Atlas’s shop, Mjimeri, Central Isle
There were three of them in the room that smelled like sunrises and spice, standing on the floorboards that had once been proud, strong trees but now knew happiness like they hadn’t seen before. Rhia and Atlas were like her. She knew, she could see. But not Apata, she was wild viper vines, but that wasn’t just right. Neither was fire, even when she sparked with magic. Apata wasn’t like her, but she was good. And not Fawkes, either, though Atlas and Fawkes swirled together with bursts of light like the night sky and their hearts felt like the same soft grass. Fawkes was a dash of orange, like the sunset on a billowy day. But Fawkes wasn’t like them. And she liked him better for it. Because Fawkes was like Ryker.
Ryker was outside with Rhia. He had told Wren to stay, but where else would she go? This place was just right. Not too loud like Rip’s ship or boring like Blitzkrieg’s market. It wasn’t grey like Bransk, but it didn’t burst like Effre. It held the warmth of the sun but the comfort of Ryker’s hugs.
Wren picked up a book that was wrinkled skin and crusty bread. It was heavy, thick, full of unsettled dust and mingling words. She flipped through the book, scanning the pages with mild interest, and Shrika the cat jumped into her lap. He was frizzy because of the midnight-blue bird lounging on the roof. The bird was all conceited looks and confident airs. No wonder Rhia stayed close to him; he knew the world.
Atlas spoke to her. “Hello, Wren.” His eyes were the colors of storms, and his heartbeat fluttered fast and strong. Wren answered his questions, but her mind drifted to the scarves and baubles that hung from the ceiling and swirled with ink and ribbon and efflorescence and gold. She watched the curls of Apata’s skin blossom like the clematis found on Otillie, petals popping and fluttering, singing.
Dreams to sell,
Dreams to sell,
Father Earth comes
with dreams to sell…
The boy like Ryker—Fawkes—joined Atlas, jolting Wren from her thoughts. “Want to see a trick?”
She gasped. He was like Ryker. She nodded, unable to contain her excitement that bubbled golden sunbursts. Ryker always liked to practice his tricks with Wren, which left her giggling and rolling into his arms. Fawkes set a floppy hat that smelled of corn and the sea and Rhia’s skin on Wren’s head before he pulled a coin from his pocket. His words lured her in, although they didn’t contain magic like the words of the man with burning eyes. Like a good audience, she participated, laughing at the end when he stole her hat and coins rained down from his hand into hers. They were warm and glinted with smears of orange Fawkes.
Wren cupped the coins close to her face, eying each one as stars glistened on Atlas and Fawkes’s hair. The door opened; shadows shifted around Ryker and Rhia as they entered. Wren felt brittle bone and shivering black before she jumped to her feet and raced across the room, easily dodging the knickknacks scattered about the room.
“Ryker, look!” She shoved the handful of coins into his face. He jerked back, thin eyes narrowing further.
“Where did you get those, Wren?” His dark eyes held the same look as Atlas—beyond tired, beyond sad. But there was a spark, warmth, that dash of orange mingling with the darkening crimson and violet. The moment when the first rays of sunlight brushed the night sky.
She pointed at Fawkes. “He gave them to me.”
Ryker glanced at Fawkes and shrugged. There was a layer of gray dusting his shoulders, a heaviness that Wren saw matched Atlas, Apata, even Rhia. Fawkes only danced with sunlight.
“What have you there?” Apata asked, moving toward them. Her presence was so wild, so grand. It was the whole forest, the birds and trees and leaves, shifting and expanding. A strangled hiccup stretched from Ryker’s throat, rose-tinted dandelion puffs fluttering from his lips.
Wren tilted her head to watch him. She could hear his heart pat-pat-pat, faster than hooves against stretches of grass and dirt. His colors were brightening, spiraling with the dandelion puffs as he tried to breathe in and out in the normal pattern. Why was he so frustrated with Apata’s pretty liana skin?
“It’s a dagger,” Rhia said, startling Wren from her thoughts. Wren’s mouth fell open as she looked at it. The hilt was a bird, its eyes made of blood, its wings made of bones. The blade pulsed erratically. Effervescent. It sizzled and popped and throbbed, and she wondered why it was familiar. She winced as it hit the ground, sticking where Atlas threw it. The light snaked through the cracks in the floor before being sucked back into the shadow blade.
Atlas was angry red metal sparks. Maybe not angry. Frustrated. But the sparks rising against his skin darkened with a shadow. Ice cold, black as night.
People in Blitzkrieg whispered about black ice—ice so thin and dry it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. At night on the Frigid Sea, the black ice would crack ship hulls and break boat bows. During the day, people fell across its invisible surface as they walked through Blitzkrieg’s dark, cobblestone streets.
The man who now darkened the door was black ice and ashes. He was frozen and frigid and fractured, thinly coated in death. He was there, at the door, but also ethereal, a flicker, a blink, sprinkled with frost. But it was his heart that made Wren shudder against Atlas’s side. The rhythm was crooked, a musician without properly tuned strings, a chorus without unity. Every two beats, a third resonated through the man. A pulse that did not belong. Ice that could not be seen.
Ryker told Wren to hush, though she couldn’t recall speaking, and clutched her against him. He was clement and smelled like the sea. She liked that best about Ryker. And now Rhia, too.
The grey man rolled up his sleeve. Chipped shrapnel of iridescence flaked off his dark skin and fluttered to the floor, staining the wooden boards with dark puddles. Rhia gasped, sea breeze shriveling in the frosty air. Wren looked up from the melting snow.
Scales that dazzled with patterns and colors and reams of light and dirt swirled before Wren’s eyes. The man’s arm was a snake—no, it just looked like a snake. It hissed as he scratched at the hollow skin that dangled jungle vines from his elbow. Atlas smeared a thick substance that was wet leaves and crystals across the scaled skin. Wren heard Apata’s cascading voice charm the snake. It reared its head, baring its fangs. One by one, the scales peeled off the man’s skin and dropped to the floor, wilting and dissolving into dust.
Heat flared through the room, and Wren gasped. Sweat droplets rose on her skin, drip, drip, dripping. Water sang from the blacksteel tree in the man’s hand. Apata was balmy tired, the sun on a particularly warm day, beating down, withering plants.
Then Eliza arrived at the door. A breeze at springtime, cool and pleasant and just right. In her hands, she held a piping hot pie that steamed with a mother’s embrace, fish, and the longing of home. She spoke to Atlas, but her words were hollow. Wren scrunched up her shoulders to her ears. Why was Eliza pretending to lie? Her hands moved in an odd way, sending off swirls of white and black that lingered in the space between her and Atlas. The space between them didn’t look like space, though. It was daisy yellow and red and the pinks and browns of nervous blood under skin. It was comfortable and warm, like when Ryker pressed his forehead to hers to tell her she was safe.
Atlas slipped a knife from his boot into his sleeve, the metal singing. The room grew frigid. The grey man was nervous; his heart fluttered with snowflakes drifting from the sky. The wind quickened, sending the snowflakes in all directions. Rhia’s waves frosted over until Fawkes’s spark gave them warmth. Ryker stooped to the proud tree floorboards and snatched the knife from where it stuck into the wood. Shivers of black danced up his arm, bleeding into his veins. The tree floor groaned in relief, sparking with sunlight and green leaves.
Wren felt them outside and her heart shriveled up into tight, little ball. Not more. No more. Ice crystals danced in the air and on the man blanketed with grey. She pressed back into Ryker, and she saw them. Their faces flickered in and out, the browns giving way to shimmering, writhing snakes crashing on the shores of the Frigid Sea, before breaking themselves into a million light pieces. They spoke but she couldn’t hear them over the pounding in her ears. The grey man fell, but his heart continued to a strange rhythm, like two beats twining into one, a million footsteps between the trees.
“His heart is still beating, Ryker,” she whispered. “I’m scared.”
She felt all his muscles tense, saw the fear spike his heart in dull, faded greens. He put his hand over her mouth. He tasted of sunshine and saltwater, but his skin was clammy, quivering. The woman made of glass and light and tree sap looked at her with burning eyes. She whimpered into Ryker’s hand.
“What have we here?” the lady—the monster—said. It was a sword swiping the air, unsheathing from its scabbard, scraped against an anvil. “A little bird?” When the monster took a breath, Wren saw a rainbow stream through her nostrils like a kaleidoscopic, reverse waterfall. Her eyes flashed open, irises luminous white, all the colors trapped there. “A poisoned bird,” she said.
The monster lunged toward Wren, but Wren’s feet were frozen to the floorboards by the grey man’s smothered heartbeat. Ryker roared, a wave rising inside of him, and pushed Wren to the side. She stumbled and fell against a globe showing all the islands of Bakkaj, so many she had never seen or heard of. Then Ryker was moving, blue threads zipping around him as he plucked the dagger from his coat and stabbed the monster. The black shivers cascaded from his veins and jolted into the lady. But he missed. Wren could sense it, feel the angry blade as it dug into the monster’s shoulder. It sliced through muscle, it severed bone, it pierced her alkalescent soul. But it did not breach her heart.
And then she screamed.
Wren breathed in dust and ink. The world stopped for a fraction of a second. Ryker’s face crumpled as the glassy shriek lifted from the monster’s lips and sailed through the shop, a ship on the high seas during a storm. Apata tried to battle the oncoming wave, but it crashed over her, drowning. Fawkes tightened his hold on Rhia. Atlas stood still in that blink.
Wren breathed out ivory and alabaster glaciers. Stars crusted with embers and snow.
Ryker hit the floor, his own scream lost among the storm. The monster’s wail ricocheted until she collapsed, glistening with light and glass. A crackle, a spark from a fire, shot from the monster and dissipated into the air. Dusty flakes floated in the inbetween spaces.
As the shop exploded into chaos—into magic and movement and a loudness that burned her ears—Wren watched the flakes drift in the patches of daylight that streamed through the windows of the shop. She watched as they settled upon bodies, upon furniture, upon trinkets of magic and artifacts of history. Wren watched until Ryker writhed in his own blood, as Apata jerked back from a fist, and Atlas’s heart broke, all of his color spilling out and drenching the floor in daisy yellow and carnelian red.
Three bodies lay on the floor, shells of what they had been. The grey man was hollow and cold, an echoing cavern of silence. The monster was shriveled, curled, molten magma cooling. Eliza was both hot and cold, warm and pale. She was scattered straw and twisted fabric. And she was broken.
But broken could be mended.
Wren stooped to the ground, her fingers tracing letters into words with Ryker’s blood. There was so much blood. It rained down the walls and swallowed her whole. She tried to cry out, for Ryker, for Eliza, for Atlas. But all she saw was black smoke coddling her, and she felt fire on her back, hotter than the monsters, hotter than she had ever felt. She turned around. Atlas was a million stars about to explode. She started to rush toward him, but Ryker grabbed her by the ankle.
“No,” he said. She crouched down, her hands over her head, tears trying to break from her eyes. Straight in front of her was death, slithering from Apata, from the other monster, from another place, shimmering like a thousand dead fish, older than the ones in Blitzkrieg’s market. She screamed, and it looked at her without eyes, without body. From Atlas came an explosion of light so bright the world was drenched in white. There was nothing but white, blinding, burning, blazing.
And the white conflagration melted the man in Atlas’s hands. The skin liquefied, dripping melted wax, lava seeping from a volcano. This eyes and mouth and nose molded together, hair burning, clothes turned into smoke. Until he was gone in that flash of white light. There one second, whole and not quite human, and gone… empty space between Atlas’s blackened fingers.
Apata slammed the other man to the floor, bones creaky as they shattered. Rhia’s eyes had turned white—or was that the light surrounding them?—as she pressed her fingers against the man’s neck. Fawkes had an ancient sword, one that hadn’t seen action in ages and didn’t want to again. It loomed over his head, too big for his age. The man groaned, a shimmering sheen hissing between his open lips. It hovered over him, a tendriled, knotted anger, before it stretched across the room and filled Eliza’s mouth, ears, and nostrils. Eliza’s body convulsed, chest heaving, muscles spasming. And Wren heard her heartbeat pause.
No. Not pause. Cease. A resonating note cut short. A clock that stopped ticking.
Wren felt Atlas crumple before his body fell. His heart sighed, the fire fading into embers. His body hit the floor, and the death shimmering shadow disappeared in a flash.
Then Wren noticed the flames. They consumed the shop, burning everything, including her own skin. The books on the shelves squealed as fire rippled through their bindings. The scarves and curtains and clothes danced for the first time as they dissipated into smoke curls. Objects and artifacts thudded as they tried to block the fire out.
Ryker scooped Wren from the floor, his arms shaking, his breath ragged. Blood coated his lips, and his coat was ripped and scorched with soot. He headed for the entrance that glowed with the autumn wind. Behind them, Apata and Fawkes took hold of Atlas and lifted him toward the door, Rhia trailing behind, pulling things from the shelves as she went.
Outside, the air was a cool, refreshing trickle of water. Ryker gently set Wren down before he collapsed to his knees. He let out deep breaths, clutching at his chest. His fingers roved the crimson tattoo she had placed on his collarbone. Wren had a matching tattoo written across the same bone. Apata dumped Atlas’s body on the sidewalk and strutted away, her vines twisting and expanding in her anger. Fawkes yelled toward her as he hovered over Atlas. Then he opened his eyes.
“Eliza,” he gasped. His voice was raspy and burnt.
Apata laid a hand on his shoulder. “She’s dead,” she said.
“No.” Atlas struggled to get up, but a current of calm floated down Apata’s arm, and he stopped struggling. White hot and cold. His head turned slowly toward her, his eyes black and silver hatred.
“Release me, filigrad bitch.”
“I’ll not,” she retorted. “There’s no way back. Come out of it.” She snapped her fingers and broke the air in front of his face. “If I’m to be shepherding addled, lost sheep, so’ll you.”
His eyes weren’t understanding. “You,” he gasped, starting to struggle again. “You can heal her.”
“No.” Her voice was ice shattering on stone. She pushed him harder to the ground, the current gushing angry and fast. “Stay. Here.” Stone grinding stone. “Leave her to the flames.” Powder soft. “Let her return to you on the next journey.”
Atlas’s eyes unfocused. Far away. He came back like snow. Gently, slowly, cold cold cold. “Go,” he said to Apata. “Take the boy and the girl,” he gestured to Ryker and Wren. “Find a ship. I’ll meet you at the Glass Harbor.”
“Aye. And you won’t go ass-first back into the flames?”
“Go,” Atlas repeated. He stared at the building, his eyes far away again.
Suddenly he gasped, his back arching off the ground, his eyes squinched shut. “Aryn.” He hit the ground with a whimper, newborn, cold. “Eliza.”
Apata laid the heel of her hand on his forehead, gushing, throbbing life. Atlas’s eyes flew open. Nebulous.
Apata pointed to Rhia. “You. Go to the school. Find out what in the blessed hands is wrong with him because it’s sure I am it’s more than shock.”
Rhia nodded mutely, opening her mouth to ask a question but deciding not to. Wren smiled encouragingly at her while Fawkes handed her Eliza’s dress that had fallen to the ground, steadying her as she swayed. She was so tired, her heart was too slow.
“Come on,” Fawkes said. “I’ll show you where the school is.” As they walked away, Fawkes holding her up, he looked back over his shoulder, and he was a messy ball of string, tangled and hanging. The stars inside of him wanted to stay back; the orange wanted to keep Rhia close.
Atlas stood, meticulously brushing the dust from his clothes. Apata was violets and doubt. But she turned to Ryker and Wren. “We’ve a ship to find.”
Ryker nodded. As he tugged Wren away from the incinerated shop, she felt Atlas slip toward the entrance. She felt his heart, the color trying to come back, trying not to be broken. Eliza. It was all about Eliza and her yellow daisy, springtime breeze. Atlas needed that breeze, needed that burst of color to restart his heart. When she got to the end of the street, she looked back and shuddered as a shadow detached itself from the flames and stumbled into the darkening smoke.
“Where in the bloody sekai are we going to find a ship to take us?” Ryker grumbled as they walked from Eastmere into Northmere. Apata was in the lead, her steps brisk and purposeful. Ryker hadn’t let go of Wren’s hand, despite her dragging against him.
“The harbor, I’m thinking, ” Apata replied without turning to look at them. “There’s nothing for us here but trouble. We need to leave.” Wren smiled, admiring Apata’s bravery. It made her clematis blossoms grow deep.
“But we just got here…” Ryker mumbled under his breath. Wisps of green and grey drifted from his hair. They all looked terrible, Wren thought. Covered in ashes, skin bubbling with burns, tired eyes and tired bones. But Ryker looked the worst of the three. The grey that blanketed him had thickened, snow building and building upon roofs and tree branches as it continued to fall. Ryker needed sleep and food.
And clothes, Wren realized as she noticed he still only wore his coat, the flaps buttoned tightly all the way to his neck. Sometimes Ryker was silly about clothes. He never changed in front of her, and he always kept himself covered from neck to toe.
“May be that a merchant ship will be willing to take us,” Apata continued, ignoring Ryker’s comment. They passed spiraling, arching mansions and kingly columns; everywhere she looked was carpeted in tiles and colors and coins.
“Without pay? Doubtful,” Ryker said. He stared off toward the factories of Bransk, eyes tired. He would know, Wren thought to herself. He’d hopscotched his way from island to island before he’d met her, convincing any ship to take him to his next destination. He didn’t talk of it often, but Wren knew he’d had a hard time. It’s why he always was careful to make sure they had enough.
But now there were more of them, and Wren wasn’t sure just a captain would be willing to take them all on. Unless…
“We need a ship?” Wren asked, lifting her head and increasing her steps to stay closer to Ryker. He looked down at her, nose scrunching up.
“Yeah, didn’t you hear Atlas?” he said. “But like I said, we’re going to have a hard time finding passage for one person, let alone”—he counted with his fingers—“six people. More bodies means more space to take up on a ship. More mouths to keep fed.”
Wren smiled, eyes brightening. “I know a ship!”
Ryker frowned, but before he could reply, Wren lunged forward. Their hands broke apart, and she fluttered away, zipping past Apata.
“Wren!” Ryker called from behind. His voice was strained, then it turned. “No.” A sigh. “Wren, no!”
Wren let out a laugh, the notes carrying with the autumn wind, floating all around her. She knew the perfect ship to take them from Central. She could already see it sitting in the Salt Docks, its large hull kindling with magic and a touch of crimson red wine.