7 – A Hollow Fire
A straitjacket lashed the madman to the chair, his head bound so he couldn’t hurt himself. The whites of his eyes throbbed with lunacy and his mouth frothed as he chanted a stream of gibberish.
Melody curled her fingers into her arm. The man’s name was Anthony Marsh and madness had taken him over completely, severing the spider-silk thread that held each sorcerer to his sanity. When Melody closed her eyes she saw Alex’s blood on a knife and abominations writhing in a basement. She saw Kari banish the abominations an instant.
“No tattoos.” Cemi folded his arms as he joined Melody at the window. A strip of pale light illuminated the corridor, but the gloom was not to be feared. Darkness was natural.
A man of harsh lines, Cemi’s decades of service had carved a permanent frown across his face. His armour glowed red against his brown skin, branding him a Third Order Knight and Melody’s superior.
Melody glanced at Anthony, then back at Cemi. “Cult of the Pure?”
“Not in England.” Cemi shook his head. “Cult of the Forgotten, most likely.”
Melody pursed her lips. The Cult of the Forgotten was an elusive one, its members trained to blend invisibly into society. They had a single goal—madness, as if faith alone could keep their minds from wrecking when they saw it.
“You did well in apprehending him,” Cemi said. “He was a second-order threat.”
“I owe it all to your training.” Melody kept her expression still. She couldn’t let slip about Kari, about Melody’s failure to handle the situation.
No. Even if Kari hadn’t interrupted, Melody would have managed. She would have succeeded. She would.
Cemi nodded. “If it weren’t for the service restrictions, you would already have made it to Second Order.”
Melody didn’t smile. It wasn’t praise; Cemi was just stating the truth.
Cemi brushed his fingers on the glass between them and Anthony. Where he touched his magic rearranged the molecules, smoothing out imperfections so the glass was clear as air, so perfect it almost didn’t exist. He withdrew his hand and the glass reverted.
“The Sixth Star has been bounded.” Cemi’s eyes jumped amber in his armour’s light.
Melody sucked in a breath. “You mean—”
“The Rhapsody shall happen within two years at most.”
Melody fought the flood of panic that crashed through her, each second that dragged by a battle not to lose her composure. Ratio severa. Ratio tenacis. She was stronger than her humanity.
The final battle in the final war. Order would prevail, else chaos would destroy all that was good and sacred. This was Melody’s only goal in life; her entire reason to exist.
“We will win.” Cemi placed his hand on her shoulder. “Until then…”
“I know,” Melody said.
Binding the Stars brought abominations closer to this reality, a necessary sacrifice. A year or two of pain and constant struggling, then it would all be over. The world would be safe.
A muffled scream cut the air and Anthony shrieked in his cell, his face red and the cords in his neck stretched taut. He had no hope, not with madness as this. Pity flickered in Melody’s gut, but the memory of Alex in that basement soon shattered it.
“Find out if he who he was in contact with,” Cemi ordered. “It will be troublesome if people come looking.”
Melody bowed her head. “As you command.”
Alex’s alarm tore him from sleep and he stumbled out of bed. His eyelids felt like lead and exhaustion fogged his brain, the events of last night crashing down on him. Calis. The soul-bond. Six-pack abs and skin like fire. Blood rushed through Alex’s body.
Alex glowered as he dressed himself and a delicious smell poked at his nostrils. Something sizzled in the kitchen. Alex emerged from his room to find Calis frying bacon and eggs, humming to himself. The tune pricked at Alex’s memory but he couldn’t put his finger on it. His heart skipped a beat and his stomach growled.
“Morning,” Alex yawned.
“Good morning.” Calis’ grin was radiant. “Did you sleep well?”
“For like four hours.” Alex rolled his eyes and peered over Calis’ shoulder. “I didn’t know you cooked.”
“Neither did I.” Calis dashed salt onto the eggs and flipped the bacon. “I guess you must have been hungry when you summoned me.”
Alex’s gut twisted and he sat, his eyes fixed on Calis’ back. The shirt Alex had given him didn’t look crumpled, fitting snugly against hard muscles. Had Calis slept at all? Did incubi even sleep?
“You really were created to serve me, huh.” Alex bit his lip.
“Pretty much.” Calis shrugged.
“And you’re okay with it?” Guilt coiled in Alex’s stomach. He’d been so overwhelmed last night he’d pushed all his anger at Calis, not once stopping to consider how Calis felt.
Calis switched off the hob and slid the bacon and eggs onto a plate. He set the food before Alex and leaned against the counter, his arms folded.
“Before you summoned me, I… existed, but I wasn’t really alive,” Calis said. “Everything I am comes from you. I’ve never known anything else.”
Alex poked the fried egg with his fork and the yolk wobbled, just the way he liked it. Calis was a blank slate, like Alex. In a selfish way, that brought a thin smile to his lips.
“So you made me breakfast because you didn’t know what else to do?” Alex said.
What had Hana called Calis? A magical pet. Alex really wasn’t comfortable with the idea, nor with keeping Calis as a servant. A slave. Alex never cooked breakfast; Calis did this just to please him.
“I was bored.” Calis laughed, a rumbling sound. “Though that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to.”
Alex cut into the egg and the yolk pooled on the plate, a thick yellow.
“Don’t you want to change?” Alex’s voice was quiet. “To be your own person?”
“That will happen either way.” Calis sat opposite Alex and rested his head on his arms. “Being you isn’t a bad place to start.”
The gaze Calis fixed him with was so intense Alex had to look away. He distracted himself by scooping egg into his mouth.
“We can figure out who we are together,” Alex said.
“Yeah.” Calis’ irises flickered and he smiled, an expression that lit up his whole face.
Heat rose to Alex’s face and he ducked his head. “By the way, what’s with the horns and tail?” As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t get that image out of his head.
Calis shrugged. “You must have got it from somewhere.”
“Are you sure?” Alex quirked his eyebrow. “I’ve never seen anything quite like you.”
“Stop it.” Calis winked. “You’ll make me blush.”
Alex spluttered and shovelled the rest of the food into his mouth, his face burning. His chair scraped as he shot to his feet.
“I’m going to be late.” He liked Nathan.
Calis collected his plate. “Have fun at school.”
A cold wind blustered and Calis’ skin broke out in goose-bumps. He ran his fingers over them, marvelling at the shivers that traced his body. So this was what it felt like to exist in the physical world. Each moment was an explosion of information, an indescribable burst of colours and sounds. Cold. Calis was pretty certain that was what his body was telling him, and he rather liked the sensation.
Rilhey College poked its head over the green next to the seafront, a concrete building splashed with red and blue paint. Shouts drifted from behind the college and it took Calis a couple of tries before he found the alley that led to the back field, where teenagers were busy chasing each other for a squashed ball. Rugby.
Calis squinted, but he couldn’t make out Alex. Was that him there, running with the ball? No, too buff.
Calis wasn’t the only spectator. A group of girls were talking amongst themselves when one of them noticed Calis and her mouth hung agape. Calis winced. Don’t make a scene. He could already hear Alex scolding him.
Then Calis’ eyes snapped to a figure by the side of the field and he froze.
An outer god—an existence so absolute all others paled in comparison. Calis’ insides twisted and his blood ran cold. His soul still screamed from where Hana had grasped it, his mind still reeling from her madness.
And yet, Hana had only attacked Calis to protect Alex. For an outer god to act in such a way was laughable. Humans did not dance with ants, after all. Here Hana and Kari were, however, taking the form of those so very beneath them.
Kari looked so small by the side of the field, standing all alone.
So very human.
Alex wanted Calis to hide what he was, and if Kari could masquerade as human, then so could he. Swallowing his fear, Calis strode up to Kari with a grin on his face.
“Fancy seeing you here,” he said.
Kari didn’t so much as blink as he joined her. “I’m waiting for Alex so we can get bubble tea.”
This was not the conversation he’d been expecting.
“Bubble tea?” Calis frowned.
The look Kari shot Calis made a shudder run down his spine.
“You don’t know it.” Kari snorted. “You were born yesterday.”
A nervous chuckle. “I guess I was.”
Calis held innate understanding of the world, but whenever he poked and prodded it he uncovered a new gap in his knowledge. Rugby, for instance. What was the point? Calis watched one guy knock another to the floor and he winced. He hadn’t taken Alex for the masochistic type.
“Why are you here?” Kari glanced at Calis sideways.
“I got bored,” Calis said.
“You should do what Alex does when he gets bored and complain,” Kari said. “As I understand, it’s very cathartic.”
Calis quirked his eyebrow. “Complain to who?”
Speaking of Alex, it was difficult to pick him out when all the players were splashed in mud. Calis sniffed and a mess of brine, soil and sweat flooded his nose. He peeled the tangle of scents apart until he found that Alex’s musk and traced it to figure near the edge of the field, lagging behind but plodding with a dogged determination. Warmth filled Calis’ stomach.
“You use scents, too.” The corners of Kari’s lips curled.
“I do.” He was surprised she’d noticed.
Kari nodded. “It’s easier than sight. Too much information comes through the eyes.”
“I guess.” Calis gulped.
The electromagnetic spectrum did not overwhelm outer gods; for Kari to struggle with processing invisible light was preposterous. But then, Kari was unique. Calis couldn’t place it, but something in the way that she spoke rang different.
Kari twirled a lock of hair, the movement speaking volumes. “You love Alex.” It was not a question.
“Of course I do.” Calis smiled sadly.
Calis was born this way, his love seared into the contract on his soul. His feelings for Alex were a raging inferno, a burning star at the core of his being, and he knew he had no control over them. He had no choice, but even so, they were the only emotions Calis had. Alex’s happiness was Calis’ happiness.
Alex tripped and fell face-first to the ground. Calis bristled forwards but Alex shot up and laughed his teammates away, his cheeks red with embarrassment. Determined to try his best, even if it hurt. When the contract had been formed, Calis had seen every single thought and experience Alex had ever had, even ones he himself wasn’t aware of. Alex wasn’t a bad person to love.
Calis turned to Kari but froze when he met her gaze. Her eyes blazed green and the entire universe shone through them, an eternity so profound, so indescribable Calis could only cower. Infinity burned through Kari, and an incubus such as Calis could never compare.
“If you hurt Alex he’ll be sad.” Kari’s voice were barely audible, but to Calis it was the only thing he heard.
Calis wanted to tell her he’d never hurt Alex, he’d never hurt anyone, but the words wouldn’t come. He’d promised to help Alex with Nathan. Calis’ mouth hung agape and tears stung at his eyes. His lips moved on their own.
It was the words Kari hadn’t said that made his heart bleed.
“Kari!” The voice cut through the silence and Kari broke eye contact.
Calis turned to where a girl stalked over, her skin dark and her hair pulled into a pony tail. Her soul flickered with magic: a Knight.
“You must be Melody.” Calis extended his hand.
Melody hesitated then took it, her pulse racing through her skin. She cleared her throat and readjusted her blazer.
“Who are you?” Melody said.
“My name is Calis,” Calis introduced.
“He’s an incubus,” Kari added, and outlined the situation.
Melody covered her eyes. “A soul-pact.” She locked her jaw, her posture so taut Calis shrank away.
Someone whistled across the field and the sound stabbed into Calis’ ears. He winced. Kari’s eyes still crawled over him.
“I won’t hurt Alex,” Calis said.
They had to believe him. A Knight and an outer god, both looking out for the same person.
The flicker of a smile crossed Kari’s face.
“Of course you won’t.” Melody sighed. “Plenty of Knights have familiars. I’ll sleep easier knowing Alex has you to keep him out of trouble.”
“Actually…” Calis stared at his feet. “Alex doesn’t want me to use magic.”
“What?” Melody frowned. “That’s ridiculous.”
Kari stepped between them. “I understand.”
Calis understood, too, but it still made his gut twist. Alex didn’t want him—Alex didn’t even want to acknowledge what he was. Calis couldn’t blame him, but it still hurt. At least, he thought it hurt. He didn’t have any point of reference.
“Regardless, this is a fortunate turn of events.” Melody flicked her ponytail. “Calis, you were summoned at Anthony Marsh’s house, correct?”
The rugby game ended before Melody could elaborate. A massive cheer went up and there was lots of singing, shouting and hugging, then Alex game over with a larger guy in tow. Calis swallowed.
He had a kind face.
“Oh hey, Calis.” Alex wiped the sweat from his forehead. “You actually came.”
“Was I not supposed to?” Calis said.
“No, it…” Alex’s eyes darted to Nathan and back. “It’s nothing. I’m glad you got out the house.”
Calis pretended not to notice the hesitation.
“Who’s this?” Nathan said. His skin glistened with a sheen of sweat and mud.
“My… friend, Calis,” Alex introduced.
Nathan smiled. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Calis shook his hand and Nathan’s pulse raced, but that could have just been due to the exercise. Was there a quirk in Nathan’s eyebrows? Dilation of his pupils whenever he looked at Alex? Calis couldn’t quite tell.
Melody cleared her throat. “I was speaking with Kari.”
“No you weren’t.” Kari straightened. “I’m getting bubble tea with Alex and Nathan.”
“But—” Melody spluttered.
Kari glared at her. “I’m getting bubble tea.”
Melody flinched a step backwards and Calis winced in sympathy. Kari’s glares were a force of nature.
“Why don’t you come with us?” Alex suggested. “Calis, you too.”
Calis’ heart raced and his soul jumped. “Sounds good.”
“If you insist.” Melody turned her head with a humph, but she couldn’t hide the smile in her posture.
Calis met Alex’s eyes and Alex grinned.
Black pearls floated in Calis’ tea, made from a glossy film that did not look edible. He swirled his straw. An outer god’s drink of choice. What would it taste like? Calis took a sip and sugar flooded his tongue, then the pearl burst a sickly sweet and he jumped.
Alex laughed. “Yeah, they do that.”
“I’d forgot how good bubble tea was.” Nathan sighed contently. He leaned with his arms up on the back of the seat, but did his body twist towards Alex or towards the group in general?
Melody poked her tea, her eyes narrow. “I don’t see any tea leaves.”
“It’s good.” Kari stared at Melody.
With a frown Melody took a sip. Her eyes lit up and for a moment a grin split her face, an expression of innocent joy, then the grin snapped back and Melody coughed. She covered her mouth.
Calis took one more gulp and the tea lumped down his throat. “I don’t like it.”
Kari snapped towards him so suddenly the air cracked.
“It’s too sweet.” Sweat trickled down Calis’ spine.
Alex had downed his bubble tea in one, and Calis had ordered exactly the same flavours as him. Too sweet. That was Calis, something he didn’t get from Alex. A trait all of his own!
“Ask for less sugar.” Kari hmphed. “And don’t get fruit tea. Everyone likes bubbles.”
Alex laughed and leaned towards Nathan, an action as subtle as someone who had no idea how to flirt. That being said, Nathan still seemed oblivious. Calis said he’d help Alex, but what was he supposed to do? His eyes traced where the two of them brushed against each other and guilt coiled in his stomach.
Calis should not be feeling jealous. Worse than that, though, was a creeping realisation he couldn’t deny. It was in Nathan’s mannerisms and the inflections of his speech, in the lights that flickered through his eyes. Calis wasn’t sure how he knew, but he was certain he was correct. He knew it as well as he knew Alex:
Nathan was straight.