Quest, Night of the Hunters, fulfilled!
Melusine had never shown up in person and would live to bother them another day.
“No, I do not think this will be necessary,” Shroud said, massaging the bandaged space where his left arm should be. He could still feel a phantom sensation of his lost limb.
“Your flesh was erased at the impact point, so parts of your bones and flesh are missing,” Stitch replied. “Also, the sorcery used interferes with the healing process at the damage point. Grafting a new arm would be the easier solution.”
“Grafting a new arm, yes. A human arm.”
“I dunno, nerd, you would look less like a girl with a werewolf arm,” Maggie mercilessly taunted him.
Shroud glanced at the skewered remains of Lyber, whom Stitch had laid on an operating table in his workshop. The undead scientist had tried convincing him to have the corpse’s arm grafted on to him for the last ten minutes. All in all, the disastrous night had just interrupted the recruitment process for a few hours.
Shroud looked at his gathered team. Mur had grown into a bigger fiend than he used to be, apparently through a Hack; and much to his surprise, Sol didn’t look horribly disgusted at the sight. In fact, he seemed more at ease around Mur.
— Mur had saved his life, Solomon thought. While the cynic within him remained convinced he did it to save his own hide, the priest thought that, perhaps, the fiend may not be as corrupt as he thought. He had given a chance to many sinners; maybe he should show kindness to this one. —
The flash of Network, the confirmation that his power had returned to him, filled him with joy. Finally, his group was coming together. As for Kari, she had chosen to remain on the roof alone. He would visit her after this mess was dealt with.
“I also have demonic pincers, troll arm, ghoul…” Stitch continued.
“Why not a robot-arm?” Maggie said. “Like in sci-fi movies?”
“My Heal spell will not work on cybernetics,” Shroud pointed out pragmatically.
“Doctor Stitch, can you not repair Mathias’ arm and bind it again?” Sol suggested.
“As a professional, I cannot in good conscience regraft an arm polluted by corrupt sorcery; I believe even that little brush may result in side-effects.”
Shroud frowned, Stitch guessing his thoughts. “Pandorians’ abilities remain a mystery for most,” he explained. “But from my understanding, much like radiation, sorcery always leave something behind. Both you and Miss Matsumoto were targeted by many of its spells.”
He felt fine so far, armlessness besides. “I’m good.”
“Then I do not understand, why would you not want a perfectly functional wolf arm?”
“Sentimental reasons,” Shroud deadpanned.
“I could use my Lock,” Sol said. “Aegis seems made for situations like this.”
Now that it came to his mind, Shroud never checked what Sol’s lock actually did. He took a look at the man’s Magik Account.
Aegis: You can take on the negative effects of spells affecting someone whom you touch. The effects are transferred to you and you suffer until the end of their duration, but the other person no longer does.
Self-sacrifice incarnate. How appropriate. However, Sol absorbing the same sorcery that created a monster like Toshiyami sounded like a terrible idea. “Don’t you have anything human-looking?” Shroud asked the medic.
Stitch let out an overlong, heavy sigh which was clearly theatrical since he didn’t have lungs… Wait, wait, how could the wight even make that sound without those? “I can clone your original arm while removing the defects inflicted by the black sorcery,” the doctor proposed. “Then regraft it. It should take a few minutes.”
“Wait, you’re cloning the nerd, mad scientist-style?” Maggie asked, suddenly interested. Solomon crossed his arms as if offended.
“The arm,” Stitch said. “No need for more meat, unless you want spare organs, and I did not notice any other medical problem besides a lack of vitamin D. I would suggest sunbathing.”
Shroud didn’t comment on the last part. “And there will be no other side-effects?”
“Of course not.”
— He hated lying to patients, but he had no patience for hypochondriacs. —
Damn it. Shroud guessed that was about as good a deal as he could get. “Okay.”
“Good. I need to tune my cloning vat, so you have a few minutes before I turn off your pain receptors for the operation.”
“Thank you,” Shroud said, before shifting on his chair. “You’ve exceeded my expectations. I think you may have a place among us.”
“Doctor, if you could excuse us for a moment,” Sol said, leading Shroud, Mur, and Maggie out of the workshop and into the hall. Even with Heal, Shroud felt diminished and sick, enough to use Glass Field to help lift himself up.
“Among us?” Maggie repeated. “Minion, or us, us?
“One of us, as our Green or our Violet,” the Guild Moderator replied. “Probably the Green. He risked his life… death… whatever, against Lugh and Toshiyami. We also need a field medic.”
“One who doesn’t rely on sorcery,” Sol said grimly. “What happened back there?”
“Someone interfered with Kari and mine’s Locks.” And from what he had heard, Maggie and Mur’s, too. This implied a large area of effect of some kind. “A fifth attacker, who announced herself as Melusine from the Blue Ministry.”
“Concordia,” Solomon said, with a hint of anger. “They may strike again anytime.”
“The effect seems to have vanished from my Network feed, but yes, we must take into account someone able to negate our Locks from a very long-range is after us. Maybe even a sorcerer.”
“We need more firepower,” Sol agreed. “More than a single spell can provide.”
Shroud’s thought exactly. “I know this is a big, big step here, so I would like unanimity on this. If any of you are against it, we will find someone else.”
“Mur trusts the doc,” the imp said. “Mur thought he had cowered away, but he came back to fight. So Mur votes for him.”
“Yeah, horrible abomination against life besides, he was pretty helpful,” Maggie said. “You’re the mind-reader here, nerd. If you think he’s solid, I’ll back you up.”
“I am a bit worried about inviting an undead among us.” The priest glanced at Mur, then back at Shroud. “However, I do not wish to judge him on his appearance, only on his actions. Help us he did, so I vote for an open door policy.”
“Alright then,” Shroud said, as he began flying. “I will ask Kari to cast the final vote.”
Shroud flew through one of the destroyed windows to reach the roof, a faster way than climbing the stairs. He found Kari sitting at the edge, staring at the dark skies. She glanced at him with a neutral expression.
“You want the doctor as our Green,” she guessed before he had to say anything. By now she knew him well.
“Only if you vote for it.”
Kari simply nodded, confirming Stitch as their sixth Player. The girl seemed neither happy nor unhappy with the decision, simply absent. “You okay?” Shroud asked, sitting at her left. “I’m sorry.”
“It had to be done,” she replied, although her tone broke as she said it. Kari liked her privacy and didn’t like to open herself up, so Shroud didn’t probe further. He simply sat in sympathy without saying a word.
A Magik Online notification and a familiar sound popped up before him.
Side Quest: All for One, fulfilled!
He wished he had received that upgrade before the night. “You remember the day we met?” Kari suddenly asked. “I asked you why you fought.”
“You didn’t like my answer.”
“Mathias-san, if you continue on your path, if you let your hate consume you, you will end up like Uncle. I do not want that. Because you are...” She paused for a split second as if struggling with a foreign concept. “Because you are a dear friend.”
The way Kari spoke, she usually didn’t emote at all, left no weakness, no opening. This time though, she seemed… vulnerable. “You too, Kari,” he replied, taking her hand with his only remaining one. “We’re a team, and I promise, I won’t let you down again.”
That sounded way less terrible in his head. Even with his glass armor covering his own skin, the contact felt soft and warm. Kari’s expression thinned at the edge of her lips.
It was a smile. A very thin, subtle one, but one nonetheless. “Are you finally falling for my charm?” Shroud teased her.
Kari broke the hand contact, but her smile didn’t fade. “My spells are down,” she said. “With Oversoul and Needless, I gain focus and confidence I lack. I can pretend to be strong.”
They were more alike than he thought. “I see what you mean.”
“You’re doing it too, in your own way.”
Yes. Pretending to be Shroud felt easier than being Mathias. Safer. Fake it until you make it, they said. “I dunno, Maggie had a point. Those spells are useful, but they take parts of you that make life enjoyable. I’ve met someone saying that sorcery may affect the personality over time. I’m not going to tell you how to live your life, but be careful, okay?”
She nodded, but he had no idea if his words had resonated with her. Clearly, something else bothered her more than her own mental health. “The dragons killed Uncle’s family,” she said out of the blue. “So he started killing their servants in revenge. To avenge them, they sent Gearsmen to kill him, and I took up arms after him. Now you killed Smokefang for the loss of your family, and Concordia sent those hunters after us. If they had succeeded, this would have started another round of increased violence.”
That was more words coming from Kari than he ever heard before. “Your point being?”
“It’s a vicious cycle that never ends.”
It did when everyone on the other side was dead. Shroud himself wasn’t sure if he wanted to go that far with Concordia. “We can’t just turn the other cheek,” he replied. “You told me yourself, that would only lead to greater suffering.”
“I know. But there has to be a third way.”
Shroud didn’t have an answer to that.
A flash of violet brightened the roof, Shroud, and Kari turning to find an out of breath Ace behind them. “Sorry for being late, I urbanstepped here as soon as soon as I could,” Ace said, frowning upon noticing Shroud’s missing arm. “We can fix that."
“Stitch will,” Shroud replied.
“Seriously, you’re real troublemakers. Can’t leave you out of sight for four seconds before you pick a fight. At least nobody will try anything after the Queen killed Lugh. I would suggest staying away from Reavers, though.”
“People keep picking fights with us,” Shroud deadpanned. “At this point, it’s bullying.”
That made the woman laugh. “Do you believe in gravity?” Ace asked a strange question. “Stars and worlds attracting one another? What if it works the same for us poor mortals? What if we are pulled towards another?”
“Like fate? I don’t believe in that crap.”
“Maybe you should,” Ace replied with a heavier wink this time. “Because from what I heard from the Administrator, you are two members short.”
Shroud examined her head to toe with a new gaze. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“We should create a meet-up forum of some kind,” Shroud said with a sigh.
“But come on, you really think anyone would call their daughter Ace? Shroud isn’t much better, sorry. I tried to get the Magik Online customer support to get a new codename but they don’t have one.”
“The time Shroud called you three times,” Kari said. “That was your Lock?”
“Castling, yes. It works across any distance too, unlike teleportation spells.”
If Shroud hadn’t lost pints of blood and an arm, he would have made a dirty joke about it. But it confirmed his hypothesis. Violet. “What are you doing there, working for someone like Mammon?” he asked.
“I’ve been living here long before I received the Administrator’s invitation,” she replied, Shroud wondering if she even was from Earth in the first place. “In Mammon’s case, Quests and Spellcoins, of course. Our lovely Sponsors are strangely invested in learning what he is doing.”
“Why though?” Kari asked. “Concordia isn’t present in this area of space.”
“Which makes it an ideal place for its enemies to gather. And from what I’ve seen, they’re just as terrible.”
“The enemy of Concordia could be our friend,” Shroud replied. Their entire deal with the Shadow Queen relied on that single truth.
“Even when that enemy is someone like Mammon?” Ace replied. “Do you really trust that chest and his cronies to treat us fairly?”
No. Never. “I admit that from what I’ve seen, other galactic powers are just as terrible, if not worse, than Concordia,” Shroud admitted. He remembered what he had seen on the monster’s stats the last time they had dueled. Infernoid. “One detail makes me believe Mammon is connected to an entity called the Maleking, which was active on Earth last time we were there.”
“I’ve heard of him,” Ace said. “An ancient demon worshipped as a god across the universe. His followers call themselves the Malebranche.”
“Mammon mentioned that word,” Shroud said.
“And Mammon is a good friend of your current employer.”
“They are all connected,” Kari guessed.
“Yes. The more I infiltrated Mammon’s organization through my Quests, the more I believe his Crimson Epoch tournament is a trojan horse for a bigger event. The Shadow Queen, Revel, the Maleking… all of them opposing Concordia and gathering in the same place at the same place. And now, do you believe in gravity, Shroud?”
No. But neither did he believe in coincidences.
The Maleking supported the Brown conspiracy, which opposed Concordia, and he empowered Jack. The fiend clearly wasn’t a friend of mankind, but Mammon remained openly neutral as far as Concordia was concerned.
He never was.
Shroud let Network intuit the elements for him, letting it map the bigger picture. An alliance born of hatred of a common enemy, seeds planted years, centuries before they could bloom into flowers. A fiend seeping into Earth, as part of a larger agenda...
And if the Shadow Queen truly worked with the Maleking, then everything they did in her name, while harmful to Concordia, may serve the ends of a threat just as terrible. “We need independence,” Shroud said. “A Lair, and our own power-base.”
“And you need a full Guild to reach that place, and Level Three,” Ace said, smiling wide. “So, handsome, am I in?”
The sorcerer glanced at Kari, who replied with a nod. “I will ask the others,” Shroud said. “But it should be fine.”
At long last, they had made seven.
|Account||Dragonslayers Guild Moderator|
|Level||2 (Adept)||Grant Spell||Unlocked|
|Level||2 (Adept)||Channel Soul||Unlocked|
|Hands of Slaughter||3||Yellow/Violet/Red|
|Holder||Maggie Jesse Powells||Crimson Bullet||Unlocked|
|Level||1 (Novice)||Locked Feature||(0/1)|
|Holder||Solomon Nicholae||Spell Martyr||Unlocked|
|Level||1 (Novice)||Locked Feature||(0/1)|
|Holder||Murmur the Imp||Harder||Unlocked|
|Level||1 (Novice)||Locked Feature||(0/1)|
|Level||1 (Novice)||Locked Feature||(0/1)|
|Level||2 (Adept)||Piercing Boundary||Unlocked|
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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.