Shroud reconsidered, after shielding his team from a volley of bullets with a shield of lightglass and answering by firing shards at the branches above.
A band of monkey warriors fired from behind the cover of leaves armed with primitive arquebuses. Much like the previous groups, they wore light, boiled leather, and steel armor, with a white tiger insignia proudly displayed on their chest. “Eight,” Shroud said, counting them. “Ten.”
At least these ones didn’t have those panda-like ogres with them, unlike the last group. Those creatures could take a savage beating.
Mur immediately fired a volley of Reinforced bullets with his minigun in their general direction, imitated by Maggie. The rain of lead devastated the foliage above, causing a few of the monkeys to fall dead among the group, with the others quickly retreating by leaping to other trees. Kari, that damn ninja, quickly climbed the trees’ bark with Wallcrawl at immense speed, assisted by Shroud and Maggie’s precise cover fire. Within seconds she caught up with the stragglers and crushed them like ants.
Stitch, completely undisturbed by the attack moved to examine one of the monkeys’ corpses, while Ace let out a sigh; she had made a move to draw a knife but the team had won too fast for her to do anything. Even Sol hadn’t had the time to take flight. “I figured they learned their lesson after the third time.”
The Goat hadn’t lied, and the Wood Dragon’s Forest deserved its name. It was probably as large as the water area but with a far smaller ceiling—reaching one hundred meters max—the forest was a closed environment welcoming various species of trees, small and tall, gathering into dense woods. The golden metal ceiling provided light, while the builders buried the ground beneath their feet with earth, dirt, and grass. While tracks allowed the group to move around, they couldn’t see where to go.
He would have happily flown above the area to find a path, but the trees had grown as close to the light above as possible and reached the ceiling. The sorcerer had had to struggle against leaves for minutes before giving up. Cutting the branches with his lightshards might help open a path, but would be noticed.
Unfortunately, that area overflew with monsters that attacked on sight, mostly those monkey soldiers. That was the fourth group of attackers they had to fend off during the last two hours; while nothing special and quick to defeat—especially since Kari’s Doom Sense gave the group advance warning—those monkeys liked to ambush them with primitive firearms and often escorted larger tougher monsters. While looking like animals, enough that Beastmaster could sense them the way it had with Lugh, they were too intelligent, too human, to fall under his control.
He had also noticed a great number of rats populating the forest, whose mind seemed to escape the power of Beastmaster as well… perhaps envoys of the Rat Zodiac, lurking around.
Shroud floated near Stitch, who examined one of the corpses. The volley of Mur’s minigun had torn the body in half, to the point even Heal couldn’t save him; the sight reminded the Blue Sorcerer of his father’s death, much to his disturbance.
“I believe we could try to salvage one with the Heal spell next time,” the doctor said, observing the corpse’s cranium. “They are clearly intelligent, if their equipment, capacity for ambushes, and brain capacity is any indication.”
“The tiger symbol,” Kari said. All the monkeys encountered so far carried one around. “It is an insignia.”
“They aren’t beasts, they are an army,” Shroud agreed. “Maybe the Tiger’s?”
“I thought disciplined monsters only made their home in the western area?” Solomon pointed out.
“They could forage for food and material,” Stitch said, pointing a finger at the bags the monkeys carried, containing cut wood. “They probably use the wood from this forest to produce their arsenal.”
“It’s strange they keep finding us,” Ace noted. “Either they have overrun this forest, or they have a method to track us.”
“We keep turning around,” Sol said, noticing a marked, evergreen tree nearby. Kari had grazed that one as a landmark, in case they found themselves turning back by accident. “We are clearly lost.”
“Something doesn’t match,” Ace said. “I purchased the Pathfinder spell.”
“A useless one,” Mur commented.
“I can geolocate any place I have been to before,” Ace said, ignoring the imp. “We haven’t been here before.”
“But the trees are the same,” Kari replied, Oversoul’s ethereal claws grazing the bark to put another mark. The leaves shifted so imperceptibly as Kari did so, someone without Premium Thoughts would have missed the movement.
Shroud touched the bark of the tree and sensed the jolt of Network activate, confirming his suspicions. Without warning, the sorcerer unleashed a lightshard through the bark, the tree let out a scream of agony and surprise. Crimson eyes opened on the bark, alongside fanged maws on the branches, as the tree fell dead to the side, red blood dripping from its wounds.
The rest of the team immediately caught on, as a four evergreen trees around them—including the one Kari had marked before—revealed their true nature, their roots rising from the ground like feet, and fleshy tubes springing from the tip of their branches.
They were no match for the Guild, though. Mur smashed the nearest one with his hammer, breaking it like a twig in one blow, while Sol sharply sliced one to ribbons in a graceful swing; the sight alone caused the remaining plants to try running away, but Shroud just shredded them from behind with lightshards. The ‘battle’ had lasted less than a minute.
No wonder they got lost! Some of the trees were monsters, and moved on their own!
They didn’t look like fighters though; Shroud guessed they either focused on exhausting their prey before attacking or leading them to a dangerous spot. “Jubokko,” Kari said, recognizing the creatures. “Blood-sucking trees.”
“Maybe all the trees in that forest are monsters,” Ace pointed out, readying knives to fight with.
“Mur will burn this forest down,” the imp said, ready to incinerate the other trees.
Before Shroud could call him off—since they were inside the forest—a child-like voice came out of a white maple tree, pleading for mercy. “Wait!” Much to his surprise, its peach-like fruits morphed into the shape of genderless human faces. “Please don’t hurt us!”
“What the hell?!” Maggie looked at the creature, dumbfounded, pointing her guns at it. “I can’t shoot baby faces, even if they’re fruit things… it feels so wrong…”
“I am Ninmenju, the human-faced tree,” the tree called, deliberately lowering his pitch to sound even younger; it probably thought that it would be as uncomfortable to shoot as possible. “I can speak your language. Please, do not harm us for the crimes of those ruffians. They learned their lesson and will not trouble you again.”
“So all the trees in this forest are monsters?” Kari asked.
As if to answer her, the leaves of all trees moved at once, echoing a strange, pitiful shriek. The team immediately put themselves on guards. “Yokai,” Ninmenju replied, sounding offended by the terminology. “Yes, all of us are self-aware. I am sorry for the reception, some of us gained their minds from drinking human blood and haven’t tasted it for centuries.”
“If you try to ambush us again, we will turn this forest into a clean, flat meadow,” Shroud warned them. “Am I understood?”
“Mur loves the sound of wood turning to cinders,” Mur added with malice, the trees let out a brief whisper with an undercurrent of outrage.
“Alright, alright…” the tree grumbled, its leaves making some strange sound. “The forest parliament will no longer trouble you unless you try to cut us down like those monkeys. Happy? Now please leave. As if Baihu wasn’t enough…”
“Bad blood?” Maggie asked, amused.
“We thought we could have you both wipe the others out,” the tree admitted. “So we led you to those foraging groups. Plant two trees with one seed.”
“Why though?” Stitch kept asking with curiosity. “Does monkey blood taste as good as human blood?”
“That’s Baihu the White Tiger’s fault!” Ninmenju declared, incensed, “Since he took over the Western Area, Baihu sends his minions to cut us by the dozens! So we retaliate!”
“How does he get in?” Shroud asked. “The southern teleporter?” Unlike the North Area, the teleporters didn’t border each other in this one. He supposed the access to the South area was, well, south of their location.
“The monkeys fortified it,” the tree explained. “He is too wary of Shifuyáng-sama to send his soldiers through the North Area, so they go through the south, were the teleporters border one another.”
At least they knew the Tiger had taken over the Western Area. With that in mind, they could track him anytime. “Honorable Ninmenju,” Kari said, finding herself playing the good cop of the group. “We are looking for the Zodiac members of this area. If you could point us to them, we will not stay long in this area.”
“If you agree to get rid of those monkeys, then we can open the path to them,” the tree tried to negotiate, but Mur would have none of it.
“Mur has a counter-offer. Mur not kill you if you send us to the target. Thirty seconds before Mur goes through with it. Twenty-nine…”
The imp’s dangerous tone made the tree fold, both metaphorically and literally. “Alright, alright, no need for violence! Damn, fire Yokai are just the worst…”
Shroud made a note to have Kari and Mur play good bad cop more often, and then led the group through the path. “Which Zodiac member occupies this place?”
The trees chittered together. Since Babel didn’t translate it, Shroud wondered if they also used other methods of communications the group couldn’t perceive, such as using their roots. “The Rabbit Kaguya, the Dog Hachiko,” Ninmenju replied, “Madame White Snake, the Serpent. Sun Wukong the Monkey comes and goes wherever he pleases. The Rabbit is the closest.”
“Bring us to it,” Shroud all but ordered. “After we gather all their emblems, we will solve the south teleporter problem.”
“Do not take it personally when I pray all of you mammals wipe out one another,” Ninmenju complained, as the trees moved to reveal a wide path. “Now leave please…”
The group followed the path, the trees pointedly moving as far from Mur as possible; with the imp relishing brushing against them. It wasn’t long before the group reached a meadow, and the rabbit sitting at the center.
Rabbit, or hare? Shroud couldn’t clearly identify the creature’s exact species, as it mixed a few features from various sources. It was very small, barely reaching the same height as Mur’s impish true form, the rabbit had fur white as snow and curious eyes, carrying a mortar with its tiny forearms and an emblem around its neck. Its head jerked in the group’s direction as it noticed them.
“Oh? Visitors? Players?!” the rabbit squeaked with a female, human voice. Like those Duracell rabbit commercials, the animal jumped in place with limitless energy. “Hello friends, my name is Kaguya, the Moon Rabbit of the Zodiac! Welcome, welcome, welcome!”
She closed the distance between them in the blink of an eye, before stopping as Stitch suddenly lowered himself to get a better look at the creature. The sight of an undead creature looking at her with vulture-like interested must have disturbed the rabbit, because she said, “I’m not a snack!”
“No, no, far from my mind, I am simply amazed by your biological novelty,” Stitch replied with a tone that should have sounded kindly but instead made the rabbit shudder.
“This is the first time you see a rabbit, boneface?” Maggie commented.
“Is that what they are called? Their legs’ optimization for speed presents wonderful opportunities for grafts…”
“Kaguya-hime,” Kari said as if remembering a story, and thankfully drawing the rabbit’s attention away from their most disturbing teammate.
“Ah yes, that time I took a human shape and the Emperor of Nippon tried to marry me! I told him I wasn’t interested, but he insisted that old fool! Do humans believe rabbits have only mating on their mind?”
“… yes,” Shroud replied.
“But I’m a Moon Rabbit, that’s different!” the creature replied, offended. “I’m not going to marry a human, even if I take the shape of one! That would be bestiality, like romping a cat!”
“Mur heard humans sleep with anything that looks slightly like them,” the imp commiserated. “Even vampires.”
“D-Did you just call our entire species whores?” Maggie stammered angrily, the gargoyle shrugging.
“I must say you humans have a reputation for…” Stitch struggled to find a word that wouldn’t offend the rest of the group. “Welcomeness. I blame uniquely high socializing abilities and great crossbreeding potential.”
“Ugh…” the Rabbit shuddered. “I will stay in my true form, thank you very much. But I can introduce you to White Snake if you want! She’s so fond of humans, I’m sure she will like one of you!”
Shroud sighed, as the Rabbit appraised Kari. “You look familiar,” she said. “Did we meet in a former life of yours?”
“I think so,” Kari replied, unleashing the golden aura of Oversoul. “If you have items of my former incarnation…”
“You can touch everything I own but my mortar; I haven’t found the time to repair it yet and it’s super duper fragile right now.”
Shroud wondered why it would take long to repair a mortar, before taking a long hard look at the Rabbit’s device. While easy to mistake for a primitive tool from afar, under closer scrutiny, the mortar revealed thin steel lines and broken circuits on its surface—the structure reminded him of the magitech empowering Concordia’s UB. “Seems very advanced for a mortar.”
“My kind use them to brew elixirs of life.” The Rabbit’s ears suddenly narrowed in sadness. “Or used to, before the war. My parents sent me to Earth for my safety, until it ended. But they killed everyone, and now I am alone.”
“What war?” Shroud asked, wondering if she meant the Concordian invasion. He did wonder how humans missed a rabbit civilization on the Moon, though?
“The war with the old machines,” the Rabbit replied, shuddering. “I still have nightmares remembering them.”
“The Gearsmen?” Solomon asked although the timing didn’t match.
“No. The old machines. Those that built the towers, ate the gods, and stole a thousand worlds.”
— Kaguya ran for her life with the rest of her warren, as the flying fortress let out a deafening sound; an arm of boiling metal emerged from the immense cauldron, to grab the moon goddess’ corpse —
The Rabbit grew more anxious and agitated as she went on as if remembering a terrible memory. “I was so young when it happened… only the Goat and the Dragon remember it well.”
Shroud sensed she wanted them to drop the subject and so didn’t push it. “I am so sorry,” Sol said with warmth and kindness. “We didn’t wish to open old wounds.”
“It’s okay!” The Rabbit replied, once again full of cheerfulness. Shroud found the swift change in behavior somewhat jarring. “I just feel a bit edgy with my mortar broken. It’s already hard as it is to repair, and the night monsters keep trying to kill me! They interrupt anytime I sit down to work on it. Night is so dangerous nowadays, you wouldn’t belie—”
“Would you consider parting ways with your emblem, if we protected you?” Sol asked with diplomacy before a bored Mur could suggest simply eating her for breakfast.
“I would gladly assist in repairing this mortar,” Stitch proposed humbly.
“Oh? Oh yes, of course, that would be so kind! If I can do anything else to pay you back for the service, except human romping…”
Jackpot. “We’re looking for all the emblems of the Zodiac,” Shroud said. “If you can tell us about the others…”
“With pleasure! I was going to visit the Serpent for help with the mortar problem, we can travel together. Please say yes, yes, yes!”
“With pleasure,” Shroud spoke for the group. The Moon Rabbit squealed in happiness, which the sorcerer found adorable.
“Well, my kind furball,” Ace said, amused by the beast’s reaction. “This Madame White Snake sounds like a very interesting person.”
“She is!” the Rabbit said, still in the clouds at making new friends. “She’s graceful and beautiful and kind and she works so hard to cultivate immortality; even harder than Shifuyáng! Nothing like that slacker Zhy Baije, even if he’s the kindest pig I ever met.”
“Your Zodiac friends seem to be very good company,” Ace carried on.
“They are! Sun Wukong is so funny, but only because he is not, but he thinks he is funny, so that makes it funny! Gye-lyong is very serious but that’s because he has the hardest job.”
The group remained silent, as the Rabbit kept blabbering about her fellow Zodiac members; unlike the wiser Goat, once started she just couldn’t stop. Ace seemed even a tiny bit disappointed that she didn’t have to try hard to coax information out of her.
“Hachiko… he’s stubborn. Like super duper stubborn. I mean, you would figure out your master is dead after so long, but he keeps insisting he is alive. Ox-Head and Horse-Face are such good friends with one another, I wish had a best friend like them! Baihu is a big bully, but that’s because he’s a big softie inside and he doesn’t want to show it, and, and…”
The rabbit hit the ground with her left leg, interrupting the endless flow of words. “And it’s almost night and we need to go!” she said. “The monsters will rise soon!”
“Mur not afraid of pushovers,” the imp said, unimpressed. “We wiped them out good.”
“Ah… you killed other Yokai?” The rabbit lowered her ears. “Did you, uh… burn the corpses?”
Shroud wondered about the question but quickly figured it out. Uh oh, he thought. “How bad will it be?”
“They’re always angry when they wake up again, and since they’re angry they bring friends with them and they bring other friends and… and we really need to take shelter now.”
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