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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.

Chapter 21: Totally Plucked

Starbucks in Atlantis is open 24 hours. It was almost enough to make me want to stay. Too bad I’ll never be able to return here after all this is done. Even if we were successful and did not get caught, simple paranoia would never allow me to come back here. I do not wish to live in fear, always looking over my shoulder. Makes me feel a bit of empathy for bonded mages on Earth, hiding from the Collective.

Even now, sitting here at our corner table, I could not help but feel as though we were being watched by the group of minotaurs standing at the back of the queue. After all, they were a mistrustful sort, and in this case, they had a right to be suspicious. We were, after all, trying to steal some of their hair so we could use it to take their identities and burgle their ruler. 

Three of them stood there, not looking at each other or scanning the room. Their big cow-eyes just stared at the giant menu behind the bar. 

“You are up,” Aiden said. “You need some coins?”

“Nah. I’ll get this round. It’s definitely my turn. You got all the beers.”

We both spoke just loudly enough that anyone paying us attention could hear. We’d been sitting here staring at the menu for half an hour or so, trying to pass off as tourists going to a Starbucks for the first time. I hurried to the queue, cutting in front of the couple who’d entered, moving just fast enough not to be rude as I cut them off. I turned and gave them an apologetic smile, as if my getting their first was an accident. The male kobold stared at me, lips pulling back from his teeth revealed his sharp canines. Was that a smile? Or was he growling? 

Damn it. Now I’d have the worry of being seen. I turned back to my task. This required a delicate touch. Staring at the minotaur’s back, I could see several hairs across the shoulders of his uniform. I cupped my hand at my belly and focused my will.

I channeled the barest amount of ether. Just that moment, the queue moved. The minotaur stepped up. And I missed the hairs. I bit down a curse. Shuffling forward, I steadied my breath and tried again. I grasped the hairs on thin strands of air and pulled them to my palm. I’d gotten three of the hairs. They were short and brown. There was an unstoppered vial in my cloak pocket. Rather than try to needle them into it with my fat fingers, I used ether to place them in and cork it. 

If I felt eyes on me before, I was beside myself now. But rather than glance about, I continued staring forward until the line moved again. Then I turned my head to the right and stared at the abstract painting as though I was interested, using the opportunity to observe the room from my periphery. No one appeared to be looking at me. Except the kobolds behind me. Their expressions of malcontent had not changed. 

The queue moved again. The minotaurs were next to order, and I still needed one more sample. Though I had enough strands to turn us, twin minotaurs would likely stand out. And what if we needed more time? One strand would burn out in an hour or so.

The barista was not looking directly at me, but if she was sensitive to ether, she might see me. I shifted my weight to the other leg, leaning enough to put the minotaur between myself and her. Then I used a thin strand of ether to grab reddish hairs from the other minotaur. One had been attached. The minotaur flinched and slapped at his neck. I held my breath as he half-turned toward me. 

I mean, on Earth, plucking hairs from someone likely would not even be a crime. However, here, everyone understood the significance of an ethereal pattern (such as that laced into DNA). Plucking a few hairs from someone took on an entirely new intent when those strands could be used to place a curse on a living person or to bind them to a cause. Or, as we intended, used to replicate that person and wear their body like a mask.

If the minotaur saw the hairs on my palm, he didn’t say anything. Instead, he frowned then turned back to the barista, placing his order. 

And I breathed again, pocketing the hairs as I had the others. 

Just as I stoppered the second vial, I felt heat on my ear as a gruff voice whispered, “What do you plan to do with those hairs, poppet?”

Shit.

I turned to see the male kobold staring at me. He was no longer glaring. His short dog-like snout could only be called smug, like fido having bested the cat and stolen all the treats. The female kobold gave the same expression. 

“Don’t know what you mean?” I said in even a lower whisper than his. 

“Perhaps we should ask them?” he nodded toward the minotaurs as they moved toward the end of the bar. The red-haired one was looking at us, quizzically. 

“Next,” the barista said.

I was more than happy to jump up to the register. “Venti Soy Latte and Venti Mocha, please.” 

“Earth milk on that mocha?” she asked.

“Yes, please.” 

“That comes to 3 gold, 8 silver.”

Jesus. Should have let Aiden pay the tab. I fished out 4 gold coins—worth about $2000 or €1700 an ounce—and handed them over. She gave a gold coin back to me. In Atlantis, 1 gold = 100 silver pieces. I knew the right thing to do was to drop that in her tip jar. I did. But it hurt. Essentially, I just bought her a used car or a plane ticket to damn-near anywhere on Earth. 

“Thanks,” she said with a smile. 

As I moved away, the male kobold shadowed me, while his companion stepped up to order. He stood inside my personal bubble, that understood invisible space that belongs to just me and follows me everywhere I go. He smelled like wet fur. 

I tried not to glance at the minotaurs who had taken a table near Aiden, but I must have failed because the kobold nodded toward them. He no longer whispered as he said in a proper Cockney accent. “Suppose they’ll want to know why you took their ethereal pattern. Unless I have a few good reasons not to. I’m not a difficult bloke, philosophizing over the stars, and who should fuck who. I find gold to be a proper motivator for most things in life.”

Fuck Loki, but this asshole was shaking me down. And in Starbucks of all places. Of all the low-down rotten things a person could do. 

“Ethereal pattern? What do you mean?”

He held up his hand. And like a magician’s trick, flicked his wrist and had my two vials. “I mean this. I’m supposing, you want them back.”

Mouth hanging open like a dullard, I locked eyes with the kobold. They were coal black. He wore a medieval tunic with the top several buttons open, showing off his thick fur. The color was a mix between a German Shepard and a Golden Retriever. It was cut close everywhere except atop his head, where it was styled long and floppy, like a Californian surfer. 

He flipped his hair back, as though I’d been admiring his dashing good looks. “So what’ll it be? We doing business, or should I go have a chat with the cows. See what they’re guards of?”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck!

The barista put my drinks on the bar. Grabbing the coffees, I smiled as if all was fine. “Thank you so much.”

She didn’t even glance my way as she moved back to her machine to make more drinks. Meanwhile, the kobold was still inside my bubble.

“Well, poppet? What’s it gonna be?” 

I could probably get my vials back with the ether. It would not be subtle. It would likely be loud and messy. So, I found myself saying. “We might be able to make an accord. Would you and your companion care to share a table with my partner and I?” I gestured toward Aiden, who could have set me to fire with his look of irritation. 

“Me,” he said, smugly. 

When I gave him a quizzical look he said, “At the end of the sentence, it’s ‘my partner and me’, savvy?”

“No. I’m pretty certain it’s I.”

“Sound it out.”

“Sound what out?” I said, not hiding my mounting agitation.

“Say it again, sans ‘my partner’ and see how it sounds.”

Grinding my teeth together, I said, “Would you and your companion care to share a table with … with I?” He was right. It sounded dumb to end the sentence without ‘my partner.’ 

“See,” he said, “I was right.” 

“What are you, the gods damn grammar police?”

“Don’t be sour, poppet? I was taught your language by the best tutors in Atlantis.” 

What the actual fuck was going on with this night? “Are you shaking me down or prepping for the SAT?” 

“I miss your meaning. The sat?” 

“Ask your tutor. We doing this?”

He held up a gnarled finger with a long nail at the end. “One second while I converse with my mate.”

The female kobold came over as if cued. Apparently, she did not speak Earthling English. She said something in the barking language of the kobolds. He barked back, finishing with a shit-eating grin, tongue lulling out the side of his mouth. She returned the expression. I did not need a translation to know, they were going to swindle us hard. 

“We are prepared to discuss terms with you.” He gestured toward Aiden. “After you. I insist.” 

I stomped over to Aiden and said in Gaelic. “They saw. They have the vials of hair.”

“They what?”

“Enough of that gibberish,” he said and then in the next breath spoke kobold to his partner. He sat at the table next to ours. She stood behind him, lounging on his shoulder.

“My name is Arkath. You might call me an entrepreneur of sorts. Mostly I move this and that in Shadow Streets. I also deal in information. Luck has always been my lady.” He nodded toward the woman massaging his neck. “But don’t tell her that, savvy?” 

Whoever had taught this kobold our language had seen Pirates of the Caribbean one too many times. 

“What do you want?” I demanded.

“Easy. I’ll take 500 gold or 100 gold and the name of your target.”

“Target?” Aiden asked with a believable amount of incredulity. “I’m not sure what you think is going on here, but my lover here and I like to play dress up. Wanted to see what it’s like to have bull slongs for a night.”

Arkath barked a laugh. It was a high-pitched yippie bark. And just when I thought I could not hate him more. “That is rich. I like this one. Sense of humor, he has.” He gave another yipping chuckle. “But I know my business. You are going to pose as guards and try to hit someone. But those are the wrong guards. Work for the Baron. Everyone does.” He winked. “Even the thieves.” 

We had, point of fact, waited for those guards to come in and chose them for their silver and black uniforms, known to everyone as those who worked for Theseus. That bit about the thieves was interesting though. 

“Are you saying Theseus employs brigands?” 

“I’m not saying that at all. Hypothetically, if thieves were fool enough to show up in Atlantis Proper, they’d seek employment through the proper channels. And they’d get their jobs from the Baron.” 

“Wait,” Aiden said. “Theseus is a viscount, not a baron.” 

“That he is. And the price is gone up. You tell me your job and give the 500. Or I take these vials over to the bulls, there. Do we have an accord?”

“Or,” Aiden said, holding up a vial with golden-brown hair. “I use this to curse you both. Maybe I’ll just make you impotent. Oh wait. I’ll turn you into an impotent goblin. No, I know just the thing. I will turn you into a female goblin.”

I hadn’t even felt the stirring of ether, but by the end of Aiden’s speech, the shock had faded. The notion of cursing someone—altering their ethereal pattern—was repulsive. Still, I gave the kobold a wicked smile. 

The smugness slipped from the kobold’s face but only for a heartbeat. Probably less. “So he’s a player in this great game after all. Welcome to the table. Now, we can make a proper deal.”

“There is no deal. And I grow weary of this. Give us the vials. Now.” Aiden left no room for negotiation to his tone. He glowered at the kobold for several seconds. Arkath glared back. 

The kobold female barked something. Arkath barked at her, clearly annoyed from being interrupted. Finally, he placed the vials on the table and slid them across to me. 

“Now, give us ours,” he demanded.

Aiden slid them into a cloak pocket. “I’ll burn them just before we leave Atlantis. If guards or anyone else show up to nab us, I’ll assume the worst and throw the curse with my last defiant act.” Aiden gave the kobolds his best shit-eating grin and asked in a cheery voice, “Do we have an accord?”

They both gave us puppy eyes, which—contrary to popular belief, denoted fear in dogs, not love—was worse than a growl or more snark. 

“We understand,” he said at last. “We’ll never speak of you.”

“Run along, then,” Aiden said. “Find a different hydrant to piss on. This one’s ours.”

He stood abruptly, buttoned his cloak closed as he stood tall. Nodding, he said, “Gentlemen,” then turned and strode from Starbucks. His companion picked up their coffees and trailed after him. 

“Well, done,” I said. “Wasn’t sure how to get out of that one.”

“That’s because there is only one functioning brain between us, and two-thirds of it is with me.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Only two-thirds?”

“I must be a bit short of a full deck. After all, I’m here with you.”

“Fair. Can we get on with it then?” 

“Aye.”

We downed our coffee, then left. It was not difficult to find Theseus’s castle. After all, it was the tallest structure in all of Athens. On Lord’s Way, one need but to look south and see the enormous structure towering like a tale from some fantasy book. It was a city of its own. Without schematics, there would be no way to know the vault was beneath the structure, at the middle of a labyrinth. We made our way down the street, which even at this hour was not empty of inhabitants. 

People swayed drunkenly, barely noticing us. Some human-like groups and several furry mobs went around. 

“Holy shit,” Aiden said.

I followed his gaze to a pair of blocky men with beards long enough to braid. They were half-as-thick as they were tall. One wore a suit of full plate mail with a double-bladed moon-head axe strapped to his back. The other wore hardened leather with two slender swords, one over each shoulder. He was slightly smaller than the axe-wielder. They carried actual tankards and sang in a thick language that reminded me of German. 

They slowed as they neared us, looking at us as oddly as we examined them. Up close, they were at least two feet shorter than us with fists the size of my face. The larger one said something. The other one made a humping motion in the air and laughed at us. 

Then Aiden said something in their language. Their joyful expressions vanished, replaced with utter confusion. They looked at Aiden as if he was a chimp at the zoo who had stopped flinging feces and then spoke. 

A second later, they laughed. Aiden laughed. They spoke more quickly, and the laughs continued. The stocky men patted Aiden roughly on the back, speaking insistently. One shoved the tankard at him. I cringed as he took the silvery cup and took a long pull. He gave his head a little shake and made a grunting noise, passing the drink back. 

The two strange men cheered, hooting. The conversation went on for a few more minutes, until finally the drunken pair stumbled on, cat-calling toward Aiden as they left, laughing all the while.

“The fuck?” I asked.

“Dwarves,” Aiden said, a bit of a slur in his voice. “Best partiers in any universe.”

“Do you think now is the time for a drink? Really?”

“I’ve never done a job sober. It was just what I needed. Nothing like Dwarven Spirits to get the blood pumping.”

“You are unbelievable,” I admonished.

“Don’t look at me like that. They invited us to a party. It would have been one for the ages, and I turned them down.”

“Well golly gee. Thanks for not getting completely hammered before taking the biggest risk of both of our lives.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said without a hint of sarcasm. As he walked ahead of me, I noticed a familiar stumbling stagger to his gait.

I caught up, trying not to seethe and curse. But I failed at both. Aiden’s soft chuckle did not improve my mood. 

“What was in that drink anyway?” I asked, once my blood cooled from boiling to simmering.

“Heaven,” Aiden said. “Have you heard of Absinth?”

“From France, right? Causes hallucinations?” 

“Only the first time,” Aiden said. “But yeah. It’s like Kool-aid compared to Dwarven Spirits. One hit and I’ll be pleasantly buzzed for the rest of the night.”

“You might want to consider getting into a 12-step program or something.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Forget about it,” I said, moving into an alley. We were a few blocks from the castle. 

I placed my dimensional pocket behind a trash bin and opened it. Once inside, I sealed it. Anyone picking up the bag would see an empty container. We went into my room sectioned off for Thaumaturgy and got to work.

The ritual was fairly straight-forward. We would have to blend our blood with the ethereal pattern of the minotaur. The tricky part would be hiding the ether-burn pattern. Tiny bits of wyther would follow our path. Only highly-skilled mages could sense the trail, but we did not want to take any chances. We would set up a talisman to burn that energy into a layer of protection, making the excess energy far more difficult to see. 

I went first. 

We made the Thaumaturgy circle, and I stood in the center. I placed the minotaur’s hair into a small locket—an arrium designed just for this—and focused my will. I always started with my head for something like this. It hurt the most, so I wanted to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

All the bones in my head cracked as my skull grew. Agony lanced through my neck and back, as my spine compressed and stretched. Every ounce of my will and focus remained on the transformation. I dumped ether into the circle, fueling the power of the ritual. Muscle expanded. Joints elongated. When it was done, I rested on one knee, breathing hard.

I looked up at Aiden. My vision was different, broader. I could see more in my periphery. I stood, moving out of the circle. My body was thick, awkward to move. We’d need some practice before going through the gates. 

“How does it feel?”

“Very weird,” I said. “Your turn.”

“Cool,” Aiden replied. “Moo-ve over.”

“No. Just. Stop.”

“Sure,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. “Won’t udder another word.”

Yep. He didn’t need to worry about the mission. I was going to kill him.

Chapter 20: Change of Plans

It had to be a dream. 

Victoria’s hair was down, crimped and bed-worn. Her face was clean of cosmetics. She looked down at me, an expression of doubt and uncertainty in her eyes. Her grip on my bare shoulder was tender. I’d gone to bed clothed, but I must have lost my shirt sometime in the night. She moved her thumb over my skin in a familiar way. The only light emanated from a pendant she wore, making her face the only thing I could see.

She held a finger to her lips for me to stay quiet and spoke softly. “Artemis is focused elsewhere, so we do not have much time.”

“Time?” I said, still not certain this wasn’t a dream. “Focused elsewhere? Wait. How did you get past our wards?”

“You use the same ones we learned at the academy. It was very easy. But that is not your biggest concern. Or mine. Tomorrow, I am going to betray you.” 

“What the fu—”

I sat up, but she pushed me back on the bed, holding me in place with a hand on my chest. “Just listen. You were right. Most of the time, Artemis is intruding in my thoughts. She controls me almost completely but in subtle ways. Her suggestions are compulsions, like an itch I need to scratch. If I choose not to, she can hurt me or, as you saw today, take over. I want free of her. There is a way for you to defeat her.”

“How can I trust a word you say?”

“I did not have to come here. You’ll understand more tomorrow, but I needed to warn you. Will you hear me out?”

I could feel the heat of her palm on my chest. “Yes.”

“After Artemis gets both artifacts, she—rather I—will set you up to be caught by Theseus and take Aiden to Abigail.”

“We expected some form of treachery,” I admitted. “Aiden and I might not be the strongest mages around, but you cannot possibly hope to defeat us both. We have a few tricks of our own.” I would not tell her about Loki, but he would have a vested interest at this point. If he doesn’t get us back to Earth, he’s thoroughly fucked. Aiden and I would receive a portion of his power. He will not let that happen.

“Artemis knows about Loki,” Victoria said. “She has a way to neutralize him.”

Fuck. I kept a straight face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“There’s no time for that. She knows. He will not be of any help to you.”

“She would implicate herself. We have the document.” 

“Pixies swapped the document out after making the oath. You have a very close copy. When Theseus takes you, there will be no evidence of Artemis ever being involved.” 

That posed a problem. “Still, she signed the oath. If she breaks it, she’s fucked.”

“My blood. My consequences for the failures. Artemis plans to sacrifice me to the oath.”

“But it’s her name on the document. She was there making the pledge.”

“With my body. My voice. Aiden is a fantastic lawyer both in metaphysics and in mortal logic. However, he could never have anticipated the nature of the bond. True, if we are still bonded when I betray you, Artemis would be bound to the document and suffer the consequences. That is why she will sever our bond after she compels me to burn you. I will not be able to stop it. When it’s done, she will be shielded from any backlash. Rather than let you return to Earth, she will sever our bond and sacrifice me for her gain.” 

I could only stare at her. It all made sense now. Artemis’s smugness. It was all misdirection. We always assumed she would try to rob us of our free will. But those are our greatest fears. Artemis just needed us out of the way. We were cogs. No, worse. We were bots, carrying out our programming, and she was the designer. And gods, Victoria would suffer just as badly as we would. Maybe worse.

Meeting her gaze, I saw the fear and hope. She nodded, giving silent acknowledgment of my realization. 

“You see it now?” she said, more statement than question.

“You’ll lose your power. It will break your mind. You could die.”

“And you will be killed as sport in Theseus’s arena. He might compel you to kill me or simply torture you as a spectacle. Artemis gets her second nexus, so do two other gods.”

“Which two?”

“I do not know. Abigail does though. She’s been planning with Artemis, maneuvering for this moment for about 102 years. Your coming here is not by chance. She compelled you in very subtle ways. You and Aiden both. That’s their style. That is what the Gatekeeper sensed. Look for it. You’ll see what I am saying is true.” 

I did not doubt her. “But how?”

“Your TA. Skyler. She’s one of Artemis’s Nymphs. Every time she touched you, tapped your hand or brushed your arm. It wasn’t flirtation. She was laying compulsion patterns.” 

Yep, I’m a fucking idiot. “I never felt a thing.”

“She is quite good. You never had a chance. But you do now. If you make it back to Earth, you’ll find Abigail still in Tallahassee. Once they have their minotaur thralls, they will mount an assault on the Bermuda nexus by taking the lay line. It is in a place they call the gardens. It’s fairly isolated and not overly used. Do you know it?”

“Maclay Gardens. Aye. When?”

“Just after the plague reaches Miami. It will lock down conventional travel for a time.”

“Can you be more specific? What plague?”

“Right now, they are releasing a virus in China. Around the middle of March, the disease will reach Florida. This is a large part of her plan.”

I snorted. “That’s still six months away. That’s plenty of t—”

“No. That’s partly why she had me bring you here. You lost two and half earth-months going through the Antarctic portal. And then every day passing here is just under a month on Earth.”

I started racking my brain to determine exactly how long it’d been. “So, that’s about three and a half months. But, we’ll need through the end of today. Four and half months. It’s already December?”

“Yes. And going back through the Antarctic gate will cost another two and half months.” 

“So, it’ll be February? If we are lucky.”

“Don’t count on being lucky.” 

Could I have been so wrong about the timing? What about El Nina? More misdirection? It didn’t matter at the moment. I shook my head. “I can’t believe I didn’t feel that compulsion. Even now, I want to see Skyler and can’t be upset with her. I can smell her fucking hair.”

“She is a Nymph.” Victoria gave me a sympathetic half-smile. “You cannot second-guess yourself. Especially, not now. You did not look for a compulsion pattern because you were compelled to ignore it.” 

She was right. I could massage my bruised ego later. “Thank you. For coming to me. It was risky.”

“Aye. But necessary. I should get back.”

As she started to go, I grabbed her arm. “Wait. Is that it? I mean, how will you betray me?”

“Artemis hasn’t told me the details yet, but I imagine, she will be controlling my body at the time. She knows I plan to resist. Which is why I do not know more.” 

“And you are certain she cannot see us right now?”

“Yes. She is with the other gods. That’s the only time she cuts me off. The bond goes both ways. When she experiences strong emotions, I get glimpses of what she can sense. Rather than let me see her plans, she mutes the link.”

“What about Abigail? Is she cut off too?”

“She is becoming a demigod. When they take a second nexus, Artemis is gifting her with the control of it. In her name, of course. She is at the meeting, as well as the others who will become demigods.” Firmly but gently, she pulled her arm free. “I must go before they finish their gathering.” 

“Why? Artemis will likely access your memories and see that you spoke to me. Right?”

“She will, but all she’ll find is a blank spot, as she does when I’m sleeping. I set a temporal mind fog to wipe away the last hour. Artemis will not know I was here. But I won’t remember any of this, just the desire to come to you in this way. Neither myself nor Artemis will know if I actually came.”

Despite it all, I smiled. “You were always so gods damned brilliant. And I love you. Always have, always will.”

Her eyes glistened. She gave me the same sad nod she gave at dinner. It was an expression of loss and hope. Her hand moved to my cheek. We sat like that for a time, exploring one another’s souls. I wanted desperately to kiss her, but I could not make myself move. I saw the same desire in her. 

“And I you,” she said, at last. “But I must go. If you save us, we can finish this conversation.”

She removed her hand and backed away before I could object. “Reset your wards. Good luck tomorrow.”

And just like that, she was gone. I sat there, feeling the faint trace of heat on my face from where she’d touched me. My heart raced. My palms were sweaty.

I got out of bed and followed after her. The balcony was ajar, but there was no trace of her. Our wards were still up, except, the energy parted like a curtain where Victoria had come through. Closing the door, I reinforced our defenses with a mind trap. If someone managed to bypass the destructive barriers, they would find a subtle web designed to ensnare their thoughts waiting just inside the outer ward. 

Aiden was asleep on the sofa, holding the schematics loosely in his hands. Stubborn bastard. Deciding it best to let him sleep, I went back into my dimensional pocket, gathered fresh clothes, all warded with defensive spells, as well as my attuning cloak. It was an arrium designed to magnify the effect of an invocation. If our heist devolved to a battle, we’d likely die horribly. But maybe, just maybe, being armed to the teeth would give us a chance to escape. 

I showered and changed, then returned to the sofa. Aiden’s mouth was hanging open with a bit of drool falling from the corner of his mouth. I was tempted to leave him be, but I glanced to the clock. It was 00:07 hour (that’s 12:07 a.m. for you nutters who use a duodecimal—base 12—time model). 

I gave him a gentle shake and stepped way back. He woke up swinging. And cursing. The fog left his eyes, and he focused on me. Readying a snarl, he opened his mouth but stopped. His forehead scrunched up. 

“What’s happened?” he asked.

So I told him, leaving out nothing. The moment I finished he took hold of my head, in both hands. I felt ether and a moment later, wyther. He began cursing. This went on for several minutes. 

“Hmm?” Aiden said.

“What?”

“Tell me about Victoria again.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Anything. Just talk.”

I did as he asked, focusing mostly on my conversation with Victoria tonight. My thoughts drifted to what might happen if I was able to get us out of this mess. How could I return her to good standing with the Collective? 

Then, without warning, I felt a flash of pain, quickly followed be a release of pressure I had not known was there.

“Ow,” I complained. 

“I’m not done. Stop moving. And that cunt Skyler. I knew I hated her for a good reason. Tell me about her.”

“Not much to tell,” I said. Then I told him about how I’d met her. Then the party. “She seemed so innocent and—Fuck!”

Searing pain lanced through my head. My vision waned. Slapping pain stung my cheek. I opened my eyes and glared at Aiden. 

“She was telling the truth,” Aiden said. “It was wyther. Very subtle. Fucking god balls. You betrayed us. All this time. It was you.” 

“We should have checked.”

“I did. When you were sleeping. I missed it. The Nymph who did this is very talented. She laced the neurons around your prefrontal cortex with a compulsory suppression spell. Any time you considered the consequences of your actions regarding Victoria, the spell would activate. At least, that’s what I think it did. But it’s gone now. The second one made you disregard Skyler as a threat. In time, you would have become her thrall.”

I felt a burst of ether, and sensed him add another layer to our wards. 

“That’s not necessary,” I said. “There’s no reason—” 

“The hell it’s not,” he spat. “I’m not taking any chances the harlot won’t come back.”

“No. You were right before. We need—”

“Wait. Wait. Wait. Go back. What was that about me being right? I was right about so many things, you’ll need to elaborate. Which part are you referring to? Coming here being suicide? You being a sucker for a skirt? Rather, all the skirts? Or about moving at dawn?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “I made many mistakes. But you are right about going in sooner, rather than later. But we need to move before dawn. We need to go now.”

“Can’t. Their wards are far superior than ours and backed by arrium.” 

“I have a plan for that.”

“I’m listening,” he said. 

“You are not going to like it.” 

“Expectations managed. Check. What’s the fucking plan?”

“We have to get ahead of Artemis, right? We both agree going when she expects us to is a bad idea.”

“Aye,” he said, voice clipped with impatience. “But I’m not seeing an argument for a better plan.”

“There is a shift change at 01:00 hours,” I said. “We are going to capture two minotaurs before they enter the castle grounds and replace them.” 

“You’re right. I don’t like it. We have to wait ‘til dawn.”

“Artemis knows that is the best play. If we want to get ahead of her, we cannot wait.” 

“It isn’t the best play. It’s the only play. Even if we could nab two minotaurs without being noticed, we still would need to impersonate them. Polymorph isn’t perfect. There will be differences.”

“Aye, but we know their schedules and routines. Once inside, we can make our way to the vault.”

“But not their names or interests, who fucks who or any gossip. The first conversation we attempt will blow our cover.”

“Have you met a minotaur?” I asked. “What about their behavior leads you to believe they are a bunch of chatter boxes?”

“Fine. They probably won’t notice us once we are inside. But we cannot just nick a pair of guards.” I started to speak but he held a hand up. “But I don’t think that is necessary. I’m not saying I agree with this insane plan. But hypothetically, all we need to polymorph is the hair of a minotaur. Any minotaur. Than we can use a glamour to change our appearance to match one of the castle guards. Less messy that way.”

I nodded. And even though I already knew the answer, I asked. “But where are we going to get the hair of a minotaur?”

“The same place they serve the nectar of the gods.”

“Starbucks,” I said with a smile.

“Exactly. We saw a disproportionate number of minotaurs, mostly those in guard uniforms earlier. It won’t be difficult to pluck a few hairs. And we both need coffee.”

“No abduction necessary, but we still move now,” I said, thinking it over. “Yeah. Okay. That works. We do it your way.”

“You sure? I mean. We could do it your way still and die more quickly.”

“I’m agreeing with you, asshat. Are you really still arguing with me?” 

“This was hypothetical, remember? Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing here. You knew polymorph would be more logical than attempting to abduct a pair of ether-immune cow-men. But you wanted me to argue so that I’d think the idea was mine. So who’s the asshat?”

“I’m sorry,” Liam said. “You’re right. But this is the best play.”

“You are sorry. But, you’re also not wrong. Come on. Let’s get some coffee.”

Chapter 19: Art of the Con

Though Aiden had protested, we’d accepted Victoria’s invitation to dine with her in the villa’s swanky restaurant. Aiden had come mostly to keep me from being alone with Victoria. Not that I could blame him. Despite my best efforts, I did not seem capable of logic and reason as far as she was concerned. 

We sat at a round table with a white cloth of silky substance. We were on the fourth and main course of the meal. It smelled like heaven, but the meat was orange and tasted like like a sweet curry with light spices. The ciracorn was red corn. It tasted like yellow corn with a bitter aftertaste. 

Ours was the only table on a balcony overlooking the ocean. Aiden was next to me, while Victoria sat across from us. None of us had spoken much sense the oaths were made. 

Aiden glowered at everything. Victoria looked everywhere except at me. And I could not find any words. I know, shocker. I loathe silence and would rather fill the air with syllables, whether they made sense or not.

I know I should be mad at her for what she’d done to us, for what she’d done to me. But I could not help but to feel pity for her. She tried to play it cool after being possessed by Artemis to do the goddess’s biding, but I could tell the experience had rattled her. She mostly pecked at the food, which was not like her at all. One of the things I loved about her was her voracious appetite for everything, food, learning, adventuring. Everything. Instead of enjoying the exotic meal, she cut off delicate bites and chewed slowly. I had only ever seen her like this when she was scared or nervous. 

Putting aside for a moment the possibility that this was all an elaborate ruse to keep me off-guard, she appeared real in a way she had not been since before. 

This gave me hope that part of her was truly in control. Unless Artemis decided to take over directly, I was more confident Vic could make her own choices. Perhaps she would influence Victoria in other ways, but some of my Vic was still in there. That did not mean I could trust her, by any stretch of the imagination. But it also meant there was some hope that if we could break the bond, Vic would come back to the Collective. And me.

“What is an arcanine, anyway?” Aiden asked forking the tender steak.

“A dog-like species,” Victoria said, “of vicious predators which roam the wilds of Atlantis. They hunt fairies and pixies to feed on their innate magic but also have been known to attack other races for their arcane talents. All attempts of domestication have failed, so they are killed in the wild and served as a delicacy to people with more money than sense.” 

“Not bad,” Aiden said, cutting a second bite. 

“How do you feel?” I asked Victoria. 

“What do you mean?” She asked, a fake smile making its way to her lips. “I’m fine.”

Aiden snorted. “Yeah, I’d be just fine after a god stuck it’s hand up my ass an played me like a puppet too.”

In fact, he’d not been fine after Loki had done just that. I gave Aiden my best scowl. And I said in a gentler tone. “We saw. She took you. And it was obvious when she’d left.”

“As is her right,” she said. “I am her Nymph. Her eyes and ears away from her domain.” 

“That was the first time,” I guessed.

She flicked her head as if to flip her hair, but it was up in a bun. Her old tell. She gave it just before deflecting or in cards, bluffing. “It is the price of the Bond.”

I studied her face, which was blank of emotions. At least she’d dropped the façade. I asked, “Do you not want free of it?” 

“I know what you would say, but save it. You will never be able to use the Soul Breaker on me.” Her eyes became sad. “You are so far in over your head, you can’t see the surface of the waters thrashing above you. Nothing you are planning is going to work the way you’ve planned. Soon, you’ll lose your freedom as well.” 

“Won’t happen,” I said.

“It already has. You just haven’t realized it yet. The gods have been playing this game since the dawn of man. We cannot beat them.”

Aiden pushed his plate forward and threw the cloth napkin on top. He stood. “On that cheery note, we have work to do.” 

I sat, staring at Victoria, who still would not meet my gaze. “You said we.”

She looked up. As our eyes met, my heart fluttered. I could see hope in her eyes. Only for a second, but it had been there. She quickly masked the emotion and said. “Just a figure of speech.”

“I might not be able to beat you at chess, but you can’t beat me at cards. I know you. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. You want out. I knew it.”

“You should go.”

I pushed my chair back from the table. “Aye. Thank you for the meal.”

“Any time,” she said, rising. “Good luck, tomorrow.”

Aiden drew ether and flew off the balcony toward the surf, somehow putting an impatient flourish to his flight. I followed but turned back. Victoria hadn’t moved. She stood, watching me. I paused.

“I need to know something,” I said. “Where have you been this past year?” 

She shook her head. “I cannot tell you.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Does it matter?”

“The other day,” I pressed, “you asked me to join you, saying you were free. But for someone still free, you sure seem to have little control over what happens to you. Or to the people you supposedly care about.”

She closed her eyes. “Please, go.”

“I will. But I need you to know. I forgive you, Victoria. For all of it.”

A tear rolled down her cheek. I wanted to go to her. Hold her. Tell her it would all be all right. But Vic would hate that. She hated people seeing her cry. That tear had cost her. 

Pretending not to see it I said, “I will see you, soon.”

Without another word, I turned and flew after Aiden. We returned to our inn without speaking. Though I could not sense any magic scrying us, I felt eyes upon us. We’d left our balcony unlocked in our suite, so we could return without going through the main lobby. Aiden had tied a red scarf around the doorknob to make it easier to find. 

Once inside, I closed the door and we both constructed wards to prevent scrying and eavesdropping. 

“Gods damn it, Liam,” Aiden said the second the wards closed around us. “She’s playing you. Can’t you see that?”

“She’s not. I know she’s not.” 

“For all you know, that entire act at dinner was Artemis.”

“Why would she do that? We’ve already made the oaths. What else would she have to gain?”

“That is the real question isn’t it? And why do the gods do anything? They are bored from thousands of years of existence, so they fuck with the mortals because what else have they got to do? This isn’t going to end well, you know that, right?”

“If you truly believe that, then why the fuck are we here?” 

“For you, you idiot. I’m here for you. Had I not come, you would have found your way here on your own. And what a mess it would have been. You’d probably already be bonded to Artemis.”

“So you’re my babysitter now? Is that it?”

“Yes, gods damn it. When it comes to her, I am. Just stop for a second. Remember how I was after losing Abigail? You pulled me back from the brink. Let me fucking do the same for you.”

I bit my tongue. I had only half-heard what he’d said over my own anger and frustration. It took a few seconds of listening to my racing heart for his words to register. Gods damn it. He wasn’t wrong. 

“This is getting nowhere,” I said at last. “We need to focus.”

Aiden gave a frustrated sound, somewhere between exasperation and disgust. He grabbed the folder from an inner pocket and dropped it on the bar.

We poured ourselves another drink, and then we made our plans. Both of us worked better with a bit of anger and pressure. Don’t look at me like that, it’s an Irish thing. 

We spent hours poring over the schematics of Theseus’s fortress. And by fortress, I mean Fort Knox is less guarded than this compound. In addition to stationed guards—all battle minotaurs with anti-magic protective gear—patrols were randomly assigned. We never intended to go in spells blazing, but fighting would not be an option. Our plans required subtlety of the highest calibre. 

We both fixed our dimensional pockets to a wall and spent some time gathering the gear we would need for a chance to survive a hasty exit, you know … assuming we could make it inside. 

In our oaths, we gave ourselves one Earth-week to get the arrium to Artemis—not after one week passes on Earth but after a total of 168 hours pass from our perspectives. This is an important detail, because for all we knew a day here was a week on Earth. Rather than take chances on a technicality, we’d stipulated a timeframe in the oath. Of course, we would not need this long. 

By the end of the day tomorrow, we would have the artifacts and be halfway back home, or we’d be caught and killed. 

“Hello?” Aiden asked. “Are you listening?”

“No. Sorry. I can’t focus. I need a break.”

“We don’t have time for a break. Just before dawn tomorrow, we move.”

“I’m still not sold on the timing,” I said, glancing out at the evening sky. It would be dark in a few hours. “I need real sleep. Ether-fog is starting to kick in. We should get some rest and think on it after we rest. Maybe take tonight to do a fly about.”

“Too risky. If someone sees us casing the place, we could be stopped and questioned. And we have everything in these schematics. Seeing it won’t change anything.”

“It will let us know if we can trust any of this. What if Artemis wants us to be caught? Victoria seemed certain we would not get the Soul Breaker. And did you see her face after we made the oath?” 

Aiden frowned. “The document clearly stated that speaking to authorities about the heist would result in an immediate failure to uphold our agreement, and to the best of the signatory’s knowledge, the owner of the artifact is unaware of our desire to claim it. And she swears to the authenticity of our schematics. If she lied about any of it, we would already be free of the obligation.” 

“It is all true to the best of her knowledge. But Victoria gave us the schematics. Artemis made the oath.”

Aiden opened his mouth and closed it. He started pacing, like he did when he was nervous. That act alone made my own nerves fray a bit more. Aiden was not typically one to worry or have self-doubt. If he was stopping to consider the implications of our oath, perhaps it was not as binding as we had assumed. 

“This is a rabbit hole,” he said at last. “We can second guess our decision at every step, but we are on the hook now regardless of who is fully bound to the oath. Remember, we did not have much of a choice in this. Under the circumstances, I think we got the best deal we could with Artemis and an even better one with Loki.”

“Aye,” I said. “We can only move forward, which means we have to trust these schematics.”

“Either that or try to get our own. But this could not have come cheaply, and I doubt we can do it within the week we gave ourselves.”

“Agreed.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “So we are back to the timing.”

“The wards recycle at twilight,” Aiden said. “So that is the window. We have less than a second to get onto the compound.”

“But we could wait a day and get proper rest.” 

“No. Someone inside Theseus’s influence sold these to Victoria. What if they made copies and sold them to someone else? What if they get cold feet and rat us out? Too many uncontrollable variables. We need to go now.” 

“How many suicidal thieves can there be in Atlantis? I doubt anyone else is foolish enough to attempt something like this.”

“You are thinking like a human. There are far more powerful entities than us who might be interested in the same artifacts. In fact, we should plan on it, so we are not taken off guard.” 

Well, shit, Aiden was right. Rather than admit that, I said. “Fine, but even if that is the case, I need a few hours of sleep. Neither one of us has recovered our burnt ether in days, and I’m fucking exhausted. I want to get home as badly as you do, but if we burn out, we will both die or worse.”

“We haven’t burned that much. Remember the pandemic of 1918? We went weeks without sleep and fought almost daily to push the daimones and keres into Pandora’s jar.”

“The Nosoi are not gods. And we are on Theseus’s domain.”

“No, but it was Artemis and Apollon who loosed them.”

“That had been Artemis,” I said. “I had forgotten that detail. Fuck. What if she is ramping up another plague?” 

“We can’t worry about that right now. Focus. We need to—”

“Gods damn it, Aiden. I told you. I cannot focus. I need a break!”

“Fine. Sleep if you want to, but I’m too wired. We’ve been chugging coffee like water, and I’m too anxious.” He made a shooing gesture. “Go. I’ll keep watch and go over our plans.”

I wanted to argue. He needed rest too, but by the set of his jaw, I would just waste the time I could be sleeping. So, I went into the room and into my dimensional pocket. Sleeping in my own bed would be better than the inn’s. Besides, who knew what kind of crazy bedbugs existed in this realm? And I didn’t want to find out.

Not bothering to undress, I plopped down onto my bed. I’m not sure I was still conscious when my head struck the pillow. 

What felt like seconds later, I startled awake. A figure hovered over me, a hand on my shoulder. I opened my mouth to curse Aiden for waking me but stopped when I smelled lavender. 

It was not Aiden standing over me. 

Chapter 18: Favorable Terms

Do you ever take the time to read the fine print on any app downloads? How ‘bout when you buy a car or house? Most of us just allow the representative to explain what each section is saying and trust in their word. Aiden is not one of those people. He reads every byline twice, looking for loopholes. 

He has been a solicitor and lawyer for well over a century, so he drafted our oath with the occasional input from yours truly. 

First and foremost, we covered our own asses. We would harbor Loki for 31 days, so long as he agreed to remain enclosed in the location of our choosing. Interfering with our business in any way would result in a violation of our oaths, and he would experience the entirety of the repercussions outlined in the section titled Illegal Termination Clause

In exchange for our mule services, he would secure a Finder Ship for us, along with safe transport to Earth. We intentionally left Victoria’s name off the agreement. In the end, we did not care who got us home, only that they did. Also, we did not want in writing the fact that we planned to take Victoria’s vessel. That would be illegal. 

Once we finished, we copied much of the agreement for our oath to Victoria. Likewise, she would procure passage to Earth. But both Loki and Victoria will not be able to carry us back across Fae. No matter what, one of the two would fail to meet the obligations in the agreement. So long as one did not exchange notes with the other regarding the oaths, we would be able to burn one of them. 

For Victoria, it was much more difficult filling in the Services Rendered section. After all, we could not say, “stealing the heart of the minotaur from Theseus” and leave the document for just anyone to find. Instead, it spoke of acquiring a valuable artifact, known to both parties and spoken at the binding. This was not unheard of when creating an oath. 

“Take that, bitches,” Aiden said, writing the last line. “Finally, we are getting ahead on something.”

“I wouldn’t say that. We still have to steal the artifacts and get out.” 

“Right,” he said, deflating somewhat. “But this way, we can take someone down with us. This proves Victoria is a co-conspirator. And Artemis. She’ll be as much on the hook as the rest of us.”

“And we will have it in writing,” I said. 

He frowned.

“What?”

“Why do I get the feeling something is going to go horribly wrong and that she has somehow already considered everything we are saying?”

My frown mirrored his. I sighed. “Likely, she has. But she likely has not considered Lo—uh … you know who’s working with us.”

“Agreed.”

“Are you ready to call him?”

He inhaled deeply, finished his wine in a single gulp, then nodded. “Do it.”

I dropped our sound shield and said, “Loki is a bitch.” 

A white glove appeared and slapped limply across my cheek, followed by the rest of Loki. He held the glove in front of my nose. “And don’t you forget it, girlfriend.” 

He had changed into a purple doublet with no sleeves and wore tight-fitted white leather trousers. He sauntered over to the bar and helped himself to a glass of rosé. Raising the glass high, he said, “Here’s to escaping Atlantis.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Aiden said, pouring himself some more. He tipped the bottle toward me with an raised eyebrow.

I shook my head. “One of us needs to keep a level head.”

Loki blew out his lips, spittle flying. “Fun-killer.”

Aiden frowned and put his glass on the bar, untouched. “Right. Business first.” He pushed our draft toward Loki.

The trickster god picked it up with a smirk. “How adorable.” He dropped it back on the bar and flourished his wrist. A volume thicker than War and Peace appeared in his hand. He slapped it down in front of me with a thwack. “This is our working draft.”

“Not a chance,” Aiden said. “I will go to Theseus myself and confess before glancing at that. It’s our draft or we walk.”

Loki’s smirk faltered. 

“The way we see it,” I said, confidently. “You need us as much as we need you. Earthlings do not come here often. Those who do are mages and know all about the gods. It could be another century before you get an opportunity to leave. We are your only shot out of here, and you won’t mess that up.” 

Aiden grabbed our draft and plopped it down in front of Loki. “We’ll give you a chance to read over the language and make any addendum you like. We will read over the changes then sign.” 

Loki picked it up, thumbed through it. I felt ether flash as he glanced over the pages. His tone became more businesslike. “This is acceptable with one alteration.” 

“Which part?” Aiden asked.

He flipped to the page and said, “Under Illegal Termination Clause, you must include the word intentionally right here.” 

“The Passenger will not intentionally interfere with the Service Providers or their business in any way,” Aiden read, adding the change. He frowned, thinking. Finally, he shook his head. “Leaves too much to interpretation. You could honor the letter and not the spirit.”

“Oh?” Loki asked. “How so?”

“If your intentions are to further your own goals, this entire line is moot. You could push your own agenda and still not intentionally interfere with out goals while still fucking us six ways from Sunday.”

“Only if you let me, darlin’,” he said with a wink. “But I won’t sign it without the change.”

“Fine, but I am adding a line that says ‘Will not take actions which might knowingly harm the Service Providers, their duties as members of the Collective, or their attempts to preserve the safety and well-being of others.’ Agree to that, and we take the oath.” 

Loki fluttered his eye lashes. “I take it back. You are the fun-killer. But we have an accord.” 

Aiden pulled in ether and modified the language. We all read over the pages again, closed it, then sealed the pages with a bond of ether. No alterations could be made without the others noticing.

“You start,” I told Loki.

He shrugged a shoulder. Taking out a knife, he sliced the skin of his palm, making a thin red line. Holding it over the pages, he intoned, “By my essence and my blood, I bind myself to these words.” As he closed his fingers into a fist, crimson drops spattered onto the page. He repeated the oath, pouring ether into the red pool atop the page.

It sunk into the document. The pages glowed. He stepped back from the document, cheeks slightly piqued. Aiden and I spoke the words next, cutting our palms and spreading our blood atop the document. We both spent the ether to bind ourselves to the oath. 

When the binding settled over me, I felt a weight impossible to carry. I stumbled, holding onto the bar to keep from falling. Aiden staggered but stayed upright by grabbing my arm. After a few moments, the heavy feeling passed. 

Before I could grab the oath, Loki plucked it from the bar. “I’ll hold onto this.”

“We are the service providers,” Aiden argued. “Traditionally, we are the ones to carry the oath.”

“I loathe tradition. Besides, this has potentially incriminating evidence. I’ll keep it until the services are rendered.” Before we could raise further objections, wyther and ether surged, and the document vanished.

“Gods damn it,” Aiden said. “Fine. It’s done anyway. Go fulfill your part. Liam and I still have work to do.”

“As you wish.” Loki flourished his hand into a deep curtsey, vanishing before his eyes dipped too low to see us.

“Insufferable prick,” Aiden spat. “Let’s find Victoria and get this over with.”

We made our way back to the hover crafts and paid for a trip to the Lady’s Villa. They carried us a few blocks over to a single mansion overlooking the bay. 

The style was late Victorian—which had always been Vic’s favorite—somewhere between Queen Anne with a dominate front-facing gable and loose goth with three asymmetrical towers. The main structure was off-white with crimson slate tiling the roof. In front was a colorful garden that complemented the mansion rather than pull the focus. 

There was no place to return the flying Segways, so we parked them on the sidewalk in front the garden. The disembodied voice asked, “Would you like to pay a docking fee while I wait for your return?”

“No,” Aiden said. “We can fly ourselves back up the beach.”

“Thank you for choosing the Tinkers Guild. Good bye.”

The hover crafts took to the air, speeding away from us. Before we could take two steps, a team of minotaurs were rushing toward us, all armed with medieval weapons, swords, axes, and even a halberd. 

The lead minotaur stopped just short of us. His nose was flat, like a pug with round saucers for eyes. He slammed the butt of his halberd on the ground and said, “This is private property. Leave at once.”

“Can’t,” I said. “We have bus—”

“This is your last chance to remove yourselves.”

“What is your name?” I asked. 

“That is not your concern. If you do not leave of your own accord, we will assist you.”

“Fine,” I said with a shrug. “I’m sure Victoria won’t hold it against you when I tell her how you treated her guests.”

His eyes became even wider. He spoke with immense confusion. “Mistress Deletante invited you?”

“Yep,” I said. “And you are in our way.”

He turned to the other guards and spoke in a language I did not know. One of the guards ran off. The lead guard turned to me and said, “Wait here.”

Several minutes later the guard returned at a run. Out of breath, he whispered into the lead minotaur’s floppy ear, who nodded. When he turned back to Aiden and me, his expression was more subdued. 

He gestured toward the cobbled path. “This way if you please.”

I could see the mischievousness in Aiden’s eyes. He hates bullies even more than I do. This guard found a rat in his garden that turned out to be a rare gerbil. Okay, maybe not the best metaphor, but I haven’t slept in a few days. Give me a break. The point is, I didn’t want Aiden starting a fight just to show he wasn’t a pushover. As he opened his mouth to speak, I stepped in front of Aiden, effectively upstaging him by blocking his view of the minotaur. 

“Please,” I said to the guard. “After you.”

“Asshole,” Aiden whispered in my ear. 

I smiled and kept walking. The rest of the minotaurs flanked us. I felt more like herded cattle than an escorted guest, but I left that thought unsaid. From what I understand, minotaurs are a bit touchy about how Earth treats cows. 

They led us around a maze of hedges, covered in flowers of every imaginable color, patterned to create a mural of people in fine clothing. There was a subtle energy of the ether required to sustain the flowers in bloom. Looking more closely, I realized the smooth stones beneath the bushes were arrium. No wonder the guards shooed off people wandering near. Nothing spoke of wealth like leaving magical artifacts literally laying about.

The green maze opened to a patio of dark marble, polished enough that I could see my reflection. Gods, did I need a bath. And a rest. Both of those needed to happen before we hit Theseus. The walkway wound around a coy pond with lily pads. Small fairy-like creatures zipped above the waters, pulling weeds and leaves from the water’s surface. Their wings fluttered swiftly like hummingbirds, glittery dust flying from behind them. Each wore maid’s dresses with low cut bodices. No head color was the same, but they all had their hair up in a floppy bun, bobbing about as they worked.

Beneath the clear waters, I could see merfolk—mermaids and mermen—swimming between underwater buildings. They were even smaller than the fairies. I had read merfolk would grow to match their environment. It took an ocean-sized habitat for them to grow to the size of humans. The pond was no more than twenty meters across, and they shared the space with a multitude of fish and other aquatic creatures.

The minotaurs marched by as though the tiny habitat did not exist, oblivious of the beautiful fairies diligently cleaning the space. They escorted us to double-doors made of glass, propped open. Inside was a common room with old Victorian style furnishings. A grand sofa of dark wood and plush white pillows was the centerpiece. The frame was gilded with platinum scrollwork. Crimson throw pillows decorated the corners. In front of it was a coffee table with matching wood and design. Two chairs on either side mirrored one another to complete the set. 

A woman of angelic beauty stood behind the sofa, white wings bound to her back. She wore a red dress, tight around her chest down to her thighs but loose about her knees. Gods, did she fly to work? Talk about distracting drivers.

“Greetings,” she said with a voice that sent shivers down my spine. “Victoria is expecting you. Would you like any refreshments while you wait for her to receive you?”

In my periphery, I could see Aiden gaping at the seraph—at least that’s what I thought she was— and I wondered briefly if I looked so entranced. Closing my mouth to avoid drooling, I decided I’d rather not know the answer.

“Thank you,” I said, voice squeaking more than I would have liked. Clearing my throat I added, “I would love some coffee. And maybe a pastry.” 

She nodded to a servant I had not seen before. It was a goblin. She was no more than 3 feet tall, with dark beady eyes and green skin. Call me xenophobic, but she was too adorable to be sexy, even though I am certain that’s what the girl’s red dress was designed to be. No. She wasn’t really a girl. I know she was a fully grown female goblin, but she looked like a kid with green skin playing dress up to my barbaric, human mind. 

The goblin curtseyed then bounded down the hall, disappearing through a double-hinged door. The seraph turned to us, gesturing to the sofa. “Please, make yourselves comfortable. If you need anything else, please do let me know. I am Charmeine.”

I turned to see the minotaurs had dispersed. Only one remained, standing by the entrance. He’d adopted a bored expression, while pretending not to watch us. Even though he looked straight ahead, I felt his awareness on us. 

Apparently, Aiden noticed as well, because he said, “I would love a hamburger. And some chips.”

The minotaur’s head swiveled and he frowned. But to his credit, he only glared at Aiden. 

“My apologies, but we do not serve the flesh of sentient beings in this establishment. I can, however, offer you a delightful arcanine flank with a side of basted ciracorn and peas. ” 

“Peas, eh? As in the green ones?”

“Imported from Earth Seven.” She smiled. But I sensed irritation in the expression. “Would you like to make a reservation in our dining hall?”

“No need,” a woman’s voice said. “I just made reservations for us.”

Victoria entered from the other hall and stopped just inside, resting one hand on the mantle of a grandiose fireplace made of pearl with ruby veins cutting across. A giant framed mirror rested on the wall above. Once more I could see myself. Dear gods, I would groom myself as soon as humanly possible. My facial hair was far too long to be called stubble but far too short to be considered a beard. Though I went for the out-of-bed look on most days, I appeared more like a crawled-out-of-an-alley sort of bum at the moment. 

Of course, Victoria was stunning. She wore a green gown with a diamond cut down the center, just enough fabric to cover her but leaving very little to the imagination. She stood posed, half-turned so I could see her back, which was bare to the waist, where her dress was loose. Her hair was intwined with silver lace into an intricate braid, forming a circlet around her head. It came together in the back, held in place by a sparkling butterfly. The wings flapped when she moved.

Her saunter made cats look graceless. She came to within two feet of me and stopped. A barest hint of mascara and eyeliner was all the cosmetics she wore, but her cheeks were still flush as she studied me. 

“Right,” Aiden said. “That outfit is utterly ridiculous. We know what you are doing. Tell her Liam.”

My mouth was dry. After working moisture back into my tongue, I said, “Um. Yeah. We know. Won’t work.”

Look out Cicero, I’m gunning for your title as most famous orator in all of history.

Victoria laughed. A full belly laugh. Aside from being musical, the motion did the most interesting things to the front of her dress. And though we’d been intimate, that had been a long time ago, before I thought she’d been brutally murdered.

“What?” she said, perfect imitation of innocence. “This is my favorite summer gown and is appropriate for my plans this evening.”

“Plans?” I asked. “You have plans?”

“I do,” she said. “Our reservations, remember? I just mentioned it.”

“Right. Yes. I remember.”

“Shall we?” She said, gesturing back down the hall she’d entered. “I booked a private business room to discuss our oaths.” 

We followed her down the broad corridor and passed a room with marble perches, coming out of the walls like branches. Only one was occupied, a red-skinned man with black wings. Dark horns protruded from his temples and curled around like a ram around his head, coming to sharp points. He wore a suit and tie but no shoes. His talons gripped the marble branch. He held a magazine in one hand and coffee in the other. 

Beneath the branches was a clear pool, where two children—smaller versions of the perched man—played. They flew out of the water and splashed into it. Steam rose from their skin and the top of the water where they touched it. The man’s awareness settled on me. I felt the weight of his annoyed gaze and snapped my eyes back on the hall. 

Victoria stopped at the last door on the right. It was propped open. Inside looked like any board room I’d ever visited with the exception of the outer wall, which was made of glass, giving us a view of the private beach. It was virtually empty, save for a few gnolls down by the water. 

“Gentlemen,” Victoria said, taking the executive chair at the table’s head. “Please, have a seat.” 

I sat three chairs down from her. Aiden took the chair to my right, placing himself between Victoria and me. He pulled out our document and slid it up the table toward her. She smirked then read it much in the same fashion as Loki had, slowing at the section which discussed the consequence for failure. 

“Upon failure, Primary Party—who you have listed as Artemis—will relinquish any and all claim to her nexus to the Collective.” Victoria looked up at me after she finished reading. “Really? Why would Artemis agree to that. And if she would, do you expect me to call Artemis to create a blood oath with you? She’s a god and has far too muc—” 

“She is watching us now,” I cut in without raising my voice. I kept my tone neutral. “Or do you deny that she is seeing through your eyes?” 

Victoria simply stared at me, but it was not her expression of irritation I saw. It was far too impatient for the Vic I knew. 

“Our actions,” I continued, speaking to Artemis rather than Victoria, “are the most important aspect of your plans on Earth. You need us more than we need you. After all, though not ideal, we can survive here in Atlantis for a while. Eventually, the Collective will come for us. And messengers will carry our plight to them. We are not without means. Likewise, we can hire a solicitor to represent us against any accusations you level against us. However, you, are on a time crunch.”

“Why would you say that?” she said. The voice was Victoria’s but that tone was not. I did not know the person looking back at me. Loki had commanded Aiden and I like puppets. What Artemis did to Victoria was far more sadistic. She wore the love of my life like a suit. And there was shit-all I could do about it. In fact, if Artemis decided to smite us here in this semi-private place, there was nothing we could do to stop her, which made what I was about to say a huge gamble. 

I swallowed and wet my lips. “Poseidon’s seat of power waxes and wanes based on currents and weather. La Nina is ramping up and will peak around November. You won’t be able to take his seat after that, because he will build up power from the movement of that energy. It will be another year before that power wanes. The new pantheon wants to act sooner than that. If you wish to be included in their coup, you have to act now. Aiden and I don’t. In fact, one might say, our duty is to run to Theseus and tell him all about your plans. After all, that would be in the best interest of the Collective.”

Victoria’s face was emotionless. She studied my face for what felt like minutes. I pushed every ounce of will into maintaining a similar stony resolve. I could not speak first or break the gaze. If Artemis sensed weakness, this would be over. I do not know how I knew this to be true, but I do not doubt for a moment, she would obliterate us if she believed we would hinder her goals or thought us too weak to carry out her needs. 

And maybe there was an Allfather, Allmother, or some other all powerful being out there who gave two shits about me.

Because the goblin came in, carrying my coffee and a red danish on a plate. Victoria’s gaze snapped to the inn servant and she said, “Close the door on your way out. We are not to be disturbed for the remainder of our meeting.”

“Thank you so much,” I said as she placed the coffee and pastry in front of me and scurried out. 

Victoria’s glare did not have as much weight as it had before. “I will agree to your terms; however, I will add a caveat to this section. If you fail to meet my obligations, you will bind yourselves to the deity of my choosing.”

Believe it or not, we’d considered this a possibility. And it didn’t matter because we already planned to burn her. Not only would we get the artifact necessary to free Victoria, we would knock Artemis from her seat of power and gain an arrium that would help other people and better protect the Collective and Earth for centuries. 

I tried not to let the excitement show on my face as I asked, “Are we ready to do this?”

We stood for the oaths. Artemis—in her Victoria suit—reached out her hand and used ether to draw a cut across her palm. She spoke the words. Aiden and I quickly followed, naming the artifact we would recover as the heart of the minotaur, currently owned and possessed by Theseus. 

After we finished the oaths, Aiden snatched the document and held it close to his body. Victoria’s smile twisted into a self-satisfied sneer, as if it didn’t matter. But I could tell it was not an act. Like us, she had ulterior motives for making this oath. My confidence faltered. I feel like that moment in Texas Hold’em, where I’ve gone all-in and my opponent calls and pushes her chips in. That flutter in the chest where you wonder if you miscalculated is the best and worst feeling you can feel. In the next few seconds, you would find out if you were the biggest winner or the biggest loser at the table.

Only, no cards would be revealed today. We placed the stakes on the table, and now we played for it. Dear gods, what the fuck did we do? 

“Excellent,” she said, smile becoming arrogant. “We will speak again very soon, little ones. So very soon.”

The expression vanished. Victoria looked down at her body, which was standing now. She blinked a few times, confusion clear in her eyes. Biting her lower lip, she looked off to the distance as if listening intently to someone only she could see and hear. She nodded and turned back to me, lips tight in an obviously fake smile. 

“That wasn’t so bad,” she said, but her voice shook and fingers trembled as she gestured to the document in Aiden’s hand. “We came to an accord.”

“Aye,” I said, voice also trembling. “It’s done. There’s no turning back now.” 

Dear gods, there was no turning back. We had to rob a powerful force without getting our heads lobbed off. If we failed and somehow survived, Artemis would own us.