The sigh of relief from Aargo puts Ethos at ease. He’s really glad to be home again. Aargo’s clothes aren’t nearly as dirty as Ethos expected them to be. Ethos presumes traveling for weeks out in barren terrain would probably leave him looking ragged—a sight a vulture would find most promising. But not Aargo. Aside from his sun-kissed skin, his clothes are spotless, and his hair’s styled back without a stray lock in sight.
“How was the trip? Any raiders try and bite off your ears?” Charlie inspects the sword at Aargo’s hip as she awaits his harrowing tale of adventure.
Aargo stares through the sand-tinted windows as the light catches the flecks of gold in his brown eyes. “Nothing like that. It was quiet and peaceful. But it’s good to be back.” He turns his head to Charlie and smiles. “I think you’ve gotten prettier since I last saw you.”
Charlie’s cheeks flush before she slaps Aargo’s arm. “Shut up, you meathead. I already told you that you aren’t my type.”
Aargo rolls his eyes and scoffs before taking a long look at Ethos. “And you… I think you’ve gotten even shorter.”
Ethos’ grin droops into a scowl. “I’ve been this height since I was sixteen, jerk.”
Charlie and Aargo burst into laughter while Ethos shirks off the jab. He’s no different at all. It’s like we picked back up where we left off. Should we tell him about the missing girls? No, I don’t want to put a damper on this moment. Surely, bad news can wait. For now, I just want to enjoy every second of this.
“Can we just go now? You guys can pick on me after we have a few drinks.” Ethos motions to the exit with his back arched to make himself appear taller.
Aargo picks up his rucksack and clears his throat. “I need to make a stop at Artemus’ shop before we head to the bar for a…” He unfolds a wrinkled letter from his chest pocket. “I believe Charlie stated it would be ‘a night to remember.’ That’s a lot to live up to. We used to go pretty hard back in the day.”
Ethos clams up at the mention of Artemus.
Aargo arches a brow. “What? Is Artemus okay?”
“Oh yeah, he’s just fine… Right, Ethos?” Charlie crosses her arms. “I need a cigarette. Let’s get going, shall we?”
“Okay…” Aargo readjusts the strap over his shoulder and follows Ethos and Charlie. The polished floors of the building squeak with each step of Aargo’s boots.
Ethos leans in and whispers to Charlie, “You’d better stop. I’ll tell him when it’s the right time.”
Charlie lights her cigarette as they walk down the steps toward the street. “Honey, no offense, but we all knew a long time ago.”
They board the cable car back to the southwestern districts and remain silent for much of the ride. As the three of them step off the TURTL train and walk through the markets, Aargo’s eyes shift from shop to shop.
Willie and Cynda’s dark faces poke through the gathered shoppers in the square. “Aargo, my man.” Willie pushes through the crowd respectfully and pauses at strange intervals; his movements aren’t as passable as his wife’s. After all, he spends most of his money on her improvements. The love Ethos sees in their relationship is as real as anything he’s ever seen—there was never a moment Ethos doubted Willie’s love for his wife.
“Willie! My, you haven’t aged a day,” Aargo says.
“I told you, black don’t crack.” Willie’s charismatic sass brings a smile to Aargo’s face. Cynda nudges Willie with her shoulder.
“Is Artemus around? I want to see how things are going with the smithery. I’m eager to get started on some plans I’ve been working on.” Aargo scans the crowd. He stops, his eyes drawn to the posters of missing girls, and his cheery temperament quickly deteriorates.
“Yeah, he should be around. Though if you ask me, I don’t think his shop has been doing very well. This whole past year, actually.” Willie turns to Cynda when she prods him, and a firm scowl fixes on her doll-like face, as if to say, “mind your own damn business.”
Aargo nods and taps Willie on the shoulder. “Hey, it’s great seeing you guys, but we really have to go. I’m sure I’ll see you at the party.”
“We probably won’t be making it.” Cynda steps ahead of Willie and plants a kiss on Aargo’s cheek. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we like to turn in early at our age.”
Aargo chuckles and wipes the cherry stain from his cheek. “What age would that be… a thousand, give or take a decade? Anyway, I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”
Willie leans closer to Aargo as he brushes by. “Be careful out there, my man. These are dark times.” Their eyes remain fixed on one another. Several moments pass before Aargo gives him a smile and walks away.
Shit. The jig is up.
Ethos and Charlie follow closely behind Aargo on the way to the smithery. With the shop mere yards away, every poster they pass gives Ethos a growing sense of trepidation. When did this all become so normal to us? Aargo’s expression tells a similar story; his bottom lip curls under his teeth, jaw clenching tight. But Aargo says nothing, and no visceral reactions arise—only the sharp look of a man blindsided by something everyone around him has become numb to, like a slowly heated pot no one realizes is now boiling.
As Aargo enters the smith shop, he frowns at the disorder. The forge sits cold, soiled with black tar; tools are strewn about haphazardly without order or regard to presentation. None of the display areas in the front have weapons or useable parts for sale. The floors are chipped and filthy from weathering and neglect.
Ethos rarely comes here, but the conditions are no surprise to him. Artemus had let so many things go without care. Looks like he’s going to fuck up Aargo’s life now, too. Great.
Aargo cups his hands around his mouth. “Arty! You here?”
A sudden motion from the corner draws Ethos’ attention, and a book slides off Artemus’ face as he jumps up from his reclined position in a daze. Artemus squints before swallowing hard after he registers the man standing before him. Averting Aargo’s stone-cold glare, Artemus lock eyes with Ethos across the room. A weak smile plays at the corners of Artemus’ lips.
Ethos returns a half-smile but quickly looks away. A knot in his stomach turns, and he’s reminded of all the strife the man he loved causes him. In the beginning, it was hot and heavy. Now, it’s just two warm bodies making each other miserable. Ethos can’t deny he’s attracted to Artemus—he has plenty of muscle under his round belly and Ethos doesn’t mind the added weight. It suits Artemus. His clothes fit snugly, which leaves little to the imagination. The icy gray stare from across the room begs Ethos to return a glimmer of compassion.
Aargo claps his hands to recapture Artemus’ attention. “Get off your ass. It’s past midday. The shop is a complete disaster. What the hell have you been doing?”
Artemus yawns as if Aargo’s concern is of little importance to him. “Yeah, business is not doing so well, I guess.”
“You guess? It’s a pigsty, man. Remember when you said we’d have the best damn smith shop in Akhet when I returned?” Aargo rubs his eyes and takes a deep breath.
Artemus glares back at Aargo with narrowed eyes. “Well, the arena hasn’t been on a schedule like they used to, so the need for weapons has been low. And I really haven’t felt like doing anything about it, okay?”
Charlie fires up a smoke and runs her hand across the front desk—a layer of dust covers her fingers. A piece of scrap metal hits the floor with a loud pang. Charlie’s eyes widen in amusement as she smiles through clenched teeth.
“Don’t touch anything!” Artemus shouts at Charlie. “And you can’t smoke in here.”
Charlie cocks her head and snubs the cigarette out on top of the table, staring back at Artemus as if daring him to say anything more.
Ethos rolls his eyes. Damn it, Charlie. Ever the shit-stirrer.
Artemus snarls, and a vein bulges in his forehead. “You’re a real bitch. And you’ve turned Ethos into a little bitch, too.”
The comment strikes a nerve; Ethos shudders. The hot and cold mood swings have worn Ethos down far enough, but he hasn’t worked up the nerve to do anything about it. He isn’t afraid of Artemus, at least not in the realm of physical violence, but his emotional jabs are too much for Ethos to bear anymore. Sex is the only language they communicate with now, and even that has lost its appeal.
Artemus sighs. “Ethos, I didn’t mean that. Can you swing by later so we can talk?”
Aargo’s eyes shift between Ethos and Artemus. “All right then. I’ll be back tomorrow to help fix this place up. In the meantime, you might want to shower and sweep the floor.”
Artemus sniffs his armpit and shrugs at the suggestion. “If we just had a bit of gold, we could turn this place around in no time.”
Aargo gives a steely glare in return. “I won’t give you one silver to fix up this shithole. I’ll use what little money I have to build my own shop if it comes to that. Let’s just see what we can do tomorrow with some manpower.”
“Sounds like you’ll be working alone then, Aargo.” Charlie arches a brow. “You and Ethos are the only men I see here.”
Ethos plants his hand over his face. Goddamn it, Charlie.
“Let’s go, guys.” Aargo wraps his arm around Charlie as they walk through the door.
Ethos exits behind them with his heart in his throat. After a few blocks, Aargo slows to match pace with Ethos. His growing smirk makes Ethos sweat.
Ethos rolls his eyes. “What?”
“You and Artemus, huh?” Aargo glances back in the direction of the shop. “I had my suspicions over the years, but I didn’t want to pry.”
Oh god, are we really doing this now? “Well, we were together. But don’t say anything. Things are weird enough already, and he’d freak out if he knew I told you.”
“Pfft, you can do way better.” Aargo places his arm around Ethos and draws him in before kissing the top of his head. “I just want you to be happy, buddy. And to be with someone who treats you right.”
The genuine warmth of Aargo’s response catches Ethos off guard, and all the worry about how different Aargo would be disappears in a split second. In many ways, he’s the same person Ethos grew up with—the same little boy who would stage sword fights on the retaining wall near the river. Ethos smiles at the memory of Aargo helping him pin pillowcases around their necks when they pretended to be superheroes.
“Don’t look so lost in your thoughts. Nothing will be different between us.” Aargo taps Ethos on the back and smiles at him. “You’re still the same old Ethos to me.”
With the Tipsy Turvy in view, Charlie grabs Aargo’s hand and prances toward the door. “Let’s take your bags and sword into the back and get this party started.”
The bar’s packed shoulder-to-shoulder. The green, crushed-velvet drapes hang loosely and fold in where they’re tied back to the wall. Years of spilled drinks leave the wood more matte than polished. The smell is the first thing to hit Ethos upon entry—lemon and sour bread. It may not be a fancy establishment like they have in the capital, but it’s a local favorite, with sturdy chairs and warm hospitality.
The room clamors as they notice Aargo shuffling through the swarm of sweaty bodies. “Hey!” they collectively shout, and they raise their drinks.
Charlie giggles and glances back at Aargo with what can only be pride. After they drop Aargo’s effects off in the back, Charlie heads behind the bar and pours a dark, amber liquor into three shot glasses. She hands one to Aargo, another to Ethos, then keeps one for herself before climbing onto the bar. Charlie forcibly clears her throat, but the crowd doesn’t respond. “Your drinks are on the house for a toast if you all just shut the fuck up.” The group calms and faces Charlie in stunned silence.
That’s Charlie’s hospitality for you.
“Listen up, you bunch of lowlife scum,” Charlie begins, “As you all know, our boy Aargo is back to uphold the first-ever master smith position in Akhet.” The crowd cheers prematurely, and she shoots them a disapproving glare. “Let’s give him the best damn party at the best damn bar in the city. Aargo, you are one of my best friends. Welcome home, you fine piece of ass.” She throws the glass back and swallows before loudly exhaling.
The room erupts into a frenzy of claps and whistles. A man stands from his seat across the bar and raises his glass. “To Charlie getting laid!”
Ethos shrugs before clanging his glass to Aargo’s and throwing the liquor to the back of his throat. The initial shock of alcohol into his body makes Ethos shiver—he burps, which forces up acid and the taste of burnt wood chips into his mouth. Ethos exhales slowly to ease the burn. I hate one-fifty-one proof. I should have known that’s what she was pouring.
Charlie clambers down from the bar; one of the patrons grabs her hand to assist, but he grabs her butt when she accepts, so she turns and punches him in the jaw. The man tumbles into the back of another, much larger man and the room goes quiet. Charlie laughs at the man rubbing his cheek, and he smiles back at her—the party continues.
Not an uncommon occurrence, I’m guessing. She’s a wild one. I wish I could be more like her. Charlie wouldn’t allow herself to feel this way. Her self-worth is obviously more important than maintaining peace. Ethos shakes his head and any lingering negativity with it—tonight isn’t about him, and Aargo deserves more than a sulking wingman.
The celebration carries on into the night.Townsfolk and friends all circulate in and out to experience the “celebration of the year.” Charlie operates the bar and pours drinks as she effortlessly carries conversations with regulars and strangers alike. Many patrons request Charlie specifically to make their drinks. To them, she’s the only one who knows how to make them right, but Ethos assumes her pretty face certainly might have something to do with it as well.
Ethos takes another shot. The fragrant aroma of tequila hits his nostrils before he bites into the sour pulp of a lime. He cuts himself off. A fragile mental state often overpowers his desire to drink. The idea of drinking to the point of a blackout poses little reward for him, so he’s content simply being in the company of his friends.
Aargo narrows one eye at Ethos. A smile creeps up to his rosy cheeks. “So how did it start?”
Back to this again, I see. “I’m not really sure. Playful joking. Then, one day, it wasn’t a joke.” Ethos sips water from his glass to combat the inevitable dehydration of the morning to come.
“Do you love him?”
Ethos pauses. I shouldn’t, but I do. “Love is such a complicated word. Like, yes and no. Not like love, love. But there are feelings there, I guess.”
“You guess?” Aargo’s expression twists into a quizzical glare, but he doesn’t voice his suspicions. “Okay, okay. Enough about that. What the hell is going on with the posters around town? What happened to those girls?”
A strange man with matted hair sitting next to them intrudes, offering up his own opinion on the matter. “Perhaps these girls are devils in disguise.” The man leans close enough for Ethos to smell the alcohol on his breath—Ethos recognizes him as a bounty hunter named Victor. “Maybe those witches are getting exactly what they deserve and someone is paying handsomely to get rid of them.”
Aargo scowls at the man and edges closer to Ethos while he fiddles with something in his pocket. “And who are you?”
“I’m Victor, and I’m just about drunk enough to find me a working woman,” he mumbles as he struggles to slide off the barstool.
As harmless as Victor’s disheveled appearance is, Ethos knows better. There are tales of this bounty hunter being a cold-blooded murderer and only taking jobs where killing is an option. His privately run bounty organization is some form of legal murder-for-hire the capital signs off on for their cut in the profits. I’m sure in his mind he thinks it’s all justified. But I see through that bullshit. He just enjoys killing.
“All right then, have at it, pal.” Aargo relaxes his posture and shakes his head as Victor exits. “Can you believe that guy?”
“He’s a bounty hunter. Only takes private bounties. He’s notorious for putting the dead in dead or alive.”
Aargo shoots a glance at the now empty doorway. “A bounty hunter in the lower districts? That seems a bit strange. I thought bounty hunters make a good living. He looks like a vagrant… He must not be very good at his job.”
Ethos shrugs. “He’s a derelict between bounty jobs. He spends all his money on booze and women. As pathetic as he seems, he’s still killed a lot of people. Or so I’m told. What do you think he meant when he said witches are devils in disguise?”
“I don’t know, buddy. But it isn’t true. I’ve met plenty of witches and most of them are decent people.”
“Wait… you know witches? Was I living under a rock or something? How am I the last one to know about witches existing?” Ethos runs his hands through his hair and sighs.
Charlie approaches them from behind the bar. “Are you guys having fun? I’m glad Artemus didn’t show up. He’s such a butthole.” She pours three more shots.
Ethos shudders at the smell—he can only guess it’s gin by the aroma of celery. “Knowing him, he’s probably really pissed off from earlier. He’s kind of a man-child. Last time we hung out, we got into a big fight. I told him I needed some time apart to figure things out. He got pissed and left, slamming my door behind him… It hasn’t closed right since.”
Charlie scoffs. “Fuck him. Let’s find you some husband material tonight.” She takes the shot and grimaces while shaking her blonde curls in front of her face.
Artemus steps out from beyond a group of men lined up at the bar. “Fuck you!” His face burns red, and his fists clench at his sides. He gives Ethos a sharp glance and storms out, pushing bystanders out of his way.
“Hey man, I was kidding!” Charlie yells to him. She turns to Ethos and frowns. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to cause more problems.”
Ethos considers going after him but decides against it. The moment passes, as does his concern. “Don’t worry about it. He’ll get over it. No harm done.”
Charlie smiles. “I’m just drunk. And a little bit of a bitch.”
“Only a little bit?” Aargo smirks and motions for a refill.
“Hey now.” Charlie feigns hurt, then giggles at the comment. She pauses after focusing on something behind them.
Ethos turns as a young woman enters the crowd. He only slightly remembers her from school and draws a blank on what her name is. The same diamond pendant as the one Charlie wears swings on the woman’s neck. Is she a witch, too? Charlie did grab her necklace when she was forming the chalice. Do the necklaces have some power connected to them?
“Reagan!” Charlie waves but Reagan doesn’t acknowledge her.
Reagan’s complexion is unnaturally pale, and she sways in irregular movements. Smeared make-up accentuates the distress etched in her face—deep blue veins bulge from under her translucent skin. The look in her eyes is blank as she scans the crowd, and she continues to ignore the boisterous waving from Charlie.
A chill runs up Ethos’ spine. Something isn’t right.
“Hold on, guys.” Charlie hops over the bar past Ethos. “Reagan!” Charlie approaches Reagan and grabs her arm. “Reagan, why are you ignoring me, girl?”
Reagan turns and scowls at Charlie. “Get your filthy hand off me.” Her voice is deep, and the bass in her tone raises the hair on Ethos’ arms. Reagan jerks her arm free and struts away.
Charlie follows with a quick stride. “What the hell is your problem?”
Reagan growls before turning; she reaches into her jacket—a glint of silver in the dim overhead lighting shines as she draws it over her head.
It’s a fucking knife! Ethos nearly falls off his barstool, his heart beating out of his chest.
Reagan thrusts the dagger down as Charlie catches Reagan’s wrist. “Listen, you little bitch, I’m enjoying my first night out in this body, so sod off unless you want me to cut your bloody head off.” The knife draws closer to Charlie’s throat.
Aargo rushes through the crowd while Ethos remains frozen in fear.
“Where’s my friend, you monster?” Charlie grunts, the blade nearly at her skin.
Aargo yanks Reagan’s head back by her hair. Brilliant blue light flares from his hand and down through Reagan’s body—bolts of electricity and static swim around her as she shrieks. Her muscles spasm violently before she falls limp and crashes hard onto the floor, steam pouring off her twitching body. The crowd around them barrels into each other while they desperately funnel out of the bar.
Aargo glances up into Charlie’s wide eyes. “We should leave… now!”
Charlie sheds a single tear as she stares down at Reagan. “We can’t just leave her here like this. What the hell is going on?”
“There’s nothing we can do for her. She’s probably been dead for hours.” Aargo waves to Ethos for him to join them. “The elite command could be here at any moment. We don’t want to be here when they show up. We need to grab my stuff and get out of here.”
Ethos can’t fully comprehend the nature of what just happened. Aargo used his hand to electrocute Reagan somehow and saved Charlie’s life. Yet, Ethos stood motionless—helpless to do anything other than stew in his fear. Charlie could have been hurt, or worse. Why did I stand here and do nothing? What the hell is wrong with me?
Aargo snaps his fingers in Ethos’ face. “Buddy, we need to go right now.”
Ethos follows as they grab Aargo’s belongings and head into the back alley behind the bar. Charlie looks back at the Turvy with tears in her eyes as Aargo leads the way. They tread in silence, Charlie practically hyperventilating. The streets are dark, and the chilly night’s air grazes Ethos’ overheated body; his heart still thrashes in his chest. The uneven stone pathways trip him up as they walk in the darkness. Burn barrels come into view as they reach the residential part of town. Townsfolk cast downward glances at their sweaty faces, gaunt with worry and exhaustion.
“Where are we going?” Charlie looks around frantically as her grip remains glued to Aargo’s hand.
“I bought the house near the old Forester ranch for when I got back. Percy has been looking after it.” Aargo flashes a warm smile at Charlie. “It’ll be safe. It isn’t on official record, so we can lay low there if anything is reported to the elites.”
Ethos forces a laugh through the shock paralyzing his nerves. “Percy… the custodian android from back in our elementary school days?”
“Yeah, I fixed him up after he got scrapped during my last visit. He’s been reprogrammed to take care of things for when I got back. He’s… still an acquired taste to be around, but he should’ve maintained everything. Unless his new power cell died somehow.” Aargo stops at an old stucco cottage with a teal front door. “And here we are. Go on inside and check it out.”
Ethos jingles the handle, and to his surprise, the door isn’t locked. He nudges the door open slowly to reveal mostly empty spaces with limited furnishings. A worn brown couch sits in the center of an otherwise vacant living area. Attached to the kitchen, a dining room sports a solitary square table with four light-colored oak chairs. The curtains are sheer, a pattern interwoven in the delicate fabric. “Why didn’t you ever tell us about this place?”
“I didn’t want to jinx my chances of making it back alive.” Aargo drops his sword and rucksack by the door and takes a deep breath before wrinkling his nose. The smell of bleach is thick in the air, nauseating in its potency. A mechanical hum increases in pitch as the floor creaks in the darkness of the hall.
Percy comes into the light—the sloppy patchwork of metal and humanoid parts making up the android unsettles Ethos. “Welcome home, Aargo. I didn’t know you’d be having company tonight. Is there anything I can get for you?”
“Hey Percy, thanks for taking care of the house, it looks great.”
Ethos rubs his nose. “Yeah, minus the rancid chemical smell.”
Aargo opens up Percy’s chest and examines the myriad of wires and colorful lights before shutting it and nodding. “Percy, do you think you can take the night off and leave us alone? Maybe you could stay at Artemus’ shop and help clean up a little. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind the help.”
“Yes, of course, I’ll be on my way. And it’s good to see you again… little Ethos.” Percy smirks, the gray transparent skin on his face showing the teeth and jaw underneath..
Ethos scoffs as he remembers how condescending Percy can be. “I’m a grown-ass man. I’m not little, damn it!”
Percy smiles as he leaves through the front door and gently shuts it behind him. Aargo stands at the table, places a small leather pouch in the center, and motions for Charlie and Ethos to take a seat. Aargo removes a small blue stone from the pouch; he holds it up to the light and gestures for them to take a closer look.
“It looks like something is moving inside it.” Ethos hesitantly touches it. Am I supposed to feel something? It almost looks like a lightning storm trapped in a glass marble.
Charlie touches it with her index finger and jerks her hand back as if it stung her. “What the hell is that? What you did to Reagan wasn’t heka, was it?”
“No, it wasn’t.” Aargo’s tone is sure and steady.
“Wait, I’m lost,” Ethos chimes in. “I thought that was the same weird stuff you showed me at the warehouse today?”
Charlie shakes her head. “What Aargo did felt like something else.” She turns to Aargo. “Care to explain what happened back there? And what this fancy rock is?”
Aargo places the stone on the table and crosses his arms. “I’m not sure what you call it, but this stone, and the two others I have, possess the ability to evoke different powers. Each stone has a specific kind of ability. Much like heka, it can only be used through your own spiritual energy.”
“What do you know about heka?” Charlie clasps her hands together and leans in.
“I dabbled with heka in Piraeus. But these stones don’t work the same way heka does. They draw from energy inside the stone itself.” Aargo tips over the pouch; two more stones fall to the table. Orange and yellow flames swirl in one, while the other pulses with crimson and black, like the beating of a heart.
Ethos reaches out and touches the cool glass surface. “Where did you get these?”
“Gypsies were fleeing the isle one night as a group of raiders pillaged their camp. It was barbaric… what they were doing to those poor girls. By the time I got there, only a few were still alive. I cut down a handful of the barbarians, and the rest fled. One of the gypsies gifted me with three stones for saving them. They told me each stone possessed the power of a fallen god. I didn’t believe them until I tried this one out for myself.” Aargo tosses the blue stone up and catches it.
Charlie holds her hand over the stones. “Gypsies and fallen gods, huh? These aren’t natural things to be messing with. This is the power of human spirits as fuel. I hear voices coming from inside.”
Ethos moves his ear closer to the stones and glances back at Charlie. “What are the voices saying? I don’t hear anything.”
Charlie’s eyes widen as they stare blankly ahead. “It’s not so much talking as it is screaming. It’s awful. You can’t keep these things.”
Aargo scoffs. “You’re overreacting. It’s not the taboo you witches make it out to be.”
“How do you know I’m—”
“Please, the moment I saw that pendant I knew.” Aargo rolls the blue stone between his fingers. “This thing has saved my ass countless times. And tonight, it saved yours.”
Charlie pushes up from her seat and digs her nails into the table. “This is necromancy. Just look at what happened to Reagan; she was obviously dabbling in something dark like this. Something bad is going to happen. I can feel it.”
“Are you blind?” Aargo’s chair falls back as he stands. “Something terrible is already happening. How long has everyone been ignoring this insanity? Missing people and now a possessed witch? This shit doesn’t happen here. And everyone’s turning a blind eye. This is bullshit, and it’s shameful you guys are trying to just roll over on this.”
Charlie stills as her gaze lowers to the floor. “And what the hell are we supposed to do about it? None of the higher ups are releasing any details. No one knows how or why this is happening. Whatever is going on, it’s dangerous. It might have something to do with witches specifically, but I can’t prove that. And even if I could, then what?”
Ethos bows his head and sighs. “We’re just ordinary people, Aargo. Well, I am, at least. If the elites aren’t saying anything about it, we should assume they’re involved, which makes us even more powerless. It’s too dangerous for us.”
“When did you become a coward?” Aargo’s words hit Ethos harder than a punch to the gut. “Our entire lives we pretended to be heroes, taking on great evil to save the world. We fought imaginary monsters to protect the innocent. What happened to you?”
Ethos glares up at Aargo as heat rises through his face. “I grew the fuck up. Let’s say someone is hunting these girls. What if the elites are hiring bounty hunters like Victor to make them disappear? What can I do to stop them?”
Charlie raises her hand to her chin and strokes her cheek with one finger. “Hold on, did you say, ‘Victor’? That doesn’t make any sense; he hates the elites. His bounty commission office avoids any interference from the capital. Unless… the bribes are being sold to a wider audience. If we can find just one person who knows something, we might be able to track the source.”
Aargo nods. “If the elite command is paying for information on people with extraordinary abilities, then I’m guessing it isn’t limited to only heka users. If this is true, they’re paying citizens to rat out their own people, and the disappearances are the result. There could be countless people missing that haven’t been reported.”
Charlie sits and begins to bite her nails. “Which means you could already be in danger, Aargo. How many people saw what you did at the bar? What are we going to do now?”
Aargo gathers the stones and places them back into the pouch. “We need to get some sleep. But first, I need to know if you guys are with me on this. They might already know about me, so I don’t have a choice. It’ll only be a matter of time before they figure out Charlie’s a witch. We should band together now to get ahead of it.”
Is he insane? How did we go from running away from the chaos at the bar to deciding we’re going to start investigating the disappearances? But if I don’t join them, they’ll just do it without me. I can’t let them do this alone, and I’m not sure I should be alone either.
“Okay, I’m in.” Ethos can’t believe he’s agreeing, but it’s the only choice he has if his friends are in danger.
Charlie lights a cigarette. “Fuck it, me too. Aargo’s right, we’ve stood by and done nothing for too long. This isn’t who we are. It’s time we grow a pair and fight back.”
Aargo smiles and places his large hands on both of their shoulders. “Good. First thing tomorrow, then. The spare bedrooms are right across from mine down the hall.” He glances down at Ethos, and his grip tightens. “Hey, we’re all going to be fine. Nobody is going to get hurt. Not if I can help it. I promise.”
Charlie rubs her stomach as it grumbles. “I could really go for that apple pie we left at the bar right about now.”
They share a laugh before leaving the table to call it a night.
Ethos heads to bed, still drunk and full of adrenaline—sleep will not come easy. He lies awake, his head spinning. He can’t escape the growing dread in the back of his mind. Whatever is going on, I pray for the safety of my friends. This is the first time he’s prayed to any god in many years; he lost any faith before he grew into adulthood. But desperate times call for desperate acts, so he prays for what could be hours before drifting off to sleep.