I’ve faced all manner of creatures in my time. I’ve mentioned the minotaurs. I’ve also hunted vampires, ghouls, ghasts and other undead most people have never heard of, like Drauger—which are strong like titans and intelligent enough to have motivations, such as destroy all living beings. The Lich King Chitragupta gained power by consuming the ethereal energy of the living. Despite eating many of my fellows, I fought that bastard to a stalemate, then participated in banishing him from earth for the next 152 years.
Demons are chaotic and devils are wily, and both are often enthralled to a wythermage. With the help of Aiden, Victoria, and Abigail—before the latter two lost their damn minds and bonded themselves to a goddess—we took out a score of demons from the realm of Dubnos, along with the summoner who called them.
I killed a titan off the Gulf of Bothnia, a Cerubus Mount Giona, Greece, and a Wyvern above the Aegean Sea. In all these cases and dozens more like them, I had been prepared to do battle. Even when outmatched, I had never been out-gunned.
The Ferryman held his power, watching us with unimaginable intensity. I did not move. Beside me, Aiden clutched my elbow as if urging me to do something. There were several arrium inside the bag at my feet that might offer us a chance to survive this, but reaching for them might get us killed.
Diplomacy. That’s what we needed. Sure, we broke his one rule, but he was a reasonable sort of guy and he had not blasted us to ashes yet. There was a chance he would talk, right?
“So,” I said, hoping better words would form in my mind and make their way to my lips. They didn’t. “Uh … can we talk about this?”
The Ferryman stood there, seeing beyond our flesh. He stared as if counting every molecule of my being. Then his gaze moved onto Aiden before settling back on me. This went on for some time. I once again considered going for a weapon and rejected it. Instead, I readied myself to throw a quick shield spell, hoping it would at least stop some of the force of whatever hell he called up to rip us asunder.
“You have been claimed by a citizen of Atlantis, so I will not smite thee to oblivion,” the Ferryman said at last. “However, there will be a cost to your violation of my realm. You will both—”
“Claimed?” Aiden asked, “What do you mean claimed?”
Though I cringed at the Ferryman’s expression at being interrupted, I wanted the answer as well. Only the most powerful beings in the universe earned a place of permanent residence in Atlantis. These included every known god and goddess of earth, as well as the more powerful denizens of the inner realms of Fae. A Citizen of Atlantis was protected by the Atlantis Accords. As far as I knew, the only claim someone could have over us was if we were bonded to them. I knew I wasn’t, so … could it mean Aiden had been bonded all this time as well? Were Aiden and Abby working together? If so, how in hades had he hidden it from me? As much as I wanted to ask these questions, I bit my tongue—mostly due to the lightning storm of anger in the god-like being’s eyes, who happened to be glaring at us at the moment. Survive now, beat the answers out of Aiden later.
“You test my patience, child of earth. Do not interrupt me again.” The energy crackled around the Ferryman’s oar, emphasizing his aforementioned ability to smite us. “Understood?”
Aiden bit his tongue and nodded. Inwardly, I sighed in relief.
“As I was saying. You will both offer a task as payment for the passage of Victoria Cleopatra Deletante. Additionally, for smuggling an unwilling captive onto my boat, you will consign to me a drop of blood as collateral. Do you accept these terms?”
“Just for clarification,” Aiden asked, “is this our only option? I mean … how about another couple hundred years of service instead?”
“Blood and a favor,” the Ferryman said. “That is the deal.”
“And if we say no?” Aiden pressed.
“Claimed or not, you will find yourself in service to the River Styx far sooner than you planned.”
From the look in his eyes, I could tell Aiden was considering a fight or maybe just a follow-up question. Either way, I didn’t want to find out if the Ferryman would carry out his threat. Before Aiden could say something that would get us murdered violently, I said, “We will take the deal.”
“We will?” Aiden said.
“Yes,” I said between my teeth. “We will.”
Faster than I could track with my natural sight, the Ferryman produced a knife and stabbed the tip into my hand then Aiden’s arm. With a trickle of ether, a single drop of blood floated above my hand. Air solidified around the crimson drop and compressed it into a sphere. Likewise, Aiden’s blood floated over to the Ferryman and vanished inside his gray cloak. It all happened faster than my brain could register the sting of the cut on my skin.
“What favor?” Aiden asked, voice a bit sullen as he pressed a hand to the small cut in his bicep.
“You will know when I call you. Now get off my boat.”
He did not have to tell me twice. I all but hopped onto the black sand and hurried toward the gate that would take us to Atlantis. After getting well clear of the Ferryman, I gathered ether and healed the cut. Aiden didn’t bother. He stepped between me and the gate, squaring off for a fight.
“What did he mean, claimed?”
I pulled up short. “I was going to ask you the same thing.”
He drew much more ether than necessary to heal the small cut on his arm. I pulled in enough to match him.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Aside from saving your dumb ass from annihilation from a god?” I said, “I’m trying to figure out what the hell is going on here. Are you working with Abby and Victoria?”
“Don’t turn this around on me. I know I’m not bonded.”
“I’m not bonded,” I snapped.
“How did Victoria escape?” he countered.
“You put the shackles on her. You tell me.”
“And you gave her fucking pillows. I saw you. Don’t deny it.”
“It was dark. The stones are hard. I love her, you asshole.”
“Which is why you would bond yourself to Artemis. Gods damn it. I should have known.”
I held my hands wide. “I’m not fucking bonded. You would sense it, you dolt.”
By the same argument, I would sense his bond.
We stayed that way for sometime, both holding the ether, neither one moving, glowering at the other.
For those keeping count, I said there were 7 schools of magic, but I only explained 6 before. Essence magic—sometimes referred to as soul magic or kotodama—is volatile, and though not illegal, Grandmaster Tomoe Gozen of the Samurai Collective recruits all of his own students herself.
Essence magic is that art of burning a bit of the essential energy to create a permanent enchantment, charm, or effect. It is, by and large, the most powerful school of magic because the skill can be used to enhance any spell. Imagine creating a physical body that will never decay or a house that will stand for a million years. This is possible with essence magic. An essence, the soul, is eternal. It is made of stuff outside the effects of entropy and the wearing of time. Using it to power a spell is dangerous but lasting.
These spells empower the bonds that link a thrall to a master, which is why we have no way of severing the chains holding a bonded mage from their chosen deity. In theory, a talented mage could use essence magic to break such a bond, but even Grandmaster Gozen is not capable. Before becoming a member of the Collective, Grandmaster Gozen was a samurai to Yoshinaka in the twelfth century. Her dedication to her craft is inscrutable. She has vowed to remain living until she has found a way to sever the unbreakable bond. After over 900 years of trying, she has not succeeded.
There is a resonance to essence spells that can be sensed by a mage with even the smallest amount of talent. Either Aiden or myself would be able to tell if the other was bonded.
I sensed no such resonance on Aiden. I knew he sensed no such power over me.
With a sigh, I released my hold on the ether. Aiden did the same, likely for the same reasons. He confirmed as much by saying, “This is pointless. You are clearly not bonded.”
“And neither are you,” I said as a way of apology. “But what did he mean do you think?”
He shrugged. “Earthen magic is not the only power that exists in the multiverse.”
“True,” I agreed. “Perhaps there is Fae magic lingering on us or some other power we cannot detect.”
“That’s a sobering thought.” Aiden frowned and wiped at his cloak as if trying to brush off dirt. “Or it could simply be that an earth deity has placed us under their protection. It isn’t Artemis. Abigail already tried to kill us once or twice.”
“But did she? Think about it. Victoria was prepared for this. She slipped the shackles and waited until we had almost reached Atlantis.”
“She could not have slipped the shackles using the ether.”
“Then how? There is no lock to pick or seam to leverage.”
“That’s the million sterling question, isn’t it? But I think a more important question is why? What does she want in Atlantis? Do you think she is after the same artifact we are?”
“Not likely. She would have waited for us to risk our own necks then take it from us. After all, we thought she’d been properly cowed. And to think, I actually felt bad about locking her up.”
He snorted. “Of course you did. You’re soft. And when she’s concerned, you’re practically melted butter.”
“Melted butter? That’s the best you’ve got?”
“Not every zinger can properly zing. Besides, it’s been a long day. Gimme a break.”
“No such luck,” I said. “Day’s still gonna get longer.”
“What day is it anyway?”
“Tuesday still, I think.”
“As if it matters,” he said, turning toward the portal. “We aren’t going to figure any of this shit out standing here.”
“Right,” I agreed. “Let’s see what Victoria has waiting for us on the other side.”
Taking a few deep breaths, we stepped through the portal.