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.”
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.