The White Snake lived in a pristine lake at the eastern side of the forest, on a small island at its center, hidden behind a faint white mist. Only a natural bridge of polished stone connected the forest to it.
Finally, Shroud had open space to fly.
The lights above had dimmed over time, bathing the forest in a twilight-like atmosphere. The metal slowly cooled down, producing less light and less heat. “No monster has attacked us,” Kari noted. She clearly didn’t think the trees had anything to do with it.
“They fear nighttime as much as we do,” Ace pointed out, tightening her hold on her cloak as the air grew frostier. “It’s getting chiller.”
Shroud supposed the systems of the space station cooled down during the night cycle, perhaps to save energy. Which meant they might have to fight in complete darkness while freezing. If what the Rabbit had told them wasn’t an exaggeration, the night would be intense. “How long until nightfall?” he asked the Zodiac beast.
“One hour,” the Rabbit said. “They start slow and then pick up strength as the night progresses until Gye-lyong crows in the morning to wake up the sun.”
“Gye-lyong, the rooster,” Kari said softly. “Korean.”
“He’s in the Western Area, but he sings for everyone,” Kaguya replied. “He tries to shorten nights the best he can, but it tires him.”
“Shorten the night. Odd wording.” Ace noticed. “The night cycle isn’t natural?”
“It must be used to save power for the station,” Shroud guessed, the Rabbit confirming it as the group crossed the bridge.
“Gye-lyong decides when the sun is up, but without night, Taiyougami overheats from the Motherless Sun awakening.”
The Motherless Sun?
A Magik Notification popped up.
The Caged Sun
Difficulty: Dot Three (Hard)
Sponsor: the Codex.
Not all is as it seems. Taiyougami is the power of life harnessed for destruction. Within many a labyrinthian cage lies secrets. Some are hidden behind false veils that can only be lifted during a Trial. This will be your only opportunity to learn what others do not want you to. Look for the sun’s rays. Gain knowledge of your future home. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow. Gaze into the Motherless Sun within Taiyougami, and unlock its secrets. Praise the sun.
Rewards: Thirteen Spellcoins + Shining Blessing of the Motherless Sun.
Failure: the Motherless Sun is forever hidden, and/or Painful Death by Fire.
Shroud examined the wording more closely. Look for the sun’s rays? Gaze into the Motherless Sun? Did it meant locating the power source of the dungeon? The brighter the light, the darker the shadow?
“Suzhen!” the Moon Rabbit called, as she went into the mist, “Suzhen, it’s us!”
The rabbit, still carrying her mortar, managed to circle the small island twice before the rest of the team could land on it. Besides the presence of a Japanese cherry tree at the center, the place looked mostly unremarkable…
Wait a minute.
On a closer look, Shroud realized that the cherry tree grew above a much larger device, which the roots encaged and camouflaged; a metal cylinder of the same metal and general design as the Neurotower’s innards, large enough to fit a dragon inside.
— Terminal detected. Activate Lifeforge? —
The Network flash confirmed his suspicions. “Where is she?” Mur snapped at the Rabbit behind his back, suspecting foul play.
The Rabbit stopped at once, raising her ears, and hitting the ground with her back leg. “She is meditating below the waters, I can hear her breathing. Maybe she is waiting for the night to pass so she can rise back up safely?”
“We can fortify the island,” Kari said sensibly. “The waters will help.”
Shroud nodded, his eyes still on the device. He wanted to examine it at his leisure. “Kari, you still have the Ward spell?” his friend nodded. “Then let’s place it on the bridge and the shores.”
“I could Encode stones with a spell like Biosurge or Spell Syphon,” Sol proposed. “I was considering trying this at one point.”
“Biosurge,” Shroud said. “We aren’t sure if monsters can even use sorcery, so Spell Syphon may only affect us. Kaguya, do you have a set of skills that could help protect the island? How do you fend off monsters usually?”
“Uh…” the Rabbit lowered her ears in embarrassment. “I mostly run. But sometimes I hide!”
Shroud resisted the urge to facepalm. “Stitch, since you lack offensive options yet, you can stay in the back and help repair the mortar, save us time. I am assigning you the Heal spell so you can tend to our wounded if there are. Mur, Maggie, you help fortify the area. Ace, you teleport around and help Sol booby trap the opposite shore. I will survey the area from above and coordinate us in case of attack.”
“Yes, herr guv’nor,” Maggie teased him, the group scattering and leaving him to examine the cylinder.
The second Shroud connected with the device, Network pumped him with information about it. From what he gathered, this device used sorcery to alter life placed inside, either to repair illnesses or defects, create new lifeforms, or safeguard genetic data.
— Lifeforge heavily damaged. Connection to Neurotower: unavailable. Worldshaker summon unavailable. Reconfiguration function partially available. —
Shroud dived deeper into the data stream, trying to mentally input information into the device. At least this one didn’t threaten to overwhelm him. Reconfiguration? Alteration?
— Reconfiguration: altering existing lifeform based on data gathered. —
— Repairing damaged genetic code, restoration to prime fitness condition, ideal body transformation, fleshcrafting, undeath transformation. Baseline data corrupted, Green Flux reserve depleted. Other functions need unit repair. —
So the chamber could cast spells and serve as a healing point. Repair?
— Worldshaker support needed for full reboot of system. —
A Magik notification popped up at once.
Side-Quest: In My Own Image
Difficulty: Dot One (Easy)
Sponsor: the Administrator.
The Lifeforge is the alliance of Blue and Green, the will to bring order and purpose to the chaos of evolution. Unlock the full power of the Lifeforge, and with it, the secrets of sorcery.
Rewards: Network Upgrade (1/7).
Not understanding the information, Shroud left the machine alone and flew above the lake to survey the area.
Mur, who had finally decided to use some of the Spellcoins he hoarded like a magpie, purchased the Dirt Call spell and shaped a moat of dirt and mud around the island, Maggie and him climbing them and standing watch over the bridge. Kari had fortified the walls with wards, while Sol and Ace walked around the opposing shore, leaving stones laying around.
While patrolling around the island, Shroud actually found a treasure chest hidden halfway below the water but found it emptied upon opening it. It seemed the Lair, like a dungeon, had treasure laying around, but someone claimed them before the group.
When the dim twilight turned to darkness, Shroud had Ace teleport back inside the fortress by having Kari call her inside, while he and Sol kept patrolling the lake, the mist slowly lifting as the air chilled.
They didn’t have to wait long.
The second the light died out and silence fell on the forest, the dead rose in a screaming chorus.
And they were countless.
A hurricane of wailing ghosts and ectoplasmic souls erupted from the south, quickly flying over the lake. The horizon turned white from the sheer numbers of them. Shroud and Sol instantly unleashed Lightbringer and Quasar respectively, producing bright flashes and weapons of light to keep the horde at bay.
On the shores, corporeal undead—from the monkeys they killed to reanimated forest beasts—crawled out of the woodwork by the hundreds, their eerie silence contrasting neatly with the screaming souls. While most of them were critters, a few heavy hitters showed up, from disemboweled panda ogres and Japanese Oni.
But more worrying, some of the undead monkey soldiers carried primitive cannons with them; and even dead they looked able to use them. Fortunately, a few activated the Biosurge traps as they approached the shores, blown to smithereens by lightning bolts, their equipment with them.
“Retreat!” Shroud called, he and Sol retreating towards the island in haste. The incorporeal souls attempted to fall upon the island, but an invisible barrier—Kari’s wards—stopped them soundly. Instead, they kept hammering at the invisible shield, prodding it for a weak point.
Mur and Maggie immediately unleashed volley after volley of lead as invaders tried to cross the bridge, putting down quite a few. However, as the dead fell, the incorporeal souls immediately entered the corpses and even severed body parts, reanimated them at once. Some of the dead even began to reach the moat by swimming.
“Ace, use the water—” He didn’t even have to finish his sentence, Ace using Seamancer to manipulate the lake’s waters, pushing back invaders, and often tossing monsters off the bridge.
On the other side of the shores, the lighting bolts of Biosurge started to slowly peter out, the undead gathering the primitive artillery and unloaded a few shots at the island. Spreading his lightshards to form shields, Shroud bounced back cannonballs. The heavy hitters, perhaps too huge to swim, crawled on the bridge to try to smash the fortification.
“Mathias, above!” Sol called, Shroud quickly glancing above the lake. Giant spiders, the size of cars, climbed the metal ceiling, intending to bypass the lake and the fighting below to land in the middle of the island. Unlike the dead, those monsters looked alive; scavengers, hoping to get a fresh meal.
Shroud didn’t have to snipe them and break his defense, Sol quickly taking it upon himself to slaughter them before they could approach. Many let out all too human screams of pain, as the knight’s sword cut through them like butter.
Shroud, however, realized there may be a better way than slaughtering those creatures. “I’m assigning you Beastmaster,” he told Sol through Network. Within a minute of doing so, the time for the knight to get the handle on the spell, the spiders fell under his friend’s influence. Then, they literally fell upon the undead below, repurposed into battle thralls for the Dragonslayers.
A notification popped up, Shroud barely paying attention as he focused on snipping at the artillery, realizing Mur had finally fulfilled his own side-quest.
The Mur!’s Lock upgraded!
The Mur!’s lock Adamant has improved! Faster feature unlocked. When Adamant is active, the user’s speed and reflexes increase the longer he is in a fight.
Mur laughed maniacally, tossing his emptied minigun aside and swinging his hammer like an insane berserker as he landed on the bridge, smashing the undead Oni like a twig. The metal plates on his body had grown into a thick armor, the lesser undead unable to even graze him. Maggie kept providing him with cover fire, and often striking down a heavy hitter with lightning. Kaguya, who so far had cowered in fear at the assault, took it upon herself to assist the Red Sorceress by helping her reload once she ran out of bullets.
Kari and Stitch emerged to climb the moat, the latter taking a glance at the corpses rising back up as soon as a new soul entered them, and found a solution. “Deathgem,” he said, casting a Yellow spell on a corpse Mur smashed into pieces. A bright golden light surrounded a ghostly soul as it escaped the corpse, trapping it into the shape of a small, black gem. Kari, noticing this, immediately purchased the spell and started assisting, whittling down the undead army.
The group quickly synchronized into a well-oiled routine. While Mur defended the bridge, Maggie slaughtered besiegers with projectiles, Shroud providing cover through his lightshards; Sol and Ace pushed back those who managed to reach the moat through other avenues with sword, enslaved spiders, and waves, while Stitch and Kari caught any ghost or wayward soul with Deathgem to prevent the dead from rising twice in a row.
His team behaved as a single organism, subtly aware of what each member faced, covering weak points. The Blue Sorcerer didn’t even have to speak orders; they just instinctively knew what he intended before he even finished his sentences. A living network.
When a giant, serpentine shape emerged from the waters below, Shroud thought the situation would change for the worse, only for the creature to vanish towards the misty shores. The artillery barrage significantly lessened afterward.
Thankfully, it seemed they had the situation in hand.
However, when Shroud saw a second wave of corpses cross the bridge to continue the assault, he realized the siege would last a long time.
They just kept coming all night long.
While the living Yokai scavengers wisely stopped bothering them after Sol turned most of them into battle thralls, the dead rose again and again with increasing ferocity. No matter how much they dismembered the corpses, the pieces kept moving on their own unless reduced to ashes, shredded to ribbons, or neutralized with Deathgems. The ghosts hammered against the wards and let out unnerving, ghastly wails when they couldn’t cross them; and the remaining undead fired arrows and spears at the lake.
By now, even with Premium Thoughts on and repeatedly casting the Heal spell to put himself back into top shape, Shroud struggled against tiredness and mental exhaustion as he kept exchanging projectiles with the besiegers; Maggie and Ace had had to alternate taking a short nap for one hour each before returning to assist, while even the rest of the team, who either didn’t sleep or used Needless, started growing weary. Their stockpile of Deathgems had grown to the size of a large hoard.
So it was a relief when a strong, mighty caw echoed across the entire forest, paralyzing the army of the dead. The ghosts vanished as soon as the sound resonated through the air, while the walking corpses shambled and collapsed, the souls animating them banished with the faint light of dawn.
By the end of the night, hundreds of corpses floated on the lake’s pristine waters, and the riverbanks had turned to an ash-covered wasteland. None of the undead had managed to breach the moat, but not for a lack of trying.
“That was hardcore…” Maggie complained, collapsing on her back in exhaustion, next to a sleepy Moon Rabbit. “Not going to do that every night…”
“Best time of Mur’s life!” Looking more like a burning metal juggernaut than an imp, Mur seemed thoroughly happy with himself, gathering the soul gems as trophies. He seemed disappointed when the metal plates on his body receded, with the danger over.
Shroud let out a tired sigh, as he landed on the island with Sol. The only good thing that came out of the night was the increased heat coming from the dungeon core in his backpack; the device had gorged itself on the slaughter like a vulture on fresh carrion. “Where did all those spirits come from?”
“From the south,” Solomon said. “Their numbers bother me.”
“Yes. I doubt a full space station could breed such an immense army of spirits. And we only faced them in one area.” Shroud glanced around, Kari diligently picking up the Deathgems laying around. “At least these ones will not return to trouble us.”
“On the subject of breeding, I would like to keep the corpses, as nutriment for my Lock’s spawns,” Stitch said. “Breeding our own monsters would help fend off our opposition.”
“The Rooster didn’t affect you,” Shroud noted.
Even sleepy, Ace quickly caught on. “The effect causing the dead to rise and vanish doesn’t affect all undead, only the spirits from Taiyougami.”
“A Zodiac member must be the source of the undead plague,” Sol said, removing his helmet to breathe some fresh air and remove the sweat of his forehead. “If we stop him, we can end this cycle.”
A Magik notification popped up as if to answer him.
The Restful Dead
Difficulty: Dot Three (Hard)
Sponsor: Jackal Mummy.
While this trial is not my Lair, ignoring the dead rising from their grave to attack the living would go against my duties as warden of the restful dead; and you already sent back the dead back to death on my behalf twice before. Solve the rising dead problem plaguing Taiyougami.
Rewards: Fifteen Spellcoins for each Dragonslayers.
Shroud mused that the group would be loaded with Spellcoins, if they survived the dungeon.
In the meantime, having their own troops to throw at the enemies might help reduce the pressure. “After you repair the mortar, you can… do your breeding work, Doc.”
“That has already been done before the spirits attacked, sir,” Stitch said.
Kaguya’s head perked up as she heard this. “Really?” The rabbit leaped around to her tools, examining them inside and out. “That was so quick! How did you do it?”
“Centuries of familiarity with alchemical tools, and the purchase of Premium Thoughts to increase productivity. I expect our next Quest to help refund this investment.”
Kaguya nodded in appreciation, grabbing the emblem around her neck and gifting it to Stitch. “Promised, given!”
Speaking of gifts from the Zodiac, a shape emerged from the lake, slipping above the moat, and reaching the gathered group. “Suzhen!” the Moon Rabbit chirped upon recognizing the creature.
As Shroud had guessed, the creature from last night was the Serpent Zodiac; a thin, but thirty meters long white snake with old, worn scales and graying eyes. The animal moved with the elegance of an ancient, majestic beast, but clearly suffered from aging.
The White Snake observed the group, her gaze settling the longest on Sol before fixating on Shroud’s obscured face in silence. The Blue Sorcerer removed his helmet upon understanding the implicit message, the serpent appraising him closely before eyeing Maggie and having her remove her mask. The reptile barely spared her a glance before focusing on Kaguya. “Suzhen!” The Moon Rabbit said with great excitement. “Good to see you again.”
“Kaguya-hime, why do you bring humans to disturb my meditation?” the serpent asked, less enthusiastic than her furry fellow. Her voice resonated with strength but also showed her age. “The vengeful dead carried their grudges to my pond.”
“But they are here for the trials!” Kaguya replied. “Her Majesty asked us to give them our emblem, no?”
The serpent noticed Stitch carrying the Rabbit’s emblem and putting it in his backpack, and then eyed Shroud’s backpack. She could probably sense the core within. “I see.”
“Madame White Snake?” Kari asked, polite as ever. “We are honored to meet you.”
She tried to hide it, but the snake briefly raised her head in flattered vanity, pleased that humans still remembered her name. “Bai Suzhen, Madame White Snake, Shirohebi… I have many names, but Bai Suzhen is my favorite.”
The creature released a bright light, her immense form condensing into the shape of a woman, wearing a white dress. Much to Shroud surprise, while wrinkled and ancient, she didn’t take the shape of an old woman, but an attractive, middle-aged Asian lady. Her black hair had a few white strands here and here, while her blue eyes had slitted pupils. She must have been a peerless beauty while younger, and still carried herself with a noblewoman’s elegance.
And she carried the serpent emblem as a brooch in her hair.
“You must be tired after such an exhausting battle,” Bai Suzhen declared. “While I lack amenities, I know of a nice garden with fresh fruits nearby.” She stared the longest at Sol, her eyes betraying some wariness.
“Is something the matter?” Sol asked, slightly embarrassed.
“A priest caused me much trouble in the past,” she said. “I can smell your spiritual piety from here.”
“I will take this as a badge of honor,” Solomon replied. “I assure you, I have no quarrel with you.”
“In fact, we accept your offer of tea with pleasure, but could you answer a question first?” Ace asked, trying to draw the serpent’s attention away from the priest upon noticing his unease. “What spell did you use to transform? I am curious.”
“None.” She sounded a bit bothered by the comparison. “Shapeshifting is an ability I cultivated through training my chi, no different from a bird flying, or a fish breathing underwater. It is a natural ability, which even humans may unlock with immortality pills, meditation, and lifelong training.”
“Sounds like sorcery to Mur.”
“Sorcery is different. It is as unnatural as those skyfaring metal birds you humans created, from what I heard.” Realizing the group was mostly all business, she cut through the small talk. “I am not willing to give my emblem as easily as Kaguya, who prizes kindness above all… while I favor skillfulness. I am willing to negotiate for my emblem if you prove your resourcefulness.”
Mur’s hand almost reached for his minigun in annoyance, but Kari interrupted him with a glare. The imp relented. “Shall we make a trade then?” Shroud proposed before the tension could rise further.
“I am cultivating chi in order to gain greater power,” Bai Suzhen explained. “We immortals gain supernatural power as we meditate, or by ingesting special substances. I asked Kaguya-hime to assist me in my efforts by brewing elixirs to hasten the process.”
“Which I can, now that they repaired my mortar!” Kaguya-Hime chirped.
“Even with her pills though, it would take me two hundred years of meditation to ascend to a higher level,” Bai Suzhen said. “I would be willing to trade my emblem for a shortcut if you can provide one.”
“Like the Lifeforge over there?” Shroud asked, pointing at the cylinder.
He knew he had her the second he uttered that thing’s name, as her eyes flared with interest. “You already encountered one before?”
“No, but I can control this machine,” Shroud replied. “While not fully functional, it can still alter life placed within.”
“Truly?” Stitch butted in the conversation. “What kind of alterations?”
“Pretty much everything, from what I gathered,” Shroud replied, “Including turning people into undead and fleshcrafting.”
“Fleshcrafting? With what material? Genetic alteration, fusing flesh from an external source?”
Shroud shrugged his shoulders.
“Suzhen, that capsule, it’s one of the old machines’ creations, right?” The Moon Rabbit’s ears narrowed in anxiety. “Please, tell me you won’t use it!”
“It hasn’t worked since Her Majesty brought it here eons ago,” the White Snake replied. “What harm can it do now?”
“Plenty, if mismanaged,” Shroud said. While he had no idea what Worldshakers were, the name sounded sinister. “Fortunately, you have an expert available.”
“I am researching this machine, yes, but not for cultivation,” the White Snake replied. “However if you can make it work safely, I will accept it as an alternative to your trial and reward you appropriately.”
“I do not believe this service is worth the emblem alone,” Shroud replied mirthfully.
Bai Suzhen cackled in amusement. “If you give me nothing, you cannot conquer this golden sun.”
“If we give you nothing, you stay in a pond two hundred years, if the dead do not kill you first.” To say nothing of Mur, who clearly thought they wasted time negotiating and was still high on bloodlust. “You said you gain power through meditation, do you not? What if I told you I can not only make this machine work, and allow you to cultivate your power at a greatly enhanced rate for as long as you work for us?”
Bai Suzhen examined him with a new gaze, trying to see if he was bluffing or not. By now, Shroud had grown too experienced for focused glares to bother him. “What work?” she finally asked, curious but cautious.
“You fought the undead.”
“To protect my home.”
“So do we,” Shroud replied. “A tyrant has taken our world from us, and we want it back.”
“You would have me fight for you. While I miss my homeland of China, the midgardian dragons are fearsome foes.”
“Fearsome, but you are a smart and wise deity.” As Network had nudged him, well-timed flattery, even erroneous and brash, worked wonders to mollify that vain serpent. “Certainly you have knowledge to share that we can make use of?”
Truthfully, if the Dragonslayers were ever to take on Concordia, they needed manpower. A supernatural snake wasn’t what he had in mind, but he might as well begin recruiting now.
Bai Suzhen appraised the group, who maintained their poker faces and then focused back on Shroud. Her curiosity had overwhelmed her. “Tell me more about this shortcut… and we may reach an agreement. ”
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Thanks to my patrons on Patreon, Saul Kurzman, Dex, Warwick Robertson, BlissForgotten, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, Daniel Zogbi. When I need to ward off a spirit invasion, I always give them a call.