Chapter 2 - Part 1
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 the thirty-year-olds 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, revealed 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 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 a 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 aurora 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.
Chapter 2 is well on its way! At the end of each chapter, I intend to list three questions that will help me decide if I've hit my intended marks as a writer. In this case because of the changes I plan on making, I think it's a good opportunity to get to know you as a reader.
- When you read fantasy novels, what are your expectation of the 'hero's journey'? (a nice and vague question for you! I'm on a roll today!)
- What sort of tropes, characters, or other elements that draw you to fantasy stories?
- Do you enjoy subtle world building or explicit in your face world building? Think Harry Potter vs Tolken - I would love to hear any other comparison you have on this topic.
You can share your answers to these questions over on the Awakening Facebook Group.
If you have questions of your own that you would like other readers to answer feel free to post them to the group.
If you want me to answer your questions directly remember to tag me in the group, or you can email me directly.
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