Awakening with a jolt, the vibrant tapestry of the forest canopy, rain weaving its melody through the leaves above, greeted my eyes. A violent spasm that forced its way from my core punctuated my wakefulness, triggering a bout of uncontrollable vomiting. To my surprise, instead of the usual stomach contents, sand spilt from my mouth, landing on the forest floor in front of me.
For a few minutes, I writhed amongst the leaf litter, my body straining to purge this internal desert. Once the vomiting had settled, I lifted my head, only to find Chronos towering over me.
"Traversing the sands of time exacts a harsh toll," he said, his voice heavy with annoyance. "This is the price I must pay." He raised his hand, now slowly hardening into white stone.
As I watched the rock's slow ascent along his arm, a wave of fear washed over me. The prospect of completing this journey alone filled me with a dread that took root in the pit of my stomach—there was no way I could do this.
Rising unsteadily to my feet, I shook my head to dislodge the residual sand from my ears. "Will you be okay?" I croaked, my throat parched and raw, before doubling over to cough more sand onto the ground.
Great. I would have sand coming out everywhere for a while.
Chronos cocked his head to one side. "Yes. Death is not a fate I, nor any of the Fallen, can meet—unless you retrieve the sword."
The stone crawling up his arm wasn’t inspiring confidence. In fact, it was even turning his clothes into stone as well.
I gestured towards his arm. "That doesn't bode well."
Glancing down, Chronos nodded. "I will require roughly a year to recover. Return if you secure the sword within that timeframe. Otherwise, I will find you… provided you survive."
"Survive? Can't you foresee the future?" I queried, my eyebrows furrowing sceptically.
Shaking his head, Chronos admitted, "This is not my timeline. I am blind to the outcome of your journey here. Moreover, there's a disturbance in the threads of time..."
My sigh echoed in the quiet forest. “That doesn’t make me feel very safe.”
Chronos stared at me for a moment. "Rightly so. You are not safe."
Shit. Time was running out. I needed him to explain how to locate this sword before he turned into a statue.
"Where exactly is this sword, and how do I get to it?" I asked, my voice rising in urgency.
Chronos paused, seemingly gathering his thoughts before answering. “You must find a demon named Venisa. She’s one of my creations, a demon of sloth.”
"Does she possess control over time?"
"No one holds dominion over time." Chronos retorted in what I perceived was a condescending tone. "We merely learn to navigate through the unyielding currents of its passage."
I nodded with a hint of annoyance. "A simple yes or no would have sufficed. So, where might I find her?" I hoped for a direct response this time.
The stone encased his neck, its silent, unrelenting march continuing. "She's near," he rasped. "Venisa would have detected my presence. Search for a neighbouring waterfall. You're likely to encounter her in its vicinity," he managed, just as his face was claimed by the stone's cold grip.
A surge of panic prompted my next question. "What should I say to her? How will she know to help me?"
"She's already—" were Chronos' last words, his muffled as his form hardened into a stoic statue.
I stared at the motionless form of Chronos, a bird perched upon his stone shoulder, breaking the silence with its chirping. Cautiously, I rapped my knuckles against his stony chest, confirming he was hard as a rock. It dawned on me then that he stood in the heart of the forest, vulnerable to a toppled tree or curious creature.
Eh. It probably would do him no harm as a fallen. I would not worry about it. There was nothing I could do about it, anyway.
Glancing down, I spotted my silver dagger lodged in the sand left over from our trip. “Glad that came with me.”
After retrieving my weapon, I exhaled a long sigh, turning to face the humid green embrace of the forest. Its air was dense with moisture, the heat creating a steamy shroud that enveloped me. Breathing was a laborious task, akin to drawing air through a soaked cloth.
That was uncomfortable—no more breathing for me.
I strained, listening for the sound of a waterfall. In the distance, I heard the faint sound of what seemed like moving water, but I wasn’t entirely sure. Chronos could have at least pointed me in the right direction.
With a resigned breath, I started my trek into the rainforest that bore a striking resemblance to the ones my father had often spoken of. The undergrowth was thick, the soil beneath my feet a sponge-like covering. Massive insects, boasting more limbs than I had fingers, were unceremoniously swatted away as I progressed.
Trudging through the dense foliage, I found myself repeatedly tripping. For such a thick canopy above, the undergrowth was dense and up to my knees, impeding my footing and visibility. With how much commotion I was making, I was ready for something like a snake to bite me at any second.
Just as I thought things couldn’t get any worse, I walked into the most enormous spider web I had ever encountered. Its tenacious strands enveloped me, the thickness of the web rivalling that of my own fingers—I did not want to meet the spider that had made these. Extricating myself felt like an epoch, my dagger slicing through the resilient web as if it were ropes rather than gossamer. The stubborn residue clung to my clothing, refusing to relinquish its hold even after I had staggered free from the thicket and arrived at a rocky stream bank.
Observing the water meander down a natural staircase in the landscape, I exhaled a weary sigh for the hundredth time. “That took forever.”
I wandered over and knelt to sip from the stream, realising that it was my first sip of water in weeks. I guess being a demon had its perks—no more worrying about thirst.
One less thing to kill me, I suppose.
The sun was at its zenith as I glanced upwards, reminding me of my need to find Venisa before the arrival of darkness. The thought of spending the night in this damp, dangerous jungle was not a pleasant one.
Pushing forward, I trekked upstream for several hours until the unmistakable sound of a waterfall reached my ears. I couldn't quite fathom how Chronos knew that Venisa would be here, but I chose not to question the foresight of someone who could peer into the future—even if he couldn’t see this timeline.
With the roar of the waterfall growing, I mentally braced myself for what lay ahead. Given my recent stroke of luck, it wouldn't surprise me if Venisa tried to murder me. I would scream Chrono’s name if I saw her first. That should, hopefully, cause her to hesitate.
As I drew nearer, the waterfall's astonishing beauty rendered me speechless. The surrounding foliage teemed with life; birds chirped and darted around the overhead canopy. Its cool mist brushed my skin, giving me some reprieve from the warm temperature. My eyes traced the path of cascading water as it flowed down rocky terraces, each creating a pool. The sunlight filtered through the canopy, creating a breathtaking display of rainbows that danced in the mist.
Draycott had its share of waterfalls, but none compared to this spectacle. Creatures bearing a disconcerting resemblance to humans frolicked among the tree branches, their long arms swinging them from limb to limb as they hooted in my direction. I wasn’t sure if that was threatening or not.
"I can smell Chronos on you," a soft feminine voice remarked, prompting me to whirl around.
Standing before me was a woman sporting short black hair. One of her silver eyes concealed behind an eye patch—her iris glowed like the demons I had previously encountered. A worn leather jacket hung open, revealing bandages wrapped around her torso like the bindings Abble used, but these appeared to travel into her pants.
"Chronos!" I blurted, the name echoing off the nearby rocks, and the woman staggered back, visibly taken aback.
I immediately regretted my reaction, having a twinge of guilt at the distress on her face.
"Why did you yell his name at me?" she questioned, her voice quivering slightly.
"Are you Venisa?" I asked, ignoring her question.
She responded by simply tilting her head in affirmation. "Yeah."
Relieved, I cut straight to the chase. "Good. Chronos sent me here to retrieve the Twisted Fate."
Without missing a beat, Venisa spun around and began striding away. "Yeah, no," she retorted, her voice laced with disdain.
In a scramble, I darted after her, my hand shooting up in a plea. "Wait!" I said, and she quickened her pace, but I managed to secure a grip on her wrist, bringing her to an abrupt halt. “Things are bad in the future. Really bad. I need that sword before it’s destroyed.”
Venisa's lips pressed together in contemplation as she turned back to me. “You’re Level 4. You ain’t saving anything.”
Ouch. That offended me probably way more than it should have.
"You can see my level?" I shot back, letting a hint of annoyance travel with my words.
Venisa nodded. "Yeah, it's a talent."
"So, you can see the system?"
Rolling her eye, she responded, "All demons can see the system."
My earlier presumption of being unique or special was thoroughly debunked. Yet, being a former human with access to the system might be noteworthy. Understanding the system better through Venisa could be advantageous. Even though this journey was terrifying, it may be just what I need to push myself to get stronger.
I clasped my hands together in a praying fashion. "Chronos said you could help me."
Venisa exhaled a long, exaggerated sigh. “Ugh, my master is such a pain.”
"Does that mean you'll help?"
Venisa hesitated for a beat. “I guess? If Chronos pointed you in my direction, then this matter must hold weight, especially since he's the only one aware of my whereabouts. I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do, but we’ll figure it out, I suppose—If I find out you're lying to me about anything, I will kill you.”
That was kinda easy. Little too easy, but I wasn’t going to argue.
“Understood”—I bobbed my head in a quick nod—"Do you have any clue about the sword's location? We need to get it quickly."
Crossing her arms, Venisa replied, "Yes, it's with Lucifer… Clearly, you haven't grasped the magnitude of this. If you had, you'd know nothing about this will be quick."
"Lucifer?" I echoed.
She studied me, her gaze measuring, before she finally responded. “You aren’t aware of who Lucy is?”
I furrowed my brows in thought. “Cain mentioned the name once, and my ring—”
Venisa reacted instantly, her face scrunching up in distaste. “Ew.”
She shoved her hands into the pockets of her baggy trousers. “I don’t like Cain. Actually, I don’t like anyone, but I really don’t like him,” she declared, her expression reflecting her distaste.
“Same,” I concurred, before steering the conversation back on track. “So, who is Lucifer? My ring has that name in its description.” I lifted my hand to display the silver band.
Venisa closed her eyes, exhaling deeply. “So, Chronos sent me a Level 4 child who doesn’t know who Lucifer is and asked me to steal a mythical sword from the highest level being in the world. This can’t go wrong.”
“Yep. This is going to go horribly wrong.”
The reality of not returning home was starting to hit me. Venisa had every right to view this as a hopeless endeavour.
Venisa shook her head at how ridiculous this all was. “Yes, it is, and she will not just hand it over. I didn’t even know they planned to destroy it. This seems so odd,” she mused, her gaze growing distant. “Why would they give up such a powerful weapon?”
“I’m sorry. Chronos hastily threw this plan at me, and my knowledge about the world, let alone this sword, is zero. What year is this by the way?”
“1095. What was your year?”
“Wow…” I said, taking a moment to absorb the sheer distance of my journey back in time. “1126.”
Venisa levelled a sceptical gaze at me. “Why would Chronos aid a lust demon? And what calamity in the future compelled him to venture this far back in time? This must be pushing his time-travelling capabilities to the limit.”
“Something is invading our world,” I explained. “The system has been battling it, but it's on the losing side.”
Venisa's eye widened in shock. “The system is fighting? With whom?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know much.”
Venisa's gaze ran over my face. “How are you, both lycan and demon? You smell really weird.”
Smell weird? I had a strong urge to check my armpits, but I refrained.
I shrugged. “The future is a tad chaotic.”
“Apparently so,” Venisa conceded as she began walking. “Follow me.”
We slowly made our way around the vast basin, cautiously treading over the rugged landscape towards the base of the roaring waterfall. Drawing nearer, we slipped behind the curtain of cascading water and into a concealed cavern.
Following closely behind Venisa, we ventured through the glistening obsidian cave. The air was heavy with the scent of damp moss and the rhythmic drip-drip of water echoed soothingly through the tunnel.
As we delved deeper into the dim cavern, I inadvertently bumped into Venisa’s back. “Sorry, I can’t see very well in here.”
“I guess you haven’t gotten your night vision yet. Being such a low level,” she said, conjuring a vibrant blue flame at her fingertip, casting an azure glow on our surroundings.
While her command over magic didn’t surprise me, experiencing it firsthand was amazing. Until now, my exposure to magic was restricted to my father's stories and the legends I'd read in books. According to him, few were blessed with the gift of magic. However, now, witnessing the system's workings firsthand, I couldn’t help but ponder if the scarcity of magic was due to an absence of ability or simply a lack of access to the system.
“You can make a flame?” I asked, my voice tinged with excitement. “What else can you do?”
Venisa glanced back at me, her expression one of disbelief as we proceeded deeper into the shadowy passage. “Haven’t you even looked at your essence tree?”
“I don’t have one.”
She stopped in her tracks, evidently shocked by my response. “Do you have any essence at all?”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
“Chronos hates me,” she grumbled as we approached a hefty metal door.
With a forceful shove, Venisa thrust open the groaning door, revealing a chamber embedded with glowing green crystals sprouting from the walls. Their soft glow painted the space in a gentle luminescence, reminiscent of a faint fire's flicker. I found myself wondering about the possible variations of these crystals. So far, I’ve been most enamoured by the turquoise ones that the Inn in Endeavor had.
The chamber was simply furnished, with open crates, a bed, and a generous fur rug laid on the floor. It reminded me of Chronos’ simple dwelling in the wilderness.
Exhaling heavily, Venisa flopped onto the bed. “I just wanted to live out here alone and not deal with people, but no, that’s not allowed.”
Guilt gnawed at me for imposing on her. Even if her obligation towards Chronos compelled her to aid me, this was a significant favour—I needed to maintain my gratitude.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” I expressed my regret. “I assure you, if I could handle this independently, I wouldn’t have troubled you.”
Lounging on her back, Venisa shot a sideways glance at me. “It’s not your fault. I just like complaining.” She gestured towards a chair beside her bed. “Your standing stresses me out. Sit.”
Trudging over, I settled into a time-worn wooden chair. “So, what should we do first?”
Venisa lapsed into a thoughtful silence. “You being so low-levelled will make this much harder. I would much rather you be around twenty before we even consider venturing into civilisation. Of course, it would be ideal for you to get compulsion first, but I’ve heard lust demons don’t get that until around level fifty.”
“Other demons can’t use compulsion?”
Casually folding her arms behind her head, Venisa responded. “Nope—just you horny freaks.”
“And how do we plan to get me to level twenty?” I asked, choosing to sidestep her quip.
Venisa's grin revealed her pointed canines. “We kill things.”