Have you ever tried to walk on your foot after it falls asleep? There’s a second or two when it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. There is a sense of terror at the alien sensation that your limbs are not your own. Imagine this being your entire body, only instead of not supporting your weight, your feet are moving on their own.
My head still worked, but my body was firmly controlled by Loki. I could talk, or like Aiden beside me, scream and shout profanities. But I could not force my legs to stop walking. They carried my body forward on floating steps up to the monolithic house.
We were marched into the capacious living space of Loki’s mansion. Three expensive-looking couches of white fur surrounded a fireplace. Several pillows of varying shades of purple rested atop the plush cushions. The room opened to a fully stocked bar and kitchenette. Other than that, I could see nothing more of the home. Two doorways on the west wall were ten feet off the ground with two mirroring them on the east. Another darkened opening was in the ceiling above us. With Loki’s power, he could fly more easily than Aiden or I. Why not eliminate stairs?
Aiden sauntered over to the fire and bent over, slowly picking up the poker. Still bending over, he shoved the poker into the smoldering wood and wiggled it around. Fire flared to life. Aiden returned the poker and sat on the nearest couch, crossing one leg over the other. You have to admire his dedication to the craft of colorful expletives. Not once did he stop his stream of cursing, some of it directed at me for getting him into this, but most going toward Loki.
I staggered, nearly tripping but caught myself before hitting the floor. My body was mine again. Just as abruptly as it had begun, I could move freely.
“Please,” Loki said, gesturing beside Aiden. “Have a seat.”
I hesitated. He could have simply placed me where he wanted me, like he had Aiden. Why give me a choice? Rather than provoke him further, I decided to sit. The throw rug was a foreign animal of some sort. The head was still attached, mouth open as if roaring. The teeth still looked sharp. I stepped over the head and sat next to Aiden.
“Abominable snowman,” Loki said. “Also called a yeti. It is from earth, actually. Long ago.”
“Great,” Aiden said. “Can we have our bodies back now?”
“It’s already done.”
Aiden looked perplexed. Then he uncrossed his legs and stood.
“Don’t be naughty again,” Loki said. “Or I will have to bend you over my knee and spank that tush.”
Aiden’s face paled. He plopped back down next to me and spoke through gritted teeth. “What do you want from us?”
I did not feel even a spark of ether as Loki disappeared and reappeared on the sofa across from us. He sat with his legs crossed and hands atop one another on his knee, straight-backed, head cocked to the side.
“We are going to do one another a solid,” he said. “This is for your good as well as mine.”
“Define this,” I said, trying not to let the agitation bleed into my voice. I failed. “The theatrics are getting old.”
“You are just no fun at all.” He waved a hand. “Fine, fine. But first, tell me what you want with Theseus’s Soul Breaker.”
“His what now?” I asked.
“The artifact we are stealing,” Aiden said. “It’s called a Soul Breaker.”
“It can unmake any pattern or bond,” Loki said. “It can also unravel a person’s essential pattern, effectively destroying their existence. They are illegal everywhere in the universe. Theseus has the only sanctioned Soul Breaker under his protection.”
They say love is blind, but maybe I rushed into this. I mean, I did not exactly ask what we were after. I just wanted to save Victoria. In hindsight, I should have at least made Aiden clarify what exactly we planned to steal.
I looked at Aiden. “What the fuck, man?”
“Don’t look at me like that. I told you it was likely suicide to come here.”
“And then you neglected to mention we were planning to steal the one artifact in the universe capable of permanently destroying a person’s soul.”
He shrugged. “You didn’t ask.”
I was going to kill him.
“Boys, boys,” Loki said, as my hands reached for his throat. “Can we please return to the discussion at hand? Afterward, I’d be happy to give you boys some lube and let you wrestle it out.”
“Right,” I said, pulling my hands back. I didn’t say that won’t be happening because I did not want Loki to take my declaration as a challenge. He could, after all, force us into a kiddy pool filled with jello, and there was little we could do to stop him. So instead, I sat up straighter, trying to appear as dignified as he somehow looked and added, “Please, continue.”
“You were telling us me why you want the Soul Breaker.”
“Not to break any souls,” Aiden said. “And that is all the explanation you’ll get. Tell us what you want or we are done here.”
Loki looked at Aiden like he was a kitten stretching his claws. From the smirk, he still might just pet him.
“After we are done with it,” I assured him. “we will bury it under the protection of the Collective. Gods and other denizens have tried and failed to take us on for thousands of years and failed. We can protect it. That is all you’ll get from us on that matter. Can we talk business now?”
“Of course.” Loki shrugged a shoulder as if he hadn’t really cared what we did with it. His voice remained nonchalant. “The short of it is, I will acquire this Finder Ship for you. In return, you will take me back to earth in a dimensional pocket.”
Aiden and I simply stared at him for a few moments. Then we looked at each other. There was a rare mental exchange between the two of us, where we were both solidly on the same page. If the new Pantheon realized we were harboring someone they’d exiled, we’d essentially become more of a target than we already were. That was why Loki had been irritated when I realized he was not in Atlantis by choice.
“You want us to smuggle you to Earth?” I said, trying to stall. How do you tell a god who can make you dance like a puppet to kiss your ass?
“Smuggle is such an ugly word,” he said. “Think of it more like carrying a deadly secret on your back that just so happens to live and breathe.”
“Not possible,” Aiden said. “Every god on Earth would know.”
“Nope. I’ll be riding in this.”
He held out his hand and a silver chain appeared. A round locket dangled at the end. He opened it to reveal a tiny picture of a castle, similar to the one we’d seen from the street outside his compound. I did not feel an ounce of ether or wyther coming from it.
“It looks like an ordinary locket.” Aiden asked, “How would we carry you in that?”
“I know evocation is not your strong suit,” Loki said, “what with the pulling dimensional energies from other worldly places. Feels too Lovecraftian for most earthlings. However, you can create entire mini-universes and stuff them into a pocket like this one. The reason it does not resonate as an arrium is because it is not a simple magical artifact. It is a doorway into a realm I created specifically for the purpose of returning to earth via a mule.”
“Just like this place,” I said, gesturing to the house. “It’s how you can maintain the illusion without people noticing. It’s literally just a projection of lights on the surface of the covering surrounding the pocket dimension. What is it? A dome wall?.”
He clapped, giggling while he did. “Very good.”
A doggie bowl appeared in my hand. Inside was a chocolate-chip cookie. I frowned, placing the bowl beside me on the couch.
“We won’t do it,” Aiden said. “Keep us here forever if you must, but it will not get you what you want.”
“When I said mule earlier, I meant stubborn ass.” Loki lifted a hand and made a dainty slapping motion. Aiden’s head whipped to the side as a small smacking sound struck his cheek. “Bad mule.”
Aiden started to rise, but I put a hand on his forearm. I mean, seriously, the guy was too easily provoked.
“Let’s talk it out,” I said. “You may be able to control us here, but you cannot make us do anything out there. If we do not truly agree, you won’t be able to trust us. We could just throw your locket aside after we get the Finder Ship.”
“True. But we will be formalizing our agreement with a blood oath. You fuck me.” He winked at Aiden. “I fuck you.”
“Never do it,” Aiden insisted.
I agreed that it was a bad idea. But that’s sort of all we had at this point. We could help Victoria or we could help Loki. Hell, we could go for broke and help them both, even though they were strong-arming us into compliance.
We had too many bad options to see another way through this.
“If we help you,” I said, slowly, “you’ll leave us out of your plans on earth. That isn’t up for negotiation.”
“Certainly, with the caveat that you carry me for thirty-one days. I will not intentionally burden you with my schemes beyond that. By then, your Collective will have dealt with this new Pantheon.”
“I’m not saying I’m going along with this,” Aiden said, “but if we do agree, you’ll give the Collective all the information you have on this new coalition of the gods.”
“Of course,” he said. “I would be glad to service you however I can.”
“We should at least see what Victoria wanted us to steal,” I said, opening the folder she’d given us. The first page had the item she wanted us to take. The rest of the pages were the schematics she’d promised would get us in and out. Of course, none of them would be of any use if Victoria informed Theseus of our plans to rob him. If we did the heist early in an attempt to double-cross her, she would rat us out in a heartbeat.
“What is the heart of the minotaur?” I asked, holding up the top page.
“That’s what she’s after?” Loki said, clearly amused. “Funny.”
“Why is it funny?” Aiden asked. “What does it do?”
“The very first minotaur, Asterion, was the love child of Queen Pasiphae and a bull. When the first bull-man died, Theseus took Asterion’s heart and infused its essential pattern into an arrium that would allow him to grant a human the power of the minotaur.”
“The power of the minotaur?” I asked. “As in … turn someone into one?”
“Likely, but it is unclear if that is the intended purpose,” Loki admitted. “As far as anyone knows, it has never been used.”
“Why does Victoria want it then?” Aiden asked.
“Rather,” I said. “Why does Artemis want it?”
“I am a god, not the Allmother,” Loki said. “Ask Her. Better yet, agree to my terms, then when we get back to Earth, you can ask Artemis yourself.”
“Aiden and I need to talk. Alone.”
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll just go into the other room. I promise not to listen.”
“And I have beach property at the edge of Atlantis. I’ll sell it to you at a steal,” Aiden said. “We are going back to Starbucks. We will discuss our options and get back to you.”
“Fine,” he said, voice petulant. “If you are not back in an hour, I’m going to reach out to Theseus. It’s been ages since I’ve had him over for dinner. There is so much to catch up on.”
Great. Not so subtle threat noted.
Loki snapped a finger. Aiden and I found ourselves standing in front of the compound, staring at the white castle again.
Aiden sagged with relief. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“Wait,” I said.
“Gods damn you,” Aiden said. “We need to put some distance between us and that psychopath. And fast. You cannot seriously be considering his proposal.”
“Do we have a choice?” I asked. “Victoria will likely double-cross us when she gets this minotaur heart. She doesn’t want us to go back to earth. Why would she, knowing we plan to stop her?”
Aiden stared at me for several long seconds. “Can we go somewhere else to talk about all this?”
“Sure,” I said.
He stormed off. I followed. We meandered for a while, stopping at a different Starbucks on a busy intersection and ordered more coffee. Aiden hadn’t lied. His purse was quite full, so I let him pay. Likely, we could afford a decent room. There was no way we would be staying with Loki, seeing as how we were little more than thralls in his domain.
We rounded a corner and both erected a sound shield as well as anti-scrying wards. We could not stop someone with godlike power, but we would at least know if someone tried to listen.
Sipping my coffee, I resolved to let Aiden speak first. After all, I had gotten him into this. And he was clearly too irritated to speak rationally.
Eventually, he calmed and said, “We are so fucked.”
“I mean,” he continued, “we could just go in now, get the Soul Breaker and take our chances with the Ferryman. He never said he would not ferry us again, right?”
“But how can we pay him? We already owe him a hundred years of service. He has our blood. And we owe him a favor. What can we give him that he would take? And if he says no, Victoria will go straight to Theseus and tell him where to find us, at which point, we will be faced with traversing Fae on our own to avoid a very gruesome, public death here.”
“I bet Theseus has a Map,” Aiden said. “We could take it too.”
“That is a big IF to gamble our lives on.”
“If we take Loki back to Earth, we are essentially encouraging a god war. Worse, we are picking the losing side from the gate.”
Again, I nodded. “Only if anyone finds out. If we took Loki straight to the Collective, they could contain him in a Faridarian Shell and lock him away for good.”
From the mischievous gleam in Aiden’s eyes, I could see that was definitely an attractive option. Then his hope died. He frowned. “The blood oath will likely preclude us from going to the Collective while we carry him.”
“True,” I said. “But there might be a way to have them come to us.”
“He’s the gods damned Trickster God. If we thought of it, he has as well.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Aiden was right. We could not outwit Loki. Not on our own. Not when he had the advantage of knowing how fucked we were.
We both sipped our coffees for a while, not saying anything. I wracked my brain, trying to come up with alternatives. Maybe there was a way out of this neither of us had thought of. If there was, I could not see it. By the look in Aiden’s eyes, he could not either.
“Look,” I said. “I got us into this, so you should decide what comes next. It’s up to you. What the fuck should we do? Whatever you choose, I’m in.”
Rather than looking relieved, Aiden’s lips thinned into a tight frown. He sat that way until finishing his coffee then looked up at me with resignation in his expression.
VOTE on what you think Aiden should choose!