I placed my hand on the circle carved into the door to the basement and sent a pulse of ether into the ward. The repulsion spell fell away.
“Not much protection,” Aiden noted.
“No, but it’ll repel most intruders without blasting them to hades.”
“As far as I’m concerned, intruders deserve to meet the god of the underworld.”
Rather than argue, I flipped the light and descended the steps. I realize it looks a bit like a medieval torture chamber down here, what with the skulls on shelves and organs inside jars. Rosalind Franklin was not operating from scratch when she found the double helix. Not that she got the credit anyways—Watson and Crick stole her data, but she is a mage and used her ether knowledge to advance science. It turns out, DNA is patterned after a person’s ethereal energy—the layperson calls this a soul. This is why I’ll never give blood. A trained mage can do a lot to a person, living and dead, with the smallest sample of their DNA.
When a mage dies, we enter into the ethereal plane to await the next life. While we are there, we can still communicate across the veil with the living. However, the summoned mage doesn’t have a choice. When pulled into a circle, you are at the conjuring mage’s mercy. I once held a dead wyther mage’s ethereal energy for a decade to extract information from him, and I only released him because I burnt all the trace DNA in his skull and could no longer contain him behind the barrier.
“Hurry it up,” Aiden said. “Get what you came for and let’s go.”
“Yeshua. Just wait up stairs.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Aiden said, looking around as if expecting a bolt from the blue. “Don’t bring Elohim into this. You know he controls two gods damned seats in this region. Almost had a third back when—”
“I know the history, and—”
“Then you’ll remember what happened last time he held three. Rome fell. Fucking dark ages. Lots of mages burnt alive. The gods damned holy crusades. I would rather not have that smite-loving tyrant look my way, thank you very much.”
I gave him a flat look. “Would you like me to get my shit or not?”
He raised a pointed hand and stomped back up the stairs.
I grabbed my pack from the far wall and activated the rune just inside. Not all arrium are used for combat. The blue cloth looks like a normal backpack, but when activated it opens a portal to a fourth dimensional pocket of space I carved out for my things. Infused ether anchors the portal to the bag, so it follows me when I carry it. Capable of holding heavy objects that are otherwise difficult to tote, such as my orange Maserati Gran Turismo parked in the corner. No one is scratching my baby in here. Not that I ever drive her anymore. Tends to draw notice.
As the opening expanded, I stepped into the capacious space, glancing at my bare feet. I would need to order some new flip-flops. Ah shit. A new phone too. But all that could wait until I got back. Next time I encountered Abigail, I would have better gear. Several wands, staves, and swords hung from the wracks on the far wall, next to my wardrobe.
I opened the medieval style trestle chest, made of real wood. My warded cloaks hung next to my favorite t-shirts, superheros mostly with the occasional indie band tens of people would appreciate. I kicked on some Wellies, insulated against the cold and rain with the best spells, then pulled a sweater over my head.
Aiden’s stomps echoed back and forth across my living room above, growing louder with each pass. Sighing, I hurried back out, closed the portal, and slung the pack over my shoulder.
“Finally,” he said, meeting me in the hall.
“For someone over two centuries old, you don’t have much patience.”
“I’ll be patient while I sit in purgatory. Can we go now?”
“For some reason, I doubt that,” I said as I opened the back door, “After you.”
Marching into the yard, he said, “The ley is strongest at a place they call the Maclay Gardens. You know the way?”
“Yes. I do live here, remember?”
His skin transformed to mist before he finished saying, “Meet you there.”
Gathering ether, I dematerialized my physical form and followed his wyther trail. Mistform took far more energy than flying, making it easy to track, but it was also exponentially faster. It took less than four seconds to get to the gardens. After reforming my body, my heart raced. I felt as though I’d sprinted a mile.
Aiden panted next to me, saying between breaths, “Always. A rush. Right?”
Breathing equally hard, I replied. “Where’s. The ley?”
He nodded behind a row of flowers. I stumbled after him, feeling the current long before we rounded the hedges. To the normal people, it looked like an empty field. To any mage, it was a river of energy, running both into the earth and stretching into the sky.
But pulling ether near the ley line is dangerous. It attracts mages like nectar drawing a bee, only there is so much of the sweet juice, the bee is more likely to drown than get what it needs. Many fledgling mages have burnt themselves out by drawing too much at once. The trick is to pull ether before plunging in and to create a hardened sphere around your body to hold excess energy on the inside of the bubble.
“Shall I do the honors?” he asked.
I drew in as much ether as I could hold and nodded.
The hardened bubble surrounded us. After I reinforced the shield, we plunged into the current. My stomach lurched as we vanished into the ground. We both created glow lights above our hands. For some reason, seeing gravel and dirt rush by at incomprehensible speeds was preferable to complete and utter darkness.
Aiden, of course, was grinning. I shook my head.
“You are the only person I know who likes this part.”
“No. Everyone loves it. This is fucking amazing. Think about it. The norms bask in their own brilliance because they can get in machines and get across the planet in half-a-day. In a few minutes, we will be in Bermuda. And we only use our minds and ingenious spellcraft.”
“We didn’t invent this. We just use it.”
“Still. We intuit the right amount of ether to draw into our bubble. Too much and we crash into the top of the tunnel. Too little, we smash into the bottom or sides. Off by even a little. Boom. We pop like a balloon.”
“Which is why no one loves it.”
He batted at the space between them. “No trained mage has ever died like this. Think about it. We are both keeping the bubble intact and carrying on a conversations. That’s why it is so amazing. Once we cast the spell, our instincts take over.”
Abruptly, light surrounded us. Open sky was on either side. With a burst of ether, our bubble flung from the stream, catching the cross Atlantic ley stream. We whipped to the side and down, leaving my gods damned stomach in Bermuda. I held my breath as we jerked downward and plunged into the ocean.
Most animals knew to avoid ley lines, but the occasional fish strayed into the stream at the worst possible time. I could feel the occasional impact, like bugs splattering against a windshield.
“You gonna hurl?” Aiden asked.
I shook my head, not trusting my stomach enough to open my mouth for a reply. The rest of the journey was silent. We emerged on the other side of the ocean less than twenty minutes later. Aiden pulled us from the stream, putting us down on the Isle of Man, about midway between Ireland and Scotland.
We took to the sky, flying along the ley line all the way to Port Erin, and landed on the island in the sky above the village. As you likely guessed, the floating island is invisible to those untrained in drawing ether, as is the fortress at the center of the circular mass of land.
We touched down on the cobbled path and walked toward the gate. The two guards out front murmured reveal spells. Aiden and I both let the energy wash over us. If either of us had been using illusions, they would have peeled away.
“Master Corvent,” the guard on the left said to Aiden, “the Bodhi is waiting.”
He waved a hand and spoke a phrase. Visible ether fell away and the doors opened.
“Thanks, Jenson,” Aiden said, stepping inside the gates.
The walkway cut through an open courtyard with well-manicured gardens to either side. At the center was a chalice floating upside down. On either side of the path, water flowed from the ground and pooled into the inverted cup, spilling over the sides onto the colossal hand holding the ornate cup. Glittering water flowed up the shoulders and body of the androgynous statue. Thin streams covered the chest and groin, creating a voluminous mage’s robe, and disappeared at the statue’s feet, which rested on a shimmering nexus. The leys crossed, shooting off in several directions at once.
The path widened out like branches of a tree, but the widest road continued onward to the main doors of the castle, built by gray stones from Ireland. Giant gargoyles with humanlike faces and the bodies of various beasts rested atop the ramparts, road wings of each stretched as if ready to take flight. Any aggressive spell against the island would wake them.
Every seat of power around the world not controlled by a deity is protected by a Collective chapter. This is one of the few seats never wrestled from our custody, even for a moment. Countless of our members have died to make it so, my closest friend and partner being the most recent.
“Gets me every time,” Aiden said in mock nostalgia. “So beautiful.”
“Fuck you,” I said, elegantly, wiping a real tear before it could roll down my cheek.
“At last,” the old man by the willow pond said. He stood, ankle deep in the water with muck in his hands. A gracious smile filled his face.
“One of the most powerful mages in ten thousand years,” Aiden said beneath his breath, as we approached. “And he’s mucking out a gods damned pond. What a waste.”
For once, I could not disagree with Aiden. Seeing the wrinkles on my mentor’s face sent a pang of sadness through me. For a mage, giving up ether is the only way to die a natural death. And it is a long way to die. A mage could live a couple centuries before their life fades. Those who choose this end are given the title Bodhi. You may recognize the term from Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama—you know him as the Buddha—was also an ethermage. He gave up ether and soon amassed a following for his vast wisdom and understanding of the cosmos. For the most part, he shared the mages discipline without imparting knowledge of shaping the ether. People still love him for it.
I embraced my mentor, only vaguely aware of the pond water leaking through my sweater.
“I have missed you, child.”
When you are older than modern history, you get to call everyone child. What is two centuries to six thousand years?
“And I you.”
“Would you walk with me for a time?” he asked, then stepped onto the dirt path surrounding the courtyard with his bare feet.
I followed. Aiden walked a few paces behind. Several minutes passed before Bhodi Caderyn said anything. “I heard about Abigail’s attempt to kill you.”
“How?” I asked. “It only just happened.”
“Information travels far faster than you can, Master Fianna. YouTube.”
“Right. I’m still not accustomed to the internet.”
“Aye. But our agents corrupted the cloud files at the various servers with hex spells. A few kids will join yet another conspiracy group, but eventually the Law of Dubiety will set in. Your faces were too far away to identify either of you. No real harm done.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Good.”
Innocents are heavily influenced by the Law of Dubiety. It is a sliding scale. See a dragon in the clouds, and your mind says it is a beautiful mirage, a trick of the lights. You get a rank of one on a seven point scale that quickly goes back to zero. I can show you real magic and you will walk away with a rank of two and mostly believe I am a master at sleight of hand. In time, you will convince yourself that it was fake and fall back to zero.
Trauma has a way of waking people up. If I hit you with a ball of fire, it’s difficult to forget how you got the burn scars. Even so, most norms will only rank at a four or five and fall to a two or three over time. They’ll begin to believe the therapists and their friends and family when they say I must have had a flame thrower. Doubt always wins. Still, after we finally defeated the gods damn Inquisition, we stopped taking any chances. Many of our members were drowned or burnt at the stake, so we make all possible attempts to bury any information of our existence.
“What has Aiden told you?” the Bodhi asked.
I shrugged. “Very little.”
Aiden said, “I told him we needed him, Bodhi. And I saved his arse.”
“Mmm. Yes. I saw. I will send word to our governing body to reinstate your active status. Do you need coins?”
“No. I have plenty, but I am not back.”
“Of course you are back. I see you with my eyes.”
“Are you back then?” I asked.
Caderyn frowned. “I never left, but I am merely an advisor now. You know this, child. But we are speaking of you, not me. This fight is yours, whether you want it or not.”
I shook my head, but before I could speak, he said, “Victoria is alive. She came here, pretending to be injured. She told us she had been taken captive by the Nymphs of Artemis and tortured. She was beaten and battered, so we believed her. Then, while the castle slumbered, she crept into the vault.”
“But I watched her die. I felt her energy dissipate.”
“An illusion. Well-crafted by Abigail, who is nearly a demi-god now. She fooled you, child.”
I did not believe it. I wanted to scream, shout, and fight with him. But as I met the Bhodi’s gaze, I saw the pain and anger in his eyes. And I knew. Only the real Vicky could have made it across the threshold. The guards would have seen through any trick. Anger does not quite describe the feeling that came next. All of the pain I carried this last year bubbled up to the surface and boiled over. And though nothing burned at my feet, I wanted to make it so. Instead, I took several breaths, ordered my thoughts, and pushed my ire to a simmer.
Still, my voice shook as I asked, “So that entire year, she was … what? Working with Abigail?”
“We do not know. But she came for Arthur’s Blade.”
“No, but she took an original syphon, a mirror, and many battle arrium.”
“Abigail is making a play for a nexus,” I realized aloud.
“Aye. After her attack on you, we now believe she will go for Poseidon’s seat in Bermuda. His acolytes have been diminished in this century and many of his priests have gone missing. We believe this is due to the Hunters of Artemis.”
“We need to stop her,” Aiden said. “Will you join me?”
Victoria had been my partner for seven decades. Not once had she sought more personal power. This wasn’t Vicky. Something else was going on here. I was certain of it. If she needed me, I could not sit this one out. But wasn’t that how all of them went? There was always a reason to fight just one more.
“What are her chances of actually taking the seat?”
“I have looked at the currents. They are shifting. There are more players than just Artemis, and they might be working together. There is pestilence rising in the far east.”
“Fuck Loki. Are you certain?”
“Aye. The Elders have all conferred. Yanluo has released a plague in China, and the pantheons are reforming. New alliances will rise. Mages from all corners are joining the Eternal War. More than twenty Bodhi have drawn ether once more.”
My heart skipped a beat. I looked in my mentor’s face again. There were far too many wrinkles for someone who worked with ether.
“But not you,” I said, at last.
“Not me.” He gave a reassuring smile that made my little spark of hope fade into oblivion.
“Why not? If the pantheons are returning, they will come for our Collectives once more.”
Caderyn actually fucking laughed. A deep belly laugh. I had to swallow my anger. When he finished, his face still held the mirth. “You know better than most, this is far from the first time the gods have come for the seats. Remember Germany and their little cult? What did they call themselves?”
“Nazis. It wasn’t little by the end and it took the help of world leaders to put them down.”
He lifted a finger. “You see. That was far worse than now. It was after we killed their bonded mage. What was his name?”
“Yes. That’s the one. He bonded to Ares and Hades—what an awful alliance that was—and nearly took four seats for the gods. One more and we would not be here to have this conversation.”
I felt obliged to point out, “Without you, we would not be here to have this conversation.”
“Your actions were just as pivotal as my own. You are ready to assume my mantel. More importantly, I am ready for you to take it.”
“But why give up ether? Go start your own garden in some quiet corner of the world. Like Eve did.”
“And you see how well that turned out, eh? Dear boy, there is no peace or quiet seclusion when you reach my age. When I am one with the ether, I feel the tension on the leys and cannot ignore them. I will not be pulled back into the fray. It is called the Eternal War for a reason. So long as the gods remain, our order will be needed. You will be needed. But not me. My time has past. Six thousand years is quite long enough. Besides, the earth is round. It has no corners.”
I did not laugh, despite his infectious smile.
“So you are in right?” Aiden asked.
“Fuck Loki in the corn hole if I want to be, but yes. I’m in.”
“The corn hole?” Bohdi asked. “Oh.” His smile slipped and he made a pained expression. He walked away, shaking his head and muttering about the idioms of the youth.
“Does this mean we can grab arrium from the vault?” Aiden called after him.
“Aye. Grab what you need now. Once the plague is released, we will lockdown the island. I cannot allow anyone in until you succeed. The only magic I will allow in are communication spells.”
“Of course,” I said.
“And when you say grab what we need?” Adien asked. “Does that mean—”
“Anything except the sword or the chalice. Yes.”
The “sword” being Excalibur, the blade Merlin made for Arthur, and the “chalice” is the holy grail. Yeshua—Elohim’s most famous acolyte—made the arrium just before being killed. Both give mages more power than anyone should be trusted with.
“Guess we are finally partners,” Aiden said as he clapped me on the shoulder. His smile was just short of maniacal as he added, “Let’s go blow some shit up.”