Heru really goes silent.
The sound of Amery dropping something heavy startles Hayden out of his dreams the next morning. He groans, opening his eyes just a sliver and peeking out from under the duvet. Amery is trying to silently place the Encyclopedia of the Gods back on the nightstand, biting his lip in frustration.
“What are you doing?” Hayden mumbles, tongue still heavy from sleep, but Amery his already fleeing to his side of the room. Hayden frowns, watching him rummage through their drawers anxiously. Eventually Hayden’s eyes begin to droop, however, and he tosses aside his suspicion with a shrug, burrowing into the covers and waiting for Heru’s cheerful morning greeting.
He waits. He shifts a little, patient.
And waits. He frowns, but stays put.
And waits. Has Heru ever taken this long?
Hayden gets a bundle of clothes to his face in return for his patience, as well as Amery snapping at him to get out of bed and get dressed.
His head remains empty, even as he meekly calls out to the quiet.
It’d been commonplace to have a voice in his head. Now that there’s nothing but his own thoughts, he’s been knocked off-kilter. Breakfast becomes unappealing, and he pokes at his food lamely, frowning deeply.
Irene is the first to notice. “Something wrong?” She asks, leaning down to his eye-level. The motion, any other day, would’ve endlessly annoyed Hayden, made him feel like a child, but he simply shakes his head today, thoughts somewhere else.
Had Heru just been a passing illusion? Was he naïve in believing that a god would really talk to him? No, he decides, it seemed far too real to be insanity, lasted far too long. Besides, Heru had knowledge of many things Hayden didn’t. He couldn’t have made that all up—
Ophelia poking his side startles him out of his thoughts. He turns to her, opening his mouth and about to inquire, when she stuffs a (far too large) piece of pancake in his mouth.
“Whmff?” He asks, eyes wide. Ophelia’s smile is wide and bright. Across the table, Robin covers up his laugh with a cough, and Neva stifles hers behind her hand.
The cold bites at Hayden's hands, and he fumbles with his wooden sword, trying to rub them together for warmth. He really doesn't want to be sparring. "Meditating" with the superiors would be preferable—at least he'd have peace and quiet to think. Instead Amery's dragged him out to the field, a strange glint in his eyes. It surely means bad news.
"Come on!" Amery rushes him, bouncing on his heels. Hayden, grumbling under his breath, grips his sword and shifts into a half-hearted stance, waiting for the first blow.
At least Heru's advice has been burned into his brain. Even without a voice in his head urging him on, he can hold his ground pretty decently. Heru had helped him a lot, and never asked for anything in return—Hayden practically glows with gratitude.
Amery attacks with abnormal force today, clashing with Hayden so hard that Hayden goes skidding back. Forced to deal with unrelenting blows, he has no choice other than to go on the defensive, blocking and digging his heels into the ground.
But what had happened to Heru, then? Hopefully nothing bad. Hayden bites his lip, mind already conjuring all sorts of horrible scenarios, but he shakes them off quickly. He doesn't know exactly how Heru talks to him, but assumes the god is some sort of telepath. The connection could've been severed on purpose—why, Hayden had no idea. Or had someone else severed it? He thinks of Impurity, and the tale Irene had told him, and shudders.
Spotting an opening, Hayden jumps to the opportunity, taking a swing at Amery. In a flash, though, Amery's blocking the blow, that stupid smirk on his face, and before Hayden can even yelp, he's pushing back and shoving Hayden to the ground.
Hayden scrambles to try and get up, but the rounded tip of the sword is pointed at his throat at already. He whines and pushes it aside, throwing his own sword behind his shoulder, and Amery kneels down to his eye-level.
"Unfair." Hayden huffs.
Amery's frowning, however, not beaming and prideful of his victory. "What's up with you today?" He asks. "You've been all... weird."
"I..." Hayden pauses. Amery would never believe him--he's crossed out the possibility of insanity, sure, but he'd certainly sound crazy nonetheless. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You've been quiet! Lost in your thoughts!" Amery stabs his chest with a finger accusingly. "You look worried. Ever since this morning, that's how you've been."
"I'm fine!" Hayden insists. "Really. You're the one who's worrying here."
Amery's eye twitches. “Of course I’m worrying! Something’s obviously wrong, and you’re denying it!”
“Amery,” Hayden says it slowly, carefully—his roommate’s getting upset, “nothing’s wrong, please.”
“Please?” Amery’s hands dig into the dirt, and he grits his teeth, furious. “Goddess, why won’t—why won’t you tell me anything?”
The field goes silent at Amery’s outburst. Everyone is pointedly looking away, pretending not to listen. The superiors murmur amongst themselves, probably debating whether or not they should interfere. Amery freezes, face red, breathing heavy. The entire situation is incredibly awkward.
“I’m gonna go meditate,” Hayden murmurs, voice meek even in the tense quiet.
(“Amery’s upset with you.” Ophelia points out, cracking one eye open. She’s sitting under a tree away from the superiors, meditating—the dead leaves that fall onto her head slowly turn soft and green. It happens more often, now; things blossoming without her really knowing or trying.
Hayden nods in reply, not wanting to give anything away. He settles down next to her, wrapping his arms around himself to ward away the cold. He can’t wait for spring.
“What happened?” Ophelia opens both her eyes, and she frowns. She’s not one to get angry, just “disappointed” or “upset”. It’s nearly ten times worse than rage, Hayden thinks.
“Nothing,” Hayden says, though it comes out a little too quick. “He’s being weird.”
“You’re being weird too.” Her frown deepens. He can just hear his impending doom: I’m disappointed with you, Hayden.
“No!” His voice comes out harsh and loud. Ophelia jolts back, looking hurt, and Hayden cringes. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired. Amery’s making a big deal out of it.”
Her frown disappears, replaced by a reassuring smile. “It’s alright. I understand.” She goes back to meditating, eyes closed, face peaceful, leaving Hayden to wallow in his guilt. Ophelia’s so trusting, and he’d lied to her so easily. It left a horrible feeling in his gut. Even Amery’s outrage hadn’t made him feel so despicable.)
Amery is stubbornly apathetic the rest of the day.
He rarely looks at Hayden. When he does, there’s something troubled in his eyes, and the eye contact lasts for only a split second before he’s looking away again. It’s frustrating, and when, at dinner, Amery’s seat beside him is empty, the frustration melts away to depression.
A glance down the table reveals that Amery’s sitting between Neva and Robin instead. He and Neva seem to be having a hushed argument, his shoulders tense and her eyes sharp and analytical. Robin’s eyes find Hayden’s and he frowns, more confused than upset. Hayden looks away quickly. So even those two have been dragged into this.
Irene takes Amery’s seat, and heaves a heavy sigh. “Something’s wrong.” She says.
“No,” Hayden insists. “Is this about Amery?”
“He’s angry at you. Goddess knows why, but he is.”
“I don’t know why either.” He stares at his food, frightened that Irene will see past his lie if he looks her in the eye, but it does no good; she sees right through him.
“You’re keeping something from us.” Hayden stares up at her, freezing up. “You’ve fooled Ophelia, but not me. Spill.”
He ducks his head, ashamed. Of course Irene wouldn’t fall for his lie, she’s Irene. Telling her, though… she’d think him crazy too. Sure, she read about the gods and recounted the stories to him, but she was rational. Heru talking to him was like something straight out of a storybook; she’d never believe it. “No,” He sighs, “it’s just something stupid. I know I’m acting weird, but it’s nothing, really.” At her skeptic look, he says with emphasis, “Really.”
She stares at him for a moment, frowning, thinking, before relenting with a sigh, “Fine. But listen,” She adds with a stern look, “you can’t be stubborn about this forever. Apologize to Amery.”
“I will,” Hayden promises. “I’ll apologize after dinner.” Irene goes back to her food, and dinner goes on uneventfully.
Except, Hayden can’t find Amery afterwards. He’s not in their room, not with Neva or Robin, not on the back porch with the chattering 17-year-olds. Curfew begins to draw near, and still Amery is nowhere to be found. Hayden collapses in their room, leaning back against the bed and sighing. Amery won’t stay up past curfew—he’ll just have to stay up till he comes back. Simple, he thinks as his eyelids droop down.
He nods off, left with the silence and his own troubled thoughts.
(The memories of his dream are hazy, but he recalls it being a nightmare. He remembers darkness, feeling suffocated by it, trying to call out but finding the words stuck in his throat. It was an anxiety dream at its finest.)
The sound of the door opening startles Hayden awake. He jumps, but instead of scrambling onto his feet he goes teetering to the side and crashing onto the floor.
“Hayden?” Amery asks, sounding shocked.
“Amery!” His words are slurred as he tries to prop himself up on his elbows. “M’ sorry bout today—I was stupid…!”
“Why aren’t you in bed?”
“Was waiting for you…”
Amery shakes his head. “Get in bed.”
Hayden, however, blinks slowly, not moving a muscle. “Do you forgive me?”
Amery pauses, silent for a moment, before finally saying, “Tell me everything in the morning—why’ve you’ve been all weird and worried, everything—and then I’ll forgive you.”
A cheerful, sleepy smile finds itself on Hayden’s face. Tired and inclined to agree to anything, he hums, “M’kay,” and crawls into bed happily. Amery shuts off the light, and Hayden drifts back into sleep, peaceful for the first time that day.
Hayden! Hayden, wake up—
Hayden groans quietly, shifting in his bed. Could he not just get a break? He covers his ears stubbornly, rolling onto his side and trying to go back to sleep.
He jolts awake, frazzled by the shouting voice in his brain. What was—was it Heru—?
Oh, thank the Goddess you're awake. I'm so sorry for leaving you today, but I had to. Listen, you have to go out to the forest, it's an emergency!
Hayden sits up carefully, looking at Amery from across the room. His roommate squirms a bit in his sleep, but other than that, does not wake up. Sighing in relief, he slips out of bed, feeling around the room for his shoes. Finally, Heru's back—no more troubling thoughts.
Hurry, hurry. He finally finds his shoes, thrown haphazardly in a corner. Hopefully the run will wake you up. Consider this your first day of proper prophet work.
The last thing Hayden grabs is his jacket, and then he's off—well, he has to open the window first, of course. It's a struggle, as he had to be fast and silent at the same time, but he succeeds without waking Amery, and climbs out gracelessly.
The cold air hits his face, numbing it, and he shudders, closing the window behind him. He marches off towards the trees in the distance, shoving his hands in his pockets and whining.
Things have been crazy lately—that's why I couldn't keep an eye on you. It's just been meeting after meeting, if I talked to you, someone would notice. Hayden lets out a relieved sigh. So nothing bad had happened to Heru after all.But, when I finally got the chance to check up on you... Heru sighs. There are spirits. Bad ones, impure ones. They've managed to get in.
But that should've been impossible. There are barriers set around the property, magic ones, put there by the first of the "magically inclined". Nothing can get in and nothing can get out, not without express permission, whatever that means. At least, that's what the superiors told him.
I'm not sure how they got in either, but they're here anyway. We'll have to take care of them. We can't permanently kill them, but we can ward them off, hurt them so they won't come back. You'll have to fight.
Hayden gulps at that. Fighting without a sword? He hadn't stopped to pick up even a practice one!
Just trust me.
The forest is silent. The sky above is dark, a frightening shade, scarcely any stars visible. Hayden remembers sitting at his window past curfew, gazing up at the busy sky, a beautiful swirl of stars and constellations, blues and purples spread across it like watercolor. It was as beautiful as a painting, a familiar sight. This sky is not familiar; it's empty and unsettling. He shudders.
Are you sure this is the place?, he asks, itching to leave the clearing.
I can see them. Don't let your guard down. Heru hesitates. Listen, I'm going to do something I haven't done in hundreds of years, so let's hope it goes right, yeah?
Hayden's eyes widen, and he's about to question the safety of Heru's actions when magic bursts from his hands.
It's blue, but not Hayden's usual blue—the color is bright and unapologetic, casting azure light everywhere, flames flickering and licking at his palms harmlessly. His breath catches in his throat. Heru laughs, loud and overjoyed, but the sound stops abruptly when shadows emerge from the trees. No, not shadows—spirits.
They are horrifying.
Flickering images of creatures, the stuff of nightmares—Hayden doesn't know any other way to describe him. The images blink by quickly, monsters with claws and arching backs and sharp teeth to simple wisps of little girls, dolls and teddy bears hanging limply from their grip. Hayden is frozen in fear. It's as if a rock has lodged itself in his throat.
My magic—it'll take care of them. Heru's voice is etched with worry. Be careful.
A little girl lunges for him, dropping her doll—it disintegrates the second it touched the ground, particles blown away by a nonexistent wind. The girl's hands flash rapidly, switching from deadly claws to the small, innocent ones of a child. Hayden can't help but shriek, and thrusts his hands out quickly, heart hammering against his chest.
The spirit screams with him. Heru's magic is like fire; it catches onto her dress, advancing quickly, flames climbing up to her neck. She collapses to her knees, and the magic engulfs her.
The little left of the girl is gone within seconds, ashes carried away by the wind. All the other spirits hesitate. Hayden's trembling, his breathing coming out shaky and unstable. This is not like sparring. This is terrifying, raw and real. The threat is not the rounded edge of a practice sword, but instead spirits, taking him, turning him into... that.
Don't think too much. Just fight.
Hayden looks down at his hands, clenching his jaw. Heru's magic moves as naturally as his own, like an extended limb, one that's always been there. Perhaps it's a prophet thing.
Noticing his stillness, the spirits advance suddenly, all at once, predators on the prowl. Hayden snaps out of his thoughts. Despite the nervous sweat on his palms, the anxious thud of his heart, he lets instinct take over and just fights.
He's outnumbered, and doesn't have any other choice than going on the defensive. He dodges the swipes and lunges from the spirits, setting them alight with magic whenever there's an opening. The spirits, he realizes through the chaos of the battle, are more diverse than he'd thought. Ducking and barely missing being hit, he retreats for a moment, studying the impure shadows closing in on him.
There are the horrible monsters, of course, that he looks away from quickly, and the frightening little girls. There are some more unique, humanoid shapes however. He's been narrowly avoiding the blade of a ghostly warrior's sword for a while now. A singer's wails pierce his ears terribly, her evening gown in tatters. They're all different. Is it simply their disguise, each individual to the spirit? Or had they been human once too, before they were... corrupted? The thought breaks his heart, but he pushes it to the side for the moment, focusing on the magic at his fingertips and the spirits eager for a fight.
Hayden falters at the sound of a weak, sorrowful voice.
"Where is she, where is my baby...?"
How had he not noticed that spirit, before? She's a mother, dark curls springing free of the shawl tied securely round her head. Her hands claw at her dress, her heart. He remembers his own mother, in hysterics as he was carried away by a superior, clearly sees her thin, horrified face, her famished frame struggling to get free of her husband's grip. He freezes up.
She'd been torn away from her daughter, just as Hayden had been from his home.
A spirit in the form of a snarling, driveling wolf tackles him, and he goes crashing into the ground, a scream caught in his throat.
He fights, of course, kicks at the spirit and tries to set it aflame, but then his world is falling apart.
It's almost like having a vision. Distantly, he feels his limbs going slack, hears Heru's trembling voice, but it's all background noise to this new, strange sensation. It's akin to waves, pushing into the edges of his mind, pulling back and tugging, and repeat. Like the sensation wants to get in. The feeling is pleasant, and Hayden feels like... perhaps he should let it...
And then everything comes flooding back all at once.
The first thing Hayden sees is the spark of red magic. And then he hears the yelp of the wolf, a quick scuffle.
Hayden! Heru's voice is ear splitting. Oh, Goddess, I'd thought—
Robin hovers over him worriedly, face tense. Hayden feels as if he's about to cry.
"Are you okay?" Robin asks. "Can you get up?"
Hayden, though his body protests, sits up rapidly, nearly knocking his forehead against Robin's. "How—?" He stammers, fisting his hands in Robin's jacket. He looks up, and makes a horrid choked sound.
Neva is there too, fighting the spirits, the actual shadows at her beck and call. She can't exactly kill them, but she does a stunning job at scaring them off, black curls bouncing with her sharp movements, a focused glint in her green eyes. She's a heroine out of a storybook. A jackal—no, Amery—darts around her legs, watching her back, snapping at any other spirits that get too close. How have they found him?
"No time for silly questions," Robin insists, an anxious energy about him, "only important ones. Can you kill those things?"
"Yes." Hayden answers immediately, letting magic burst up from his open palm once again.
The corner of Robin's mouth quirks up just a fraction. "That's good. Let's do this." With that, Hayden's pulled onto his feet and thrown back into the battle.
The process is so much easier in a group, he's glad to realize, when he can pick the impure spirits off one by one and have the others held back. Soon the spirits get the hint, and they're fleeing back into the dark of the forest with their tails between their legs, literally for some and figuratively for others. Hayden breathes in a shaky breath, watching Heru's magic fade away, replaced by his own usual faint blue mist.
That was very stressful, and I wasn't even the one fighting!
Hayden shakes his head, turning to his three saviors. Amery's already back to his usual self, and his expression is a peculiar mix of confusion and fury.
"What the hell were those things?!" He demands, brow furrowed.
"Spirits, most likely," Neva answers, voice calm and inscrutable as always. "Bad ones."
"Yeah," Hayden twiddles his fingers, avoiding Amery's upset gaze. "They were impure spirits. Like from the stories."
"Like, Impurity's lackeys?" Robin pipes up. Heru mumbles something, sounding almost offended.
"I guess, yeah." Hayden's eyes flicker to Amery for a moment. "How did you...?"
"You're not as quiet as you think," Amery says, making Hayden wince. "When you opened the window, I woke up and saw you climb out. Sneaked out too and went to get Robin and Neva. This clearing is near Ophelia’s tree, so…” He shakes his head quickly. “So we found you here! Getting your face nearly torn off by some spirits or whatever, with your magic all—all weird!”
Hayden stays silent, watching Amery’s expression turn furious once again. He bares his teeth, akin to an upset dog. “And I thought you were being strange today, all quiet and stuff—” A growl builds up in his throat, but he stops, seemingly all the more angered by his habits. Neva’s glaring at Hayden too, now. Robin looks away with a wince. “This is weird! You’re going to explain all of this to us right. Now.”
Hayden’s eyes drift between the three of them desperately. Amery’s not going to back down; he’s stubborn as a mule, and it’s clear Neva will back him up. Robin, though… Hayden looks to him pleadingly. Those eerie eyes stare back at him. He sees pity, but other than that—curiosity. Robin smiles, apologetic. Hayden’s been backed into a corner.
It’s going to be okay.
And with that, he tells them.