Raven jerked back. Her mind conjured up a demon!
The demon smiled wider. Its lips stretched impossibly far across his face like it would tear his skin in half. His golden eyes glowed with amusement. Two black arrows spread from the pupil of one of his eyes, ticking across his face with each passing second. Golden ram horns protruded from his silken black hair and spiraled down to pointed tips.
Besides those characteristics, he could have passed for human. He was thin, almost spidery, and wore black dress slacks with a gold vest. A red ascot was tucked into his vest. To finish off the image was a red sleeveless tailcoat. The ensemble felt like a mockery of a Regency gentleman. On his brown arms were several tattoos of gears, clocks, and even a large white sundial. All of them moved.
“Well, well, well. You finally decided to come around. I was starting to get bored.” The demon picked up a teacup. Long red claws clinked across the delicate porcelain. “Let’s have a chat, shall we?”
“You’re not real, are you?” Raven said her voice breaking at the end.
“I wonder,” the demon said. He sat cross-legged and began to float. “But if you’re asking me if I’m a figment of your imagination I’m certain that I am.” He snickered in amusement, before floating over to a dainty table set up with tea and cakes.
“But the imagination is a powerful thing. Look at you, pretending to be this pitiful timid creature.” He tilted his head and looked at her with a secret smile. “But we know the truth. You’re not even a little afraid of me.”
Of course, she was afraid. She was talking to a demon, but…she didn’t feel afraid, not really. Maybe it was because she knew none of this was real.
“You’re very good at lying to yourself,” the demon said. “I suppose you have to be.”
A wave of irritation went through her. “I’m not lying to myself,” Raven said. She squared her shoulders, walking to the table and sitting across from the demon.
“Now, now, no need to pretend,” the demon said. “We both know what you really are deep inside.”
Raven narrowed her eyes and something in her burned with anger. She wasn’t sure why, but every time the demon spoke she felt the anger inside her burn hotter. “And who am I? Who are you?”
The demon laughed and spun until he was hanging upside down, still drinking his tea, which seemed to be content with defying gravity. “Who I am? That’s simple. I’m Tick Tock, a figment of your imagination. As to you…” The demon was instantly pressed nose to nose with her. His smile stretched off his face in a contortion that seemed to come out of a nightmare.
“Do you really want to find out?” Tick Tock asked mockingly. “You might not like the answer.”
Raven felt like she should be afraid. It made sense for her to be afraid, but that’s not how she felt. She shoved her hand in the demon’s face, pushing him away from her. “I want to know.”
The demon seemed unbothered and clapped his hands, the teacup mysteriously disappearing. “Oh, I’m glad. This will be so fun!” He twisted upright and bounded through the air to the cottage. He stepped in front of the wall and before Raven’s eyes a door appeared. Tick Tock gestured to the door. “Right this way.”
Raven stood up, but as she stepped forward, roots and branches shot up from the ground. With wide eyes, she watched as the branches twisted together to form seven large hunched over beasts made from gnarled roots. Thick arms hung from their bodies and dragged on the ground. They had what appeared to be heads, but they looked as though they were collapsed into their body. Where a mouth should have been was more roots and branches. But what disturbed her the most were the empty caverns that were their eyes.
“Oh dear,” the demon said. “It looks like the guards have shown up. I suppose it’s a good thing. You can’t get through the door without a key. Which one of them has it?”
A key. It made sense, but why did she have to fight to access her powers? She frowned. Was it like training? Did how well she did in the fight mean the higher her Embud color would be?
“What are the rules?”
The demon started to laugh so hard he began shaking. “Rules? Do you think this is a test? There are no rules.”
Raven grimaced. For it being her mind she didn’t understand this at all. Instead, she focused on the monsters in front of her. None of them attacked her, they simply waited. It got her thinking. It was her mind after all.
“Move,” she said. The strength of her words surprised her. She sounded confident like she was meant to be obeyed.
The root beasts shook, but they didn’t move. She took a step forward and spoke again, yelling this time.
“I said move!”
The monster branches wiggled and then she felt the ground shake. She tumbled backward. The root beasts stayed where they were. Behind them, Tick Tock was laughing even harder.
“Did you think that would work?” he asked.
Raven ignored him. Her command had some sort of effect, but she wasn’t sure what. She sighed impatiently. She didn’t know how long the injection would last. Once it wore off she would probably wake from this dreamscape. She needed to get through those doors and awaken her Core.
She held out her hand. There was one thing the people in the Illusion test didn’t know about her. She concentrated and water began to form in her hand. She didn’t need a canteen of water to summon it to her. She closed her hands around the water and it reformed into a water blade.
“You had your chance,” she said to the root beasts.
She ran towards the first beast. The beast raised its arm. Branches stretched from its arms, shooting towards her. She twisted to the side as the branches pierced the ground. She didn’t pause, instead, she rushed towards the monster and raising her water blade. She slashed down on the beast’s arm.
Immediately pain racked through her body and she started to scream. The beast’s arm flopped to the side, but Raven couldn’t even move. She fell to the ground, clutching her arm as searing pain went through her. It felt like her arm had been chopped off.
She looked at her arm, but it was still there, still whole, but it flopped uselessly at her side. The water blade dispersed as Raven used her good arm to push herself off the ground. She took a shaky step up and as she did she noticed movement. She whipped around to see the root creature’s body twist and a new arm of twisted branches formed. The root creature returned back to his spot and waited.
Her arm hurt, but the feeling returned. The panic she felt earlier ebbed away. She frowned. So what she did to the guardian was reflected back at her. Why? How were they connected? It clicked and she felt like an idiot for not realizing it sooner. This was her mind. She was only hurting herself when she attacked. She eyed the monsters. This was a puzzle.
“Did you figure it out?” A voice whispered at her ear.
She swung her arm back, but Tick Tock jumped back with a laugh. He twirled around with his arms spread. “You did, didn’t you? This is your world and this world is you.”
Raven folded her arms then glanced back at the root beasts. None of them moved. They watched her with their hollow eye sockets. She turned back to the demon. “Any hints?”
The demon grinned. “I already gave you one.”
Okay, so she was on her own, even her mind didn’t want to help her out. That’s if the demon was a figment of her imagination like he claimed, which she wasn’t exactly sure was true.
She eyed the guardian monsters. They wouldn’t attack unless she did, but they weren’t going to let her pass either. She had an idea, but she wasn’t sure if it would work or be like the arm attack. She touched her arm, the pain was gone, but the memory stayed strong.
Gritting her teeth, she would just have to endure it. She tried to brace herself for what would happen next and raised her hand. She summoned the water, but this time she didn’t try to pull it from thin air. Instead, she pulled it from the closest root monster, sucking the moisture from them. As she pulled it from the one beast it began to writhe. It shot its branches at her. Raven rolled out of the way, the ground scraping against her skin. It hurt more than it should have, but it was working. The root beast began to grow dry and brittle. She started to smile, but it hurt too much. She looked down at herself. Her skin was stretched and dry, like all the nourishment in her body was being eaten away.
“This is all in my head,” she muttered and kept draining the root beast.
More roots and branches shot at her, but she twisted out of the way. She felt her skin on her shoulder tear, too tight and drawn to completely bear the movement. The branches of the monster scrapped across the ground, breaking into pieces. Raven screamed. She fell to the ground as new agony hit her. It was like chunks of herself were breaking off. The pain was even worse than before, like torture.
She felt a breath by her ear, followed by Tick Tock’s honeyed words. “I can take the pain away. All you have to do is ask.”
She struggled against the pain. The demon’s words were a sweet temptation. She wasn’t sure if she could win against the monsters if everything she does caused her pain like this. Tears seeped at the corner of her eyes.
“Just say the word,” Tick Tock said and his voice burned with anticipation.
A choice. She had to make a choice, but what option did she have? The pain was excruciating, but if she gave up now she might never open her Core magic. She closed her eyes and decided.