority among our pantheons,” Amaterasu admitted.“Many gods chose to remain in hiding, or worse, to join the Maleking.”

“We had to deny your former master’s repeated requests of an alliance,” Mars told the imp. “We trust you do not serve two sides at once.”

“The Maleking?” Sol frowned at Mur. “You served the Beast of the Apocalypse?!”

“Mur exiled,” the imp said, his eyes holding the deity’s gaze. “Mur true to his word. He is all in.”

“Who can war with the Beast?” the archangel said through his screen. “The Maleking is marshaling forces from across Dis to strike at Concordia, and claim Earth for himself. He must not succeed.”

No power could rival the Grandmaster, Beast of Apocalypse or not. Especially with all Terminals under the Empire’s control.

“Except one,” the projection said, stared intently at the Administrator’s monitor. 

“Soon, Earth will be a battlefield between Concordia, the Maleking, and all of us,” Amaterasu explained. “Hence why we need the support of mankind, as much as you need us.”

“Only two-thirds of the teams survived the Lair trial,” Mars said. “Many lost members on the way, and more have yet to finish. But this is enough. Now that we have Level Three guilds and more than a hundred sorcerers capable of casting Dot Three spells, we can reveal ourselves and step out of shadows.”

“Even a hundred sorcerers will not be enough to topple Concordia,” Mathias pointed out. “You must have a larger plan.”

“This is not for you to know yet, Shroud,” Mars said. 

Mathias felt Ace’s gaze get heavier on him. “Saga Freyson,” the Minister said, with contempt. “Be wary of her.”

“Concordia’s technology and sorcery overwhelm us, true,” Amaterasu conceded. “But even they cannot manufacture sorcerers the way we do.”

“Not yet.”

“How?” Stitch and Mathias asked as once, the latter looking at the server. 

“Again, this is not for mortals to know yet,” Mars said.

“We could help perfect it,” Stitch suggested, too eager to participate in this technological marvel. “I find this Spellcoins system subpar and suboptimal.”

“Any leak leading to Concordia or the Maleking figuring out how the system works will spell the end of our current advantage,” the Administrator pointed out. “Especially since they could rebuild it but bigger with their resources.”

Indeed. Mathias wondered if he should crack the so-called deities’ minds open with Network, before deciding otherwise; they would probably block it. 

“As for Spellcoins, they matter less than you believe they do,” Mars said. “They represent how much Flux we Sponsors are ready to provide to individual players, and nothing more. They are smoke and mirrors, an abstract value. We are the true keystones.”

“So if you are fall, so will Magik?” asked Mathias.

“Unfortunately, hence why we have remained hidden so far.” Amaterasu’s eyes focused on Kari next. “Some of us, however, chose instead to take mortal coil, and protect mankind directly.”

The young woman nodded vigorously. “I know myself.”

“You do. With your level-up, I will awaken your Lock, and with it, your latent potential.”

“So what do we do now?” Mathias asked the deities.

He prepared to channel Lightbringer through his fingers. Kari, Stitch, and Sol were closer, but the doctor’s sensory spells might inform him. Synergize might work in its master’s favor and sabotage the medic, but Mathias decided he would rather play it safe until his reinforcements arrived.

“Play along, for now. I intended to teleport three star fleets to your location and squash Manus’ insurgency once and for all, but this goes beyond what I expected; and this server might be a worthless dummy, a bait. Abort.”

“For now, you will get closer to the Shadow Queen and her hidden master,” Amaterasu said, Mathias dropping his plan to kill them all. “Once we know their plans, you will return to Earth and take the fight to Concordia.”

“Shroud-san, the danger vanished,” Kari whispered to ‘Shroud.’

For now. “Good,” Mathias let out a false breath of relief, reassigning spells to the Guild before they could notice he had removed them in the first place. “We convinced them.”

“The true war will begin then,” Mars said. “Do not disappoint. Especially you, Shroud.”

“Sponsors,” the Administrator spoke. “You have observed him for the past week. What is your judgment? Do I suspend his moderator privilege?”

“No,” the angel, Uriel, said, “His heart is true. I never doubted it.”

“I vote to suspend him,” a feathered serpent countered. “I still am not convinced he isn’t an infiltrator, especially in the light of this ‘Save’ fiasco.”

“This is ridiculous,” another replied, “He killed a dragon. They would never let him get away with that.”

Mathias could have sworn he heard Aster scoff at their naivete. 

The creatures on the screens ardently debated his fate, Mathias keeping a straight face, as did his hidden handler. His ‘team’ glanced at him with worried eyes. 

“Let us proceed to a vote,” the Administrator proposed. “The forty-two and myself.” 

The various screens changed to reflect two colors: either green or red. For or against Shroud. 

Mathias said no word, as each screen reflected a color, the Terminal memorizing each vote cast. Amaterasu produced a green light in the palm of her hands, but Mars abstained.

It didn’t matter in the end. The green had it, by a narrow but comfortable margin. 

The Administrator said nothing, yet Mathias had the intuition he would have vetoed his fellow conspirators if he could. According to the color of its screen, that treacherous AI had voted for suspending him. 

“Suspension motion rejected,” the Administrator said. “Shroud, alias Mathias Martel, is confirmed as a moderator with all of the associated privileges.”

Amaterasu rose from her throne and kindly invited Mathias to sit on it. “After you, moderator. Congratulations.”

“Indeed. Well done.”

With a decisive step forward and the cheers of his team, Mathias walked towards the throne and sat on it, the station’s monitors showing him every aspect of the Lair, each member of this army he had spent a week assembling, and who didn’t suspect a thing.

You have reached Level 3 (Magister)!

You can now purchase Dot 3 Spells at the Compendium + Fuse Dot 4 Hacks! 

You have conquered the Lair: Taiyougami, the Majestic Sun. 

“Finally,” Aster mused. “The true work can begin.”

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Even when brainwashed by an oppressive government, nobody can forget Magik’s beloved patrons on Patreon, Alex PruittSaul KurzmanDex, Warwick Robertson, BlissForgotten, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, and Daniel Zogbi. A warm thanks to them.

As always, the spell pages will be updated to add the new Dot Three Spells. Still one arc away from ending Volume II (I expect it to end around chapter 65).

Also, as stated earlier, after much consideration, Magik will return to its weekly schedule until further notice; which means the chapters will only be on Wednesday from now on.

The main reason is time shortage; I’m currently working full time, but I am still not finished with my studies, with two last exams at the end of August and then September graduation. That, and I’ve been working on a secondary, shorter story, Vainqueur the Dragon, currently only available to Patrons and which will be made public in mid-August on its own website and RR.

Finally, I’ve also been experiencing strong fatigue with the Lair Arc, which really hurt the quality; clearly I need more time to polish the plot heavy chapters, and Magik being a passion project, I really want to make it as good as it can be and avoid what led to its predecessor’s cancellation.   

So yeah, Magik will update weekly instead of biweekly from now on.

2 Replies to “Chapter 57: The Trap”

  1. Hastur is a sponsor?! Wonder how powerful the Outer Gods are in Dis. And the Admin is Not!Manus, which is to be expected. Also, more confirmation that everything is still stuck inside Lazarus’s reality marble. Is Aster’s Lock an example of how powerful they can evolve with enough time and experience?

    Weekly updates are better. Quality > Quantity

    1. Good catch; I wondered if someone would catch that shout out.

      Natural sorcerers have more mature lock right from the start, and Aster’s (like all Ministers) is considered powerful by sorcerer standards.

      I’m glad that you support that decision.

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