Chapter 3—Bargains & Losses

ARTEMUS

As Artemus steps up the marble stairs to the capital building barracks, his heart races and the chilly night air sends goosebumps scattering across his exposed arms. When he pictures Ethos at the bar having a good time without him—not needing him—his rage surmounts any persisting fear. Despite his efforts to sequester Ethos away from Charlie over the past few months, Ethos found his way back to her. And with Aargo in town, the problem will only escalate.

An acquaintance told Artemus something interesting a few days prior about the circumstances around the disappearances: the elite command is paying gold in exchange for information on citizens with unusual abilities. While Artemus tossed the idea aside as lunacy at the time, he witnessed the witchcraft by Charlie’s hand this morning. Charlie showed Ethos her devilry as if it were a talent to be celebrated.

Artemus’ mind is made up—Charlie’s corruption needs to end. The elite command isn’t the murdering type. She’ll be fine. She’ll just be out of the way. It doesn’t matter how. I have to do something or I’ll lose Ethos forever.

Turning Charlie over for enough gold to fix his shop kills two birds with one stone. Artemus’ professional dignity will be restored, and with Charlie gone, Ethos will have no choice but to stay with him. Aargo will be a different story, one Artemus would take care of at a later time. For now, Charlie will pay for making a fool of me in front of Ethos.

Artemus approaches the elite commander Apollo’s tent; he brushes through a slit in the dense green tarp. In the dim candlelight, Apollo, a bronzed man of pure muscle, sharpens his sword—the bright white of his elevated scars against his tan skin steals Artemis’ attention. Apollo’s dark brown eyes narrow, and his lips purse as he leans back in the chair. “Do you know how late it is, son?” Apollo lays the sword on the table next to him before standing; his tall stature casts a wide shadow.

Artemus swallows hard and steadies the trembling of his hands. “Yes, sir. I have some information on a witch.”

Apollo’s demeanor changes as his eyes widen. “Really? And I suppose you’ve heard something about a reward? What proof do you offer?”

“None, sir. But I saw it with my own eyes. The girl used witchcraft to move the ground around her to make a cup and filled it with water. She’s got some evil power.”

“Hmm,” Apollo purrs. “Who is it?”

“Her name is Charlie Vee, sir. She lives near the markets in the lower district. She works at a bar called the Tipsy Turvy there.” After saying her name, a knot in Artemus’ gut twists, giving him a sensation like he may vomit.

Apollo scoffs before sitting back down in his wicker chair. “Short, blonde girl. Pretty little thing. Is that who you’re talking about?” His knowing grin stretches across his face.

“That’s her. She wears a pendant with a diamond in the middle, smokes like a burn barrel, and is always hanging around a local artist named Ethos—but he doesn’t have anything to do with any of this. He’s not a witch. He’s a good person.”

Apollo leans back; his elbow rests on the table beside him where a cloth stained with blood sits behind the candle. “We’ve recently been made aware of Charlie’s transgressions, along with a few others, so I believe you… I didn’t catch your name.”

“Artemus, sir.” He puffs his chest and stands at attention. The air in the room shifts, and every nerve in Artemus’ body tingles with the overwhelming sense they aren’t alone.

“Well, Artemus, we’ll move on that situation and handle it accordingly. I expect you’ll be wanting your reward now, won’t you? Though, since we were already on her trail, it will only be half the gold.”

“Half?” Artemus quickly covers his mouth after his objection.

Apollo sneers at Artemus. “Half. Or nothing. I’m being overly generous, and you’re wearing down my patience. The payment is a binding contract for your silence. We wouldn’t want to be forced to take this gold back… with interest.”

“No, sir.” The hair on Artemus’ arms stand.

Apollo stretches his hand out to the darkness in the back of the tent. A beautiful blonde woman, more than half-naked, struts into view; her seductive sway accentuates her breasts under her golden, chainmail tunic. Her short, sculpted hair signifies her upper-class status. She holds out a generously sized burlap pouch. Apollo takes the bag; his gaze lingers on the woman’s body as she turns away and returns to the illusive darkness.

“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” Apollo pulls gold coins from the sack, one by one, until the bag is half-empty.

Artemus takes a deep breath and gathers himself—the woman’s magnetism leaves a profound impression in his mind. “Yes, she is. Is she your wife?” He regrets the question immediately. He’d already been there longer than he wanted, and this is not the time to stir up small talk.

“I don’t take husbands.” The woman’s voice cuts like a blade through the shadows. “Gods do not need such petty devotions. Is there something else you needed, little boy? I have some business with Apollo, and you’re rudely interrupting.”

She’s a god… Ra. Artemus’ throat shrinks, and the drumming in his chest intensifies. He’d never been close to a god before. Ra is more ethereal up close, and a thousand times more intimidating—to be this close to the “ice queen of the desert” is as exhilarating as it is terrifying. The deed is done. It’s time to leave.

Artemus clears his throat. “No. I’ll be leaving now.” He turns and exits the tent. It is all he can do to catch his breath, and with it, his sanity. His thoughts run wild, with one question nagging at the back of his mind: What have I done?

ETHOS

The sun warms Ethos’ face as it wakes him. He’s vaguely aware of Charlie sitting at the end of the bed. He forces his eyes open as they adjust to the light. Ethos studies Charlie while she rubs the diamond pendant around her neck. He sits up and yawns before Charlie turns and weakly smiles.

“Awake, sleepyhead?” Charlie perches her chin on her shoulder as she looks back at him—the fine lines around her eyes are deep and shadowed.

Ethos stretches and cracks his neck. “Yeah, I guess. What are you doing up so early?”

“How do you know it’s early?”

Ethos groans. “Is it early?”

“No, silly, it’s almost midday. I didn’t sleep much. I’ve already gone outside and smoked too many cigarettes; I’m feeling a little lightheaded now.” Charlie frowns as her fingers smooth out the wrinkles in the linen blanket under her.

“Is Aargo awake?”

“He’s getting ready to head up to the shop. Should we go with him?” Charlie flashes him a grin.

 So you can shit-stir some more… hard pass. “No. I want to avoid that drama as long as I can.”

“Me too, I guess. Though I would find it entertaining.” Charlie’s smile quickly fades and her eyes stare at the floor. “I tossed and turned all night. How does my hair look?”

Ethos nudges her with his foot. “It looks fine.”

“Liar. But I know you’re just trying to make me feel better. Which is so unlike you. Should I be worried?”

“You’re unbearable, anyone ever tell you that?”

“No one but you.” Charlie messes with her hair, running her fingers through the knots.

Ethos sighs. Charlie can’t hide her distress with her snark as well as she thinks she can. “I hate you for making me ask this, but how are you… really?”

Charlie glances back at him with another strained smile. “Not good. I woke up this morning with this terrible feeling. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before… like I’m suffocating as the walls close in around me.”

“I have a similar feeling. But I’m just a cynical fuck who needs to lighten up.”

Charlie rolls her eyes at her own advice repeating back to her. “You do need to lighten up. But seriously, something awful is going on. I can feel us getting pulled into it. I’m wondering if agreeing to investigate the disappearances is biting off more than we can chew.”

“We’ll pull away the moment things get hairy.” Ethos shrugs. “I didn’t want to agree either, but something is definitely going on. We can’t just let it continue. Especially not since I know you and Aargo are involved. I couldn’t handle either of you disappearing on me and knowing I could’ve done something to prevent it.”

Charlie takes a deep breath and exhales. “The universe is pulling us toward chaos. I can’t explain the feeling, but ever since I was little, I could just know things. I’ve always been able to see several steps ahead of everyone else. And now, I look into the future, and all I see is black… a nothingness that frightens me.”

“Charlie, you’re scaring me.” Ethos shakes off the eerie feeling creeping through him, but the effect lingers. “Didn’t do you very good last night when Reagan attacked you. Bet you didn’t see that coming.”

“You know that’s not what I mean.” She glances out the window and smiles. “Do you remember when we were both studying at the university? If you can even call that place a university.”

Ethos furrows his brow. “I remember some of it. Why?”

Charlie leans her head back, the light from the window brightening the emerald hues in her eyes. “I always thought you were funny, but I also knew there was something kind of dark and sad inside you.”

“Yeah, yeah, get on with it. Is there a point to this walk down memory lane?”

Charlie giggles. “Remember when we were smoking at that apartment you were staying in and I was taunting you about something, and you told me you’d throw your cigarette at me if I kept going? I called bullshit, and you fucking threw that goddamn cig right at my face.”

Ethos laughs. “Yeah, well, you told me I wouldn’t. I bet you thought you were too pretty to have a lit cigarette thrown at you. You guessed wrong. Don’t ever tell me I can’t do something… because I’ll do it.”

“That’s when I knew we were going to be the best of friends.” Charlie glances at Ethos, but her lack of expression is hard to read. “No matter what happens, we have to keep fighting for the lives we deserve. We have to be strong with who we are and not be afraid to fight against those who challenge us. Aargo was right: we’ve become complacent. We aren’t ourselves anymore.”

Ethos’ heart sinks into his stomach. How have I not noticed Charlie feels the same way I do? All this time… “You’re right. But I don’t know how to do that sometimes.”

Charlie grabs Ethos’ hand. “We’ll learn together. I got your back.”

Ethos smiles and tightens his grip. “Promise?”

“I promise.” Charlie pats the back of Ethos’ hand. “How about you? And I don’t mean the kind of agreement where you bitch the entire time.”

Ethos leans his head back. “Fine. I promise, too.” He smiles—the veil of depression lifts slightly, and he takes a relieving breath. Charlie has a way of brightening up even the darkest day. And today, he needed her light more than ever.

Charlie stands and rubs her stomach. “I’m fucking starving.”

“Oh god, me too.”

Charlie gestures for Ethos to follow. “C’mon, then.”

Ethos walks closely next to Charlie as they head into the living room. Aargo packs a small bag of tools by the table, and his reddish-brown hair glows orange in the sun coming through the skylight above. After Aargo stuffs the bag full, he zips it closed and throws it over his shoulder.

Aargo smiles as he notices Charlie and Ethos walk in. “Morning!”

“Heading to the shop now?” Charlie asks.

“Yeah, I figured I’d go and start working on things. It’ll keep my mind busy while we figure everything out.” Aargo heads for the door. “I’m guessing you two aren’t coming along.”

Ethos wrinkles his nose. “No. But I’m sure you’ll have plenty of fun dealing with Artemus without us.”

Charlie snickers. “Ethos and I are going to find something to eat on the other side of the district. Far, far away from Artemus’ shop. Then we’ll head to the capital apothecary to hopefully catch Zoe and her friends shopping. They’re heka practitioners like me, but they’ve got ties with a higher coven. Maybe they’ll know something.”

Aargo shuffles his feet and frowns. “That could be dangerous. I should go with you.”

Charlie scoffs and waves her hand at him. “Please, we’ll be fine. Believe it or not, we can handle feeding ourselves and talking with an old friend. You’re the one who should be careful after that light show you put on at the Turvy last night. The command could be hunting you as we speak.”

“Oh, the drama.” Aargo rolls his eyes. “I’ll be fine. But I want you both to take these with you.” He holds out his hand and opens it to reveal two stones in his palm.

Charlie steps back. “I’m not touching those. I have my own power, and Ethos would only endanger us both with them.”

To Charlie’s dismay, Ethos grabs the bright orange stone and gazes into it with curiosity—a whirlwind of fire swirls inside. He holds it close to his ear but hears nothing. How can Charlie and Aargo hear voices? Am I really so unremarkable?

“The gypsies called that a firestone,” Aargo says. “It’s said to be one of the most powerful stones in existence. I’ve never been able to figure out how to use it, though.”

Ethos looks into the crimson glow of the other stone in Aargo’s hand—the bright crimson pumps to a rhythmic pulse. “The firestone can harness the power of fire. What’s the red one do?”

“It’s called a bloodstone. I couldn’t even begin to guess what it does. I’ve never figured out how to use that one either. You may not be able to use them, but you can never be too careful. The gypsies said the instincts to use the power inside find their way to you when the time is right.” Aargo drops the bloodstone into Ethos’ hand.

Charlie shakes her head. “Ethos with power stones made from human spirits… what could go wrong? Just keep those horrible things away from me.”

Aargo hugs Charlie before she passes through the doorway and Ethos follows her, giving Aargo a brief half-hug as he exits. Ethos and Charlie head off in the direction of the smithery. A gust of wind blows grit into Ethos’ mouth—the taste of sand is unavoidable, something Ethos grew to appreciate the absence of in the wet and cold seasons. Ethos spits, and Charlie gives him a judging brow arch.

Upon entry to the last street of the markets, the familiar face of an apple vendor named Gretchen stops them with a greeting. “Some apples would be the perfect treat for a fine couple like yourselves on this beautiful day.” The dark brown of her almond eyes is almost as black as her hair, and her overdrawn lips are stained with a dark purple that matches her smoky eyeshadow. There aren’t many descendants of her race in Akhet, so her unique features stand out, even without the heavy makeup.

Charlie glares at her old classmate and groans. “I should have known you’d be out here whoring apples today. And Gretchen, you know damn well Ethos and I aren’t a couple. This ship ain’t ever going to sail, okay?”

“You’re right. Ethos is far too pretty for you.” Gretchen smirks before batting her eyelashes at Ethos. “He’d be better off with someone with more… flavor.” She bites her lower lip.

“Keep dreaming, girl.” Charlie laughs. “Now, you’re going to give me a discount on these apples. Don’t think I forgot about that tab you ran out on last weekend. That guy you went home with was gross, by the way; you might want to get yourself checked out.”

Gretchen shrugs as if she neither agrees nor disagrees. “Fine, have your pick. But no more than three each. The price of apples is inflating again.”

Ethos and Charlie rummage through the cart to pick the brightest red apples out of the bunch. Ethos nods at Gretchen and attempts to avoid her leering gaze. “Thank you, we’re heading off now. Very busy today.”

“Next time come without the blonde skank, pretty boy.” Gretchen winks at him.

Charlie walks away with her middle finger in the air. “I can’t stand that bitch.” She sinks her teeth into the first apple and chews with her mouth open. “I mean, just because her shoulders are manly doesn’t mean you’re going to give her the time of day.”

As Ethos and Charlie stroll down the street past the vendor stalls, Charlie finishes two of her apples, keeping the last one tucked in her pocket. Ethos scarfs down all three of his apples within a few blocks; the sour sweetness of each bite fills him with renewed energy. If he wasn’t with Charlie, he might not have eaten at all, so a sense of normalcy returns—a feeling he’s slowly warming up to.

At the last few shops, Charlie turns to a side street and smiles. “Zoe, hey!” Charlie waves Zoe over with increasingly hurried hand gestures.

Zoe briefly makes eye-contact as she ambles to join them, but her attention begins to shift up and down the market streets. Her short brown braids blow in the wind as she approaches. “Charlie. And who’s this?”

“This is Ethos. I was just about to turn around and head up to the apothecary in the capital to see if you were there. What are you doing down here?” Charlie extends her hand to offer her last apple.

Zoe smiles, but it doesn’t disguise the nervous look in her eyes as she accepts it. “Thanks.”

Charlie peers behind Zoe. “What on earth are you doing here all by yourself? Where’s Crystal and Charisma? Aren’t you guys always hanging out?”

Zoe looks away; the shadow of a pained expression crosses her face. “I haven’t seen them. But I was actually looking for you, Charlie.”

“Me? How’d you know I’d be coming this way?”

Tears form in Zoe’s eyes as she struggles to maintain her composure. Zoe removes her other hand from her cloak, and Ethos stares in horror at the sight of her bloodstained fingers. Charlie’s wide eyes glare at Ethos as she raises a finger over her mouth.

“Come with us,” Charlie whispers. She tips her head toward a pathway behind one of the shops in the opposite direction.

Charlie leads them through multiple back streets as she lights a cigarette, puffing incessantly while she navigates. Before long, Ethos recognizes the abandoned warehouse where Charlie showed him her powers. Charlie takes another long drag before heading inside.

She must frequent this place often. Is it really that safe if she comes here so much? Ethos says nothing and trusts Charlie’s judgment.

Charlie glances back at the alley they’d just entered from and lets out a large cloud of smoke. She pulls the metal door closed—the scraping of the door track creates a high-pitched screech, and Ethos shudders at the sound before turning to Zoe as her cries become frantic. Why is she crying like this? Why is there blood on her hand?

“What the hell is going on?” Charlie grabs Zoe’s hand, and the dried blood flakes off the top as the wet undercoat smears on Charlie’s thumb.

Zoe sobs uncontrollably; her answer is little more than untranslatable gasping sounds. Zoe covers her face with the apple and trembles in her attempt to catch her breath. “I… I… can’t.”

Charlie approaches her more calmly to ask her again, “Sweetie, what’s going on? You need to tell me. We’re all really freaked out right now. Whose blood is on your hand?”

Zoe takes a solid breath and steadies herself. “They’re after us, Charlie.”

Charlie sighs. “I know. They’re coming after anyone they know can use heka. But that still doesn’t explain the blood on your hand. Just breathe. What happened? Start at the beginning.”

“No, Charlie, you don’t get it. They’re after us. You and me.” Zoe’s black eye makeup runs down her cheeks; each blink sends another dark river spiderwebbing down her pale face.

Why would anyone be after Charlie… how would anyone know about her? This doesn’t make any sense. Ethos’ mind runs wild with possible explanations. “Who is after you?”

Zoe recoils at Ethos’ tone, and Charlie flashes him a disapproving look. “Okay. It’s okay.” Charlie takes another hit of her cigarette. “We’ll leave the city at once.” She puckers again, burning the tobacco all the way down to the filter before throwing it onto the ground and looking at Ethos for reassurance.

“Are we just going to believe her?” Ethos shakes his head. “Leave the fucking city? Do you know what’s out there? This is crazy. No way are we leaving the city. Not an option.”

Zoe calms; her dead stare fixes on reflections in a puddle behind them. “They aren’t going to let us leave anyway. I did something awful.”

Charlie’s glare hardens. “What did you do? Tell me everything.”

Expressionless, Zoe shrugs. “They pulled us in early last night. Told me if I didn’t help find all the witches they’d make me disappear, too. Crystal and Charisma didn’t tell her what she wanted to hear, so Ra executed them.”

Ra. The right hand of Set? So the elites really are in on it. Holy shit.

Zoe doesn’t move her eyes from the reflective puddle, as if staring at a visual playback of the traumatic events in the water. “I tried to stop the bleeding, but… My only way out is to bring you to her, to Ra. You’re the only name I gave them. I was on my way to the Turvy to find you when I chickened out. I can’t have any more of my sisters’ blood on my hands. I was trying to find someone to help escort me out of the city. Then you just walked right past and waved to me. That’s when I knew it was all over.”

“What’s all over? What the hell do you mean by that?” Charlie chokes back her tears and maintains a strong demeanor.

Zoe chuckles—the sound is sick and desperate. “I knew I wasn’t going to get out of the city. They’re definitely following me. It won’t be long until they find us here.”

 “We have to go, Charlie!” Ethos can’t conceal the panic in his voice. “We’re all going to die if what she’s saying is true.”

Charlie looks back at Ethos with fire in her eyes. “Ethos, you have to leave us. They aren’t after you. There’s no use in you getting involved. I’ll take Zoe and make a break to get out of the city. I’ll send word back to Akhet once we’re in a safe place. Tell Aargo goodbye for me.”

Ethos forces hot air through his nostrils. “Like hell! I would never leave you like that. We do this together, remember? Grab the girl and let’s get our asses moving. We can make it to Aargo and come up with a plan that isn’t totally fucking crazy… like going into the outskirts.”

“Stubborn ass… Fine, deal.” Charlie nods at Ethos before turning to Zoe and kissing her on the forehead. “I forgive you. Now, let’s get out of here, okay?”

Ethos rips open the metal door, but a woman in the doorway makes him step back. It’s Ra. Holy shit. Zoe wasn’t lying.

Ra enters the room, and Zoe drops to her knees. Ra’s gold-trimmed armor reflects light with each step forward—the style of the breastplate is ornate, swirls and filigree accenting the delicate grooves of the metal. Well-defined cheekbones harden as Ra smirks at Zoe. A thin sword at Ra’s hip is marked with a falcon insignia, and the color of the blade indicates it’s carbon steel, the strongest and most expensive metal on the continent. Artemus crafted only one small dagger out of the metal, and it cost more than Ethos would make in two lifetimes.

Ra pouts at Zoe, mocking her terror before her eyes turn to Ethos. “I don’t see many boys doing witchcraft nowadays. Good for you. Gender equality is so important.”

“He’s not a heka user. He’s just an ordinary man. Leave him out of this.” Charlie steps between Ra and Ethos; she raises her hands as if prepared to conjure something.

What the hell are you doing, Charlie? There’s no way we can fight them.

Ra sneers at Zoe. “I said the girl alone. Witches only, you twit.”

Commander Apollo enters the warehouse. Decorative accents adorn the commander’s armor, similar to Ra’s but with fewer embellishments. Apollo’s sword hangs at his side, more than two-thirds the size of Ethos’ entire body—the man himself towers over Ethos almost twice over. Ethos clutches the firestone in his pocket.

A bead of cold sweat traces down from Ethos’ brow; his heart beats to a deafening tone. “These girls have done nothing wrong. What do you want with them?”

Apollo takes a step forward and grins at Ethos. “Look at the little man stepping up to protect his women.”

“We’ll be leaving now. Our friend is expecting us. Our very powerful friend.” Ethos grips the firestone tight and steps toward the exit.

Zoe drags her back along the wall to follow Ethos’ lead, but Ra grabs her by the shoulder. “You… you said I could go if I helped you get her. There she is. You have to set me free,” Zoe stammers.

Ra arches a brow. “You’ll be free, little lamb. Free of ever being consumed by dark forces beyond your comprehension.” Ra draws Zoe’s back tight against her chest.

The escalation of hostility reverberates in Ethos’ ribcage as his mind searches for some way out of this situation. Does Ra really have god-like power? Would attempting to escape be a quicker death sentence? Ethos glances at Charlie; the same fear in him reflects in her face, but her jaw clenches tight and defiance burns in her eyes.

Ra jerks Zoe’s hair back to expose the soft flesh of her throat with a single mole over the collarbone. Ra unsheathes a dagger from her belt. “You want to know what happens to the people who vanished?”

“No!” Zoe screams.

Ra plunges the dagger into the side of Zoe’s throat before slicing outward—the sound is a nightmarish shriek, followed by choking expulsions on the blood filling the gaping wound. Bright red blood sprays in spurts of dense geysers from the loose tubes inside Zoe’s neck. Nausea and terror strike every nerve within Ethos’ consciousness; he can’t move, only watch as Zoe falls to the floor and gurgles in her own blood.

The red apple drops from Zoe’s hand and rolls at Charlie’s feet. When Zoe draws her last agonizing breath and stills, Ethos closes his eyes—the darkness offers no more than the grim reality beyond it. His adrenaline thrashes so hard his ears ring. I’m useless. There’s no way I can stand up to someone like Ra and the elite commander. We have to run. Ethos grabs Charlie’s hand and pulls her toward the back window.

“There are more guards outside the windows,” Apollo remarks in a cold, matter-of-fact manner.

Ethos breaks from his stride and turns to Charlie for some sign of hope. Charlie sighs and whispers, “Run when I say to.”

What? No! This can’t be happening!

Ra groans as she looks at the spatters of red on her breastplate. “Well, shit. This is why I hate using blades.” She shrugs before leering at Ethos and Charlie. “Fire truly is the most beautiful element.” Ra raises her hand near her face, and flames ignite in hues of brilliant orange and yellow; she stares lovingly into the fire and casts the blaze over Zoe’s body, incinerating it to a charred, black mannequin.

The smell’s abhorrent, like a roast with a side of burnt hair. Unnatural flames scorch the body with almost purposeful intensity as they whip and wire around themselves as if willed by their master.

Ethos swallows hard. “Why are you burning her? Why are you doing this?”

Ra grins. Something like amusement flashes in her eyes. “I burn them so they can’t come back as something else.” The firelight overexposes the bright blue of her eyes as she turns to Apollo. “You need to leave the room while I finish this. I can smell power swelling in the blonde witch. She doesn’t intend to go out without a fight.” Apollo nods and shuts the screeching metal door behind him as he leaves.

Charlie balls her fists at her sides. “Ethos, stay behind me.”

Ethos squeezes the firestone so hard his fingers ache. I won’t do nothing this time. “No, we’ll fight this bitch together.”

A wave of violent wind rushes past Charlie and slams into Ethos—the sudden attack sends him crashing into the metal wall at the back of the warehouse. Pain shoots through Ethos all at once, and blood pools in his mouth with metallic bitterness. He forces his back away from the indentation his body made in the metal, his ribcage making a noise like a branch that’s been stepped on. The air in his lungs returns in excruciating spurts.

What the hell just happened? Ethos wipes the blood from his lips. The taste of iron saturates the back of his throat. I’m not that badly injured. I’m still okay. I can still fight. How do I use this goddamn stone?

Ra chuckles. “I’m the goddess of the sun and wind. It was difficult for me to merely brush you aside without completely crushing you. You have no chance. I’ll make your deaths quick.”

Charlie extends her arm behind her as a shimmering wall builds between Ethos and Charlie. She’s going to take on Ra by herself. The shimmer must be some kind of barrier. This is suicide. I might not know what Charlie is truly capable of, but I doubt she can face a goddess or whatever the fuck Ra is. I need to do something. This stupid stone Aargo gave me isn’t working; it’s just as useless as I am.

The wind projecting off Ra tears around Charlie as she rips off her jacket; her long blonde hair whips wildly around her head. Ra tilts her neck to the side as it cracks—challenge accepted. Ethos bolts to the shimmer and places his hands over the transparent wall. The barrier is hard as stone.

Charlie throws her hands outward, and narrow spikes explode from the earth toward Ra—the speed is too quick for Ethos’ eyes, but the power rebounds as a flaming blockade discharges around Ra. The whirlwind of fire and air shakes the warehouse floor. Charlie stands straight, arms pushing forward as the flames roll off Charlie’s shield of power.

“Ethos, you need to get out of here… now!” Charlie’s voice cracks at the strain.

“No fucking way! I’m not leaving you!” Ethos grips the firestone. Please, mystical rock thing, lend me power or whatever the fuck it is you do… please. Hot tears roll down his cheek—the stone remains inactive and cool in his grip.

“Any last words, little witch?” Ra’s wicked smile widens.

Charlie’s arms and knees shake as she glances back at Ethos with the saddest smile he’s ever seen. She turns back to Ra, grunting as she forces the flames farther away from her.

Ra abruptly cuts off her forceful fire and wind; the sudden change of pressure forces Charlie to stumble forward. Ra rips her sword from the sheath before barreling forward and slamming Charlie into the shimmering wall with her shoulder.

Ra plunges her sword through the center of Charlie’s chest.

The sword ruptures through Charlie’s back and pierces through the barrier, grazing Ethos’ cheek. Charlie turns her head as blood spills from her mouth; she grabs at her chest before planting a bloody hand on the shimmer, hardening the transparency to gray stone.

“Run,” Charlie chokes out. Her eyes dim as her body relaxes on the sword.

Ethos stares at the dark stone wall with the end of a sword trapped within it, still dripping with blood. Charlie’s blood. She’s… gone. What do I do now? I can’t move. I feel as if I’m imprisoned in ice. What’s this strange sensation of numbness? I should be running. Oh god. What do I do? Charlie… This is a nightmare. Wake up, Ethos! Wake the fuck up!

The blade in the wall wiggles, followed by Ra’s voice cursing. The haze of sound and blurred vision leaves Ethos bewildered—his mind flashes through years of memories that twist within his mind like a sandstorm. The sword wiggles again and pulls free to the other side as the sound of a solid thump hits the floor. Ethos recalls the conversation with Charlie this morning. I promised to keep fighting, no matter what. I made a promise. I have to run! Even if I don’t make it, I have to try.

“Kill the boy quickly and let’s clean this up,” Ra demands from the other side of the wall.

Ethos stands, and tears burn the cut on his cheek. Placing the firestone in his pocket, Ethos charges toward the window and buries his terror—he jumps over the windowsill, slides over the threshold, and crashes onto the uneven ground outside. Without so much as a pause, Ethos rolls onto the street before standing to run.

A sword swings at Ethos’ head from beside him, but Ethos slips on the loose dirt and falls on his side. As Ethos leans against a brick wall to regain his footing, Apollo charges forward for another swing. Ethos lunges and kicks at Apollo’s chest—the impact sends needles shooting down Ethos’ leg as he falls back against the wall. Apollo laughs at Ethos’ attempt.

Is this guy made of steel? I have to get out of here. I promised! Ethos glances down at where his hand sinks below the wall; he finds a crawlspace hidden by brush and sand. He dives into the crevice and claws at the dirt. Ethos squirms under the building as a hand reaches in to grab him.

Apollo is far too large for the opening; his progress stops at his massive shoulders. Ethos crawls through the filth and cobwebs. A narrow beam of light tears through the darkness ahead. Ethos runs his fingers up into the light source to reveal a loose plank of wood leading up to the first floor of the vacant building—he pulls it aside and breaks additional planks from the floor to create an opening. He forces his body through the new passage and treads carefully through the open space.

Ra’s voice outside cripples any hope Ethos has at escape. “How hard could it be to kill a tiny man, you imbecile?”

“He’ll come out the front or back of the crawlspace eventually. Would you rather burn him out?” Apollo shouts in reply.

Ethos mind races as he looks around the building for some clue for a reasonable escape plan. Wait, they should only be guarding the front and back of the crawlspace. I can escape through the side window and run to the river. There’ll be people there. Witnesses. I might even be able to blend in and find shelter. There isn’t much time. I’ll have to do this now. Ignore the pain. Ignore the desire to give up. This is the only chance I have.

Ethos finds a window on the south side of the building; he pushes it open slowly, stops to listen, then continues. With the window open wide enough, Ethos slides through, softly landing on the ground. The roads are too open. There’s no way I’ll make it back to the markets. I’ll be dead before I make it halfway. I have to stick to my original plan. My only small chance is to make it to the river. On three.

One… two… three!

Ethos dashes down the road—the shock of each foot pounding on the ground ripples through his legs; his chest burns and his adrenaline races. Ra’s yell pierces his nerves as she and the elite commander give chase.

After several blocks, Ethos looks back, startled by a thirty-foot wave of fire crashing down at incredible speed.

Ethos swerves down several streets in hopes of evading the flaming barrage of death. He glances back again. The blaze bridges the gap as it continues to trail him. The heat and pressure whirl at his back, singeing his heels as he sprints.

People on the other side of the river come into view as Ethos reaches the street on the river’s edge. The flames reach him, but they redirect overhead as they set a fiery blockade in front of him—blocking the river and the freedom beyond.

She wants to make sure I’m dead. I can’t go back the way I came. I can’t make it through to the river. My whole body aches. I can barely breathe. My nerves are shot to hell. But I made a goddamn promise.

Ethos leans on a front door of an empty riverfront warehouse to catch his breath. As he traces the grain of the chipping wood with his fingers, it begins vibrating, something in the distance growing closer—the ground trembles under him.

Everything around Ethos shatters in an explosive boom.

The door slams into Ethos and shields him against the flames as he’s sent plunging through over the fire and into the river. A pull from within the water sucks him downward.

The channel’s undercurrent rips Ethos through a small grate under the wall and forces him down into the drainage tunnel. Ethos holds what little air is in his lungs, but the tunnel continues with no end in sight. The rush of water and darkness is pure chaos; he swallows water as his body spasms to breathe.

Light rushes into view, and Ethos kicks toward it, compelling what little strength his arms have left to swim upward. When his head emerges from the river, he gasps for air and chokes on the water still within his lungs.

The river’s current is too strong for Ethos to fight it, so he floats on his back and stares into the sky. Every breath is ragged and painful. Ethos turns his head to the southern wall of Akhet as it disappears in the distance. Physically and emotionally drained, Ethos drifts farther away into the outskirts.

When the river narrows into a stream, he digs his fingers into the sand and claws his way up to the embankment.

On solid ground and away from immediate danger, Ethos sinks into his raw emotions; he sits on his knees, hunched forward, tears flooding down his cheeks. As his sobs grow in intensity, his grief and rage destroy him. He lets out a harrowing cry until his voice breaks, yet he continues to soundlessly scream into the sky.

A wave of numbness overtakes him, and he stands, stumbling into the desert outskirts—into the dangerous unknown.

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