The storm of glass shrapnel tried to tear Kari to shreds.
Hands of Slaughter activated in response, the ethereal red arms moving to punch away the projectiles and protect their paralyzed master. They stopped most of the shrapnels, but quite a few found a way past the automated defense, aiming to gore her through the chest
Instantly, the spell Reinforce, which Sol had encoded in her clothes, activated in response to the impact. The clothes stopped most projectiles like armor.
A Player. Baihu was a Player.
Shroud guessed he must have Doom Sense or a similar sensory Hack, which allowed him to notice the incoming attack. The fact that the tiger used his Glass Field vexed him deeply. “Everyone, drop the gates, and move to the courtyard,” Shroud ordered, as Kari regained her mental faculties.
The tiger, empowered by his various spells, cut a nearby pillar supporting the walls nearby and prepared to throw it at Kari like a spear. “Kari, cover your ears!” Shroud shouted through the Network feed, as his friend noticed the projectile. “He can use Blue World!”
“Blue—” Kari put her hands on her ears and leaped backward, even as the glass shards reverberated the spell and Baihu launched his weapon. “—World.”
Baihu growled when Kari kept moving, still covering her ears, allowing her to dodge the deadly projectiles. “Hear no evil,” he grumbled, before reshaping the glass flying around into sharp arrows. “Reinforce.”
As the spell spread to the arrows through Glass Field’s power, Sol flew through the wall on Baihu’s left side, charging at the tiger with his sword ready. Without even turning around, Baihu dodged the strike with a backflip, before hitting the knight with his shoulder before Sol could reorient himself. The blow sent him crashing on the opposite side of the courtyard, and through another wall.
Soon, Mur and Maggie joined the battle, smashing through the courtyard’s doors, but still protected by the invisibility veil and the soundlessness. Mur fired a deadly volley of bullets with his minigun, Maggie making them invisible with Quasar.
A surge of blue and yellow power surrounded Baihu as the projectiles approached, and his body moved with extreme, supernatural grace, dodging the attacks.
Doom Sense and Intuimotion activated at once. He triggered a Hack.
So that was how it felt to fight a Magik Player. You always had to adapt midway, as they kept getting stronger under pressure.
The sound of gongs and war horns resonated throughout the battlefield. So much for discretion, Shroud thought, as he noticed humanoid monsters climb on the ceilings, armed with rifles. “Stitch, Ace, take care of the snipers on the roof,” he ordered. “Cast Rainmaker.”
His ally did, the two climbing the roofs just as the monsters on it starting firing down at Kari below. The sorceress moved around to dodge and take cover behind the courtyard’s pillars, while Stitch stabbed one sniper from behind and Ace tossed another over the edge by surprise. Meanwhile, Kari’s doubles converged around the palace, blockading the entrances as Baihu’s guards around the area rushed to them.
Sol, who had recovered, charged back at Baihu with his sword and shield up. “Deus Vult!” was his battle cry, but his speed, while laudable, couldn’t match Baihu’s incredible reflexes. The tiger dodged the sword swings with an air of supreme disdain, ethereal, spectral wind manifesting around his hands, and he struck back with a sweeping motion.
The claws cut through the armor’s chest plate, tearing through processors and organic circuitry.
Shroud’s eyes widened behind the screen, and even Sol briefly froze for a split second. No one had ever managed to significantly damage the armor to the same degree as the tiger did. With feline fury, Baihu started putting pressure on his foe, the knight barely deflecting blows. The glass arrows floated above the tiger but didn’t fall, their controller keeping them in reserve.
Dropping his minigun to swing his hammer with both hands, Mur attempted to rescue Sol, exiting Maggie’s range and manifesting in his full fiendish glory. Baihu, sensing him coming, moved to position Sol in the middle of Mur’s line. While dizzied, the knight managed to move out of his ally’s way, even if Mur’s hammer only hit hot air.
“Accel Blue World!” Baihu snarled, the words reverberating through the glass arrows floating around him and paralyzing both of his opponents. Before he could behead Mur with a swing, Kari, with the snipers occupied by her teammates, interrupted him. She tried to strike him in the back, and while she failed to inflict any blow, the sorceress prevented the tiger from landing any attacks.
“Maggie, get closer and drain the sound and light around Baihu,” Shroud ordered, as Mur and Sol recovered. Maggie approached until Baihu entered her range, draining the photons around the tiger’s head and shrouding him in darkness.
By now, Stitch and Ace had gotten rid of the soldiers on the roof, while the latter’s rain fell upon the battlefield, drenching every combatant. Yet, neither these conditions nor his loss of hearing and sight prevented the tiger from handling Kari, Sol, and Mur all by himself.
However, his movements were more sluggish, so depriving him of his senses had an effect, and struggling against so many opponents forced him on the defense.
Baihu always sought a position where a Dragonslayers found himself in the middle of an incoming attack, hoping to either delay it or outright use an enemy as a human shield. Fortunately, Synergize passively countered this strategy, the guild members subconsciously coordinating to avoid putting themselves in one another’s way. To Shroud, the whole fight looked like a complex dancing ballet, fighters failing to hit one another, dodging and switching places.
“Shroud,” Ace asked, Stitch and her now being alone on the roof, watching the fighting in the courtyard. “What do we do?”
“You wait,” Shroud replied. Stitch would get demolished in close combat, sensory powers or not, and he lacked long-range attacks; while Ace, he wanted to keep in reserve. “Can you track his movements within the rain?”
“With Timesense, yes,” Ace replied. “But I will never be able to hit him with his speed.”
He had another manoeuver in mind, but it was a bit risky. The sorcerer tried to find another chink in the tiger’s defense, hoping to find an alternative.
Baihu’s defense had no exploitable weakness, at least as far as Shroud could tell. As long as he had enough space to navigate—and he had plenty in an open area—his reflexive defense allowed him to dodge any blow. Even negating his sight and hearing didn’t take it down, and his Mindshield would protect him from mental attacks. Baihu had clearly purchased spells optimizing his close combat potential, making him truly unbeatable at close-range.
It left area of effect attacks as the one solution. “Sol, switch to Biosurge,” Shroud said, now that Ace’s rain had drenched the battlefield. “Target the whole courtyard.”
“I risk friendly fire if I do this, Mathias,” Sol replied, as Baihu’s claws shredded Mur’s stony flesh everywhere he could find an opening. Thankfully, unlike with Sol’s armor, they couldn’t pierce Adamant’s protection.
“Maggie, use Lightningrod to redirect the electricity and protect our allies,” Shroud said, “You cannot harm Baihu, but you can mitigate the effects of Sol’s attacks.”
“Playing support sucks!” she complained, as Sol exchanged a glance with her.
The knight unleashed a surge of lightning from his body, shining like Zeus incarnate. The electricity spread through the water on the ground and the rain, illuminating the field; yet the arcs of lightning moved around Mur, Maggie, and Kari, avoiding them.
Suddenly, before the lightning could fry him, a strong wind blew around Baihu. A shield of swirling air streams gathered around his fur, deflecting both the rainwater and the electricity.
Baihu had activated his Lock. Or maybe a Hack.
No, definitively a Lock, Shroud decided. He suddenly realized the tiger’s claws probably weren’t made of spiritual energy but compressed altered wind. Baihu could alter the air around himself somewhat, with the same versatility as the Dragonslayers’ own Locks.
Definitely an Orange. And smart enough to keep tricks up his sleeve. Did Baihu have anything else to fall back on though? He already had a considerable battery of spells for a Level Two Player, so Shroud didn’t think so.
Unfortunately, combined with Baihu’s supernatural danger sense and his immense physical abilities, the Lock provided a nigh-insurmountable defense.
“Rooster incoming,” one of Kari’s doppelganger said through Network, glancing at the skies. Indeed, while the doubles had secured the ground around the palace, the Rooster Zodiac flew over them and surveyed the courtyard.
After having kept them in reserve for a while, Baihu had the glass arrows fall in a rain upon the courtyard and the surrounding area, the reinforced projectiles piercing stone as easily as butter. While they bounced off Sol’s armor and Mur’s skin, who had now fully transformed, Maggie and Kari had to retreat to save their hides. This allowed Baihu to exit Maggie’s range, regaining his sight and hearing and spread the Dragonslayers thin around the battlefield.
The tiger instantly noticed the Rooster circling the courtyard from above, unsure whether to intervene. “Mine!” Baihu declared, the Rooster narrowing his eyes in concern, before repeating, “Mine.”
The Rooster Zodiac settled on the roof, away from the battle, and made no move to intervene.
Did Baihu arrogantly believe he didn’t need the other Zodiac to win? No. Baihu had kept tricks in reserve, played the long game so he could lure the entire guild into a battle. This was his moment.
We are his trial, as much as he is ours, the Sorcerer guessed, He uses Hacks, meaning he is a Player and a Level Two one at that. He needs to beat us, both to prove himself to the Sponsors, and that they were mistaken to trust mortals.
“Very well,” Shroud said, sending the message directly to Baihu through Network. “I accept the challenge.”
“Show yourself, coward,” Baihu called him out in response. “I am tired of fighting puppets. Must I sever their strings to force your hand?”
That threat would have worked once, but Shroud saw no reason to abandon his coordinator advantage now. “Only if you win, which you won’t. To your credit, you are putting a much better fight than the other Zodiacs.”
Baihu shrugged, insulted by the implication his struggle wouldn’t matter. He noticed Maggie, and putting the two and two together, decided to take her down first.
He moved and seemingly vanished.
The tiger dashed right in front of his victim so fast, Shroud’s eyes struggled to follow; the wind armor had reduced the air resistance and increased his speed. Maggie attempted to strike him down with lightning reflexively, only for the headband to activate, tightening around her head and stopping her in her tracks.
“Maggie!” Sol flew towards her at full speed, right as Baihu prepared to land a fatal blow.
The knight’s feed suddenly turned red.
At the very last second, he had managed to push Maggie out of the way, only to get punched through the stomach by Baihu. The tiger’s claws gored through the armor, pierced through, and shredded the flesh underneath. Like a cat playing with a dead mouse, Baihu let out a feline hiss as he raised the bleeding knight above his head.
Mathias saw red. “Sol!”
“Idiot!” Mur snarled.
The knight, whose feed reflected blood spat on the visor, activated Biosurge, trying to fry the tiger while they were in close proximity. Baihu reacted first, throwing him as far as he could, Sol landing too far for his last ditch attack to harm anyone.
“Shroud!” Ace said, clearly struggling not to intervene.
With a furious kind of focus, Kari attacked Baihu, all her crimson hands punching at once. But this was no movie; once again, the tiger’s defense activated, allowing him to dodge every blow with casual ease, before finding an opening in her defense and striking.
Kari vanished, another coming into sight on Baihu’s left. The tiger, surprised, struck her first, only for her to vanish. He suddenly fell back, as if to escape the range of an invisible opponent.
Maggie. Now that the headband had stopped glowing, she used Quasar to bend the light and Soundwave to create mirages of Kari while hiding the original.
Sol’s Lock Upgraded! Accel Ally unlocked! Sol reached Level Two!
Shroud didn’t give a shit about the notification right now. He had to clench his teeth and fists to even barely control himself right now, sorely tempted to drop everything and rush to their side. The strategy first, he had to tell himself, remembering Sol’s words to him about focusing on the big picture. “Stitch, heal Sol!” he ordered, the medic leaving his observation post to rescue the bleeding knight, Shroud assigning him the Heal spell. “Ace, to Mur!”
Ace teleported next to the fiend, who had moved to grab the minigun he tossed aside previously. “Mur, leave the minigun,” Shroud told him. “Distance and projectiles will not defeat him.”
“Then what will?” the imp snarled. Even fully transformed into a titan of metal, he had yet to land even a single blow.
“Ace, Mur, I will need your total trust for this,” he told them both through their feeds, “Mur, at my signal, I want you to hit Ace with your hammer as strongly as you can.”
“Handsome, if this about our last date, I’m sure we can work it out,” Ace said, although there was little warmth in her joke.
“Later,” Shroud replied. “You said you could track his movements in the rain, even with his speed. At the last moment, I want you to switch place with Baihu, as you did with Lugh last time.”
“If I am wrong even by a second, Mur will kill me,” Ace pointed out. “And he’s way faster than Lugh.”
“Your Timesense and my Synergy will prevent it,” Shroud said, while Kari was slowly but surely pushed into a corner, even with Maggie’s support. “You can pull it off, so long as he is busy. I believe in you.”
He truly did.
Ace said nothing, exchanged a glance with Mur, then focused on the battle without a word. Baihu, wholly focused on Kari, pushed her in a corner of the courtyard, depriving her of space to dodge.
“Now,” Ace said, Mur raising his hammer above her head, and lowered it.
In a flash of violet, Baihu found himself in Ace’s place, his chest within an inch of Mur’s hammer. His eyes widened in recognition, but Shroud had figured out the key flaw in Baihu’s defense.
Namely, ultimate reflexes meant nothing without momentum or space to dodge.
With a big, brutal sound, Mur smashed Baihu with so much force, it shattered the ground below and forced the beast face down against it. Not even his wind armor offered any protection.
… and the tiger still moved, struggling to get back to his feet.
So Mur hit him again in the chest, and then a third time. Each blow shattered the ground below them until the third attack turned it into a small crater; Shroud heard Baihu’s ribs shatter with a sickening sound.
This time, Baihu didn’t move. He still breathed, but he stayed down.
“Shroud,” Mur said out loud, raising his hammer, while Kari and Ace watched the scene from afar. “Does Mur kill?”
That was it. If he said yes, Mur would kill Baihu. The end.
Shroud focusing on Stitch’s feed. The doctor had applied the Heal spell on the knight, closing fleshy tissues and stitching back what the spell couldn’t repair. “Will Sol live?” Shroud asked with a dead kind of serenity, Baihu’s fate depending on the answer.
“Yes,” Stitch replied with aplomb. “But the armor has been damaged beyond repair.”
Shroud let out a long sigh of relief. “Mur, spare the cat.”
The fiend let out a growl of disappointment. “Can Mur break a leg at least?”
Shroud shrugged in response.
Mur took it as a yes.
One day after the final battle with Baihu, Shroud floated above the western area, observing its forges from above.
With Baihu’s defeat, his forces had surrendered. Not that they could have provided a struggle anyway. While they had a mighty leader, without sorcery, they were no match for the Dragonslayers. As he had guessed, Baihu’s confidence in his army was misplaced.
By now, Shroud could no longer ignore the wide gap between sorcerers and everyone else. An organized team of Players had subjugated an entire space station overflowing with monsters in days. No wonder an army of them subjugated Earth.
Without making sorcery available to everyone, Earth would remain dominated.
The Sponsors couldn’t ignore that. Were Players just a test run for a larger, mass release of Magik? Why hadn’t they distributed it to their servants, if they had so many monsters on hand to throw at Concordia?
Maybe they couldn’t.
Shroud returned to Baihu’s palace, where Mur and doppelgangers of Kari helped repair the damage; the original meditated in the courtyard with Maggie and Bai Suzhen, while Baihu watched from afar.
The tiger had bandages on both his chest and his left leg, moving with a limp. The Rabbit had granted him potions to accelerate the healing, and Shroud would eventually cast a spell on him. Later.
“I struck to kill,” Baihu declared upon seeing Shroud float down, not helping his case.
“You would be dead if you had succeeded,” Shroud replied honestly.
“I know.” He sounded eerily okay with it. Shroud guessed he had a bestial mindset, not so different from Mur’s.
“Sol asked you be spared, after he recovered,” Shroud said. Even if the tiger almost cost him his life, and did destroy his armor.
“Your Solomon is a noble warrior and worthy of respect,” Baihu said. “You are not the strongest of them, nor the smartest. You are the most dangerous. You do not hesitate to risk lives to win.”
Shroud shrugged. “Someone once told me only results mattered. Winning is all that matters.”
“I agree.” Baihu grabbed the emblem around his neck and gave it to Shroud. “I will not stay at this station again.”
“Good,” Shroud replied. “We need as many hands as we can get. But I will not tolerate insubordination, only complete obedience.”
“So long as you win,” the tiger replied, crossing his arms. “I wanted to fight the first time around.”
“You didn’t have sorcery back then,” Shroud replied. “Without it, you would have failed, as we did.”
Baihu shrugged, his arrogance undiminished. Shroud guessed that was the end of the conversation, watching the tiger leave to rest.
He turned to Maggie, whose headband finally fell down from her head. She opened her hand to catch it, opening her eyes.
Shroud expected her to let out a scream of joy, but she didn’t. If anything, Maggie looked somber as she glanced at the emblem. She rose up without a word so as not to interrupt the others’ meditation, joining Shroud.
“Congratulations, Maggie,” he told her. With that emblem, they just needed to recover the Goat’s to complete the trial. For all intents, they had conquered the Lair.
She didn’t share his enthusiasm. “Sol almost died because I couldn’t defend myself,” Maggie replied. “And Boneface won’t have me visit him.”
“Sol needs rest for now. Even the Heal spell has limits.”
“I fucked up, nerd. You can try to ignore it, I don’t.” Maggie shrugged, sounding more exhausted than anything. “I’m sick of being rescued. I want to hate him for it, and I know it’s not right.”
“You helped turn this around through other means,” Shroud pointed out. “Without you distracting Baihu, we may not have surprised him. You didn’t need to fight to help us win. And besides, you rescued Kari with your mirage trick. If you insist on counting points, I say this made it even.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it… but it still doesn’t feel right.” She hesitated as if struggling to find her next words. “Nerd.”
“After we meet those Sponsors, could you do me a solid? Can I ask you anything?”
“Anything,” Shroud promised, “For a friend.”
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A great many thanks to my patrons on Patreon, Alex Pruitt, Saul Kurzman, Dex, Warwick Robertson, BlissForgotten, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, and Daniel Zogbi. They’re the best party to hunt tigers with.