“Split up?” Aiden asked. “Have you never seen a movie? Or read a book? Or remember earlier today, when you almost got imploded? No. We should not split up.”
I agreed with him, but since he generally likes to do the opposite of what I say, I thought the suggestion would give him an opportunity to make the right decision for once. Of course, if I said this out loud, he would huff off again.
“Right. Good thinking,” I told him. “We should probably go to the meeting. I think Abby is more likely to be there.”
“Abby? Since when does she earn any monikers? And no. Only the newbs and prospective newbs will be at the meeting. Abigail will be at the party. The other nymphs will most certainly be there.”
He was right, and I knew it, but we had to get one thing straight first.
“What? Of course there will be booze. It’s a party. We want to blend in right?”
“We are going there to get information and survive the night, not party with co-eds. Neither one of us needs lowered inhibitions. The mission comes first.”
Aiden scrunched up his face, taking extreme offense at my insinuation. “I have never in my life put partying before the—”
His mouth hung open, some of the fire leaving his expression. “You heard about that?”
“When a mage animates the statue of a stag and rides it through the Guinness factory, word tends to get around.”
“I’ll have you know, Arthur Guinness threw that party for good reason. We brought that bonded mage down.”
“And half of Dublin with him.”
“We rebuilt it before the Inquisition came knocking.” He shook his head. “But it doesn’t matter. It was just that once, a long time ago—”
“Sydney, 1878. You grew a kangaroo large enough to fit in its pouch and charmed it into believing you were its offspring.”
“I felt bad after it lost its … wait. How could you even know about that? Don’t answer. Again, that was just a one off—”
“There was a good reason for—”
“They had just ended prohibition! If I hadn’t had a few—”
“Fine!” he threw his hands up in surrender. “No booze.”
“You don’t have to be so smug about it.”
“Where is the party?” I asked.
He looked back down at the phone. “It’s at a fraternity house on West Park Avenue.”
“Call an Uber.”
“You call an Uber. I don’t want your surly ass messing up my ratings. I’m at 4.98 stars.”
“My phone was destroyed by Abigail’s vortex.”
“We can just fly.”
“Sure, we might as well nuke the place while we are at it. Because if we fly in on a storm of ether, we’ll be announcing ourselves to any ethermage on the block.”
He pulled his phone back out, grumbling all the while. “We need to walk this way.”
We made our way to the street and waited. A few minutes later, our ride was here. The driver was a college-aged kid, dressed as though he’d come straight from the gym. The sleeves were ripped off his shirt, revealing rippling abs and muscles the size of my face.
“Hi Josh,” Aiden said, getting into the front of the red Prius, knowing I get car sickness in the back. “How’s your day going?”
He shrugged. “S’alright. You Aiden?”
“Nope. I’m Bob.”
The jock’s forehead scrunched up in confusion. And he looked out the window as if searching for his real fare. “I’m supposed to pick up Aiden.”
“That’s us,” I said, before Aiden could retort. “Thanks.”
How had he gotten 4.98 stars?
“Cool,” the guy said, then drove off. A few minutes of awkward silence later, we reached the sorority house. The building looked like an old plantation home, standing four stories tall. The off white paint job had been done by magic. It was far too perfect and stood out on this street. Round columns stretched from the porch to the ceiling. Ping pong tables were set up with red cups. The front gable had big greek letters plastered to the front: Alpha Omega, symbolic for the beginning and end. It’s a god’s way of saying, I’m the shit.
“This has to be the right place,” Aiden said once we were out.
“Yeah, but where are all the people?”
“It’s not even eight yet. Party’s at nine. They’ll be here.”
“What are we supposed to do until then?” I asked. “If we stand here gawking, that’ll look even more suspicious than flying in.”
“There’s a cafe back there on the corner. Let’s grab some coffee and wait.”
So we did. The coffee was not amazing, but it was caffeine. There was outside seating. We both sat facing the street. I drew in ether to enhance my vision. Even at a quarter a kilometer, I could see the house just as easily as when we were standing in front of it. When people began showing up, we’d know.
We sipped our drinks in silence for several minutes, until Aiden said, “So, how’re you holding up?”
“Victoria could be at this party. Are you ready for that?”
Trying not to think too hard or feel the swirl of emotions battering away at my heart, I grunted, “I’m fine.”
Aiden leaned forward. “You don’t sound fine. And your pale face is now reflecting light. You should talk about it while we have some time.”
“Your lover and partner abandoned you for power. And all you can say is …,” he raised his hands to do air quotes, deepening his voice as he said, “I’m good.”
“What do you want me to say? If she’s bonded, we bring her down. That’s who we are. She knew the stakes.”
“Good. I’m glad you’re ready for her, because she just got out of that limo and is heading inside the house.”
My heart skipped a beat. I found myself standing, looking at the white stretch-limo. It was one of those big square ones. Likely, it had a hot tub in the back. The woman stepping out wore a skin-tight green top with sequins around the v-neck. Her black leggings vanished into calf-high, black boots. With my ether-sight, the radiant energy made her pale skin shimmer. She wore little makeup—she’d always hated it. Not that she needed any. Her natural blush and light freckles made her big eyes stand out—like perfectly carved sapphires rimmed with dark lace. She could stare into your soul and make your spirit dance for her attention.
And there she was, raven hair flowing about her shoulders. As if she knew he was watching, she stopped halfway to the house, took out a scrunchy and wound her hair into a bun, exposing the skin of her smooth neck. My feet began to move of their own accord, as if she’d cast a summoning spell.
“Wait!” Aiden said, after I started to run. “Fucking stop! Gods damn it, Liam. It’s a trap!”
I stopped. He was right. As narcissistic as it sounded, why else would she be here in Tallahassee at all if not to get to me? Of all Artemis’s nymphs, what job did they have that could only be done by her? More importantly, did any of this matter?
It was Victoria, the love of my life, alive and well and right here. How could I resist?
Pain stung my cheek. The shock of it made me reel. I turned back to see Aiden’s angry face glaring at me.
“Ow! You fucking asshole. Why—”
“Use that big beautiful brain of yours. For all you know, it’s a glamor. It could be Abigail baiting you, or any number of other people. Sit back down, and let’s make a plan. Mmk?”
I unclenched my fist. Aiden will never know how close he was to getting his nose flattened. “It was her. Not even Abigail is good enough to hide a glamor from ether-sight, which I had going until you hit me.”
“She could have used wyther. You would never know.”
Shit. He was right. I wasn’t thinking straight. Come on, Liamorandus, get it together. Rather than admit it, I sat back down and glowered. For once, Aiden did not gloat. He eased back onto the edge of his chair, with what looked like genuine concern in his eyes.
“Clearly,” he said after a few minutes, “Abigail is a few steps ahead of us. She knows we are coming. How?”
“She must have left a trace spell on that flier. Also, what email did you use to sign up on the site?”
“An alias I made a few months ago. She wouldn’t know it. Trace spell is more likely. But that would only tell her which flier was activated. And then she could have scried us.”
“Agreed. That’s the how. But why?”
“That’s even easier,” Aiden said. “She’s up to something big and wants us out of the way. We know her better than anyone. If she can bag us, she is more likely to win against whoever the Collective sent to replace us.”
“That’s a bit cocky.”
“What’s her bigger plan then? If she wants the Bermuda nexus, why is she here?”
“That, my friend, is the million Euro question.”
We both grew contemplative. In the lull, I itched to storm into the house and confront Victoria or whoever was posing as her. It took all my willpower to remain in my seat. But I did, draining my coffee and wishing I had not advocated so strongly against drinking. I drained my drink and went back in for more, grabbing Aiden another white-chocolate latte with extra whip cream.
“Here’s your pansy drink.”
“Pfft,” he said, then took a large gulp.
We spent the next half hour making conjecture about what the hell was going on. Nothing came better than our first theory. We did spend several minutes discussing our plan. By the time we agreed on an approach, it was fully dark. Cars came and went, dropping off party-goers in droves. Some of the other frat houses along this street began to fill as well.
Aiden stood. “You ready?”
“Yes.” A trill of excitement surged through me at the prospect of speaking to Victoria. At the same time, I felt unfathomable pain and hurt. The emotion that took root though was anger. As I took a step, Aiden stopped me.
“Remember,” Aiden said, “this is just a scouting mission. We want to see what they are up to. Only confront the nymph if we can get her alone.”
I nodded. “Let’s get this over with.”
“No, no, no, no. That’s the wrong attitude. We need to blend in, remember? Get your party face on.”
“Fine, but remember. No. Booze.”
Aiden pulled a hat out of his cloak and placed it on his head. The arrium activated, changing his face to become more symmetric, almost beautiful. His eyes turned from green to bright blue. His cloak became a thin bedsheet and his clothes transformed into a greek-style white toga.
“What is that?” I asked.
“I won’t be the only one. Besides, I’m the magnet, right? This will work. Trust me.”
It was still closer to summer than fall, meaning most everyone wore little to nothing. No one else, I noticed, was sporting a toga. Shaking my head, I activated my own glamor, making my shirt look like a tank top with Go Noles! across the front. My trousers became gym shorts, similar to most of the other boys I could see. My boots looked like flip-flops. Nothing actually changed, but so long as the clothes were on me and the glamor intact, all normal senses would see what I wanted them to.
On the porch, dozens of people were throwing pong balls into cups and drinking with wanton abandon. When we stepped up the steps, I saw a girl sitting on a pedestal next to the entrance. She wore a mermaid outfit, restricting her movement capability. I could only guess as to how the shells stayed up. She greeted us by offering us cheap beer in plastic cups.
Aiden raised his hands as if he was coming home to the cheers of his closest friends and family. He gave the mermaid a huge smile and raised his voice. “Who’s ready to party?’
As all those on the porch cheered, I suppressed a sigh and took the proffered cup. This was going to be a long night.
All I could think to myself was … Tallahassee, 2019.