Have you ever questioned about your existence or the world? If so, this story is for you.
Chapter 1- The Burning City
Have you ever questioned your existence, the things that go on around you every day? Do you suffer a sense of emptiness or longing that you could not quite understand nor dispel?
I did. My life was a story of unfulfilled dreams, realized only through imagination or a sheet of drawing paper. Someone once told me that the world is a giant piece of art, visible only to those with the eyes to see it.
For years, I strived on without rest, creating numerous pieces of art one after another. But none was good enough. A failed artist. That was what they said. That was what I was.
Just when I thought all was hopeless, my life took a fateful twist: the world ended. Then, I began to see the truth, a secret forgotten by time.
I was never the artist to begin with. I was the artwork. But there is no turning back once this secret is found.
I only wish I can find the person I am looking for, the only one who can save me from Her. Time is running out. Soon, She will find me. There is nowhere she can't go. Even as I say this, She is listening, waiting to devour me like how what She did with the rest.
If you are reading this, you might not understand what I am saying. I don't blame you. That is how She wants it to be. But as you read on, you might begin to understand. I only hope all is not too late and that my story would show the truth to all who would read it, as unlikely as that may seem.
My story began that night in the office. Then, I was trying to create the perfect design that would determine the fate of my career.
''No, no, no...'' I murmured as I balled the sketch and binned it. Defeated, I collapsed on my seat and faced the clock on the wall that pointed at ten-fifteen. I looked at the sketches littered across the desk in the quietness. Still, I could not get it down on paper. The last employee had left about a hour ago. I was the only one left.
''Either you do it by tomorrow morning, or I find someone else who can!'' That was the last thing I heard that day before Paton, the art director, threw my sketch across his desk and onto the floor. It was my last chance to keep my job.
I turned away from my desk and peered over the rows of empty seats that spanned the office. With the submission only ten hours away, there was no way I could finish it on time even if I pulled an all-nighter. Perhaps this was the end. The end of my dream. I thought with growing desperation under the cold air of the whirring ventilation.
Then, the office dimmed, like someone had turned off all the lights. I must have been too exhausted. That was what I thought.
Suddenly, the building trembled and a distant roar came from deep beneath the earth. A bell tolled, echoing in the night, shaking the sleepless city. Nothing but darkness remained. Red smoke lit the side of the room like a torch in the dark, pouring out of posters that lined the wall.
''Run... She's coming...'' I looked around at the gathering dark. There was no one else in the office. The hair on my skin stood on ends with raced heartbeat pulsing in my ears. I rose from my seat.
''What’s going on?'' I wondered. Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and opened them once more. I had hoped what I witnessed was a dream or hallucination. But the ominous atmosphere remained. Whatever had happened was real--the quake and the mysterious sound of bell toll which came out of nowhere. The city had never seen an earthquake, not even a minor one. So why would one occur now? Furthermore, the unmoved furniture in the office disproved this fact.
The office was dark and eerie despite the light from the ceiling lights, blocked out by an impenetrable darkness that blanketed the whole office. All around me, red smoke flowed in the dark spaces of the room, framed by walls I could barely make out. The first thing that came to mind was a fire. Maybe when the quake rocked the building.
I passed silhouettes of desks and empty seats that lined the way down to the far wall on the opposite end of the room which stood like a haunted chamber. Along the walls where posters used to be were now black rectangular hollows that framed smoky images. The red glowing mist cast an evil light on the characters' faces which sent shivers down my spine.
As the red mist thickened, it gathered into what resembled the silhouette of a person, wreathed in mist. Long red tendrils that looked like hair flowed down the side of her face, waving in the windless space. The features of her face obscured beneath the red swirling mist. Something about the red mist terrified me, an ominous aura I could not quite describe. I stepped back as the red figure began to move, faster with each step. The muscles of my legs started to tense and I nearly lost balance. I heaved heavy breaths, trying to relieve the rising tension.
I must get out! But it was hard to see in such darkness. I had to rely on my instincts from the long hours of working here. Owed to that, I could almost recognize the path with my eyes closed. But fear was the bigger enemy. I bumped into the hard edges of the partitions down the winding aisle as I fled from the red smoke swallowing the room in my direction. Alas, I made it to the reception area where the huge double glass doors stood facing the wooden counter.
I pulled the doors, but they wouldn't budge. The reflection on the door glass began to bleed with wisps of red mist. I slammed my fingers on the exit switch which let out a ''beep'' and I pulled the doors with every ounce of my strength. I stormed out, too frightened to look back and get slowed down in the process.
As I ran, my footsteps echoed down through the deserted storey of the building. The surroundings were very dark, lit only by a grayish red ambience. Mist was all around. The cold marble floor led to a wider space, and the false ceiling receded further up. On my right was a row of offices that went down the pathway. On my left were full-length glass windows that made the facade of the building, a fine line that separated the interiors from the world outside. I could not believe my eyes as I looked through them.
The city stood like a ghostly painting, blurred by spotted water vapor on the glass surfaces where my pale face looked back at me. The glass was cold by the touch, enhancing the eerie ambience. Like the interior where I was, the city was all doom and gloom with buildings standing like haunted dark towers.
Dark grey mist poured from their silhouettes, rising to the pitch black sky. Here and there across the streets and buildings, spots of red mist painted the landscape like ghostly torches in the night.
The nearest surrounded the horizontal poster; the face of a captivating girl with wavy hair that streaked down her face occupied nearly half of the entire poster. The words ''Merricius-- Indulge World Tour-- July 2th, 2016'' wrote across it in an elegant white font against the orange-red backdrop.
Red mist radiated from her face and eyes, in the same way as the posters in the office. For the briefest moment, her head and eyes turned. I gasped, backing away from the misty glass and continued running.
I went on, past the row of offices behind glass walls. Most of them were already closed and locked.
Then, I heard the voice again. ''Ret...hurry...'', said the voice, slightly clearer than before but still, there was no sign of anyone nearby. I saw a faint light in the distance ahead, so dim that I could have imagined it.
Then, the air around me burned. Turning around, I saw a red glow emerging around the corner where I came, at the far end of the corridor where I came. The long-haired figure stirred within the red tendrils of smoke that smudged the walls and floor. It flooded toward me.
The red figure had been following me. Whatever it was, I did not know and was not keen to find out.
I headed toward the dim white light in the distance and came to a circular area where all the other paths eventually gathered. At the centre was a circular void surrounded by huge round columns converging toward the black depths that seemed like a bottomless pit.
I stood before the railing, my hands strangling the metallic handle. I had never fancied the idea of looking over from such a high spot. It felt like I would fall over anytime. I yelled for help but no answer came, except my own echo. The only way out was at the ground floor.
The lift lobby was not far away now.
I circled the void, nearly slipping upon the polished marble floor as I did. Finally, I faced the broad metallic doors, one on either side of the tiled wall in the middle with a huge ''12'' extruded from it. I hit the ''Down'' button and waited for what seemed like ages, counting every second as the number ''2'' changed to ''3'', ''4'' and so on.
''Hurry!'' I said to myself. I stuck near to the lift doors and watched my back, getting ready to run at the tiniest sign of red in the blackness.
I checked the number again, it was ''9''. My heart raced. ''Come on, come on,'' I tapped repeatedly on the lift button. When I looked back again, the dark walls began to turn red like paint spilling over them. There was no way the elevator would make it in time.
I started running again without a clear heading, following the faint white light that lingered ahead. Then, I came to a dark narrow corridor, a part I had never went before. At the very end of it was a door with a green panel and a white Exit. A shadow stood before it, wrapped in a dreamy white light.
''Hurry...and return...'' I heard the voice again, soft and fragile like a candle in the wind.
''Who's there?'' I said.
''Return...to the temple...where it all began...''
As I stood there looking at the white light and the shadow, I felt a strange feeling; a warmth and peace long forgotten. It reminded me of memories long buried, of her. But…how could it be?
The red glow was very close now. The shadow ushered me, and as I went forth, it faded and the white light filled my world. I knew no more.
I felt light and dreamy until a growing weight pulled me back. I could barely open my eyes. A circle of light floated in the dark before me, then came another and so on until the view of the corridor came into view. Then I realized the circles of light had been the ceiling lights. I looked toward the pathways on either side. The red glow was gone, so were the shadow and the white light.
Turning back to the direction I came, I trailed the marbled path with my footstep echoing loudly and clearly. The world outside bustled behind the full-length windows and the girl in the poster remained still, her beauty warming the coldness of the night. Cars and people streamed down the roads and sidewalks below and lights of various colors decorated the city.
I arrived at the double glass doors of my office. The office was well-lit, completely different from the dark chasm I ran out not so long ago. I slid my card on the card reader, its red light turned green. My heart raced as I pushed the doors open, feeling the chilly air rushing out of the office. Past the reception area, the pathway widened to a labyrinth of partitions with empty seats. My eyes turned to the posters on the walls, where the red mist had been. The images were as still as the rest of the office. Nothing moved, except the air and me.
Was I dreaming? If that was true, how did I end up at the corridor near the stairwell? The figure in the red mist was too vivid. And there was the shadow engulfed in white light. It looked like someone I knew from a long time ago. But it was not possible.
There was no way I could continue to work on the design. So, I gathered my sketches and stacked them at one side of the desk. I surveyed the area of the void as I headed for the elevator lobby, the weight of the former darkness still heavy in my mind.
While waiting for the elevator doors to open, I turned around several times, recapping the eerie red glow that had approached. Ding. I jumped at it and hurried through the opening doors, tapping on the button to close the door.
The atrium came into view as the doors slid open. An organic-looking pattern of red, white and grey flowed across the marble floor, reflecting the spaciousness of the atrium. A man in white shirt and long black pants with a walkie-talkie attached to his waist smiled as he saw me. Relief filled me to see another living soul besides me in the building.
The night wind greeted me as soon as I stepped outside. Silver raindrops descended like needles, trickling down my skin. Friday had long lost its charm. Nowadays, it was just another day.
Jumbled thoughts accompanied my way to the bus stop. I boarded the nearly vacant bus and settled on a seat at the back, next to the window. The bus took off and I succumbed to the dazzling lights of the city speeding by.
Time came to a standstill. A feeling of peace that had become a luxury nowadays. It was only during such times I could think clearly.
The bus rounded a turn past the green road sign that read ''Xushan Ave''. The shadow of a familiar building loomed in the distance behind dark shapes of trees. The bus slowed and halted at the bus stop ahead.
My eyes trailed the familiar sidewalk that continued past the bus stop before turning vanished into a small road behind the fence. It was the road leading to the gate. I recalled they were emerald green in color, but at this hour, they were merely thick black bars. A mix of poignant memories awoke seeing that place again, feeling the soft breeze, and smelling the stale grass and sweet flowers.
Usually I would be lost in the events of the day past or sleeping through the entire ride home. For the first time in a long while, nostalgia overwhelmed me all at once; memories dug up after years of lying buried. How strange it now felt like another lifetime ago.
This feeling, mingled with warmth and sadness, I had felt it when I saw the shadow in the white light. It reminded me of her, a mysterious girl I met at Xushan Secondary School.
Return to the Temple. That was what she said back at the office building.
She was warning me about something. Was she talking about the red mist? Or was I just imagining things? A feeling told me I wasn't.
The Temple, I had heard of it before. But that was a time long ago, filled with fond and haunting memories.
As the bus doors closed and rumbled into motion, the shadow of the building passed away as light returned to its surroundings, and I to the day I walked through its gate on that fateful day many years ago.