Somehow, Shroud had expected Celia to live in a Gothic mansion.
Instead, she used an ancient, derelict hotel as an Underside resort. The place might have once been a luxurious inn, before the decay and rust plaguing that side of the Midnight Market consumed it. Faint, ghostly green light came out of the windows, and the building was almost as unwelcoming as Stitch’s own clinic.
“When you said to meet for a drink, handsome,” Ace said. “I expected a warmer, lighter place.”
She had changed her dress for a golden and red ensemble, more fashionable yet as utilitarian as her common outfit. Very dashing.
“Don’t you find meeting an ancient vampire to talk over ancient artifacts romantic?” he replied. He thought he might as well mix business and pleasure, making an effort to dress well for her; setting aside his helmet and refashioning his glass armor into one of knight-like, dashing elegance. After his discussion with Manah, it was nice to relax in good company.
“The artifact hunt, yes,” she replied with a smile. “The vampire, no. I already have enough trouble with a living chest, thank you very much.”
“You like ancient artifacts?” He hadn’t imagined her to be a museum person.
“I worked as an archaeologist and researcher for the Yellow Ministry once,” she dropped the bomb. “So yes, if you want to take me out next time, an ancient dusty ruin full of treasures would win you points.”
Taking her out.
While he had jokingly treated this as a dated and fooled around a bit, he still wasn’t over Perse. They had known each other for years and had broken up weeks ago, so it still made him guarded about trying anything again so soon.
But he did like hanging out with Ace. She had an aura of mystery around her that intrigued him.
— “Erase those traitors,” her superior told her, after reviewing the Midgardian mural. “Official history is that the Grandmaster journeyed through Muspelheim with only the Founders. No need to remember the doubters in our midst.”
She nodded without a sound, leaving out the fact she kept a photo of the original mural hidden in storage. —
He guessed she defected when she couldn’t support changing the past on behalf of present-day tyrants anymore. “The Yellow Ministry stole a lot of our history,” Shroud told her. “They bombed monuments, altered others, crafted a new narrative fitting Concordia…”
“If only you knew half of what they buried under the carpet,” Ace replied. “What can be destroyed by the truth should be. We’re all grown-ups, enough to learn from the past instead of having it doctored for us.”
She would get along fine with Kari. “You come from Concordia itself. Their homeworld.”
“Midgard,” she corrected. “Our ancestors called it Midgard. Once it had ice, deserts, forests, and seas, but after three centuries of terraforming, it’s just steel towers and roads everywhere. You can teleport anywhere for free, everyone has a roof, healthcare, and food. Everyone lives in peace, everything’s got a place. What and those who didn’t, unnecessary people and wasteful things, Wyrde erased.”
“You’ve met her? Concordia’s Grandmaster?”
“No one but the Ministers ever meet the Grandmaster. All I ever saw from her were requests for artifacts be sent to her fortress.” Ace turned to him with a charming smile. “Let’s not make our host wait, shall we not?”
Shroud offered her his arm, which she took, as they walked into the building. The place was eerily silent, but cleaned up; unseen servants had come around, swept dust and dirt away.
The two made their way into a large, well-lit atrium, from which a classical symphony came from. A dozen couples of ghosts danced at the tune; men, hobs, elf-like beings, and multiple species Shroud couldn’t identify. Unlike the screaming souls held by the Crimson King, those ones seemed happy and entranced by their rhythm.
Celia painted on the side on a large canvas, as if the scene inspired her. She was alone in the eerie room, a table with three chairs and cups served. While the little girl looked superficially harmless and alone, her mere presence awoke deep, buried anxiety inside Shroud’s own heart. The bestial part of him, instincts honed by mankind’s evolution across ages, begged him to tread wisely around her.
“Shroud!” she called upon hearing him and Ace come, her happiness starkly contrasting with the eeriness she inspired. “I painted you!”
“Really?” Shroud asked, moving to look at his portrait. He would rather have not.
Celia’s painting represented a theater of some kind, with velvet curtains and the play’s title on a panel: The Edge King. She had painted Shroud at the center of the stage, but not as a man of flesh and blood, but a nightmarish creature of thick darkness, a dark lord on a throne of dragon bones. Pale skeletons and fresh corpses littered the ground around him, and thin strings held him in the claws of an invisible, reptilian puppeteer.
Shroud found the display macabre and disturbing. “This isn’t me.”
“This is you,” Celia insisted. “The true you. Art strips away illusions, leaving only the bare soul and the beauty within. Don’t you find yourself beautiful on this throne?”
The portrait had an eerie beauty to it, true, but the duality between the macabre, sinister power he displayed and the strings bothered him. “I told you we all had strings,” Ace said, loving the portrait more than he did. “Does the play symbolize the fact we all play actors on a stage?”
“I think so,” Celia said, happy at Ace trying to find a hidden meaning, “Everyone is the leading role of their own story, right?”
“Both lead and puppet, to the tune of destiny,” Ace replied, “It’s only at the end you see what role you were meant to play. Tarot reveal the path too, a bit.”
“Exactly! Death reveals the meaning of life!” Celia smiled. “What is your name?”
“Ace, my dear queen.”
She’s very charming, Shroud thought, as he watched the scene unfold and the two women discussed destiny in art. Maybe that was how she had made her way into Mammon’s good graces.
Network dulled when in Celia’s presence, whether because of Manah’s previous warning or her own dangerous nature. In either case, he couldn’t size her up either. Were those the strings she spoke of? That his Lock had a will of its own, as Wormson theorized?
“I like you,” Cela said, before turning to Shroud. “Can you bring Ace again next time you visit, Shroud? She understands.”
“Sure,” he said absentmindedly, still absorbed by the portrait. “Why so many corpses?”
“Because of the ghosts following you,” she flashed him a beautiful smile, sending a shiver down his spine. “All the lives you take in your wake. I saw them the first time I saw you.”
“I only killed one dragon.”
“Of course you did. You just haven’t killed all the others yet. Whole worlds of corpses, Shroud. You will be a king of death, beautiful and terrible. I cannot wait to see it!”
Shroud turned his head away from the painting, uncomfortable. Ace quickly caught on. “Perhaps we could sit and relax,” she offered. “You must be exhausted after making such an artistic masterpiece.”
“I am never tired,” Celia replied proudly, leaving her brush and inviting the two to take place around the table, which they did. “I bought coffee for you, Shroud!”
She did, although she served that horrible blood tea to herself and Ace. His date made no sign she noticed, although she didn’t drink it. “Will your court join us?” she asked, her eyes glancing at the dancing ghosts.
“My court? No, they aren’t my court, they are other guests like me, although they decided to stay forever.” Celia closed her eyes, moving her hands to the tune of the song, “Lalala lalala, our flesh aged and rot, but they left our corpses in display! So we dance, and dance, to forget only to remember!”
It said something that after fighting Mammon, Toshiyami, fiends, and monsters, that Celia disturbed Shroud more than anything. “I’ve come for advice,” Shroud admitted, bringing the coffee to his lips. It was pretty strong, but thankfully not mixed with the blood of Celia’s enemies. “I thought you might give me good counsel.”
“Of course I will, I’m way older and more mature than you.”
“You are,” Ace replied, amused.
“We’re recruiting a larger base of followers, undead included,” Shroud said.
“Oh, oh!” Celia jumped on her seat at the mention of undead. “Is it true you recruited a Wight?”
“He did,” Ace said. “Doctor Stitch, a very charming fellow. Did you make him?”
“No, a spawn of mine did,” she said with a hint of pride, as she drank her blood tea. “Wights are very nice, but a vampire would have been classier. You should have told me.”
“I’m considering how I could make them, actually,” Shroud admitted. An army of undead could give them more manpower. “My Lock could help me manage them.”
“That is where you are wrong!” Celia said, sounding like a teacher scolding a child. “You have to be Yellow to raise the dead, and Yellow is all about art, inspiration! Blue is all about efficiency, control, managing. No wasteful beauty whatsoever!”
“Even if I let my inner child out?”
“That is an opposite color to your own, so your spell will consume more Flux.”
Could Spellcoins actually represent how much processing power Magik assigned to his spells? “And what if I could combine them?” he asked, before realizing telling her about Hack may not be a good idea. “I mean, combine them with my Lock to create something new? Spells must come from somewhere, right?”
“No one can channel two colors at once alone,” Celia replied. “If you want to try Yellow, you should practice Green first.”
“Green? Because it is allied with both Blue and Yellow?”
“Exactly. Life and death are two sides of the same coin, so if you improve one, you will learn about the other. You will also need souls to create good undead, gems, or living people.” Celia’s eyes shifted to Shroud’s neck, making him uncomfortable. “Or…”
“Not going to become a vampire,” he interrupted her train of thoughts The second Celia had looked at his neck, Ace stealthily emptied her blood tea inside the teapot in the blink of an eye before bringing the emptied cup to her lips.
“Aw, but you would look so nice!”
“Indeed you would,” Ace nodded, amused. “It would do wonders for your skin tone.”
“I know,” Celia exclaimed, “He just needs a cape!”
“And leather shoes!”
Shroud crossed his arms and sulked. “But you are handsome in that armor,” Celia tried to reassure him he had good fashion sense. “You too, Ace.”
“Thank you, my queen,” Ace replied, putting the emptied teacup back on the table, much to the vampire’s joy, “Although you look the best of all of us. What’s your secret?”
“You’re too kind,” she replied. “I just have good taste, that is all. I like beautiful clothes, beautiful people, beautiful things.”
As the two exchanged compliments, a flash of violet illuminated the room, a displeasing guest materializing right in the middle of the ballroom. “Ace!” Mammon shrieked. “Ace, Ace!”
“Your Majesty?” Ace replied, instantly deferential. Shroud noticed the ghosts instantly vanished at the Midnight King’s approach. In all likelihood, he had them killed in the first place.
“What are you doing here? I asked you to send a fruit basket to Revel after that fiasco!”
“I did, in triplicate, and this gentleman invited me soon after for a date,” Ace said, winking at Shroud. “I accepted.”
“Oh, oh!” Celia looked at them with excitement. “You are so cute together.”
Mammon glanced at Shroud. “This comes out of your holiday bonus.”
“You aren’t paying me,” Shroud replied dryly.
“Not with that attitude. I’ve examined your plans for the Epoch, and I found them di-sa-point-ing!” He insisted on each syllable. “More blood!”
“What? But this is already a death course!” Shroud defended his creative choices. It reminded him of the discussion he had had with Gavin while working at Dynamis, except Mammon seemed way more interested in the ‘killing’ rather than the ‘selling.’
“Not lethal enough,” Mammon replied, going on an angry tirade. “There can only be one winning team, and we need to weed out all the rest! Also, add more fireworks, more glamour! Viewers want unexpected surprises and turns, shocking deaths, and to squirm on their tentacles!”
“Hi, mighty conqueror!” Celia waved with friendliness at the Midnight King, improving his foul mood. “We were waiting for you.”
“Death,” Mammon’s humanoid torso curtly bowed to Celia, which made Shroud squint. The Midnight King suddenly behaving with wariness around her raised all sorts of alarms as he joined for tea. “Of course you would wait for Mammon.”
“We wouldn’t have gone so far without your hard work,” Celia added, nodding happily.
The familiarity between them bothered Shroud somewhat, who suddenly realized why Manah had insisted she deal with this himself. He cleared his throat, as Mammon’s tentacle grabbed a cup and pulled it inside his chest body. “King Mammon, I heard you collected precious artifacts, like Occult Matrixes.”
“Shroud couldn’t shut up about it, but he just worked the courage to ask you,” Ace continued, making the Moderator sink deeper in his chair. “Perhaps you could show him off, Your Majesty.”
Mammon absentmindedly searched inside his hoard, bringing out an item. “This trinket? Mine!”
His hand opened, revealing a perfect replica of the artifact Shroud had stolen from Smokefang, weeks ago. A metal orb, shining with a bluish hue, filling his brain with math, formulas, visions of a strange distant world…
— Dis Terminal detected. Compatibility check positive, quantum integration starting. —
Visions of a metal coin floating in the endless darkness of space filled his mind; a golden utopia of chest-like creatures, watching a fiery star fall on them…
— Archived loads ready for transfer: Midnight Market, Underside, post-Mammon Landing, minus 4000. —
A flash of yellow light brought him out of this dream. Before he knew it, he returned to the world of the living. Celia had put an icy finger on his cheek. “What happened?” Shroud asked, his thoughts in shamble.
“Your eyes shone blue, handsome,” Ace warned. “And not in an attractive way.”
“I told you Blue is control,” Celia said. “Your Lock wants more of it, over you, over everyone.”
“We apologize for this, Your Majesty,” Ace said charmingly, preemptively trying to appease Mammon.
However, much to even Celia’s surprise, the Midnight King remained eerily silent, appraising the Blue Sorcerer. His quietness made Shroud even more wary than his frothing malevolence prior. “What did you see?” Mammon finally asked. “Do not lie or your ass is mine.”
Shroud didn’t need Network to know the monster was deadly serious. “It sent me information, Midnight Market, post-Mammon landing… minus four thousand.”
“Try again,” Mammon said. “But if you damage it, I will take your head. There are dozens of these trinkets on my station, but this one has sentimental value to the King.”
Shroud glanced at him, then the artifact, raising his hand to touch it. This was a huge risk, but he had his hand brush Mammon’s as he touched the artifact, feeling the jolt of Network activate. Thankfully, the King, lacking Yellow Sorcery, missed it.
Matrix Folder: Midnight Market, Post-Mammon Landing, Underside; record starts minus 4000.
– Mammon Sealed: Mimic Civilization Survives (Minus 4000)
– Mammon’s Chronobreak Spell Uncast: Underside Destruction Prevented (1789)
– Conspiracy Unveiled: Malebranche-Concordia War (1920)
“It says Mimic Civilization Survives, minus 4000.” The pervasive tension around Mammon increased, almost too unbearable to support, but apparently, he didn’t catch the omission. “Underside Destruction Prevented, 1789. And Conspiracy Unveiled, 1920. I can… uncover them.”
“The second,” Mammon ordered. “Do your thing on the second, now.”
“Mammon.” Due to the deep, serious tone, it took a second for Shroud to realize Celia had spoken. “Let it go. That spell is impossible. And why would you put something in a box and make sure nobody can open, it if it is not dangerous?”
The Midnight King ignored her, focusing on Shroud alone. The sorcerer could see a spark of burning greed in each of his tiny eyes. “Open it,” Mammon insisted. “Prove the King right.”
Feeling as if he had a gun pointed on his head, Shroud prepared to mentally touch the notification.
Yet, at the last moment, he considered clicking on a different option. He had a golden, perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity to get rid of that tyrant with no risk to himself or his team.
You like messing with people’s time, Mammon? Shroud thought as he settled on a different choice. So can I.
— Terminal restoration request approval: Mammon Sealed, Mimic Civilization Survives. Aligning timelines. —
The matrix shone brightly, and the universe turned Blue.
The effect was anything but subtle. To Shroud, two images superposed in his field of vision, two versions of the world. One was the ballroom, the other a stranger realm, where the walls had eyes and watched back.
Reality itself started to glitch, the very texture of the world twisting, a sound droning in his own mind. Between the two pictures of the world, he noticed gears, streams of colored energies, and threads knitting both together.
In the in-between, something watched back at him, an eye of light made of seven colors; but a cold, heartless kind of light, that provided no warmth.
“I see you, Shroud.” The voice that spoke was his own, but haughty, mocking, giggling. It droned in his mind instead of his ears. “Always the fool eager to challenge fate, no matter the iteration. But remember… I own you, now and forever.”
The second picture started overwriting the first, Mammon vanishing from his sight in a trail of blue particles. The gap between worlds closed, and in a flash, the glitches subsided and Shroud regained control of his body.
Shroud blinked, as the hotel had turned brighter, restored to its full glory… except the walls had eyes, and so did the table and the chairs. His own, more expensive than the rest, wriggled on his back.
Shroud turned around, confused, finding a group of hobs commenting Celia’s portrait, elf-like beings dancing to the tune of the music…
And the sharp pain in his left arm, where Toshiyami had cut it, didn’t subside.
“Your Majesty, is something wrong?” Ace asked him, confused by his behavior. “The Concordian assassin?”
“You didn’t…” Shroud trailed.
“Didn’t what?” Her confusion seemed genuine.
Then, Shroud’s chair grew tentacles and began to massage his shoulders, making him almost jump on his feet. “Not good enough, boss?” the chair spoke, and it grew eyes on the armrest. “Slower?”
Shroud had no idea how to react to that… so the chair took it as a yes, and massaged his back slowly.
A mimic. The same kind as Mammon, but clearly nicer.
Shroud fell silent, trying to make sense of what happened. Celia looked at him strangely. “King Martel, you are acting strangely.”
King Martel? “I’m just feeling sick,” he said, brushing it off. “What were we talking about?”
“The Maleking’s offer of friendship and protection still stands,” Celia said, making Shroud freeze. “We all know how attached you are to Mimicworld’s neutrality, but you will not push back Blackcinders alone. She is, no offense, far too strong for you.”
“Blackcinders?” Shroud repeated, blinking.
“A Concordian fleet led by the Vanguard is preparing to assault the star cluster,” Ace said calmly, her eyebrows furrowing at his behavior. “Blackcinders is making good on her threat to avenge her son.”
That at least hadn’t changed. “And what does the Maleking want with me?” Shroud asked.
“You have to loosen the seal on Mammon,” Celia replied, the chair and table fidgeting at the name. “The Maleking understands how precarious your position is, but the freedom of my fellow Horseman is non-negotiable.”
It suddenly occurred to Shroud that he should have thought twice about loading that save. “I need to think about it,” he said, trying to remain as evasive as possible and end this conversation until further notice.
What the hell just happened?
“She was surprisingly nice, her dread master aside,” Ace said, as they exited the hotel. She had dropped the respectful tone for a more casual one once out of Celia’s earshot. “We should meet her more often.”
No. No, they shouldn’t.
The Underside had become as lustrous and beautiful as the Overside, with none of the rust of the previous… whatever that was.
The changes also went farther. The buildings had eyes and mouths, as did pretty much every item around but the ground they stood on. The streetlights bowed slightly when they passed nearby. Mimics, all of them.
Much to his surprise, many of the streetlights shape-shifted into copies of his glass armor as the duo walked by; each of the creatures took a different pose, some regal, others blatantly ridiculous.
“We’re alone now,” he said, having no idea how to address the elephant in the room.
“Obviously.” The way she sounded, he grew certain she made it intentionally sound enticing. Damn flirt. “You’ve been behaving strangely since that tea with Celia. Is it Blackcinders approaching that troubles you?”
“You do not remember?” he asked her.
“Remember what?” She raised an eyebrow. “Okay, you really need a moment to get your act together. What about some stargazing?”
Without needing to use Network to read her mind, he took her firmly in his arms from the waist down, flying onto the roof of the tallest building around and landing them on it. They had an incredible view of the surrounding area under the faint light of the stars.
And as he expected, the Load had affected the entire Underside, turning it into a moving landscape, as tentacled buildings playfully exchanged places. Mimics could apparently grow to rival skyscrapers, and they all competed to outdo one another in shape-shifting. He suddenly wondered if Mammon’s showmanship had been a cultural trait, rather than his own eccentricity.
Just how much had that power changed? From what he gathered and Ace’s comment, the fight with the five hunters still happened, as did the death of Smokefang. But he seemed to have taken Mammon’s place.
Getting rid of that chest bastard had been the entire point of loading that Save, so he didn’t complain.
“Here,” Ace said, taking his hand and leading him to the edge of the roof, both of them sitting there. “Look at those stars.”
“I wonder how many of them are inhabited,” Ace said, “Do you know that Concordia believes we only mapped a fifth of the material universe? Seeker must have come from some galaxy far, far away, one we haven’t seen yet.”
Seeker. What little he heard of that cosmic horror made him shudder. “If it represents the life out there, some would say we are better off not knowing.”
“Some. You too?”
“Of course not,” Shroud replied. “There is no such a thing as not enough knowledge. It gives us power and freedom.”
“And joy, and new frontiers to explore,” Ace added.
“About that, what did you think of combining Green and Yellow? I do have a Green spell I’m not using much, Purge, and enough Spellcoins to buy the Deathgem spell. If this one is needed to gather souls and create undead—”
“Do you always speak of work, even while on a date?” He almost apologized sheepishly, when she cut him with a chuckle. “It’s fine. Actually, I’m pretty much that way myself.”
“You are?” He noticed that she immediately understood he was talking about Magik Online, so that at least hadn’t changed.
“Of course I’m curious at what this system can do! How does it even work? I’ve been trying to find all the possible fusions of the Seamancer spell since I got it. That’s how I created Splash, by combining it with Switch, and Rainmaker, by combining it with Timesense. They make a pretty nice combo together.”
“Rainmaker creates rain, and Splash allows you to teleport with droplets?”
“Any body of water, actually, as long as it doesn’t come from a living being like milk or blood. And believe me, I tried every single liquid out there. I think it’s because it lacks a Green component. Neither Orange nor Violet have anything to do with life.”
So the colors held power over a conceptual domain and didn’t allow any other to step into them. “Which means, the more colors, the more transcendent and powerful the Hack.”
A spell incorporating all colors might be an amazing power. He wondered if he could create a chain of them. Premium Thoughts and Heal were too important to risk triggering a Hack with, but Heal had made Purge slightly obsolete. Lightbringer and Glass Field were the core of his arsenal, but he could consider risking upgrading one. Beastmaster had proved useful, but he wouldn’t miss sacrificing it for a stronger power.
However, he couldn’t license Hacks, and his shortage of Spellcoins to invest in spells meant he couldn’t recoup his losses should a fusion prove sub-par. He might as well try to push the limits of what he already had before venturing into the unknown; master his own sorcery, and then expand.
He looked at his Blue options for Dot Two. Mindshield protected his mind from mental control, which was situational. Incognito helped him with infiltration but wouldn’t get past Magitech, limiting its effectiveness. Emotion Bomb allowed him to manipulate the emotions of others, which may have been the spell Concordia used on him to keep him docile while imprisoned. The mere idea to use mind-control and take away someone’s freedom went against everything he believed in, so he immediately pushed it aside.
Activation: Active, Thought.
The caster creates a perfect, free-willed quantum duplicate of themselves. The Doppelganger appears as a blue-colored phantom, which will dissipate if suffering lethal wound or upon death of the original; upon destruction, the original gains all of the Doppelganger’s memories. The Doppelganger cannot cast spells nor use a Lock, but benefits from all effects affecting the caster upon creation (such as Peak or Premium Thoughts). The caster can only have one Doppelganger active, and harmful effects affecting it will not carry over to the original.
Creating a clone could allow him to do twice the work, but its inability to use his Lock or cast spells limited the effectiveness. Unless if he…
No, that would be an overpowered loophole. It all depended on the wording; if the Doppelganger couldn’t cast spells period, then it wouldn’t work. If it meant it couldn’t cast spells naturally…
He really had to check that one.
“So?” Ace asked him, drawing him out of his thoughtfulness, “Do you have an idea for experimentation?”
“Oh yes,” he replied, “I also wonder what would happen if I combined Beastmaster and Lightbringer. Maybe a light controlling beasts?”
“Or a light that turns people into animals,” she replied with a grin. “Since we’re on the subject of stars and light. How does your light spell work?”
“Quasar and Reinforce. I tried to reinforce photons and it solidified them, creating Lightbringer.”
“So if I buy Heatriser and try to reinforce the heat, I could create solid fire? Or solidify time with Timesense?”
“How can you possibly solidify time?”
“How can you possibly glitch time?” she replied with a mischievous grin on her face.
Touché. “Talking about gaining new spells. Best team activity.”
“I wouldn’t call us a team yet,” Ace said. “We are two members short.”
Shroud froze. “What do you mean?”
“We still need to assign the White and the Red, no? Then we can call ourselves a true team.”
He had a gnawing feeling. “They are assigned. To Sol and Maggie.”
… shit, shit, shit!
He immediately checked his Magik Online account, finding it mostly unchanged, except for two very important missing elements. He immediately sent a message to the Administrator.
SHROUD: Where did the accounts of Solomon and Maggie go?
ADMINISTRATOR: I am sorry, Mathias, but I do not understand your question.
SHROUD: The Players, Sol and Sharpshoot. Solomon Nicholae and Maggie Powells. Where did they go?
ADMINISTRATOR: Let me check… We do not have these Players in our database. Why such a question?
Voting for Magik: Voting button
I would like to thank and congratulate my wonderful 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, who all managed to survive the reality jump.
Picture by Gharbi Zouhayer. Because Celia only steals from the best.