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Mathias could scarcely see in the darkness, but the red-eyed lamb could see him just fine.

Trapped in a circle of fire, surrounded by flames, cold winds, and thick darkness, he could only watch the lamb circle him like a predator. The M symbol, bright beneath his feet, felt hot on contact.

The creature looked like an innocent lamb, but with fur as black as coal, and long, cruel horns. His two crimson eyes gazed back at Mathias, two pits of hate and malice, bloodied stars in the darkest sky.

“Do you fear fire, Sweetie?” The voice was masculine and soft, so soft; like poisonous honey. Yet it also sounded transgressive, like that little voice tempting you every time you considered crossing a line. “You should. Fire is pure, unbridled power. It is the essence of life and death. If disrespected, it consumes. If harnessed, though, it brings strength.”

“Blue World,” Mathias replied, no blue flash answering his call. “Glass Field.”

“Silly boy, you are dreaming. You cannot cast spells in a dream.” The lamb licked his lips like a hungry wolf. “Not Blue spells, anyway.”

Mathias tried to open his Magik account, yet the interface refused to show up in his field of vision.

“Mathias, you have sinned against me.” The M sigil beneath Mathias’ feet began to suddenly feel hotter. “Brown was mine. My pawn. An expendable pawn, but my property nonetheless. You had no right to take him off the board so early. This is theft, cattle robbery.”

“Blame that fiery thing,” Mathias replied, realizing that he was talking to an entity similar to that monster from last night.

No. Not similar. The sheer malevolence coming off from that creature dwarfed the fiery fiend like the sun eclipsed a candle. Simply looking in its eyes filled Mathias with primal, existential dread.

That thing was evil incarnate.

“The Candlemaker is my loyal servant. A good king is generous with his subjects. Especially one who will prove so useful, so very soon. You, however...”

Okay, this was bad. If this was a lucid dream, perhaps he could will himself back to being awake. Mathias focused, pinching his arm, to no avail.

“Sweetie, you cannot escape me. You will never wake up until I say so, if you do. If want you to die in your sleep, it will happen. Your soul will forever wander that dark, empty wasteland, never to find release. You will wail in despair, and none will answer. You are at my mercy. So, Mathias, what will I do with you?”

Even Network refused to answer his commands, providing no more information on the entity than its fellow fiend. “Well, you look like the kind to play with your food,” Mathias spoke, trying to fall back on words. “You must have a reason not to have killed me yet.”

“Smart boy. Yes, it would be pity to kill you, when we could be good friends. Pity, pity, pity.” The lamb sat comfortably outside the circle. Somehow, that frail creature’s eerie serenity intimidated Mathias more than the fire monster’s frothing sadism. “Your intervention, while costing me influence over your home city, changed little. I also sense much bitterness and rage in your heart. Ambition too, akin to mine. This pleases me. This pleases me greatly. I can find it in myself the will to forgive you.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Mathias said.

The lamb’s lips raised in an ugly, unnatural grin. “Every sin needs a penance. If you accomplish a task on my behalf, I will consider your debt settled. It’s very simple. Concordia has recently unearthed an artifact of potent power in the nearby swamps. I want you to take it from them, by force or cunning.”

Mathias frowned. “Artifact?”

“An object of great power, whose age surpasses mine. I do not care what it does, simply that Concordia does not have it.” The lamb’s eyes flashed with a yellow glow. “Curse.”

Mathias screamed, his voice drowning in the darkness, as the M symbol burned itself onto his left palm, smelling of coal and dry blood.

“Should the artifact sealed in Evermarsh’s swamp remain in Concordia’s hands by the New Moon, your life shall end with the next sunrise.”

The lamb let out a strange, inhuman sound, like a bellowing laugh. “You had my displeasure, Sweetie, now you have my interest. Enjoy your day. At night, I will be there. Watching.”

Mathias opened his eyes, sweat on his forehead.

What the hell was that dream? He still felt sore at his feet, his throat itchy and dry. Was it subconscious guilt at failing to stop last night’s massacre, his mind tormenting him with nightmares? Or did that monster cast a curse on him?

Trying to clear his thoughts, and grabbing his cell phone on his night table, Mathias rose from his bed with a smile on his face. He loved Sundays.

The happy sentiment lasted until he noticed the M symbol engraved on his palm.

Well, fuck.

Mathias decided to check the Quest board, to see if it had any new additions. Much to his surprise, two new assignments had showed up on it. One of them was a main Quest; the other’s icon was more detailed, with the Network logo added on it. Mathias clicked on the normal Quest first.

The Maleking’s Favor

Difficulty: Dot Two

Sponsor: Romulus.

It is said that the Maleking’s interest is worse than his indifference, and the mark on your hand proves it. However, trouble is the father of opportunity. Steal the artifact recovered by Concordia in Evermarsh’s swamps before the New Moon and free yourself from the Beast’s jaw.

Rewards: Eight Spellcoins.

Failure: Instant Death.

The text said it all. Since yesterday had been the full moon, that left him two weeks to save his hide or die. Gritting his teeth, Mathias decided to check the other Quest, hoping for better news.

Side Quest: New Kid in Town

Difficulty: Dot One

Sponsor: Administrator.

Rome hasn’t fallen to one man, and neither will the dragons. Another player has arrived in Evermarsh, so go and meet them! The more the merrier.

Rewards: Network Upgrade.

Mathias had to reread the message to fully grasp the news. Another Player, in town? After the punch in the gut of the previous quest, the information gave him hope. If he could find a partner, he would feel so much safer. What happened last night had opened his eyes to the dangers of fighting solo.

The Quest didn’t tell him how to meet this particular person though. The forums? Mathias thought, moving further into his browser and opening the message list.

When he saw a public conversation called “Evermarsh Meeting,” by ‘Yoshikage,’ he realized that the mystery person had acted faster. He immediately opened the feed.

YOSHIKAGE: hello. Seen a Quest on my board encouraging Players in Evermarsh to meet. When and where?

Mathias began to type his answer, before wondering which meeting place he should set. Magik was a secure system, protected from the authorities, yet he knew nothing of the other Player. He decided to play it safe and put the GPS location of Dynamis’ gaming park in the feed.

SHROUD: hello. Would be happy to meet. Why not at this place tonight, midnight?

 The answer came almost immediately.

YOSHIKAGE: no need. I’m here.

Mathias frowned, yet the other person on the line didn’t elaborate. Weird.

He had also noticed the main quest’s sponsor wasn’t the Administrator this time, but someone called Romulus. How had it known about the curse so soon? The more he thought of it, the more the young man was convinced Magik’s mysterious owners could observe him anytime.

Moving into the apartment’s main room while waiting for an answer, Mathias noticed his father was absent. Checking his phone, he noticed two calls from him, and dialed back. Dad quickly answered. “Hi son, I stayed at Viviane’s place last night since we finished late.”

“Ohhhhh,” Mathias replied with a smirk.

“Not what you think,” Victor protested weakly. “Just a friendly sleepover.”

— Victor looked at Viviane, as she parked the car right next to her house. Clearly, her children hadn’t returned home from that party, leaving them alone. “So…” Viviane trailed, trying to put into words what was both on their mind. “Want to snuggle?” —

Mathias suppressed a choked laugh on his end of the line. Note to self, Network worked over long distance conversation. “Right, right.”

“I sense much sarcasm on your end.” Victor grunted uncomfortably. He probably didn’t wish for Mathias to believe he betrayed Mom’s memory by looking for outside comfort. “I’m not coming home today. Have you looked at the news? We’ve got a sorcerer in town.”

What? Did Maggie get caught? No, or else he would have been apprehended by now. “No, I just woke up,” Mathias said, as he moved to prepare himself some coffee. “A sorcerer? Like real magic?”

“Yes. Concordia even sent one of their own to investigate, a big shot from the Blue Ministry.” Mathias froze at the information. Victor sounded as excited as a child on a Halloween trick or treat spree. “But that’s not all. They identified the ringleaders of the kidnapping spree. Mayor John Brown and chief of police Henry Powells. You heard that right.”

“That’s… that’s terrible news. Why do you sound so happy?”

“Because nobody will vanish anymore,” Victor replied, “Apparently both were neutralized, although I don’t know the details. Also, I’m happy because Lord Smokefang asked me for an interview, since I sounded the alarm first.”

“Today?”

“Today. I will be on national holo-TV at twelve-thirty.” Mathias hung back to digest the news. A national holo-TV broadcast was a huge deal, a once in a lifetime chance for a small time journalist like Dad. “I’m making my way there as we speak. Check the news, son, it links up with my own investigations.”

“Of course I will!” Mathias marked a pause. “But be alright, okay? Dragons are…”

“Dragons are dragons, yes.” Victor switched the subject. “I got the news on your improved grades by the way. Your teacher said it was meteoric. Guess your hard work paid off. I can’t tell how proud of you I am, son. She would be proud, too.”

Yes, she would. She had been an academic star back in the day. “Thanks, Dad.”

“How was your own party, by the way? No, scratch that, you can tell me yourself when I get home. Gotta go, Gearsmen ahead. Love you.”

“Love you, Dad.” Mathias said as the phone call ended. Sitting around the kitchen table, Mathias checked the news on his phone. As expected, Concordia had quickly put an information ban on official channels until the noon broadcast. Blogs and forums spoke of a fire at the chemical plant, and Gearsmen raids at various houses in Evermarsh. Mathias recognized Brown’s mansion on the list. He hoped Samantha would be fine.

Come to think of it, did his friends come home safe?

“Good Morning, Mathias-san.”

The glass cups in his kitchen flew around him like a defensive ring, while he himself leaped back. Stepping out from a corner of the room, Kari Matsumoto walked in, eerily calm.

How the hell did she slip in? He should have heard her close in, or seen her through his glass sight. And damn, he had revealed his magic right in front of her, and she hadn’t even moved! She just observed the flying glass with vague interest, as if… as if...

“You’re the other Player,” Mathias realized, Kari nodding. “How long?”

“Hours.”

Hours? Had she been watching him sleep? “How did you get in?” Mathias asked, his drinking glasses still floating around him. “The door was closed.”

“I climbed through a window. You left it open.”

He scowled. “We are on the seventh floor.”

“Yes.”

— Slipping in the dead of the night, her hands sticking to the walls like a spider, Kari peeked through one window, seeing the boy sleeping in his bed, struggling with a nightmare. His body reeked of a dark, invasive aura; a malicious spirit assaulted him in the dreaming world. “Ward,” she whispered as silently as a ghost as she cast a spell. A yellow, glowing circle formed around her hand and spread through the wall, surrounding the bedroom. The malicious aura pushed past her protection, unaffected. The spirit that held him was stronger than her magic. So strong, it hadn’t even noticed her.

Moving around the wall, Kari noticed an open window, leading to an empty bedroom. The co-owner of the house had left it open to let fresh air in, giving the hunter a chance to move inside. Breaking inside the apartment without a word, she waited in the dark for the boy to wake up. —

“You are doing it again,” Kari said with a frown.

She could sense Network activate. “You’ve been here the whole night?” And Glass Field didn’t warn him; either his spells didn’t work while asleep or the nightmare had clouded his mind. “And you cast a spell on me?”

Her eyes betrayed her surprise at the second allegation. She looked at a chair in front of him. “May I sit, Mathias-san?”

Mathias couldn’t believe that she would break into his house, only to ask for permission to sit. He nodded, somewhat reluctant. Even if she had helped him more than once, someone moving inside his home without warning nor invitation creeped him out.

“The spell,” she said softly, her voice calm and serene as she sat in front of him, “A malicious entity attacked you in your dreams. I warded your bedroom against spiritual intruders.”

A flash of red eyes sent a shiver down his spine. “It didn’t work.”

“No.” Kari sounded sincerely sorry. “Its magic overpowers mine. It is strong. Stronger than any Yokai I have ever seen.”

Yokai. Mathias remembered the Japanese called demons and spirits by that name. Could that explain why Blue World had failed to affect him? If the girl told the truth, then it meant ghosts and demons existed. After a dragon invasion, he could only believe her. “Thanks,” he finally said. “I don’t forgive you for breaking into my home, but I appreciate the protective gesture.”

Kari silently acknowledged his words. “You are a Player, too.”

It wasn’t a question. “I am a Blue Player. You’re a Yellow one, am I right?” He guessed so, since she had knowledge of spirits.

She kept a poker face, her body language almost unreadable. Network’s nudging instinct told him he had guessed right. He could almost read her train of thoughts, trying to see if he could use spells to read her mind or history. “Is that a Blue power that you used before?”

“You sensed it at the party, is it not? That’s how you suspected me.”

“Yes. I asked Samantha about you and found your address.” She sounded vaguely displeased. “I do not like it. It makes me feel on edge.”

“Neither do I like your breaking and entering.” Mathias guessed that trying to blame the eachother wouldn’t lead anywhere, and decided to settle things. “I can’t completely turn my power off, but I will try to repress it in your presence. In exchange, I ask that you respect my privacy.”

“Okay.”

“So why are you here? You want a team-up?”

She nodded in confirmation. “Alone we are weak. Together we will grow strong.”

“Agreed.” The opposition could use magic even better than them, and they needed to cover one another. “I gotta check something first. What’s your goal? Your mission?”

“My mission?” she repeated the word, as if trying to translate it in her native language, “I want to free my country from invaders and their influence. To grow strong enough to do so.” She paused for a short while. “And to know who I am.”

Mathias raised an eyebrow, expecting her to elaborate. Instead, the Matsumoto girl crossed her arms, and the young man realized he wouldn’t get more on that front, the subject making her uncomfortable. He suppressed the urge to use Network for answers. “Okay. I can respect that. I’m planning to take on the dragons myself, so that makes two of us.”

“More than two.”

Yes. He doubted they alone had received the email invitation. The fact the wheel had seven colors and they fit two different ones implied other users embodied the remaining colors.

His phone buzzed, interrupting the conversation. Mathias exchanged a glance, Kari turning her eyes away and giving him some privacy. The boy checked the caller.

Perse.

“Yes?” he said, answering the call.

“Matt, you treacherous fox, thank God you’re alive!” Perse sounded positively relieved. “How dare you leave in the middle of the night and leave me hanging out to dry?”

Mathias winced at the accusation. “Sorry.”

“No, you’re not sorry!” She cut him off, worry in her voice. The strength of her emotions took Mathias back. “Maggie, Jack, and Kari are missing! There’s Gearsmen crawling all over Sam’s place! They put her in custody, and I can’t talk to her… and you didn’t answer my messages all morning! Where the hell are you?”

Holy hell, she sounded like she was in a state of shock. His heroic instincts kicked in. “I’m at my place. Perse, where are you? I’ll come as soon as I’m dressed.”

“No, no, don’t come, it’s okay.” Perse, who had otherwise always remained confident, sounded so lost and confused. “I’m at Sam’s place, I stayed the night there. The tinfoils won’t let me leave yet. They won’t let you get in. They just keep staring.”

Mathias cursed himself for not being able to help his friend. “Perse, it’s okay, everything will be okay. I’m here. Is Ulysses with you?”

“In another room. I can’t talk to him, either. Matt, the news… you’ve read the news?”

“I’ve heard of an incident at the chemical plant.”

“You think it’s linked? Maggie doesn’t answer when I call her, neither does Jack either. You think-”

“Perse, stop,” Mathias cut her off, before she could overthink things and spiral further into anxiety. “Perse, take a deep breath, a long deep breath. You’re strong. You can take it.”

Thankfully, she took his advice to heart and tried calming down. “Okay, okay, sorry, I… I have a lot on my plate right now. I really wish you were here.”

“I’m here, Perse. Always will be.” She was still in desperate need for good news. “Look, it’s not as bad as it sounds. I can’t say anything for Jack or Maggie, but Kari is fine. She’s right in front of me. So maybe the others are fine, too?”

Perse’s following, heavy silence told him he may have made a terrible mistake. “Perse? Perse, are you okay?”

“You said you were at your place. She is at your place.” Her tone had turned flat. “You brought her home.”

The wording made him pick up on the implications. “This isn’t what you think.”

A heavier kind of silence followed. “I believe you.” She didn’t. Damn, he felt some empathy for his dad right now. “I gotta go. Kiss.”

“Wait, Perse-” She ended the call before he could finish his sentence. He tried to call her back twice but to no avail. Why did she react that way? Even if he had brought Kari, why would it bother her so much?

Wait, could she be?

No, Mathias, you’re overthinking things. You really are overthinking this. Perse is just in emotional distress and overblowing events.

A text message provided a welcome diversion from that train of thought.

SOL: Hello young man, I would like to have a word with you at my church about your choice of acquaintance. We can have tea while watching your father’s interview. Peace be with you, Solomon.

So, Maggie had reached the church safely. Nice. Mathias did notice the hidden message; Sol wasn’t comfortable using devices that Concordia might spy on, instead wishing for a face to face meeting. “I have to go,” he told Kari. “Will you come? We can discuss things in the meantime.”

The young woman answered with a sharp nod, words manifesting under his eyes right afterward.

Side Quest: New Kid in Town, completed!

You gained the Grant Spell feature. You can now grant the use of one of your spells, to anyone, as long as they remain affected by your Network ability.

He had the feeling his life just got a lot more complicated.


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Void Herald

Bio: I'm a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending half my time writing and the other half managing magical websites. I post Magik Online on my main website and RR both on Wednesday, and Vainqueur the Dragon twice to thrice weekly.

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