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“The Red Goblin,” Mathias read the badly painted sign above the shop.

“This is the place?” Kari asked, crossing her arms. From the outside, it looked like those night shops you purchased alcohol from at three in the morning for an afterparty. It seemed both seedy and just plain unremarkable.

With Glass Field on, Mathias could see inside the shop through a smartphone screen, and found nothing remarkable. The hob owner stayed behind a counter, seemingly passing time by playing tarot. No sign of weapons or anything suspicious. Then again, if he had, Concordia would have caught him long ago.

His thoughts turned to Maggie, who hadn’t given any signs of life since she presented herself to authorities. So far though, no one had come to arrest him, so Maggie had kept quiet. He hoped it would last.

‘I’m not going to vanish, Dad.’

“Are you alright, Mathias-san?”

“I’m fine,” he said quickly, without letting a second of doubt show. “I’m magic.”

It didn’t convince her, but she didn’t push the issue.

Kari eventually knocked and entered, while Mathias closed the door behind them. The store was dusty, almost as small as his apartment, and littered with broken smartphone parts. The sheer chaos and neglect in the workshop convinced Mathias not to trust the owner with his own stuff.

The hob owner in question, Booz, looked very old and cramp for his kind, with a vestigial white beard under his mouth, wrinkles, and a broken horn. As hobs kept growing as they got older, he reached almost nine feet in height, hunching like Quasimodo to not hit the ceiling. His crimson, almost brown, skin made him stand out among his kind, alongside the heavy scars covering his hide.

Since he hadn’t bothered to raise his head to welcome customers, Mathias exchanged a glance with Kari. “Booz-san?” she attempted to initiate the conversation. “We came here — ”

“Wait in line, squishies,” the hob cut her off as he drew two cards and put them on the counter. The first, drawn upside down, represented a young boy leaning down and granting a cup filled with flowers to a younger girl, with five other cups in the background. The second showed a naked woman surrounded by a ring of laurels and four mythological beasts. “The Six of Cups reversed, and the World upward. Strong ones.”

Without skipping a beat, his gaze settled on Kari, then Mathias. “Heard of you, squishies.” He looked decidedly unimpressed by his visitors. “Girly told me you were looking for merchandise?”

— “Not interested in who he is,” Booz told the little squishie. “Only if he’s got an eye for quality, and money to spend.” —

At least that hob was the straightforward kind. “That depends on what you offer. I’m not looking for a new smartphone. But I’ve got cash to spend, if you have interesting stuff.”

“Rich prick, are you?” He glared at Kari’s presence. “Girly didn’t tell me you would bring friends. That’s a breach of trust.”

“She’s my business partner.” Kari’s eyes shifted away for a second. “Consider us two parts of a whole.”

Booz raised a finger. “Just this once. Bring a surprise invite again, and no more deals. Rule of the house.” He rattled his throat. “Show you’ve got the cash first. I’m not dealing with amateurs.”

Mathias searched inside his backpack, bringing out a small blue card which Booz grabbed like how a cat pounced on a mouse. Grabbing a card reader beneath the counter, the hob put the card inside, and watched the numbers coming up with pleasure. “Rich prick it is.”

“I thought any business had to be customer centric,” Mathias deadpanned. “You aren’t earning points on niceties.”

“The benefits of local monopolies. You can go to the competition if you want better service.” Mathias crossed his arms at the not so subtle taunt, while Booz typed codes on his cash register. “Checking if the scalies can trace those credits first.”

“They’re untraceable. And I can get a lot more in a short time. Millions.” That was official. If the Empire hadn’t abolished bankers, Scrooge would have been the best of them. A pocket Goldman Sachs.

Eventually, Booz reached the same conclusion, and handed Mathias his card back. “Downloaded the cash before purchase, so no bloody discount, if you see what I mean. You can use that account for future purchases. If you alert the scalies and I have to close shop, you aren’t seeing it again.”

Mathias doubted it would affect his finances long term, but it was fair. At this point neither one trusted the other.

Booz clicked on a button beneath the counter, and before the sound reached his ears, Mathias lost all stimulus coming from Glass Field. It was as if his sight went dark as far as glass were concerned; he couldn’t even sense the smartphones laying around them. He heard the door locking behind them, trapping them inside.

Kari shifted a little, tense. “What have you done?” Mathias asked, a bit disturbed by the sudden loss of his spell.

“Protected us from scryings.” Booz eyed his customer, noticing the unease on his face. “You’re a sorcerer.” It wasn’t a question. “Which major color?”

“Blue, but I dabble in many colors.” Mathias hated that the hob seemed to know more about magic than himself.

— “My mistress is looking for a freelancer, preferably a Blue,” Wormson told him, buzzing beneath his cloak, “If they are powerful and ambitious, I may have an offer for him.” —

So he worked for another client on the side. Mathias would better keep his cards close to the chest for now. At least Booz’s protection couldn’t block Network. “Will it cause a problem?”

“Don’t care who you are, only that you pay and respect the rules.” Booz rattled his throat. “If you want jobs, I got plenty of them for you. There’s always a demand for sorcerers at the Market. Moreso Oranges and Violets, but Blues are appreciated. With the Crimson Epoch approaching, demand keeps going up.”

“Crimson Epoch?” Kari asked.

“Gladiator games held on the Midnight Market every year,” Booz replied with a little disdain, as if he was surprised Kari wouldn’t have heard of them. “Concordia condemned them, but you can watch it on black channels. Lots of power-brokers gather there for business."

“Can get us an entry to the Market, Booz-san?” Kari asked, sensing an opportunity like Mathias.

“I’m a certified Midnight Marketer. I can arrange it, yeah, off the grids. Like everything I sell.”

“So your wares come from —”

“Stolen Grimsour properties, Arcadian reavers, Seeker-made organotech, Nocturne magecraft, traditional human weapons, and anything I can get my hands on. Even spaceships. If you want custom orders, I can get almost anything given time, for the right price. Where do you want the deliveries done?”

“The church in the old part of town,” Mathias said. “How long does it take for the delivery?”

“They’re done the instant they’re purchased.”

“Teleportation? How do you manage that?” Even Concordia had trouble setting it up on Earth.

“Market secret.”

— Booz looked at the gate, its shining purple light filling the cavern. “How long until the scalies find it?”

“Decades,” Zenia replied after setting the last magical protection, a cold chilly wind following her even below the earth. “Or until you stop paying me my license.” —

Ah, that explained it. Since inter-sphere teleportation remained impossible without gates, Booz acquired his merchandise from other worlds, stashed his merchandise on Earth at a secure location, and then teleported it to clients. “Can Concordia track the effect?” he asked.

“Not yet. I will leave Firma in two years or so, too risky afterwards. Too many scans, too many holes patched.” Booz brushed off the subject. “Products will bounce back, though, if you set protections at the delivery location.”

Fortunately or unfortunately neither sorcerers present had any on hands.

Booz put a small, unremarkable golden disc on the table. With a touch, the device revealed itself as a holographic projector, producing a digitalized halo above itself. The light took the shape of a sleek-looking, small gun with bull skulls drawn into the metal itself. “I can show you a lineup, you purchase what catches your fancy. Or you’ve got specific demands?”

“I have another question.” Mathias looked at the hologram, not recognizing the weapon model. “I’m glad you accept credits, but would you consider alternative forms of payment?”

“Some marketers deal in souls, but the Red Goblin doesn’t accept those. Too volatile. Don’t accept service exchanges either. Too many defaults.”

“Not even spells?” Booz raised an eyebrow. “I can empower people with my magic.”

“Cash is king.” The merchant seemed to take mental note of the information though, because he added. “Got a question of my own. Are you only interested in items, or in people, too?”

Mathias froze. “If you’re into creature trafficking, I’m leaving.”

“No, I’m not.” There was a little more emotion than usual from the hob in those three words. “I was thinking mercenaries. They’re our secondary export.”

“Mercenaries? They fight for coin instead of a cause, they’re unreliable.”

“How do you know that?” Kari asked him.

“I created a role playing mini-game based on the Renaissance. You played as a soldier in Cesare Borgia’s army” He could see her losing interest. “I did lots of research. Even Machiavelli advised against using them. Mercenaries aren’t loyal.”

“Those who work for credits aren’t,” Booz said. “The one I’m thinking of, Mur, he’s into enhancements.”

“Enhancements?”

“Mur works to get stronger, not richer. Think he’s got a bone to pick with someone out of his league, and so he’s trying to catch up. Gets paid in weapons or body enhancements, and word is that he’s been looking for magical boosts.”

That could be interesting. “What is he good at?”

“Hitting stuff hard until it stops moving. Very good brawler, and not afraid to fill graves if asked. Great bodyguard too, never betrays his clients’ secrets. Not leadership material, though. If you want smarts, hire a secretary. The scalies put a bounty on him, I don’t think you’ll care, but so you know.”

“Can he take down Gearsmen?” Kari asked, voicing Mathias’ own thoughts.

“He can, and he did. I can arrange a call after we’re done with the merchandise, so you can see for yourself.”

Mathias nodded in agreement. If Mur was on Concordia’s shit-list the Magik user was willing to hear him out. Their burgeoning group needed a heavy hitter. “I’ve got specific demands. Anti-Gearsmen weaponry, state of the art.”

“Going to war, eh? You need a lot of firepower to take down those machines.”

No kidding. Mathias had seen videos online of Gearsmen shrugging off anti-tank weaponry during the Conquest. “What do you suggest?”

“Gearsmen’s components are magically enhanced by Orange spells as part of the mass production process. They’re coated in Orange Flux, which hardens them.”

“The Reinforce spell?” Kari connected the dots. Mathias remembered seeing it among the options available on Magik.

“That’s what you squishies call it? Yeah, that spell. It turns their steel harder than diamond and more flexible than aluminium. You either need an incredible amount of brute force or a rival magical effect to break them.”

“A rival magical effect?” Mathias repeated. “So if I create a laser beam from a spell, it won’t bounce back on their armor?”

“Eh, rookies. Any attack created from a magical effect carries some of the user’s spellcasting power, making it way more potent against other magical effects. So if you create a projectile out of ambient stuff, it will still carry some of your Flux juice. It won’t cancel the Reinforce spell, but it will lessen its effectiveness.”

Which would still be akin to firing at a walking, two-legged tank. Mathias cursed his short-sightedness for not having purchased his own Reinforce spell. “How much non-magical firepower would you need to destroy a Gearsman in one shot?”

Booz smirked. “I think you humans are fond of those lightshow you call ‘nukes.’ I’ve got a few spare ones.”

“Nuclear power. The solution to every problem, as long as you don’t mind the fallout.” Mathias smiled at his own joke, remembering it for later. “Let’s not blow up Evermarsh.”

“Then you need Flux-based weaponry. If you want state of the art weaponry that doesn’t cause too much collateral damage, I've got nothing better than this.”

Booz showed the duo the image of a suit of armor not unlike those from fantasy novels, an intimidating, crimson arrangement of metal plates in the shape of a man. A closer look revealed gears at the joints, and a yellow visor for the eyes. Unlike the Gearsmen’s bulky, rough aesthetic, this machine had a streamlined style. Two triangles of red light particles flickered behind the shoulders, like angel’s wings.

“It’s an old Dragon Trooper armor, Knight-model, nickname Red Knight. An elite jack of all trades, superior to Pawn-models and a middle ground between Bishops and Rooks. Arcadian fairy reavers made a sport of hunting them as trophies, before Concordia introduced the White Queen armor. This specific machine was customized for close combat by the last holder.”

Since Arcadian Reavers were relatively close to human physiology relatively being the key word — a human could easily wield it. Mathias let Booz continue his lecture on the product.

“Main weapon is a Claymore, a sword of solidified pure Orange Flux.” A sword of orange particles sprung from the armor’s right hand, while a large rounded shield of the same material manifested above the left forearm. “Cuts through almost anything that isn’t magically protected, Orichalcos or Invictium metal. It also has a shield of the same stuff. No motorized fight mode like standard Knights, but it comes equipped with Red Flux wings to allow flight. The armor will protect from almost any hostile environment, including space, and comes with its own oxygen supply. It increases the wielder’s strength, enough for you squishies to bench a car.”

“What are the weaknesses?” Kari asked, sounding impressed.

“It offers no protection against mental assaults. Last holder was taken down when a Blue Sorcerer had him remove the helmet and cut his own head off.” Booz sent a glance at Mathias, who smiled back. “Armor recharges by gathering ambient Flux in the atmosphere, so it will perform worse in areas deprived of it, and it’s optimized for close range.”

Mathias wondered about buying it for himself, but years of party management stopped him. While it would offer top notch protection, more than his glass, he lacked the experience and knowledge to use the sword effectively. His magic made him an excellent long range fighter, and he might be better off making purchases reinforcing his strengths rather than poorly covering his weaknesses. “Kari, are you interested?”

“No. Not my style. Too bulky, too noticeable.” Her next words took him by surprise. “Buy it for Solomon-san.”

“Sol? Why would Sol use that?” Mathias found himself strangely defensive. He would look very badass in it, though. “Sol has no combat training.”

“He does.” Kari just looked at him dead in the eyes. “You said we’re business partners. Trust me. Take it for Solomon-san.”

Mathias frowned, but acquiesced, if only to build trust between them. He could always repurpose the armor for someone else. “The cost?” Booz pointed a finger below the hologram as a number came up, and Mathias grimaced. “Six and a half million credits?”

“You wanted state of the art, you’ve got it. Not going to get you a second one without time and significant expenses too. The newer armors are flesh and brain-grafted onto the pilot so removal became a messy business.”

Mathias suppressed a chill at the implications. “What else have you got that’s cheaper?” It would take at least a week for Scrooge to gather the full funds.

“I got a lot that can hurt Gearsmen, from Red Flux Blasters to Orichalcos Spears, but little that can take them out in one shot. I have a Marauder, but it’s ten times costlier than the armor.” As Mathias raised an eyebrow, Booz let out a sigh. “A light, stealthy warship designed for interstellar raids. The bane of Concordia.”

Besides the price, the sheer logistics of holding a spaceship would prove to be a headache. Mathias considered his options, trying to think like Shroud instead of a civilian. When facing a large group of walking tanks, lighter weapons wouldn’t help much; the armor, and more bodies to throw at the machines would. Scrooge could gather enough funds before the deadline to afford the Red Knight.

“We will take the armor,” he decided, “and meet Mur.”

“No delivery until I get paid first.”

“Sure. You should have it before the new moon.”

Booz touched the disc. “Mur. Got a client for you.”

The hologram shifted into a vaguely humanoid shape. But where the Red Knight had been streamlined elegance, the creature facing them through the holo-disc was the very picture of raw strength.

Seemingly made from chiseled amber and black stone, Mur looked a lot like the gargoyles of Sol’s church, although he had traded wings for a long, steel tail grafted into his stony body. The monster’s claws looked like gemstones, as did the teeth. Its eyes, though, were those of a serpent, yellow and oozing savagery. A single, unicorn-like black horn sprung from its forehead.

“A squishie?” Mur’s voice reminded Mathias of a rasping goat. He carried a heavy, fiery warhammer on his back, an item so huge no human could probably wield it. “Who dares bother Mur?”

“A sorcerer,” Booz replied, “who can provide magical boosts.”

The gargoyle’s eyes brightened in interest. “Which kind?”

“First, I would like to know if you can be of use to me,” Shroud replied. “Tell me what you can do, Mur.”

“Mur is a despoiler of worlds. Mur brings pestilence and turns women barren with a glance.”

Shroud smiled at the ridiculous boast. “I am planning to fight Gearsmen. A good dozen of them.”

“Mur destroyed thousands of them throughout the years. Mur can smash them with his bare claws, and they cannot hurt him back. Mur does not ask questions and follows orders, unless they are stupid. Now, what have you got for Mur?”

Shroud stood tall, intent on making a strong impression. “To answer your question, it depends on what you need. I can increase your intelligence, allow to paralyze your foes for a few seconds, give you power over light —”

The Gargoyle began to lose patience. “What do you have that can make Mur stronger?”

Mur looked at his wounds, his tiny leg trailing with his new limp. The humiliation was worse than the pain. Strength was all that matters, he thought, Smarts don’t matter. Friends don’t matter. Only strength.

Shroud took the information Network offered, and checked his Magik account. He quickly found the spell he was looking for.

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.

“I can unlock your body’s full potential, multiplying your strength, removing your ability to feel pain.” Mur’s delighted smirk told him he had hit the mark. “You won’t differentiate friends from foes, though.”

“Mur doesn’t care. How long?”

“Forty-eight hours, after which I must renew the effect if you so wish.”

“Very temporary.” Mur’s face turned deadly serious.

“I’m looking into ways to increase the length, but yes, that’s how long I can manage.”

The gargoyle seemed torn between the opportunity for more power and the logistical considerations. Finally, the first thought won out. “You pay for Mur’s new weapons and replace his current ones if they are lost. Top notch stuff, not junk. You renew your spell all the time while Mur works for you. If Mur is done with you, Mur gets you to cast your spell on him whenever he asks and keep his new stuff.”

“If Mur is done with me, he gets one spell from my repertoire once,” Shroud countered. “If I find a way to let him keep it in the meantime, he will. Mur gets to keep the weapons I bought for him, but if he wishes to leave he must inform me one week ahead.”

“Deal.”

Shroud made a mental note to purchase Berserk later. While he wouldn’t use it on himself, it would provide a nice power boost to selective minions. “Our operation is planned right before the new moon, ten days from now,” Shroud said. “Can you be available for that date?”

“I can teleport Mur to an area you specify, as long as it is not carefully watched by the scalies,” Booz said.

“Mur will be ready,” the gargoyle said. “But you better pay Mur on time, or Mur will eat your face instead.”

Shroud took the threat to heart, as Booz ended the communication. “What do you gain from putting us into contact?” he asked the arm dealer.

“New opportunities. The longer you live, the longer you fight, the more you will need my merchandise.” The creature gave him an ugly grin, as he clicked on a button beneath his counter and ended the shielding protection. “Customer service.”

As Mathias and Kari exited the shop, the latter seemed a bit curious. “You acted like two different people at times,” she said. “One friendly, the other cold and focused. It is jarring.”

“Yeah.” He scratched the back of his head, uncomfortable. “I try to portray a strong mask. It makes me feel confident.”

“No one can fully separate their masks. One will bleed into the other if you keep it up.”

Mathias wasn’t sure if he should take it as encouragement, or as a warning. “Why did you bring Sol up? He agreed to shelter us, not fight. I’m not even sure he can.”

“He can,” Kari shook her head. “Have you seen the way he moves? He wastes no movement, his breath is strong, his posture firmly anchored into the ground. He is strong, and skilled.”

The young man looked back on his memories of Sol, but Kari’s observations were too subtle for him. “He still didn’t agree to fight.”

“He will. An old warrior never puts away the sword.”

Mathias sighed. He hoped her words were a keen insight that eluded him, instead of a delusion. “I hope I can create laser beams powerful enough to take the Gearsmen down. Even with spells I will be vulnerable at close range.”

“I can be your sword,” Kari said. “Protecting you.”

“We should change our names to Sword and Sorcery. That sounds like a good name for a superhero duo.” Mathias crossed his arms. “You never told me what you could actually do.”

“I can do better than tell. I can show. Are you available tonight?”

Somehow, he had the feeling she wasn’t about to suggest a sleepover party.


Party Stats

Spell of the Day

Diceweight

Affinity: Orange
Dot: 1
Price: 3-5
Activation: Active, Direct Touch Vector.

Temporarily increase or decrease the weight of inorganic matter on touch. The more prolonged the contact, the stronger the effect and the longer it lasts.
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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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