This couldn’t be happening. There was no way this was happening, no possible way. A plain clock hung up on the ugly grey wall ticked slowly, the only noise in the otherwise deadly silent holding room.
I wrapped my arms around myself. It offered little comfort, but I didn’t let go all the same. The tick-tick-tick drilled into my head, growing more and more unbearable by the second. Occasionally I would see a figure dart by the door, which held the only window, and my heart would skip a beat. How long had it been? Twenty minutes? Forty? An hour?
At least the ride had been fun. Sort of. Well, fun in the way I could always tell my grandkids one day that I had ridden in a police car. They didn't use the sirens, disappointedly, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
It was just that the whole situation didn’t make any sense. When I had left the shop, I hadn’t put anything in my bag to set off the alarms. I mean, I had stolen pieces on my person, but when my bag got searched, it was stuffed impossibly full of precious merchandise. Stuff I had not even touched, proudly showing off their security tags to the security guard. That had pretty much sealed my fate.
After a lifetime of sticky fingers, I had finally come to face the consequences. And I wasn’t particularly liking it.
The door opened, jotting me out of my thoughts. Two ashy haired and equally ashy faced police officers entered, and sat opposite me.
No one made any effort to move.
“Look, there’s been a mistake,” I tried, morphing my face to look as sympathetic as possible. It didn’t take much. “I swear, if you check the security footage, there is nothing showing me stuffing any of that stuff into my bag.”
They kept staring forward, not even blinking.
“Please,” I said, leaning across the table. “Check the footage, it should prove what I’m telling you.”
“They can’t hear you, Miss Atropos.”
Someone else was in the room. I spun around in my chair, and there, skulking in the corner of the room under the harsh, white light, a third police officer stood.
“How did you get in here?” I asked, leaning back to see if there was any fake wall or trapdoor or anything. There wasn’t.
The third man snorted and took a long drag of a glowing cigar despite being stood under a ‘no smoking’ sign.
“That is what irks you? My existence, and not my words?”
Good point, actually. But no need to go all Shakespear on me.
“I was getting to that,” I lied. “But I find your sudden appearance to be a tad more threatening than anything you might be telling me. At this current moment, in the very least. Is there a spring door behind you by any chance?”
“You’re still not listening,” he said.
Using his foul-smelling cigar, he pointed to where the two police officers sat in front of me. I followed his movement. Both of them were burning holes through me with their intense stare, but oddly enough, neither of them were reacting to anything. I didn’t even see a hint of them blinking. It was as if they were completely frozen. My mouth started to run dry.
“You’re not with them, are you?”
I could hear him blowing out a stream of smoke. “Finally, I thought you’d never get it, Miss Atropos.”
That made me falter as well.
“How do you know my name?” I asked, a gradual build up of nerves starting to churn in my stomach. “No-one ever calls me that.”
“Aye, but it is your name,” he continued, paying not attention to my growing discomfort. “And to allow one’s name to become unused, it becomes forgotten, that’s as good as letting your very soul rot away into nothing.”
Maybe he was enjoying himself, I didn’t know, but I was really starting to get fed up with all the hocus-pocus nature of his talking. A strange man materialises in the same room as you, apparently freezes the men who arrested you for shoplifting, and decided to deliver a soliloquy?
“Who are you?”
He threw his hands up in the air. “Thank goodness! There is a hint of a brain in there, lurking somewhere.”
I scowled at him. “You don’t have to be so cryptic. I think it’s a fair conclusion, and quite frankly, I’m not in the mood to be joked around with.”
“No,” he agreed, inhaling another breath of putrid smoke. “No, you’re about to be charged with theft. Hardly the time to be having a jest.”
He tutted at me, finally stepping out of the corner. The closer he got, the more I noticed how unsettling his eyes were. Void of any pupils, they flickered like small hurricanes, a weathered and stormy grey to match his hair. I backed out of my chair. He seemed to find that quite funny.
“You didn’t answer me,” I said. “Who. Are. You.”
Smoke billowed out his nose, and his eyes flashed with lightning.
“I am Atlas,” he said finally. “And I have a proposition for you.”
He snapped his fingers, and the world melted away. And suddenly, I was falling.
I opened my eyes. Harsh white light glared back at me, and I shut them again quick.
“What the hell is this place,” I muttered. “It’s too goddamn bright.”
“Hmm.” Holding up a hand as a shoddy shield, I squinted up at the apparent eldritch being who had effectively kidnapped me. Or helped me in a jail break. Either way, nothing good.
“Not the usual reaction to being in the space between worlds, but then again, why would that impress you,” he said flatly. He was staring into the distance, which I’m sure was fascinating, and started walking away.
Sighing, I got to my feet. My entire body ached as if I’d been thrown onto the ground. Well, I most likely had, considering all the falling.
“A hand would’ve been nice,” I called after him, trailing after for lack of anything else to do.
Atlas glanced back at me, unbothered. “And yet, here you are, on your feet. Without assistance, I might add.”
He laughed at my expression, which I gathered meant I was giving him a truly sour look. “Best foot forward now, Miss Atropos, the real work is yet to begin.”
With everything he said, it felt like I was going in circles.
We continued to walk through the white abyss, though it hardly seemed like we were going anywhere. If you kept looking forward to where the horizon should be, the ground was indistinguishable from the sky. Every so often a streak of coloured light whizzed over our heads, the slightest echo of life calling out to those who could hear it.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He peered down at me. “I believe we’ve already been introduced.”
“Yes, you told me your name, but-”
He held up a hand, cutting me off. “No no, I didn’t tell you my name, I told you my identity. Atlas is who I am.”
Did he have to make everything way more confusing than it had to be? I frowned at him. “So, Atlas isn’t your name? What do I call you then?”
Atlas gave me a look as if I was incredibly stupid. I felt that was pretty harsh, considering he had managed to effectively teleport us to nowhere, and I was yet to kick off about it.
“I am unsure as to why you are so passionate about what people call me,” he said. “I know who I am, maybe you should be more concerned about who you are.”
It was like he was trying to make me lose my mind. “I know who I am.”
He didn’t answer, though he seemed to find that statement funny.
I ploughed on. “Besides, I meant, ‘who are you’, more as ‘what are you’. And I think you knew that.”
One of his eyebrows quirked, amused. “Did I now? We’ve known each other for so little time, I’m thrilled you know my most intimate thoughts, Miss Atropos.”
“Amy. My initials spell out A-M-Y, so people call me Amy.”
He stopped walking. “Well, I am not people, Miss Atropos. I suppose that is what you have been hinting at, yes?”
“Well,” I said. “If you mean ‘asked directly several times’, and not ‘hinted at’.”
“I am Atlas,” he continued over me. “And therefore, I am the bearer of worlds.”
Excellent stuff. It was so wonderful I just so happened to get arrested and shoved into the same room that he magically appeared in.
“So glad to hear it,” I answered. “Any chance you are going to tell me why you sprung me from jail, or is that another thing I’m going to have to figure out by myself.”
Overhead, a streak of green flew by, accompanied by a strange mix of firework bangs and record scratches. Atlas followed it’s path with his eyes. It must have been a good sign or something, as he came away from it looking pleased.
“Have you already forgotten my request, Miss Atropos?”
“Amy,” I corrected. “And, I don’t know if you noticed, but I was a little busy being thrown through the air.”
We had apparently arrived at our destination, though I couldn’t tell what was different about this spot than anywhere else we had just walked past. Atlas waved a hand, and a table with matching chairs grew up out of the ground. Maybe I was supposed to find this a spectacular feat or a frightening prospect, but honestly at this point I was just mentally exhausted. Magic growing furniture was not the weirdest thing that I had seen that day, and it might as well happen. He gestured for me to take a seat. I obeyed. The chairs had a funny feel to them, as if I was sitting atop of a sturdy foam. I didn’t like it.
“I have a job for you, Miss Atropos.” Atlas sat across from me, pulling out another one of his foul cigars, and this time round I saw that it wasn’t a lighter he had used to light it, but rather a naked flame dancing on his finger tip. That was by far the best of his magic tricks. Thick plumes of smoke curled around his nose as he blew out an impressive cloud. I tried not to breathe it in, though I could feel a little tendril tickle the inside throat and coughed violently.
This did not phase the man.
“What-What kind of job?” I asked, trying to calm my breathing. “And why me?”
He smoothed a hand over the weird foamy table, and a picture of a woman appeared. Her long dark hair was twisted into dreadlocks, small trinkets tied in at random, and her dark eyes looked up at me, mischievous and glinting with secrets. For a brief moment, I thought I recognised her.
“My daughter, Calypso, has been bound to a human form,” Atlas explained. “I want you to free her, and kill the man who was behind her binding.”
I tore my eyes away from the woman. “So when you say Atlas, you mean...that Atlas. Proper mythology Atlas, from the Ancient Greeks.”
He sighed, clearly unimpressed. “I did tell you I was the bearer of worlds. What did you think I was, if not ‘that Atlas’, as you so kindly put?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Street magician?”
He didn’t laugh. Rude. “Mythology exists because of belief, Miss Atropos. Such strong, unwavering belief. That fact that we are still around in your time is no accident. Our names live on because of that wickedly strong belief. Your namesake, for example. Atropos, the cutter of fate, you think she would just cease to exist because of the passage of time?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I read Percy Jackson, so I guess not.” I rocked back on my chair, fidgeting. “But what do you need me for? You’re a god, right?
“Titan,” he corrected, but I ignored that.
“Why don’t you just do your little zap-zap-zap that you did to me? Transport her here, change her form, and Bob’s your uncle, she’s back home in time for tea.”
Atlas clearly didn’t care for my casual tone. He leant over the table, expression stony. I could see the little thunderstorms in his eyes crackle with energy and swirl ferociously.
“You recognise my mortal name, Miss Atropos. You must know of how us immortals are unable to go where mere mortals tread. Why there are numerous mortal heroes following divine orders and biddings. This is the work of men, and I am unable to engage in the work of men. She was tricked into giving divine knowledge to one she called her lover, and he betrayed her. That is the man who must die for his part in trapping a god.”’
As he talked, the stormier and wilder his eyes got, and I saw the titan before me in the clothing of a man.
“Okay,” I said, trying to bring the conversation back down. I knew gods (or titans) had a habit of smiting mortals when they lost their temper. I wasn’t in the mood to be smited just yet.
“So you need a mortal to do the dirty work for you, I get it. But again, why me? You really want a 23 year old makeup artist who had never been in a fight and just got arrested for shoplifting to go and free a goddess?” I cast a brief look down at myself. I was all smooth and rounded at the edges, like a friendly teddy-bear. If this titan thought I could undo a divine binding and commit murder, he had clearly misjudged.
Atlas moved back from leaning vaguely threateningly over his weird table, his eye storms flickering back to just rolling grey clouds. At least he wasn’t going to evaporate me or anything just yet.
“I’ve been watching you for some time now, Miss Atropos,” he said. Eww. Internally, I made a face, thinking about all the times I had been re-enacting my favourite musical theatre moments in the shower. Not too closely I hoped.
“And you have,” he continued, ignoring my expression. “A certain gift, perfectly suited for this nature of task.”
“A gift,” I repeated flatly. Ooh, how marvellous, I was gifted at being selected for a hero’s gauntlet. Lucky me.
He swiped a hand over the picture of the woman, and it changed. Now I was greeted by a picture of myself pickpocketing someone. I was a bit irked that there existed photographic proof of that.
“I have rarely seen such a high success rate of thieving tricks, Miss Atropos. You may sit here and call me a magician, yet you have a history of sleight-of-hand, of twisting a tale with the skill of a silvered tongue, of convincing others of truths that are not quite truthful. And that is the person I want to complete this task for me.”
“A crook,” I confirmed. “A manipulative crook, is what you mean.” A bit hurtful that my only apparent accolade in life was being a swindler, but at least it got recognised by an eldritch being. Hooray.
“No, someone who can twist the world around them into what they desire. Where I required you to go, you will need to convince everyone in your surroundings to assist you in your task, and many of them will not be easy to convince. And now I ask of you, Miss Atropos Margaret Yegg, will you accept?”
I chewed on my lip, and shifted my weight. To be perfectly honest, no I didn’t want to accept the stupid quest thing. I wanted to be curled in my bed, mindlessly scrolling on my phone, as many respectable young women did.
“If I don’t?” I asked. I knew I wasn’t going to like the answer.
Atlas spread his hands. “You will be returned to your holding room about to be arrested for petty thievery. If you do this for me, however, the items that magically appeared in your bag, can just as easily be magically gone.”
I stood up, outraged. “It was you! You planted all that shit on me!” I should have know that the one time I got caught it was all because of a stupid titan.
He grinned, coldly. “I may not be able to dabble that much in the way of mortals, but I’m not without power at all. I figured you may need some-”
“Blackmailing?” I interrupted annoyed, crossing my arms.
“Gentle persuasion, shall we call it,” he finished, a smugness on his features that I found most disagreeable.
I huffed, and sat back in my chair. “Do I get a hint? Like somewhere to start? Any enchanted talisman to assist me in my quest? Or am I to be flung into the unknown for the second time today?”
Atlas sat up a tad straighter, rubbing his chin in thought. “Hmm, let me see...enchanted, you say?”
Standing up, he looked up intently. I followed his eyeline, but I didn’t seem to catch onto his idea. A purple streak went by, a funny little tinny whistle chirping merrily from it, and Atlas stuck his hand into it. Every little twist of his wrist created a loud crash, and I just hoped the purple streak was going to be okay after having a hand shoved through it’s supposed belly.
After enough rummaging, he brought his hang out, tugging a brown lump out with it. I hoped that wasn’t the purple streak’s stomach, or worse, waste. After being thoroughly prodded at, the streak seemed to recover, and continued it’s little whistling journey. That made one of us.
“Here.” He threw the lump at me, which I barely managed to catch. “Enchanted item for the hero’s quest,” he said sarcastically.
It was a worn, leather bag. The kind of book bag that old people used as kids, and came back into fashion for some reason. Just more beat up and old.
“Uh, thank you?” I turned it over in my hands. Did it say what it did on the bottom like toys did? Or was that another wonderful guess for me to make.
“That bag will give you whatever you require,” Atlas said. “Within reason, of course. You’re not going to be able to pull out anything larger than it will allow, naturally.”
“Oh, right. That would be too weird.” At least it was something genuinely useful. I was half expecting him to give me a bag that was enchanted to look like a duck. I went to stick my hand in.
“But,” Atlas said, making me freeze and let my hand hover over it. “You can only use it once a day. So you must use it wisely.”
I snatched my hand away. “Right. Got it.” I threw it over my shoulder. “Anything else I should know? Does it explode if you try to use it more than once in one afternoon?”
Atlas rolled his eyes upwards, clearly regretting giving me any help at all. “No, but should anyone other than yourself find out about it’s nature, by your word or theirs, it will resort back to its original state.”
Huh, just that? I could do that. “No telling people I have a magic bag,” I agreed. “Easy-peasy.”
Atlas reached across the table, holding his hand out. “So, Miss Atropos. Do we have an agreement?”
I eyed his hand, fiddling with the bag strap. Didn’t god’s have a history of tricking people? Would it be a mistake to accept this, and it would be far, far safer to just take the consequences of magically assisted shoplifting? But there was a part of my brain still niggling. The woman, Calypso, had looked infuriatingly familiar. And once my brain latched onto something, I found it hard to squash the curiosity.
“I want a hint.” I held the bag close to my body, just in case he changed his mind about magical item assistance. “So I’m not going on a goose chase. Something that will put me back on track should I get further away from what you want me to do. But other than that, yes, I agree.”
Atlas narrowed his eyes. “Very well. Follow the sparrow. It’s path should lead to where you are needed.”
I faltered. “My hint is that I have to follow a bird? What a whole load of bollocks-”
Atlas snapped his fingers, and once again, I was falling.