Who are you?
The question soared across the scorched sky, spoken by a chorus of voices that seeped through the cracks in the rocks that glowed like coals, that oozed from the pulsing hot brightness of the magma inching down, down, down to swallow all life in its path.
Lava ran over Echo’s boots. She looked at her feet, dispassionate, divorced from the sight of the rubber and leather bubbling and melting. Her shoelaces caught fire, but she did not feel them burn. Soot coated her skin, clung to her hair, her eyelashes, her clothes. The blue had been burned out of the sky by the eruption, and darkness descended, called forth by a veil of ash.
Who are you?
“This isn’t real,” Echo said.
And that isn’t an answer.
This was a dream. And in this dream, she was burning. Her skin blistered in the heat. Magma rushed around her ankles. It didn’t scare her, though it had the first time she’d had this dream. And the second. And the third. But by now, she’d lived through this scenario so many times, it was beginning to feel routine. All she had to do was endure it. Soon enough, she would wake up. She could do that. If there was anything at which Echo excelled, it was surviving.
She ignored the question—she’d yet to answer it in any of her dreams—and looked toward the gaping maw of the volcano. She stood at its base, watching it belch fire and smoke and ash into the heavens. Screams rose from the village below. That was the worst part. She could ignore her burning body, but she could never tune out the screams. Every night, without fail, from the first night. The night she had opened a door into the world and let the firebird enter. She could feel it now, its wings fluttering inside her as if testing the limits of its mortal cage.
Every night, the same question was posed to her, asked by a speaker with a thousand voices ringing as one: Who are you?
I am Echo, she thought. She didn’t speak the words aloud. She knew the answer wasn’t correct. Or perhaps the answer was simply not complete.
Lava crawled up her legs, past her knees, her thighs, her waist, consuming her inch by inch. In seconds, or perhaps minutes—time was so hard to track in dreams—it would rush into her mouth, her nostrils. It would seal her eyes shut. Soon, her entire body would be trapped on the side of the mountain, glued to the spot like a fly in amber.
All she had to do was survive. Dying in dreams wasn’t the worst part. Waking from them with more questions than answers was.This was her fault. The eruption. The fire bursting from the earth. The darkness eating the sky. The screams of people caught in the middle of a cosmic dance that had begun eons before they’d been born. Soon, Echo would wake up and start a new day. But soon never felt soon enough when she was trapped in this dream.
Who are you? The question was clear, even over the anguished wails of the people below.
I am their end, Echo thought. I am their destruction. I couldn’t shield them from something I caused. I opened a door I shouldn’t have opened and now I don’t know what to do about it. I am alone in this.
Then the voices asked, as they did whenever she dared consider her solitude: Are you?
Echo had opened a door to let the firebird in. But she couldn’t help wondering what she’d let out.
Friday night in London’s Camden Market was a sight to behold. Stalls were tightly packed into the space, each vying to be louder and more eye-catching than the next. Rugs of dubious Persian origin swayed gently in the wind, and the brash yellow of streetlights sparkled over an array of glass pipes on a nearby table. The July air wasn’t exactly what Echo would call balmy, but it amplified the scents lingering about the market. Her stomach grumbled as she caught a whiff of what smelled a lot like kebab. Maybe she’d grab some on the way back. Maybe she’d even pay for it. Last night’s dream weighed on her, but the weight had grown so constant she could ignore it if she tried hard enough. Compartmentalization, she mused. It was a hell of a skill. And if any city in the world could help her forget her troubles, it was this one.
She elbowed her way past London’s bright young eccentrics, searching for the stall Jasper had sent her to find. She didn’t need to look behind her to know that Caius was right on her heels, shadowing her with unwavering focus. When she’d told him that she was making a supply run, he hadn’t even given her the chance to ask to go alone. He hadn’t wanted her to go at all, insisting that it was safer in the East London hideout they were holed up in—an abandoned warehouse registered under one of Jasper’s many aliases—but Echo needed to breathe something besides the stale air she’d been sharing with him, Dorian, Jasper, and Ivy since abandoning Jasper’s Strasbourg home and going on the run three months ago.
With Jasper’s injuries, they couldn’t go very far. Ivy had done her best to heal the wound he’d received taking a blow meant for Dorian, but even she needed supplies. The second Ivy had mentioned she was running low on the herbs for the poultice she’d been using on Jasper, Echo had jumped at the chance to restock. If she spent one more minute in that warehouse, she’d lose her mind. She needed distance. From the others, from her bed, from the water-stained ceiling she stared at every night when she finally woke from her tortured slumber. Luckily, Jasper knew of a warlock who’d set up shop in London selling goods to anyone with enough of an eye for magic to find his stall.
She scanned the area, letting her gaze roam over the organized chaos of Camden Market. Magic didn’t like to be looked at head-on. It preferred to twinkle in one’s peripheral vision, teasing with a hint of its presence. Since that moment in the Black Forest, when she’d welcomed the power of the firebird into her body, becoming its vessel, Echo found that she was more attuned to the subtle hint of magic in the air. From the corner of her eye, she caught a shimmer around a stall, not fifteen feet from where she stood. Before, she would have noticed only the faintest haze in the air around the stall, but now the warlock’s magic gleamed in the artificial twilight of the market. When she turned to look straight at it, the shimmer disappeared. Found you.
She cast a look over her shoulder, meeting Caius’s green eyes across the crowd. He kept close to her, but not so close that it would look like they were together. His idea. The baseball cap perched on his freshly shorn brown hair and the thickly applied foundation that hid the delicate scales on his cheekbones had been Echo’s idea. He’d squirmed in the chair as she piled on the makeup, unaccustomed to the sensationof goop on his face, but if she had to wear a disguise, so did he.
Echo reached up to adjust the blond wig she’d pulled on before leaving the warehouse, and nodded, just enough for Caius to see it. The oversized sunglasses and newsboy cap she’d swiped from a dozing East London hipster on the tube added an extra layer of anonymity, but Caius remained on guard. They were still being hunted, by the Avicen, the people Echo had come to think of as family. By the Drakharin, led by Caius’s own sister. By pretty much anyone with even a passing interest in the firebird. Never before had Echo felt quite so popular.
The corner of Caius’s lip turned up ever so slightly, and Echo let herself smile back in response. It hadn’t occurred to her to object when he’d insisted on accompanying her to the warlock’s shop. Caius had proved himself an exceptional companion. Sometimes, they would go up to the roof of the warehouse and he would point out constellations to her, regaling her with the Drakharin stories behind the stars. She knew the human tales and the Avicen ones, but these were new to her, and precious. Caius never wanted to stay out for long—again, safety first—but those moments were special. When she was leaning against the roof’s cold concrete with Caius just inchesfrom her, she didn’t feel like a person of interest, or a chess piece in the war between the Avicen and the Drakharin. She didn’t feel like the firebird, the one tool that both sides desperately wanted to control in the hopes of ending their centuries-old conflict. She was just a girl, lying next to a boy, gazing up at the stars.
“Looking for something?”
The voice pulled Echo back, reminding her of where she was and why she was here. She broke eye contact with Caius, who was now leaning against a streetlamp two stalls down, examining his fingernails, the epitome of nonchalance, and turned to face the man who’d spoken.
If oatmeal were to take a human form, it would manifest itself as this guy. Light brown cardigan. Stained white T-shirt. Beat-up cargo pants. Converse All-Stars that had once been white but had darkened to a sad gray. Sandy hair that was neither brown nor blond. Everything about him screamed beige. The only thing that seemed off was the pair of retro Ray-Bans hiding his eyes. But since Echo was also wearing sunglasses at night, she was fresh out of stones to throw. Rolling a cigarette as he looked up at her, the man sat by his stall in a metal folding chair, legs crossed at the ankles and raised to rest on the table beside him.
“Can I help you?” His Cockney accent was thick. He brought the cigarette up to his lips and licked an exaggerated line along the top edge of the paper to seal it. The cheap silver jewelry on his table was laid out haphazardly, as if he wasn’t interested in selling it.That suited Echo as she wasn’t interested in buying it.
She fished a small slip of paper out of her pocket. Jasper had scribbled a symbol on it—an equal-armed cross, with a diamond at the center and small triangles capping each arm—and told her to present it to the man. It was the international symbol for “Here there be warlocks.” Under the sigil, Ivy had added a list of ingredients.
“Yeah,” she said, “I’m in the market for some hard-to-find goods.”
The man leaned forward, dropping his feet to the ground as if movement was a chore. He took the paper from Echo, bringing it up close to his nose to examine it. Seconds ticked by. Echo fought the urge to bounce on the balls of her feet or anxiously drum her fingers against her thigh or reach up to scratch at the wig’s netting, which had been irritating her all night. Traveling incognito had been fun for the first five minutes, but the novelty had worn off, just as her patience was now wearing thin with Wonder Bread the Warlock.
The warlock peered at Echo over his sunglasses, giving her the chance to see the one thing that marked him as no longer human. His eyes were entirely white, as though the pupils had been swallowed whole. The sight of them was enough to make Echo’s fingers itch for a weapon. Warlocks were bad news. She longed to reach for the dagger tucked into her boot. A nearby radio crackled with static as the announcer read off the hour’s headlines. A plane crash a few kilometers outside Sydney. The upcoming presidential election in the United States. The cloud of volcanic ash clogging the sky over New Zealand after an unexpected earthquake had caused an inactive volcano to erupt three months ago; apparently, it was still rumbling, still smoking. Bits of Echo’s dream flitted through her mind, but she pushed them down, as deep as they would go.
“These are some pretty serious healing supplies,” the warlock said. He handed the paper back, rising to his feet. “You in trouble?”
“My kind of girl.” The warlock stepped around the table, into his stall, and began rummaging through the boxes beneath the table. He took his sweet time. He glanced up at Echo, a little too keenly, and asked, “Come here often?”
She willed herself not to look back at Caius. The last thing she needed was to engage in a rousing bout of chitchat with the warlock. The more he kept talking, the more likely it was that he would ask questions Echo couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. She was beginning to think that maybe she should have listened to Caius and stayed at the warehouse, hidden behind the layers of wards that protected them.
With a shrug, the warlock said,“Most people who come to me are looking for something a little less . . . benevolent.” He popped to his feet, holding several ziplock bags full of herbs. He offered them to Echo, but when she reached out to take them, he yanked them back.“Payment up front, love. That’ll be five hundred.”
Highway freakin’ robbery, Echo thought, even as she swung her backpack from her shoulder to retrieve the wad of cash she’d taken from Jasper’s stash. Though the warehouse wasn’t the most welcoming place—the ceiling leaked, the pipes were rusty, and the heating was more hypothetical than real—it was remarkably well stocked with a variety of currencies. She slapped the money down on the table. “There. Gimme the stuff, and I’ll be out of your hair.”
“Ooh, feisty.” The warlock slid the ziplock bags across the table to her, but kept his hands on them. “I think I’d like to get to know you a bit better.”
Echo took the bags, ignoring the way his pinkie finger briefly stroked the side of her hand.“The feeling isnot mutual.” She dropped the bags into her backpack, then zipped it back up and slung it over her shoulders. “I’d say it was a pleasure doing business with you, but that would be a lie.”
She turned, heading for the market’s entrance, the warlock’s bark of laughter ringing in her ears. Her skin felt slimy where he’d touched her. She rubbed her palm on her jeans as if that could erase the sensation.
A hand slid into hers, and she jumped, instinctively trying to pull away.
“Relax,” Caius whispered, breath warm against the shell of her ear.“It’s just me.”