Chapter Nine

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Eva hesitates, she knows that it's a bad idea to follow a guy she's only just met to who-knows-where, but there's a sort of earnest gleam in his eyes that makes her believe he just might be telling the truth.

She knows not to rely on instinct alone, but a fiery curiosity consumes her mind; Julian could show her something that proved that she isn't a liar. Something that will help her find the guy who'd attacked her.

"Alright, but if you try to pull anything, you'll regret it," Eva warns, her voice flooded with firmness.

Julian's mouth twists into a dryly humoured expression, but he nods in agreement, "I don't doubt I will."

He turns sharply and begins to saunter off down the road, not bothering to check whether Eva is following. She shoots a glance at the blonde woman, who hasn't moved from the bottom step of the station and is staring at her departing companion with an incredulous expression written across her face, and jogs to catch up with Julian.

"Is your friend not coming with us?" Eva asks as she matches her pace with his.

"I wouldn't call her a friend," Julian replies cooly. "And no. She doesn't think what I'm doing is a good idea, and I can hardly say I blame her."

Eva doesn't reply, a small flower of regret is beginning to open in her chest; what if, once she knew the truth, she wishes she hadn't gone looking for the answers in the first place? She tries to push down her doubts with a hardened resolve, pushing onwards against the strong autumnal wind.

"You never told me your name," Eva probes, trying to make conversation as they walk. "I'm Eva."

"Julian," he replies bluntly but offers no more information than what she already knows.

They walk in silence for about fifteen minutes, Julian's pace is quick and determined, and he doesn't pause or hesitate at any of the turnings. He's the sort of person who's always sure of themselves, she realises - a kind of certainty that is mostly ill-deserved.

By now, the burnt orange of the sunset has almost completely dissolved into cool moonlight and Eva shivers as a biting cold begins to catch on the edges of the wind.

"We're here," Julian says suddenly, stopping so sharply that Eva almost runs into the back of him.

They've reached a winding cobbled street, bordered with shops either side, each looking as if they'd been built at a different time. The whole ambling road seems out of place for this part of London; almost like they've turned a corner and stepped into another time. Tall, rusting iron streetlamps illuminate the pavement at irregular intervals, and it's in one particularly gloomy pool of darkness that she spots it.

A dirty, glass-fronted shop stands half-forgotten between its better-maintained siblings, all pride of commerce abandoned to disrepair and decay. She would have barely noticed the shriveled sliver of a building if it wasn't for the chipped, gilt-framed wooden sign swinging freely in the strong wind. Thick black lines stand bold against the worn wood, looking as if they've been burned into the grain; the inverted 's'. Below, in small lettering reads 'Atlas' Antiques', each letter almost illegible in the dim light.

"There you go," Julian says nonchalantly, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "Are you happy now I've lived up to my end of the bargain?"

"Is it open?" Eva asks, ignoring his question and inching further towards the shop's rotting facade.

"That's not a good idea-" he begins, catching up her in two lengthy strides, but not quickly enough to stop her from pushing against the splintering wooden door.

To her surprise, the door, although heavier than she'd expected, groans open to reveal a dim, musty room, illuminated by hazy shafts of light.

As she steps across the threshold, she hears Julian curse under his breath, but then, to her relief, the faint sound of his footsteps close behind.

The whole place smells old, the sort of stagnant smell that clings relentlessly to forgotten things, maybe in the hope that the odour will renew them in memory. Dust motes float idly in the air, like this is the first time they've been disturbed in a while. Other than their strange, unified dance, nothing else stirs.

To say the shop is cluttered would be an understatement. Tall, bowing wooden shelves extend to the ceiling, each at near breaking point under a burden of artifacts. Huge, gravity-defying piles clutter every corner, looking as if taking away one load-bearing book or ornament will send the whole thing tumbling down.

Eva's eyes quickly rush over every surface, scanning for any sign of life in all the disorder.

"There's no one here," she murmurs to Julian, a defeated expression crossing her face.

Julian forehead furrows and he begins to pace, nimbly weaving in and out of the clutter, each step sending muffled thuds through the room. He stops at a heaped table and plucks something small and shiny from the top of the pile, tossing it casually up into the air.

"What're you doing?" Eva asks, sceptically.

"Just having a look around," he replies, rolling the polished thing across his fingers.

"Maybe we should go," she says quietly, suddenly overcome with the sense that they shouldn't be there.

"You're not backing out now, are you?" Julian asks, his tone goading. "You were the one who wanted to come in here, remember?"

"I know, I just don't have a good feeling," she replies, casting a glance back to the door.

"What makes you think that?" a crackling voice asks, and Eva spins around in surprise, her heart suddenly picking up pace.

A man stands in amongst the overstuffed shelves, looking as if he'd materialised from the antiques themselves. His leathery skin is almost as worn and tired as the bound books which surround him, and his face as lined as every cracked ceramic on display. His hair is thin and greying and his clothes threadbare and just as bleached of colour.

He's old, but it's hard to tell exactly how old he is. His eyes seem both young and old at once, and glitter with a sort of warm kindness that's easy to see even in this darkened room.

"Hey Atlas," Julian says, quickly crossing the room towards the old man.

The man - Atlas - turns towards Julian and his mouth curls up into a smile of recognition.

"Julian. It's good to see you, you haven't changed a bit," he smiles.

Julian shrugs, "Neither have you."

Atlas laughs, his eyes crinkling with amusement, "You and I both know that's not true. Now, tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Eva?" Julian prompts, and Atlas swivels to face her.

"I was wondering what you could tell me about that symbol on the front of your shop," she asks, trying to conceal the desperate curiosity in her voice.

"And why does a nice girl like you want to know about that?" Atlas asks; his tone is casual but his smile no longer reaches his eyes.

She shifts uncomfortably under his heavy gaze, "I just saw it as I was passing by and was curious," she lies.

"Liar," Atlas spits, all kindness dissolving from his face.

Eva shoots a panicked expression towards Julian, whose face is strangely nervous and uncharacteristically void of cold indifference, "Atlas, what're you saying?" he asks cautiously.

"I'm saying that you caused quite a stir the other day when you fought off my... associate, Eva," Atlas replies, eyes still locked on her.

"I don't know what you're talking about," she says, stumbling over her words and taking a tentative step backwards.

"Yes you do," Atlas replies.

He smiles menacingly, and, this time, Eva's sure of what she sees. A forked tongue twitches between his teeth, and a bolt of fear courses through her veins.

She doesn't have enough time to move before he throws himself towards her, acid green scales climbing up his throat.

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