Chapter Eighteen: A Really Good Excuse

Eastmere, Mjimeri, Central Isle

Atlas desperately wanted to sleep. It wasn’t just that he was tired—though he hadn’t slept in, he counted them, thirty-three hours, and that at Aryn’s—it was that he was so gods damned tired of people wanting things from him that if another bedraggled kid claiming anything about him even so much as spoke to him, his head might implode.

The door burst open, hitting the wall with enough force to knock a few scalewolf claws and waxing turtle shells to the ground. He sighed.

♦♦♦

The trip to the archives was about as productive as he had expected it to be—which was not at all. He owned all the credible books on healing and alchemy that existed, and the disease wasn’t in any of them. He found mention of something similar in a crackpot tome listing specific odd cases from all over Bakkaj, printed when people still thought anamri were gods, but that disease listed symptoms of hallucinations and uncontrollable rage, which, coincidentally, were also the symptoms of having to deal with a grumpy old archivist, a needy thief, an even needier clans girl, and Oliver fucking Fawkes. All in the same day and all on no sleep.

He was happy to see his brother. He was. Though it had taken half the night to get it out of him. After dragging the boy back to his shop and coaxing the origin of the necklace out of him, promising over and over that the boy could keep the money, just where did he get the necklace and, for the love of all that was holy, how did the boy know his name?, Atlas got the story of the other merchants who wouldn’t buy the necklace and the Scarlett Daggers thief who wanted it—one of Aryn’s friends, of course, gods he hated her friends—and finally the reason that Fawkes was so incredibly nervous and jumpy: his name was Oliver. Little Ollie. It had taken Atlas a while to adjust to that. He knew the boy had escaped that house, but he had no idea where he’d ended up. It was better that way. The less anyone could use against him, the safer for everyone involved. He looked so different, now, most of his freckles having faded with age, his face the angled face of a man.

He was happy to see his brother. There were just so many other much more pressing things to deal with at the moment. But every time Atlas looked at his eyes—so familiar yet so much older than he remembered—those eyes that shifted between heartbreak and adoration, just as they had when he was freckled and four and begging for another story to escape for another half hour from the horrid reality of Myark’s beatings, he felt another pang of guilt. That wasn’t the man’s name, of course. It was Oliver, same as his son’s. Myark was the ogre in Oliver’s favorite fairytale, the one who snacked on children with his mate. It was their secret name, and the only one Atlas ever used.

Atlas pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut, hoping that when he opened them the only things in front of him would be Eliza, Fishnik, and a nice, steaming mug of coffee. No such luck. Ollie—who went by Fawkes now, apparently—was staring at him expectantly, and his coffee had gone cold hours ago.

“I don’t know what it is, no,” Atlas said. He picked up the necklace, more habit now than anything, and watched as the liquid inside caught the first rays of light peeking in through the open doorway of the shop. It looked like water. It sounded and felt like water. But water didn’t speak to him.

He didn’t hear it, not like he heard the people shouting on the street or the tap of Fawkes’s foot on the warping wooden boards. He felt it. He felt it like he felt Eliza’s presence in the other room, like he felt Fawkes’s hope and anxiety, his anger and exultation fighting for dominance and forming themselves into a song. He felt it like he felt a thief. Like he felt an imminent threat. It whispered to him, told him to let go, to whisper words of his own and watch as the world bowed before him. Told him it knew him. That was about the point he took off running like high hell after the irritating boy who never put things in the shop back where he found them and tried to sell him thrice-cursed necklaces.

Despite his long and involved story, the boy didn’t know anything about it. He had simply stolen it off some naïve, glove-wearing island girl who was probably missing her pretty trinket. Or, for all Atlas knew, she was an unparalleled anamri who had cursed the next person to buy the necklace to a particularly horrible death. To be honest, that was starting to sound more and more appealing, compared to the few other options sitting in mismatched chairs in front of him and staring at him like he should know what to do.

“And just how is it that the two of you know each other, again?” Apata asked. She had shown up not long after Atlas brewed the third round of coffee, about two hours or so before dawn. He didn’t bother asking where she’d disappeared to, and she didn’t bother telling him. They might get along after all. Though bits and pieces of her week in Central were coming back to him the longer she sat tying and untying knots in an old piece of leather cording she had picked up from a display. He had been almost drunk, out with Aryn—just like it was in the old days. They wanted to pull off one more good con together, just to say they still could. The past was starting to hit him like a brick. Repeatedly. He could feel the pounding somewhere behind his eyes.

“We’re—” he started, but Fawkes beat him to it.

“We’re brothers!” Fawkes beamed. Literally. Rays of sunlight from the door behind him lit his flyaway brown hair—so much like Atlas’s own—and Atlas couldn’t help but laugh.

Apata looked from one to the other, frowning, the blue marks on her face—godmarks, she reminded them—stretching downward. “Exactly what is it that’s so funny about that?” she asked.

Atlas tried to answer, tried to say, “nothing,” but the sun continued to shine, illuminating Fawkes in a halo of dusky golden light. And he continued to laugh. Fawkes smiled tentatively, trying to share in his brother’s joy, but the longer Atlas laughed, the further his face fell. A shadow passed through the sunlight as someone walked by, and Atlas caught a glimpse of Fawkes’s eyes. It was the same look he’d given the day Atlas had denounced Myark and Crezza, said he would leave the house, leave the whole damned island the first chance he got. Of course I’ll take you with me, Ollie. Of course I’d never leave you. The laughter caught in his throat.

Apata snatched the necklace from Atlas, holding it up to the light to inspect the contents. The charm was a perfect sphere, smooth as seaglass and clear as high noon on the open ocean. He could see the intricate swirls of Apata’s godmarks through it as if they were drawn onto the glass itself. It dangled from a simple silver chain, held in place by what looked like they used to be silver tentacles, though the etchings had worn off long ago. It was pretty. Nothing special. Excepting, of course, the fact that it felt like fire and spoke to him every now and again of immeasurable power.

“Aye, and there’s something wrong about this.”

“You don’t say,” Atlas muttered. “Do you know what it might be? Have the Highlands encountered anything like this?”

She shook her head. “It’s a right shame, too, it is. If this power could be used…” She trailed off, eyes unfocused, and Fawkes took it from her, balling it up in his fist.

“Let’s not,” he said. He looked at Atlas. “Can’t you just shove it in a drawer until you figure out what it is?”

“Well…” Atlas had yet to tell them about the gentleman from the Southeastern Isles who would be returning sometime before the sun went down. And frankly, the drawer of things he didn’t understand was looking far too full as of late. His mind flashed to the coin Eliza had brought him, the one so similar to the only piece he kept to remind him of his mother. He pushed the thought out of his head. That mystery could wait another day. “No,” he finished. “Also,” he added, old indignations pushing themselves forward, “I didn’t pay you five full silvers to just shove it in a drawer.” Fawkes looked abashed. Atlas grimaced. “Sorry.” He rubbed his forehead, not sure if he was trying to wake himself up or rub out the reality of everything that was happening. He looked at Apata. “I need your help.”

“I’ve heard that before, I have,” she said with a laugh, her eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly. “Though, that was supposed to be my ask this time.”

“One for one,” Atlas offered. “Or however we shake out at this point.”

“Better options aren’t coming this way, far as I can tell,” she said. “What is it you’re needing?”

Atlas explained. He told them about Jaspar and his odd request for cure, showed them a bag of coin—it was a bag of coin from his shop, but it never hurt to show a tangible promise—and watched as they both followed it with the eyes of a thief. “It’s a miracle the two of you have ever managed to steal anything in your lives,” he said, laughing and setting the bag on the counter behind him. They both opened their mouths, indignant, but he held up a hand to stop them. “What I need,” he said, addressing Apata, “is any idea of how to make this cure. Or at least a facsimile of it that will get our deep-pocketed friend back to the Southeastern Isles happy. Can you help?”

Apata thought about it, studying the array of herbs and spices and tinctures on the shelves behind the counter.

“Can I see the books?” Fawkes asked suddenly. He had taken a glass marble off a shelf and was tossing it up in the air, his eyes on Atlas.

“Pardon?”

“The books you mentioned, the ones with the disease, or the myths or whatever. I want to see them.”

Atlas shrugged and pulled a stack of books off a stool, handing them to Fawkes. “Don’t know what good they’ll do you, but have at it, kid. Maybe you’ll see something I didn’t.”

Apata stood up to look over Fawkes’s shoulder as he opened the first book and muttered something about being an adult. This didn’t hold her interest long, and she started to pace around the shop. “And you’ve no idea of this disease?” she asked.

“None,” Atlas said. “Jaspar spoke of a skin condition, but if this,” he gestured to the books, “nonsense is to be believed, it’s either a sudden onslaught of nature and magic or some kind of unstable mental condition that manifests itself on the skin. As, you know, parts of animals and stuff.” He closed his eyes and let his head fall back. A shadow darkened the doorway, and he smelled cinnamon. He smiled.

Eliza walked in, a plate of pastries in either hand and Fishnik twining lazily around her ankles, mewing impatiently. “Thought you could use some breakfast,” she said. She stopped, looking at Fawkes, who was staring at her with mingled disdain and interest. Her eyes narrowed, her forehead crinkling in confusion, and she looked at Apata, who had stopped her pacing to stare.

“Hello, aisling,” Apata said, smiling.

Eliza smiled back. “You I was expecting.” She turned her gaze back to Fawkes. “But who are you?”

He gently placed the books on the floor and stood to shake her hand out of habit but, seeing that her hands were full, smoothly shifted to set one hand on her shoulder and take a plate of pastries in the other. “Oliver Fawkes,” he said, winking. Atlas chuckled at how much like him the boy was turning out.

Eliza looked questioningly over Fawkes’s shoulder at Atlas.

“We’re brothers,” Fawkes supplied, proudly.

“Cousins,” Atlas amended. When he had told Eliza about his past, he had told her the facts of it. That his mother’s sister had taken him in, that their darling son was named Oliver and loved to play music. Cousins was the word he used, cousins was how she would know him.

Only Aryn knew he felt like he had left a part of his heart in that gods forsaken house. That he lived in a cloud of guilt and shame that only grew every time he saw her boys picking locks and charming strangers. That he had to leave, but wished by all the gods he hadn’t. Only Aryn understood.

Recognition dawned on Eliza’s face. “Little Ollie?” She reached up and ruffled his hair, even though he was significantly taller than she was. His face jumped from irritation to affection to confusion, finally settling into a blank smile. “I’m Eliza,” she continued. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“We’ve met,” he mumbled. Only Atlas heard, and he ignored it. There were some unresolved issues that Fawkes needed to work out in that pretty head of his, and Atlas didn’t have the time to help him. Not now.

“Liza, love. Welcome to our…” He paused, not really sure what to call a meeting that sounded like the beginning of a bad joke. “I’m glad you’re here.” He waited for Eliza to set the plate down before winding an arm around her waist and pulling her, giggling, into his lap. “That’s better,” he sighed into her hair. He picked a pastry off the plate and set it on the floor for Fishnik, who ignored it and jumped on the counter to eat off the plate instead. He shook his head and laughed. “Now, where were we?” Eliza shifted to get more comfortable and watched as Apata continued to pace, the corners of her mouth tugging downward.

“This book,” Fawkes said, pointedly ignoring everyone else as he ate a cinnamon burst, “says that right before this man’s wounds healed with the fur of an onyx deer and the bark of the great yew—I’m not making this up, I swear—the ground shimmered and his eyes glowed silver.”

Apata and Atlas turned to stare at him. “What?” they asked in unison, the sharp pitch of their voices matched in their individual shock.

Fawkes looked, confused, from one to other. “That’s what it says,” he said meekly. Apata strode over to him and grabbed the book.

With burning eyes, a great rumble shook the earth, arising out of it a sickly shimmering, smelling of months old vegetation,” she read. “The shimmering disappeared and the man’s wounds turned black and brown as if with rot, but he rose and was healed, the color of his eyes returning. He hugged his wife and claimed a miracle. The village rejoiced.” She pulled the book closer to her face and squinted. “There’s something scrawled underneath here.”

Fawkes grabbed the book back. “Man has killed his family. Probably unrelated.” He laughed. “Well that’s unhelpful.” Both Apata and Atlas were staring at him with wide eyes and open mouths, lost in thought. Atlas ran the crow’s head coin through his fingers as Eliza rested her hand gently on the back of his neck.

Apata had started muttering to herself. “Aye, and a right fine sight that would be, and a lot of sense it would make, too. Infinite mothers are there more? As if one hands-damned arse weren’t enough for this world, it’s a plague.”

“What?” Eliza asked, startling her out of her reverie.

“I think I might know a bit more about this disease.” She spat the word, as if she were trying not to choke on it.

“I might also,” Atlas said quietly.

“I was just trying to change the subject,” Fawkes said.

♦♦♦

The morning passed in a flurry of turning pages and half-formed thoughts. Eliza planted herself at Fawkes’s feet with another stack of books, and the two marked any page that seemed to have information pertinent—trustworthy or not—to a disease that shimmered like death and affected burned out anamri. They were in totally new territory here; none of the books had sections specifically for magic users. Anamri got the winter coughs, like everyone else. They didn’t grow tree branches from their shoulder blades. But then again maybe they did. How much had they really been studied?

Apata and Atlas paced around each other in a manic sort of dance, talking through each other with half-sentences and scattered thoughts. Occasionally they would start to riff of each other, but inevitably it would end somewhere not too far from where it started, one or both muttering curses under their breath. Fawkes chimed in every so often, but after the fourth or fifth time he was ignored, he grew sullen and turned his attention solely to the books. Eliza knew better than to interrupt Atlas when he was thinking. It wasn’t that he purposely ignored her, usually it was that he didn’t hear her, he was so lost in his own thoughts. Apata appeared to be the same way, and occasionally Eliza found herself staring at the two of them in fascination.

“The school,” Eliza said suddenly, as Atlas ran his hand through his messy brown hair for the fifth time since she had looked up.

They both stopped and looked at her.

“Anamrisku. The school of magic on Effre,” she explained. “If anyone would know about diseases specifically affecting anamri, they would. And they would know more about burnout.” She looked at Atlas. “Right?”

He walked over and kissed her on the head. “Yes,” he said. He looked at Apata. “Surely you’ve heard of it.”

Fawkes stood up directly in his line of sight. Atlas moved, so that the four of them were standing loosely in a square formation, and waited on Apata’s response. Fawkes spoke up first. “They’re too good to help the likes of us,” he said. “And where would you even start? The school takes up half the island!”

“The lad makes a good point,” Apata said.

“The name’s Fawkes.”

“Ollie does have a point,” Atlas said. He was doing it just to rile him up, now. “No one in this room is strong enough,” he looked at Apata and amended his statement, “or has enough self-control to even get inside the gates.”

Apata started to argue, but then shrugged. “If there’s bones to be breaking or mending, you’ll be right glad to have me.”

Atlas laughed. “I won’t argue with that. But what are—” A shadow darkened the shop and he stopped. A girl was standing in the doorway, her hair tangled and hastily thrown into a bun. Her clothes were ripped and dirty, and she wore only one glove. Atlas moved smoothly to the front of the shop, standing between her and the three others. “Can I help you?” he asked. Fishnik hissed from somewhere in the back of the store.

The girl stared over his shoulder, her forehead drawn and fire in her eyes. She raised the ungloved hand to point at Fawkes. “You,” she said. She drew it out into three syllables, and hatred dripped from each one.

Atlas made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a groan. “You must be Rhia,” he said, reaching for her hand to lower it. She flinched back and stared at him, and Atlas could tell she was very close to screaming. He gestured for her to come in and gently shut the door behind her. “This is unexpected,” he said. “Though,” he added, mostly to himself, “at this point, why should it be?”

Fawkes was staring at the girl with wide eyes, mouth hanging slightly open.

“Where is my necklace?” she asked, glaring at Fawkes.

Atlas cocked his head as an idea dawned on him. He walked calmly back the counter and quietly grabbed the necklace, tapping Eliza twice in the middle of the back as Fawkes stuttered something about having sold it. Eliza slid her hand behind her back and Atlas slipped the necklace into it before walking back toward Fawkes and Rhia. “As eloquent as our friend here is being,” he said, addressing Rhia, “I have some questions of my own before I answer yours. Suffice to say, I have it and it’s safe, so you can take the crazy eyes down a notch, if you’d like to stay in my shop.”

The girl looked around, then she let out a breath, the lines between her eyebrows softening slightly. Atlas went to put a hand on her shoulder but she ducked away. He quirked a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes and starting walking, scanning the shelves. “My cat doesn’t like you,” he said, still browsing. “And I tend not to like anyone my cat doesn’t like.” He found what he was looking for, a supple, brown pair of hide gloves, and tossed them to her. She caught them and slipped them on quickly, shoving the dirty, ripped one into a pocket. She flexed her fingers, and Atlas noticed the muscles in her arms relax.

“I can talk to birds,” she mumbled.

“What?” Apata said.

“I can talk to birds and there’s one sitting on top of this building and that’s why your cat doesn’t like me.” Atlas raised an eyebrow. “His name is Cal and he’s sullen and surly, but he’s saved my life. Twice.”

“Well aren’t you interesting,” Atlas said. Fawkes was still gaping, finally realizing he had fallen into something way out of his league.

“You talk to birds?” Apata said, head cocked to one side. “Anamri or crazed?” She continued without waiting for an answer. “What else can you do?”

“Anam-what?” the girl asked.

Apata muttered something about backwards, root-loving islanders, so Atlas took over. “Anamri are what we call magic-users,” he explained. “Anam is the power of the soul, the spirit, whatever you want to call it, and neart draws on the power of the body. Anamri use both. Is that what you do?”

Rhia nodded. “I think so. Sort of. I don’t know how to explain it. The moon spirit helps me. And the water. Well, they blessed me—claimed me—and I can use their power.” Apata just stared at her.

Atlas tried again, “What do you mean, the moon and water spirits claimed you?”

“The birds call me moon-claimed, though most on this island didn’t speak to me. The others on Niki call me cursed. I’m strongest when the twin moons are full.” She paused. “Why are you looking at me like that? Who are you? And where’s my necklace?”

“You haven’t answered all my questions,” Atlas responded. “You’ll get my name when you’ve earned it. And you’ve caught us at rather a bad time, I’m afraid.” She looked around, trying to take stock of the situation. “Tell us more about what you can do.”

“The water listens to me, is kind to me. The waves come when I call them. And the currents carrying the ship I was on moved faster than any before.” She looked around, her chin up higher than it had been.

Atlas held up a coin out of the bag on the counter, a test he used to give all of Aryn’s kids. “Can you take this coin without touching it? If you can, you can keep it.” It was a basic task, one any anamri could do—multiple different ways, if they were experienced. But for beginners, it showed how they practiced: a wordsmith or singer would coax the coin to come, a kinesthet would move the coin as they moved. It would also show whether they relied more on anam or neart and which, if any, division they had a knack for. A conjurer would simply make it appear somewhere else, an illusionist might simply make it seem to disappear, an alchemist or naturalist would focus first on the individual elements of the coin, often accidentally causing it to break apart. Atlas quickly spoke a protection over his hand, just in case her powers manifested themselves unpleasantly.

“I don’t need your money,” she said. Everyone laughed but Eliza, who looked at her with mingled pity and amusement.

“So don’t keep it, then,” Atlas said. “But try to take it all the same.”

She frowned, then looked at the coin. She took off one of the gloves, reluctantly, and held her hand toward Atlas, focusing on the coin. It started to vibrate in Atlas’s hand—he got the feeling she didn’t work often with solid and complex materials. Eventually it jumped out of his hand and toward Rhia, clattering to the floor in front of her feet. She slid the glove back on and bent down to pick it up, but Atlas stopped her.

“Without touching it,” he reminded her.

“I didn’t!” She looked at him accusingly.

“And it’s not in your hands yet,” he said.

Rhia groaned. “I’m not a child,” she said. “Don’t treat me like one.” She reached for the coin anyway. Atlas crooked his finger and it jumped out of her reach and back into the palm of his hand.

He shrugged and pocketed the coin. “You didn’t need my money anyway.” He saw the muscles in her neck tense as she stood, her eyes narrowing. The whole bag of coin flew off the counter and into her open palm.

“I passed your test,” she said, looking smug.

Fawkes snatched the bag of coin out of her hand and tossed it back to Atlas. “Congrats,” he said.

“Would you stop stealing things from me?!” she shouted.

“I would if you didn’t make it so easy,” he replied, grinning.

“I’m sorry I don’t expect everyone I meet to rob me,” she retorted.

“Yeah, but I’ve done it twice.”

“Does that make me look bad, or you?”

“Obviously—”

“Children!” Atlas said.

“I am not a child!” they both shouted, turning in unison to glare at him.

Apata laughed.

“If you stopped acting like one, I might believe it.” He paused, daring one of them to argue. “So you are an anamri,” he said finally, addressing Rhia. “A strong one, too. A few more questions and you can have your necklace back, though I would ask a favor of you.”

“That seems to be a popular idea,” she muttered. “I’ll decide on your favor after I have my necklace. I won’t be blackmailed or tricked.”

“She’s a quick learner, she is,” Apata said approvingly. “Though I’d not have her at my back in the streets for a single second, mind.”

“Same,” Fawkes said, smirking at the girl.

Atlas sighed. “Very well. First question: Where did you get your necklace?”

She shrugged. “I’ve had it as long as I can remember. I’m told it was a gift from the spirits.”

“Well that’s unhelpful,” Fawkes said.

You are being unhelpful,” Atlas said. “What is it, exactly?” he continued.

“Spirit tears,” she replied.

Fawkes scoffed. “You and your spirits. There’s no such thing.”

They both ignored him, and she explained. “They’re said to heal wounds or keep the bearer from harm.”

“Does it work?” Apata asked.

“Said by who?” Eliza chimed in.

Rhia looked from one to the other. “The spirits said it. Say it,” she corrected. “And it works, though I haven’t tried it.”

“How d’you know it works, then?” Apata asked.

“About that spirits saying it thing,” Atlas said. “Explain that. Please.”

“They speak to me, through the necklace.” She looked around. They were all hanging on her words, and it seemed to make her uncomfortable. But she continued. “I don’t really know how to explain it. I don’t hear it so much as I feel like I heard it.”

“It sounds like the voice of an old friend in a memory?” Atlas supplied.

She looked at him in shock and nodded. “How’d you know?”

He answered her question with another of his own. “So you don’t have any idea what this—this thing is, and yet you wear it every day?”

“It’s—”

“Yes, you said. Spirit tears. Spend half a day on this island and you’ll see that the spirits are long gone, if they ever even existed in the first place. Your necklace doesn’t have spirit tears in it. Though I would very much like to know what it does have in it. Would you mind terribly if we studied it? Maybe extracted a bit of the liquid?”

Apata nodded her enthusiastic agreement. “Aye, and I’d love to see what magic produces the likes of that. Especially if it heals, as you say.”

Rhia looked horrified. “No!” Her breathing sped up. “You cannot disrespect a gift from the spirits!” Fawkes snickered, and she whirled on him. “Believe whatever you want about spirits, but I’ve seen the things that happen when you scorn them. Be my guest—in fact, please try. The world would be glad to be rid of you. Go ahead, disrespect them! Mock them! But I will not!”

Atlas just stared at her, while Fawkes shrunk down in his chair.

“Very well,” Atlas said. He retrieved the necklace quietly from Eliza as he waited for Rhia’s breathing to return to normal. “Take your thrice-cursed necklace and get it the hell away from me.” He handed it back to her and looked around the shop as she slipped it over her head. “I’ve enough unexpected conversations to last me a long while. Now, for the favor. Which I’d strongly suggest you accept, given that you have your necklace back and I’ve been nothing but kind to you so far.” He let the subtle threat hang in the air, hating that he had to resort to this. “There is a school of magic,” he continued, “on Effre, for only the most powerful and unique anamri. We are in need of answers about an odd disease that a client bid me to cure, and we believe that answers can be found there. But we need someone to feign interest, enough to get past the gates and in with someone who has those answers. If you can talk to birds, as you say, and control the currents, and if,” he looked pointedly at her gloved hands, “whatever you’re not telling us is of any merit, then you can at least get an interview. The client is coming today, but I believe he would be willing to wait a day or two, and pay much more handsomely, for answers. Will you do it?”

Rhia’s breathing sped up again, but only slightly this time. She clutched the necklace hanging at the hollow of her neck in one hand, the other clenching and unclenching at her side. “I—”

“Atlas,” Eliza said, interrupting her. “The poor girl looks worse than you do right now. Let her think about this in clean clothes and with a full belly.”

Atlas looked at Rhia coolly, taking in her torn clothes and shallow scrapes dried over with blood. “Do you have something she could wear?” he asked. They looked about the same size, though Rhia was a little taller. And currently scowling at something.

“Of course,” Eliza said. “And I’ll make us all some lunch, too.” She walked toward the door, stopping as she passed Rhia. “You’re safe here,” she said.

“Thank you,” Rhia whispered as Eliza walked out the door, closing it gently behind her.

“Liza’s right,” Atlas said. “I’m rushing you into this. But I’m afraid we’re rather pressed for time. As I said, the client is coming back today, and I’ve nothing to give him yet but a hunch.”

“I’ll do it,” Rhia said.

“You’ll what?” Atlas asked, surprised.

“I said I’ll do it.” She looked down. “But I should probably wait until I have something to wear.” Atlas nodded. “Once I… get in, what do you want me to ask?”

“Well,” Atlas said, “we hadn’t actually gotten that far. Um.”

“While you explain it to the girl,” Apata said, scanning the shelves of herbs and liquids, “I can mix something that should temporarily soothe the disease-addled skin.”

“Use what you need,” Atlas said. He turned to Rhia and started thinking aloud. “You’ll need some background, to be knowledgeable enough to at least get an interview. I explained to you anam and neart—you understand that well enough, yes?” Rhia nodded. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong for a practicing anamri, especially an inexperienced one.”

“That’s true,” Fawkes piped up. “Never touch the stuff, myself.” His eyes started to take on that heartbreaking look again even through his smile, and Atlas made a mental note to ask about it later. As for the moment, he didn’t have the time or energy to care.

“Most bad things can be recovered from, with the right knowledge and skill level,” Atlas continued. “Except two. If an anamri uses too much neart at one time, he dies. It’s simple, really: if you exhaust all your energy and lifeforce, your body doesn’t have the capacity to keep on living. But, if an anamri uses too much anam at one time, that’s more complicated. It happens more often to the weaker and untrained anamri, but it happens nonetheless. His eyes will turn silver and—”

“And he’ll turn into a soulless one, I know,” Rhia said. “I’ve seen it.”

“Tell me more about the soulless ones,” Atlas said.

“When you abuse the spirits’ gifts, they take your soul as payment,” she said matter-of-factly. She had a habit of speaking with her hands, accompanying each sentence with flourishes. Spirits was up, soul was a closed fist. Atlas wondered where she had picked that up. “Some soulless ones wander,” she continued, “attacking the temples, until they’re killed to appease the spirits. Others are taken by the spirits themselves and driven mad, walking out to the middle of the sea or causing great waves or unnatural storms. I’ve only heard about the others, I’ve never seen one. The last was years before I was born.”

“That’s intriguing,” Atlas said.

“Are the soulless ones different here?” Rhia asked.

“You could say that.”

“Wait,” Fawkes said. “You’re telling me she’s not making this up?”

“No,” Atlas said, sighing. “We don’t have many soulless ones here, not as such. Though here we call them husks. Husks of the anamri they once were.” He paused, trying to decide where to start. “It’s commonly known that husks will attack anamri, especially the strong ones, in order to try to gain power back. I assume your temples are filled with those who have been greatly blessed by the spirits?” She nodded. “The mind of a husk shuts down, and the body is taken over by an all-encompassing need for life, which, with the right knowledge—or, in your case, knack—can be taken from other living beings, husk or no. It’s taboo, here, however, to ever use that force. Anyone who does won’t last long.” Rhia tugged on her gloves, staying silent. Atlas continued. “As on Niki—that’s where you said you were from, right?—most husks here are killed or done away with immediately. Only once have I seen what you described as the other soulless ones, and, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I saw.”

“What’d you see?” Fawkes asked. Apata snorted from behind the wall of jars and boxes she had haphazardly stacked as she created.

“The woman who crushed a man’s heart with her heel and ushered a ship out of the harbor with no wind, the one I mentioned earlier with vine growing from her finger, when Apata spoke of the shimmering that accompanied the dying chieftan. It’s the only time I’ve seen that shimmering, and it’s got something to do with this disease.” He turned to Rhia. “That’s one of the questions you’ll be asking at the school. If they’ve encountered that shimmering and what exactly it is. Another is what diseases specifically affect anamri. Play up your ignorance if that helps, pretend you’re scared of contracting one of them. Little girl in the big city.”

“I am not—”

“You’re not a little girl, I know.” Atlas flopped down into the armchair he had pulled from the back room, startling Fishnik from his perch on the back. “This would go a lot faster if people stopped reminding me what ages they’re not.” He looked pointedly from Rhia to Fawkes. “Got it?”

They both muttered something that he assumed amounted to yes, so he continued. “I was actually asking Rhia if she understood her job so far.”

“I think so,” Rhia said.

Apata started to chant, slowly. Atlas watched her with interest as the contents of the jar under her fingers began to bubble and splash. Her voice rose in pitch and then stopped, the mixture giving one final heave before coming to rest. She looked up to see everyone watching her. “It’s done, I’d say,” she said. “Jaspar won’t be saying no to this. Do you think he’ll surely wait?”

Atlas shrugged. “If not, we’ll still have his money. Just not as much of it.”

“But don’t you want to know what this disease is?” Rhia asked. “I’ve only heard parts of it, but it sounds serious, and like something that could come after all of us.” She turned to Fawkes. “Except you, of course.”

He let out a huff and turned his attention to the cat laying on his feet. He bent down to scratch between its ears, but Fishnik let out a warning from the back of his throat, tail flicking back and forth, staying planted exactly where he was. Fawkes sat back and crossed his arms, scowling.

“Maybe this Jaspar person would have more information that could help,” she continued. “And if this disease can be cured, maybe others can, too.” She wrung her hands together as she spoke, her voice getting faster and higher with hope.

“I doubt that,” Atlas said.

“But you don’t know!” Her shout startled Fishnik from his nap, and he stalked into the back room, tail held high.

“Why do you care?” Fawkes said. “This isn’t your problem.”

“It’s not actually yours, either,” Atlas added. He turned to Rhia. “But he makes a good point. What stake do you have in this?”

“Nothing,” she mumbled. Apata laughed. Atlas continued to stare at her until she spoke again, quietly. “Taropo,” she said, hands clasped tightly in front of her. “Cursed one.” She looked around the shop nervously. “I want freedom,” she whispered.

“Aha,” Atlas said. He stood and gently placed a hand on her shoulder. She let him, stiffening only slightly. “I won’t tell you not to hope,” he said. “But we’ve a long way to go before that.”

“Sure and we can teach her control,” Apata said. “Cursed one, my arse. Weakness can be trained out of a child.” Rhia bristled but said nothing.

“Can hers, though?” Fawkes said, smirking.

“We?” Atlas asked. “How long exactly were you planning to stay?” He looked from Apata to Rhia, with great effort stopping short of looking at Fawkes. He was interrupted by the front door loudly hitting the wall and knocking a display of good luck charms to the ground. Scalewolf claws and waxing turtle shells skittered across the floor. A pale boy, no older than Fawkes and wearing nothing but a coat, was holding the hand of small girl in mismatching clothes looking around the shop with wide eyes and a trance-like smile. Her brown hair stuck up in every direction, and there was dirt on her hands and face. Atlas sighed.

The boy reached down to pick up a shell, his face showing a mixture of delight and confusion. He was carrying in the crook of one arm a medium-sized package wrapped in coarse, brown paper and tied with twine. He led the girl forward into the shop, looking around warily, his bare feet making little sound on the old, wooden floorboards. “Your door stuck,” he said. He thrust the package forward. “And this was sitting outside. I didn’t want it to get stolen. I scared a bird off it already.” Rhia tensed, but she stayed silent.

“Can I help you?” Atlas said, walking forward but making no move to take the package.

“I don’t know,” the boy said. He tugged gently on the girl’s hand, and she smiled up at Atlas.

“The music here is nice,” she said. He smiled back, he couldn’t help it. “And the colors are right.”

“I’ve always thought so,” Atlas said. He looked back toward the boy, still wary, but slightly less irritated. “Who are you and why are you here?”

“I’m Ryker,” he said. “And this is Wren.” She had wandered over to Rhia and was staring up at her necklace.

“I can’t hear it,” she said.

“Can’t hear what?” Rhia asked.

“Your necklace. It won’t talk to me.” Rhia and Atlas shared a look somewhere between horror and disbelief. The little girl gasped. She walked slowly toward Apata, her eyes tracing the godmarks on her skin. “You’re so pretty,” she breathed.

Apata quirked a smile. “As are you, cushla.” Wren continued to stare up at her, to Apata’s discomfort and Atlas’s amusement.

“I don’t know why we’re here,” Ryker said.

“Of course you don’t,” Atlas said. “Why wouldn’t you come to my shop, having never met me—” Atlas eyed the boy’s scrawny, bare legs, “—obviously needing my help? Did I miss anything?”

“Wren,” the boy—Ryker—said, “we should go.”

“No,” she said.

He sighed and walked over to where she was standing. “Yes.”

She turned her attention from Apata to the other three. “Do you know Aryn?” she asked.

“Seriously,” Atlas said. “Who are you?” Ryker shrugged, looking helplessly at the girl. Atlas continued. “How do you know Aryn? She didn’t send you, did she? I’m going to have to—”

“No,” Ryker said. “She didn’t send us. We don’t know her. A friend of hers, the captain of the ship that brought us here, she said to find Aryn. That she could keep us safe.”

Wren nodded in agreement. “But you can, too, can’t you?”

Atlas groaned. “What trouble are you in?”

“You know Aryn,” Ryker said. It wasn’t a question, it was a decision. He inclined his head toward Wren, who was now wandering around, looking at everything on the shelves. “She’s special,” he said.

“That’s for damn certain,” Apata muttered.

Ryker continued, ignoring her. “She was taken, but I got her back. The man—thing—who took her didn’t like that.” He suppressed a shudder.

“Special how?” Apata asked. One thing Atlas appreciated was that she always focused on the most immediate problem.

“She can do magic, stronger than I’ve ever heard of,” Ryker said.

Atlas turned, pulling the coin from earlier out of his pocket. “Wren,” he said, “can you take this coin from me without touching it?”

She turned to consider him. “Yes,” she said. She went back to looking at a row of little suns carved from old marble tiles.

Atlas laughed. “Will you try for me?”

She bent down and started writing in some dust near the wall. Suddenly the coin was no longer in Atlas’s hand. He looked around and saw that it was sitting next to the words she had scrawled out. She was staring up at a row of scarves hanging near the ceiling. He turned back to Ryker, leaving Wren to her thoughts.

“A wordsmith,” he said. “And a conjurer.” Ryker stared at him. “Now back to the so-called man-thing that wants her. Describe him.”

“His eyes burn. And he disguises himself. I don’t know what he is, though he calls himself Mr. Locke. And Lord Oku. And many other names, I think.”

“You’re kidding,” Fawkes said. “Atlas, tell me he’s kidding.”

“Why would I be kidding?” Ryker asked.

“I know him,” Fawkes said. “Well, I know a guy who knows a guy who knows him.”

Atlas squeezed his eyes shut and ran his hands over his face. They were all still staring at him, except Wren, who was paging through one of the books Fawkes had left sitting on the ground, Fishnik curled up in her lap. She stroked him absentmindedly. Atlas shook his head and turned back to Fawkes. “Are you going to explain that?”

“I tried to sell the necklace to Rat-fa—Mr. Lyonel—” Atlas made a sound of disgust. “—and he warned me about a bunch of traders with those names. Said they weren’t from this world and they burned like a million god suns or something. ‘Get rid of it, Fawkes!’” he mocked. “He was crazy. Is crazy.”

“Yes,” Ryker said. “That’s him, I think.”

“Apparently we’re all crazy,” Atlas muttered. He addressed what he had been avoiding, deciding finally that Ryker wasn’t in fact a threat. “I wasn’t expecting a package.” Ryker shrugged and held it out to him again.

Rhia stepped between them, looking at Atlas. Apparently she had decided it was time to act. “You asked a favor from me, and now I need to ask one from you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You can ask,” he said.

“I need you to take this,” she said, taking the package from Ryker. She instantly dropped it, shaking her hands as if it had burned them. Through the paper and through her gloves. “Someone must have enchanted it,” she said. “It’s heavier. And it feels like it’s covered in cursed sea spines.”

“What is it?” Atlas asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well,” he said, “the best way to remedy that is to open it and see what we’re dealing with. As you brought it into my shop, you can do the honors. Outside.”

She stared at him and left the package where it was. Ryker bent down and picked it up. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll go with you.” His eyes found Wren. “Stay here,” he said. She nodded without looking up from the book she was reading, and he smiled.

Rhia followed him outside.

Atlas looked at Apata. “Any guesses as to what it’s going to be? Someone’s head, perhaps? Some other anam-imbued object with no explanation or clear purpose?”

“Aye, or Mother Sun herself come to stay for a bit,” she said. “You could use a bit of light in this hovel. Though the heat is enough to right cook a spit of meat.” She reached up and unclasped the broach at her collarbone, letting her garment fall around her belt. Fawkes’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline. Atlas opened his mouth to say something but decided some fights just weren’t worth fighting. He walked over and ruffled Fawkes’s hair, smirking.

“What were you saying about teaching children?” he said. Fawkes swatted his hand away, and he laughed. He turned to Wren, who was absorbed in feeding bits of old pastry to a very content Fishnik. Atlas crouched down next to her. “Hello, Wren,” he said.

She turned to look at him and smiled. “Shrika likes cinnamon,” she said, petting the cat. “And so do I.” She popped a piece of the pastry in her mouth and chewed happily.

“His name is Fishnik,” Atlas said. “And I’m glad you like cinnamon.”

She considered that. “No, I don’t think that’s right.”

Atlas shook his head and tried a different tactic. “Where are you from, Wren?”

She shrugged. “Ryker found me.”

“Before you were on the boat,” Atlas said. “Where did you come from?”

“Ryker found me,” she repeated.

Atlas ran a hand through his hair, stray pieces falling back in front of his face. “But—”

Fawkes plopped himself down cross-legged next to them. “Wren,” he said. She looked from him to Atlas, her eyes narrowing a little. “Want to see a trick?” She nodded eagerly. He grabbed a wide-brimmed hat from a shelf behind him and set it on her head, pushing it up when it fell over her eyes. He then pulled a large coin from his pocket, a Mjimeran quintcopper he had most likely lifted from some unsuspecting tourist in Northmere. He tossed the coin from hand to hand. “I need you to watch the coin,” he said to Wren. Her eyes followed it back and forth as she nodded. “It’s very important for you to watch the coin.” Atlas heard the cadence of his voice shift, rising and falling evenly. A street kid’s easiest out. “It’s a pretty coin, isn’t it?” he continued. “So pretty and shiny and bright.” Atlas saw it start to work, saw her eyes unfocus ever so slightly. Fawkes made his move. He flipped the coin high in the air. In a matter of seconds, while her eyes followed it glinting in the sunlight, his left hand knocked the hat off her head, bringing it around his back to flip onto his own head, while his right pulled four other coins from his pocket. He caught the quintcopper in his right hand, the clink of the coins knocking her out of her stupor. He put a shocked and amused smile on his face and Atlas watched as she mirrored it. He picked up the quintcopper and held it up to the light. “It made more of itself!” He took her hand in his own and poured the extra coppers into it. Her other hand went up to feel her head, laughing and grabbing the hat back from Fawkes. He let her, inclining his head forward.

“Thank you,” she said, still smiling. She flipped one of the coins up and chased it when it landed two feet away. Atlas sat back on his heels.

Fawkes looked smug. “What happened to that famous charm?” he asked.

Atlas laughed. “I spent it all on the likes of you.”

“Is that right?” Fawkes asked. Quick as thief he reached out and knocked Atlas off balance. “I think it’s just all hype.”

Atlas laughed once, stretching out where he fell and putting his hands behind his head. “Maybe.”

Ryker and Rhia walked back in then, Rhia carrying a dagger from a rough sling made of paper and twine. Wren ran toward the front of the store, barrelling into Ryker, who put his arms easily around her. She held her hand out, palm up, the coppers shining dully in the sun. “Ryker, look!”

He frowned, looking from her to the others in the shop. “Where did you get those, Wren?”

She pointed to Fawkes. “He gave them to me.” Fawkes nodded at Ryker’s questioning look, and Ryker shrugged. Atlas could see the exhaustion on his face as he smiled down at Wren, admiring her prize.

“What have you there?” Apata said, stepping out from where she had been seated behind the counter and walking toward Rhia.

Ryker looked up, his mouth falling open, and his eyes went anywhere but the half-naked woman in front of him, though Atlas noticed his eyes linger ever so briefly every time they flashed past her. “Why— what— she—” he stuttered. “What do the women here have against clothes?”

“What do the men have against breasts?” she asked, frustrated.

“Absolutely nothing,” Fawkes answered quickly, unabashedly staring. She pulled the cloth back up and clasped the brooch, glaring from Fawkes to Ryker.

Atlas sat up, cuffing Fawkes on the back of the head. “Don’t be rude,” he said. He turned to look at the package Rhia was carrying gingerly away from her. “What is that, though?” he asked.

“It’s a dagger,” Rhia said.

“I can see that. Why are you holding it like that?”

“It stings me now, though it didn’t before,” she said.

Atlas looked at Ryker, who shrugged. “It felt only like a dagger to me,” he said.

“I need you to take it,” Rhia interrupted, walking it toward Atlas.

He stood up. “Why?”

“Because if you do, I will owe one less favor to one less unsavory person.”

Atlas narrowed his eyes. He picked up the dagger, and it sent a prickling feeling through his palm and up his arm. He studied it, flipping it around. The blade was black, a sucking, endless black, with bluish veins threading up the center from the hilt, which was carved from wood and bone in the shape of a vulture with wings spread wide. Two blue-tinted gems with deep red centers were set where its eyes would have been.

“No,” he said, handing it back to her. When she didn’t take it, he flipped it so that it landed tip first between her feet. It quivered where it stuck, and he walked away.

“I’m sorry?” she said coolly.

“You can tell Captain Reyxald that for the final time, no, I will not accept this.”

“But, I’m not— I wasn’t—”

“No, you can’t stay here,” he said. “I’m not taking in any more stowaways.” He looked pointedly from her to Ryker and Wren.

A shadow in the shape of an imposing man darkened the doorway.

“Finally,” Atlas said. He swept his arm out in a grand gesture, welcoming Jaspar to his shop and forcing Ryker and Wren behind him. Wren peeked out from under his arm at the strange man entering the shop.

“Welcome back,” Atlas said. Apata moved to stand next to him, in front of Rhia and Fawkes. “I told you that when you returned I would either have your cure or a very good excuse. I, in fact, have both.”

Jaspar frowned. “Shaman,” he said, bowing slightly to Atlas. He looked around the room at the ragtag group of grown-up street kids. “I did not know to bring back up as well.”

Atlas laughed, a light, forced sound. “I did not know they would be here,” he said. “But they have no part of this business.” He took in the man in front of him, all sun-browned charcoal skin and salt white hair. His perfectly cut coat was unbuttoned, and mud spotted the hem of his pants. He was breathing heavily. He clutched the blacksteel tree in one hand, and ice crystals had formed on the outermost branches.

“Ryker, his heart,” Wren whispered. Ryker shushed her, wrapping one arm around her chest and pulling her back into him.

Jaspar pulled a large bag of coin from a jacket pocket and tossed it to the floor at Atlas’s feet. “You said you had a cure,” he said.

“I do.” Atlas held out the jar of cream-colored liquid that Apata had handed him moments ago.

Jaspar stared hungrily at the jar. He started rolling up his sleeve, where the multibanded scales of a colorful snake had replaced patches of the skin on his forearm. Pieces of dead skin hung from under the scales, and as he scratched at it, some fell off with scales still attached. Rhia gasped, and Fawkes elbowed her. They watched as three more interlocking scales grew to take its place. He held his arm out to Atlas. “Prove to me that it works.”

“Very well.” Atlas scooped some of the liquid onto his fingers and smeared it on the man’s skin. He felt more than heard Apata start to chant under her breath, low enough that the man wouldn’t be able to hear. The scales started to wriggle and pull themselves one by one out from under his skin, the pieces of skin reaching to knit themselves back together. Jaspar watched it happen with a manic delight in his eyes. The temperature in the room began to rise, water dripping off the blacksteel tree in the man’s other hand, and Atlas heard Wren’s breathing speed up somewhere behind him.

Apata stopped chanting, the man’s arm like new. She stood up straighter to disguise the slump of her shoulders, and Atlas stepped back, wiping his hand on his pants. His fingers felt tingly and cool where the ointment had been.

“Does it work to your satisfaction?” Atlas asked.

Jaspar raised his eyes to meet Atlas’s, the manic look still there. “Yes,” he breathed. He snatched the jar from Atlas’s hand and tucked it quickly into his pocket. “Our transaction, then, is done,” he said.

“Wait,” Atlas said.

Jaspar stopped mid-turn, and the room got a few degrees colder. He pinched his fingers together, the water on the tree hardening back to ice. “Yes, shaman?”

The doorway darkened with another figure, this one slim and feminine. “Atlas, can I speak with you a moment?” Eliza walked confidently past the man from the Southeastern Isles, tossing a floral blue dress to Rhia and setting a plate of steaming creamed crab pie on a stool. She stopped next to Atlas, setting her hand on his upper arm and curling her fingers to apply pressure.

Jaspar frowned. “No, I will not permit this. Speak, shaman. Quickly.”

Atlas nodded, addressing Eliza. “Let me finish my business with this client, love.” He scratched his jawline three times, exactly. What news?

She looked properly abashed. “Oh! Yes, I understand,” she said, dropping her hand. She snapped her fingers, hitting the palm of her hand against her thigh after she did so. Men approaching.

“I said that I had a cure for you, but that I also had a very good excuse,” Atlas said, pulling Eliza close to him and pushing her slightly behind him. He slipped the turquoise and opal knife from his boot, pretending to itch his calf, and slid it up his sleeve.

“I do not care,” Jaspar said. He looked over his shoulder nervously, the temperature in the room dropping even more. Rhia started to shiver, and Fawkes wrapped his arm carefully around her waist, pulling her closer. Ryker crouched to retrieve the vulture-hilt dagger from where it had landed, tucking it quickly into the pocket of his coat.

Atlas continued, ignoring him. “We believe that this disease might be more involved than a simple skin condition,” he said. “We are looking further into it and wondered if you could tell us more about it.”

“We?” Jaspar said disapprovingly. He flippantly gestured around the room. “You said that they had no part of this business.”

Atlas shrugged, thinking quickly. “I lied.” The tension drew his mind into perfect focus. He could feel every presence in the room. Everyone was on edge, but no one was panicking yet. Jaspar was afraid, and that worried him more than anything. Because he knew it wasn’t of him.

Jaspar hissed. “I am sorry you involved them. I must go.” He turned to leave, but the doorway was blocked. Two men and a woman filed in, all bearing the ashen brown skin and dried sap hair of the Southeastern Isles. The room dipped to below freezing.

Wren gasped. “R-Ryker,” she said.

Apata tensed, flexing her fingers at her side and stepping one foot slightly in front of the other. A fighting stance.

“Damn you, shaman,” Jaspar breathed. He kneeled and bowed low to the strangers, who walked forward to surround him. The shorter of the two men reached a hand under his chin, forcing his head up.

“So,” the man said, his voice like a thousand hissing snakes. “This is where you have come.” He flicked Jaspar’s chin aside, and the old man crumpled to the ground. The blacksteel tree clattered into the corner. The temperature began to rise.

Wren whimpered. “His heart is still b-b-beating, Ryker,” she whispered. “I’m s-scared.” Ryker wrapped his hand over her mouth, but it was too late.

The woman cocked her head, her straight hair falling to brush her shoulder. “What have we here?” she asked, advancing toward Wren. Her voice whistled and clanged, the sound of metal on metal. “A little bird?” She stopped and took a deep breath. Her face hardened into a mask of rage. “A poisoned bird,” she hissed. She reached for Wren’s throat, but Ryker was quicker. He shoved Wren to the side and pulled the dagger from his coat, lunging in one quick motion and shoving it into the woman’s shoulder. He’d missed her heart. His head whipped from side to side, looking for another weapon, but the woman started to scream. Ryker fell to the floor, his hands over his ears. Apata started to lunge toward the men, but the scream was too much. She froze, the godmarks on her face folding over one another in her pain. It was like no sound Atlas had ever heard. A keening wail, a grating screech, the wind whistling through a gale. It was all these and yet none of these. Her face and body faded in and out of sight as she slumped to the ground. Where once was flesh was now a million shards of mirror glass, hair replaced with fluid beams of light. Behind her unearthly screams rose the faint sound of a sizzling hiss, of the air being let out of a child’s toy, of seed oil left too long over a fire.

The men ignored it, the taller one taking a deep breath of his own. The screaming stopped, the woman crumpled on the floor, her skin cracked and burned beyond recognition. The dagger hilt clattered to the floor, the blade now dull and tarnished.

“A whole nest of poisoned birds,” the taller man said. Atlas nearly missed it over the ringing in his ears. Apata gasped next to him, trying to catch her breath. The taller man looked at Jaspar with mingling pity and pride as the shorter one kicked him awake. “What have you found for us?” he asked lightly, crouching to pat him on the head. “What good work you’ve done.”

Jaspar coughed, blood seeping between the cracks in the floorboards. Fawkes gagged. “Thank you, mezzi,” he whispered. The taller man nodded and the shorter one kicked Jaspar hard in the temple. Atlas heard a dull thud, and Eliza gasped. There was a perfect indent where the man’s foot had been.

The tall man turned to his companion. “The poisoned ones are of use to us, yes?” The shorter man nodded. “Kill the rest.”

Atlas slipped the knife from his sleeve and threw it. The taller man caught it right before it would have entered his heart. He tutted. “Your friend’s blade was one of a kind,” he said idly. “But surely you knew that.” Still holding Atlas’s knife by the blade, he pointed at Eliza. “Her first.”

Apata had started chanting. Atlas could feel her skin radiating heat as the chanting grew more pronounced. She let out a bloodcurdling yell as she charged the taller of the two men. Still the shorter advanced toward Eliza and Atlas. Atlas heard the taller man scream, heard the scream turn to laughter as Apata’s rose in pitch. Fawkes was yelling for Atlas to do something; he could feel Rhia gathering power, hesitant to use it. Still he didn’t take his eyes off the man casually walking toward them. Thud. Thud. Atlas wasn’t sure if he was hearing the man’s footsteps or his own heartbeat. It didn’t matter. Only Eliza mattered.

Time stood briefly still. Thud. Thud. Thud.

Atlas pounced, catching the man in a headlock and sweeping his feet out from under him. But then he was on the ground, and the man was still standing. He kicked out, but his leg didn’t move. Couldn’t move. The man had Eliza’s chin in one hand, the other stroking her hair. “Pretty,” he whispered, his voice water breaking against rocks. Atlas tried to move, tried to stand, but his limbs were dead weight. He screeched, but his voice was drowned in the chaos around him. No one was coming to help. The man tilted Eliza’s head from one side to the other, laughing. One final sharp twist and Eliza crumpled to the floor.

Everything stopped. Dead. Dead. Dead. The world around Atlas sharpened beyond recognition as he felt his own snap into nothing. The ground shimmered, and Eliza’s body was covered in maggots. Atlas choked on pain and vomit and power. He saw everything and nothing at once. He saw Apata and the taller man locked together, felt her struggle to stop his heart as it beat thrice as fast as any others, looked through her eyes at his, ones that glowed with unearthly fire. He saw Wren, a burst of sizzling color, hunched over a motionless Ryker, writing frantically in a pool of his blood. Rhia, in the corner, shoving Fawkes behind her, her thoughts a haze of power and water and moonlight. Dead. Dead. He saw the man in front of him, a flicker of fear on his face and in his racing heart as their eyes locked and Atlas stood in one smooth motion, towering over the other man. He saw Eliza, utterly still. Dead.

Fire fled through his veins and clouded everything in a haze of silvery light. He felt it flicker on his fingers and lick up his arms, relished its comforting, searing heat as it curled around his every thought. He tasted it, bitter and biting, saw it engulf the man in front of him as fingers that were his and yet not his wound around the man’s throat. “You will regret this,” he whispered, his voice soft as down and smooth as the roar of a gathering inferno. Heat and light exploded. And everything went black.

 

End of Part I

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