12 – Inquisition
The Knights moved fast. The road that led from college to the town centre was completely obstructed, trees and rubble and Hydro’s carcass blocking the way. Even then, Alex could see lights blinking through the twigs, the Knights sweeping the town centre in pairs.
The rain had finally stopped. Night gripped Rilhey and Alex stood flecked in gore, warm blood mixing with the water that drenched him. He brushed a fleshy chunk off his chest and shuddered. His breathing heaved.
Was the town safe? The Knights were here; Hydro was dead. It had to be.
What would happen if the Knights found out about Kari?
Melody sucked in a quivering breath and drew herself up, her chest out and her shoulders back. Hydro’s blood splattered her face, dripping from her armour, and her left leg limped.
“You all need to leave,” Melody said. “Now.”
“What?” Alex said.
“I didn’t tell Cemi about you.” Melody gulped. “I… They can’t find you with me.”
Alex could hear shouts now, and the shrill sound of someone crying. A cold wind blustered through the front of the college and splinters of glass fell from the remains of the windows.
Nathan stood in shock, his eyes still locked at where Hydro had been. “We’re not dead.”
“Who’s Cemi?” Kari flicked a bit of entrail off her shoulder and it cracked through the air, smacking against the tarmac.
“My commanding officer,” Melody said. “You need to leave now. Before he gets here.”
It wasn’t the fear in Melody’s voice that sent a bolt of ice down Alex’s spine. It was that she was afraid for them. Of this Cemi.
“What does he—” Alex started to say.
“Go!” Melody’s nostrils flared and she waved her sword at them. “Stop asking me questions!”
Kari nodded. “Calis, you should take the two of them and teleport.”
“What about you?” Alex said. And why was Melody so afraid of Cemi?
Kari’s expression didn’t change, steady as porcelain. “Don’t worry about me.”
“But the Knights—”
“Stop bickering and go, all of you!” Melody interrupted.
Light flashed down the road, followed by a creak of wood.
“What?” Nathan blinked. “Go?” He tore his gaze away from the sea with a shudder.
“It’s over,” Alex said.
Nathan squeezed his eyes shut. “It…”
Shouts growing nearer.
“Hurry!” Melody hissed.
“Alex.” Calis grabbed his shoulder. “We’re going to have to work together to teleport.”
A single reminder was all it took for the exhaustion to flood back into Alex’s body, waves of ice crashing through his muscles, but he fought to stay standing. He couldn’t collapse, not now. Not here, when Melody was trembling with the effort to stay upright.
“I can do it.” Alex clenched his jaw.
Calis gripped Nathan’s shoulder and Alex’s stomach tilted. A rush of heat as Calis’ irises flared with fire. Alex caught one last glance of Melody’s shattered form and Kari’s glittering eyes, watching him.
Then they was gone.
The three of them disappeared in a flurry of crimson and the knot in Melody’s stomach loosened. Alex and Calis were harmless; they didn’t deserve to be caught up with the Knights. They had the chance not to. An incubus soul-bonded to a human? If the Knights found out about them, Alex and Calis would never be left alone.
Pain ached through Melody’s muscles and her entire body fizzled, her energy almost dry. Her head felt weak. Everything, weak.
She’d failed to protect Rilhey.
“What will the Knights do now?” Kari said.
“Rebuild the town.” Melody closed her eyes. “Make the people forget this ever happened.”
The universe operated at different levels of logic, layers of perception built one on top of the other. When it came down to it, humanity simply didn’t wish to see what was before it; wiping minds was an easy spell.
Then Melody realised who had spoken. “You’re still here?” She whipped her head towards Kari.
“I…” Kari hesitated, then glanced across the ocean. “I just wanted to make sure.”
Hydro’s guts stained the shore red and a fleshy tendril coiled along the beach, already putrefying.
This was the only thing abominations brought, horror and ruin. But then, why did Kari choose to ally with them? How could a human like her practice true sorcery, even if she did it to protect other humans from harm? Kari’s very power was antithetical to her stance. Melody couldn’t understand it.
Wood splintered as glowing emerald blades broke through the last of the flattened trees along the road. Four Knights, all Second Order: a protective guard. Melody’s stomach twisted.
“Go,” Melody whispered.
She blinked and Kari was gone.
Down the newly cleared road stepped a figure whose armour burned crimson, power radiating off him in waves. Where he stepped, the remains of Hydro dissolved into vapour, the figure’s logic so strong it banished even the dead. Two blades were sheathed at his side, one short, one long.
It had been a lifetime since Melody had seen Cemi dressed for battle.
“Sir.” Melody knelt and bowed her head, clenching her jaw to stop herself from shaking.
Ratio severa. Ratio tenacis.
“Report,” Cemi said.
Squadrons of First and Second Order Knights swept into the college, glass crunching underfoot, and Melody schooled her expression. She would not be lying. She would just be omitting unnecessary detail.
“Since my last report, sir, I was able to apprehend a Shallow capable of speech,” Melody said. “It told me they invaded by order of Hydro, the goddess Hydra’s consort.”
A catastrophe, the worse they’d had in fifteen years. When Melody had been assigned to Rilhey, she’d known it was a point of interest. No one ever imagined it might become a disaster like this.
Cemi’s expression was calm as he ran his hand along the stretch of seawall that hadn’t crumbled, taking in the remnants of Melody’s ward. Melody shouldn’t care what he thought of it. She shouldn’t be afraid—fear was the abominations’ tool.
“And where is this Shallow now?” Cemi said.
Melody flinched. “It got away when Hydro surfaced.” Another place Melody had failed.
Cemi snorted in response, turning to the ocean. His armour traced a blood-red outline around him, silhouetted against the grey-black horizon. It was an image like this that formed Melody’s first memory of him, only, fifteen years ago, he really had been covered in blood.
“Sir, I…” Melody’s voice caught in her throat. “I failed. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
Cemi turned, his eyes narrow. “You failed?”
“I wasn’t able to protect the town,” Melody said. “The people…” The high street destroyed, the sea wall, the town…
“How many do you believe died?”
Melody froze. “What?”
“How many people do you believe died?” Cemi repeated. His voice cut like a knife: not a weapon, but a tool just as sharp.
Bile rose to the back of Melody’s throat. “I don’t… Thirty? Forty?”
Blood on her hands. Lives lost, all because of her ineptitude. Her failure.
Melody was perfect. She’d been supposed to be perfect.
“Zero,” Cemi said.
Melody’s expression cracked. “What?” She stumbled a step forward.
“No one died,” Cemi said. “Your wards kept them all safe.”
The words crashed through Melody, relief as strong as a battering ram. Ratio severa. Ratio tenacis.
“But—” A sob. She should have—
“You were a single Knight against an army,” Cemi said. “Against a god. You did not fail.”
Melody keeled over, pressing her forehead into the ground. Tears scratched at her eyes but she held them in, held onto Cemi’s voice.
She didn’t fail.
She wasn’t her parents.
“Rise.” A hint of a smile crossed Cemi’s face. “A Second Order Knight should not lose her composure like this.”
Melody jumped to her feet, her head rushing. “What? But I’ve barely served two years.”
Did she hear that correctly?
“After what you’ve done here, I’m sure they’ll make an exception on the service restrictions,” Cemi said. “You deserve it.”
Melody’s gut twisted. After all that had happened, she was being promoted. Even if she hadn’t failed, she hadn’t done this by herself, either. Kari, Alex and Calis helped her. They were the ones Cemi should be praising, and he didn’t even know they existed.
“Thank you, sir.” Melody bowed her head.
Melody was being promoted on a lie.
Alex blinked back into existence on the street outside his house. Silence hit him like a fist and he sucked in a breath. The air smelled of wet stone and soil, and the night was dark—only dark. Peaceful.
The Shallows hadn’t made it this deep into town.
This time, Calis was already holding Alex when the exhaustion hit. Calis looped an arm around Alex just as he crumpled, biting his lip in concern, and Alex was too tired to overthink it. Too tired to apologise. His knees wobbled and his breaths came slowly. Raggedly.
“Oh my god.” Nathan clawed a hand through his hair. “We… We’re alive.”
“We are.” Calis nodded.
“We’re alive.” Nathan’s voice trembled.
Alex wanted to say something reassuring, a snide comment about getting used to it, but all he could think was that he shouldn’t be used to near-death experiences. He was seventeen. He should be just as traumatised as Nathan, but since the moment he’d laid eyes on Hana’s true form, he’d changed. Literally. Alex was a sorcerer.
Nathan hesitated. “That thing…”
“It’s best you don’t think about it,” Calis said.
“You’ll…” Alex swallowed. “You’ll be okay.”
“I’ll… be okay,” Nathan repeated.
Except, if witnessing Hana turned Alex into a sorcerer, would witnessing Hydro do the same to Nathan? What about the rest of the townsfolk? There had to be tens, if not hundreds, of people who’d seen the outer god surface.
Would the Knights fix it? Did Alex want them to fix it? For a brief moment, he’d been a hero.
“I should be asking if you’re okay.” Nathan shook his head, curls plastered to his forehead. “I’m sorry I was so useless. I completely froze back there.”
“It’s not your fault,” Calis said. “Anyone would have reacted like that.”
“You didn’t.” Nathan met Alex’s eyes.
“I…” Alex didn’t know how to answer. How could he say ‘I’m nothing special’ when Nathan was right?
Car alarms wailed in the distance and a police siren pierced the night, a familiar noise. A human one.
“What do we do now?” Nathan said. Ghosts haunted his eyes.
“We move on,” Alex said.
“Right.” Nathan bit his lip. “I… I should probably go, huh?”
“Do you need me to walk you home?” Calis offered.
“Or a shower,” Alex said. “You’re kind of…” He gestured to the gore.
“I’m good,” Nathan said quickly. “I really should get home.”
Alex’s heart twisted. It was his fault Nathan had got involved in all of this. He should never have let Nathan come with him to find Melody.
“Well then,” Nathan gulped, “I guess I’ll see you at college.”
“See you.” Alex barely had the strength to wave.
Nathan stumbled down the road to his house, his mind numb. He could feel his world falling apart around him with each step, his sanity…
What did it matter?
Damnit, how was Alex so used to this? And Calis, and Kari. And Melody. She’d been a vision in blue, light roiling off her, and Nathan just gawked helplessly. He’d been useless.
The only thing that kept him going, that pushed him into taking another step, was the knowledge that his family was safe. His parents and his baby sister had been out of town when the Shallows attacked. He didn’t know if they’d returned by now, but either way, they hadn’t had to witness anything he had.
His family were safe.
He was safe.
We move on.
A boy stood in the road before him. Nathan stopped. His mind almost didn’t.
“Hello,” Nathan said.
The boy had no shadow. He had no discernible features at all, except for a wide smile and perhaps green eyes.
Hello, the boy said.
Light and shadow twisted around the boy’s shape, writhing like eyes and tendrils. A heavenly form. An unholy mass.
It’s nice to meet you, Nathan.
Nathan knew he should run. He knew he wouldn’t make it. He should have cared about something, about his family, college, rugby, living. He should have wanted to run.
A single tear bled down his cheek.
The boy’s smile widened.
WE’RE GOING TO BE SUCH GOOD FRIENDS, NATHAN.
The boy opened its mouth.
Nathan didn’t even have time to scream.