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Chapter 14: A Raw Deal

As the closest minotaur reached for my shoulder, time seemed to slow. Though my instincts screamed at me to fight and run, a rare moment of insight told me to relax. When the giant hand settled at the nape of my neck, it took every ounce of self-control to listen to that infinitesimal voice, telling me more was going on than I knew. 

I realized suddenly, who had been the brains in mine and Vic’s partnership. I may not be a dummy, but Victoria was brilliant. It was part of why I loved her. She had calculated every possible scenario and attached probable values to them. 

My normal attitude was to burn it all down and let the gods sort it out, so Victoria probably expected us to fight. And there was a reason for it. After all, she had wanted us to take her captive and torture her with magically enhanced truth serum to get her here. She didn’t do all of that just to kill us. There was a purpose. I needed to figure it out before making any irreversible actions. 

“Unhand me,” Aiden said, pushing uselessly at the arm of the minotaur holding him. “I will not warn you again.”

“Don’t,” I told Aiden. “It’s what she wants.”

A wicked grin split her face. “I always enjoyed watching the wheels spin behind your eyes.”

“We may not be citizens,” I said, “but you cannot simply butcher us here in the street. Even manhandling us will draw notice. And that’s not what you want, is it?” I pointedly looked at the minotaur touching me. 

She nodded to them. The minotaurs released us and took a step back. 

“Very well,” she said. “Shall we talk? I can buy you coffee.”

“Sure. I could use some coffee.”

“What?” Aiden demanded. I held up a hand for him to be patient. Either he missed the cue or blatantly ignored it. “We don’t want anything from you or your bitch goddess. Ya fucking masochistic cu—”

I drew a trickle of ether and sent a mental message to Aiden. We need to find out what she is doing here. Just trust me for once.

His mouth snapped shut. He took several slow breaths. Though his face puckered as if someone had slipped him sour candy, his lips stayed shut.

“Pleasant as always Rob Junior,” Victoria said.

Aiden simmered but pointedly looked at the ground, grinding his teeth.

“Shall we,” I asked. 

“After you,” she said gesturing for me to walk.

I offered her my arm, more to keep her from being behind me than to be close to her. But, if we are being honest, she smelled of lavender. And it was extremely difficult not to notice the side of her body as it pressed into mine. 

“Where to?” I asked.

“There is a place up the street. You will love it.”

“What is this?” Aiden asked. “A date? Talk already so we can be about our business.”

“Not until we are some place more private.”

Though many people bustled past us on the walkway, none paid us any attention. We were not the only earthling-esk people walking about, but we were definitely in the minority. Still, people walked or rushed around, going about their business. In many ways, it was just like any other huge city I’d been to. 

Horns sounded from vehicles in traffic. A faint breeze brought the smell of baked goods and other salty flavors. My stomach growled, reminding me I had not given it anything for a while. And though ether could sustain me, it was a poor substitute to a bacon cheeseburger with extra grease and a side of chips (you might call them fries.) 

We turned a corner, the buildings curved around to the right. A massive building stood on a patch of land to itself. Glass tubes protruded from the side, wound around in odd patterns and branched off into more tubes. Conjoined balls at the ends had flat bottoms. Inside, I could see tables and people dining, served by giant hamster-creatures, each differing in color. They wore red livery, complete with white aprons.

“Please tell me this isn’t the place.”

“No. We are farther up, but they make an incredible dish called chichidee here. Basically eggs benedict, but it has this spicy-sweet, earthy flavor that you would love.”

Eggs Benedict is my favorite breakfast. The fact that she knew that hurt more than a punch to the nose. There was a sad little twist to her mouth. It vanished as quickly as it had come.

“I’ll have to try it sometime.” 

We passed several stone buildings followed by some high-rises. We stopped to cross the street. Victoria stepped on a circular disk, buried into the cobblestone, and hit the button to cross. She instantly transported to the other side. I stepped up and hit the button. And just like that, I was across, standing next to Victoria. 

“This place is truly wondrous,” she said. “Don’t you agree?”

“Insane,” I agreed. “We should try to patent that back on earth.”

She crooked her arm and I took it. We walked on before Aiden and the minotaurs caught up. Some part of my brain told me this was likely part of her design, to get me alone—or rather without Aiden within earshot—for a few minutes.

“You were always clever,” I said. “I could almost believe your mind is still your own.”

“It is,” she said, smile making her eyes sparkle. 

“My Vic never would have set me up like that. The Ferryman could have killed us.”

“I knew he wouldn’t.”

“That isn’t the point. If you were not influenced by Artemis’s control, you would never have led us into the trap.” 

“I would apologize, but we both know that would not matter. I have a job to do, just like you do. I take orders from Artemis the same way you do from the collective.”

“Right,” I said, suddenly weary of the conversation. “We both have jobs to do, so what do you want from us?”

“I just want you to see the truth. The Collective lied to us, Liam. About so many things.”

I took a slow breath and sighed. “Not this again. You cannot believe I would join Artemis. I’m not going to bond with any god. You know me better than that.”

“I do know you,” she said, “which is why I know you can see reason. Not all the gods wish to dominate the world. Not in the Zeus-Elohim sort of way. There is a New Pantheon forming on earth. It is going to change the world for the better. We will end hunger, suffering, and bring about a New Eden. Think of it, Liam. No more starvation. No more murder. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

“Sure. But there is a catch. The only way humans can ever achieve such a state is when they give up competition in favor of cooperation and global community. It might be possible in the future, but civilization isn’t ready for that. Not without taking away their free will.”

“Free will is a privilege. Not everyone will have that in New Eden. Not at first.”

“So … what happened to not dominating the world?”

“No one is being bonded. We will simply suppress the urge to do violence and nurture the part of the human mind desiring to give. They will be happier to be a part of something bigger than each individual.”

“And all the books burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Are you going to take away their ability to think as well?” 

“Of course not. Just their desire to obsess over wealth and petty rivalries. The world will work together to grow. In time, we can rival Atlantis. But not if we continue the way we are.”

“I will never condone anything that steals the mind and free will of another. Never.”

“Look what humanity has done with their free will. The Earth is dying from global warming. Wars are becoming more frequent. Governments are murdering their own people. The rich will inexorably drive the working class into abject poverty on a global scale with AI technologies. We are saving an entire race. Help me save them from themselves. Please.” 

I could feel the plea in her gaze. She truly believed in her own words. And though it felt like the real Victoria, I knew better. There was a fervor for this cause that could have only come from Artemis. The goddess had changed Victoria. And they would do this to all mankind if they got a chance.

“If this is all you wanted to say to me,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest, “then you are wasting your time.”

“No. Not a waste. In time, you will see reason.”

“Are we done then?”

“For now.” I felt the sound shield drop a heartbeat later. 

“—fucking smell like a barn, you gods damn heifer. Get your paws off.” Aiden broke free of their grasp and ran forward, only slowing when he’d reached me. “Fucking cows manhandling me. I am done with this farce. Time to go.”

“You still have not heard my offer,” Victoria said. “How do you intend to get home?”

“We’ll figure it out,” Aiden said. “There’s no way I could trust anything you gave us.”

“Sure you will. We will bind our agreement with a blood oath.”

“We can hear her out,” I said. “We both could use coffee.”

“Fine,” Aiden said, stomping ahead as if he knew the way. “But she’s paying.”

“I already said I would.” Victoria winked at me. “And you are going the wrong direction. It’s across here.”

She pointed to a building across another street. It was a Starbucks. 

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “Best coffee in the multiverse?”

“Can’t beat ‘em.”

“Well, at least I know what I’m getting.”

“Soy latte,” she said, “extra shot.”

“Two extra shots,” I said, not hiding my annoyance.

We crossed at another pair of teleporter disks and made our way to the coffee shop. There was outdoor seating, complete with green umbrellas and the trademark symbol of the Seattle-based coffee chain.

Inside looked the same as every Starbucks I’d ever been to. The dark wood, tiled floor with modern (for earth) lighting. Square tables filled a moderate space, separated by a long bar down the middle. More bar seating lined the windows that looked out onto the pedestrian walkway. I walked up to the counter. A barista came up to me immediately. She had pink hair and a nose ring, but otherwise entirely human. 

It was surreal.

“Can I offer you a toastie?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said, “And a venti quad-shot soy latte.”

She picked up a cup and asked, “Name?”

“Liam.”

She wrote ‘Will’ on the cup. “Anything else for you today?”

“Whatever they are having. And that young lady is picking up the tab.”

Aiden ordered next, adding far more than he could possibly eat or drink. Victoria didn’t complain or bat an eye. She paid without ordering for herself or the bull squad. 

“Shall we,” she said, gesturing to a table in the corner. 

“We will sit outside,” Aiden said, not giving anyone a chance to protest.

We followed him to a table in the middle of the patio. The minotaurs could not stand surreptitiously around the table, which is likely why Victoria ordered them to wait on the walkway. 

“What do you want?” Aiden said. “Make it quick.”

Drawing ether, she closed us into a sound bubble, far less subtle than the one she’d made on the street earlier. “Only for you to pick up a second artifact from Theseus.”

“Second artifact?” Aiden said, trying to play it dumb, but there was too much surprise in his eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“You should make sure your victims are truly unconscious before making plans in front of them.”

“You are insane,” Aiden said. “We would never take anything from Theseus. Have you not heard what he does to criminals here?”

“You are already stealing from him,” she said, as if he hadn’t protested, “so it won’t put you out. When you get into his vault, you’ll take this as well.” 

She pulled a thin folder from her purse and placed it on the table. When I went to grab it, she placed her hand on the folder, preventing me from taking it. I was tempted to play tug-of-war with her, but I met her gaze instead, giving her a get-on-with-it-already look. 

“This also has schematics of his compound as well as the details of his vault. There are guard postings and patrols, everything you need to get in and out, including details of the wards and traps protecting the castle and artifacts.”

“This is a set-up,” Aiden said. “You want us out of the way so you can get the Bermuda Nexus. You could not goad us into fighting, so you’ll get us arrested and executed this way instead.”

“We could have killed you on earth if that was our goal. You can be more use to us here. Your failure would be a complication for us as well.”

“A bit more so for us. We’ll be ripped apart. Literally.”

“You already intend to get inside,” she said, tapping the folder with one manicured fingernail. “With my help, you actually have a chance to make it out.”

“You have someone on the inside,” I said. “Who is it?”

“Clever boy,” she smiled. “But I cannot tell you that.”

“No way,” Aiden said. “We cannot trust her. For all we know, these schematics will lead us straight to the dungeon. Not worth it. We will find another way.”

“I can give you some time to consider your options,” she said, rising. “However, you should also know that if you reject my offer, Theseus will receive an anonymous tip that a couple of earthlings are planning to rob him. Can you believe those arrogant pricks were talking about it at the Starbucks? The nerve, right?”

“Bitch,” Aiden said.

“Such flattery. No wonder you always get the ladies.”

“And if we do this for you,” I said, “how do you intend to get us back to earth? Our earth in our home universe.” When dealing with a genius and master manipulator, you have to be specific. 

“We have access to a Finder Ship.” 

I felt half-a-second of confusion before I figured it out. Aiden was a bit slower. “A Finder Ship? Ridiculous. Then why did you trick us into smuggling you …” 

He trailed off. His expression grew slack. Then his cheeks reddened. His forehead scrunched up. I could practically see him bristle, shoulders squared up, readying for a fight. 

“Yes,” I said, putting my hand on his. “She tricked us with the Ferryman so we would be forced to take her help. We both fell for it.”

“Gods damn it,” Aiden said, standing. “I will fucking kill you—” 

I stood as well. “Stop! This isn’t helpful. We lost this round. Don’t make it worse by getting us arrested. Think for a minute.”

Victoria simply sat, giving Aiden a smug look, not too different from his own typical expression. She must have practiced that in a mirror to get it so perfect.

“We’ll do it,” I said. “But we will draft up the blood oath. You’ll sign it, or we’ll take a job as baristas and find a cozy life here.” And though I didn’t believe it, I added, “There is still chance the Ferryman will take us on a return trip.”

“Done,” she said, rising. She left the folder on the table as she turned to go. “You can reach me at the Lady’s Villa. Queen’s suite.”

She sauntered away without a backward glance, breaking the sound proof shield as she left. Aiden assaulted her with more curses than I could keep up with. 

“Will? Caden?” 

The barista stood with a drink carrier and an armful of paper sacks. 

“Sure. That’s us.”

She dropped the sacks on the folder and placed the drinks in front of me. “Called your names for five minutes.”

“Won’t happen again,” I said, crossing an X over my chest.

“No worries. I just hope it’s not cold. Let us know if we need to remake it.”

And that’s why I love Starbucks. Even if I’m the dumbass who left his order to get cold, they’d make it fresh without complaint. Maybe a bit of sass, but I don’t blame them.

We ravished the food for several minutes without talking. It gave me time to think. The more I thought, the more used I felt. Eventually, the anger I’d been suppressing while under pressure came bubbling up. 

“Gods I feel used,” I said. “We are fucking tools.”

“No. You are a tool. I wanted to turn her in to the Collective. You are the one insisting on saving everyone all the time. Even the megalomaniacal, manipulative bitches who don’t want to be saved.”

“She is not herself, and you know it,” I said, “Fuck Loki, but we have a chance—”

“Sorry, love, but you are not my type.” The man at the table beside us turned and eyed Aiden up and down, finishing his perusal of Aiden’s body with a seductive wink. “But he just might be.”

Aiden blinked. “What’s that now?”

The man wore an ostentatious fur coat made of velvet fur and lacy frills. He could have been Prince’s twin with a closely trimmed mustache and dark eyeliner which highlighted his brown eyes. His crimped black hair fell a few inches below his chin and shimmered as if he’d just stepped out of a shower. 

“Oh boyfriend,” he said, “That is one sweet ass you have. I could sop you up in gravy and eat you like a biscuit.”

Red flushed Aiden’s cheeks. “Uh. Thanks. But I’m not really dating right now.”

“Who said anything about a date?” He leaned forward, eyes now predatory.

Aiden’s nervous laugh failed to hold any actual mirth. 

The man gave himself a self-satisfied grin, head swaggering back and forth as he turned his body to fully face us. He lifted his coffee and sipped it, pinky out. 

I felt a strange connection to the man—not just the joy at seeing his ability to make Aiden squirm at a furtive glance. There was a resonant power coming from him that was familiar but I could not quite place. His eyes twinkled as if he had told a joke where only he knew the punchline, but he had the patience to wait it out rather than explain the pun.

As I opened my mouth to ask who he was, he said, “You must recognize the god you love to curse so often. I mean, do you really want to fuck me in so many orifices?”

The predatory smile turned on me. Just like that, my joy evaporated. 

“Loki?” I said. “Jesus Christ.”

“No. You had it right the first time.”

I knew he could smite me into oblivion, and there was little I could to do stop him. There were laws against murdering in Atlantis. They do not wish chaos to break out on their streets. However, the civilization was archaic in that Loki could demand satisfaction, forcing me to duel him to the death or admit guilt and be executed for dishonoring a citizen of Atlantis. Either way, I’d be dead.

And it would be my own fault for opening my big-fat mouth.

Chapter 13: Into Atlantis

Think of a mage gate like a wormhole. Two openings are made on the surface of an apple, allowing a worm to burrow through, rather than go around. In physics, a wormhole does not necessarily create a shorter path across a frame of space—this is simply a convenient mechanism for science-fiction movies. It is possible that a wormhole could make a path between two positions in space longer.

However, Atlantis is not across space from Earth. It is in a parallel universe, considered to be the centermost realm of Fae. I have not studied enough of wormhole geometries to understand how they came to this conclusion, but I do know that portals connecting reference frames across the multiverse take less time to traverse than those in the same universe. 

Mage gates create a negative energy density to keep the conjoined points in space from pinching off, allowing the portal to remain open between two differing realms. Rather than traverse the Fae Realm, a traveler can use the gates to reach other realms or distant points in our own universe.

Pretty badass, right? Eat your heart out, Einstein. 

Of course, few can intuit the currents of Fae. Without a Map or a guide—like the one we’d just paid dearly to bring us here—a hapless wanderer can find many pitfalls and predators quite easily. In short, if the Ferryman decided not to return us across Fae to our own universe, we would become stranded here, but let’s worry about such trivial details after planning and pulling off the heist. I mean, dead mages didn’t care much if their bodies were stranded somewhere. 

As I stepped across the archway of the portal, I cringed for the terrible sensation I’d felt leaving Antartica for the Fae Realm. It never came. Stepping out of Fae was almost euphoric. My body felt light as if in free fall, but pulled outward. My skin tingled with a warm glow for a full minute, making my stomach dance. 

When the sensation ended, I was standing on a beach with white sands and a blue ocean behind me. The sun was just rising, sending colorful rays skittering across the rolling waters. 

There was no sign of Victoria. 

Up the beach was a long queue of people—using that term loosely—leading up to a colossal wall, which surrounded a large patch of the sand, extending into the ocean. The setup had the feel of crossing the border at an airport, with roped off sections guiding travelers to guard booths. 

Only, you would not see angelic creatures with dark-winged feathers protruding from a medieval, steel breastplate at the airport. After all, they’d never get passed the metal detectors in that. Beyond, there was the hint of people bustling. I smelled coffee. Maybe Atlantis wouldn’t be so bad after all. 

“She’s not here,” Aiden said. “She must have gone through the smaller line.”

As he took a step, I grabbed his arm to stop him. He yanked free, scowling at me. “She’s going to get a way.”

I pointed to the sign. “My Atlantian is a bit rusty, but I’m pretty certain that says ‘Citizens only. All others to the right’.”

Aiden glanced up at the sign and squinted. “You can read that gibberish? Looks like Chinese.”

“Wow. In a single breath, you insulted two civilizations in separate universes.”

“What can I say? I’m an overachiever.” 

“Maybe it’s good you can’t speak the language. Far less likely that mouth of yours can start a duel.”

“Ha. Ha. You are so funny. Almost as comical as that shit-stain you call a face.” 

He walked up to the back of the long line to the right. I followed, trying not to curse him. I should follow my own advice, right? No telling who I might end up offending with a careless word. After all, some of the people I invoke as expletives might actually live here. Dropping Loki’s name as an insult might draw the wrong kind of attention. As two of the few earthling humans around, it would be difficult to blend in, but we could strive not to be noticed.

Glancing at Aiden’s frown, I would not hold my breath. As we waited, I did my best at remaining inconspicuous while noticing those nearby. 

The person in front of us in the line was exceptionally thin with curves similar to a human woman. Her skin appeared granular, as if made of stone. She wore tight-fitting fabric, almost like a unitard, but open at the top, exposing her shoulders and upper chest. Her hair was silver. Not white with a sheen— pure silver. She glanced back at us as we got in the queue behind her. I could see her eyes. They were turquoise with diamond pupils.

“Now who is being insulting?” Aiden whispered. “Ogling the aliens, eh?”

I jerked my eyes away, feeling my cheeks flush. I had been staring. Despite being a different species, likely from a different universe, she was exotic and stunning. Aiden was right. Staring could be taken as an insult as well. Still, I felt the need to reply. “Here, we are the aliens.” 

Aiden gave a snort, which I could not interpret as descent or affirmation. I let it go, continuing my surreptitious studying of those in my immediate vicinity. 

A group of Tennin soldiers came through the portal. I recognized them from my studies of Japanese lure. The shortest of them stood twice my height with pale, almost porcelain-colored faces and rosy cheeks. Some wore their hair bound in intricate braids, while others kept theirs loose. Their white wings were folded behind them, tightly enough to be mistaken for cloaks. They each wore leather armor with a circular emblem on their breasts. They carried swords, still spattered with the remnants of blood from whoever they’d slaughtered before coming here. 

And they got into line directly behind us. 

I sent mental pleas to Aiden to mind his business. He didn’t seem to notice the hulking forms behind us. One arm wrapped over his chest to prop up his elbow so he could rest his chin on his palm. He shuffled forward, expression split between half-bored and half-asleep. A few times, he might have actually dozed on his feet. 

The Tennin gave us both a glance over. I could see the dismissal in the largest one’s eyes. They did not see us as a threat in the least. Good. Beneath noticing. That’s great actually. 

For the next two hours, the line ebbed slowly forward. The crowd behind us grew at about the same pace it shrank in front. I saw many more classes of denizens I did not recognize, including an ape-like creature with four arms and a biped snake-lizard creature with at least twenty offspring. 

There were other races I recognized, including a few minotaurs, some goblins, and even a troll. All the half-bull creatures stood with an air of smug superiority. The three of them were dressed in tailored suits, leftover from an 80s Bond film. Rather than shoes, they stood motionless on hoofed feet, arms crossed in front until time to step forward. Somehow, they made the gesture look like a purposeful march, rather than a mindless shuffle. Their movements emphasized heavily muscled torsos hidden beneath those expensive jackets. Each of the minotaurs studied everyone and everything around them, including Aiden and myself. I pretended not to notice, trying to adopt Aiden’s bored expression. I’m certain I failed because I locked gazes with the tall minotaur with a hooped ring going through the septum of a fat nose. He did not glower, his face never changed, but I felt his attention on me after that. No matter which direction the line turned, I stayed in his periphery. Thankfully, they were several groups behind us in the queue. We’d be long gone before they came through after us.

The goblins were one of the few creatures smaller than Aiden and me. They were cuter than the images we had of them in the archives as well, with round, hairy faces and pinched noses. Their barking language made me want to pet one, and scratch behind those long adorable ears.

The troll was a huge, gangly thing with a humanoid face, complete with nose and mouth, but skin like dark leather. It wore actual sunglasses, too dense to see its eyes and nothing else save a loincloth made of white fur. Its muscles had more muscles with pale scars cut into countless places. And though the troll stood above every other person in line, the gnarled staff in its hand drew more gazes. The wood was covered in runes—a language I did not know—with a multicolored prism resting in the head. With minimal focus, anyone attuned to magic could feel energy radiating from the staff.

More “mythological” and scary-as-hell creatures came as our time in the queue grew shorter. Suffice it to say, by the time we reached the front of the line, I was reminded how small earth is and how weak humans are compared to all the other denizens in the multiverse. And of those, the most powerful beings across the realms take up residence in this universe and live on Atlantis. 

In case this detail was not apparent, Atlantis is an entire planet. Most people expect something out of Arthurian Legend, like a city in the clouds. But it’s more like a steampunk earth. Only, there is a single nation, ruled by The Pantheon (note the capital “T” and “P”). 

Athens is the entry point into Atlantis. Much like it’s counterpart on earth, it is located on a peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea, only it spans the entire northern region and is filled with people trying to break into the lucrative economy. There are also refugees, those fleeing the harsh conditions of a hostile home world. And of course, there are several criminals, coming here to escape justice. None of those are Citizens of Atlantis. All the real-estate is spoken for and rented out at a premium. The currency of Atlantis isn’t bitcoin. It is regular coins. Believe it or not, the precious metals of earth are rare in the multiverse and is a convenient means of multiversal currency—which is why the Collectives of earth use it. We are fucking sophisticated, bitches. 

Sorry, spending too much time with Aiden. 

Athens is one of the largest cities of Atlantis and has little crime because this region is ruled by Theseus, hero of the Attic legend, who is famous for tying criminals up and ripping them apart in front of crowds of onlookers. Brutal but effective. Yet, what did it say about our wisdom seeing as how the entire reason Aiden and I came here was to steal from him?

We would buy the artifact from him, but we are only earth rich. Dollars won’t do much here. Even if it did, all of Aiden’s and my wealth combined might be able to afford a single bed rental for a year here. And it wouldn’t be lofty. It would just be a place to sleep. I was already cringing at the room we need to procure. 

“Next.” 

I looked up from my musings to see the way between us and the gate empty. Thirteen stations were open. Beside each was an archway. Though invisible, I could feel the energy barring entry into the city. A minotaur at the fourth booth waved us forward. She also wore a suit, though it was much tighter in the chest than the minotaurs still in the queue behind us.

As we stepped forward, Aiden asked beneath his breath. “You think she has utters?”

I’m certain he meant it as a joke. Though they possessed the head of a bull, minotaurs had human bodies. No utters. Just breasts like the rest of us. Still, my cheeks instantly heated. I almost tripped.

When I regained my footing, I glared at Aiden. “Be cool, man.”

He gave me the smirk that always makes me want to flatten his smug nose. I took deep breaths to compose myself. 

I smiled at the border security guard. “Good morning.”

She spoke in Atlantian in a husky but feminine voice. “Passports.”

Fishing the rune-covered stone from my purse, I placed it on the counter, motioning for Aiden to do the same. The talisman is attuned to each mage. It requires an individual’s ethereal pattern to be constructed and is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to counterfeit. Each ethermage gets one upon becoming a master. Aiden plopped his down next to mine with a resounding thud. 

“Blood,” she said. “One drop at the center.”

Though she offered a needle, I used my belt dagger to prick the tip of my index finger and touched it to the stone. The runes resonated with energy. 

“Liamorandus Fianna,” she said as if reading the waves of energy. Ethermage of the Celtic Collective of Earth. Race, Human. You are a master of ether magic?”

“Yes,” I said in Atlantian. 

“What is your business in Atlantis?”

“We have come on pleasure to Athens. I hear you have the best coffee in the multiverse.”

“Do you plan to travel outside of Athens?”

“Not likely. No.”

“Where do you intend to stay while within the region?”

“We have yet to procure lodging,” I said. “We plan to find something on the gulf side. Any recommendations?” 

She turned her attention to Aiden. “Blood.”

Aiden went through a similar procedure, me acting as an interpreter. I modified some of his answers, removing the pomp in favor of conservative dialogue. 

She used a rod to send pulses of energy into our passports then pushed them back to us. Whatever she’d done had the feel of invocation, likely some form of divination pattern. In other words, they could keep tabs on us easily. 

“Keep your passports on you at all times.” She gestured toward the portal, then turned her attention back to the queue. “Enjoy your stay.”

As she called for the next traveler, part of me considered asking for recommendations again, but that was just the lack of coffee talking. Everyone knows, you do not want to push boundaries with airport security. Those assholes have a god-complex worse than Loki’s, looking for any excuse to feel you up—rather … pat you down. That truth holds doubly here. Only the pat down involves protrusion into orifices using magic. 

No thank you.

So I sauntered through the archway and into a stone walkway of earth tones. People rushed left and right, barely glancing our way, even though I had stopped to gape like a yokel. The clash of genres was off-putting. I could not tell if I had stepped onto an episode of the Jetsons or Game of Thrones. 

The walk path ended at a street, also cobbled but with red stone. Self-driving cars without wheels hovered next to horse-drawn carriages. One person flew a Harry Potter style broom, while another rode the motorcycle from Grease—an actual Honda Scrambler. In the air, valkyries flew through skyscrapers which disappeared into the sky. Down the street, I could see a gray wall. Behind it was a castle, complete with spires and ramparts. Every architectural wonder from anywhere in history existed here plus others from fantasy. 

“Hello, stranger. You look lost.” 

The familiar voice made my back stiffen. I turned to see Victoria standing behind me. She had changed into a red dress, fit to her form. A necklace shimmering with prisms fell across her bare chest. Her hair had been arranged in a woven bun. Four minotaurs in black suits were with her, two on either side. 

She smiled at my discomfort. “Can we go somewhere and talk?

Chapter 12: Fair Shake

I’ve faced all manner of creatures in my time. I’ve mentioned the minotaurs. I’ve also hunted vampires, ghouls, ghasts and other undead most people have never heard of, like Drauger—which are strong like titans and intelligent enough to have motivations, such as destroy all living beings. The Lich King Chitragupta gained power by consuming the ethereal energy of the living. Despite eating many of my fellows, I fought that bastard to a stalemate, then participated in banishing him from earth for the next 152 years. 

Demons are chaotic and devils are wily, and both are often enthralled to a wythermage. With the help of Aiden, Victoria, and Abigail—before the latter two lost their damn minds and bonded themselves to a goddess—we took out a score of demons from the realm of Dubnos, along with the summoner who called them. 

I killed a titan off the Gulf of Bothnia, a Cerubus Mount Giona, Greece, and a Wyvern above the Aegean Sea. In all these cases and dozens more like them, I had been prepared to do battle. Even when outmatched, I had never been out-gunned.

Until now.

The Ferryman held his power, watching us with unimaginable intensity. I did not move. Beside me, Aiden clutched my elbow as if urging me to do something. There were several arrium inside the bag at my feet that might offer us a chance to survive this, but reaching for them might get us killed.

Diplomacy. That’s what we needed. Sure, we broke his one rule, but he was a reasonable sort of guy and he had not blasted us to ashes yet. There was a chance he would talk, right?

“So,” I said, hoping better words would form in my mind and make their way to my lips. They didn’t. “Uh … can we talk about this?”

The Ferryman stood there, seeing beyond our flesh. He stared as if counting every molecule of my being. Then his gaze moved onto Aiden before settling back on me. This went on for some time. I once again considered going for a weapon and rejected it. Instead, I readied myself to throw a quick shield spell, hoping it would at least stop some of the force of whatever hell he called up to rip us asunder. 

“You have been claimed by a citizen of Atlantis, so I will not smite thee to oblivion,” the Ferryman said at last. “However, there will be a cost to your violation of my realm. You will both—”

“Claimed?” Aiden asked, “What do you mean claimed?”

Though I cringed at the Ferryman’s expression at being interrupted, I wanted the answer as well. Only the most powerful beings in the universe earned a place of permanent residence in Atlantis. These included every known god and goddess of earth, as well as the more powerful denizens of the inner realms of Fae. A Citizen of Atlantis was protected by the Atlantis Accords. As far as I knew, the only claim someone could have over us was if we were bonded to them. I knew I wasn’t, so … could it mean Aiden had been bonded all this time as well? Were Aiden and Abby working together? If so, how in hades had he hidden it from me? As much as I wanted to ask these questions, I bit my tongue—mostly due to the lightning storm of anger in the god-like being’s eyes, who happened to be glaring at us at the moment. Survive now, beat the answers out of Aiden later.

“You test my patience, child of earth. Do not interrupt me again.” The energy crackled around the Ferryman’s oar, emphasizing his aforementioned ability to smite us. “Understood?”

Aiden bit his tongue and nodded. Inwardly, I sighed in relief.

“As I was saying. You will both offer a task as payment for the passage of Victoria Cleopatra Deletante. Additionally, for smuggling an unwilling captive onto my boat, you will consign to me a drop of blood as collateral. Do you accept these terms?”

“Just for clarification,” Aiden asked, “is this our only option? I mean … how about another couple hundred years of service instead?”

“Blood and a favor,” the Ferryman said. “That is the deal.”

“And if we say no?” Aiden pressed.

“Claimed or not, you will find yourself in service to the River Styx far sooner than you planned.”

From the look in his eyes, I could tell Aiden was considering a fight or maybe just a follow-up question. Either way, I didn’t want to find out if the Ferryman would carry out his threat. Before Aiden could say something that would get us murdered violently, I said, “We will take the deal.”

“We will?” Aiden said.

“Yes,” I said between my teeth. “We will.”

“Very well.” 

Faster than I could track with my natural sight, the Ferryman produced a knife and stabbed the tip into my hand then Aiden’s arm. With a trickle of ether, a single drop of blood floated above my hand. Air solidified around the crimson drop and compressed it into a sphere. Likewise, Aiden’s blood floated over to the Ferryman and vanished inside his gray cloak. It all happened faster than my brain could register the sting of the cut on my skin.

“What favor?” Aiden asked, voice a bit sullen as he pressed a hand to the small cut in his bicep. 

“You will know when I call you. Now get off my boat.”

He did not have to tell me twice. I all but hopped onto the black sand and hurried toward the gate that would take us to Atlantis. After getting well clear of the Ferryman, I gathered ether and healed the cut. Aiden didn’t bother. He stepped between me and the gate, squaring off for a fight. 

“What did he mean, claimed?”

I pulled up short. “I was going to ask you the same thing.” 

He drew much more ether than necessary to heal the small cut on his arm. I pulled in enough to match him. 

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“What are you doing?” he said. 

“Aside from saving your dumb ass from annihilation from a god?” I said, “I’m trying to figure out what the hell is going on here. Are you working with Abby and Victoria?”

“Don’t turn this around on me. I know I’m not bonded.”

“I’m not bonded,” I snapped. 

“How did Victoria escape?” he countered.

“You put the shackles on her. You tell me.” 

“And you gave her fucking pillows. I saw you. Don’t deny it.”

“It was dark. The stones are hard. I love her, you asshole.”

“Which is why you would bond yourself to Artemis. Gods damn it. I should have known.”

I held my hands wide. “I’m not fucking bonded. You would sense it, you dolt.”

By the same argument, I would sense his bond. 

Aiden frowned. 

I frowned.

We stayed that way for sometime, both holding the ether, neither one moving, glowering at the other. 

For those keeping count, I said there were 7 schools of magic, but I only explained 6 before. Essence magic—sometimes referred to as soul magic or kotodama—is volatile, and though not illegal, Grandmaster Tomoe Gozen of the Samurai Collective recruits all of his own students herself. 

Essence magic is that art of burning a bit of the essential energy to create a permanent enchantment, charm, or effect. It is, by and large, the most powerful school of magic because the skill can be used to enhance any spell. Imagine creating a physical body that will never decay or a house that will stand for a million years. This is possible with essence magic. An essence, the soul, is eternal. It is made of stuff outside the effects of entropy and the wearing of time. Using it to power a spell is dangerous but lasting. 

These spells empower the bonds that link a thrall to a master, which is why we have no way of severing the chains holding a bonded mage from their chosen deity. In theory, a talented mage could use essence magic to break such a bond, but even Grandmaster Gozen is not capable. Before becoming a member of the Collective, Grandmaster Gozen was a samurai to Yoshinaka in the twelfth century. Her dedication to her craft is inscrutable. She has vowed to remain living until she has found a way to sever the unbreakable bond. After over 900 years of trying, she has not succeeded. 

There is a resonance to essence spells that can be sensed by a mage with even the smallest amount of talent. Either Aiden or myself would be able to tell if the other was bonded.

I sensed no such resonance on Aiden. I knew he sensed no such power over me. 

With a sigh, I released my hold on the ether. Aiden did the same, likely for the same reasons. He confirmed as much by saying, “This is pointless. You are clearly not bonded.”

“And neither are you,” I said as a way of apology. “But what did he mean do you think?”

He shrugged. “Earthen magic is not the only power that exists in the multiverse.” 

“True,” I agreed. “Perhaps there is Fae magic lingering on us or some other power we cannot detect.”

“That’s a sobering thought.” Aiden frowned and wiped at his cloak as if trying to brush off dirt. “Or it could simply be that an earth deity has placed us under their protection. It isn’t Artemis. Abigail already tried to kill us once or twice.”

“But did she? Think about it. Victoria was prepared for this. She slipped the shackles and waited until we had almost reached Atlantis.”

“She could not have slipped the shackles using the ether.”

“Then how? There is no lock to pick or seam to leverage.”

“That’s the million sterling question, isn’t it? But I think a more important question is why? What does she want in Atlantis? Do you think she is after the same artifact we are?”

“Not likely. She would have waited for us to risk our own necks then take it from us. After all, we thought she’d been properly cowed. And to think, I actually felt bad about locking her up.”

He snorted. “Of course you did. You’re soft. And when she’s concerned, you’re practically melted butter.”

“Melted butter? That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Not every zinger can properly zing. Besides, it’s been a long day. Gimme a break.”

“No such luck,” I said. “Day’s still gonna get longer.”

“What day is it anyway?”

“Tuesday still, I think.” 

“As if it matters,” he said, turning toward the portal. “We aren’t going to figure any of this shit out standing here.”

“Right,” I agreed. “Let’s see what Victoria has waiting for us on the other side.”

Taking a few deep breaths, we stepped through the portal. 

Chapter 11: Crossing Fae

We stepped through the archway onto black sand, speckled with glowing gems, no larger than a single karat. As mere mortal earthlings, we have learned to think of a river as a flowing body of water bounded between two masses of land. The River Styx seemed endless. White waters rested against the banks. Ripples reverberated across the otherwise still surface, so completely unlike an ocean’s waves, it felt fake—as if made via computer for a B-film. 

A cloaked figure stood by the water’s edge with its back to us. The cloak was a faded gray, as if it had once been black. Not tattered exactly, but the hem was frayed and dragged the sand as the figure turned toward us. I was surprised by the young face looking at us. His midnight black hair spilled from his cowl covering his pale cheeks. Ancient eyes of gold watched our approach with a predatory hunger. 

I could still feel ether and wyther in abundance. Much of it came from the River Styx and the sand at our feet. But a vibrant source of power radiated from the figure as well, easily the equal of Aiden and me and maybe five or six more mages together. 

I felt like a rabbit walking into a lion’s den of its own Darwin-award winning free will. I was aware of each step in the dark sand. The walk felt like a mile. Don’t fucking trip. That was the only thought I could make go through my brain. Over and over. I resisted the urge to glance back to see how far we had gone, but I dared not take my eyes from the Ferryman. Such an innocuous sounding name, like the gardener or chef. Seriously, someone needs to correct this oversight for the history books. 

As we neared, the Ferryman seemed to grow taller, so much so that I had to crane my neck to look up at him. If I had to guess I would say 11 or 12 feet tall. Though any ethermage could cast a spell to grow like that, no lingering magic hung to him. He was clearly not human. The thin angular face and golden eyes suggested a Fae race, an elf maybe. Whatever he was, I wanted to pull in a little ether and grow to his size, then I’d be able to meet his gaze straight on. I’d feel less like prey, but he might take it as a challenge. The buzz of power surrounding him, I did not want that. Besides, I was not that petty. Thank the Allfather and the rest of the gods, Aiden wasn’t either. At least not at the moment.

The Ferryman showed his teeth in what might have been a smile. “What brings you to my shore, children of earth?”

Aiden stepped half a step forward. “We wish to bargain for passage across Fae, to the lands of Atlantis.” 

“Of course,” he said, predatory smile increasing. “Are you prepared to pay the toll?”

There was an inauspicious quality to his tone. Something in it suggested, he would not tell us the price if we asked. Which made me want to ask. Maybe we could negotiate for better terms. But Aiden spoke first.

“We are. We pledge service upon our death.” Aiden swallowed, a slight quiver to his voice as he added, “One hundred earth years each.”

The Ferryman gave a slight incline to his head. “Payment accepted. Please, come this way.”

He gestured toward the white ocean. The water parted like mercury on glass, revealing an old wooden dinghy with a single oar attached to the side. Not more than five meters across, the vessel looked tiny next to the endless white waters. I felt a pit rise in my stomach as we followed him onto the boat. The wood creaked beneath our feet. 

“So … uh,” Aiden said. “You ever consider upgrading? I know this guy who could get you a helluva deal on a yacht.” 

“I have no need of mortal luxuries. But thank you for your kindness.” I swear he smiled as he said, “You will want to sit down.”

The moment his fingers wrapped around the pole, the boat lurched away from the shore. We sat our not-so-happy assess on the wooden plank at the rear of the dinghy. A sphere of energy surrounded us just before the vessel descended into the white substance—calling it water now felt completely absurd. It swirled against the invisible barrier as we hurtled through at Loki only knew what speed. 

Aiden leaned over and whispered, “Feels like a ley, eh?”

Extending my senses out, I realized that was exactly what it felt like. We could travel through the River in a similar fashion to the leys. Only, the Ferryman made use of the currents, changing directions at will. We had no such control of the ley lines. We hopped in and off like hobos getting on and off an already moving train. This showed a mastery beyond our capability.

“Sure,” I said, at last. “Just like the leys.”

Aiden gave me a tight smile. And for once, the bastard looked as queasy as I felt. We rode in silence for some time. I tried and failed to quiet my mind. 

We were on our way to a Fae world to steal from a being more powerful than any human in a land—though neutral—mostly hostile to human ethermages. If we managed to avoid getting killed by the various denizens of Atlantis, we would be at the Ferryman’s mercy to get home. Again, I wish we would have negotiated. Perhaps, the hundred years would have paid for a return trip. I mean … it seems kinda steep for a simple boat ride—

Power flared from within my dimensional pocket. It hadn’t come from me. Victoria was in there. But she was held by shackles of negation. She couldn’t have. Could she?

The Ferryman’s back stiffened. He turned to look at me, those golden eyes simmering with anger. “Are you attempting to smuggle a soul across my river?”

“What?” I said, voice far shriller than I would have liked. “No. It is not like that. She is a prisoner. A criminal.”

“Bring her forward.”

“If I may interject—” Aiden began, but the Ferryman lifted a finger, cutting off Aiden’s protests. 

“Bring. Her. Forward.”

“At once,” I said, pulling my pack off my back. The sides of the boat were not large enough to secure an opening, so I handed the backpack to Aiden, who held it open without being asked. His fingers trembled slightly as he lifted it. 

The fear in his eyes mirrored my own. This was not going to end well. I mean … I had a girl tied up in my basement. Thank all the gods and their kids I had given her those pillows and tried to make her comfy, or someone might get the wrong idea.

I gathered ether and lifted the rug and stone by the fireplace. Rather than lift her, I rearranged the stones to make a staircase up.

“Vic,” I called, using my old moniker for her in hopes to sound less like a serial killer and more like a normal guy helping his old friend out. “Would you please come up here?”

There was a slight whimper and a shuffling of bare feet on stone. What the actual fuck?

Victoria emerged from the darkened hole looking far more haggard than when I’d left her. Her v-neck was missing several green sequins and was ripped, exposing much of her torso and part of her breasts, which she covered with both arms. Likewise, her black leggings appeared as if they’d been torn from her and hastily replaced. She held her eyes downcast, not meeting anyone’s gaze. There were welts on her wrists where the shackles had been. Had been. Past tense.

Fuck. Yeah. We were dead.

She scampered from the dimensional pocket, stumbling to the deck and looking up at the Ferryman, eyes filled with fear and hope. She deserved a gods damned Emmy for that performance.

“It’s not what it looks like,” Aiden said. I could hear the panic in his voice, which made us appear even more guilty. “She’s a prisoner of the Collective.”

“What is your name, child of earth?”

She lifted her chin. Her bottom lip quivered. And she produced actual gods damned tears as she said, “I am Victoria Cleopatra Deletante. And these men … hurt me.”

“She’s a bonded mage,” Aiden said. “We were—”

“I do not recognize her name from my list of fugitives. Do you have documents for her bounty?”

He said documents and bounty with a lowercase “d” and “b”, but Bounty Documents were universally recognized magical writs for a person’s transportation across Fae. Such universally recognized criminals had broken the Accords of Atlantis. 

I was going to elaborate upon this when we reached Atlantis, but before you can truly understand the shit-storm about to come our way, you had to understand a bit of the politics of the ancient realm of the Fae. 

Atlantis is far more than a city. It is the oldest civilization in the universe. It’s rules and mandates supersede all others in regards to the Fae Realm. Think of it like a militant Switzerland. Though technically neutral, they have the power and ability to take over the multiverse but choose not to get involved in the local affairs of a given world unless individual members violate their laws. Such people get assigned bounties and get hunted down to be returned to Atlantis, where the pantheon metes out Justice—which incidentally is how Ino got tasked with guarding the gate to the River Styx. 

The River is the Ferryman’s seat of power, similar to the nexuses on Earth. For all intents and purposes, he is a god with his own domain. Unlike the gods of Earth, the Ferryman does not bond mages in search for more power. He creates indentured servants of the dead, all tasked with ferrying souls to their assigned afterlife. Of the living, he requires only a single favor, far better than a lifetime of servitude required by the Earthen pantheon, from Artemis to Zeus. But I digress. 

In his domain, the Ferryman gets to set his own rules. He has only one: all travelers seeking passage across the River must pay a toll. None shall pass without negotiating with him. Stowaways will not be tolerated. 

“We do not have Bounty Documents,” I said at last. “She is a criminal of Earth. Not Atlantis.”

“Then she is free to go.”

Seeing his expression, I could tell Aiden would argue. I put a hand on Aiden’s wrist to indicate he should shut the fuck up. Thank Amaethon, goddess of luck, he did. But he did cast me an, “this is all your fault,” expression that could have also been, “go fuck yourself, you bloody wanker.”

“Th-thank you,” Victoria said, standing and limping over toward the Ferryman.

“Which side of the River do you wish to depart company with these earthlings.”

“Earth,” she said, “but can I catch my breath for a few days in Atlantis.”

“Aye,” he said, somehow glaring at both Aiden and me simultaneously. “These two will pay for your passage.”

“Pay how?” Aiden asked.

The Ferryman turned back to his ore without responding. I shared a look with Aiden. The anger had drained from his face, along with the color. His pale cheeks were pallid. He chewed his lip and turned away from me. 

To Victoria’s credit, she continued the role for the remainder of the trip, avoiding eye-contact with anyone. But I could read her better than anyone. She kept her gaze down so no one could see the smirk in her eyes.

Yeah. I’m an idiot. That’s not in debate at the moment. I saw it all so clearly now. Abigail baiting me back to the Eternal War. Victoria going to that party. Her getting captured. All of it had been planned. Like a love-sick puppy, I licked the heel of my masters. Victoria wiggled her toes, and I came running. Why? What was her end game?

She had wanted to come to Atlantis. That was certain. And she’d gotten me and Aiden to get her across the River for free. Her ride back was on us as well. But what did she want here? Surely not Theseus’s artifact. If that was the case, she would want to work with us, or at the very least wait to Houdini her way free after we got the thing. 

We came to a stop. The shell opened, revealing the white surface of the River Styx once more. The boat came to another shore, virtually identical to the one we’d left. Only, the gems sparkling in the sand gave off a deep blue glow rather than a white luminescence, and there were thirteen different gates, each with complex formulae covering them.

The Ferryman’s voice was cold. “Give her some coins for food and lodging.” 

One glance at Aiden told me he would rather die than pay a pence. 

“Of course,” I said, pulling the purse from a pocket of my cloak. I fished out a small handful, dropping the heaviest ones back inside the coin bag. 

Fingers trembling—seriously, how the hell did she do that on cue?—she reached out and took my coins.

The Ferryman pointed to the middle arch. “Atlantis is that one.”

Once her foot stepped onto the sand, he turned toward us, his back to Victoria. He did not see her triumphant grin. Nor did he see her mouth, “Thanks, bitches.” 

But I did. And so did Aiden. 

After she disappeared through the portal, the Ferryman turned his gaze on us, seeming to grow even taller. He pulled his cowl down. Long pointed ears emerged from his hair. He drew power. Energy crackled around him, like a Tesla coil. 

I’d like to say that I stood tall and brave in the face of my impending doom. In truth, I nearly pissed myself. 

Chapter 10: The River Styx

We dropped out of the ley onto the frozen tundra in the middle of Nowhwere, Antartica and immediately drew on the ether for warmth. Hugging myself and rubbing my arms, I took a quick survey of my surroundings. The ground around us was flat, loose snow. A vast sea of white stretched out in every direction. The only variation to the land lay about a hundred meters ahead, where blocky chunks of ice jutted upward, making giant cliffs of solid ice. It had been around midnight when we’d left Tallahassee, but overhead, the sun gave a weak glow through a thin array of clouds. 

Frigid wind buffeted the sphere of heat I had conjured, almost staggering me. I could not hold this forever. We were both taxed from the long journey across Earth. Though faster than an airplane, we’d crossed a dozen ley lines to get here. Two and a half hours of constant ether burn is a lot of work. To get an idea of how much effort it takes, try holding your arms out to the side for a while without dropping them. Think it’s easy? Hold them there for twenty minutes, and I’ll be impressed. That’s what it’s like holding ether steady for prolonged periods. Really easy at first, but after time, the struggle is real.

The gateway to Fae is several miles from the ley into Domo Argus east of the South Pole. Domo Argus is the coldest place on the planet, reaching temperatures of -90 degrees Celcius. Trudging through the snow, climbing over the cliffs was not an option. Neither of us would last long without constantly burning a nimbus of heat, which would strain our already weary reserves before we reached Atlantis, where we’d both need to be on guard. 

“Make a boat?” I asked Aiden.

“Way ahead of you,” he said, tossing a fist-sized model ship onto the ice at our feet. It was shaped like a medieval vessel called a cog with little dragonfly wings instead of sails. Aiden sent a trill of ether into the arrium. 

Seconds later, a hull rose from the snow and formed beneath us. Smooth walls grew on all sides, forming a buffer from the wind. A domed fire-pit sat at the center with four wooden chairs rising from the deck. I sat in one and sent a trickle of power to set the single log in the pit to flames. Heat poured out of the arrium, filling the space as if we were inside a hut rather than a topless boat. The cold vanished, allowing me to stop burning ether.

“Much better,” Aiden said, sitting in the chair across the fire from me. His expression became pensive as he concentrated. I felt ether burn as the cog lifted into the air. 

“Aye,” I said. “How are we getting past the gatekeeper?”

“One gold.” 

“That’s it?”

“What do you want me to say? Inflation isn’t really a thing out here.”

“And the ferryman?” I asked, ignoring his sarcasm. “What will he want? A single coin as well?”

“A favor owed in exchange for his labor, a drop of blood, or a century of service upon death.” 

“Fuck Loki, is that all? What about the stories of the River Styx?”

“Stories are always wrong,” Aiden grunted. “You know that. But relax. We will promise to pledge service upon death. Only a fool would give him blood or owe a favor. I mean, aside from haunting you, I don’t have many plans after you get me killed. How ’bout you?” 

“Funny,” I said without humor.

“We should consider other options.”

“Already have. I spent five years trying to find other ways. The grandmasters told me where to shove it when I asked to borrow a Map.”

I nodded to him, showing my understanding. Then I brooded on the problem. I know, it’s a bit arrogant of me to think I could figure out in ten minutes the solution to a problem Aiden had been chewing on for five years. But I had to try.

There are many ways into the Fae Realm, but an unprepared traveler could become lost, unable to ever return to this world or time, or even the same dimension. The universes are vast. Not all of them contain ether. One who requires ether to survive does not go hopping around through the Fae Realm without a Map or guide. Maps are very expensive. The combined Collective has 3. In truth, I knew little about them other than the Maps cannot be stolen or copied, which is why they are guarded by the Grandmasters, who are each unrivaled mages considered to be the supreme authority on their particular sect of magic. There are 7, one for each of the known disciplines of magic. 

I have been intentionally avoiding discussing the details of all the branches of magic because it is a long tangent that gets a bit esoteric. But here they are, in no particular order.

Alchemy is the art of turning one thing into another by combining the proper constituent components, magic, and will. Thaumaturgy is ritualistic magic. It is the most mathematical. A mage creates a model-scale conduit for a large scale result. This is the most dangerous but has the most bang for the buck. For example, the arrium we were flying in was created with Thaumaturgy and can shrink or grow upon activation. Invocation, which is my speciality, is combat magic. You’ve seen much of what it can do. It requires vast amounts of energy and disciplined focus for on the spot ass-kicking. 

Evocation—often confused with invocation—is magic dealing with drawing power from other planes and dimensions directly, often used to fuel Thaumaturgy. This branch carries many risks. Think of reaching your hand into a bag of poisonous spiders, hoping to find a nugget of gold at the bottom. There are ways to see into the bag, but you better know what the hell you are doing before reaching inside or you’ll not live long enough to see what you pulled out.

Summoning, is the art of using ethereal patterns to manipulate or influence beings from other planes. Get a minotaur’s, nightmare’s, or troll’s pattern, and you can call it to serve you. Summoning spells bind the drawn creature or entity to the fate of the summoner. But this is a one-way street. A summoner can kill or harm the summoned creature without effect, which is why the called entity typically will serve the one who calls them without the need for compulsion—also known as Enchantment magic, which is sometimes required to control willful beings who are summoned. Enchantments can also be used on normals to influence or control their behavior.

I do not care for either of these last two magics because I do not enjoy the idea of taking away the Freewill of another. Whether it came from an Allfather, Allmother, or some gendered-neutral omnipotent but paternal deity, or simply exists independent of such powerful beings, we have Freewill for a reason. That matters to me. 

The last magic is known as Spirit magic, which could be sub-divided into Life and Death. If Life has a basic element, it is the ether, just as wyther has Death. All mages can use both, but some mages are naturally energized by the use of wyther. We call them wythermages (I know … original), but stories refer to them as necromancers. Same idea but not so goth as you see them on the telly. I once knew a wythermage who only wore pink and rainbows. He also was a hairdresser named Cody. Fun guy. 

Anyway, I have some small talent with all of the schools of magic, but am best with Thaumaturgy and Invocation, both of which I am ranked as a master. But my raw power places me on the path to take my Bodhi’s place some day in Invocation. And though the testing is secret, I know that it usually takes place over the course of a year and is administered by all of the living grandmasters working in concert. To be elevated, their agreement must be unanimous. Suffice to say, I really hope Bodhi Caderyn lives a long time for more than just my love of the man. 

There is a silver-lining. When I rise to grandmaster, I will have access to the Maps. As long-lived beings, we could wait this out. It is called the Eternal War for a reason. It will still be here when I make grandmaster. Then, when I have the means, I can come back and navigate through the Fae Realm to Atlantis without giving up a century of my existence to serve as some sort of undertaker. 

However, time was not on our side. Victoria, the love of my life, was shackled in a basement in my dimensional pocket. Don’t judge me. What would you do if your significant other was being used like a puppet by a goddess hellbent on world domination? The second Aiden left me alone with her, I gave her a light, pillows, and a few novels. Not ideal, but she’s also not at the Collective being beheaded.

Guilt aside, waiting was not an option. As far as the Collective was concerned, Victoria was a fugitive. She’d forfeited her life when she bonded to a deity. And while we were here, trying to get a device to break the bond, Abigail was gathering forces for an obvious attack on a nexus of power. And fuck Loki, what time was it? Shit. What day was it? In Tallahassee, it was 2 or 3 a.m. Tuesday morning. Antartica is … what? 15 hours ahead? Yeah, whatever. I was pretty sure I would be missing a class or two. 

The ship stopped, interrupting my internal dialogue, which hadn’t gotten anywhere. I’d been replacing sleep with an extra burning of ether. Better than caffeine, but it would only stave off sleep-effects for so long. Also, my metaphorical arms were getting tired.

“A century before choosing your rebirth isn’t so bad.”

“What’s that?” I asked, looking up at him.

“Death row inmates walking the green mile have more color in their cheeks than you do right now. What are you thinking about?”

“Everything. Nothing. It doesn’t matter. Let’s get on with this.”

We climbed out of the ship to get clear of the inverted growth spell. The vessel shrunk down to fist sized, and Aiden pocketed the arrium again. 

I looked around the frozen wasteland. Wind picked up, sending motes of snow into the air. Aiden walked with purpose then stopped a few paces away, staring at the tundra. At first, it appeared no different than any other white surface, until I realized the thick sheet of ice was perfectly clear of snow. Protective runes glowed beneath the surface, inside the glaciated lake. Silent power thrummed through them.

“Follow my steps, exactly,” Aiden said. 

“What do they do?”

“Look deeper. Way deeper.”

I looked with my ether-sight, questing lower. After a hundred feet below, I found the first body, encased on a frozen chunk. Then another. And another. Gods, there were dozens of them, probably all mages who had tried to cross to the gateway. I mean, I suppose one or two could be scientists stumbling the magical construct in the middle of the coldest place on earth. They are masochists for knowledge. 

“It’s a maze of magic traps,” Aiden confirmed. “One wrong step, the circle closes on your leg, traps you in a disruption sphere, and hurls you below the lake. You’ll freeze from the inside long before you drown, unable to draw even a trickle of ether or wyther.”

“And we can’t fly over it because?”

“Notice there is no wind?”

“Yes. So?”

“Use that sexy brain of yours.”

“Ah,” I said, realizing the problem. “The disruption field is projected upward, nullifying any magic above it for at least a hundred feet.”

“Feet? What are you? American now? More like a thousand meters. We have to walk a tightrope to the center. It’s actually a simple pattern if you know what to look for. You’ll recognize it as the Penpont Maze, only a bit more deadly.”

“That’s great.” I smiled at him. “After you.”

“You just want to stare at my ass. Don’t be jealous. I do yoga.”

I shuddered from the the image of Aiden in tight nylons bent over a mat doing downward-facing dog. I know him well enough to know that if he ever did yoga, he would be one of the dudes in the front, without shorts to cover his goods, happily shoving his junk in the faces of all those in attendance as he executed the exercises with perfect form. 

Aiden took a careful step onto the ice. I expected it to creak or crack like it does in the movies. Nothing. He walked one foot at a time, studying the pattern with each move. I placed my feet exactly where his had been. The second I was on the lake, the wind stopped whistling in my ears. Every part of me screamed to go back. 

We inched our way toward the center, which I realized was a circle. If I was somehow able to perfectly measure the circumference divided by the diameter, I knew I would get Pi, exactly to its infinite precision. If there had ever been doubts of magic at play, this would have killed that uncertainty. Such perfection never occurred in nature. 

Aiden stopped at the center and looked down at a pentagram, encased in yet another perfect circle. He stepped into the pentagon at the center, which spanned at least 3 meters across. I stood beside him.

“What now?”

“You are going to have to trust me here,” Aiden said. “Forewarning, this is going to suck.”

“What’s going to s—”

With the slightest tug of ether from Aiden, we plunged into the ice. My testicles must have climbed back inside me to keep from freezing off. Not that I could feel them from the stabbing sensation hitting every angle of my body. I’d only sucked in half a breath. The pressure to suck in breath made my lungs burn. 

If I lived through this, I would kill him. Not with magic either. Oh no, I would wrap my hand around his throat and squeeze until—

Just as it occurred to me to draw on the ether to save myself, the sensations ended. 

I stood on shaky legs, next to Aiden, upon a perfect replica of the pentagram atop the lake, only the drawing was white atop a sea of black. I was dry. We had not actually fallen through the lake. This was the place between, no longer Earth, but not quite in Fae.

There was no tapestry of traps on this side. Ether and wyther pulsed in abundance. And I knew without asking, there was an endless drop beyond the border of our little circle. Less than a hundred yards away, an ancient archway of dark marble hung upon nothing with a vast void beyond. Red pulsed on the greenish stone, patterns far more intricate than anything I had ever seen or created. I recognized some of the symbols of transport and knew enough to realize the rest was an address. Beautiful and impossible magic, old and powerful. 

How in all the gods did anyone navigate here without that portal? I shuddered at my own arrogance before. I wouldn’t even chance using a Map to find this place. No arrium could be so strong.

Even with all the mind-boggling impossibilities before me, somehow, the biggest oddity was the young girl sitting on an invisible chair in front of the archway, reading a book. A voluminous robe draped on her shoulders, open in the front. Beneath, she wore a red spaghetti-strapped shirt with tight jeans. Blonde hair was tied back and held up with chopsticks. She wore no makeup but had a touch of natural blush reddening her cheeks. Also, she was practically alight with ether infusing every part of her.

She glanced up at us, frowned, then got back to her novel, completely nonplussed by our sudden, miraculous arrival. 

Before I could ask, Aiden said, “Just like riding a ley. Come on.”

My heart lurched as he dropped off the tip of the pentagram. A semi-sphere of hardened ether enclosed him, carrying him like a single-serving boat to the girl. I followed in my own little pod of ether. 

Without looking up from her book, the girl asked, “Can you pay the toll?”

“Of course,” Aiden said, clearly enjoying the sight of her. “May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?”

“Leucothea.”

I cringed as he gave her his most charming smile. Clearly, he did not recognize the name. “Are you a mage?”

Lowering her novel, she stared at Aiden as if he was the biggest idiot she’d ever deigned to speak to.

I leaned in and whispered, “She also goes by Ino, daughter to Cadmus and Harmonia, granddaughter to Ares and Aphrodite. After Hera drove her from their mother’s place of power, she was banished, apparently now tasked with being the gatekeeper here.” 

Leucothea, demi-god to Ares turned her frown on me, and it deepened. “For another six hundred eighty-seven Earth years.” 

“Right,” Aiden said, digging an old-fashioned coin purse from his cloak. “We have gold. How much?”

“One each.” 

He fished out two gold coins and offered them to her. When they vanished from his palm, he yanked his hand back with a shrill yelp, eliciting the hint of a smirk from Ino. She nodded toward the gate.

We stepped through and found ourselves standing before the River Styx.

Chapter 9: Clemency or Death

Seeing Victoria bound to the chair, unconscious and head lulling to the side, I felt pain more intense than a jolt of lightning to the chest. Memories of our times together came unbidden. My bottom lip quivered. Tears reamed my eyes.

“Gods damn it,” Aiden said. “No. She broke the Accords. It’s over for her. We are taking her in.”

“I never said anything.”

“The fuck you didn’t. It’s all over your face. She’s bonded. There’s no coming back from that. She’s the enemy.”

“What if there is a way to come back?”

Aiden stared at me as if I was simple, mouth open at the shock of my sheer stupidity. The worst part was, I wasn’t certain he was wrong. His face scrunched up in anger, then disgust, and finally settled into bitter resolve. 

“There isn’t.”

“How are you so certain? Have you looked?”

“Yes. I went through this a hundred years ago. Do you think I did not try to save Abby? There isn’t a way to break the bond.”

“There is always a way to undo magic. No one has looked hard enough.”

“That’s precisely what I told Grandmaster MacGregor, just after she gave me the kill order on her own daughter. When I refused, the grandmaster banished me from the Hebrew Collective.”

I had always suspected that might be the case, but he rarely spoke of the events of Abby’s fall. I chose my next words with great care. “Do you no longer believe she was wrong?”

“Look. I have chased down several promising leads and got nothing. Texts I found in hieroglyphs claimed a ritual using blood of an ancient would sever the bond, but the ritual required the bonded mage and was not specific on what the hell an ancient is. I found an artifact in Atlantis that could be used to break any bond, but it is owned by Theseus of Athens and hidden at the center of a Labyrinth. There isn’t a way to get it.”

“So, you have given up? You think your mother is right?”

“No. All magic is unworkable. Cancer has a cure. Teleportation can be achieved by machines. ” 

I am an ass. I know this is a vulnerable point for Aiden. He’s been dealing with Abby’s fall for a century. I’ve only known about Victoria for a day. But I knew I could not kill her. If I took her to the Collective, I might as well have severed her head myself. 

Doing my best to ignore the guilt of manipulating one of my oldest friends, I gestured to Victoria. “Well, here’s our chance to find out if you are right.”

I could see the gears turning behind his eyes. He was way ahead of me on this. When it came to solving puzzles, Aiden was relentless. And he’d never been closer to anyone than his sister. Despite what he claimed, he was still looking for a way to save Abigail.

“Okay,” Aiden said at last. “Fine. But I have two conditions.”

“Name it.”

“First, she stays shackled and I keep the key. So long as she is in our custody, we are not criminals. Though the directives are clear on escorting her kind, we can bend them a little if we have good reasons. You’ll need to think of some gods-cursed good ones by the time we get back to the Collective.”

“Agreed on all accounts.” I fished out the metal pentacle that would unlock Victoria’s shackles and handed it to him. He did not put it away immediately. Aiden didn’t fully trust me at the moment. It hurt, but I understood.

“Second,” he said, “I am in charge. The very moment I say we are through, that’s it. Game over. We take her back to the Collective. No arguing. No questions asked. You do as I say.”

Taking orders from a guy who was just riding a chariot through a party an hour ago seemed unwise at best, but at the same time, I knew what Aiden was capable of. Though it felt like taking a gut-punch to admit it, Aiden had a more level head in this. And he was helping me.

I gave him a stiff nod of agreement.

“Nope. I need to hear you say it. I am in charge.”

“Yes. I agree. You are in charge.” Gods, that hurt.

“Was that so hard?” As I frowned, he gave me a shit-eating grin. “Now, open your dimensional pocket.”

“Why?”

“No questions, remember.”

Biting my tongue, I pulled the bag from my shoulder and opened it. Aiden walked in without invitation. He looked around, shaking his head. “This place hasn’t changed since Paris.”

“Why should it?”

He walked through the stands of my formal wear and held out one of my older suits. He pulled it out with two fingers and raised an eyebrow at me.

“What?” I said, “It’s vintage.”

“Tailcoats went out last century, but hey … if you want to hit up a renaissance fair, I’m sure you’ll kill it with all the ladies who want to be with an aristocrat.” 

“Can we please get back to the task at hand?”

He dropped the coat and looked around. Speaking some Hebrew, Aiden drew ether and began to move my things.

“Hey! What are you doing?”

Aiden ignored me. My wardrobe moved to the far edge of the space. Stone dividers began materializing, hiding the blackened end of the dimensional pocket. Rather than some otherworldly place, it began to look like a castle’s interior. He moved my Maserati Gran Turismo closer to the front, near the exit. Rooms and hallways appeared, all made of stone. The spheres of light clinging to the top of the space, like tiny stars were plucked loose and placed into sconces along the walls. The doorways hung empty. Wood came from living material and could not be created from ether. Elemental energies are far easier to conjure, which is why every tale of wizards have them at the tops of towers. It’s just far simpler to make. 

“Do we really have time for this?” I prodded. 

A few minutes later, the torrent of ether stopped and Aiden nodded to himself. He looked at me with a self-satisfied grin. “There. Much better.”

“I liked it the way it was.” 

“You’ll like it this way better. And now, the prisoner can be secured. Come on. Let me show you around your new travel house.”

I followed Aiden through the halls. He had shoved my clothes and the canopied bed together into a large room at the back of the space. My artifacts and shelves of arrium were across the hall. The front of the place had a stone fireplace, complete with hearth. The space around it was empty, except for the rug I’d had beneath the bed. 

With a burst of ether, Aiden moved the rug, revealing a large stone square. The stone lifted, revealing a darkened room below. 

“Okay, how did you create an extra space?”

Aiden gave an arrogant snort. “You should know as well as I that applying force to the resin layer around a dimensional space will allow it to expand. The stone will keep it in place.” 

“Right. I knew that.” 

“Sure. Of course you did. Come on. Grab Victoria and lets get her inside.”

“But it’s dark in there.”

“And?”

“How would you like being trapped in the dark?”

“I wouldn’t. That’s the point. Neither will she. If she gets comfortable, she might get the idea that she can escape. If she cannot see, she cannot find a way to do that. Grab her. Let’s go.”

Victoria was right where we left her, head lulled to the side. I unfastened the latches, releasing her shackles from the chair. She slumped forward. I caught her before she hit the ground and lifted her in my arms. As her hair fell across my face, the smell of her fruity shampoo filled my senses. I looked at the dimensional pocket.

Aiden stood in the opening, watching me with a concerned expression on his face. Having second thoughts, no doubt. Not that I blamed him. 

“I owe you,” I said. 

“Yeah ya do. And I swear to the gods, if you get me killed over her, I’ll haunt you til your death.”

Carrying Victoria into the pocket, I snorted a laugh.

“I am serious. It’s not a joke. Whatever you do, I will be there, taunting you. You’ll never be able to have sex again without mockery. And just not from the poor girl showing you some pity. You’ll hear my laugh from beyond the grave.” 

“Great,” I said. “Fine. You will haunt me. But we are still alive now. Would you like to help me with her?”

He shrugged. “I already lifted the stone. Just drop her in.”

I pulled in ether and with an effort of will made a globe of light and let it fall. It hit the stone and stuck. The cubic space was small, no more than three meters across in either direction. No pillows or cushions would soften the stone. Knowing better than to protest, I gathered in more ether and took hold of her with air and lowered her into the prison.

Aiden was kind enough to lift the massive stone to cover the hole. He kicked the rug back over the square and turned toward me. He crossed his arms in front of his chest, with one hand propped up so he could chew on his thumbnail. He did that when he was about to suggest something ridiculous.

“So,” Aiden said, “how do you feel about going up against a few minotaurs on their home turf?”

“Atlantis?” I said, musingly. “You want to steal from Theseus?”

“It’s either that or hunt down an ancient and kindly ask for its blood.”

“Either way sounds like suicide.” 

“No one who knows what we know will give up their blood willingly, least of all a being as old as time. And I don’t know about you, but I would rather not go into the Fae’s Realm without a proper guide.” 

“We have to cross through Fae to get to Atlantis.”

“True, but the ferryman will take us across. For a price.”

“If we go in the front door,” I said, “Theseus will know we are there.”

“So what? Atlantis is huge and ethermages are welcome. It isn’t as if we are going to run in screaming, ‘Hey! Theseus of Athens, we are here to steal your prized artifacts. Come forth and do battle!’ Well, at least we’ll try to come up with a better plan first.”

“Atlantis is neutral ground,” I reminded him. 

“And?”

“Wythermages are also welcome. Bonded mages will be there. Some of those people we have personally hunted have gone to Atlantis for asylum against the Collective.”

“Why the hell do you think I haven’t gone for the arrium before now? If you are having second thoughts, we should just take Victoria to Bhodi Caderyn now. He will put her down as humanely as possible. He is the one person who has felt her loss as much as you. It is not too late to change your mind.”

I thought about it for less than two seconds. “No. I need to try.”

“Alright then,” he said, voice cheerful, “Let’s go to Atlantis, rob the greatest ether-warrior of all time of his prized possession. Then, we can break Victoria free of her bond to the goddess of the hunt, track down Abigail and stop her from taking over Poseidon’s nexus of power, freeing her of Artemis as well. And … am I forgetting anything?”

“Yes,” I said. “The most important part.” 

“Yeah. What’s that?”

“Live happily-ever-after.”

“Pfft. I’ll settle with live. Who’s happy in our line of work?”

I let out a sigh. He had me there.

Chapter 8: The Summer Summit

The vineyards at Chateau Pape Clement in Pessac, France were a sight to behold in the summer of 1876. 

I know. I know. Everyone hates flashbacks at this point in the story, but it is necessary for you to fully understand why I would even consider giving up everything I believe in to save Victoria from my own order. 

Members of the Collective gather for a summit every thirteen years—a mage’s decade. It is under the pretense of scholarly pursuits, where we discuss our latest and greatest research with one another. But also, we drink. A lot.

So it was convenient to hold the events at the vineyards. We rented the chateau from Jean-Baptiste Clerc, who had expanded the vineyard in the brief years he owned them, commercializing his wines to be amongst the greatest in France. Though the inquisition had ended 42 years prior, our numbers had yet to recover from all the murder, death, and mayhem. Still, the manor would have been too small for all the mages without shoving several of us in each room.

With our dimensional pockets, this wasn’t really a problem so much as an excuse to mingle. As it would happen, I shared a small storage closet with five others who had as little clout as I possessed in those days. Even though I was approaching 70, that is quite young as an ethermage. As a journeyman, I had only been officially practicing the art for about 60 years. It would be another 40 before I could be considered for the test to join the guild of masters. 

And though my mentor was Grandmaster Caderyn of the Celtic Collective, I was barely more than a clerk for the Collective, which earned me few perks. Likewise, Abigail and Aiden had come as grunts from the Hebrew order in Jerusalem. After their father had died, their mother had moved them from Ireland to her homeland in Israel. I’d never learned all the details, but soon after Abigail had bonded to Artemis, Aiden joined the Celtic chapter and had not spoken to his mother, Grandmaster of the Hebrew Collective, since.

But I am getting ahead of myself. This flashback has a better beginning. That debacle would all come long after the summit. 

It was a short trip along a single ley from the Isles of Man off Ireland to France, which dumped me out in the middle of Paris. Fog rolled off the Seine River, climbed the shores and settled atop the cobbled road—one of the few broad stoned streets not replaced with the small rocks from macadam design after the revolution of 1871. The white cloud obscured my feet below the ankles. I could smell bread in the air from a bakery I could not see.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

I had been expecting a steward from the summit, but I had not seen the woman walking from the bridge until she spoke. Immediately, I was struck by two things. First, her piercing blue eyes lit the morning gloom, sparkling somehow despite the lack of ambient light. She wore a gown of ornate fabric, expensive enough to feed a commoner’s family for a year. The lace along the top covered very little of her shoulders and hugged her form to the waist, then plumed out in a bell-shape. Her pale skin contrasted her black hair, which was pulled into an intricate bun. 

The second thing that hit me about her was the raging torrent of ether surrounding her. She was strong in the art with a natural talent equal to, if not greater than, my own. 

Her lips quirked up as she studied me as well, broadening as she approached. 

“Aye,” I finally croaked out. “Beautiful. Beyond words.”

She smiled. I melted. My mouth went dry. To this day, I could not say how I walked without tripping on my rubbery legs. I extended a hand to her. The tremble I felt inside did not reach my fingers. Thank the gods.

“I am Liamorandus Fianna of the Celtic Collective. But, please, call me Liam.”

She extended her fingers. After I bent over and kissed them, she left her hand atop mine. I know such a gesture is nothing to the kids these days, but that smallest touch sent my heart fluttering. It was practically a declaration of interest. And since I had not dated in over two decades, it stirred desires I had not known still existed. I mean, 70 isn’t old for magi standards, but between hunting Lovecraftian beasties and quelling the ambitions of the gods, there was time for a bit of romance. 

At least, that’s what I told myself as she said, “I am Victoria Deletante of the Franc Collective.”

“Victoria,” I said, tasting the name, “like the Roman goddess of Victory.”

“Do not worry. I left my chariot at home.”

I snorted out an inelegant laugh. “Probably for the best. They went out of fashion with the coach.”

“Out of fashion?” An arrogant, Scottish voice asked from behind me. “Never.”

I turned to see a man dressed like a rich count with fiery red hair and matching stubble. His ruffled, white satin blouse plumed out of a black doublet. Red and gold trimmed the seams of his leather cape. His cocky grin put me instantly on edge. He strutted over and bowed, cape flourishing as he whipped it to the side. 

Before he could introduce himself, a woman appeared beside him and shoved hard enough to topple him. He glared up at her. “Oy. You ruined my entrance.”

“I was just saving you the trouble of doing so yourself.” 

And that was how I met Aiden and Abigail MacGregor, son and daughter of Robert MacGregor, also know as Rob Roy, who was basically Robin Hood in the flesh. Both carried their father’s rebellious nature and their mother’s immense skill in the art of ether magic.

“I’m Abigail MacGregor. That is Aiden.”

Aiden stood, meticulously cleaning the dirt from his cape and backside. “We have come from the Hebrew Collective.” He glared at Victoria. “I presume you are the steward for the summit?”

She shrugged dipping her chin toward her bare shoulder. “Oui.” 

At the time, I did not speak French, but I knew the word for yes. Aiden, however, threw a string of sounds, vaguely French at her after that. With his Scottish accent, his sounds were harsher than hers, but Victoria obviously understood his meaning. Beside him, Abigail shook her head and added to the conversation.

A few seconds later, they all regarded me expectantly. I shrugged. “My apologies. I speak nine languages. French is not one of them.”

Victoria’s eyes widened. “Nine? I am not sure if I should be insulted.”

“Definitely not,” I assured her. “I do not share my mentor’s distaste for France.”

“Grandmaster Caderyn does not like France?” Aiden cut in. 

“How did you know my—”

“Your reputation proceeds you, Liamorandus,” Abigail said. 

“Reputation?” I said, dumbly. “What reputation?”

Before they could answer, another pair exited the ley and hurried onto the bridge. Both wore traditional wizard’s robes, voluminous and flowing, with only their almond-skinned faces revealed. One was tall with a heart-shaped face. Her dark hair was long and straight, spilling down the front of her robes. The other was short, barely over five feet, hair cut like a page. 

“Are we late?” the taller woman asked, dark eyes drinking me in. 

“No,” Victoria answered. 

The Indian woman’s gaze lingered on me for a few more seconds. She smiled before turning to regard Victoria. “This is good news.”

“I am Amoli Bhatti,” the short one said. “This is Mayra Chander. We come from the Bharata Collective.” 

“I am Victoria Delatante,” she said, bowing her head slightly, “of the Franc chapter. I am your steward for the extent of the summit. Now that we are all here, shall we get settled into our room?”

“Room?” Aiden asked. “As in singular?”

“Many will be attending the summit this year. Did you not bring your dimensional pocket as instructed?”

“He brought it,” Abigail said. “He simply enjoys being contrary.” 

“Do not,” he said, expression petulant.

“See?” Abigail said with a smile.

“I do,” Victoria said, politely. “If it would please you to follow me?”

Without waiting for a response, she assumed mistform. I quickly dematerialized and leapt behind, staying close to the wyther trail caused by her use of ether. We zoomed over a waking Paris, swirling the fog as she soared out of the city and across the country, southwest. 

We landed in a vast field of summer flowers. Once everyone rematerialized, panting and breathing hard, Victoria waved a hand revealing a small boat. Instead of sails, it had translucent wings protruding from the sides.

“All aboard,” Victoria said with a smile.

Steps appeared from the side. Aiden reached them first and tromped up, frowning. “A bit small, isn’t it?”

“Do not be an ass,” Abigail said, following. 

“After you,” I said to Amoli and Mayra. 

“Such a gentleman,” Mayra said, walking up the steps. I gave a polite smile and nodded my thanks at the compliment. 

With a foot on the lowest step, Victoria stopped me with a glance. She motioned conspiratorialy for me to come closer. When I did, she said, “I would keep an eye on that one, were I you.”

“Who? Mayra?” 

“Have you not heard of the aggressive promiscuity of the Bharata Collective?”

I had, in fact, heard things, but I said, “No. Aggressive?” 

She shrugged, drawing my attention to her bare shoulders. Though she said, “You’ve been warned,” it sounded more like, “You’ll see.” 

I gave a thankful bow and said in the stiffest voice I could manage, “I am eternally grateful that you would defend my chastity, Madam Delatante.” 

“But of course,” She said with a wry smile. “As your steward, my only job is to serve you.” 

“And the others.”

“Sure. And the others.”

As I stepped into the boat, I felt a burning in my chest. I’m pretty old to be this taken by someone within minutes of meeting her, but somehow I knew this weekend would be magical indeed.

Victoria followed, gathering ether as she moved to the helm. As we ascended, the sun rose behind us in streams of pinks and purples, glittering along the wings of the vessel. They flapped in the wind, carrying us all to our fates.

Sometimes, Loki can be kind.

Chapter 7: Old Tricks

Aiden’s glassy eyes glared down at Victoria. He took his arm from around Red Dress and literally bit his thumb and flicked it in Victoria’s direction. His smug smirk made me want to flatten his nose, so I could only imagine what it did to Victoria’s ego. She’d never liked Aiden, and he had replaced her as my partner. His arrogant expression said as much and invited her to smite him. From her smoldering gaze, that was her intention, so we had that going for us.

Believe it or not, we’d planned for this inevitability. After all, one does not intentionally walk into an obvious trap without first securing a means of escape. I had hoped to get more information about Abigial’s plans before springing the snare, but hey, no one is perfect. 

“A fucking chariot?” I said. “Really? And you brought a norm?”

The horses stood at attention, unnaturally calm. Upon closer inspection, their midnight coats and long black manes were coated in small embers that flared and pulsed with their breathing. As they stared at the impending battle with intelligent eyes, smoke rising from their nostrils.

“With nightmares? Where the—”

As Victoria’s time bubble dropped over us, the arrium in my pocket activated, inverting the dilation of time around the point of origin. Victoria and her nymphs all froze. The energy of her burned ether would power the spell based on her initial expenditure of power. From the wave of wyther filling the air, Victoria had tried to hit us with all the ether she could pull, which was admittedly far more than when she’d been my partner. 

I pulled the timepiece from my cloak pocket to confirm. Yep, the second hand had thirty-seven seconds until midnight. The arrium pulsed with the spent power. A slow-motion crack made its way up the clock-face. Once the time bubble popped, so would the timepiece. We needed to be gone before then. I did not like our chances against so many.

“No time to get them all,” I told Aiden. 

“Let me guess, you think we should grab Victoria.”

“She is the only bonded mage. The others could be victims of Abigail’s scheming.”

Could be,” he said. “But we won’t know unless we question them.”

“Twenty-one seconds. And, there’s a good chance the shackles will nullify the time dilation. Once we nab Victoria, we’ll need to bolt.”

“Fuck. I hate it when you’re right. Get her and let’s go.”

I ran toward Victoria, trying not to count the seconds remaining. Her face was a mask of calm serenity, her hand frozen halfway to her back, where she concealed her two handed sword in its glamor-sheath. She was always a fierce fighter. Most of our sparring ended in a draw, but over the years, she had defeated me as often as I had her. Now, she was super-powered by her connection to the goddess Artemis. She could sling more ether and draw wyther without the damage to her ethereal pattern. In a fair fight, I would not have a chance. Fortunately, we mages are a tricky lot. Honor duels are for the middle ages. And even then, they were dumb. Where is the valor in dying because you gave your opponent a “fair” chance to kill you? Ridiculous. Fight to win.

I pulled out the shackles I’d taken from the Collective and snapped the smaller bracelets around her wrists. Once the neck piece closed around her neck, the mass of energy in the air dissipated, as I thought it would. The time bubble collapsed.

The nymphs stumbled forward, confusion in their expressions. Seeing me next to her, Victoria flinched. Instinctively, she tried to draw ether. The shackles flared, disrupting the flow of energy around her. She screamed from the pain of the backlash and slumped forward. 

Enhancing my strength with ether, I caught her and threw her unceremoniously over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. 

“Get on,” Aiden said, wheeling the chariot next to me. 

The girl in the red dress stared at me, eyes wide with wonder. Even though his arm was around her, Aiden looked at her as if surprised she was still there.

“Uh, right,” he said, “time to go, love.”

“Where are we going?” she asked, clearly not ready to quit the sudden adventure.

“You aren’t coming,” he said. “But I’ll call you. I swear.”

He gathered her in a flow of air and lifted her off the chariot, setting her gently on the dance floor next to another young co-ed. 

I climbed on and said, “Let’s go.” 

He flicked the reins, and the nightmares leapt toward the wall. Ether flared around Aiden. A hole formed in the old wood large enough for us to ride through and closed after we cleared the portal. I wrapped us in a globe of invisibility as we flew higher and faster. 

A few minutes later, we landed in my backyard. Aiden walked to the lead horse and placed a hand on its neck, patting the creature fondly. He spoke a few words, opening a gateway to a dark plane. Heat billowed through the opening. The nightmares leapt through, leads and chariot dissolving just a few feet into the other plane. 

Adjusting Victoria over my shoulder so I could look Aiden in the face, I said, “I can’t believe you summoned nightmares to earth. We’ll need to talk about that when we get a few minutes. 

“What’s to talk about? I needed horses. They owed me a favor.” He shrugged. “End of story.”

“Open the door,” I told him. “Preferably before Mrs. Crangston decides to investigate and see us carrying a beautiful, unconscious woman into my basement and gets the wrong idea.”

He snorted, but he also picked up his pace, hurrying to the door and flinging it open. I took Victoria to the basement and secured her to my interrogation chair. It was made of steel and bolted to the floor with long arms. Since not all of those sitting in the seat are exactly human, the chair rested in the center of a containment circle. 

I eased Victoria into the chair, trying not to smell the sweet fragrance of her perfume. It was the same scent she’d worn for several decades now. Another pang of loss rippled through me. Steeling my nerves, I fastened the clamps around her wrists and ankles, binding her to the chair. Not even a minotaur could break free of the spell. 

“Move,” Aiden said, breaking smelling salts in front of her face.

Her head whipped back and she shook off the grogginess. She looked up at Aiden, expression dismissive, before her gaze turned to me. 

“I thought you preferred to be the one tied up,” she said with a wink.

“This is not a game,” I said. “Tell us what we need to know, and we can be done with this.”

She shrugged as if it did not matter either way.

“Why the university?” I asked. “What is Abigail playing at?”

“You used to be good at chess, Liamorandus. You have not figured it out yet?”

“Obviously she is recruiting,” I said, ignoring the fact that she was baiting me. “What is her end game?”

“I think you know that as well.”

“Right,” Aiden said, flicking the syringe. “As much as I enjoy the banter, it’s truth time.”

She snorted as if she did not care, but I knew her well enough to see the fear in her eyes. Our gazes met for a few seconds, sending a pang of regret and angst rippling through me. We’d been far more than partners and lovers. For nearly six decades, Victoria had been my closest friend. Seeing the needle move closer to her neck made my stomach lurch. I turned away.

“This is not necessary,” Victoria said. “I will tell you the truth.”

“You’ll understand,” Aiden said, “if I do not believe you.”

From Victoria’s grunt, he’d administered the serum. The ether-laced particles would make their way to her brain. Every time she told the truth, her brain’s pleasure centers would activate, flooding dopamine into her system. When she lied, she’d get cortisol and other stress hormones. In short, when she was honest, she would feel intoxicating joy. When she lied, her worst nightmares would manifest. The serum also compelled her to speak her thoughts. She could not resist talking, and the more truths she told, the more she would want to say.

“What is your name?” Aiden said. Establishing a dopamine hit early was necessary. Really, anything to get her talking would expedite the spread of the serum. 

“Thanks for the easy one,” she said. “Victoria Cleopatra Deletante.”

“Why are you here?”

“You brought me here, you fucking dalcop.” She sucked in a breath, eyes blinking in euphoria. Victoria had used the interrogation serum enough to know how to give half-truths. And I saw the effort of not speaking in her features, the way she gripped the handles of the chair, the way she licked her lips and tightened them. She desperately wanted to not say something.

“Why did you come to Tallahassee?” I asked. “Why recruit college kids?”

“Abigail sent me here to kill you if I could. At the very least, I would be a distraction. And we need more nymphs for what she has planned.”

“And that is?” Aiden asked.

“Something big.” Her eyes rolled backward. The serum would make her give us truths, not necessarily the information we sought. Eventually, the excess dopamine would make her hallucinate. Soon after that, she would pass out. If I was her, I would try to stall us until being rendered senseless. And she’d always been cleverer than me. Not that I would ever admit to that aloud. 

“Give us details,” Aiden said. 

“Bermuda,” she said, breathing hard. “We are going to steal Poseidon’s seat. When we do, Artemis will raise Abigail to be her demi-god.” 

“And the college kids?” I asked. “They are what … fodder?”

“Yes. She is training them to draw ether and wyther. Some of them could be proper mages some day, but few will live through this. She knows you will try to save some of them. You cannot help trying to play at being a hero.” 

“That’s why you took the original syphon. Abigail plans to harness their raw energy for when you go up against Poseidon.” 

“You already knew that,” Victoria said, smiling so broadly her expression looked crazed. “Are you just toying with me now, Liamorandus? Making me feel good for old time’s sake?” She arched her back as if in pleasure, making her torso do interesting things.

“My turn.” Aiden pushed me aside to stand looming over Victoria. “Where is Abigail now?’

“She made sure that I did not know in case this happened.” Enough sweat beaded on her forehead to drip down her cheek.

“Fuck,” Aiden said. “Of course the cunt-wrangler would have planned for this.”

“Such lovely language,” Victoria said, “and for your own sister.”

He aimed a finger in warning at Victoria’s nose. “That abomination is not my sister. My sister died over a century ago at the hands of your master.” 

“Where is her main base of operations?” I asked. 

“Off world, on a planet called Adaer. Only a wyther gate can take you there and from specific bridge points.” Her gaze drifted beyond me and Aiden. She smiled as if seeing someone else. “Don’t worry. I only told them what you ordered me to.”

“What does that mean?” Aiden demanded as I asked, “Where are the bridge points?”

She laughed. “Old tricks work both ways,” she said almost to Aiden, but her eyes drifted upward as if seeing someone taller. “You never were good at chess. Well, you could never beat me at least. No. You’re wrong there. He still loves me. It’s in his eyes.”

“Shit,” Aiden said. “We are going to lose her soon. Anything else you want out of her before we do?”

I nodded and turned back. “One last question.” I could not help myself. I needed to know. “What you said before, about Abigail having my blood and your reasons for bonding to Artemis, was it true?”

Sweat poured down her face. Her head swiveled toward me, sobering somewhat. She struggled to keep her eyes open as she looked up at me and labored to speak. “Every. Word. I …”

Her eyes rolled into her skull, and her head lulled to the side. Her breathing came in the slow, steady breaths of someone in deep sleep. As I looked down at her, my heart did backflips in my stomach. I felt ill. 

I had never loved anyone like I had her. She had sacrificed everything she believed in to save me. And I had done this to her. I fell to my knees and wretched my guts on the floor. When I was finished, I could feel Aiden standing over me. 

He offered me a handkerchief. “Clean up. We need to get her to the Collective.”

Where they would kill her. He didn’t say it, but I could see the conviction in his eyes. Gods damn it, but I could not let them kill her. I just couldn’t. But what choice did I have?

If I turned against the Collective, they would hunt me as if I had not given two centuries to the cause. This was Victoria. She had been the best of us. Maybe there was a way to save her, break the bond with Artemis. The Collective said it was impossible, but how hard had they tried? If I took her in, I could spend all the influence I had trying to save her.

What in hades should I do?

What do you think Liam should do?

A.) She was telling the truth. She turned against the Collective to save him. Liam needs to go against the Collective’s directive to bring Victoria in and try to save her instead. 

B.) Had that been pain in her eyes at the end? Yeah, she was lying. Liam isn’t thinking straight. He needs to do his job and take her in.

Vote Here!!

Chapter 6: Temptations

Music boomed somewhere deeper in the house and got louder as we walked closer. Pong balls bounced on the tables to the excited shouts of both winners and losers. Aiden looked at the cups with longing in his gaze.

“No booze,” I reminded him. I gestured to his beer with the cup the mermaid had given me. “That’s just for show.”

“Oh this?” He raised the drink in mock salute then took a sip with his pinky out. “This is a pale ale, Liam. Booze requires shot glasses.”

“Aiden,” I said with more patience than I felt. “We are here—”

“Relax. Seriously, it would take a keg of this beer-flavored-water to get me drunk. And we need to blend in. Just, come on.”

He marched through the threshold. The lights on the porch were dim but much brighter than those in the foyer. Multicolored lights swirled from a strobe light attached to the third floor balcony.

Two college girls walked up to Aiden before he could take two steps in the door. One wore a red sundress that screamed for some relief from the cosmic force trying to rip free of the chest area. Her face looked far too young to be at least six solo cups in. The other girl wore a yellow top with sequins, which caught every light in the place and bounced them into my eyes. What in hades was it about sequins anyway?

“I love your toga,” Red Dress said, giggling.

“Thanks,” Aiden said, taking a large gulp of his beer.

“Where’s yours?” Yellow Sequins asked.

Still seething at Aiden for already breaking his promise not to drink, it took me a few seconds to realize she was talking to me. All three of them stared at me expectantly.

“Oh me?” I said, “Left it in the chariot.”

“Oh my god, you have a chariot?” Red Dress said.

“We certainly do,” Aiden said. “But I can show you something way better. Watch this.”

Aiden pulled back his sleeves, showing he wasn’t hiding anything there. Then he held up his left hand. Both girls followed his flowing fingers. He snapped. A poof of smoke ignited in front of them, dissipating quickly, revealing a deck of cards. It was sleight-of-hand, not ether. He kept little bags of black powder—his own recipe—he used for his tricks. Beneath that don’t-give-a-shite exterior, Aiden was a true chemist and alchemical genius. His vast wealth came from turning lead into gold. He could even age the stuff to look like lost treasure that he sold to private collectors. It was his favorite pastime to rob from the rich and give to himself.

When he’d discovered the power, he’d been trying to make a much bigger boom. Instead, the formula just made a lot of smoke when exposed to air. He kept it for just such occasions. And it always worked. The girls oohed and awed as if it was the most amazing thing since sliced bread. Others close by flocked to Aiden begging for more.

I used the opportunity to slip around them and go deeper into the house. Knowing how much Victoria loved to dance, I followed the music up the stairs, which opened to an expansive ballroom. Still, the unce, unce, unce of the beat filled the space.

Just inside was a big sign that read: No drinks on the dance floor!

Still, several ladies held their drinks while elegantly and gracefully grinding against gentlemen also holding cups. No one seemed to be policing the rule.

One woman danced alone, but with a crowd encircling her. She moved too fluidly for anyone to dance up on her. She flowed with the music, her movements like art in rhythm with the beats. Her raven hair whipped across her face as she spun. She flipped her head back, revealing her face. Our gazes met for a slow heartbeat. She smiled and turned away. I tried to get closer, but the circle of bodies around her were three to four people deep. They chanted and cheered her on. When the song ended, they crowded up on her, everyone wanting to be the one to give her the congratulatory drink.

By the time I reached where she’d been, Victoria was gone.

“Fuck Loki in the ear.”

“Liam?”

I turned around to see a girl in a sheath dress, wrapped tightly around her legs to her thighs. There were no sleeves. The fabric pulled tight around her body, hugging her neckline. In the strobe lights, the white shone with every color. Her dark hair was pulled up in an intricate bun-shape that managed to still have a pony tail. Her eyes sparkled as she stared at me.

“Liam, that is you!”

I was almost too surprised when she hugged me to squeeze her back. How the fuck did she see through my glamor? Then I smelled the beer exuding from her. Illusion magic tricked the cerebral cortex into believing an altered reality. Those with an overactive limbic system—responsible for fight or flight—are more likely to see through glamors and other such magic. For this reason, a small percentage of people developed an immunity to illusion magic while intoxicated. And just my luck—fuck you Loki, I know this was your doing—Skyler, my TA, was one of them. This was not going to end well.

Skyler held on to me with extreme vigor for longer than seemed prudent. After releasing me, she pulled back only a few inches, keeping the palm of her hand on my chest.

“You never came to office hours,” she shout-said with the slight slur of intoxication, “I waited.”

“Skyler,” I said at nearly a shout to hear my own voice over the boom of the music. “What are you doing here?”

“I like to have fun, too. And, I just passed my last qualifying exam yesterday and deserve a drink or ten.”

Gods damn it. The only person I’d really met. She should not fucking be here. The Law of Dubiety does not work as well on people you know. If she sees me make with the magic, she would be more likely to remember it accurately. But there was a larger worry. Could Skyler be a nymph? Maybe Abigail had recruited her already.

“But why this party?” I said, trying to sound curious rather than nervous. I pointedly did not look around for Victoria. “Do you know Abigail? Or Victoria?”

“Who?” Her smile fell. “No. A guy I’ve been sort of seeing invited me. Well, not seeing exactly. We are an on-again, off-again sort of thing. We are off at the moment.”

“Where is he now?” I believed her. I felt so much relief I could not keep it from my face.

Her smile returned. “He went to watch that girl dance along with every other dude in this place. Not that I can blame them. Did you see her?”

“Yeah. She was all right.”

Skyler hit my chest. “She was far more than just all right. I’ve never seen anyone dance like that.”

I shrugged in response, trying to nonchalantly scan the people to see if Victoria reemerged. “I’ve seen better.”

“No way. She’s probably in the FSU School of Dance. They are in the top ten for US colleges. Admit it. She was amazing.”

“Fine. Sure. Whatever.”

“Wait. You know her. Don’t you?”

“She’s sort of an ex.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Sort of an ex?”

“Yeah, we had this on-again, off-again thing for a long time. We are definitely off at the moment.”

“Very funny,” she said, not laughing. Glancing at the full drink in my hand, she asked, “Is she the reason you are here?”

Well, shit. How to play this one? Fortunately, I did not have to come up with an answer. A guy twelve feet tall and ten feet wide walked up, putting an arm around Skyler, like King Kong wrapping his paw around Ann Darrow. Perhaps, I’m exaggerating his size, but his muscles made Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson look like the runt of the litter.

Since she was inches from my face, he was now inches from my face. I could taste the nachos he’d eaten earlier. Hints of tequila lingered as well. Oddly, my stomach grumbled. Don’t judge, I hadn’t eaten much today.

He aimed his scowl at me and sniffed as if unimpressed. “She’s taken bruh, but thanks for the drink.” He grabbed my cup and downed the contents, much of it flowing over his face rather than in it. Once finished, he clinched his fist. Little piece of plastic never had a chance. He threw the crumpled cup at my chest, and wiped his mouth with the back of his arm.

Skyler made a disgusted sound and pushed the guy’s arm off her, which was an impressive feat, seeing as how the arm was as large as she was. “Damn it, Brent. He’s one of my students. We were just talking.”

“Oh,” he said, cheeks reddening. “Sorry.”

“Go get him another drink.”

“But—”

“Go. Now.”

He slinked off, head down as if embarrassed.

“Wow, he’s a bit—”

“Possessive. Infuriating. A misogynist prick.”

“I was gonna say over-muscly, but yeah … those things too.”

“Do you want to dance?” she asked.

“Is that the best idea? Do we really want to piss off Hulk’s older, bigger brother?”

“It will be fine.”

Before I could voice further protests, she grabbed my hand and led me onto the dance floor. I looked for Victoria as Skyler pulled me to the far side of the room. There was no sign of her. Fuck Loki in the ear, had I missed my chance? I needed to check on Aiden. I could still hear shouts and cheers from down below, rising above the music. He was doing his part but how drunk was he by now?

Skyler stopped and put her hands on my shoulders. Reflexively, I took hold of her waist and matched her moves. She was no Victoria, but she had clearly danced before. And she did so tastefully without all the grinding. Despite the failing mission, it was nice to be close to her. Every time she glanced up at me, her eyes sparkled with her smile.

When the song ended, the DJ declared, “I’m going to take ten. Grab someone and chill with some slow tunes.”

A ballad started playing. All around us, the gyrations these people tried to pass off as dancing stopped. People held each other and swayed. Noticing Brent standing where we’d been before the dance, I took a step back from Skyler.

“One more?” she asked, no longer needing to shout. “I love Shawn Mendes.”

“Our drinks are back,” I said, nodding toward Brent, who held two cups and glanced about with more than a little angst.

“He can wait,” she said, lifting her arms to my shoulders again. But she froze, eyes wide. I saw her stifle a belch. She covered her mouth. “Actually, I’ll be right back.”

She ran past Brent and turned down a hall. The ogre followed. They were too far away for me to hear, but several people cleared a path for Skyler. She didn’t make it to the bathroom, but she found a trashcan and buried her head in it.

“What a lovely girl.” That melodic voice sent a shiver down my spine. “Dating norms now?”

I turned around to see Victoria approach. She was just as I remembered her, elegance personified. My heart pounded. I couldn’t breathe.

Unable to speak, I worked moisture back into my mouth with my tongue and managed to choke out, “No.”

Four girls lingered next to Victoria. I did not need to draw ether to feel the power surrounding them. Well, I had known this was a trap, but she wasn’t likely to do anything with all these people around. Then again, body count did not matter much to them. And this was their house. With a bit of wyther, they could restructure the narrative.

“That disguise is ridiculous. Surely, you didn’t expect it to fool me?”

“It was far less effective than I had hoped,” I admitted, eyes flicking toward Skyler.

It was impossible to sort through the buzz of emotions. We stood there studying one another for a full moment—people misuse that word all the time in fiction. It’s about ninety seconds as a unit of measurement. Anyway, she was hauntingly beautiful. She held her expression neutral, but I could feel her irritation as she glanced toward where Skyler was still hurling.

“Aiden is the magnet, eh? He distracts as many of the people as possible while you find me. Is that the extent of your plan?”

I did not need ether sight to know this was the real Victoria. The way she flicked her hair and pursed her lips. Her smirk and the little wiggle to her nose when she smiled, those could not be faked by a glamor. Ah fuck. She knew me in the same way I knew her. My disguise did not hide my mannerisms, which she would notice. She had always been the observant one.

“Well?” she said, tone almost bored. “I know you have questions.”

“Fuck you,” I said at last. “Fuck. You. Fifty-seven years we were together. How could you do this to me?”

A slow smile rose on one side of her lips, then the other. “There’s the passion I always enjoyed. We had great times, you and I, but it could not last.”

“Why not?”

“It is complicated.”

“A true genius can explain difficult subjects to the simple minded. Give it a try.”

“Liamorandus, you’re making me blush. Do you truly think I am a genius?”

“Have to be to pull off your own fake death like that. Stop changing the subject. Why did you turn against the Collective?”

“Abigail had your blood. She picked it up after the minotaur scourge in Brazil. She was going to use the sample to boil your insides. I gave myself to save you. She gave me your blood. I destroyed it before bonding to Artemis.”

I wanted it to be a lie, but that had been a grizzly battle. A rogue mage had been summoning minotaurs from a world called Arinth and using them to kill off rival gangs. Many innocents were getting caught in the crossfire. Minotaurs are highly resistant to ether, which made them nasty to battle. We had three teams there. Two of us died, and I was gored. After I was rendered unconscious, my team retreated. I was never able to find and destroy my spilled blood.

“I would have rather died,” I said.

“Which is why I sacrificed myself. I could not lose you.”

“But you have. The Collective is hunting you now. What we had is gone forever.”

“It does not have to be this way. Being bonded isn’t so bad. I’m myself, yet much more than I was without Her.” She stepped closer, looking up at me with those bright eyes. My heartbeat tripled. Loki knows how much I missed her. “Join me.”

I swallowed. This was the trap. And it was a Loki-damned good one. Every instinct I have screamed at me to call for Aiden. Just a quick burst of ether would draw his attention up here. I could hear the cheers on the bottom floor, growing louder. After the DJ had taken his break, most of the people cleared the dance floor. Likely, they’d gone downstairs to watch Aiden work his “magic.”

Victoria placed her fingers on my chest, exactly like Skyler had. I tensed, sucking in shallow breaths. She edged nearer, craning her lips up closer to mine and whispered, “I need you, Liam. We could be together again.”

Looking back at this moment, I am absolutely certain if I had let her kiss me, my life would be completely different now. But I did not. Zeus, Zelos, and Cratus must have all been with me, because I stepped back.

“Victoria Cleopatra Deletante,” I said, barely hearing my own words with the thundering of my heart in my ears, “you have been charged with treason against the Collective and are in violation of the Accords of Magic. Kneel and place your hands on the ground. I am taking you into custody.”

Her smile faded, the shimmer of hope fading from her eyes. The pained expression she gave me broke open the dam I had built around my heart. Every part of me wanted to take back my words. I opened my mouth to do just that when Aiden’s magic act crashed the party.

A team of horses pulling a chariot pounded up the steps with Aiden at the helm. He held Red Dress in one arm and a beer in the other. She clung to him, eyes wide with amazement. I never did ask how he’d gotten horses so quickly, but the chariot was crafted from ether.

Victoria and her cronies sidestepped the charging horses. The college kids all scrambled off the dance floor, making room for Aiden. He spun the chariot about and came to a stop beside me. He held his beer up as if it were a sword and declared, “I bite my thumb at thee.”

Victoria did not look amused. I felt her preparing a time bubble as she said, “Take them alive.”

Chapter 5: Ready to Party

“Split up?” Aiden asked. “Have you never seen a movie? Or read a book? Or remember earlier today, when you almost got imploded? No. We should not split up.”

I agreed with him, but since he generally likes to do the opposite of what I say, I thought the suggestion would give him an opportunity to make the right decision for once. Of course, if I said this out loud, he would huff off again.

“Right. Good thinking,” I told him. “We should probably go to the meeting. I think Abby is more likely to be there.”

“Abby? Since when does she earn any monikers? And no. Only the newbs and prospective newbs will be at the meeting. Abigail will be at the party. The other nymphs will most certainly be there.”

He was right, and I knew it, but we had to get one thing straight first.

“No booze.”

“What? Of course there will be booze. It’s a party. We want to blend in right?”

“We are going there to get information and survive the night, not party with co-eds. Neither one of us needs lowered inhibitions. The mission comes first.”

Aiden scrunched up his face, taking extreme offense at my insinuation. “I have never in my life put partying before the—”

“Dublin, 1802.”

His mouth hung open, some of the fire leaving his expression. “You heard about that?”

“When a mage animates the statue of a stag and rides it through the Guinness factory, word tends to get around.”

“I’ll have you know, Arthur Guinness threw that party for good reason. We brought that bonded mage down.”

“And half of Dublin with him.”

“We rebuilt it before the Inquisition came knocking.” He shook his head. “But it doesn’t matter. It was just that once, a long time ago—”

“Sydney, 1878. You grew a kangaroo large enough to fit in its pouch and charmed it into believing you were its offspring.”

“I felt bad after it lost its … wait. How could you even know about that? Don’t answer. Again, that was just a one off—”

“Geneva, 1926.”

“There was a good reason for—”

“Chicago, 1933.”

“They had just ended prohibition! If I hadn’t had a few—”

“Paris, 19—”

“Fine!” he threw his hands up in surrender. “No booze.”

“Thank you.”

“You don’t have to be so smug about it.”

“Where is the party?” I asked.

He looked back down at the phone. “It’s at a fraternity house on West Park Avenue.”

“Call an Uber.”

“You call an Uber. I don’t want your surly ass messing up my ratings. I’m at 4.98 stars.”

“My phone was destroyed by Abigail’s vortex.”

“We can just fly.”

“Sure, we might as well nuke the place while we are at it. Because if we fly in on a storm of ether, we’ll be announcing ourselves to any ethermage on the block.”

He pulled his phone back out, grumbling all the while. “We need to walk this way.”

We made our way to the street and waited. A few minutes later, our ride was here. The driver was a college-aged kid, dressed as though he’d come straight from the gym. The sleeves were ripped off his shirt, revealing rippling abs and muscles the size of my face.

“Hi Josh,” Aiden said, getting into the front of the red Prius, knowing I get car sickness in the back. “How’s your day going?”

He shrugged. “S’alright. You Aiden?”

“Nope. I’m Bob.”

The jock’s forehead scrunched up in confusion. And he looked out the window as if searching for his real fare. “I’m supposed to pick up Aiden.”

“That’s us,” I said, before Aiden could retort. “Thanks.”

How had he gotten 4.98 stars?

“Cool,” the guy said, then drove off. A few minutes of awkward silence later, we reached the sorority house. The building looked like an old plantation home, standing four stories tall. The off white paint job had been done by magic. It was far too perfect and stood out on this street. Round columns stretched from the porch to the ceiling. Ping pong tables were set up with red cups. The front gable had big greek letters plastered to the front: Alpha Omega, symbolic for the beginning and end. It’s a god’s way of saying, I’m the shit.

“This has to be the right place,” Aiden said once we were out.

“Yeah, but where are all the people?”

“It’s not even eight yet. Party’s at nine. They’ll be here.”

“What are we supposed to do until then?” I asked. “If we stand here gawking, that’ll look even more suspicious than flying in.”

“There’s a cafe back there on the corner. Let’s grab some coffee and wait.”

So we did. The coffee was not amazing, but it was caffeine. There was outside seating. We both sat facing the street. I drew in ether to enhance my vision. Even at a quarter a kilometer, I could see the house just as easily as when we were standing in front of it. When people began showing up, we’d know.

We sipped our drinks in silence for several minutes, until Aiden said, “So, how’re you holding up?”

“I’m fine.”

“Victoria could be at this party. Are you ready for that?”

Trying not to think too hard or feel the swirl of emotions battering away at my heart, I grunted, “I’m fine.”

Aiden leaned forward. “You don’t sound fine. And your pale face is now reflecting light. You should talk about it while we have some time.”

“I’m good.”

“Your lover and partner abandoned you for power. And all you can say is …,” he raised his hands to do air quotes, deepening his voice as he said, “I’m good.”

“What do you want me to say? If she’s bonded, we bring her down. That’s who we are. She knew the stakes.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re ready for her, because she just got out of that limo and is heading inside the house.”

My heart skipped a beat. I found myself standing, looking at the white stretch-limo. It was one of those big square ones. Likely, it had a hot tub in the back. The woman stepping out wore a skin-tight green top with sequins around the v-neck. Her black leggings vanished into calf-high, black boots. With my ether-sight, the radiant energy made her pale skin shimmer. She wore little makeup—she’d always hated it. Not that she needed any. Her natural blush and light freckles made her big eyes stand out—like perfectly carved sapphires rimmed with dark lace. She could stare into your soul and make your spirit dance for her attention.

And there she was, raven hair flowing about her shoulders. As if she knew he was watching, she stopped halfway to the house, took out a scrunchy and wound her hair into a bun, exposing the skin of her smooth neck. My feet began to move of their own accord, as if she’d cast a summoning spell.

“Wait!” Aiden said, after I started to run. “Fucking stop! Gods damn it, Liam. It’s a trap!”

I stopped. He was right. As narcissistic as it sounded, why else would she be here in Tallahassee at all if not to get to me? Of all Artemis’s nymphs, what job did they have that could only be done by her? More importantly, did any of this matter?

It was Victoria, the love of my life, alive and well and right here. How could I resist?

Pain stung my cheek. The shock of it made me reel. I turned back to see Aiden’s angry face glaring at me.

“Ow! You fucking asshole. Why—”

“Use that big beautiful brain of yours. For all you know, it’s a glamor. It could be Abigail baiting you, or any number of other people. Sit back down, and let’s make a plan. Mmk?”

I unclenched my fist. Aiden will never know how close he was to getting his nose flattened. “It was her. Not even Abigail is good enough to hide a glamor from ether-sight, which I had going until you hit me.”

“She could have used wyther. You would never know.”

Shit. He was right. I wasn’t thinking straight. Come on, Liamorandus, get it together. Rather than admit it, I sat back down and glowered. For once, Aiden did not gloat. He eased back onto the edge of his chair, with what looked like genuine concern in his eyes.

“Clearly,” he said after a few minutes, “Abigail is a few steps ahead of us. She knows we are coming. How?”

“She must have left a trace spell on that flier. Also, what email did you use to sign up on the site?”

“An alias I made a few months ago. She wouldn’t know it. Trace spell is more likely. But that would only tell her which flier was activated. And then she could have scried us.”

“Agreed. That’s the how. But why?”

“That’s even easier,” Aiden said. “She’s up to something big and wants us out of the way. We know her better than anyone. If she can bag us, she is more likely to win against whoever the Collective sent to replace us.”

“That’s a bit cocky.”

“And true.”

“What’s her bigger plan then? If she wants the Bermuda nexus, why is she here?”

“That, my friend, is the million Euro question.”

We both grew contemplative. In the lull, I itched to storm into the house and confront Victoria or whoever was posing as her. It took all my willpower to remain in my seat. But I did, draining my coffee and wishing I had not advocated so strongly against drinking. I drained my drink and went back in for more, grabbing Aiden another white-chocolate latte with extra whip cream.

“Here’s your pansy drink.”

“Pfft,” he said, then took a large gulp.

We spent the next half hour making conjecture about what the hell was going on. Nothing came better than our first theory. We did spend several minutes discussing our plan. By the time we agreed on an approach, it was fully dark. Cars came and went, dropping off party-goers in droves. Some of the other frat houses along this street began to fill as well.

Aiden stood. “You ready?”

“Yes.” A trill of excitement surged through me at the prospect of speaking to Victoria. At the same time, I felt unfathomable pain and hurt. The emotion that took root though was anger. As I took a step, Aiden stopped me.

“Remember,” Aiden said, “this is just a scouting mission. We want to see what they are up to. Only confront the nymph if we can get her alone.”

I nodded. “Let’s get this over with.”

“No, no, no, no. That’s the wrong attitude. We need to blend in, remember? Get your party face on.”

“Fine, but remember. No. Booze.”

“Of course.”

Aiden pulled a hat out of his cloak and placed it on his head. The arrium activated, changing his face to become more symmetric, almost beautiful. His eyes turned from green to bright blue. His cloak became a thin bedsheet and his clothes transformed into a greek-style white toga.

“What is that?” I asked.

“I won’t be the only one. Besides, I’m the magnet, right? This will work. Trust me.”

It was still closer to summer than fall, meaning most everyone wore little to nothing. No one else, I noticed, was sporting a toga. Shaking my head, I activated my own glamor, making my shirt look like a tank top with Go Noles! across the front. My trousers became gym shorts, similar to most of the other boys I could see. My boots looked like flip-flops. Nothing actually changed, but so long as the clothes were on me and the glamor intact, all normal senses would see what I wanted them to.

On the porch, dozens of people were throwing pong balls into cups and drinking with wanton abandon. When we stepped up the steps, I saw a girl sitting on a pedestal next to the entrance. She wore a mermaid outfit, restricting her movement capability. I could only guess as to how the shells stayed up. She greeted us by offering us cheap beer in plastic cups.

Aiden raised his hands as if he was coming home to the cheers of his closest friends and family. He gave the mermaid a huge smile and raised his voice. “Who’s ready to party?’

As all those on the porch cheered, I suppressed a sigh and took the proffered cup. This was going to be a long night.

All I could think to myself was … Tallahassee, 2019.