It had to be a dream.
Victoria’s hair was down, crimped and bed-worn. Her face was clean of cosmetics. She looked down at me, an expression of doubt and uncertainty in her eyes. Her grip on my bare shoulder was tender. I’d gone to bed clothed, but I must have lost my shirt sometime in the night. She moved her thumb over my skin in a familiar way. The only light emanated from a pendant she wore, making her face the only thing I could see.
She held a finger to her lips for me to stay quiet and spoke softly. “Artemis is focused elsewhere, so we do not have much time.”
“Time?” I said, still not certain this wasn’t a dream. “Focused elsewhere? Wait. How did you get past our wards?”
“You use the same ones we learned at the academy. It was very easy. But that is not your biggest concern. Or mine. Tomorrow, I am going to betray you.”
“What the fu—”
I sat up, but she pushed me back on the bed, holding me in place with a hand on my chest. “Just listen. You were right. Most of the time, Artemis is intruding in my thoughts. She controls me almost completely but in subtle ways. Her suggestions are compulsions, like an itch I need to scratch. If I choose not to, she can hurt me or, as you saw today, take over. I want free of her. There is a way for you to defeat her.”
“How can I trust a word you say?”
“I did not have to come here. You’ll understand more tomorrow, but I needed to warn you. Will you hear me out?”
I could feel the heat of her palm on my chest. “Yes.”
“After Artemis gets both artifacts, she—rather I—will set you up to be caught by Theseus and take Aiden to Abigail.”
“We expected some form of treachery,” I admitted. “Aiden and I might not be the strongest mages around, but you cannot possibly hope to defeat us both. We have a few tricks of our own.” I would not tell her about Loki, but he would have a vested interest at this point. If he doesn’t get us back to Earth, he’s thoroughly fucked. Aiden and I would receive a portion of his power. He will not let that happen.
“Artemis knows about Loki,” Victoria said. “She has a way to neutralize him.”
Fuck. I kept a straight face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“There’s no time for that. She knows. He will not be of any help to you.”
“She would implicate herself. We have the document.”
“Pixies swapped the document out after making the oath. You have a very close copy. When Theseus takes you, there will be no evidence of Artemis ever being involved.”
That posed a problem. “Still, she signed the oath. If she breaks it, she’s fucked.”
“My blood. My consequences for the failures. Artemis plans to sacrifice me to the oath.”
“But it’s her name on the document. She was there making the pledge.”
“With my body. My voice. Aiden is a fantastic lawyer both in metaphysics and in mortal logic. However, he could never have anticipated the nature of the bond. True, if we are still bonded when I betray you, Artemis would be bound to the document and suffer the consequences. That is why she will sever our bond after she compels me to burn you. I will not be able to stop it. When it’s done, she will be shielded from any backlash. Rather than let you return to Earth, she will sever our bond and sacrifice me for her gain.”
I could only stare at her. It all made sense now. Artemis’s smugness. It was all misdirection. We always assumed she would try to rob us of our free will. But those are our greatest fears. Artemis just needed us out of the way. We were cogs. No, worse. We were bots, carrying out our programming, and she was the designer. And gods, Victoria would suffer just as badly as we would. Maybe worse.
Meeting her gaze, I saw the fear and hope. She nodded, giving silent acknowledgment of my realization.
“You see it now?” she said, more statement than question.
“You’ll lose your power. It will break your mind. You could die.”
“And you will be killed as sport in Theseus’s arena. He might compel you to kill me or simply torture you as a spectacle. Artemis gets her second nexus, so do two other gods.”
“I do not know. Abigail does though. She’s been planning with Artemis, maneuvering for this moment for about 102 years. Your coming here is not by chance. She compelled you in very subtle ways. You and Aiden both. That’s their style. That is what the Gatekeeper sensed. Look for it. You’ll see what I am saying is true.”
I did not doubt her. “But how?”
“Your TA. Skyler. She’s one of Artemis’s Nymphs. Every time she touched you, tapped your hand or brushed your arm. It wasn’t flirtation. She was laying compulsion patterns.”
Yep, I’m a fucking idiot. “I never felt a thing.”
“She is quite good. You never had a chance. But you do now. If you make it back to Earth, you’ll find Abigail still in Tallahassee. Once they have their minotaur thralls, they will mount an assault on the Bermuda nexus by taking the lay line. It is in a place they call the gardens. It’s fairly isolated and not overly used. Do you know it?”
“Maclay Gardens. Aye. When?”
“Just after the plague reaches Miami. It will lock down conventional travel for a time.”
“Can you be more specific? What plague?”
“Right now, they are releasing a virus in China. Around the middle of March, the disease will reach Florida. This is a large part of her plan.”
I snorted. “That’s still six months away. That’s plenty of t—”
“No. That’s partly why she had me bring you here. You lost two and half earth-months going through the Antarctic portal. And then every day passing here is just under a month on Earth.”
I started racking my brain to determine exactly how long it’d been. “So, that’s about three and a half months. But, we’ll need through the end of today. Four and half months. It’s already December?”
“Yes. And going back through the Antarctic gate will cost another two and half months.”
“So, it’ll be February? If we are lucky.”
“Don’t count on being lucky.”
Could I have been so wrong about the timing? What about El Nina? More misdirection? It didn’t matter at the moment. I shook my head. “I can’t believe I didn’t feel that compulsion. Even now, I want to see Skyler and can’t be upset with her. I can smell her fucking hair.”
“She is a Nymph.” Victoria gave me a sympathetic half-smile. “You cannot second-guess yourself. Especially, not now. You did not look for a compulsion pattern because you were compelled to ignore it.”
She was right. I could massage my bruised ego later. “Thank you. For coming to me. It was risky.”
“Aye. But necessary. I should get back.”
As she started to go, I grabbed her arm. “Wait. Is that it? I mean, how will you betray me?”
“Artemis hasn’t told me the details yet, but I imagine, she will be controlling my body at the time. She knows I plan to resist. Which is why I do not know more.”
“And you are certain she cannot see us right now?”
“Yes. She is with the other gods. That’s the only time she cuts me off. The bond goes both ways. When she experiences strong emotions, I get glimpses of what she can sense. Rather than let me see her plans, she mutes the link.”
“What about Abigail? Is she cut off too?”
“She is becoming a demigod. When they take a second nexus, Artemis is gifting her with the control of it. In her name, of course. She is at the meeting, as well as the others who will become demigods.” Firmly but gently, she pulled her arm free. “I must go before they finish their gathering.”
“Why? Artemis will likely access your memories and see that you spoke to me. Right?”
“She will, but all she’ll find is a blank spot, as she does when I’m sleeping. I set a temporal mind fog to wipe away the last hour. Artemis will not know I was here. But I won’t remember any of this, just the desire to come to you in this way. Neither myself nor Artemis will know if I actually came.”
Despite it all, I smiled. “You were always so gods damned brilliant. And I love you. Always have, always will.”
Her eyes glistened. She gave me the same sad nod she gave at dinner. It was an expression of loss and hope. Her hand moved to my cheek. We sat like that for a time, exploring one another’s souls. I wanted desperately to kiss her, but I could not make myself move. I saw the same desire in her.
“And I you,” she said, at last. “But I must go. If you save us, we can finish this conversation.”
She removed her hand and backed away before I could object. “Reset your wards. Good luck tomorrow.”
And just like that, she was gone. I sat there, feeling the faint trace of heat on my face from where she’d touched me. My heart raced. My palms were sweaty.
I got out of bed and followed after her. The balcony was ajar, but there was no trace of her. Our wards were still up, except, the energy parted like a curtain where Victoria had come through. Closing the door, I reinforced our defenses with a mind trap. If someone managed to bypass the destructive barriers, they would find a subtle web designed to ensnare their thoughts waiting just inside the outer ward.
Aiden was asleep on the sofa, holding the schematics loosely in his hands. Stubborn bastard. Deciding it best to let him sleep, I went back into my dimensional pocket, gathered fresh clothes, all warded with defensive spells, as well as my attuning cloak. It was an arrium designed to magnify the effect of an invocation. If our heist devolved to a battle, we’d likely die horribly. But maybe, just maybe, being armed to the teeth would give us a chance to escape.
I showered and changed, then returned to the sofa. Aiden’s mouth was hanging open with a bit of drool falling from the corner of his mouth. I was tempted to leave him be, but I glanced to the clock. It was 00:07 hour (that’s 12:07 a.m. for you nutters who use a duodecimal—base 12—time model).
I gave him a gentle shake and stepped way back. He woke up swinging. And cursing. The fog left his eyes, and he focused on me. Readying a snarl, he opened his mouth but stopped. His forehead scrunched up.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
So I told him, leaving out nothing. The moment I finished he took hold of my head, in both hands. I felt ether and a moment later, wyther. He began cursing. This went on for several minutes.
“Hmm?” Aiden said.
“Tell me about Victoria again.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Anything. Just talk.”
I did as he asked, focusing mostly on my conversation with Victoria tonight. My thoughts drifted to what might happen if I was able to get us out of this mess. How could I return her to good standing with the Collective?
Then, without warning, I felt a flash of pain, quickly followed be a release of pressure I had not known was there.
“Ow,” I complained.
“I’m not done. Stop moving. And that cunt Skyler. I knew I hated her for a good reason. Tell me about her.”
“Not much to tell,” I said. Then I told him about how I’d met her. Then the party. “She seemed so innocent and—Fuck!”
Searing pain lanced through my head. My vision waned. Slapping pain stung my cheek. I opened my eyes and glared at Aiden.
“She was telling the truth,” Aiden said. “It was wyther. Very subtle. Fucking god balls. You betrayed us. All this time. It was you.”
“We should have checked.”
“I did. When you were sleeping. I missed it. The Nymph who did this is very talented. She laced the neurons around your prefrontal cortex with a compulsory suppression spell. Any time you considered the consequences of your actions regarding Victoria, the spell would activate. At least, that’s what I think it did. But it’s gone now. The second one made you disregard Skyler as a threat. In time, you would have become her thrall.”
I felt a burst of ether, and sensed him add another layer to our wards.
“That’s not necessary,” I said. “There’s no reason—”
“The hell it’s not,” he spat. “I’m not taking any chances the harlot won’t come back.”
“No. You were right before. We need—”
“Wait. Wait. Wait. Go back. What was that about me being right? I was right about so many things, you’ll need to elaborate. Which part are you referring to? Coming here being suicide? You being a sucker for a skirt? Rather, all the skirts? Or about moving at dawn?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I made many mistakes. But you are right about going in sooner, rather than later. But we need to move before dawn. We need to go now.”
“Can’t. Their wards are far superior than ours and backed by arrium.”
“I have a plan for that.”
“I’m listening,” he said.
“You are not going to like it.”
“Expectations managed. Check. What’s the fucking plan?”
“We have to get ahead of Artemis, right? We both agree going when she expects us to is a bad idea.”
“Aye,” he said, voice clipped with impatience. “But I’m not seeing an argument for a better plan.”
“There is a shift change at 01:00 hours,” I said. “We are going to capture two minotaurs before they enter the castle grounds and replace them.”
“You’re right. I don’t like it. We have to wait ‘til dawn.”
“Artemis knows that is the best play. If we want to get ahead of her, we cannot wait.”
“It isn’t the best play. It’s the only play. Even if we could nab two minotaurs without being noticed, we still would need to impersonate them. Polymorph isn’t perfect. There will be differences.”
“Aye, but we know their schedules and routines. Once inside, we can make our way to the vault.”
“But not their names or interests, who fucks who or any gossip. The first conversation we attempt will blow our cover.”
“Have you met a minotaur?” I asked. “What about their behavior leads you to believe they are a bunch of chatter boxes?”
“Fine. They probably won’t notice us once we are inside. But we cannot just nick a pair of guards.” I started to speak but he held a hand up. “But I don’t think that is necessary. I’m not saying I agree with this insane plan. But hypothetically, all we need to polymorph is the hair of a minotaur. Any minotaur. Than we can use a glamour to change our appearance to match one of the castle guards. Less messy that way.”
I nodded. And even though I already knew the answer, I asked. “But where are we going to get the hair of a minotaur?”
“The same place they serve the nectar of the gods.”
“Starbucks,” I said with a smile.
“Exactly. We saw a disproportionate number of minotaurs, mostly those in guard uniforms earlier. It won’t be difficult to pluck a few hairs. And we both need coffee.”
“No abduction necessary, but we still move now,” I said, thinking it over. “Yeah. Okay. That works. We do it your way.”
“You sure? I mean. We could do it your way still and die more quickly.”
“I’m agreeing with you, asshat. Are you really still arguing with me?”
“This was hypothetical, remember? Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing here. You knew polymorph would be more logical than attempting to abduct a pair of ether-immune cow-men. But you wanted me to argue so that I’d think the idea was mine. So who’s the asshat?”
“I’m sorry,” Liam said. “You’re right. But this is the best play.”
“You are sorry. But, you’re also not wrong. Come on. Let’s get some coffee.”