Asterion took my wrist and squeezed. “I will take your aid, little brother.”
“Great,” I said, allowing myself to breathe again. I let go of the vice-like grip and nodded toward the vault. “Can you get us in there?”
“Theseus did not trust me with the key. However, there are no wards attached. He has made it clear to me the consequences for failing to protect his treasures.”
“Fantastic,” Aiden said, moseying up to the lock. He inspected it and frowned. “It is filled with rust.”
“That a problem?” I asked.
“Yeah, tumblers won’t budge.”
“Right,” I said. “Plan B. You might want to stand aside.”
Gathering ether, I stepped toward the vault door. The handle was as long as an arm with a round faceplate at the top. The simple, turnkey hole was filled with red-orange gunk. Focusing on the mechanism, I sent a narrow beam of pure energy at the hole with a muttered, “Scrios.”
The metal disintegrated, vanishing from sight. Something fell with a clang on the other side. On this side, the handle sagged. So did I. Ether is not naturally destructive. Making it work against its nature to unravel matter is costly. I leaned against the wall to steady myself. And I am better at evocation than most.
Aiden pulled on the latch, and it came free. He looked between the broken handle and the door, annoyed. The door hadn’t budged an inch. We looked at each other, both frowning. Echoes of marching boots came closer.
“Fuck,” Aiden said, trying to find a handhold where the lock plate had been. His giant bull-fingers could not fit enough into the hole to get a good grip. “Need a bigger hole.”
“Right,” I said, cringing at what I had to do.
I sent another small beam of destructive energy into the hole, but angled downward. It would be a shame to hit an arrium or some other artifact and destroy it. Also, it was unwise to mix magical energies. No telling what sort of reaction would occur. I made the hole large enough to get a good hold and destroyed the latch where it was fastened to the doorframe.
My legs wobbled. I clutched Aiden’s shoulder to remain upright.
“You alright?” he asked.
“Yeah. Just need a minute.”
“We don’t have a minute.” He took my head. I felt ether funnel through him to me. The energy revitalized me enough to stand on my own. With more rest, I would be good as new. In the meantime, I could function as a decent mage, just as long as I didn’t need to fling spells anytime soon.
We pulled the door open just as the marching stopped.
Ten or more minotaurs crowded the opening to the maze. All brandished medieval style weapons, from daggers and swords to spears and poleaxes. The one in the lead wore an X on her golden patch. She glared at Asterion with heavy disgust, but her expression became smug as her gaze settled on Aiden and me.
“Well, well,” she said, “so you are the ones who purchased the schematics to the vault. Didn’t expect two of our own to be the traitors seeking to rob our liege. Theseus will be very happy with me when I deliver your heads to him. I’ll finally get the promotion I earned decades ago.” She nodded to her guards. “Seize them.”
Fucking hero-syndrome. She had created a problem so that she could solve it to make her look good or useful to Theseus. We hadn’t been setup exactly, but close enough. I was not prepared to fight. This was going to hurt. I stood, trying my best to appear ferocious and ready.
But then Asterion made a fist and said, “No.”
The single word cracked across the room in a deep wave of firm resolve. The guards had moved forward but stopped, looking at Asterion as though he was a dog who’d suddenly grown a second head.
“What was that,” the lead minotaur demanded.
Asterion towered over the guards by at least two feet or more. His voice was patient but unyielding. “I do not wish to harm you, little sister. But you are not to injure these two.”
She sputtered for a couple seconds before spitting, “Do you know who I am? I’m General Lunacious Lasterious. And you are barely more than a brood mare. You have no authority here. You will step aside. Now.”
Asterion rolled his head to one side, then the other. He moved deliberately between the vault, where Aiden and I stood, and the group of hostiles, not giving an inch for them to pass. Still not raising his voice, he said, “You would be wise to leave.”
“Do not injure the progenitor,” the general said. “Kill the traitors.”
I felt Aiden attempt a mind-link with me. I opened my thoughts to him and he immediately sent, Get in the vault. I will stall them.
Before I could object, Aiden stepped forward. “You could do that. But then again, if we die, you would not be able to find the copies of the schematics we made of this place. I mean … you would not want just any old riff-raff sauntering down here, would you?”
The general held up a hand, fist closed. The minotaurs had all taken a few steps, but they stopped instantly at her signal.
“What copies?” she asked.
“Oh,” Aiden said at the same time sending, Why are you gawking? Fucking go, dumbass. “The ones we left with our benefactors in the event we did not make it out alive.”
“Someone paid you to do this? Who?”
Aiden stepped next to Asterion, blocking my line of sight. I slowly moved backward, slipping behind the door then into the vault. My legs still shook, but I forced myself to keep moving.
I could still hear the conversation.
“A very powerful off-worlder,” Aiden said. I could hear the smirk in his voice. “One who will remove the nobles from rule in this world. We will make a better Atlantis for all of our citizens. Not just for Theseus and the gods.”
“Impossible. You are fools.”
I tuned out their posturing. Knowing Aiden’s tactics erred on the side of extreme antagonism which would escalate by the second, I did not have much time to get the artifacts and get back before someone wanted to rip his face off.
The vault, however, was massive and had not been detailed in the schematics. Rather than light a torch, I created a glowing ball of ether in my palm and threw it at the ceiling. As designed, it stuck and lit the entirety of the room. That had been the first spell I ever learned. Most evokers start there. We used the balls for mock battles. But that is a story for another time. It was simple enough that I did not even stagger.
The room was polished and somehow immaculate, despite not seeing the light of day for some time. Shelves lined the walls, each filled with nicknacks. Some were dull and lifeless, made of stone or wood. Others had been crafted from gold and other precious metals or stones. Dozens of eclectic objects rested on small pedestals in rows, spaced evenly around the room.
Opening my ether-sight made the room burst into lights. Everything in here was an arrium except the marble pedestals, holding the most potent artifacts. Glancing out toward Asterion, I found the thread binding him here. It led to a massive crystalline object. As I neared, I realized it was shaped like a heart—the organ, not the childhood love symbol. And it was beating.
I picked it up. It thrummed gently in my palm. Though it felt solid as rock, I placed it gently into a cloak pocket and released a breath I had not realized I was holding. I had what we needed to fulfill our obligation to Artemis. I still needed to get out of here without dying, but if we did, we could hand this over and be released from the oath. Somehow, we would then need to free Asterion before that. He was trusting us, and I would not fail to gain his freedom after his years of servitude here.
That would come later. Now, I just needed to find our main purpose for coming to this gods-cursed city. Unfortunately, I did not know what a Soul Breaker was exactly or what it might look like and had limited time to sort out which one of these treasures it was.
If Theseus truly had a Soul Breaker, I imagine it would be here on display with the other artifacts of obvious worth and power. For example, the sword at the center looked strikingly similar to Excalibur. And when I picked it up, I felt a sentient voice begin to awaken. Shit. No time or energy to wrestle wills with a powerful entity. I would most likely lose and would rather not have an ancient being control me. Sentient swords typically have one main drive. Spill blood. Opening my bag, I dropped the weapon in. But I didn’t stop there. I grabbed the rest of the artifacts from pedestals and lobbed them all into my dimensional pocket.
Some of these might prove useful in the event we survived long enough to use them. And, if I took everything, I could sort through which one—if any—was the Soul Breaker later. For good measure, I grabbed several items from the shelves and wracks. I stopped when I reached the mirror hanging on the far wall.
The plain silver frame was gilded with a script I could not read. When I looked at my reflection, I saw myself for only an instant. Then, the image morphed into something brighter, more beautiful than I could describe. It was pure ether, laced together in fractals upon fractals. An infinite pattern moving in upon itself. Dark threads laced through the pattern, wyther traces, I realized.
This was my soul.
I tore my eyes away, feeling feint. I was breathing hard. I could not make myself look back up at the image. This was it. This had to be the Soul Breaker. Without looking at the mirror, I grabbed the frame and pulled it from the wall. Though most arrium could stand up to some abuse, I could not take the chance with the mirror and just drop it into my bag.
Instead, I took the painstaking seconds of setting up my pocket dimension so I could walk in. I placed the mirror on my bed and hurried back out. Slinging my pack over my shoulder, I grabbed a few more arrium for good measure from the shelves.
I would have continued robbing Theseus blind, but outside, voices had raised. Aiden and the general now spoke over one another. Aiden’s voice mocked, while the general’s became increasingly enraged.
“Enough!” the general shouted. “We have better ways of making criminals talk. Drop your weapon, and I will leave your legs in tact for now.”
And, that’s my cue.
As I have previously mentioned, Aiden and I have fought minotaurs before. Those had been summoned and controlled by a bonded mage, making them almost bestial in their combat style. Also, most direct spells slide off them, making magic nearly ineffectual. Fortunately, we’d learned ways around that. Hitting them with an object was a nice way around their near-immunity. As it happened, I was obliged to open the fight with such a projectile. Hey, don’t look at me like that. Han Solo shot first, and we all still love him.
“Cruthaigh cloch,” I said, shaping ether.
I pulled stones from the wall and sent them hurtling into the group of minotaurs faster than any major league pitcher could dream. A fist-sized stone punched the closest minotaur in the face. Her head snapped back with a loud crack. She fell to the ground, eyes staring wide. Cries of alarm and pain erupted from the remaining minotaurs as I pelted them with more rock.
Aiden reacted at once, as did Asterion. They both darted forward. Asterion side-stepped a thrust at his midsection, swatted the side of the sword with his palm and struck his attacker in the throat. Even above the shouts and clamor of armor, I could hear the crunch. As Asterion’s victim fell, he took up the sword and flowered the blade with a flourish of his wrist.
He waded forward, but the other minotaurs changed tactics. They fought together. One parrying with another striking. The guards pressed Asterion hard. He retreated, dodging and parrying. Four minotaurs pressed him back and away from us.
Aiden sent ether into the floor. Stones rose at precise angles, shaped like swords. The stony edges ripped into the guards, tripping them. The general bellowed and rushed Aiden, side-stepping the swords as they formed at her feet.
I gathered a swath of stone in front of Aiden and ripped upward with a torrent of ether. A wall formed just as Asterion swung his blade. A loud clang resounded, followed by a scream of outrage. Aiden bounded to the left, picking up a spear. He raised it just as the general appeared from behind the wall.
I felt the strain inside. And I staggered. But I could not stop. The wall would only delay the minotaur. I pulled more stone from the wall behind me with the intention of throwing it at the general, but I froze when the ground beneath me shook.
The fighting paused.
“You are not Tifoald,” General Lasterious said. “I should have noticed sooner. Who … no, what are you?”
“We are no one to be trifled with,” Aiden said, in a perfect imitation of Wesley from The Princess Bride. “Step aside, and we will let you live with the Dread Pirate Robert’s kind regards.”
“You will not—”
The castle quaked in a little aftershock. Perhaps tearing at the foundation was not the wisest of decisions.
“You’ll pull the whole fucking castle down,” Lasterious said, paralleling my thoughts.
“Would that be bad for you?” Aiden asked. “It won’t be a problem for us.”
“You are mad,” she said.
“Not at all,” I said. “We are quite fucking serene, I assure you. Is this fight over? Or should it all come to a crashing end?”
“Stand down,” the general commanded. “Drop your weapons.”
“And everyone get into the vault,” Aiden added.
“Do it,” the general said.
Only 6 of the guards remained. Three had to all but carry one. The rest lay in broken lumps on the ground, most at Asterion’s feet. The large minotaur was covered is splatters of crimson gore. He’d picked up an axe at some point, in addition to the sword. He eyed the general without emotion as she stepped around him to get inside the vault.
She glared at me as I shut the door on her. “Whoever you are, we will find you. We will bring you back here. And we will make sport of your end. Mark me well, you will—”
I shut the door in her face.
“Aiden,” I said. “Would you tighten the wall? I don’t have it in me.”
“Sure.” He stepped up beside me, concern in his expression.
I felt him draw the ether. He pulled stone from the frame and tightened the opening, slowly. Stone groaned at being shifted, but after testing the door, it would not budge. In hindsight, this would have been a better—albeit slightly louder—way of getting into the vault, but instead of tightening the frame, we could have loosened it enough to push the door free.
Next time, maybe.
General Lasterious shouted and pounded from the other side. Two of the others joined her. The door held. For now.
“We probably should have killed them,” Aiden said.
“No,” Asterion said. “You should always spare life if possible.”
“We can philosophize over all this later,” I said. “We have a deadline. How long has it been?”
Aiden held up the pendant containing the polymorph hairs. The casing was translucent, allowing us to see the remnants of the burning strands.
“An hour,” he said, “at most.”
“Plan A won’t work anyway,” I said, looking at Asterion’s size. “We won’t be able to get through the gate anyway. He won’t fit in any of the uniforms.”
“Sunrise is right around the corner. If we are late, the front gate will be our only choice.”
“And,” I added, “there might be more guards waiting up there.”
“And people might be a little freaked out about the sudden earthquake.” He nodded toward Asterion. “That ever happen here?”
“Right,” I said. “So, we’ve given the castle a rude awakening. We’ll have to take the back way out of here.”
“There is no back way from the labyrinth,” Asterion said. “I assure you.”
“Not the labyrinth,” I amended. “Out of the compound. We still have to make it through the castle. Then we have a way out.”
“Theseus will likely be waiting for us,” Asterion said. “He is stronger now than when he bested me, while I have grown weak down here. We cannot defeat him.”
“With any luck,” I said. “We won’t have to.”
I did not feel lucky, but I could not tell him that. I also neglected to mention how fatigued I felt or that I had maybe a few goods spells in me before I fell to exhaustion. Instead, we made our way back through the maze, stopping at the slightest noise. No one came for us. Likely, those creaks were just the castle settling after some asshole decided to up and shift the foundation. We pushed on and stopped at the door.
It was ajar.
Infusing my senses with ether, I listened. At first, I heard nothing but our own heartbeats. Mine, Aiden’s, and the minotaur’s in my cloak pocket—yeah, it weirded me out too.
Then I heard a fourth heartbeat. Distant, somewhere on the other side of the door. Close to the throne if I had to guess.
Whoever it was, stood there, waiting.
“Asterion,” a deep voice said. “I know that is you. Come out here. Let us finish what we started all those millennia ago.”
Theseus. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! I turned to see Asterion. His expression had changed. It spoke volumes about Asterion’s mental strength that he wasn’t raving mad after all that time alone. I could only guess at how long that had been, but at least 5 to 10 of my life times. And I’m fucking old. But I saw it now. The craze that Asterion had locked away somewhere in his mind had broken free. Whatever resolve he had possessed to preserve life had vanished, replaced with something beyond anger and rage. Gripping both his weapons tighter, he lowered his head as if aiming those massive horns and took a step forward.
Maybe I was ten kinds of a fool, but I moved in front of the minotaur, hoping my pleading gaze would stop him.
Asterion shoved me aside as if I was a paper-weight and stepped out to fight the god of this realm, even though the gods-damned minotaur had been the one to say we could not win in a fight against Theseus. But making the bull-headed bastard see reason was not going to work here.
We were outclassed in every possible way. Theseus had home advantage. This was his realm in the same way that little patch of land was Loki’s. Fighting would not likely end well. On the other hand, if we left Asterion here and took his heart, he would die. Theseus would not even need to lift a finger.
All this passed through my mind in those first few milliseconds after Asterion stepped out to throw down with Theseus.
I had another few milliseconds to decide, do we go down swinging with the minotaur or leave his ass in the wind?