We stepped through the archway onto black sand, speckled with glowing gems, no larger than a single karat. As mere mortal earthlings, we have learned to think of a river as a flowing body of water bounded between two masses of land. The River Styx seemed endless. White waters rested against the banks. Ripples reverberated across the otherwise still surface, so completely unlike an ocean’s waves, it felt fake—as if made via computer for a B-film.
A cloaked figure stood by the water’s edge with its back to us. The cloak was a faded gray, as if it had once been black. Not tattered exactly, but the hem was frayed and dragged the sand as the figure turned toward us. I was surprised by the young face looking at us. His midnight black hair spilled from his cowl covering his pale cheeks. Ancient eyes of gold watched our approach with a predatory hunger.
I could still feel ether and wyther in abundance. Much of it came from the River Styx and the sand at our feet. But a vibrant source of power radiated from the figure as well, easily the equal of Aiden and me and maybe five or six more mages together.
I felt like a rabbit walking into a lion’s den of its own Darwin-award winning free will. I was aware of each step in the dark sand. The walk felt like a mile. Don’t fucking trip. That was the only thought I could make go through my brain. Over and over. I resisted the urge to glance back to see how far we had gone, but I dared not take my eyes from the Ferryman. Such an innocuous sounding name, like the gardener or chef. Seriously, someone needs to correct this oversight for the history books.
As we neared, the Ferryman seemed to grow taller, so much so that I had to crane my neck to look up at him. If I had to guess I would say 11 or 12 feet tall. Though any ethermage could cast a spell to grow like that, no lingering magic hung to him. He was clearly not human. The thin angular face and golden eyes suggested a Fae race, an elf maybe. Whatever he was, I wanted to pull in a little ether and grow to his size, then I’d be able to meet his gaze straight on. I’d feel less like prey, but he might take it as a challenge. The buzz of power surrounding him, I did not want that. Besides, I was not that petty. Thank the Allfather and the rest of the gods, Aiden wasn’t either. At least not at the moment.
The Ferryman showed his teeth in what might have been a smile. “What brings you to my shore, children of earth?”
Aiden stepped half a step forward. “We wish to bargain for passage across Fae, to the lands of Atlantis.”
“Of course,” he said, predatory smile increasing. “Are you prepared to pay the toll?”
There was an inauspicious quality to his tone. Something in it suggested, he would not tell us the price if we asked. Which made me want to ask. Maybe we could negotiate for better terms. But Aiden spoke first.
“We are. We pledge service upon our death.” Aiden swallowed, a slight quiver to his voice as he added, “One hundred earth years each.”
The Ferryman gave a slight incline to his head. “Payment accepted. Please, come this way.”
He gestured toward the white ocean. The water parted like mercury on glass, revealing an old wooden dinghy with a single oar attached to the side. Not more than five meters across, the vessel looked tiny next to the endless white waters. I felt a pit rise in my stomach as we followed him onto the boat. The wood creaked beneath our feet.
“So … uh,” Aiden said. “You ever consider upgrading? I know this guy who could get you a helluva deal on a yacht.”
“I have no need of mortal luxuries. But thank you for your kindness.” I swear he smiled as he said, “You will want to sit down.”
The moment his fingers wrapped around the pole, the boat lurched away from the shore. We sat our not-so-happy assess on the wooden plank at the rear of the dinghy. A sphere of energy surrounded us just before the vessel descended into the white substance—calling it water now felt completely absurd. It swirled against the invisible barrier as we hurtled through at Loki only knew what speed.
Aiden leaned over and whispered, “Feels like a ley, eh?”
Extending my senses out, I realized that was exactly what it felt like. We could travel through the River in a similar fashion to the leys. Only, the Ferryman made use of the currents, changing directions at will. We had no such control of the ley lines. We hopped in and off like hobos getting on and off an already moving train. This showed a mastery beyond our capability.
“Sure,” I said, at last. “Just like the leys.”
Aiden gave me a tight smile. And for once, the bastard looked as queasy as I felt. We rode in silence for some time. I tried and failed to quiet my mind.
We were on our way to a Fae world to steal from a being more powerful than any human in a land—though neutral—mostly hostile to human ethermages. If we managed to avoid getting killed by the various denizens of Atlantis, we would be at the Ferryman’s mercy to get home. Again, I wish we would have negotiated. Perhaps, the hundred years would have paid for a return trip. I mean … it seems kinda steep for a simple boat ride—
Power flared from within my dimensional pocket. It hadn’t come from me. Victoria was in there. But she was held by shackles of negation. She couldn’t have. Could she?
The Ferryman’s back stiffened. He turned to look at me, those golden eyes simmering with anger. “Are you attempting to smuggle a soul across my river?”
“What?” I said, voice far shriller than I would have liked. “No. It is not like that. She is a prisoner. A criminal.”
“Bring her forward.”
“If I may interject—” Aiden began, but the Ferryman lifted a finger, cutting off Aiden’s protests.
“Bring. Her. Forward.”
“At once,” I said, pulling my pack off my back. The sides of the boat were not large enough to secure an opening, so I handed the backpack to Aiden, who held it open without being asked. His fingers trembled slightly as he lifted it.
The fear in his eyes mirrored my own. This was not going to end well. I mean … I had a girl tied up in my basement. Thank all the gods and their kids I had given her those pillows and tried to make her comfy, or someone might get the wrong idea.
I gathered ether and lifted the rug and stone by the fireplace. Rather than lift her, I rearranged the stones to make a staircase up.
“Vic,” I called, using my old moniker for her in hopes to sound less like a serial killer and more like a normal guy helping his old friend out. “Would you please come up here?”
There was a slight whimper and a shuffling of bare feet on stone. What the actual fuck?
Victoria emerged from the darkened hole looking far more haggard than when I’d left her. Her v-neck was missing several green sequins and was ripped, exposing much of her torso and part of her breasts, which she covered with both arms. Likewise, her black leggings appeared as if they’d been torn from her and hastily replaced. She held her eyes downcast, not meeting anyone’s gaze. There were welts on her wrists where the shackles had been. Had been. Past tense.
Fuck. Yeah. We were dead.
She scampered from the dimensional pocket, stumbling to the deck and looking up at the Ferryman, eyes filled with fear and hope. She deserved a gods damned Emmy for that performance.
“It’s not what it looks like,” Aiden said. I could hear the panic in his voice, which made us appear even more guilty. “She’s a prisoner of the Collective.”
“What is your name, child of earth?”
She lifted her chin. Her bottom lip quivered. And she produced actual gods damned tears as she said, “I am Victoria Cleopatra Deletante. And these men … hurt me.”
“She’s a bonded mage,” Aiden said. “We were—”
“I do not recognize her name from my list of fugitives. Do you have documents for her bounty?”
He said documents and bounty with a lowercase “d” and “b”, but Bounty Documents were universally recognized magical writs for a person’s transportation across Fae. Such universally recognized criminals had broken the Accords of Atlantis.
I was going to elaborate upon this when we reached Atlantis, but before you can truly understand the shit-storm about to come our way, you had to understand a bit of the politics of the ancient realm of the Fae.
Atlantis is far more than a city. It is the oldest civilization in the universe. It’s rules and mandates supersede all others in regards to the Fae Realm. Think of it like a militant Switzerland. Though technically neutral, they have the power and ability to take over the multiverse but choose not to get involved in the local affairs of a given world unless individual members violate their laws. Such people get assigned bounties and get hunted down to be returned to Atlantis, where the pantheon metes out Justice—which incidentally is how Ino got tasked with guarding the gate to the River Styx.
The River is the Ferryman’s seat of power, similar to the nexuses on Earth. For all intents and purposes, he is a god with his own domain. Unlike the gods of Earth, the Ferryman does not bond mages in search for more power. He creates indentured servants of the dead, all tasked with ferrying souls to their assigned afterlife. Of the living, he requires only a single favor, far better than a lifetime of servitude required by the Earthen pantheon, from Artemis to Zeus. But I digress.
In his domain, the Ferryman gets to set his own rules. He has only one: all travelers seeking passage across the River must pay a toll. None shall pass without negotiating with him. Stowaways will not be tolerated.
“We do not have Bounty Documents,” I said at last. “She is a criminal of Earth. Not Atlantis.”
“Then she is free to go.”
Seeing his expression, I could tell Aiden would argue. I put a hand on Aiden’s wrist to indicate he should shut the fuck up. Thank Amaethon, goddess of luck, he did. But he did cast me an, “this is all your fault,” expression that could have also been, “go fuck yourself, you bloody wanker.”
“Th-thank you,” Victoria said, standing and limping over toward the Ferryman.
“Which side of the River do you wish to depart company with these earthlings.”
“Earth,” she said, “but can I catch my breath for a few days in Atlantis.”
“Aye,” he said, somehow glaring at both Aiden and me simultaneously. “These two will pay for your passage.”
“Pay how?” Aiden asked.
The Ferryman turned back to his ore without responding. I shared a look with Aiden. The anger had drained from his face, along with the color. His pale cheeks were pallid. He chewed his lip and turned away from me.
To Victoria’s credit, she continued the role for the remainder of the trip, avoiding eye-contact with anyone. But I could read her better than anyone. She kept her gaze down so no one could see the smirk in her eyes.
Yeah. I’m an idiot. That’s not in debate at the moment. I saw it all so clearly now. Abigail baiting me back to the Eternal War. Victoria going to that party. Her getting captured. All of it had been planned. Like a love-sick puppy, I licked the heel of my masters. Victoria wiggled her toes, and I came running. Why? What was her end game?
She had wanted to come to Atlantis. That was certain. And she’d gotten me and Aiden to get her across the River for free. Her ride back was on us as well. But what did she want here? Surely not Theseus’s artifact. If that was the case, she would want to work with us, or at the very least wait to Houdini her way free after we got the thing.
We came to a stop. The shell opened, revealing the white surface of the River Styx once more. The boat came to another shore, virtually identical to the one we’d left. Only, the gems sparkling in the sand gave off a deep blue glow rather than a white luminescence, and there were thirteen different gates, each with complex formulae covering them.
The Ferryman’s voice was cold. “Give her some coins for food and lodging.”
One glance at Aiden told me he would rather die than pay a pence.
“Of course,” I said, pulling the purse from a pocket of my cloak. I fished out a small handful, dropping the heaviest ones back inside the coin bag.
Fingers trembling—seriously, how the hell did she do that on cue?—she reached out and took my coins.
The Ferryman pointed to the middle arch. “Atlantis is that one.”
Once her foot stepped onto the sand, he turned toward us, his back to Victoria. He did not see her triumphant grin. Nor did he see her mouth, “Thanks, bitches.”
But I did. And so did Aiden.
After she disappeared through the portal, the Ferryman turned his gaze on us, seeming to grow even taller. He pulled his cowl down. Long pointed ears emerged from his hair. He drew power. Energy crackled around him, like a Tesla coil.
I’d like to say that I stood tall and brave in the face of my impending doom. In truth, I nearly pissed myself.