Underworld Playerchapter 34: the crux

From Bai Zhi's point of view, this Newbie Run really wasn't a big deal. The main "challenges" it posed were whether the Players had keen enough observational skills and the courage to face the monster head on.

This was their reality, after all. The only thing separating Players from normal people was their access to abilities that allowed them to stand up to the supernatural entities. It wasn't a game where they could respawn indefinitely upon their death. In fact, being a Player had far-reaching consequences that meant they were exposed to even greater risks than normal humans were.

As they say, "you only live once".

Just like Wu Hua and his partner that time, even though they were obviously Players who had completed their Newbie Run, coming up against a sly and intelligent supernatural entity like the little boy who had the ability to pin their shadows down had put them in dire straits. If not for Bai Zhi's intervention, it would have been the end of the line for them.

Joining a big organization meant access to equipment and items that could lower the risk of failing the Newbie Run, but also potentially changed the course of events in unpredictable ways, as Bai Zhi and his party could attest.

If not for Mustachio's rental item, the Bamboo Doll, confounding his deductive process, Bai Zhi would have figured out the key to clearing the quest long before they reached the life-threatening last minutes of the scenario.

When dealing with a supernatural entity, running away only delayed the inevitable—the only way to win was to take it on and take it down. However, rushing in without first carefully observing the quarry was asking to be tripped up like Wu Hua and company.

Such was the lesson that the Newbie Run was intended to teach the Players, and the crux of the whole experience.

Having decided to face their adversary, the party carefully moved the mirror from the bathroom to the living room. Positioning himself firmly before it, Bai Zhi stared unflinchingly into its murky depths, and under the watchful gazes of Late Night Kitty and the others, a thin, ghostly limb emerged and gripped his neck. Since he had deliberately not activated the protection of the Bamboo Doll clones, two seconds later, Bai Zhi was nowhere to be seen.

As soon as he disappeared, the others felt the oppressive sensation of bone-chilling cold in the villa lift significantly. In the ensuing silence, Late Night Kitty looked at the still, yet menacing mirror with eyes full of misgiving.

Bai Zhi felt a thin film of resistance stretch and pop like a bubble as he crossed over into the Mirror World. When he opened his eyes, he found himself... disoriented.

The first thing he noticed was the sound, or lack of it. While his immediate surroundings looked like the living room he had just been in, the familiar white noise caused by the falling rain no longer filled his ears. The fact that he could still see the curtain of rain outside only made the dead silence more uncanny. Then there was the light. Halfway between the color of blood and a bruise, it came from everywhere and nowhere at once, filling his vision with a sickly glow.

Frowning, Bai Zhi unconsciously put a hand on his neck, which now bore the same black markings as those found on Temperance. "Just as I suspected. Moving here feels twice as draining as on the other side..."

Considering the physical strain, Late Night Kitty should have been a reasonable choice to send into the Mirror World, since she was in the best condition of the four, but with her fearful personality, she would most likely end up cowering in a corner with her hands on her head as soon as she made it inside.

The red light that suffused the Mirror World, though bizarre, provided ample illumination to see by, and Bai Zhi prepared to search the room for the all-important right arm. As he rolled up his sleeves, suddenly, from the stairwell came the unusually crisp sound of footsteps.

"Tch! I really hate that I have to eat this..."

Bai Zhi muttered, keeping his eyes trained on the stairwell. Without looking down, he ripped open the packaging of a chocolate bar and took a bite.

According to the normal method of clearing the quest, he was expected to look for the final piece of the human puzzle while staying hidden and dodging any attacks from the vengeful spirit. It was the safest course of action—but also one that would take the longest time.

Time that he did not have. Knowing that Mustachio would not last very long out there, having to protect two helpless party members, Bai Zhi chose to take a riskier approach.

Several seconds passed as he considered his options, and a hideous figure appeared out of the gloomy stairwell. A crazy lattice of sutures crisscrossed all over the medium-sized body, revealing glimpses of bone through the gaps. The pieces of flesh were stitched together by human hair, and every part of the abomination seemed to writhe as it turned slowly this way and that, "looking" around at the room despite the bloody, empty sockets where its eyes should have been.

"You may be Stitch, but I can't lie low..."

So saying, Bai Zhi decisively lobbed a homemade white phosphorus incendiary bomb at the monster. Without sparing a moment to observe the effects, he sprinted for the stairs.

As a howl of rage and pain reverberated around the room, Bai Zhi tore up the stairs two or three at a time, quickly leaving it behind and arriving on the second floor. Making no effort at all to be sneaky, he kicked the first door that he encountered wide open and turned it upside down in search of the missing right arm. Not finding it there, he repeated the process for the next room.

What he had feared most was encountering an incorporeal spirit, the kind that could phase thorough solid walls, so the fact that his adversary turned out to be solid and susceptible to all the usual handicaps gave him some relief. Then again, if he really had to face off against an incorporeal spirit immune to physical attacks, it would mean that the Newbie Run might actually have been designed to torture the Players.

Bai Zhi had just finished searching his third room when the zombie burst roaring onto the second floor, dripping water everywhere.

"Well I'll be damned, it put out the fire by going outside. Stick a hat on him and call him Smokey*—" Bai Zhi was interrupted by the zombie's bizarre attack. In a fit of rage, it had torn off its own head and hurled it, still screaming, at Bai Zhi. He had not factored this into his calculations at all.

Caught completely off guard by this "avant-gourd**" tactic, Bai Zhi dodged a split second too late and a stabbing pain hit him as the surprisingly sturdy teeth of the zombie's head sank into his right arm. Meanwhile, the rest of the zombie was rapidly closing the distance with thundering strides.

Bai Zhi slammed the head on any hard surface he could find as he scrambled to find his footing. It seemed to stun it slightly, and he was able to dislodge it with a final, vicious kick, even as he filled his hands with his own homemade grenades. Quickly tossing them at the enemy, he dove for cover behind a nearby wall.


Nails, razors, glass shards and similar sharp objects ripped through everything, and the explosions were followed by a cacophony of loud pings as the deadly shrapnel ricocheted off various hard surfaces.

"Tch, if only I'd gotten hold of an RPG and some C4..."

Bai Zhi took a moment to assess the damage the zombie had done to his arm—the bite had definitely torn through his skin, as streams of black blood were flowing from the wound. As the zombie roared again, Bai Zhi snapped back into the moment and hurriedly looked for an escape route.

*Smokey the Bear, an American campaign and advertising icon of the U.S. Forest Service. Most well-known for a campaign to educate the public about the dangers of unplanned human-caused wildfires. His signature slogan "Remember... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires" was revealed in 1947 and was associated with Smokey Bear for more than five decades. The raw refers to 消防知识的形象大使 (literally fire safety character ambassador, and I chose Smokey because he's iconic).

**Pun on avant-garde, used in a general sense to refer to anything considered "unorthodox" or "radical". "Avant" is French for "front" or "forward" while "gourd" is a slang word for head.