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Foreground: The Atlas Paradox by Olivie Blake / Background: Sand with pocketwatch and chain partially buried

Excerpt: The Atlas Paradox by Olivie Blake

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The Atlas Paradox by Olivie Blake

The Atlas Paradox is the long-awaited sequel to Olivie Blake’s New York Times bestselling dark academic sensation The Atlas Six—guaranteed to have even more yearning, backstabbing, betrayal, and chaos.

Six magicians were presented with the opportunity of a lifetime.
Five are now members of the Society.
Two paths lay before them.

All must pick a side.

Alliances will be tested, hearts will be broken, and The Society of Alexandrians will be revealed for what it is: a secret society with raw, world-changing power, headed by a man whose plans to change life as we know it are already under way.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Atlas Paradox by Olivie Blake, on sale 10/25/22. 

 


BEGINNING

Gideon Drake shaded his eyes from the red-burning sun and swept a glance across the scorched and blackened hills. Heat rippled in the air between particulate clouds of ash. Little moth wings of de-

bris floated delicately across his limited vision. The smoke was thick, chalky enough to stick in his throat, and if any of it was real it would constitute a medical emergency on the spot.

But it wasn’t, so it didn’t.

Gideon glanced down at the black Lab beside him, frowning at him in contemplation, and then turned back to the unfamiliar scene, pulling his shirt above his mouth to manifest a thin veil of semi-breathable air.

“That’s very interesting,” Gideon murmured to himself.

In the dream realms these burnings happened from time to time. Gideon called them “erosions,” though if he ever met another of his kind, he wouldn’t be surprised to learn there was already a proper name. It was common enough, though almost never this . . . flammable.

If Gideon had a philosophy, it was this: No sense despairing.

There was no telling what was real and what was not for Gideon Drake. His perception of dreamt wasteland might be a completely different scene to the dreamer. The burnings were a fine reminder of something Gideon had learned long ago: there is doom to be found everywhere if doom is what you seek.

“Well, come on then, Max,” Gideon said to the dog, who was coincidentally also his roommate. Max sniffed the air and whined in opposition as they headed west, but they both understood that dreams were Gideon’s domain, and therefore their path was ultimately Gideon’s decision.

Magically speaking, the dream realms were part of a collective subconscious. While every human had access to a corner of the realms, very few were able to traverse the realms of dreams as Gideon was.

To see where a person’s own consciousness ended and others’ began required a particular set of skills, and Gideon—who knew the shifting patterns of the realms the same way sailors know the tides—had even keener senses now that he rarely left their midst.

To the outside world, Gideon presented as a fairly normal person with narcolepsy. Understanding his magic, though, was not straightforward at all. As far as Gideon could gather, the line between conscious and subconscious was very thin for him. He could identify time and location within the dream realms, but his ability to walk through dreams occasionally prevented him from making it all the way through breakfast upright. Sometimes it seemed he belonged more to the realm of dreams than to the world of the living. Still, Gideon’s apparent somnambular flaw meant that he could make use of the limits others faced. A normal person could fly in a dream, for example, but they would know they were dreaming, and therefore be aware that they couldn’t actually fly in real life. Gideon Drake, on the other hand, could fly, period. Whether he happened to be awake or dreaming was the part he couldn’t always figure out.

Gideon wasn’t technically any more powerful than anyone else would be inside of a dream. His corporeal limitations were similar to those of telepathy—no magic performed in the dream realms could possibly harm him permanently, unless his physical form suffered something like a stroke or seizure. Gideon felt pain the same way another person might feel it in a dream—imagined, and then gone when they woke up. Unless he was under unusual amounts of stress that could then cause one of the above bodily reactions, that is . . . but that he never worried over. Only Nico worried about that sort of thing.

At the thought of Nico, Gideon suffered the usual twinge of something exposed, like having misplaced one shoe and carried on trudging without it. For the last year, he had trained himself (with varying degrees of success, depending on the day) to stop cataloguing the absence of his and Max’s usual companion. It had been difficult at first; the thought of Nico usually came back to him reflexively, like muscle memory, without preemption or forethought, and therefore with the unforeseen consequence of disrupting his intended route. Sometimes, when Gideon’s thoughts went to Nico, so did Gideon himself.

In the end, the pitfall and the providence of knowing Nico de Varona was that he could not be readily forgotten, nor easily parted from. Missing him was like missing a severed limb. Never quite complete and never whole, though on occasion the vestigial aches proved helpfully informative.

Gideon allowed himself to feel the things he tried (under other circumstances) not to, and like a sigh of relief, he felt the realms shift courteously beneath his feet. The nightmare gradually subsided, giving way to the atmosphere of Gideon’s own dreams, and so Gideon followed the path that came to him most easily: his own.

The smoke from the dream faded as Gideon’s mind wandered, and as such he and Max found themselves moving through conscious perception of time and space. In place of scorched earth, there was now the faint suggestion of microwavable popcorn and industrial-strength laundry detergent— unmistakable top notes of the NYUMA dorms.

And with it, the familiar face of a teenager Gideon once knew.

“I’m Nico,” said the wild-eyed, messy-haired boy whose T-shirt was inadvertently folded up on one side from the presence of his duffel bag. “You’re Gideon? You look exhausted,” he decided as an afterthought, tossing the bag below the second bed and glancing around the room, adding, “You know, we’d have a lot more room if we bunked these.”

Was this a memory, or a dream? It was hard for Gideon Drake to tell.

It was difficult to explain what exactly Nico had done to the air in the room, which Nico himself didn’t appear to have noticed. With mild claustrophobia, Gideon managed, “I’m not sure we’re allowed to move the furniture. I guess we could ask?”

“We could, but asking so diminishes our chances at a favorable outcome.” Nico paused, glancing at him. “What is that accent, by the way? French?”

“Sort of. Acadian.” “Quebecois?” “Close enough.”

Nico’s grin broadened. “Well, excellent,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to expand linguistically. I think too much in English now, I need something else. Never trust a dichotomy, I always say. Though on a relevant note, do you want top or bottom?” he asked, and Gideon blinked.

“You choose,” he managed, and Nico waved a hand, rearranging furniture so effortlessly that in the span of a breath, Gideon had already forgotten what the room looked like to begin with.

In real life, Gideon had learned very quickly that if there wasn’t space, Nico made some. If things sat still for too long, then Nico would inevitably disrupt them. The school administrators at NYUMA had felt the only necessary accommodation for Gideon’s presence was to label him “in need of disability services” and leave it at that, but given everything Gideon had observed about his new roommate within moments of meeting him, he was uneasily certain that it was only a matter of time before Nico found out the truth of him.

“Where do you go?” Nico had asked, proving Gideon right. “When you sleep, I mean.”

It was two weeks into the school year and Nico had climbed down from the top bunk, manifesting at Gideon’s side and startling him awake. Gideon hadn’t even known he was sleeping.

“I have narcolepsy,” he managed to say. “Bullshit,” Nico replied.

Gideon had stared at him and thought, I can’t tell you. Not that he thought Nico was going to turn out to be some sort of creature hunter or someone planted in his room by his mother (although both were a distinct possibility), but there was always a moment when people started to look at him differently. Gideon hated that moment. The moment when others started to find something—many somethings—to reinforce their suspicions that Gideon was repulsive in some way. Instinctual knowledge; prey responding to a threat. Fight or flight.

I can’t tell anyone, Gideon had thought, but especially not you.

“There’s something weird about you,” Nico continued matter-of-factly. “Not bad-weird, just weird.” He folded his arms over his chest, considering it. “What’s your story?”

“I told you. Narcolepsy.”

Nico rolled his eyes. “Menteur.

Liar. So he really was planning to learn French, then.

“What’s ‘shut up’ in Spanish?” a former version of Gideon had asked in real life, and Nico had given him a smile that Gideon would later learn was exceptionally dangerous.

“Get out of bed, Sandman,” Nico had said, tossing aside the covers. “We’re going out.”

Back in the present, Max nudged Gideon’s knee with his nose, just hard enough that Gideon had to stumble for balance. “Thanks,” he said, shaking himself free of the memory. The dorm room faded back into the erosion’s distantly blazing hillside as Max supplied him with an unblinking look of expectation.

“Nico’s this way,” Gideon said, pointing through the thick brush of smoldering evergreens.

Max gave him a doubtful look.

Gideon sighed. “Fine,” he said, and conjured a ball, tossing it into the woods. “Fetch.”

The ball illuminated as it picked up speed, dousing the forest in a low, reassuring glow. Max gave Gideon another look of annoyance but darted ahead, following the path that Gideon’s magic had created.

Everyone had magic in dreams. The limitations were not the laws of physics, but rather the control of the dreamer. Gideon, a creature who constantly wavered between consciousness and unconsciousness, lacked muscle memory when it came to the limitations of reality. (If you do not know precisely where impossibility begins and ends, then of course it cannot constrain you.)

Whether Gideon simply had magic or was himself magic was perpetually a subject up for debate. Nico was adamant about the former, Gideon himself not so sure. He could scarcely perform even mediocre witchery when called upon in class, which was why he had stuck primarily to theoretical studies of how and why magic existed. Because Nico was a physicist, he saw the world in terms of pseudo-anatomical construction, but Gideon liked to think of the world as something of a data cloud. That was all the dream realms were, in the end. Shared space for humanity’s experience.

The real Nico was closer now, and the edge of the burning forest quickly dwindled to a thin stretch of vacant beach. Gideon bent down to brush his fingers over the sand, then plunged an arm through it, testing. Things were not burning here, but his arm did disappear instantly, swallowed up to the cuff of his shoulder. Max gave a low, cautioning growl.

Gideon retracted his hand, reaching over to give Max a little chin scratch of reassurance.

“Why don’t you stay here,” Gideon suggested. “I’ll come get you in an hour or so.”

Max whined softly.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be careful. You’re really starting to sound like Nico, you know.”

Max barked.

“All right, fine, I take it back.”

Gideon knelt on the beach with a roll of his eyes and submerged his hand again, this time leaning into the sand until it overtook his body and he slid fully into the other side. Instantly there was a shift in pressure, high to low, and Gideon found himself tumbling headlong into more sand, dropping from the sky onto the rolling hills of an arid desert.

He hit the sand face-first and spat a bit out of the side of his mouth. Gideon was not what one might call a lover of nature, having been exposed to a few too many of its less pleasant gifts. Were there worse things than sand? Yes, definitely, but still. Gideon didn’t think it was entirely out of line to find its effects offensive. He could feel it everywhere already, in the lining of his ears and in his teeth, taking residence in the rivulets of his scalp. Not ideal—but, as ever, no point despairing.

Gideon dragged himself upright, struggling to maintain his balance in the endless ribbon of sand that rose to the top of his calves. He peered around at the dunes, bracing for something. What it would be, he had no idea. It was different every time.

A buzz in his right ear had him pivoting sharply (or trying to) with a yelp, swatting blindly at the air. Anything but mosquitoes—Gideon did not care for bugs. Another buzz and he flicked it away, this time suffering a needle prick to his forearm. A welt had already started to show, a plump tear of blood pearling up from the puncture. Gideon brought his arm up to inspect the wound more closely, brushing away an exoskeleton of metal, the minute trace of gunpowder.

So. Not bugs, then.

Knowing what type of obstacle came next was usually a mixed relief, because it meant that Gideon now had both the ability and the necessity to plan his defense. Sometimes entering this particular subconscious was a tactical matter. Sometimes there was combat, sometimes there were labyrinths. Occasionally escape rooms and chases and fights—those were preferable, owing to Gideon’s general proficiency (up to this point) at eluding death and all its horsemen. Other times it was merely about the sweat of it, the strain, which was a matter of simple but terrible endurance. Gideon couldn’t die in dreams—no one could—but he could suffer. He could feel fear, or pain. Sometimes the test was just about clenching your jaw and outlasting.

This dream, unfortunately, was going to be one of those.

Whatever tiny weapons were being fired at Gideon now were too small to dodge and too quick to fight—probably nothing that could exist on Earth or be operated by humans. Gideon took the blows like the unavoidable bites that they were and dove into the whip of the wind, closing his eyes to guard against the sting of sand. It mixed with his open wounds, blood streaking across his arms. He could see the blurs of red between slitted eyes, bright and relatively benign but still ugly. Like tear tracks on the statues of martyrs and saints.

Whichever telepath had set up these wards was without question a sadist of the highest, most troubling order.

Something pierced Gideon’s neck, embedding in his throat, and Gideon’s airway was instantly compromised. Choking, he rushed to apply pressure to the wound, willing himself to regenerate faster. Dreams were not real, the damage was not real—the only thing real was the struggle, and that much he would give without question. That much he would always give, always, because in the deepest caverns of his heart, he knew it was justified. That it was not only righteous, but owed.

The winds picked up, sand crusting his eyes and lips and adhering to the sweat in the folds of his neck, and Gideon, summoning the volumes of his pain, let out a scream—the primal kind. The kind that meant the screamer was giving in, letting go. He screamed and screamed and tried from somewhere inside his agony to offer the proper capitulation, the secret password of sorts. The right message. Something like I will die before I give up, but everything inside your wards is safe from me.

I am just a man in pain. I am just a mortal with a message.

It must have worked, because the moment Gideon’s lungs emptied, blistering with pleading and strain, the ground gave way beneath him. He fell with a slurping sound of suction before being delivered, mercifully, to the sudden vacancy of an empty room.

“Oh good, you’re here,” said Nico with palpable relief, rising to his feet and approaching the bars of the telepathic wards that separated them. “I think I was having a dream about the beach or something.”

Gideon instinctively glanced at his arms for evidence of blood or sand, indulging a testing inhale to check his lungs. Everything appeared to be in order, which meant that he had made it inside the Alexandrian Society’s wards for the hundred and eighteenth time.

Each time was a little more nightmarish than the last. Each time, though, it was worth it.

Nico smiled as he leaned against the bars with his usual smuggery. “You look well,” he remarked in playful approval. “Very rested, as always.”

Gideon rolled his eyes.

“I’m here,” he confirmed, and then, because it was what Gideon had come to say, he added, “And I think I might be close to finding Libby.”

Copyright © 2022 from Olivie Blake

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