IN THE DARK (III)
Curtailed fog splintered the occasional sight of the firm earth, making it seem as though the whole surrounding world was floating in an endless void. There was neither the sky nor the sun up above but the perpetual darkness occasionally ripped by a bolt of bleak, scarlet lighting. Whatever the world held was hidden from the curious, yet the curiosity was a persistent feeling.
Emperor Rex, alongside the Guardian Jean and the Holy Monk of the Empire were currently standing at the very edge of the realm, an arched gateway made entirely out of gold standing tall behind them spitting faint, golden light onto the realm’s entrance. It was the trio’s sixth time coming here in the past several years, each time giving them nothing but pain and suffering in return for their curiosity.
The Emperor led upfront, clad entirely in ethereally white armor, almost completely without any blemishes, radiating out pure, milky light. The Monk and the Guardian stood a few paces behind him, similarly clad in white though less pure versions.
“You ready?” the Emperor glanced back at the two whereupon they nodded faintly, their expressions growing stern. “Remember to maintain the formation at all times no matter what happens.”
He gave out the last command before taking a breath and stepping forth. This realm was accidentally discovered within one of the larger Titan Realms hidden deep beneath the land where the Palace hovered over ten thousand years ago. Since then there had been numerous expeditions into it, some leading to solemn returns while others to no returns at all.
Nearly all past Emperors who had died before passing on the Crown had died within this little realm, their bodies never to be recovered. No one was quite certain as to what the realm was or even how it got there; it almost seemed like a quasi-Dimension within the separate reality, connected to the Titan Realms through odd spatial laws nobody quite understood.
They had even summoned some experts from the Holy Lands over the course of centuries, all of whom were well versed in the Law of Space and Law of Void, but all of it to no avail. They either returned trodden or hadn’t returned at all; however, despite the ever-increasing number of casualties, the successive line of the Emperors had never given up on further investigating the realm. Whatever was hidden deep within its heart must be of extraordinary origin -- perhaps even an unknown and an un-awakened Prime, a single entity which could elevate the Empire to the same level as the Holy Grounds.
The trio walked slowly and cautiously, reacting to any and all sounds; their three armors were all Legendary Artifacts collected from the Titan Realms throughout the Empire’s existence, all almost exclusively gravitating toward the immunity to the Arts of Illusion, Darkness and such. While it was never ascertained that the realm was inhabited by them, it was the most logical conclusion to come to.
The Emperor suddenly jumped back, his entire body shaking; the Monk and the Guardian held his back quickly, their expressions darkening as they glanced toward the front. There a monstrosity beyond description drearily morphed in the air like a melting candle, its body stacked with lizard-like eyes, the centerfold being a gaping hole full of sharp, pointy teeth and a tongue the size of a grown man’s arm.
The trio’s senses were quickly assailed by a pungent stench coming from the creature who almost seemed to be mockingly staring at them, twisting its long tongue playfully about. The creature was almost entirely black save for the hazy, silver eyes and the blood-red tongue, and after a few moments of dreaded silence, it disappeared into the mist, leaving behind a cackling laughter which continued on to echo for nearly a full minute.
“... l-let’s go.” the Emperor swallowed a gulp of his saliva as he steeled his heart and resumed walking forward, followed by the other two immediately.
Seeing similar creatures wasn’t a rare occurrence; harrowing abominations appeared left and right, but never directly interacted with the trio. Long, skeletal arms wrapped in tattered skin arched over their heads, unkempt fingernails scratching the distant, glassy surface, screeching wails adorned with guttural laughter, eerie -- almost perversely so -- laughter of children, streams of repugnant blood, eyes like clocks on the towers looking from the air, a red slit casting a faint radiance of blood, slanting altogether into a mocking gaze... it felt like they were walking through a nightmare which came to life, embodying all their fears.
One of the reasons they suspected it was a sort of an Illusion was exactly this; each time they arrived, regardless of who came with them, things would be slightly different. Strange creatures would similarly often appear, but would always embody partly whatever they dreaded the most at the moment. The sudden appearance of a mask held up by a shadow-wrapped arm only went to further confirm their suspicions. It was clearly the mask that the Descender wore, almost its exact replica.
Seconds passed infinitely slowly, their hearts thumping audibly, footsteps mixing in to create a rhythmic sort of a melody. Droplets of cold sweat flooded their bodies, anxiety crumbling them. The Emperor was the worst for the wear as he led the small group; he had practically frozen his jaw in place as to not continuously clank with his teeth, his eyes webbed in red, wide open, nostrils flaring occasionally. He had long since unconsciously tightened his hands into fists, cracking several fingers without even realizing it.
It wasn’t the sort of fear and dread that strikes one from the external means; after all, the three of them had lived for a long time and had seen all sorts of sights. In reality they should have been hardly -- if at all -- affected by this much, yet, for some reason, they all felt like breaking down and running away in tears. It was the sort of horror that came from within, overburdening one’s senses and controlling one’s primal instincts. It was almost as if the mind actively worked against itself, trying to sabotage any attempts at the logical thought.
The mist suddenly dispersed as the trio was thrown into a small, underground cave. The only source of light were their ever-dimming armors, and everything past the extension of their arms was flooded in darkness. Led by the Emperor, the trio took a moment to regain their senses as the feelings of overwhelming anxiety that had nearly crippled them slowly dissipated.
After a minute or so, having regained their most basic agency, they bravely stepped forward. They had barely taken a few steps before stopping; the cave wasn’t terribly large, even on the smaller side. Held up against the opposite wall was a transparent coffin made out of strange, to them unknown, sort of a crystal. It was small, barely child-sized, already rooted in the earth itself.
It shone in a faint, peculiar violet and white, yet its light never breached past the first inch away from the coffin itself, seemingly self-contained. However, it wasn’t the coffin that had stunned the trio into silence; it was what rested within its confines, or rather who.
A young girl, seeming no older than seven, lay calmly in the coffin with her eyes closed. She was enrobed in a spectacularly white dress, echoing the long, straight hair that appeared too white to be real. Just looking at that may not be all too strange, but the fact that she had four arms crossed over her chest, and that her skin was sickly pink, and that she had holes in both her cheeks that seemed like eye-sockets, and that she didn’t have lips or a mouth put her as far away from being a human as possible.
Though the trio wanted to return immediately as they realized they had stumbled upon something that should not be woken, it was too late; the little girl’s eyes suddenly jolted open. Almost immediately crimson tears spilled out from the milky-white eyes, flooding her skin. A mere gaze had frozen the trio into the perpetual state of petrification. They couldn’t move, look away, breathe or even think. Had a doctor inspected them in that moment, he would have proclaimed them dead.
Lucky and Felix were currently tending to the horses, both seemingly sleepy as it was still early morning. The moment they’d seen the mere inclination of the visitors in the distance, however, they dropped what they were doing and sprinted away.
When they arrived at the ranch’s entrance they’d realized that the visitors were Jack and Edward who were carrying with them several jugs of something. The two of them had rather odd expressions but neither Lucky nor Felix paid much attention to them as their eyes were entirely focused on the jugs.
“Good morning lads!” Jack exclaimed with faint excitement as he put the two jugs he was carrying down. “Is Lino around?”
“... no, he’s still gone.” Felix replied almost salivating as the scent of the alcohol attacked his senses.
“Oh. Well, anyway,” Jack said. “We got a hold of some special booze so we figured we’d share some. You guys want it?”
“Yes, please!” Felix exclaimed.
“Ha ha, alright,” Jack laughed as Edward put the jugs down. “Have a jolly time fellas!”
“Oh, we will!” Felix said, his eyes almost shining.
“Ha ha ha...” Edward and Jack departed almost immediately after, their laughter resonating for a moment.
“...” Felix, unable to hold back any longer, tried to leap forth when he realized there was a steeled arm holding him back. Somewhat disgruntled, he glanced at Lucky who was standing next to him, glancing between him and the jugs. “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” Lucky asked back.
“Trying to get to the gifts?”
“... let’s hold off on that for the time being.” Lucky said. “There’s something off about this.”
“Huh? What are you talking about?” Felix’s tone quickly turned angry as he tried to rip himself away from Lucky’s grip. “Hey, let go you bitch!!”
“... eh, I’m sort of digging this ‘you’,” Lucky grinned. “But, I don’t appreciate being called a bitch.” she suddenly heaved her leg up and squarely hit Felix’s crotch, causing the latter to immediately pass out and fall onto the ground. “Especially by the man I love...” she mumbled as she picked him up and threw him over the shoulder, using threads of Qi to also pick up the jugs and bring them inside, all the way contemplating over what was going on. “That asshole had to have called yesterday... of course he did...” she cursed lowly, frowning. “That was our last communication talisman and he didn’t even tell us where he was at. Ugh... it seems like the War will be the least of our worries soon...”