Chapter 1: My Magical App

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His Mom always said: Mathias, you will do great and terrible things. She was half-right.

And here he was! Triumphant on his throne of bones, waiting for the doomed heroes to open his doors and challenge him. His loyal servants, cold-blooded, reptilian monstrosities with fangs bloodied by countless victims, hissed in excitement while guarding their master. The wise princess, Sarah, lay unconscious on his dread altar, bound to an endless dream by his nefarious spell. Her sacrifice would empower his magic and break the last hope of the land.

So Mathias Martel, sworn enemy of mankind, waited for his doors to open, and for the final battle to begin.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Mathias finally lost patience and broke his well-crafted role. “Maya,” he spoke out loud to his video game’s digital assistant, “Where is Viviane and her party?”

The Artificial Intelligence answered with a soft, female voice resonating directly into his ears. “Underground arena, level one.”

“The arena choke-point?” They hadn’t moved from the first floor of the digital castle since half an hour? “Show me.”

A flying, holographic screen materialized right in front of Mathias’ eyes, showing him the battle.

His friends — who were also his game testers — were busy confronting Violette, a witch and the first major opponent he had set up in his castle. The holographic enemy was flying around underground arena that Mathias had styled after the Aztecs, hurling blue fireballs at her victims. Her targets were a group of three players who, if their life points counters were of any indication, were in way over their heads.

Damn, how could they be losing? His friends were veteran video game players, they should have breezed through this mini-boss.

“Maya, connect me to their audio channel, please.” It didn’t take him long to hear the team leader, Viviane, bark orders through the intercom. “Guys,” he interrupted them, “Why are you taking so long? I’m getting bored up here.”

“Sorry, we’re too busy being lost on the road of life!” his friend, Ulysses, replied with his usual sarcasm.

“From your current showing you will reach the end of that road quickly,” Mathias said.

“Ulysses, shut up and keep casting protection spells on your sister, she’s losing life points faster than I can heal her!” Viviane interrupted the conversation. She sounded just as annoyed as Mathias himself. “Sorry, Matt, sweetie, but that witch is a pain, period.”

“Someone keep her down, I can’t hit her!” Perse, the last member of the testers, loudly complained as she tried to fight the inevitable.

Mathias observed his creation, trying to figure out how he could adjust her difficulty. He had designed Violette to be a wake-up call to players, but the battle was meant to last for five minutes, not thirty.

As he had planned in her battle tactics, Violette had set up Star Power and Quick to increase her might and speed, cast Curse of Arson on the group to make them vulnerable to burning damage, and then bombarded them with the spell Fireball from afar. The combo turned her into a flying, magical artillery cannon.

After a check-up, Mathias noticed her magical points reserve remained almost full. Logic implied she should have burned through it in a few minutes, as he had planned. Either players could weather the assault until she ran out of magical juice, or they died. This set-up would teach patience and strategy to overaggressive teams, in preparation for the more tactical fights deeper in the castle.

After Violette cast another Fireball, Mathias noticed her magical energy reserve deplete… and then slowly refill. As if struck by lightning, the game designer pieced it all together. “Maya, can you check the treasure chests on the third floor. The one containing the Magic Potion? Was it open? By whom?”

“It was opened at seventeen-thirty-four, by Violette, custom Butterfly Witch, level fourteen.”

“Amazing,” he muttered to himself, his suspicions confirmed. His artificial intelligence had performed beyond his imagination.

Mathias returned to watching the fight, and drew the conclusion that the party would lose soon, Ulysses — the magical support keeping them alive — having been eliminated. Viviane didn’t last much longer, and Perse, in spite of her impressive stamina and firepower, didn’t stand a chance on her own.

With a heavy sigh, Mathias took a few seconds to check the throne room, a rectangular hall big enough to rival a cathedral. Eight statues of giant, stylized snakes surrounded the path to the throne. He had designed the room to be both awe-inspiring and terrifying to go through. It filled his heart with quiet pride. He had spent hours building this stage, and rehearsing his dialogue lines.

Much to his chagrin, none of his testers had made it far enough to enjoy the sight.

With an imperious snap of his fingers, Mathias cancelled the holographic projectors. His virtual castle collapsed into falling pixels, with the grim, underwhelming reality taking over.

Virtual Reality Castle Hologram Powered
Mathias’ Virtual Castle

His mighty castle was actually one of Florida’s countless ghost towns, barely more than two dozen, derelict houses. It had been founded some twenty years ago, then promptly deserted for coastal Arc Cities after the Conquest. Now empty, the place had a spooky charm to it.

Through a deal with the authorities, Dynamis Inc. had rented the area to build one of their holographic parks. Beyond the village’s limits, Mathias could only see tall grass and taller trees, the frontier of the nearby Everglades.

It also made it easy to disguise Dynamis’ eye-shaped holographic projectors and sound-design devices among the leaves. His players were recovering from their crushing defeat not so far from one. While the holograms’ effects had made them feel like they were trapped in an immense castle, only a few meters had separated them from the game designer himself.

And after such a humiliating defeat, Mathias expected frustration from them.

Instead, he got excitement.

“Well, well, well, that was unexpected,” Viviane Werner put her hands on her hips, as if ready to take on a defiant universe. With long blond hair, piercing green eyes, and  pure white skin, she always dressed fashionably — with a distinct love for the color white. She often caused traffic accidents when walking down the street, as men who couldn’t yet afford automatic cars looked at her instead of the road.

The illusion of perfection generally lasted until Viviane opened her mouth to talk at great lengths about how the latest Big Foot-Illuminati Joint Venture was behind the Chinese Insurgency. Viviane lived in her own little world, which often conflicted with the real one — she hadn’t even noticed her marriage problems until her ex-husband sent her a divorce notice.

Still the best adult Mathias ever met, behind Dad.

Her two children also had a special place in his heart. “Matt, do you get off on our tears?” Ulysses asked mockingly, his tone was so flat Mathias briefly wondered whether it was a joke or a serious statement. He was as handsome as his mother Viviane was beautiful, having inherited the same eyes and hair, which he cut short.

Mathias bet he could achieve the same popularity with girls as his sister Perse had with boys, if only he would wear better clothes than a swag-shirt and stopped making morbid jokes about cannibalism now and again. Half the school was convinced he was a budding psychopath, the other half a creep.

“Yes, I do feed on your misery,” Mathias replied jokingly, “It tastes sweet when salted with crushing despair.”

“I knew it!” Perse complained. Perse also had the long blond hair of her mother, but dyed it red — which went well with her green eyes and black clothes. From what her twin had told Mathias, she turned goth very hard at fourteen, and started playing drums for the school’s rock band in her spare time; she also turned vegetarian a month ago, and Mathias never understood why.

Meat was life.

Anyway, she was a pretty young woman who went through boyfriends like Kleenexes. Sometimes she didn’t even remember their names. Ulysses had once joked she would try them all until she found the perfect one.

As for Mathias himself?

Well, people often said being short was the only thing noticeable about him. He kept his brown-hair well-groomed, and others said they could see his sharp intelligence shine through his blue eyes, but few called him handsome. Mathias thought sharper suits and clothes would help, but he stocked his Credits for less frivolous purchases.

People tended to pay more attention to his video game work, which had landed Mathias the side-job of his dreams. The wages were good, and he loved, loved the work. On top of meeting the Werner family through his job at Dynamis.

Dad said he ought to do better at school for his final year, though. Mathias’ grades were good, but not good enough to warrant joining the Loctis Institute, which his father dreamed of, even if Mathias himself would prefer to keep creating games.

“Okay, Matt, that witch?” Viviane said, tightening her left fist in excitement. “That’s like a kick in the balls. I loved it.”

“I can’t claim the credit, this wasn’t planned,” Mathias replied. “I put a Magic Potion on the third floor. Violette looked for it while you were fighting the gatekeepers, and drank it right before the fight. It refilled her magic points almost as fast as she could deplete them.”

“That’s cruel, even from you,” Ulysses condemned him, although his tone remained as unemotional as ever. “You should feel bad, you monster.”

“I don’t, but I didn’t program her to do that. The witch made that decision on her own.”

That caused the whole group to pause. “The AI deviated from the script?” Viviane asked with a rare frown. Artificial Intelligences remained a sore subject at the company.

“I know, right? Must be a bug,” Mathias said the words smoothly. “Creatures shouldn’t be able to open treasure chests, let alone use the contents.”

“On the other hand,” Perse said, “I always thought it was odd that monsters in Divinity didn’t use the secret weapons that they kept stashed in their armory. But yeah, you should remove that item.”

“No, keep it,” Ulysses advised him, “People like your games because they make them cry.”

As the group bickered on whether or not scaling down Violette’s difficulty was the right decision, Mathias noticed a big lizard climbing on a tree’s bark nearby, staring at the group like a nobleman at peasants. Mathias sneered back at the reptile, the beast climbing up into the leaves.

The game designer had lived in Florida for two years now — since Mom was taken by them –– and he loved the place. So many beasties and crawlies were there that helped to inspire him.

Still, as much as Mathias would have wanted to go chase after swamp monsters, he had a part-time job to do. “I’m going to move Violette deeper into the castle,” he decided, “She’s too tough for newbies, and might cause them to quit early. I’ll put Verte at her spot instead.”

“The Gorgon Broodmother?” Viviane nodded in agreement. “Yes, Matt, that will do. Ready for another testing round, kids?”

Ulysses and his twin sister groaned in perfect synchronization. “None of us want to do the whole thing all over again,” Perse said, before adding, “Sorry, Matt.”

“I lost an arm in the first room,” Ulysses whined.

“I thought you enjoyed the difficulty?” Mathias said with a faux-cruel smirk. “I haven’t seen you cry yet.”

“One brutal death a day, thank you.”

“I would still like to test the final boss’ tactics,” Mathias insisted, before crossing his arms and doing his best to taunt Ulysses into action. “Or perhaps losing to a girl taught you the pecking order?”

Perse gave him a light punch on the shoulder as punishment. “Speaking of that, Matt, what is a witch doing there?” Perse asked. “I thought it was a reptile-themed location?”

“I thought it would add more variety and keep players from growing complacent,” Mathias said with a shrug. “Why? You think I should change it?”

“Yes, she has a point, sweetie,” Viviane said, “However, this would be a great occasion to replace her with a winged bear.”

And here it was, trying to push for her favorite creature again. “Wouldn’t adding a mammal break the theme even more?” Mathias asked.

“Exactly. They will never see it coming.”

Mathias scratched the back of his head. To be fair, he wasn’t fond of Violette’s plotline himself, but Gavin, his manager, had insisted on adding more female enemies to boost human sales. He could easily replace her.

“A custom female Dark Elf Spellthief,” Mathias said to himself out loud, completely caught up in formulating his new character, “Level Fourteen Humanoid. The leader of a coven worshiping serpents, she was banned from the Underworld after a failed coup; and now swears loyalty to the Serpent King in exchange for his promise to destroy their former home. In a twist, she knows the Serpent King’s plans and secretly wishes to usurp him.”

“Dark Elves are overused,” Ulysses shot it down.

“Nah, they’re pretty neat,” Perse countered, “Sexy and smooth, I like them.” Of course she would. Mathias repressed a Goth joke with all his willpower.

“I like the idea of a betrayer among the enemies,” Viviane nodded to herself. “I can see quite the plotline. That would also allow you to add some Dark Elves as a minor antagonist faction.”

“Yeah,” Mathias said, closing the deal, “I’ll call her Noire.”

“Good,” Ulysses said, “Can we get back home now? I need a warrior’s rest.”

Dynamis’ holographic game Divinity had cornered the Sci-fi market; now, with their new Orpheon engine, the gaming company would take over the Non-Historical Fantasy genre and put the final nail in the coffin for the old computer game industry.

And like all geniuses, Dynamis’ CEO, Anton Maxwell, never saw small. Big virtual locations, advanced graphical imagery, and surprise events. The launch had cost millions of imperial credits to set up, and UB analyses expected the game to make billions. The biggest success in video game history since the Conquest, available for all, experienced players and newcomers alike.

Still, as Mathias thought back on Violette’s behavior, a question kept bothering him. Just how smart had he made his custom AI?

An all-too familiar, discordant noise resonated across the park, interrupting his thoughts.

A threatening, immense shadow passed over the park, casting the group in its fearsome blight. The young game designer raised his eyes, now filled with hate, to watch the looming omen that was a black, imperial warship remaining stationary in the sky above the area.

The bulky spaceship’s tiny wings would have made it ridiculous to look at, if its cannons weren’t pointed right at the Everglades and the park below. A massive swarm of Gearsmen followed the warship floating in the sky behind it, and two of them descended towards the group upon noticing them.

Halcyon, one of the human Founders of the Concordian Empire, had inspired the humanoid shape of these titans. Yet, two legs, two arms and a head were all these soulless killing machines had in common with Mathias. Covered in thick white armor, Gearsmen had steel for flesh and gears for joints, with a sinister red crystal in the middle of their helm as their defining feature. A good head taller than Mathias, their fingers could shatter stone, while a powerful anti-gravity spell kept them flying.

“Okay, kids,” Viviane said softly, with uncharacteristic calmness, as the ruthless automatons approached, “Everyone raise their arms slowly. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

Of course they had reason to be afraid, but everyone obeyed without a word.

Mathias struggled to keep his jaw clenched in silent anger. This wasn’t the first time he had suffered a check-up — especially since his mom’s arrest two years ago — but he resented the situation all the same. He didn’t want to give an inch to these machines and the cold-blooded masters they served.

The Gearsmen scanned the group from head to toe with their single glowing, red, crystal eye. Once they had confirmed their biometric signatures, they quickly flew away with a positive. “beep beep.”

Perse breathed deeply in relief, as everyone lowered their arms. “What are they doing here?” she asked, as the swarm of Gearsmen spread across the skies while the imperial warship didn’t budge from its spot. “They usually don’t venture here.”

“Tracking down fugitives, I suppose,” Viviane said,

As if to answer Viviane’s words, the warship’s iron belly opened in two, unleashing a familiar, terrible beast upon the world outside.

A massive, winged shape flew beneath the sun, leading the Gearsmen like the alpha of a wolf pack. That gargantuan winged lizard could grab a car in one hand, and its tail could smash buildings — and years ago, it did. A ruddy glow emanated from the space between his black and crimson scales, like lava drooling from hard stone. Armored silver plates covered his neck, while golden bracers shone on each of his four legs. Green fumes flared from its fearsome maw, while black bones protruded from its forehead like a mane.

Lord Smokefang. The dragon overseer of the Southern American Protectorate, who infamously burned old Atlanta to the ground in a fit of rage.

“Everyone, pack your stuff and let’s return to my car,” Viviane said with wisdom, “We’re leaving.”

Mathias kept his sight on the flying beast, his eyes full of venom.

That was why he created games. So he could pretend that he lived in another world that hadn’t been conquered by them, where Earth was still named Earth, and where a mother couldn’t be arrested in the dead of the night with no explanation.

A world where mankind could strike back against the dragons.

A few hours later at Dynamis HQ, Evermarsh

Evermarsh Scifi Future Mega City
Evermarsh at Night.

Dynamis’ staff in Evermarsh had taken to calling their headquarters “the Doom Tower.”

Not that it was tall; with only five floors, if you didn’t count the roof, it wasn’t even close to Evermarsh’s tallest building — that honor belonged to the Concordian Arc City, the massive black spire rising from the sea nearby and that would within one year replace the old city. Still, the nickname had stuck.

The servers managing the company’s games were right on the fifth floor; the technical department on the fourth; narration and design, where Mathias worked, on the third; administrative was on the second; and sales were on the first floor. The 3-D Printers used to build the equipment were kept in the basement.

The third floor was a co-working space, a maze of tables and alcoves that would put the defunct IKEA to shame, with a great view of the city through the windows. In practice, though, only Mathias and Viviane occupied it, sitting with laptops around a round table while drinking a cup of coffee every two hours. Most of the department had moved to Arc-Miami to set up storylines there.

It suited Mathias just fine. While he worked well with teams, he preferred autonomy and quiet contemplation when designing gameplans. Viviane was great to bounce back ideas and he didn’t need anyone else. With the success of his previous work on Divinity Anton Maxwell had given Mathias almost carte blanche on the Evermarsh storyline and design.

The story behind his part of the game stood out for its simplicity: during prehistoric times, a terrible entity called the Primeval Serpent ruled the land. Shamans of human tribes, tired of the sacrifices demanded by the Serpent’s reptilian worshipers, united to kill the dark god and bury his keep deep underground.

Eventually, the buried ruins of the Serpent’s fortress were rediscovered, the descendants of the reptilian empire laying claim to it, only to fall under the sway of a charlatan, pretending to be the reincarnation of their god. This Serpent King would turn the deceived reptiles into a conquering army.

Some would have called the storyline overused and cliche, but Mathias didn’t think game scenarios had to be complex; they needed to be intense and engrossing so as to create an unforgettable atmosphere. Mathias had shown that with his clever traps, intense fights, and inventive level design. And with the new AI system he had set up, he could let his creativity run wild.

It also helped that his plotline of players killing reptiles in droves was intentionally subversive. Using lizardmen was as close as Mathias could get before being put under the empire’s radar for “cultural insubordination.”

Rising voices drew him out of his reverie. Viviane and Gavin, the big-shot manager, were arguing again. “…I’m not sure a pink caterpillar can make a convincing opponent.”

“Don’t be stupid, Gavin,” Viviane brushed him off, “Everyone love caterpillars, just as much as everyone love centipedes.”

“Exactly!” While Gavin looked as thin as a skeleton, he did carry himself with a commanding presence. Unlike the more casual attire of narrative department, Gavin wore a suit and tie every day. He thought that humans used specific outfits to mark those with unquestionable authority, like in hob culture.

That kind of culture clash happened all the time.

Gavin was a hob -short for hobgoblin – one of the first species assimilated by the Concordian Empire long before mankind. Porcine-like humanoids smaller than humans, most of the hobs were purple-skinned, with bent, goat-like horns. Gavin and his entire clan had been forcefully moved to Earth not long after the Conquest, and tried to integrate themselves into human society.

From what Mathias had been taught in school, this standard government policy helped knit the empire’s countless species together into a harmonious whole. Whether they liked it or not.

“Is something the matter?” Mathias asked, trying to ease the tension before it escalated.

“Ah, Mathias.” The teen realized he should have kept his mouth shut, as Gavin zeroed in on him, his small eyes blinking repeatedly in quick succession. “I have reviewed your storyline and monsters, and for a reptilian army I see a distinct lack of dinosaurs.”

“I don’t want dinosaurs,” Mathias said. He liked Jurassic Park, but not that much. “They weren’t part of the themes the division had settled on.”

“Dinosaurs sell to human customers, especially children. Look, you’re the programming artist and all, but I’m the guy in charge of turning your art into cold hard credits. You aren’t helping.”

“Everyone will buy the Serpent Castle level,” Mathias countered, proud of his product, “The PR campaign killed it, and the pre-orders sold out within two hours.”

“Our player base doesn’t want dinosaurs,” Viviane said, beginning one of her passionate tirades, “or rather, they don’t want the dinosaurs they’re used to. They want nice twists and turns, an intense experience, a blend of old, familiar formulas and new ideas. They don’t want reboots, they want surprising innovation!”

“Tell that to my graphs,” Gavin sighed, licking his goat-like teeth in annoyance. “Just put a tyrannosaur somewhere, please.”

“Does the animated corpse of a tyrannosaurus count?” Mathias asked. “Because I can fit one as a guardian of the castle.”

“Zombie, fairy, Pandorian, I don’t care as long as it’s a big fanged lizard on two legs without wings.”

“Fairies can’t be dinosaurs,” Viviane added, almost absentmindedly.

“Anyway, while we’re on the subject of animals, I’ve reviewed your final designs, Matt. I’m okay with most of your enemies, except the snake girl, what’s her name…”


“Yes, Mathias, Rose. Considering the role you gave her in your storyline, and her frequent appearances, you should make her more attractive.”

“She’s a snake-woman,” Mathias pointed out. “And I’m pretty sure Players will want to ice her within minutes of her first appearance. She’s a bitch.”

“Who cares? Sexualized content gets us more human newcomers for a reason I can’t fathom.” Since hobs reproduced through interclan egg fertilization, they didn’t feel anything close to human libido. “Make all males Hercules, all the women Aphrodite. That’s what sells for humans.” Gavin said, seemingly proud of his reference to human mythology at the end.

“Venus, not Aphrodite” Viviane corrected him, “And Hercules is his Roman name.”

“You understand me,” Gavin said, “Give the snake-girl bigger boobs.”

“We’re supposed to be PG-13, Gavin. And we’ve already added a romance sidequest, a Dark Elf-”

“I didn’t tell him to dress her like a crass hooker, just to make her more, er, shapely. Oh, and add a vampire. Female or male, I don’t care.”

Mathias groaned. “A vampire? That doesn’t fit the storyline.”

“Right, you’re right. Makes it a hob vampire.”

“Gavin.” Viviane’s tone reminded Mathias of a mother talking to a petulant child. “The storylines and the sidequests are done. Where do you want us to fit an hob vampire?”

“Look, vampires? Everyone say they’ve lost popularity since the population discovered how they really look like, but vampire porn tops online piracy charts. We’ve got to hit that segment of the audience, and while humans are our core target catering to my species can’t go wrong. Make it happen.”

When he realized neither of his writers were convinced, Gavin cleared his throat. “Remember what Anton Maxwell said when he was asked why Dynamis was among the top five gaming companies on Terra Firma?”

“Five? What are the other four?” Mathias paraphrased.

“Yes! And how did we do that? Good storylines? Excellent augmented reality? No. Dynamis conquered the gaming world because it appeals to everyone. Old, young, men, women, humans, hobs, bullmen, dragons, everyone finds what they’re looking for in our games. Who are we to say vampires are has-beens? If popular demand is there, we must answer it. It’s right in our company charter!”

His speech was so full of passion, Mathias would have almost voted for him if the empire hadn’t outlawed democratic institutions higher than mayors. Yet.

“So. Vampire Hob, with boobs.” Gavin paused, as if he suddenly remembered something. “Oh, Mathias, your father called, he’s coming to pick you up very late.”

“I know, he sent me a text message.”

“Good. Don’t forget to close the door when you leave.” Gavin quickly walked away from the conference room, his hooves making a squeaky sound on the parquet. “Okay, see you tomorrow. Bye bye.”

He hurriedly closed the office’s door behind him. “He’s a bit strange,” Mathias said.

“More like very stressed,” Viviane said, “He has a lot of pressure on his shoulders from upstairs.”

Viviane then sat on the table right in front of Mathias. While it was entirely innocent on her part, Mathias couldn’t help but find it suggestive. “Let’s talk about serious issues. I’m customizing a Fairy Bear, turning it pink, and putting a broken heart on his chest. He’s going to destroy Players with love beams of death spamming. Sad Bear. How does that sound?”

“Terrifying.” Mathias wondered if he had been too heavy on the sarcasm.

“I knew it! Gavin told me no one would take it seriously.”

Apparently not. “I would.”

“Aw, you’re so nice,” she giggled. “I’ve also thought about an Illuminati-brainwashed Leprechaun hypnotist, guarding an enormous chocolate-themed Fairy Cake as the final opponent of a quest. How does that sound?”

Viviane’s designs generally felt like going through a drug trip, or so Mathias had heard. “Brilliant.”

She laughed heartily. “And now you’re just kidding me,” Viviane gave her mentee a bright, sympathetic smile. “About Gavin’s suggestion, just ignore it. I’m vetoing it. There’s no need for a vampire.”

What? “But Gavin will be mad.”

“Gavin is the sales manager, I’m the head of narration. He will learn to live with it. You’ve already worked so much, you’ve earned a little rest.” She gave Mathias a wink. “Don’t work too late, alright? Just geek out a little.”

Her overbearing, evil stare brooked no disobedience.

Once Viviane left however, leaving Mathias alone and without surveillance, the young programmer returned to working on the Orpheondigital world.

And most importantly, the AI.

“Maya,” he spoke to his computer.

“Yes, Mathias?” the AI replied through his laptop’s micro.

“Have you deleted all records of my interactions with the monster AI?”

“Yes, as you asked.”

Good. “Have the glitch report for Violette’s behavior be lost. Everything is normal.”


Dynamis had given the various teams leeway in altering the game code as they saw fit, due to their open source, shared-innovation policy. It helped each level of the game feel unique and would prevent players from growing complacent. But the company hadn’t given up anything on the AI front due to heavy imperial regulations.

A forbidden fruit that Mathias couldn’t resist picking.

It had started with little adjustments with how the enemies behaved. Stupid things like moving into holes, wrong interactions with elements in the game world, or Maya’s reaction-time being too slow to properly assist players in the heat of action. He had sent requests through official channels, but they got lost in the bureaucracy.

Eventually he got fed up and hacked into Dynamis’ mainframe to adjust things himself, rewriting Maya to give himself administrator privileges. The company could afford top-class protection, but they couldn’t stop a skilled programmer with insider access.

Others might have balked at his illegal actions, but Mathias didn’t feel guilt. He was making the game better for everyone, improving the user experience while sharpening his skills, and he had covered his tracks well enough that higher-ups would think about programming errors instead of deliberate alterations. Hell, his new version of the enemy AI took the cake, since it could deviate from the battle scripts.

What he didn’t understand was that he had playtested the encounter himself before, and she had never shown this kind of initiative.

Did Violette learn from previous experiences?

And how did she even know the content of the treasure? As far as the basic script went, she wasn’t even able to register it. His own creation had grown out of control beyond what he imagined, and he had to learn why.

“Maya, I want to see all unusual records of monster behavior in the last twenty four hours. Accelerated ten times over.”

Mathias ended up watching thirty minutes of content of elves, slimes and countless other creatures opening game chests, collecting trinkets left in the overworld for players, and even clearing out hidden, secret rooms.

Conventional AI worked by memorization of multiple scenarios until finding the one best adapted to the task at hand, within their parameters. But these monsters had created new interactions that were never programmed into their original scripts.

It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it made the game more real. But it was noticeable. While Mathias was confident that with Maya reprogrammed to cover his tracks he would get away with it, he would have to stop his adjustments for a while. Concordian authorities held heavy restrictions on artificial intelligence and punished those dabbling in it with off-world imprisonment.

Mom would have been proud of his achievement. He often wondered if something similar had been the reason behind her arrest, since he had no way to verify.

That was the thing truly killing him. The absence of explanation, of rational reason. If only Mathias had known, he could have understood. Not forgiven — he would never forgive — but it would make sense.

Mathias’ thoughts were interrupted by a beep on his phone; telling him he had received a new message, probably from Dad. Opening his message history confirmed it.

DAD: doing some extra hours. Will be late. Is it going to be good?

MATT: yeah, it’s fine.

DAD: I’m sorry. With all the missing person cases, work is piling up. I’ll make it up.

Mathias didn’t answer. He knew the real reason why his father was doing all the extra hours. Having lost his wife without receiving any closure, the missing person cases hit him too close to heart. He wouldn’t stop until he had helped the victims’ families reach their answer. Mathias did everything he could to help, but he worried his father might work himself to the bone.

Having finished his work on his games, Mathias decided to spend his time surfing on the internet, checking the latest news.

Of course, he immediately found himself watching a piece of official propaganda, the video stream of an alien forest burned to the ground by a murderous flight of dragons and warship bombardments. Armored hobs and bullmen, led by a vanguard of human Dragon Troopers, marched on the ashes, ready to scourge any hint of resistance. Their red body armor covered every inch of skin, making them indistinguishable from automatons.

An army of mechanized slaves.

“The almighty armies of Concordia are marching against the last remaining fief of the Green Mandrake terrorist group.” The male voice narrating it was singing and smooth, even cheerful in the face of this display of violence. “Although the terrorists’ leader, Mother Pandia, fled the area with her closest followers, the rabble’s power over the world of Darkthorn has decisively been broken.”

According to history records, the Concordian Empire had been at war since its creation four centuries ago. Like Earth ten years before, the world of Darkthorn would be assimilated, its trees cut, its lands turned into open mining pits, its people brought into the imperial fold and shipped off to other worlds. Then the empire would move on to its next star cluster.

It didn’t matter how many worlds had to fall to satisfy the dragon’s endless hunger for more resources. Those warmongers never had enough. They needed more steel to build Gearsmen, more citizens to field in their armies, and more energy to fuel their sorcery. The very stars themselves couldn’t satisfy them.

The thought led his eyes to the window, to the alien night sky. He remembered a different sight ten years ago, a black empty space inhabited by beautiful distant stars and the full moon. Now the stars were gone, the moon had turned crimson red, a purple cloud covered most of the darkness, and the nearest planet of their star cluster could be seen with the naked eye.

Mathias moved on to more familiar news: terrorist bombings in China, the black hole in Antarctica remaining unstable in spite of warding spells, Grimsour Industries and the Undermarket competing for a lucrative orbital prison contract, the new season of Nora the Hob premiering with top marks from cultural critics… this was the world he lived in.

This was Terra Firma, the conquered Earth. The stolen Earth.

Keeping reading these news filled him with rage, but what could he do? He was a mere game designer, not yet eighteen. It had taken one week for the human armies to fall to Concordian forces; men were no match for their science and magic. Resistance was hopeless, and his mother’s arrest spoke of the fate of those who dared rebel.

Yet there had to be a solution. Some way to rebel beyond making reptiles enemies to kill in a video game.

He could design an artificial intelligence dedicated to destroying Concordia. A curse in data form not unlike the Manus AI that inspired the various regulations. He had the skills and resources to design it, given enough time. Mathias doubted he would live long after uploading his creation, as the empire would track him down in swift order.

A beep from his computer told him about a new email. Expecting a message from Dynamis, Mathias opened his mailbox, and saw the message at the top.

Magik Online Invitation

Mathias glanced at the name of the sender. Unknown. No mail address.

Odd, the young man thought, must be spam. Mathias didn’t even bother reading it, clicking on the delete button.

The mail didn’t vanish from his email box.

Expecting a bug, Mathias repeated the process once more to no avail. His curiosity now aroused, he double checked his antivirus protection, and then opened the mail.

Dear Mathias Martel,

Your work on the Dynamis AI, discreet dedication to challenging rules, and willpower have impressed our growing community; as such we have decided to invite you as one of the alpha-testers of Magik.

Magik is a free-to-use platform dedicated to giving ordinary people access to magic. Through our app, powerless humans such as you will be given the ability to cast spells, for a fee. Magic will no longer be the sole preserve of your dragon overlords and their lackeys.

Our motto? A thousand spells in your pocket, for a price.

Magik declines any responsibility in reality hacking glitches, shapeshifting mishaps, botched demon summoning, quantum entanglement, or death by dragonfire.

By using our service, you agree to our top-notch privacy policy. Do not reveal the existence of Magik to non-users — especially Concordia Authorities — or your access will be revoked permanently.

By agreeing to use our platform, you also subscribe to our core policy of:
– Becoming the greatest magician you can be.
– Championing the cause of freedom whenever possible.
– Fulfilling the Administrator’s requests.

To receive your access and membership mental interface, please click on Join. If you would rather suffer in obscurity and never hear from us again, click on Decline.

Join / Decline

What are you waiting for? Go get them, tiger!

Yours truly,
The Sponsors.

Mathias reread the email for the fourth time in a row. What the hell was this?

Wait, how did they learn about him tinkering with the Dynamis AI? Only Maya knew, and he had put up strict safeguards preventing her from informing others. Had he been discovered? It could be a joke from Dynamis’ programmers, but Mathias doubted it. If he had been discovered the higher-ups would have fired him on the spot.

Mathias was confused on how to deal with this notice. If someone else had hacked into their mainframe, he should report it to Gavin immediately. No, there would be an investigation into his own AI forays.

It could also be a trap from the Concordian government, a false flag operation. Following the mail’s instructions would represent an act of rebellion, proof of his subversive mindset. Perhaps Gearsmen were waiting just outside this building, ready to arrest him if he fell for the bait.

And what to make of the content? A platform allowing users to use Sorcery? Only the Concordians held the secrets of magic, and they jealously guarded it. No human resistance cell had managed to replicate a single spell in ten years.

After minutes of silent consideration, Mathias looked at the Join / Decline choice. He couldn’t shake the gut feeling that there would be no turning back if he clicked. Just watching that choice made his skin crawl with both dread, and, much to his astonishment, some degree of excitement.

Why was he even considering clicking? This had to be a joke, or a trap. No good thing could come out of this.

And yet…

And yet, as Mathias remembered the news, the sinister starship looming over his head, the pain of his mother’s disappearance. It had to change. He had to do something, anything. A world without Concordia was worth any price, even his life.

When in doubt, go all in.

Mathias clicked on Join.

A sudden, searing pain spreading through his skull was the reward for his action, while a bursting flash of blue light blinded his eyes. Mathias felt something pierce his skin, needles lodging themselves in his flesh and bones, as he jolted out of his chair.

The light and pain ended as quickly as they came, only for another light to take over his sight. Out of the sick yellow, White words materialized out of nothingness.

Connection to Dis established.
Lock selected: NETWORK.
Affinity: BLUE.

Mathias’ sight returned to normal, the whole ordeal having lasted less than a minute. His fingers moved to his hair, brushing against his skin beneath. Some customer service that was.

Blue, 3-D computed words floated right in front of him, like holographic projections.

Thank you for your trust, Mathias.
Your account name is: SHROUD.
Opening Magik Browser.

Wait, no password? Mathias thought. Apparently not, as the text vanished and a floating screen popped up where they had left; the young man turned his head slightly, with the projections following his movements. As he had suspected, the pictures were projected directly into his brain.

The Browser interface was nothing like Grimsearch’s elegant simplicity. It was a pitch black screen, only slightly lit by a small search bar at the highest point of the screen, with the number fifteen on the left side, and a sealed scroll on the right.

The rest of the screen was filled by three picture icons, each more whimsical than the last.

The first icon was represented by a white caricature of a ghost reading a grimoire; the second, a skeleton opening a chest full of golden coins with the right hand and holding a contract with the left; and the third, a group of grinning pumpkins surrounding a halloween themed castle.

Mathias ‘clicked’ on the skeleton icon by moving his finger to the projection, causing a pop-up to appear.

Quest Board
Fulfill personalized quests for Spellcoins and awesome rewards!

Fulfill personalized quests for Spellcoins and awesome rewards!

Spellcoins? Did the website use a specific currency instead of Imperial Credits?

He clicked on another icon, the one with the haunted castle.

Anonymously discuss with other users on forums, or purchase your own private hideout.
Hideout feature currently unavailable, wait for release!

Okay, this one couldn’t be serious. He next checked the grimoire ghost.

Download and store spells to put some magic in your life.

Mathias knew, intellectually, that a sensible person should have closed that browser right there and now. Yet intense curiosity kept him in. Leaving the app store, he clicked on the number at the top of the screen.

Spellcoin Wallet: 15.

Mathias supposed it was a digital currency entry gift for joining. He heard criminals used such systems to avoid being tracked by law enforcement.

Next, a speech bubble suddenly popped out on the right of his screen. The title?

“Welcome, Shroud!”
Sender: The Administrator.

Mathias clicked on the bubble, and found it to be a private message conversation log. The Administrator’s conversation icon represented a red circle crossed diagonally by a spear, while Mathias’ own was represented a stylized, blue gear.

ADMINISTRATOR: Welcome, Shroud. Seeing you join our sorcerers-in-training fills my heart with joy. Do not worry, our Whisper conversation system is encrypted. No risk of Concordian surveillance.

A keyboard appeared right beneath the message, allowing Mathias to type an answer. He suspected the underlying technology wasn’t that different from his gaming interface.

SHROUD: who are you?

ADMINISTRATOR: The friend to all those who dare dream of a better future. The last champion of Earth. I am the war that should have been. The war which Earth wins. Also, the Administrator of this website.

SHROUD: is this a joke?

ADMINISTRATOR: Not at all. If anything, the joke is on Concordia.

SHROUD: then why me?

ADMINISTRATOR: Because you have an impetuous heart who yearns for knowledge, creativity, and freedom. If you are skeptical, try your unique free application. Check your wallet. It’s spec-ta-cu-lar!

SHROUD: spectacular? Will I crawl on walls or cast fireballs?

ADMINISTRATOR: There will be no denial after trying it.

Mathias closed the message box, and true to the mysterious person’s word, he found another app icon after clicking on his Spellcoin wallet, one representing the planet Earth covered with blue points of lights and lines. It reminded him of visualizations of the internet.

Its name?


He clicked, and a blue flash swallowed him whole.

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