Chapter 1—Welcome Home

*ETHOS*

A lucid echo lingers in the back of Ethos’ mind. The voice, the one he’s been hearing his entire life—the same phantom which only disappears under the fog of opium. But he’s left such a life behind him and all the pain woven by its sticky web.

What is this voice haunting me? And why does it fade into my memory and vanish like a specter into the recesses of my mind?

He glances down at the drawing in front of him. The early morning light creeps through his window drapes; the tattered fabric lifts with every cool breeze. Many sleepless nights are adding up. His eyes are heavy, but nothing like the weight plaguing his heart. He pushes his hand back to the parchment and finishes the name at the bottom of the portrait.

Bonnie. Another girl missing. I should care. I do care. But I can’t seem to pull myself away from my own mess.

When he drops the pencil, he judges the work as complete. The sorrow within threatens to pull beyond the surface, but he can’t cry, not anymore. A longing for drug-induced relief tugs at his self-control. He balls his hands into fists and digs his nails into the soft flesh of his palm. The soothing pain’s always a welcome distraction.

How long have I been this way? When will it stop?

The front door of his home bursts open. He cocks his head to the archway of his bedroom as the intruder steps in; her shoulder-length blond hair bounces with each step and frames her face with waves of gold. 

Charlie. What’s she doing here so early? 

Charlie peers around at the disorder of books, papers, and supplies littering the cramped space. Her attempt to conceal her disgust is admirable—aside from the look of worry in the fine lines on her forehead. Her eyes meet Ethos’ and she smiles. “You’re awake. Or did you even sleep?”

Ethos rubs his eyes as they adjust to the light flooding into his bedroom. “How did you get in? I thought I locked the door.”

“It’s not a very sturdy door. It’s barely attached to the hinges. I’m surprised this place is still standing.” She sighs. “You’re always welcome to stay with me, you know.”

“I like it here.” He tucks his hands between his thighs and looks at the floor. “And I’m sure you love having your own space just as much as I do.”

“Okay, sure.” She plops onto the bed next to his chair. Her eyes narrow at him. “You’ve got black smudges all over you.”

He looks down at his charcoal-stained fingers. “I was drawing a commission for Mrs. Bishop.”

Charlie’s eyes flash at him, the green tint more apparent with a line of sunlight cutting down the side of her face. “What would someone like Mrs. Bishop need an artist for?”

Ethos tries not to feel slighted by her word choice. ‘Someone like Mrs. Bishop.’ Someone too poor to afford the luxuries of those in the upper districts. Even the lower-classed market folk have enough for some comfort amenities. Charlie hides it well because she can sew, but I know she spends almost all her money on fabrics well above her income. “It’s for her missing daughter,” he begins. “She’s probably spending every last silver she has for these flyers.”

She stands and peers over his shoulder at the portrait. “Bonnie’s missing?”

“A few days ago. You know her?”

Charlie frowns as she nods. “We’ve been running in the same circles for a while now. She’s much younger, though, so I don’t know her very well. The likeness is uncanny. You’ve got her down to the smallest detail.” Her fingers rise to her lips. “Have you been around the markets recently?” She runs a hand through her hair and takes a seat back on the bed. “Flyers like these are everywhere. All young girls.”

After Ethos opens the drawer in his desk, he pulls out a worn red notebook; his fingertips find the earmarked page he’s looking for. “I have several more to do this week. But I only get the work from down here. I have no idea who’s doing the flyers up where you live.”

“This is ridiculous.” She starts bouncing her knees. “Things like this don’t happen in Akhet. Neither Set nor any of the elites have even mentioned it. Don’t you find that strange?”

He shrugs. “I guess. I haven’t put much thought into it.”

Her eyes fix on Ethos as he stares at the floor. “Hey, are you okay? You look like you’ve lost more weight. What’s been going on with you?”

“Nothing.” He answers too quickly and hates himself for it. “Just keeping to myself. Working mostly. Not all of us can afford to live with our heads in the clouds.”

Her anxious knee dance stops and she frowns. “Hey, I grew up here too, you know. I’ve only lived above the bar for a few years. It’s not like being a barmaid pays that well anyway. I’d never looked down on any of my tribe in the Roots.”

The realization he’s offended her comes too late, as it often does. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry. I’ve just been caught up in some things lately.”

“Artemus.” She sighs and leans back on her elbows. “What’s that asshole done now? Why do you even put up with his bullshit?”

Tears form in the corners of Ethos’ eyes as he raises a hand to stop her oncoming tirade. “Please, not now. I really don’t want to talk about it.”

When Charlie rubs his back, he begins to feel guilty about how distant he’s been. “It’s okay. I get it. We don’t have to talk about him if you don’t want to.”

Ethos turns to her, and the elegant fabric of the dress she’s wearing catches his eye. Her hair flows down the shoulder straps in delicate, cascading curls. Shimmering highlights and rosy blush accent the porcelain skin of her face. He arches a brow. “What’re you all dressed up for? Won’t it be too hot today for all that?”

“You’re joking, right? Aargo is coming home from Piraeus today, stupid.” Charlie nudges his shoulder. “Remember? The party at the Tipsy Turvy is tonight. I’m bartending, but I can still enjoy the party.”

Ethos jumps out of his chair. “That’s today? Shit.” He paces around the room to search for a suitable change of clothes. After he catches his reflection in the cracked mirror, he groans; his forehead has a black smear on it. The gaunt expression looking back unsettles him, and his hair is a mess. His torn-up white T-shirt and loose-fitting underwear are unflattering, neither particularly clean—the only thing left of his formerly handsome appearance are the bright blue eyes staring back at him.

Aargo’s going to think I’ve fallen off the wagon.

Charlie shields her eyes as he strips off his dirty clothes. “Geez, you could at least change in the other room. When was the last time you bathed?” She holds out a handkerchief she removes from the inside of her jacket.

Ethos grabs the cloth before submerging it in a bowl of murky water, then rubs it over his face. He works quickly to clean the rest of his body. After pulling up a somewhat clean pair of pants, he gives Charlie a half-hearted smile. “It’s all part of my charm.” He slips a shabby sweater on then tosses a red scarf around his neck.

“Should I be worried?” She asks.

Ethos groans, but he can hardly blame her for asking. “I’m not back on drugs, don’t worry. I’ve just been stuck in a rut. What’ve you been up to?” He shakes the nearly empty bottle of scented oil before spreading it into his armpits and all the way up behind his ears.

“Sorry I haven’t visited. You know I don’t like to be around when Artemus is…” She purses her lips and pauses. “Anyway, I’ve been working on some new dresses I’m selling in the capital bazaar. They have these machines that do intricate stitching I can’t afford, so I’ve been working on higher-end fabrics that can only be done by hand. It at least gives me an edge on the competition up there. Maybe one day I’ll be able to afford my own machine. Maybe even open a store.”

Ethos stops fixing his hair to nod. “That sounds really cool. I know you can do it. You think once you make it big you can make me an outfit you won’t turn your nose up to?”

She rolls her eyes. “I can’t stand you. You make me sound like some kind of uppity bitch.”

“Aren’t you?”

She giggles and crinkles her nose. “Okay, you got me there. But you used to be the same way. You always had your hair done all nice and shaved your face every day.” She clicks her tongue. “You’re still a catch, though. Any guy would be lucky to have you.”

The reminder of his decline is uncomfortable to face. He steps back to the mirror to glance at his progress. Better. The stubble of his beard and fine lines around his eyes don’t bother him. He thought turning thirty last year would make him look older somehow, but his small frame and boyish face haven’t changed much over the last ten years. For that, he presumes he’s lucky. About the only luck he’s ever had. He grabs the drawing of Bonnie from his desk. “I have to run this over to Mrs. Bishop’s house and grab my twenty silver.”

“Twenty? Is that all you’re getting for this? It’s no wonder you can’t afford to fix the door.” She bats her long eyelashes. “I charge twenty just for a pant hem.”

“It’s all Martha can spare. I’m just glad to help out. Family is all most of these people have. And Bonnie is her only child. The whole town is buzzing about it.” He stifles a laugh. “They think the disappearances are all connected.”

Charlie’s face runs pale—the pink blush on her cheeks starkly contrasts the absence of color underneath. “How many girls have gone missing in the lower districts?”

Ethos scans the entries in his log. “I have five more of these drawings to do this week for other girls.” He counts in a whisper under his breath as he stares at the ceiling, “That’s about seventeen.” Saying the number out loud sends a shiver up his spine.

“Seventeen,” Charlie repeats in a quiet and reserved manner. She clenches the medallion around her neck and pulls close to the doorframe. “I just saw Bonnie not even a week ago. I went out for a smoke after my shift at the Turvy, and she waved to me as she and a group of girls walked by.”

He continues reading from his log. “I also have some commissions to draw some neighborhood pets.”

She knits her brows. “Missing pets? What does that have to do with the girls?”

“Not missing. These animals were found dead. Mutilated.”

“Very funny.” She scoffs. “like I’d believe anyone would pay you to draw their animals.” After she begins biting her acrylic nail, Ethos shows her the log.

“I’m not kidding. Some of these animals were found very far from their homes. And it looks like they were ripped apart from the inside.” He reads a scribble next to a starred name in his notebook. “Apparently, the animals were acting strangely before they took off.”

The line over Charlie’s brow deepens. “You think they’re somehow connected? I don’t think Mrs. Bishop even owns an animal. Bonnie certainly never mentioned it.”

Ethos focuses on the increasing concern in Charlie’s expression. “Hey, how many of these missing girls do you know?”

“A lot of them.” Charlie clutches the silver medallion hanging loosely from her neck—the diamond center glints in the light as she shuffles her feet. “I’d like to go with you to Mrs. Bishop’s house. If it’s okay with you.”

“All right. Let’s head over there now, and then we’ll go to Northeast Immigration to pick up Aargo after. And could you please stop looking so concerned? You’re freaking me out.” Ethos grabs a satchel and wraps it over his shoulder as he leads Charlie out to the street. The door jams as he closes it, and the loose hinge rattles while he forces the swollen wood into the frame.

 Charlie rolls her eyes and lights a cigarette from a small pack around her waist. “Told you. Maybe Aargo can fix it for free. He’s good with shit like that.”

The sun bears down through the hazy red sky—sand flutters freely over them and tints everything with a dull, rusty beige hue. The people of the Roots district are busy this time of day; many hang laundry on lines outside their modest homes. Children run through the streets and kick around a black ball made of melted rubber. Pleasantries exchange at every crossing. Ethos may have resented the poverty of his youth, but recently he’s come to respect it. The lower districts are always ripe with the smell of close quarters living since the aqueducts are less accessible to the Roots, but they all still get by with the river within walking distance.

When they arrive at the doorstep of Martha Bishop’s home, Ethos gives two gentle taps with the back of his hand. The smell of smoke wafts into his nose from beside him. “Put that out. That’s your second cig since we left my house.”

“Mind your business, little boy.” Charlie flippantly takes one long drag before tapping the cigarette out with her foot. “And that’s like number ten for the day. I’ve really been cutting back.”

“I can’t stand you.” Ethos smirks then knocks on the door again.

“One minute,” a woman’s voice shouts from a distant room behind the door.

“It’s Ethos. I have Bonnie’s portrait for you.” He takes one final look at the drawing. He had to get some input on closer details from Martha and a few neighborhood friends. Thinking back on it, Charlie might’ve been able to help if she’d been around. 

Martha opens the door. She looks ragged with fatigue, dark circles under her eyes, and puffy redness like she’d been crying recently. Still, she smiles so full the lines around her eyes spread to her hairline. “Ethos, my boy, how are you?” She speaks with a rasp as if she hasn’t spoken in a while. Her teeth have the faint yellowish-brown tint common in the elderly around town. It isn’t hard to tell she was once a beauty—gray wisps fray from the edges of her full head of salt and pepper hair; her light gray eyes, although wrecked with distress, still radiate kindness and intelligence.

“I’m good, Mrs. Bishop. This is my friend, Charlie. She knows Bonnie.”

Martha turns and waves them both inside. “Come in, come in. I’ve made some delicious pies. Apple, blueberry… and some banana nut bread too.”

“I’m fine,” Ethos and Charlie reply in unison.

“I’ve made all Bonnie’s favorites, for when she’s returned.”

Ethos arches a brow and pauses. “Returned? You think she was kidnapped or something?” The idea never crossed his mind, but he admits it’s plausible.

“Well, she wouldn’t just run off. And what else would’ve happened to her? To all the girls? This is Akhet. Bad things don’t happen to good girls like Bonnie within these walls. I suspect Set’s elites have something to do with it. They know she’s special, so they took her in for some sort of project.” Martha nods before she glances at Ethos and Charlie for reassurance. They oblige with nods.

Charlie’s cheeks flush red as she knots her fingers together. “She is special, Mrs. Bishop. I—”

 “Did you practice with her? What was your name again? Sorry.” Martha gazes at the diamond medallion around Charlie’s neck.

“Charlie. I didn’t actually practice with her, but I’ve seen her around. We traveled in many of the same circles. Shared similar interests. I don’t know her all that well, but I do know she’s exceptionally gifted and very kind.”

When Martha turns to Ethos, she holds out her hand. “Well, let’s have a look.” She takes the portrait and peers down longingly. A smile finally pulls at her lips. “Looks just like her. You did an excellent job, my boy.”

Ethos runs a hand through his hair and fights the heat rushing to his face. “Thank you. I’m just glad I could help out.”

“I’ll take this to Willie. I’ll need at least fifty replicas.” Martha sets down the drawing before she stares at Charlie through narrowed eyes. “Charlie, was it? I would be cautious about wearing that necklace around town. Especially in the capital. Don’t speak to anyone you don’t know about the kinds of things you and Bonnie were doing. I fear it may’ve had something to do with all the disappearances.”

Charlie’s eyes widen before she nods. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”

Martha grabs a small pouch from her side table and holds it out to Ethos. “Thanks again, young man.”

“No ma’am, you keep it. You can pay me after she’s home safe.”

Martha smiles, but there’s a deep sadness behind the weary expression. “You’re such a sweet boy. Come see me again soon. And take one of those pies with you, will you?”

Ethos reluctantly agrees and walks into the kitchen to grab an apple pie from the stained, limestone countertop—the aroma causes his stomach to audibly rumble. Maybe Charlie was right. I really have forgotten to eat quite often recently.

Charlie starts toward the door. “We better get going; Aargo is returning from smithing school today. He’s been traveling for weeks from Piraeus. We’ll take the pie to the party at the Turvy. He’ll be starved, so I know he’ll absolutely love it.”

“I hear that’s a challenging school to make it through.” Martha stands in the doorway as they exit, characteristically drawing out the farewell. “Aargo has always been a rare talent. When one of us Roots folk makes it big, it really brings us all a lot of joy.” She waves them off as they walk to the street.

Once clear of Martha’s sight, a silence lingers between them as Ethos searches for the right words to say. He considers saying nothing at all. Perhaps if no information is exchanged, then whatever problems it could bring won’t exist. But Ethos is a curious person—hardly ever being able to conceal it. He needs to know. 

Charlie stops midstride. “I’ll drop this pie off at the bar before we head out.”

“Good idea.” Ethos keeps his expression neutral and unresponsive to the itch under the surface.

Ethos follows her to the door of the Tipsy Turvy—the green flecks of paint on the worn wood frame are sanded in a way to appear more upscale. As far as dive bars go, it isn’t a stretch to call the Turvy one of the classier waterholes in the lower districts. As Ethos waits out front, he sinks into his thoughts for the right way to ask what Charlie and Martha were talking about. I just need to bring it up outright. How bad could it be?

Charlie saunters out of the bar and ignites the lighter for her cigarette. She casually passes Ethos with an exhale of pungent smoke. “Let’s go,” she sings.

After walking several blocks in silence, Ethos clears his throat. “Practice?” His eyes scan the crowd for potential eavesdroppers. Is this as dangerous to be talking about in public as Martha implied it was? What could possibly be that dangerous? Are they involved in some kind of illegal activity? That doesn’t sound like Charlie. Or Bonnie, for that matter.

Charlie flicks ash off the end of her cigarette before answering, “It’s complicated… It’s called different things in different places. I’m sure you’ve heard rumors going around town.”

Ethos shakes his head. “What, like witchcraft? You know that stuff isn’t real, right? That’s hocus pocus they do for show in the arena on game days. Is that how all these girls are connected? They think they’re witches?”

“When do we have to be at immigration?”

I really hate it when she ignores my questions. “What does that have to do with what I just asked?” Ethos takes a deep breath to curb his irritation.

Charlie rolls her eyes and cocks her head back at him. “How long?”

“I don’t know. It could be any time today. I figured we would just wait there for him to show up. Why?”

Charlie grabs Ethos by the wrist and pulls him into an alleyway. “This way. I want to show you something.”

“Hey, what the hell?” Ethos struggles to keep up with her forceful tugging as they weave from the alley to a side street, stumbling over the clutter of the locals. 

A dog’s bark echoes from behind them. “Blue!” Ethos calls to the one-eyed dog. “C’mon, boy!” He slaps his leg for the dog to follow. Scruffy tan and white fur blows wildly as the canine charges through the back street, tongue hanging from the side of his mouth. Blue barks again in excitement as he catches up to Ethos.

Charlie glances back and purses her lips. “That mangy dog’s still following you around?”

“Hey, he isn’t mangy, he’s handsome. He even sleeps in my bed sometimes. He’s my little buddy.” Ethos looks down at Blue and beams. “Isn’t that right, boy?”

“Well, that certainly explains the smell in your room.” 

Charlie leads Ethos down a long path toward the old warehouse district. Halfway through the ghost town of abandoned buildings, she disappears into a doorway. Ethos hesitantly enters. Holes in the roof and mostly shattered windows allow every element into the structure—light floods in from the ceiling and reflects off the small puddles of water collecting on the uneven floor. The cool air smells of dust, mold, and rusty iron. Metal sheets line the walls, eroded with colors of red, green, and orange from the weathering of time.

Charlie twirls around with her arms stretched out. “See, isn’t this place cool?”

“If by cool, you mean creepy and dilapidated… then yes, very cool.”

Blue drinks from a nearby puddle before shifting his attention to a broken piece of wood on the floor; his head tilts to one side as he drags the heavy plank.

Ethos attempts to grab the oversized stick from Blue’s mouth, but a reprimanding growl stops him. He smiles, shakes his head, and allows the dog to continue his incessant circling. The joy Blue gives Ethos can’t be put into words. I love that little guy. He’s always so happy to see me.

Charlie points at a dry spot on the floor. “Sit.”

Ethos relaxes his shoulders before rolling his eyes. “Ugh, fine.” He plops on the floor across from Charlie and stares at her with high expectations. This better be good. He readjusts to sit more comfortably and overlaps one leg with the other. Blue pushes his head under Ethos’ armpit and stares up at him expectantly with one bright blue eye. Ethos relents to the dog’s demands and rubs the top of his head, combing over the wisps of longer hairs sprouting from the bridge of his snout.

“I don’t like the term ‘witchcraft,’ ” Charlie begins. “It has nothing to do with demons or the spirits of human beings. That’s something completely different.”

“Uh huh.” Ethos crosses his arms and begins tapping his fingers.

“It’s called heka. It’s an ancient term for mystical forces being manipulated through a practice of sorts. We learn to harness and control the dead energy of plant-based life on Earth. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, so when the physical part dies, it leaves behind energy that can be utilized another way. Heka harnesses that energy to the user’s desire.”

“What?” Ethos snorts a laugh and glares at her as if she’s lost her mind.

“Let me just show you.”

Charlie closes her eyes before grasping the diamond medallion with one hand and reaching out with the other straight in front of her. Sand rises from the ground, like a small funnel of wind concentrating in one area. The grains flow together, binding and gaining mass with every passing second. Something begins to take form, stacking and layering until the exterior smooths out. 

Ethos stares, wide-eyed. You’ve got to be shitting me.

The final arrangement of a large chalice solidifies and reaches over a foot high. Rough edges continue to smooth as Charlie steadies her breath. When the dust settles, the chalice’s beauty and intricacy are unbelievable. Charlie opens her eyes, and a clear liquid rises within the cup of the chalice—slow at first, then quickly filling to the rim. 

This is a trick. It’s not real… it can’t be.

Charlie relaxes before cackling at Ethos. “Your jaw is practically on the floor.”

Blue cowers behind Ethos, ears pinned back. Ethos reaches out and touches the mysterious liquid in the chalice. His eyes flit back to Charlie. “How’d you do that? Like what in the actual fuck?” Blue slowly approaches the chalice and sniffs before hesitantly lapping up the liquid inside. Ethos panics and reaches to pull Blue away. “Blue! Don’t—”

“It’s fine.” Charlie dips her finger in the bowl and wipes the liquid on her tongue. “It’s just water. Probably the cleanest water he’s ever had.”

Ethos tries to make sense of the creation in front of him. Witches are real. My best friend is a witch. “So you learn how to harness this invisible energy and repurpose it? How? How is any of this real?”

“Oh, it’s real. It just takes a knowledge of the energy flowing through your own body. A kind of awareness of your own essence, your spirit. You can do practically anything as long as it’s feasible within the natural laws of the universe.” Charlie’s voice hums with passion and excitement. “I’ve been practicing for over a year now. Pretty good already, aren’t I?”

Ethos frowns at her. “How would I know? Are witches responsible for the disappearances? What about the animals… Did you guys like sacrifice them or something?”

“No. We had nothing to do with any of that. The manipulation of human and animal spirits is forbidden. I’m not sure what the proper term is, but most of us just call it necromancy. The ability to control such a force without being completely devoured by it is practically unheard of. Everyone who’s ever attempted it is dead, their consciousness possessed and absorbed by a stronger one. It’s best not to invite anything like that into your body.”

“What the hell are you even talking about?” Ethos rubs his forehead and sighs.

 “It takes a long time to learn to channel your own energy for heka. Not something I could just teach you in a day. Women pick it up much easier than men. But I can tell you once you have a sense of your own spirit, the rest is simple. Creativity seems to be the only wall heka users hit… what to do with the materials they manipulate. If your brain gets fuzzy while moving things around, the end result can be a bit chaotic.”

Something outside the doorway draws Blue’s attention; he barks, and it startles Ethos.

Charlie waves her hand over the water-filled chalice and it breaks down into pebbles and wet sand. She bolts up from the ground; her breathing becomes quick and erratic. “Who’s there?” she calls out with a trembling inflection in her voice.

Ethos calls Blue away from the door; his heart skips a beat from the expression of genuine fear written on Charlie’s face. Ethos slowly approaches the doorway and scans the streets outside. “There’s nothing. Probably a rat or something.”

“Let’s just head to the facility to pick up Aargo now.” Charlie grazes past Ethos and Blue as she dusts off her dress.

Ethos follows her in silence with Blue pattering closely behind. He matches Charlie’s pace and smiles at her, but she ignores the gesture and avoids his gaze. 

The early morning cold gives way to the dry heat of summer. Burning gasoline still emanates from barrels along the street. The poverty in the area is never quite as evident as when there’s a cold front. Sweat from hard labor turns to hopeless chills, seeping deep into the bone—the sick and elderly stand little chance when winter hits. But most Roots folk stick by their self-appointed motto: “Time spent worrying could be time spent working.

Ethos and Charlie make their way back to the market district. Blue sniffs under vendor stalls as he begs for scraps; he’s rewarded with small pieces of dried beef. Blue’s attention refocuses on another stray down several stalls before he runs after the dog. They greet with playful bites on the back of their necks and nip at each other’s hind legs. The pair disappear down an alley. A few grunts and growls linger in the distance.

 “That boy Blue has taken a real liking to my girl Scarlet. He better be neutered.” Tito shakes a knife in front of his face and laughs, what little teeth he has left spaced far apart in his wide-mouthed chuckle. The oversized beef vendor goes back to cutting his wares.

Charlie grins and, for a moment, she loses her sour expression.

She really is worried about the possibility of someone seeing what she did. I mean, I guess I’m kind of nervous now, too. People practice some type of witchcraft that actually works. I need to keep an open mind about this. Especially if this heka thing is the reason people are disappearing. But nothing in our laws dictate it would be illegal. So why would Martha think the elites have something to do with this?

“Hey, kiddos!” A deep voice bellows from the reproduction studio across the street.

“Willie!” Ethos walks closer to the shop and gestures for Charlie to follow along. “Hey, Mrs. Bishop is coming by later for replicas of a drawing I gave her earlier. Give her the deal of the century for me, will you?”

Willie waves for them to enter and peers around like he’s suspicious of outside ears. Charlie glares at Ethos dubiously, but he shrugs it off and grabs her hand to pull her up the stairs into the storefront. Willie’s synthetic eyes fix on Ethos’ hand holding Charlie’s.

Here we go. Why can’t these androids understand that not every human male and female are compatible? I wonder if Willie would short-circuit if I told him I have no interest in girls.

Charlie leans close to Ethos’ ear. “We’re already running behind; we don’t have time for whatever this is.”

“Oh, please. We can take the TURTL train. I have a few copper credits left from last month. Don’t worry about it. Wait, you can’t snap your fingers and teleport us, can you?”

Charlie counters with a challenging look. “No. We can take the train but make this quick. And you know I hate that they think we’re together. Why can’t you just correct them?”

“I’m not sure they would understand. And it’s kind of funny.”

Willie walks toward Ethos with his arms open, but Ethos puts out his hand to stop him. “Not a hugger, Willie, we’ve been through this.”

Willie cocks his head and pauses for a moment before Ethos’ words register. The rich darkness of his artificial skin fades into exposed areas of metal. Willie’s vocally unbothered by not passing as human—his wife, Cynda, has a much different outlook. Willie turns his head toward the back office. “Dear, Ethos and Charlie are here.”

“Ethos and who?” Cynda shouts back from the office.

“Charlie, the bartender from down the street.” Willie rolls his eyes; an unnatural color reflects in them. “Oh, you know who she is, can you just come in here, babe?” Willie glances back at Charlie and apologetically smiles; his metal skull shows through the side of his jaw. The screws binding the hinge are worn and wiggle as he speaks, which creates a sound both barely noticeable yet extremely off-putting. Charlie returns a nervous smile before lowering her gaze to the floor.

Ethos marvels at Cynda’s new enhancements as she walks into the room. “Well, look at you. You’ve had some serious upgrades. And your hair is beautiful.”

“Noticed that, did you?” Cynda self-consciously snickers at the compliment. The white teeth under her cherry-red lips gleam with blinding brightness. “Business has been really good. Under rather unfortunate circumstances, I’m afraid.” 

Willie leans in. “That drawing you did for Martha… it was Bonnie, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, she’s been missing for three days now,” Ethos says.

Willie grabs Ethos’ and Charlie’s shoulders. “You two be careful out there. I feel like some strange shit is going on, and I don’t want either of you kiddos involved. I hear talk of some dark things around town, and it only seems to be getting worse. You need to promise me you’ll stay out of whatever devilry is causing all this fuss.”

“We promise,” Ethos replies as his eyes swing to Charlie for confirmation. She nods.

Willie releases his grip and heads to the door. “We gotta get back to work, and I’m sure you guys have a lot going on, so we won’t keep you any longer. And don’t you worry about Miss Martha, I ain’t taking one silver piece from that sweet woman.”

“You’re a good guy, Willie.” Ethos pats him on the arm.

Willie stops Ethos shortly after Charlie exits. “You take care of that pretty little blonde you got. Just think of how cute your babies will be.” The sound of Cynda scolding Willie over the comment permeates through the shop’s thin walls.

Ethos glances at Charlie and chuckles. Whether it’s from anger or embarrassment, the red flush of Charlie’s cheeks deepens. He pretends to gag at the notion of them being a couple, which dispels the tension as they both burst into laughter.

Charlie hits Ethos’ arm. “You didn’t have to gag that loud. Jerk.”

Ethos cackles even harder after she slaps his arm again—his stomach muscles ache from the strain on his abdomen. “C’mon… it’s funny.”

“Maybe a little.”

The walk to the station is brisk, and the TURTL train enters the stop just as they approach. Ethos slips the copper credits into the slot, and he and Charlie step onto the cable car. Finding a seat at the back, they relax under the shade of the vehicle’s canopy. When the driver pulls the lever beside him, the wheels judder in motion—the slow pace provides just enough airflow to cool off and enjoy the view of the passing towns. Every village in each district has something unique and interesting to see. Within the tall border walls of Akhet, the city is all most people will ever know. Outside the walls, between each city, is far too dangerous for ordinary people to traverse. Aargo has made the trip home many times. I’ve never even been out of Akhet.

Twenty-five minutes pass on the way to the northeast immigration facility. Ethos and Charlie focus their conversations on the sights of the city and Aargo’s homecoming, which will be good for both of them—they need to blow off some steam, and a night ahead filled with frivolous drinking sounds like the perfect cure. And seeing Aargo again, after all these years, will be a nice change from the stagnant day-to-day rut Ethos finds himself in.

The cable car screeches as it slows to a halt; Ethos and Charlie trot down the stairs and onto the street. The roads are nicer in the east, the bricks laid with precision much like in the capital. Even the air in the northeastern districts is cleaner, less pollution from the lack of manufacturing plants. As out of place as Ethos may appear, he glances at Charlie to see her right at home. But she always did present herself as much more refined than where they all came from.

Charlie narrows her eyes at him. “Not a word about me using heka to Aargo, got it?”

“Sure.” A part of Ethos can’t help but disagree with hiding it, though he’s been reluctant to share every detail of his own life with Aargo before, so he supposes it’s only fair.

After arriving at the short ramp up to the immigration building, Charlie takes one last inhale before throwing her cigarette to the ground, not bothering to stomp it out. She exhales a large smoke cloud as they enter. A familiar face comes into view as Aargo stands at the intake counter signing something with his bags at his feet.

Oddly perfect timing…

Charlie lets out a high-pitched squeal and runs over to jump on Aargo for a hug. He spins her around with his large and powerful arms as she giggles uncontrollably.

Ethos approaches and smiles ear to ear. The moment slows to a crawl as he watches his two best friends spin in circles. Aargo looks differentolder, bigger even. He grew a beard. I’ve never seen him with a beard. I wonder if he’s a totally different person. Am I the same person? It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other. But even if we’re not the same people we used to be, he’s still my best friend. My brother, even though we aren’t actually related.

“Hey, buddy!” Aargo strides over to Ethos with his arms open.

“Good to see you, man.” Ethos stretches up onto his tiptoes to hug him.

Standing two heads taller, Aargo bends down to wrap his arms around Ethos. “Sorry, I know you’re not a hugger, but I hope you’ll make this one exception.” Aargo pulls Ethos in with a force strong enough to nearly crack Ethos’ ribs.

Holy shit, he’s so strong.

“Welcome home,” Charlie says—the two words brighten the mood of the entire day.

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