The alarm clock buzzed, you know the one. It sounded as though World War Next had begun and if I did not get out of bed immediately, my life, maybe even the world would end.
I hit snooze, of course.
The next I knew, the sun was properly up. I looked at the red digits on the old black alarm on my side table, which read: 8:45 A.M.
“Damn you, Loki,” I said, climbing out of bed.
Not that I blamed him for the time I needed to get up, but of all the gods, Loki is my favorite to curse. He is the only well-known deity not holding a seat of power on earth, meaning he cannot actually smite me for my insolence. That, and his acolytes are jerks, always messing with people for the joy of it. Who better to curse than a grade-A asshole who cannot retaliate? Somehow I knew, the trickster part of Loki’s persona would actually love this reasoning.
I stumbled into the bathroom still cursing, working on this era’s slang. The last time I’d gone to university, everyone still wore suit jackets to class. I’d started studying physics when Einstein wrote Special Relativity and ended when he produced General Relativity. For those of you bored by science, that was roughly an eight year period in the early twentieth century. I had been on a break then too.
Showering quickly, I mussed my hair with a towel, doing my best to make it look as though I had not showered. According to a google search, that was what the kids did these days.
Fuck. I can’t talk like that. As far as the world is concerned, I am a twenty-five year old boy, whose brain just finished cooking or would soon. The same is true for every ethermage. Working with ether keeps you from aging beyond your peek physical form.
I can still die. But it’s really damn hard to kill me.
My name is Liamorandus Fianna, but I go by Liam Walsh now. I’m two hundred eleven years old, give or take fortnight. At the time of my birth, my parents still adhered to the Julian calendar out of spite to British Empire, so I am not certain of my exact birthday in the Gregorian sense. But I digress.
Ether is the primordial substance from which all matter and energy is formed. Physics calls these particles by various names, but modern scientists are unable to achieve what ethermages can by will, focus, and an assload (or is it shitload?) of discipline. Magic is a dying art, but you can still see some at work in the world if you look closely. From a parent sensing their baby’s angst across vast distances to a grandma lifting a car from atop an injured child, ether is internalized and burnt. This sort of use of ether is called intuited magic and is largely employed by animals and people in great need or distress. Those of us fortunate enough to have received the proper training can harness these energies at will and do so liberally.
My phone rang as I finished pulling on my trousers and stepping into my thongs. No damn it, they are called flip-flops now. I ran to the bar in the kitchen and sighed when I saw Aiden’s name on the screen. I slid the bar to answer.
“For the last time,” I said, putting him on speaker. “I am not coming back to the Collective. Not for a while. I—”
“Just fucking listen,” he said. “Where are you?”
“My house in Tallahassee,” I said, pulling on a Star Wars shirt.
“That’s the United States, right? Florida? Why the hell are you there?”
“Yes, Florida. I needed a change. You know that.”
“Stay there. I’m in Amsterdam, so I’ll be at yours in half an hour. Just stay put.”
“No,” I said. “I am going to the university. I have class. And I’ve told you a dozen times. I’m out for a while. The Collective can keep the world together without me for now.”
“After you hear what I have to say, you’ll change your mind.”
“I doubt that, but you have thirty seconds. You have until I finish brushing my teeth.”
“Not on the phone. I can’t risk it.”
“Nice theatrics,” I tried to say, which sounded more like, “Naw he a hicks.”
So I was impressed when Aiden replied. “This is not theatre. She might have a trace spell on your phone.”
Spitting out my used toothpaste, I asked, “Who? Abigail?”
“Not on the phone. Just wait there.”
Before I could object, Aiden hung up. It took the time for me to rinse my mouth out to decide, he was full of shit. This was not the first time he’d tried to con me back into the Collective, an ancient group of mages who take it upon themselves to keep hell from rising, heaven from falling, and to prevent mayhem from people and creatures with powers and abilities beyond the normal scope of what we consider “human.”
In short, we kick ass and take names, then we get together and laugh about it. All mages work in pairs. And as it just so happened, for the first time in over a century, Aiden and I are both without partners. But I’m not working right now. Call it burnout. Call it a mid-millennium crisis. Whatever it is, I lost someone dear to me to the Eternal War. The fight can go on without me for a time. Something tells me it’ll all still be around after I get another doctorate.
Shoving my phone in my pocket, I ran out the door into my back garden—you call them yards here in the states, which is also a unit of measurement. It’s weird. But anyway. The fence was tall, and I had grown shrubs up high enough to add as much cover as possible without looking overly suspicious, making the space around my house as private as Midtown Tallahassee could offer. I have no desire to have police poking around my basement. No fresh bodies, but human skulls and bones from last century are difficult to explain away and people tend to freak out when they discover them.
I walked toward the Live Oak tree at the center of the yard, drawing in a good amount of ether from the air around me. Energy infused my core. I used the colossal tree to hide myself from my neighbor’s bedroom window, which annoyingly overlooked my yard.
Crouching behind my shrubs, I muttered a few Gaelic words to aid my focus and felt the power release from my core. The space around my body inverted, making me invisible to those outside my dome. Pulling more energy from the air, I shaped ether to lighten my body. I knelt in the superman pose. That never gets old. And I leapt into the sky. Tucking my toes to avoid losing my thongs—eh, flip-flops—I flew over the suburbs and followed Tennessee Street to the campus.
I landed behind Carother’s Hall and dropped my hold on the ether. In the books you read, spells and incantations always have negative side-effects. Reality is no different. I can only funnel so much ether into my body at one time without the risk of frying myself. Think of it like fraying a wire inside an ethernet cable. Sure, it might still send information but far slower than when you pulled it from the package. Fray it enough, and the wire will snap. Likewise, mages can only handle so much ether at a time.
But—keeping with the metaphor—while most mages are dial-up, I am a T1 dedicated line. All of us are limited, but I can burn through far more ether than most. There are ways to bolster one’s threshold for etherburn, but only marginally. The aid of etherfused focal objects, called arrium, allows a mage to use less energy for a spell. Using focus words, which are different for every mage, will also help to narrow the amount of ether burn.
The strongest amongst us can still handle far less ether than bounded mages—those unfortunate souls who bind themselves to a deity or demigod in exchange for exponentially more power. But at a huge cost. Like most forces in the universe, ether has an opposite—a pull to its push. When ether is burned, a residue is left behind called wyther. A very desperate mage can draw wyther for destructive purposes, but it eats away at their lifeforce, chopping years away like hacking at a redwood tree with an icepick. It happens slowly, but it cannot be repaired, even with ether.
Bounded mages do not share this burden, instead funneling the negative energy to their bonded source. In exchange for this incredible power, bounded mages must serve their chosen deity or pantheon for life. Their purposes are all the same, win seats of power, nexuses around the world where ley lines cross. Just like the ocean, ether runs in currents.
It is the business of the Collective to maintain balance on earth, which requires us to hunt down bounded mages and thwart the gods. You know, simple stuff mostly. But that isn’t my problem right now. I’m just a student. Just an ordinary person doing ordinary things.
A bell gonged somewhere across campus.
“Fuck Loki in the eye socket,” I said, walking out from behind the building. I was uncertain if that was the first or second bell. I hate being late. I also love sleep. So sleeping until the last possible second is a must, but so is efficiency. I cannot both sleep in and dally. After centuries of the same internal struggle, I will likely continue to torture myself with truancy for the foreseeable future. I understand this on an intellectual level.
I mussed my already wind-blown hair to some degree of ordered chaos. I was going to need to invest in a helmet. I jogged across the teacher’s parking lot into the Love building. The place smelled like a morgue, a tinge of formaldehyde mixed with lingering mold. The negative energy was palpable. Drawing ether here would fowl up my mood for an hour. Made sense, I guess. After all, this is the place where all the students go when their dreams die, the mathematics building.
A girl stepped up beside me as I hit the button to the elevator. She was short with pale skin and dark hair. She flicked her loose hair over her and smiled at me.
“First day,” she said, sucking in a breath. “So exciting.”
“Meh,” I said. “I guess.”
After all, this would be my sixth university degree, but I couldn’t tell her that without being bombarded with difficult questions.
“Such enthusiasm,” she said, smile even brighter. “I take it you are not a math major, eh?”
“Not exactly. I want to study VFX and programming. Need lots of maths for it.”
“Oh,” she said, perking up. “You are from Scotland?”
“How dare you?” I said in mock offense. “I’m from Ireland.”
“I guessed as much. Just wanted to see if you have a sense of humor.”
She smiled. “Maybe. I’ll let you know.”
Ah fuck. She is flirting with you, dumb ass. How do I handle this? I’ve dated innocents before, but never someone whose brain’s not done. The prefrontal cortex—part of the brain responsible for logic and reason—is not fully formed until the age of twenty-five. Even then, it never ends well to mingle with the mortals.
“What’s with this elevator?” I asked, pushing the up button a few more times.
“It’s usually pretty fast,” she said, smile fading. “Likely, someone is holding it open to have a conversation. Math professors here are notorious for that.”
“Maybe we should—”
“Wait. Hear that? It’s coming.”
Before I could take the next step, the doors opened.
I felt as though I was entering a spaceship. The shiny, metal walls with red and blue lights looked out of place in the hundred year old building. I pushed the button for the top floor. Seconds later the doors opened.
“Wow. That was fast.”
“Yep,” she said. “Which classroom?”
“Two hundred One.”
“Well, this will be an interesting semester,” she said with a smirk.
“Why is that?”
She stopped just in front of the room. “I’m the TA for this class. I’m your tea—”
Her lips froze as she took her first step into the room.
“Fuck,” I said.
Few ethermages could summon the juice for a time bubble of this size. The epicenter of the spell was coming from the front of the classroom. My classroom. This could not be a coincidence. If the TA had not gone in front of me, I would be trapped by the time delay. Pulling in ether, I surrounded myself in an ethershield and stepped across the threshold.
Inside, the other students stood frozen like the Improv Everywhere group. Only, these people would not break into theatre. A woman stood at the front of the room. She raised her hands and slow-clapped as I entered.
She wore a pink shirt with “Love” written in rainbow glitter on the front and light blue yoga pants like many of the students wore, emphasizing her athletic build. Her long hair shone red in the light of the open windows, which covered the wall of the room opposite the door. Her blue eyes danced as she drew a sword from thin air. Emerald glyphs sparkled at the hilt and along the blade.
Fuck Loki, Aiden had been telling the truth.
“Hello, Liam. What took you?”
“Abigail,” I breathed.
Then I pulled in as much ether as I could hold and prepared to fight for my life.