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Chapter 31: Frenemies

I don’t like harming others. In fact, I avoid fighting whenever possible. I’ve trained for more time than most people of any race can live. If there is a martial style in existence on Earth, I have mastered it. And to be less than humble for a moment, I’m really fucking good even without the aid of Aliastalus. 

Add to that, I can conjure up a song of fire and ice to make George R.R. Martin’s imagination look like a white-washed wall in comparison to the Sistine Chapel. I can hurl dimensional portals or, if I’m feeling particularly threatened, I can make a person’s blood boil in their skin. I can turn people to stone or polymorph them into ants and squash them beneath my boot.

But it’s not a good feeling, ending a life. 

In fact, it’s the worst act you can take, which is why it’s illegal in most societies. There are some Spartan-esk places in the multiverse still sacrificing people for rituals, and don’t get me started on world’s using blood magic. But again, I digress.

I prefer to use words over violence, but there are times when the only response that can be made is with bloodshed. I considered briefly trying to get to the sentient blade and rejected it. Better not to reveal that Aliastalus was in my possession. 

Looking at the messenger, I dropped my 3 gold latte and mumbled a word, creating two blades of pure energy. Once cast, I could maintain them with will. I’d done this spell so many times over the years, it took very little effort. At the same time, I borrowed from the ether increased strength, awareness, and agility, just as I had fighting Theseus. 

Without making a move, I met the messenger’s eye and said, “Your friends might get lucky and take me out, but you’ll die first.”

Her tail stood up straight. The little dog-like smirk vanished. Her eyes widened. That all only lasted a split second. Then her ears pointed up and her hair bristled. 

She flicked both wrists. 

With my ether-heightened senses, I felt the daggers slice through the air. With a quick slice with both blades, I cut through the mundane weapons. The pieces clattered to the cobbles as I leapt forward. More projectiles loosed from the rooftops. 

But I was already on the move. Daggers and arrows clunked into the ground behind me. For good measure, I dove into a roll, coming up at a run. 

The messenger produced two more small blades, these made for hand-to-hand fighting. She held them in a reverse grip. I feinted left, stopped short. She swung at where my face would have been. I kicked her knee. She fell. She let out a high-pitched welp. Rising on one knee, she took another swipe at me. I dodged back and pivoted around behind her, placing her between me and the next volley. 

But it didn’t come.

I held both blades crisscrossed on the messenger’s shoulders, making a guillotine around her neck without actually touching her. The energy of the blades—much like light sabers—could easily cut through flesh and bone. All her muscles stiffened. I looked up. Several kobolds and a few lizard-like bipeds held poised to shoot crossbows or throw knives. But no one made a move. 

Sensing an opportunity, I said in a loud voice, “I do not wish to kill this woman. I did not ask for this fight. But I will kill every last one of you if I must, to achieve my goals. Where is the Baron?”

A slow clap echoed down the alley. I hadn’t seen anyone there before. But a woman walked forward. She had hair too black to be anything natural on Earth. She wore silver breastplate with the symbol of two dark wings on her chest with a sword nestled between them. 

What I first took for a black cloak unfurled as she came forward, two black-feathered wings protruded from her back. Jutting up from over her shoulder was a massive hilt. I could see the tip of the sword extending all the way down to her knees. 

“Well done,” she said, voice firm and commanding. “You have found me, and I would appreciate your leaving Marissa’s head on her shoulders.” 

“You’re the Baron?” I asked. “A Valkyrie?” 

“I am the Baron, but I have not answered to Odin in some time.” She stopped less than 2 meters from me. “Will you let my messenger go?”

“That depends on you. As I said before, I do not wish to hurt anyone. Not my style. However, I cannot allow you to kill me.”

“If I wished you dead, mortal, you would be ashes at my feet. You have cunning and skill. I would not waste that, but I also cannot allow mercenaries to tromp through my camps, slapping around my soldiers without consequences.”

I nodded my chin toward the messenger. “She attacked me.” 

“I am aware of the details.”

She studied me in the brief silence. I could tell I was being weighed and measured. She had a helluva poker face. I could not say if she was going to try to murder me outright or just kill me around the edges. I was leaning toward the former, but I wasn’t ready to lop off any heads just yet and hoping the valkyrie felt the same. Sorry. Former-valkyrie. 

Finally, she nodded. “Let her go, and I will spare you.”

It was my turn to study her. 

The winged warriors answer to Odin, whose main source of power rests on a planet called Asgard, where he currently owns every nexus and guards them jealously. Many of the other gods came from there—Loki amongst them—and were cast out for reasons few know. Once leaving Asgard, many came to Atlantis, and then Earth and other primitive planets.

The valkyries were considered Odin’s eyes and ears in the realms. Either she was a deserter or had fallen out of grace. Neither gave me an inclination as to her temperament. Could she be trusted?

Only one way to find out.

I took a step back and let my swords dissolve back into the ether. I did not release the flow heightening my muscles and senses. If she came at me, I’d do everything in my power to send her to Valhalla. 

“Come,” she said, pivoting on her heel. “We will talk.”

She walked directly at the wall, then passed through as though it was not there. I did not sense the illusion until walking through to the alley on the other side.

And I stopped.

A horde of kobolds stood there, all holding assault rifles. I saw three snipers on the roof, still looking at me down their scopes. The sight was such a contrast to the other side of the illusion—where the kobolds all held what could only be called primitive weaponry—I could only stand and gape. These people wore combat and tactical outfits, complete with grenades and other accessories more consistent with military or S.W.A.T. units.

I had the strongest feeling that had I twitched to kill the messenger, three bullets would have blasted through my skull before nicking the woman’s neck. Then, likely, I would have been turned into Swiss cheese by the M16s. 

“They will not harm you,” she said. Though, I noted, none of them stopped aiming their weapons at me. “Come.”

I walked as if the ground beneath me was brittle and might crack at the wrong step. The Baron turned at a blank wall and mumbled a quick spell. A doorway appeared. She opened it and gestured for me to go first. 

Seeing little choice in the matter, I stepped into the darkened room. Two more valkyries stood just inside on either side of the opening to a long corridor. Both stood motionless, eyes intent upon me. Neither so much as blinked until the Baron stepped in beside me and said, “At ease.”

Then they blinked. But they still watched me. And did not move. 

“Right,” I said, “So, the reason I wanted to—”

“Not here,” she said, striding past me. “Follow.”

So I did. She marched down the corridor, which led to a square room with a portal at its center. Explosives were rigged at the corners of the room. 

“What the fuck is this?”

“A doorway to my base. It is perfectly safe, I assure you.”

She stepped onto the short platform and offered her hand down to me with a patronizing expression on her face. 

I did not take her hand but stepped up beside her. 

She activated the portal. 

My body deconstructed and reconstructed. There were no explosives here, the only indication that we had been transported. 

The Baron walked down the corridor into another small room with two more valkyries. One opened the outer door for us with a nod to the Baron and a glare for me. 

“Well met,” I said, cheerfully. 

The glare became a glower, to which I gave a smile. 

“As you were,” the Baron said, and the valkyrie returned to statue duty beside the corridor. 

Outside was not what I expected. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but I just knew her base would be a dank warehouse deep in the Shadow Streets. 

Instead, I stood outside. I could see palm trees jutting over stone buildings with slate roofs. In the distance, I could see people of varied races and species moving about. I could smell salt in the air, hinting at an ocean or sea nearby. Birds hovered high above. The sky was blue and cloudless. 

I sucked in a breath. 

Rather than just after dawn, it was nearly dusk, the sun low in the sky. 

“Fuck,” I said. “How much time did we lose? Is this even Atlantis?”

“Peace,” she said. “We are still on Atlantis, but on the other side of the planet. You lost no time.” 

I breathed a sigh of relief, until I saw her expression. She knew I was in a hurry, which would destroy my bargaining power.

“Come,” she said with a smirk. “I wish to show you something.”

The stone path was well-tended with flowers growing alongside the roadway. The nearest building was at least 50 meters away. A glance up revealed the birds were not birds, but valkyries. They flew low enough to make out details. 

“What the fuck is going on?” I wanted to know.

“You will see.”

We walked on in silence. She stopped beside the first row of houses. Each home looked the same, made of stone with slate tiles for roofs. The only variation was in the gardens and differing color of doors. 

I saw a tiny face peaking through the curtain of a window. Brown hair surrounded the little eyes. It could be a goblin or a kobold or something else I’d never seen. Someone else. The moment our gazes connected, the curtain flopped back in place. 

The same thing happened at the next house, then the next as we walked.

Hundreds of houses, and each intersection led to more rows of cookie-cutter homes, all small enough for a single family. We came to a large open space where people stood in queues in front of rows of tables. 

Most were humanoid with pointed ears and thin frames. Many wore tattered clothes and appeared injured or had missing limbs. 

“They hail from a world called Erta,” she said. “Though, that was not their original home, either. The world to which they fled still uses blood as a means for fueling magic, not realizing they are filling the world with too much wyther to sustain a nexus for ether. The Accords of Inter-multiverse Travel restrict us from interfering with primitive societies, so even harboring these people is illegal. Yet, if we had not brought them here, they would be dead, simply for their blood.”

“The Accords were made to prevent advanced civilizations from taking advantage of peoples incapable of protecting themselves from places like Atlantis, Earth, or Asgard.”

Without slowing, she gestured toward the thousand elves. “But does nothing to keep advanced cultures within a world from doing the same. We find the accords callous. And though we do not engage in war with such nations, we do provide a safe haven for those wishing to find a life elsewhere. For saving these people, we would be brought before a tribunal—likely here on Atlantis—and executed. In the name of preserving culture.”

She had a fair point. The punishment was intended as a preventative measure, to dissuade others from interfering with other cultures. However, these elves and everyone else on the island would be slaughtered along with them. 

We walked in silence for a time. Until finally, I asked, “Why here? Surely, there is a safer planet to hide.”

“Most of these people are from here. They cannot afford to live under the rule of the gods. Marginalized people are pushed into the arena. Until we came here.”

That shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. “I didn’t know. It never appeared that way in Athens.”

“By design. But the turmoil in the multiverse is not limited to your Earth. Wars always produce refugees. And though you cannot see it, Theseus is at war, as well. With any and all who damage the image he attempts to maintain. His region is a portal point. Millions come through here every year. Riches flow through here, but not to the people. Those of Athens suffer more than most. Why did you come to Atlantis?”

The sudden change in topic took me aback, but I saw no reason not to answer truthfully. “The heist. Theseus had something I needed.” 

“And you took it, knowing of Theseus’s cruelty. Bold? Or incredibly stupid?” 

“Yes,” I said. 

She smiled. “What did you take?”

“Many things, including the artifact I needed. Before we get to that, it’s your turn. I see what you are doing here. It is noble, but what are you after? Specifically, why show me all of this?”

“To respect your time—which I know is limited—I will get straight to the point. We are at war with those who take power and abuse it, including Theseus. Much like your Collective, we wish to push the gods from their seats of power. This sanctuary rights many wrongs, but it is not enough. We need to challenge the Accords and cannot while beneath the power of the gods. And I believe you can aid us with this problem..” 

As if one eternal war wasn’t enough. “I’m not sure I can. I mean … I’m hip-deep in shit already with my own struggles on Earth. And every moment I stand here, hours pass on my world. I need to get home.”

“I understand.” She nodded. “I can help you. But it will have a cost.”

“I took many artifacts that would aid your cau—”

“No. You cannot bargain that which is mine already. Normally, I do not allow poachers of any kind. I am making an exception for you. You may keep 10% of your take. The rest is mine.”

“Fuck that,” I said before my brain could stop my mouth. She raised an eyebrow. I rushed on before she could have her valkyries smite me. They still circled above. And for all I knew, she had another dozen soldiers shadowing us, hidden beneath another clever illusion. “What I mean to say,” I amended, “is that I know you start off at a much higher percentage for your street grunts and—”

“But they are my street grunts. You are an encroaching thief at best. At worst …”

“I get it,” I said, “but you cannot have the artifacts I need for my cause, and I’ll not list it all out for you so we can burn time haggling over worth. I’ll take what I need and leave you the rest.”

“I could just take what is mine.” She gestured to the valkyries on overwatch as well as to the others shadowing us, who—as I had suspected—had been hidden behind a veil. But there was no threat in her voice or in her manner.

“If that’s what you wanted,” I reasoned, “we would not be standing here amidst your refuge. I would be in chains, while you tortured me for the information on how to bypass my wards without sending you and all the goods into oblivion.” I gave a tight smile. “Meaning, you want to deal. You have smugglers, obviously, or you would not have off-worlders seeking sanctuary here. I’ve seen enough that I do not mind contributing to your cause. But I have other matters that require my attention. I cannot pledge my service to you. My Collective has that oath already. You get my excess take. I get a trip home. That is my only offer. Truth is, I don’t need all of this stuff. You do. Do we have a deal?” 

“I have smugglers. I have warriors. I also have wealth and status in places that aid me. But I do not have many powerful ethermages with centuries of experience fighting the gods.”

“I am just one mage,” I said. “And what about the valkyries? They can call ether and wyther I would wager. ” 

“Trivial sums and to minor effect. I am the most powerful amongst us, and I pale in comparison to your power.”

“Artifacts can amplify—”

“Our armor already serves that purpose. Little more can be gained, even with the Incanter’s Blade you took from Loki.”

She knew. 

Before I could make up excuses, she pressed on. “None in my employ and few in the city could bypass those wards. That is why they are effective and used by nobles in all of Atlantis. None but the gods can circumvent their defenses. With your talents, we can hit them where it hurts the most. Their wealth. And you have insights we could use. You could make the difference in our war.”

I snorted. “I am no god.”

“Oh? And what are the gods but beings of power?”

“They aren’t human.”

“Neither am I.”

“Semantics. You know what I mean. I’ll never rival Loki without weapons. Artemis holds a nexus. I cannot combat her.”

“But is that not your intent? The reason you rush back to your Earth? You plan to wage war against those gods.”

“Not by myself. And with as many tricks as I can muster.”

She spread her hands wide. “Not with all of my army could I stand against a single god in the open, and you will face an entire pantheon.”

“Not a pantheon yet,” I said, annoyed. She was trying to make me sound like Superman. It wasn’t like that. “And I won’t hit them head on. That would be suicide.”

“I see,” she said, amusement in her voice. “I misspoke. You are nothing like the gods. For they are without any hint of humility.”

I frowned at her. She began walking again. A few more blocks, she stopped on a bridge crossing over a small river. It wound around a play-yard with minotaurs, kobolds, and the cat-bipeds (whose species I still had not learned the name). All children, playing together. A lot of them.

“Orphaned by Theseus’s arena.” 

“Gods damn it. This is low. Don’t you think I know what war does? I’ve fought one for 200 years. None of this changes the fact that I am obligated elsewhere.”

“What if we could end the wars?”

“Impossible. It is called the endless wars for a good reason. People, regardless of species, crave power. Competition is the main driving force amongst life in the multiverse. How can you stop our nature?”

“You cannot; however, you can remove that which causes the gods to battle.”

“They fight over the nexuses. Destroy that energy, destroy life. We would devolve into places like Erta and enslave one another again, as they do.”

“Why is it even the most resourceful and talented humans always resort to destruction as a solution to every problem?”

“We believe we have another solution to remove the seat of power without disrupting the flow of ether or wyther. But it will require cooperation from the very beings who would be denied the power of its source.” 

I could only stare at her. Clearly, she was insane. 

“I am not mad,” she said, guessing my thoughts. “I will not divulge more information without your pledge.”

I was already pledged to Theseus. With a blood oath. Correction, a gods damned open-ended blood oath. Part of it had been making contact with the Baron. At least I could check off that part of the obligation, but I still owed him a task. More and more, I realized this woman was at the center of it.

“I want to help you,” I said, honestly, “but I have to go home first. That pledge cannot be broken. Give me that, and I will return here and aid you in whatever way I am able.” And to myself added, without breaking my blood oath to your greatest enemy.

“Agreed.” 

I felt a stab of guilt seeing the relief in her expression. “Good. My Finder Ship is just down this street.” She gestured toward the north. Now that I was looking, I could see the ocean on the horizon. “My captain is waiting for you.”

“Really? That’s it?”

“Of course, but you’ll understand if I require a blood oath from you as well?”

I shook my head. “I do not have time to draft a document.” 

Taking out a knife, she said, “We will do it the old-fashion way. Starting with this: I am Betithia Odianus of Asgard.” 

She cut her hand open without flinching and offered me the knife, blood dripping from the blade. I took it, brain racing to find a way out of this. Sharing oaths of servitude with warring factions was beyond stupid. My mind came up short on the options category. 

“Liamorandus Fianna of Earth.” I said, then I cut my palm in the same place Theseus had and offered her my hand. 

She took it and swore, “With blood spilled, I pledge to be true to these promises made. From hence forth, while trust and integrity is maintained, my domain is offered as sanctuary to one, Liamorandus Fianna of Earth, for him and his progeny shall he ever need it. In so providing sanctuary, I will give him free passage to his homeland should he ever have need of my vessel, so long as I am able to give it. By my power, I swear it.”

I felt the magic of her blood and spell linger in the air. To seal our oath, I had to make one of my own. She made herself vulnerable by going first and leaving the spell open for me to contribute. It was trust I had not earned and certainly did not deserve. But it worked. 

As infinitely dumb as it might be, I could not give her any less than my deepest, heartfelt oath. 

“With blood spilled,” I echoed, “I pledge to be true to promises made. From hence forth, I will pledge myself unto Betithia Odianus of Asgard to aid in her cause so long as I am able, physically and mentally, to do so in good faith, as I see fit and continue my service so long as the cause remains just. By my power, I swear it.”

Not your most heartfelt, a little voice inside my head said. After all, there was a lot of wiggle room in that pledge, but still ironclad. Betithia smiled as if I had promised to die on the altar of sacrifice for all the orphans playing in that field, which only added to my guilt. 

The spell settled over both of us, linking us in an undefinable way. And just like that, it was done. I was now beholden to Betithia and Theseus, mortal enemies to one another. Somehow, I had bungled my way right into the middle of it. But I had my ride home. 

Peachy. 

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Chapter 30: Comeuppance

Loki had a wine cellar. Now, I have a wine cellar with reds, whites, even purples and greens from all over the multiverse. That emperor sized bed that was once in his gigantic master suite now rests comfortably in my dimensional pocket, alongside all of Loki’s bedroom set. I had to expand the walls to fit everything. The ornate, gilded trestle chests and cabinets were more ostentatious than my preference, but knowing it all belonged to Loki alleviated such trivialities as good tastes. 

I took everything.

There was no more security or opposition preventing me from my comeuppance. There were a few more illusions set into place, but mostly they all had to do with ambience, likely to impress guests. Even though I had no need of it, I moved all eleven guest rooms worth of furnishings into the extended storage area I made in my dimensional space, along with his clothes. 

I left light fixtures and other things bolted down, except the bar in his front room. It took a good bit of effort and magic, but I TK-ed (used telekinesis) it all into my new home on my back. If I could have figured out a way to take the pool, I would have. 

Before I left, I wrote “FUCK YOU, LOKI” in big red letters all over the place, using magic to embed the words into the material on a molecular level. Sure, he could fix it easily enough, but the act would rankle him while he did it.

That made me smile. 

I understand on an intellectual level that my anger was not solely directed at the trickster god, but it felt damn good to get one over on him, seeing as how he had been in on the plot to strand me here and had stolen Aiden’s freedom.

We weren’t even. I still needed to find a way to hurt him personally. After all, this was just stuff. I needed to wound him, Artemis, and all the others. Not for myself, but for everyone they fucked over simply because they had power.

I hate bullies. Anyone who would abuse others for their own amusement or for boredom or whatever, does not deserve the power they wield. I would find a way to take that from him. 

And I had started with his vault. It hadn’t even been locked. That was the arrogance of Loki. He expected the wards and his name to be enough to protect his belongings. 

Interestingly, Theseus’s vault had contained more valuable artifacts than Loki’s. However, I did manage to find a few things I could use to barter my way back to Earth. After all, no one would know the difference between one god’s treasures and another’s, right? It’s not like Theseus had catalogued all of his prized possessions for the general public. They’d all been trophies collecting dust. Loki’s vault had been in a similar state of neglect. 

In all, I got a few more weapons, including an orb, called an Incanter’s Blade. It had been crafted on a primitive planet called Arinth, where most of the populace still could only use the simplest of the the magics—elemental. Only a few—those they call magi— are beginning to understand the true nature of magic. Take for example this fist-sized globe. 

It would enhance one’s connection between will and ethereal pattern, allowing them to magnify their ability to tame elemental energies. Those who understand spells can use it to increase the amount of ether poured into a spell. Translation: much bigger boom for less effort.

Making one of these little gems required the ethereal pattern of a dragon. Despite existing inside every fantasy story since Tolkien, they are rare in the multiverse and hadn’t existed on Earth for over 20,000 years. Dragons are beautiful, majestic creatures with an extremely high intellect.

They had created Arinth as a safe haven for their kind. Though highly capable and extremely powerful, they are slow to procreate. They created the Arinthians to be servants. That’s right. They made an entire species—a few of them if memory serves. So, you can imagine placing a dragon’s ethereal pattern inside a little ball might prove difficult because you would have to kill the dragon to make that happen. No easy feat, not to mention the moral implications of taking the eternal energy of a being to make a weapon. 

So the Incanter’s Blade is priceless.

More importantly, it would give me the power I needed to stand up to a god. Well, maybe it would give me a fighting chance, which is more than I had before this. So I couldn’t use it to buy my passage home. However, there was also a few other trinkets of some value, such as the Titan Bracers, which would give the wearer the physical strength of a titan. As you likely guessed, it required the essential pattern of a titan to make. 

Hunting other beings for this purpose was illegal. In fact, Loki’s entire Collection was either illegal to make or outlawed entirely in Atlantis.

Take the stasis box. Originally crafted to preserve items of importance, the space was most infamously used as a prison. Time could not pass within the stasis. Anyone going inside would be frozen until released. A cruel person would place her enemies inside just long enough until they lost loved ones. 

There were other items such as these, made for a mundane purpose but used for nefarious means. Any one of them would be a treasure to a crime lord. If none of that worked, there was gold. A fuck-ton of gold, in fact. So much that it made me think Loki loved the gold more than the rest of the stuff I’d taken. 

I exited through the front door and paused, breathing in the fresh, morning air. Turning back, I cast a quick spell to erase the double-S snakes and replaced it with a phallus. Juvenile? Maybe, but well-deserved. 

I considered filling the pond in with dirt, but an act that big might alert the local authorities, so I contented myself with urinating into the hot tub on his terrace then walked down the walkway to the front gate. 

It opened from this side. Turning the handle temporarily cut a hole through the wards. I propped the door open with a large rock and went on my way. 

I rode that high all the way back to the pyramids. 

Inside, my room had been ransacked. Nothing of value was there, but I complained to the hotel staff about the theft and made a big deal about my valuables being taken. They strongly expressed their deepest regrets, while taking no responsible for the loss of property. 

As way of apology—without ever using those words—they gave me an upgraded room, gave me free continental breakfast every morning of my stay, and an extra night in my suite, which I hoped not to need. 

The smells of baked bread and fried eggs wafted in the air, making my stomach grumble. While I waited for Arkath’s message, I decided to cash in on that breakfast token. 

On the other side of the help desk, a hallway opened to a dining area. I’d expected a buffet just like every other hotel I’d visited. Instead, I saw a full wait staff, lining the wall by the window, which overlooked the ocean. A few people had already found their way to the beach. 

“Good morning,” a cat-woman greeted in Atlantian. “Sit anywhere you like.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking a seat by the window, where I could still see the front desk. 

The same woman who had bid me a good morning came over. She looked like a Persian kitty with pure white hair, closely cropped. Her ears stood up straight and mouth was in a perma-frown until she spoke. 

“Here you are,” she said, handing me a menu. 

It was all in Atlantian. The eyes gravitated toward the giant egg platter, served with boar skin. The yolk was as large as my face and the boar skin looked like an enormous piece of bacon. 

“That. I want that. And coffee. The largest you have.”

“Excellent choice.” 

She took the menu and left. I pretended to stare out the window but watched the front desk from my periphery. Arkath would leave a message as he’d promised, especially since he’d come up empty in my room. 

My food came before the messenger, but by seconds. 

“Fuck,” I said over a mouthful of ginormous egg and bacon. It was better than the real thing. The bacon was crisp. The yolk was creamy. I lamented not being able to finish it.

The coffee was too hot to sip, so I left it along with my amazing food, suddenly hopeful that I could have breakfast here tomorrow. All it would cost to stay another day would be a month on earth. Worth it.

The messenger was a female kobold I’d never seen. Her snout was short with canines protruding from her bottom lip. Big brown eyes and floppy ears. The cat at the desk frowned at her. I could not hear them, but the envelope had ‘The Ethermage’ in big letters on the front. I’d never given Arkath my name for obvious reasons. 

As soon as the kobold walked away, I rushed to the front desk.

“That’s for me,” I said, pointing to the letter.

“I will need some sort of veri—”

“Ethermage,” I said. “I’m the ethermage. In a hurry.”

She held the letter as though she would delay, but I was out of time. With a trickle of ether and a quick word, I snatched it with a hand of telekinesis. Her eyes widened, and she stepped back.

“My regrets,” I said with as much apology as she’d given me a few minutes ago. “But I cannot be responsible for your hurt feelings.”

Pivoting, I ran for the main exit on this floor while shoving the letter into my cloak. The kobold had not made it from the parking garage. I followed her at a distance, casting a glamour to make myself look like a cat-person in hotel livery. As the density of the crowd increased, I closed the gap. 

The kobold walked through the main street and turned down an alley with far fewer people. I let the gap grow a bit before following. And so our game went. She made her way northeast, toward the Shadow Streets, I realized. 

When she stopped at a Starbucks, I knew we must be close. I changed the glamour to that of a kobold with grungy clothes. Not dirty but, not pristine like the pyramid’s uniform. 

I entered the Starbucks and got in line behind the kobold. She turned her head to the side, never looking directly at me, but I could tell she was aware of me. The corner of her mouth edged upward before she returned her stare to the menu.

When we reached the front, she ordered four drinks and asked for a carrier. I got my regular, a venti soy latte, and was glad to pay with Loki’s gold. 

My drink came first. I sat near the door and sipped it until the messenger kobold got her carrier and exited. Once more, I could feel her awareness on me, but it could not be helped. I gave her a five second lead before following. 

I took a new face, changing my fur to a golden hue. Then I hurried after her. She turned down another side alley. I followed. Took a few strides. Then, I realized the alley was empty. And it was a dead end. 

“What the fuck?”

Turning, I saw the kobold. She stood with a dagger in each hand, blocking the exit back to the street. 

“Twitch and you are dead,” she said, accent thick with a growl. “Drop the spell.”

“I would,” I said, slowly. “But you said not to twitch. Technically speaking, I don’t have to twitch to do so; however, it won’t look like that to you. So …”

“Drop. The. Spell.” The dagger spun in her fingers for emphasis. 

“What is this? A John Woo film?”

But I dropped the spell. 

“Good. Now turn around and put your face on the street.”

“That’s not going to happen. Where’s Arkath?”

“Occupied. Do as I say, or this dagger goes into your throat.”

“I think my spells are faster. Would you not rather talk about our options? I’d love to know how you knew it was me.”

“Easy. I sensed your magic. You wore the wrong clothes for your breed. And I could smell you.”

“Wrong clothes for … Never mind. It was a hasty glamour. I should have considered the scent, but I haven’t had any coffee yet. See now? Isn’t talking more pleasant?”

“It is not. Carving you to pieces would be far more enjoyable. I would love to know what ethermages taste like. A delicacy for my table, no?”

“Ew. No. I’m sure I’d be gamey. Besides,” I said, pulling the letter from my cloak pocket, “the Baron wishes to speak with me. I’d have a difficult time accomplishing that from your belly.”

“The message is unopened. How could you know her wishes?”

Her eyes flickered slightly up. I could see movement on the rooftop in my periphery. Yep. I’m an idiot. She’d been stalling me. If I wasn’t surrounded, I’m certain I soon would be. 

Readying to throw a sphere of protective force around me, I opened the envelope, trying to make it look casual. Then I read the letter. 

Dear Ethermage,

It has come to my attention you are operating in my domain without permission. This is a capital offense. Make this simple for the both of us and surrender yourself. I promise to give you a swift and painless death. You need but to enter my demesne, anywhere north of 78th street or west of 53rd. My people will find you. 

You have until the sun falls to comply. If you force me to spend further resources tracking you down, I promise to keep you alive for some time before putting an end to your misery. And bring my property or do not come at all.

Sincerely,

The Baron

Well, shit. I knew robbing Loki had been too easy, but life had a way of finding balance. And here it was. I hazarded a glance up. The buildings on either side of me were only 4-5 stories. Atop them were dozens of kobolds. They had me surrounded. And I could only guess at how well armed they were. With any luck, they all carried medieval weapons. It would be like rolling dice. Not wise, but I had few options.

Resolving myself to a fight, I looked back to the messenger. And I took a gamble.

Chapter 29: Shadow of All is Lost

Obi Wan Kenobi dies, the Fellowship of the ring falls apart, and Severus Snape murders Albus Dumbledore. Despite the odds stacked against them, Luke still defeats Vader and becomes a Jedi. Sam, Frodo, and Gollum drop the ring in the lava, saving Middle Earth. Harry learns magic and defeats Voldemort, killing him once and for all. 

How ever desperate the situation seems at the time, the hero of every tale overcomes villainy and rises up from adversity. 

At least, this was what I told myself to be able to stand up from the beach and walk back to the pyramids. It was a slow walk. I’d flown pretty far away. 

I felt very alone. 

I wished very much to hear a snarky remark from Aiden or have him fight me on why flying would be better than walking. Or anything at all. 

He’d duped me. He’d fooled the Collective. All this time, he was bonded to Loki, working with his sister to … what? Bring about a new age of the gods? 

Most of my information had come from Aiden. Meaning, I could not trust what I thought I knew. Was Skyler, my TA, even a mage? That tidbit had come from Victoria, during the midst of her machinations to manipulate me into hitting Theseus’s castle in the night.

I’m a fucking idiot. She hadn’t gotten past our wards. Aiden had let her in. Not that it mattered now, but looking back, all the signs were there. I’d been too busy putting out the fires to see my partner had been the one igniting them. All the questions that had popped up that I pushed to the back of my mind came back in a rush. 

Why had Victoria faked her death? What did Abigail want in Tallahassee? Was her recruitment effort on the FSU campus misdirection or part of a bigger play for the Bermuda Nexus? Why had Aiden come to me when he did? Was Skyler really an agent of Artemis? The Ferryman knew Aiden was bonded to Loki. Why the fuck didn’t I ask more questions? 

I stopped in front of the middle pyramid, the one we were staying in. More people were around, families and couples enjoying their evening on the beach, oblivious to the fact that my little world had come to a crashing halt. 

Watching them, I pushed aside my worries over paths not taken. Only one question really mattered at the moment. What did I need to do next?

I still owed Theseus a debt. He wanted me to contact the Baron and let it be known I was the one responsible for robbing him. I hadn’t planned on doing this so soon, but this way I could kill two birds with one stone. Assuming there was a way to get smuggled off this planet, the Baron would have means, and I knew at least one agent of the crime lord. 

Rather than go into my room and sulk more, I found my feet moving again. Instead of flying, I walked along the sidewalks. There was no reason to rush. After all, the person I sought would not likely be around until full dark. The evening light faded behind the skyline of tall buildings, turning through reds, purples, and pinks. It would have been beautiful any other day, but I just noted it all with detached acknowledgment of the passing of time.

I reached the Starbucks where we’d met Arkath and stolen pieces of the kobolds hairs. When I entered, there were no other patrons. The baristas were cleaning the used tables and restocking the condiment station. 

A human-looking male smiled at me and said, “Welcome to Starbucks,” as he walked back behind the counter. “What can I get you?”

Though I loathed the idea of spending my limited supply of gold on coffee, I could not sit at a table in good conscious without patronage. I’ve always felt buying a drink is like renting the space. Though I’m certain they would let me sit there, it would feel weird without purchasing something. And now that I smelled the food, I was eating one of those toasties. 

I ordered a strawberry goat toastie and a soy latte then sat at a corner table, facing the door. Less than 2 minutes later, the barista brought my order out to me. Believe it or not, this was not my first time eating goat. It was less gamey than the goats on the hills of Carlingford where I grew up. The meat was tender and the strawberries were actual strawberries. I couldn’t see what the cheese was but it had a sweet flavor, like brie. 

Most importantly, I was ravished. That pour sandwich never had a chance. I finished it and sipped my coffee very slowly. 

The door opened. Two minotaurs came in. My heart skipped a beat as I recognized them. I’d worn one of those faces and Aiden the other. I didn’t move. Nor did I seize ether. I would have nowhere to run. I was out of options and friends.

The one I had impersonated frowned at me. Then he dismissed me as if I was a tourist or annoying pest, blatantly ignoring me as he walked to the counter. They ordered their coffee and left without so much as a glance in my direction. 

Others came and went, but not the kobold. I nursed my coffee for nearly two hours, but fortunately, the place filled up, allowing me to ride the clock on my first installment—which to be fair would buy a small house in some countries on Earth. 

I didn’t order my second round until the people cleared out around midnight. I’d begun to worry the kobolds wouldn’t come back. After all, we’d threatened to curse them. But, like all coffee connoisseurs, you did not simply abondon your favorite spot over trivialities such as threat of death or dismemberment. I mean, if the coffee is good, I’m showing up.

And so did Arkath and his partner. 

The pep did slow from his step as our eyes met. He froze mid-stride. His tail, protruding from his trousers, stopped wagging. His ears pointed straight up. Next to him, hanging on his arm, the female kobold sensed his angst, then she too froze. 

I stood, holding my hands up in surrender as I approached them. “I only want to talk.”

“We didn’t squeal, mate. I swear.”

“I know.” I moved closer and spoke in a conspiratorial voice. “I am here for business.” This next bit hurt, but I tried not to let it show. “Can I buy you a coffee?”

“Wouldn’t turn down a free drink,” he said, body relaxing slightly. His partner continued glaring at me. 

I got in the queue with them. No one spoke while the line shuffled forward, until Arkath ordered for himself and his partner. They also got food. Altogether, it cost me 17 gold coins. I paid, trying not to do the mental conversion from sterling/dollars to gold. I failed. I had just given a new low-end BMW in exchange for food. 

It was busy enough we waited at the end of the counter for their order. No one had moved my empty coffee cup, so we returned to my table and sat. Arkath already looked far more congenial. Food has a power of its own. 

I gave them a minute to finish their toasties before speaking. In truth, I wasn’t completely certain of my approach. Should I start with telling them I did not have their hair or let that threat hang over them? I could strong-arm them, but that gets far less traction than kindness. Hence, the food. Still, a degree of wariness would not hurt. 

“Baron’s been looking for you,” Arkath said, while chewing. “He doesn’t appreciate freelancers.”

She,” I corrected, “does not appreciate freelancers.” 

He blinked in surprise, looking up from his food. “How’d you—right. We say he, savvy? He enjoys his privacy. Get me?”

“Got it. How do I meet him?” 

He stared at me for a few more seconds then returned to his chewing. He took another bite and swallowed before looking up. 

“He does not know it was you,” he said. “I didn’t offer that information, you understand. How would it look. Me suspecting you would do something like that thing you did last night in the Baron’s backyard, then I sit on that out of fear of you. Savvy?”

This time, the word sounded like an honest question. 

“I understand. For what it’s worth, we burned your hair samples. They are gone.”

He barked a few things to his partner. She nodded, tongue lulling from her mouth and barked something back. 

“We are grateful for that,” he said. “But you understand our predicament. If we introduce you to the Baron, we have to admit to knowing you before you were infamous. And he will want his cut. Since you aren’t high crew, it’ll be 75 percent.” 

“That high?” 

“His senior most crew work all the way up to giving only 5 percent.”

“How much do you pay?”

“We pay 20.” 

“You’ve worked for him a long time, then.”

“Aye, since we were pups.” 

Meaning, they were loyal. And I had forced them to betray the Baron in favor of saving their own hides. I was not keen on kobold body language. He seemed debonaire, but that could be the persona he gives when feeling threatened. Or a role he played when on a job. At best, that’s all I was to him, a means to get closer to that 5 percent. I was fine with that, so long as it got me the fuck off this planet. 

“I see,” I said. “What would it take for an introduction?”

Arkath sipped on his coffee. Though he stared right at me, his eyes grew distant. I let him think without interruption. I would never say it aloud, but he looked like a dog staring at a treat, just before it’s dropped. I knew what was coming before he did. The coffee was not enough of a payment.

“Might be possible. How much did you pinch?”

I’d gotten away with god’s treasure then lost all but a sword and a mirror. I couldn’t sell either of those. But he didn’t need to know that.

“More than anyone else has ever managed.” 

Then it became a staring contest. I hadn’t lied, but I had intended to deceive. I focused on my breathing and drew in an image of a lotus. I placed all of my thoughts somewhere outside that picture. Though my eyes stared at him, I did not see Arkath or smell the coffee. The only scent was the vaguely sweet, mostly bitter aroma of the lotus. The exercise was designed to withstand non-magical interrogation. I’d practiced it for 200 years. If necessary, I could place my mind there fully, removing sound and sensation. 

Arkath let his jaw drop open and tongue lull for a heartbeat before saying, “The Baron will want to hear the tale, himself. Have you proof?” 

“I retained a couple of pieces. The rest are with my partner.” 

“I’d like to see them.”

“I’d like to be king for a day.”

“I need to know you are on the level.”

“You know I am on the level, or you would not still be here. I can’t show the goods here for obvious reasons. You want to get me alone somewhere to take a shot at acquiring my stash at a premium.”

“I saw the castle. Only a fool would try to strong-arm the mage who’d done that. All by his lonesome and all.” 

“You wouldn’t be alone. In addition to your partner, you have a crew standing by outside. Tell me I’m wrong.”

He made a hurt expression, placing a hand on his chest. “You’ve wounded me. Just when I thought we were becoming friends.” 

“I do not have time for this. I need to meet with the Baron. Can you arrange that? Or do I need to find someone else?”

I could wander around the Shadow Streets. Eventually, the right person would find me. Or the wrong person, depending on perspective. Either way, I did not like the idea of using myself as bait.

“No,” Arkath barked. “I can make the introduction. I’ll have my people contact your people, savvy? Where are you staying?”

“I need to see the Baron, today. Now. Time is a factor for me. Or maybe you aren’t the right person for this job.”

“Oh, I’m the right person. Count on that. No one else will get you an audience, but it won’t be today. We might work in the night, but the Baron likes his sleep. Has duties not concordant with cloaks and daggers.”

“When?”

“You will know when I know.”

“Fine,” I said, rising. “I’m staying at the Pyramids. Leave a message for me, and I will meet you here.” 

Arkath and his partner stood with me. “Pyramids, eh? Luxurious Inn. Or so I’ve heard.”

“It’s all right.” I turned to go but stopped, looking back at Arkath over my shoulder. “One more thing. Where does Loki live?”

“As in the Loki?”

“Aye. He owes me a favor. Might need to collect.”

He turned his head to the side. “Curious. I’d heard that you cursed his name during your … daring escape. You don’t know how to reach his domain? Seems strange.”

“He teleported us there. I’m not certain how to find my way back.” 

“Easy enough to find. It’s on Gods Court. Keep on Lord’s Way and take a left at the intersection. It’ll be the blue and white castle. Best of luck, mate. Word is he skipped town.”

“Thank you.”

I turned to leave without a backward glance. Once outside, I gathered ether and flew, merging into traffic like I would if riding a motorcycle in New York, using as much caution as possible and assuming no one saw me. Following Arkath’s directions, I was able to find Loki’s domain easily. 

Even from the aerial view, the illusion held. The white spires were lit up with torches, at odds with a city illuminated by artificial lights but still beautiful. Blue roofs appeared almost green in the yellow light. It was spoiled somewhat, since I knew it was entirely fake. 

With ether-sight, the scene remained, but I could see a shimmer in the air now that I was looking for it. I probed the shell with a lance of energy. The ward rebuffed my spell. 

I flew around the place, looking for a way in. His defenses were perfect, similar to those surrounding Theseus’s compound. 

So I found a comfortable spot behind the castle, which opened to a private beach. And I waited. I did not allow my thoughts to wander. I focused on my goal. 

We’d worked out the details quite extensively. I hoped the mechanics were the same here. Otherwise, there’d be nothing left of my body to know I was ever here. Like a bug flying into a zapper, Loki would never even know I’d been here. I’d become a greasy spot, washed away in the rain.

I entered into a sort of trance, watching with my ether-sight. The moment the purple became a hint in the horizon, the ward dipped.

The power cycle reset. 

I’d already been holding ether to capacity, readying the spells I would need for this moment. I dual cast strength and flight, pouring all my energy into the task of getting over the wall. The wards would weaken, collapse, then renew in less than a second. 

I felt it happen.

I hurtled forward. 

Wind rushed in my ears. I heard the sonic boom. It cracked like thunder as my movement energized the air. This was the fastest I’d ever moved. The wards closed around me. Destructive energy settled in place. 

And I was on the other side of it. The gaudy mansion looked the same from the backside as it had from the front, only the back door had a patio with a sidewalk leading to a gate that accessed the beach beyond the wall. 

My heart started pounding. I felt suddenly weak. I landed on the cobbled path leading into a small garden and leaned on the short fence surrounding the patch of greenery. Sweat beaded on my forehead, and I breathed as though I’d sprinted a mile. Eventually, my eyes focused and my breathing slowed.

Loki grew his own vegetables. That came as a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t a professional job. I could tell from the crooked rows. Weeds were out of control in some places. He’d done this himself. Or some other amateur gardener living with him.

That gave me pause. What if I was wrong? I shook my head. Only one way to find out. 

I flew around to the front of the mansions and hovered above the giant pond. The merfolk were still there. None of them glanced up at me. The children still chased schools of fish. I watched for half an hour. In that time, the illusion repeated 3 times, the exact same scene. 

I flew up to the door. There were no wards. Just a simple lock. I used a hand of ether to open the lock from the other side and went inside. And I smiled.

No one came to greet me. Nothing at all stirred. I was alone in one of the richest mansions I’d ever seen. And I needed funding to get home. 

It was time to steal from a god.

Chapter 28: A Way Out

Water levels rising, stuck in a collapsed 140,000£ can, and all I could think about was the mirror in the back seat. Had the Soul Breaker been destroyed? If so, my entire journey here was for naught. Well, not entirely. I had managed to steal the largest treasure trove in the world for the Collective’s greatest enemies. I owed debts to the Ferryman and the ruler of Athens, Viscount of Atlantis. 

Oh, and I was facing imminent death. I could just lie here and die. But then, my service to the Ferryman would begin. There was no winning. So, I might as well keep on keeping on. Life’s a garden, dig it. 

Everything ached. I would have some hella whiplash. You know, if I lived.

Almost as an after thought, I considered my go-bag in the trunk that had my gold coins, a change of clothes, food and water—things I would need if I climbed out of this hole before being drowned. Hopefully, some of it was intact. 

I was fairly certain I was buried somewhere at the bottom of that picturesque cliff I had been admiring moments before. The view was less than stellar from the bottom. I could reform the stone around me, but moving mountainous rocks stacked on your head could prove catastrophic. 

And Victoria was out there still. Waiting for me to climb out. It would be like it had been on the beach, only this time I had no leverage or means of escape. Loki would just smite me. Or she’d sick her mercenaries on me. They’d put me in a box, only this time she would cut me off from wyther and ether. Then, she’d take me back to Artemis to do the gods knew what.

I needed to survive, get back to the Collective, and tell Bodhi Caderyn what I had discovered. Likely, he thought me dead. How much time had passed now? One day here is a month on Earth. We were on day 3, I think. Or maybe 3 and a half. It would be November by now. 

This line of reasoning wasn’t getting me out of this hole. 

The steering column was beneath my stomach. My feet were still by the pedals. Water came in from there and was up to my knees now. 

Closing my eyes, I cast the needed spell. “Faireachdainn.” 

I shoved my awareness into my surroundings. Instantly, I felt the sword and the mirror behind me. Both were whole, still emanating power. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding. I moved beyond the car, sensing the surrounding rock. 

My Maserati had plummeted 50 meters into the cliff, the way collapsing behind me. I pushed further in that direction, feeling where rock met water. I must have crashed into the gulf, slammed into the cliffside, finally coming to a stop in the hardened stone. Water filled in the chunks of stone destroyed by whatever the abyss had hit me hard enough to penetrate solid rock. 

My shield had saved me. It’s the only reason my car was not a flaming pile of ash and debris. 

I reached the surface of the ocean, and my awareness stopped expanding. I could feel the movement of fish of various sizes, the impact of the waves striking the cliff that entombed me, and I could feel all the rock between there and here. But I could not know if the Finder Ship was still out there. 

I waited, just allowing myself to be aware. The water continued pouring into the car. It was above my waist now and on my cheek. I craned my head, almost as an impulse, to keep my mouth and nose free. Taking a deep breath, I readied my mind for what would come next.

The bonding between minerals is called a covalent bond—the strongest possible bond—typically between silicon and oxygen. This gave rocks the properties of being difficult to break. 

However, ether makes all matter malleable. 

I gathered ether and will, pushing energy into the rock. I hardened the stone above me, strengthening the bonds. Water rose above my mouth. I tilted my head upward, but I only had seconds until it would fill the cab of my busted auto. 

Dual-wielding spells always came at a cost. But I had no choice. Focusing my will, I said, “uisge gu èadhar,” drawing the oxygen from the water, fusing the O2 molecules together around my face. I sucked in the pure oxygen and instantly felt light-headed. Too much oxygen gets you high. 

It couldn’t be helped. I would not last long without air. 

Holding the breathing spell in place, I urged the rock to close in behind my Maserati, forming a wall. 

That did three things. 

First, it closed off the flow of water. The caveat was that air was still getting in from there as well. That was the second thing. I had a limited supply of oxygen. Lastly, the biproduct of this way of breathing is that I would be creating a huge pocket of gas—specifically CO2 and Hydrogen. In otherwords, I was creating a huge pocket of methane. Incidentally, this is how an ethermage is able to make a ball of fire appear from thin air. Volatile molecules are all around. The magic is combining them in a way they can more easily explode, not something I wanted down here.

Still, I couldn’t go back and I did not want to drown, making the wall was a necessary evil. 

The only path was through. But I needed to take care of the gas, so I burrowed into the rock with a hole no larger than a finger. Burrow isn’t quite the right word. I urged the bond between the minerals to part, making a chute climb all the way up to the surface. It was large enough to release the gas but not so large as to draw notice from someone in flight.

I did the same thing below the car, only I opened up another cavern far enough beneath me to drain all the water in my little cave. Slowly, I widened the drainage pipe, allowing water to flow swiftly to the lower chamber. At the same time, I made the space around my car much larger, roughly a sphere 10 meters in diameter. 

As water leaked out of the car, my head was freed. Releasing both spells, I sagged back into my chair and passed the fuck out.

I can’t say how long I was unconscious but it was lengthy enough to give me cramps from sleeping in the awkward position. I pulled in ether to ease the pains. 

By now, Victoria had likely left me for dead. She’d been on a schedule and already had what she wanted from me. This had not been my plan back on the beach, but I had escaped. All it cost was a lifetime of gathered artifacts, my dimensional pocket, most of my gear, and all the goods we’d acquired from Theseus. 

At least I had my pride.

With a burst of gathered ether, I forced the door to my car open with raw energy and a good shove, then fell out onto the darkened cavern. I created two sources of light, as I had in Theseus’s vault, and pinned them on opposite ends of my little cave. 

I could only stare at my broken Maserati. Victoria had been with me when I picked it out. We’d both given it a test drive. Countless memories followed the purchase. Long drives along coasts on every continent. Parking on the beach and enjoying each other. 

And now, much like every thing else between us, it was a wreck. 

She’d played me like a fiddle. Aiden too. But no. She’d gotten to him somehow. Victoria may have been responsible for organizing the ball, but Aiden had been the one to get me to the dance, all while making me think it was my idea.

Looking back, I could see it. He’d presented this as our only way and had been his usual antagonistic self. When I am pushed, I push back. It has always been both my greatest strength and weakness. Aiden knows me better than anyone, with the possible exception of Victoria. 

And he was bonded to Loki. He had to be. There was no other explanation that made any sense. Not that I could do anything about it. 

If a day here was a month on Earth, that meant an hour here was just over 1.25 days on Earth. The Finder Ship was likely already back. Asterion had been delivered to Artemis and Abigail for whatever purpose. 

And I was here. 

I went to the boot—you call it a trunk—and needed the help of telekinesis to pry it open. My bag was there, still soaked of course in grainy salt water. Opening it up, I took stock. Clothes, water logged jerky, a hunting knife, and a canteen of stale water. I had a good amount of gold, but it would not last long here. 

A few days in a room but not nearly enough to buy my way home. The Ferryman would not take me, and I could not afford a Finder Ship. That left me with only one option. 

I needed to find a smuggler. I had a good idea of where to start, but I could not just leave my car here. I knew it was totaled, but it was mine. 

Snatching up the bag, I moved away from the car. With a quick spell, I smoothed out the stone ground and etched the required runes for the ritual. Another spell dried out the bag—a Janson Sport—and I placed the pack at the center of my circle. 

The next part took a deep amount of effort. I spoke the words to connect me with our physical space. “Tha ùine agus àite a ’leudachadh.” 

Higher dimensions are difficult to explain. 

My body became like an empty shell. I felt ether coursing through me, but my mind became more. My awareness was anchored in this physical reference space, but I could perceive the “space” beyond. It differs from our 3 physical dimensions in that additional dimensions can also contain our physical laws. Seizing a pocket of this space, I gathered my awareness around as much as I could hold and directed it toward the bag, simultaneously, I infused the runes around the Jansport with ether, providing a temporary anchor for the extra dimension. 

I spent the next hour, reshaping the space into a rectangular room, identical to the one Victoria had stolen from me—minus my furnishings and other belongings. I removed the anchor points from the ritual circle and attached them to the ether-fused bag.

This effectively transformed the backpack into a doorway into this extra-dimensional place. The best part about such doorways, the opening was malleable. 

Pulling the pack wide enough to drive through, I used telekinesis to move my busted car into the pocket. With a bit of effort, I opened the convertible top and inspected the mirror. The Soul Breaker did not have so much as a scratch. The sword was also fine. I exited the pocket and closed the pack. 

Then I sat on the rough ground, suddenly weary. Evocation is not my speciality. With the exception of some very short distant dimensional hops, this was the extent of my ability, but mostly because I could use thaumaturgy (the big ritual circle) to guide the process. 

After several minutes, I forced myself to stand on shaky legs. Gathering ether, I widened my air chute, making it roughly Liam-sized. Natural light flooded my little cave. Still day out there. Which day though? 

Only one way to find out.

Strapping my pack to my back, I said a quick spell and flew upward, out of the hole. The sky above me was clear. It was evening, maybe 2 to 3 hours until dusk. 

No Finder Ships lingered. As I had expected, Victoria was long gone. 

I landed on a cliffside, overlooking a bay. I saw a yacht out on the water and a few fishing vessels beyond. 

Resolving to relate more to the working class than the elite members of high Atlantian society, I gathered more ether and flew to a medium-sized fishing boat, moving slow enough that the crew could see me coming. 

They were all gnolls. 

A female wore a captain’s hat and medieval style of privateer clothing. Beneath her red vest was a white puffy-shirt that would not be amiss on an episode of Seinfeld. Her black tights disappeared into boots that laced up to her calves. Baggy woolen breaches stopped at her knees. Her hand rested casually on the hilt of the cutlass on her belt.

The crew stood behind her, similarly attired, albeit with older dingier clothes. All eyes watched me as I slowly lowered onto the deck, half-a-dozen paces from the captain.

She spoke in that barking language. I could only guess at the words, but her manner seemed more curious than hostile. 

“Good evening,” I said in Atlantian. “My ship wrecked. Please, can you tell me where we are?”

“You are aboard the Fleece, and we sail the Thesean Sea and are bound for Athens. And we do not care for the magi upon our vessel. It is bad luck.” 

“I understand,” I said with a slight bow of my head. “I will be on my way without delay. Which way to Athens?” 

She nodded toward the north. “About 50 kilometers due north.” 

“Thank you.”

I mumbled my spell in attempts to assuage their superstitions. They all tensed. A few half-pulled their swords. But I was in the air and out of reach seconds later. No longer confined by the need for caution, I gathered as much energy as I could and flew with as much speed as I could muster, fast enough to require a shield of air in front of me as a buffer.

It took me about 15 minutes to reach the mainland. And though I’d flown slightly off course, there was no mistaking the massive city of Athens. Vehicles swarmed about the skylines. People were done with their work for the day, going to restaurants or wherever as if nothing had changed.

I landed about a kilometer from the wharf, as far from other people as I could. Technically, I still had a room at the Pyramid. Aiden had only paid for one night, but we’d never checked out. Maybe the hotel would let me stay another night. Though I would love the sleep, I wanted to see if Aiden left some clue behind as to how all this got so fucked. 

Also, I needed to see how far Theseus’s mercy extended. He’d allowed me to leave, but he had also sent his guards after us. It was possible a team of minotaurs was waiting for me in the lobby or even watching the place to see if I came back. 

I had no material for a disguise and hoods would be suspicious in a place like this. Instead, I changed my garb to match some of the rich styles I’d seen adorning others, consisting of an expensive suit, black with a red tie.

But it was all for nothing.

The guards did not so much as glance at me, as I walked in. No one screamed “Go, go, go,” and came to arrest me. No one cared to look my way, while I made my way to the desk. 

The same cat-person that was here when we checked-in stood in attendance with two others in white and gold. They all looked at me as if I’d stumbled up on a private conversation. 

The one with rich, white fur said, “Good evening, milord. Can we help you?”

“Yes,” I said, giving them a polite smile. “I failed to check out this morning and would like to settle my bill.”

“Name?”

“It would be under MacGregor. Aiden MacGregor.”

She tapped on her tablet then asked without looking up, “Liamorandus?”

“Aye. That’s me.” 

“Your room has been paid up for the remainder of the week. Mr. MacGregor left this for you.”

She handed me a letter. 

I stared at it, a multitude of emotions tearing through me. Fustration, pain, annoyance, but most of all confusion. 

“When did he leave this?”

She pulled the post-it note from the back of the note and read it to me as if I was simple. “Yesterday evening around 20:00.” 

While I was asleep. 

I muttered my thanks and found my way outside to the beach. I hurried away, wanting to be alone. Apparently, evening strolls along the beach were all the rage, because couples walked everywhere. I soared on wings of ether a mile up the beach clutching the note.

I landed on a secluded area near a private home. The home was dark, but the sands were walled off.

My name was written on the front but nothing else. I recognized Liam’s shitty writing and paused, afraid of what I might read inside this letter.

Was it a confession? An apology? Instructions on how to get home? Maybe he was imbedding himself inside enemy lines and this was a way to reach him when I got back to Earth. 

I ripped the envelope open. After the first few lines, my knees buckled, and I sat hard on the cool sand. 

Dearest Liam, 

I cannot imagine how you must feel, abandoned and alone in Atlantis, but if you are reading this, we did not die horribly this morning, so you have that going for you. We lived. Go us, right? 

You want answers. I cannot give all of them to you, but I can give you solace in the fact that you never had a choice in this. Victoria had your number from the beginning. This isn’t a ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ sort of thing. 

I wasn’t completely honest with you before. After discovering the existence of the Soul Breaker, I came to Atlantis, made contacts, even cased the castle to see if I could steal from Theseus. When I knew I would fail, I got shit-faced. I’ve never been so drunk. Epic story, complete with dwarves and pixies. They can shrink you down to their size and … suffice to say you’ll never be the same. 

On the fourth day of the bender, I met Loki for the first time. 

Of course, I did not know it was him, but that bastard tricked me into bonding with him. It should not be possible. Bonding requires willful consent to take root. However, it turns out that my subconscious needed to understand how Abigail could betray us all and permitted my enslavement to the trickster god. The details don’t really matter, but I am one of them, have been for three years now.

None of us wanted this fate, but there is no way to break the bond. Not even with the Soul Breaker. Well, probably not. But they needed to get you here. We could not have done this without you. More importantly, this was the only way to get you out of the fight in a way that would not leave you dead. Victoria and I both agreed on that point, assuming she wasn’t lying to me as well. But that isn’t your problem anymore. 

You are out, just like you’ve always wanted. 

The Collective cannot pull you back into the fray from Atlantis. You can start over. Earth will soon be unlivable with plagues and raging gods running rampant. Not the sort of place to earn that next degree. What is it, six or seven now? I never understood that about you. Why doggedly pursue pieces of paper from the muggles? You can absorb their books in minutes. Why go through all the rigmarole? I guess I’ll never understand now. 

Live well, my friend and know that I’ll miss you as often as Loki allows me to. 

Sincerely yours,

Aiden

The moment I finished reading the last word, I felt a puff of energy. A hole seared into the middle, then spread to the edges, burning the words alongside my tears. As I let go of the page, the ashes fell scattered to the winds.

Along with my hope. 

Chapter 27: Rock Bottom

I woke up, pain lancing through every part of me. It was dark. I was curled into a ball, head tucked between my legs. I tried to sit up, but my back pressed into something hard. I reached for ether and found … none. 

It wasn’t fatigue. Though I still felt aches and pains in spades, my body had drawn in ether for the purpose of rejuvenating my frayed ethereal pattern. I could sense ether inside of me, but nowhere else. Without the ether to preserve me, I would die. 

Then I realized why I was in this box.

I sensed wyther in abundance. It surrounded the confining space. My little prison was made from it. Tapping into that source would cost me. Using wyther is like taking drugs. The power is intoxicating—a destructive energy, used to break things. 

Victoria had placed me in here with a single purpose in mind. To show me I could make my own path. My own freedom was right in front of me. All I had to do was reach out and take it. I’m certain she considered this a metaphor of some kind. 

My only way forward is by a means I considered wrong or beneath me. That sometimes, the best course is the road we had closed long ago. 

For a minute there, I thought she’d been on my side. She had come to me to warn me. And that kiss. It felt like the old her. She also had wiped her own memory of the conversation. She would remember going to sleep and waking up. 

Or so she had told me.

My neck was starting to cramp. And though I was stubborn, I was not stupid. Staying in here would serve no purpose. Using wyther was not against the rules of the Collective, but it was to be avoided. Funneling wyther through myself would leave an infinitesimal stain that would wear down my ethereal pattern. Think of it as aging. Like damaged DNA, casting a spell with wyther would cause me to lose some of my lifespan. 

But I had little choice.

Opening my mind to the wyther, laden in the box around me, I said, “Scrios.”

It was the same spell I’d used to open the door in Theseus’s vault but instead of feeling fatigue, renewed vigor coursed through me. The euphoria came next. The feeling of absolute power. I could tear free of here and lay waste to my enemies. I sent the destructive energy outward, standing as the confining box disintegrated around me. 

The smell of fish and salt hit me immediately. Cool wind contrasted with warm air against my face. Palm trees? I could hear a quiet tide behind me. I stood for several seconds, breathing hard. 

With the box gone, I could feel my connection to ether again. The wyther had cut me off. I released the darker half of magical power. As the initial hit of wyther faded, my desire to fight dissipated as well.

Turning around to face the ocean, I realized I was not alone. 

Victoria was there, holding my pack. Her security team was with her, ten minotaurs in all. Behind her, a gorgeous ship made of black glass hovered above the tides. A door opened from the hull, a set of stairs descending down to the white sand. It was the Finder Ship. 

Even its sails were like obsidian, but somehow malleable, rippling in the wind. Power radiated from the vessel, not ether or wyther. Something ancient. Our arrium vessels used for world travel are modeled after this incredible machine. Only, the Finder Ship could pierce the veil between worlds and go unerringly to any charted destination in the multiverse. 

This was our way home. 

Aiden stood nearby, staring at his feet. He still had his pack on, sword at his hip. Loki stood beside him, a hand placed affectionately on his shoulder.

“What the fuck?” I wanted to know. 

Aiden did not move. He did not look up. A tear rolled down his cheek, but he otherwise did not so much as blink. 

“I need you to open your bag,” Victoria said, dropping the pack at my feet.

I crossed my arms over my chest. “And I need you to go get properly fucked. Aiden, what the bloody hell is going on?”

Aiden closed his eyes, releasing more tears. 

“I’ll give you one more chance,” she said. “Open it, or I’ll make another box to stuff you in.”

“Get. Fucked.”

Victoria looked at me, lips pursed as she did when on the verge of making a large decision. A glance around would suggest I had little bargaining power to speak of. I could only guess at our location. Victoria had the muscle, my so-called partner either turned traitor or was thoroughly placed in check, and she possessed the Finder Ship. Oh yeah, and there was a literal god standing on her side, or so it would appear. 

There was a reason Loki hadn’t helped us when I called upon him earlier. He’d been working with Victoria all along. I should have seen it. He wanted back on earth. He would want power. Likely, Artemis had granted him membership into the New God Club. All for the minotaur’s heart? Couldn’t be just that. But I could puzzle through all that later—assuming there would be a later.

Anyone taking bets would not be putting money on the home team. 

But I had all the shit they wanted locked safely away in my dimensional pocket. The domain is anchored to me. And it is warded. Heavily. Anyone not me opening the bag would be thrown into a random dimension. Similar to the very first spell I’d used against Abigail. Only, my bag had an extra nasty effect. It would hit everyone and everything in a 5 meter radius and render them catatonic. If a person was banished to a hostile plane, being unconscious might prove deadly. I had patterned the spell using my own ethereal essence, granting me immunity from the effects. 

Victoria knew this. 

Also, we both knew she didn’t want to be here doing this to me. Well, maybe. With Aiden apparently working for Team Gods, I wasn’t exactly certain what reality could be trusted. Quite possibly, the whole damsel-in-distress routine she’d pulled could have all been an act. But why warn me of this betrayal? What purpose had any of it served? Nothing in her demeanor now suggested she would be left for dead alongside me.

At last, she gave me her wicked grin. “The little hamster running in that wheel you call a brain must be exhausted, trying to figure a way out of its little cage.” She paced a little closer. The security team behind her tensed, eyeing me as one might an unstable junkie standing too close to a baby. “But you are beaten. You lost. Give me the treasures you’ve taken from Theseus, and we will let you live. Be reasonable, Liam.”

“Can we skip the part where you play evil villainess and jump to the part where you take me home? I’m not giving you anything except the heart. And you are taking me back to Earth, as we agreed. We have a blood oath.” 

“Do we?” She spared a quick glance at Aiden, who opened his eyes. He looked at me, fear and shame clear in his gaze.

“Yes,” I said. “I was there. I signed. You signed. We all signed. Hurrah.”

“How close did you read the fine print?” she asked. “Aiden made all the adjustments, right? Did you read the document?” 

Fuck. No. I hadn’t. I had trusted my friend of nearly two centuries. We had discussed final tweaks, and I had expected him to make the changes. 

“Well,” she said, smile widening. “Turns out, you were not included in the contract. Very sweet of him, actually, excluding you from the consequences in the event that you failed. However …”

She trailed off, allowing me to fill in the gaps. 

“I am also excluded from the benefits, in the unlikely event that we succeeded. Gods damn you, Aiden. Why?”

“I’m sorry, Liam. I didn’t ha—”

Aiden’s mouth froze mid-sentence, then his jaw clamped shut. I could feel the slight use of ether from Loki. He controlled Aiden, completely.

“No,” Loki said, tersely. “Bad human.” He made a twirl of his hand to Victoria, motioning for her to get on with it.

“Does it really matter why?” Victoria said. “You are wasting precious time, and we are on a clock. Time moves faster on Earth. Last chance. Open the bag.”

“Is that why you came to me last night?” I asked. “Not because you wanted to be free of Artemis. You didn’t want to wait a day.” 

“You always fall for a girl needing to be saved.” She shrugged, feigning nonchalance, but her eyes had widened. Had that been surprise? Her voice became cocky, but it felt forced. “Know your audience. I had calculated better odds if you hit Theseus’s vault in the night. I spurred you to action. And hey look, it turns out I was right. Here we are. Open it.” 

I had one last card to play. “What about the … kiss? And all that followed. Was that just an act too?”

She flinched. We had not slept together, but clearly she did not know that. She sputtered, lips moving for a few seconds without words. I’d only ever seen her do that a handful of times. Under other circumstances, I might relish the point scored against her, but it felt like a lifeline. All of it hadn’t been a lie. Sure, she had led me to believe she would be burned, cast aside by Artemis like a used doll, all while warning me she would betray me. But she’d promised to erase her own memory of our conversation to keep it hidden from Artemis. And she had. What did this all mean? 

Gods damn it, I needed time to think. 

“Whatever you think happened between us,” she said, “it was all meant for this purpose. Now give me the fucking artifacts, before I lose my patience.”

“Sure,” I said, picking up my bag. “We can make a trade. But forgive me if I don’t trust you at your word. I’ll need a contract.”

“An oath? You cannot be serious. We do not have time to write a document.” 

“We do not need a document. Just our words and blood, like the oaths of old.” Like the one I made with Theseus—but she didn’t need to know that. Aiden had been unconscious at the time. My deal with Theseus might be the only way to save my ass. But that was a worry for after I wasn’t killed violently by the ten minotaurs and god glaring at me.

“Let me guess,” she said with a heavy sigh and roll of the eyes. “You want assurances that we won’t give you to Theseus or kill you after we have what we want.”

“That is just the beginning. You’ll also agree to take me to Earth and leave me peaceably. And alive.”

“No. You’ll open the bag, and I’ll leave you here without sending an anonymous tip to the Atlantian Guard. You find your own way back. Otherwise, I strand you here, take your bag to Artemis. Likely, she can open it without setting off the ward.”

“We both know she cannot. Else, Loki would have already done so.”

“He does not control a nexus.”

“Law of Magical Attunement,” I retorted. “It’s not about power. The flow of energy surrounding the ward cannot be disrupted or diverted. It can only be neutralized by the will of the hand who created the magic. You cannot force me to open the bag. Not with magical dominance, not with threat of coercion. You need my cooperation, which you will not get unless you meet my demands.”

“Or unless I break you. Enough pain would change your mind.”

“But that would take time wouldn’t it? Time you don’t have. Why is that? I mean, you are going to kill me. Why not tell me your plan?”

“You watch too many B films. This isn’t some sad body plot, where I—the villain—reveal to you—the hero—our evil plan, just before you make a daring rescue and come back to save the day. This is reality. And it is time for you to save yourself from torture. Believe me when I say, I know the best ways to hurt you.”

I did believe her. We had the same training to withstand torture. She would know the best ways to fight against our mental techniques. I also believed I was right about her time scale. Beating me until I was pliable would take a while. 

I crossed my arms over my chest and said, “Do your worst.”

“You are right, of course.” She traipsed over to Aiden, placing the back of her hand on his cheek. He didn’t even flinch. “I cannot force you to give me the heart. But what about Aiden? He has less than 6 days left until he fails his part of the oath. I wonder if it will hurt. Losing his power and will to Artemis. What do you think?” 

Aiden’s bottom lip quivered. I could see he wanted to speak, but his lips would not open. 

“Take Aiden onto the ship,” Victoria said. 

Loki gave a stately bow. “As the lady commands.” 

Without a saucy quip or any hint of derision, Loki walked toward the Finder Ship. Aiden turned, and in a stiff-legged march, followed Loki. They vanished up the steps, into the hull. 

Something important tickled the back of my mind. Something I should know. Fuck. I fiddled with the clasp of my pack, staring at it as if I might open it. Time. What was it the Ferryman had said? 

You have been claimed by a citizen of Atlantis.

When we had gone to Loki’s estate, Aiden had been controlled easily. So had I, so I’d thought nothing of it. But there was more to it. Loki had cast a spell of dominance on me. But I broke free first. Or would have, so he released me. It was seconds later that Aiden could move, like a reaction to me being freed. An after thought. 

Coming to Atlantis had been Aiden’s idea. We were here because of him. I had been so focused on my own goals, I had missed it. I am such an idiot. It had been in front of me all this time. 

Aiden was bonded to Loki. 

I was certain of it. If I was right, he could only be saved by the Soul Breaker. Victoria could be saved, as well. Inside my pack was the means to free them both. But if I opened the bag, she would kill me. Or Loki would. He might have gone onto the ship, but he was watching. I could feel his presence on the ether.

I could also feel Victoria staring at me. She held her breath, as if I was a fawn suddenly in her garden and any move might frighten me off.

What was her end goal? Did she want free of Artemis or had that been a ploy? What was true? Was she still manipulating me? Too many questions. No real answers. I needed a hint. Something that would help me out of this. 

“So,” I said, voice flippant, “got a god on your strings now, eh? How’d you manage that trick.”

“No more stalling,” she said, signaling her mercenaries. 

As they started forward, an idea came to me. Not a good one. But it was all I had. 

“Stay right there,” I told her. “I am going to back away. If anyone twitches, I’ll sever the ward and blow us all to hades.” 

She held her hands up as if in surrender, one hand shifting toward the minotaurs and ordered, “Hold.” 

They made no advances, but the subtle shift to their stances told me they had other intentions in mind. Either Victoria spoke to them via a mind link or had given them orders prior to this encounter. One minotaur twisted his feet in the sand as if readying to run at me. Another leaned back as if lining up to throw his axe. Each of them would attack the moment I opened my pack. 

I took a slow step toward the palm trees behind me, keeping my eyes on Victoria and her thugs. I kept walking at a steady pace, as if the shifting sand might open up and swallow me up any second. 

“That is far enough,” she said.

I took two more steps and turned to face her. 

“I’m going to open my bag. If anyone moves—”

“I understand. You will blow the ward, sending us all in random dimensions. I understand how the magic works.”

“I’m just reminding you that if I cut a new dimension into the internal fabric of the expanded domain, all the artifacts will be scattered across the multiverse. You won’t get what you want.”

She blinked. “You would also be banished.”

“Yep. But I’ll prevent you from reaching your goals and count it as a win.”

“You are bluffing.”

“Rush me and find out.”

We locked gazes for several seconds. Finally, she twirled a hand with a get on with it gesture. I stared for a few more seconds, for the sake of contrariness. I did not move until she rolled her eyes and sighed. 

I dropped my bag, forming a sword from the ether with an intricate casting, “Bidh adhair a ’cruthachadh lann.”

“What are you doing?”

Readying my sword, I bent down to open my dimensional pocket. The moment the pocket opened, the minotaurs acted. An axe was thrown. A spear hurtled toward me. Several of the mercaneries burst into a sprint. All of them rushed me.

But I was ready. The blade I’d formed was no ordinary weapon. I hurled it at the ground between us and spoke the words to solidify my will. Raw force ripped into the ground. But rather than explode, the sand bonded together. A wall ripped upward, blocking the minotaurs from reaching me.

Even as it rose, I heard the blows of the weapons strike the barrier. I had bought myself a few seconds. The wall spanned a hundred meters in both directions. A few hammer blows came from the other side. They could easily go around, but by the sounds of it, they were determined to come through.

Either way, I did not have long. 

Gathering ether, I flew into my dimensional pocket, scooping up the sentient blade on my way. I wanted to grab more of the artifacts, but I didn’t have the time. I had a go-bag in the trunk of my car. Every survivalist had one. It contanied a few essentials. But the most important thing I could think of was on my bed.

Where are our enemies? Aliastulus demanded. Draw in power. We will destroy them!

“Uh,” I said. “Not yet.”

She began to rant and rail. Despite my weariness, I was able to squash her thoughts, her will to a buzzing sound in the back of my mind, and continued toward the back rooms. 

I paused in the hall and glanced in on Asterion. He was still unconscious. The heart was nestled on the pillow next to him, thrumming in a steady beat. I spared a fraction of a second, considering whether or not to take him with me but immediately rejected it. If I took the heart, Aiden would suffer. I couldn’t do that to him, even if he betrayed me—which I was not completely certain of just yet. 

When I saved Aiden, I would save Asterion. 

But I had lost this battle. A tactical retreat would allow me to come back and fight them. Once more, Aliastulus railed at the thought of defeat. I ignored her.

Once in my room, I shouted, “Gluasad!” 

Telekinesis is a useful spell for moving furniture. In this case, I took hold of the mirror with the spell and ran toward my Maserati, parked near the entry. The top of the convertible was down. I flew into the driver’s seat as I settled the Soul Breaker and the sword into the bucket seats behind me. 

In front of me, I could see just outside the front of my dimensional pocket. The wall was crumbling inward. 

I started the engine, hitting the button labeld “nitros”, which was in fact the activation for the arrium infused into the vehicle. 

Ten angry minotaurs knocked away rubble and climbed through the failing wall. Victoria hovered behind them, wyther in formless pools around her hands. She had knocked down my spell. 

I edged the steering column down. My car rose a few inches off the ground. I slammed my foot on the gas petal. The car surged forward. Minotaurs jumped to either side, narrowly avoiding being mowed down. 

Victoria had plenty of time to hurl wyther at me. But she didn’t. She met my eyes as I flew by. Was that my imagination, or was that relief in her expression?

I flew higher, turning away from the Finder Ship. I rose high enough to see, we had been on a small island. In the distance, I saw a larger mass of land. I down shifted and floored it. My engine roared. A boom followed in my wake. 

I flew a mile, then two. They still hadn’t followed. It would take her a few minutes to gather her minotaurs and pursue me. 

I had done it. I had escaped. 

But where was I? We had to be near Athens. Maybe I could—

I saw the Finder ship in my rearview mirror. 

It was airborne. Pursuing me. Gaining ground. There was no way I would outrun them. They came closer by the second. I could see figures on the deck. Victoria was at the helm. Loki stood next to her. The minotaurs had traded their medieval weapons for M16 assualt rifles. Likely, the bullets were hexed. 

I traded speed for evasive maneuvers. 

I hit the button to raise the top. As the convertible closed, a warding shield sprung into place. Bullets boomed against the invisible barrier, exploding upon impact. The car’s rear spun. Like hydroplaning, I could do little for the first few seconds.

Reversing my grip, I turned into the spin, trying to regain control. At the same time, I cast a spell, refortifying my shield. The car righted. I was facing the Finder Ship. It was almost upon me. Bullets hammered into my barrier, pushing my car toward the ocean.

I drove at the ship, flying beneath the vessel. The bullets stopped. I reversed direction. For several heartbeats, I flew parallel beneath the Finder Ship, giving me a chance to see my surroundings.

We were in a small gulf. Ahead was one of the beautiful cliffs that made Greece on Earth famous. Part of me was glad to see such continuity. The rest of me saw a deadend. 

Where could I go?

Before even considering the question, the shade vanished. I felt exposed. Vulnerable. The bullets would come next. 

I gunned it. Less than a heartbeat later, I felt the impact. That couldn’t have been bullets. I heard the explosion as an afterthought. I couldn’t get a sense of any direction.

My stomach spun. My head felt faint. I held my breath to keep from vomiting. 

Then just everything stopped. 

Weight crashed down on me. My shield popped like a soap bubble. Glass shattered. The convertible top pushed into me, pinning me to the seat. 

Breathing was hard. I could taste dust and metal. A gas smell lingered in the air. Probably the petrol tank was busted. 

I laid there, dazed, as my mind reoriented itself in the total darkness. No trickle of light came in from anywhere. Though there was little room for movement, my chest pressed against the seatbelt. I was upside down. Releasing the catch, I fell maybe two inches, chest hitting the steering wheel. A minute passed, where all I could do was rest my face against the crumpled glass that had been my wind shield.

I wasn’t dead. I hurt too much to be dead. Why hadn’t they finished me off? 

That’s when I felt water on my feet. And it was rising. 

Chapter 26: Deus Ex Machina

Too tired to sleep. 

That phrase either has a personal meaning or makes no sense whatsoever. Trying to explain the notion is akin to describing an orgasm to a virgin who has never enjoyed any self-exploration time. Either you understand the sensation, or you don’t. The only way to truly know is through experience. 

If you have ever been exhausted to the point of giddiness, you might know what I’m talking about, but only if, say, you worked in a field for a 16-hour day, for shits and giggles stayed up another ten, then worked another 16 hours digging trenches. Finally, you lay down and your mind won’t allow you to slip into silent slumber. It races through all the things you should still be doing or didn’t finish. Or it focuses on the emptiness of your existence. 

Try to drive yourself to complete and utter physical exhaustion sometime, then you might understand how difficult a situation I was in. The little reserves Aiden had given me would allow me to keep moving, but I’d gone from Badass Jedi status to C3PO, human-cyborg relations. I could not face Darth Maul or Vader. Hell, I wasn’t a match for storm troopers, right then. Diplomacy was off the table, but I couldn’t be taken either. 

Slinging evocation spells would fray my already addled mind. I might be able to manufacture a flight spell, but it wouldn’t get me very far. To become my formidable BA self, I needed rest. Real sleep. And a gods damn hamburger and chips. 

Unfortunately, the mob of minotaurs standing in front of me didn’t seem inclined to go for takeout. Atlantis, being a place of high magic, our twins knew immediately what we were. It was clear in the threatening way they encircled us. The dozen or so minotaurs with them appeared ready to trample us, all holding weapons at the ready. 

Surrounded, outnumbered, and on empty, we had few options and fewer hopes of escaping. So, I prayed to the only god who might listen.

“Loki,” I said in a loud voice. “I’m sorry for not trusting you, but we could use a little help right about now. Loki, we had a deal. Where are you? Gods damn it, Loki! You know what, fuck you. You gods damn, useless fucking ass-licker. Ahhhh!”

The guards had flinched at my initial words, looking around as if expecting a tidal wave of ass-kickery. Invoking a god in Atlantis was no laughing matter. But as the seconds stretched on and my plea devolved into a diatribe against the trickster god, their aggression returned in full force. It became clear to all present, Loki would not appear to save the day. He probably watched from somewhere nearby, laughing his ass off at our situation. Or maybe he was pissed we’d so thoroughly excluded him from our planning and was now reveling in our misfortune.

Whatever the case, Aiden and I were on our own. Everyone there knew it.

“Seize the imposters!” my twin shouted at the same time Aiden’s double yelled, “Kill them!”

I was not inclined to wait around to find out who followed which order.

Pulling in ether felt like crawling across trenches filled with gravel. My body shook with the fatigue. My very essence quivered with effort.

“Eitil trid an aer,” I shouted.

The head of an axe swung at my midsection. I flew backward, then leapt upward. Aiden jumped and kicked off his twin’s face. We both soared higher into the air. The minotaurs could not fly. They couldn’t even touch ether. Arrium had to be specifically designed to work for them, because something about their auras disrupted magical fields. 

However, nothing stopped them from using the flying segways. As a group, they ran to a row of the rental devices. Apparently, there was an override command for the guards. Aiden’s twin screamed something in their own language, and the vehicles came free of their anchors. One by one, the minotaurs jumped onto their segways and flew into the air after us. We had a good lead on them, but it would not last.

We needed to lose them somehow.

Flying higher, we weaved in and out of traffic, cutting between buildings. Neither of us paid much attention to the warning signs—be it One Way, Stop, or Do Not Enter. We flew for our lives, like sparrows chased by eagles. Pain wracked my body as I forced ether through my frayed essence. I knew we did not have long like this. If we didn’t slam head-on into a lory or splat against the side of a building, I’d run out of gas, pass out, then gravity would take over, and I would finish my illustrious career as a greasy spot against the pavement.

“Plan D,” I said.

“What’s plan—”

I sent a torrent of air ahead of me, into the penthouse of a sky-high apartment building. The window shattered. I flew inside and immediately dropped to my knees. I fought to remain coherent. I saw everything through a tunnel for several deep breaths. I stared at the ground, kneeling on the broken glass. 

When I felt Aiden’s hand on my shoulder, I looked up.

An anthropomorphic gorilla-woman stood in the middle of the room. She was holding an espresso cup in one hand and a paperback in the other. Horror and fear were plain in her expression—so human I could only stare. 

Behind her was a white sofa. The little cup fell from her fingers and crashed into the marble floor, splattering coffee all over the expensive couch. She clutched her book to her chest, eyes wide with fright. 

“Sorry, ma’am,” I said, forcing myself to stand. My legs threatened to buckle, so I kept moving. I spotted an outer door through an expansive common room, on the other side of a short hall. As I ambled past her, I promised, “Loki will pay for any damages. We are on his official business.”

Take that, asshole. 

We burst into the hall just as the minotaurs crashed into the apartment. Aiden slammed the door and cast a spell. The door fused into the frame. Of course, the minotaurs had axes. And strength. And the will to chase us down no matter the cost. So his spell would likely only buy us a few precious seconds. 

“Stairs,” Aiden said, pointing to a door at the end of the hall.

As much as I hated it, he was right. The elevator would take too long. Or would it? No. That wasn’t an elevator. I could see the teleporter through the glass doors. Like the ones used at street crossings. 

“Can’t,” I said, pushing the button. “I won’t make it. We can take this.”

The glass doors opened just like an elevator. But inside was the circular pad. 

“Oh thank the gods,” Aiden said. “My legs wouldn’t have lasted the whole way down. I was prepared to tuck and roll down a few hundred flights, but this is better.”

We stepped onto the pad. Nothing happened. I looked at the panel on the wall. There were different floors. The writing was in Atlantian. I reached out to press the symbol for “Lobby” but Aiden grabbed my wrist.

“Wait, I have an idea,” he said, “Which one will take us to the garage?”

I started to argue, but the door to the penthouse flew from its hinges. Any idea was better than waiting here, so I mashed the button for the garage. We rematerialized. Rows of vehicles—wagons, chariots, and cars—were parked. Most of the parking spaces were filled. It was still pretty early. Soon, people would be leaving for work. Whatever we did needed to happen fast.

“We stealing one?” I asked. 

“Won’t need to,” he said. “Over here.”

We ran to the end of the garage, near the stairs, and settled down between two large wagons. Aiden pulled his amulet from his chest and pressed on a runic script. His body morphed back into his own shape. The minotaur’s hair was nearly gone. He replaced it with a golden strand from a separate vial.

“The kobolds,” I said, smiling. “You are a fucking genius.”

He gave me a look that said, You are only now figuring that out?

Then he became Arkath, the male kobold from earlier. He’d taken their hairs as leverage. His barking voice said, “Hurry. They could be right behind us.”

I took my amulet out from beneath my shirt, deactivating the arrium. As my body morphed back to my human-self, all my pains intensified. I could not breathe. I staggered. My clothes were now way too big. They hung loose on my arms and felt heavy enough to drag me down. I shrugged out of them, not caring that I was naked. 

We were running out of time. Those minotaurs would soon discover we had not run to the lobby. Likely, they were already cordoning off the building, trying to trap us inside. I held my amulet out to Aiden, and he replaced the minotaur hairs with the kobold’s. I let the amulet settle on my skin, activating the magic. 

The polymorph hurt just as much as before. By the time the magic had taken effect, I found myself lying on the concrete. Cold, exhausted, and … female. Aiden’s shit-eating grin was a perfect imitation of the kobold’s from earlier. I stood, covering myself, uncertain why I cared. This wasn’t my body. 

“Might want to put something on,” he said with a wink.

“Fuck you.”

“Nah. Not my style, dog.”

“Oh. Ha. Ha. You are so clever.”

“I know.”

I reached down to grab my clothes and tried to transmute the garments into something that would fit. But as I reached for ether, the world darkened and the ground shook. After it stopped, I was leaning against a wagon panting. From Aiden’s now puppy-dog expression, there hadn’t been an earthquake. I was out of gas. There would be no more flying or any other sort of spell slinging. For all intents and purposes, I was a kobold. 

“I’ll do it,” Aiden said, taking the clothes. He spoke the spell, changing my clothes into a racy dress and his into the open tunic and tight-fitted trousers, Arkath had worn at Starbucks. 

“How are you not out of juice?” I asked him. “You got less rest than I did.”

“I am. I’m just not bitchy about it. Get it? Bitchy. Cuz you’re a—”

“I fucking get it,” I said snatching the dress. 

I turned my back on him, and climbed awkwardly into the garment. I tried, and failed, to zip up the back. 

“Need help?” Aiden asked, tongue lulling out of his mouth.

“I will murder you. One more word, and I swear—”

The sounds of marching boots brought us back to our dire peril. Aiden zipped me up, and we crept toward the door. It was a fire exit. Of course. The second we opened it, an alarm would sound. But, it would also exit into the street below. The guards would be looking for two minotaurs, not two kobolds. 

“Ready?” I asked.

Aiden opened the door. World War Next was declared in deafening alarms. No one for five blocks was asleep anymore. We did not have time to care.

We ran down the stairs. Well, ran is a bit of a stretch. I clung to the rail and staggered as quickly as my little legs would allow. Going from the hulking bodies of the minotaurs to the petite forms of the kobolds so quickly was disorienting. That, and my legs felt as though I had spent the night marching through mountains. 

I leapt the last several steps, and fell into the wall. It was jarring but the least of my pains. We exited the building into a side street. I’d expected teams of minotaurs to be lying in wait, ready to ambush us, but the alley was empty. There were no patrols or yellow tape. No snipers and hostage negotiators.

Holy, fuck-balls. We’d finally gotten lucky.

We stagger-ran to the sidewalk and turned right. With the sun blocking the buildings, I could not determine any cardinal directions, but away from here would suffice. Before we’d taken more than a few steps from the alley, other people began to spill into the street, some half-dressed. Tenants from the building next to the apartment also exited in a hurry. Concerned voices spoke at once, everyone worried over a fire. Very soon, the sounds of anxious voices rose to a volume with the sounds of the alarm.

Guilt and relief warred with one another for purchase in my mind. Relief won as I saw guards exit our building and push their way into the growing crowd. They stopped every minotaur in the area, arresting them without hesitation. 

Aiden and I slipped away, turned the corner and just kept walking. We made our way to a larger, busier road and moved alongside the flow of traffic. None of the commuters so much as glanced at us. It was a constant urge to look over my shoulder, but I suppressed the impulse. As my racing heart slowed, the weariness and fatigue became heavier with each step. 

Four or five blocks later, we stopped and sat on a bench. For several minutes, we both just stared at the road. As the sun rose to full dawn, traffic slowed, becoming bumper-to-bumper. 

A giggle bubbled out of me. Aiden looked at me, clearly annoyed. His expression—so Aiden and yet doglike—made me laugh harder. Aiden gave me a lopsided grin. Then he began to laugh. The barking-chuckle sounded like a dog having a seizure. This, of course, made us both laugh all the more. 

I couldn’t breathe. 

The laughter slowed to an occasional bark. Then we both fell silent, breathing hard. I leaned against Aiden. He was taller now. He rested his chin on the top of my head. We stayed like that for a while. My eyes lulled, but would not close completely.

“We did it,” I said, reality finally setting in. 

“Piece of cake,” Aiden said, another laugh escaping. Before the giddiness could take hold, Aiden froze. I felt him grow taut next to me. Though I’d heard the sound, it took my brain a few minutes to register what it meant.

Someone beside us slow-clapped. 

My muscles protested, but I had to sit up and turn my body to see the tall figure standing beside us. It was Victoria. Her personal security minotaurs stood behind her. I met her gaze and saw none of the fears or intimacy she’d shared with me the previous night. 

She gave me a wicked grin and said, “You look like you could use a nap.”

I opened my mouth to hurl an insult in her direction, but stopped when I saw movement from the corner of my eye. I turned in time to see a huge fist hammer into my face.

And I knew no more. 

Chapter 25: Evil Twins

I was never one for American Football. First of all, why the hell is it called “foot-ball” when only one person is allowed to kick the ball and only at specific times in the game? Second, they stop the game so often, I get bored waiting for something to happen. If you turned the time between plays into a drinking game, everyone would die of alcohol poisoning before the game actually ended.

Real Football (you probably call it soccer) is the only sport I can get behind. There’s near constant action, and there’s always a fight on the sidelines. No matter where you look, you will be entertained. I can’t say why this sprung to mind in those seconds after Theseus left us in his throne room, except that I knew we would soon be getting the ball’s perspective on sports.

I could not see a five minute clock counting down, but I could certainly feel it with the guards in the wing, waiting to sprint after the ball and give it a kick. Was someone counting it down? Or were they going on what felt like 5 minutes? That distinction was extremely important. It meant the difference in having seconds remaining or actual minutes. 

“Help me with him,” I told Aiden after being unable to rouse the minotaur. 

Together, we got him into my dimensional pocket into one of my spare rooms. The bed was too small for him, but it was better than the floor. Had we more time, I would have recommended shoving two beds together, but after having nothing but stone to sleep on for a couple thousand years, I’m sure Asterion would be grateful for the change. 

We sprinted back out, and I closed the bag on the run, following Aiden down the hall. My brain tried to send thoughts to my conscious mind, but my eyes kept trying to close mid-step. Wasn’t there something else I was supposed to be worried about?

Oh right, the mana potion. 

I did not have much petrol left in the tank. We needed to get through the ward before dawn, or I’d wake up in chains or the arena. Or maybe not at all.

“Where are we going?” I asked after several turns. “Feels like this is a different way than we came in.”

“It is, genius. We came in through the front door. Won’t work on the exit. You’d have worked that out on your own had you not taken that gods damn potion.” He stopped suddenly, holding up a fist for me to do the same. 

I stumbled, nearly tripping over him. 

He cast me a serious look, somewhere between fear and frustration. I heard the minotaurs around the corner. 

At this point, I could not have found my way back to the throne room, even if a million gold coins waited for me to claim as a reward for my efforts. I was maybe one or two spells from passing the fuck out. And even then, they would not be very potent. I felt the sword urging me to pick her up, but I would not dare try to wield her in my current condition. I’d have to rely on Aiden to do our fighting. We both knew it. 

I felt Aiden’s slow pull of ether. Somewhere around the corner, stone cracked. The minotaur’s moved off the other direction. The tug on my arm spurred me to follow. Aiden stopped at a random door and knelt with his lock picks.

While he worked, I glanced down the hall. Three minotaurs ran the other direction, toward a crack in the floor. It spread up the wall and crumpled inward. Someone screamed in surprise. 

Aiden ushered me into the room and eased the door closed. 

Inside was a perfectly cleaned room—like a hotel only far grander than anywhere you’ve ever stayed. The anteroom had a full bar with stools all made of polished wood. A hall led to a common room large enough for a small army. I counted at least 4 rooms with beds. 

“It’s for visiting dignitaries,” I said. “I remember it on the schematics.” 

“Yep. And there are no visitors this week. Come on.”

Aiden ran to an outer window. The castle must have been built atop a hill. We’d entered on the ground level, but we were on a second floor. Beneath us was a hedge maze, winding around a small courtyard complete with stone benches and yet another statue of Theseus. This one—every bit the scholar—he sat on a bench, holding open a book. 

Dawn crept over the wall, bathing the white stone in pink light. The sight was truly majestic, causing the lilies surrounding the statue to glow. This would be beautiful if not for the circumstances. I could see why this was reserved for visitors. It even gave me hope that we could reach the wall before—

Fuck. Dawn. 

“Fuck,” Aiden said, echoing my thoughts. “We missed the window.” 

“Wards have already reset. What do we do?” 

I couldn’t think straight. My legs felt like I’d run up a million flights of stairs. I sat on a sofa, feeling my eyes lull immediately.

“Get up,” Aiden said, tugging my arm. “We need to keep moving.”

“Just five minutes.”

He pulled me to the window and opened it. “Don’t resist the spell.”

I felt him seize ether and lift me on a stream of air out and to the ground. No one was around. Too early for a stroll and a bit chilly. But the cool air helped slap me back to alertness. 

We both landed at the same time. The hedges were too high to see over without standing on my tip-toes. Aiden led me to the edge of the maze. There was an open field of green between the edge of the maze and the massive wall, blocking us from our freedom. Had we made it here before the wards reset, we could have flown through—it was a bit more complicated than that, but we had a plan. But now … 

“Well,” Aiden said. “I hoped it would not come to this. Wait here.”

“What are you—”

He’d slung his pack from his shoulder and disappeared into his dimensional pocket. He returned with a device made of red play-dough with runes etched into the side. Wires protruded from the blocks of rectangular clay, connecting the red substance to an old flip phone atop it. 

“No,” I said. “Out of the question.”

“We need a diversion. This is it.” He raised an eyebrow. “Unless you have a better idea?”

“There could be people outside the walls.”

“Aye. Not denying that, but the blast is set for implosion. I can place the device far enough away that it’ll only hurt the wall. You should be more worried about the backlash in the wards than my bomb. No telling what Asterion has prepared for anyone bringing down his wall.”

He was right. Damage to the structure would have unpredictable results. Rather, Theseus had likely set measures in place to deal with any sort of attack to the structure. As a ruler, he would want to mitigate damage to any people nearby, but would not spare the same courtesy to the attackers.

“I see the wheels turning,” Aiden said. “Have you figured it out yet?”

“Diversion,” I said, dumbly. “You mean for us to be elsewhere by the time the guards get here.”

“Aye. We play hide-n-seek with them. With any luck, they give chase out the wall here, only we’ll be heading out the other way.”

“What other way?”

“Front door, where there will likely only be the two guards. We’ll just be two minotaurs leaving the compound. In all the confusion, they probably won’t even question us.” 

Maybe it was the fatigue talking, but I said. “Okay. That’s not a bad plan. But we need to hurry. I don’t have much left in me.”

“I’m on fumes myself. Stay here.”

I didn’t have the energy to argue. I waved a tired hand for him to go. He left the safety of the hedge maze and sprinted the distance to the clearing, placed the device a good 3-4 meters from the wall, then ran back to me. 

“We do not want to be here when it goes off,” he warned. “Let’s go.”

We made our way west of the device toward the far end of the maze. I almost prayed to Loki but stopped myself. We’d left him in the dark for a reason. We didn’t want him or Artemis to know we’d gone through with the heist until well after it was done. Instead, I sent pleas to the universe that no fairies, pixies, or children stumbled in the blast radius—we really need better terms, since it was technically not a kaboom but an in-boom. Plode radius? Lode circle? Collapse area? Okay, maybe delirium was getting to me, but I was on to something here.

Aiden stopped at the edge of the maze, where the hedges gave way to a cobbled courtyard. He turned back to the device, now a thumbnail in the distance. He held his breath as he took out a second phone, flipped it open and held down a button. Rather than a number, the Gaelic word for “Connect” appeared on the screen. 

Before I could let out a squeak, I found myself on my back. I slid across the ground, toward the implosion. I grabbed hedge, grass, Aiden’s face, everything I could to hold position. Limbs entwined, we rolled together. My back hit the ground. Then my face. Stomach. Side. Air fled from my lungs. I wheezed, crawling at the ground to halt my tumble. 

On every other bounce, I caught glimpses of the miasma around where the device had been. A globe of destructive energy yanked everything into the void. Sections of the wall were gone. A giant semi-sphere beneath the imploding vortex had taken a chunk out of the ground as well, creating a chasm which extended beyond the outer wall to the sidewalk. 

The pulling force stopped. Aiden and I were a dozen meters from the crater. The way outside was open. Dawn light spilled through the gap in the wall. We could dart through and be gone from Theseus’s compound. 

I felt Aiden’s hand on my arm. “No. Stick to the plan.”

I looked at him. “The wards crumpled. We can get through.”

“They did not crumple. Look with your ether-sight.” 

I did. Energy was being restored. Had we gone immediately, we might have been able to make it in time, but it would have been close. That way was lost to us already.

“Back around the castle. Come on.”

We sprinted away from the horde of stomping boots. Shouts followed the sounds of marching, but they were far more organized than they ought to be after an attack. They ran in groups of five, forming up together on the move. A familiar minotaur stood at their head, studying the fissure in the ground. 

General Lunacious Lasterious looked from the crater to the broken wall and back. Even at this distance, I could make out the quiet anger. 

I felt an arm yank my shoulder. I fell into the hedges and tumbled across the ground. I started to rise, glaring at Aiden. He responded by kicking my feet out from beneath me.

“Stay down, you idiot. If the General sees us, this is over. Even if she didn’t recognize us from the dungeon, she might begin to wonder why two guards are running away from an obvious attack on Theseus’s castle.”

Right. I need some sleep. 

“Come on,” he said, army crawling away.

Though my body protested, I dug my elbows into the ground and dragged my tired ass after him. We could duck beneath the prickly bushes, but Aiden parted them with trickles of ether to make the passage easier. 

After reaching the other side of the maze, we stood—half-hunched—and slunk our way back to the castle. I sagged against the wall. My legs trembled. My vision waned. I shook my head. Just need a few more minutes. 

“We need to run,” Aiden said.

I gave my head a slight shake. “Can’t.”

“Hold still,” Aiden said, taking my head in his hands. 

I felt cold shiver through my head and down my spine. When he stepped away, my legs still shook but I could stand without support of the wall. With some effort, I could make them move quickly. If forced to, I could throw a spell or two. Maybe.

“Right,” I said, pushing away from the wall. “Let’s move.”

We spurred ourselves into a jog, trying to move as a unit, like we’d seen the squads just moments before. The grounds were now empty. Even the small cottages were closed up. Now smoke escaped chimneys. All the lights were out. Thorns protruded from the doors, like little barricades. 

More than anything else, that sent waves of guilt through me.

I wasn’t sure if it was brownies or pixies or gnomes living there, but our actions had frightened them all into hiding. I could imagine them hiding beneath tables or in tiny cellars with their children, hoping whatever evil assaulted their liege did not spill over and destroy their lives.

But I did not have long for such lamentations. 

We ran toward the gate that would take us back out into the streets of Atlantis. Our last hurdle before running across the finish line. Unlike when we’d come through here an hour ago, two guards blocked the tunnel to the outer gate. Each had 5 swords on their patches. With our 6, we just outranked them. 

Aiden and I shared a glance of complete understanding. Though we’d already been jogging, we picked up our pace, running right at them, expressions suggesting they move or be moved. One stepped aside, but the other hesitated. 

“No one is allowed to pass,” the bull with dark hair said. 

“Stand down,” I said without slowing. “Our orders come from General Lunacious Lasterious.”

At the last second, the guard stepped aside, giving a terse salute, which Aiden and I returned in unison. There was just the doors at the other end. No guards on this side but no visible door knob either. We both stopped, sharing an “oh fuck” look. I wondered briefly if there was a secret knock or something. 

Then the doors swung open, revealing a group of minotaurs. 

“What the shit?” one of the guard’s said.

He had reddish hair and wore 6 swords on his patch. His surprise quickly turned to anger as he continued staring at Aiden. The bull next to him sent murderous looks at me. 

That’s when I realized we were staring face-to-face with the minotaurs whose identities we’d stolen. And they had friends.

Lots of friends. 

Chapter 24: Fly You Fools

Gandalf the Gray was wise. That scene in Lord of the Rings where he looked at the companions and told them to fly while calling them fools has been spoofed upon a dozen different ways. For some reason, his fall came to my mind in that moment as we stepped into the audience chamber. Probably because I fancied myself as Gandalf here. And I saw few ways through this without sacrifices being made.

Theseus stood beside his throne, posing like some greek god from legend—oh wait. That’s because he was exactly that. What in hades were we doing in this room? This was definitely not the plan. Conflict with Theseus was never in the discussion. Because Aiden and I both knew, if it ever came to this moment, we would be bent over and tied to a barrel, breeches to our ankles, greased up, and in for a pounding we could not stop. 

In other words, we were about to be royally fucked. 

Asterion marched into the room, pausing just outside of striking range, blood dripping from the axe head onto the marble floor. Theseus stood there, lounging against his throne, smirking at the minotaur. He wore a toga, much like Aiden’s had been at the party all those days ago. His rippling muscles were camera-ready, like Brad Pitt in Troy—square jaw almost too symmetrical. Short black curls cut in the Caesar fashion fell across his forehead.

I hated him, immediately. 

Not because I was jealous—though I was. I mean, look at him. I don’t lean toward men, but damn, this guy was sexy as hell. But it wasn’t that. It was the smirk. The arrogant lounge. The amusement in his eyes as he looked at Asterion—a living, breathing being he’d trapped for thousands of years. Altogether, it made me want to slap a glove across his face and demand satisfaction in the ‘I bite my thumb at thee’ sort of way. 

That feeling was made worse, when the arrogant asshat never even glanced at Aiden and me. Then reason raced to step in front of my irked impetus and placed a metaphorical hand up to halt my suicidal impulse. Better not to get noticed here. Pay no attention to the men behind the fake minotaur faces. 

We could not run. I realized that. There was no way I could leave Asterion here. But I could get Aiden clear of this. A plan—a very bad plan—was forming and I needed time. And maybe it would work. If Indy could reach his hand into a hole of spiders and come back unbitten, maybe I could too.

“Wait here,” I whispered to Aiden, digging into my cloak pockets.

“What are you going to do?”

“Something dumb. We both agree on that in advance.”

“Fuck that. We need to run for it before Theseus rips through Asterion and gives us his undivided attention.” 

“You are leaving,” I said. “We agree on that, too. But I’m staying and fighting. At least long enough for you to get clear of this.”

“That is suicide. Asterion made his choice when—”

“You are wasting time we do not have. Besides,” I said, pulling a sparkling purple potion from my pocket. “It’s too late.”

For those of you who play RPG video games, this is a mana pot. It refreshes my body, enabling me to draw ether a bit longer. The negative side, it’s more like coffee than a magical cure for fatigue. Once the effects wore off, I would not be conscious for long. Depending on how sparingly I went with the ether, I could go for half-an-hour to an hour. 

Unstoppering the cork with my teeth, I quaffed the potion. It tasted like pixie stix, blue raspberry flavor. That was by design. Back in the day, all potions tasted like their ingredients. Suffice it to say, you’d rather like the bottom of a shoe after it ran through a field of manure.

Within seconds, I felt the vigor return to my body and mind. 

“Gods damn it,” Aiden said through his teeth. “Was that a mana pot?”

“Yep. But that’s not the plan. Once, I engage with Theseus, take this and my pack and get out.”

He snatched the heart from my hand and shoved it into his own cloak pocket. “And what the hell do you intend to do. Wait. What’s in there? You aren’t going to—”

All the artifacts I’d stolen were right in the threshold of my pack. I had opened it after handing Aiden the heart, and without preamble, I picked up the replica of Excalibur. The mental link was established by the physical connection. A feminine voice spoke in my mind. 

You will destroy mine enemies, mortal.

The words came with an intimate sense of the sword’s personality, as well as image of murder, death, and mayhem. 

Not Excalibur then. Arthur’s blade was also sentient but had embodied the Knights of Camelot—yes they were real. This sword is more like Excalibur’s evil twin. Fantastic. 

No, I told the blade. I am master here.

You will kneel. 

A very strong impulse shot through me to do just that. I resisted but felt my body lag. Somewhere outside me, I heard Aiden’s voice. The words washed over me. I could no longer see the hall or sense beyond myself and the sword. Images flashed in my mind. Battle. Death. Glory. 

Power beyond comprehension. 

This and more could all be mine. 

If I gave myself to her, fully. 

It was a bond, I realized. The energy was formless but building. This sword, Aliastalus as she called herself, would dominate me more thoroughly than would a bond to Artemis. She would take up my body and wield me like a weapon to wreak havoc upon those she deemed an anathema to her purposes. 

But the bond had not yet settled.

I felt the torrent of wyther she poured into me. Gathering up ether, I placed a shield around my mind. Her mental assault did not stop. But her voice was muted. I felt my body again. A crash sounded in the other room. Asterion roared. Theseus laughed. Aiden called my name. Why the fuck had he gone in there? No. I could not be drawn in or I’d lose myself. I pushed his pleas away. Relenting now would mean my death. Not in the physical sense, but my mind and body would belong to Aliastalus.

My grip on the sword tightened by the second. My knuckles screamed in protest, but I focused beyond the pain to feel the energy of the sword, the magic that held it together, and my connection to both. 

Forming my will, I sent ether into the bond. The one she’d created. It was of her ethereal pattern. And I knew it was more than just a connection of wills. I took hold of her, not just with my grip.

She screamed. 

Wyther came out in a torrent, swatting away my hold on the bond. 

She battered down my shield. Agony lanced through my mind. My awareness expanded. I could sense the battle raging in the throne room. Fighting and screaming. Music and the dance. A song to my ears. All my enemies fought one another. It would be so easy to smite them while their backs were turned. I could kill the one who had enslaved me and left me to rust and decay. Then, I could take this—

No.

These thoughts did not belong to me. The voice was hers. I redoubled my shield forcing her out with every ounce of will I could muster. Once more, I took hold of the bond, drawing in more ether with every iota I could pull into myself.

The bond solidified. 

I could feel her impotent rage. And I knew, it had been over ten thousand years since she’d been mastered. By Theseus. He’d released her from the bond and left her to rot in his vault. More of her knowledge flooded my mind, too much to parse.

It hurt. My head throbbed. I found myself on my knees. Someone screamed in the other room, a blood-curdling cry. Flashes of energy erupted from just out of sight.

I came in just as Aiden fell. A blast of ether had flung his body through the air. He slammed into the wall beside me and dropped to the ground. 

Asterion fought hard, both weapons moving at blinding speed. Theseus knocked all attacks aside, moving even faster. Ether infused every part of the man, aiding his strength. It was a simple spell, but effective. From the smile on his face, Theseus enjoyed the exercise. But that’s all it was, and he wasn’t breaking a sweat.

Asterion, on the other hand, bled from several tiny cuts and gashes, none too serious on their own. Together, they took their toll. I could see him slowing. 

Drawing ether into myself, I readied to join them. Theseus leapt up and back, flying several feet away. At the same time, wyther burst from his hands, striking the minotaur’s weapons. They disintegrated. Theseus surged forward. He swung his sword at Asterion’s face. The minotaur dodged to the side. Thesues pivoted mid-swing his foot hitting Asterion’s knee. He went down.

Without slowing a beat, Theseus spun. His sword slammed into the minotaur’s temple. Asterion crumpled. My heart stopped beating. I could only stare. But Asterion put his hands beneath him, trying to rise. There was no blood where he’d been hit. Theseus had struck him with the flat of the blade.

As Asterion started to rise, Theseus dealt him another blow to the temple, just beneath his horns. Asterion dropped and lay still. 

Gripping the magic blade, I marched into the room. I could feel her energy pulsing within, magnifying my own power. Access to more wyther was available too, though, I was not certain if using the destructive force would fray my etherial pattern. I would not touch it unless I had to. 

But that was not the only gift she’d given me. She knew how Theseus fought. All his battle forms came to me and how to defeat them. But gods he was fast.

I marched forward, enhancing my muscles and senses with ether. It would be the only way I had a chance to defeat this man. This god.

Without introduction, I rushed him. 

He dodged to the side and reposted with a swing of the sword. I blocked and countered. He blocked and kicked. I caught his foot on a knee while slicing down. Had he not retreated, he would have lost a leg.

Why was he not using ether or wyther? Oh shit. I looked like a minotaur—who are notoriously immune to magic. If he did not use ether to defeat me, I might win this. 

Theseus circled me, looking for weakness. His smile held but his eyes looked crazed. He darted forward, but I knew—thanks to Aliastalus—it was a feint. He would spin away at the last second, come over my downward block and cut off my wrist at the sword hand. He’d done it a thousand times or more with the very sword I held. 

I knew the counter. As he came forward, I feinted the block. His sword came up. I lunged, spinning away from his swing. I surged forward with the help of ether. When I spun back to face him, red leaked from a gash in his toga, at his shoulder.

He no longer smiled.

I swallowed. He rushed me. I felt ether building in him. I side-stepped and nearly tripped on a block of stone. A gash sliced across my shoulder. I flung myself in a roll, sliding beneath a blow that would have taken my head.

As my back touched the ground, I felt the ether shift beneath me. I flipped up. A sword lanced upward, shaped from the stone. It would stab right through me. 

“Sciath,” I said, flinging ether.

The stone sword shattered against my barrier. Theseus came from the other side. I got my sword up just in time. Once again, Aliastalus saved me. I parried several quick strikes and kicked my heel into his midsection, forcing him back. I followed up with an attack of my own. 

I allowed her to guide me through the next several moves. 

It is difficult to describe what happened next. What we did was not dominance, but she controlled my body through honing my instincts. She’d seen a pattern in Theseus’s attack. Sword, ether strike, sword, sword. Then ether, ether, sword, ether. And then he would rotate. 

I knew the moment he would switch. I waited. Then I used his tactic, infusing the ground with ether and ripping a sword upward. 

He spun away. 

And on we went. We dueled for several minutes. Theseus never slowed. But I would. My potion would wear off. Sooner rather than later. I burned through more ether than I could maintain, simply to keep up with him. I needed to end this. Fast.

With the sentient blade’s help, we were a match. If I, rather Aliastulus, could find a way past his defenses, I could win. 

Then, Theseus sped up. 

Power filled him. The nexus, I realized. He was drawing on the energy of the leys to add to his ether-enhanced speed. Only marginally, but I knew he could take more. He wasn’t just a demigod. He controlled this seat of power. And I faced him alone.

There was a reason the gods still held their seats on Earth. This was it. Theseus was playing a game and enjoying himself. He had been toying with me the whole time. He could have defeated me from the start and had chosen not to for the sport of it. 

I feinted forward and flew back and away from him on a surge of ether. It felt prudent to delay the inevitable. I did not wish to die, but I would not do so in vain.

But Theseus did not advance. He stopped just next to his toppled throne—the crash I’d heard earlier, no doubt. 

“Aliastulus,” he said. “I see you have found another host, at long last. But you cannot defeat me in this place.”

“No. I wield the blade,” I said. “She does not wield me. But you are right, even with her aid, I do not believe I can win.”

Theseus blinked, eyes widening. He lowered his blade, tip touching the ground. Though he looked relaxed, I knew he could respond to any attack within fractions of a second. The gesture was for my benefit, a symbol of a temporary truce. “You speak truth. For I know Aliastulus does not possess the humility necessary to feign otherwise. Well, done. You are clearly not Oramald. Does he live?”

Kill the insolent, twit. 

“Yes,” I said, ignoring the sword and the instincts to fight. “They are unaware we have stolen their faces.”

“Very clever. And you have the will to best the blade. I should hate to destroy you, but I cannot allow such a transgression to go unchallenged.” 

“Nor was this my wish,” I admitted. “I never wanted to steal from you. But I had no choice. I am merely here in a desperate attempt to save someone I care for deeply. If there was any other way, I would have taken it.” 

He stared at me for a long moment. I could hear Aiden stir behind me. The relief must have shown in my expression because Theseus glanced at the ground by my feet. I would not be able to defeat Theseus. I knew that now. The sword had given me much more than I could have anticipated, but Theseus was a master of this place, as he had aptly demonstrated. But I could hold him off long enough for Aiden to get free of this. If the stubborn bastard would leave.

And then, Theseus nodded. “I believe you. More importantly, I see a way forward. It will require an oath on your part. Will you hear my bargain?” 

Inwardly, I cringed. By the time I finished this, I would not have much freedom remaining. Though, it’s not like I had a choice. “Aye. Please, continue.”

“I will allow you to leave here with your life. You may finish your quest. Whether you succeed or fail, if you live, you will pledge your service to me. I have a task for which you are uniquely suited. Once you complete this service, you will be free of your obligation to me.”

“What task?”

“We will speak of the details after you have given your oath. However, if you agree, it serves my purposes to allow you to leave with both your life and my property. What say you?”

I stared at him, uncertain I’d heard him correctly. There was a catch. Gods damn it, I hated god-like beings. Was he still playing a game with me? Certainly, but he seemed earnest. Why spare me? Fuck. It didn’t matter right now. He was talking instead of killing. Besides, what is one more favor owed? 

“You have my oath.”

“Very good. Now in blood.” 

Quicker than I could track, he pulled ether into a sharp blade and took hold of my arm with a second spell, cast simultaneously. He held his own hand out, palm up, forcing me to do the same. Though, I did not resist. 

“With both blood spilled, we will be true to these promises made. By my power, I swear it.”

Long before legal documents ever existed, this was how an oath was made. If either of us broke the bond, we’d be made weaker, perhaps losing our ability to call ether altogether. In many ways, it was far more binding than those contracts we’d made with Artemis and Loki. It was fully dependent upon my intentions. If I failed in my own mind, I would lose some—if not all—of my power and it would pass to Theseus. Or vice versa. 

“With blood spilled,” I repeated, “So too do I swear by my power to hold to promises made.”

Theseus flourished the ether blade synchronously with his sword, sheathing them both. When he released the hilt of the actual weapon, the ether-made sword vanished. 

Gods, he was impressive. 

“What do you know of The Baron,” he asked.

“Little. He is a master of thieves, I would wager, and runs the Shadow Streets. Why?”

She is a master of thieves. Before you leave back to your Earth, I will need you to brag about your theft from me to those who might be in her employ. When you return to Atlantis, I will know of it and send word of how you may reach me.”

I got a feeling I’d just been played in more way than one. 

“You know who I am,” I said. It wasn’t a question.

“I took a measure of your pattern just now, Liamorandus.”

“My friends call me Liam.”

“Well met, Liam.” He offered his hand.

I was still holding Aliastulus, I realized. Hastily, I shoved her into the dimensional pocket. Even with the pocket closed and on my shoulder, I could still feel our bond. I’m not sure I would keep the sword, but I also did not know how to break the bond. 

I took Theseus by the wrist. He looked into my eyes and said seriously, “It has been some time since anyone spilled my blood. In my younger years, I would have killed you for that.”

He gripped my wrist a bit tighter. I did not swallow. Or shit myself. So I count that as a win. I kept his gaze and asked, “And now?”

“I see wisdom in mercy,” he said, realizing my hand. “You, for example, will be a valuable asset to me. You have will enough to dominate a sentient blade—do not lower your guard with her, by the way. She will attempt to reverse your bond and dominate you, every chance she gets. Further, you have infiltrated my own keep, quite effortlessly. And you can use ether subtly enough to avoid detection. Except at the end there, when you shook my gods damned castle.” 

I had been beaming at his praise, up until the end. “Yeah, uh, not my finest moment. Apologies for that.”

He waved a dismissive hand. “I am grateful for your lapse in judgment. Had you not woken me, you might have slipped by without notice. And then I would have been forced to hunt you down and kill you, rather than enjoy this interview.”

“Interview?”

His smirk returned, along with my desire to punch his face. “Of course. Or did you believe I could not have killed you immediately? I own the nexus. It will take more than one mortal to defeat me.” 

“No. Uh, yeah. Of course, I knew you could. Makes total sense.” My foot never tasted so sour. “Thank you.” 

“However,” he said. “I cannot allow you to leave with Asterion. It would not serve my purposes and would tarnish my image.”

“He is my mission. The biggest part of it. I cannot leave without him. Literally. I made an oath.”

“To whom?”

“Until the oath is fulfilled, I cannot say.”

He simply nodded. “Very well. I have accepted your oath, and I am not one to second-guess my instincts. Besides, he has suffered here long enough.”

“Thank you.”

“There is one more catch,” he said, smirk becoming full smile. “When you leave here, my guards will have orders to capture you. Appearances, you understand. After you leave this room, if you are caught, you will be killed, slowly and painfully in the arena. Take your friend and the minotaur and be gone from here. Good luck, Liamorandus. I do hope to see you again, as yourself next time.”

He turned his back on me and marched from the room. The outer door swung open as he approached, and I could see dozens of guards waiting in the hall beyond.

Just before the door closed, I heard him say, “Give them a five minute head start.”

Aiden stood, stumbling a few staggered steps toward me. His eyes took on a distant look as though he might collapse. Asterion was breathing but otherwise not moving. I needed to move, but my own legs felt suddenly weary. The potion’s effects waned. Sweat beaded on my forehead, the tell-tale sign of minutes until I collapsed. 

In the hall, I heard the movement of armor, as Theseus’s personal guard readied to storm in. I wondered if someone had a stopwatch, counting down the seconds until they could give chase. Gods, how long until the wards reset? Had we missed the window?

One way or another, this would all be over soon.

Chapter 23: Rude Awakenings

Asterion took my wrist and squeezed. “I will take your aid, little brother.”

“Great,” I said, allowing myself to breathe again. I let go of the vice-like grip and nodded toward the vault. “Can you get us in there?”

“Theseus did not trust me with the key. However, there are no wards attached. He has made it clear to me the consequences for failing to protect his treasures.”

“Fantastic,” Aiden said, moseying up to the lock. He inspected it and frowned. “It is filled with rust.”

“That a problem?” I asked.

“Yeah, tumblers won’t budge.”

“Right,” I said. “Plan B. You might want to stand aside.”

Gathering ether, I stepped toward the vault door. The handle was as long as an arm with a round faceplate at the top. The simple, turnkey hole was filled with red-orange gunk. Focusing on the mechanism, I sent a narrow beam of pure energy at the hole with a muttered, “Scrios.”

The metal disintegrated, vanishing from sight. Something fell with a clang on the other side. On this side, the handle sagged. So did I. Ether is not naturally destructive. Making it work against its nature to unravel matter is costly. I leaned against the wall to steady myself. And I am better at evocation than most.

Aiden pulled on the latch, and it came free. He looked between the broken handle and the door, annoyed. The door hadn’t budged an inch. We looked at each other, both frowning. Echoes of marching boots came closer. 

“Fuck,” Aiden said, trying to find a handhold where the lock plate had been. His giant bull-fingers could not fit enough into the hole to get a good grip. “Need a bigger hole.”

“Right,” I said, cringing at what I had to do.

I sent another small beam of destructive energy into the hole, but angled downward. It would be a shame to hit an arrium or some other artifact and destroy it. Also, it was unwise to mix magical energies. No telling what sort of reaction would occur. I made the hole large enough to get a good hold and destroyed the latch where it was fastened to the doorframe. 

My legs wobbled. I clutched Aiden’s shoulder to remain upright. 

“You alright?” he asked. 

“Yeah. Just need a minute.”

“We don’t have a minute.” He took my head. I felt ether funnel through him to me. The energy revitalized me enough to stand on my own. With more rest, I would be good as new. In the meantime, I could function as a decent mage, just as long as I didn’t need to fling spells anytime soon. 

We pulled the door open just as the marching stopped. 

Ten or more minotaurs crowded the opening to the maze. All brandished medieval style weapons, from daggers and swords to spears and poleaxes. The one in the lead wore an X on her golden patch. She glared at Asterion with heavy disgust, but her expression became smug as her gaze settled on Aiden and me.

“Well, well,” she said, “so you are the ones who purchased the schematics to the vault. Didn’t expect two of our own to be the traitors seeking to rob our liege. Theseus will be very happy with me when I deliver your heads to him. I’ll finally get the promotion I earned decades ago.” She nodded to her guards. “Seize them.”

Fucking hero-syndrome. She had created a problem so that she could solve it to make her look good or useful to Theseus. We hadn’t been setup exactly, but close enough. I was not prepared to fight. This was going to hurt. I stood, trying my best to appear ferocious and ready.

But then Asterion made a fist and said, “No.” 

The single word cracked across the room in a deep wave of firm resolve. The guards had moved forward but stopped, looking at Asterion as though he was a dog who’d suddenly grown a second head. 

“What was that,” the lead minotaur demanded. 

Asterion towered over the guards by at least two feet or more. His voice was patient but unyielding. “I do not wish to harm you, little sister. But you are not to injure these two.”

She sputtered for a couple seconds before spitting, “Do you know who I am? I’m General Lunacious Lasterious. And you are barely more than a brood mare. You have no authority here. You will step aside. Now.”

Asterion rolled his head to one side, then the other. He moved deliberately between the vault, where Aiden and I stood, and the group of hostiles, not giving an inch for them to pass. Still not raising his voice, he said, “You would be wise to leave.”

“Do not injure the progenitor,” the general said. “Kill the traitors.”

I felt Aiden attempt a mind-link with me. I opened my thoughts to him and he immediately sent, Get in the vault. I will stall them.

Before I could object, Aiden stepped forward. “You could do that. But then again, if we die, you would not be able to find the copies of the schematics we made of this place. I mean … you would not want just any old riff-raff sauntering down here, would you?”

The general held up a hand, fist closed. The minotaurs had all taken a few steps, but they stopped instantly at her signal. 

“What copies?” she asked.

“Oh,” Aiden said at the same time sending, Why are you gawking? Fucking go, dumbass. “The ones we left with our benefactors in the event we did not make it out alive.” 

“Someone paid you to do this? Who?”

Aiden stepped next to Asterion, blocking my line of sight. I slowly moved backward, slipping behind the door then into the vault. My legs still shook, but I forced myself to keep moving. 

I could still hear the conversation. 

“A very powerful off-worlder,” Aiden said. I could hear the smirk in his voice. “One who will remove the nobles from rule in this world. We will make a better Atlantis for all of our citizens. Not just for Theseus and the gods.” 

“Impossible. You are fools.”

I tuned out their posturing. Knowing Aiden’s tactics erred on the side of extreme antagonism which would escalate by the second, I did not have much time to get the artifacts and get back before someone wanted to rip his face off.

The vault, however, was massive and had not been detailed in the schematics. Rather than light a torch, I created a glowing ball of ether in my palm and threw it at the ceiling. As designed, it stuck and lit the entirety of the room. That had been the first spell I ever learned. Most evokers start there. We used the balls for mock battles. But that is a story for another time. It was simple enough that I did not even stagger. 

The room was polished and somehow immaculate, despite not seeing the light of day for some time. Shelves lined the walls, each filled with nicknacks. Some were dull and lifeless, made of stone or wood. Others had been crafted from gold and other precious metals or stones. Dozens of eclectic objects rested on small pedestals in rows, spaced evenly around the room.

Opening my ether-sight made the room burst into lights. Everything in here was an arrium except the marble pedestals, holding the most potent artifacts. Glancing out toward Asterion, I found the thread binding him here. It led to a massive crystalline object. As I neared, I realized it was shaped like a heart—the organ, not the childhood love symbol. And it was beating.

I picked it up. It thrummed gently in my palm. Though it felt solid as rock, I placed it gently into a cloak pocket and released a breath I had not realized I was holding. I had what we needed to fulfill our obligation to Artemis. I still needed to get out of here without dying, but if we did, we could hand this over and be released from the oath. Somehow, we would then need to free Asterion before that. He was trusting us, and I would not fail to gain his freedom after his years of servitude here. 

That would come later. Now, I just needed to find our main purpose for coming to this gods-cursed city. Unfortunately, I did not know what a Soul Breaker was exactly or what it might look like and had limited time to sort out which one of these treasures it was. 

If Theseus truly had a Soul Breaker, I imagine it would be here on display with the other artifacts of obvious worth and power. For example, the sword at the center looked strikingly similar to Excalibur. And when I picked it up, I felt a sentient voice begin to awaken. Shit. No time or energy to wrestle wills with a powerful entity. I would most likely lose and would rather not have an ancient being control me. Sentient swords typically have one main drive. Spill blood. Opening my bag, I dropped the weapon in. But I didn’t stop there. I grabbed the rest of the artifacts from pedestals and lobbed them all into my dimensional pocket.

Some of these might prove useful in the event we survived long enough to use them. And, if I took everything, I could sort through which one—if any—was the Soul Breaker later. For good measure, I grabbed several items from the shelves and wracks. I stopped when I reached the mirror hanging on the far wall.

The plain silver frame was gilded with a script I could not read. When I looked at my reflection, I saw myself for only an instant. Then, the image morphed into something brighter, more beautiful than I could describe. It was pure ether, laced together in fractals upon fractals. An infinite pattern moving in upon itself. Dark threads laced through the pattern, wyther traces, I realized. 

This was my soul. 

I tore my eyes away, feeling feint. I was breathing hard. I could not make myself look back up at the image. This was it. This had to be the Soul Breaker. Without looking at the mirror, I grabbed the frame and pulled it from the wall. Though most arrium could stand up to some abuse, I could not take the chance with the mirror and just drop it into my bag. 

Instead, I took the painstaking seconds of setting up my pocket dimension so I could walk in. I placed the mirror on my bed and hurried back out. Slinging my pack over my shoulder, I grabbed a few more arrium for good measure from the shelves. 

I would have continued robbing Theseus blind, but outside, voices had raised. Aiden and the general now spoke over one another. Aiden’s voice mocked, while the general’s became increasingly enraged. 

“Enough!” the general shouted. “We have better ways of making criminals talk. Drop your weapon, and I will leave your legs in tact for now.”

And, that’s my cue. 

As I have previously mentioned, Aiden and I have fought minotaurs before. Those had been summoned and controlled by a bonded mage, making them almost bestial in their combat style. Also, most direct spells slide off them, making magic nearly ineffectual. Fortunately, we’d learned ways around that. Hitting them with an object was a nice way around their near-immunity. As it happened, I was obliged to open the fight with such a projectile. Hey, don’t look at me like that. Han Solo shot first, and we all still love him.

“Cruthaigh cloch,” I said, shaping ether. 

I pulled stones from the wall and sent them hurtling into the group of minotaurs faster than any major league pitcher could dream. A fist-sized stone punched the closest minotaur in the face. Her head snapped back with a loud crack. She fell to the ground, eyes staring wide. Cries of alarm and pain erupted from the remaining minotaurs as I pelted them with more rock.

Aiden reacted at once, as did Asterion. They both darted forward. Asterion side-stepped a thrust at his midsection, swatted the side of the sword with his palm and struck his attacker in the throat. Even above the shouts and clamor of armor, I could hear the crunch. As Asterion’s victim fell, he took up the sword and flowered the blade with a flourish of his wrist. 

He waded forward, but the other minotaurs changed tactics. They fought together. One parrying with another striking. The guards pressed Asterion hard. He retreated, dodging and parrying. Four minotaurs pressed him back and away from us.

Aiden sent ether into the floor. Stones rose at precise angles, shaped like swords. The stony edges ripped into the guards, tripping them. The general bellowed and rushed Aiden, side-stepping the swords as they formed at her feet.

I gathered a swath of stone in front of Aiden and ripped upward with a torrent of ether. A wall formed just as Asterion swung his blade. A loud clang resounded, followed by a scream of outrage. Aiden bounded to the left, picking up a spear. He raised it just as the general appeared from behind the wall. 

I felt the strain inside. And I staggered. But I could not stop. The wall would only delay the minotaur. I pulled more stone from the wall behind me with the intention of throwing it at the general, but I froze when the ground beneath me shook. 

The fighting paused. 

“You are not Tifoald,” General Lasterious said. “I should have noticed sooner. Who … no, what are you?”

“We are no one to be trifled with,” Aiden said, in a perfect imitation of Wesley from The Princess Bride. “Step aside, and we will let you live with the Dread Pirate Robert’s kind regards.”

“You will not—”

The castle quaked in a little aftershock. Perhaps tearing at the foundation was not the wisest of decisions. 

“You’ll pull the whole fucking castle down,” Lasterious said, paralleling my thoughts. 

“Would that be bad for you?” Aiden asked. “It won’t be a problem for us.” 

“You are mad,” she said.

“Not at all,” I said. “We are quite fucking serene, I assure you. Is this fight over? Or should it all come to a crashing end?” 

“Stand down,” the general commanded. “Drop your weapons.”

“And everyone get into the vault,” Aiden added. 

“Do it,” the general said.

Only 6 of the guards remained. Three had to all but carry one. The rest lay in broken lumps on the ground, most at Asterion’s feet. The large minotaur was covered is splatters of crimson gore. He’d picked up an axe at some point, in addition to the sword. He eyed the general without emotion as she stepped around him to get inside the vault.

She glared at me as I shut the door on her. “Whoever you are, we will find you. We will bring you back here. And we will make sport of your end. Mark me well, you will—”

I shut the door in her face. 

“Aiden,” I said. “Would you tighten the wall? I don’t have it in me.”

“Sure.” He stepped up beside me, concern in his expression. 

I felt him draw the ether. He pulled stone from the frame and tightened the opening, slowly. Stone groaned at being shifted, but after testing the door, it would not budge. In hindsight, this would have been a better—albeit slightly louder—way of getting into the vault, but instead of tightening the frame, we could have loosened it enough to push the door free. 

Next time, maybe. 

General Lasterious shouted and pounded from the other side. Two of the others joined her. The door held. For now. 

“We probably should have killed them,” Aiden said. 

“No,” Asterion said. “You should always spare life if possible.”

“We can philosophize over all this later,” I said. “We have a deadline. How long has it been?”

Aiden held up the pendant containing the polymorph hairs. The casing was translucent, allowing us to see the remnants of the burning strands.

“An hour,” he said, “at most.”

“Plan A won’t work anyway,” I said, looking at Asterion’s size. “We won’t be able to get through the gate anyway. He won’t fit in any of the uniforms.”

“Sunrise is right around the corner. If we are late, the front gate will be our only choice.”

“And,” I added, “there might be more guards waiting up there.”

“And people might be a little freaked out about the sudden earthquake.” He nodded toward Asterion. “That ever happen here?”

“Never.” 

“Right,” I said. “So, we’ve given the castle a rude awakening. We’ll have to take the back way out of here.”

“There is no back way from the labyrinth,” Asterion said. “I assure you.”

“Not the labyrinth,” I amended. “Out of the compound. We still have to make it through the castle. Then we have a way out.” 

“Theseus will likely be waiting for us,” Asterion said. “He is stronger now than when he bested me, while I have grown weak down here. We cannot defeat him.”

“With any luck,” I said. “We won’t have to.”

I did not feel lucky, but I could not tell him that. I also neglected to mention how fatigued I felt or that I had maybe a few goods spells in me before I fell to exhaustion. Instead, we made our way back through the maze, stopping at the slightest noise. No one came for us. Likely, those creaks were just the castle settling after some asshole decided to up and shift the foundation. We pushed on and stopped at the door. 

It was ajar. 

Infusing my senses with ether, I listened. At first, I heard nothing but our own heartbeats. Mine, Aiden’s, and the minotaur’s in my cloak pocket—yeah, it weirded me out too. 

Then I heard a fourth heartbeat. Distant, somewhere on the other side of the door. Close to the throne if I had to guess. 

Whoever it was, stood there, waiting. 

“Asterion,” a deep voice said. “I know that is you. Come out here. Let us finish what we started all those millennia ago.”

Theseus. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! I turned to see Asterion. His expression had changed. It spoke volumes about Asterion’s mental strength that he wasn’t raving mad after all that time alone. I could only guess at how long that had been, but at least 5 to 10 of my life times. And I’m fucking old. But I saw it now. The craze that Asterion had locked away somewhere in his mind had broken free. Whatever resolve he had possessed to preserve life had vanished, replaced with something beyond anger and rage. Gripping both his weapons tighter, he lowered his head as if aiming those massive horns and took a step forward. 

Maybe I was ten kinds of a fool, but I moved in front of the minotaur, hoping my pleading gaze would stop him. 

It didn’t. 

Asterion shoved me aside as if I was a paper-weight and stepped out to fight the god of this realm, even though the gods-damned minotaur had been the one to say we could not win in a fight against Theseus. But making the bull-headed bastard see reason was not going to work here. 

We were outclassed in every possible way. Theseus had home advantage. This was his realm in the same way that little patch of land was Loki’s. Fighting would not likely end well. On the other hand, if we left Asterion here and took his heart, he would die. Theseus would not even need to lift a finger. 

All this passed through my mind in those first few milliseconds after Asterion stepped out to throw down with Theseus. 

I had another few milliseconds to decide, do we go down swinging with the minotaur or leave his ass in the wind? 

Chapter 22: Stealing into the Castle

To acclimate to our new half-bull bodies, we walked up and down the alley for a half-hour. We only had a few hours until dawn. At that point, we’d need to be long gone for a number of reasons. First, Artemis was expecting us to hit the place at dawn. She would have some nasty, yet-to-be-determined surprise lying in wait for us. Second, the wards would reset. Rather than using that fraction of a second as a window into the compound, dawn would be our escape plan in the event Murphy showed up and laid down his shitty Laws. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the fuel—the minotaur hair—would be fully burnt by dawn, if not sooner.

Time to get a move on. 

I peeked around the alley at the castle. The entry was large enough for Texas-sized lorries—you probably call them semis or eighteen-wheelers—to pass through. The portico was closed, a metal grate with bars, each thicker than my leg blocking entry. Six guards stood out front, staring straight ahead and motionless like the Queen’s Guard in front of Buckingham Palace, only with horns instead of fluffy hats.

Off to the side was a uniformed minotaur all by himself, glaring at any drunken group ambling too close. We’d seen a few other guards patrol by. Saluting appeared to work the same way as it did in every other militarized state I have visited: subordinates saluted superiors first. So far, every patrol passing saluted far faster than the gate guard did. 

Rank was always difficult to determine in any military. Usually, the more flare on a person’s chest suggested higher levels of authority. No such convention existed here. However, every guard’s sleeve was adorned with a golden patch—a kite shield with tiny swords along the top. More swords appeared to mean higher rank.

Aiden and I had transmuted our clothes to match the minotaurs we impersonated, copying the uniforms with as much precision as we could. We each had 6 swords on our patches. The patrols wore emblems with 2 swords, and the gate guard had 3. This had been luck, rather than design.

Sometimes, Loki was kind—not that I would give the bastard any credit to his face.

Hopefully, our 6-sword patches would provide us with access to areas a lesser rank would be denied. Then again, once we hit the castle grounds, someone might ask us to do some act neither Aiden and I would be qualified to perform. We could, with a bit of ether, tap into the reserved ethereal pattern we’d taken from the minotaur to access some memories, but it would burn the hair fragments far more quickly. Plus, memories were not always reliable, and the excess ether would likely be detected. 

Regardless, we were in it now. Worrying would only increase the likelihood one or both of us would fuck up. 

Taking a deep breath, I turned back to the alley.

Aiden carried a definitive swagger to his step. Not the, I’m a badass, sort of walk. More like a, someone punched my face, sort of movement. 

“Are you up for this?” I asked. “Maybe I should go at it alone.” 

“I’m fine. Spirits are starting to kick in. I’m good.”

I was not convinced, but I also needed someone to watch my back. Gods damn dwarves. One swig, and he couldn’t walk straight. I would hate to see what an entire tankard would have done to him, and Aiden’s liver was conditioned to strong drinking. It would have probably killed me. 

“Right. Fine, but you are following my lead. Every step of the way. Understood?”

“Of course,” he said. “Let’s move.”

Before I could object, he strutted past me and into the street, crossing to the front gates of the castle. I could argue with Aiden in front of them, but that would not get us anything but dead faster.

So, I gritted my teeth and followed him to the minotaur, guarding the side gate. Aiden marched toward the door as if it wasn’t closed, face suggesting it better be opened by the time he got there. 

The minotaur jumped to open the wooden door, getting it clear just in time. He let us pass without asking any questions. Though, I noted, his brow raised a fraction. This suggested our actions were not exactly normal, but also not overtly suspicious. Hopefully this meant the guards we were impersonating had gone for the night and though it was rare for them to return, it was not so infrequent that our presence would sound the alarm.

Phew. First hurdle jumped.

We stepped through the doorway without a backward glance, but I kept telling myself you belong here, asshole, while trying to keep the etched-from-stone facial expression expected of a high-ranking minotaur guard.

As we passed through the wall, I felt the wards laced into the wall around us. It was impossible not to note the immense energy holding them in place. Think of the largest animal to ever walk the earth, like T-rex’s bigger sister in Jurassic World. The amount of electricity pulsing through the wall would stop its heart ten times over with a single touch. And that was just the surface defense. Gods. Our timing needed to be perfect when we came through. If we were off by a fraction of a second … 

Nope. Couldn’t think about that right now. If we are undiscovered and everything goes perfectly, we might be able to walk right back out. No. Not ifWhen we got the artifacts, we’d just walk out the main gate, then move on to Phase II of our suicidal plan. 

We exited the passageway into an open courtyard of dark cobblestone winding through a scene that put the Queen’s Garden in England to shame. As far as the eye could see, flowers of every color bloomed in intricate arrays of mythical creatures. A red dragon of broad petaled roses stood on two legs, towering over green cottages formed from hedges. It’s maw was open and chest expanded as if readying to breath fire. Other beings from legend were arrayed around the tiny homes, which were mostly quiet.

Smoke rose from the chimneys, mingling together above the tiny city. The air smelled of burning cinnamon and sage. Most of the windows of the pint-sized cottages were shuddered with large leaves. A few were open, revealing a low glow from within. I could make out shadows moving within but not details of the beings that lived there. 

I walked past it, trying to mimic the guards from Victoria’s Inn. After all, this was common place, not a magical village inside a demigod’s domain. Or was Theseus a god now? It was possible he controlled the Nexus of power in this place rather than just acting as its steward on another god’s behalf. After all, the struggle for power on Earth had been modeled after Atlantis. Only a few civilizations across the entirety of the multiverse had truly moved beyond aggressive competition to a state of humble cooperation. Humanity would likely never achieve such a harmony. Neither would the Atlantians. 

We passed a patrol, who saluted us before we could even see their patches. Aiden and I both slammed our fists to our breasts without slowing our steps. I noted from my periphery the 4 swords on their sleeves. The progression of rank left me wondering how far our guises would take us into the castle.

We marched along the cobbled path to the front gate of the castle. Two guards stood there, both with 4 swords on their golden patches as well. Just as before, we walked at the door with expectations of being admitted. Once more, salutes were exchanged and doors were opened, proving once again that having the right face and an abundance of confidence could get you anywhere.

Even in the low-light, wealthy did not begin to describe the welcoming chamber, as it was called in our schematics. Dark marble columns led to an expansive room with a dais and an empty throne made of a silvery substance far too glittery to be a simple metal. A fist-sized ruby adorned the top of the headrest. I could sense a fountain of ether within.

Openings along the sides led to other areas of the castle, including servants chambers, offices for members of parliament, as well as sleeping quarters for long sessions, and other rooms with a myriad of purposes. There was a gazing room somewhere, designed to peer across space. We cared for none of those.

We moved without pause to the lonely door behind the throne. It was locked, as we had expected. But, according to the schematics Victoria had given us, was not warded.

“You are up,” I whispered.

Still, the sound echoed across the chamber. Likely, the acoustics had been designed to make Theseus’s voice carry across the room to all those in attendance. When empty, that meant a whisper was a booming voice. I clamped my mouth shut. 

In reply, Aiden scowled and made a shooing gesture. I slid aside and let him work. He produced thin pieces of metal with crimped ends and jammed them into the keyhole. It took less than 3 seconds for him to maneuver the lock. 

The click reverberated around the empty room. 

We both froze. I sucked in a breath and held it. My heart drummed against my chest. Footsteps sounded somewhere in the distance. Boots on stone. Two or three people marched alongside one another, moving toward us. I motioned for Aiden to hurry. He pulled the door handle. 

To say rusty hinges squeaked is a drastic understatement. 

Nails on chalkboard make less noise than the door screeching open. If the click had echoed, the door roared like a lion announcing its intentions to claim new territory. 

For a second, we froze. The boots stopped. All was eerily quiet. Then the boots stomped harder. Faster. Aiden and I squeezed through the opening and pushed the door screaming shut. Its closing plunged us into darkness. The dank air smelled stale and moldy. I could almost taste it. Swallowing the rising bile, I fumbled for the knob and fidgeted until the lock clicked into place. If we were lucky, the guards on the other side of that door did not possess a key or the means to open it quickly. 

We stood there, holding our breaths like kids hiding in a closet. 

The handle rattled. A muffled voice said something. A different voice responded. The knob shook again, sending echoes through the hall behind us.

Hurried boots stomped away from the door. 

A soft glow appeared, lighting Aiden’s face. He held his phone up, using the screen to light the area. Nodding toward the darkened corridor, he stepped slowly back from the door. I followed without argument. 

We’d both used ether to burn the schematics into our memory. But now that we were here in the dark, the memories of the way forward were far less of an abstract plan and far more suicidal stupidity. Still, there was no turning back now. Worse, even if those guards did not come in, there was a good chance they would still be waiting out there when we came out, wanting to know why we held a fist-full of stolen goods.

Future Me could worry over that. Present Me had to avoid traps and pitfalls that would kill him. Aiden went right at the first turn. Left would lead to a hidden portal that would send a hapless thief into the center of this world’s sun. No thanks.

Using the light of Aiden’s phone, we kept going. The next turn, we went straight, then left, straight, right, right, left, straight. The temperature dropped, and I realized we were descending down a slope as we continued following the directions. 

I tried not to imagine a team of minotaurs, led by Theseus, blasting down the door and hunting us through the maze. Instead, I focused on recalling the schematics. We still had one more hurdle to cross before we could enter the vault. 

If the schematics were right—and they’d not misled us so far, seeing as how we had not met an unimaginably gruesome death yet—Asterion, the first minotaur, had not been killed. Somehow, he survived here without a heart, living as Theseus’s personal guardian. We had an idea of how to handle him but no notion of whether he would be reasonable or simply a mindless monster who destroyed all trespassers. 

We walked into an open room with low lighting. Torches flickered on the wall to the side. The largest minotaur I’d ever seen sat on a simple stool, legs crossed as he read from a book. He wore nothing, save a loincloth. He made the Hulk look like a man-baby. How he could grow such muscles was beyond me. There was no way he could workout down here. 

He looked up from his book as we entered. We stopped a pace into the room, prepared to fight, but hoping we would not need to. After all, a team of guards were likely descending on us as we stood there gaping like yokels. 

“Hi,” I said, dumbly. Then again, how would you start a conversation with a guy who’d been held prisoner for centuries? No, he’d been here for millennia. 

“Hello, little brothers,” he said in old common—a mix between Old English and Germanic. His deep voice was filled with patient concern. “Why have you come here?”

“We wish to free you,” I told him. 

“You would show me such kindness? One who is not worthy?”

“No one deserves this,” I said, gesturing toward the darkened walls.

“I am an abomination. The progenitor of a race that should never have come to pass. I belong here.”

“Bull shit,” Aiden said then winced. “Pardon the terminology, but no one belongs in a place like this. Come with us.”

“I cannot.”

“You are not an abomination,” I said. “Your existence spawned an entire species. Men, women, and children live, all thanks to you.”

“Children?” he asked. “There are families now?”

“There are,” Aiden said. “They live in the city above you.”

The minotaur’s gaze grew distant, wistful. He looked up at the ceiling as though he might see them if he stared hard enough. All I saw was the team of minotaurs gearing up to kill us. But I did not rush him. I could see the angst in his eyes, on his face. Forcing him into an ultimatum would be a bad—

“But we need to go,” Aiden said. “Soon.”

“I cannot,” he said, voice sad now.

I could punch Aiden’s stupid face. Instead, I took a breath. “Why not?” I said, trying and failing to contain my frustration.

“Even if I wished to leave,” Asterion said. “Theseus has removed my heart and bound my life to this place. If I step from the labyrinth, I will die.” 

Fuck.

“Are you certain?” Aiden asked.

“Quite. Or did you believe that tiny metal door a real barrier to my escape?”

“Liamc could you—” 

“Way ahead of you.”

As I said before, I am a master in Thaumaturgy. If a ritual bound Asterion here, I could find it, maybe break or alter it so he could leave.

I opened my mind and sight using ether and looked around. There was no signature or imprint in the place suggesting a binding. Not until I looked at Asterion. A thread of energy protruded from him. The string of pulsing light led to a wall. No. Not a wall. That was the vault, covered and dust and unopened for some time.

“You are bound to something inside there,” I said, pointing. 

Then realization dawned on me. The heart. It had to be the heart. All this time, the minotaur could have simply walked out of here by taking his heart with him. And gods damn it all, I am certain Artemis had known all along. For some reason, she wanted Asterion. I could do shit all about that now. After all, in for a penny, in for a pound. 

“I warn you,” Asterion said. “If this is a trick to—”

Sounds of marching boots echoed from the maze. 

“No trick,” I said. “And we are out of time. I know how to save you, but you’ll have to trust me. Will you come with us?”

I offered him my hand. He stared at it. Boots marched closer. I held my breath.