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Mao Lu’s eyes widened and his nose wrinkled in disgust as he stared at the corpses that were littered on the forest floor.

The bodies were inside out, the flesh still pulsing and emitting steam. Blood poured out of them, mixing with the rain and soaking into the ground.

In the middle of these corpses stood General Xander.

His right arm was gone, litres of blood squirted from the wound, but he didn’t seem to care. With his left arm he held a long golden sword. He had his back against a wide tree and his guard extra tightened. His gaze was wary.

Mero gasped, “Xander…”

When Xander heard her voice he sharply turned his head towards Mero, his gaze became filled with horror.

“GET OUT OF HERE NOW!!!!!!!!!” He yelled

As he yelled this, Mao Lu could see a black shadow swiftly approaching Xander.

Xander seemed to sense it too, as he sliced at the air besides him. His golden sword glowing and a wave of heat essences erupting from it, forcing the shadow to fly backwards.

Mao Lu blinked in surprise, even though Xander was mortal he could use a sword that controlled heat essence. Was this another magical tool?

At the same time, the shadow that had been thrown back, transformed into a creature. It had slimy skin and large eyes. It was hunched and small like an imp. Thin grey hairs grew off it’s head. It’s nails were long sharp talons. The life and essences on it’s skin were black and a grey aura of death emanated from it.

It screeched “Hahhahhaha” like a laughing hyena. It’s large eyes swivelling around as it watched Mao Lu, Mero, and Xander.

Mero stepped back in horror, “A Grotesque…” she muttered.

“A Grotesque?” Mao Lu found himself involuntarily twitch at the term, something was nagging at him, he felt like he’d seen this thing before.

“It’s a manifestation of hatred and regret” Mero whispered, “They say when someone has been wronged and passes away unnaturally, their spirit still lingers. After many centuries of lingering the spirit becomes a powerful poltergeist and if it possesses a fresh corpse it becomes a Grotesque. Grotesque feed on fresh blood and souls. I’ve only ever heard stories about them, I’ve never seen one in real life.”

“Hahhahhaha” they heard screeching laughter behind them.

Mao Lu turned around and saw five more of these Grotesque sneaking up on them.

Their skin was all slimy and mottled, as the rain poured on them and they slinked out of the shadows, they were even more terrifying.

“We’re surrounded.” Mero felt weak at the knees. She didn’t want to die like this.

Mao Lu glanced back at Xander who was losing a lot of blood, on his side two more Grotesque had also popped out.

Xander was cornered just like them. The situation appeared dire.

Mao Lu closed his eyes and calmed his breathing. He knew he couldn’t let fear affect him.

With his eyes closed he began to communicate with the essences around him.

They whispered to him slowly, he felt the same disconnect he’d felt before. These essences belonged to another Realm and hence didn’t completely obey him, however the time essences were especially friendly.

They let him see the forest through their eyes.

Mao Lu’s heart thudded in shock. It was like an infestation. The entire forest was filled with these Grotesque creatures. They were crawling around and slaughtering every creature which had blood pumping through its veins.

They needed to escape back to Karne Village. Underground was the only place that was safe.

Mero was feeling despair as the Grotesques slowly sauntered up to them. Their fanged mouths and large eyes seeming to mock her. They were playing, they could easily jump and kill her anytime but they chose to do it so slowly.

Just as Mero felt like crying, regretting her foolish decision to come here, she was stunned when she noticed Mao Lu. He was standing there with his eyes closed. A tranquil look on his face.

How could he be so calm???

Mero didn’t have time to ask Mao Lu what he was doing, as one of the Grotesque leapt at her.

Just as it’s long claws was about to cleave her in two, a tree branch nearby grew rapidly. It slammed into the Grotesque penetrating through its body.

The Grotesque flailed and howled like a wounded dog as struggled on top of the branch.

The next second the entire forest seemed to come alive.

Xander, who had now slumped against the tree, exhausted and defeated, waiting for the Grotesques to slice him to death, was shocked when nothing happened.

He looked up to see the Grotesques slowly backing away from him. As they tried to retreat deeper into the forest, the tree Xander was leaning on stood up, it’s branches grabbing the Grotesques and swinging them away like baseballs.

Xander couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Before he could get over his surprise, he saw Mao Lu’s back in front of him. “Hurry up, climb on my back, I’ll carry you.”

Xander was surprised, “It would be common sense for you to leave me. I’ll just be a burden. Hurry up and go n—”

“GET ON MY BACK NOW!!!!!” Mao Lu yelled. He turned and glared at Xander, his gaze showed that ‘no’ was not an option.

Xander obediently climbed on Mao Lu’s back. He hadn’t been particularly nice to Mao Lu before, and if he had been in the same position he probably would have left Mao Lu for dead, he couldn’t understand why Mao Lu was helping him but he felt extremely grateful.

Mao Lu began running through the forest in the direction of the lake. Mero following closely behind him.

There were many times when the Grotesque would leap at them or emerge from the shadows, but each time the forest saved them. Rocks would skewer the Grotesques, trees would whack them, generally nature was attacking the Grotesques at full force.

What Mero didn’t know, was that it wasn’t nature but Mao Lu.

As he controlled the essence around him and ran at the same time. He felt his heart squeezing.

He couldn’t breathe.

This was ten times harder than controlling the essence in his own realm.

Blood was pouring down his nose heavily by the time they reached the lake entrance to Karne Village.

As they jumped into the lake, five Grotesque jumped in with them, being teleported to the Village.

The moment they landed in the lake near the entrance of Karne Village, Mero screamed at the top of her lungs, “Close the doorway!!!!!! Close it!!!!!!”

The guards at the village entrance glanced up in confusion.

Mero and Mao Lu waded through the lake quickly, the five Grotesques hot on their heels. Mao Lu forcibly used the water essences to slow the Grotesques down. The Grotesques screeched as the lake water turned as hard as cement around their slimy limbs.

At that moment three more Grotesques appeared in the lake, as Mero saw this she screamed again, “Close the goddamn Gate!!!!!!!”

The guard’s at the entrance of the village reacted quickly when they realised what was happening and heard Mero’s frantic cry.

The guards stood together and connected their long spears in a circle. They then all turned together, counter clockwise, whilst muttering inaudible words. As they did so the lake entrance began to freeze over. Turning to ice.

The Grotesque that were struggling in the water were frozen solid. Their horrific faces petrified like stone.

Mao Lu and Mero ran all the way to the village entrance. When they reached the guards Mao Lu wheezed in relief, falling to his knees.

Xander rolling off his back and onto the ground.

Mero yelled, “Help!!!! We need the medics!!!!”

There was flurry of people and noise.

Mao Lu wasn’t aware of what was going on around him. He only realised that at some point Xander had been carried away and the Village Elders and Sea Karne were standing around them.

Mero was hugging Sea Karne and crying into his arms, telling him what had happened.

Mao Lu wanted to say something but his head was pounding. Blood seeped from his mouth and the next second everything had gone black.

……..

When he opened his eyes he was in a bed covered in velvet cloths and silk fabrics. Kneeling near his bedside was Mero. She had a worried look on her face as she soaked a clean cloth in freshwater.

“Mero…” he croaked.

His throat was parched and his lips were dry.

“Mao Lu, you’re awake!” She exclaimed, teary eyed as she glanced at Mao Lu in relief.

“How long was I asleep?” He asked in concern.

“It’s only been a few hours, but a lot has happened.” She sighed and bit her lip in anxiousness.

“Like what, what has happened?” Mao Lu asked, he was feeling more tense.

“The village has entered into a stage of panic. The entire forest is likely covered with Grotesques. This is likely not a coincidence, my Father and the Elders believe that Practitioners have coordinated this and have set the Grotesque to destroy our village.” Mero said gloomily.

“What? Why would Practitioners launch an attack on this Village?” Mao Lu’s eyebrows were raised in surprise.

“It’s the River of blessings. According to Father the last time he left the village and had a meeting with the Practitioners on the border, some expressed a worrying interest in the River of Blessings. My Father thought that at most we would have to share our resources with them but it seems he underestimated their greed. It looks like the Grotesque are eating away at the barrier on the lake. It’s only a matter of time before the Grotesques flood into this village.”

Mero sighed heavily, “Our days are numbered.”

Mao Lu’s expression hardened, “Don’t be so negative, there has to be a way out of this. Take me to your Father now.”

Mero’s eyes glittered, and her heart fluttered hearing Mao Lu’s strong words. She straightened up, “I’ll take you to my Father now, he’s holding a Council meeting with the elders and other authoritative figures in Karne in the heart of the village.”

Mero helped Mao Lu out of the hut, he leaned on her since he was still feeling slightly dizzy.

As he emerged from the hut he noticed immediately how the entire atmosphere in the village had changed.

He could no longer hear the laughter of the playing children or the wandering chatter of the people.

Instead there was this atmosphere of dread.

As Mao Lu walked with Mero across the quiet streets he saw some adults hanging around, they muttered quietly amongst each other, their expressions miserable.

At that moment his leg was tugged by someone.

He looked behind him and saw Luca, the small boy from that time.

“Mr…Mr Practitioner, you’re super strong right? You’ll save us right?” The little boy had tears in his eyes.

“Mr Practitioner everyone’s saying we’re going to die, Mummy and Daddy are crying. None of my friends will play with me. Are we really going to die Mr?”

As young Luca cried loudly Mao Lu noticed that everyone lingering in the streets were staring at him. People were peeping out their windows and watching.

Mao Lu let go of Mero’s hand. He kneeled down and gently patted Luca’s head.

“I can’t promise you that we’re not going to die, but if I can help it, we won’t be.” His expression hardened, “And if we do die it won’t be on our backs, we’ll make them regret coming after us… So don’t cry Luca, now is the moment to be strong.”

In this second Mao Lu had forgotten about the trial. Instead he felt the weight of these people’s lives on his shoulders.

He told himself, “I’ll save them.”

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Alexia

September 2019
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