With wards placed on both ends of the Southern Teleporter, Shroud expected it to be a safe night, only to be sorely disappointed. While it was nothing like yesterday’s unrelenting nightmare, three large packs of undead made their way to the island and had to be put down. That implied that while the wards prevented most ghosts to cross into the area, strong ones, like the Maleking before them, could get past them. Sol considered investing in Ward and Accel spells to empower them further.
At least it, and use of the Deathgem spell had toned down the nighttime attacks to a manageable level, allowing the group to sleep and do some monster hunting in the morning. “Mathias, when I told you that my duty as a priest was to shepherd the Lord’s flock,” Solomon said, helping Shroud and Maggie shepherd Beastmaster-controlled beasts into stone pens, “I did not mean it this way.”
“Yeah, I thought we were supposed to kill them to make that core hatch?” Maggie said. “You’ve managed to make monster hunting boring, nerd.”
“I thought the idea of subverting an entire dungeon’s ecology would excite you a bit more,” Shroud replied. They had caught so many creatures they had to repurpose the lake’s shores into a zoo area. Even the living trees had backed off, the forest receding away from the area.
Only the area’s rats so far escaped them, showcasing intelligence unlike that of their normal kindred. This convinced Shroud they had ties to the Rat Zodiac.
“Unless we’re running a safari afterward, then nope,” Maggie replied. “Hell, when are we catching the monkey thief stealing our treasure?”
“I already set Ace on the case,” Shroud shrugged. “You’re welcome to assist her.”
“I will hold you on your promise for a sweet monkey’s paw.”
They returned to their settlement to find Bai Suzhen had come back, exchanging words with Ace while Mur patrolled the pens, relishing in his new job. The women exchanged on the subject of Baihu, from what Shroud could hear. “So?” he asked as he landed next to them, leaving Sol and Maggie to herd the monsters.
“Baihu agreed to discuss your surrender,” Bai Suzhen insisted on the last two words, amused. “He wants to meet you personally, without the use of a clone, and allows you to bring two bodyguards with you; myself included. In exchange, he guarantees your safety through his area and a ceasefire lasting until the next morning; he will let you leave unharmed even if an agreement is not reached.”
“This is very much not in our favor,” Ace said, voicing Shroud’s own thoughts. “Can he be trusted to keep his word?”
“Baihu is many things, but dishonorable isn’t one of them. If he gives his word, he honors it. However, as I said before, he will never submit without a fight.”
Shroud understood the implied message. “How does Baihu fights?”
“He is the greatest martial artist in the Zodiac, in terms of raw fighting skills,” Bai Suzhen praised him. “Which is to say, he is exceptional in a physical battle, and amazingly out of tune with his spiritual side. He is fast, strong, and skilled, with fur that shrugs off bullets, and relentless… and arrogant, so very much.”
Out of tune with his spiritual side… “Does he have any weakness to exploit?” Shroud asked, glancing at Maggie. “How does he fare against a long-range opponent?”
“He moves too fast for that advantage to last,” Bai Suzhen replied, guessing his train of thought. “He lunges for the enemy’s jugular and does not let go. His fists shatter stone and his claws cut through steel. No mere human will last against him in melee.”
Baihu sounded like a Lugh on steroids. Shroud considered his team. Neither Maggie, Stitch nor him would last long against someone able to negate their distance advantage; Mur and Sol would far better, but Sol relied on his armor for protection while Mur lacked skill. Ace could probably buy herself some time, using teleportation to wear Baihu out, if that was possible; but one mistake and she would fall.
That left their best fighter, Kari, as the best counter. The right balance of skill and strength, with the perfect automated defense for close combat. “I will go with Kari,” he said. “Ace, can you take charge until I return?”
With her ability to teleport around and her experience managing logistics and people, she was the best candidate to coordinate the group while in his and Kari’s absence.
“Sure thing, handsome,” she replied. “I assume you want me to focus on the Monkey hunt?”
“That, and the undead problem,” Shroud said. “We see they come from the south at night, at regular intervals.”
“There must be a mechanism behind it,” Ace said, turning to Bai Suzhen. “Was it always a problem?”
“No,” the White Snake replied. “The dead assaults started a few months ago, without warning. Since they are Rat’s responsibility, I assumed he would solve the problem on his own time. He has yet to.”
“Responsibility,” Shroud noted the term.
“The golden sun was repurposed to safeguard the souls of Her Majesty’s dead worshippers as a reward for their service in life, through a reincarnation cycle. Rat designed the system, and much of the layout of this machine. Before you ask, no, I do not know where he is now. I haven’t seen him in years.”
“In that case, I will supervise the forays into the south area while you deal with the Tiger and the Rooster,” Ace said, a thin smirk at the edge of her lips. “I’ve laid a trap for the Monkey.”
She seemed very proud of herself, arousing Shroud’s curiosity. “I’m all ears.”
She brought a knife from beneath her cloak, which seemed normal… except for the yellow eye on the handle. “A mimic?” Shroud asked. “What is it doing there?”
“We brought them,” Ace said, “in our supplies. Accidentally. As it turns out, some of the weapons we bought were alive. Stitch believes they will acclimate to the Lair very quickly; they are an invasive species by nature.”
Shroud was about to ask how it was supposed to help them catch a thief, before realizing the obvious. “You didn’t…”
“I did,” she replied mischievously.
She was making the cruel game designer in Shroud so very proud.
Shroud noticed two things when he entered the south area. First, it was hot, and second, a giant worm tried to eat him the second he teleported there.
Thankfully, before an immense fanged mouth could bite him and Kari in half, Beastmaster activated and pacified the beast. Shroud glanced up to find a titanic, fifteen meters long and incredibly thick purple worm drool above him.
That must have been the creature that assaulted Mur the first time he visited… and it had waited there for prey to come. Maybe Baihu didn’t send anybody through the teleporters anymore because the worm ate his minions.
Once certain the beast was fully under control, struggling to breathe, Shroud glanced around the southern area. As Mur stated, this place was a vision of hell, a burning hot grotto with technological walls and rivers of molten gold, steel, and mercury. Metal platforms floated on this infernal dominion, like the one Shroud and his companions currently stood on, the heat strong beneath their feet. Mechanical devices, advanced engines, pumped the metal, harness the heat to distribute it to other areas.
The shape of giant worms rose from the metal rivers, while on distant platforms fiery lizard monsters with thick crimson skins watched at the group from afar as if challenging them to get further into their territory. The zone went on and one, a series of caves getting deeper into the heart of the sun itself.
Just staying in the area made Shroud wriggle, as he felt the blazing hot air heat up his armor through Glass Field. Sweat built beneath his armor, as he struggled to breathe. While Kari kept a stoic face, she couldn’t hide her own unease. Only Bai Suzhen remained unbothered.
Only Mur and a fully-armored Sol could get through this area alive.
Thankfully, the teleporter to the West was right next to their own. Shroud ordered the giant worm to pick a fight with the closest monster to get rid of it, leaving the beast to sink into the molten river, while he stepped through the western teleporter, Kari and Suzhen behind him.
When he stepped into the new zone, Shroud enjoyed a breath of fresh air, and the sound of cannons pointed at him.
As Mur stated before, Baihu’s forces had secured the Western Teleporters, which was to say they heavily fortified the place. The group found themselves trapped in a large semi-circular arena between the golden walls of Taiyougami, and a dense wall of sheet metal and iron pieces cobbled together; from above, deformed monsters, gremlins, and headless humanoids with eyes and mouths on their torso glanced down, pointing a dozen howitzers at them.
Much to Shroud’s surprise, he noticed two of the monsters, humanoid pandas, wearing a primitive version of Sol’s power armor. The metal protection looked like little more than cobbled together junk, yet the aesthetics were undoubtedly familiar.
Atop the mural, one form stood from the rest. A powerful, humanoid tiger with fur as white as snow, clocking at nine feet tall on his two legs, Baihu carried two metal, clawed gauntlets on his arms, with his emblem embedded on the right one, and exuded pressure even from afar.
At his side was another creature of myths, a rooster the size of the horse, although closer to a feathered dragon than a true bird. The animal’s feathers shone with a bright, golden glow, while it carried its emblem on a crimson crown.
“Baihu, Gye-lyong,” Bai Suzhen called, “I bring you, visitors, as promised.”
Without a word, the tiger jumped from the wall and landed on the dirt ground on his two feet, making the ground tremble as he did. He looked so regal, so confident as he did, Shroud was convinced he practiced for months to get the pose right.
The rooster, less of a show-off, simply unfolded his reptilian wings and flew downward, landing next to the group. “Greetings, heroes,” it croaked with a male voice. “I am Gye-lyong, of the Twelve Zodiac. It is an honor to meet Her Majesty’s chosen champions.”
The group bowed curtly, with Kari taking the lead. “Honorable Gye-lyong, we have come to challenge your trial.”
“I am well aware of that,” the rooster said. “And there is a task I can set you on. I sought refuge with my friend Baihu, so I may continue my work and celebrate Her Majesty’s return each morning without the restless dead attacking me every night. However, I would prefer for peace to return to Taiyougami, permanently.”
“Would you give us your emblem if we solve the rising dead problem?” Shroud proposed since the group intended to do it anyway. Bai Suzhen coyly arched an eyebrow at his comment.
“End the spirit plague,” the rooster agreed. “And I shall grant you my emblem, yes, as proof of your dutifulness.”
That was surprisingly straightforward. Why couldn’t all mysterious tests be like that?
Baihu, however, clearly didn’t share his comrade’s amiable nature, appraising the group in silence. As he oversaw Shroud and Kari with his keen green eyes without a word, the Blue Sorcerer could sense the sheer intensity coming from the tiger. None of his breath was wasted, every part of his body was alert. While Shroud was no martial artist, he could see that everything in Baihu’s posture was optimized to strike as the first sign of attack.
“I am not impressed,” Baihu finally spoke, his voice low yet cutting. “This one has little self-control and the other no drive within. They cannot be chosen.”
As expected, he would be the hardest to get through. “Baihu, is it?” Shroud spoke. “I heard of you a lot, but I have no idea what is it that you want. Surely you are not building an army to use it?”
“We shall return to our homeland and free it from those dragons who think themselves gods,” Baihu said, confirming his suspicions. “A swift victory, purchased with blood.”
“We are alike in that,” Shroud said. “Why not work together then?
“We will work together when you bend the knee,” he replied dismissively, “You are human, young, green. We of the Zodiac are older, more experienced.”
“Her Majesty thinks otherwise,” Bai Suzhen replied. “Our time is over, Baihu. The old machines saw to that. We are too few, too weary.”
“Not yet,” Baihu replied coolly. “Why should humans lead the way? They failed against the dragons, even with the power of their ‘technology’ and their fiery bombs. Even now, they only have a chance because of the gifts the heavens granted them.”
“You have no hope to take down Concordia with your current means,” Kari replied, the other members of the Zodiac watching the debate unfold.
“Concordia’s forces on Earth are not self-sufficient,” Baihu replied. “They rely on lines of supplies from their vaster empire. Earth is but a colony to them, to mine and harvest. By cutting access to their Gates and their ships, we will break their back, trap their forces on our ground, preventing them from winning a protracted war. Taiyougami will destroy their weapon on the moon, and we shall strike fast before they can retaliate; the same way they won their first campaign.”
“The power gap is still too huge,” Shroud said, glancing at the weaponry above. “I see you are trying to reverse-engineer Concordia’s tech, but you are still centuries away from rivaling it.”
“We are skilled and talented. Technology is an advantage. So is our knowledge of the terrain, support from our population, and the ability to retreat safely, so as to attack again like the tides.”
“There is a level of force no amount of skill can overcome if the gap is too wide,” Shroud replied. “Even if you are right and your army is enough, Concordia will bring more forces after they lose contact with their own. No. Sorcery is our trump card.”
“Yes,” Baihu conceded. “But not humans.”
Shroud scoffed. “Which brings the question, if you are so talented, why didn’t you show up to defend Earth when we needed it?”
Baihu’s eyes shone with a hint of restrained fury. “I was forbidden.”
“And why? Because the Sponsors thought you would fail?” From his silence, Shroud had guessed right. “Earth will not be free unless mankind is empowered and joins the fight, plain and simple. It’s only by joining forces that we will prevail. We can empower your army with sorcery, provide technology—”
“I see that you fight with words,” Baihu interrupted him, “But they lack substance. We ally, and then what? Who gives the order, who provides the strategy? Who is worthy to lead? Without strength and vision, we will not prevail. You have yet to demonstrate both, and so I will not grant you my emblem.”
It’s his way or the highway, Shroud realized the underlying message. He will not be convinced he isn’t the best choice to lead. “Surely there is a way to prove our competency. What about we settle this in an honorable duel?”
Baihu arched an eyebrow. “Speak.”
“If we defeat you in a fair fight, proving our strength,” Shroud proposed. “You give up your emblem, and you agree to follow us. If you win, well, we admit you’re the better equipped to free Earth and will join you.”
“No one can beat me in a fair fight,” Baihu replied with quiet arrogance. “You will dare try?”
“I will,” Kari spoke up, confident.
Baihu looked at her, then at Shroud. “Brain and brawns,” he spoke. “I see. You are a set.”
“So? Will you bite the bullet?” Shroud challenged him.
The tiger didn’t take the bait. “Physical strength is important, but not the key factor in determining a great general,” Baihu replied with caustic disdain. “I would be a fool to wager the fate of my entire war effort on a duel, no matter how one-sided it would be. No, little human. If you want my emblem, you will have to take it from me by strength and wits. An honest victory.”
“You’re declaring war,” Shroud replied. “Can’t we talk this over?”
“We just did,” Baihu replied, honest in his caustic disdain for diplomacy.
“Are you afraid, white tiger of the west?” Bai Suzhen asked with false innocence.
“Watch your tongue, serpent. Baihu fears no one, but neither is he a fool. Leaving the future of Earth up to chance? Never.”
“Instead you leave it to war,” Shroud replied.
“Good. You will be a great test for the will of my army.”
“So what? You ask those cannons to blow us out?”
“You dare doubt my honor?” the Tiger sneered. “You will leave unharmed, and I shall not send my legions after you until the end of our ceasefire.”
Shroud glanced at the Rooster, who rolled his eyes at the scene, washing his wings off the affair. “I will not interfere in another Zodiac member’s trial,” he spoke. “But I will safely deliver you my emblem if you fulfill my request.”
When it became clear it would go nowhere, Shroud let out a sigh. “We will see each other on the battlefield then,” he said, offering his hand, “May the better general win.”
Now, for the moment of truth. Baihu watched the hand with a sort of animal arrogance without a word, then met eyes with Shroud, who held the gaze impatiently. Finally, the tiger shook his hand with his metal gauntlet, squeezing it so hard the sorcerer thought he would crush his bones.
Shroud felt the jolt of Network activate, but Baihu didn’t murder him on the spot.
His lack of connection with his spiritual side didn’t give him the same awareness of Network’s spying effects as Bai Suzhen.
The brief glint in the snake’s eyes told him she had guessed his trick, and she confronted him over it when they returned to the eastern forest. “You planned the entire meeting just for this?”
“Not only for this,” Shroud replied. “But I figured out that if he refused a duel, turning the head of the opposition into an unknowing spy would give us an immense edge.”
“Beautiful…” The White Snake sounded immensely impressed by his underhandedness. “You, cunning manling, have a future.”
“Blue,” Kari said. “You want to try it the Blue way?”
“This place was meant to test us Players,” he replied with a firm nod. “This is training. All of it. The one place where we can refine our skills and test new strategies without too many consequences from the outside.”
Kari nodded, briefly unleashing the light of her Lock. “I will level it up,” she said. “I feel… this is the place where I can.”
“You brim with spiritual power,” Bai Suzhen noted. “If you wish to strengthen it, we can practice formulas together.”
As the two discussed spiritual matters, Shroud suddenly received a message on his Whisper messaging, checked the sender, and opened the affiliated Network feed. “Ace?”
“We’ve found the Monkey,” she said, having summoned the rain in the forest with Rainmaker, “And he’s heading for the teleporter.”
“We will intercept him.”
“Oh, I think the struggle will be keeping him alive. Sharpshoot is out for his blood; just listen to the tune of bullets flying.”
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