A Demon of Midwinter: Part 3
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Rhys ticked his pencil against the book on the table in front of him, trying to focus on the lines of words that marched like black ants across sand. It was hard to read when every few seconds the parchment stole his attention, even though he’d half hidden it under the book he was supposed to be studying. He squinted sidelong at it for a minute, then tipped his head the other way, scribbling another note in the margin of his notebook. With a huff, he propped his elbows on the table, and dropped his head into his hands, forcing his attention back to the book.
“I have an essay to write,” he muttered. “’Compare the paganism of Lucifer in Dante’s Inferno versus in Milton’s Paradise Lost’.” He threw his pencil onto the table. “What bollocks.”
“Well, look who’s returned.” Adam St. James draped himself around Rhys' shoulder before flopping down in the chair beside him. “How’s your foreign friend?”
Rhys scowled, unsure how Adam even knew about Darius. Dar, he reminded himself. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He focused on his book, surreptitiously nudging the rune-covered paper further under it.
“What’s this then?” Adam picked up the old book, flipping through the pages. Rhys reached for it, but his tormentor pulled back. “Oh. Dante’s Inferno.”
The emotion of the past few days welled up in his chest, overflowing the banks. Rhys lunged, taking a swing at Adam St. James. A deep satisfaction bloomed in the pit of his stomach as his fist contacted Adam’s cheek. It died at the new fire that flared in Adam’s eyes as he danced away.
“Maybe I should consign it to the flames?” He sidled across the room and held it towards the fireplace.
“No!” Rhys’ heart clenched, but it wasn’t his voice that spoke. His gaze shifted between Adam and one of his friends, the one who’d spoken. Rhys tried to recall this one’s name, but all he could remember was that he was a runner on the track team. The runner shrugged his shoulder when Adam focused his sneer on him. “Leave it.”
Adam jerked the book at Rhys. “What, you fancy this nancy?”
“No.” The runner scowled his way. “But we have better places to be.” His face split into a grin. “Birds to hunt.”
Adam smiled, and Rhys could see why he always had at least one unsuspecting woman fawning over him, not yet realizing he was a complete ass. “Bird hunting, I like that.” He slapped the runner on the back, and tossed the book on the table, where it landed with a heart-wrenching crack. “Want to come bird hunting?”
Rhys flushed. If he thought the invitation genuine, he might have gone, if only to diffuse suspicion about his sexuality. “Thanks. I have studying to do.” Adam smiled and punched him in the arm as he passed. Rhys tried not to flinch, but it was not a friendly jostle. He tracked them all the way out the door before he sat down again, rubbing his bicep.
He reached for the book, but his hand stopped on the runed paper. His fingers slid over the rough surface, then drew it towards him. He traced the first line of shapes with his thumb, trying to unpack the dense meaning from the poetic lines. Opening his notebook and picking up his pencil, he started scribbling. His heart tripped over itself as adrenalin spiked in his veins at the prospect of a puzzle wanting to be solved.
A few hours later, Rhys unfolded himself from the chair, joints protesting. He stretched, arching his back like a cat which set of a cascade of cracks and pops. Rubbing the crick in his neck, he stared at his notes and drawings. The runes hid a riddle about a monster of shadows and night, and how to trap it. He hadn’t quite deciphered the riddle, but it was clear it contained instructions and an incantation for dealing with the creature.
I should tell the crazy foreigner. His heart stuttered at the thought.
When he found the phone unused and unguarded, he thanked a god he wasn’t sure he believed in anymore despite being bound for ministry. Pulling out the smaller piece of paper to reference the name and numbers written in neat script on the corner, an image of Darius smiling at him in the quad came to mind. Rhys’ lips twitched. He ran his fingers over the lines of runes and wondered how it would feel to run them over Darius’ chest. He exhaled sharply.
“Who’s crazy now?” he mumbled, his cheeks flushing. He sighed, his shoulders sinking as his chest caved in. “Still, I should tell him.”
Mustering up his courage, he placed the call. The phone rang and rang. He breathed deeply and exhaled slowly. “This is ridiculous…like a schoolgirl.” He glared sidelong at the phone. Just as he was about to give up, a woman of sharp tones and short words answered. The first words from her mouth asked if he knew what time it was.
“Yes, it’s —” Rhys looked at his watch. “Oh. 12:45.”
Rhys swallowed. “I apologize. It’s a bit urgent.” His face flushed at the little lie, and he asked for Darius, knowing if he slunk away he might never gather his courage again. The woman muttered something Rhys couldn’t hear, but apparently went to rouse the foreigner. Rhys traced the runes as he held his breath, waiting to hear the man’s voice.
“This is Darius Iravani.” His tone was imperious. Challenging.
Rhys’ heart leapt into his throat, and silence hung on the line.
“Hullo, Darius. It’s Rhys.” The words tumbled over each other. “The rune trans—”
“Rhys, of course.” The man’s voice softened, or so he imagined. “But I asked you to call me Dar.”
“I…Dar, sorry for the lateness.”
“That’s okay. I’m a creature of the night.”
Rhys glanced up, trying to find words to speak to this man. “I…I might be able to help you.”