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King of Dead Things


About The Book

For fans of Legendborn, Neil Gaiman, and Leigh Bardugo, this urban young adult fantasy steeped in Afro-Carribbean folklore follows two Black teens searching for a powerful artifact in the hidden magical side of London.

Raising the dead is easy. Living is harder.

Eli doesn’t know who he is or who he came from. Three years ago, he was found by his now-best friends, Sunny and Max, who gave him a home in a magical sanctuary doubling as a Caribbean restaurant. What Eli does know is that he can heal a wound with just a touch and pluck magic from a soul like a petal from a flower—and there is nothing he wouldn’t do to survive and keep his new family together.

Malcolm would do anything to forget where he comes from. Desperate to escape his estranged father’s shadow and plagued with an inherited death magic he doesn’t fully understand, Malcolm has just one priority: save his mother, no matter the cost.

Malcolm and Eli’s paths collide when Eli and his friends are sent to track down the fang of the leopard god Osebo, a deadly weapon that can eat magic. In a job filled with enigmatic nine nights and Caribbean legends, the teens must face their own demons as they race through the magical underbelly of London to retrieve the fang…before an ancient and malevolent power comes back to life.


Chapter One: Eli CHAPTER ONE ELI
The soul slipped from the boy as easily as removing a sheet from a bed.

It felt a little like that, Eli thought as he took it in his hand; thin, weightless, like releasing a kite in the wind. He got a sense of the life as it passed through him. He had read before in one of Max’s old books that the magic in each soul had its own individuality; this one felt like motor grease on fingers and grass stains on knees, the smell of petrol, the hum of an engine. He was a mechanic, Eli realized belatedly. He had spent a lifetime working with his hands.

In theory, it was simple. The boy’s soul was battered and broken; Eli was just stitching the fragments back together one at a time, like patchwork. It was a complicated magic, healing; one wrong stitch and it wouldn’t stick. Plus, it took from him as much as he gave. Afterward, Eli would feel worn out, nauseous, and it usually took a few days for his own magic to return.

He didn’t have the luxury of going a few days without magic, not when he had bills to pay, so it had become habit for him to take a piece for himself in the form of payment—a single thread of magic, small enough not to be missed. Most people were oblivious to magic, even when it was right under their noses, and the ones who weren’t existed the same way as Eli, in hushed voices and behind closed doors. It was easy for Eli to go unnoticed. The only real risk of failure lay in human error, but Eli had practiced incessantly, ghosting the movements over and over with his fingers, like surgeons’ sutures into oranges.

There was an art to it. The first time he’d tried taking magic that wasn’t his, it had wrapped around his palms like razor wire, tight enough that he’d needed stitches. Since then, Eli had bled magic from a soul enough times that he knew the rhythm of it. He knew what kinds of magic to stay away from and what kinds he could upsell, which would get stuck beneath his fingernails and which would crumble and turn to ash if he held on too tightly. He had strict rules. He only took magic that had been corrupted or warped into something wicked. Magic that had soured and rotted from wrongdoing. Magic like this, that smelled like… death.

It didn’t take long before he was finished. The soul slotted back together with a click that reminded Eli of clockwork. When he stepped back, the boy let out a deep exhale. He wore a thin golden chain around his neck, a pendant of a snake wrapped around a dagger. Eli watched it rise and fall against his chest until he was sure that he was okay. The magic was weak with fatigue and confused, probably, at having been tampered with, but it had listened to him.

“You’re getting good at that,” said a voice behind him, and Eli turned to see that he had an audience.

Sunny leant against the doorframe, a cigarette between her lips despite the very clear, capitalized sign on the wall behind her indicating that it was prohibited to smoke. At some point during the short twenty minutes since Eli had last seen her, she had gotten into a fight, because she now sported a bloody nose, a swollen eye, and a crooked grin.

“Who’d you piss off this time?” Eli asked, entirely unsurprised.

Sunny smiled. There was blood on her chin. “Why do you assume it was me doing the pissing off?”

“I’ve spent more than fifteen seconds in your vicinity,” Eli answered, and Sunny gave an unladylike snort.

They were standing in the back alley of some Camden pub, one of those nameless ones that seemed as old as it did new. The asphalt gleamed in sleek pinks and purples from last night’s rain. Across the street, a tattooed guy was fruitlessly flogging his mixtape. A few drunk people hovered outside the kebab place, and if Eli craned his neck, he could just about make out the last of the tourists leaving the Lock with dusk. It should have been unnerving, probably, that it was only the cover of the night that kept them shrouded from onlookers, but Eli had always liked busy places. There was something in the comfort of not being alone.

“That’s not our guy,” Sunny said, peering down at the unconscious boy.

“Nope,” Eli said, and it most certainly wasn’t. Eli pushed his glasses further up his nose to get a better look. Their contact was supposed to be a gray-haired seer man. Instead, they’d found a boy around the same age as them. When they’d first found him, he’d been moments away from death. He might have been mistaken for sleeping if it hadn’t been for the small, bleeding puncture at the base of his stomach, slowly oozing magic. Now, his chest rose and fell in even breaths. He would be fine when he woke up. Something would be missing, maybe. A memory. A friend’s face. A favorite song. Eli tried to avoid thinking about it too hard. He had saved a life, after all.

“Shit,” Sunny said. “Pam’s gonna be vex.”

“When isn’t she?” Eli said, and Sunny snorted in agreement. “At least we’ve got something else for her.”

The sliver of magic Eli had taken from the boy was no bigger than a ten-pence coin, probably only slightly larger than his thumbnail, but weighed heavy in the palm of his hand. Most magic Eli had encountered was tinted with color, a reflection of the soul it had come from. Eli’s own magic, for instance, had the habit of staining his fingers moss-green. This magic, however, was completely clear and white. It cut through the darkness of the alleyway like moonlight, bright enough to leave spots behind Eli’s eyelids. Eli wondered what it might feel like to use that sort of magic but quickly cast the thought aside. Thinking like that only led to trouble.

The boy most likely wouldn’t notice the magic was gone, but for Eli magic meant survival: from just this fragment, he would be able to cover at least a month’s rent, maybe a couple of weeks of credit on his Oyster card, and at least a momentary reprieve from the sinking sand of financial instability that he was constantly up to his neck in.

“We should probably get out of here, then,” said Sunny, yawning. “There are some drunk guys inside who are going to be realizing any second now that they no longer have their wallets.”

Eli rolled his eyes, but it wasn’t like he could comment. He was just as much a thief as she was.

Eli had always thought of London as two halves. There was the tedium of everyday London that most people existed in, full of commuters, coffee shops, and tourist traps. Then there was the secret side of the city, full of winding, serpentine streets and back-alley bargains. This was a London you only knew if it ran in your blood.

Pam’s West Indian Takeaway was one of those places. Far enough off Camden High Street that it was easy to miss, it was nestled between a vegan sandwich shop–cum–tattoo parlor and a record store that, as far as Eli could tell, only sold obscure Serbian jazz on vinyl.

In truth, this was the side of London that he loved. Not the sleek gray industrialism of Zone One, full of overpaid suits and twentysomething upstart gentrifiers. For Eli, this was home. Corner shops next to kebab shops next to unisex barbers. Nail shops next to chicken shops next to funeral homes. It was the outer crust. He liked that everyone here knew what it was to be on the outside.

Pam’s, in particular, was a place of in-betweens. The magic of the restaurant, like a lot of places in London, lay in the fact that it existed just outside linear time. Eli didn’t understand the technicalities of it, honestly. Sunny had attempted to explain it once, but since she had the unfortunate habit of lying compulsively for the fun of it, Eli wasn’t sure how far he could believe her.

Still, he’d figured out the basics. Pam’s was a sanctuary. If you knew the right spells and which doors to use them on, you could even enter at any time of the day, stay for as long as you liked.

For Eli, it was home. The top two floors had been converted into flats, and Eli and Sunny each rented a room from Pam for half the market price, under the condition that they spend their free time downstairs washing dishes and folding pastries. It was, objectively, a bit of a fixer-upper—there was water damage in almost every room, the smell of food permeated the walls, and it was somehow both freezing in the winters yet suffocatingly hot in the summer—but Eli had grown fond of it. It was a place that was theirs.

Max, the final piece of their trio, was behind the counter flipping through a comic book when they entered.

“Hey,” she said at their arrival, “what kind of West Indian time do you call this? I was just about to close up.” She took in Sunny’s bruised and bloody face, then turned to Eli with a resigned yet wholly unsurprised sigh. “Do I even want to know?”

Max, like Pam, was a girl of in-betweens. She was close to Sunny and Eli in age, but nobody this side of London knew more about magic. The daughter of an imam and a retired activist, Max was a healer some days, a thief the others, but a cashier on most.

“Probably not,” Sunny said, closing the door behind her and flipping the OPEN FOR BUSINESS sign hanging out front to SOON COME. “Anyway, you worry too much. Probably only, like, forty percent of the blood is mine.”

Eli tried not to roll his eyes. Sunny’s judgment about whether something was worth worrying over seemed to exist on a scale from one to a-human-being’s-death-has-transpired.

“Besides,” Sunny continued, flinging herself onto her usual stool by the counter. “You won’t be mad when you see what we’ve got.”

He wasn’t sure how it had happened, but in the short time they had known one another, this act of exchanging gifts after every job had become something of a tradition among the three of them. Of course, the big things they found, things with actual worth, Max would pass on to Pam. Magic that was owed. Debts that were overdue. It was how he and Sunny stayed afloat. Well—that, and a hellish amount of monotony; weekend retail work in between shifts at Pam’s, part-time waiting tables, freelance call center temping. Eli was just nearing the end of his teen years, yet he’d had more jobs in the first two decades of his life than most people had in whole lifetimes.

Their smaller finds, the peculiar magical tidbits that didn’t have any worth outside of their strangeness factor, those Max kept for herself. She wasn’t a collector, necessarily, but she liked deconstructing things, stripping them down and seeing what they were made of.

It was the same reason that Max had first decided to help Eli with his own business. Okay, Max had said after she’d heard his story. Well, you’re definitely a mystery. And that was all it had taken. A boy who plucked the magic from a soul like petals, who had no memory of who he was before three years ago? She had peeked once at the hollowness inside him, the crack right through his center, and decided instantly that it was something of interest to her.

In return, it had become a fun little game for Eli and Sunny while they were on their adventures: Who could bring Max back the weirdest find? Scales from a water spirit, hair of a lagahoo, cursed knives, phoenix ashes; somewhere along the road, the two of them had inadvertently become a pair of proprietary house cats, filling their jaws with feathered gifts.

It was Max who had dropped Pam’s request in their group chat a week prior, between links to personality quizzes and twelve-minute-long YouTube videos dissecting pop star feuds. Pam looking for ancient fang, she’d texted, says it nyams magic. Allegedly stolen by Anansi himself from Osebo, leopard god. Last heard whispers that it’s with some seer man looking to sell to the highest bidder. Pam says if you find, DO NOT TOUCH (obvs). (It eats magic.)

pass, Sunny had replied, sounds like some old-time bush fable. But then a week later she’d come back with the lead on a Camden pub and a simple follow-up question:

how much?

“Pam’s not going to like this,” Max said, after suffering through their lengthy explanation of how they’d searched for the seer man and instead stumbled on the boy in the alleyway, a hole pierced through his gut, half dead, and no sign of the fang.

Sunny and Eli exchanged a look. Pam sent them on a lot of errands. Some of the things they were sent to retrieve were hefty enough to keep their stomachs full for whole months. Other times it was just the matter of passing on a message. Pam never gave any indication of the significance of her requests, and Eli and Sunny never asked. This felt different.

“What’s so special about this fang?” Sunny asked. It came out, as did most of Sunny’s words, dripping with derision, but Max’s response was sincere.

“At the moment it’s just rumors. You know people like to run their mouths. But you should have seen the way Pam spoke about it. She told me she needed it. She seemed, I don’t know. Spooked.”

Truthfully, he hadn’t even known Pam was capable of fear. One time a group of guys had tried to break into their cash register and Pam had dispensed with them using only the blunt end of a broom. Another time, a kitchen fire had started out back and the whole building had been flooded with thick, blinding smoke. Pam had casually waded through the flames, wafting the smoke from her face like it was a fruit fly. She hadn’t left until everyone was safe, and only then did she leisurely amble outside, a handbag nestled in the crook of one arm and a wad of cash in the other, looking less like she was escaping a burning building and more like she was on her way to the bank.

Max gnawed at her lip, and Eli could tell that she was debating how much to reveal. “Mrs. Taylor came in the other week. She told me her son—you know the tall one, plays the clarinet?—well, he was missing.”

“Eddie,” Sunny said, and Eli cast her a sideways glance. She somehow always knew everyone, which always took him by surprise since his own social circle was pretty much limited to the two people in this room. “What? He comes in here sometimes. He’s nice.”

Max nodded. “They found him two days ago; he’d had the magic ripped out of his soul. Clawed straight out of his chest. The same thing happened the week before, some guy on Green Lanes. They pried apart his rib cage, picked it clean out of his heart.”

Neither Eli nor Sunny uttered a word, both quietly horrified.

“There’s been a couple of other missing cases. Word is that someone’s clawing souls out of hearts and feeding off people’s magic. It’s all anyone can talk about when they come in here.”

“You think Pam wants the fang for protection,” Eli said.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Max said. “All I know is that it seemed very important to her to find it.”

Eli winced. “Well, maybe this will help.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out the little satchel that contained the slice of magic he’d taken. He threw it to Max, who caught it one-handed and then pushed her glasses up from the end of her nose and whistled. The magic rattled like copper pennies at the bottom of a purse. A pair of tweezers materialized in Max’s hand within seconds, and she used them to reach into the satchel and pluck hold of it. Behind her glasses, her eyes were magnified to the size of saucers. “Where’d you get this?”

“The boy in the alleyway,” Eli said. “We didn’t want to come back empty-handed.”

They watched as Max flipped the magic over again and again, fascinated. She put it to her ear like a seashell, gave it a little shake as it rattled, then sniffed it. “Whoever this came from, he’s powerful. This is serious magic.”

“Yeah?” Eli asked carefully. “I know it’s not the magic-eating fang of a leopard god, but I figured it would sell. How much you thinking?”

Max looked up then, the humor sobering from her expression. “Eli, I’m not taking this.”

“What? For real?” Sunny asked. She’d been stretched languidly along the counter, braids trailing on the marble, playing a one-man game of foosball with the salt and pepper shakers, but at the mention of money, her head popped up.

“You need to get rid of it,” Max said. “The fang was one thing, but this…”

Officially, Pam’s dealings were wholly aboveboard. The takeaway was a sanctuary, but it would stop being so if angry mobs were to turn up at the door, demanding retribution for what was taken from them. Unofficially, however, Pam’s willingness toward the nefarious tended to work on a sliding scale. It was a balancing act; she didn’t accept anything that was more trouble than it was worth. Exhibit A: the supposed fang of a leopard god that could eat through magic. Exhibit B: the slice of stolen magic of some no-name boy they’d found in an alleyway.

Eli wasn’t even entirely sure what Pam did with their findings, if she sold them or kept them on display somewhere. Sunny had theorized once that Pam simply ate them, nyamed up the magic for herself, and coughed up the bones, which might’ve seemed plausible except for the fact that Pam rarely used magic. Eli had only ever seen Pam use it once the entire time he’d known her, and it had been to cheat at a game of rummy. He wasn’t even sure she could use magic anymore.

“Eli,” Max said. “This magic smells like death. A lot of people are looking for this fang. If duppy magic is involved, you should do yourself a favor and stay out of it.”

Eli fell quiet, feeling sullen and chastised, and Max leant forward to flick him in the head.

“Did you send off your application?” she asked, softer now.

It was a seemingly innocuous question, and yet it succeeded in swiftly causing Eli’s mouth to snap shut. Despite the many and increasingly passive-aggressive texts Max had sent him reminding him of the looming deadline, he hadn’t, in fact, sent off his Sixth Form College application. He’d spent weeks agonizing over which course he’d even want to pursue before settling on a foundational history course. He’d been drawn to the idea of learning about what came before him. Though he kept insisting to Max that he simply hadn’t gotten round to it yet, the truth was he’d been avoiding it.

He just kept thinking about what would happen if he woke up tomorrow and remembered who he was. What if he’d already been partway through his A Levels and had simply forgotten? What if there was something, some secret talent, that he was exceptional at, that he hadn’t realized yet? The act of applying for a college course seemed like a betrayal to who he was or might have been. It would be the nail in the coffin of finding his former self.

Max, who had never scored anything lower than an A+ and who treated preparing for further education like it was training for an Olympic sport, did not seem to grasp that.

“No,” Eli admitted, “I haven’t sent off my college application yet.”

Max sighed. “Did you even start it?”

“Not… exactly,” Eli said, though that wasn’t quite true. He had opened the application a few nights ago, but one of the very first questions had requested a vague description of where he saw himself in five years and Eli had just—he’d panicked. He didn’t know where he saw himself in five years. He didn’t even know where he saw himself in five days. Whenever he thought about his future, he’d get this tight, nagging feeling in his chest that would follow him around and keep him up at night. He couldn’t explain that to Max, whose bedroom walls had been covered in glittery mood boards carefully strategizing her future since she was ten years old.

“I say bun the whole education sector,” Sunny said. “Get a degree? Why? ’Cause some old white men decided I’d need it to have value in society? Pass.”

Max shook her head but didn’t bother protesting. This was an old argument between the two of them, and one that they would never see eye to eye on.

“You trust me, don’t you?” Max said. She dropped the magic back in the satchel, pulled the string tightly shut, and placed it firmly back in Eli’s hand.

“You know I do,” Eli said. His friendship with Sunny and Max was about the only thing he did trust these days.

“Then hear what I’m saying. You can’t hide behind magic forever, and that magic stinks of death. Get rid of it, and quickly. The last thing any of us wants is duppy problems on our doorstep.”

“Fuck,” Sunny said.

The two of them stood across the road from Pam’s waiting for the bus. The night wasn’t over for them yet. They both still had a few more errands to run for Pam before the end of the night, and they’d lined up a temp job tomorrow waiting tables at some black-tie, members-only event in Central where they’d been told they were going to be needed until at least midnight. Eli’s bones were already aching at the thought of it. He briefly contemplated flaking and going straight to bed, but without the money they’d anticipated for the fang, they were already behind for the month. What they really needed was a way to sell the stolen magic somehow. It was one of their rules: whatever they found, they sold. They never kept any of it—magic, especially. Keeping anything meant a trail. Plus, it was a dangerous thing to keep magic that wasn’t yours for too long. It had a way of changing you.

“It’s not that bad,” Eli said.

“Really?” Sunny pulled a face. Instead of giving them the paycheck they’d anticipated, Max had handed them a beef patty, and now there were pieces of pastry stuck to Sunny’s fingers and braids. “How is it not that bad?”

Eli shrugged. “Legs will probably take it.”

Legs was Sunny’s slick-talking roadman friend; he bought all their seedier finds, the stuff a little too high-risk for Pam to take, but he also tended to shamelessly lowball them at any given opportunity.

“Yeah,” Sunny grumbled, “but at what cost?”

Eli knew she was thinking about the last time Legs finessed them. “Our dignity, probably,” Eli answered. Sunny went to laugh but ended up wincing as it stretched the swollen skin over her cheek and busted lip.

“You know I can fix that if you want,” he offered, purposefully light. Sunny hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d said Eli had been getting good at the whole healing thing. He’d gotten cuts and bruises mostly down and could even fix a broken bone if he really concentrated, though if he didn’t, they tended to stitch their way into his own skin instead.

“I’m fine,” Sunny said with a glare. “Worry about yourself.”

“I’m pretty sure you do that enough for the both of us.”

Whatever cutting remark Sunny was about to make was lost when her phone began to ring. She looked down at the screen and cussed under her breath. “I’ve got to take this,” she said, though not without flipping him the middle finger first. “Yell if the bus gets here?”

Eli watched her, phone balanced between her ear and shoulder, back hunched against the wind, gesturing theatrically, the way she only ever really did when she was angry. Not for the first time, Eli wondered who she could be talking to. This wasn’t the type of thing they discussed. Their conversations in general would probably seem largely vacuous to an outsider; they could spend hours ranting over something as nonsensical as the rankings of a Quality Street selection, or who would win in a fight between the Avengers and the X-Men, but the subject of family, by some weird, mutual unspoken agreement, had become something to be avoided early on. In some ways, he thought it was a kindness on Sunny’s behalf, some covertly altruistic attempt to not put salt in the wound, since they both knew that Eli’s personal life started with Sunny and ended with Max. Secretly, Eli suspected there was more to it.

Sunny had always been private. She rarely mentioned her family, if ever, and whenever Eli would ask her about it, she would talk in vague, uncertain terms. He knew the basics: she didn’t get along with her mum, she had a brother she didn’t talk to, she’d been born and bred by the River Lea, and even though she was probably a year or two younger than Eli, she had left home young. He knew that she couldn’t use magic anymore, that a spell had turned sour and blackened the tips of her fingers, but the details of it were a mystery. He’d asked her one Christmas if she had any plans to go home, and she’d stared at him as if he’d proposed they take a leap off Tower Bridge and then said, like he was stupid, I am home, idiot.

Although Eli thought about it a lot, the truth was that it didn’t bother him if Sunny was a little reserved. He chalked it up to another trait in a long list of baffling Sunny-isms, like her perpetually foul mouth and mercurial temperament. Whatever the reason for keeping her secrets, Eli figured, Sunny probably had a good one.

He was still very much dissecting the thought in his mind when a flaky piece of pastry hit him square in the middle of the forehead. “Ow!” Eli said. “What was that for?”

Apparently, Sunny had finished her phone call, because she was now standing in front of him, eyebrows raised. “Eavesdropping, yeah?”

“No,” Eli lied, and Sunny gave him a deadpan look. “Okay, maybe a little. Everything good?”

Another piece of pastry hit him in the jaw, and Eli flung it back. “What, you want me to write you a sonnet?” Sunny snorted. “I’m good. You know how it is.”

Eli did, was the thing.

Above them, the sky was black and starless, empty in the way that it only ever was in the city and stark compared to all the business beneath it. On nights like this, it was easy to convince himself that things weren’t so bad. He had made it through the day. There was no reason that he wouldn’t be able to make it through the next one.

He didn’t register the silence that had snuck up around them.

This kind of quiet didn’t happen where Eli came from. He was used to falling asleep to the background noise of passing police sirens and barking dogs or the distant bass lines of a neighbor’s party. No matter where in London he went, there was never truly silence. It was another magic of the place, possibly even Eli’s favorite kind.

This, though. This wasn’t a tranquil kind of quiet. This was almost funereal.

“Do you feel that?” Eli asked.

“Feel what?” Magic didn’t affect Sunny the way it used to. She once described it the same way someone might describe losing their sense of taste. If she ate, she would still be full, but there would be something missing. It was the same thing with magic; she saw it, she understood it, but it didn’t cause an itch in her fingers or raise the hair on her arms. She couldn’t hold it in her hand and sculpt it into something material.

“I don’t know,” Eli said. There was an odd tang in the air. It smelled a little like the sky after heavy rainfall. “Something’s off.”

“Okay,” Sunny said, suddenly low, cautious. “That’s not ominously vague at all.”

Standing like they were, in the middle of the street, it struck Eli that they were completely out and in the open. He looked down at his phone, wondering why the bus hadn’t arrived yet when it was scheduled to have come five minutes ago, but the battery had conveniently opted to die.

“I don’t like this,” Eli mumbled.

“You don’t like anything,” Sunny replied, which was correct, yes, but this was different.

There was a faint electrical hum, and in the distance, Eli saw a streetlight start to flicker. For a second, that was all there was. The soft buzz of a blinking light bulb, like the flapping wings of a hoverfly. Abruptly, it burst, a satisfying little crunch of a noise that seemed amplified amid the nothingness. Glass clattered to the pavement.

Sunny opened her mouth to speak—probably some kind of sarcastic comment about the local council—but they were silenced when it happened again. Another streetlight shattered. Then came the next one. And the next. It was almost musical. One by one, in perfect succession, each streetlamp cracked into darkness, until there was no light in the entire road except for the single bulb that hovered above their heads.

Eli willed for it to stay on with all the magic in his veins.

“Okay,” Sunny said, breaking the silence. “What the hell was that?”

“We should go,” Eli said.

Before either of them could move, however, something across the street caught Eli’s eye. Thick tendrils of smoke curled out of the shadows and toward the shop. It traveled with the darkness, a shapeless black ghost. Eli knew dark magic when he saw it, and this was walking the streets as plain as day. He wondered fleetingly what it could possibly be doing here—and at Pam’s, of all places, which had been a sanctuary and neutral ground for decades before Eli had even been born—when something dawned on him.

“Max is still in there.”

The lights were off, but Max would still be inside, locking up the register and doing one last sweep of the kitchen floor. Across the street, the shadow hardened into something solid. A man—or at least, that’s how most people would see him. People like Eli, Sunny, and Max, those who inherited the magic in their blood, they saw something else. It wore a person’s skin the way a coat hanger wore a mac. It stopped a few yards away, straightened its tie as if it were preparing itself for a meeting, and then strolled straight toward the shop.

There was something familiar about this. Something just on the edge of Eli’s memory that he couldn’t quite reach. Distantly, he became aware of panic brimming at the back of his throat, but then fear was funny that way. For Eli, it had become a near constant in his life these days. He would wake up anxious, and the feeling would only fester. Now, he could feel it reaching boiling point. He knew he wasn’t imagining the way that each hair on his body had suddenly become erect, or how the air around them seemed to drop several degrees. He imagined Max inside, obliviously sweeping the shop floor, mouthing along to whatever bashment mixtape filtered through her earphones. Eli couldn’t leave her there alone. He wouldn’t.

“Eli,” Sunny repeated, and Eli blinked, realizing that she’d spoken and was waiting for him to reply. “I’m gonna go get her. Stay here, keep watch.”

“What?” Eli’s reflex was always to argue, even when his gut was telling him to do the opposite. “No, you stay here.”

“Look,” she said calmly. “It’s okay if you’re scared—”

“I’m not,” Eli snapped, and Sunny raised an eyebrow. She wasn’t being accusatory, was the thing. It was a simple observation. Of course Eli was scared. He was constantly scared. He felt himself bristle with frustration, partly at his own cowardice, partly at how Sunny could see straight through to it. He could tell from that quirk of her eyebrow that she was thinking about all the times she’d found him, huddled and trembling at the kitchen table in the middle of the night, skin sticky with sweat from thrashing through nightmares. The concept of being genuinely frightened by something was probably unfamiliar to Sunny. There was nothing that stumbled into her pathway that she couldn’t demolish with pure strength of will.

Eli glanced back toward the diner, determination settling in his gut. Max was inside, grossly outmatched and entirely unaware. The light above their heads had started to rattle, but Sunny’s gaze didn’t leave his. He could be like Sunny, Eli thought. Just this once.

“Let’s go,” he said, and he turned back toward the shop to make his way across the empty street before she could protest.

There was a trick to entering Pam’s undetected. Max had taught Eli and Sunny right at the beginning of their friendship. They’d been drunk at the time, and Max had forgotten her keys after spending an entire bus journey waxing lyrical about a supposed crater of leftover macaroni cheese that she’d been longing for. After realizing that their midnight snack plans had been foiled, Eli had been more than happy to call it a night, but Max refused to admit defeat. She’d ushered them to the back of the building, giggling and stumbling the entire way.

“Wanna see a life hack?” she’d said, and Eli had shushed her because it had been nearing four a.m. and her voice always got a decibel too loud after a few drinks.

“You sure you want to break into your own workplace?” Eli had asked, because at that time he hadn’t known Max long and the diner was yet to become his home. It had seemed excessive to risk incarceration over a dish of pasta.

Max had just patted his face, her own full of sympathy for the poor macaroni-less boy with no memories. “Don’t worry,” she’d said, “you’ll understand once you try.”

There was a window at the back that didn’t close all the way, no matter how hard you pulled. It had been spelled to keep out intruders after a couple of break-ins started happening locally, but the secret was intent. If you meant ill, the window stayed locked. If not, it was simply a matter of wriggling your way in.

Now, Eli’s intent was clear.

The window opened with an almost expectant sigh. Not without great difficulty, Eli scrambled through, shakily landing on the balls of his feet.

The first thing that hit him was the smell, pungent enough that he had to cover his mouth with the back of his sleeve. It was the unmistakable stench of rot and decay. Of death.

“Now, I’ll ask you again,” a voice said. It was distinctly male, the voice of somebody who had never been told no before. Eli glanced at Sunny, who had soundlessly dropped in through the window behind him. They exchanged a nod, and then the two of them followed the sounds through the kitchen, crouching behind the counter to keep out of sight. “Tell me where it is.”

“I told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Max said.

“Now, now, Max. We both know that’s not true. I can smell death on you.”

Eli crept around the corner, ignoring the unpleasant stickiness of the kitchen tiles, and peeked through the beaded curtains onto the main shop floor. Around the corner, he could just about see Max pinned against a wall, a hand to her neck and her feet inches from the ground.

Sunny cursed under her breath.

The man holding Max was wiry with graying skin, as tall as he was thin. There was a spiderlike quality to him, something in the way he moved, all legs and joints, bends and knobbles like an aging tree branch. Underneath his coat was a black suit, like he was dressed for a funeral, and when he turned his face, Eli caught a glimpse of eyes that were milk-white.

“That’s enough of the games,” the man said amiably. “If I must, I’ll kill you, little witch.”

“Even if I did know,” Max spat, “do you think I would tell you? I know what you are.”

Eli took a second to be momentarily impressed by Max’s fearlessness; her scuffed Converse kicked fruitlessly, but the man didn’t even flinch.

“You know what the ancient Egyptians used to believe about the afterlife?” The man continued as if she hadn’t spoken. It wasn’t the voice of evil, really. He sounded more like an overzealous history teacher. “The ancient Egyptians believed that when you die, the black-headed jackal Anubis, protector of the dead, leads you across the threshold from the world of the living to the underworld. There, he reaches inside you—”

Eli tensed as Max began to whimper.

“—takes out your heart, and places it on a scale. If your soul is lighter than a feather, then you ascend to the heavens and live out your eternal life in bliss. But if your heart is heavier, well…”

Max’s body was obscured from his line of sight, so Eli couldn’t see what caused her shout, but this time he felt it all the way to his bones. If they didn’t get to her, he was sure she’d end up like the others she’d warned him about. Like Eddie, who’d been found with his chest clawed out. Her magic torn out of her and a hole through her heart.

Think, Eli thought frantically. Think, think, think.

“Tell me, little witch,” the man whispered. “If I cut out your heart, will it be lighter than a feather?”

Eli took a deep breath, his heart pounding. He moved as if to stand up, but before he got the chance, Sunny’s hand clamped over his mouth.

“Old Street,” Sunny whispered, and Eli understood immediately. Old Street: the time he and Sunny had been chased up and down Shoreditch High Street by a gang of dreadhead soucouyants, like they were protagonists in some old-time Charlie Chaplin film. They’d made the mistake of stumbling into the wrong ends after sunset, when the soucouyants were at their hungriest for blood; the only reason they’d gotten away was because, by some weird twist of fate, a moped had cut off a bus on the road they’d been crossing and the two drivers had pulled into the middle of the road to scream red-faced at each other, allowing Sunny and Eli the perfect opportunity to slip away. It was something the two of them still laughed about to this day, the rush of absolute glee as they bumped the barriers at the station and slipped to safety, the burn marks from the soucouyants’ flames they’d narrowly missed, how close they were to being caught, how surely they would have been if not for that tiniest sliver of luck. Something was looking out for us that day, Sunny would say. Nah, Eli had told her repeatedly. We were looking out for ourselves.

In short, Eli knew what Sunny meant now. She meant that they needed a distraction. She meant for them to run.

Eli looked back toward the dining area, conscious of every moment that Max was in there, alone and in pain. Sunny didn’t have magic; it would be easier for her to go undetected.

“When I give the sign,” Eli whispered, “grab Max.”

Sunny frowned at him, clearly hesitant, but then she nodded and disappeared around the other side of the counter.

Eli leant back against the wall and pulled from his pocket the small velveteen pouch that held the piece of magic he’d stolen from the boy in the alleyway. Even through the material, Eli could feel it pulsating, aimlessly floundering like a goldfish dropped into a glass of water.

It would have to listen to him. Magic was funny that way. It had to be coaxed into doing what you wanted, otherwise it would just waft stubbornly, like oil in water. Really, it came down to a mutual understanding, somewhere deep in your core.

Eli focused on the memory of it as he’d plucked it from the boy’s chest; the sensation of grazed elbows, scuffed trainers, and bloody noses that he’d felt the first time he’d touched it. It had felt lonely, and Eli understood. When he opened his eyes, it was there, hovering in front of him. No satchel; just the tiny white glowing fragment of magic, drifting at eyeline.

Eli didn’t hesitate. The magic hit his palm and sizzled, and Eli let out an involuntary hiss at the contact. Its light streamed through his fingers, hot enough that he almost let go, that he was sure he would have a scar. Eli didn’t drop it, though, and the base of it thrummed against his palm, steady like a heartbeat. Eli was entranced; he raised his hand and saw all the tiny veins and capillaries lining his skin, the red of the muscles under the flesh.

He took a deep breath and stood up.

“Hey!” he called out. He’d never noticed before, but Pam’s place had an echo to it when you shouted loud enough.

“Ah,” said the white-eyed thing. Its head whipped around fast enough to give a normal person whiplash. He peered at Eli with translucent eyes, then sniffed, once, like a bloodhound. Eli’s mouth soured with fear. “Well, this certainly makes things more interesting.”

It took a step toward Eli, and Eli saw its face twist into something else entirely. Something hungry.

“She doesn’t have what you want,” Eli said. Another step. Eli almost stumbled backward, but he forced himself not to move. He kept his fist clenched tight by his side, the magic pounding against his palm, like he was brandishing a flare.

The creature had stepped away from Max, but its magic kept her pinned against the wall, half-heartedly clawing at the invisible grip seizing her neck. The creature barely seemed to notice. It cocked its head ever so slightly, interested. “And what have you got there?”

“Let her g-go,” Eli said, stuttering a little around the words, “and it’s yours.”

“Eli,” Max choked. “Get out of here. Don’t be stupid.” Her face was red; she looked, perhaps for the first time that Eli had ever seen, genuinely frightened. It was enough to glue Eli’s feet to the ground.

The thing waved a hand without so much as looking, and Max’s head slammed—crack—into the wall. She should have slumped to the floor like a rag doll, but instead, she stayed suspended, clawing at the invisible grip around her neck. The creature raised an eyebrow in appraisal.

“I wonder…” It hummed and took another step. “How much does your soul weigh?”

Max’s breaths were fraught as she struggled. They needed to hurry. From the corner of his eye, he saw Sunny rise. She gave him a small nod.

“Well,” Eli said, mostly to himself, “I guess there’s only one way to find out.”

Before he could think too much about it, he opened his palm and slammed the magic, hard, into his chest.

There was a yell of protest—perhaps even his own—but it was too late.

Something cracked, and then the magic filled him, sweet and fizzy, like a carbonated drink. At first, that was all he felt; giddy and light-headed, with a chest-deep warmth that spread all the way through to his bones. Then the heat started to deepen and deepen, until it felt as if his veins were on fire.

Everything faded to blackness; then, all at once: perfect clarity.

He’d had the same sensation before, when, after months of stumbling into doorframes and repeatedly missing his stop on the tube, Sunny had finally dragged him to the optometrist to fix his shortsightedness. He remembered looking at the trees for the first time through his new glasses and being surprised that he could make out the individual leaves, watching Max talk animatedly about something or other and realizing that she had a scatter of freckles across her nose that he’d never noticed before.

The thing about magic was that it usually hurt. It didn’t hurt now; with every stitch of the magic into him, it was as if he had turned the dial on a microscope and made everything sharper. Colors were brighter. Even smells were stronger. The scent of freshly fried salt fish fritters from the kitchen clung to the inside of his nose. He could even taste the ozone outside from the afternoon’s rain on the tip of his tongue.

And then there was the magic. He could feel it all.

When he opened his eyes, Max, Sunny, and the man were staring at him with mirrored expressions of horror. Eli felt strangely distant from it all.

He reached out a hand and let his new magic cut through the air like scissors through muslin. The white-eyed thing let out a scream like nothing Eli had ever heard.

Then everything went dark.

About The Author

Photograph by Joseph Berritt

Nevin Holness is from North London. She has a degree in fashion journalism from London College of Fashion and currently works in womenswear. In 2018, she was selected as a finalist in Penguin’s WriteNow mentorship program. King of Dead Things is her first novel.

Why We Love It

“Despite all the number of things I had to do the weekend I first started reading King of Dead Things, I could not put it down. Told with beautiful prose reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, the opening lines hook you into a world that is immersive and cinematic, a London that is both familiar and magical, with unforgettable characters who feel real and will tug at your heartstrings. Nevin has created a smartly written fantasy-adventure about found family, steeped in Afro-Caribbean culture and mythology, that is unlike anything I’ve ever read.”

—Kristie C., Assistant Editor, on King of Dead Things

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (April 16, 2024)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665946919
  • Grades: 9 and up
  • Ages: 14 - 99

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Raves and Reviews

JLG Gold Standard Selection

★ "Holness’ debut novel overflows with drama, culture, and fantastical realism. Anyone with roots in the Caribbean will chuckle at the familiar array of characters that populate this world. Readers will feel transported as the vivid scenes play out on each page, drawing them in with universal elements such as struggles with identity, family, and an uncertain future. Hopefully this will not be the last we see of Eli and Malcolm. An electrifying debut."

Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

"Through Eli and Malcolm’s third-person perspectives, magics rooted in the Afro-Caribbean diaspora leap off the pages in a tangle of sensory and emotional touchstones: community, food, family, the way a neighborhood feels—all speak of a tangible power tied to cultural tradition and folklore. Eli, Sunny, Max, and Malcolm are each sympathetic and engaging. . . one crisis dealt with still leaves a multitude of lingering mysteries for (hopefully) future novels."

The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

"Infused with Caribbean folklore, this fast-paced urban fantasy careerns from one idea to the next but manages to tie it all together in a surprise twist ending."


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