Chapter 2 - Part 3
"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 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 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. Any spice could be used to flavor the food, but an excellent meal relied on the right combination of spices to enhance the dish. 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. She had assumed that, like spells, prayers were 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."
In chapter 2, I touch on the idea of a politically driven cover up to hide the devastation of Clearwater.
- In your country/state/province, if a city were completely destroyed, what would your government do? How do you think the media would treat it?
- If the residents of your town were to vanished overnight, with the buildings all fully intact, what would your government do? How do you think the media would treat it?
- Do you think erasing a tragic event is necessary for a person or society to move forward? (ex: new morals/ethics, emotional healing, etc)
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