Manah had a point. Playing the mastermind and spymaster fit his natural strengths better than a frontline fighter.
With the White Snake’s island turned into a temporary camp for the team, Shroud had dispatched various members of the group, managing them from the island, alongside checking up on his clones in the Midnight Market. He had to permanently dispel one to grant Bai Suzhen a taste of the power, leaving the serpent and her double to meditate at the bottom of the lake.
He sent Mur and Kari—probably the best members of the group for the purpose of combat—to look for the Southern Teleporter, while Ace, Sol, and Maggie escorted Kaguya to meet the Dog Zodiac, who lived deeper in the forest. Only Stitch remained with him on the island, feeding the corpses of defeated monsters to his horrible larvae and studying the Lifeforge.
One of his clones in the Midnight Market had found information on the Worldshakers in an unlikely source: Dis: Worlds of Power.
Praise the Worldshakers, for they are the hands of the Cosmocrator and the eyes of the World Machine; fear the Worldshakers, for they are each a world, cleansed and reforged; honor the Worldshakers, for if your faith is true, then your soul too shall ascend to become one with them. So spoke Ashmal, the one true prophet.
Shroud had found an interesting way to recycle memories: have one of the doubles dispel their own clone, sending the memories back to the original, before casting Doppelganger again. At first, the repeated memory gains bothered him—influx of memories in the middle of conversation temporarily distracted him—but he had grown used to it. He guessed Premium Thoughts allowed his brain to sort the information effectively.
Still, Shroud had hoped for a clear answer to his question, instead of an enigma.
“Shroud,” Kari called on her Network feed, drawing his attention. He observed through her and Mur’s eyes, exploring the remains of a destroyed wooden fort surrounding a teleporter identical to the one leading to the Northern Area. Shroud expected an ambush, but no one bothered Mur and Kari as they explored the ruins. Besides a few emptied treasure chests, they found nothing noteworthy.
The Tiger’s minions had abandoned their own forest camp. Shroud thought at first the undead had gotten to them first, but the lack of corpses said otherwise. No, they had retreated back to fortify the West, perhaps because survivors of the skirmishes told their leader about the Dragonslayers’ presence.
The fact the Tiger hadn’t bothered with diplomatic overtures upon learning of their presence spoke volumes about his mindset. A month ago, Shroud would have advocated seizing the opportunity and going in guns-blazing before the monsters could organize and fortify. He contained those impulses the best he could, trying to plan farther ahead and prepare. “Mur, I am granting you the Doppelganger spell,” Shroud told the imp. “Can you send a double through the teleporter? It may be booby-trapped on the other side.”
The imp grumbled as he did so, creating a double of his own. Since the spell didn’t duplicate Hacks, the double took the shape of an imp. “Mur not surprised,” the original said. “But Mur still disappointed.”
“Yes, Mur looks very good with Pitborn,” the double told the original. “Fearsome and strong and big!”
“Mur reconsidering using the spell. Mur finally having intelligent conversation here.” From the feed, Shroud had the distinct impression Kari had rolled her eyes at that biting remark, as the small imp hopped into the teleporter and vanished. “Kari…”
“I will ward the area around our teleporter,” the girl anticipated his demand.
He didn’t have to wait long for Mur to get feedback from his double. “They shot Mur’s clone.”
“Give me the details,” Shroud commanded.
“South is hot and gets hotter, with rivers of molten metal. Feels like home to Mur, but you squishies will need protection; beasts swim in the metal. The teleporter to the West is right next to the East’s, like in the North.” Could the Lair’s areas be symmetrical? “Mur fled through the other teleporter when a red worm tried to eat him. He saw big metal walls with cannons, and voices asking Mur to surrender. Mur told them to get bent and was shot.”
Somehow it didn’t surprise him. At least it confirmed his hypothesis, the Western monsters barricaded themselves inside their territory. Perhaps, like Shroud, they waited to examine them closely before striking?
“Does Mur go himself?” Mur asked, eager for another fight. Adamant had made him a bit too high on its power to Shroud’s liking.
“No. Not yet. Ward and trap the teleporter, then return before night.”
He probably would have had more success on Earth, had he behaved with more caution and not rushed into things. Had he truly been so short-sighted, blinded by his wrath?
At least, it wasn’t too late to change.
He left the two to focus on the other team, who had found the Dog and already engaged in a conversation.
… That was a big, big dog.
The beast looked like a spritz-like white dog, except the size of a war elephant. Its strong teeth could probably tear apart steel, and the golden, luxurious collar around his neck matched the samurai helmet on its head. Its red eyes, while peaceful, revealed a bit of the fierce will behind them; one which could easily turn to bloodlust if provoked.
The dog emblem was enshrined on the helmet for all to see. “Ueno-sama asked me to keep the emblem until he found a worthy owner,” it said to Sol, who led the party. “You are not Ueno-sama.”
“Hachiko…” Kaguya struggled to find her words. “He’s uh… he’s been gone for how long? Months?”
“What do you mean to say, little rabbit?”
“Uh… Maybe he’s dead…”
The dog’s eyes lit up. “Ueno-sama is not dead. I will not suffer this slander.”
“Then where is he?” Sol asked kindly.
“Ueno-sama is away,” the Dog Zodiac said with a tone that implied he had no idea himself, before insisting. “Ueno-sama is not dead. The dead rise at night and Ueno-sama was never among them. If he was dead, he would visit me. Unless you have proof of what you say, I will hear none of it.”
“So if we find proof of your master’s whereabouts, you will grant us your emblem?” Sol asked.
“If Ueno-sama asks me to. Ueno-sama is away, and until he returns, I will not move from this spot nor surrender my emblem.”
“So, your master or nothing,” Ace summed it up. “Do you have anything that could help us identify him?”
The giant dog pointed at a statue near his lair, representing an aged, Asian man. “Ueno-sama is a great and wise scholar, who went on to travel in search of an answer to the rising dead problem. The problem remains, so he is certainly still searching.”
The Rabbit clearly thought otherwise, but wisely said nothing, as Shroud memorized the face of the man in question. Overall, the meeting led to little progress; the Dog remained adamant his master had to grant him permission to give away the emblem—and that he would gladly help them afterward. He would obey his orders to the letter and nothing else.
“Nerd,” Maggie said, once the group had left the dog to his vigil. “I would have suggested taking that emblem from him but I… I can’t bring myself to shoot a dog. That’s low, the kind of stuff Jack does.”
“We could always trick him,” Ace suggested. “If Stitch is half the surgeon he pretends to be, changing one’s face to fit the dog’s master should be easy.”
Shroud could always assist in the process by reading the Dog’s mind with Network, but it would bode ill for subsequent recruitment, should the demigod realize the trick. “Too reckless,” Shroud said. “We will check if his master isn’t in one of the other areas before doing anything that drastic.”
Next, a sudden Magik Notification made him focus on Stitch.
Doc completed his sidequest! Doc’s Lock upgraded!
Doc has gained the ability Incubate: larvae can now lay eggs in fresh corpses for eventual reproduction.
Useful, but disgusting.
Stitch had said his side-quest focused on rearing a larva to maturity, and he had done so. After feasting on corpses to grow, one of the creatures had grown into a tall, bipedal horror, carrying its thick, thick body on two thin insectoid legs. It wielded four, sharp grapple-like claws as arms, while its terrible face hadn’t changed much, it had gained strong mandibles.
The horror nearly matched its ‘father’ in height, yet behaved with great docility in his presence. Had the sight of an undead skeleton petting an insect beast together not been utterly repulsive, Shroud would have found them endearing.
At least Shroud had noticed he could affect the creature with Beastmaster. Just in case.
Bai Suzhen eventually emerged from the waters in her serpent form, climbing the moat and landing on the island’s grass in her human form; alone. She had probably dispelled the double to see if she truly received its memories. “Was my gift up to your expectations?” Shroud asked her, as he had no idea if the process would truly accelerate her chi cultivation process.
“It will greatly shorten my spiritual training,” Bai Suzhen confirmed. “But I need more than one.”
“The number available will depend on what you can bring on the table,” Shroud replied bluntly.
“You drive a hard bargain,” she complained, “What year were you born?”
“2010. What does it have to do with it?”
“The Year of the Tiger,” Bai Suzhen sighed. “Of course you would be a tiger, brash and proud and the Yang to the Dragons’ Yin.”
“I do not believe in that superstition,” Shroud replied, although he found the latter part slightly amusing.
“You should,” Bai Suzhen defended her beliefs. “It will help you find a perfect match to balance you out. It helped tremendously in my case.”
“I learned of the legends surrounding you. You’re married to a human, right?”
“Widowed. You did not know that this morning.”
He didn’t, but he had one of his clones investigate in the Market. That process truly saved him a lot of time. “That ancient war?”
“No. Aging. Humans are frail, short-lived creatures.”
“I would expect you to look for other white snakes, instead of mammals.”
“I would if there were more than one. Beggars must settle with what they can get.”
Shroud blinked. “Ah.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
She smiled without humor. “As long as I live, my kind is not gone, unlike your polar bears.”
She had kept informed of Earth’s developments, but not very recent ones. “Concordia repopulated them through mass cloning and genetic engineering,” Shroud replied. One of the few good things the Empire did was repair human damage to the ecosystem, even if they had reshaped it to their purpose.
“Good for them,” she said, sounding as if she wouldn’t try that method in a million years. Considering Concordian bears looked little like the originals—optimized, the dragons said—he couldn’t blame her.
“I keep finding hints that mythical beings once ruled the Earth, but vanished.”
“Thousands of years ago, when your civilization did not even know how to write,” Bai Suzhen explained, “deities, demigods, fiends and monsters ruled the primordial Earth and other worlds, with humans only one of the races inhabiting them. It was a time of myths and chaos…”
Why did all stories have to start with ‘in ancient times’? “What ended it?” he asked, more interested in the final result.
“The old machines arrived through violet breaches and a rain of falling stars, an unrelenting tide of metal,” the White Snake explained. “They sundered the skies and attacked relentlessly, building gates to bring more of their numbers, raised the towers from the ground, and stole the dominions of the gods. This the deities called the Godwar.”
“From the name, I assume they fought back.”
“They did,” Bai Suzhen conceded. “This golden sun was crafted for the war, at first. But neither gods nor demons were a match for the power of sorcery, which the machines brought with them. They laid waste to Hell and the Nine Worlds and Duat. They killed or captured so many of us, the whole of Earth smelled like a rotting corpse. Some gods fell into despair and madness, like Dagda, King of the Wild Hunt, before his exile.”
“How did the war end?”
“It never did,” her eyes narrowed in interest, as she sensed an opportunity to gain the upper hand. “I will not say more until you fulfill your full end of the bargain, and activate the forge.”
Piquing his curiosity only to toy with it? She didn’t know who she was dealing with.
— “Foolish,” Bai Suzhen told the eight, upon learning of her decision. Even Baihu, that brash warlord, stood with the Zodiac on this. “Too few of us remain to free China by strength of arms.”
“Her Majesty asked us to remain hidden for the time being,” Shifuyáng replied.
“The Eight Immortals did not swear fealty to her, but to China itself,” Lü Dongbin said, the other immortals nodding in agreement. “The dragons’ leader seeks to master the power of the ancient machines, and must be stopped before she either succeeds or brings them back by accident.”
“Our time will come, and rashness brings only further chaos. Patience. Our hour will come.”
“Mayhaps, but the people will suffer until we make a move. Our people. Our decision is made. We will wait no longer; we will act.” —
The White Snake frowned slightly, as if she had felt the power of Network, but couldn’t identify it nor block it the way the Goat could. He admitted it felt a bit dishonorable to steal information from her mind until he reminded himself all was fair in war. “So this station is more than a weapon,” Shroud said, diverting her attention. “This is an Ark for endangered magical species.”
The White Snake nodded with a hint of sadness. “If we had remained on Earth among your kind, perhaps we could have rebuilt our numbers, but we had no choice but hide.”
“… Don’t tell me that—”
“Humans are… flexible.” She laughed at Shroud’s embarrassed silence. “Your blood folds easily, allowing you to father or mother children of other species easily, the child taking more features from the other parent. That was why the gods prized you, and perhaps why you survived where many vanished.”
Shroud didn’t like the idea of his species used as reproductive stock, obviously. He had heard humans tended to adapt well to other social structures, which was why Concordia often incorporated them as lieutenants; and why undead tended to turn many humans into more of their kind. The implications bothered him deeply.
Bai Suzhen’s amused look didn’t help. The woman took schadenfreudian pleasure in his discomfort. “On the subject of the Lifeforge, I can indeed get the device to work,” Shroud said. “Although my experience with that technology makes me wary.”
“I will take full responsibility for whatever happens,” she replied with some impatience. “Do it.”
Shroud nodded, walking towards the cylinder with her, finding Stitch and his spawn examining it. Bai Suzhen couldn’t help but show disgust at the creatures. “I do wonder, Stitch,” Shroud said out loud, somewhat amazed by his colleague’s dedication to pushing the limits of his own understanding, “What you will use this gathered knowledge for?”
“I have a long-term objective,” Stitch admitted. “To abolish death for all living beings.”
“Some would say death is part of nature and should not be avoided,” Bai Suzhen replied, although her wording avoided committing her to any side.
“So are diseases,” Stitch replied. “Death is a plague to be cured. How much knowledge and genius was lost forever when a unique individual met their early demise? How much pain did death cause over history, separating loved ones, causing species to vanish? Death slows our progress, forcing restart after restart. For the greater good of all, it must be conquered, mastered.”
“What about dictators? Would they live forever too?” Shroud pondered the philosophical implications. He wondered if Stitch projected the blame of his civilization’s loss at the Reavers’ hands on death itself.
“This is a problem that exists even with death,” Stitch replied. “The short-term societal impact of scientific advancement is not my concern, for the long-term benefits outweigh it. I cannot, as a scientist, slow the march of progress by hesitating.”
The irony of an undead crusading for the abolition of death partaking in a quest doing the opposite amused Shroud. “I cannot offer a counter-argument when I cultivate immortality myself,” Bai Suzhen replied with some wisdom. “But one should honor the power of death, for it claims us all in the end.”
Stitch ignored the comment, outwardly; but Network told Shroud it had hit him where it hurt. Ignoring this, Shroud used Network on the cylinder.
— Data corrupted. Connection to Dis impossible. Enhancements, gene-splicing, and major alterations impossible. Green Flux reserve depleted. Recharge? —
“It is asking to recharge,” Shroud said.
“Feed it, but very little,” the White Snake said, wary.
You heard the lady, he communicated through Network.
The second he projected that thought, the very tree that covered most of the metal cylinder started to die before their eyes; the bark turned black, the leaves and the flowers rotted at an accelerated pace. So did the grass beneath their feet, drained of life.
Bai Suzhen let out a surprised, reptilian hiss. “Stop!” Shroud ordered before the effect could overtake the entire island.
— Recharging process interrupted. 0,003 percent of arcane reservoir filled. —
“It appears to drain the Green Flux from the ambient environment, like a stronger spell siphon,” Stitch guessed.
“This… this…” The White Serpent shook her head. “I should have known this machine would ask for a price.”
“There isn’t enough energy for extensive procedures,” Shroud said. “We will have to recharge it if we do even a test run.”
“No,” Bai Suzhen said with firm conviction. “I will not sacrifice the life of the land, even for my own sake.”
“Why?” Stitch asked, clearly finding her decision stupid. “This is grass, while this machine’s abilities are presumably immense.”
“This… this Lifeforge offers too great a temptation,” Bai Suzhen said. “I will not bear the burden of its actions. The world will. Doing so would be incredibly selfish, and it would become easier to try again, and again.”
“What did you wish to use that machine for, in the first place?” Shroud asked.
Bai Suzhen let out a sigh. “I told you that I am widowed,” she said. “Yet I am also the last of my kind, with my sister’s demise. If I die childless, my entire lineage vanishes with me.”
“You intended to get your youth back so you could marry again?” Shroud guessed, only to be laughed at.
“Please, I am a shapeshifter. I prefer this age because I do not suffer from the foolishness of youth; a balance of wisdom and energy. No. The truth is that I would rather avoid remarrying. My husband and I shared a true love, deeper than mere words, and even with him long dead this feels like cheating.”
“Why not resurrect your husband?” Stitch suggested, “While I may extrapolate, the dead do not rest in this land.”
“His soul has gone too far for even Her Majesty to recover,” Bai Suzhen replied with grim bitterness, her eyes set on the machine. “I have seen this Lifeforge at work in the past, used to create new life. I thought that if I mastered it, I could make more of my kind, fulfill my duty without betraying my husband’s memory.”
“I can relate to your situation,” Stitch stated with sincerity.
“The Lifeforge can create new life,” Shroud said, “But not without a price. And from what I’ve seen from that technology, it always has unforeseen consequences.”
“It was a foolish hope,” Bai Suzhen sighed.
“While I strongly believe not using this machine is an unforgivable sin against progress,” Stitch said. “I can solve your species problem in what you would consider a more ethical way. If I have access to DNA samples from you, I can create altered clones, children.”
“That is kind of you, and I will consider it,” Bai Suzhen said with diplomacy, although Shroud could feel she wasn’t so keen on giving the undead her blood. She then took the emblem in her hair and granted it to Shroud. “You fulfilled your end of the bargain, and I will complete mine. This belongs to you, alongside my loyalty, if you will have it.”
“Loyalty?” Shroud repeated. “A strong word.”
“I desire wealth and greater power,” she conceded. “I know I will gain both if I stick with you. No normal human can control the ancient machines, and your group of sorcerers has great promise. I am curious to see how this story ends.”
His use of the Lifeforge had deeply impressed her. “Very well,” he said. “We have a pressing matter to attend to, and your service may be required.”
“Baihu the Tiger,” Bai Suzhen guessed.
“I was actually going to ask about the emptied treasure chests first.”
Her face was priceless. “You consider that the priority?”
“As odd as it may sound, I take offense personally when monsters loot out a dungeon’s weaponry before we do,” Shroud replied. It went against all the honored video game traditions he had grown up with.
She gave him an ‘are you serious’ look, before answering, “This is probably Sun Wukong’s doing,” she said. “Our beloved Monkey King cannot help but steal anything not nailed to the ground. If you want to catch him and his emblem, you may just leave a treasure around and wait.”
Shroud made a mental note, then changed the subject. “About Baihu… I do make him a priority, but I would rather avoid fighting his entire army. Especially if we can recruit it.”
“Baihu will never give his emblem without a fight, that I can promise you,” Bai Suzhen replied. “He respects only strength, and will not submit to someone fighting with words. He is, however, an honorable fellow.”
“Could you at least get us a non-violent audience with him?”
“Give me a day and three clones, and I will,” she replied mirthfully, ever the haggler. To her credit, once Shroud obliged after dispelling some of his own, Bai Suzhen immediately left to move to the West Area.
“The more I observe it,” Stitch said, on the subject of the Lifeforge. “The more I am convinced it inspired Concordia’s magitech. I recognized pieces similar to Organotech Hearts.”
“You think they have access to one?” The doctor confirmed it with a sharp nod. “They know more about this whole sorcery deal than we do.”
“Shall we look into alternate ways to recharge it, sir? The potential is limitless.”
“Of course we will,” the Dragonslayer replied, much to his colleague’s happiness. “But in a safe, controlled environment. This will have to wait after you finish another assignment.”
“The local beasts,” Stitch guessed. “You wish to put them under control even without the need of Beastmaster.”
“We came here to conquer the Lair,” Shroud confirmed, “I intend to, in all the ways that matter. If we could recruit the denizens instead of exterminating them, perhaps even breed monsters for battle, we could put them to use against the undead of this Lair, and later, Concordia or the Maleking.”
“Farsighted from you, sir.”
Shroud laughed at the response. “I’m learning.”
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