“Are you sure this is the right place?” Ulysses asked from the white, Flux-powered Ford Fiesta’s backseat. He looked pretty uncomfortable wearing a tuxedo for the party, fidgeting next to his sister. Mathias didn’t fare any better, sweating under his suit and gloves.
“I told you that it was like a palace,” Perse chirped. She had dressed astonishingly well for the night, wearing a short, sensual black dress, and holding her red hair together with a blue rose. Even Mathias could only stare. His jaw had even dropped when they had picked the Werners up.
And she had been sitting strangely close to him ever since. It made him… uncomfortable. Not that he wasn’t used to her physical closeness, but… it felt weird tonight. He had even suppressed the urge to fish for information with Network, worrying about the answer he would get.
“That’s an understatement, sweetie,” Vivianne said, sitting at the front seat next to the driver, Mathias’ own father. While they would be out on a friendly dinner on paper, Mathias had noticed she had put perfume on.
—- Viviane made a face in front of the mirror. Had she overdone the eyeshade? Victor had seemed interested, but with the memory of his wife still haunting him, he might pull back if she forced too much —
Yes, Mathias had guessed right. His power took out all the surprise.
“Thanks for driving us, Mr. Martel,” Perse said, as the trio stepped down from the car.
“It’s normal, can’t have her be the one driving you guys all the time,” Victor replied. Mathias would have sworn he saw his father smile in the dark. “You sure your date is here, Ulysses?”
“Yeah, she texted me. She just left the house with her brother.”
“All is good, then.” The parents waved them goodbye before leaving them for their own dinner, the car leaving without making a sound. Mathias had to give credit to Concordia. Clean energy for all devices made for a quiet city.
Mathias dusted himself off, before taking a moment to look at the massive mansion in front of him.
Even from blocks away, the glow of dancing lights and the sound of dubstep music made it impossible to miss the residence. Sitting on a small hill, Mayor Brown’s estate stood out for being out of time. An exotic creamy-white house detailed in a neo-Art Deco style; huge picture windows made up the south and west walls of the house, facing the sea. The immense garden surrounding the place smelled of alien scents; Mayor Brown had imported strange, star-shaped red flowers from another world.
Security was state of the art, of course. An electric fence surrounded the palace, and Mathias noticed surreptitiously placed cameras monitoring them right above the entrance portal. The metal doors opened for them without a word, the automated system recognizing their faces. Two large Bullmen bouncers held guard at the entrance, checking the group’s ID before they could get in.
The party was already on as Mathias walked into the garden, Perse putting her arm around his own in a mock gala gesture. He could see that the place was packed with dozens of students and young faces he hadn’t seen. Almost all of them had gathered around an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Hob servants moved around, serving refreshments and food to the humans present.
— chaotic yet formal; politically correct ambiance for now, won’t last long; energy waiting to be unleashed with the proper incentive —
“Here I go — gotta catch’em all,” Ulysses said, leaving to look for his date among the crowd. He seemed entirely out of place in that gathering, not paying much attention to his surroundings.
“I try so hard to set him up with someone, and this always happens,” Perse complained, then rubbed against Mathias, much to his discomfort and amusement. “Good thing I have the best one on hand.”
Mathias could tell that she enjoyed making him uneasy in front of others. Fortunately, he found a nice distraction, noticing Samantha not too far away.
“Look, they’re setting up a stage.”
Indeed, a small group of boys were busy setting up microphones and drums, under the watchful eye of Samantha and another girl Mathias had yet to meet. Orb-shaped speaker drones flew around them, playing dubstep music, and ready to relay karaoke songs.
“Thank you all,” Samantha thanked the boys, which most of them Network identified as her personal fans. She had dressed superbly tonight, wearing a golden dress that rivaled Perse’s own in sheer flair. “You all get a drink for your hard work when you’re finished!”
“Sam!” Perse shouted, as Mathias and her reached the small group. “Have you brought the guitar?”
“Always,” the singer replied, before putting an arm behind the unknown girl’s waist and pushing her forward gently. “Matt, Perse, here is my penpal, Kari Matsumoto. She just arrived yesterday night.”
Kari was a Japanese teenager, smaller than Mathias. As pale as a ghost, her eyes were a sharp, icy blue, and looked deeply thoughtful. While she kept her black hair cut short; a streak of white hair stood out on the left side of her head. She wore a tight black outfit with long sleeves, that reminded Mathias of a ninja or a cat in the way she walked, looking out of place in the crowd.
“Hi, Kari!” Perse said with a bright, warm smile.
The young woman nodded slightly in traditional fashion. “I am happy to make your acquaintance,” she said with a soft and formal voice, in stark contrast with Perse’s booming exuberance.
— Kari observed the crowd from the shadows, rich investors and big names gathering in support of the Grimsour-Matsumoto acquisition. “Target is in sight,” Toshiyami-sensei said from her earpiece, “Dispatch.” —
Kari’s eyes widened slightly, and her head snapped right at Mathias, like a hunter noticing their prey. The suddenness of the gesture scared the young designer to his very core.
— Kari couldn’t shake this feeling of dread. Even if the dojo was empty and silent, something inhuman watched her, piercing her very soul —
“Hi, Mathias,” Samantha said, interrupting the flow of Network’s information. “Perse, can you take over the stage for five minutes? I need to borrow your date for a little bit.”
“Huh?” Both Mathias and Perse said at the same time.
“It will be quick, I promise.” Samantha took a bewildered Mathias by the other arm with a queenly demeanor that brooked no disobedience. The young man followed her almost on impulse, while leaving a surprised Perse out in the cold.
After leading Mathias near the edge of the pool, she put her arms behind her back. One step and they might fall in the water, where a few boys and girls had already taken to moonlight swimming. “Mathias,” Samantha said, as the two sat at the edge of the pool. “I must tell you something.”
Mathias straightened up, remembering her previous message, as Samantha imperiously snapped her finger, a Hob hurrying to serve them two ceramic cups full of a black substance. “What is it?” he asked, looking into the liquid.
“Moonblack,” she replied, as she took her own cup.
“Moonblack?!” Moonblack was a thick, strong black milk produced by Lord Revel’s fairies in the Sphere of Ar. Concordia’s ban on imported products from rival powers meant a drop was worth its weight in gold.
Mathias brought the drink to his lips, finding the taste sweet and pleasing. The powerful drink filled his palate and head with a rush of energy, not unlike that of a caffeine infusion. He could already feel his focus increasing. “So?”
Samantha inhaled heavily before speaking, “My dad told me today that a representative of the Institute would visit Evermarsh High School by the end of the month,” she said, before smiling brightly. “You and I have been nominated for membership by Mr. Barth.”
“... Oh.” Well, that wasn’t the answer he had expected.
“You don’t seem surprised. Come on, Matt, it’s amazing.”
“No, no, it’s… it’s great, I’m flattered.” His father would be proud.
The Loctis Institute was a prestigious establishment, dedicated to furthering both scientific and magical research for the Concordian Empire. Anton Maxwell, Mathias’ CEO, had attended it, alongside other big names. All those who had attended it became high-ranking members of the regime or achieved societal success.
But the Institute also produced most of the Empire’s war tech, alongside Grimsour Industries. Joining meant putting his intellect into the service of dragons; he would rather design games instead of war machines.
“Nominated being the key word,” Samantha said. “The Institute is very selective. The representative might decide to pick only one of us.”
“And you want me to back out?” He knew she wouldn’t — she craved competition — but he wanted to see her reaction.
Samantha laughed, “Of course not. I’m actually happy that we’re in competition for the spot. I took the nomination for granted, so the risk of losing it spices up my life. Tell me, Matt, do you play chess?”
“I prefer the game of Go,” Mathias replied, putting his cup back inside the drone alongside Samantha’s after finishing. “Chess is direct and offensive, while Go is more subtle, indirect. It fits my mindset better.”
“Maybe we could play a game later? I really want to have a rival I can match wits with. Everyone always plays nice with me, so it’s fun to fight someone that doesn’t hold back.” She took a look around, noticing the stage was set for her music band. “You know, this will probably be my last party in Evermarsh. Afterwards, I’m either going to leave for the Institute or for a big Arc-City. I really wanted to bring everyone together for one last night.”
“You did,” Mathias said with a smile. “Everyone managed to make it.”
“Except Jack.” Her voice was laced with an undercurrent of venom. “He texted me saying he wouldn’t come.”
Mathias paused. He had a pretty good idea where the boy could have gone. “Are you two...”
“I deserved better than a text,” she cut him off, ending the conversation on a foul note.
Perse’s booming voice resonated across the garden, enhanced by the flying drones. “Is this thing on? Sam, Maggie, we’re on! Matt, it’s Terra Firma calling, I can see that you aren’t paying attention! So pay attention, damnit!”
A wave of laughter spread across the audience, snapping Mathias back to reality and bringing joy back to Samantha. She is so going to suffer, he thought, as Samantha laughed out loud and left him to join her friends.
The Evermarsh Skulls, with Perse as guitarist and Samantha as the singer, assembled on the stage, with the various partygoers surrounding them. Maggie Powells, the drummer, would round out the trio.
… Or would have, had she showed up.
Mathias could tell something was wrong from his spot, as Samantha and Perse began to whisper away from the microphone. Eventually, Samantha made a gesture at Kari, inviting her on the scene. The Japanese girl took the drummer’s place, much to everyone’s surprise.
With a trio assembled, and content that Mathias was paying attention to her, Perse gave the microphone back to Samantha. “First of all,” the diva declared, instantly quelling the crowd with her voice.“Thank you all of you for coming tonight. I’ve got a question for you, though.”
She raised her arm above. “Who wants to put Evermarsh on fire tonight?!”
The crowd erupted, raising their arms.
“Then say with me, three…”
“Three!” the crowd roared. “Two! One!”
“Here we go!” Samantha shouted, Perse unleashing a powerful sound as Kari hit the drums.
And the crowd just went wild.
“With bright light…” Samantha sang.
A bunch of boys distributed alcohol cans to everyone, girls took their dates to dance, and small drones circled the property, projecting holograms in the form of a kinetic lightshow.
The Evermarsh Skulls played with their eyes closed, subsumed in a trance. Perse, especially, moved as if possessed, jumping around with her guitar. Her energy spread to the audience, with multiple people jumping on place with reckless abandon. The very ground shook, shook...
“All will be one… for one is never alone…”
Mathias found himself clapping, entranced by the music. Even Ulysses, ever the detached loner, began to smile and jump in place.
— Osmosis achieved; emotional energy spreading; all are one —
But for Mathias, his heart just wasn’t in it. He only had to take a long hard look at the night sky to understand why. The light of the city blotted out the stars, but the full moon shone a bright crimson.
The young man could see the massive, metallic, red-colored structure covering the moon with perfect clarity. He could see the brightness at the center of the construct, the Flux energy pit whose terrible eruptions caused so many deaths.
Damocles. The seat of the dragon authority ruling Earth, the symbol of their domination. The Doomsday weapon that wiped Russia off the map.
How did it feel, to look at that weapon? To wonder everyday whether it would fire, burning your city and those one loved? How did it feel to hold a party under that bloody moon, to forget oneself in booze and drugs and carry on while pretending everything was fine?
It felt awful.
Yet something else bothered him, the seed of a doubt infesting his mind. He had expected Jack’s last minute absence, since he was clearly involved in his father’s plot. But Maggie? His Network insight pointed in the opposite direction. Why would she be absent?
No, they couldn’t go that far. The Powells couldn’t cross that line. They couldn’t...
As the doubt growed, and the implications became clear, Mathias ran away the rave in a hurry.