Gandalf the Gray was wise. That scene in Lord of the Rings where he looked at the companions and told them to fly while calling them fools has been spoofed upon a dozen different ways. For some reason, his fall came to my mind in that moment as we stepped into the audience chamber. Probably because I fancied myself as Gandalf here. And I saw few ways through this without sacrifices being made.
Theseus stood beside his throne, posing like some greek god from legend—oh wait. That’s because he was exactly that. What in hades were we doing in this room? This was definitely not the plan. Conflict with Theseus was never in the discussion. Because Aiden and I both knew, if it ever came to this moment, we would be bent over and tied to a barrel, breeches to our ankles, greased up, and in for a pounding we could not stop.
In other words, we were about to be royally fucked.
Asterion marched into the room, pausing just outside of striking range, blood dripping from the axe head onto the marble floor. Theseus stood there, lounging against his throne, smirking at the minotaur. He wore a toga, much like Aiden’s had been at the party all those days ago. His rippling muscles were camera-ready, like Brad Pitt in Troy—square jaw almost too symmetrical. Short black curls cut in the Caesar fashion fell across his forehead.
I hated him, immediately.
Not because I was jealous—though I was. I mean, look at him. I don’t lean toward men, but damn, this guy was sexy as hell. But it wasn’t that. It was the smirk. The arrogant lounge. The amusement in his eyes as he looked at Asterion—a living, breathing being he’d trapped for thousands of years. Altogether, it made me want to slap a glove across his face and demand satisfaction in the ‘I bite my thumb at thee’ sort of way.
That feeling was made worse, when the arrogant asshat never even glanced at Aiden and me. Then reason raced to step in front of my irked impetus and placed a metaphorical hand up to halt my suicidal impulse. Better not to get noticed here. Pay no attention to the men behind the fake minotaur faces.
We could not run. I realized that. There was no way I could leave Asterion here. But I could get Aiden clear of this. A plan—a very bad plan—was forming and I needed time. And maybe it would work. If Indy could reach his hand into a hole of spiders and come back unbitten, maybe I could too.
“Wait here,” I whispered to Aiden, digging into my cloak pockets.
“What are you going to do?”
“Something dumb. We both agree on that in advance.”
“Fuck that. We need to run for it before Theseus rips through Asterion and gives us his undivided attention.”
“You are leaving,” I said. “We agree on that, too. But I’m staying and fighting. At least long enough for you to get clear of this.”
“That is suicide. Asterion made his choice when—”
“You are wasting time we do not have. Besides,” I said, pulling a sparkling purple potion from my pocket. “It’s too late.”
For those of you who play RPG video games, this is a mana pot. It refreshes my body, enabling me to draw ether a bit longer. The negative side, it’s more like coffee than a magical cure for fatigue. Once the effects wore off, I would not be conscious for long. Depending on how sparingly I went with the ether, I could go for half-an-hour to an hour.
Unstoppering the cork with my teeth, I quaffed the potion. It tasted like pixie stix, blue raspberry flavor. That was by design. Back in the day, all potions tasted like their ingredients. Suffice it to say, you’d rather like the bottom of a shoe after it ran through a field of manure.
Within seconds, I felt the vigor return to my body and mind.
“Gods damn it,” Aiden said through his teeth. “Was that a mana pot?”
“Yep. But that’s not the plan. Once, I engage with Theseus, take this and my pack and get out.”
He snatched the heart from my hand and shoved it into his own cloak pocket. “And what the hell do you intend to do. Wait. What’s in there? You aren’t going to—”
All the artifacts I’d stolen were right in the threshold of my pack. I had opened it after handing Aiden the heart, and without preamble, I picked up the replica of Excalibur. The mental link was established by the physical connection. A feminine voice spoke in my mind.
You will destroy mine enemies, mortal.
The words came with an intimate sense of the sword’s personality, as well as image of murder, death, and mayhem.
Not Excalibur then. Arthur’s blade was also sentient but had embodied the Knights of Camelot—yes they were real. This sword is more like Excalibur’s evil twin. Fantastic.
No, I told the blade. I am master here.
You will kneel.
A very strong impulse shot through me to do just that. I resisted but felt my body lag. Somewhere outside me, I heard Aiden’s voice. The words washed over me. I could no longer see the hall or sense beyond myself and the sword. Images flashed in my mind. Battle. Death. Glory.
Power beyond comprehension.
This and more could all be mine.
If I gave myself to her, fully.
It was a bond, I realized. The energy was formless but building. This sword, Aliastalus as she called herself, would dominate me more thoroughly than would a bond to Artemis. She would take up my body and wield me like a weapon to wreak havoc upon those she deemed an anathema to her purposes.
But the bond had not yet settled.
I felt the torrent of wyther she poured into me. Gathering up ether, I placed a shield around my mind. Her mental assault did not stop. But her voice was muted. I felt my body again. A crash sounded in the other room. Asterion roared. Theseus laughed. Aiden called my name. Why the fuck had he gone in there? No. I could not be drawn in or I’d lose myself. I pushed his pleas away. Relenting now would mean my death. Not in the physical sense, but my mind and body would belong to Aliastalus.
My grip on the sword tightened by the second. My knuckles screamed in protest, but I focused beyond the pain to feel the energy of the sword, the magic that held it together, and my connection to both.
Forming my will, I sent ether into the bond. The one she’d created. It was of her ethereal pattern. And I knew it was more than just a connection of wills. I took hold of her, not just with my grip.
Wyther came out in a torrent, swatting away my hold on the bond.
She battered down my shield. Agony lanced through my mind. My awareness expanded. I could sense the battle raging in the throne room. Fighting and screaming. Music and the dance. A song to my ears. All my enemies fought one another. It would be so easy to smite them while their backs were turned. I could kill the one who had enslaved me and left me to rust and decay. Then, I could take this—
These thoughts did not belong to me. The voice was hers. I redoubled my shield forcing her out with every ounce of will I could muster. Once more, I took hold of the bond, drawing in more ether with every iota I could pull into myself.
The bond solidified.
I could feel her impotent rage. And I knew, it had been over ten thousand years since she’d been mastered. By Theseus. He’d released her from the bond and left her to rot in his vault. More of her knowledge flooded my mind, too much to parse.
It hurt. My head throbbed. I found myself on my knees. Someone screamed in the other room, a blood-curdling cry. Flashes of energy erupted from just out of sight.
I came in just as Aiden fell. A blast of ether had flung his body through the air. He slammed into the wall beside me and dropped to the ground.
Asterion fought hard, both weapons moving at blinding speed. Theseus knocked all attacks aside, moving even faster. Ether infused every part of the man, aiding his strength. It was a simple spell, but effective. From the smile on his face, Theseus enjoyed the exercise. But that’s all it was, and he wasn’t breaking a sweat.
Asterion, on the other hand, bled from several tiny cuts and gashes, none too serious on their own. Together, they took their toll. I could see him slowing.
Drawing ether into myself, I readied to join them. Theseus leapt up and back, flying several feet away. At the same time, wyther burst from his hands, striking the minotaur’s weapons. They disintegrated. Theseus surged forward. He swung his sword at Asterion’s face. The minotaur dodged to the side. Thesues pivoted mid-swing his foot hitting Asterion’s knee. He went down.
Without slowing a beat, Theseus spun. His sword slammed into the minotaur’s temple. Asterion crumpled. My heart stopped beating. I could only stare. But Asterion put his hands beneath him, trying to rise. There was no blood where he’d been hit. Theseus had struck him with the flat of the blade.
As Asterion started to rise, Theseus dealt him another blow to the temple, just beneath his horns. Asterion dropped and lay still.
Gripping the magic blade, I marched into the room. I could feel her energy pulsing within, magnifying my own power. Access to more wyther was available too, though, I was not certain if using the destructive force would fray my etherial pattern. I would not touch it unless I had to.
But that was not the only gift she’d given me. She knew how Theseus fought. All his battle forms came to me and how to defeat them. But gods he was fast.
I marched forward, enhancing my muscles and senses with ether. It would be the only way I had a chance to defeat this man. This god.
Without introduction, I rushed him.
He dodged to the side and reposted with a swing of the sword. I blocked and countered. He blocked and kicked. I caught his foot on a knee while slicing down. Had he not retreated, he would have lost a leg.
Why was he not using ether or wyther? Oh shit. I looked like a minotaur—who are notoriously immune to magic. If he did not use ether to defeat me, I might win this.
Theseus circled me, looking for weakness. His smile held but his eyes looked crazed. He darted forward, but I knew—thanks to Aliastalus—it was a feint. He would spin away at the last second, come over my downward block and cut off my wrist at the sword hand. He’d done it a thousand times or more with the very sword I held.
I knew the counter. As he came forward, I feinted the block. His sword came up. I lunged, spinning away from his swing. I surged forward with the help of ether. When I spun back to face him, red leaked from a gash in his toga, at his shoulder.
He no longer smiled.
I swallowed. He rushed me. I felt ether building in him. I side-stepped and nearly tripped on a block of stone. A gash sliced across my shoulder. I flung myself in a roll, sliding beneath a blow that would have taken my head.
As my back touched the ground, I felt the ether shift beneath me. I flipped up. A sword lanced upward, shaped from the stone. It would stab right through me.
“Sciath,” I said, flinging ether.
The stone sword shattered against my barrier. Theseus came from the other side. I got my sword up just in time. Once again, Aliastalus saved me. I parried several quick strikes and kicked my heel into his midsection, forcing him back. I followed up with an attack of my own.
I allowed her to guide me through the next several moves.
It is difficult to describe what happened next. What we did was not dominance, but she controlled my body through honing my instincts. She’d seen a pattern in Theseus’s attack. Sword, ether strike, sword, sword. Then ether, ether, sword, ether. And then he would rotate.
I knew the moment he would switch. I waited. Then I used his tactic, infusing the ground with ether and ripping a sword upward.
He spun away.
And on we went. We dueled for several minutes. Theseus never slowed. But I would. My potion would wear off. Sooner rather than later. I burned through more ether than I could maintain, simply to keep up with him. I needed to end this. Fast.
With the sentient blade’s help, we were a match. If I, rather Aliastulus, could find a way past his defenses, I could win.
Then, Theseus sped up.
Power filled him. The nexus, I realized. He was drawing on the energy of the leys to add to his ether-enhanced speed. Only marginally, but I knew he could take more. He wasn’t just a demigod. He controlled this seat of power. And I faced him alone.
There was a reason the gods still held their seats on Earth. This was it. Theseus was playing a game and enjoying himself. He had been toying with me the whole time. He could have defeated me from the start and had chosen not to for the sport of it.
I feinted forward and flew back and away from him on a surge of ether. It felt prudent to delay the inevitable. I did not wish to die, but I would not do so in vain.
But Theseus did not advance. He stopped just next to his toppled throne—the crash I’d heard earlier, no doubt.
“Aliastulus,” he said. “I see you have found another host, at long last. But you cannot defeat me in this place.”
“No. I wield the blade,” I said. “She does not wield me. But you are right, even with her aid, I do not believe I can win.”
Theseus blinked, eyes widening. He lowered his blade, tip touching the ground. Though he looked relaxed, I knew he could respond to any attack within fractions of a second. The gesture was for my benefit, a symbol of a temporary truce. “You speak truth. For I know Aliastulus does not possess the humility necessary to feign otherwise. Well, done. You are clearly not Oramald. Does he live?”
Kill the insolent, twit.
“Yes,” I said, ignoring the sword and the instincts to fight. “They are unaware we have stolen their faces.”
“Very clever. And you have the will to best the blade. I should hate to destroy you, but I cannot allow such a transgression to go unchallenged.”
“Nor was this my wish,” I admitted. “I never wanted to steal from you. But I had no choice. I am merely here in a desperate attempt to save someone I care for deeply. If there was any other way, I would have taken it.”
He stared at me for a long moment. I could hear Aiden stir behind me. The relief must have shown in my expression because Theseus glanced at the ground by my feet. I would not be able to defeat Theseus. I knew that now. The sword had given me much more than I could have anticipated, but Theseus was a master of this place, as he had aptly demonstrated. But I could hold him off long enough for Aiden to get free of this. If the stubborn bastard would leave.
And then, Theseus nodded. “I believe you. More importantly, I see a way forward. It will require an oath on your part. Will you hear my bargain?”
Inwardly, I cringed. By the time I finished this, I would not have much freedom remaining. Though, it’s not like I had a choice. “Aye. Please, continue.”
“I will allow you to leave here with your life. You may finish your quest. Whether you succeed or fail, if you live, you will pledge your service to me. I have a task for which you are uniquely suited. Once you complete this service, you will be free of your obligation to me.”
“We will speak of the details after you have given your oath. However, if you agree, it serves my purposes to allow you to leave with both your life and my property. What say you?”
I stared at him, uncertain I’d heard him correctly. There was a catch. Gods damn it, I hated god-like beings. Was he still playing a game with me? Certainly, but he seemed earnest. Why spare me? Fuck. It didn’t matter right now. He was talking instead of killing. Besides, what is one more favor owed?
“You have my oath.”
“Very good. Now in blood.”
Quicker than I could track, he pulled ether into a sharp blade and took hold of my arm with a second spell, cast simultaneously. He held his own hand out, palm up, forcing me to do the same. Though, I did not resist.
“With both blood spilled, we will be true to these promises made. By my power, I swear it.”
Long before legal documents ever existed, this was how an oath was made. If either of us broke the bond, we’d be made weaker, perhaps losing our ability to call ether altogether. In many ways, it was far more binding than those contracts we’d made with Artemis and Loki. It was fully dependent upon my intentions. If I failed in my own mind, I would lose some—if not all—of my power and it would pass to Theseus. Or vice versa.
“With blood spilled,” I repeated, “So too do I swear by my power to hold to promises made.”
Theseus flourished the ether blade synchronously with his sword, sheathing them both. When he released the hilt of the actual weapon, the ether-made sword vanished.
Gods, he was impressive.
“What do you know of The Baron,” he asked.
“Little. He is a master of thieves, I would wager, and runs the Shadow Streets. Why?”
“She is a master of thieves. Before you leave back to your Earth, I will need you to brag about your theft from me to those who might be in her employ. When you return to Atlantis, I will know of it and send word of how you may reach me.”
I got a feeling I’d just been played in more way than one.
“You know who I am,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
“I took a measure of your pattern just now, Liamorandus.”
“My friends call me Liam.”
“Well met, Liam.” He offered his hand.
I was still holding Aliastulus, I realized. Hastily, I shoved her into the dimensional pocket. Even with the pocket closed and on my shoulder, I could still feel our bond. I’m not sure I would keep the sword, but I also did not know how to break the bond.
I took Theseus by the wrist. He looked into my eyes and said seriously, “It has been some time since anyone spilled my blood. In my younger years, I would have killed you for that.”
He gripped my wrist a bit tighter. I did not swallow. Or shit myself. So I count that as a win. I kept his gaze and asked, “And now?”
“I see wisdom in mercy,” he said, realizing my hand. “You, for example, will be a valuable asset to me. You have will enough to dominate a sentient blade—do not lower your guard with her, by the way. She will attempt to reverse your bond and dominate you, every chance she gets. Further, you have infiltrated my own keep, quite effortlessly. And you can use ether subtly enough to avoid detection. Except at the end there, when you shook my gods damned castle.”
I had been beaming at his praise, up until the end. “Yeah, uh, not my finest moment. Apologies for that.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “I am grateful for your lapse in judgment. Had you not woken me, you might have slipped by without notice. And then I would have been forced to hunt you down and kill you, rather than enjoy this interview.”
His smirk returned, along with my desire to punch his face. “Of course. Or did you believe I could not have killed you immediately? I own the nexus. It will take more than one mortal to defeat me.”
“No. Uh, yeah. Of course, I knew you could. Makes total sense.” My foot never tasted so sour. “Thank you.”
“However,” he said. “I cannot allow you to leave with Asterion. It would not serve my purposes and would tarnish my image.”
“He is my mission. The biggest part of it. I cannot leave without him. Literally. I made an oath.”
“Until the oath is fulfilled, I cannot say.”
He simply nodded. “Very well. I have accepted your oath, and I am not one to second-guess my instincts. Besides, he has suffered here long enough.”
“There is one more catch,” he said, smirk becoming full smile. “When you leave here, my guards will have orders to capture you. Appearances, you understand. After you leave this room, if you are caught, you will be killed, slowly and painfully in the arena. Take your friend and the minotaur and be gone from here. Good luck, Liamorandus. I do hope to see you again, as yourself next time.”
He turned his back on me and marched from the room. The outer door swung open as he approached, and I could see dozens of guards waiting in the hall beyond.
Just before the door closed, I heard him say, “Give them a five minute head start.”
Aiden stood, stumbling a few staggered steps toward me. His eyes took on a distant look as though he might collapse. Asterion was breathing but otherwise not moving. I needed to move, but my own legs felt suddenly weary. The potion’s effects waned. Sweat beaded on my forehead, the tell-tale sign of minutes until I collapsed.
In the hall, I heard the movement of armor, as Theseus’s personal guard readied to storm in. I wondered if someone had a stopwatch, counting down the seconds until they could give chase. Gods, how long until the wards reset? Had we missed the window?
One way or another, this would all be over soon.