"Just here," says Cassandra, frowning deeply as she stood on the corner of the road, pointing down with a long, sharp fingernail. Blackwater walked over to her, and looked down at the patch of grass near the curb. The grass itself was a beautiful, lush green, but on closer inspection, the grass was stained brown. It looked like mud, but Blackwater knew it was blood. It had started to wash away with time and weather, but as Blackwater knelt down and followed the trail, it headed into the tall grass at the riverside, leading down into the water, past the riparian trees and into the river.
"We've definitely found our crime scene," mutters Blackwater solemnly.
"This is terrible," says Cassandra, kneeling down to feel the grass with a wrinkled hand, "it was a painful, slow death."
"Don't!" snaps Blackwater. Cassandra recoiled her hand.
"What is it?" she asks.
"It could be connected to the ley-line," says Blackwater. "Magic follows lines. sigil-lines, water-lines, blood-lines; if this connects to the river, it would be alive with potent, natural magic. In fact, I'm certain that it is . . ."
Blackwater kneels down on the other side of the blood trail and leans his face close to it. Puckering his lips, he blows across the grass stained with blood. As he sits up, the grass barely moves until finally, as though time itself had slowed down, the dirty blades of grass slowly lilt and sway in the breeze, curling like slow dancers as they billow with Blackwater's breath.
"My god . . ." mutters Cassandra.
"The other victims disappeared without a trace," says Blackwater. "If the demon left this blood-stain, it did it on purpose."
"But why?" asks Cassandra.
"I don't know," says Blackwater, staring at the road, "the trail stops at the road . . ."
Blackwater stands up and follows the blood trail down towards the river.
"Be careful, Donnie," says the witch, as he wanders into the tall grass. Using his umbrella to steady himself, he wades down towards the river. The slope grew steeper as he lowered himself down, the trail led through the grass, right to the water's edge. Blackwater stares into the river, and suddenly gasps. A face was staring straight back at him. He holds his umbrella in front of himself defensively, as the great gnarly face watches him, with its bright, yellow eyes. It slowly opens and closes its mouth, revealing twisted teeth.
"Wait a moment," Blackwater mutters to himself. The face looked rather familiar. It wasn't a demon's face, it was a troll's. Holding his umbrella by the tip, Blackwater dips the handle of his umbrella into the water and hooks it around the some of the twisted branches, that surrounded the head like a jagged mane. It was a metre tall, water-logged and very heavy, but he manages to lift the troll's head out of the water. and grab onto one of the stronger branches with his hand. Blackwater turns back and makes his way back up to the grass.
"Donnie?" calls out Cassandra.
"It's alright," he calls back, holding up his discovery, "I found the troll's head."
"In the river?" she asks, "Why would they throw it in the river?"
"The demon must not need it any more," says Blackwater. "It's a bad sign, whatever it's doing, it's nearly done. But I have good news . . ."
He holds up the face for Cassandra to see.
"I don't . . ." Cassandra starts to speak, then suddenly flinches, gasping and clutching her chest. The troll's mouth moves up and down again, it's yellow eyes darting around wildly. "It's alive?!"
"The magic of the ley-line must have kept it alive. It's natural magic after all, the same as the troll's. If the demon was using this the whole time, the head must have witnessed something. It could tell me what we're looking for."
"It can't speak . . ." says Cassandra, pointing at the mouth as it yammers up and down.
"Of course not, it doesn't have a throat," says Blackwater, heading for the bridge, "but if I give it back to the troll, hopefully I can get some answers . . . and my car."
Blackwater holds the head in one hand and his umbrella in the other, walking it like a cane as he made his way onto the bridge.
"It's too soon to summon a troll," she says, calling after him, "people might see in the daylight!"
"That's why I'm going to him," says Blackwater, glancing back. "I'm sorry, but you can't join me."
"I know, I'm not an idiot," she growls, "I won't cross running water like this, but I'll be waiting here for you to get back."
Blackwater nods and continues across the bridge, limping from the weight of the troll's head as he heads out of the town of Tumbulgum.
In the five minutes it took to cross the bridge, the afternoon sky was turning darker and darker, as a foreboding omen looming overheard. Across the bridge, Blackwater climbs up on the the small rise beside the road, leading into thick trees. He looked around, but he couldn't tell the troll from the trees in the fading darkness.
"Troll?" he called out, although his voice caught in his throat somewhat. "Troll! I have your answer!"
There was silence a moment, before there was a distinctive crack! and crunch! Blackwater watched as the trees in the distance started moving, and the shape of the troll became more clear as it thundered through.
"Blackwater . . ." groaned the beast, with a deep rumble in its throat, "you've returned so soon."
"Yes. Your head was taken by a demon with scything claws, but it was discarded in the river."
With a thump and a thundering footstep, the troll steps up to Blackwater and reached out a twisted hand to grab the head.
"I thought it was too late to be returned . . ." says the troll, taking the head and bringing it towards its neck, "but the power of the Tweed is ancient and strong . . ."
Turning the head around, the creatures tilts its connected head to the left, and closes its eyes. As it does, from the neck stump, small green saplings begin to sprout, and curling vines reach out eagerly towards the head. As the stump flourishes with green, the other head's eyes opened and the space between the severed head and the neck closed, sealing with bright, lush leaves and shrubbery.
With a gasp, the right head's yellow eyes open wide, and they look down at Mr Blackwater. Now connected, the troll looked lopsided, as the other head was smaller and covered in greenery, but the troll smiled none the less.
"Thank you . . ." says the head, in a hoarse, scratchy voice, "I thought I would be drowning for an eternity . . ."
"We're safe now," booms the left head.
"Yes . . . but Donnie, your witch is not."
"The reaper demon . . ." says the right head, lifting the right arm to point at the sun, "it burns in sunlight, but it serves a more powerful master . . ."
Blackwater sees where it is pointing, to see the sun, which was slowly disappearing behind a great shadow. In mere seconds, it would be enveloped.
"A solar eclipse? It can't be . . ."
"The demon lord's power is great. It can swallow the sun . . ."
"Demon Lord? That's not good. But Cassandra, why is she in danger?"
"The riverbank. The demon sleeps by the river," says the troll, pointing across the river, "in the shadow of the bridge . . ."
Horrified, Blackwater tries to look back across the water, but he can't see anything. He turns back to the troll.
"I've paid the toll, I need my car, now!"
"As you wish . . ." says the left head, turning back. Reaching into the thick leaves of a nearby tree, the troll retrieves the rusty, old Cadillac Seville from the branches.
Stepping over the little man, the troll places the car on the road and steps back. The back window was cracked & it was covered in leaves, but Blackwater didn't care, he just needed it to drive.
"I need to cross the bridge!" he yells, getting in the front seat. As he throws his umbrella in the backseat, turns the key in the ignition and switches on the headlights, the troll places both hands on the road to send its power through the bridge. As soon as its done, the troll steps out of the way and Blackwater roars the engine and going flying down the road. In less than ten seconds, he'd crossed the bridge and come to a skidding halt. He leans on the horn then, engine still running, he grabs his umbrella and jumps out of the car.
"Cassandra!" he calls out, racing to the rusty bloodstain on the corner, but he couldn't see her anywhere. He called out again and again, but she'd vanished. She'd been abducted like the others . . .
The reaper demon had to be taking her to the sugarcane field. It was the only possibility that made sense. Blackwater started to march back towards his car when, suddenly, his backseat exploded.
Ducking and grabbing his bowler hat, he saw the briefcase in his backseat explode, sending glass shards all throughout the inside of the car. "What . . .? That's impossible . . ."
The instruments in his briefcase had reacted to a powerful magic, like they'd crossed a strong ley-line. But it made no sense, the car was sitting in the middle of Riverside Drive. Unless . . .
Looking down at the road, Blackwater holds up his umbrella, horizontally, and lets go. It falls towards the ground then stops still, hovering two inches above the blacktop. After a second, it shoots back up into his hands. The road was emanating magic like a ley-line.
"Magic follows lines. Why didn't I see it before?!" yells Blackwater as he jumps in the front street and turns down Riverside Drive. He puts pedal to the floor and roars down the street. Riverside Drive lead directly to the sugarcane field.
Blackwater shifts up through the gears as fast as the old car can manage and speeds down the road. As the car approaches the corner of Gray Street, lightning strikes the road in front of the car. Blackwater jumps. swerving to stay on the road as more lightning sparks along the road, striking the double-lines down the middle of the road and cracking the air with a sound like exploding dynamite. Taking a deep breath, Mr Blackwater keeps calm and swerves around the road. Passing Fawcett Street, he started to grip the wheel tighter; he was almost there. Suddenly, the car starts to lift off the road.Cars parked at the shops along the road, started to float up into the air and the power lines along the right side flipped up and began hanging upside-down. As his car flew down the road, all Blackwater could do was pray.
A large tree by the side of the road was looming before him as his car sailed forwards. Then, his stomach leaps into his throat as gravity returned and the car dropped. With a drop that strained the suspension, the car hit the road, and Mr Blackwater swerved back into the left-hand lane. As he drove past Government Road, he could see the sugarcane field off to the left. To avoid any more ley-line anomalies, Blackwater turns off the Riverside Drive and drives straight across an empty park, heading directly for the field.
The car rattles through the uneven parkland and rolls over Tweed Valley Way, before Blackwater stops the car and jumps out, umbrella held out before him.
Above the field, a storm was brewing. Deep, dark, purple clouds, vicious and flickering with power. As he runs into the field, Blackwater sees orange sparks. Where the field met Riverside Drive, electricity was spiking through the metal barrier, from the sheer magnitude of the magic flowing through it. But in the field itself, sugarcane was burning, filling the air with the sickly sweet incense of burning sugar and sending up thick smoke to join the stormclouds.
Blackwater runs straight into the storm. As he approaches the burning cane, he sees that the fire is localized in one large circle which crossed the other five crop circles. Peering through the smoke, he saw Cassandra, lying on a scolded patch of dirt in the middle. He dove through the blaze after her.
Within the enormous summoning circle it was very bright, but the sky above was a dark haze and the atmosphere sweet but choking, like a caramel caught in your throat. Blackwater heads straight for Cassandra, who was lying in the middle of the circle, almost ten metres away. He glances around the darkness, but there were no signs of the reaper demon. When he reaches Cassandra's side, he saw that she was covered in blood, with a cut bleeding from her head and slices up her arms. Blackwater checks her pulse and it feels strong.
"Come on, Cassandra!" says Blackwater, trying to lift her up, but she wasn't moving. Gritting his teeth, he lifted her and put her arm around his shoulder, then grabbed her by the waist with his left arm. So close to another person, he felt uncomfortable, but he didn't want his friend to die. He tried to move and she tripped and stumbled, but he caught her and held her. "I need you to walk, I can't drag you."
"Donnie?" Cassandra mutters, finding her feet.
"Yes, it's me. Now walk with me," says Blackwater. She complies and the two head for the edge of the circle. It was slow at first, stumbling along, but as she regained her senses, the pair started to walk, then run. "Almost there, come on!"
Suddenly, something dropped from the sky. Just in front of them, less than three metres from the edge of the circle, the reaper demon hit the ground and spread its leathery wings, wide. It looked like a severe burn victim, covered with burnt black skin and shiny, red scars, and it looked human except for the enormous wings and the sharp, curved talons that grew from its wrists instead of hands which curled downward, looking like a praying mantis. The two try to step back from the creature, but it was difficult to walk back side-by-side. Blackwater held up his umbrella like a fencing sword and Cassandra held out her free hand, palm facing towards the creature.
Glancing at the two, the creature raised both its talons high in the air. Then, in one swift motion, jammed the two of them into its own belly. Then, flicking its arms apart, it disembowelled itself in front of them, blood flicking outwards, spattering onto both of them. Then, the creature collapsed, bleeding into the dirt.
"Dead?" mutters Cassandra, "it committed suicide?"
"Not suicide," says Blackwater, pointing at the ground with an umbrella, as he lead Cassandra around the body, "sacrifice."
As they headed for the edge of the circle, Cassandra looked at the blood and saw droplets speed along the ground, leaving a trail behind them as they spread out further into the circle, forming some kind of shape.
Reaching the line of fire, Blackwater helped his friend to step over the fire without getting burned and was about to step through himself when suddenly the fire extinguished. Blackwater tried to take a step, but as his foot reached the threshold, it hit an invisible barrier that made him trip. He fell forward and his left hand hit the air, and he stood for a moment, leaning against it.
"Cassandra?" he says. She covered her mouth.
"The symbol's complete," she says. Blackwater looks back. Sure enough, the demon's blood had converged into a large symbol that looked like a mixture of geometric shapes and Arabic scripture. But nothing seemed to be happening. Blackwater turns back to the witch.
"Can you break the barrier?"
"Of a circle this large?" says Cassandra, shaking her head, "I'll try, but . . ."
As she reaches down and places her bloodied fingers to the ground, Blackwater looks back into the circle. He couldn't see the demon lord anywhere . . . but when he looked at the viscera of the sacrificed demon, he saw that the smoke in the air was moving towards it. moving slowly, it looked like a small tornado, funneling into the monster. as it did, the body started to disintegrate, literally evaporating.
"It's creating a body for itself . . ." says Blackwater, pressing against the barrier. "Cassandra, you have to break this seal before it forms. We can still stop it."
"It's too strong!" she cries, as the barrier in front of her flickers slightly, "I can't break this, it's bound by blood and sacrifice!"
Blackwater shakes his head. glancing at the burnt circle in the dirt. It was sitting atop soft, fertile soil. The barrier held them back, but all he had to do was break the line. Taking a step back, Blackwater held his umbrella in two hands like a spear and drove it into the soil. It didn't go in very deep once it struck the barrier, but the soil shifted, creating a lump in that part of the line. Blackwater did it again, jamming the metal tip into the dirt. again, the soil shifted. As he lifted it, the soil caved into the tiny hole, crumbling some of the char and ash, making the air of the barrier ripple, but not break.
"Yes!" cries Cassandra, she places her hands on that part of the barrier, sending jagged, purple electricity across its surface, "keep going, I'll try to pry it open!"
Blackwater started stabbing continuously at the ground, digging into the dirt so vigorously his hat fell from his head and sweat dripped down his face. The line wasn't very thick, but it could have been a mile wide for how slow they were progressing. Blackwater looks at the demon's corpse. It was nothing but slowly disintegrating bones, but the smoke was no longer black, it was turning a sickly green. It also seemed to be moving towards him. He gritted his teeth and went back to digging. fraction by fraction, the barrier was starting to shudder and flicker like shifting glass.
"Donnie!" cries out Cassandra. As she does, the green mist wraps itself around Mr Blackwater's shoulder. He suddenly screams out in pain. With one thrust, he drove his umbrella into the ground then, grabbing the handle with both hands, levered it upwards. As he did, the barrier seemed to vibrate, making the view of the outside world wobble, until with a deep CRACK! like uprooting an ancient tree, the barrier split and vanished.
The mist started to dissipate, but the storm above cracked with thunder. Lightning struck the symbol and the enormous cloud started to funnel into the centre of the circle. It was starting to dissipate as the wind picked up, so faster and faster, the smoke rushed through the barrier between this world and the next. The rushing sound started as a whistle but developed into a great roar as though the dark spirit within it were wailing in pain.
Then, as the last wisp of smoke slipped into the ground, the sound stopped and the two were left in silence. Light returned to the sky, in the form of the setting sun.
"We did it?" says Cassandra, bewildered.
"Yes," says Blackwater. "We'll need to destroy this symbol just to be safe, but I believe we've stopped it."
Before he could stop her, Cassandra grabbed him in a hug.
"I thought I was dead, Donnie. You've saved my life. Again."
"Just doing my job," he says stiffly. He awkwardly reaches around her with an arm and lightly taps her on the shoulder.
The next day, Blackwater stood outside his friend's house, packing his things in the boot.
"Are you sure I can take your crystal ball? And these divining rods must cost a fair penny," says Mr Blackwater
"It's the least I could do," replies Cassandra, rubbing the bandages on her arms. "You lost your equipment crossing the bridge to save me, after all. Besides, I don't use that stuff any more. You're very old-fashioned, Donnie."
"Well, thank you." he says, closing the boot. "I hope you're not in trouble again, but if you are, don't hesitate to call."
"You could come around when the world's not in danger."
"Yes," says Blackwater, frowning. "Well, I'm quite busy. I'll see if I can make the time."
"I hope you do. It's lonely down here in Tumbulgum."
"I'll try," he replies. Then, with a nod, he gets into his car and starts the engine. Cassandra gives him a wave and he pulls out of the driveway. To avoid another toll, he drove south-west, hoping to bypass the river altogether.
. . .
As soon as he was away from any town population, and sure no one was around to see, Mr Blackwater pulled over his car to the side of the road and got out. He looked absolutely terrified. No matter how many sacrifices you make, you need to call a demon by name to summon them. The only possible explanation was that the demon lord the reaper devil was trying to summon had no name. Blackwater only knew of one demon lord like that . . .
Opening the boot he opened his broken briefcase and took out a small hip-flask, uncapping the lid. Then, he pulled back the arm of his jacket, rolled up his sleeve and poured the contents on his arm, which looked like some kind of oil with herbs in it. As the oil touched his upper arm, it started to bubble and smoke, making him cry out in pain, but it soon subsided. It was his arm where the creature had touched him. He'd told Cassandra that they stopped it breaking through. They didn't. It had fled once the barrier had broken, but only after it had broken through.
Blackwater took a handkerchief from his bag and wiped the oil from his arm. As he did, a mark was revealed on his skin. A pink, shiny burn where the mist had reached out and grabbed him. Wrapped around his upper bicep was a burn in the shape of a human hand. As he rolled down his sleeve and replaced his jacket, Blackwater closed his eyes and exhaled. The demon lord without a name had seen him. It had touched his skin and left his mark. If it ever broke through into this world again, it would come looking for him.
Closing the boot of his car, Mr Blackwater climbed into the front seat and drove as far away from that town as he could. Hoping against hope that he would never face such horror again . . .