Aiden’s glassy eyes glared down at Victoria. He took his arm from around Red Dress and literally bit his thumb and flicked it in Victoria’s direction. His smug smirk made me want to flatten his nose, so I could only imagine what it did to Victoria’s ego. She’d never liked Aiden, and he had replaced her as my partner. His arrogant expression said as much and invited her to smite him. From her smoldering gaze, that was her intention, so we had that going for us.
Believe it or not, we’d planned for this inevitability. After all, one does not intentionally walk into an obvious trap without first securing a means of escape. I had hoped to get more information about Abigial’s plans before springing the snare, but hey, no one is perfect.
“A fucking chariot?” I said. “Really? And you brought a norm?”
The horses stood at attention, unnaturally calm. Upon closer inspection, their midnight coats and long black manes were coated in small embers that flared and pulsed with their breathing. As they stared at the impending battle with intelligent eyes, smoke rising from their nostrils.
“With nightmares? Where the—”
As Victoria’s time bubble dropped over us, the arrium in my pocket activated, inverting the dilation of time around the point of origin. Victoria and her nymphs all froze. The energy of her burned ether would power the spell based on her initial expenditure of power. From the wave of wyther filling the air, Victoria had tried to hit us with all the ether she could pull, which was admittedly far more than when she’d been my partner.
I pulled the timepiece from my cloak pocket to confirm. Yep, the second hand had thirty-seven seconds until midnight. The arrium pulsed with the spent power. A slow-motion crack made its way up the clock-face. Once the time bubble popped, so would the timepiece. We needed to be gone before then. I did not like our chances against so many.
“No time to get them all,” I told Aiden.
“Let me guess, you think we should grab Victoria.”
“She is the only bonded mage. The others could be victims of Abigail’s scheming.”
“Could be,” he said. “But we won’t know unless we question them.”
“Twenty-one seconds. And, there’s a good chance the shackles will nullify the time dilation. Once we nab Victoria, we’ll need to bolt.”
“Fuck. I hate it when you’re right. Get her and let’s go.”
I ran toward Victoria, trying not to count the seconds remaining. Her face was a mask of calm serenity, her hand frozen halfway to her back, where she concealed her two handed sword in its glamor-sheath. She was always a fierce fighter. Most of our sparring ended in a draw, but over the years, she had defeated me as often as I had her. Now, she was super-powered by her connection to the goddess Artemis. She could sling more ether and draw wyther without the damage to her ethereal pattern. In a fair fight, I would not have a chance. Fortunately, we mages are a tricky lot. Honor duels are for the middle ages. And even then, they were dumb. Where is the valor in dying because you gave your opponent a “fair” chance to kill you? Ridiculous. Fight to win.
I pulled out the shackles I’d taken from the Collective and snapped the smaller bracelets around her wrists. Once the neck piece closed around her neck, the mass of energy in the air dissipated, as I thought it would. The time bubble collapsed.
The nymphs stumbled forward, confusion in their expressions. Seeing me next to her, Victoria flinched. Instinctively, she tried to draw ether. The shackles flared, disrupting the flow of energy around her. She screamed from the pain of the backlash and slumped forward.
Enhancing my strength with ether, I caught her and threw her unceremoniously over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
“Get on,” Aiden said, wheeling the chariot next to me.
The girl in the red dress stared at me, eyes wide with wonder. Even though his arm was around her, Aiden looked at her as if surprised she was still there.
“Uh, right,” he said, “time to go, love.”
“Where are we going?” she asked, clearly not ready to quit the sudden adventure.
“You aren’t coming,” he said. “But I’ll call you. I swear.”
He gathered her in a flow of air and lifted her off the chariot, setting her gently on the dance floor next to another young co-ed.
I climbed on and said, “Let’s go.”
He flicked the reins, and the nightmares leapt toward the wall. Ether flared around Aiden. A hole formed in the old wood large enough for us to ride through and closed after we cleared the portal. I wrapped us in a globe of invisibility as we flew higher and faster.
A few minutes later, we landed in my backyard. Aiden walked to the lead horse and placed a hand on its neck, patting the creature fondly. He spoke a few words, opening a gateway to a dark plane. Heat billowed through the opening. The nightmares leapt through, leads and chariot dissolving just a few feet into the other plane.
Adjusting Victoria over my shoulder so I could look Aiden in the face, I said, “I can’t believe you summoned nightmares to earth. We’ll need to talk about that when we get a few minutes.
“What’s to talk about? I needed horses. They owed me a favor.” He shrugged. “End of story.”
“Open the door,” I told him. “Preferably before Mrs. Crangston decides to investigate and see us carrying a beautiful, unconscious woman into my basement and gets the wrong idea.”
He snorted, but he also picked up his pace, hurrying to the door and flinging it open. I took Victoria to the basement and secured her to my interrogation chair. It was made of steel and bolted to the floor with long arms. Since not all of those sitting in the seat are exactly human, the chair rested in the center of a containment circle.
I eased Victoria into the chair, trying not to smell the sweet fragrance of her perfume. It was the same scent she’d worn for several decades now. Another pang of loss rippled through me. Steeling my nerves, I fastened the clamps around her wrists and ankles, binding her to the chair. Not even a minotaur could break free of the spell.
“Move,” Aiden said, breaking smelling salts in front of her face.
Her head whipped back and she shook off the grogginess. She looked up at Aiden, expression dismissive, before her gaze turned to me.
“I thought you preferred to be the one tied up,” she said with a wink.
“This is not a game,” I said. “Tell us what we need to know, and we can be done with this.”
She shrugged as if it did not matter either way.
“Why the university?” I asked. “What is Abigail playing at?”
“You used to be good at chess, Liamorandus. You have not figured it out yet?”
“Obviously she is recruiting,” I said, ignoring the fact that she was baiting me. “What is her end game?”
“I think you know that as well.”
“Right,” Aiden said, flicking the syringe. “As much as I enjoy the banter, it’s truth time.”
She snorted as if she did not care, but I knew her well enough to see the fear in her eyes. Our gazes met for a few seconds, sending a pang of regret and angst rippling through me. We’d been far more than partners and lovers. For nearly six decades, Victoria had been my closest friend. Seeing the needle move closer to her neck made my stomach lurch. I turned away.
“This is not necessary,” Victoria said. “I will tell you the truth.”
“You’ll understand,” Aiden said, “if I do not believe you.”
From Victoria’s grunt, he’d administered the serum. The ether-laced particles would make their way to her brain. Every time she told the truth, her brain’s pleasure centers would activate, flooding dopamine into her system. When she lied, she’d get cortisol and other stress hormones. In short, when she was honest, she would feel intoxicating joy. When she lied, her worst nightmares would manifest. The serum also compelled her to speak her thoughts. She could not resist talking, and the more truths she told, the more she would want to say.
“What is your name?” Aiden said. Establishing a dopamine hit early was necessary. Really, anything to get her talking would expedite the spread of the serum.
“Thanks for the easy one,” she said. “Victoria Cleopatra Deletante.”
“Why are you here?”
“You brought me here, you fucking dalcop.” She sucked in a breath, eyes blinking in euphoria. Victoria had used the interrogation serum enough to know how to give half-truths. And I saw the effort of not speaking in her features, the way she gripped the handles of the chair, the way she licked her lips and tightened them. She desperately wanted to not say something.
“Why did you come to Tallahassee?” I asked. “Why recruit college kids?”
“Abigail sent me here to kill you if I could. At the very least, I would be a distraction. And we need more nymphs for what she has planned.”
“And that is?” Aiden asked.
“Something big.” Her eyes rolled backward. The serum would make her give us truths, not necessarily the information we sought. Eventually, the excess dopamine would make her hallucinate. Soon after that, she would pass out. If I was her, I would try to stall us until being rendered senseless. And she’d always been cleverer than me. Not that I would ever admit to that aloud.
“Give us details,” Aiden said.
“Bermuda,” she said, breathing hard. “We are going to steal Poseidon’s seat. When we do, Artemis will raise Abigail to be her demi-god.”
“And the college kids?” I asked. “They are what … fodder?”
“Yes. She is training them to draw ether and wyther. Some of them could be proper mages some day, but few will live through this. She knows you will try to save some of them. You cannot help trying to play at being a hero.”
“That’s why you took the original syphon. Abigail plans to harness their raw energy for when you go up against Poseidon.”
“You already knew that,” Victoria said, smiling so broadly her expression looked crazed. “Are you just toying with me now, Liamorandus? Making me feel good for old time’s sake?” She arched her back as if in pleasure, making her torso do interesting things.
“My turn.” Aiden pushed me aside to stand looming over Victoria. “Where is Abigail now?’
“She made sure that I did not know in case this happened.” Enough sweat beaded on her forehead to drip down her cheek.
“Fuck,” Aiden said. “Of course the cunt-wrangler would have planned for this.”
“Such lovely language,” Victoria said, “and for your own sister.”
He aimed a finger in warning at Victoria’s nose. “That abomination is not my sister. My sister died over a century ago at the hands of your master.”
“Where is her main base of operations?” I asked.
“Off world, on a planet called Adaer. Only a wyther gate can take you there and from specific bridge points.” Her gaze drifted beyond me and Aiden. She smiled as if seeing someone else. “Don’t worry. I only told them what you ordered me to.”
“What does that mean?” Aiden demanded as I asked, “Where are the bridge points?”
She laughed. “Old tricks work both ways,” she said almost to Aiden, but her eyes drifted upward as if seeing someone taller. “You never were good at chess. Well, you could never beat me at least. No. You’re wrong there. He still loves me. It’s in his eyes.”
“Shit,” Aiden said. “We are going to lose her soon. Anything else you want out of her before we do?”
I nodded and turned back. “One last question.” I could not help myself. I needed to know. “What you said before, about Abigail having my blood and your reasons for bonding to Artemis, was it true?”
Sweat poured down her face. Her head swiveled toward me, sobering somewhat. She struggled to keep her eyes open as she looked up at me and labored to speak. “Every. Word. I …”
Her eyes rolled into her skull, and her head lulled to the side. Her breathing came in the slow, steady breaths of someone in deep sleep. As I looked down at her, my heart did backflips in my stomach. I felt ill.
I had never loved anyone like I had her. She had sacrificed everything she believed in to save me. And I had done this to her. I fell to my knees and wretched my guts on the floor. When I was finished, I could feel Aiden standing over me.
He offered me a handkerchief. “Clean up. We need to get her to the Collective.”
Where they would kill her. He didn’t say it, but I could see the conviction in his eyes. Gods damn it, but I could not let them kill her. I just couldn’t. But what choice did I have?
If I turned against the Collective, they would hunt me as if I had not given two centuries to the cause. This was Victoria. She had been the best of us. Maybe there was a way to save her, break the bond with Artemis. The Collective said it was impossible, but how hard had they tried? If I took her in, I could spend all the influence I had trying to save her.
What in hades should I do?
What do you think Liam should do?
A.) She was telling the truth. She turned against the Collective to save him. Liam needs to go against the Collective’s directive to bring Victoria in and try to save her instead.
B.) Had that been pain in her eyes at the end? Yeah, she was lying. Liam isn’t thinking straight. He needs to do his job and take her in.