Although Jason wasn’t particularly scared of heights, there was something about sitting on the back of a giant bird as it soared across the sky at high speeds that had his heart racing like a champion horse. Admittedly the concept of flying atop an enormous eagle sounded pretty cool, but actually experiencing the violent streams of wind that constantly assailed him and the fear of suddenly hanging from the bird’s back whenever it climbed higher up into the sky, those unsavory moments left him wary and on edge all throughout the journey.
He recalled how the flying beast had responded to the summons of the black-haired woman, quickly and obediently. He’d never have imagined that an intimidating beast like this would have been tamed as a mount. He took note of the fact that the austere young woman hadn’t given the eagle a single prompt of direction, which made him suspect that some unspoken understanding existed between the two.
The view that spread out below them was reminiscent of the perspective from a small airplane at a relatively low altitude, though it was violently windy and damn-near freezing. If the black-haired woman, Aelia, hadn’t covered Amy in a strange layer of energy almost as soon as the flight began, the young girl from Arizona wouldn’t have had much of a chance at surviving the trip.
Amy’s temples were damp from windblown tears as she clung to the eagle’s back an arm’s stretch away from Jason. The dark handprint on her puffed up cheek might have been painted on for all of its unsightliness, her ratty hair whipping about as if the tawny strands had come alive in an effort to break free from her scalp. She hadn’t stopped crying since the moment they’d left the lands around Greenwall, the terror in her watery eyes only growing more apparent as the day dragged on. At times he regretted hitting her with such a hard hand, though these sentiments always melted away at the recollection of a sword piercing his midsection.
Whether it was the intimidating Aelia or the younger Lucia, they’d completely ignored all of the questions that Jason had thrown their way once they had levelled off thousands of feet in the air. He decided early on to keep to himself, and so quietly listened in on any conversation that took place between his captors.
“The Origin Energy in this area is completely unremarkable,” said Aelia. “We’re supposed to believe that seven entire patches of Falling Star herbs could naturally foster in this environment?” She grew ponderously quiet, and then said, “Tell me, Young Miss, what is your opinion of the Fourth Elder?”
“Uncle Suna?” Lucia’s blue eyes tilted upward in consideration. “He’s a kind-hearted man. He and Father are old friends, so he’s always been looking after me.”
“How did your father react when he heard the Fourth Elder’s report?”
“It’s only natural that Uncle Suna would disclose his findings. Father believed him enough to plan an expedition of core disciples to retrieve the herbs, so who are we to question him?”
“Elder Suna is one of the most influential figures within the sect. Have you not wondered what a man with such status had been doing in this remote land at a time when tensions among the island sects are at an unprecedented peak?”
“Father entrusts him with many tasks, so he leaves the sect quite regularly. Don’t be anxious, we’ll have refined all of the Falling Star herbs and left that place long before the others arrive.”
Aelia turned her head, effectively killing the conversation. Lucia might not have been able to see it but Jason didn’t miss the malcontent that visited her imposing companion’s pale grey eyes.
The two girls sat cross-legged atop the eagle’s back as if they were resting upon a comfortable carpet, both completely unfazed by the bitter temperatures and heavy turbulence. It was clear that the two of them belonged to some sect or other, the first that Jason had heard of aside from the Bloodhand Sect that had pestered him and his friends so ruthlessly in the past weeks. Lucia seemed to be the daughter of a very important figure within the organization, its leader from the sound of it, whereas Aelia seemed to occupy a respectable position within its ranks.
What would Nolan think if he knew that a giant bird was ferrying me across the sky? Would he be jealous? A strong torrent of wind almost nudged him into Amy, who cried silently into a fistful of feathers as they were jostled about for a few heart-stilling seconds. He’d probably just chirp me, and then I’d make a pun and he…
Jason fell under a spell of bitterness as he tried to distance his mind from thoughts of his late friend.
The only silver lining to this frightening journey had to be the medley of colour that connected both edges of the discernable world. The Rainbow Fields of Flora had followed them for hundreds of kilometres after their departure from Greenwall and still the vast meadows showed no signs of dwindling.
It wasn’t until late in the evening that the occasional patches of woodland that dotted the fields began to appear with more consistency, large swathes of trees giving way to broad forests with lush upper canopies. Shouldn’t we have passed another city by now? Despite the impressive distance they’d covered Jason hadn’t seen so much as a small village or log cabin.
The fields soon lost their diverse chromatic lustre and were eventually replaced by an emerald sea of swaying tallgrasses. By the time nightfall came around, the ground below them was more forest than field.
The eagle showed no signs of stopping as it continued to soar through the night skies, albeit with heavier shrugs of its wide-spanning wings. The more exhausted their mount became, the more unstable their ride. It wasn’t until the last minutes of gloaming that Jason could no longer endure the increasingly rough flight and was forced to speak up.
“I know you don’t value anything I have to say, but is it possible to take a short break?”
The two girls ignored him, only Lucia glancing back for the briefest of seconds.
“Are you serious? You guy’s might be fine, but what about us? Amy’s seconds away from falling, for God’s sake!”
Although he was more concerned about himself, the fact remained that his words were heavy with truth. Amy’s eyes had sunken in and shaded over, her delicate face now a few shades paler than it had been in the early afternoon, her skinny limbs shaking from overexertion. With his current physique, it wasn’t an exaggeration to say that Jason would have been stronger and faster than anybody on Earth before the Interspatial Migration took place. Even so, he’d lost count of how many times his hands and legs had cramped up throughout the day, and it had been hours since his stomach had worked up the energy to even plea for a meal.
Unlike him, Amy was just a regular person, a young girl who’d been underfed to the point of malnourishment and had only recently showed signs of significant improvement. She seemed like the sort of person that would hyperventilate on an airplane let alone be able to face their current situation. Even though he didn’t like her, he couldn’t help but gain a bit of respect for the stupid girl after watching her struggle through the traumatic experience of clinging to a giant bird as it tore through the skies at ridiculous speeds.
Seeing that the two girls had no intentions to respond, Jason ground his teeth together. “You stupid cunts!” he yelled in English. He switched back to the Universal Language. “We’re people, same as you! Just because you’re strong doesn’t mean you’re allowed to be evil! I don’t care how powerful you are, if you treat people like this just because they’re weaker than you—if there’s a hell then both of you are going to burn in it!”
He and Amy ran the risk of falling to their deaths at any moment. It was true that they were of considerable value to the two girls, but Jason had a terrible suspicion that their kidnappers genuinely underestimated how long they could endure under such conditions. If this misjudgement was revealed and either he or Amy happened to fall from this height then they’d surely die.
He could only lash out at someone as dangerous as Aelia because he truly believed himself to be in danger. Seconds passed as he waited for either an attack or a response, but neither outcome occurred. He was ignored.
Jason didn’t know whether it was due to his words or by mere coincidence, but it wasn’t long before they began a slow, gradual descent. After gliding along for a short while, the massive bird retracted its wings and dipped its head, rapidly approaching the lush canopy of the forests beneath. The stomach-turning sensation of freefall only lasted several moments before the great beast’s menacing talons touched down within a large open field, the waist-high grasses madly flailing about with every flap of its straining wings.
As soon as her mount settled into a comfortable position, Aelia hopped down from its back and landed without a sound. She slashed out with a slender arm and a garage-sized patch of grass was neatly sheared away, most of the healthy stalks toppling over on their sides and creating a cushiony layer of fresh hay.
After a moment’s pause, Lucia turned and threw the completely exhausted Amy over her shoulder as if she were a sack of potatoes and then followed her dark-haired companion down below. When she placed Amy onto a bed of mowed grass, it was with a surprising gentleness. The pitiful girl’s hair was now a mess of knotted strands, her face oddly stained around the corners of her eyes from all of the wind-dried tears she had shed throughout the day. In almost no time at all she’d shivered off into an incapacitated sleep.
Eager to get some rest, Jason quickly jumped down and then settled himself atop of a particularly dense cluster of grass about 50 feet away from the giant eagle, at the very edge of the open space that Aelia had created. His aching body revelled in the stillness of the ground and the shyness of each passing breeze, his stressed out nerves finally showing the first signs of calm after an entire day of wariness. He’d never been so content with doing absolutely nothing.
With his back turned to the others, he could hear Lucia mumbling to her older companion from where they sat about 20 feet away.
“How long does he need to rest for?”
“At least a few hours.”
Jason perked up his ears, a faint question mark floating around in his head.
A moment of silence prevailed, and then the blonde girl sighed. “You’re lucky to have him.”
“Luck is irrelevant. I earned him.” Aelia spoke with a particular annoyance that was distinct from the naturally aggressive tone that she usually used.
“Humph, he was supposed to be mine, but I had to concede him to you.”
“You had no choice in the matter.”
Lucia crossed her short arms with a snort. “Father was going to give him to me for my birthday. The evening before, you came back from your little quest all triumphant and became a Protector of the sect, so Father rewarded you with my present! Instead, I was given a blue-feather eagle…”
“That has nothing to do with me.”
“It has everything to do with you!”
Jason had already stopped listening to the girls and instead had completely relaxed his body. He planned on enjoying every second of rest to the fullest, for he suspected that many more hours of merciless flight lay ahead of him, furthermore…
Obviously they were talking about the eagle. Phht, yeah right!
After dozing off in the field, Jason awoke to a sharp pain in his left leg. Aelia had thrown a pebble at him from where she stood beside the eagle, Lucia and Amy already on its back. The latter now wore a two-piece set of deep blue robes, thick fabric giving off a quality impression.
Aelia gave him a dark glance and then hopped up to sit beside the other two girls. “Get over here.”
Really, the instant I wake up?
The night was alive with sounds of chattering insects and shuffling plants. Dark yet not stiflingly so, the larger moon was full and strong with icy-blue brightness, the smaller one half shaded in its corner of the blackened sky, which was pocked with large, looming clouds that stole away more than half of the moonlight.
With no time to even rub the sleep from his eyes, Jason obediently ran over and jumped up onto the beast’s frighteningly broad back. Amy’s sitting with them? She looked a lot better than she had earlier. Had they given her some sort of medicine?
Not only did Lucia cloak her in a wide globe of strange energy, she gave Amy some soft jerky to eat and even conversed with her several times throughout the ride. He clung on all the while, wary of sudden jolts of wind and unannounced dips or climbs from the eagle’s heavy frame.
The girls, Amy included, sat comfortably ahead of him, appearing as if they were glued to top of the mount’s back.
He didn’t say a single word throughout the rest of the journey, although he had plenty to say in the safety of his mind. What about me?
Four hours later and even the most stunted tree in sight was at least three times as tall as any that might have stuck out in the meadows closer to Greenwall. Gradually, a haze of intimidating peaks became discernible in the distance.
Not a single hill preceded the giant swath of towering mountains, even the shortest ones tipped with a fine coating of powdery snow. Jason had never laid eyes on such beautiful scenery, the massive forests that blanketed each mountain’s gargantuan base all healthy and lush, transitioning from deciduous to conifer as the height increased. The great eagle soared ever higher, countless river valleys passing by beneath them along with many steep rock faces. Of the countless mountains that dominated the region, none of them stood less than 5,000 metres.
Jason was a bit taken aback that such a vast range of massive mountains had appeared so casually along their journey. Countless dozens of these looming peaks would have been among the largest on Earth were he to compare them to those famous goliaths that he’d only ever seen in pictures.
“Young Miss, where do we go from here?”
“The valley between the two largest mountains. The Falling Star herbs should be somewhere around its centre.”
“Then we’ll have to go higher.” Aelia cast a quick glance back at Jason, a strange layer of energy enveloping him like a heavy splash of warm water.
Before he could inspect the warmth that now encased him, the eagle began flapping its great wings with tremendous force. He held on tightly as they climbed higher and higher into the sky, the air growing crisp and cold as they gradually reached the average height of the shorter mountains.
Isn’t it bad to go up so quickly? Jason noticed the air beginning to thin out. The tall trees that hugged the mountains had turned into tiny green specks in his vision. I’m fucked if I fall. Why is my luck so bad? Though he was ignorant of altitude sickness he worried over it all the same. Will this energy keep me safe?
They eventually levelled off at a terrifying height. Jason forced himself to glance downward and nearly lost all sense of balance, though he was anchored down by the blanket of energy that Aelia had covered him in.
They flew on for half an hour before two giant summits came into view that stole away all attention from their surroundings. The lower parts of these two landmasses were connected by a huge mess of crumbled rock, which gave the impression that this place had originally been home to a single titanic mountain. It took them nearly three hours to reach its lower section. Higher than several of the surrounding peaks, a majestic valley sat in the space between the two great mountains, an amazing sight to behold.
This elevated valley was rife with rolling hills and gentle rivers that silently glistened in the beaming moonlight, strong pillars of luminescence bearing down from gaps amid the clouds.
How come that area hasn’t frozen over?
The eagle fought its way upward at a rapid pace, and soon they were looking down at the valley from a few thousand feet above.
“Look there, Starlight Trees!” A cute smile visited Lucia’s face as she excitedly pointed toward the centre of the valley, a regular child for just a moment. A dozen oak-like trees stood like skyscrapers in the night, all of them over 1,000 feet tall and supporting vast networks of thick, leaf-laden branches. Thousands of circular yellow fruit hung from the trees, each one glowing like dim lightbulbs on a Christmas tree.
“This is beautiful.” Amy stared at the moonlit scenery in wonder.
Her words caused Jason to take a long and attentive stare at his surroundings. Towering mountains, giant trees covered in glowing fruit, serene rivers of glistening waters and countless grassy hills, he appreciated the gorgeous view as the eagle began a hasty descent. He’d been too focused on keeping his guard up and hadn’t taken a moment to truly get a look at the fantastical setting that had somehow come to make up his backdrop. When he thought about it, not many people would ever have the luck to enjoy such a sight.
“The energy is heavy here.” Aelia scanned the area directly below them as they followed a clear stretch of sky toward the group of giant trees. “A perfect breeding ground for profound medicine, however…”
“What are you worrying over? Uncle Suna already killed all of the demonic beasts that he found here. Besides, aren’t the Starlight trees proof enough? It’s not unrealistic for there to be seven patches between the 12 of them.”
Aelia closed her eyes for a few moments. “I see why the Sect Master rarely allows you to leave the island.”
“Don’t forget who you’re talking to,” Lucia spat.
“I wouldn’t dare to.”
They landed near the valley’s centre, a few hundred metres away from the giant trees that Lucia had just pointed out. As soon as they touched down the young blonde girl picked Amy up and tossed her over her shoulder as if she only weighed a few pounds, and then dismounted from the eagle’s back.
Jason and Aelia followed after her, and then the three of them sprinted over to the base of the treeline within half a minute.
Lucia placed a flustered Amy onto the ground and then glanced at Jason with a stern expression. “Take her and search around the bases of these trees for golden herbs.” She dashed toward the nearest tree, covering hundreds of feet in a split second. She wasted no time in ducking down and sifting through the grass, carefully walking along the circumference of the closest tree.
Without turning to address them, Aelia spoke while adjusting her dark leathers. “The leaves are triangular and the size of a hand, their edges serrated. They escape all but the keenest of spiritual senses, so it goes without saying that you’ll have to rely on your eyes.”
Jason glanced at Amy and frowned. The last thing he wanted to do was walk around with a brat like her and pick through the knee-high grasses in search of small plants. Aelia vanished in the instant that he looked away. Gritting his teeth, he grabbed Amy’s hand and led her over to the easternmost tree of the bunch.
“You heard her,” was all he said before he began sifting around for any signs of the so-called Falling Star herbs.
“You know I can’t speak that language.”
“I forgot. She said to look for small golden plants around the base of these trees.”
He spent nearly an hour scouring the area for any signs of the herbs that he’d been tasked with finding, all the while keeping tabs on Amy with his spiritual sense as she stumbled along in his wake like a bored child. Her vision poor and her mind constantly distracted by the glowing fruit from far above, it came as no surprise when she eventually gave up on looking around and simply left the searching to Jason.
He finally found what he was looking for when he moved on to the fourth tree, a long strip of golden plants following a 15-foot curve around its base. The patch was at least a metre thick and each plant emitted a dim glow as if they were made of phosphorescent material. Staring down at the hundreds of triangular leaves, their serrated edges reminded Jason of tiny pine trees.
He bent down and snatched up a single leaf from the cluster of vines at his feet. Very carefully and very slowly, he directed his spiritual sense around its surface and gave it a thorough scanning. He’d overheard Aelia say that these particular plants contained a tremendous amount of Origin Energy, a very pure sort. How am I supposed to use it? Do I eat it?
“Hey Amy, you still hungry?”
“No,” she said, coming up beside him with a shiver. “Are you not cold?”
Maybe I can refine it like a spirit stone?
An awkward quiet set in as it came to light that neither of them had much to say to the other.
Amy sniffled and then pulled her robes about her. “We should go tell them what we found.”
“In a minute.”
It was during that moment of awkward silence when neither of them had said a word. It was really windy on the way up here. Why can’t I hear anything? He was over five kilometres above sea-level after all, so shouldn’t the air currents in a place like this be pretty rough? He glanced up at the distant treetops, only now taking notice of the fact that none of the near-infinite leaves were moving, as if the air above them was completely still. To begin with, shouldn’t this place have been covered in snow?
“You do what you want. I’m going to get their attention.”
Jason let her go and knelt down to harvest a few handfuls of the golden herbs, hastily shoving them into his spatial bag. He buried a few barren vines and then hurried to catch up with Amy.
They walked along the entire breadth of trees, Aelia and Lucia nowhere in sight. Don’t tell me they left us here? If that happened then he and Amy would quite possibly wind up stranded in this valley forever.
Just when he was wondering if he’d have to chance a dangerous descent down, a petite figure dropped down in front of him with a light tapping sound. Even though she stood right before him, Lucia completely escaped detection from his spiritual sense. She was pretty high up. How far did she just jump?
“There’s been a change of plans.” Lucia scooped Amy up in the usual fashion and then ran at a moderate pace toward a distant field.
Jason followed after her at his top speed, which he was quite impressed with these days. Some half a kilometre away from the cluster of giant trees they stopped at a grassy knoll. Aelia had been waiting for them, though she didn’t turn to greet them. She stared ahead of her with a sharp gaze, lost in silent contemplation.
Jason was surprised to see that a large sheet of dulled metal had been inlaid into the side of the little hill, its surface decorated in archaic engravings that were completely foreign to him. At the centre of the sheet were two rectangular handles made of a metal that resembled brass, both of them heavily corroded. Is that a door?
“What’s going on?” Jason said.
Surprisingly, it was Aelia that answered. “These are Ancient Vespasian characters. It’s likely that this is a Vespasian Tomb.”
Lucia placed Amy on the ground. “Well then, shall we go in and take a look?”
“No, we’re leaving.”
“You can’t be serious. This is an ancient Vespasian Tomb! Even 1,000 patches of Falling Star herbs couldn’t hold a candle to a discovery like this.”
“You’re right. The value of this tomb far out-shadows that of a few patches of Falling Star herbs. That’s what bothers me. Surely the Fourth Elder would have found it. It wouldn’t be a surprise for him to have raided the tomb and kept the spoils to himself, but he couldn’t have, for even he isn’t capable of breaking the seal on these doors.”
“That’s not the issue. Why didn’t he report this tomb?” She held up a hand to stifle Lucia’s retort. “Because he knew that your father would have mobilized the entire sect in an attempt to shatter the seal and raid its treasures. That being the case, why did he still make the decision to report the herbs? Surely the tomb would be found by those who came to harvest them.”
“What are you accusing Uncle Suna of exactly?”
“You’re a stupid, naïve girl, and I suspect that he took that into account before he told your father about this valley in your presence. You can stay here, but I am returning to the sect.”
“I wonder what my father will have to say about you abandoning me here in this wilderness.”
Aelia snorted and then leered at the young girl with unfettered dislike. “Whatever he thinks, your disappearance will have nothing to do with me. As far as anyone is concerned, we are just two of many that have entered closed-door training. The fact that you’re missing, nobody will know for quite some time, and it’ll be completely unrelated to me whenever it comes to light.”
“I’m giving you one last chance. Leave with me now, or rot here forever with your pitiful little pets.”
Jason blinked and then turned to address the blonde girl. “Why are you even hesitating? She clearly thinks that something’s off about this place. Are you so greedy that you’ll die for something that might not even exist?”
As if an iron rod were jabbing into his gut, the young girl’s little foot connected with his stomach with enough force to bend him into a ‘c’ shape and propel him backward by over twenty feet. He hit the ground at a roll and clawed his fingers into the earth, a large curtain of shock hanging over him as he finally slid to a stop. He tried to move but fell into a fit of spasms, eventually vomiting after a long struggle to pull in a breath.
Bitch! To think a little girl could be so strong… The kick had been so casual that he could tell that she hadn’t put any effort into it.
“Fine, I will accompany you back to the sect!”
The three girls left the area, not waiting for Jason to recover from that stomach-turning kick. He eventually caught up, though he hated himself for following after them, for relying on them to get out of this scenic, moonlit valley that sat above many of drifting clouds.
They returned to where they had left the great eagle, though it was nowhere in sight. Aelia closed her eyes and stood still for a few moments, no doubt summoning her mount once again.
“Aren’t you going to tell them about those plants you found?”
“I have no reason to,” Jason whispered to Amy in English. “These guys might kill us at any time, don’t forget that.”
They waited patiently for the eagle to return.
“Is he still not responding?” Lucia finally began to show signs of nervousness. She let out a cry of surprise as soon as she finished speaking. A dark silhouette materialized in front of her followed by a heavy thud and a thin cloud of dust.
Jason crept a few paces away from the others in an effort to be less conspicuous.
Who’s that? The dust cleared to reveal Aelia standing before Lucia with a steadfast expression, her right hand covered in a sleek layer of inner essence, a young man lying unmoving at her feet. The attacker was dressed in silk pants that were the same charcoal shade as his knee-length robes, a young man somewhere in his mid-twenties. Judging by the fist-sized hole in his chest, he wouldn’t be getting any older.
“I’d heard that the Young Miss of the Crescent Moon Sect was widely disliked.” A middle-aged man dressed in dark robes appeared about a hundred feet in front of them, his voice crisp in the night. “So you actually managed to convince a Protector to come along with you on a personal errand. Though this one I don’t recognize.”
Over a hundred shadows suddenly materialized in a tight ring around them, all of them wearing the same charcoal robes as the dead man at Aelia’s feet.
The man that addressed them wore a black sash from his left shoulder down to the right side of his waist, a signifier that he was in charge of the men who’d appeared so suddenly and silently in this desolate place. His hair was short and neatly trimmed, a thick goatee latched on to his pointy chin.
“Night Shadow Sect?” Aelia withdrew a beautiful sword from her spatial bag, its blue surface catching a ray of moonlight and sending a gleam running along its length from the hilt to its curved tip. “Attacking this girl will spark a war. That would spell the end of your sect.”
“It’s not my sect that you should be worried about.”
“What are you saying?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
At their leader’s command, the surrounding men all stepped forward and punched out in front of them with perfect concurrency. Desk-sized hazes of dark mass shot forth from their outstretched fists, scaring the daylights out of Jason as dozens of these unknown projectiles zipped toward their group like a heavy rain of ballista spears.
Aelia had stepped forward at the same time that their attackers moved, unfazed as the tip of her weapon began to gleam with a silvery shine. For a moment her sword was more eye-catching than the great moons above them. She slashed out with great effort, the light leaving her sword as a crescent of whitish energy swept out to obstruct over 30 of the dark masses that the surrounding men had launched toward her.
Though many had been blocked, over 70 of the projectiles were still set to make imminent contact with Jason and the others.
Aelia didn’t leave off after the first slash, immediately producing a rectangular slip of paper and tossing it out into the air in front of her. A strange energy left her pointy fingertips and rapidly engulfed the talisman, instantly receding inward like water soaked up by a sponge. The slip of paper crumbled to dust and the spot where it had just been floating became the epicentre of a powerful gust of wind that billowed outward in an expanding circle.
Not a second after Aelia had conjured that strange gust of wind, all of the remaining shadows of energy suddenly exploded on the spot. Looking closely, they seemed to have hit an invisible barrier.
It was then that Jason noticed a large gap that’d been created in the encirclement. It was exactly the area where Aelia had just counterattacked. At least 30 men lay in pieces along a curve that would connect north to east on a compass.
“An arrayment practitioner?” the middle-aged man was taken aback. “You can’t have made those talisman’s yourself, right?”
Aelia didn’t answer and instead took out two more slips of paper, pinching them between her right thumb and index finger. She closed her eyes for a moment, taking a long, heavy breath.
“How else could she become the youngest Protector in the Crescent Moon Sect’s over 600 years of history?” A healthy-looking man somewhere in his late forties had suddenly appeared amongst the 70 or so others that remained after Aelia’s counterattack. He wore his hair back in a long ponytail, bound by black lace. His face was clean-shaven and his features strong, a sinister determination lingering beneath his serious black eyes.
“Protector Daren!” Lucia called out in surprise.
Aelia stowed away her sword and pulled out a third talisman, which reminded Jason of the strange energy that she’d just used. It had the same transparent yet colourful appearance as the sort of bubbles that kids blew for fun, similar to the reflection of light off a puddle of gasoline.
“Lucia,” the dark-haired woman whispered, her lean features sharp as her voice grew sombre. “Escape through the gap I created in their encirclement. Those fellows might be the strongest disciples of their sect but in the end most of them are only at the opening levels of the Integration stage. You should be able to outrun them.”
“And what of my Otherworlders?”
“Leave them, unless you want to die alongside them. I’ll create an opportunity for you, now go!”
“Minutes ago you were about to abandon me here.”
Aelia threw out the cut of parchment that she’d held in her left hand and then cast out another small amount of the same peculiar energy from before, which quickly condensed around the slip. “In the end, I’m still a Protector of the sect!” She clenched her fist and the slip of paper combusted into nothingness, her complexion instantly paling by several shades, her skin now pulled taut by a long layer of wrinkling. It was as if she’d just aged 50 years.
What did she just do? She looks like a corpse!
Seeing this, the so called ‘Protector Daren’ snapped out at the man wearing the black sash. “You and your men, attack with me!”
As soon as the mass of charcoal-robed men began to close in on them, the majority froze in place and then fell to the ground. Only the Protector and man with the black sash remained on their feet. Why are they kneeling? Are they being forced down? Only their enemies were affected by the strange force.
“Since when was your sect hiding such a monster?”
While the sashed man barked at him, an alert look flashed through Protector Daren’s cunning eyes as he glared sharply at Aelia’s sweaty face.
Jason wondered what those strange pieces of paper were, for this was the first time that he had seen anyone fight in such a manner.
Despite his appreciation of her strength he was keen on taking advantage of the escape route that she had vowed to create. He had no qualms with leaving her behind, a sentiment that the wide-eyed Lucia quickly came to share.
Before they could make a break for it, a terrible screech echoed throughout the field and drew everyone’s attention skyward. The giant eagle had just descended, its body covered in dozens of gruesome wounds ranging from the size of a finger to the length of an arm. On top of that it was missing one of its thick, scaly legs.
“Daren, kill the woman as soon as her life force runs out,” the man with the black sash grated, his face now flushed from the effort of remaining on his feet. “I’ll fell the beast!”
Aelia’s nose began to dribble with blood from both nostrils. She roared loudly in indignation. Lucia was simultaneously lifted into the air by a thin platform of iridescent energy and roughly dropped atop the eagle’s back. She’d been leading Amy along by the hand and hadn’t let go of her even after being hoisted up into the air, both of them managing to cling on to the bird as it took off into the sky without wasting a second.
Lucia’s voice reverberated throughout the area. “Aelia, don’t die!”
Jason’s stomach sank as he saw the great bird flying off into the moonlit distance, a black silhouette that shrunk gradually with the passing seconds. A few paces away from him Aelia was panting heavily as if she’d just run a marathon, her winkled face beaded with sweat and her hair touched with thick threads of grey.
Now that things had reached this point, Jason acted on the fact that he was the only one capable of moving and quickly fled the scene.
“Humph, you’ve hidden your strength well, Aelia.” Protector Daren ground his teeth, a thick vein appearing on his forehead. “But that doesn’t matter. If you don’t cease powering your talisman then the only thing awaiting you is death!”
“My fate won’t change no matter what I do.” Aelia smiled bitterly, her grey eyes now a light shade of silver. “Why don’t we all die together?” On that note, she threw her right hand out and let go of the two remaining slips of parchment.
Jason had barely put 50 metres between him and Aelia when the ground let out a rocky creak and gave a few heaving shudders. For a few moments it seemed as if a terrible earthquake had just been unleashed. This is crazy, a person did this?
Behind him he saw that everyone in the area that he’d just left behind was currently being pressed to the ground as if a giant slab of stone were currently bearing down upon them. This included Aelia. The weaker disciples had already begun to be crushed beneath the overwhelming pressure, some having already compressed into a meaty, bloody paste, others still screaming in the throes of agony as their bones began to crack and appendages began leaking blood in the way that a squeezed tomato leaked juice.
Aelia’s screams were piercing. She’d laugh every now and then, and constantly assure her fellow victims that she had no way of cancelling the talisman’s effects. Soon a strange impression appeared in the ground around them, but Jason’s attention was diverted as the quaking ground flung him up about six feet into the air.
When his feet didn’t touch down upon grassy soil as he’d expected, he looked down to see that the ground beneath him had suddenly caved in. He plummeted into a world of darkness amidst clouds of dust and fractured earth, his mind blanking before he eventually realized that he’d fallen into a sinkhole!
He panicked and began to flail about, fearing an eventual impact with the unseen ground below. At this rate, he could only wait for his death. Sensing a mess of ropy objects within arm’s reach, his hand caught hold of a thick vine that had been dislodged by the previous cave-in. Six seconds later the vine stretched tight under his weight, his heart skipping a beat as he saw that it held.
His paltry relief was short-lived, for the vine tore free from its hold on the distant ceiling of damaged rock, and Jason plunged downward once again. He could only hope that he wasn’t too far up from the ground.
He abruptly sensed the bottom of this open space, about 65 feet below him. His last thought before making contact was a frantic wish that he would survive.
His landing was surprisingly accompanied by a large splash, the water around him pleasantly warm like a perfectly heated bath. He felt like his entire body had been slapped by a giant hand as he plunged at least twenty feet down into the darkness. He kept his eyes closed and relied on his spiritual sense as he quickly swam up to the surface and filled his lungs with air.
What’s with this smell? Everything was pitch-black and he couldn’t sense anything in his surroundings. He fought to keep his cool as he listened for any possible sound. Where is this? He treaded there for a few more seconds before accidently swallowing some of the water, at which point he freaked out and vomited up a bit of bloody bile. This isn’t water! What the fuck, is this blood?
With no bearings of the surroundings, he swam straight ahead with all he had in the hopes that he might make his way to dry land. It wasn’t long before he stumbled across something that hung suspended above the water for a length that he couldn’t determine.
He froze and wondered if the object was a living creature; it could be a giant snake for all he knew. It would be glimmering if it were a living thing, wouldn’t it? No, not if its cultivation is higher than mine. Wait, are those railings? Is that a rope bridge?
He sensed a few large objects floating over from off to his left. A chill ran down his back at the thought that he hadn’t considered if there would be any dangerous creatures lurking in this frightening environment.
He hurried over to the suspension bridge and pulled himself up with a grunt and a whimper. The fall had been rough on him, he felt as if his body were one giant bruise. He grabbed at railings of thick rope as the bridge swayed under his weight, his mind struggling to make sense of what was happening.
The path ahead of him was narrow, the bridge barely able to permit single file. Still the wooden planks were solid and the ropes secure, giving off the impression that it had been built recently. After he finally collected himself, he pulled out his only remaining spirit stone, aghast when the brilliant white light illuminated his surroundings.
The stone shone like an LED light, a wave of nausea hitting Jason as his suspicions were confirmed. Not only had he been stained dark red from head to toe, the warm mass of crimson liquid below him was undoubtedly blood.
There’s no way… Clutching the spirit stone tightly in his left hand, he crept along the bridge at a slow walk, coming to a halt as he sensed three more masses slowly floating over on his right. He waited a few moments, a slight suspicion arising in his heart as he recalled his spiritual sense giving him a similar sensation in the past.
He had to wait five minutes for the dark forms to finally drift into the light’s peripherals. Three painted bodies floated silently along the surface like logs on water, their robes thoroughly soaked through with gore. One of them was face-up, prompting a subconscious peek from Jason as the three of them slowly trailed closer to where he idled on the unsteady bridge.
He was a young man with a strong and handsome face, his aggressive eyes widened in surprise and his short hair wet like the tip of a paintbrush.
These people haven’t been dead for long. His gaze lingered on the young man’s face as the corpses continued to draw nearer to him. Do people’s faces always remain so animated after they die?
Jason shook his head in an attempt to clear it. Ignore the bodies. I need to get out of here! Keeping his balance was quite a struggle as he ran across the suspension bridge at an anxious pace.
The longer he walked the more deeply disturbed he became. He encountered dozens upon dozens of corpses floating amidst the lake of blood—for he could only call it a lake at this point—and that was just within the area along the path that the bridge followed.
Though it was difficult to tell since they were all completely dyed the same colour, all of the people appeared to be dressed in completely different styles of clothing. Most of them looked thin and wrung out, not from decay, but starvation.
Four minutes and at least half a kilometre later he came across a second bridge, an exact mimicry of the one he’d been walking across. These two intersected at an odd angle, and it was at this divide in the path that Jason paused for a moment to consider the situation. In the end he chose to stick to the original path, hoping that the end of the bridge was tethered to some sort of landmass.
The number of bodies that Jason came across continued to increase as the minutes bled by, his tolerance for the frightening situation approaching its limits. This is in the middle of nowhere. Not to mention all this blood, why would there be so many people here? And why are they all dead?
He glanced up at the hole he’d fallen through, but to his horror he couldn’t find it. Whether it was above or below, there only existed a penetrating darkness that chilled his nerves and left him with the sensation that he was walking over a thin sheet ice and heading farther from the shore. It’s because the moonlight just faded. It’s not like the hole closed up, right? That wouldn’t be possible anyway.
After nearly three hours of walking, he’d come across two more bridges and covered at least four kilometres, each time sticking to his original path. It hadn’t been until halfway through his walk that he realized that if he were to encounter someone walking toward him, then a crossing of paths was inevitable.
It turned out that Jason’s worries were unwarranted, for the only people he happened across were stiff and lifeless, countless hundreds over the course of his terrifying walk, all wrapped in their own unique styles of dress, all stained with the same red coating. He gradually began to sense something, a subtle energy lingering in the lake beneath him, though he had a hard time focusing on it for more than a few seconds. What is this place?
He continued on for another hour before the rope bridge finally came to an end at a broad extension of rock. As soon as he got off the bridge he stared back at it in bewilderment. He’d walked nearly five kilometres from where he first pulled himself up onto its wooden planks, not to mention the unknown distance that it ran on for in the other direction. Despite its incredible span, it held itself with the straightness of a taut string. Wouldn’t the bridge sag down a lot in the middle?
Under the illumination of his spirit stone he began exploring the rocky area that he’d arrived at. To his dismay, he confirmed that it was just a small patch of slightly elevated rock no more than 20 paces wide. Connected to this chunk of rock were two more bridges.
Frustrated and beginning to pity himself, Jason chose the middle bridge and resumed his perturbing march. Over the following six hours he passed thousands of bodies, so many that he didn’t bother counting. Not all of them were in the lake.
There had been two women lying atop the bridge about three kilometres apart from one another, both showing signs of extreme emaciation and similarly wearing the faces of people who’d come to terms with a terrible inevitability. Like all the others, their clothes were completely different, one wearing long robes styled with decorative trim, whereas the other wore tight-fitted leggings and a dark brocade vest over a flowing blood-drenched tunic. Bizarrely enough their eyes had been wet with fresh tears, meaning that both women had to have died within the past hour!
After stumbling across the second woman, Jason forcefully composed himself and continued on his way. If he couldn’t maintain his rationale then he’d have no way of getting out of this place alive.
In the end it turned out that this suspension bridge was eight kilometres long. As had happened earlier, he arrived at another rocky plateau, though this one was different from the last. For reasons that he couldn’t explain, Jason didn’t immediately venture forward. He couldn’t sense anything with his spiritual sense and the light of his spirit stone had a limited reach of about six metres, so he was fairly certain that it was just another empty area, only…
Why am I shivering?
The darkness before him carried a particularly malicious air, something he’d yet to experience since falling into this hell. It was as if he were blindly walking into the open maw of some giant carnivore, long rows of fine-edged teeth ready to chomp him into a meaty paste at the drop of a pin.
Reluctant to turn back, Jason proceeded forward with quiet, cautious steps. Different than the open space he’d just left behind, he discovered that the rocky ground here had been fashioned into a cylindrical platform that protruded just five feet above the lake’s still surface. The ground beneath his feet had been smoothly polished and was riddled with thick carvings of archaic characters, though they weren’t written in a line-by-line format.
The first thing Jason did was walk around the fringes of the platform. The entire time he was unable to shake a strong feeling of discomfort, an instinctual sense of alarm. The circular mass of hewn rock had a shocking diameter of over 300 feet, and it was around its base that the largest amount of bodies that Jason had seen thus far were congregated, at least 200 people floating in a still, silent ring around the stunted rise of stone.
Peculiarly, the light given off by his spirit stone seemed to dim whenever he wandered closer to the centre of the area, to the point that it was impossible not to notice the sharp reduction in brightness.
After doing a full circle and arriving back at the spot where he’d first stepped foot onto the platform, he’d counted 12 suspension bridges in total, all stretching out into the blackness beyond, all perfect imitations of one other. Although he wasn’t sure how large this dark cavern-like area might be, he was fairly certain that he’d wandered into its centre.
The indecipherable words on the floor were arranged in an odd assortment of shapes focused at the centre of the artificial island; an equilateral triangle within a perfect circle within a pentagram. He inched forward with growing apprehension, the light of his spirit stone doing a poor job of illuminating whatever it was that sat hidden within the darkness.
I can’t sense anything, but…
At the centre of the meticulous feat of symmetry stood two 12-foot pillars of stone, both topped with large circles of metal that were run through by dozens of finger-width chains that seemed to take on a sudden shine as Jason crept closer. Dozens of smaller bolts were fixed along the inner faces of the pillars, each anchoring one or more metallic ropes in place. The area of ten feet that separated the pillars was connected by a giant web of silver chains, a strange woman hoisted up at its centre.
She could have been anywhere from her early thirties to her late forties, for it was difficult to tell in her current state. She was naked, her body thin and painted in a sickly paleness, her silver hair traced with streaks of black, the long strands obscuring her downturned face from view. She’d been crucified in the most terrible way imaginable, each and every chain running through her body and keeping her suspended in place like an animal carcass on a meat hook.
Whether it was her small hands and delicate feet, her lean limbs and curvaceous torso, even her lolling head, everything had been threaded through with the strange, glimmering metal. Her arms and legs had been stretched to the limit and then tightly secured in place by the chains, the thickest one running through her bellybutton and out the small of her back, with both ends tightly latched onto another ring of metal that poked up out of the ground directly below her.
This is beyond cruel!
He subconsciously took a step forward, intent on seeing if he could do anything about getting her down from those chains, but he paused on the first footfall. She’s already dead. I don’t have time for this, I need to leave!
Almost as if to prove him wrong, one of the woman’s dislocated shoulders suddenly twitched, the chains whispering with light clinks. Jason was so taken aback that his breath caught in his throat and he froze up on the spot. Not a sound could be heard as he watched the unmoving body with a perturbed expression, the scent of iron strong in the stagnate air that he slowly began to inhale again.
Over 30 seconds passed in utter stillness, though the silence was eventually broken by a raspy, debilitated voice.
Jason didn’t manage a response, though he became terribly conscious of the countless bodies that floated around the platform.
“How many years has it been?” The woman mumbled to herself in a drowsy voice as if she were waking from a long and confusing dream. After a short stretch of silence, her lean frame began to shake, a mad laugh cackling from her obscured lips. “To think that the last one would also be the weakest…”
How can she still be alive? Jason finally mustered up the courage to speak. “A—are you okay? What happened here?”
There was no response from the woman, who abruptly stopped laughing as if she’d suddenly recalled an important memory. It was then that her head shot up, her long hair parting to reveal an oval face that still retained a shadow of great beauty, one that would carry an unrivalled bewitchment were it not for the glaring, scabby pits of darkness where her eyes had evidently been removed from their sockets.
“Your aura,” hissed the crucified woman. “Circulate your aura!”
Jason stood there agape for a few moments and then belatedly complied.
“A Neoman?” The lines on her withered face contorted in solemnity, the first sign of worry to touch upon her mutilated face despite the terrible pain that she must have been feeling. “Boy, you want to escape, yes?”
“Of course I do!”
“I will help you leave this place. Only, you must do something for me in exchange.”
If she knew a way out of this place then Jason couldn’t afford to turn her down. This was no time to be soft. “What do you need me to do?”
“Is it not obvious?” She fixed him with a dark empty-socketed stare. “I will help you leave here, and in return, you will do the same for me.”
That seems reasonable enough. “Okay, it’s a deal!”
She laughed at his eagerness, the dry cackle transitioning into a fit of hacking coughs. Struggling to catch her breath at the end of the episode, she spat a large glob of blood onto the ground between his feet.
“Cut your finger and then press it to that spot.”
Jason stared at the blood she’d spat out. “Do I have to?”
“It is the only way to form a Blood Oath.”
He stared at the woman with a wary expression. “What’s that?”
“A way to ensure that you don’t go back on your word.”
“And how do I get you out? It’s not as easy as breaking those chains, right?”
“This sealing arrayment cannot be broken. A special key is required in order to deactivate it, only I don’t know its location. Though, I now have a clue…”
Finding anything within this giant blood-filled cavern would be nothing short of a miracle, and yet the woman spoke as if the key to this so-called ‘sealing arrayment’ was somewhere in the outside world. “How am I supposed to pull that off?”
“You don’t have to agree to my request,” she said softy. “You’re free to die here just like all the others.”
He glanced toward the sea of blood, his mouth thick with a coppery taste. “What does it look like, this key?”
“It’s not actually a key. It’s a ring.”