Chapter 55: The Strongest Zodiac

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Maggie Powells and Kari Matsumoto sat in a lotus position under the lifeforge, their eyes closed. Kari looked peaceful, while Maggie, not so much. 

“Exhale,” Bai Suzhen, who commanded the exercise, advised. “Focus on your body’s sensations. Let the air flow from your lungs to the outside world.”

Shroud watched his friends’ exercise, having denied joining them. Their reactions interested him more than the act itself. Stitch also had declined due to his obvious lack of breath, while Ace prepared the groundwork for the final push for Baihu’s emblem. 

As for Mur, the imp had just laughed the exercise off as ridiculous, before chasing after Baihu’s scouts lurking in the South Area. With the end of night attacks, the Tiger had finally decided to send monsters to collect wood for his forge. 

So far, Baihu had remained strangely passive. With the various revelations he had crossed together, Shroud finally understood why. Leading species on the verge of extinction made him wary about wasting them, especially against challengers instead of the Concordian Empire. Defenders generally held an advantage in siege warfare, especially since the West Area didn’t depend on others to survive. He could afford to pick waiting for the Dragonslayers to crash against his walls, since they needed the emblem while sending scouts to check on them. 

The fact the Tiger had consciously avoided going through the north bothered Shroud though. Why did that arrogant feline avoid the Goat at all costs? 

“Maggie,” Bai Suzhen told the one member of the dragonslayers unable to stay on place. “You are not focusing.”

“I’m trying…” she hissed but didn’t curse back. Shroud took it as her learning the lesson. 

“And you are making progress.”

“I better do, I lost fifteen Spellcoins because of this anger management class,” Maggie replied, clearly annoyed. 

“Then empty your mind, let go of your emotions…” Maggie’s jaw clenched in annoyance, but her mouth remained shut. “Kari, you are doing very well.”

Indeed. Shroud checked her Magik account and noticed her number of side-quests had gone up. She might upgrade her Lock by the end of it.

Shroud left to check on the other members of the team. Ace finished created purple doorways in the Pig’s hidden hub, linking areas together. 

With Doorways, Ace could create temporary portals between two doorways, from arches to doors, as long as they were within ten kilometers of one another. Twenty, if she boosted the spell with Accel. By creating four doorways, linking the island to the hub, and then the hub to Baihu’s area, she had created a road circumventing the teleporters. No need to crawl through the small, dangerous tunnels to move East from West.

Shroud had considered sending the entire monster army through and blindside Baihu, until the meeting with the Ox and the Horse. Being responsible for a bloodbath when the species present on Taiyougami were on the decline bothered him; he would send in the monsters only if the fight with Baihu went off the rails. 

They would keep that strategy for Concordia. 

“Sir?” Stitch called through his Network feed. “Sir, do you hear me?”

“What is it?” Shroud whispered back, moving away from the meditation training ground so as not to bother them.

“I found a way to hatch the core early. I wish to gain your approval before proceeding.”

“I’m coming.” Shroud left the women to their training to move around the island, towards Stitch’s location. The medic had set a makeshift laboratory for spell experimentation near the bridge, alongside Sol, testing out various applications of the Encode spell, or even trying to activate Hacks. 

Shroud told himself to check the Player forums after the Baihu problem dealt with. He had put it off for long, waiting until he could gather more Spellcoins to invest. While he wanted to keep a reserve for Level Three, he intended to upgrade some of his outdated spells, like Purge. Perhaps Players had found helpful Hack formulas for it. 

He would also need to recreate Glass Field; without it, the armor he currently wore had turned into an impactical prison which he couldn’t take off without outside help or damaging it. The more he thought of it, triggering Hacks using spells he had come to use as crutches would prove more trouble than it was worth. 

The Blue Sorcerer found his teammates having set a protective perimeter around the Dungeon Core, namely surrounding it with the spell-encoded bombs they had used against the spirits a few days earlier. Sol stood watch in full armor, while Stitch worked on a potion alongside the Rabbit Zodiac. 

“Ah, sir,” Stitch said upon noticing him, while Sol kept his eyes on the core. “Good to see you.”

“I see you didn’t waste time,” Shroud commented, noticing a stockpile of rounded stones near Stitch. “New bombs?”

“Solomon encoded the Blue World spell in them, set to activate upon sufficient shock applied. I suggested distributing them to our less spell-equipped allies to throw at the enemy.”

“You created spell grenades,” Shroud whistled. “Impressive.”

“I wish I could claim this discovery, but I am only reverse-engineering Concordian weapons I have observed in my unlife.”

Of course, Concordia would mass-produce that kind of goods. 

“The doctor is so good!” Kaguya praised him. “He improved my healing potions thrice over!”

Not surprising. Timesense. Doom Sense. Psychometry, Intuimotion, Pathfinder, Alchemic Grasp, Spiritsight… Stitch had purchased just about every sensory spell he could get his dead hands on at Level One. He clearly optimized himself for his research. 

“I have produced batches of an accelerated regeneration pill,” Stitch explained. “Not as potent as your own Heal spell, sir, but useful in a pinch. With a better lab, I could mass-produce them.”

“Stockpile them for now, alongside your weaponry,” Shroud said. In time, they would empower a full human insurgency on Earth.

Sol hadn’t moved from his watchful stance, however. This caught Shroud’s attention. “The core is dangerous, is it not?”

“Very,” Solomon said. 

“I found a way to accelerate the hatching,” Stitch said. “The key was Green Flux exposure, sir. I understood when you activated the Lifeforge. The dragon feeds.”

“The dragon?” Shroud interrupted Stitch, his hands clenching. 

“My spells confirmed this is no stone,” Stitch said. “This is an egg, sir. More specifically, a dragon egg.”

Shroud glared at the shining core with such intensity the Moon Rabbit cowered. He couldn’t help himself. “Explain.”

“Not a Concordian dragon, mind you, sir,” Stitch said hurriedly. The tension coming from the Blue Sorcerer must have been palpable. “An eastern variant, long thought extinct. I heard these ones followed a cycle of reincarnation, unlike their Midgardian cousins, returning to the state of an egg after suffering lethal wounds; only when their core is destroyed, are they truly destroyed. With my new spell enhancements, I recognized it as it was.”

“And you didn’t inform me of this?” Shroud hissed at Kaguya, who lowered her ears.

“I, I didn’t know, I swear.” The Rabbit insisted. “But Dragon is very nice! You have nothing to fear from him.”

“So the Goat gave us a poisoned gift since the beginning,” Shroud muttered. “To think we looked everywhere for the Dragon Zodiac only to carry it across this place. I should have known these creatures fed on the death of others.”

“I do not think so,” Stitch said, “Dragons naturally adapt to their environment at an accelerated rate, sometimes undergoing multiple metamorphoses during their lifetime. I believe this particularity, combined with a Flux-heavy environment, is the reason for the high sorcerer rate among their population. Our challenger may have granted us the egg hoping to trigger a specific reaction.”

“So the Zodiac provided us this egg, hoping it would, what, copy some of our powers?”

“This sounds like the most likely explanation, sir.”

“Mathias,” Sol butted in, having kept a hand on his sword since the beginning. “What do we do with it?”

Shroud crossed his arms, himself unsure. He loathed dragons with every fiber of his being, even one technically allied with them, and the idea of having strengthened it disgusted him. Yet they needed its emblem to go forward. “How did you intend to hatch it?”

“Intense exposure to Flux, particularly Green,” Stitch said. “I would have used the spell Growth on it, had I the level to purchase it. Instead, I suggest you, sir, cast Heal on the shell. The resulting surge of Green Flux should overstimulate its growth process, and hatch it in controlled conditions. We can terminate it with a specific word. It is under control.”

Meaning, surrounded by mines to blow it up should it turn dangerous. Kaguya was aghast when she realized that. “You want to blow up an egg! An egg!”

“If it proves dangerous,” Stitch replied with cold professionalism. Even Sol, who would have frowned upon such tactic, did not voice an objection. 

“This could be the Lair’s final boss,” Shroud said, although nobody else understood his video game jargon. 

“But Dragon is nice!” Kaguya insisted, “You have nothing to fear!”

Shroud ignored her, flying towards the core and landing near the egg. The ‘stone’ now shone with a bright light, having fed on the Dragonslayers’ experience and struggles through the Lair. 

With considerable disgust, Shroud put his hand on the eggshell, feeling the warmth and life inside. “Heal.”  A surge of Green Flux covered the egg, to no effect. “Heal.”


Again, and again. “Did you make a mistake?” Kaguya asked as the Blue Sorcerer kept casting his spell to no avail.

“I am not wrong,” Stitch insisted.

He wasn’t. Shroud sensed the warmth increase. In between spells, he paused just long enough to purchase a spell he should have gotten long ago. “Accel Heal.”

This time, it did the trick.

The stone shook on its own, Shroud instantly flying away back to Sol’s side, just in case. The stone unleashed a radiant, vibrant flare of energy, becoming light itself. The energy shifted, morphing away from the shape of a stone to that of a serpentine creature, much smaller than Bai Suzhen, yet still awe-inspiring. 

The light soon died out, revealing a flying beast of legends, a blue Asian dragon with scales of varying shade of deep blue and green. Shroud’s own colors, the sorcerer realized. The creature didn’t look like the primeval Smokefang, but as a long serpent with four legs and a white mane, and bright golden eyes showcasing deep intelligence. And between horns, the animal proudly displayed the dragon emblem.

Quest, the Dungeon Core, completed!

All Dragonslayers earned Seven Spellcoins! Doc reached Level 2!

Yet all Shroud could feel at the sight was disgust. 

He knew it was irrational, and probably undeserved. But he hated that creature’s kind with every fiber of his being, almost as much as he despised Jack Powells. 

“Dragon!” Kaguya leaped to the creature’s side. Shroud feared the mines would blow her up, but whatever conditions Stitch and Sol had set for activation didn’t trigger. “You’re back!”

The beast nuzzled the rabbit with an animalistic growl, too young to form words. “Interesting,” Stitch said, approaching to examine the beast. “It appears dragons cannot speak in their early larval stage. How interesting to examine one in the wild!”

“Just take the emblem,” Shroud replied, as he turned away from the scene.

Sol stopped him by putting a hand on his shoulder. “Mathias, it did nothing to you.”

“I know, but just watching it makes me want to vomit.” The Blue Sorcerer brushed it off. “What was the point of that exercise?”

“Teach us kindness and compassion, mayhaps.”

“Towards dragons?” Shroud laughed. “This is ridiculous. What is there to feel compassionate about?”

“You defeat enemies when you make them your friends,” Sol replied. “Sometimes, angels fight evil with flaming swords, and sometimes with understanding.”

“What is there to understand about Concordia? About the Maleking? The former is a tyrannical empire, the second the beast of the end times. The one value in understanding the enemy is realizing how to destroy it.”

“Some people are too unreasonable to ever be talked out of their way of thinking,” Solomon conceded. “But I fear that if we consider the opposite side as purely evil without considering where they come from, we become tempted to take a wicked path ourselves. The road to Hell is not only paved with good intentions, but also with self-justifications.”

Shroud frowned, before somehow his thoughts trailed to Jack Powells, perhaps the one person he ever met that could be called pure, unredeemable evil. While Smokefang had at least the reason—but not the excuse—of his lack of sorcery and culture driving him to a dangerous path, Jack had no reason to turn out the way he did. He just did.

Evil existed in this world, and it had to be destroyed, no questions asked. 

Still, something which Jack told him bothered Shroud. “Jack once told me Locks had a purpose.”

“You were granted the power to understand others, Mathias, and make them work together,” Solomon nodded, “Do not waste it.” 

He had no answer to this.

As per his schedule, Baihu had fallen asleep.

“It’s time,” he told the gathered Dragonslayers, as they stood in front of a stone archway crafted by Mur, and turned into a doorway by Ace. His eyes set on Maggie longer than most, especially the headband around her head. 

“This sucks,” Maggie said, sounding more tired than angry. “Anger management classes suck.”

They couldn’t wait longer. Network would soon stop working on Baihu, blinding Shroud. They had to try now. “You can help without fighting,” he said. Shroud hesitated to bench her again, as he feared it would destroy whatever confidence she had left. He had adapted their tactics accordingly; and besides, he had learned everything to know about Baihu. “In fact, your role may be the most important one.”

“Whatever,” she replied, glancing away and not believing him.

Shroud sighed, his eyes turning to the operation’s field leader. “I dissipated enough doubles to manifest twenty-five Doppelgangers,” Shroud told Kari. 

The young woman didn’t say a word. 

“I know you do not want to rely on the Grant Spell feature of Network,” Shroud declared. “But out of all of us, you are the one with the most spell buffs, which will carry over to your doubles. Even Mur cannot reach this trick’s full potential without Pitborn carrying over.” He wondered what prevented Doppelganger from noticing Hacks. 

“I am still wary of this power,” she said, “This is your Lock, not mine. And relying on someone else makes me uncomfortable.”

“I know,” Shroud said. “But I smell a ‘but’?”

“But…” Kari frowned. “I have seen where never trusting others lead; to Uncle. I do not want to make the same mistake, and your power can give us an edge. If we want to take back our home, we need to exploit it. It would be selfish of me to sacrifice the greater picture for my sake.”

“So you will agree? At least for this time?” Kari nodded, although with some hesitation. “Thank you. I know this isn’t easy for you.”

She took his hand without a word, and Shroud sensed the jolt of Network reactivate. He granted her the Doppelganger spell, and she created her first copy. 

He made twenty copies of herself, while Should kept the rest of his ‘slots’ in reserve. Combined with Stitch’s larvae and monsters, and the summons he kept in reserve, they had a force fifty members strong, most of them enhanced with Powersurge. Considering the force multiplier involved, they might as well be five thousand. 

Not that he would deploy all of them. Only the Dragonslayers would suffice for this operation. 

Unfortunately, Shroud wouldn’t be part of them today. “It’s the first time I truly command from the rear,” he said. “It is strange.”

“It’s necessary,” Sol replied. “If Baihu defeats you, all our enhancements may fall down, and you are our coordination lynchpin. You cannot let incoming attacks distract you from it.”

“It’s just, what if it goes wrong? What if you need me in a pinch and I cannot reach you fast enough?”

“Mathias, we will not be able to rely on you all the time,” Sol said, giving him a pat on the shoulder, “Do you remember what I told you once? Trusting someone is also giving them the ability to make mistakes, and no plan is ever foolproof. You will help far more coordinating us, and we will manage.” 

If this Lair truly was meant to train the Dragonslayers and allow them to experiment, he might as well attempt tactics he intended for Concordia. An open assault would be out of the question, but not takedowns and assassinations. They just had to secure the palace and defeat Baihu to claim the last area, not devastate it with monsters. 

Overall, it should go well. Sol had encoded everyone’s clothes and weapons with Reinforce, to trigger in case of attack, Kari’s doubles carried bags of spell grenades with them, and everyone had upgraded their spell selection. Shroud’s own surveillance had allowed him to map the area and Baihu’s palace, information he had every teammate memorize. With Shroud directing them from afar, it should, in theory, go as well as the Ox and Horse battle. 

In theory. 

“Good luck,” he told the other Dragonslayers, as they walked into Ace’s portal, Maggie and Stitch going first, followed by Kari and Mur. 

“Try to keep an eye on the sleeping tiger, handsome.” Ace winked at him, as she closed the march with Sol, leaving Shroud alone.  

The sorcerer sat in the grass and opened all Network feeds available, before casting a new spell on himself. “Accel Premium Thoughts.”

He didn’t notice any noticeable change, at least not now; base Premium Thought had been enough to coordinate the group and keep track of the feeds before. 

Using Ace’s teleportation pathway, the group stepped through an isolated corner in the Western Area’s walled city, silent in the night. Kari’s doubles crawled on the walls to reach the roofs and dispersed, while the main group walked on foot. “Accel Soundwave,” Maggie cast, “Accel Quasar.”

With the enhanced Soundwave spell, Maggie could control sound within a twenty meters radius; and she deflected light with Quasar, as Shroud did when he still used the spell on Earth. Combining both abilities, she had created a vast protective zone where the group could move silent and invisible.

Through the eyes of Kari’s clones moving around with discretion, Shroud had a perfect view of the perimeter. Baihu’s monsters patrolled the streets below, especially near the palace, with lanterns, but hadn’t noticed the team yet. “Dragonslayers, take a corner to the right, and walk in a line around Maggie, Stitch first, Sol last. Six guards are moving in the opposite direction, but you can avoid them.”

Thanks to his sheer range of sensory abilities, Stitch made for a very good scout and would spot anyone Shroud himself missed. 

Shroud watched the group meet a patrol of armored monkeys, led by a taller ogre, and walk next to them undetected. He noticed a pleased smirk on Maggie’s face as the enemy missed them entirely.

Good. That would help build her confidence back. Shroud remembered fondly on how Quasar had been one of the first spells he granted her back in the day, and how it gave her a taste of sorcery in the first place. 

Kari’s clones protected the team, often silently ambushing guards patrolling the roofs and clearing the way to Baihu’s fortress. The group reached the palace, while the doubles set a perimeter around it. 

While Kari and Mur climbed the walls the old fashion way, Sol used flight to transport the rest of the group on the rampart. The courtyard was left relatively unattended, the guards patrolling the palace’s corridors. 

“Kari, go forward towards the courtyard and secure the path to Baihu’s tower. The rest of you, secure and block the main gate.”

Kari climbed down the castle walls on the other side, as silent and invisible as a shadow even as she exited the range of Maggie’s protective shield. Within seconds, she ambushed a duo of headless monsters watching the tower from behind, dragging them into the shadows before their comrades on the walls noticed. The rest of the group moved towards the gates, still hidden behind their protection.

Then Baihu woke up from his slumber. 

Baihu, the Tiger of the West, and the final opponent.

Shroud’s eyes widened in alarm. Had he smelled the group? “Warning, Tiger is awake!” he informed the group, as the Zodiac leaped out of bed to reach the balcony, jumping into the courtyard as if possessed by a single-minded will. 

“It is time,” Baihu told himself, as he landed with the same perfect poise he showed to Shroud before.

“Kari, he’s onto you!” The moderator warned her. Kari stepped out of the shadows behind Baihu, intending to cheap shot the Tiger.

“Blue World!” 

The Tiger’s words carrying a blue aura through the courtyard. Kari froze in place, paralyzed. 

So did Shroud.

“Did you assume I could not cast spells because you never saw me do so?” Baihu taunted Shroud, whose eyes bulged behind his screen. 

He knew. 

Shit, he always knew. 

“Powersurge, Peak,” Baihu said, a green aura surrounding him, buffing himself while turning around to face the immobilized Kari. “Intuimotion, Mindshield.”

In the blink of an eye, Baihu moved with his claws, ready to tear out Kari’s throat, only for Hands of Slaughter to activate, crimson arms moving to strike at the tiger. The Zodiac dodged gracefully, circling around the paralyzed warrior, yet finding no opening past her defense. 

Powersurge and Mindshield. Level Two, at least. Wait, if he could cast spells, did that mean he— 

“Accel Glass Field,” Baihu said. 

The palace’s windows exploded into shrapnel.

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The next two chapters will conclude the Lair arc, and the story arc afterward will conclude the volume. But truth to be told, I am not happy with that arc. At all. And stats on all websites tend to confirm it. 

I’ve been planning that Dungeon Crawl Arc since I did the survey and the Lair Poll. It being rather long, heavy character-development wise, and focused on the group building a minion army, came as a result of these consultations. I was very hyped about it. I designed a map of the dungeon, trials and new characters for it.

But when I started writing the first few chapters, and I didn’t like them. Something didn’t click as it should. I actually forced myself to write the chapters leading to Baihu’s battle to meet with the various deadlines, the first time since I began to write this serial; and that fatigue helped a few slip ups pass (last chapter was when I couldn’t ignore it anymore). 

It’s not the Lair, but both the characters introduced, which I found forgettable and superfluous and the lack of suspense. Most don’t know, but most of my previous stories have been very dark with a heavy body count, and so I tried to take a slow burn approach with Magik; but sticking to my original draft for the Lair felt tensionless, directionless. Like writing a filler. 

Volume II has been planned as a “growth” volume, where the characters grow, some key mysteries are revealed, and pieces start gathering, in between Volume I setting up the universe and Volume III being the payoff where Earth returns to the spotlight and everything comes together. The Lair arc is the one arc which I felt has been… bland, and very much a case of “It sounded way, way better in my mind.”

I’m frustrated because it is something a lot of you were looking forward to, according to the polls, and I feel I didn’t deliver. I’ve actually decided to scrap some myth-based story arcs I had planned, simply because I realize I don’t find them (and characters involved) half as interesting as human Players, or misguided dragons from outer space. 

So yeah, I’m definitely going to heavily rewrite this arc down the line (probably after concluding volume II) and I apologize if it hasn’t been up to the expected quality standard.

2 Replies to “Chapter 55: The Strongest Zodiac”

  1. I feel like the Blue World spell got nerfed all of a sudden.
    It’s supposed to stop perception of time therefore physical + mental stillness, i think, but all its doing here is physically paralysis.

    Unless of course, Accel Premium thoughts can actually enable thought processing even while the mind is subdued by Blue World.

    1. Shroud is listening through Network, so he is not within the spell’s area of effect; Blue World carries through direct soundwaves.

      Shroud froze in surprise because he didn’t expect Baihu to be a Sorcerer.

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