-=[Celes Rada]=-

 Geisha Celes Rada stared at her face in the crystalline, gold-plated mirror. She noticed the deepening circles under her gold eyes and realized that her time in the world of the living was nearly at an end. The thunderous snore emanating from behind her reminded her of the fact that she was a prisoner of the Gold City and property of the Boundless Chorus cult and with every passing year the invisible shackles on her neck were becoming tighter.

The Gold City for all of its prosperity and wealth wasn’t the paradise she had imagined it to be. Coming here, thinking that things were better elsewhere... was a mistake. It was just like the other god-Administered cities. Beneath the shiny veneer of gold-plated roofs of imposing compound temples there was corruption and rot that changed people, driving them towards vile deeds on a quest for absolute power.

Contrary to what most people believed, being a geisha wasn’t a cushy job. She touched her chest and felt the deepening ache within it. The divine-song-art she had been taught was slowly wearing her out from within and with each sacred tea ceremony it was becoming harder to keep the tones perfect.

Han Axiom Sempiter, the lanky, tall, silver haired and currently sleeping High-Administration Enforcer had told her what awaited her once her singing-voice started to fade. In his words, people like her thrived in their prime and were discarded shortly after, a harsh reminder her time was limited. Her life’s purpose and her future fate was inescapable and inevitable - as soon as she turned twenty, the cult would take her into the central pit as a sacrifice for Lord Boundless Chorus to sing her final song. His words were festering in her mind, haunting her more and more with each passing day. Predetermination. Inevitability. Sacrifice.

As a spirit, she was worth far more to the local ghost-obsessed cult. Servitor spirits didn’t age, didn’t disobey. The high-cultivators here had no qualms about turning her into an absolute servant! She had come to the Gold city of Boundless Chorus from the Azure city of Prodigious Desiccator only to learn that human life was nearly worthless here.

Celes looked at the sleeping Enforcer and at the knife in her hands. She’d had enough. With the swiftest thrust she could manage, she stabbed Han in the throat. The knife shattered in half with a pling sound and Han continued to snore, completely oblivious to his attempted murder. Celes closed her eyes and sniffed. High ranking cultivators couldn't be hurt or killed - their skin was tougher than diamonds. They were unfeeling, unstoppable monsters who did whatever they wanted, answering only to those above and above them all was the true abomination that called itself the Boundless Chorus.

Celes was assured now that the Enforcer was in deep sleep. The relaxing tea she had brewed earlier had done its job. With her hands shaking, the geisha did something that she never would have done otherwise - she pulled a pin from her hair and shoved it into the small keyhole of a gilded case that stood beside the bed. Sweat poured from her face as she put all of her lockpicking skills into action, for to steal from the Enforcer meant certain death.

She was rewarded with a sight of seven glittering orbs that cast colorful radiance on her face as the case clicked open. Beast cores - the divine power of cultivators. She pulled out an old, cracked and empty core from underneath her shelf, replaced one of the similarly sized spheres and snapped the case closed, sliding it back into place. Her crime would eventually be discovered, she knew, but death was awaiting her regardless.

Celes held the small, shimmering orb tightly in her hands. It was her ticket out of the Gold city, it was power and wealth and freedom combined into one.

She had been formulating the escape plan for a while now. It had taken Celes all of her social skills to find a merchant that was unscrupulous enough to purchase a stolen core. He had a servitor box in his possession that hid all Qi emanations and offered Celes 100 gold for a high grade beast core. The geisha planned to buy an aura disruption bracelet and a ticket out of the Gold city with the money, while giving the rest away as small coins infused with her Qi to as many local urchins as possible. It would help them survive another day and hopefully confuse the hounds long enough for her to escape - they would have too many trails to follow.

The geisha glanced at the sleeping cultivator for the last time and set off for the Grand Bazar, where she had agreed to meet the buyer.

-=[Ash Sparks]=-

  The Gold city’s Grand Bazar was a place of noise and mayhem, a discordant sprawl of tents, carts, people and ghosts of all shapes and sizes. It was located halfway up the Gold city with a view of the distant towers and tall walls of the Cult of Boundless Chorus that glittered in the distance beneath the azure morning sky. Unlike the orderly, perfectly maintained compound of the cultivators, the Bazar was a disorganized mess made up of beautiful, pure chaos. The only thing uniting the discordant mayhem was yellow and black all over the place - the colors preferred by Lord Boundless Chorus.

A thousand merchants loudly peddled their wares to even more buyers crowding the busy streets. I loved the Bazar. The nature of its design had allowed me to exist, to survive and to do my dirty job.

“Wretched thief! Ataz! Vaz! Gabz! Stop her!” I heard the shout of the merchant behind me. Tough luck, buddy. Ash is going to eat today! My mouth watered as I held the melon in my hands, already sliding down heaps of litter down to a lower level, weaving across rapidly moving traffic of carts, spirits and men.

There were tricks to escaping with your life and breakfast and I had mastered them well at my young age of sixteen. Tricks such as: take the streets leading down, avoid the Voices of the Boundless Chorus at all cost, leap over carts, try not to step on anyone’s foot and pass through as many servitor spirits as possible. Passing through ghosts was crucial to avoid the hostile presence behind me - the hunter phantoms sent by the irate melon merchant.

There were three this time. They silently rushed after me and if they reached me I wouldn't get to enjoy this melon or being alive. I aimed my escape trajectory towards a king-sized spirit of a lumbering beast that was carrying a bundle of a hundred yellow crates full of bees on its back. Silver-blue sparks danced on my grime-covered, thin wrists and fingers bound in black tape as I leapt through the phantom.

The black tape was an essential key to passing through spirits without getting increasingly worse heart palpitations. I grunted as a mild Qi-shock shot through the servitor-made scar on the side of my head and focused on the polished black cobblestones interspersed with yellow pebbles that flashed beneath my feet.

The three phantom hounds became momentarily confused as they dove into the giant ghost after me. They angrily wobbled within the beastly apparition like flies trapped in amber jelly for exactly six and a half heartbeats. It was sufficient time for me to get away and roll into a decrepit alley that descended into the lower level of the city. I leapt atop a hanging tarp and took off the yellow, sweat-stained cloth that I was wearing, gasping for breath. I balled it up and chucked it into an open window. A ghost-lantern within the room flashed, releasing an angry looking guard dog phantom that growled at me.

This was another trick to avoid the merchant’s hounds - they were tracking me by my aura and the cloth that I was wearing was sufficiently drenched in sweat that practically radiated my Qi. I slid off the tarp and rushed down the alley. Behind me I heard the growl and hiss, the beginning of a phantom-hound fight. Animal ghosts weren’t very clever.

I emerged from the alley feeling particularly victorious. I could practically taste the melon now. I turned my head for a brief instance to check whether the hounds would follow.

It was at that point that I had collided with a geisha. It wasn’t often that I accidentally collided with people, but when I did I made sure to take full advantage of the situation. The melon knocked the wind out of her and my hands instantly reached into the pouch on her waist. Success. Wait, this doesn't feel like money. This is… no it can’t be. This is a beast core. This is a lot better than money! Yes!

I abandoned the melon entirely in favour of the beast core. It was clearly a high level core too, one able to do a lot of incredible things, or so I’ve overheard from a merchant conversation once. The core practically glowed, shimmered with power, casting light right through my skinny fist.

“No! Please! I need it!” I heard the weak cry of the geisha from behind me. Finders keepers, loser weepers. A tasty melon for a beast core was a fair trade, a perfectly reasonable transaction I assured myself as I swiftly made my way into another descending alley.

I didn’t hear an incantation of any names behind me, so it was safe to assume that the geisha didn’t have a hunter on her. Phew. I got to keep my undershirt this time. Good undershirts were hard to steal and I stole this one from a lovely skeleton.

Okay memory. How do these magical glowing balls work? I tried to recall the exact conversation that I overheard long ago. If I was remembering things right, the merchant said something about pushing the core into primordial bones and then breathing the produced fumes to harness the power contained within. Eh, good enough for me. There were plenty of old, unguarded bones beneath the Gold city. Everything was ancient down there.

I rapidly made my way to the outskirts of the city, slid down a series of pipes and climbed a ladder that nearly reached the surface. Not all ladders were maintained. This one sort of ended about three hundred meters above the ground. As annoying as that was, I didn’t have the energy to find another rope ladder. So, I simply held onto the metal sphere hanging from the last knot waiting until this bit of Lord-boundless-yellow-butt passed over one of the ancient towers. My stomach growled, begging for sustenance.

“We’ll yum a shiny spirit now and eat real food later,” I told it. I had no idea what sort of power the orb would fill me with, but hopefully it would be the one that allowed me to eat less. Stealing food was a hassle.

The view of the ravaged lands beneath the feet of the Boundless Lord was generally of some sort of ruins. From what I understood, our Lord preferred to roam over places of the long dead because he enjoyed the flavour of memories aka souls. Yummy, yummy souls. Interestingly enough, he didn't bother the jungle that was also eating away at the ruined city. Maybe the trees didn't have souls?

“To a most successful breakfast,” I waved at the gargantuan, star-filled, semi-transparent, yellow tentacles that descended from Lord Boundless and caressed the remnants of the ancient civilization hundreds of meters beneath us.

I didn’t enjoy the architecture of the ancients. Everything was either metal or concrete down there and had far too many floors for my liking. A multitude of concrete boxes were tipped against each other in a jumble of destruction, partially covered up by wild jungle growth.

The god of the Gold city steadily stepped through the ruins, his numerous, absurdly long legs composed of countless yellow strands steadily moving him onward. The city of the dead beneath us was silent. Maws of empty windows with glittering frames of shattered glass stared up at me. I waited. The wind picked up, swinging the rope ladder precariously. I tried not to inhale the concrete dust that flew from the time-worn ruins.

“Give me back my core, girl!” A voice barked at me from above. It was the geisha. How in nine hells did she…?

I looked up at her. She had a ghostly... ferret on her shoulder. Damnation! People didn’t usually track me personally - they sent the ghosts. Ghosts were stupid, easy to bamboozle… and people were a whole other breed. People were clever. The damn geisha clearly had nothing better to do with her life than to chase me herself. She didn’t even have the melon. Who abandons a perfectly good melon, honestly?

I swung the ladder with my entire body weight.

“What are you…?!” The geisha yelped from above.

I swung the ladder harder, aiming it for one of the ruined towers. As the ladder passed near one of the dilapidated, concrete balconies I leapt. I was generally pretty good at leaping, but then I didn’t always carry beast cores in one of my hands. I landed poorly, rolling and skidding across concrete rubble. Eh, what’s a few bruises and scratches when you were about to gain incredible power?

I glanced back at the worried, pale face of the geisha. She saw that I still had the beast core and sent a death glare at me from the swinging ladder. I gave her a quick, courteous bow and rushed into the depths of the ancient structure.

Stairwells of the ancients had far too many stairs for my liking. So many floors. Too many if you ask me. How did they even get around? Did they cultivate powerful leg muscles to climb all of these stairs? I glanced into open rooms that I was running by. They were empty, devoid of bones. Lord Boundless must have already sucked everything up around here.

“Pleaaaseee... Sstop!” The geisha’s howl resonated from above, echoing in the empty space of the desolate stairwell. She must have made the leap as well on the next swing of the rope ladder.

I didn’t respond. Yelling things was a waste of breath. Damn persistent woman!

Soon enough I reached the ground level and rushed out of the building.

Primordial bones… primordial bones… aha! I noticed a metal derelict of a primordial device. Something white sat inside. Yes! I leapt into the rusted derelict, poured my Qi into the beast core mixed with a desire to gain wisdom and power and smashed it on the weather-whitened grinning skull of an ancient human.

The skull flashed in a multitude of colors. Smokey, shimmering fumes shaped like a ghostly figure materialized on the mold-covered seat. I inhaled with all my might.

The geisha had reached me, grabbed at me. She was far too late. The power was mine! I was going to be a cultivator. I was going to be unstoppable! The geisha shook me in impotent rage.

“What have you done, idiot girl?!” She hissed. “Why in the high heavens would you…”

“Behold! I have the strength of the ancients now!” I slurred as something blossomed within me. I tried to sound like an Immortal. “I’m the alpha and omega. Lay your hands off me, unhand me, pitiful woman or I shall...”

I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do. I didn’t want to strike her down with my newfound, incredible power. There were tears in her eyes.

“Shhhh. No tears. Only dreams now,” I drunkenly flapped a hand at her neck, trying to put her to sleep with a mighty neck pinch. It didn’t work. Hello? Incredible power? Where are you? Now would be a good time to turn into a super-human.


A note from powered_by_coffee

Fun fact 01: My appreciation for painting overgrown landscapes is inspired by adventures in abandoned Soviet cities of Siberian Eastern Russia.

Here's my cat as is tradition, to confirm that I am a human writer and not a swarm of bees wearing in a suit. His name is Stormy:

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