As shadows descended over him, Kai-Feng tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword. Even though it had taken years of fruitless searching to find the hidden city of Haixi, in the face of its foreboding immensity and ominous design, Kai-Feng strongly considered turning back.
While his raft snaked through meandering island canals, towering pagodas and expansive palaces grew taller and taller before him. This was a city so grand that it could make even the Emperor jealous. Its steeples and shrines reached far higher into the sky than any back in the Mainland. Its architecture was exquisite and its buildings were ornate, adorned with beautifully detailed carvings of dragons, tigers, and horses. Truly, Haixi was a marvel, unparalleled in the entire world.
Yet, Kai-Feng had no desire to enter. The city seemed wrong - unearthly, even. It was like a painting, made by someone who was fundamentally unfamiliar with reality. Towers were stacked upon each other in impossible formations, aggressively expanding outward in defiance of all laws of nature and reason. Some buildings contained different architectural designs from varying times in history, haphazardly blended together. On others, support beams supported extensions that were far bigger than what they should have been able to bear. Once, Kai-Feng hoped feel the wonder of seeing the mythical city for himself. Now, as he entered through one of its gigantic gates, he felt only dread.
As the raft drifted further down the city’s murky canal, Kai-Feng noticed hints of the modern technology. Electrical and telegraph wires crossed from building to building and between smoke stacks that jutted out from strange points in roofs and walls. The city’s grand architecture, upon closer inspection, was covered in black soot, seen only in factory cities far to the west. The distant heartbeat of clockwork and drone of machinery reverberated from unknown points within towers and lodges. As a former airship officer, these sounds were once familiar and soothing to Kai-Feng. Now, they only unnerved him further. The lower levels through which he traveled were shrouded in shadow due to overhanging buildings above. Thus, even though the sun still lingered high in the sky, the streets below were cloaked in a twilight blue. There was no telling what could be lurking in obscured alleyways and desolate streets, so the young assassin knew he must be prepared for anything.
After disembarking under an arched stone bridge, Kai-Feng began to move on foot. For a city of its size, Haixi was very sparsely populated. He saw relatively few people as he traveled. The locals all wore large, broad, paddy hats, with large scarves obscuring most of their facial features. They walked swiftly, as if in constant hurry, and seemed to have their gazes affixed to the ground. While Kai-Feng’s similar clothing meant he didn’t seem too far out of place, he couldn’t dismiss the feeling that everyone he passed knew he was an outsider. People would move faster as he walked by, and every so often, he would see others glancing back at him.
However, despite his growing unease, a mission was a mission. The future of the Pakei Empire depended on Kai-Feng’s ability to find whatever technology allowed this city to exist. And so, he continued to push on. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before he noticed he was being tailed. Out of the corner of his eye, Kai-Feng recognized familiar figures following behind him as he walked, staying a few meters back as if trying to remain inconspicuous. There were at least 5, maybe more. Too many to take at once. Hoping to lose them, Kai-Feng quickened his pace. His pursuers did the same. After a few detours failed to deter his followers, Kai-Feng broke into a sprint. He heard startled cries as the men gave chase. His surroundings became even stranger as he ran toward the center of the city. He leapt over gigantic gears, passed entanglements of metal pipes and dodged torrents of steam shooting up from cracks in walls and in the floor. The streets before him only grew darker as the density and size of the buildings above increased. The wide, hipped roofs and stacked floors of pagodas were now essentially overlapping, completely blocking the sun. After several minutes of fleeing, the only remaining path was a stone tunnel, dug through a large tower’s foundation. Kai-Feng couldn’t see the other side, but it was his only option. As he closed in on the tunnel, bronze-colored statues flanking the entrance suddenly roared to life, revealing glowing red eyes and shifting gears beneath their metallic skin, stopping Kai-Feng in his tracks. Behind him, he heard his pursuers catch up. Kai-Feng turned around as each man drew a firearm and aimed it at him.
“Surrender.”, one of the men said, with a hint of fear in his voice. “You don’t want to go any further.” But despite the orders, Kai-Feng had no intention of surrendering, even if outnumbered. Even though they’d drawn weapons, the men seemed hesitant to fire. Taking advantage of the few seconds this would afford him, Kai-Feng produced a small bag of powder from his sleeve and threw it hard on the ground. A blinding flash erupted from it, disorienting even the automatons. Kai-Feng ran past the statues and madly dashed toward the end of the tunnel. The men shouted after him. “STOP!!! TURN AROUND NOW!!”, but they themselves did not advance any further. Gunshots echoed through the passage and bullets whizzed past him, but Kai-Feng continued running. As he reached end, Kai-Feng desperately dove into the light...
...to find himself in free fall. Time slowed as he plummeted into a gaping chasm, large enough to swallow a small island. Buildings completely surrounded the deep crevasse; red walls, wooden pillars,and granite columns contrasted with the bright sky above him. Kai-Feng turned his gaze toward the pit where he would surely meet his end. As he did, horror seized his body. Staring back at him was a massive, deep blue pupil.
I hope you enjoyed reading my story! The setting was inspired by the Chaotic Victorian aesthetic seen in many "Lovecraftian" video games and books, combined with ancient Chinese architecture. Due to the word limit, a lot of exposition had to be left out, but hopefully that can contribute to the world's mysterious allure.