Starbucks in Atlantis is open 24 hours. It was almost enough to make me want to stay. Too bad I’ll never be able to return here after all this is done. Even if we were successful and did not get caught, simple paranoia would never allow me to come back here. I do not wish to live in fear, always looking over my shoulder. Makes me feel a bit of empathy for bonded mages on Earth, hiding from the Collective.
Even now, sitting here at our corner table, I could not help but feel as though we were being watched by the group of minotaurs standing at the back of the queue. After all, they were a mistrustful sort, and in this case, they had a right to be suspicious. We were, after all, trying to steal some of their hair so we could use it to take their identities and burgle their ruler.
Three of them stood there, not looking at each other or scanning the room. Their big cow-eyes just stared at the giant menu behind the bar.
“You are up,” Aiden said. “You need some coins?”
“Nah. I’ll get this round. It’s definitely my turn. You got all the beers.”
We both spoke just loudly enough that anyone paying us attention could hear. We’d been sitting here staring at the menu for half an hour or so, trying to pass off as tourists going to a Starbucks for the first time. I hurried to the queue, cutting in front of the couple who’d entered, moving just fast enough not to be rude as I cut them off. I turned and gave them an apologetic smile, as if my getting their first was an accident. The male kobold stared at me, lips pulling back from his teeth revealed his sharp canines. Was that a smile? Or was he growling?
Damn it. Now I’d have the worry of being seen. I turned back to my task. This required a delicate touch. Staring at the minotaur’s back, I could see several hairs across the shoulders of his uniform. I cupped my hand at my belly and focused my will.
I channeled the barest amount of ether. Just that moment, the queue moved. The minotaur stepped up. And I missed the hairs. I bit down a curse. Shuffling forward, I steadied my breath and tried again. I grasped the hairs on thin strands of air and pulled them to my palm. I’d gotten three of the hairs. They were short and brown. There was an unstoppered vial in my cloak pocket. Rather than try to needle them into it with my fat fingers, I used ether to place them in and cork it.
If I felt eyes on me before, I was beside myself now. But rather than glance about, I continued staring forward until the line moved again. Then I turned my head to the right and stared at the abstract painting as though I was interested, using the opportunity to observe the room from my periphery. No one appeared to be looking at me. Except the kobolds behind me. Their expressions of malcontent had not changed.
The queue moved again. The minotaurs were next to order, and I still needed one more sample. Though I had enough strands to turn us, twin minotaurs would likely stand out. And what if we needed more time? One strand would burn out in an hour or so.
The barista was not looking directly at me, but if she was sensitive to ether, she might see me. I shifted my weight to the other leg, leaning enough to put the minotaur between myself and her. Then I used a thin strand of ether to grab reddish hairs from the other minotaur. One had been attached. The minotaur flinched and slapped at his neck. I held my breath as he half-turned toward me.
I mean, on Earth, plucking hairs from someone likely would not even be a crime. However, here, everyone understood the significance of an ethereal pattern (such as that laced into DNA). Plucking a few hairs from someone took on an entirely new intent when those strands could be used to place a curse on a living person or to bind them to a cause. Or, as we intended, used to replicate that person and wear their body like a mask.
If the minotaur saw the hairs on my palm, he didn’t say anything. Instead, he frowned then turned back to the barista, placing his order.
And I breathed again, pocketing the hairs as I had the others.
Just as I stoppered the second vial, I felt heat on my ear as a gruff voice whispered, “What do you plan to do with those hairs, poppet?”
I turned to see the male kobold staring at me. He was no longer glaring. His short dog-like snout could only be called smug, like fido having bested the cat and stolen all the treats. The female kobold gave the same expression.
“Don’t know what you mean?” I said in even a lower whisper than his.
“Perhaps we should ask them?” he nodded toward the minotaurs as they moved toward the end of the bar. The red-haired one was looking at us, quizzically.
“Next,” the barista said.
I was more than happy to jump up to the register. “Venti Soy Latte and Venti Mocha, please.”
“Earth milk on that mocha?” she asked.
“That comes to 3 gold, 8 silver.”
Jesus. Should have let Aiden pay the tab. I fished out 4 gold coins—worth about $2000 or €1700 an ounce—and handed them over. She gave a gold coin back to me. In Atlantis, 1 gold = 100 silver pieces. I knew the right thing to do was to drop that in her tip jar. I did. But it hurt. Essentially, I just bought her a used car or a plane ticket to damn-near anywhere on Earth.
“Thanks,” she said with a smile.
As I moved away, the male kobold shadowed me, while his companion stepped up to order. He stood inside my personal bubble, that understood invisible space that belongs to just me and follows me everywhere I go. He smelled like wet fur.
I tried not to glance at the minotaurs who had taken a table near Aiden, but I must have failed because the kobold nodded toward them. He no longer whispered as he said in a proper Cockney accent. “Suppose they’ll want to know why you took their ethereal pattern. Unless I have a few good reasons not to. I’m not a difficult bloke, philosophizing over the stars, and who should fuck who. I find gold to be a proper motivator for most things in life.”
Fuck Loki, but this asshole was shaking me down. And in Starbucks of all places. Of all the low-down rotten things a person could do.
“Ethereal pattern? What do you mean?”
He held up his hand. And like a magician’s trick, flicked his wrist and had my two vials. “I mean this. I’m supposing, you want them back.”
Mouth hanging open like a dullard, I locked eyes with the kobold. They were coal black. He wore a medieval tunic with the top several buttons open, showing off his thick fur. The color was a mix between a German Shepard and a Golden Retriever. It was cut close everywhere except atop his head, where it was styled long and floppy, like a Californian surfer.
He flipped his hair back, as though I’d been admiring his dashing good looks. “So what’ll it be? We doing business, or should I go have a chat with the cows. See what they’re guards of?”
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck!
The barista put my drinks on the bar. Grabbing the coffees, I smiled as if all was fine. “Thank you so much.”
She didn’t even glance my way as she moved back to her machine to make more drinks. Meanwhile, the kobold was still inside my bubble.
“Well, poppet? What’s it gonna be?”
I could probably get my vials back with the ether. It would not be subtle. It would likely be loud and messy. So, I found myself saying. “We might be able to make an accord. Would you and your companion care to share a table with my partner and I?” I gestured toward Aiden, who could have set me to fire with his look of irritation.
“Me,” he said, smugly.
When I gave him a quizzical look he said, “At the end of the sentence, it’s ‘my partner and me’, savvy?”
“No. I’m pretty certain it’s I.”
“Sound it out.”
“Sound what out?” I said, not hiding my mounting agitation.
“Say it again, sans ‘my partner’ and see how it sounds.”
Grinding my teeth together, I said, “Would you and your companion care to share a table with … with I?” He was right. It sounded dumb to end the sentence without ‘my partner.’
“See,” he said, “I was right.”
“What are you, the gods damn grammar police?”
“Don’t be sour, poppet? I was taught your language by the best tutors in Atlantis.”
What the actual fuck was going on with this night? “Are you shaking me down or prepping for the SAT?”
“I miss your meaning. The sat?”
“Ask your tutor. We doing this?”
He held up a gnarled finger with a long nail at the end. “One second while I converse with my mate.”
The female kobold came over as if cued. Apparently, she did not speak Earthling English. She said something in the barking language of the kobolds. He barked back, finishing with a shit-eating grin, tongue lulling out the side of his mouth. She returned the expression. I did not need a translation to know, they were going to swindle us hard.
“We are prepared to discuss terms with you.” He gestured toward Aiden. “After you. I insist.”
I stomped over to Aiden and said in Gaelic. “They saw. They have the vials of hair.”
“Enough of that gibberish,” he said and then in the next breath spoke kobold to his partner. He sat at the table next to ours. She stood behind him, lounging on his shoulder.
“My name is Arkath. You might call me an entrepreneur of sorts. Mostly I move this and that in Shadow Streets. I also deal in information. Luck has always been my lady.” He nodded toward the woman massaging his neck. “But don’t tell her that, savvy?”
Whoever had taught this kobold our language had seen Pirates of the Caribbean one too many times.
“What do you want?” I demanded.
“Easy. I’ll take 500 gold or 100 gold and the name of your target.”
“Target?” Aiden asked with a believable amount of incredulity. “I’m not sure what you think is going on here, but my lover here and I like to play dress up. Wanted to see what it’s like to have bull slongs for a night.”
Arkath barked a laugh. It was a high-pitched yippie bark. And just when I thought I could not hate him more. “That is rich. I like this one. Sense of humor, he has.” He gave another yipping chuckle. “But I know my business. You are going to pose as guards and try to hit someone. But those are the wrong guards. Work for the Baron. Everyone does.” He winked. “Even the thieves.”
We had, point of fact, waited for those guards to come in and chose them for their silver and black uniforms, known to everyone as those who worked for Theseus. That bit about the thieves was interesting though.
“Are you saying Theseus employs brigands?”
“I’m not saying that at all. Hypothetically, if thieves were fool enough to show up in Atlantis Proper, they’d seek employment through the proper channels. And they’d get their jobs from the Baron.”
“Wait,” Aiden said. “Theseus is a viscount, not a baron.”
“That he is. And the price is gone up. You tell me your job and give the 500. Or I take these vials over to the bulls, there. Do we have an accord?”
“Or,” Aiden said, holding up a vial with golden-brown hair. “I use this to curse you both. Maybe I’ll just make you impotent. Oh wait. I’ll turn you into an impotent goblin. No, I know just the thing. I will turn you into a female goblin.”
I hadn’t even felt the stirring of ether, but by the end of Aiden’s speech, the shock had faded. The notion of cursing someone—altering their ethereal pattern—was repulsive. Still, I gave the kobold a wicked smile.
The smugness slipped from the kobold’s face but only for a heartbeat. Probably less. “So he’s a player in this great game after all. Welcome to the table. Now, we can make a proper deal.”
“There is no deal. And I grow weary of this. Give us the vials. Now.” Aiden left no room for negotiation to his tone. He glowered at the kobold for several seconds. Arkath glared back.
The kobold female barked something. Arkath barked at her, clearly annoyed from being interrupted. Finally, he placed the vials on the table and slid them across to me.
“Now, give us ours,” he demanded.
Aiden slid them into a cloak pocket. “I’ll burn them just before we leave Atlantis. If guards or anyone else show up to nab us, I’ll assume the worst and throw the curse with my last defiant act.” Aiden gave the kobolds his best shit-eating grin and asked in a cheery voice, “Do we have an accord?”
They both gave us puppy eyes, which—contrary to popular belief, denoted fear in dogs, not love—was worse than a growl or more snark.
“We understand,” he said at last. “We’ll never speak of you.”
“Run along, then,” Aiden said. “Find a different hydrant to piss on. This one’s ours.”
He stood abruptly, buttoned his cloak closed as he stood tall. Nodding, he said, “Gentlemen,” then turned and strode from Starbucks. His companion picked up their coffees and trailed after him.
“Well, done,” I said. “Wasn’t sure how to get out of that one.”
“That’s because there is only one functioning brain between us, and two-thirds of it is with me.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Only two-thirds?”
“I must be a bit short of a full deck. After all, I’m here with you.”
“Fair. Can we get on with it then?”
We downed our coffee, then left. It was not difficult to find Theseus’s castle. After all, it was the tallest structure in all of Athens. On Lord’s Way, one need but to look south and see the enormous structure towering like a tale from some fantasy book. It was a city of its own. Without schematics, there would be no way to know the vault was beneath the structure, at the middle of a labyrinth. We made our way down the street, which even at this hour was not empty of inhabitants.
People swayed drunkenly, barely noticing us. Some human-like groups and several furry mobs went around.
“Holy shit,” Aiden said.
I followed his gaze to a pair of blocky men with beards long enough to braid. They were half-as-thick as they were tall. One wore a suit of full plate mail with a double-bladed moon-head axe strapped to his back. The other wore hardened leather with two slender swords, one over each shoulder. He was slightly smaller than the axe-wielder. They carried actual tankards and sang in a thick language that reminded me of German.
They slowed as they neared us, looking at us as oddly as we examined them. Up close, they were at least two feet shorter than us with fists the size of my face. The larger one said something. The other one made a humping motion in the air and laughed at us.
Then Aiden said something in their language. Their joyful expressions vanished, replaced with utter confusion. They looked at Aiden as if he was a chimp at the zoo who had stopped flinging feces and then spoke.
A second later, they laughed. Aiden laughed. They spoke more quickly, and the laughs continued. The stocky men patted Aiden roughly on the back, speaking insistently. One shoved the tankard at him. I cringed as he took the silvery cup and took a long pull. He gave his head a little shake and made a grunting noise, passing the drink back.
The two strange men cheered, hooting. The conversation went on for a few more minutes, until finally the drunken pair stumbled on, cat-calling toward Aiden as they left, laughing all the while.
“The fuck?” I asked.
“Dwarves,” Aiden said, a bit of a slur in his voice. “Best partiers in any universe.”
“Do you think now is the time for a drink? Really?”
“I’ve never done a job sober. It was just what I needed. Nothing like Dwarven Spirits to get the blood pumping.”
“You are unbelievable,” I admonished.
“Don’t look at me like that. They invited us to a party. It would have been one for the ages, and I turned them down.”
“Well golly gee. Thanks for not getting completely hammered before taking the biggest risk of both of our lives.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said without a hint of sarcasm. As he walked ahead of me, I noticed a familiar stumbling stagger to his gait.
I caught up, trying not to seethe and curse. But I failed at both. Aiden’s soft chuckle did not improve my mood.
“What was in that drink anyway?” I asked, once my blood cooled from boiling to simmering.
“Heaven,” Aiden said. “Have you heard of Absinth?”
“From France, right? Causes hallucinations?”
“Only the first time,” Aiden said. “But yeah. It’s like Kool-aid compared to Dwarven Spirits. One hit and I’ll be pleasantly buzzed for the rest of the night.”
“You might want to consider getting into a 12-step program or something.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Forget about it,” I said, moving into an alley. We were a few blocks from the castle.
I placed my dimensional pocket behind a trash bin and opened it. Once inside, I sealed it. Anyone picking up the bag would see an empty container. We went into my room sectioned off for Thaumaturgy and got to work.
The ritual was fairly straight-forward. We would have to blend our blood with the ethereal pattern of the minotaur. The tricky part would be hiding the ether-burn pattern. Tiny bits of wyther would follow our path. Only highly-skilled mages could sense the trail, but we did not want to take any chances. We would set up a talisman to burn that energy into a layer of protection, making the excess energy far more difficult to see.
I went first.
We made the Thaumaturgy circle, and I stood in the center. I placed the minotaur’s hair into a small locket—an arrium designed just for this—and focused my will. I always started with my head for something like this. It hurt the most, so I wanted to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.
All the bones in my head cracked as my skull grew. Agony lanced through my neck and back, as my spine compressed and stretched. Every ounce of my will and focus remained on the transformation. I dumped ether into the circle, fueling the power of the ritual. Muscle expanded. Joints elongated. When it was done, I rested on one knee, breathing hard.
I looked up at Aiden. My vision was different, broader. I could see more in my periphery. I stood, moving out of the circle. My body was thick, awkward to move. We’d need some practice before going through the gates.
“How does it feel?”
“Very weird,” I said. “Your turn.”
“Cool,” Aiden replied. “Moo-ve over.”
“No. Just. Stop.”
“Sure,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. “Won’t udder another word.”
Yep. He didn’t need to worry about the mission. I was going to kill him.