Chapter 2 - Part 2
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 seemingly random series 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 design. 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 told 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 said.
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.
Chapter 2 continued... Let's keep getting to know you. In this chapter, I'm trying to develop the first few magic and supernatural elements of the story... When reading/commenting on other people's stories, please be polite and keep an open-mind. People come from all walks of life and I am genuinely interested in their stories.
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