Chapter 69: The Flames of War

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Furiously typing on his portable computer with his left hand while finishing his seventh cup of coffee with the right, Shroud found himself increasingly frustrated. 

Magik Online’s code, as expected, was the most advanced digital construct ever designed; a complex array of ternary code, colors, and symbols too complex for a non-magically boosted mind to grasp. Even working on the few selected parts the Sponsors had granted him access to had proven difficult.

Now, faced with a new danger that could threaten the entire system, the Administrator had allowed Shroud to observe the full code; and what he saw worried him. 

His own account, no, Network, was hacking Magik Online; creating new links between his account and the wider system, while inserting new code into other Player profiles… his Lack acted like a computer virus, right on the eve of a major battle. 

SHROUD: this is getting too far. You have to suspend my account. 

ADMINISTRATOR: I tried. I can no longer even restrict it. It has even overwritten my demands. 

Shroud frowned. If his Lock was overwhelming even the Administrator, then there was almost nothing to be done. The sorcerer himself had tried to stop his Lock by focusing on the mental pathways, but came up short. 

Network had gone into some kind of auto-pilot, following an instinct that not even its wielder could steer. 

SHROUD: my lock is alive, and hacking you.

ADMINISTRATOR: yes. 

SHROUD: do the sponsors know?

ADMINISTRATOR: I did not inform them you were the cause yet. I fear they may choose to take drastic measures to solve the problem. 

A polite way to say that they may execute Shroud himself to stop the spread of his Lock. At that point, he would even agree. The risk of losing the one weapon mankind had in the great war was too great not to make a sacrifice. 

Of course, Shroud was in no hurry to die. He had to find a solution.

The sorcerer almost didn’t notice Kari walking up to him. “Shroud,” she said, “The battle is starting soon.”

“I know,” he replied, still typing on the computer and trying to correct… whatever was happening.

“You haven’t slept the whole night.”

“I know,” he repeated, frustrated. The thought that his Lock may jeopardize everyone involved in the attack weighted on him. “I know!”

Kari looked at him in worry, then at the computer. “Can I help?” she asked, before biting her lower lip, “Can any of us help?”

Something in her voice made him feel guilty. “No,” he sighed, “I don’t think I can even help with it myself.”

SHROUD: who is even this Lazarus?

ADMINISTRATOR: I can guess. My Lock, and by extension yours and Magik Online itself, still depend on the larger Dis system to function. Ergo, its administrator could in theory overrule me on Lock related matters.

SHROUD: You think this Lazarus is the creator of Dis?

ADMINISTRATOR: possible. The entity behind sorcery itself. The other possibility is that Magik Online was hacked, but since even Melusine failed, I think it unlikely. 

SHROUD: why leave a name though? As a clue? 

ADMINISTRATOR: perhaps. I do not understand why it allows this protocol to go through. So far it hasn’t cancelled the other accounts, nor interfered with their Lock and Spellcasting. 

SHROUD: so what, we let it run its course?

ADMINISTRATOR: for now… the only possible solution I see, would be to kill you. However, the last time your Network acted on its own, it allowed you to access the Save Feature. Some good may come out of this turn of events. 

SHROUD: what if it takes over your systems?

The Administrator didn’t answer back. It didn’t need to.

“Shroud? Mathias-san? Are you listening?”

“I…” Shroud blinked. The stress of handling so many things at once, even with Premium Thoughts, weighted on him. “No, I… I’m just frustrated.”

What was it all about? He had already heard of the term ‘Iron God Protocol’ once; as one of the saves locked away in the Occult Matrix. By deduction, it probably meant the scenario where Manus finished his artificial Lock without Concordia interrupting its ascension.

Would that mean that Manus would return if the program finished running its course? 

“You can…” Kari struggled to find her words. “We can talk. If you need to.”

She had learned the lesson about opening to others well. Shroud prepared to brush her off, before reminding himself what happened to the last family member who tried to deny the elephant in the room. 

“My Lock is acting up,” he confessed, “Running out of control.”

Kari’s head perked up. “Black?”

“I’m not sure, but I don’t think so,” Shroud said, closing the computer. If anything, Black would probably interfere with this protocol, as it caused his account to go down once. “I think it’s an old program which slumbered within my Lock for a while, and which I woke up when I networked everyone in the camp. I don’t know what will happen next.”

Magik Online itself having been created by using his Lock as a template, it was inevitable one would affect the other. 

“It could be good,” Kari said, “Your power increasing.”

“Or it could cause me to escalate,” Shroud replied, “The point being, I’m not sure. The future is shrouded in darkness.”

“That is life,” his friend replied, “Only the past is set in stone.”

Shroud wasn’t so sure about that, but he guessed he had to take some comfort in the unknown. The future being in flux meant it could turn out okay for Earth, as much as for Concordia. 

Maybe that was the essence of Black. Shrouding time in darkness, so nothing could be predicted anymore. 

“Shouldn’t you be on the front lines?” he asked her. The camp was almost deserted, except for the Players with support-oriented Locks, Blue Sorcerers, and summoners. The rest had moved to encircle the Concordian facility. 

“I am staying with you,” she insisted, “For your security.”

Sword and sorcery. 

While he may love Sol the most among the Dragonslayers, Kari was the one he had grown to rely on the most over their adventures. How far they had gone since the first days of their association. 

Shroud opened the feeds of Network, watching the Grand Canyon through a thousand eyes at once. He couldn’t keep track of all of his networked at once, even with his enhancements, so he focused on his teammates, Ulysses’ team, and the various commanders. 

The army had surrounded Concordia’s base, a massive, heart-like structure of pulsating black metal, covered with advanced artillery and turrets; the building bordered an open mine dug into the canyon itself. Thousands of Gearsmen surrounded it in a defensive perimeter, backed by other, more dangerous warriors. 

It wasn’t the first time Shroud saw dragon troopers, or ‘bio-soldiers’, but these ones looked more advanced than those he watched on holo-tv. These warriors were clad in a skintight metallic armor of various colors, from red, to yellow, covering their entire body. While the armor’s design was adapted for the wearers’ species, from humanoids to bullmen, most of them carried the same arsenal: a cannon on the left arm, a laser sword on the right, and turrets mounted on the shoulders. These were Bishops, soldiers specialized in mobility.

There were a rarer few with different suits; warriors wearing carbon copies of Sol’s old Knight armor, and towering, five meters-tall behemoth buried under heavy shielding and mounted artillery. Knights, and Rooks. 

Concordia had these soldiers fused to their armor after a rigorous training, stamping out every trace of free-will to leave only a killing machine behind. If Shroud used Sol’s performance as a benchmark, they would prove a much greater danger than the Gearsmen, Mad World Hack or not. 

It didn’t help that some, if not most of them, were sorcerers.

Shroud immediately noticed something strange about the enemy formation, with most of the troopers having gathered around the open mine, instead of the facility itself. Was it a ploy to distract attackers from the building? Or were they digging something worth protecting over the rest of their installations?

“Enemy’s elite is focused around the archeological digs,” Shroud told Washington and the other moderators, Sol among them. His friend was positioned under an invisibly, soundless veil with Maggie, Stitch and Mur. “They may be protecting an artifact of some kind.”

“Then we separate into two forces, with our best engaging their soldiers, and the rest blowing up that facility,” Washington said, looking at a watch, “Eight minutes before the Zone expands again.”

Eight minute before assault. 

Shroud observed joined both his hands, tension rising. Eight minutes before the first true opening move in the War for Earth. Eight minutes for the first large scale battle involving Players. Eight minutes before…

A thunder-like sound boomed above Grand Canyon, and the skies were torn asunder.

Countless eyes, Shroud’s own included, looked up, as a purple rift in the very fabric of space widened above their heads. An artificial gate opened over Grand Canyon, revealing the darkness of space behind, the very atmosphere sucked into it.

A lean, purple, flying-wing like warship crossed the rift, aiming for the Concordian facility. Shroud immediately recognized it as an Arcadian raiding ship, with the Maleking’s frozen heart symbol painted on it. 

The Malebranche

The ship immediately opened hostilities by unleashing a rain of missiles over the area, targeting both the Concordian soldiers and the hidden Player forces. The Concordian facility’s defenses activated in response, its lasers shooting at both the ship and its projectiles, but didn’t stop all of them. Sol raised a forcefield to protect the Dragonslayers.

Shroud’s encampment was far away and thus spared, but the sorcerer felt the ground tremble after impact. Most fighters, warned by Network’s synergy, immediately took cover, or avoided the worst of the initial attack. 

But others weren’t so lucky. One of the missiles hit one of the hidden Players, with Shroud watching his screen go dark before the victim knew what hit him.

Shroud immediately received a few notifications on his Magik Online account; reports of other Players around the globe of rifts opening in the skies, and warships crossing them. 

One of them, however, stood out from the rest, for it was followed with a brief, orange flash. 

FalconKing account destroyed.

Power Fist function returned to Magik System for future assignment.

21 Spellcoins waiting for distribution.

Shroud didn’t have much time to ponder it out, as Gearsmen took flight to intercept the ship, their lasers damaging its shielding. 

Like a bird leaving out an egg, the ship’s back opened and vomited a horde of horrors. Winged fiends carrying bestial humanoids similar to Lugh, undead monstrosities, and fearsome monsters landed on the canyon, immediately engaging the Concordian soldiers. Arcadian raiders noticed the humans nearby, and charged at them with gleeful enthusiasm. 

“Engage!” Washington ordered, the first Players casting deadly spells at the incoming fiends. “All of them!”

As he let out these words, the eight minute mark passed, and the Zone expanded.

Almost immediately, immense roots sprung from the ground like tentacles, overwhelming the Concordian facility and Malebranche beasts both, while shielding the human soldiers from lasers. 

Within seconds, the battlefield became a chaotic, aimless whirlwind of spells and projectiles. 

While Kari assumed her golden form, ready to defend him from a sneak attack, Shroud began to bark orders and directions. “Sol, Atalanta, target the ship!” The Malebranche warship, damaged by the Concordian’s defenses, made a circle in the sky in preparation for a new bombing run. Worse, the spatial breach remained open. “Stitch, Mur, Maggie, engage the soldiers on the ground!”

The Dragonslayers, having been shielded by Sol, moved into the fray. Mur opened the hostilities by smashing the head of an arcadian raider with his hammer, while other Players followed Washington’s initial strategy. 

“MAD WORLD!”

Cast by five sorcerers, and the sound magnified and redirected by Soundwave to exclusively target the Concordian forces, the Hack spread like wildfire. Most Gearsmen immediately short circuited and shut down at once, with the troopers moving away from the mine to pick up the slack. 

The Concordian facility trembled, its walls opening like a twisted cocoon. An immense, streamlined Gearsman the size of the statue of Liberty stood out, its steps causing small quakes. 

A Gearsman Colossus.

One of the iron titans which destroyed Earth armies during the Conquest, and kept in storage for the second round. 

The immense machine, upon standing still, towered over the Canyon, ignoring the giant vines attempting to restrain it. It turned to the Malebranche ship, its crimson eye firing a massive beam of Red Flux to take it down, vaporizing everything in the way while at it. The warship dodged the attack, firing missiles at the titan. 

On the ground, Concordian forces engaged humans and fiends alike, casting spells of their own. One crimson soldier began to move at supersonic speed, ripping the closest player in half while dodging bullets. 

Shroud’s eyes widened. He received another colored flesh, and then a message.

BlissfulNeed account destroyed.

Greensight returned to Magik System for future assignment.

7 Spellcoins waiting for distribution.

More of these notifications came up, although thankfully few. Their strategy, enhancements, and the synergy caused by Network allowed the Players to avoid death; laser shots missed, spells hit enemy soldiers just as they almost beheaded an ally…

Shroud immediately worked to reassign the spells granted to the fallen to other soldiers which needed them more, only to pause upon noticing a new line below the ‘Grant Spell’ feature.

Assign Lock?

“Ah!” Shroud blinked, as he recognized that loathed, hateful voice through one of Network’s feeds. “Good to be home!”

Shroud froze, as he saw a fiery monster coming straight from the farthest depths of hell step into the battlefield, sowing death as he moved. 

“Good evening, America!” Jack Powells laughed, blasting NPCs with his unholy flames, the flesh melting from their bones as they screamed, “Jack’s back in town!”

What was he doing there?!

It couldn’t be a coincidence that Jack showed up at the same place which his sister and Mathias attacked. The probability were too low for this meeting not to be preordained.

The Maleking had moles among the Players. 

“Finally…” Maggie whispered to herself, upon catching sight of her murderous sibling’s rampage, her hands trembling as she held her guns, “Payback time.”

“Sharpshoot, stop!” Shroud shouted through Network, “This is a trap!”

Too late.

Maggie had already left to engage her brother. 

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