On Friday morning, after a sleepless night spent devouring information, Mathias called in sick for the day and made sure he was home alone. He spent most of the day on his sofa, watching Maggie Powells’ feed with a pen and paper in his hands.
While her brother spent his lunch time with Samantha, Maggie had a tighter schedule. Coming home after sports, she took a shower — Mathias had to look away for five minutes during that part — then moved to practice with her bass in her bedroom for twenty minutes, as if to blow off steam from invisible frustration.
The key moment Mathias had waited for came right afterward, when she entered her home’s kitchen to find her father eating a sandwich there. A strong, powerfully built man with a balding head, police chief Henry Powells kept his gun on the table, as if ready to open fire in his own house. He and his daughter narrowly avoided speaking to one another, yet a glance triggered Network.
— “This Saturday,” Mayor Brown declared, a victorious smirk on his face, “One last push, and the Maleking will reward us for our efforts. Have you gotten the last ‘volunteer’?”
Powells smirked back. After struggling for so long, they would finally get the power they deserved. “Yes. Selected and ready for capture at your call.”
“Perfect.” His friend and co-conspirator jumped on place. “Tell our men to meet at Midnight on Saturday at the Chemical Plant. I want our entire team to witness the results of our good work.” —
As Mathias had expected, Network worked even while watching through his nodes — the term he had coined for people he had touched and turned into spies. This would come in handy, as he penned the various details.
What he had learned, though…
The conspiracy ran deeper than the police. Way deeper. If both the police chief and the mayor were involved, it would explain how they had been able to operate for so long. Did Samantha know? He doubted that. Unlike Jack, she didn’t seem the type to go along with such behavior.
What was the point, though? Concordia might be oppressive, but they wouldn’t let disappearances continue for too long. According to Sol, they would act soon, local opposition or not. They couldn’t sustain the operation in the long term.
And in spite of all the elements at hand, Mathias couldn’t fathom the motive yet.
Still, he now had information. The conspiracy would gather on Saturday midnight at the old Chemical Plant at the city’s outskirts. He remembered the place had been abandoned since Concordia deported the production —
Jack’s feed had vanished from his interface.
The others remained active, but Jack was nowhere to be seen, and an in-depth check up of the app didn’t help find it. Confused, Mathias checked the time, and then understood.
That was the last time he had physical contact with Jack at the Coffee Shop. All the others he had touched in the same timespan. He would test out this hypothesis, but for now, it seemed the most likely explanation.
So, Network had a time limit. He had to renew the spell every two days or he would lose the feed. This complicated matters. Without Jack as an additional insider, he might miss important information.
What should he even do with the intel? Calling the police would obviously backfire; telling his dad would encourage him to infiltrate the meeting, with potentially disastrous consequences.
No. Mathias would go there, take incriminating pictures, and release them online anonymously. His targets relied on their public image to protect themselves; his plan would strip them of that.
Blue World alone wouldn’t protect him, however; while the local police lacked advanced Concordian weaponry, they still had guns. He needed to invest in additional protection, gain a weapon of his own.
Mathias typed “damage spell” in the Compendium research bar, in case results would come out. Berserk came first, which he ignored due to the inherent dangers of losing one’s mind, alongside Firekin; fire control without creation meant that unless he put something on fire he would lack any means to defend himself.
As he expected, most suggestions were Red or Orange; not surprising since they dealt with the physical world.
Activation: Passive, Thought.
The user gains the ability to psychically direct existing liquid water within sight, moving the water in any direction he wishes. The user cannot turn the water either solid or gaseous; the purer the liquid’s composition, the finer the control.
Activation: Passive, Thought.
The user gains the ability to psychically direct earth within sight, moving dirt in the direction he wishes. The purer the earth, the finer the control.
Activation: Passive, Physical Touch.
The user’s body stockpiles kinetic energy, lessening impacts and numbing hits. The user can then release the energy in bursts on physical touch, enhancing their strength.
Activation: Active, Voice.
User gains the ability to increase the heat around their body, increasing temperatures while remaining unaffected.
Activation: Passive, Thought.
The user gains the ability to psychically direct light within sight, creating artificial darkness, or blinding flashes. The user cannot create light and is limited to using existing sources.
Activation: Active, Voice.
User can produce a burst of bioelectricity around them, shocking living beings and disturbing electronic devices.
The options disappointed Mathias a bit. The Red options needed voice activation and had underwhelming effect, while the Orange spells needed specific conditions to work. Seamancer would have had potential, if the Chemical Pant not been located inland.
In the end, Dirt Call was the best choice. Earth — although the definition implied an esoteric definition rather than a scientific one — could be found almost anywhere. But the sight limit reduced its utility.
Thankfully, he had enough Spellcoins for a second purchase. Perhaps another spell could improve the first? He typed “expanded vision” in his search and found the perfect product.
The user gains complete awareness of all motion within a ten meter/thirty-two foot radius, giving them an expanded psychic sight alongside an intuitive understanding of movement.
A ten meters radius of psychic sight meant he could expand Dirt Call’s range significantly. Both were passive as well, and as such easier to deploy.
Mathias purchased both with a click and activated them. He closed his eyes, trying to focus on the dirt left in the house…
What followed was difficult to put into words. In a flash of Blue and Orange, he could suddenly sense the air move in his apartment, the dirt on the ground… and then the signals kept coming, chaotic, disordered. The more he tried to focus on the dirt signal, the less he felt his hold on it.
And then, when he pushed too hard...
A sound not unlike glass shattering echoed in his mind, jolting his brain and causing his eyes to snap back open.
He saw his own face through his laptop’s screen and camera. He saw the city outside, the pigeon pooping on his windows like on his own eye. He saw the kitchen, his darkened bedroom, everything in his whole apartment. He could even see the corridor leading to their door, through the camera right above it.
He could no longer feel the air, or the dirt, or the movements around him. The glass though… the windows, the glass cups, his laptop’s screen, all of them had become a part of him. He could see through them, feel them.
Blue words wrote themselves in his mind, giving an explanation to his situation.
New Hack created!
Components: Intuimotion + Dirt Call
Activation: Passive, Thought.
You now have absolute psychic control over glass within a ten meter/thirty-two foot radius. You can use glass as an extension of your own senses, and cast spells through them. The purer the glass, the finer your control.
His spells had combined into a stronger one!
With a thought, Mathias commanded a glass cup on the kitchen table to come to him. Much to his astonishment, the object flew across the room at an arrow’s speed, and ended up floating right in front of his nose. Mathias just stared blankly at the miracle, his whole understanding of the laws of gravity undone tight before his eyes. An experience doubly wonderful, as he mentally saw his own face through the item.
The young man next tested the finesse of his control. With a thought, the glass cup decomposed into a cloud of tiny pieces, each as small as a sand grain. Although he could no longer see clearly through them, he could still feel them. Mathias reassembled them into a sphere of glass, then a more complex skull shape.
Did his spell have a limit of weight or size? He could sense every tiny bit of glass around him, and his magically-granted instincts told him he could command them all at once if he so wished. Deciding against destroying his apartment, Mathias returned the cup to its original form and telekinetically put it back in its original place.
Now he had a powerful, versatile weapon; in a world ruled by technology, he could find glass everywhere. A thought crossed his mind, however. What happened to Glass Field’s components?
Checking his account, he noticed Intuimotion and Dust Call missing from his available spells. Moving to the Compendium, he noticed them available for purchase, unlike Blue World or Premium Thoughts.
His individual spells had been consumed by the process, like a chemical reaction. To use them in their base state, Mathias would have to purchase them again. Which he no longer had the funds to do.
Mathias decided to take a break and look at his phone’s messages. One from Ulysses, six from Perse, and sixteen from Vivianne. He started with the simplest and most elegant, four words long.
ULYSSES: are you dead yet?
Mathias went through Vivianne’s message with less thought, barely registering some words, like “you okay,” “sweetie, please sleep,” or “Illuminati poisoning.” Mathias put more focus on Perse’s messages.
PERSE: Mom told me you were sick. Are you okay?
PERSE: you okay? You haven’t been active in a while.
PERSE: hi Matt, if you’re still sick on Saturday, it’s fine. It’s totally fine.
PERSE: I’ll come at your home and play video games with you, it’ll be fun.
PERSE: Ulysses managed to convince Maggie for Saturday? No way!
PERSE: I’m coming with Ulysses tonight to visit. No buts.
It brought a smile on Mathias’ face, as he moved to work on his games before his friends could come.
Changing the layout of his game corner, programming new monsters, and editing programming lines to smooth out building textures. The more he became absorbed in the video game, the less he thought. He was in the zone.
In developer mode, Mathias held a bird’s eye view of the virtual world, like a god overseeing his creation from the clouds — which he was, in a way. His sight was limited to his castle and its surroundings, over which he held administrator privileges. Beyond that, he could only see a white void, blind as he was. It ensured developing teams couldn’t leak the content of other groups to the press or gamers. Only Maxwell, the game’s creator, could oversee the entire game world at a single given time.
Mathias wondered how it felt, to watch a game setting the size of a small world evolving on its own, built over a year by two hundred teams around the world. It must feel invigorating; one’s vision becoming reality.
Mathias had designed his corner of the world with a gardener’s attention. The layout was relatively simple. Castle Noirceur stood as a black stronghold of ancient evil, surrounded by a terrible green glow and the wails of the dark spirits haunting the location. The castle was heavily fortified, with six towers of blackened stone rising from its depths, manned by ferocious, humanoid lizards. The very tip of the fortress, surrounded by the thick halo of ancient energies, held the altar of the Primeval Serpent, where the boss battle would take place.
“Maya, can you open a second visual feed? Any random place will do.”
The AI obeyed the order, a second video of a sinister swamp popping up on the side of his screen, right next to his visual of Castle Noirceur.
He could focus on both with equal intensity.
This sounded simple, but the mental effort needed to maintain this should have been tremendous. “Open a third feed.” The AI did, with Mathias not noticing any difference. “Open three more.”
By now, Mathias was facing a mosaic of various video feeds, showing marshes, plains, and caves around his castle. Each of them he could examine with perfect clarity and detail.
“Maya, can you link up to online reading websites and project courses on the six secondary feeds? Beginner courses in mechanical engineering, medicine, biology, and physics.”
The screens surrounding his main video feed started to portray pages from various online manuals, teaching the basics of building small machines, using pharmaceutical substances, or the underlying dynamics of the universe.
Only a glance was enough to memorize the entire page, his brain absorbing the information at a near-instant pace. “Next page, next page…” This was too slow. “Next page any time I blink.”
As he finished two courses within a few minutes and remembered every single word, the sheer potential of Premium Thoughts dawned on Mathias. The time he had wasted on school assignments, he could have used to become a doctor, or an engineer, or learn to create makeshift bombs, or enhance his computer engineering.
Suddenly, the technological supremacy of Concordia made a lot more sense. If Mathias could achieve such exploits with basic spells, he shuddered to think what experienced Sorcerers could accomplish.
Leaving his computer and facing the light of day through his kitchen’s window, Mathias saw two familiar faces stand before the door, his magic relaying him the information before they knocked. After checking his apartment in case he had left something incriminating in plain sight, the young designer opened the door to his guests.
Ulysses and Perse stood in front of him, the latter looking more worried than the former.
“You look terrible,” Ulysses said with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Perse gave her brother her trademark sour look, which he superbly ignored. “Mom told us you’ve been working all the time on the game,” she said, crossing her arms. “While sick.”
The sheer intensity and reproach in her stare made Mathias want to cower in a corner. “I just threw up,” he lied, scratching the back of his head, while letting his friends come inside. “No big deal.”
“Dude, you look straight out of a North Korean work camp,” Ulysses said, walking with his sister through the kitchen while Mathias closed the door behind them.
“I’ve got soda in the fridge, and apple juice,” Mathias said, his best friend quickly assaulting his reserve with wanton thirst. Ulysses tossed one can to Mathias, while opening another for himself.
“Matt, that’s full of pesticide and chemicals,” Perse complained, stealing Matthias’ can before he could open it. “Ulysses is too far gone to be saved, but you aren’t.”
“Hey, give it back!” Mathias laughed, struggling with his friend to recover his prize. “Diabetes is my destiny!” In spite of her previous sourness, Persephone couldn’t help but laugh happily at the childish antics.
“Meh, children nowadays,” Ulysses said with heavy sarcasm in the background, observing the fight with vague interest before leaping onto the sofa. “Who’s up for home delivered fried chicken tonight? My treat. Perse can take the salad.”
“Asshole,” Perse replied, joining her brother on the sofa with Mathias. She had lost the soda duel to the death and drowned her defeat in orange juice. “I say sushi night.”
“Fish is meat,” Ulysses replied.
“No, it’s not,” Perse insisted.
“Fish have eyes,” her brother replied.
Mathias had seen this argument before. “I’m up for sushi. I’ve had too much fatty chicken lately.”
“Aw, Matt, I knew you cared,” Perse chirped happily.
“Traitor,” Ulysses replied without much enthusiasm, grabbing his phone to order the food. “It’s true what the dragons say, democracy is oppressive to minorities.”
Mathias did his best to ignore the comment. “How did you convince Maggie to come with you, by the way?” he asked Ulysses, his own digital glasses on hand. “You blackmailed her?”
“I told her ‘Maggie, I choose you,’ and it worked like a charm.”
Mathias kept quiet for a few seconds before saying, “You picked up a date with a Pokemon catch phrase?”
“You can say it was…” Ulysses trailed off for extra effect. “Super effective.”
Mathias and Perse burst out laughing. “She didn’t get the reference, didn’t she?” Perse asked.
“Of course not. Can you imagine what she would have said otherwise?” Ulysses took a sip of his soda. “I think she’s a closet psychopath.”
“Huh?” Both Mathias and Perse said in almost perfect synchronization.
“A real psycho, and she believes I’m one too. She asked me if I liked animals. I said as much as a boot loves a puppy, and she took it seriously. It got really creepy afterwards. Do you know she carries a gun outside school? Told me she used pictures of her dad as target practice.”
Yeah, creepy. Guns were banned except for law enforcement; Maggie exposed herself to reprisal if caught.
“Her father is the chief of police, so she might have stolen one of his firearms.”
“I don’t think so. In fact I think her father gave her a gun and just doesn’t give a shit,” Ulysses put his phone away. “Full course sushi is coming in fifteen minutes. Happy? You’ve ruined everythi — ”
“Since you’ve worked so hard for the day, Matt, and you clearly aren’t going to take a rest,” Perse cut in, interrupting her brother while bringing out her own digital glasses, “why don’t we playtest your changes for ourselves?”
“Sorry, not in the mood for four deaths in a row,” Ulysses shot back.
“Actually, I had another set-up in mind,” Mathias took a deep breath. “We work as a team instead of one against the others. We teleport to the countryside and we do sidequests instead of clearing out Castle Noirceur.”
“Dude, you’re a boss meant to challenge full teams of level seventeen players,” Ulysses pointed out. “Aren’t you, like, overpowered for sidequests?”
“Yes, exactly,” Mathias said. “And I will put you guys at level seventeen too. No struggling against traps; tonight, we just enjoy the ride.”
“So, let me summarize,” Perse smirked, a flash going through her brother’s eyes. “We’re playing the hardest game ever on easy mode?”
“Yes.” His friends had put on the glasses before he could finish that single word.
Putting on his digital glasses himself, Mathias left reality for his digital world. “Maya,” he spoke. “Start a playtesting session. Location, Lizard Camp B.”
The virtual assistant began checking his ID. “Name: Mathias Martel, seventeen. Location: Evermarsh, Florida. Registration 5402. Pre-registered class: Snake Charmer, level seventeen.”
Instantly called down from the skies above to the ground below, Mathias found himself at the entrance of a wooden fort back in his virtual avatar body, a sinister, shadowy dark lord.
Unlike more stereotypical dark lords, Mathias had given his avatar a bard-like aesthetic. His armor was little more than scale-shaped chainmail, and his boots and gloves were made of velvet rather than steel. A shadowy aura obscured most of his body and face. Even his main weapon was a rapier rather than a heavier weapon. It made him stand out visually, and be memorable for players.
Ironically, Perse herself looked more like a dark lord than he did. Towering one foot above him while clad in heavy black plated armor, her face was hidden beneath a spiked helmet, her body emitting heat because of a magical effect. From the outside, it seemed as if the armor contained smokeless fire rather than a human. She wielded a heavy mace with her right hand, and a large rounded shield with the left. She was the epitome of the Black Knight.
As a high-level Necromancer, Ulysses was a shambling, crowned corpse clad in regal, black and golden tattered robes. More dead than alive, his empty eye sockets crackled with blue fire from beyond. Unlike his fellows, he didn’t carry weapons, focusing on pure magic and the magic rings on his skeletal fingers. Ulysses more than anyone was a consummate role player, and managed to imitate a zombies shambling walk inside the game.
Now that he thought of it, assembled as they were, they looked like an evil version of the classic RPG party: the wizard, the rogue, and the warrior.
And here they were, three badasses facing a poorly defended wooden fort meant for beginner characters. Two lizardmen, miserable reptilian creatures, stood guard at the entrance, squealing in surprise. To their eyes, it was as if the trio had manifested out of thin air.
With a swipe of his rapier, Mathias killed them both at once without a sound. Their corpses fell to the ground, before exploding into a cloud of smoke. Perse smashed through the camp’s barricade while Ulysses began to laugh maniacally, fire swirling around his hands.
Before Mathias knew it, he found the whole camp on fire, the lizardmen in disarray, and himself surrounded by flames, screams, and chaos. Perse was smashing through entire groups of reptilian soldiers with mere swings of her mace, sending the creatures flying upon contact, while Ulysses bombarded the area with magical artillery.
These lizards were level one out of thirty. The whole team was level seventeen.
The monsters never stood a chance. Hell, they couldn’t even inflict damage on their attackers. Their paltry bronze weapons couldn’t pierce his and Ulysses’ magical defenses nor Perse’s heavy armor. Ulysses enjoyed the one-sided clash a lot more than his sister, laughing insanely as he launched fireball after fireball at war tents. After spending weeks getting his ass kicked inside Castle Noirceur, the experience felt cathartic.
Mathias quickly joined in, cutting down lizards with his rapier and casting spells with his free right hand. After a time, he found himself in the zone, unable to think, so focused he was on cutting through enemies. It was no different than playing a first-person shooter, slaughtering one’s way through the game. No tactics or skills needed; only raw predatory instinct.
The sounds of pain of the lizards didn’t bother him.
Because they looked like dragons.
The sound of a phone notification briefly snapped him out of his violent fantasy. “Can you cut your notifications, Matt?” Perse asked. “I can’t focus.”
Mathias raised his glasses, and found a message from a phone number he didn’t have.
UNKNOWN: Hey, it’s Samantha. Samantha Brown.
UNKNOWN: Are you coming Saturday night?