The human called a glass cup to his hand, playing with it like a monkey discovering fire. Sometimes, the human looked at empty space, as if reading a text only he could see. He had behaved similarly at Dynamis, the day he started exhibiting the first signs of his strange behavior.
The watcher replayed the recording, adding Flux sensors over it. Through his Metalmesh spell, he moved inside the holo-video as if physically there, sitting right in front of the Martel.
Sparkles of Blue and Orange meshed together, taking hold over all glass in the apartment. Such a horrible, crude, yet awe-inspiring sight. The watcher replayed it again, trying to understand.
Even his Accel Premium Thoughts-enhanced mind couldn’t grasp the mechanics behind the new spell. He doubted their researchers or UBs would do better, even if he had ordered full psychometric analysis of the Martel’s apartment.
Maybe Loctis could uncover this mystery. The watcher made a note to forward these samples to him.
The Green Minister had already started looking into the Evermarsh UB. Loctis thought he had made his organotech impervious to attack, and he obsessed over design flaws. Its blackout had hurt his pride, and he would stop at nothing to remove that defect.
The watcher admired his work ethic, his pure, simple search for perfection. The same drive that animated him.
He chose another recording, more recent. The Martel spoke with the Matsumoto deviant, conspiring.
“You’re the other Player. How long?”
“You are a Player, too.”
“I am a Blue Player. You’re a Yellow one, am I right?”
Player. That word came back often. Was it a code for sorcerer? The Martel boy had worked in the gaming industry; as the leader of his gang, he must have chosen their inside terminology. To outsiders, they must have looked like people talking about a new virtual reality plot instead of plotting terrorist activities.
Yet as far as they knew, the Martel hadn’t been in communication with the other deviant before they met. No trace of chats, messages, or email. Kresnik’s report mentioned the Shroud could communicate with his group without radio interception. How long had he been doing that, without them noticing?
He had noticed strange signals perturbing Dynamis’ servers the night the Martel started behaving abnormally, staring at a blank computer screen. They had vanished off from records before he could investigate.
The watcher exited the recording, moving inside his network’s database as if walking through a library. He looked at the various samples in the Mathias Martel file.
M. Martel, first day in Evermarsh. M. Martel, HR meeting at Dynamis. M. Martel, first hacking attempts. M. Martel, seventeen years birthday party. M. Martel, first kiss with Persephone Werner.
Two years worth of continued surveillance.
The watcher knew the Martel better than he knew himself; he knew his blood type, O+, and his favorite ice cream flavor, citrus-chocolate with cranberry. He knew the Martel loved girls with heart-shaped face with long hair and to put obscure Disney references in his games.
There were a few holes, though. While they have had the church under watch for a while, Booz’s anti-scrying measures had interfered with his magic, leaving what happened to Maggie Powells, Murmur the Imp, and Solomon a mystery. As far as the watcher knew, they had entered the building and walked out sorcerers. The church’s destruction also made further psychometric investigation difficult.
The events in the Arc-City, from the Martel’s spellcasting to the murder of Smokefang, hadn’t been recorded either due to the UB bugging. He guessed the boy had somehow contacted the Werner family since he had left Evermarsh without attempting to see them one last time. He would send a mindbreaker to examine their memories.
Since they could not record dreams either, the Martel’s interactions with the Maleking remained a mystery. The two had made contact, with the archdemon marking the human with a Curse, before lifting it after the artifact theft.
That had been one of the two alarm signals the watcher had received, after the first time his check-up scrying caught the Martel practicing sorcery. It had been a cause for concern at first, but he had decided against acting.
The Maleking ignored the boy’s true purpose—or he would never have let him go this easily—and the Ministry getting involved would have tipped the archfiend off.
Aster, Blue Minister of Concordia and head of Imperial Intelligence, always played with his cards close to his chest.
With a thought, he compiled the case and forwarded it to Grandmaster Wyrde. With the Occult Matrix planned absorption, he now had undeniable proof the Terminal project succeeded, and that the fish had taken the bait.
So far, while facing a few deviations, his plan remained right on track. The Grandmaster would be pleased.
Aster remained inside his machines instead of returning to his flesh. He rarely used his body anymore; it was a useful carrier for his brilliant mind to interact with the physical world, yet also so limited. Aster preferred to exist as distilled will inside his computers, a phantom unrestrained by the physical world.
A famous Dot Five spell, Infoform, could do exactly that, turning the caster into immaterial information. Aster himself had yet to achieve that power, although he trained tirelessly to unlock that spell. One did not become an archmage overnight.
One day though, he would succeed, casting off his flesh to become a sublime, perfect existence; the apex of Blue Sorcerers, a mind without limits. Every camera in the Empire would become his eyes. He would suffer no hole in his reports anymore, everything would run on time, and no enemy of the state would escape reeducation.
Alas, such a future was beyond him. For now.
His mind moved to other incoming files from Terra Firma.
Suspected sorcerers cases in the American Protectorate. Monster attacks and attempted dragonslaying in the Amazonian Protectorate. Spell-Encoded goods black market in Neo York. Dragon Governor of Europe Pie Prank. Suspected Sorcerer Rainbow in Johannesburg.
Such alarms had risen in the last few weeks, enough to attract Aster’s personal attention. While on the surface little cause for concern and isolated cases, the Minister could see a greater design, a single will pulling the strings.
And, the biggest mystery, how could a whole group of sorcerers rise in Evermarsh without attracting notice? The Minister sensed these events were but the tip of the iceberg, a sign of chaos to come on Terra Firma.
The true enemy had made its move.
They would crush it like the rest. The flesh may live and die, but the Empire would last forever.
Aster opened communications with multiple people, screens manifesting around his data self. With Accel Premium Thoughts, he exchanged with his officers around the entire Imperial space simultaneously. Taking reports, distributing information, ordering arrests, interrogations, and ‘accidents.’
Kresnik’s feed warranted a little more attention than usual though. “A leave?” Aster repeated.
John Kresnik never took an administrative leave in his entire, century-long career. If he used all the days he accumulated, the werewolf could take a whole Imperial year off.
A look at the scar beneath his jaw told Aster why. “You wish to pass the White Dot Four accreditation?”
“Yes, Minister. I would like to be transferred to the training center on the Homeworld.”
His surprising defeat had shaken the lycan to the core. For years, Kresnik had remained undefeated thanks to a combination of his magic and his native lycan abilities. He had danced with death many times, but defeat at the hands of an untrained group of sorcerers awakened some deep-rooted doubts about rusting skills.
“I need to focus on training one hundred percent,” Kresnik explained himself. “I cannot serve the Empire at my current level.”
Minister Aster disliked people. Their noxious blather bothered him, distracted his thought-processes, wasted his time. Citizens should be like Gearsmen, obeying without question. Obedient, manageable, efficient.
Kresnik being the closest to that ideal, Aster had a soft spot for him. He respected total dedication to the Imperial cause. “Request granted.”
The lycan gave him a salute, and Aster closed his feed, focusing on the next, more problematic one. “My condolences for your son’s loss,” he said without meaning it. Aster had found that flesh-beings took it badly when he forgot those wasteful social niceties.
“He couldn’t even shoot straight.” Blackcinders sounded cold, but Aster didn’t need Blue Sorcery to notice the sorrow and anger underneath. The Martel had made a deadly nemesis when he killed Smokefang.
He tried to push her in a more manageable direction. “We could use the Werners as hostages. While the Martel left them behind, reports indicate they were close. Humans are social creatures, or so I heard.”
Blackcinders looked at him with contempt. “Your ploys cost me my son. You had your chance.”
So narrow-minded. “I still have. While the plan isn’t progressing exactly as I intended—”
“I do not care about your plan anymore,” Blackcinders cut him off, fury in her eyes. “He killed my son, spilled my blood, declared war on dragonkind. I want him dead, and his little group too. I already issued a bounty for them.”
If he had been using his body, Aster would have sighed.
Why did people let dead meat obscure their judgment? Emotions were such a base weakness. The Blue Minister never suffered from that defect, even during his childhood on Mazeworld. Never saw the difference between things and people, never shed a tear at members of his herd dying.
Other bullmen thought him defective, apathetic, but Grandmaster Wyrde thought otherwise. She saw in his mind the pure, untainted logic she wanted for her head of information gathering. The cornerstone of stability needed to balance out her Ministers’ eccentricities.
In the end, it always fell to him to keep the Imperial ship afloat. Only through total discipline, could the Grandmaster’s perfect world be achieved.
Aster would not let anything, or anyone, get in the way of his master’s vision.
“I cannot cooperate with you on that front,” he told his colleague. “We still need him alive.”
“I never expected you to,” Blackcinders replied, before abruptly cutting communication. She always did that, to control interactions. It made her feel powerful when it only revealed her fear.
Aster waited a few seconds, pondering the situation. His Premium Thoughts-enhanced mind considered a myriad of possible futures.
Unlike Blackcinders, Aster understood the value of patience. A good trap was like wine; you may have to wait years for it to bear fruits, but the effort would pay off.
The Martel trap had yet to activate, which meant the true enemy hadn’t contacted the boy directly yet. That was why he hadn’t sent a mindbreaker to pick his brain open, nor lifted a finger to intervene. Everything the boy hid, Aster would learn in time.
Smokefang’s murder, a minor rebel movement rising on a forgotten border world, those mattered little to the Blue Minister, who played a game spanning trillions of lives and countless worlds.
The destruction of a Dot Five enemy though was worth almost any price; he would gladly sacrifice a thousand Smokefang to achieve that goal. Strike at the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter.
That was why the short-sighted Red Minister couldn’t be let into the Grandmaster’s greater plans. An orbital cannon in dragon form, she lacked subtlety. Suitable to crush the Empire’s enemies with intimidation and brute force, but improper for indirect strategies.
While the Martel’s behavior couldn’t be ignored, the long-term gains in keeping him alive greatly outweighed the short-term gains of killing a rebel.
He could not let Blackcinders remove the boy from the board until they caught the true enemy.
Reaching a decision, he opened a new communication channel. The Blue hologram of an armored woman showed up inside his data network. “Melusine, the human Terminal—”
“I know, Minister Aster.” His elite agent always was one step ahead, but she usually let others finish their sentences out of politeness. Not this time. “Where did he go?”
“The Flux signature indicates the Midnight Market.” He would have offered more information, but that intergalactic black market had strong protections against scrying.
No matter. He had already deployed Melusine there to deal with a local, rebel-loving warlord. Time to solve two problems with one laser shot. “Blackcinders issued a bounty on his head and will send death squads after his group. She may come after him herself.”
He hadn’t bothered bringing his top agent into the matter while Smokefang lived. Unlike her incompetent son, though, Blackcinders would kill the Martel boy if left unchecked. She was lethal, vicious, and relentless.
“Find and protect my asset,” Aster ordered his agent, even if he didn’t need to. “This takes priority over the Shadow Queen’s assassination.”
“What about the others?”
“Kill them all.” Only the Martel was necessary, and perhaps it would force the true enemy into action to protect its own assets. “You have my support should you ask for it.”
Melusine ended the communication with a nod. She wouldn’t botch this one. Too personal.
Aster received a priority request. Anton Maxwell. “Report,” the Minister asked, as the feed opened.
Anton stood next to another of his kind. “Minister Aster, I would like to introduce you to—”
“Samantha Brown.” He had a file on her.
He had a file on everyone.
“What of her?” Aster asked. The girl remained silent, intimidated, and still reeling from the latest events.
“I believe she could be of use for the Martel case.” A case Maxwell had been heavily involved in since the boy had applied to his company. “She says she could convince him to turn around.”
Dubious. While reports pointed at physical attraction from the Martel towards the Brown lifeform, his newest psych analysis indicated that, with the loss of his bearings, the sorcerer would probably escalate. Just as he left the Werners behind, he would pay little mind to childhood crushes, sacrificing such trivial matters for the pursuit of power and revenge.
Would he not turn that drive against Concordia, Aster would have considered it an improvement. Too many people made hormone-based decisions. “I do not believe it.”
Aster held a better trump card anyway.
Before the Minister could tell Maxwell off for wasting his time, the Firman made another proposal. “Then I would like to recommend her for the Institute.”
Ah, yes. With the Martel now an open renegade, they were one candidate short. Although Aster didn’t select institute members, with Brown’s dubious affiliations, his approval was necessary. “Leave us alone.”
Anton nodded and vanished from the feed. The Brown straightened up, stressed out.
Good. Minister Aster had found humans more pliable when isolated.
“Minister Aster, it is a great honor to meet such a—”
“Make your case,” he cut her off to destabilize her, “You have five minutes.”
The Brown adapted, taking a strong poise. “I want to say I have nothing to do with my parents’ crimes, nor the attack on my home. Jack… Jack was a traitor who…” Her skin paled, and sweat fell from her forehead.
“Jack Powells tried to kill you.” Aster had a direct feed to that same person—if Powells could be called one anymore—sitting in a cell on Electon; his Flux drained so as to prevent him from casting spells.
The Maleking promised power to its recruits, and somehow bound the Candlemaker, a fire elemental, to a human being. The Minister thought those events connected and had asked Electon’s researchers to study the Powells’ biology as soon as possible.
Jack turned his head at an empty spot in his cell, with absolute focus. It was subtle, but the Minister noticed. As if he were listening to something only he could see.
… or someone.
Now that he thought of it, it seemed odd the Maleking would waste a sorcerer asset to attack civilians. The demon may revel in whimsical chaos and mindless violence, but it played for higher stakes.
Had it expected his pawn to get caught?
Aster would ask his staff to look at Powells more closely than other prisoners, send mindbreakers to read his thoughts. While he may overthink it, he wouldn’t take any chances. Only the paranoid survived.
“I do not believe you have anything to do with your parents nor Powells’ crimes.” Although he worried about her poor choice of company. “Neither did you know of Mathias Martel’s true allegiance.”
“No, I did not.”
“Others may think otherwise though. The cost of surrounding yourself with rebels and murderers. So tell me, why should I give you the benefit of the doubt?”
Samantha Brown took a deep breath. “I want to redeem myself.” Aster listened intently, forcing the Brown to speak to fill the silence. “I want to clean the Brown name, prove to the Empire that I am not a criminal. I want to put my mind to the service of the greater good.”
“Good to hear. Now, tell me the truth.”
The Brown reeled from the rebuke, realizing that no lies nor politically correct stance would gain his favor. He could divine her thoughts without needing to read her mind; her hesitation at whether she should word her true intents in a pretty way, or go for coarse honesty.
“Do you believe in evil, Lord Aster?” Coarse honesty.
“No,” he replied. There was no enemy he couldn’t reeducate into a good citizen, given time.
“I didn’t either until I saw Jack again. When he transformed into that… that thing, I understood I had been mistaken. There is evil in our world, Lord Aster. It must be cleaned away.”
Her voice betrayed a familiar kind of self-righteous anger. Aster had a strong sentiment of déjà vu.
“I almost died.” Her voice broke a little at that. “Close friends almost died, and one went mad because I didn’t call the alarm on Jack and my dad when I should have had. I want a second chance.”
Others would have labeled her a deluded martyr or a glory hound, but Aster saw something in her. A deep, despairing need to prove herself. A potent, exploitable drive.
While the Minister looked down on emotions, they could be good tools if properly wielded. Especially to move the flesh around. “Granted.”
“I want—” She stopped herself. “Granted?”
“You will join the Institute with my blessing, and have your second chance. If you apply yourself, work hard, and prove your loyalty, you will get the fame and protection you deserve from Concordia. The Empire takes care of its wards.”
That easily? she must have thought.
No, not that much. “But you will work for me first. If I want you to sell your body to trap the enemy, you will; if I want you to kill, you will; if I want you to put a bullet through your head, you shall pull the trigger.”
Her eyebrows creased the further the Minister spoke. “I expect nothing less than total, uncompromising obedience from now on, and I shall brook no secret from you. You will belong to Concordia body and soul.”
The Brown took his words in, weighting them down. “Can I still sing?” she asked.
An odd request. “Only the truth. The Imperial truth.”
She doubted, and looked ready to waver, yet made the right choice nonetheless. “I swear it, Lord Aster… I shall do as you say.”
“Then dismissed,” he replied, before ending the communication. He would wait and see if the Brown would prove useful. If so, he could cultivate her into a good asset. He had made that speech to Melusine not long ago, and it had proven a worthwhile investment.
As for the rebels, he would allow them the illusion of freedom for a little longer, let them hope.
It would make snuffing it out all the more effective.
Spell of the Day
Activation: Active, Voice Vector.
Invites an Outsider from another plane of existence and whose true name the user knows to teleport to their location; the target cannot be located on the user’s plane when the spell is cast. The Outsider instinctively knows who the caller is, can choose to refuse the call, and is under no compulsion to obey any order.