The promised day had come.
Shroud glanced at the group gathered on the Overside, surrounded by his own clone mini-army. Each of the Dragonslayers carried a backpack full of food and basic utilities, although some more specialized than others. Maggie, in full costume, carried a bandolier and multiple firearms on her back, enough to make Iron Man blush. Stitch had brought a portable lab in a kit alongside emergency medicine.
And Mur, now constantly using Pitborn, had become the team’s pack mule, carrying with him most of the tents, utilities, food, and drinks. The titan could control his temperature enough to prevent them from catching fire, barely. As he promised, he had invested in his arsenal, carrying both a metal hammer and an advanced minigun.
Shroud’s doubles had looked for Violet, spell-encoded items that could stuff an enormous amount of content inside a bag, but while they did exist, they were too expensive even with their current funds. They instead invested in weapons and medicine.
“I have my leave for a week,” Ace said. “Mammon grumbled, but gave it to me. I hope we can complete that Lair in less time, or he will make a scene.”
With what Shroud had seen, working with Mammon was incredibly unsafe no matter how you approached it. “You are brushing against flames, working so close with that fiend,” he told her.
“So are you,” she winked back, although she clearly thought of another fiend.
Touché. “You have homework to do,” Shroud told his doubles, “We will be unable to leave the Lair until we complete it, so you’re on your own. I will check on you with Network regularly, but dispel one of you if you need to inform us of a big change.”
“Of course, Number One,” Number Two said.
“If you could keep cultivating the larva under good temperatures,” Stitch told his own doubles, as they discussed biological samples, with the wight promising to bring some back to his copies.
Shroud opened his Magik Online account, glancing at the Lair the group had voted to tackle.
The Lair’s picture represented a gigantic, metallic sphere, shining bright like the sun. Heavy weaponry, mostly lasers, covered the surface, with the greatest of them being a gigantic orbital cannon taking the shape of a sunspot.
It reminded Shroud of the Concordia’s superweapon on the moon; albeit a more positive, inspiring version, that gave a sense of wonder rather than dread. If the Sponsors could build such a powerful device, why hadn’t they taken back Earth already?
Taiyougami, the Majestic Sun
Sponsor: Her August Majesty
Theme: Asian Myths, the Zodiac, the Daylight Cycle, Martial Arts.
Ordeals: Spirits, the Chinese Zodiac, Puzzles, Martial Artists.
An artificial, mechanical sun meant to serve as a battle-station and symbol of the sun’s limitless power. Protected by the twelve demigods of the Zodiac, challengers will have to overcome their tests, from duels of wits to mighty contests, in order to reach the Command Room. Praise the sun.
The group had voted neatly in favor of this one—with Kari having been the most vocal supporter since she was familiar with the myths in question—but Shroud couldn’t help but glance at the second choice they had put forward, a tower of giant bones simmering with darkness.
Mictlan, the Tower of Bones
Sponsor: Eternal Serpent
Themes: Aztec-Mayan myths, Unlife, Primal Earth, Forbidden Sorcery.
Ordeals: Undead, Dead Gods, Pandorians, the Tower itself.
An unliving Lair made from the corpses of fallen gods and mortals, sacrificed over eons; many of whom still roam its corridors. Meant to be an artificial Spell Tower, Mictlan hides a secret, terrible power within its walls, waiting for worthy Players to master it. For the Sponsor believes there is a place for Black…
For obvious reasons, Kari and Sol had been adamant against conquering that one, while Stitch had been the vocal supporter in its favor, with Mur a close second. The rest had eventually voted against it, Shroud himself included.
The description implied Magik Online’s Sponsors had researched Black Sorcery, perhaps even made it possible to grant it to users. The idea of gaining access to a new field of spells had appealed to Shroud; in spite of the dangers involved and the disastrous battle with Toshiyami, he thought the best way to counter that color was to study it. Especially if it was intrinsically linked to his Save Feature.
However, after much consideration Shroud decided the risks of Black were simply too great without further research, and he preferred to focus on building his existing skills rather than seek new ones continuously.
He also noticed the large number of Lairs taken or unavailable; Shroud knew other Players guilds had gathered on Earth, but of the original forty-two lairs available, the number had been reduced to four when the Dragonslayers came around to choose one. And the two they didn’t select were now unavailable. If you needed seven Players to invade a Lair, that meant at least two hundred of them were active, perhaps more.
Shroud smiled beneath his glass helmet. He looked forward to what would come at the end of this dungeon.
Shroud checked the Majestic Sun’s notification, with a single option at the bottom of the proposal.
“Ready?” he asked the team.
“Since the day I was born,” Maggie whistled.
“Lead the way, handsome,” Ace said.
“With pleasure, sir,” Stitch said, with a sliver of trepidation in his grave, dead voice.
“After you, Mathias,” Sol said, his blade and shield ready for battle.
Kari offered only a nod, short but firm.
Shroud clicked on the notification, as his Doppelgangers waved them goodbye. In a flash of violet light, they were gone.
The travel spell used was stronger and less crude than the one they used to escape Evermarsh weeks ago. Instead of dimensions collapsing with Shroud’s mind capable of perceiving it for several seconds, the transportation happened without him noticing the change in scenery.
And what a change it was.
In an instant, the seven Players had left the cacophony of the market for the eerie silence of a space bridge.
The welcoming area took the shape of a long hallway, under semi-spherical, orange-tinted windows. The entire metallic environment seemed built out of gold or brass, much like most of the Midnight Market. Unlike the soulless market however, the metal here shone with a faint, vibrant light, and produced a faint warmth on touch. Bonsai plants and cherry blossom trees surrounded them from all sides, forming a path leading to a statue further.
Shroud glanced at the ceiling, finding himself staring at a lush, white and green planet; this space installation probably orbited around it like a moon. Strangely though, space around it remained as black as the deepest darkness, without any star to give any hint of its location.
“I do not recognize it,” Stitch said upon looking at the planet, while the rest of the group looked around them for traps or the like. “We must be in an unexplored area of space.”
Shroud nodded, flying towards the windows and overseeing the area. He didn’t notice anyone hidden, or a noteworthy element outside the statue further. This welcoming area seemed safe. “All clear,” he said, moving towards the statue, observing it under a closer look.
Surrounded by cherry trees and taking most of the welcoming area’s space, stood a golden replica of Earth and its moon, untainted by Concordia. Words were engraved below it, next to a circular, silver button.
“Your teacher can open the door but you must enter by yourself. Wherever you go, go with all your heart. For a free Earth, under a pure, blue sky.”
A mission statement. And perhaps a hint of the trials to come. He glanced around the statue, noticing a wide circle around it and gears like mechanisms hidden under the trees. “I think it’s an elevator,” Shroud said, still floating around as the group joined him. “Could be a trap however. Check.”
Having spent years designing traps for virtual dungeons, he was a bit paranoid about those. “I confirm this is an advanced elevator,” Stitch said, after some examination. “But it is not booby-trapped as far as I can tell.”
As the group gathered on the platform, Ace touched the button, the platform slowly descending. Shroud followed it while floating.
Made of the same mix of alien glass and steel as the space bridge itself, it became increasingly clear the elevator rivaled with mountains in side, giving them a splendid view of the surrounding area, of which it served as a center compass.
A metal cube that could have fit Evermarsh within, the current room was a perfect balance of nature and technology. While the walls were made of the same golden metal as the rest of the structure, and provided a natural lighting, most of the technological infrastructures remained underwater; gigantic pipelines, pistons, and other machinery cooled down below the surface.
A dozen of huge, black turtles the size of islands floated around the artificial sea, their shell covered with earth, vegetation, and life. The islands’ style reminded Shroud of Japanese gardens, and he could see movements on some. Monsters, perhaps.
Just how big was this dungeon?
On the southern face of the cube, which they faced, one island stood from the rest. That landmark was artificial, made of the same metal as the rest of the dungeon, and mostly composed of a large stairway leading to a large, circular gate. Shroud also noticed a wooden shack on it.
“I guess we know where to go first,” Ace pointed out.
“The question is, how to cross the water,” Stitch said. “I am afraid I never learned to swim.”
“I have an idea for transportation,” Shroud said, as the elevator reached its destination, a larger steel platform. “Sol, come with me in case I need back-up.”
Both of them flew away from the elevator as soon as the doors opened, surveying the sea. “This place is immense,” the knight told his friend, as they flew towards the nearest turtle island. “This seems to be a reservoir of some kind.”
“It may provide water to the inhabitants,” Shroud guessed, as he examined the structure. While his knowledge of engineering remained basic, he grasped, intuitively, that the liquid also served to cool down the machinery underwater. “We may need more than a week to clear it out.”
Sol nodded, preparing his blade as they approached one of the turtles’ head. The titan placidly glanced at them, its eye bigger than a house. The animal didn’t appear aggressive in the slightest, a flock of raven having even gathered above its muzzle as a makeshift nest, fleeing as the other flyers came into view.
Shroud just had to get within range to subsume the creature with Beastmaster. The first feedback he received told him the animal was so ancient that it feared little. The Sorcerer couldn’t tell if other, more aggressive creatures made their nest on the back, however, and so remained wary. “Keep guard,” he told Sold, as he led the way to the elevator, the turtle swimming at surprising speed after him.
Reaching the elevator, Shroud had the creature make contact with the metal platform. “Turtle taxi at your service,” the sorcerer declared to his friends. “Courtesy of your friendly neighborhood sorcerer.”
“Showoff,” Maggie replied, the first to leap on the turtle’s head with Kari, the rest quickly following. Shroud quickly rerouted the turtle to the south, towards the major landmark.
The journey happened without any trouble and much quietness, to Shroud’s surprise and suspicion. He had expected an ambush, monster attacks, anything. Not this eerie peace and silence. “This is too quiet,” Mur echoed his thoughts. “Mur doesn’t like it.”
“This may be a safe area,” Ace said. “The deeper we go, the more dangerous.”
Perhaps. Or that room tested something other than strength of arms.
The journey ended with the landmark coming into sight, the proximity allowing for closer examination. Shaped like a large triangle, the platform supported a long stairway, at the end of which stood an immense, forty-feet tall rounded door, so thick as to seem impregnable. The symbols of twelve animals, those of the Chinese Zodiac, were engraved on it.
Someone had built a small shack of wood at the base of the stairway; on both sides, two large circles shone bright with a violet light. Gates, or teleporters perhaps.
As the turtle made the junction with the platform, allowing the Dragonslayers to jump on it, the shack’s door opened and a newcomer walked into view.
The creature looked like a bipedal, scrawny white goat, using a cane to walk straight and with blue eyes full of kindness. A white beard and wrinkles revealed its immense age, although it kept polished nails, and yet it carried a small bag of clothes on its back. It wore a golden medallion around its neck, with a goat symbol engraved on its surface.
“Kari,” Shroud said, landing with Sol to join the group.
“I will take the lead,” she said, being the one most knowledgeable about Asian legends.
“Ah, our first challengers, at long last,” the creature said with a warm, wise voice, as he appraised the group. Shroud felt little feedback from Beastmaster, even as he came into range; he couldn’t control him. “I am Shifuyáng, the Goat of the Divine Zodiac. Welcome to Taiyougami.”
The first person in the dungeon, and he seemed a friendly face. Nice. “Honorable Shifuyáng,” Kari bowed first, Shroud, Ace, and Sol imitating her, with Maggie taking longer. Mur didn’t bow at all, while Stitch was busy scribbling things on a pocket journal, furiously taking notes. “We have humbly come to prove ourselves worthy of this place.”
“My, what a polite young woman,” the goat said, appreciative. “Good. Humility is the cure of foolishness.”
“Mur does not bow to anyone,” the imp replied proudly.
The goat responded with an all-knowing smile. “You remind me of Baihu, without the fur.”
“Honorable goat,” Kari continued, brushing off Mur’s brazenness. “What can you tell us about our trials?”
“I assume you all read the Lair’s description before choosing it, have you not?” The group nodded. “The door you see behind me leads to the Command Room, and to the Sponsor of this dungeon. Each of my kindred possess an emblem, given to us by the late Jade Emperor when we ascended to the Zodiac. They are the keys you must gather.”
“Yours included?” Shroud asked, glancing at the medallion around the Goat’s neck.
“Yes. In fact, I am willing to give you mine without a fight.”
“Good,” Mur said, although his tone wasn’t as conciliatory. “Wiser to give it to us before we roast you.”
Shroud raised a hand to appease him. The Goat sounded amiable, so alienating him was pointless. “What do you want in exchange?” he asked.
The goat-man pointed at the bag on his back. “If one of you younglings could alleviate an old animal’s burden.”
Shroud took a step, taking the back and glancing inside. It contained an egg-shaped black stone, with red, ruby-like lines producing warmth on the surface. “I have been trying to nurture this dungeon core for years,” Shifuyáng said. “But being no warrior, my progress has been slow.”
“Sorry, ain’t going to play mother goose,” Maggie snickered.
“This core does not feed on a mother’s warmth, but strength,” Shifuyáng replied, amused. “Defeating the monsters in the Lair will provide power crystals which will help it achieve maturity. Do so, and I will gladly exchange it against my emblem.”
A Magik Online notification quickly came up.
Quest: The Dungeon Core, started.
Difficulty: Dot Two (Medium)
Sponsor: Her August Majesty
Power comes from perseverance; only through patience is one’s full potential unleashed. Bring the core to maturity to unlock an ancient secret.
Rewards: Seven Spellcoins for each Dragonslayer.
“So if we keep shedding blood, it will eventually hatch?” Stitch guessed. “Fascinating. What kind of device needs battle to come to life?”
“The fierce kind,” the Goat replied elusively.
— Shifuyáng took the black stone from the nest, GLANCED AT THE WATCHER, AND POKED HIM IN THE BRAIN —
Shroud felt as if hit in the face, the connection abruptly cut. “Well tried,” Shifuyáng told Shroud, as he massaged his forehead.
“How do you do people keep doing that?” Shroud complained.
“I will tell you if you conquer the Lair,” the Goat replied. “You understand I cannot tell you everything now, or it wouldn’t be a test.”
“What can you tell us, honorable goat?” Kari asked.
“A good question, but not the one you should ask. What can I not tell you? I have not heard from my friends of the Zodiac since we separated to prepare our trials, so I can neither tell you where they are, nor what they plan; however, as far as I can tell, I am the only one in this section of the maze. Neither will I reveal all of the Lair’s secrets, nor the identity of our Sponsors. Otherwise, I can provide general guidance, even a rough map of this place.”
The goat used his cane to draw a map on the earth, the group gathering to look at it. The goat drew four circles, each linked to two others by lines in a cubic form. He then added an isolated rectangle near the north area, which Shroud guessed was the space bridge they visited before.
“Taiyougami is themed after the cardinal points,” the goat said, pointing at the northernmost circle, “We are in the North area, the Water Turtle’s Pond, themed after water. The Eastern Area is the Wood Dragon’s Forest, the South the Fire Bird’s Engine, and the West is home to the Metal Tiger’s Forge.”
Was that a hint? Shroud thought. The dragon and the tiger were parts of the Chinese Zodiac, as was the rooster. Perhaps the latter was the bird. No turtle, however.
“All four work together to make the entire structure strong, but there is no direct link between either East or West, or South and North; those devices,” Shifuyáng nodded in the direction of the violet circles, “link sections together. The North is the most peaceful area, the South the most dangerous. Monsters roam the entire Lair and may pour out of their section of the maze to pursue you. Finally, much like the sun in the sky, this Lair’s light will grow or diminish in a never-ending cycle. I must warn you nighttime is a most dangerous time.”
“Why so?” Kari asked.
“You cannot see in the dark, and monsters will become more aggressive. Even this area becomes unsafe.” Shifuyáng smiled. “You should have six hours or so, before nightfall.”
“What can you tell us about the other members of the Chinese Zodiac?” Sol asked. “While you can’t tell us their weaknesses, perhaps you can give us rough hints.”
“We do not all come from the Land of the Middle, as odd as it may sound. Inhabitants of this Lair often come from Nippon, others from Korea. We animals do not care about human frontiers. Our similarities outweigh our differences, I always say. Some of us value strength above all, like the fierce Tiger, and will not give their emblem without a fight; expect no mercy from them. Gentler ones like the Rabbit or the Pig will probably give you their own without bloodshed, if you ask nicely or pass their trials.”
“And individually?” Shroud pushed.
“I will not gossip, but Rabbit, Dog, Rooster, and Pig are kind souls. Tiger, Ox and Horse are warriors. Monkey is an inveterate troublemaker, while Rat is crafty. Snake and Dragon,” the goat paused briefly, as he noticed the tension in the air, “are the most mysterious and solitary. I have not seen them for a while.”
“Very helpful, Sherlock,” Maggie deadpanned.
“And the ‘monsters’?” Stitch asked, scribing notes.
“Too many to count, but the Wood Dragon’s Forest welcomes savage beasts and spirits, while the inhabitants of the West Tiger’s Forge are organized and disciplined. The Fire Bird’s Engine contains the deadliest of monsters, lone wolves all of them. Finally, our current location is home to peaceful creatures, like those turtles and the fish. You can come rest here anytime. I would be happy to share herb and grass soup with you.”
“That is very kind,” Kari replied, “What would you suggest we start with?”
“I would suggest taking the teleporter on the left of the stairway, to access the East area and start gently. The monsters of the West are fiercer, smarter, and will coordinate to fend you off; do not go there unless prepared to fight your way through from dawn to twilight. Keep the South for last, I say.”
Shroud transferred the dungeon core to his backpack. Simple. He had created dozen of such tests while a game designer, that one sounded straightforward.
“Okay, then let’s establish a perimeter in the forest before the night,” he told the group. “Kari and Ace go first as our scouts, Maggie provides cover fire, Sol and I fly around, Stitch remains safe at the center and Mur closes the march.”
This dungeon was going to be a great adventure.
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