The moment Mao Lu ran through the rippling doorway he was transported to a new location.
As his feet felt solid ground he was blinded by a bright light. At first he was unable to see anything but his eyes quickly adjusted and a rather bizarre room came into view.
The room was painted white, the walls, the floor, and the ceiling were so white that Mao Lu couldn't tell when the wall became the floor or when the floor became the ceiling. In addition the room was filled with mirrors.
These mirrors were long and thin, they stood in the air, being held up by an invisible force. There were hundreds upon hundreds of rows of these mirrors. Mao Lu felt like he was in an enhanced and strange version of one of those mirror trick corridors often found in Circus'.
As Mao Lu looked around he could see endless reflections of himself.
It was disconcerting.
He turned around but there were only more and more mirrors around him, and just as many reflections of himself.
"Why do you look so confused? It's only your reflection, nothing puzzling about it." A voice said to his left.
Mao Lu quickly spun around, but he didn't see anyone, only more mirrors.
"Are you the examiner for this section of the trial?" Mao Lu called out.
"Who else would I be, just a random voice in your head? If you're hearing random voices than I'm afraid you're going mad." The voice laughed, this time Mao Lu could hear the voice rightv next to his ear.
"I see. Than tell me, how do I complete this test, what must I do?" Mao Lu asked hurriedly, he wanted to get through this quickly, he wanted to check on Chàng Bo.
"Hahahaha, don't be in such a rush, if you go into this test without thought, you won't end up realising your true potential. Then you'll lose your chance to improve and you won't ever be able to move beyond the wielding stage. Then all of this would end up meaningless."
The voice was right.
Mao Lu breathed in and out, calming himself.
"I'm sorry I was too hasty." He apologised.
"No need to apologise, being in a rush means you're young, and being young means you have much room for growth." The voice said softly. "Now before we begin this test why don't you take a seat."
Mao Lu looked about in confusion, and was about to point out that there wasn't a seat, when suddenly one popped up from the ground in front of him.
It was a standard white plastic chair, the type you would buy from a cheap home based store and place in the garden.
Mao Lu sat down on it, surprisingly it was extremely comfortable and smooth, not at all as hard as it looked.
When he settled down the chair suddenly jolted and began moving quickly through the rows of mirrors. It reminded Mao Lu of when he first visited the flame fortress in realm one.
It was like he was strapped onto a rollercoaster ride and was being pulled along the tracks.
The chair stopped abruptly in front of the largest mirror. Unlike all the long and thin mirrors, this one was much wider and the glass had a strange blue tinge to it.
"Tell me" said the voice, "What do you understand about your abilities so far, what do you think you're capable of at the moment?"
As the voice asked this Mao Lu became distracted. He found himself unable to look away from the mirror.
He stared at his reflection. He was still wearing the blue bodysuit he'd gotten in Karne Village. His dark brown hair had grown longer and was messy and unkempt, tied up in a bun. Even though Mao Lu didn't grow facial hair quickly, but it had been so long since he'd last shaved that a dark shadow and various stubble was shooting from his chin.
Mao Lu was surprised, how long had he been taking this test? The fact that time was so confusing here made it impossible for him to know whether he'd been here for only a few days or if he'd actually been there for months. The thought that he'd been in The Tempering Heart Trial for months made him worried.
He looked at the silver ring on his finger and anger made him shake. He wanted to see Chàng Bo, now. If anything had happened to him he'd never forgive Argenti, never. As Mao Lu thought this he became distracted again.
The most surprising change to his appearance wasn't his growing beard, but his eyes. They were so much brighter and sharper. They glowed, and underneath the brown a series of colours shone through. Blue, green and purple were becoming more and more apparent.
His skin was now so smooth that it seemed like porcelain. Mao Lu couldn't help but feel like his humanity was slowly fading from him.
"So caught up in your reflection you didn't hear me?" The voice asked.
Mao Lu jumped out of his thoughts, "S-sorry...I got distracted. Did you ask me about my abilities?"
"What do you understand about your abilities so far, and what do you think you're capable of at the moment?"
Mao Lu blinked and collected his thoughts before replying. "When I first became a Gatekeeper I learnt that Gatekeepers were supposed to protect the realm. Protect the realm from the interference of other Gatekeepers and from the attacks of Outsiders. I still have no idea who these Outsiders are though..." Mao Lu trailed off, wondering if the voice might tell him more about the Outsiders.
"Go on." The Voice replied, making it clear that it wouldn't be giving any explanations.
" I first learnt that there are three paths, the path of a mortal, a Practitioner, and a Gatekeeper. The first stage for both Practitioners and Gatekeepers is called awakening, it's when you're able to see and sense essence and therefore control these essences. The ability to see and use these essences is what separates us from mortals. For most mortals if they're unable to awaken before the age of twenty they're destined to remain mortal as their bodies are too mature to sense essence at that point. But for some reason this rule doesn't apply to Gatekeepers, Gatekeepers can awaken anytime. I was twenty five and had never awakened before I was chosen yet I was still able to become a Gatekeeper, perhaps I was chosen because of my ability to sense essence despite my age, or maybe it was for some other reason. To be honest I'm not sure why I was chosen. My Gates lied to me and told me it was because I was pure, and more kinder than others. But I know better now, I know that isn't true…." He trailed off again, hoping the voice would tell him the real reason he was chosen to be a Gatekeeper, but it remained silent.
He continued, "A Gatekeeper is more powerful than a practitioner because they can control numerous essences whilst a Practitioner is limited to only one or three different types." He remembered how Chàng Bo only used star, light or fire based essence. "Also Gatekeepers instantly have command over a bigger scale of essence than the average practitioner, our powers are simply greater than theirs, but that doesn't mean we're better than them. After spending time with a Practitioner I've realised that a lack of experience and skill make a large difference in ability, Practitioners shouldn't be looked down upon." Mao Lu thought of Chàng Bo again, even if he was supposedly more powerful, Chàng Bo was the one who was always there to save the day.
"A Gatekeeper has three paths, the path of time, creation, and destruction. These paths are based on the essences of time, creation and destruction. Only Gatekeepers can use those essences, but they are limited to only using one of the three. I'm on the path of time and the essences that are the easiest for me to command are those of the time essences. Through random experimentation I've been able to use them to reverse the effects of poison on someone's body, I've used them to control other essences, for example I controlled the time flow of wind essence and used it to fly, but my actual understanding of Time essence is still quite limited. I've heard that it is one of the most powerful essences but I still have no idea what this path means or how to properly utilise the power."
"After I awakened I completed the Merging stage by learning how to 'sense the realm' and 'move the realm'. I stretched my mind to the edge of my universe and gained the ability to control the essences in my realm and by doing so my realm became an extension of my body. My powers aren't limited to my realm though, I can control essence in other realms as well. I've seen Argenti do this in my realm and I experienced it first hand during the second section of trial. There is a slight resistance but the essence still obeyed me, but admittedly it is much easier to control the essence in my own realm."
Mao Lu paused and thought a bit more, "I also have the ability to remove, or seal away anything in my realm. This is the main reason why Gatekeepers are feared, using incantations like SEAL and EXPEL, most beings in our realm are at our mercy. And from what I know this skill is exclusive to Gatekeepers.
Beyond this, I know that through the wielding stage I will gain my Soul Weapon, which is a Gatekeepers greatest and most powerful weapon. Beyond that is the enlightenment stage, nascent stage, Immortality and more. But I don't know too much about these stages."
As Mao Lu said all this he realised yet again that he was still so ignorant. There was so much he didn't know. Why had he been chosen to be a Gatekeeper? Who or what were these outsiders that he had to protect the realm from? Or how was he supposed to use time?
Mao Lu had entered this bizarre world of cultivation, magic and madness like a blind man and the more Mao Lu came to know the more blind he realised he was.
"Are you done? Is that a full summary of your current abilities and what you're capable of?" The voice clarified.
"So far this is what I'm aware of. There is so much I don't know, and honestly when I made the choice to be a Gatekeeper I thought about the money I was getting and I just jumped at it. The consequences were only at the back of my mind. And now…" Mao Lu stared at his reflection… "I'm changing, every cell in my body has become different, my body has become so much stronger. I don't know what my true abilities are and I don't know what I'm becoming. All these changes have happened so quickly and have all been so overwhelming. I don't truly know what I'm capable of."
"I understand." The voice answered, it sounded a lot more gentle. Mao Lu felt a soft, tranquil energy stroking his hair. It filled Mao Lu with a sense of calm.
"You're young, and have been through much in only a matter of months, don't stress about it. Do not feel anxious about your ignorance. As you become more powerful your answers will become more clear."
As the voice said this, the chair Mao Lu was seated on began to move again, travelling through the rows of mirrors before is entered a mirror which had a pink tinge. Mao Lu only had time to blink before he realised he was now in a large bathhouse.
The walls were made of moss agate, the ornaments were decorated with gold and silver, and a large bath filled with steaming milk coloured water that smelled like lilies, was waiting for him.
"Take the time to rest and cleanse yourself. You have an hour to refresh yourself before this trial begins."
Before Mao Lu could respond the chair turned and tossed him into the milky bath, clothes and all.
A SPACE BETWEEN SPACE
Chàng Bo felt like he'd finally found a missing puzzle piece. Although some things were still unclear to him he felt like his situation finally made sense.
He couldn't help but laugh out loud.
Hypnos glanced at Chàng Bo in confusion, "What's so funny?"
Chàng Bo smirked, "It's just that it seems my mother is just as conniving as my old man, actually she's even more devious."
Hypnos's dark eyes squinted underneath his cloak, "What are you saying, I don't get your meaning?"
"I'm sure you do." Chàng Bo sniggered some more and his eyes glowered with dark menace. "It was you wasn't it? Mother got you to steal the static artefact from Ju Juan, and you were the one that set up Lee Jingyi's death as well. You're the one that framed me."
"I don't know-"
"Shhhhhh, I don't want to hear your excuses, it's better to admit this now because I know it was you."
Hypnos glanced at Chàng Bo with confusion, "What gave me away?" he asked.
"Firstly you can slip in and out of realms without detection, that's how you just saved me, meaning you could easily take Ju Juan's artefact and place it in my room. That fact alone was the first thing that made me suspect you. Then everything came together when you explained our Mother's background."
"How did it come together exactly?" Hypnos asked irritably, Chàng Bo's know-it-all-patronising attitude was grating on his nerves.
"Our Mother has all the abilities of a Gatekeeper without the restrictions of a Gatekeeper, you said so yourself. She's a very powerful being and she is the leader of the 400 realm liberation group, meaning she wants to destroy the 400 realms or at least make some radical changes inside of it. If that's the case than she has obviously tried to destroy the four hundred realms or at least cause it some major issues, but the four hundred realms are still standing, meaning so far she has failed.
I have no idea what's happening out there in the Real Realm but whatever she's doing isn't having much effect on this project. That's why she needs someone who can cause changes in the four hundred realms, she needs an insider, someone who wouldn't be suspected by the Gatekeepers, someone that she could use in her schemes to destroy the 400 realms. And that person is me. Why else would she meet my father, fake her identity, have me and then leave. I'm obviously just a tool to her."
"You actually believe she would do that-"
"I do believe it" Chàng Bo interrupted, "because that's something manipulative and sneaky I would come up with and since she's my Mother, I'm sure my apple didn't fall far from her tree." Chàng Bo leaned close to Hypnos and grinned, "Here is what I think happened, feel free to correct me. I believe that my Mother gave birth to me so that I could be her insider inside the 400 realms. She gave me this sovereign system because she wanted my powers to advance to the point where I could cause the most havoc, and with her blood in my veins I'm sure my potential is rather scary, she predicted that I could turn the four hundred realms on its head. She gave me the Gatekeepers key because not only would I be able to use it in a desperate situation, but it would also create those irregularities that would cause the Gatekeepers a headache or at least serve as a distraction whilst she did something else. Your plan was to recruit me at some point in time, like you're trying to do now, and turn me into a lackey for your rebel group. But then something happened which changed your plans. The creators must have found out, the people running this project discovered me, didn't they? They noticed my existence and were looking for me.
That's why you framed me. You couldn't just reveal yourself, if you took me away directly they'd find my location straight away and would make our escape very difficult, but if you made a situation where I was cornered and forced to use the Gatekeepers key which made it much harder for them to find me. And you've been watching me ever since waiting for your chance to take me away like you have now.
This makes even more sense because I wasn't poisoned. When Mao Lu reversed the poison in my body I meditated for several days in an attempt to isolate and slowly expel the toxin, but much to my surprise I realised that it was less of a toxin and more of a sedative. Meaning you had no intention of killing me. So then this all ties together."
Chàng Bo's grin was impossibly big, he loved the feeling of figuring something out. "I still don't understand why you had to use such a roundabout method to take me away. But I know that you're the cause for all these events."
Chàng Bo was feeling good about himself until he heard Hypnos snigger.
"Wow your personality really doesn't change, you're just as infuriating now as you were then." He muttered.
Chàng Bo frowned, "What do you mean?"
Hypnos shrugged, "You got a lot right, but you also got a lot wrong. For starters you used the Gatekeepers key all on your own, of your own volition. The sovereign system already belonged to you long ago and you were the one who instructed me to do what I did. None of this was my Mothers plan. It was all yours. Well the plan of the previous you….
from your previous life."