10: Close Calls

Henri  hardly got any sleep that night. Here “hardly” meant, none at all. It was her own fault, really. One of her online buddies had a leveller friend who’d just come back from a foray into the wonderland wastes.


In celebration, he’d messaged his entire friends list and organized a raid in one of mmos they tended to frequent.


Though Henri usually wasn’t all that much of a joiner this time she’d gone along with things because she’d just happened to be online when he sent the message and it had seemed like it’d be to rude to pretend she  hadn’t seen the message.


Especially when most modern chat clients generally had that annoying feature that let others know whether you’d seen their message or not.


To her surprise, she’d enjoyed herself. Maybe it wasn’t that big of a surprise after all if she hated the game then she wouldn’t have sunk so many hours into the game. The real surprise was that she’d enjoyed herself to the point of losing track of time. Not noticing till her cellphone alarm started ringing on the desk beside her.


She probably wouldn’t have stayed up quite so late had she noticed the sun creeping in through her windows. Unfortunately, like the good little wraith that she was, it had long been her habit to keep her private surroundings as dark as possible. Keeping the window blinds almost permanently drawn down.


The good news was that as her level was high enough that going through the day with no sleep wouldn’t be too much of a hardship. The human mind being what it was, this was still going to suck, since she would at least still “feel” like she should have slept, but it’d be manageable.

Even if it wasn’t manageable she’d still have to suck it up and power through it, because today was  a school day. Which meant she had work to do.


She tried to remedy things a little bit. Her usual fifteen minute shower of pure hot water, was followed by ten minutes of bracing cold. And she made sure to get a double helping of Jack’s coffee. Black and hot and chock full of enough caffeine to possibly give an ordinary man a heart attack.


She knew she was just putting a bandage on a broken knee there, but she wasn’t willing to call in sick just for the sake of catching a few extra z’s which meant there was nothing else she could really do.


She caught a few minutes of the morning news. Watching with a kind of muted interest as the reporter announced the birth of a certain celebrity’s first child. Which made her start thinking about her first child, and when exactly that was going to happen. Which made her start questioning whether she actually wanted children and questioning why she was even thinking about this when in her head the whole marriage thing still didn’t feel all that real.


All this thinking lead to her feeling hyper-aware of the other occupant of the living room. Desmond sat there, stretched out on the sofa, still wearing his pajamas. His lean yet prominent musculature on display, visible beneath his pajama bottoms and t-shirt. Making him like a character from a romance novel, one with a full day of wooing female protagonists and looking tough yet vulnerable, ahead of him.


She found herself staring for a bit, reminded that she had indeed married an incubus. A devilish-being, sculpted by dark gods of lust for express purpose of, not only tempting and charming the opposite sex, but for tempting and charming the entire world.


Henrietta shook her head, not sure she understood the direction her thoughts were going in, but not too concerned. Explaining it all away with the excuse that she was tired.


In the recent weeks, things had gotten decidedly more normal between Henri and Desmond. They were still awkward with each other, but that was more due to their personalities than anything else. Though she still wasn’t sure about where they were going or whether she wanted to adopt a new name with the man the uncomfortableness of their situation seemed to be fading.


While the two still had yet to see each other as man and wife, they did at least see each other as roommates. Their communication and interactions growing friendlier.


“Hey…” he said.


“Morning…” she said.


“Good Morning, Mistress.” said Jack. Who stood by the wall. Ever present at her Master’s side, like a porcelain faced sentinel.


He offered her pancakes. Fresh made by him, not Jack which she’d learned actually meant a small uptick in quality. For though the made was skilled, the man’s food was often restaurant quality. She thanked him but said she didn’t really have the time. She was honestly somewhat tempted but as was usual for her, she didn’t want to end up running late.


In the end she’d kind of regret not just staying and having breakfast anyway, or not just flopping onto the couch and seeing if she could catch a few minutes of sleep. Despite all her efforts Henri Caldwell-Andras would still end up being late for work that Monday.


This was only made slightly better by the fact that “everyone” ended up being late that morning. The monoliths that were evenly spread across the land separates the mundane, relatively safe Agartha from the wonderland wastes that lay beyond but occasionally something would break through.

Traffic was backed up for about three hours while the city of Cadeyrn had to deal with a creature that had broken in from the wastes. It was a monster, one of the humanoid breeds, a fiend, with a great golden snail’s shell on its back. It had appeared in the middle of the downtown area, glaring at everything with its swiveling stalk eyes and mumbling scripture from an unknown religion.


If things had just stopped there it would have just been yet another Agarthan oddity, but then the snail-fiend started killing people. Pulling people from out of their vehicles and drawing all the moisture from out of their bodies. Slowing theirs lives into its slime while its victim’s bodies grew dessicated become mummified.

The fiend’s mumbling continuing through its entire killing spree. The scripture seeming to have a disorienting effect on all that heard it.


People panicked, with the pedestrian scattering out of the way of the creature. Accidents took place as drivers tried to back away, smashing into the cars behind them in their futile haste.


The police tried to intervene but their bullets did nothing, either bouncing of the creature’s shell or being diverted by its thick aura. Their levels were too low for them to go up against the creature using melee weapons or hand-to-hand, but they still tried, but as should be expected the results weren’t particularly positive.


A grand total of twenty-two civilians and police officers would die before a squad of mages and warriors from the Eastern Cloud and Moon-Fire Sects came to handle the creature. Managing to slay the fiend with only one amongst their number being badly injured.


The events would likely be covered in the news later, but in truth it wasn’t all that unheard of, for things like this to happen. Most of the news coverage would likely break down into political bickering over who was to be held responsible for the breakdown of the city’s barrier.

There would be a memorial for those who’d died of course but death in Agartha was such a regular thing that things would be back to normal within the week. With repairs to the road and the surrounding buildings taking place and being completed within just a few hours.


Luckily, Henri didn’t get caught up in any of this, which was a very good thing since her 98 levels wouldn’t have done much to help her against the level 250 hundred Snail-fiend.


She and the majority of her fellow morning commuters were diverted down a side-street after two hours of being stuck in traffic. She wouldn’t know how close she’d been to disaster till much later when she was doing the attendance for a mostly empty classroom.


Many of the students didn’t come into school that morning. Fortunately none of them had fallen victim to the snail, they’d just simply been kept home.


Either because the school bus’ couldn’t get to them or because their parents had wisely decided that a monster rampaging through the downtown area, was roughly equivalent to a snow day.  Thus the only ones in school that day were the teachers and those students who happened to live within the academy’s dormitories.


Henri learned about the fiend attack while she was having her first break. She was in the cafeteria that was only used by upper-classmen and staff members when she learned of it. One of the physics teachers had a cousin who got killed by the snail-fiend. The upshot was that the man hated his cousin  and was apparently counting the day till it was appropriate for he and the man’s second wife to come out about their ongoing relationship.  

The down-shot was that many others had died as well.


Just as Henri was busy being appropriately unnerved by both the deaths that had happened and the one that nearly happened, keenly aware that she’d been one street away from being wrapped up in the whole debacle, there was a tap on her shoulder.


She turned around and saw Marie standing behind her. A can of iced-blood in hand from out of the soda machine that sat in the corner of the teacher’s lounge.


“Hey, hey, did you hear?!” said the energetic woman. All but spinning Henri in place as she tugged on her arm.


“Er…yeah. This last fiend attack was pretty terrible huh?” said Henri. Careful not to spill the coffee in her open thermos.


The other woman blanked for a second, momentarily confused. She, Marie Wilkinson was originally from Normansburg, town quite aways away. A town that sat near the outer edge of Ashok, on the outer edge of Ashok’s civilized lands.


Where she came from, the divide between the real world and the wonderland wastes was thin. Where she came from monster attacks happened all the time. Taking place every other week if not every other day. For Marie a fiend attack in the downtown area wasn’t something to get upset about. At least so long as you and yours hadn’t gotten caught up in it.


Still she wasn’t a bad person,  or without any sense of decorum, it was just a gaffe. An awful gaffe but still unintentional.


Like not seeing the big deal about snowstorms when one lived in a place where it snowed all the time. Sensing that something was awry Marie frowned, trying to look empathetic while she hurriedly tried to make up for her mistake.


“…Yeah…terrible…” she said. Letting a pause fall before moving on to what she’d really wanted to tell the other woman about.

Marie’s look of empathy was replaced by a sparkling smile as she pulled the younger woman over to a table so that they could sit down.


“So…uh, there was something else I wanted to tell you about.”


“Okay, what is it?” said Henri. Already made aware of this fact by her friend’s the demeanor.


“So, you know how at the end of every year the school recommends a few students to Moon-fire people?” said Marie.


“Er…yeah.” said Henri.

The recommended students would be sent to special sect preparation classes. A grade that sat in between the grades and catered more to what a future sect leveller would know. Henri knew all about such classes because she’d once briefly been a student within one. Graduating out and being inducted into the sect before she’d even entered middle-school.


“Well, the person who makes the final call is the Sect’s representative. Er, you know, the representative the sect sends to the school.”


Henri just nodded feeling slightly glum. More than a little bummed out by the reminder of how far she had fallen. Being a normal person wasn’t a bad, but having to walk when you’d flown through the air was a dispiriting thing.


“Yes….I am aware.” said Henri. Stifling a sigh, turning it into a yawn that she swallowed with some difficulty.


Marie frowned, not quite understanding the change in her friend’s mood. She pushed on, her own enthusiasm slightly dampened.


“….So…the sect representative will be showing up in a few days. I figured uh…it’ll probably be neat?”


Henri frowned, not seeing what the big deal was. Then she realized that to an “Ordinary” person, which was most people one would see on the street, real levellers were thought of a bit like superheroes or movie stars.


The real powerhouses were nobility or even royalty. As for the levellers above the lords and kings, ‘those’ were treated like minor deities or the servants of the gods. Chosen children of heaven.


“Oh…yeah. I guess so.”


Marie sighed, not getting the response that she’d been hoping for.


“Come on…I bet he looks all magick-fied or whatever…” said Marie. Pushing on, not quite giving up.


Henri considered.


There were six great races on Agartha and asides from the beginnings and ends of their lives, they more or less all looked like regular humans with a few extra skin colors and parts.


The only time that this wasn’t true was after magick-fication, which was what normal people and the media called the process of an individual growing more anomalous in nature as their level and cultivation grew.


The magic in their systems making them smarter, stronger, faster. Making them into existences that were closer to their ideal selves till they finally reached their Platonic or celestial ideals. Their perfect forms.


During this process a person’s “inhuman” features would grow more prominent. Beasts became more beastly. The Fae more fantastical.  The Spirits more otherworldly and haunting.  The Demons more fiendish. The Elementals more elemental and wild. The Machines more sophisticated and mechanically impressive.


Aware that she was ruining her friend’s fun, Henri tried to play along.  


“Um….I guess that ‘is’ neat.” said Henri.


Similarly considerate, Marie saw that the other girl was trying to fix the mood of their conversation and tried to get back into the swing of things.


“I know right?!” said Marie.


Spoiled moods were hard things to fix yet somehow they managed it, the conversation shifting, to cover classes, Marie’s’ pet cats and a few other thing. Eventually the warning bell rang announcing the end of the break and that the teacher’s should probably return to their respective classrooms.  

Class was typical. After two months of working as a teacher she’d gotten apt enough at her job, that a day with half the students missing made for a relatively light work day.


Although it was also one that was somewhat troublesome to do the paperwork for, it was still a day with less people to watch and less kids to supervise and thus naturally easier to handle.


After school was out, and the kids had mostly gone home or gone to the various after school clubs Henri did some paper work. She and Marie sat together as they worked. Amiably chatting as time went by.


The day would end on a good note when a casual check of Henri’s cellphone would inform the two of  a news notification, that announced the number of casualties from the day’s incident was far less than had been previously thought. With emergency workers sent out by a certain Samhain Foundation, somehow managing to save eighteen of the original twenty-two victims.


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