14 – Crawling Eyes
Alex chewed his lip as he wrote, his brow furrowed. He wasn’t sure when Mrs Thurston had moved from calculus to statistics, his mind still storming with rain and sea, but here he was, trying to find a line of best fit. At least, he thought it was a line of best fit. The worksheet called it ‘regression’, and he sorely hoped they were the same thing.
His skin prickled. Someone was looking at him.
Alex glanced up to find Nathan grinning. “You okay?”
“Yeah, man.” Nathan turned back to his work.
Alex’s gut twisted. Nathan remembered nothing of that weekend, and it left a gaping hole in Alex’s chest. They’d fought against the Shallows side-by-side, risked their lives together, but it might as well have never happened. Only Calis, Kari and Melody knew—non-humans. He was falling deeper and deeper into their world.
He tried to get back to the lines of best fit, but all of a sudden the light streaming through the windows was too bright, the chatter in the classroom muffling into silence. His heart pounded. All he could hear was the scratch, scratch, scratch of Kari’s pencil next to him.
If he’d been stronger—if he’d been able to fight the Shallows himself—he wouldn’t have needed Nathan’s help. Nathan would have been safe, would never have had to witness what he’d seen. He wouldn’t have had to forget. Alex closed his eyes and he saw the fire of Calis’ irises. He saw monsters crawling from the deep and tendrils writhing. He felt magic surging through the soul-bond between him and Calis. His power.
That’s what a soul-bond does.
Alex had to learn to use it.
“Could you stop staring at me?” Melody’s voice snapped him from his thoughts.
“Sorry.” Nathan rubbed the back of his head and turned around again, leaning over his work.
Melody shook her head, her eyes narrow. She sat straight in her chair, her chest puffed out, and her ponytail was trimmed to perfection. Alex frowned from her to Nathan, then caught Kari’s eyes. Kari shrugged.
The bell tinkled as Alex stepped outside the shop. A chill hung in the air, the sky still grey, but sunlight scattered the clouds in the distance. Schoolchildren milled down the high street and chatter snatched through the air, the cracks in the pavement and a boarded-up shop window the only remnants of the Shallows’ invasion.
“That was fun.” Nathan grinned. “Thanks for inviting me.”
“Of course,” Alex said. Bubble tea after college had become a tradition.
Nathan scratched the back of his head. “It’s a shame Melody couldn’t join.”
Alex thought of how curtly Melody had spoken in class, and how briskly she’d left. Her meeting with Cemi had gone well, she’d said, but that wasn’t all. Something was weighing on her mind, and it made his gut twist. Was there another threat, so soon after the Shallows? How much time did Alex have to learn magic?
“She’s got a lot going on,” he said.
Calis rolled his eyes. “Yeah.”
Heat trickled from Calis’ body and Alex stepped closer, his hands in his pockets. He hadn’t had a chance to ask Calis about the magic yet, about how they could practice, and he itched with impatience to get started. He wanted to be able to help Melody, not just get rescued by her.
The bell rang again and Kari joined them outside, a fresh cup of bubble tea in her hands. That would be her third today. Or rather, her third this afternoon.
“I’m ready for the journey back.” Kari nodded to herself.
Calis chuckled and Alex smiled.
“You really do like sugar,” Nathan said.
Kari stuck out her chin. “Everyone likes bubble tea.”
Nathan stared at her for a little too long, something unfamiliar flickering through his brown eyes. “Not everyone.”
“Then they haven’t found the right tea,” Kari said.
Alex glanced sideways at Nathan as they started walking. Something was… off. He looked healthier than ever, none of the terror from the Shallow attacks left on his face, but there was something not quite right. His gaze lingered, on people especially, and he moved slowly. Carefully. On top of all that, he was grinning too much.
The atmosphere quietened as they turned off the high street. Wind coiled down the road and a shiver ran down Alex’s spine.
“Well…” Nathan pointed. “I’ll be going this way.”
“We know,” Karis said.
“See you tomorrow.” Alex frowned. He and Nathan had split ways here for weeks; he’d never needed to announce it before.
Even the way Nathan walked off was different, but Alex couldn’t quite put his finger on it. His posture was too… tall? Upright? But it was too casual at the same time, on the verge of slouching. He rubbed his arm. Kari pierced the lid of her tea with a straw and the sound popped through the silence.
“Did you guys notice anything odd about Nathan today?” Alex said. “Anything…” He hesitated. “Anything wrong?”
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Calis said.
“It’s the memory spell.” Kari sipped her tea. “Nathan was there with us; the spell will have had more of an effect on him than on others.”
Alex wasn’t sure whether he should be relieved or not. “So the spell went wrong?”
“Not wrong,” Calis explained. “Nathan had stronger memories of the Shallows to suppress, so now his brain has to do more work to fill around the gaps.”
Was that why Nathan was watching them so closely—he was trying to remember? The knowledge didn’t make Alex any less uncomfortable, because he should have been struggling with Nathan. He should have forgotten, too.
Calis smirked. “He did seem rather interested in Melody.”
“It’s a good thing Alex doesn’t have a crush on him anymore,” Kari agreed.
“Excuse me?” Alex spluttered, heat rushing to his face. “How do you know about that?” He’d only told Calis.
Kari slurped up the bubbles from her tea. “You’re simple to read.”
“Eh…” Calis made a noncommittal noise.
Alex pushed past them, hiding his face. Were they right? If they were, had Nathan noticed his crush, too? Damnit! It didn’t matter either way; Nathan was straight. And, as Kari so succinctly put it, Alex didn’t feel that way about him anymore.
A shock of red lay on the pavement—a flower. Alex bent to pick it up, its petals thin and curling. Stamens spread like spikes, ending in sharp dots of pollen, and it had a gentle fragrance, barely sweet. He looked around. There were no other flowers about, nor any gardens.
“Where did this come from?” he said.
Kari froze when she saw the flower and Alex flinched.
“A red spider lily.” Calis’ eyes widened. “Just like the one that appeared in your house.”
In Kari’s house? “When was this?” Alex said.
Calis frowned. “Just before the Shallows attacked.”
Wordlessly, Kari stepped forwards and plucked the flower from Alex’s hands. The scarlet petals bloomed in contrast with the green of her eyes, like freshly spilled blood. Did… Had someone placed the flower here on purpose? Something?
“I asked mother about it, afterwards.” Kari’s voice was soft. “Higanbana. She was named after this flower.”
Was the flower from Hana, then? No, it didn’t make sense. Kari was as surprised to find it as Alex was. Besides, Hana wasn’t her real name; that was Nagga-something, goddess of fertility.
Calis locked his jaw and edged closer to Alex, unease thumping through the soul-bond. A woman led her two children down the street and a man cycled past, too fast to see his face. The sky closed over.
“Kari.” Calis hesitated. “Who gave your mother that name?”
“My father.” Kari held the flower up to the sky. “I never met him. I don’t know who—what—he is.”
No one ever walked through Rilhey after dark. Very few jogged, either, and Melody knew the ones who did by heart. She watched the bald man running with his headphones on from her perch atop the supermarket building and pricked her ears, listening. Despite the Rhapsody drawing closer and closer, Rilhey was quiet of abominations for now. Quiet of everything. Terror still permeated the air, an inalienable feeling that something was wrong, but she’d long accustomed to it.
The night grew darker. Thicker. Melody leapt across rooftops as the bald man hurried along, propelled by a primal, unrealised fear. He reached his home just off the high street and scrambled inside, and at last Melody exhaled. Safe.
She straightened, balancing on top of a lamppost, and rolled her shoulders. The emerald glow of her armour swirled into the amber of the lamp, and if it weren’t for the stealth marks protecting her against straying eyes, she would have shone like a beacon. Melody drew her sword. The blade burned green, its edge translucent, and she could see the contours of her face in its reflection.
Second Order. She still wasn’t used to leaving behind the blue of First, nor of how much power pulsed at her fingertips. Where her previous sword had been minimally spelled, this new blade sent ripples through the air with each movement, lines and polygons shifting through its light. A Second Ordered blade could not only could cut through abominations, but through the physical world’s logic as well. Wood, metal, stone…
Melody sheathed the sword. She was the youngest Knight to ever achieve Second Order. She had to prove Cemi right in his judgement; she had to earn her green. Ratio severa. Ratio tenacis. Her duty was to protect Rilhey, no matter what it took.
The night took on an emerald hue as she lowered her visor, throwing the darkness back. Shapes swirled through the shadow, abominations half-formed, half-asleep. Melody gritted her teeth. No humans should be out anymore. Perhaps tonight wouldn’t be so quiet, after all.
Movement snatched her attention. A familiar figure. Melody gripped the hilt of her blade.
She paused, however, her breath caught in her throat. None of the half-abominations had materialised, barely swaying around him, and his shoulders were loose, his posture relaxed.
Nathan was walking.