15 – The Thing That Was Him
Alex shielded his eyes against the sunlight as he walked along the concrete seawall, just above pavement-height. The straps of his schoolbag dug into his shoulders and he yawned, stretching his neck.
“It’s really bright today, isn’t it?” he said. A strong breeze ruffled his hair as waves broke against the pebble beach, the sky painted in white.
“That’s because the sun is out.” Kari’s voice was curt. She walked along with her hands stuffed in her pockets and her back skeleton straight.
Time to try a different approach. “I wonder what Calis is making?” They were on their way to Alex’s house, where Calis was preparing the latest dish in a fervent cooking streak. He’d been trying out a new recipe for each meal of the day.
“Food,” Kari said.
Alex’s phone pinged. He ignored it and hopped down from the seawall, shooting a worried glance at Kari. “Are you okay?”
Her silence was a blaring answer.
“Is it to do with that flower yesterday?” Alex hesitated. “With your father?” Anxiety slithered through his stomach like creeping tendrils, and with a sinking feeling he realised he still hadn’t asked Calis to teach him about their magic.
Kari jerked to a halt, her hands balled into fists. Her bottom lip quivered. “I have to go.”
“What?” Alex said. “Why? If it’s about your father, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“Mother told me she wants me straight home after school.” Kari gazed across the sea and sunlight glittered off her irises, framing her face in a porcelain glow. There was something off in her expression, something Alex didn’t recognise.
“But…” He tried to picture Hana, setting a curfew, upsetting Kari this way.
She squeezed her eyes shut. “Tell Calis I’m sorry.”
“Kari, wait—” Alex darted forward.
“She just left?” Calis folded his arms and tapped his finger, a scowl on his face.
“She did.” Alex stared at the steaming plate in front of him: a breaded fish fillet sat in the centre, along with fried broccoli and slices of roasted sweet potato. It smelled delicious.
Calis ran an exasperated hand through his hair. “I made enough food for three.”
“That’s not the issue here.” Alex’s eyebrow twitched.
Warm lights bathed the kitchen in yellow and the fridge hummed through the silence. Calis sighed and pulled a chair out, sitting in a heavy motion. He wore a wine-red apron against a white t-shirt, contrasting against the tan of his skin.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “Kari and Hana, they don’t make sense. They’re too… too human.”
“In what way?” Alex had no frame of reference for how outer gods should act.
“Hana was afraid when she saw the flower.” Calis’ eyes clouded. “A primal goddess shouldn’t feel fear, not in a way other people can recognise.”
The red spider lily bloomed in Alex’s mind, petals of twisting crimson and scarlet, and a chill ran down Alex’s spine. What could make Hana, beautiful and terrible as she was, show human fear?
His phone buzzed. Alex bit into the fillet and flavour exploded across his tongue, all fragrant and lemony. “This is good.”
The words hung between them, ruined by the empty chair and third—untouched—plate. Alex’s phone pinged again and the sound flinched through the room.
“Is that Kari?” Calis asked.
Alex checked his phone with a frown. “It’s Nathan.” He’d been quiet at college all day, almost as quiet as Kari.
“What does he want?”
Alex scrolled through the messages. How are you? one said.
What are you doing?
Will you be at school tomorrow?
Unease squirmed through his gut. The memory spell. Nathan needed time to recover from the hole in his memories; that was why he was asking so many questions.
“Nothing important.” Alex shook his head. Kari, Nathan… Even Melody was acting differently, and he couldn’t shake the feeling there was something big he was missing. A red spider lily, then the Shallows. Melody gets promoted, then another red spider lily. If this was the world Alex was going to live in, he needed to take charge of it.
“I need you to teach me magic,” Alex said.
Calis blinked. “What?”
“Magic,” Alex repeated.
“I know,” Calis said. “I just—How did you get from Nathan to magic?”
“With the Shallows and everything, I…” Alex hesitated, staring at his feet. “This is my life now, and I don’t want to be powerless.” He didn’t want Nathan—anyone—to have to go through something like that again.
“You’re not powerless.” Calis set the dishes down in the sink and leaned back facing Alex, his arms folded. “You have me.”
The soul-bond amplified Alex’s power and Calis turned it into magic. Apparently. He still had no idea what that actually meant.
“What does our magic actually do?” Alex said.
“Anything.” Calis snapped his fingers and a flame burst to life at his fingertips. He held it up, the firelight tracing his skin in red. “Everything.”
Alex sucked in a breath. “That’s not possible.”
“Exactly,” Calis said. “The world exists in layers of perception, so-called levels of logic. Physics is the bottom layer, with human logic on top of that.” He spread his hands and the flame grew, widening into a disc of amber and gold. “The higher up your perspective moves, the more clearly you can see.”
Calis grinned. “Abominations.” He clapped his hands together and the flame extinguished with a hiss. “When you perceive at a certain layer of logic, you can manipulate those below. Humans take advantage of physics to build cars and cities; abominations take advantage of humans to bring nightmares to life.”
“So…” Alex took a moment to digest what he’d heard. “Because I can see abominations, I can do magic?”
“In theory,” Calis said. “Your brain is still wired to human logic. To do magic, it will take you years of re-learning how to think.”
“Okay.” Alex nodded. “What does the soul-bond mean?”
“Power.” Lava ran through Calis’ veins, specks of light trickling underneath his skin. “You’re native to this universe, so you anchor my physical body here. I’m native to a higher universe, so I provide far more energy than a single human would be capable of. Your desire is what links us.”
Alex’s stomach twisted. That was why the soul-bond existed, then: Calis was a magical battery. “Why have you never told me this?”
“You didn’t want to know.” Calis smile fell.
Guilt twisted sharply in Alex’s chest. “I’m sorry.”
Calis shook his head. “You’ve already apologised.”
The fridge hummed. Kari’s plate still lay on the table, the food cold and the vegetables beginning to wilt. Alex now knew how their magic worked, through layers of perception, but he still didn’t know how to use it.
“Do I have to call on you whenever I want to use magic?” he said.
“That would be the simplest way, yes,” Calis said. “Except for my fire, we need to work together to make things happen.”
Alex’s fingers curled. “What if we’re separated?” Like when the Shallows attacked.
Calis met Alex’s eyes, his irises flickering scarlet, and Alex’s cheeks burned. Whether from magic or the intensity of Calis’ gaze, he didn’t know. He didn’t want to know.
“Call me, and I’ll be there,” Calis said. “Always.”
Sea mist clung to Melody, rivulets trickling down her armour, and thick night curled around her. She gripped the hilt of her sword with tight fingers, keeping her body low as she darted across the rooftops. Her heart thumped through her chest.
Nathan strolled through the darkness below, half-formed abominations writhing around him. She’d tracked him from his house and up the high street, and now he walked towards the college, the only person out this early in the morning.
What had changed in the past three days? The Shallows had attacked, and Nathan had witnessed Hydro, but he’d been with Alex the whole time. Whatever happened to him had happened afterwards, and she hadn’t noticed.
Melody didn’t want to confront him. Her lungs tightened and her gut twisted but she pushed her emotions down, breathing through them until her head cleared. She was Second Order—she had a duty to do. She would not fail; she would not run. She wouldn’t be like her parents.
Nathan sauntered onto a crossroads. Mist billowed about him.
Melody leapt to the ground and crouched into her landing, the impact brushing over the runes carved into her armour. She drew her blade and green light parted the fog.
He turned on the balls of his feet, the action painfully slow. A smile dragged its way across his face. “Melody.”
“What happened to you?”
Tendrils jittered through the mist around him, Melody’s visor tracing them in green. Ice seeped into her bones. She levelled her sword.
“What do you mean?” Nathan cocked his head.
“You’re out at night,” Melody said.
“Am I not allowed to be out at night?” He spread his arms, his palms raised to the sky. “The silence is so refreshing.”
Her stomach plummeted. She lifted her visor and cold air whipped at her skin.
Nathan’s eyes were still green.
Melody snapped her visor back down and planted her feet into a fighting stance. Her blade rippled with logic. “Who are you?”
“Nathan’s eyes are brown,” she growled.
The thing touched its face with a frown. “Oh dear.” A high-pitched laugh. “I seem to have slipped.”
Anger raced through Melody’s blood. “What have you done with him?” Nathan was her classmate—her friend. What kind of a Knight would Melody be if she couldn’t protect him?
The thing grinned and pressure crashed through the air. The abominations around it evaporated, nausea washing to Melody’s core. A tongue licked along too-sharp teeth.
“I ate him.”
A scream tore its way from her throat and Melody charged. She swung but the thing jumped back and her blade hit the ground, cutting a white-hot line through the tarmac. Another jab. The thing ducked and darted out of range, moving with an impossible speed for something Nathan’s size.
Ratio severa, ratio tenacis. She couldn’t let her emotions overtake her.
Nathan had to be alive.
“Isn’t this fun?” The voice came from right behind her.
The runes on her calves pulsed and Melody jumped, twisting so she just barely avoided the tendril that speared the air where she’d been. More tendrils erupted from the thing’s skin, flesh made shadow, and she sliced through each of them like water. An abomination, wearing Nathan’s face.
How dare it masquerade as human!
Melody sprinted to the side and carved magic into the ground as she ran, cutting a ward around the crossroads. Tendrils lashed towards her. Melody hacked at them and threw her sword just as the abomination tried to escape, forcing it back into the ward long enough for her to close the lines. The sword swept back into her hands and she stabbed it into the ground.
Shallows were one thing, ancient gods another entirely, but Melody had been banishing abominations since she’d been born. Abominations didn’t belong in this universe—the universe itself would send them back.
The ward flared to life in a brilliant emerald, lines and polygons snapping together until the abomination was completely trapped.
She would not fail.
“Intellego te,” Melody yelled, logic rushing under her skin. “Exi!”
The ward shattered.
“Intellego te?” The abomination took a step forward, completely unharmed.
The mist imploded and Melody’s knees hit the tarmac, her muscles shaking, and moisture dripped past her visor. Bile rose to the back of her throat. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t scream.
You dare try to understand me?
The abomination split its mouth wide.
YOU DON’T KNOW ME AT ALL.