Chapter 1: Memorial
Parents and children huddled together under the flickering lights of the evacuation centers secured hold. The staccato rhythm of the defense units' weapons did little to ease the fear of the surviving refugees. A blast rocked the center; one less defense unit.
Amongst the remnants of the surviving refugees, was an eight-year-old girl with ebony black hair. Her carefully selected clothes for the community celebration that day were now stained and torn. She was one of the lucky ones for getting away with a few scrapes and cuts. She cradled her trusty teddy bear between her legs and her chest, hugging her constant companion close while straining her hearing, hoping for some sign that might prove that her father was alive.
Smothered cries of young children were stifled by terrified parents. The young girl watched, silent, wondering if they knew that they were killing their young. She wondered if the parents noticed the weak resistance of their child's small body fighting for air.
Fear gripped the remaining townsfolk of Clearwater, but it was guilt that had settled into the girl's soul. She knew that she had lived five years longer than she should have. She feared that the war had been lured to this town because of her; because she survived the slaughter of Ridge Forte.
She closed her eyes against the sight of the child in front of her losing its battle against its terrified mother who had held the child a little too long within the comfort of her breasts.
The palatable taste of fear changed to despair.
Stay quiet, maybe they'll go away. That was the rule. The young girl knew that it wasn't true. The demons would sniff them out and hunt every last one of them down.
Another blast signaled Clearwater's losing battle. Dust shook loose, falling on them like ash. Cracks formed on the concrete walls. The lights flickered out. It wouldn't be long now.
The girl wiped the tears from her eyes; daddy wasn't coming this time.
Glass shattered against the steel shutters. The deep wallowing howl of the Zephyr called out, and pure silence finally fell onto the center. These people were lost.
The steel shutters resisted the onslaught once, twice, bending and warping a little more with each thunderous attack.
'Daddy's not coming.' The child stood up, her loyal teddy firmly in her grip. No one stopped her. She wasn't sure that the refugees noticed.
She felt light headed and unfocused, as though the world before her had opened itself up to her to reveal the one thing she needed to do at that moment. She didn't feel quite like herself. It was as though as past and future versions of herself had come together to share their collective knowledge. 'This is going to hurt; pure agony. Quick! Before it's too late!' The voice inside her commanded. The child remained in control of her own body but felt spurred onward by her collective voices.
Light broke through the ruined steel barrier, blinding the girl. Black ooze trickled into the center.
At that moment, that child's world was forever changed. The souls of the last vestiges of Clearwater sparkled like the twilight of some distant nebulas whose names she did not know. The brilliance of their souls was fading as the people of Clearwater resigned themselves to the brutal death that awaited them.
Black ooze pushed its way toward the cowering refugees. It pulled itself upright like a living mass, before hungrily diving onto the townsfolk and bold child who stood resolutely against it, teddy bear gripped firmly at her side.
"I'm sorry," she whispered as the ooze fell over them. For her, that moment stretched out for an eternity. She felt that she could meticulously weigh the pros and cons of her next actions with her past and future selves for as long as needed to reach a consensus.
It was decided that she would not die here, but sacrifices needed to be made. One by one, the dimming twilight of the souls around her were pulled into her small body.
The people's lives would not have been stolen for nothing. She would make sure of it.
The ooze fell to the ground blanketing the girl in its hate. All traces of the refugees had been wiped away as though they had never existed. The ooze turned hot, boiling with fury. It plunged its oily tendrils into her small body. She would be made to suffer for as long as her body could withstand death.
The black ooze dove through her, tearing away at her flesh and muscles, filling her veins with itself, desperately seeking the taste it craved. It paused in its assault. It recoiled violently, releasing the child from its hold, leaving her in a clear ten foot vortex of open space devoid of its wicked presence.
The dark haired child stood at its center; eyes squeezed shut, breath held, and teddy bear companion no worse for wear.
It had nowhere to run. The black ooze's fluid mass solidified in seconds, poisoned by the soul it had tasted.
She opened her eyes, now infected with a pale blue stigma, and drew her first breath in an eternity.
The ooze shattered and fell to the ground as a heap of black sand.
Howls as deep as insanity, long and mournful, filled the broken center. Black sand danced around the child. The fight for Clearwater was far from over.
The lives sacrificed this day would not be forgotten.
Six years later.
Astral's world was one of several shades of darkness. The stigma had transformed the way she saw the world. It ate away at colors, shapes, and textures, replacing the contour of objects with auras and lighting living beings with the vibrant hues of their soul.
Mathias Mathers, her summer tutor, had a pure soul, pale blue with a frosted aura. It lit him up from his heart with the same casual intensity of a living room lamp. She could see that the humidity had pulled on his dark hair, torn between being weighed down and curling in random directions. A Red Order Master was never to be seen outside of his uniform, for this fact; she felt sorry for him. His Victorian styled coat, neatly buttoned to his neck, revealing his crimson red collar, proof of his ties to the Order.
"Visualize the energy in the forest around you," Mathias instructed, his words slow and calm, gently tumbling into existence. His voice might as well have been a light breeze in the humid air. "Picture the blades of grass, the trees..."
Eyes opened, eyes shut; the world remained the same; which made this summer's series of exercises that much more frustrating. She suspected that there was a reason why she was made to practice her visualization exercises at the memorial site, which lay deep within the forest surrounding the rebuilt town of Clearwater.
Clearwater was a devastating reminder to the remnants of humanity that they were losing the war. Naturally, the first order of business on the political docket was to erase any evidence that the demonic forces had penetrated deep within the established safe zone. As though some chalk line drawn on some map made it so.
Rebuilding an replica of the previous town was crucial. She was never entirely sure how the memorial project managed to get approval. In the years it took to get the Council's approval, her grandfather had worked diligently on the blueprints, implementing forbidden old world superstitions into the design while playing them off as old world architecture and art. He finally sold the project as a tribute to the lives and cultures lost to the demon hordes.
Over the past four years, little by little, the pieces came together and now the site was one of rejuvenation; a promise to the fallen that the living would keep moving forward. They would rebuild. They would not be defeated.
Twenty-seven torii gates circled the site. An intricate stone path ran between the torii's massive granite legs which had grotesque gargoyle totems carved into them. At the top of each pillar sat a crimson red roof, with wooden rafters that arced toward the sky.
In the center of the roof and the pillars rested a tablet with the names of the deceased, the only element of the memorial that paid real tribute to lives lost that day. Astral's name should have been among them, but somehow, for the second time in her life, she survived impossible odds. She knew their names by heart. She would never allow herself to forget.
Astral could name each significant element of the design and state with confidence what the intended purpose of the symbolism was. Her grandfather had made it very clear that a hunter must be knowledgeable in more than the art of killing.
Her stigma made it easy to see which superstitions were performing their intended role. On a clear day, her stigma would allow her to see the rippling veil between the worlds, like an aura borealis, shimmering invitingly. Six years ago, the veil was tattered and stained. Now it hovered thirty feet above the forest canopy and resembled curtains caught in a summer breeze.
A rope bound the inner circle, effectively acting as a visual barrier between the outside world and the center of the memorial. The rope was made with pure materials. Rice rope was the traditional application for this series of binding rituals, but in a place where rice no longer grew, it made substitution a requirement. The rope had to be handmade and blessed simultaneously. The experience had been draining on her grandfather, uncle, and Mathias. Their efforts didn't go to waste. Along each coil, she could see their prayers in the form of arcane glyphs wind its way around the rope until both ends were tied together, sealing the binding spell. No ordinary demon would be able to break through the bright blue barrier.
Old fashioned metal lanterns hung from the ropes instead of the blessed charms that were traditionally used for the binding ceremony. At great risk to himself and his career, Mathias had petitioned the families of the deceased for funds to have these lanterns crafted. Four years later, Clearwater now hosts the yearly lantern festival for families who have lost loved ones in similar tragedies. The lit lantern was designed to act as a beacon for lost souls. The lantern light flickered in the night, struggling against the dense fog that swayed with a life of its own.
As part of Mathias' nightly routine, he would offer a prayer while lighting each one. He'd usually finish just as the last of the sun's protection shrank away. Despite all of their efforts to keep the real threat contained, the locals rarely ventured to the memorial. The air at the site was oppressive and bitter, and they couldn't quite get rid of the smell of burnt hair and rotting flesh.
Once Mathias was done with lighting the lantern, her lessons would begin. The solitude made the toxic area an ideal location for Astral's hunters training, both the theory and practice. There would be some tracking if an opportunity presented itself, a dash of mythology and history, followed by meditation.
Astral frowned as she took stock of her surroundings. She breathed in slowly taking in the poisonous air around her and then released it to the world as purified puffs of cold crisp air.
She wasn't sure what Mathias was driving at with these sessions. Night after night, while he performed his routine, she would proceed with the maintenance of the garden along the torii's outer ring, removing dead plants and transplanting younger, healthier stock. This past summer she felt like she was spending more time digging up plants than planting.
The intricacies of the wards they were building served to strengthen one another. The combination of rock cress, buttercup, hollyhocks, geraniums, aster, lavender, and lupines among many others would attract life spreading insects such as butterflies and bees. These fuzzy insects would pollinate and reseed new flowers, which would strengthen the ward.
Butterflies had a symbolic reference within the supernatural, never something evil, but served as a guide or indicator of the thin veil between worlds. With each beat of the butterflies' wings, the division between the spirit, demon, and human worlds were mended and the invisible tapestry they worked to create rose little by little.
With the insects came the birds who also served the plants in spreading seeds. In some folklore, it was said that certain birds, such as the sparrow or crow would act as carriers of lost souls. In other lore, the birds were said to be trapped souls who could not transition to the next phase. It was not uncommon to see several flocks of birds perch on the arched roofs to observe the few people who would dare to visit the site. Over the past month, Astral had seen fewer birds in the area, noting that they preferred the town over the tranquility of the forest.
She felt that Mathias was trying to get her to see something specific. She ran through the list one last time.
'Barriers one, two, three: fully operational.
Gargoyles: on duty.
Beacons: lit, very shiny.
Binding: all good.
Butterflies:... butterflies? Slackers.'
The forest around her shimmered with the souls of millions. Every insect, every flower, every blade of grass, every tree had a soul of its own. Spiritual energy ran up each tree aiming to reach each branch while attempting to push just a little further passed the tip, and finally flowing into the veins of each leaf.
The forest around her lacked the vibrant colors that it once held when she was a child. She didn't know if the continued decay of her natural sight played a role in how she perceived this side of her gift.
The flow of energy felt lethargic. She could feel herself slipping away to the part of herself that terrified her. She couldn't hold on to the ground beneath her feet as her soul's vision attempted to drag her upward above the forest canopy.
"Tell me what you see," Mathias instructed.
'Thank god!' Astral cheered as her soul fell from her core's grip.
She gasped welcoming the toxic air back into her lungs, relieved to be able to feel her toes and fingers again. She knew by the worried expression on Mathias' face that she had reached a trance state. His hands were firmly on her arms, pinning them tightly against her body. He had been shaking her, attempting to free her from the trance.
Relief washed over the young Master. "I told you not to hold your breath."
Her lungs felt like they were breathing in fire. "It would be easier if you told me what you wanted me to achieve with all this," Astral croaked, swallowing the pain. That statement was only partially true. If she didn't go too deep, she wouldn't wake up her other self. As long as she didn't go too deep, she could stay in control.
Mathias stood up, brushing off his coat and attempted to shed himself of some of the uncomfortable heat by running his fingers through his dark hair as he turned away from her. She watched the rise and fall of his shoulders, watched the slowing of the pulsing flow of his soul resonating with his heart beat. He moved this way, and that, grabbing empty trays at random just to look like he was moving on with his routine. The subtle changes in the hue and intensity of his aura betrayed the rapid change of emotion he was experiencing as he worked on rationalizing the lesson.
The Master was in his early thirties. He was considered too young to hold such a title by the Red Order, but too talented of a Hunter to deny the appointment. As of yet, he had not been officially granted an apprentice of his own. As far as his superiors were concerned, he was acting as a tutor to the Councilmen's young charge in all things worldly and spiritual.
He stood a full foot and a half over the fourteen-year-old. She had been trained to look meek and delicate. Her porcelain skin suggested that she suffered a sheltered life within the safety of the capital walls, deep underground where the sun could not reach them. Her black hair had a mind of its own, straying in random directions of its own accord as though exploring its limited surroundings. Even in this heat and with her long hair tied back, strands were opting to make a bid for freedom. It ruined the carefully crafted illusion that her grandfather had worked hard to maintain.
The stigma had eaten away at her formerly dark eyes, changing them to a crystalline blue. Over the past year, the symptoms grew to include a dull glow deep within her eyes that never faded.
"That's enough for now," Mathias relented, piling his arm full of empty trays into a wheelbarrow.
"It would help if I knew what you wanted me to do with the training," Astral offered kindly. Knowing that much, she could avoid her core self and focus on providing Mathias with what he wanted to hear.
"A stable frame of mind is needed for a hunter." He paused to give the scenario some thought in a way that she might understand. "Think of demons as though they're adrenaline junkies. Their sustenance is that chemical that gives us our boost of strength and speed when our survival instincts kick in. With a clear mind, you deny them their meal. They'll either use more energy to force you into the desired state or lose interest."
It made sense. Demons needed a great deal of energy to punch through the veil; they needed more to manifest in order to feed. Weaker prey wasn't nearly as satisfying as someone who held their ground. The series of emotions involved would be vastly different and quite possibly enhanced through the adrenaline, Astral continued to reason. Which emotions the demon preferred was a matter of taste, maybe even as far as cultural upbringing. They would no doubt have to learn how to bring the desired flavor to the surface.
She couldn't wait to get home to riffle through some of Mathias' journals. This new concept could change the way she researched and stalked her prey. She looked forward to returning to her grandfather's hidden archives to see if what she suspected was written in the ancient journals this whole time. She narrowed her eyes at thought, if that were true, why didn't anyone tell her? Her family had been in this line of work for countless generations.
"Are you okay?" Mathias asked.
"Peachy," Astral smiled, rapidly hiding her thoughts.
He turned to the center of the memorial, his fists resting on his hips as he took a mental snapshot of their progress to date. She knew he didn't see the world in quite the same light as she did. She knew that the small foot thick inlay was only a decorative waterway to him. For her, she could see the brilliance of the barrier it created just because it was constantly flowing, always moving through a circuit of pumps and drains. In lore, flowing water prevented spirits from crossing over it.
It was a good thing too, because the number of dark spirits shuffling in the memorial's center had risen to a full two dozen over the past week. They moved like people who had no control over their limbs, with the exception of staying still. The temporary inhabitants of the inner ward were human shaped caught in an eternal black wisp. At just the right angle, their eyes would light up in bright yellows and reds. It was like being watched by a bunch of trapped wild animals.
Astral smirked at them as they stared at her. She was very much their captor. She had suspected Mathias of otherworldly talents, but much to her disappointment, he had yet to react or even acknowledge the presence of her captives. If he asked, she would respond that she felt inclined to test the wards strength. But he never asked.
She would have to do something about them soon. Though she was confident in her work, she wasn't fool enough to discount a series seemingly random of events that would break the demon gate below.
To normal people, the central area of the memorial site was made up of an intricate stone designed. For someone with Astral's abilities, she could see the narrow fissure below the ornate pattern. She could see the shadowy hands reach up to grab onto the edge of the world and pull itself up. Larger demons would be attracted to the gate but would not be able to get through. They would send lesser demons or dark spirits to attempt to pry the gate open.
This ability of hers was one more talent that set her apart from her fellow hunters. A Master Hunter such as Mathias was expertly trained to take out a demon who had manifested into the human world. Manifesting was the term used to indicate that the demon had gone from ethereal to physical. It was implied that once the demon hit a physical state that it could be killed. So far, Astral saw no reason to disagree with the theory.
Astral was one of the rare few who could see the demons before they manifested. There were plenty of people in the past who could sense the otherworld. Throughout history, there had been only ever a handful of people who could see the spirit world as clearly as they could see their own world.
She didn't see spirits though; she reminded herself. She saw demons, not ghosts.
Mathias broke the silence. "When I was your age, this level of training seemed basic. So much so, I ignored most of it, thinking myself superior to my peers. Meanwhile, I had inadvertently missed out on the critical foundations on what it is we do."
She wasn't sure if he just insulted her intelligence, her skills, or if he was driving at something important. She wanted to shout out, "Stop being so damned cryptic! I want to know what you know! Just tell me!" She opted to take in a deep breath and redirected her attention to not so much what he was saying, but to the meaning behind the words, to the meaning he didn't know he was expressing.
"You see, I had learned how to hunt from a very young age. Granted I was hunting live animals, which I firmly believe should be a part of every demon hunters training," Mathias asserted in an accusatory tone.
It was true; she couldn't track a deer to save her life, or take out a goose or forage for food. She didn't know how to build a fire or set up a shelter. She had no idea how to survive bad weather or how to find her way home if she got lost. Survivalist, she was not. But she could fashion a weapon out of a couple of twigs, set up traps, climb trees and scale steep ridges with little more than her bare hands. That had to count for something.
"You can imagine how full of myself I was after the first few months of my apprenticeship," Mathias chuckled while shaking his head. "I think I would have given William a run for his money."
Astral couldn't help but laugh. Mathias' relationship with his son was strained at best, but he did go out of his way to avoid talking down to him or about him. In a way, Astral felt that Mathias was trying to tell her that though William was a royal pain at this point, he could grow to be a decent man.
"It didn't help that my monastery praised me as being some genius prodigy. The man who would become my Master saw through all that. I hated him for years. In truth, it was because I thought he hated me. It turned out; I needed a teacher who saw me for what I was, for where I was at in my training, and capable of strengthening my weaker areas," Mathias continued. "My point is: I can't help you refine your skills if you don't tell me where you're at." He squeezed her shoulders, certain that they had reached a silent understanding.
"As you well know, you're going in for some field training of a different sort this year. You'll have access to a wide range of professionals, many with firsthand experience on the war fields. Learn from them," he bade her.
"I don't want to go," Astral replied sullenly. She felt ridiculous in her worries. What if they didn't like her? What if they did like her? What if she was found out to be a fraud? It was maddening to think about all the possible scenarios in an effort to mentally prepare herself.
"Calm your mind," Mathias bade.
She took a slow deep breath, forcing the 'what ifs' from her mind. There were so many lives at stake, why couldn't they assign someone with more social experience to the mission? The new assignment was so different from tracking and hunting a single demon or scouring the countryside for a nest. The threat itself may not even be demonic in origin, why did she have to get involved!
"Better?" he asked.
"No. Now I'm angry," she fumed.
"Try again," he advised.
She rolled her eyes. "You're telling me that the ultimate hunter feels nothing at all."
"Very good," he clapped his hands. He stopped suddenly, noting the piercing icy glare cast at him. He opted to carry on with his lesson. "For the hunter, there is nothing but the mission. It is our destiny to slay demons and to ultimately be slain by demons. The goal is to take out as many of them as we can before we succumb to our fate."
It wasn't news to her. She couldn't see herself living a normal life. For her, the hunt was an obsession. The very idea that this was not the case for all hunters, who craved normality, families, and day jobs, made her feel that much more alone. The very fact that Mathias once had a wife, and now a teenage son added to her resentment to those hunters who would deny their fate. Why were they allowed, but not her? Why had it never occurred to her to want something normal? Why couldn't she stop sneaking out at night for the kill?
Mathias' reply didn't explain why she had to be the one leading the mission, but the pieces were starting to fall into place. The hunt was all she could think about. If demons were coming, she'd see it long before those other hunters would, even without her gift.
"I thought that once you become a hunter, you are a hunter for the rest of your life." She wondered if she had missed something in the fine print.
He nodded grimly. "That's true. The day I slew my first demon, I signed my contract with Fate."
"But you chose to deny this?" She struggled to understand. Why would a man who was considered a prodigy drag innocent lives into the mix?
"My circumstances were not entirely of my choosing," Mathias admitted. "As reward, I was given a wife, a home, and eventually a child. At the time, I thought, I had been blessed." His voice cracked forcing him to clear his throat before he could carry on. He met her attentive icy gaze holding it as though wishing for her into his past.
She continued to stare up at him expectantly, wanting him to carry on with his story. "My wife was the first of many victims of my failure to recognize the importance of my mission. Sure, I hunted. I performed my required duties as the Red Order representative in the community. But... I did little else."
"Then you and your father came to Clearwater, warning us of a demon gate. I have to admit, I..." again he stopped to collect himself. "All those lives lost because I was too stubborn to do my job properly."
She never blamed him for the gate fiasco, but if self-blame was what was keeping him on the mission, than she wasn't going to reassure him.
He forced a smile and rubbed her head, messing up her dark hair. "Enough of this! Let's finish this section and call it a night, shall we?" He winked at her. "I have it on good authority that there may be ice cream at home."
Astral tingled with excitement. The joy was short lived when she realized that she had already discovered his stash of ice cream and may or may not have eaten quite a bit of it. She'll have to feign innocence and have the signs point to William.
Her attention fell to the trays of wilting lavender and rock cress strewn across the walkway in something that didn't quite resembled order. The patch she was meant to tend had already been prepared earlier that night. Under normal circumstances, the savvy gardener would have dutifully set to work on this task at first light, giving the plants plenty of time to naturalize. Normal was reserved for the townsfolk who knew better than to cross the threshold between civilization and the wilderness surrounding their homes.
It's almost as though they could sense the threat that lurked in the area; too weak to surface but strong enough to have a presence. Astral narrowed her eyes at the idea. Were people innately sensitive to such things? Did they inherently flock to safer territories or could their perception of 'safe' be altered? She wondered if a demon could emotionally influence more than just one person. Could it spread to a household or a whole town?
Tracking demons had always been a physical pursuit which gave off scents and textures. Topics of possession belonged to the Red Order, who adamantly denied any such occurrences; one of the few issues that the Council and the Order wholeheartedly saw eye to eye.
"Something wrong?" Mathias inquired, noting the teen's expression as she gathered the healthier looking flowers.
She shook her head in response, digging her hands into the moist soil, the candle lit lantern flickering behind her.
She stopped in her work, listening to the world around her. Mathias was preparing the next section between Torii eighteen and nineteen's outer perimeter. He breathed out as he used his foot to force the shovel into the earth, breaking it apart. Breathed in as he lifted the soil from the ground to discard it in the pile of dirt he had been building.
She listened to the silence around her. None of the normal night time sounds greeted her. It was late, sure, but she was certain that all of the nocturnal animals didn't suddenly decide to call it an early night. The lamps swayed behind her creaking and clanging as they struck one another. The forest did not sing. Not a branch swayed, not a leaf tumbled from the sky. There was no breeze to allow for such movement.
She watched the forest fog twist and swirl with the vigor of a sloth. It felt like the density of the fog rose with the humidity. The fog cast a deep red haze over the trees a few feet from her; the forest beyond was near impossible to make out.
She reached for a plant from her tray, noting their withered state. There was no saving them. She glanced at the flower beds that she and Mathias had repaired earlier that evening. One by one, the souls of each of the plants flickered out, leaving behind a withered husk of dried leaves. She frowned.
Something was draining the life from the area. Her failed gardening skills wasn't the first sign either, but it was the easiest excuse to explain away the not so unusual phenomena. If she were to propose the issue to Mathias, she'd have to present a series of valid reasons to have him investigate the issue. Up until her father's passing, her hunches had always been enough to go on.
Rationalizing the hunt frustrated her. She understood that resources were limited, so much so that Mathias was the only official Hunter for the Clearwater region, and there were strict laws against unlicensed hunters.
The rapid death of the healthy plants suggested something out there was gathering energy for something big. The lack of life in the area suggested that the animals had fled or have fallen victim to a predator. The increased number of dark spirits at the center of the memorial, granted trapped, was not a good sign either.
She reached for the ground closer to the fog, pulling dried grass and crumbling moss. The earth was dry and powdery. She tasted the earth. It had an ashy flavor. She sniffed at the air, forcing her nose to detect the scent of water. Fog after all was made of water; it should have been an easy feat. It smelled metallic with a mix of rancid fruit.
She was sure that a demon was present. She wasn't sure which demon it was. She was sure that Mathias wouldn't be able to deal with it until it manifest, which meant if she could figure out where it was before it did so, they could interrupt the demon's plan. At a distance, she might be able to see exactly which areas were affected and most importantly where the demon was going to break through the veil.
"May I go home?" Astral asked.
Mathias stopped digging, one foot resting on his shovel. The request caught him by surprise.
She looked at the trees again, watching as the flow of energy fail to climb the network of branches.
"Something is feeding here," she told him.
Mathias nodded, indicating that he had known for a while now. "Tell me you know where the source is," Astral sighed.
He shrugged. "Look at me as support, Miss Daamon."
Her stomach twisted. What was he trying to accomplish by making her do all of the legwork? She was supposed to be learning from him, not the other way around. "I want to see your solution," he told her. "I'm sure I don't have to remind you of the consequences of failing."
No, he didn't. This skill test was in a real world arena. One stray demon could destroy the town in a few hours. If she failed to track this demon and stop the energy drain, the barriers that they had worked so hard to build would eventually fade.
She glanced at the shield and much to her relief found them well intact. Without a Hunter to fight off the demons, they would be free to slowly tear down the wards, even if it promised to take the next decade. Once a town fell, neither the Council nor the Red Order would send people to recover the territory.
She took a deep breath to steady her mind and shut her eyes, blocking out the outside world as she analyzed the information she was certain of. The souls were being devoured, killing the affected. The rapid death of the forest left it empty, unable to resist possession if the will of the source was strong enough. No, she was wrong.
It wasn't the souls that were being devoured; it was their life force; a subtle but important difference.
The energy had to go somewhere; it had a flow like a river. If it flowed like a river than in theory if she followed the dried up river bed, she'd find the blockage. What if it wasn't blockage? What if the flow of energy was just being redirected? The idea that it could take from one place and reassigned to another seemed unnatural, but humans had been doing it for centuries with waterways.
She could discuss her theories with Mathias and attempt to glean the right answer. She couldn't imagine he'd just let his town suffer because she made the wrong decision.
"I need you to teach me how to see the flow of energy," she requested. It was foolish to believe she could gain mastery of the skill in a single session, but she did hope to read Mathias for key indicators in his body language.
He considered her words, searching his limited knowledge for references to such practices. "Energy is something you feel," he decided. "You can only see the results of energy being put to use."
"I suspect that in this particular case, this is not something we want to wait to see the results of," she replied sternly.
He scowled, disapproving of her tone. She was on the verge of a solution; she just didn't have the knowledge to execute it on her own. An idea struck her, melting away her frustration. If he could not understand the importance of the request, she would have to manipulate him into complying. "Conjure a protective circle," she ordered and pointed to the inner circle of the memorial site, "in the middle there." He frowned. Her demands were rarely without reason.
He pulled his hands together, lowered his head and closed his eyes. "Oh, Father, who art thou in Heaven, ..." There were several variations of the protection prayer that Red Order relied on. Astral thought of them like spices. You could use any spice to do the job, but it was preferred if the right spice was chosen for the right meal. Each prayer had a specific role, though that was subject to interpretation. If the prayer was performed in front of a large gathering, the priest was encouraged to use one of the many old world languages. To the people who had never heard anything outside of their native tongue, it added a level of holy mysticism that served to awe and inspire, weaving hope or fear through the masses.
This practice was the foundation of Astral's shared energy theory. Until now, she had never felt the need to look for the flow of energy from one host to another. In Astral's mind, a prayer was little more than an incantation.
She could see his faith in the prayer, falling from the sky to the ground striking the center of the lingering specters. They spooked, running for the wards as the first of many ripples caused by the prayer, pushed its way toward them. They hit the ward like it was a solid wall. The impact caused the rope bindings and lamps to rattle.
Mathias frowned, stopping his prayer. "Keep going," Astral ordered, watching the terror that they were inflicting on the dark spirits.
"Help us!" a voice called out, breaching the veil for a second as a fleeting call over a non-existent breeze.
Mathias glanced to the forest behind him. "Keep going," Astral bade.
"You didn't hear-?" he pointed to the forest.
Astral shrugged and shook her head.
The spirits managed a brief reprieve, but she could torture them all night with a protection prayer for as long as Mathias was willing to entertain her whim. He knelt down, returning to his prayer. The droplet of faith fell into the center of the ward. The prayer sparkled with the same increased intensity of Mathias' soul. The escaped cries of the dark spirits had sparked a sense of urgency within the Master Hunter.
The prayer dove into the ward, pushing a wave of brilliant energy toward the spirits. Their wails of agony called out over the Memorial as the purified energy tore through at the dark spirits causing them to burn away leaving spectral ash to catch a breeze.
The prayer stopped at Astral's feet, caressing the toe of her shoes with a shimmering ring. Mathias continued to pray, unaware that he had been successful in banishing the evil that tainted the inner ward, much to Astral's disappointment. While the prayer was in play, she might as well inspect it.
She crouched down, nose an inch from the ground. She squinted hoping to see the sigils that formed the prayer, but found that the ring that now circled the area was whole and in no way a construct of the manipulation of elements. She deduced that prayers while similar to an incantation, was an entity in of itself. She theorized that the prayer would require the energy of the faithful to fuel it, but she found no strings or particles binding the wish to Mathias.
"Is it- is it there? Can you see it?" Mathias asked.
She sighed before sitting up again, disgusted by the lack of progress. She waved away his question. "Yeah, yeah, it's very pretty." She idly wondered if removing the faith of the caster would reduce the power of the prayer. She sized up Mathias. Her only real advantage would be that he wouldn't see it coming. She'd look it up; maybe one of Dezmond's books had something on the topic.
She was close to figuring out how to track the flow of energy, and she knew it; she could feel it at her core. Maybe she was over complicating things. "Should I patrol the forest, maybe?" she asked her tutor.
His shoulders sagged the weight of the world having been added to his soul. "Astral, you can put this off for as long as you like. In this matter, I will not be hunting this target." He added after a brief pause, noting Astral's insult. "I'm not equipped to deal with this sort of demon."
"But you won't tell me anything about it," Astral challenged. "How is that helping?"
"Why don't you tell me what you know, and I'll tell you why I can't help you," he offered, hoping to appease her frustration.
"It's an energy class demon. Judging by the way the area's life force is draining, I'm going to guess that it's on the verge of ascension," she offered.
Mathias looked as though his heart had dropped to his feet. There was nothing in his body language that made her doubt that he didn't believe her. "How do you know you're not dealing with multiple demons?" It stood to reason that he wouldn't want to deal with such a huge threat.
Astral grimaced. In truth, she didn't know, but her instincts were telling her that this issue needed resolving fast. "What would it matter," she challenged, "even if it were a coven, a great deal of energy is being harnessed to do... something. Some demons can merge to form the vessel of a larger more powerful demon."
"Now tell me why that isn't the case," Mathias instructed.
Astral sighed and looked to the sky, seeing nothing but fog. "If that were the case, there would have been a spike in demonic activity. They would have been drawn here like moths to fire."
Mathias nodded. "You're positive that energy is being drained, and you seem to be sure that this for ascension. Are you maybe neglecting another possibility?"
"There are a couple of others. The energy could be used to attack the shields and break open the gate, but that energy would have to be gathered nearby or else they'd risk losing it in transit."
"Unless they use a focus," Mathias considered.
"Could multiple vessels be used as a focus?" It's true that the vessels could move to the desired location, but they'd have to release their energy simultaneously which would be the equivalent of suicide. The vessels would have to be zealots for that scenario to play out. From what she understood of vessels, they were people who are imbued with the essence of a god. 'Or wannabe god,' she added to herself. It would counter-intuitive for the god to sacrifice parts of himself. It would cripple him...wouldn't it?
Mathias' soul was flickering. Astral suspected that the idea frightened him. "I don't think there was ever enough energy here to allow for a single vessel, not to mention a coven of them. If there were a single vessel wouldn't we be able to sense it?"
The light of his soul dimmed and flushed with fuchsia. "I believe the vessel would have to be active in order for our primal instincts to pick it up," he hesitated to volunteer.
"In the scenario suggested, they would have to be active in order to contain the energy. Vessels are short lived once they become active, ranging from a few hours up to a year if they're particularly well built," Astral continued, watching the way the pulsing of her tutor's soul slowed, returning to its calm state. "It'd be too risky. They have to be sure that the vessel belongs to the right entity. One false move and one of their minions could turn out to be a double agent. Besides, they aren't exactly a dime a dozen. Would it be possible to possess multiple vessels at the same time?"
Mathias' left eye began to twitch. He rubbed his left temple to ease the strain. His soul had stopped pulsing altogether.
Astral smiled sweetly at her tutor. She was enjoying this.
"Ascension sounds good," he croaked. "Let's go with that."
"But you suggested that wasn't the case," Astral offered, concerned. She was happy to explore alternatives, if only to watch the changing hues of his soul.
"Now that I think about it, the only other alternative is birth, but energy demons don't give birth," Mathias volunteered, speeding things along.
Astral fell silent. 'How would an energy demon reproduce?' She wondered. It seemed strange to her that they wouldn't find some way to replicate. If reproduction wasn't possible, the energy demon they were planning to face off with tonight would have had to have been around since...
They could help her with her history assignment! Mathias soul calmed as the idea struck her. Her rueful smile broadened, but she thought better than to toy with her tutor any further. He would never agree to such a selfish reason to keep a demon alive. She'd have to agree, of course; history was built on perspectives, not truth.
Before she knew it, Astral began her trek down the memorial path to return to the town center which was a little under two hours away on foot.
Heading directly back to town wasn't her plan. She had another four hours of darkness to pursue her prey during its active period. With the exception of powerful demons who could tolerate the lights harsh punishment, most demons could safely manifest in darkness. It meant that a hunter's work hours was between nightfall and daybreak.
She reached for her core, her inner-self that held all of the answers when it came to hunting. She hoped she wouldn't need to go too deep to retrieve her answers, lest the thing that lurked inside of her wake.
She considered her other-self like a sleeping beast who happened to sleep talk groggily before going back to into its deep slumber. She slipped into the ether of her mind, flowed through the currents of her soul. It was getting easier with each session. Each time she feared that she would lose a piece of herself to the thing inside of her. She feared allowing it to manifest into the world beyond her mind.
To her surprise, her core felt alert. In times like these, she felt as though her core treated her like an investment, and it was in her core's best interest to keep her alive.
For the time being, she was able to maintain her distance from her other-self. In her mind-eye, the mimic of herself stood down the path from her within sight. With each session, her core was learning how to adopt her shape. The concept frightened her above all else. One day, this mimic would become her, and she would seize to exist. And yet, she couldn't help herself to turn to her core for guidance when her tutors and resources failed her.
Though it had her shape, her core was a void, the pure absence of light. It had no physical presence. It didn't need one. One day, it would have hers.
It stared into the forest, watching the shifting fog dance away from the false image of herself. "Do you remember when you first saw the light?" her core asked.
Astral could feel it smile as though cherishing a precious memory. "Show me where it is," Astral ordered her core.
Her core gestured to the forest with a broad sweep of her arm. "Give it a reason to manifest," her core instructed. "But do it in place where you have the advantage. You're still... squishy."
The truth stung. She was good at her job, but that didn't make her invincible. Despite her ultimate fate, she liked the idea of living with all of her limbs intact. The image of her core vanished from her mind, leaving her alone on a clear path purified of the scourge.
'How do I make an energy demon manifest?' She wondered. It had never been a problem before. She could see the monstrosities cleverly hiding their bulky mass in shadows, hungrily lurking over their unsuspecting prey. But this demon was different. This demon she could not see.
She went over the checklist as she traveled further down the path toward the town. Typically the demons could manifest physically when they were going in for the kill. There were instances when this wasn't the case, but if a hunter ran into those exceptions, it was unlikely that they would come out of it alive. A demon who could maintain a physical body in the human world would have to be powerful. She allowed her thoughts to linger on the concept a bit longer. He grandfather had tales of ancient demons lurking in hidden alcoves deep underground, catered to by dark sects, humans who would willingly feed these entities human scarifies in exchange for their dark hearts desires.
She stopped suddenly at the sound of crickets. She looked to the sky above, clear with sparkling twilight above with no moon in sight. What if she could see the demon, but just wasn't aware of it at the time. The path to the town was clear, the lanterns were vigilant and still. She peered down the path toward the memorial, the tall roofs peeking over the forest canopy. It was clear. The red hue that she had mistaken for fog was gone.
She ran back to the memorial, detaching a four inch rod from her belt. She flicked her wrist, triggering the mechanisms inside to come alive, extending the rod to four feet before she interrupted the process with sweeping downward arc, balancing the extra weight with her free hand. The top of the rod readjusted, pushing a clear double edge curved blade from it that matched the length of her arc.
Mathias couldn't fight an energy demon, though she wasn't entirely sure why that was.
There were deep gashes in the cobblestone path, leading into the forest. Broken branches and overturned earth made tracking easy. There was no blood at the initial point of impact; she assumed Mathias was likely okay, given that it would want to feed on the Master Hunter until it drained the life from him.
'Why would it need to manifest?' she wondered, dashing into the forest, dodging branches and low dying foliage which would threaten to trip her. In the darkness, where the average hunter would have to tread carefully, her stigma gave her an advantage. With dying ember light of the forest around her, she could see her way through the forest. She could see the streaks of black, where plants were torn from the earth.
'It smelled of copper' she reminded herself, pushing the ever-present scent of rotting flesh from her mind in an attempt to find her prey.
Perhaps, if she got higher up, away from the ground where the dead lingered for months before a purification team was sent out to give the deceased a proper burial. Astral shortened her scythe, reducing its weight and attached it to her belt, using a spare buttoned belt hoop, before climbing up a sturdy looking tree like an experienced squirrel.
A gunshot echoed in the darkness, giving her a clue in the direction to travel. Through the dying souls of the forest, she made out Mathias' soul, a deep blue, with an electric red aura. He was still for a moment, his stance strong. His soul shuddered with surprise and flushed with anticipation.
He was more like her than she realized. He lived for the kill. She wanted to get a clear sight on the demon before interrupting the tides of battle. She kept her eye on the swift movements of her prey as she moved through the forest, careful to avoid announcing her presence to the demon's heightened senses.
She crouched down in the shadows, keeping her presence small as she watched her tutor expertly anticipate the demon's attack. He fired into the humanesque shape made up of a torn crimson red gown and cloak. Its swollen belly reminded Astral of a pregnant woman. It was difficult to separate the robes from the demon. The red melted into the reshaped claw where it shifted to black midway down its claw. It's legs were wiry and spread wide almost in a permanent crouching position. Claws had broken free from the demon's boots, now barely maintaining the appeal of sandals.
Mathias fired a few more consecutive shots into the demoness, before she plunged him into a nearby tree, rattling dying leaves free. She screamed at him, her mouth extending ferociously at him, large enough to rip his head from his shoulders with a single bite. The scream was wrong in Astral opinion. The matron demon cried out in agony, her grip on the Master Hunter weakening.
Mathias slumped to the foot of the tree. He took in a few heavy breaths before trying to pull himself to his feet as the demon retreated from him, calling out again in agony, cradling her swollen belly.
Astral could feel a shift in the energy, like a sudden deadly shift in the current. The teenage girl launched from the shadows of the forest, extending the length of her scythe as she swung the blade, severing the beast's head from her shoulders. She spun around and pulled the weapon through the middle of the demon's body before it could hit the ground. "Protection prayer now! But visualize it backward. Seal it here!" Astral ordered the dazed hunter.
From the trees it fell, colliding into the teenage girl who blocked with her scythe. She didn't have time for games. She couldn't count on Mathias. In the battle arena, she was on her own. The real energy demon moved and swayed like the fog, tangible but not. It swayed around her, surrounding her. She tugged on the center of her scythe causing it to break in two; the blades shortened as the duplicate smaller versions mimicked one another.
She moved with the dark energy around her, feeling her world melt away into the very darkness she was fighting. Dodging blows and moving as though possessed by the shadows themselves, she glimpsed the shimmering light of the prayer forming around the combat area. "Bring it in closer!" she shouted.
"Stop!" she called when the prayer was ten feet wide. It would have to feed on her if it wanted to survive at this point. It would need to manifest or die fighting her.
Energy demons are different from normal demons. Energy demons don't require a physical form to feed, but they do need one to lure prey and defend their nests. This one was losing. "Manifest already!" Astral roared as ferociously as any demon could. The fog dissipated for a moment out of fear.
She felt hungry, craving that thing that she couldn't quite put words to. It's attacks changed from aggressor to defender. She could see the dimming strength of the prayer, Mathias' strength wouldn't last much longer, and if the shield fell, the demon would have an easy feast and their opportunity lost.
She stopped her assault, reaching for the one trump card at her disposal. She reached for her core and opened herself up to the world. The demon saw an opportunity, reshaping itself to deal the final blow with everything it had. It lunged toward her.
Caught in her current, she pulled the demon into her, consuming what little was left of it, just as the prayer vanished.
Her world spun. She willed herself to stand upright as she took several slow deep breaths. With each labored breath, a puff of purified air escaped her lips. Little by little, the life of the devoured returned to the forest.
She fell to her knees and wretched, the fowl taste of finely rotted demon meat lingered on the back of her tongue. It would be weeks before she'd be able to get the taste out of her mouth. Her stomach growled calling out ravenously to the world. The thought of food made her wretch again.
Blood trickled down her face and arm, damage she was unaware of during the fight. She could feel sting of the humid air against the open wounds.
Mathias climbed to his feet and approached his charge. "Are you okay?" he asked, crouching down next to her. She looked away, afraid that the stigmas' mark had gotten worse. "I'm fine," she lied. "Just give me a second."
"I have bandages with our stuff." Mathias told her. "Come on, it's only a couple of hours before daybreak. You did a good job."
'Like some pet let off its leash,' she thought bitterly.
From her prone position, she glanced at the rotted corpse of the first demon that had manifested. She bored the colors of the Red Order, one of the two items that remained in recognizable condition. She reached for the head, prying the transformed mask from the skull. This woman was a member of the Crimson Knights, the elite Hunters of the Red Order.
She placed the skull in her lap, carefully stroking its hair from her eye sockets. She was with child when she was turned into a husk. She fed to keep her child alive. Her child fed until it was strong enough to birth. What a demon it would have been.
The mask would have born the resemblance of demon face as depicted in the medieval era. It used to be made of metal and plated in gold for show. Now it was the face of a demon, and it's metallic surface transformed into bone. Still it had only been one face of two that this husk had shown to the world. Some part of her held onto her humanity, perhaps the part of her that nurtured and fed her unborn child.
"Do what you need to do," Astral told Mathias, tossing the woman's skull to join the two separate parts of her body. "That woman needs to be purified, cremated then buried."
It was going to be a long night.