Chapter 2: Welcome Back

Abigail lifted her hands up in surrender, “Why the hostile face? I just want to talk.”

“You killed Victoria,” he said, pivoting toward the door. “There is nothing to talk about.”

She blinked in genuine surprise. “Have you not heard?”

“Heard what?” I said, trying to push aside sudden doubts.

“You really have stepped away from the Collective. She was right.”

“Who was right?”

“Vicky is alive,” she said, “She has joined me.”

“I saw her die.”

“Did you?”

“You stabbed her in the chest. She was ripped into a wyther rift. I saw the darkness take her.”

“It was just a portal. I healed the wound.”

“Lies.”

“Join us, Liamor. This world is about to change. You can be a part of it.”

Here we go, the predictable Join us or die moment.

“I thought Artemis hated men. Am I to be the one exception?”

“You cannot be a Nymph or Demigod, but she always needs more hunters. Still, you will hold far more power than ever before. She is a force of good and is loyal to those who serve her.”

I gave an obviously fake smile and spoke in an equally bogus tone of enamored awe. “Of course. I will set aside all of my morals for the power you are freely offering and bind my eternity to Artemis the wise and just goddess of all that is good in the world.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You will not mock my goddess. Do so again and our conversation will come to an abrupt and violent end.”

“You see, I can’t tell. Is that threat from you or her?”

“I still have all of my mental faculties. You have been lied to, Liamorandus. Binding yourself to my goddess will not leave you a witless automaton. It does not work that way.”

“Said the witless automaton.” Before she could retort, I asked, “Tell me. If you were being controlled, how would you even know? She can alter your perception of reality and supplant thoughts in your mind. How can you sort through which ideas are your own and not hers?”

“I know when she is speaking to me. I can feel her presence.”

“Or so you believe. She has the power to silently pull your strings with you being none the wiser.”

“She would not do that. It is not her way.”

“Right, well. It seems we are at an impasse because I’m not willing to take that chance. So can we get on with this? I’d like to get back to pretending to be a college student.”

Abigail sighed. “You know I cannot allow that. You’ve likely deduced why I am here. I cannot have you running back to the Collective, now can I?”

I could see in her eyes, truce talks were done, and I knew Abigail would not care about collateral damage. Her time bubble had failed to capture me. She could not sway me to join her. All these people were in imminent danger. The loss of innocent life would not deter her. Worst of all, I was not likely to defeat her alone. I needed to get her away from here. Then, by Loki, I needed to find a way to lose her.

How the fuck did she know I would be here?

No, gods damn it. I needed to focus. I could worry about that detail later. The runes on her blade irradiated with energy. I leapt back through the doorway and ran toward the stairwell.

“Gaeta,” I snarled, releasing a burst of ether.

The gathered energy stuck against the wall opening a portal to the outside. Leaping, I glanced back. Abigail was air bound. She soared from the classroom, sword in both hands, eyes now ablaze with energy.

Pulling more ether, I flew toward the portal. The moment I was through, I let the energy collapse. The opening closed, returning to brick and mortar. I knew the wall would not stop her, but I hoped it would give me a few seconds of concealment to escape. No such luck. Abigail did not bother making a hole. The wall crumbled as she ripped through. Part of the roof collapsed, but I could not stop to assess the danger to those inside.

I surged skyward. I felt wyther energy chase me. She rode the trail of burnt ether, gaining speed as she chased. Pulling in more ether, I flung myself to the side. A concussion of wyther hit the space where I’d been. The dark ball imploded, sucking inward from every direction. The force yanked me toward it. I resisted. My body jarred to a stop, but the flip-flops were ripped from my feet. They hit the center of the dark hole and vanished in a puff of brown dust.

“Gods damn it!” I yelled. “I just bought those.”

The maelstrom was too strong. I could not fly away. Below me, Abigail kept her distance. I could see her smile. She floated in place, maintaining the vortex. Likely, I could not outlast her. If I diverted any ether away from my fly spell, I would be sucked into oblivion. My hip buzzed. I cursed. Then I realized it was my phone.

Like a dumbass, I pulled it from my pocket. I saw Aiden’s name before the phone was jerked from my grasp and burst into tiny particles.

“I wonder if that is covered under AT&T’s insurance plan.”

Far below, I felt a pulse of thaumaturgy. I did not look down. Instead I shouted, “Is this the best your little goddess can do?” Then I laughed maniacally.

Speaking a deity’s name is the best way to get them to look your way. Normally, this would not matter too much. Their influence is largely perpetuated by their followers. However, Artemis’s head priestess was currently present and trying to kill me. Perhaps, mocking her was not the best strategy, but that would be a worry for Future-Liam’s therapist, if he survived to go to his next session.

Abigail’s expression did not change, but energy crackled along her skin. She moved closer but stayed outside the pull of her implosion vortex. The ether-wyther balance shifted around me. The source for my fly spell receded, replaced by a dark cloud of energy. Abigail was wrapping a globe of wyther around me to prevent ether from replenishing in the space around me. Within the next minute, I would no longer have ether to draw on.

This is one of those desperate moments I spoke of before. When ether fails, I can draw on wyther. But it is not instantaneous. When the batteries run out on the remote, I cannot draw juice from the new batteries without changing them out. When the ether runs out, there will be a few second delay while I recast the spell and tap the cloud of wyther. By then, I would be sucked into the Loki-damned vortex.

Just as my spell faltered, Aiden appeared behind Abigail, swinging a sword of ether toward the back of her skull. She must have noticed my reaction. She dropped beneath the swing. Before I could see anymore, my body jerked toward the vortex.

I closed my eyes. This was it. Would it hurt when all my atoms were violently ripped apart? Nah. Probably wouldn’t feel a thing, right? Just stop existing all of a sudden.

Wind buffeted my face. Whatever sensation I had expected, this wasn’t it. I opened an eye. The ground rushed toward me.

“Fuck!” I shouted. Then I focused and said, “Eitil trid an aer.”

Ether fused with my body and I stopped falling. The vortex was gone. Two figures clashed together, swords blurring. Aiden’s blade was wrought from ether, Abigail’s from wyther. The very weapons fought for dominance, exploding in arrays of light with each strike.

Filling myself with ether, I rushed to join them. I cloaked myself with invisibility and formed a spear, adding an expulsion spell into the tip. I flew with all my strength. Abigail was faster than Aiden. Her strikes fell with precision. Aiden retreated a dozen paces up and away. When Abigail’s back turned to me, I hurled my spear.

The moment it left my hand, the projectile became visible. It slammed into her hip. Her scream cut short as the expulsion spell took effect. Aiden’s sword swung in the space where she’d vanished a few times, before he finally stopped.

“Where is she?”

I shrugged. “Expulsion spell is random.”

“Bottom of the fucking ocean would be nice. But no, she has the favor of Artemis. Likely, the goddess pulled her along the leys to her own domain.”

“Yeah. That would be my guess too.”

Aiden nodded toward the gawkers in the quad below. “We should go. The Law of Dubiety can only do so much.”

“I need to get back to class.”

“Really? After that?”

“I need to make sure everyone is all right.”

“Fuck it. Let’s go.”

We both cloaked ourselves as we flew back to the maths building, through the hole Abigail had made.

“I’ll fix this,” Aiden said, gathering ether. “You go to your fucking lecture.”

Nodding my thanks, I left him to patch the broken wall and ran back to the classroom. The TA didn’t pause as I entered, but her frown was unmistakable. Heart still thundering, I sat in the open seat in the front row. The board was almost full with very familiar script. This was a basic calculus coarse. Ironically, I taught this material a hundred years ago, albeit with slightly different syntax. At the far left was the TA’s name, Ms. Skyler Turney, along with contact information and office location.

After drawing a graph, she turned to face the class. “Does anyone know the limit definition to the derivative?”

“Yeah,” I said. “F prime is equal to the limit as delta x approaches zero of f of x plus delta x divided by delta x.”

Her frown deepened, stopping just short of a scowl. Probably, she was unhappy that I had vanished suddenly. Sorry, Ms. Turney for saving all of your lives.

“That’s one definition. What do we mean by delta x approaching zero?” She looked over my head as if wanting someone else to respond.

I could not help myself. “The increments between the x points are decreasing in value as the secant line moves toward becoming tangential to the curve.”

“Yes,” she said, lips tight. “Thank you.”

Rather than asking another question, she picked up a new piece of chalk and continued the lesson. First, she repeated what I had said, then she gave basic examples of how to use the definition on simple functions.

Minutes before the bell rang, most of the students packed up. The moment it dinged, the students ran as if they’d heard someone shout, “Free sandwiches in the quad!” Did they still call it a quad? Note to self: look up what this era calls a field of grass where all the cool kids frolicked and strutted as if they were the best thing since sliced bread—and in case you are wondering, yes, Otto Rohwedder the loaf defying guru was a mage. 

“Why are you still sitting there?”

I stood. “Lost in my own thoughts.”

“Find the rest of the calculus class in there? Seriously, why are you in here?”

“Need the credit.”

“Why?” she asked, still obviously annoyed. “You clearly already know the material.”

“I have an eidetic memory,” I said, which isn’t exactly true. All trained mages are skilled at organizing our thoughts, and I can tap ether to store the memories I want to keep. It was easier to tell normals I have a photographic memory than to explain real magic to them.

“Must be nice,” she said in a voice that suggested it was anything but. “So … what, you have already memorized all the material?”

“Pretty much.”

“You know you can test out of this course, right?”

“My transcript from my associates degree was too old. They wouldn’t let me.” Another lie, but she was not likely to check.

Her brow furrowed. “You don’t look that old. When did you last graduate?”

“Six years.”

“That doesn’t seem very long.”

I feigned nonchalance. “My guess, they are more interested in my money than my intellectual prowess. This is, after all, still a business.”

“Don’t get me started on rising tuition costs.”

I held my hands up in surrender. “Wouldn’t dare.”

“Attendance is still mandatory. Where did you go earlier?”

“I, uh …,” What is a good lie? “Breakfast burrito hit me a bit hard. Sorry.”

“Oh,” she said, pink gracing her pale cheeks. Her tone lightened. “Completely understandable.”

“Ahem.”

We both turned to see Aiden in the door.

“That important thing,” he said without an ounce of patience or understanding.

“This is my—”

“Partner,” Aiden said, stepping between them.

“Oh,” she said, taking his offered hand. “I didn’t realize you were—”

“No,” I said, quickly. “Not my partner-partner. We are coworkers of a sort.”

Another bell dinged.

“Shit,” she said. “I have office hours.”

“And we have a thing,” Aiden reminded me. “Literally, life or death. Remember?”

“Figuratively,” Skyler said. “Not literally.”

The corner of Aiden’s mouth frowned. Knowing the look, I intervened before his mouth could spew any vitriol, “I remember. Thanks for your patience Skyler. I will be on time from now on.”

“No worries. See you in class, Wednesday.”

“I don’t like her,” Aiden said before she was completely out of earshot. “Too … American.”

She frowned at him but was in too big of a hurry to turn and defend her honor and that of all Americans.

“This is America,” I reminded him. “You are in their country by choice.”

“Which we can fix, presently. Did you know ley goes straight through this city? All the way to Bermuda and into the nexus. We can hop the cross current back to Europe.”

Then it clicked. “The ley. That must be why Abigail was here.”

“Yes,” Aiden agreed. “But that is just the start. We need to go back to Scotland. Bodhi Caderyn is expecting us.”

“No. I am not getting involved.”

“If you have already forgotten the last hour of your life, you don’t have much of a choice. If you want to get back to normalcy, as you call it, we need to stop Abigail. If you recall, she found you here first.”

Fuck. He was right.

Just to be a dick, he said, “You know I’m right.”

“Fine.” I flicked a hand toward the door. “I need to grab a few things from my basement first.”

Aiden smiled. “Good to have you back.”

“I’m not back. I will help, but I plan to be back in time for class on Wednesday.”

“Of course,” Aiden said with all the snark he could conjure.

It took all I could muster not to punch him in his patronizing face. But I’m a mage. A bastion of stability and mental fortitude. I control my destiny, bend the cosmos to my will.

I hit his arm instead. Clearly not hard enough, because he only laughed. 

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