4 – A Ritual Most Darke
Night curled through the streets of Rilhey, a twilight splattered with halos of orange from flickering streetlights. Alex swallowed as he navigated through this murk. He was only a couple of minutes away from his house but the atmosphere played at his fear, dark shapes hovering beyond his vision.
Alex shook his head. He was being paranoid; besides, those dark shapes could just be Kari. He clenched his fist around his bag of shopping and the plastic bag dug into the flesh of his fingers. He’d made it to the supermarket just before it closed, thank goodness.
A rasp behind him.
Terror shot up Alex’s spine and his entire body tensed, his fingers clawed. Something rustled, its sounds so alien Alex’s knees trembled just to hear them. The bag dropped to the floor.
Alex turned just as a formless mass tore at him. Before he had the chance to scream, something else flashed blue and an unholy screech pierced the night. Alex scrambled backwards and tripped over his shopping, pain jolting up his bones as he hit the floor.
The thing dissipated in wisps of smoke and Melody stood over him.
Alex’s mouth hung agape.
Melody wore what looked like modern armour, a suit of interlocking black plates and reinforced fibres. Streams of blue light highlighted the armour and geometric symbols caught in their light, circles and triangles and hexagons. Melody’s hair was pinned up, not one strand loose, and a transparent visor covered her eyes. In her hands she held a sword, its blade a shimmering blue.
The blade disappeared in a ripple and Melody tucked the hilt away.
“You shouldn’t be out at night,” she said.
“What?” Alex said.
Melody’s voice sounded exactly the same as she did in school, and Alex’ brain struggled to reconcile the Melody he knew with the Melody before him. A Knight, that was what Kari had called her.
“Haven’t you noticed?” Melody rolled her eyes. “There are no night buses in Rilhey, no nightclubs, and all of the shops close before dusk.”
“I thought that was just England.” Alex stood warily. If Melody knew the truth about Kari, what would she do? Her blade still burned in Alex’s mind, as did that creature’s scream.
Melody sighed and folded her arms as if she was addressing a younger student. “Rilhey has an unusually high concentration of abominations,” she said. “It always has.”
“Malign entities from foreign worlds,” Melody said.
Alex glanced around. “Then why do people live here?” And why had his parents sent him to this town of all places?
Melody glanced up at the sky. A single star was visible through the light pollution, a drop of white against a canvas of black.
“Humans have a remarkable penchant for ignoring that which they don’t want to see,” Melody said. “All the anomalies, the deaths, they’re just treated as a statistical blip.”
That word ‘deaths’ cut through the haze of shock in Alex’s mind and a shiver ran down his spine. All the people he knew, his classmates, teachers… They were all in danger. Always in danger.
“You don’t have to be afraid.” Melody smiled at him. “I’m here, after all. It is my duty to protect humans from abominations.”
Melody’s blade flashed in Alex’s mind again, but its fire took on a warmer hue.
“I…” Alex didn’t know what to say. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Melody said.
Alex picked up his shopping, the plastic cold against his fingers. A thought struck him.
“How come I can see abominations?” he asked.
Melody’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know, but once you see one for what it truly is, you can see them all. Did you have any strange experiences as a child?”
Alex gulped. “No.”
Hana’s bulging eyes and writhing mouths gaped in his mind. He’d always suspected something had changed in him since that day, and now he knew what.
Melody turned her head sharply, her ears pricked. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she breathed. Blue light rippled through the symbols on her greaves and she pushed off the ground, soaring into the night.
Alex almost didn’t expect to see Melody at school the next day. Her blazer was as elegant as ever, her hair falling in a ponytail instead of pinned up. She laughed as she helped another student with his maths, her demeanour completely different to last night. Did any of the other students know what Melody did for them? How much they owed her?
“Why are you staring at Melody?” Kari said.
“She rescued me from an abomination last night,” Alex replied.
Kari’s expression fell as Alex said this, a change so subtle he almost missed it. The corners of her mouth dipped; her posture straightened ever so slightly.
“You went out at night?” Kari said.
“I didn’t know,” Alex said.
Fear of the night was such a cliché thing, such a stereotypical one, that it had never occurred to him it could happen in real life. Of course Alex had noticed how nothing disturbed the silence from dusk till dawn, but coming from an American city to an English town, he’d taken that as a given.
“Is it true there are more abominations here than anywhere else?” Alex said.
A sudden gust banged against the window and the class started. Melody’s head shot towards the commotion, then straight towards Kari.
“Rilhey is a beacon for supernatural activity.” Kari’s emerald eyes seemed to glow. “It’s by the sea, near ancient Saxon barrows, and,” she covered her mouth, “other peculiarities.”
Across the room Melody shook her head and turned back to her work.
“Is that why you’re here?” Alex asked.
Kari hesitated for only a moment, but eons pounded in that split-second. “Not quite.” Something ghosted across her face, but Alex couldn’t place what.
“I’ll stay indoors after dark, then,” Alex said.
Kari inclined her head. “That is best. Speaking of the best, do you want to get bubble tea tomorrow?”
Kari smiled, and for some reason Alex got the impression she was smiling in relief.
“My entire body feels as if it’s been hit with a sledgehammer,” Alex grumbled.
Nathan laughed, a sound so deep and rumbling it made Alex’s toes curl.
“You get used to it,” Nathan said. “Eventually.”
They walked along the seafront, still decked in their sports kits. It was Alex’s second proper week of rugby, and he’d spent most of the session on the ground. Mud splattered his legs and his muscles ached, but he was buzzing with energy. And maybe hormones. Rugby shorts were quite tight, and the sport seemed to carve very firm legs.
No, get your head out of the gutter!
“When eventually?” Alex said, trying to think more about rugby and less about shorts.
“Depends.” Nathan shrugged and Alex watched the way his muscles shifted as he did so. “It took me a good couple of months to build up the strength.”
A couple of months? Alex grimaced. “I can’t wait.”
“You’ll get there.” Nathan patted him on the shoulder and warmth shivered from his touch. “Anyway, I’m heading this way.”
Alex fought not to show his pang of disappointment. “See you on Monday.”
Nathan waved. “See you!”
Then Alex was alone.
Red brushed the sky, the first touch of sunset. Alex had plenty of time to make it home, though. He ploughed forwards with a fervent eagerness. His heart was racing because of Nathan, not because of the howling madness the night might unleash.
Alex was not afraid of the dark.
As he walked, people slipped into their houses until the streets were utterly silent in face of the shadowing sky. Plenty of light still hung in the air, though, the streetlights not even on. Had Nathan got home safely? Maybe Alex should text him. No, damnit, he didn’t have Nathan’s number.
A thud up ahead.
A man was bent double in the road, a large sweat-patch on the back of his shirt. His briefcase lay discarded on the street and he had one hand against a lamppost, the other clutching his throat.
Alex rushed over. “Sir! Are you alright?”
“Can’t… breathe…” The man’s voice was ragged and he could barely glance at Alex, his face flushed with sweat. “Call… ambulance…”
Shit. Oh god.
Alex fumbled with his phone, his heart jumping into his mouth with so much panic he didn’t notice the man moving until Alex’s arms were pinned to his sides and a sweet-smelling cloth was choking his face.
Alex’s eyes watered and he struggled, kicking the man’s shin with all the strength he could muster, but his brain span and the world tilted and night rushed in to meet him, darkness claiming his consciousness.
Kari checked her watch with a frown. Alex was late. Admittedly, he was usually late, but she’d been waiting for over an hour and he still hadn’t turned up. It was at times like this Kari really wished she had a mobile telephone. She could smell the heavenly scent wafting from ‘Rainbow Tea’, that lavish nectar, and her stomachs grumbled, but she couldn’t go in. Alex said he’d be here, and Kari had recently discovered bubble tea tasted even better with friends.
A puff of air.
Friends. Kari had never had them before, at least, not in the traditional sense. A couple of sorcerers had tried to bind her in the Dark Ages, and a hero once tried to kill her with a level of dedication one could interpret as platonic, but never anything more.
It was true what Melody had said. Alex was simple, but Kari liked that. He didn’t mind the fact Kari was an outer god. He probably didn’t fully understand what that meant, but Kari wasn’t going to tell him. There were some things friends didn’t need to know, after all.
Another hour drawled by, each minute a hellish battle not to give in to the temptation of bubbly ambrosia, and when the position of the sun struck a third hour Kari couldn’t wait any longer.
Perhaps something had happened to Alex. He could have died from rugby, or maybe he’d seen Nathan shirtless and the hormones had exploded his brain. Kari wasn’t sure how hormones worked, but it sounded plausible. Hana always said love could kill.
Kari closed her eyes and a shudder ran down her body. When she opened her eyes again, she stood in front of Alex’s house. A quick glance around: no one had noticed her teleporting. Good.
Alex’s house was like him, plain in a comforting sort of way. It was on the smaller side, the walls all pressing in, but with only one person living in it there was no need for more space. Kari pressed the doorbell and the sound echoed through the windows.
Kari could feel no signs of life, the house painfully empty. She sniffed; the scents were all at least a day old. There were no signs of magic, either, nor of any extraplanar interference.
What did Alex do when he wasn’t at school or at home? Oh yes, he had no hobbies apart from rugby. His absence was beginning to concern Kari, in that vague and muted way she felt all her emotions. Did he suspect the truth behind Rilhey’s abominations? No, he couldn’t. Kari shook that idea right out of her head.
Who was intelligent and responsible enough to know where Alex might be? The answer hit Kari like the flick of a ponytail.
It was the smoke that woke Alex, a thick, heady incense that clogged his nostrils. He coughed and retched, bile at the back of his throat, but when he went to steady himself his hands wouldn’t move and he fell on his shoulder.
Alex finally took stock of his surroundings. The room he was in was lit by dripping candles, all the windows boarded up, and thick rope bound Alex’s wrists. Fear clawed at his lungs and he fought not to gulp down the vile air.
The man before him was so plain Alex couldn’t have described any of his features, not even an age. The man was so unremarkable it scratched at Alex’s brain, the twisting panic of something that should be obvious but you just couldn’t see.
Alex tugged at the rope but the knots chafed against his skin. His breath came in pants.
“Hush, boy,” the man said. His voice was like water in the ocean. “It’s futile. You can’t escape.”
“What are you going to do to me?” Alex cried.
The man walked over to a desk at the far side of the room and carefully selected something, a ghost of white. He held it up.
“Alex?” Melody blinked.
Kari leaned forwards. “Have you seen him?”
Melody wore a blazer even on her days off, this one a delicate cream that coupled well against the brown of her skin. Her house loomed behind her, one wing away from a mansion, and Kari could feel the magic pulsing from the geometry of the architecture.
“I—No, I haven’t seen him.” Melody straightened and angled herself so Kari couldn’t see into the house behind her. “How do you know where I live?”
“You have the biggest house in town,” Kari said. “Everyone knows where you live.”
Heat rose to Melody’s face. “That’s none of your business.”
“I didn’t say it was.”
Melody hmphed. “In answer to your question, I haven’t seen Alex, nor do I have any idea where he is.”
“Oh.” Kari felt a knot in her second stomach. She’d really hoped Melody knew. Every second wasted was a second without bubble tea.
Melody folded her arms. “He had rugby, didn’t he?” she said. “Perhaps Nathan has seen him.”
Kari bowed. “Thank you very much, Melody. Your assistance has been invaluable.” That was a Knight, for you.
Kari left before Melody could reply, her steps ringing with newfound purpose. Nathan had to know where Alex was. As soon as Kari was far enough that Melody couldn’t detect her, she teleported to Nathan’s house. Kari had noted down his address when Alex started doing rugby, and the information was paying off.
She rang the doorbell and a middle-aged woman opened it, a baby in her arms chewing on her hair. Huh. Kari hadn’t known human infants fed on keratin.
“Can I help?” the woman asked, her tone of voice implying she really didn’t want to.
“Is Nathan in?” Kari asked.
“Nathan? Yes, one moment.” The woman turned her head. “Nathan! Your friend is here!”
“Friend?” came Nathan’s voice. “Which one?”
The woman looked at Kari. “Uh…”
“We’re not friends,” Kari said. “We’re in the same maths class.”
“I see.” The woman frowned.
Kari did her best to look friendly and the baby burst into tears. The woman patted the baby’s back and muttered apologies, slipping away as Nathan came to the door.
“Oh, Kari!” Nathan said. “What a surprise.”
He wore a cashmere sweater that looked wonderfully warm, and Kari made a mental note to buy seven of them.
“Is Alex here?” Kari asked.
“Alex?” Nathan blinked. “No, why? Is everything alright?”
“He didn’t show up for bubble tea,” Kari said.
Nathan must have had nerves of steel, because he didn’t even flinch at this shocking news.
“Bubble tea, huh?” Nathan grinned. “I haven’t had that in a while.”
Kari’s heart raced. “Do you want to come with us next time?”
“I’d like that.”
Kari smiled, a warmth curling in her veins. Perhaps this year she’d finally get to experience school life as a human.
“About Alex, I last saw him yesterday, on the way home from rugby,” Nathan said.
Kari cocked her head. It wasn’t a huge leap in logic to guess Alex had never made it home. Worry fluttered in her stomachs.
“What time was this?” Kari said.
“Just after five, I think.”
Before sunset, then, but barely. A chill breeze hit the back of Kari’s neck and her hair whipped about her.
Nathan shivered. “Good luck searching for Alex. Do tell me when you find him.”
Kari nodded. “I will.”
The man traced lines and angles on the floor and Alex could only cower as dread forms took shape, geometric patterns of horrifying significance. Again, that word ‘non-Euclidean’ came to mind.
The very fabric of what was real and true tore before the arcane writings, and things coiled in the trappings of chalk. The man chanted, the words ripping through the air, and Alex’s muscles shook. Sweat drenched his skin and he clambered desperately at the walls, but they were utterly smooth, with nothing his bonds could tear on.
A grin split the man’s face as he chanted, a mad expression of hallow and hell. The candles flickered and their light twisted around writhing masses, wicked creatures Alex could see even through eyelids clenched tightly shut.
Why was this happening to him? How many people had this happened to before? All he wanted was to find a hobby, pass his exams and maybe get a boyfriend, but here he was, trapped in a madman’s basement. Oh god.
The madman stopped chanting but his words still danced through the shadows, a tumultuous symphony. He took a slender knife from the desk, its blade yellowed bone.
“Now it’s your time.”
Alex shook to his bones. “You’re going to sacrifice me.”
A laugh. “You’re not that important.” The madman licked his lips. “I just need your blood.”
Alex scrambled away but the madman gripped him with an inhuman strength, his fingers digging into Alex’s arm.
The madman dragged Alex into the centre of the chalk circles and Alex fought, but a sharp pain dragged along his forearm. He hissed as lances of agony stabbed through his flesh.
Blood welled red and when it hit the floor the sound exploded through the air, the abominations around the room screaming.
No. In some sick, twisted way, Alex recognised they were singing.
The man tossed Alex to the side and he hit the floor hard, blood slicking his clothes. His arm stung. Crimson bled through the chalk on the floor and the air pressure dropped.
The madman flung his arms wide. “Come, o great goddess!” he yelled. “Bless me with your divine madness!”
The windows shattered. Alex shielded his face from the flying glass and something dove into the room, blue light cutting through the smoke and shadow.
She took in the situation at a glance and dived towards Alex, her blade slashing through an abomination as she went. Another slice and the ropes around his arms fell away.
“You’re too late, Knight,” the madman cackled. “The blood offering has already been made!”
“No!” Melody yelled at the madman, her voice filled with such wrath Alex cowered. “I won’t let you do this!”
Melody levelled her blade and drove towards the madman, but a glistening tendril slapped her across the room. She hit a wall with a crunch and fell to the floor. Alex cried out, but Melody jumped to her feet and wiped the blood from her nose. Strands of hair tumbled down her face.
“Exi!” Melody shouted.
The abomination shattered in a shower of light but more filled its place, the very fabric of space twisting and fluxing.
“Iä!” the madman screeched. “Iä! She comes!”
The chalk circles pulsed red and Melody dived at Alex, knocking him to the floor. She whispered words and a protective film enveloped them.
Alex could only watch, his eyes wide with terror. The abominations’ singing rose to a mad crescendo and the madman screamed, blood streaming from his eyes. This was it. This was the end.
Power crashed through the air.
The circle flashed crimson.
A poof of smoke and something blinked. Emerald eyes glittered in porcelain skin.
“Alex,” Kari said, her expression as blank as ever. “There you are.”
The madman fell to his knees. “Goddess.”
Kari glanced at the madman, brows furrowed, then noticed the cut on Alex’s arm. She gritted her teeth, an expression so unlike her Alex felt his muscles twitch.
“He did this to you?” Kari asked.
Melody was frozen in shock and Alex could barely nod. Kari. The madman had summoned Kari.
Alex didn’t even see Kari move. In a heartbeat she loomed over the madman and he turned, but too slow. A flick of Kari’s finger and the madman shot to the floor so hard the cement cracked.
The abominations around the room wailed and Kari glared at them.
“You lot need to go.” Kari waved her hand and the abominations all blinked out of existence. In that split-second the atmosphere of the room completely reversed, and Alex could breathe again.
Relief crashed through his veins. It was just Kari.
Kari stepped forwards. “You were late for bubble tea.”
“I got held up.” Alex grinned.
Kari ducked her face, hiding behind her hair, and there was that same expression from before, the one Alex hadn’t been able to place. Guilt.
“What the hell is going on?” Melody demanded, her nostrils flared.
Kari gazed around the basement. “I think Alex was kidnapped.”
Melody was too stunned to speak.
“That’s the kidnapper.” Kari pointed at the madman. “Melody, I expect your people will deal with him.”
The madman groaned and Alex shuddered.
“But…” Melody struggled to form words. “You… You’re a…”
Kari knelt down and traced the cut on Alex’s arm. Her touch was cold, but his skin prickled and the wound closed up immediately, not even a trace of a scar left behind.
“Come on,” Kari said. “I’m thirsty and I want bubble tea.”
Alex smiled. No matter what she was, Kari was still Kari. Alex and Kari left the basement and Melody followed wordlessly, her sword tracing a line of aquamarine light along the floor.
The blood left on Alex dripped down his arm and splashed onto the pages of a book he stepped over, but none of the three noticed. Kari closed the front door behind her and the drop of blood sank into the page.
A heartbeat. The ink scribbled on the page pulsed crimson.