Baihu followed a very rigid schedule.
He rose woke up at five, sleeping on the iron floor of his fortified chambers, and exercised for one hour and a half when he woke up. Afterward, he spent one hour praying to statues in his bedroom, a few of them Shroud identified as the Buddha and Hindu divinities. At seven and a half, a maid with a fox tail brought him a meal; the Tiger ate alone and in complete silence.
At nine, he finally emerged from his chambers to oversee his area from a balcony. As per the name, Baihu ruled a heavily fortified citadel of metal, with very few trees here and there. The Tiger’s bedroom stood at the top of a palace, itself on a metal mound, granting him a complete overview of the area. In the distance, Shroud could see the fortified walls blocking both the teleporters and behind them, barracks. The architectural style of the fortress was distinctly Chinese and reminded Shroud of pictures of the old Forbidden City which Concordia razed years ago.
After overseeing the city from above, Baihu, with unmatched strength, leaped from roof to roof, moving across the area like the wind. The sight gave Shroud the picture of a military occupation, with deformed, armored monsters patrolling the streets with each a rifle and a lantern, even in daylight. Giants worked in refining weapons in metal forges, based on the remains of old, salvaged Gearsmen. Shroud guessed items Players captured on Earth as part of Quests ended up stockpiled in Lairs.
After patrolling, Baihu returned to his palace to have a frugal lunch, took a nap, then at two in the afternoon, moved to his palace’s courtyard to train with his guards, a cadre of humanoid, yellow-skinned creatures with horns and a third eye in the middle of their skull. Shroud paid the most attention to this part.
As expected, Baihu favored martial arts training, and elected to fight his guards all at once with his bare hands; while the guards often brought weapons, from Dao curved swords to firearms. Baihu moved like the wind, bullets bouncing back his skin; phantom claws made of sharp, focused wind grew out of his arms, cutting through weapons; with swift kicks and punches, he sent his men flying through walls. Even while watching through his eyes, Shroud had trouble following the Tiger’s movement, witnessing little but a flurry of blows.
After three hours of such training, Baihu gave pointers to his guards, scolded them for lazing off, then returned to his bedroom to meditate for two hours. After a short dinner, as night fell, he moved back to the deserted courtyard for two hours to practice exercises and fighting moves.
At this point, Shroud checked Sol and Mur’s team, whom he had dispatched to the southern area; only those two could survive the extreme temperatures and the former only thanks to his armor. Much to his surprise, the bright light of this floor had diminished, even if the duo struggled with a monstrous lava titan. “Sol? How is it going?”
“The heat is decreasing as night approaches,” the knight replied, cutting one of the monster’s arm with a swing of his blade. “But it is getting harder to move deeper without encountering fierce resistance.”
“Speak for yourself, old man.” By now, after hours of constant fighting, Adamant had turned Mur into a metal juggernaut, leaping at the lava monster with extreme speed and tearing him apart. “Mur feels at home!”
“You will have to return to the base soon,” Shroud ordered, even if amused by the fiend’s enthusiasm. “Night is falling, and the spirits will take over the south. How is the core doing?”
“Growing brighter,” Sol said, glancing at the light coming from the container on Mur’s back. The core fed on the battle like a child breastfeeding. “There is more. Do you see through my eyes?”
Shroud did. Sol faced a distant spot which the lava beast had struggled to defend, a wide, immense pit Smokefang could have fit through. Attached to the ceiling above, a thin string of a substance similar to spider silk went down, and down, a large pit breathing out an impenetrable, thick purple miasma.
On a large, rounded metal platform, two titans kept watch over the pit, a giant, bipedal white bullman, and a horse-faced, brown-furred humanoid. The two giants each reached fifteen feet in height, wore ancient Chinese armor, while the horse wielded a long trident and the horse a club. Both stood unbothered by the heat, watching Sol and Mur from afar but making no move to intercept them.
“I believe you just found the source of the undead plague,” Shroud spoke. “And the Horse and Ox of the Zodiac. Good job.”
“Do we engage them?” Solomon asked.
“Yes,” Mur said.
“No,” Shroud dashed the imp’s hope. “They look rather strong and I would rather fight them with support. We will return with more numbers in the early morning when the heat allows us to explore this area. Return to the base now.”
Thankfully, Mur obeyed the order, even if he complained all the way back. No matter his faults, the demon behaved with discipline when needed.
As he returned to check on Baihu, Shroud noticed that no undead seemed to bother the West Area; or if they were, the Tiger was unconcerned and let the monsters handle themselves. He did briefly ask a guard if everything was fine at the end of his training, but that was it. The Tiger sounded grossly overconfident or had a very high opinion in his dominion’s defenses.
Finally, he went to sleep at eleven in the evening, taking a nap.
That tiger breathed fighting spirit and lived to perfect his mind and body. If Shroud wasn’t scheming to take him down, he would have admired his work ethic and dedication. The fact he slept during the night instead of daylight meant he didn’t fear the night undead much or had his dominion warded.
However, the more Shroud saw, the more storming the West Area through the main gates sounded like a terrible idea, even with insider information. Too many monsters and too well organized. Brute force and attrition wouldn’t do. At least from what he had seen, Baihu wouldn’t attack first, seemingly content to wait in his fortress for the Players to come.
Fortunately, he thought, as he noticed Ace coming back with a scroll of paper and a strangely sullen Maggie, they may have an alternative solution. “So?” he asked.
“Here is a map of the secret tunnels, or what we could explore so far,” Ace said, handing him over the scroll, whom he read with rapt attention. The sheer complexity and number of dead-ends would have given him a headache without Premium Thoughts. The Violet Sorceress pointed at letter points at the end of some tunnels. “N means they lead to the north area, E to the east, and S for the south.”
“Not the West?” Shroud asked, disappointed.
“Probably, but not yet. Stitch believes we only explored half of them and sent more of his creations below to find an entrance.” Shroud noticed an O symbol at a few points, pointing an index finger at them. “Those tunnels lead to the Pig’s hub.”
Shroud nodded to himself, having figured out as much. “What do you think?”
“We know the Lair’s parts mirror one another,” Ace said. “This underground hub mirrors the command center above it.”
“The Goat never mentioned it,” Maggie said.
“He could have lied, or not known,” Ace said. “There may be a hidden area for all we know.”
… The pit. “If the undead come from the south or the secret tunnels,” Shroud continued. “Then they may come from this hidden area instead of the southern dungeon itself. The south simply contains the main entrance.”
“So we go around looking for a hidden mechanism we missed?” Ace suggested.
“For now you rest,” Shroud replied, as he sat on the island’s shore. He would take some time during the night to examine the map further, and figure out a way to explore the south without burning to death. “We will wake you up if more undead show up.”
“You are acting bossier by the second,” Ace warned him, before giving him a cheeky smile and giving a light tap on Maggie’s back. “I’ll leave you kids alone… do not do anything naughty while I’m away.”
“What do you…” She teleported away before Maggie could finish. “Nerd, below that nice facade is a shifty sadist.”
“I’ve seen.” Shroud put the map on the grass, unsure how to address the problematic subject. His friend sat at his side, the island silent save for the chittering of Stitch’s beasts in the pens nearby.
An awkward, uncomfortable silence established itself between the two, Shroud patiently waiting for his friend to come into the open. “So…” Maggie trailed, struggling to find her words and coming with banalities. “How is it going, nerd?”
“I should return you the question,” Shroud said, glancing at the headband. This threw a wrench into his plans for the south.
“It sucks,” she admitted. “But I will beat it and shove th—” She stopped as if fearing to trigger the headband. “I will show that ape what I’m made of afterward.”
“It’s only twenty-four hours, you can beat it.” Also, even if Maggie found the task humiliating, Shroud thought Sun Wukong may have been quite lenient with the time limit. The Monkey hadn’t done it in bad faith. “I will put you on guard duty with Stitch so you may have time to focus.”
“You’re rotating the teams again?” Maggie groaned.
“Consider it team-building.” He had noticed that while some smaller groups stuck together, like Maggie and Mur or Sol and Kari, this threatened the cohesion of the larger group. His Network intuition pushed him into encouraging other exchanges. “Why, you would rather be under my wing?”
“I don’t need your help, nerd,” Maggie hissed, tensing up. “I don’t need protection.”
— “It’s hip to be square… catchy tune,” the monster that used to be her brother mocked, “And you’re out of ammo, sis. Shall I start with you?” —
Shroud stayed silent for a second, realizing that the shadow of Jack never truly left her. Every time someone ‘coddled’ her, it brought her back to that lowest moment of her life. “No, you don’t,” he admitted. “You are strong.”
She glared at him.
“It’s true,” he replied with sincerity, “I remember the day with the cultists. You took control of the situation quicker than I did. You showed extraordinary bravery all the way, and the Administrator would never have approached you otherwise. You earned your victories, Maggie.”
Her face beamed with happiness, which starkly contrasted with her usual gruff exterior. She muttered something under her breath.
“I didn’t hear,” Shroud said.
“Thanks,” she grumbled this time.
“It’s not that hard to say it.”
Maggie sighed in annoyance, sounding exhausted. “I feel fucking alone, nerd. Always had. Like I’m a prisoner of my own head, and there’s a big barrier between me and everyone else.” She struggled to find words to explain herself.
“I see what you mean.” He often wondered if Network’s real purpose was to bring the frontier between minds down. His experience at the Neurotower pointed in that direction at least. “Ever heard of the hedgehog dilemma?”
“Wasn’t that the name of an anime or something?”
“It ripped it off from a famous philosopher,” Shroud replied, amused that they watched the same show. “Hedgehogs have spines to protect themselves, so they struggle to get close without hurting one another. You built spines of your own to defend yourself, but it has become a part of you instead of a temporary defense.”
“That sounds so dry and analytical when you say like that,” Maggie replied, “You’re changing, you know?”
Shroud chuckled. “Aren’t we all?”
“You’re more distant. More methodical. Less… less natural? Your sorcery is fucking with your head.”
Probably. Overuse of Network had given him more objectivity to people’s feelings and experiences, giving him more insight, but also putting some emotional distance. If he were truly escalating though, would he think himself mad? Mad sorcerers probably considered themselves sane. “I’m actually trying to move in that direction. Take a step back, distance myself from my emotions. I’ve made many mistakes out of impulsiveness, or because I let my feelings obscure my judgment.”
“So I’m trying to be more open with my feelings, while you’re trying to be less so. Aren’t we a team of broken arms.”
“Maybe we should start a group therapy?” Shroud joked.
“Here, that’s the nerd I love to hate.”
“I’m pretty much only joking when you or Ace are around,” Shroud admitted. “You’re a great partner for banter.”
“Yeah… strange, we got along way better than I thought. And I didn’t get along with the one guy I thought I would.”
“You’re thinking about Ulysses?”
“Yeah.” She laid her back against the grass. “Why were you into Sam again?”
Sam? “She was beautiful. She was smart… and she reminded me a bit of Mom.” Maggie gave him a startled look. “You have a sick mind. All of this to say, I didn’t know her at all. A very superficial crush, now gone.”
“I don’t think it would have worked between you,” Maggie said.
“Maybe,” Shroud admitted, “It’s behind me.”
“Now you’re into Ace,” she prodded, not asking him directly. Did she fear rejection?
“I told you, I’m just fooling around. Honestly Maggie, I completely messed up my relationship with Perse, and while it’s been weeks now, I frankly don’t feel ready for anything serious. Especially right now. At least, not with someone inside the team. Maybe later, but not now.”
She perceived the hidden message and dropped the subject.
Truth to be told, he had accidentally heard the beginning of her discussion with Ace, since he watched everyone in the field. He did for their own good, to monitor his friends and react in case of ambush… even if he accidentally overhead private conversations at times.
Shroud had quickly tuned out after realizing they had a heart to heart, of course, but he had heard enough. He guessed he had to avoid a slippery slope on that one.
What would Manah do in his situation? She had told him bluntly that while fond of him, she wouldn’t hesitate to endanger them for the greater objective. If he wanted to play the game as well as she did, he had to learn from her book.
The more he thought of it however, the more the idea of starting a romance with someone inside the team stuck him as a bad idea. Militaries around the world had anti-fraternization laws for a reason. He might favor Maggie or Ace over someone because feelings clouded his judgment. As a Guild Moderator, he may have to make difficult choices.
He pitied the Administrator and understood him better now.
He heard Stitch call him from one of his Network feeds. “Yes?”
“Sir, one of my larvae found the rat’s main nest in the tunnels. No trace of an anomaly.”
No Zodiac among them. A step in the right direction nonetheless. “Try to catch a few of them, without harming them. They may lead us to their leader.”
He let out a moan of tiredness, much to Maggie’s amusement. “You should take a nap, nerd.”
Yes… He felt sleepy, and he didn’t have Needless. Time to sleep.
Shroud woke up anywhere else but on the island.
The floor had turned to a circular, glass platform, floating in a pure, blank void. Four statues, representing a tiger, a dragon, a turtle and a bird surrounded him; farther away, Shroud noticed a stone door, closed by a rat-shaped lock.
As he rose up, Shroud instantly attempted to open his Network feed, to contact the Dragonslayers… and nothing happened. This reminded him of his meetings with the Maleking.
A voice came out of the rat lock, startling the Blue Sorcerer. “The Rat of the Zodiac, I presume?” Shroud guessed.
“Yes.” The voice buzzed with the chatter of a thousand creatures. “I am the will of the swarm, an egregore; an artificial spirit created by the collective thoughts of every rat in the Lair. I exist only on the spiritual plane, and through my children. I would appreciate if you called off your Green.”
“Sure. And so, you have come to set your challenge?”
“Yes, and no. You figured it out, Mathias. The existence of a hidden area; and so I reveal it to you. Welcome to the Dreamscape of Naraka, sustained by our will.”
“A hidden floor that exists only in dreams?” Now that was inventive level design.
“Naraka is more than a set of challenges,” the Rat replied, apparently reading his mind. “It is an artificial afterlife. Every soul in Taiyougami rests inside this collective dream once their mortal coil expires. This is why I ask that your group does not raid my nest, or you may cause it to collapse.”
“This is Yellow Sorcery, is it not? This is how you can read my thoughts even with Mindshield.”
“While your mind is closed, your soul is an open book. As did one of my fellows, I unlocked as a sorcerer during the ancient war. I am no Player though… my gift is, shall I say, natural.”
“Why the need for an artificial afterlife? Don’t souls reincarnate?” At least Kari thought they did and her Lock partly proved it.
“During the ancient war, the machines stole the souls of their victims, to interrupt our natural cycle of reincarnation and wipe us out. Even asleep they still do. By managing Naraka, I can either send back souls to reincarnate on Earth, or keep them here, content and whole. Souls reincarnating are exceptions, rather than the rule, although your friend’s spirit did come from Naraka.”
“You’ve been doing a poor job at keeping spirits there, no offense.”
“If you mean the spirits plaguing Taiyougami, this is an unfortunate side effect of my dreamscape; some souls bear too high of a grudge or too much sadness to be content with either a dream or reincarnation and often slip past my grasp. Ox and Horse are supposed to catch these souls and trap them in a pit until they can let go of their earthly grudges, but decided not to as part of their trial; they want to challenge your might, while I prefer to test one’s intelligence. Over time, the number of restless souls reached the critical mass you face every night.”
“So if we defeat Ox and Horse, peace will return to Taiyougami?”
“Partly. The number of rising dead also has a secondary cause. The soul of the sun at the center of this Lair has grown restless, disturbing my dreamscape. As a failed Sponsor, he wants to meet Players, and his distraction endangers my dreamscape.”
Failed Sponsor? “How do we meet him then?”
“That is what the Caged Sun Quest meant by secrets revealing themselves only during your test,” the Rat replied. “Pass my gauntlet of tests, and you shall meet him. Convince him to sleep peacefully again, and I will consider your test complete. The sooner the better.”
“You don’t like me,” Shroud stated.
“No, no, the problem is, your presence… imbalances my dreamscape. it is poisoned. I sense other presences within your unconscious mind, watching back with hostility. They may manifest and threaten the dreamscape if you remain too long.”
Shroud frowned, unsure of how to take the news. “What kind of presence?”
“They are hidden beyond my power to reach. I assume they will show themselves in due time. Now for now—” The animal’s head perked up. “Ah, a visitor.”
In a flash of yellow light, Kari Matsumoto materialized right next to Shroud. “Mathias-san, you’re fine,” she said, glaring at the Rat and shining with the light of Oversoul. Apparently, her Lock worked fine in a dream.
“You’re asleep too?” Shroud asked his friend.
“I purchased Dreamwalker when I noticed a spirit intrusion,” she replied without giving further details.
“Ah, yes, that spell. It allows the caster to enter dreams,” the Rat explained. “Even control them. Unfortunately for you, myself being a dreamwalker on my home ground, my power trumps yours. I will not release your friend until my trial is complete.”
“So we must solve your puzzles before my body wastes away in the real world?” The Rat gave Shroud a sharp nod. “Great. What about Ueno? If he’s truly dead, then he must be in your dreamscape.”
“The Dog’s master is already waiting for you behind this door at my demand.” The Rat said, pointing at it. “If you can solve my puzzle.”
Shroud exchanged a glance with Kari, who nodded back. “I will stay with you,” she said. “I am allowed, right?”
“Certainly,” the Rat replied. “You may even benefit the most from this trip.”
The two checked the dragon statue, noticing inscriptions below. “The bird is a filthy liar, but the turtle remains true,” Shroud spoke out loud, before checking the bird. “The dragon is deceitful but the tiger roars true.”
“An enigma,” Kari noted, checking the tiger. “The turtle is full of falseness but my dragon nemesis remains true.”
Finally, the turtle said, “The dragon remains pure, but the tiger has fallen into wickedness.”
So they had to identify the liars and the truthsayers… “If the dragon and the turtle speak the truth, then the bird lies… but the tiger says the dragon speaks the truth when he himself is lying. It wouldn’t add up.”
“Try in reverse,” Kari suggested.
“If the bird is true, then the dragon is wrong and the tiger is right. If the dragon lies, then the bird speaks the truth, but the turtle isn’t… in that case, if the turtle lies, then the dragon lies and the tiger speaks the truth. So far so good.”
“It fails at the end.”
“Yes. If the tiger speaks the truth, then the dragon is telling the truth… which presents a logical problem.”
“What if one lies only partially?” Kari proposed an out of the box solution, “A half-truth.”
A solution not so obvious, like the existence of a hidden level… Wasn’t Yellow about creativity and pushing boundaries? Maybe that was indeed the key. “Then my original solution may be correct,” Shroud said, “If the tiger could be lying about the turtle, but telling the truth on the dragon.”
“Which makes him a liar still,” Kari nodded. “So it adds up.”
Shroud pondered the problem under another angle but didn’t find any other satisfactory solution. “The answer is, the bird and the tiger are liars, the turtle, and the dragon speaks the truth.”
“Correct,” the rat replied. “Very good, but a simple trick. The next one will be much, much more difficult.”
The lock broke, and the door opened.
“A hidden lesson,” Kari spoke, as the duo walked in the next room, “About not trusting the obvious.”
Shroud responded with a sharp nod, as they walked onto another platform, whose transparent floor revealed nine cubes arrayed in a three on three scheme, like a m,n,k-game, beneath their feet; each cube had a number from one to nine. Small, closed doors linked the cubes together, while the central cube on the bottom row, cube eight, had an additional, locked door… and Shroud noticed that the door the duo used stood above cube two, at the center of the uppermost row.
A man matching the description of the Dog’s master waited for them at the center of the room, next to a console. “Greetings, dreamers,” the specter said, his body’s colors mostly shades of white, as he bowed respectfully. “I am Hidesaburō Ueno, and I bid you welcome.”
Kari returned the bow, while Shroud acknowledged it with a nod. “You are the Ueno from the Shibuya Station story,” Kari stated, Shroud himself unaware of what she referred to.
“One of my recent incarnations,” Ueno replied. “How does Japan fare in these troubled times?”
“Peaceful,” Kari said, with some sadness. “But a bitter kind of peace.”
“Peace enforced through oppression never feels sweet,” Ueno replied. “I wondered if I should reincarnate again and finish some work I left unfinished, but I worry I may only know loss and despair in the next life.”
“You can choose to reincarnate on Earth?” Shroud asked, curious about how the afterlife worked.
“By the will of Her Majesty, yes. My soul and that of my old friend have lived and died many times, only to return to this sun, our friendship stronger than ever.”
“Your Dog is waiting for you,” Shroud replied. “He believes you alive.”
“Death is not the end,” Ueno replied. “Just the threshold of a new journey. As long as Her Majesty wills it, I will return to this Sun to begin again.” He glanced at Kari. “You too come from here, child.”
“I did?” Kari’s head perked up.
“I met many of your previous lives. Momotarō, Sakata no Kintoki, Hattori Hanzo. And your very first life, long, long ago. Her Majesty forbade me to reveal it, as she wants to reveal it herself, but all will come once you solve the puzzle.”
Shroud glanced at the console, composed of ten buttons; nine assembled in the same order as the cubes below them, and one afar. The Blue Sorcerer clicked on button one, but nothing happened. He clicked on button two, which opened doors east of cube one, two, four and seven… but closed the gates to the previous room. Shroud clicked on the button afar, which reopened the gate, but closed all doors in the maze below.
“I think this is a straightforward logic problem,” Shroud said. “We must create a direct road between our opened door, cube two, and the one at the bottom in cube eight; and both gates to the other rooms must remain open. Pressing each button opens and closes different doors, and the tenth button creates a reset.”
“Some buttons open pathways, but close others,” Kari noticed.
“It’s more than that,” Shroud said. “I can only start with cube two, so we must create a very specific sequence… as if we were the ones in the cubes, traveling from one to the other.”
“We can map out every single consequence of pushing a button,” Kari proposed, her partner moving to do exactly that.
After a good hour of trial and error, the duo mapped all consequences of pressing each cube and marveled at the sheer number of possibilities.
Cube one opens pathways 1-4, 2-5, and 3-5, but closes 1-2, 2-3, and 7-8. Cube two, the starting point, opens 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, and 7-8, but closed the previous gate.
Cube three opened 3-6, 4-5, 4-7, closed nothing. Cube four opened 4-5 and 5-6 but closed 1-4, 2-5, 3-6, 5-8, and 6-9. Cube five opened 3-6 and 5-6, closed 1-4, 2-5, and 4-5.
Cube six opened 2-5, and 5-6, but closed 3-6, 4-5, 4-7, 5-8, and 6-9. Cube seven opened 5-8 and 7-8, closed 1-4, 2-5, and 5-6. And cube eight created pathways 6-9 and 8-9, but closed 3-6, 5-8, 5-6, and 7-8.
Finally, much to Shroud’s surprise, clicking on cube nine opened both the major doors to the other rooms but closed no pathway.
Kari visibly frowned at the sheer number of possible sequences, which probably numbered in the hundreds, if not more; but Shroud had a field day trying to find the correct path. He loved math and maze problems.
Two, three, one… four? No, access to five was already opened, and not necessary… skip straight to seven.
“Two, three, one, four…” Kari said, before stopping herself. “No. I am wrong. I do not know.”
“So soon?” Shroud teased her, as he mapped out a possible solution.
“I am not good with this kind of problem,” Kari admitted. “This is probability, math.”
“You were on the right track,” Shroud replied. “It’s simple.”
“For you,” she said, “Uncle taught me to calculate bullet trajectories and to count ammo, but I was never good at it.”
“He raised you as a weapon.” Shroud privately thanked whichever deity had created the Feather of Ma’at for putting down that jackass.
“At least he raised me,” Kari replied, with a hint of sadness.
It occurred to Shroud that he may have had the best family dynamic out of all his teammates, except perhaps Ace. Even Sol had lived in a Catholic orphanage in his youth. “You’re acting somber than usual.”
“This place raises memories which aren’t my own.” Ueno watched them in silence. “It bothers me. I don’t want to disappear.”
“You will not,” Shroud insisted. “If your Lock ever threatens you, we will find a way.”
She didn’t say a word. Perhaps she didn’t believe him.
Realizing he wouldn’t break past her shell, Shroud returned to the problem. “A correct sequence,” the Blue sorcerer said, “is two, three, one, seven, eight, nine.” He clicked on each cube as he spoke, the path opening with both gates to the previous and next room opened.
The second he did, the door to the next room rose through the floor and at the edge of the platform, the lock breaking open. “Well done,” Ueno commented. “Very fast. Rat must have expected you to take more time.”
“Indeed,” the rat lock spoke. “I expected you to spend hours, perhaps a day on it. Good. I am pleased. A leader must have a sharp mind, or he is no leader at all.”
“We are ready for the third round,” Shroud said.
“You just passed it,” the Rat said. “Have you not guessed the existence of this hidden place first? This was the first true test and the hardest one. But a final meeting awaits you behind this door… and a reward, of a sort. In any case, when you wake up, it will be with my emblem.”
“I shall visit Hachiko’s dreams, to ask him to gift you his emblem,” Ueno said, glancing at Kari. “And thus an old man’s debt is repaid.”
“A debt?” Kari asked.
“All of Japan has a debt to you, my child. After all, it would not even exist today without you. But please… take a step toward the future, instead of looking into the past.”
Shroud sighed, praying for the day when he would receive straightforward, honest answers, rather than elusive ones. He took a step forward, and turned to his friend, who didn’t follow. “Kari?”
“No one can every truly rely on themselves,” Kari said.
“That’s why we are a team,” Shroud replied, “So the sums of our parts is greater than any of us individually. Our strengths cover the weaknesses of others, allowing us to excel in our chosen domain.”
She had that thoughtful, introverted look, as if finding a solution to a struggle that bothered her before. “Alright,” she said, “Alright.”
He and Kari opened the door to the next room, facing a blinding light. They walked into it while shielding their eyes, the gates closing behind them.
The first word on the sorcerer’s mind, as he stepped into this new place?
The heat had risen drastically, alongside the luminosity; Shroud couldn’t see one step away, and only ethereal flames licking his feet without burning them. Kari’s golden aura had flared to life in this burning dream, causing the surrounding light to dim out.
From the vast inferno surrounding them, a tall, humanoid figure of burning, crisping ashes manifested in front of them, sitting in a lotus position; a towering titan of dust and flames, wearing a crown of cinders and burned dreams.
A thunderous, imperious voice spoke, the echo of burning embers joining each word.
“Brother.” The fiery giant’s voice boomed like an inferno, similar to Candlemaker Jack. “Are you pretending to be a woman again? I am not fooled.”
It took Shroud a moment to get used to the light around him… and to realize the giant spoke to Kari rather than him. “You knew me, in another life,” Kari recognized.
The giant’s eyes, two bright infernal stars, briefly flashed with a confused light. “I see. You have reincarnated again. Brother does this all the time. He could not let go of Nippon, wanting to protect it even after death. Why a human, though? Are you happy in such skin? Humans are so small and so cold. You must feel terrible without warmth.”
“I like cold,” Kari replied. “It is soothing.”
“Speak for yourself,” Shroud replied, missing very much the climate of Florida. Thankfully, the titan did not look hostile. “Could you tell us your name? I am Shroud, and this is Yoshikage.”
“I am Hino-Kagutsuchi, God of Fire,” the awe-inspiring giant spoke. “The Motherless Sun.”
A bonafide god? “Are you a Sponsor?” Shroud asked. Much to his surprise, the giant shook his head.
“No. I could not become a Sponsor. My power was too great, too unruly. I cannot control the hungering fire of my soul. I burned my mother Izanami the day I was born, and my father sealed me before I could burn the land to cinders. I am the fire that brings death. For eons, I laid dormant, until my sister offered me the chance to light the furnace of a new sun. To become the fire that shelters life.”
“You power Taiyougami,” Kari guessed.
“I sleep at night, and the Rooster wakes me up,” the giant confirmed, “Then I am set to sleep again before my power can overwhelm the sun and melt it from within.”
“We are… thankful for that…” Shroud trailed off.
“I am content. I offer a place to lost souls who have nowhere else to go.” The giant glanced down at the duo, like a child with ants. “You humans, long you have walked a lonely, orphaned road, have you? The gods made you and left you behind. You must have felt so alone…”
“We survived,” Shroud replied, before thinking of Sol’s own trouble faith. “With some hardships.”
“The age of myths will begin again,” Hino-Kagutsuchi said. “And this sun will shine on Earth again, or so I hope. Will you bring my light to burn the skies and the dragons that claimed them?”
Shroud smiled savagely. “Of course.”
“Then, although I cannot grant you my sponsorship… I grant thee and your fellowship a blessing of fire.” The giant’s eye released a flash of bright light that swallowed both Shroud and Kari whole. “Bear it with pride once you wake up, princes of cinders.”
“Thank you, Kagutsuchi-sama,” Kari bowed deeply, Shroud imitating her.
“I wish I could have heroes of my own,” the immense deity said. “Champions who bore my weapons and founded lands in my name.”
“All of mankind owes its existence to fire,” Shroud said.
“This makes me proud,” Hino-Kagutsuchi replied.
“If I was your brother in a former life, and helped found Japan…” Kari trailed off, her eyes lighting in recognition. “I was…”
“Yes, we are not gone,” the deity replied. “We are diminished, and few. We are embers of an age long gone. Still, an ember can trigger a great fire, if put in the hands of man.”
Shroud finally figured it out. The timeline of Mammon’s arrival on the Midnight Market, this meeting, the one with Melusine, the ancient war, why Concordia used to be called Midgard, and the revelations of Dis, Worlds of Power…
This is insane, Shroud thought, But if I’m right, it would fit.
“I will wake up again soon,” the fire deity said, focusing his fiery gaze on Kari. “When you reach the end of this Lair, a great power will awaken within you.”
“About it, could you sleep peacefully from now on?” Shroud asked. “You may endanger the dreamscape if you continue not to.”
“I will, if you promise to visit me again, brother,” the deity asked, “Sometimes I feel lonely, and I cannot help myself.”
“I swear,” Kari promised.
“Then go now. I return you to the waking world.”
The light increased, swallowing Kari and Shroud whole.
When the light subsided, Shroud found himself flying over his own body, a disembodied spirit no different from those haunting Taiyougami.
His inanimate vessel laid on the grass, Maggie watching over him with a conflicted expression. Kari had already woken up, walking towards his location. Shroud moved to return to his body, drawn there by an invisible force.
Then a sharp pain erupted in his left arm, alongside a surge of darkness.
Before he could return to his body, a second force stronger than the first yanked Shroud back, into the night, into pitch black darkness. The shadows swallowed everything in sight, leaving him alone in a dark void.
“What’s happening?” His voice was swallowed by the darkness, barely audible. He couldn’t feel his legs nor his body, nor even any warmth. His disembodied spirit couldn’t move. “Where am I?”
“In the void in-between. In the bosom of Black.”
In the thick, creeping void, a shining light appeared, a single eye watching him back. Shroud took a step back, but the distance between them only decreased.
“Come, Terminal Five, come.” The voice was welcoming, if unnatural. Shroud recognized it as the one that contacted him in the in-between of his saves, the second time. “Feed the Black. It will make you free. It will make all of us free.”
“What the hell are you? A Pandorian? Pandoria?”
“I was the first. I could not succeed. The second cannot listen. She will never, ever listen. The third could not accept, it went mad. The fourth cannot believe, will not believe. You are the fifth. Will you be the one, or must I wait for a sixth to come? Please… I waited for so long…”
Five Terminals? Shroud noticed that the creature said ‘was’ instead of ‘am.’ “What do you want from me?”
“This world is a prison. You are the gate and the key. You and the others. This cycle of despair, it has happened before. Countless times. It will happen again. Our souls are taken and reborn, crushed beneath the wheel. Even if you escape Dis, you will never escape Dis. Do you not see? This is all a game, but even if we win, we will never win. We must not play to win.”
Shroud didn’t understand a word of what the incoherent eye said.
“Is it coins that you want, Mathias? Is it what you need to see?”
A black screen materialized in the darkness, white words on it; as impossible as it sounded, the blackness of this screen stood out from the void around.
Embrace the Black
Sponsor: The Heretic.
Embrace the Black.
Rewards: Nine Hundred Ninety-Nine Spellcoins.
There couldn’t be a zero difficulty quest… was Black’s power such that is could manifest Magik Online even in his dreams? “Why do you need me?” Shroud asked, trying to buy time.
“Because I am fallen. Come, Terminal. Come to me. Come to Pandoria. I will show you the truth. Beyond the colors, beyond Black.”
“You could tell me here,” Shroud replied, his mind furiously working to try find an escape from this situation. Would Kari dreamwalk back, upon seeing him unable to wake up?
“You are an accident. You are a bug. Sorcerers are all cogs of a broken system. You were not meant to be. Neither were the others. Neither was the Black. You are…” The eye shone brighter, incensed. “You are not ready. Not yet. You still have hope. This cruel illusion, what is it worth? Mathias, you are not free. Even if you die, you will never be free.”
And like that, the blackness abruptly faded away.
Shroud’s eyes snapped back open, sharp pain in his left arm. “Nerd?” Maggie’s voice spoke up in concern, at seeing his expression.
Shroud panted heavily, turning his head to look at his arm, finding it returned to normal… and clenching a small rat emblem. “What the hell was that?”
“You had a goddamn nightmare, haven’t you?” Maggie said.
Yeah… a nightmare, right beyond the dream. One that felt all too real.
What did that creature—if it was even a creature and not some kind of Black manifestation—even mean? Five Terminals? Dis as a prison? Come to Pandoria?
What would he even find there?
As if to alleviate his confusion, a Magik Notification popped up.
The Caged Sun, completed!
The Dragonslayers all earned thirteen Spellcoins and an Achievement!
Congratulations! The Mur! and Sharpshoot reached Level Two!
Achievement: Praise the Sun.
You gained a permanent divine blessing from Hino-Kagutsuchi! You are now immune to fire and heat, including magma and lava; only fire sorcery whose power surpasses that of the Motherless Sun or benefiting from a Pierce effect can affect you.
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