“You brought a lot of people. Oh well, shouldn’t matter. Kei and I found a weak point. The garbage chute. It connects to the first floor of the fortress and it’s wide enough for us to crawl through,” Michael explained.
All of us gathered inside a dim room, a flickering light bulb hanging above us. Kei sighed and turned the lights on, illuminating the entire room. Okay, that just happened.
“Stop messing around! Today is garbage pickup day for the fortress,” Kei said, pointing at the map.
Kisai stared at the layout, nodding as Kei and Michael detailed the infiltration process. One group would pose as waste collectors, entering from the back. Another would enter through the front as technicians. Kei would accompany one group and Michael the other one.
“What about magic checkpoints? They might be tricky if our IDs aren’t recognized,” Kisai asked.
“We can disable those,” Michael replied.
“You want me to handle that?” Kuan peered at the map.
“You already know. Kei will assist you since she’s familiar with the system,” Michael confirmed.
“Champ, you’re with me. Your new powers should be helpful after what Tess told me,” Kuan decided, pointing at the man.
“Michael, Lionel, and Darryl, you’ll be with me. Yuki, go with Champ and Kuan. We’ll meet up once the checkpoints are disabled,” Kisai instructed.
I zipped up the waste collector uniform, feeling comfy inside it. Champ was way too excited to wear one. Kei entered the driver’s seat and everyone followed her into the vehicle. We passed through the first obstacle, the security check at the front, with no issues. Two minutes later, Kei explained how to begin preparations for disabling the inner checkpoints.
“How long have you known Kisai?” I watched Kuan and Champ bring out equipment from the back.
“Around two years. Did he tell you that we worked together at the Knight’s Guild?” Kei directed the two men on how to connect the wiring.
“I think he mentioned something about it,” I said.
Kei scouted out the trash chute and found nothing obstructing the pathway. Champ and Kuan placed tiny devices into the chute entrance. Champ removed his glasses and stared at the devices. A faint glow surrounded them.
“This is pretty cool. All we have to do is go up now, right?” Champ placed his foot on the chute opening.
We all traveled upward and discovered people already there. Kei snapped her fingers and they collapsed to the floor unconscious.
Kei instructed Champ and Kuan on how to bypass the system installed in here. She took over five minutes later, and pointed out several symbols and letters, requesting Champ’s assistance.
“Checkpoint 1 is down. Make your way through in three minutes or less,” Kei directed.
“What are you doing?” I noticed Kuan typing on one of the consoles in the room.
“Grunt work. You’re bored, huh?” Kuan opened up the console box and adjusted the wires in it.
“Yeah, nothing here for me to do. Can’t help out like you or Champ,” I remarked.
“It’s way too quiet. Something’s wrong,” Kuan commented.
I heard the sound of footsteps. Kei glanced over at me. Guess I was playing the muscle if needed, finally something to do! A man and woman wearing crisp uniforms entered and requested identification. I dug through my uniform pockets and handed it to them.
“Must be tough. The chute’s been acting up all day and it’s a hassle to carry all our stuff down. I hope you get it fixed soon,” the man said, giving me a sympathetic smile.
The woman stared at me with suspicion but backed off. Glad we didn’t to hide more unconscious people. We disabled the necessary checkpoints one by one until Kisai’s group arrived at the correct floor. Other security measures remained but his group could handle those on their own. Now it was time for us to meet up with them.
“How are we going to get up there?” I realized.
“We’re taking a different path. Probably will have to fight,” Kei answered.
Kei led us to a different part of the fortress. Along the way, I kept hearing a faint buzzing.
“Do you guys hear a buzzing?” I massaged my ears.
“Does it sound like this?” Kei mimicked the sound perfectly.
“How did you know?” I stared at her in surprise.
“That’s observation magic. Tell me if it gets louder. Once it hits a certain frequency, someone has locked onto us,” Kei revealed.
We arrived at another trash chute. Kuan kept watch with me while Champ assisted Kei. The buzzing intensified and I clutched my head in pain.
“What does it sound like now?” Kei walked over to me.
“It’s a ringing that goes up and then down in pitch,” I described.
“Someone might have figured out our plan. Fight if necessary! There’s only one more chute,” Kei ordered.
Robed figures, hoods hiding their faces, suddenly emerged from the floor. Vagabond mages? No, not just them either. A female knight, wearing a visor, accompanied them.
“Yuki, take the knight! I got the mages!” Kuan fired shots from his gun.
The knight and I circled each other. She drew her sword and a large burst of energy resulted from it. I shielded myself with an ice wall but it shattered immediately. I exploded the residual ice chunks but the knight evaded all of my attacks with her blazing speed.
I transported to her backside, but she turned around, and removed her visor. I couldn’t move but magic was still an option. Utilizing the wet ground, I electrified it, and shocked her. This was enough for her to look away from me. I kicked water upward, sending droplets of water onto her, and froze her legs.
“Yuki, watch out!” Kuan warned as he set one of the mages on fire with his bullets.
A bright flash appeared in the sky. When it subsided, I saw her dash toward Kuan. I teleported her away from him and back to me.
“Yuki, amplify this!” Kuan switched to a shotgun.
Oh, explosive rounds! His projectile instantly shattered a mage’s protective barrier and pierced it. Flames engulfed the enemy’s robe, burning them. Kuan finished off the remaining two mages with his handgun. I swung my sword at the knight, but she parried, and countered with a powerful magic beam. I absorbed the attack with my blade and waited. She didn’t take her visor off yet. A cool-down period? I just might be able to win if that was the case!
I flew upward for an aerial view of the situation. I fired icicles at her but she broke them immediately. I descended back and created a ring of fire around her. She spun a full circle and extinguished my flames.
“Pretty good,” I complimented.
Our swords clashed, and each time, a burst of magic from her weapon blew me back. My sword flew out of my hand, clattering to the ground. She dove for it. Perfect! I released the stored magic within it and the blast struck her face. The knight’s visor flew off.
I slammed my palm into her eyes and fired a compressed shot of electric magic. I leaped back and shot ice pellets at her face. The knight yowled in rage and clutched her bleeding eyes in pain. I pivoted to her back and drove my sword into it. The ground then shook and large pieces of rock swirled around me. I dodged most of them and landed near Kuan. He noticed my predicament and unleashed smoke rounds, allowing me time to recover. Nice one, Kuan!
“My vision has always been poor but I’ve compensated by learning how to read magic without relying on sight. The real battle begins now!” the knight drew her blade once more.
That was annoying. Magic was no good right now. Something struck my chin. An earpiece? Once again, the ground beneath me crumbled. I jammed the device into my right ear before teleporting away from danger. F***, that was dumb! My portal would let her locate me.
“Tomo, it’s Kei. I noticed you’re in trouble. Let me help out,” her voice came through clearly.
“Thanks for the help!” I slid and avoided a cascade of boulders falling towards me.
“I understand the situation. Encode your magic. Kyoi Feng has mentioned it before, correct?” Kei directed.
“What do you mean by “encode your magic”?” I dodged the knight’s powerful sword swing.
“Layer your magic. For example, fire off a lightning bolt and then wrap water magic around it. This knight is experienced so you’ll have to attempt different combinations,” Kei explained.
Okay, so pretty much a Matryoshka doll. I fired off a test round and observed the knight’s reaction. She raised her blade but couldn’t counter in time. If she relied on sound, how could she distinguish my movements from everyone else?
“Tomo, direct your friend to fire a flash bang. It’ll disrupt her hearing so you can get close! Make sure dampen the sound and brightness with your magic to avoid its effects,” Kei ordered.
Kuan was fighting the last mage remaining. The rest were all unconscious. I teleported to his backside and relayed Kei’s suggestion. He nodded and swept his opponent’s leg. Activating the portal too early would let her know my location so timing was important. Kuan counted down with his free hand and when he reached zero, a loud bang occurred and then a persistent ringing followed.
“She has recognized your strategy and prepared a way to counter it. The next step for you is compress your magic,” Kei instructed.
Her plan was for me to compress different types of magic. I would launch each with minimal delay, decompress each shot, and combine them into a singular blast. Since the knight’s hearing was impaired from the flash bang, she couldn’t react in time. I fired off En’s electricity, Shui’s ice, and Jen’s paralysis shot. Damn, my head hurt after compressing each individual shot but it faded quickly. The knight glanced in my direction but she didn’t move from her current spot. Wait for it… and now! I fused my three blasts of magic together into one shot. It struck her right in the chest and ripped apart her entire upper body armor. She collapsed to the floor, her hands paralyzed, and legs frozen. A large electrical discharge then blasted her into the air. Did I defeat her?
“Excellent job. Just one more chute,” Kei congratulated us.
She raised her hands in the air and I heard the familiar buzzing again. It decreased in pitch before turning silent.
“I disabled any remaining distress signals. Avoiding battles with someone like her is in our best interest,” Kei explained before leading us to the final chute.
Nothing happened at the third chute. Kuan and I kept an eye out for enemies but none showed up. Champ kept touching his cut even though it was just a minor injury.
“Everything has been taken care of. Let’s meet up with Jin,” Kei announced, stepping away from the control panel.
The woman then directed us to enter the chute. I volunteered to go first and was shot out into a fancy dining hall. Kuan landed on his feet and brushed off the junk accumulated on his shirt. Champ hit his left shoulder when he arrived.
“Yo, took you long enough,” Kisai greeted us.
Lionel and Ichaival stood behind him but Michael was missing.
“Kisai, what happened to Michael?” I didn’t see him anywhere.
“Got captured. Don’t worry about him,” Kisai replied, no urgency in his response.
“I’m right here actually,” Michael revealed, descending from the ceiling.
“My bad. We ready to go?” Kisai turned serious after bantering with Michael.
“Yep! They already know we’re here but won’t send too many people after us. It’d be a waste of time. Once we’re up on the roof is when it’ll get crazy!” Michael clapped his hands with excitement.
After walking for five minutes, we arrived at a set of stairs. Michael tapped the space in front of us and then the stairs vanished. Instead, a thick panel of glass appeared. Someone sat cross-legged on the opposite side, their back to us.
“A gauntlet challenge. Send someone in and fight three enemies to advance. Pretty nifty. Who’s it going to be?” Michael placed his hands on the glass.
“Not Jin or Tomo. If what Liliana’s words are true, I don’t want her injured,” Kei said.
“I’ll do it,” Lionel offered.
“You sure? Michael can do it,” Kisai questioned.
“Yeah. Out of everyone here, I’m the most expendable,” Lionel responded.
Where was the confidence and arrogance from his fight with Ichaival so many months ago? No, this was different. Although his response sounded demeaning, it showed situational awareness. Lionel was actually thinking ahead instead of just charging in like before. An interesting development. Was Lilith responsible for this or just a natural evolution?
“Cool, go in whenever you’re ready,” Kisai said, pointing at a shimmering door outline on the glass.
“If I get beat up, just leave me here, but I’ll win of course!” Lionel headed towards the entrance.
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.