With a swift movement, I sprang to my feet, my gaze pivoting around the empty room. The creeping onset of panic clawed at the edges of my sanity as I confronted the possibility that my intrusion could be a death sentence. I had scoured every hidden corner and crevice, yet the house was devoid of inhabitants. The only traces of past life here were long faded, left untouched for years, possibly decades.
Suddenly, the voice, as deep as the ocean, echoed around me. “Why did Cain abandon you here? What is your purpose?”
I swivelled around, trying to discern the origin of the disembodied voice. “Who are you?”
The voice responded with an air of annoyance. “You invade my home uninvited and have the audacity to ask me questions?” The response seemed to resonate from every corner.
“I-I was trying to find the Guild. I was stranded, left to the mercy of the weather,” I managed to stutter out.
“And why would a demon seek the Guild? That’s a certain path to death,” he responded, his incredulity palpable and unsettling. My instincts nudged me backwards towards the door in small steps. “Leaving so soon?” I heard just as I collided with someone behind me.
As I whirled around, my gaze gradually ascended. A towering figure stood before me, a man of daunting height, easily exceeding seven feet—there was someone taller than Wrecky. His face was concealed beneath a swath of white bandages, leaving no opening for his mouth or eyes. The man's strange appearance and towering stature ignited fear in me, overpowering my initial awe, which caused me to stagger backwards.
“I mean no harm,” I spluttered, raising my hands in a gesture of surrender. “I didn't mean to intrude.”
The cloaked figure, his attire a long, weathered coat that draped over his imposing form, closed the gap between us. “You are a creature of desire, offspring of Lilith, yet you retain innocence. You carry the blood of Lycan, however, you are more than just that. Your visage is but a veil, hiding your true nature.” His words flowed with a lyrical cadence as if he were reciting a lost, ancient verse.
“My true nature?” I croaked, my throat parched with fear.
“None of us wear our true faces,” he echoed. "But you, you wear many. I ask you, which of them is the real Kade?"
A wave of alarm coursed through me as I realised I hadn't shared my name. “I never said my name.”
The man took a measured step closer. "I am the Fallen of Time. I perceive your past and future as clearly as the present. And I must tell you, child, your fate is not a kind one."
“What do you mean?” I inquired, my voice barely more than a hushed murmur.
“Should you choose to depart this dwelling, I will cleanse your memory of our encounter. Subsequently, you will never reach the Guild. Instead, you will encounter a priestess who will become your companion. Despite your best efforts, however, a demon of gluttony will take control of your vessel en route to the Guild, claiming your life before devouring your friend and everyone onboard.”
The thought of aligning myself with a priestess was hard to believe. Of all people, a priestess could most swiftly unmask my demon identity. Yet, considering the unforeseen events of the past few months, such an unlikely alliance wasn't entirely outside the realm of possibilities. Nevertheless, the concept of venturing alongside a priestess felt far-fetched to me. I was reckless, but not foolish to that extent.
My head tilted in curiosity. "How could you possibly know all of that?"
The enigma standing before me remained quiet for a moment. “There's only one possible explanation for your presence here. You've been led to me by the system, not Cain. My whereabouts are known to none.”
I struggled to find the words to speak, and my desire to leave this place conflicted with my curiosity about the stranger before me. “What does that imply?” I finally mustered the courage to ask.
The Fallen of Time held out his hands towards me, palms up. “It suggests that the system has chosen me to influence the trajectory of the future.”
“Why would the system require your help in altering the future when it probably possesses the power to do so?” I questioned, my mind trying to comprehend why something with such godly power would need him.
The Fallen of Time shook his head. "The system is bound by certain limitations when it comes to interfering with the world it oversees."
“But in Endeavor, the system was responsible for killing many people. Is that not considered interference?” I countered.
“Acts of self-preservation are permitted, but they consume resources and disrupt the fragile equilibrium. The recent purges cannot be replicated, nor can a hard reset be performed. The system is now in a state of desperation.”
“Resources?” I echoed, still trying to grasp the situation.
He nodded. “The more the system interferes, the more constraints are imposed on its power to sway outcomes. This security measure restricts the world's overseer from overly basing certain results. I would assume it is a source similar to our stamina.”
“So, by guiding me toward you, the system saves on the stamina they can expend?” I deduced.
“Correct,” he affirmed, clapping his hands together.
“But what does this mean for me?” I prepared myself for his response, which was bound to plunge me into more trouble than I was prepared to handle.
The Fallen of Time seemed deep in thought for a moment, a finger placed against his bandaged chin. “Well, I could potentially send you back in time to retrieve a mythical sword. If I managed to send you to a time before the Twisted Fate was destroyed, that would be advantageous.”
I furrowed my brow, puzzled. "Back in time? Sword? What are you talking about?"
The man's claims were veering towards the realm of absurdity. Was he honestly proposing that he had the ability to take me back in time? Such power seemed exaggerated, even for a Fallen.
“The Twisted Fate held the potential to vanquish both Valkyrie, and the Fallen. Alas, it met its demise due to a pact between the two factions,” he elucidated with a nonchalant air.
Struggling to digest this, I asked, “Assuming I can secure this sword, would I even be capable of wielding it?” I held up my ring finger as an example. "This ring is level 666, yet it hardly does anything except grant me resistance to sunlight."
“The Sword of Twisted Fate is among the rare artefacts in this world that can align with its user's level. Rest assured. We will devise a strategy to procure the other necessary items.”
He nodded in confirmation. “The sword is undeniably paramount, but the additional pieces can be crafted. However, obtaining the required materials will be no easy task.”
I pondered his proposition for a moment before hesitantly querying, “So you're prepared to assist me in gathering these items? Wouldn't that antagonise Cain?”
“The viewpoints of trivial beings hold no weight with me,” he asserted, his voice glacial.
His dismissive demeanour stirred a hint of apprehension within me. Was I signing up for more trouble with Cain? I could ill afford to provoke him at this point. Yet, despite this, I couldn't decline the Fallen of Time's assistance. This was too good of an offer to pass up—even if it defied reason that he would lend assistance to someone as insignificant as myself.
"What do you want in return for your help?"
A subtle shift in his bandaged visage suggested a smile. “To please the system and witness my brother rue his choices”—he paused—“and to aid in halting the rifts. In that order.”
It appeared that Cain had few friends among the Fallen, a circumstance that might play to my advantage.
I proffered my hand. “Deal.”
Something about this felt off as if he were deliberately concealing key details. Nevertheless, I decided to risk the potential deceit for the time being.
He enveloped my hand within his large, bandage-swathed grasp. “My name is Chronos.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Chronos,” I said, striving to mask any hint of scepticism in my tone.
But he seemed to perceive my apprehension. “You harbour mistrust.”
I hesitated. “Cain hasn't exactly painted a positive picture of the Fallen.”
He nodded before uttering, “Never place your trust in a Fallen or Valkyrie.”
"What about you? Should I trust you?"
For a fleeting moment, Chronos paused, weighing his response. “Trust… you should place your trust in the system that guided you to me,” he eventually stated.
His equivocal answer didn't wholly assuage my concerns, prompting me to dig deeper. “So, as long as the system deems me worthy, I can trust you?”
Chronos affirmed with a decisive nod. “Correct.”
Feeling marginally reassured, I glanced about. “So, how exactly do we venture back in time, then?” I asked, eager to unravel more about this journey.
While fear gnawed at the edges of my mind at the prospect of venturing into the past, a surge of anticipation was simultaneously mounting within me.
Sigh. There I go again, getting myself into dangerous adventures—very, very dangerous adventures.
Chronos interlaced his fingers behind him. “The process is far from straightforward and demands a vast reservoir of essence and stamina. Nonetheless, I'll ensure its success.” He paused, tilting his head in thought. "It will be dangerous, and there are risks involved. You may not come back the same way you left."
His words stoked the embers of my curiosity rather than fear. “What do you mean?”
“Traversing through the Sands of Time could distort your consciousness. Numerous sloth demons have been driven to insanity through excessive utilisation of their powers”—Chronos gestured to his face—“As you can see, I too have paid the price.”
I swallowed hard, feeling a knot of trepidation tighten in my throat. This was a lot to take in. “Given the choice between securing the sword or facing death, the former seems more viable. But what must I do?” I asked, trying to sound braver than I felt.
Fear, it seemed, was too mild a term for what I was experiencing.
"Death is ever your shadow," Chronos said, his words feeling more like a truth than a mere statement. "I will summon the Sands of Time, forging a path from now to then."
I nodded slowly, making an effort to comprehend this abstract concept. "And once we're there, what do we do?"
Chronos folded his arms. “Your mission is to locate the sword. We then ensure its return to the present. A formidable challenge, but one that the system deems you capable of conquering.”
“Rest assured, Kade, you will not be facing this ordeal alone. The Threads of Time have woven a web that connects you to numerous people in the past.”
“Threads of Time? To whom am I connected?”
Chronos sidestepped my question, extracting a knife from his coat. Its surface was so radiant that it could easily serve as a makeshift mirror. In a fluid motion, he drew the blade across his palm, yielding an unusual result—rather than blood, a stream of tan sand began to seep out. The sand billowed and spiralled around us within moments. An eerie whispering sound pervaded the atmosphere, sending shivers down my spine.
“The Sands of Time will take us to our desired era,” Chronos declared, his voice barely audible above the house’s rattling.
The sandstorm amplified in intensity and took on a life of its own, generating a vortex that enveloped us and blotted out the room. I gaped in astonishment as the sandy waves beneath me swelled, eventually lapping at my knees. The sensation was odd, the sand grains clinging to my skin like a sticky mud.
I kept calm, reminding myself that this was simply part of the spell that would take us back in time. My instincts, nonetheless, were telling me to panic.
The sand rose around me, its grip intensifying, and shadows swallowed the room whole. I caught a brief glimpse of Chronos, unyielding even as the grains encased him. As the sand crept up to my neck, an instinctual need made me hold my breath, feeling as though I was drowning, even without the need for air.
Before long, the Sands of Time swallowed my head completely, and I found myself sinking deeper into their grasp. The sheer weight of the sands around me grew more oppressive as I descended further into the engulfing darkness.
My body started to throb with an acute sense of pain, and my health bar blinked into view for an instant, only to dissolve into oblivion, declaring its connection lost.
Hesitant to open my eyes to the surroundings in fear of sand entering them, I squeezed them shut, along with my lips.
Eventually, the oppressive weight lifted, and my body was cast into a state of weightlessness, enveloped in a feeling of nothingness.
Daring to open my eyes, I found myself in a boundless expanse where luminescent orange digits cascaded around me, serving as the sole source of light. The stark contrast between the darkness and the gleaming symbols plummeting from various directions was disorientating. I battled to retain my orientation as I meandered through this waterfall of numerals for what seemed like hours.
In time, my feet made contact with a surface, signalling my arrival at the base of this seemingly endless pit. The ground beneath my feet was tender and unstable, reminiscent of standing in mud.
Before I had an opportunity to orient myself, a shape, resembling a hand sculpted from pitch-black mire, entwined itself around my leg. Its vice-like grip yanked me off balance and onto the ground. Soon, others emerged, latching onto my garments and limbs, dragging me deeper into the nether below.
My attempts at resistance proved vain as these domineering appendages overpowered me. I found myself gradually surrendering to the enveloping darkness, everything fading into obscurity as my consciousness waned and slipped into the void.