Chapter 2: Pay to Win

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Next to Evermarsh High stood a coffee shop, which was named the Evermarsh Coffee Shop, because the Hob manager utterly lacked imagination.

It was a sweet place that catered to everyone’s needs; students and teachers loved to hang out there due to the cheap prices and the cosy, warm atmosphere. Somehow, Mathias and his friends always found themselves occupying the same spot, a table near the windows by the road. Ulysses often joked someone had died at the table from cookie overdose and that nobody else had the courage to sit in the back.

Coffee Brewing Coffeeshop
Ancient Hob coffee-brewing technique.

“Zombies would win,” Perse said in-between drinking her carrot juice. Mathias and Ulysses had settled on milkshakes. “There’re too many of them, and I don’t think legionnaire armor protects against bites.”

“Any legion worth their salt would crush a horde,” Ulysses told his sister. “A wall of spears and shields and it’s over; hell, zombies can be stopped with simple trenches.”

Mathias didn’t pay much attention to their debate, lost in his thoughts.

What he had seen after opening that application, after using Networkhe had been thinking about it all day, to the point of ignoring work altogether. Even with the storyline all but finished, he should have focused on the finishing touches. Altering colors here and here, adding one horn or tattoo for additional flavor…

Instead, the same scene kept looping back around in his head, of that blue light shining through his own eyes…

“Hey, Matt?” Mathias snapped back to reality, meeting Ulysses’ gaze. “I eloquently described how the Romans could have destroyed a zombie outbreak in no time. What do you think?”

— Ulysses ignored the snickering of his classmates, as he began taking a nap while Mr. Barth and his sister weren’t looking. A boring school, annoying people, an empty lifeless life. He struggled with the urge to pick up his games in his backpack and find some stimulation —

Mathias examined his friend with new eyes, trying to make sense out of the images flashing through his brain. These flashes of insight lasted only an instant, echoes within his own mind flaring into existence every time he looked at someone.

An outcast barely tolerated by most, Ulysses lived for intellectual stimulation, which he could only get from a few things. He needed Mathias to bounce back an idea he could think about, “It would heavily depend on the terrain and prep-time,” the game designer replied. “Zombies have a clear advantage on an open field, which allows them to swarm the soldiers from all directions.”

“My thought exactly, Matt,” Perse said, before fidgeting on her seat, noticing someone. “Here comes Samantha.”

Mathias instantly took attention to the situation at hand, much to the siblings’ subdued amusement.

All eyes turned at Samantha Brown, Evermarsh High’s diva, as she gracefully walked into the Coffee Shop. A beautiful amateur model, she dressed elegantly; every element of her clothes tailored to showcase her womanly curves. She had sparking blue eyes, long, groomed blond hair, and she always wore a blue, flower brooch in her hair.

Samantha Brown had it all; the daughter of Mayor Brown and a big shot lawyer, she had a promising future ahead of her without even being out of school. And in school she was the academic superstar, class representative, and the lead singer of the Evermarsh Skulls, a student music group.

Perse should never have been allowed to pick the name, Matthias thought.

Anyway, she was rich, she was smart, and most importantly, she was nice. Some called her Miss Perfect, and if anyone had deserved that title, it was her. And she was hot. Like, “blond cheerleader” hot. All the boys wanted to date her, and all the girls wanted to be her.

As for Mathias? Well… she was out of his league, and more importantly, taken.

Her boyfriend, Jack Powells, he looked like a younger copy of Denzel Washington and another life lottery winner, escorted her, keeping the Coffee Shop door open like the gentleman he was so Samantha could step through. He was tall and athletic, with wide shoulders to rival a bull, and a dashing, smooth face. He managed to be the running team’s superstar while also directing his own video channel.

However, as the couple walked next to their table to say hello, Mathias felt a general sense of fakeness. The supposed couple walked too far apart from one another. Jack paid more attention to his surroundings than his girlfriend, calculating the face he should present to the world. Mathias felt a cold vibe from Samantha; not so cold that it was hostile, but it was an apathetic coldness.

Mathias got the feeling Samantha wasn’t as taken as he thought.

“Oh, hi there, guys,” Jack started, before shaking Mathias’ hand. Mathias felt a slight chill go through his hand and body upon physical contact, his brain alight with new possibilities. “Hey, Matt, how’s Orpheon going? I can’t wait to try what you have in store.”

— Jack seized Mathias up, as he showed him the campus around. “You will do great here,” he said, trying to make the newcomer comfortable. As the son of the police chief, this was expected of him —  

“It must be a lot of stress, but I’m sure you’ll do great,” Samantha commented with a friendly smile that could melt ice, but Mathias noticed her smile didn’t reach her ears. “I even heard that the Yellow Ministry will give your new product a cultural recommendation.”

— “Smile wide in front of the camera, sweetie,” Father told Samantha. “This in an enormous opportunity for our family’s future and we must make a great impression.” —

A dragon lackey hijacking his work was the very last thing Mathias wanted. “How do you know that?” he asked, keeping his eyes on her, letting the information flow in.

“Jack and Maggie told me. Their dad and my dad have been lobbying the Lord Dragon to endorse their public policies for the local economy, especially with all the missing person case stuff going on, but…” She put a finger on her lips and whispered, “Shush.

— “They mustn’t suspect a thing.” Samantha kept her ear against the door, trying to spy on the conversation without making a sound. Her father sounded so… anxious. “We are so close to fulfilling the ritual, Henry. Two or three more. That’s all we need.” —

Thankfully, Samantha was too busy talking to notice Mathias’ eyes darting away in confusion. “Do you guys have something planned for the weekend? My penpal, Kari, is coming from the Pacific Protectorate, and I’m hosting a party on Saturday night at my place. Wanna come?”

“That would be great, but — ” Mathias began, but Perse interrupted him with an elbow hit below the table, becoming the focus of his gaze.

“Of course we’re coming!” Perse smiled back. “But bring veggie burgers, please.”

“I wonder if your latest diet will last until then,” Samantha replied with a light chuckle.

— Samantha rolled her eyes at Persephone eating vegetables, but only when the latter wasn’t looking. She found her antics amusing, but this was just getting ridiculous —

Mathias didn’t think these flashes involved telepathy, since he wasn’t exactly reading the thoughts of everyone… but it was just as uncomfortable as it must be to read minds.

“You’re cruel, Sam. I can last more than a month, you know? This time it’s for real. Oh, and remember your promise! Rogues only on our team!”

“Yeah, about that, I’m not so sure anymore,” Samantha crossed her arms. “I thought about trying out the Knight class instead.”

— Samantha glared at Perse, as boys approached her to congratulate her for her performance on the stage. Even with Samantha as the lead singer, Perse kept overshadowing her, and she hated it —

“But we need a Rogue to round out our team! I’ve got the Fighter class cornered by taking Knight, that dork Ulysses choose Necromancer, and Matt got a custom class.”

“Truth is, Jack and I already formed a team of our own,” Samantha said. “Maggie and Kari round it up. But you’re all welcome to join us.”

— “I will be a better lead singer, and you will be a great guitarist,” she told Perse. Well, no. Persephone could sing well, but Samantha wouldn’t give away the leading role. Persephone worked better as back-up —

“Sorry, I’ll pass,” Ulysses replied. “We’ve chosen to tackle Matt’s castle the way it’s meant to be, with a four person team from each of the core Class families.”

— Ulysses observed Samantha and Perse discussing from afar, noticing the former putting down the latter’s idea for the band. That double-faced snake was putting his sister down and she didn’t even realize it —

“But we’ve got to find a Rogue now!” Perse complained.

“There’s always Viviane,” Mathias pointed out.

“Nah, Mom is fun but we need someone our age,” Perse replied.

“Maybe we could be politically correct and get Gavin on the team?” her brother joked.

“Ulysses!”

Jack couldn’t help but chuckle at the spectacle, “I’m sure you will find someone your age. Anyway, Matt, since this is my first time playing, got any advice to give a newbie like me?”

— Jack looked at the broken, battered man laying at his feet. His hands were still bloodied. The rush, the adrenaline… the moment when his empty existence gained color and substance. He lived for that moment.

“Put him in the car’s back,” his father told him. “A piece of advice, junior. Next time, make sure no one sees you.” —

“Matt, what’s up?” Jack smiled. Mathias’ disturbance must have shown on his face. “Does me trying out your game fill you with terror?”

Mathias looked at the teen dead in the eyes, noticing for the first time the disturbing, malicious glint in them. The young man quickly regained control of his emotion, hiding his unease. “Prepare to cry,” Mathias said.

Jack erupted in laughter, while Perse and Ulysses exchanged a knowing gaze. “Okay, my audience has yet to see me die yet on livestream,” the aspiring player announced with a big grin, “Challenge taken.”

“Oh, I forgot, for the party,” Samantha smirked. “There’s a rule: you’ve got to bring a date. It should mix up our social circles.”

— Samantha listened to Jack’s blather with boredom on her mind. Dating the most popular guy had sounded great, and their fathers were best friends, but she found him off. Perhaps she should widen her social circle and poach a new boyfriend —

“You just want to play matchmaker, sweetheart,” Jack replied, putting his arm around Samantha’s waist. Much to Mathias’ discomfort, he noticed Samantha subtly bristling at the touch.

Soon, Jack charmingly invited his girlfriend to take a seat farther away, and called the waitress for two cups of coffee. Mathias’ eyes lingered on them, his intuition flaring as he pieced together their dynamic. Samantha had already decided to dump her boyfriend, but only when she had a replacement in sight.

Jack, meanwhile… Jack was wrong. The gestures he made, the smiles, all were calculated, faked for the sake of an audience. Like a wolf putting on a human-suit. Why did he never notice these tiny details before?

And that memory… he worried that Samantha was in a very real danger.

“You were going to turn her down,” Perse scolded Mathias. “Have you seen her place? Its swimming pool is bigger than our classroom!”

Mathias looked at his, unsure what to make of what he just learned, or how she would react if told what her what Samantha truly thought of her. She would probably go into denial, or make a scene.

“I’ll be too busy,” Mathias replied, lying through his teeth.  “I won’t have the time.”

“Pal, your games are joyful torture sessions. I think you can take a one-week holiday and come back to find players still stuck nowhere near your boss room.” Ulysses searched inside his bag and brought out high-tech holographic glasses. “Anyway, I’m going to blow up rebel scum on the dark side of the Moon. Want to join, Darth Matt?”

“Later,” Mathias said apathetically, already tuning everything out as his friend put his glasses on and lost himself in a virtual world.

Perse knuckled her fingers, as the waitress took the next order on the tablet. “Matt, do you have anything planned for next Saturday evening?”

“I have to work,” Mathias replied, slight apprehension in his voice. He had already guessed where she was leading him.

“Wrong answer! There’s Sam’s party, and my band is going to sing kickass songs there. You’re coming.”

On Mathias’ list of things not to do, a rave party ranked just below doing sports. Not that he didn’t like socializing, but he found drunken parties a waste of time. “Maybe next time.”

“No, there won’t be a next time, and I want you to be present for my big moment. You too, Ulysses.”

“I’m sorry, general,” he replied, already absorbed into his game, “Too busy crushing intergalactic civilizations under my iron heel. Besides, I’m single.”

“No, you wannabe Starlight Trooper, you find someone, anyone. I will keep pestering you until you get to it, and if you don’t, I will never forgive you for it.”  

Ulysses raised his glasses, and appraised his sister. Mathias could see the gears in his mind as he weighed the consequences of ignoring the order versus the hassle of following it. Finally, he settled on the second. “Dibs on Maggie.”

— Ulysses glanced at Maggie, who did her best to look at the windows. He hadn’t missed the lingering glances she sent him. She thought he was edgy enough for her taste —

“That’s too bad, I think everyone is taken,” Mathias said with false innocence. “I guess I will have to sit this one out.”

“Don’t worry, Matt,” Perse reassured him. “There’s another option.”

“Who?” he replied. “I don’t know any girls besides you and your band.”

She glanced at him as if he was stupid. “Oh.”

“You’re coming with me,” Perse said. “And you’re going to like it! No excuses!”

Mathias almost turned her down, before taking a precious moment to reflect on his recent discovery. Jack was not normal. At all. Network kept telling him to stay far away from the star student every time Mathias glanced at him. Samantha was in very bad company… and if he learned that she wanted to break up with him…

“Okay,” Mathias decided. “I’ll go.” If only to keep an eye on those two in case things turned south between them.

“I thought you were going out with…”  Ulysses paused. “What was his name again?”

“Dumped him three hours ago,” Perse replied. “His name was Doug… I think.”

— “WE’RE DONE!” Perse clenched her teeth in silent fury upon reading Doug’s message, frantically trying to call him —

“I seriously need a notebook to keep track,” her brother said, before glancing at Mathias. “She is my sister.” He tried to sound dead serious, but couldn’t quite manage it. “If you do anything inappropriate, I will have to challenge you to a Divinity Duel for the family’s honor.”

“Not really that much of a threat, Padawan,” Mathias replied, Ulysses responded with a smug stare. “You sure about Maggie? I think there’s a waiting list for her.”

“She will melt before my charm,” Ulysses said, before putting his digital glasses back on. “It’s on my to do list, right after ‘conquer the universe.’”

Mathias glanced at Perse, who smirked back. He could already hear the rumors coming. Not that he cared… sort of. A little. He didn’t like being the butt of lewd jokes.

His phone beeped, as he received a text message. Mathias briefly looked at it.

ULYSSES: I know where you live XD

… who used XD anymore?

————————

Mathias and his father lived in a small downtown apartment, on the sixth floor of a building in downtown Evermarsh. The kitchen and main room shared the same space, and they had only two miserable bedrooms. Concordian gave all their citizens free lodging, but only the amount of space strictly needed.

Even with only two occupants, the apartment felt crowded. Mathias had sacrificed his prized book collection, and his father his sports equipment for breathing space and a Holo-TV. Their home was all white in color and had no decorations, and with walls that were made brighter by the windows’ light. All in all, it felt closer to a hospital room than a home; perhaps Concordian authorities intended for that effect when they moved them here. It suited the Martels just fine, since neither of them stayed there often.

Upon closing the door behind him, Mathias found his father, Victor, writing an article on his laptop behind the kitchen table. His coffee cup was still fuming next to two empty cups. Sol, a friend of the family, drank tea on the other side of the table with calm, soothing dignity.

Save for his mother’s blue eyes and his own short height, Mathias had inherited most of his features from his dad. Strong and tall, with pale brown hair and striking amber eyes, Victor wore only the simplest of clothes. An adventurer, he could, and had, bailed on everything to pursue a story that mattered to him.

Like every journalist, however, Victor had to live with Concordian censorship, especially online. Gone were the days where one could write articles decrying the powers that be; like many, and especially after mom’s arrest, his father had to sacrifice his freedom for the sake of giving his son a family.

He did keep some photos to himself, however, in a secret stash that Mathias had found and peeked at. Pictures of Gearsmen malfunctioning and killing bystanders swept under the rug, of police opening fire on Chinese rioters, and of Concordia’s complex in Great Britain where many protesters went in and none came out. Pictures that revealed the true face of Concordia.

Dad risked much by keeping those pictures, which made Mathias all the prouder of him.

“Greetings, Mathias,” Sol welcomed the young man first, putting his tea aside. The man had a personable face that made you trust him at first sight, with gentle grey eyes and a white beard; he looked like the consummate televangelist he had used to be before the Conquest. He wore a priest’s black garb, and kept his hair well-groomed, exposing the scar on his forehead. “You have grown an inch.”

“You say that every time you see me,” Mathias replied with a smile, giving a brief hug to the grandfather he never had, and felt a surge of energy rush through his veins as he did. “What are you doing here?”

“Helping me with the case, son,” Dad spoke, upon hugging Mathias next, the same surge of energy spreading through him as he did. “How did the day go?”

— Victor looked at Mathias’ grades with apprehension. While he disliked everything linked to Concordia, his son had the potential to join their Institute. To make a difference and safeguard his future. If only he applied himself more —

“Fine, sort of,” Mathias replied. His father raised an eyebrow, but didn’t push the envelope. He had learned to respect his son’s right to privacy. Next, he moved to look at his father’s computer screen, reading the article. “The Invisible Hand?”

“So far, no corpse, no witness, no M.O.,” Victor had been investigating the missing person cases for two months now, since Sol had first alerted the authorities that a member of his dwindling yet tight congregation hadn’t shown up in two weeks. Local police, led by chief Henry Powells, had made it a priority, yet their efforts had yet to yield dividends. “And the count keeps climbing.”

“There was another disappearance yesterday. The thirteenth,” Sol shook his head in anger and sadness. “No day passes without a family praying for a sign.”

So far nobody had died on the case. But only so far, was what Mathias always reminded himself of.

“Once, criminal activities were synonymous with blood and intimidation, but since the dragons took over secrecy and low profiles have become the norm,” Victor explained. Since Gearsmen used lethal force on sight, criminal organizations faced high turnover rates. “The Mexican drug trade has been all but eradicated, the Cosa Nostra is gone, and the Russian Mafia…”

Victor didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t need to. Everyone knew what happened to the Russians when they tried to resist the Conquest. The fires could be seen from Belgrade.

“I do not think this is an organized syndicate,” Sol voiced his opinion. Having spent twenty years of his life fighting them in South America, he knew those groups intimately. “We received no ransom demand, and the missing people are ordinary citizens. I believe the responsible’s motives are more malicious than mere greed.”

— Solomon looked into the sicario’s eyes. In them, he found no pity, nor humanity. No recognition that he existed as a fellow human being. “Do you have any idea of how many people tried to threaten me into silence?” Solomon said. “There is no way. No money can buy the life of a man.”

“You are wrong on both counts, Father,” The man smiled, and in his eyes Solomon saw Hell itself. “I am not paid for what I do, and there is a way to silence you.”

He raised the gun, pointed at Sol’s forehead, and pressed the trigger. —

Mathias winced at the memory. Sol had told him this story before — one of the reasons Mathias had labeled him a closet badass — but seeing it through the priest’s own eyes felt way more terrible than hearing it. Sol had spent a month in a coma afterwards before the doctors could wake him up.

“Yet I cannot imagine a lone individual able to pull this kidnapping spree off,” Victor replied. “I know there’s a strong hand behind it, and not a human hand.”

“Organizations make more mistakes the bigger they grow,” Sol agreed. “This one, if it exists, has yet to reveal anything sensitive.”

“The leader may have a strong hold over its staff. Could be a vampire or salamander. I’ve just got to figure out how the responsible keep getting ahead of investigations.”

“Victor, at the risk of repeating myself, I only see two possibilities,” Sol put his tea aside, his face grim. “Either the responsible has informants among law enforcement, or thay are the law enforcement.”

Mathias remembered the memory flash he had received from Jack. Sol’s instincts may be on point. He kept his mouth shut however, as he couldn’t prove anything yet.

“That is a very strong accusation that you make,” Victor replied. “However, Concordia seems to share it. A source in the Blue Ministry told me they have taken an interest in the case, and will take it from the local forces’ hands soon.”

From what Mathias gathered, the missing people conspiracy abducted isolated people on a weekly basis, never at the same place and without any witness. Which implied a tight schedule, and tighter teamwork. Mathias mind went to work, he envisioned a cell within the police force, convincing people to go with them for a routine check up and then abducting them by surprise. It would be easy to hide in plain sight, to transport the victims to an isolated area. Political ties would give them key intel, and allow them to stave off Concordian interference.

An interesting deduction, too clear and precise to fully be his own.

For the first time since he downloaded the spell, Network provided Mathias with information that didn’t involve psychological insight. He fought the urge to open his account, almost on reflex.

For the safety of his mind, he couldn’t keep ignoring what he had seen. It only brought him more questions. He had to deal with them here and now.

“I’ve got to make a call,” Mathias declared. “It’s really important, and I don’t want to be bothered.”

Sol gave him a knowing look. “Wouldn’t that be this girl you keep telling me about?”

“A girl?” Amusement spread over Dad’s face. “You’ve been seeing a girl Mathias? And you didn’t tell your old man?”

“That’s not…” And now it was just embarrassing. “It’s just a crush. I haven’t told her anything.”

“Fine, fine,” Dad replied, deciding not to tease his son further. “Just be ready for dinner. Sol will be joining us.”

Mathias kissed his father on the forehead, said goodbye to Sol, went to his room, and locked the door behind him. Putting his school bag on the side of his small bed, he then flipped the blinders on the window closed, blanketing his bedroom in comforting darkness.

Lying on the bed, Mathias mentally focused, summoning the Magik Browser in front of him. It had taken the teen some effort to learn how to open and close it with thought alone, but whatever kind of tech powered the app, it was directly linked to his brain. He suspected he might even be able to ‘click’ without moving his hand, if given enough time to figure it out.  

The Network Icon had moved into the main screen after activation, right to the Spellcoin wallet. Mathias clicked on it without hesitation.

Like the other apps on Magik, the application had a short explanation: Provides understanding and power over social networks.

So far it had provided him with oddly specific information, such as memories of others in a specific context. Yet the name of the app was Network, not Mind Reader. What information Mathias’ mind received were either personal psychological insights, or information on how individuals related to one another. What the app provided him wasn’t so much as telepathic communication, but advanced individual and social profiling.

There, the lightning in the bottle: he could understand how a network of people worked, and how to influence all its components. He didn’t even need to meet individual members; as the epiphany on the police proved, even the mere evidence that the network existed could allow him to extrapolate information. He could also orient the information flow, based on questions or circumstantial needs.

Could the power affect even non-human networks, such as Hob clans? The internet, railroads, supply chains, all of those were networks that weren’t fully automated and could potentially fall under his purview. How far was the limit? If he kept observing a network, would his power and understanding grow ever sharper? He would have to check.

Properly applied, this power could be devastating. If Mathias could approach members of the Concordian authorities, he could insidiously sabotage them. Or form a resistance cell out of previously unconnected individuals.

Clicking on the app again changed his screen into five sets of smaller visual feeds, each showing a video in real time. One of them portrayed Perse arguing with the camera, with the one right next to her point of view showing Ulysses in the same position. The third portrayed an emptied cup of tea, while the fourth livestreamed two hands preparing coffee in Mathias’ own kitchen.

The fifth livestream started normally before going into somewhat disturbing territory. The viewer looked at the dwindling ratings of a video game online channel on his laptop, then closed it, and sat before a red wall. The livestreamer didn’t move, didn’t shake, just standing there unblinking.

Just staring.

Names were shown in bright blue letters under each of the livestreams. Ulysses Werner, Persephone Werner, Solomon Nicholae, Victor Martell, Jack Powells.  

Much like a livestream application, some settings were set at the bottom of each individual screens labeled: Sound disabled; and Communication disabled.

Mathias enabled sound on the Ulysses video, finding himself in the middle of a conversation between him and Perse. “ — Ulysses, you are such a jerk, you can’t ask out Maggy dressed like this!”

“It’s all about inner confidence,” the offscreen Ulysses replied.

The quality of the sound was sharper than any video Mathias had ever watched. He almost felt physically present at the scene. Because, in a way, he was. Mathias watched the scene through Ulysses’ own ears and eyes.

His eyes fidgeted to the door. “Sorry if I make too much noise!” Mathias called out.

“It’s fine, we don’t hear a thing at all!” his father replied through the door. As Mathias suspected, the sound was only in his mind.

Why could he do this with these five people, and not, say, Samantha? What was the common thread that bound them?

Mathias had touched each of them.

He had kissed his father, hugged Sol, Perse had knocked him on the elbow, Jack had shaken his hand, while Ulysses gave him a back pat whenever they met. Samantha was the only one with whom Mathias had no physical contact in the entire day.

Anyone Mathias touched became his eyes and ears. In effect, he assimilated people into his own network, and the application turned them into living nods.

He was a one-man spy agency.

What about the communication setting? Did it mean he could communicate with the person he had touched over long distances, the same way he could share their auditory experience?

He couldn’t test that theory with any of them, lest they learn about Magik. And could it also work with non-human targets? He shuddered at the possibilities.

Yet, Mathias had seen enough to feel tantalized. He closed Network and opened Magik proper.

Mathias clicked on the Compendium first. The screen revealed a color wheel, a circle divided into seven colors: a sphere of white at the center, then six shards colored red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet surrounding it.

Each shard was divided into five layers, with an ascending number of dots marked on them. The farther they were from the white center, the greater the number of dots. The white color at the center followed an opposite color scheme, with five circles of white ranking one to five the closest to the center.

Mathias instinctively clicked on Blue Dot One. He found himself transported to an app store, with multiple different products available for purchase. A general explanation stood above all of the selection: Blue, the color of information. He promptly checked various offers, with textual information appearing upon clicking. Various products, each with a Blue Circle for an icon, laid bare before his eyes in a list.

Blue World

Affinity: Blue
Dot: 1
Price: 3
Activation: Active, Voice Vector.

Stop the perception of time of any mind within earshot of the spell’s activation for five seconds.

Premium Thoughts

Affinity: Blue
Dot: 1
Price: 3
Activation: Passive, App Switch.

Magically boosts the user’s cognitive processes, memory retention, multi-focus, and learning ability.

Psychometry

Affinity: Blue
Dot: 1
Price: 3
Activation: Passive, Physical Touch.

Learn the existence and memories of an item upon touch. The longer the physical contact, the farther the user can reach into the item’s life.

The list went on, with Mathias noticing some similar elements. Each of the products were worth three Spellcoins, and dealt in some way with either the mind, knowledge, or communication in general. All of these abilities pleased Mathias, but the young man decided to examine the rest of the Compendium in-depth before settling on a product.

He moved to the Green appstore, which declared Green to be the color of life. Unlike the Blue appstore, those abilities each cost four Spellcoins each.

Berserk

Affinity: Green
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Active, Thought.

Turns off the natural limits of the user’s body for five minutes. The user undergoes a constant adrenaline rush, does not feel pain, and achieves instinct unclouded by reason, becoming a fighting machine unable to distinguish friend from foe.

Needless

Affinity: Green
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Passive, App Switch.

Removes basic biological needs from the user, such as eating, sleeping, reproduction, or breathing.

Unlike Blue, all the spells cost four Spellcoins. So did Violet spells, the color of ‘space and time.’

Switch

Affinity: Violet
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Active, Thought.

Switch places with an object or person within a five meter radius with near equivalent-mass to the user. The target must be within sight; the wider the mass difference, the more likely the spell will fail.

Timesense

Affinity: Violet
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Passive, App Switch.

The user gains supernatural awareness of time, being able to tell the current time with perfect accuracy and instantly noticing time magic affecting them.

When Mathias clicked on Red, the ‘color of energy,’ he noticed a price surge. So did Orange, the ‘color of matter,’ and Yellow, ‘the color of the soul,’ spells.

Firekin

Affinity: Red
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Passive, App Switch.

The user gains the ability to psychically direct existing fire within sight, moving the flames in any direction he wishes. The user cannot create flames from nothing, however.

Reinforce

Affinity: Orange
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Active, Touch Vector.

The user permanently reinforces inanimate matter upon touch, increasing its density and resistance to damage.

Spiritsense

Affinity: Yellow
Dot: 1
Price: 5
Activation: Passive, App Switch.

The user becomes able to perceive and interact with astral entities, including ghosts, formless spirits, and egregores.

But of all spells in the app store, it was the White, the color of Sorcery registry that confused Mathias most, besides its spells’ price matching Violet and Green ones.

Accel

Affinity: White
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Active, Thought.

Double the power and duration of the next spell cast.

Encode

Affinity: White
Dot: 1
Price: 4
Activation: Active, Direct Touch Vector.  

Imbue a person or item with a spell for future activation; the user sets the activation conditions upon casting.

White manipulated existing spells, instead of standing on its own. This could increase his flexibility. Yet, why did White, Violet and Green spells cost him more than Blue ones, and Yellow, Orange and Red more than those?

Mathias remembered that opening inscription on Magik, he had been given the affinity of Blue. Could that be the cause? It would make sense. Since Blue was his affinity, the closer the color on the wheel, the greater the discount. He could specialize in Blue, gaining more spells, or add some variety, but at a higher price.

Mathias lay in his bed for what felt like several minutes, his mind processing all of the information. Strangely, his Network sense hadn’t buzzed once during his investigation of Magik. He guessed the Administrator had put on a failsafe so that the platform’s spells couldn’t be used to pierce its secrets, or that unmanned automatic systems escaped his power’s purview.

Mathias’ thoughts quickly turned to resource management. With fifteen Spellcoins, he could either buy five Blue Spells, or three to four spells of various colors. Should he buy spells to increase his intelligence, and better figure it out? The ability to work full time without needing to sleep sounded very nice as well.

Why did he remain locked at level one, while clearly other levels existed beyond that state? Did he have to meet specific conditions to unlock them?

In the end, his investigation brought more questions than answers. Luckily, Mathias knew who could answer them. His finger moved to open his message box.

As expected, the Administrator, whoever he or she was — or if it was even a human — had been monitoring him.

ADMINISTRATOR: I trust that this little experiment convinced you of our goodwill.

SHROUD: you can monitor me the same way I can watch others, right?

ADMINISTRATOR: Of course. It comes with the privilege of managing a platform on behalf of our Sponsors.

SHROUD: how does it work? This Network power? What are the mechanics? How can I unlock the rest of Magik?

ADMINISTRATOR: I cannot answer much on that front.

SHROUD: can’t, or won’t?

ADMINISTRATOR: Won’t. Self-education is the only one worth pursuing. I can give you pointers, though.

SHROUD: so what’s the deal? I fulfill quests and gain Spellcoins to purchase spells with?

ADMINISTRATOR: Exactly; check the Quest Log to get started. I posted a Quest right for you. You may also use your purchased spells however you wish, so long that you respect our policy.

How generous. So Mathias could walk away and keep his current powers, so long as he kept quiet about this platform and used his abilities to annoy Concordia. However, he would also remain locked with the level he had… and never get to the bottom of things. The sight of the locked powers would remain under his nose, forever out of reach.

Father wasn’t the only person driven by the search of the absolute truth. This was the occasion Mathias had been waiting for, the opportunity to strike back. He could do it. He had the brains, and more importantly, the power, to pull it off.

Leaving the conversation, Mathias moved to the Quest Log. The application looked like a red board with a skeleton watching on the side. One scroll was nailed on the board, Mathias clicked on it. The paper filled the screen, texts writing themselves on it. As he read, the scroll icon on the right side of his screen popped up, the number one materializing right beneath it.

Lost and Found

Sponsor: the Administrator
Difficulty: Dot Two

Any good game needs a tutorial, and your town needs a hero. Prove your skills and mastery of spells by solving the missing persons case.

Reward: Eight Spellcoins.

Nice. Mathias would get paid for something he was about to do for free. But he would need more equipment than Network alone. And he had fifteen Spellcoins left.

Time to cash in.

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