10 – The Shadow Over Rilhey
A webbed hand burst from the ocean and a fish creature pulled itself up onto the rocks, spray dripping from its limbs. Wet gills throbbed against grey, bulbous flesh, and Calis punched it square in the face. His fist sunk into blubbery skin and the creature tottered, then collapsed back into the waves. Calis wiped the slime from his knuckles.
Shallow Ones, the creatures were called. Kari insisted they were native to Earth, and by the rancid smell Calis had to agree. Nothing alien would deign smell like that. Calis stood fast at the base of the bluff behind Kari’s house, adrenaline pumping through his veins and a supernatural sense of balance the only thing saving him from slipping on the rain-slick rocks. He had to stop these creatures here, before they could overrun the town.
Wet footsteps behind him. Calis spun and caught the Shallow with a roundhouse, knocking it into the one behind it. They cracked into the sand past the rocks, where rain pounded down on a beach covered with sinewy bodies.
Except, none of the Shallows were actually dead.
A flicker of annoyance. Calis lashed out at a Shallow’s head with enough force it should have shattered rock, but the impact only made a flumping sound as the Shallow toppled over its heels. The damn things were bloody indestructible, and worse—mind-numbingly stupid.
Air cracked across the other side of the beach, as sharp and regular as gunshots. Kari strolled up and down the cove, kicking Shallows as she passed with as much effort as one would bat a fly. Her attacks launched each creature from the surf to the depths a good half-way to the horizon.
“They’re not stopping.” Kari didn’t yell exactly, but her voice reverberated along the beach either way.
“I know,” Calis shouted back, exasperated. Why the hell was this happening? Why now of all times, when Alex was stuck on the other side of Rilhey?
A Shallow grabbed onto Kari’s leg mid-kick, a desperate attempt to save itself. Kari spun with enough force to boom through the sound barrier and the Shallow exploded into three more as they all hurtled into the distance. The wiser Shallows steered away from Kari. Towards Calis.
Damnit! Calis gathered his magic, flames spitting in the rain, and kicked a Shallow with all the strength he could muster. A satisfying crack of bone and Calis grinned as the Shallow soared through the air… then fell to the sea mere metres from the shore.
“You need to hit them harder,” came Kari’s voice.
Calis growled and the rain steamed where it hit him, but his fire was useless. Without Alex, there was precious little he could do.
In the blink of a writhing mass of eyes, Kari stood next to Calis. Whereas the magic boiling through Calis kept him dry, Kari was completely soaked, her hair plastered to her face like black tendrils. Her eyes burned in the rain.
“Go to Alex,” Kari said.
A single raindrop fell from Kari’s chin and in the space before it hit the floor, she shot five more Shallows back into the ocean. Calis had barely seen her move.
Kari met his eyes. “I can handle this.”
Calis knew Alex was safe. He could feel it through the soul-bond, but whether Alex would stay safe for long was a different matter entirely. Did Alex want Calis’ help? Did Calis even want to give it? No, it didn’t matter, not at a time like this. Calis had magic. He was going to protect Alex, whether he liked it or not.
Calis locked his jaw. “Good luck.”
Hana had told him to look after Kari, but it was clear Alex was in the most danger right now. The Shallows that had escaped into the town had no one to stop them; Calis couldn’t afford to hesitate. He gathered his magic in his calves and leapt, clearing the bluff up to Kari’s house in one jump. Wind stung past his eyes. Calis landed in a burst of mud and tore down the path, fire at his heels.
“We need to stay calm,” Alex breathed.
The fish creatures shambled towards him and Nathan, a low rumbling in their throats, and Alex covered his nose against the stench. Outnumbered. No sign of Calis, Kari nor Melody. Alex was not calm.
“How can you stay calm?” Nathan cried. “It’s… That’s…” A panicked jerk. “Look at them!”
“I am,” Alex hissed.
Not helping! What would Kari do? Teleport. Shit. He shrank a step backward, his heart running a treadmill through his chest. At least the creatures were slow.
Alex’s eyes widened. “Their legs.”
“What?” Nathan faltered.
“Look at them. Look how they walk.”
The fish people half-shuffled, half-hopped, their gaits unstable. Top-heavy.
Screams burst from the high street around the corner and a car alarm pealed through the rain. A stream of water trickled down Alex’s back, almost as cold as the fear coiling down his spine.
A wing mirror bumped into Alex’s hip as he pressed against a car on the side of the road. Nowhere left to run.
“We need to get to the high street,” Alex decided. There would be more people there. Force in numbers.
“How?” Nathan clenched his fist.
“We hit their legs,” Alex said. “It’s their weak point.” At least, he really hoped it was.
The creatures closed in, half-light glancing off their bulbous skin. Out of time.
Nathan shook his head. “Okay.” He locked his jaw. “I can do this.”
A fish creature lunged.
Before Alex could duck, Nathan swung his gym bag and launched it at the creature’s legs. A cry somewhere between human and frog leapt from its throat as the creature fell flat on its face. An opening.
Wasting no time, Alex darted around it, Nathan at his heels. The high street was a scene from a budget horror film, the tarmac a carpet of broken windshields and shattered windows. Shambling horrors waded through shards of glass swirling through overflowed drains and townsfolk made mad dashes towards the relative safety of closed doors.
“In here! Quick!”
Alex snapped his head towards the voice. It was the receptionist from the gym, holding the door open with a frantic expression. Alex dashed inside and the receptionist slammed the door shut behind them. Puddles soaked the lobby and electric lights flickered.
“You’re safe here,” the receptionist said. “This girl with a sword came along. Did that.”
Soaked people huddled across the lobby, their eyes wide with fright. A mother was trying to stop her sons crying by coaxing them with sweets from the vending machine, her efforts in vain. The children’s wails rang in Alex’s ears.
What the hell was going on? Wrong. All wrong, this couldn’t be real. Where was everyone else?
A stab of guilt. Calis had magic; he could have done something to help these people. If only Alex hadn’t sent him away… A wave of self-loathing rose through him but he pushed it down, didn’t dare let it surface.
“What… What is that?” Nathan said.
An ice-blue symbol glowed on the glass front door, three cuts shaped into a triangle. Alex raised his hand to it and felt a crackle of power brush his fingertips.
“Melody.” Alex grinned.
He peered out of the glass and could see similar marks slashed all along the high street, those left out on the streets fleeing to their refuge. The fish creatures clambered over cars and swung from lampposts almost aimlessly, a tableau of chaos, but as soon as one ventured too close to a triangle they jerked backwards with a yelp of pain.
“What does Melody have to do with this?” Nathan’s face was pale. “What do you have to do with this?” He clutched his phone with white knuckled hands and Alex caught a glimpse of the photo on Nathan’s lock-screen: his mother and baby sister.
“It’s a long story,” Alex said. “Are your family safe?” He should have asked sooner.
Nathan checked his phone. “They went to Toddington for the day, and can’t get back because of the flooding.”
“That’s probably a good thing.” Alex offered a smile.
“Yeah.” Nathan breathed shakily.
Alex was suddenly very glad he lived alone. If his parents had been caught in his mess, there was a good fifty-percent chance his Dad would have tried to strike up conversation with one of the creatures.
The receptionist interrupted. “You said you know the girl who saved us?” A cut scratched her face, a blood-red line against rain-wet skin.
“I do, yeah,” Alex said.
Hope flickered through her eyes. “Can you help us?”
Alex’s breath caught in his throat. He could feel people staring at him, their eyes drilling into his back. He could feel Nathan staring at him.
“I…” Alex locked his jaw. “I’ll try.”
He had to. He had no idea what was going on, but he at least had more clue than the rest of Rilhey’s residents. What could he do? This was Melody’s area of expertise, her job. She was a Knight, and she’d already organised the high street into refuges. Alex needed to find her.
“Do you know where Melody went?” he asked the receptionist.
“I think the college,” the receptionist said.
Of course. Rilhey College was right by the seafront; it stood to reason Melody would be in the centre of the action. At least it wasn’t a school day.
Alex reached for the door but Nathan grabbed his wrist.
“What are you doing?” Nathan said. “You can’t… You’re not really going out there, are you?”
It wasn’t the fear in his voice that made Alex stop, but the disbelief. Alex, going out into the rain. Into the danger. Ridiculous. He was just some gay teenager with no other discernible character traits, least of all ‘heroic’.
Alex’s knees shook. He was afraid. Terrified. Of course he didn’t want to go back out there, but his friends were all fighting. Kari. Melody.
Alex didn’t know if he wanted to see Calis. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he couldn’t stay indoors. He couldn’t do nothing while monsters invaded his town and children huddled with their parents in a gym’s lobby, dripping with rain and frightened beyond madness.
“I have to try,” Alex said. Try what, he didn’t know, but he had to do it.
“Okay then.” Nathan gulped and clenched his eyes shut. He opened them. “Let’s go.”
Alex blinked. “You’re coming with me?”
“I can’t let you go out there on your own.” A shaky smile.
Relief flooded Alex’s stomach and he nodded.
Alex braced himself as he pushed back out into the rain, but the downpour didn’t hit him as hard as before, or perhaps he’d just got used to it. The light of Melody’s triangle made his nape tingle and the fish creatures ignored him where he stood, their attentions focused on more accessible prey.
Right. A plan. Get the people in danger out of danger, from the street to the warded buildings, then make it to where Melody was. That sounded simple enough.
For the life of him, Alex couldn’t figure out what the creatures wanted. They chased after anything that moved but seemed more than ready to give up as soon as their quarry fled out of view. Considering the tens, if not hundreds, of creatures swarming the length of the high street, though, escaping them was easier said than done.
A scream from two doors down snatched Alex’s attention. A woman cowered inside a car as a fish creature clambered onto its roof, its claws scratching the metal as it climbed.
“You distract the monster, I’ll get her out the car?” Alex said.
Nathan nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”
With a level of courage that made Alex jealous, Nathan charged. The creature had just managed to prop itself up on its legs when Nathan grabbed its knees and tackled it off the roof of the car, slamming it to the sidewalk with a cry.
Alex yanked open the car door and pulled the woman out of the car, her grip on his wrist tight with fright.
“Run inside one of the buildings with the glowing triangles,” Alex said.
“Thank you.” Her lip trembled.
Alex watched her stumble inside a grocery store then slid over the hood of the car to where Nathan was barely keeping his hold on the creature.
“A little help here!” he grunted.
Alex kicked the creature’s head. His heel collided with what felt like a cushioned brick and he yelped, but kicked again and again until the creature fell still. Nathan staggered to his feet. Cuts decorated his arms and face and his chest heaved.
“I don’t know how long I can do this,” Nathan breathed.
A fresh hoard of fish creatures hopped down the high street, croaking and screeching, and the scent of rotten fish was so strong nausea rushed to Alex’s head.
“We need to find Melody,” he said. She’d know what to do.
Something cut through the fish creatures before Nathan could reply, a flash of fire. The creatures collapsed one after the other, keeling over into the road, and fear bled through Alex’s veins. Friend? Or foe?
The creatures parted.
Alex’s mouth went dry. Calis stood in the middle of the street, a cloud of steam surrounding him and fire running through his veins. Fangs poked from his mouth and when his eyes met Alex’s, his irises burned.
“You’re safe.” Calis smiled in relief as he jogged over.
Alex couldn’t say it. He couldn’t say anything. This was the Calis he’d first met, the Calis he’d run for his life from. The vision of fire and brimstone, the one Alex had denied.
This is the Calis that came back for Alex.
“Oh my god.” Nathan stared at Calis. “You’re on fire.”
“Thank you,” Calis said.
He was right there, so close Alex could reach out and touch him. Alex could smell Calis’ magic even through the stench of the fish creatures, a heady ash, and his heart pulsed. The soul-bond.
“We need to find Melody,” Alex blurted out.
Calis frowned. “Melody?”
“Damnit, that’s not what I meant to say.” Why was this so difficult? God, Alex felt useless all over again.
“You’re not finding Melody?” Calis quirked his eyebrow.
“No, we are, but…” Alex swallowed. Just two words. “Calis, I…”
Calis’ gaze softened, then something hard rippled through his expression. A stab to Alex’s heart. Rain finally hit Calis’ face, his fire dimming.
Calis turned away. “Where’s Melody?”
“At the college.” Nathan glanced between Alex and Calis, a question on his face, but had the mercy to stay silent.
“Oh.” Calis paused. “That’s a problem.”
“What is?” Alex’s heart skipped a beat.
“The college is that way.” Calis pointed.
A good ten, fifteen fish creatures huddled in the middle of the road, jittering straight towards them.
“Can’t your magic get rid of them?” Alex asked.
He didn’t want to speak to Calis, to face his mistakes like this, but he had no choice. If he didn’t make eye contact, he couldn’t see the coldness in Calis’ eyes. The hatred Alex just knew would be there.
“Not without you,” Calis said.
The creatures lurched forwards and Alex backed away, conscious not to brush Calis. He couldn’t.
“What?” Alex gulped.
Calis sighed. “My magic works through you,” he said. “That’s what a soul-bond does. I amplify your power and turn what you wish into reality.”
Alex struggled to process this, his brain linking words together while his eyes were fixed on the fish creatures’ claws.
“You have fire.” Alex didn’t understand.
“My fire was your first wish,” Calis said. “Your subconscious one.”
“But I’m just Alex.” A nobody.
“The reason sorcerers summon abominations is because witnessing that madness, that chaos, gives them power.” Calis’ gaze was fierce. “From the very moment you first saw Hana’s true form, you’ve been a sorcerer.”
No. He couldn’t be.
Alex stepped into the shadow of a doorway, one without a glowing triangle. The fish creatures yapped and hopped, closing in fast. Too many of them.
“Whatever you’re planning, do it quick!” Nathan’s voice was thick with panic.
Alex’s head span, tendrils and eyes and mouths clawing through his mind. “I don’t have magic.”
“I am your magic,” Calis hissed. “Now use me!”
A flash of lightning and another drain burst. A torrent of dark water swamped down the street and the fish creatures leapt through it. Alex squeezed his eyes shut. His shoulder pressed against Calis’, the touch fever-hot.
“Calis…” Thunder clapped. Alex opened his eyes. “Let’s get rid of them.”