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I dozed while Darius drove, and next I was aware, the car stopped against a curb—tires rubbing the concrete—and Darius' shadow darkened my window, blocking out the streetlights. He opened the door and prodded my shoulder, and so I blinked unwilling eyes and stumbled out of the vehicle, using the Sin's reluctant arm for support.

I took in the familiar sight of old-growth trees swaying overhead and frowned. I hadn't anticipated this. "Why are we in Rio Verde? I thought we were going home."

Darius didn't answer. Typical.

Tidy two-story shops lined the narrow avenue, a mixture of domestic and commercial living spaces with none of the generalized shopping centers. Blearing techno music bled into the street from a larger building on the far corner, lights cascading over the covered windows, but the Sin ignored the place in favor of a darkened shop squeezed between it and a closed delicatessen.

The quiet brick storefront waited as innocuous as any of the others in the district, anointed in thick white friezes reminiscent of row houses across the pond and not shabby strip malls on the west coast. It was an older place, though much of Rio Verde was older, the district the first to be made in Verweald, before skyscrapers cluttered the skyline or the more modern residential tracts popped up along the water's edge. A sign in the dim, barred window blinked 'Closed' in flashing red neon, illuminating the sign faceted to the mottled facia, slender green letters reading "Baba Yaga's Inkwell," posted along with a fern leaf crossed over a stylized flame.

Darius took hold of my sweater, and I limped after him toward the shop, gripping my bleeding side and aching ribs. I could feel the bass from the distant music trembling in the soles of my feet while the Sin stepped up the store's recessed door, darkening the threshold, and suddenly bit into his hand. I jerked as red welled from the savage mark, not that he seemed to care as he reached up to smear the blood against the lintel.

I hadn't noticed the strip of paper plastered there until Darius touched it, at which point I couldn't ignore the slender talisman with foreign characters painted on its surface because it began to glow. A low, static hum filled the air like a circuit board overloading and fizzling, and when the Sin ripped the paper free, a palpable yellow mist warbled over the door's front. It dissipated in an instant, leaving me to wonder if it'd been there at all.

Darius grabbed the door's handle and twisted, the lock giving way with a short, tiny screech.

"What the hell are we doing here? Breaking and entering? Seriously?"

"Shut up, Sara."

He entered first, muttering for me to shut the door, which I did, sealing us inside the strange, humid shop with the pervasive smell of loam and fresh green things. The wall muted the music from next door, though not entirely, lending the hushed atmosphere an eerie, irregular pulse like a heartbeat I could feel more than hear. A veritable jungle of clutter sprawled through the interior, racks upon racks of pots and jewelry, crystals and dried herbs, thick sacks of differently hued salt, earth, moss, dried peat and withered roots, bottles filled to the brim with strange liquids, locked cases bearing innocuous things alongside black blades and framed, yellowing pages from books. It hit the eye in a hurricane of color and smell—not all of it pleasant.

My gaze eventually roved to the wall papered in posters bearing complex designs and price labels.

We're...we're in a tattoo parlor? Really?

A long wooden counter waited at the back, burdened beneath yet more merchandise, a single candle giving light to the otherwise blackened space. The woman there almost disappeared behind the antiquated register and potted ferns, small as she was, sitting on a short, rickety three-legged stool. Wild brown hair all but swallowed her head, color and freckles dusting her cheeks, a smudge of soil forgotten on the bridge of her upturned nose. She was not at all what I would expect from an operator of a tattoo parlor, more like an alternative grad student—what with her overlarge cardigan, glossed lips, and slouched posture.

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