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[FLAMING STAR FORTRESS]

The moment Mao Lu stepped out of the training chamber he noticed that something was wrong. The air tasted stale and there was a thick fog floating around the corridor, the white flame walls appeared dim and somewhat grey.

As Reality Control swished its large tail, the peculiar feeling only intensified. The essences in the Flaming Star Fortress were completely unstable, they were rotting, turning slowly black. 

“What is going on?” he muttered, Mao Lu was certain that the Flaming Star Fortress had most definitely not been in this state when he left.

He closed his eyes, the only place he could sense any functioning essences and life within the fortress was in the Grand Hall. It appeared as if there was a large gathering of Gatekeepers there as if they were having another meeting. This entire situation felt…peculiar, an eerie sense of desolateness and danger made the hairs on Mao Lu’s arms raise and he was instantly on guard. 

He brought out his soul weapon, pulling it from his chest. Reality Control swam around Mao Lu and merged with his longbow and glowing purple arrows.

Mao Lu slowly stepped forwards, his eyes darted around. 

There wasn’t a sound other than his shallow breaths and the soft crackle of his shoes on the flame floor.

He heard his heart thudding slowly. “…ba-thump…ba-thump…ba-thump…” 

It was at that moment that something appeared behind him. Mao Lu dodged just in time to avoid being hit by a large shadowy figure. He rolled on the floor into a crouch and glanced up at the thing that had attacked him. 

It was a large creature. Mao Lu had never seen anything like it before. A thick mist was emanating off of it, the mist wasn’t made of water vapour but something surreal and toxic and grey, it made all the essences around it shrivel up, rot and fade away. Everything it touched was simply decaying. Its entire body was covered in thick mist, the only definite features on it were its red piercing eyes and sharp green teeth that secreted a strange pink fluid. This fluid dripped on the floor and made the rotting spread.

It roared and the air around Mao Lu began to tremble, the flames in the corridor all turned black. The ground shook. It felt like the very Star that the Fortress was forged from was starting to die.

“What the hell is that!” Mao Lu gasped just as the creature lunged at him again. Mao Lu nocked an arrow and snapped it onto the bowstring before taking aim. He steadied his arm and calmed himself. Everything around him began to slow, the galloping creature now seemed cartoonish as its mist-covered limbs propelled sluggishly forward. 

He could hear his heart slowing down “ba….th…ump….ba…thu…mp” and he shot the arrow. The arrow transformed reality around the creature. When time resumed the monster was trapped in a spherical ball of the strongest and most solid Essences. 

At first, the creature appeared confused, then it started roaring and began hitting the walls of the sphere, Mao Lu watched with horror as the ball began to crack. “What the hell” he shouted as he turned and ran down the corridor, he didn’t want to be nearby when that thing escaped. Whatever it was it defied the laws of Essence, it was actually destroying Essence. How was this even possible?

As he gained some distance from the rabid monster, he found himself at a crossroads, and what he saw at the end of each corridor made Mao Lu’s blood run cold. There were tons more of these creatures blocking every route. As he noticed them they noticed him, and soon several red smouldering eyes were focused on Mao Lu.

[GRAND HALL]

A quiet, sombre atmosphere permeated around the entire Grand Hall. The gold, silver, and platinum curtains appeared dull, and the flowers were wilted. The image of the silver flower, which lay in the centre of the glass floor, now had several fine cracks running across it. More seats were empty than were filled. The echoes of strange roars could be heard as they reverberated through the ceiling and across the floor. From behind the tall doors came a thudding sound, the doors tremored as they resisted a strong force, as something was trying to break in.

Argenti sat on her golden throne, her hands were clenched, her expression stern. Obsidian sat next to her, his lips pressed into a grim line.

The heavy silence amongst the group broke when a Gatekeeper seated on a sapphire blue throne, yelled: “Does no one have answers?! It’s been a long time since we barricaded ourselves in here! What are those Creatures, why have our Gates turned against us?! What is going on!?”

This outcry caused muttering amongst the Gatekeepers and many began shouting the same questions. The tired and injured Gatekeepers looked towards Argenti and Obsidian with questioning stares. 

Argenti sighed and closed her eyes, ignoring them. There was no answer that she wanted to give. 

Noticing that Argenti wasn’t going to speak and seeing the growing unrest amongst the group, Obsidian sighed and begrudgingly replied, “We are as clueless as you are, we do not know what these creatures are or where they hail from. The only hints we had that they even existed was due to a series of strange occurrences, Gatekeepers disappearing and Gates going rogue among some of those events. There is a threat that we are facing of which we have never encountered before. All we do know at this point is that these creatures are specifically targeting us. Most of our abilities have proven useless against them however, we are aware of one weakness they have. These monsters seem unable to break into this Grand hall, I believe they are weakened against the pure and ancient quintessence material that these doors and walls are made of, unfortunately, we don’t have any more of this material. Actually, this hall is likely made of the only quintessence material in all of the 400 realms. Hence this is our only safe haven until we come up with a solution. We will rest and recover here.”

“Could they be a new type of Irregularity?” asked Gatekeeper Zither, she was sitting on her throne, looking ethereal and unbothered by what was happening around her. 

Argenti opened her eyes and glanced towards Zither, “These aren’t Irregularities, they’re creatures of a different nature. A type we have never faced before. They are made of a material that isn’t Essence and they don’t need it to survive. The only similarities they bear with the Irregularities is that they cause destruction.” Argenti played with some strands of her silver hair as she spoke.

“Besides, Any Gatekeeper past the Merging stage can destroy an Irregularity, and with the right tools, even our followers in the offices can deal with them. Compared to these creatures the Irregularities are but pests. In a matter of days, our numbers have drastically fallen, we have 199 lost brothers and sisters and this has left 199 Realms currently insufficiently managed, the Gates usually pick the next Gatekeeper for a Realm but with the Gates gone mad, our system is falling apart. These creatures could really be the extinction of our path, and unlike the war 5 billion years ago, we hardly have a fighting chance here.”  

The entire hall erupted into frightened muttering that was only stopped by Zither’s clear and musical voice. 

“Then are we being exterminated by the Creator?” Zither asked.

She said this with the same casually tranquil look on her face. 

“What do you mean by that?” Argenti asked slowly, her tone was low.

“These Creatures have seemingly come out of nowhere, obviously from beyond the 400 realms” Zither explained, “yet they can’t be from the Outsiders led by Nyx, this just doesn’t seem to be her style. She’s the type to make a show of our extinction, additionally, it is beyond the Outsiders ability to mess with the Gates and you’ve already clarified that these creatures are not Irregularities. Our Gates are sacred tools given to us by the Creator, even we do not know how they function or why they choose us to be in the roles that we are in, but we all know that the only one who can truly instruct them is the Creator. And, I generally have a feeling that this is not from the Outsiders, and my feelings aren’t usually wrong.”

These words caused murmuring. 

“You say the Creator is the only one who has the ability to completely control our Gates. While that is a common belief, that is simply an assumption Zither. There is no evidence to prove this or disapprove it. Unless you have something to back up this idea of yours?” Obsidian argued, his pitch-black eyes were focused on Zither. 

Everyone turned to face her but Zither remained unbothered by their attention.

“These Creatures are emerging from our Gates and killing us, and isn’t it interesting that they’re only hurting us and not hurting the Realms? It is only Gatekeepers who are being targeted. Even if we all die the 400 realms remain, even if we all die as long as the Gates exist we can all be replaced. With these facts, the conclusion I have made is that these Creatures have been sent by the Creator. Either we are being tested, or we are being eliminated to usher a new era. Some of us” Zither glanced at the Gatekeepers in the top five seats, “have been Gatekeepers for far too long, and the longer we are are Gatekeepers the more we notice things. I’m sure most of us know what I mean by ‘noticing’, but if you don’t I’ll elaborate. We are but Guards of a fish tank, we have no real power, and we aren’t the real ones in control here. We are simply puppets to a larger scheme. More of us are figuring this out, and I’m sure those who made us want their Gatekeepers to be ignorant and easily manipulated. This is perhaps just a violent redundancy notice.”

A disturbed silence followed in the wake of Zither’s statement. Argenti glared at Zither hatefully. 

[IN THE CORRIDORS]

Mao Lu dived to the floor as five of those creatures leapt at him. He skillfully dodged them and nocked several more arrows onto his bowstring as he went by. As he slid on the floor he shot at each creature twice. As his arrows made contact with their broad toxic chests large trees sprouted from inside them. Branches shot out from their guts and their heads and the life and nature essences chewed on the creatures, creating a large wall of essence around them which rooted them to the ground. 

The creatures shrieked and appeared trapped, but this was only a momentary effect. Mao Lu watched with daunting eyes as the trees begin to bubble and melt, and he heard the scathing screams as the essences vanished. This wasn’t going to hold these creatures for long.

Mao Lu cursed as he picked a corridor with fewer monsters and ran down it, “One second I pass a test and I’m feeling pretty powerful and this happens. Can I not have a peaceful day before crap like this happens!!!”

At that moment, several of the monsters he was running towards jumped at him. Just as they were a hairsbreadth away Mao Lu made the flame wall to his right develop a mouth and swallow them whole. He could hear their roars as the Fortress spat them out into space. Mao Lu didn’t stop for a second, he only continued his full tilted sprint. 

“How do I deal with this?”

These creatures couldn’t be killed with Essence. They were something he had never seen before. He didn’t know how to deal with them. 

Just as he was pondering and about to turn into onto another corridor filled with monsters, his leg was grabbed. A misty claw had popped from the ground and was holding him tight. 

Mao Lu screamed he had never felt such agony before, he felt like the very flesh that was being grabbed, was being simultaneously melted, burned, and rotted. He tried to yank his leg but the thing had unmeasurable strength and it slowly began to pull him down. At the same time, Mao Lu heard a nightmarish sound. Hundreds of the creatures were howling. There were several behind him and in front of him. As they saw that he couldn’t move, they didn’t run, instead, they slowly crawled towards him. 

“Shit!!” Mao Lu yelled as he pulled the Golden sword from its sheath and hacked at the claw around his ankle. 

The instant the blade made contact with the misty claw, it dissipated. Mao Lu blinked in surprise as the claw vanished. 

He stared at the blade. “Cahir said Quintessence is above normal Essence, I got lucky.” He muttered as he stood up straight. 

Ignoring the pain in his leg he turned and struck at the nearest creature. 

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Alexia

August 2019
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