Chapter Sixteen

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Julian watches as Eva tries to light a fire in the centre of the chilly cave they've found a few hundred metres from where they'd pulled themselves out of the water. The winding path of the river spills idly into the vast lake at the mouth of the cave, set far enough out of direct view for it to be a safe place to spend the night.

They'd left their jackets out to dry by the water's edge, thankfully much of the gore clinging to them has been washed off in the river, but Julian can't escape the lingering fear that it was Atlas' demonic blood that had been shielding them from the worst of the horrors in the woods. He's learnt enough about Elphame to understand that some of the creatures here make the Shade look hospitable.

The cat - Grey, he'd said his name was - lounges nearby, seemingly unfazed by their filthy attire and haggard expressions. He wonders absently what the cat will ask of Eva, the binding Favour so stark against her warm skin as she tries, fruitlessly, to strike two stones against each other in an attempt to light the kindling she's positioned underneath.

Never in his long, immortal life has he met someone so undaunted by so much of the truth; he's not sure if it's a virtue or a death sentence.

He'd agreed to take the first watch of the night, knowing that the faintly glowing eyes in the forest beyond the entrance to the cave are waiting for the moment they are all vulnerable enough to be attacked.

"Don't worry, I won't ask too much of your little girlfriend," Grey says, suddenly beside him at the mouth of the cave.

He snorts. "She's not my girlfriend so I honestly don't care what you ask of her."

The cat licks its paw, eyeing him with vague interest. "Well, then you probably won't care that she's dying, either."

Julian freezes. "What?" he asks, his voice weaker than he'd intended.

Grey flashes his canines, knowing he has Julian's attention now. "Can't you scent it? Something's poisoning her. I know you have preternatural senses."

His eyes fall back on the girl, now struggling with an armful of branches to fuel the flickering flame she's managed to coax into the kindling.

The cat is right, he can smell it now. Something wrong in her blood, something dying. He wonders why he hadn't noticed it before. Atlas' venom; he must have bitten her.

"How long does she have?" Julian asks, suddenly breathless.

Grey shrugs. "Untreated, a few days at the most. She'll probably live if we make it to a Leyway in time."

"Isn't there anywhere else we can go? Anywhere closer?" he asks.

The cat smiles cunningly. "I thought you said you didn't care about her."

Julian rolls his eyes, his face impassive. "Surely you don't want her dying on you before you can use the Favour," he says, knowing it's enough to convince him.

"I'll see," is all Grey replies, wandering back into the cave.

***

In her dream, the ashes of her burning home still settle; motes dancing in the air, fresh from her ruined life. Nothing remains, but the blackened ghost of her home still echoes with memory, though faint and near-indistinguishable amongst the rubble. Death lingers here, dark presence consuming the void that love once filled, seeping into every crack and crevice it can.

"Eva," someone calls; a voice she's not heard for over a decade but somehow still recalls.

"Do you feel it?" another voice asks, deeper and coarser than the first.

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