Mathias’ enchanted words reverberated through the glass like a cascade, spreading the spell through the warehouse as a wave of blue light.
Time paused inside the room; the audience watched, their faces frozen in either glee, relief, or unnerving blankness. Jack’s hand stayed up in the air, ready to fall like a guillotine on his victim. Maggie had closed her eyes, waiting for an end that Mathias had delayed.
Thinking fast, his spell only limited to five seconds, Mathias wondered if he should go in guns blazing or be more subtle. Settling on saving Maggie as his priority, he mentally commanded the warehouse’s lightbulbs to shatter, darkness swallowing the entire building.
Gathering most of the glass into a sphere the size of a soccer ball, he hurled it at Jack’s chest, hitting him at full speed. Mathias heard a loud crack as Jack was propelled back against a wall.
After seeing that psycho’s despicable true self, Mathias had no qualms about using violence on him.
Keeping another shard sharp, Mathias had it cut Maggie’s restraints as fast as possible, accidentally grazing her skin.
Then Blue World’s effect ended, with Jack’s screams of pain as the warning. He held his ribs with both hands, collapsing and unable to stand back up.
Maggie, who quickly realized her restraints had been cut, bolted out of her chair. “What’s happening?” Brown exclaimed. While Mathias could see relatively fine through his shards’ widespread locations, the Mayor and his followers lacked the ability to see in the darkness.
“Something’s wrong!” Henry Powells replied, his hand rushing to his belt and drawing a gun. He began to aim at the darkness, ready to open fire at random in his daughter’s direction.
Acting quickly before he could shoot Maggie, Mathias had the touchscreen of the police chief’s phone inside his pocket explode. Glass edges cut through his flesh and pants, then impaling his hand. Although Mathias prevented his glass weapons from inflicting lethal wounds, they still drew blood. Powells dropped his weapon, screaming like his son as his blood hit the floor.
The second it did, the ‘M’ symbol on the floor lit up with a devilish, crimson glow, bringing a dim light back to the area. Brown’s followers suddenly had a view of Maggie free, surrounded by flying glass, and with Jack laying in a corner. Immediately, those who had guns drew them at Maggie.
However, whatever horrible ritual they had started ran its course, smokeless flames rising from the M symbol. Maggie wisely leaped out of the symbol before the flames could claim her, removing the gag on her mouth and taking a deep breath.
“The sacrifice, interrupted…” Whatever was happening, it terrified Brown, who had grown pale like a ghost. “Kill the girl!”
Acting even quicker, and unable to cast Blue World without affecting Maggie too, Mathias reshaped his flying glass sphere into a thick, dense shield, protecting his charge. Good thing he did; soon two bullets impacted on it and came within an inch of getting through.
Then, suddenly, the flames started to dance.
They grew brighter, almost too bright to look upon. The cops lowered their guns, protecting their eyes like all the members of the conspiracy present. Mathias, who observed through his glass rather than his own, vulnerable eyeballs, took a step back in astonishment.
The flames had grown, gathering into a swirling, smokeless cloud of destruction. The fired turned blue and condensed, taking a vaguely humanoid shape, with long, clawed arms. The cloud grew a neck, then a head in the shape of a skull with eye sockets filled with darkness. Brown’s cult cowered at the sight, while Maggie retreated against a wall, paralyzed by shock.
Then, the visage spoke.
“Mortals,” it spoke with an inhuman voice, more similar to cackling embers than any other sound. “Where is my sacrifice?”
“Your grace,” Brown went down to his knees, along with his wife. “The Maleking sent you to us.” The remaining members of his audience soon joined him in on their knees; even if Powells struggled against the pain to bow in his own blood.
The creature didn’t seem impressed. “Where is my sacrifice?” it repeated, slower this time, stressing each word.
“Here, your grace.” Brown pointed at Maggie, yet the skull kept its gaze on the mayor. Its ominous presence cowed Mathias even from his hiding spot. The young man attempted to analyze the entity with Network, to discover its origins, to find a weakness, anything to exploit.
— … —
When Mathias stared at that horror, Network came back with nothing more than buzzing, bleak radio static. The power that had allowed him to crack conspiracies that trained journalists couldn’t and figure out anyone, the magic he relied upon most, had failed him.
Brown took the monster’s silence as the warning sign it was, yet to his credit he kept his cool. “We had a miscalculation, for a reason I can’t fathom yet, but I assure you, the girl is yours.”
“She is alive. You promised our King a fresh soul, sacrificed in his name. Yet I see only a hack jobs.” It stared at Henry’s bloodied form with contempt. “Where is my vessel?”
“Here!” Brown raised his head, bright greed and desire burning in his eyes. “I was promised the gift! With your power, I can finally…”
“Making demands with nothing to show for it?” The fiery entity cut him off, its voice gaining a malicious, cruel edge. “Since you failed to deliver the sacrifice on time, I will seize another one myself.”
Brown never finished his sentence. In the blink of an eye, faster than Mathias could react, the burning skull breathed a cone of flames at the mayor, swallowing him whole. Brown’s body burned to cinders within seconds, the flesh seared from the bones, and his skeleton collapsing into ashes.
Brown’s wife screamed in horror at the sight, her hands on her face. It only made her the next target of the monster’s wrath, the beast grabbing her with one of his incendiary arms, the flames spreading across her body and turning her into a living torch.
And the monster laughed, the cackling, childish rictus of a child burning ants.
The rest of the cult had started running for their lives, making their way to the exit. The monster didn’t give them that mercy. It turned its fiery breath to the door, incinerating the female cop before she could unlock it and turning the iron around her searing hot. The flames cut off the cult’s retreat, trapping them with the horror they had called yet could not put down.
Mathias… Mathias just stood there, as his brain went blank at the sudden, brutal display of violence. A stranglehold of pure, unadulterated fear had seized his heart, turned his muscles to stone, as he watched the monstrous entity methodically slaughter its own congregation.
He wanted to jump in and save those fools, whom he had wanted to stop but never to die. Even from the safety of his hiding spot, the sheer horror, a primal survival instinct, kept him anchored. He watched, his thoughts stopped, as Powells was devoured by the flames, then his remaining underlings were backed into a corner and burned to cinders as well.
Mathias felt small, and helpless, and alone.
This was it. This was what true magic looked like.
This was what Hell looked like.
Only when the monster finished killing the last cultist, leaving Jack and Maggie for last, did Mathias’ mind began to work again. By now, the smokeless flames had spread to most of the warehouse, trapping the girl and her brother among the encroaching fire.
However, he still found himself still unable to move. Mathias himself struggled against the urge to just stand there, to run…
No, he thought, don’t think like Mathias. You are Shroud. You are magic.
He had been chosen. He had received the gift, the knowledge, the sacred fire stolen from the gods. A quest. He couldn’t fail right at the beginning, not this way. He had the power. He had all the power in the world.
He had to play a role, like when he played his games. Take on the persona of a strong, mighty figure. Bury his human fears deep under a mask. It would be easy. He had to play the role that came most natural to him.
A villain greater, and more terrifying than the monster. Like Doctor Doom.
Jolted out of his trance, Shroud cast a spell, his words echoing through the warehouse, “Blue World!”
His magic bathed the monster in its blue light.
It kept going.
In fact, Blue World only made Maggie stationary, unable to dodge. Thankfully, or unfortunately for Shroud, the burning skull didn’t turn to her.
“A Blue Spell, cast on me?” The burning skull looked at the wall behind which Shroud stood. “You are either young or foolish, sorcerer.”
It was up close and personal, then.
Focusing on his makeshift, glass bulletproof vest, Shroud had it levitate above the ground, lifting his own body along with it. Facing the warehouse’s window, he had it shattered as Blue World stopped working, floating into the center of the shrapnel storm.
Maggie raised her eyes at him from his display of power.
Quick, Shroud, think, this is your big moment, your introduction. Your badass rescue moment. He needed an alliterative title, something badass…
“Tremble before…” He crossed his arms in an arm fold, floating mid-air in a badass, haughty pose he had practiced with the help of a lifetime of Saturday morning cartoons. “The Sinister Shroud!”
Yes, his video game acting had bled through.
“The fuck?” Maggie answered at his totally awesome moment.
“Sorcerer. Have you come to become my vessel?” the fiery entity responded to his declaration.
Shroud blinked at the monster’s words, his own helmet heating up from being near the fire.
“Your heart is weak but has potential,” The monster said, its tone no longer cruel. Instead, it somehow sounded worse. “I sense a burning wrath like mine, unnurtured lust, a slight dash of greed… and a shining, beautiful jewel of pride. We could shine brighter together.”
It sounded interested. Eager.
Shroud responded by sending his glass daggers at the monster’s face. “I am no one’s vessel,” he said, the words coming naturally to him as when he played his game’s end villain. “But if you submit, I may keep you as my pet.”
His glass weapons went through the fiery visage, melting into useless junk as they came out of the other side.
The fiend wasn’t amused. At all. “Blinding pride.” Then, it opened its mouth, ready to incinerate Shroud like his previous victims.
Acting quicker, Shroud mentally sent his shield towards the monster’s face, altering its shape into a bubble. It surrounded the fiendish apparition’s visage, turning its own fiery breath against it. Of course, the glass quickly melted, the sorcerer sensing his control collapse.
“Quick, girl!” he ordered, levitating above Maggie and offering his arm. “Grab my hand!”
The girl, faced with the choice of either burning to death or following a flying glass man, seized his hand. Damn, she’s heavy, Shroud thought, finding lifting Maggie to be way harder than movies had let him imagine. Still, they managed to reach the window by the time the entity had freed itself.
“I need a simpler heart, blacker still.” The monster turned to Jack, cowering in a corner and watching the scene from afar. “Yes, a pitch black, empty soul.”
Shroud briefly thought about how he could fight the monster. None of his spells could damage it and he was endangering Maggie to save the person that almost killed her.
“No big loss,” he finally decided, flying through the window and leaving Jack to his fiery death.
No sooner did he exit the warehouse did fires erupt from behind him, the flames consuming the walls and starting to spread outside. Shroud reached the fence before his arm began to give out, reaching the ground and releasing his hold on Perse’s friend.
“That car.” Maggie pointed at the cars parked nearby, especially a police one. She seemed eager to put as much distance as possible between that place and them. “My dad always leave his keys on the armrest.”
“What kind of cop keeps keys on the armrest?” Shroud mocked, hearing the sound of sirens.
“The kind who makes quick getaways.” She opened the door and took the driver’s seat. “Get in,” she ordered, her fear replaced with irritation.
Shroud briefly toyed with the idea of cutting her insolent tongue, before the thought jolted him out of his role. Okay, enough method acting for tonight. Without a word, Mathias climbed into the car next to his ‘damsel in distress’.
As much as Mathias would prefer to take down that monster, with nothing in his arsenal able to do so, they had little choice but get away. “I can help with the police patrols,” he said.
“My father led the police,” she grunted, turning the car on and driving them away. Within a minute, they drove out of the chemical plant, leaving only flames behind them. “I know how they work.”
Mathias said no words, letting his head hang back and clearing his thoughts. “I killed your father,” he said, his voice sounded so cold, even after everything. “The monster did the deed, but I let it happen.”
“Yeah…” Then, she added after some hesitation. “Good.”
That wasn’t the answer he had expected. “I. Killed. Your. Father.”
“He tried to kill me. Because I’m a girl. Good riddance. Only regret is that I didn’t return the favor myself. Jack, too. At least the fucker suffered.”
Damn, he understood where that sentiment came from, but she had lived her whole life with those two.
— Maggie glared at the office drone with disgust. How they bent, how they killed themselves every time they went to work. No strength in them, no will to fight or take what they wanted. Only the strong survived and prospered. That was the law of nature. She wouldn’t make the same mistake. —
Then again, she had lived her whole life with those two. At least she had turned out passably stable. Maggie scowled at his silence, unwilling to show weakness. With Network on, he could read her mood like a book.
So her next words shook him to the core. “How the fuck did you do that, Martel?”
… Shit. “I don’t know any Martel.”
“Don’t lie to me, nerd, your helmet doesn’t change your voice!”
— “The Sinister Shroud!”
Wait… that low, weak voice… that was the voice of that bland geek Perse always hung out with! What was his name again? —
Bland? What a jackass!
Mathias cursed under his breath, taking off his helmet. He had to admit, he could breathe much easier without it on. “I can’t keep my secret identity on the first day on the job. What a superhero I am.” Note to self, find a voice changer.
“Answer me Martel,” Maggie insisted. “What did you — ”
“You heard Ghost Rider inside.” Mathias suddenly realized that Magik confidentiality only applied to the application itself. No provision prevented him from saying he could cast spells, if he avoided the subject of why. “I’m magic. Phenomenal cosmic powers and all that.”
“You’re kidding, right?” She clenched her teeth, offended that he, of all people, could use magic. He didn’t need Network to detect a hint of jealousy.
She would live with it. “What the hell happened back there?”
She shrugged her shoulders as she turned a corner. “I dunno, Martel. Dad and Jack always were shit, human shit. Never knew what they made of their victims. Now I know.” Mathias sensed car windows enter his range, policemen racing towards the burning plant, barking orders to surround the perimeter.
“But you didn’t warn…” He prevented himself from saying ‘the police.’ The night had exhausted him mentally. “Turn left. There’s a police car going to notice us one street ahead. I can sense them.”
The young girl raised an eyebrow, but did as he asked. “Weren’t you supposed to go too Sam’s party rather than play superhero?”
“I was. Been waiting for the right moment to trap your dad for a while, so when I heard you and Jack were missing I rushed to save you.”
Maggie didn’t answer for a long, embarrassing moment, unsure how to take the admission. “Thanks,” she said, spitting the word as if it felt physically painful.
By now, the sirens grew distant, although he guided Maggie around a street camera. They finally stopped at an empty parking lot near the city’s docks, the shadowy form of the Arc-City stood above the dark waves. “So how does it go now?” Maggie turned to face Mathas, her hands still on the driving wheel. “We blow each other’s brains out?”
Frankly, Mathias just wanted to go back home and sleep. “Brown called everyone for that ceremony, so you shouldn’t fear reprisal.”
“Should.” Beneath her attempts to keep a tough face, she looked destroyed, her dress covered in ashes and her skin by bruises.
“Who else knew?” He mustered the energy to ask the real question. “Did Samantha know?”
“No. Neither did the scalies, I can tell you that.” Mathias smiled at the expression. “I can’t just return home, man. Not now. I need a safe place for now, where Dad’s friends aren’t going to look.”
“The church in the old district.” Maggie sneered at his suggestion. “No, seriously, the priest is an awesome person. He will hide you, especially if you drop my name. Guy used to protect people Argentinian cartels wanted dead.”
Since she had no alternative, Maggie accepted his suggestion. “You’re going with me?”
“No. Just drop me off here.” He raised his finger in a threatening manner. “If you say anything about my powers, or me, your ass is mine.”
“Ulysses beat you to it,” she replied with a dry tone.
Argh, too much information. Grabbing his helmet with him, he stepped out of the car. Maggie stopped him, putting her hand on his sleeve. “What?” he asked.
“I dunno… wanna hang out sometimes?”
“Like what, killing crazed cultists?” He had run out of patience. “You want to be my Robin?”
“No offense, you look more like Slenderman than Batman.” At least she knew her pop culture. Finally getting the hint he was tired, Maggie released her hold. “See you soon, Martel.”
Mathias watched her drive away in silence, her windows still providing him with input. He saw her look at the back mirror, a mix of excitement and fear in her eyes. She probably had no more idea of what she had walked herself into than he did.
When she escaped his range, Mathias walked forward to the edge of the docks, facing the sea and letting the cold wind on his face. He inhaled deep and long, closing his eyes and searching his thoughts.
When he opened them again, blue words appeared right in front of him, followed by strange, joyful music.
Quest: Lost and Found, completed!
You have earned eight Spellcoins!
Even after such a bleak night, that brought a smile to his face.