I was never one for American Football. First of all, why the hell is it called “foot-ball” when only one person is allowed to kick the ball and only at specific times in the game? Second, they stop the game so often, I get bored waiting for something to happen. If you turned the time between plays into a drinking game, everyone would die of alcohol poisoning before the game actually ended.
Real Football (you probably call it soccer) is the only sport I can get behind. There’s near constant action, and there’s always a fight on the sidelines. No matter where you look, you will be entertained. I can’t say why this sprung to mind in those seconds after Theseus left us in his throne room, except that I knew we would soon be getting the ball’s perspective on sports.
I could not see a five minute clock counting down, but I could certainly feel it with the guards in the wing, waiting to sprint after the ball and give it a kick. Was someone counting it down? Or were they going on what felt like 5 minutes? That distinction was extremely important. It meant the difference in having seconds remaining or actual minutes.
“Help me with him,” I told Aiden after being unable to rouse the minotaur.
Together, we got him into my dimensional pocket into one of my spare rooms. The bed was too small for him, but it was better than the floor. Had we more time, I would have recommended shoving two beds together, but after having nothing but stone to sleep on for a couple thousand years, I’m sure Asterion would be grateful for the change.
We sprinted back out, and I closed the bag on the run, following Aiden down the hall. My brain tried to send thoughts to my conscious mind, but my eyes kept trying to close mid-step. Wasn’t there something else I was supposed to be worried about?
Oh right, the mana potion.
I did not have much petrol left in the tank. We needed to get through the ward before dawn, or I’d wake up in chains or the arena. Or maybe not at all.
“Where are we going?” I asked after several turns. “Feels like this is a different way than we came in.”
“It is, genius. We came in through the front door. Won’t work on the exit. You’d have worked that out on your own had you not taken that gods damn potion.” He stopped suddenly, holding up a fist for me to do the same.
I stumbled, nearly tripping over him.
He cast me a serious look, somewhere between fear and frustration. I heard the minotaurs around the corner.
At this point, I could not have found my way back to the throne room, even if a million gold coins waited for me to claim as a reward for my efforts. I was maybe one or two spells from passing the fuck out. And even then, they would not be very potent. I felt the sword urging me to pick her up, but I would not dare try to wield her in my current condition. I’d have to rely on Aiden to do our fighting. We both knew it.
I felt Aiden’s slow pull of ether. Somewhere around the corner, stone cracked. The minotaur’s moved off the other direction. The tug on my arm spurred me to follow. Aiden stopped at a random door and knelt with his lock picks.
While he worked, I glanced down the hall. Three minotaurs ran the other direction, toward a crack in the floor. It spread up the wall and crumpled inward. Someone screamed in surprise.
Aiden ushered me into the room and eased the door closed.
Inside was a perfectly cleaned room—like a hotel only far grander than anywhere you’ve ever stayed. The anteroom had a full bar with stools all made of polished wood. A hall led to a common room large enough for a small army. I counted at least 4 rooms with beds.
“It’s for visiting dignitaries,” I said. “I remember it on the schematics.”
“Yep. And there are no visitors this week. Come on.”
Aiden ran to an outer window. The castle must have been built atop a hill. We’d entered on the ground level, but we were on a second floor. Beneath us was a hedge maze, winding around a small courtyard complete with stone benches and yet another statue of Theseus. This one—every bit the scholar—he sat on a bench, holding open a book.
Dawn crept over the wall, bathing the white stone in pink light. The sight was truly majestic, causing the lilies surrounding the statue to glow. This would be beautiful if not for the circumstances. I could see why this was reserved for visitors. It even gave me hope that we could reach the wall before—
“Fuck,” Aiden said, echoing my thoughts. “We missed the window.”
“Wards have already reset. What do we do?”
I couldn’t think straight. My legs felt like I’d run up a million flights of stairs. I sat on a sofa, feeling my eyes lull immediately.
“Get up,” Aiden said, tugging my arm. “We need to keep moving.”
“Just five minutes.”
He pulled me to the window and opened it. “Don’t resist the spell.”
I felt him seize ether and lift me on a stream of air out and to the ground. No one was around. Too early for a stroll and a bit chilly. But the cool air helped slap me back to alertness.
We both landed at the same time. The hedges were too high to see over without standing on my tip-toes. Aiden led me to the edge of the maze. There was an open field of green between the edge of the maze and the massive wall, blocking us from our freedom. Had we made it here before the wards reset, we could have flown through—it was a bit more complicated than that, but we had a plan. But now …
“Well,” Aiden said. “I hoped it would not come to this. Wait here.”
“What are you—”
He’d slung his pack from his shoulder and disappeared into his dimensional pocket. He returned with a device made of red play-dough with runes etched into the side. Wires protruded from the blocks of rectangular clay, connecting the red substance to an old flip phone atop it.
“No,” I said. “Out of the question.”
“We need a diversion. This is it.” He raised an eyebrow. “Unless you have a better idea?”
“There could be people outside the walls.”
“Aye. Not denying that, but the blast is set for implosion. I can place the device far enough away that it’ll only hurt the wall. You should be more worried about the backlash in the wards than my bomb. No telling what Asterion has prepared for anyone bringing down his wall.”
He was right. Damage to the structure would have unpredictable results. Rather, Theseus had likely set measures in place to deal with any sort of attack to the structure. As a ruler, he would want to mitigate damage to any people nearby, but would not spare the same courtesy to the attackers.
“I see the wheels turning,” Aiden said. “Have you figured it out yet?”
“Diversion,” I said, dumbly. “You mean for us to be elsewhere by the time the guards get here.”
“Aye. We play hide-n-seek with them. With any luck, they give chase out the wall here, only we’ll be heading out the other way.”
“What other way?”
“Front door, where there will likely only be the two guards. We’ll just be two minotaurs leaving the compound. In all the confusion, they probably won’t even question us.”
Maybe it was the fatigue talking, but I said. “Okay. That’s not a bad plan. But we need to hurry. I don’t have much left in me.”
“I’m on fumes myself. Stay here.”
I didn’t have the energy to argue. I waved a tired hand for him to go. He left the safety of the hedge maze and sprinted the distance to the clearing, placed the device a good 3-4 meters from the wall, then ran back to me.
“We do not want to be here when it goes off,” he warned. “Let’s go.”
We made our way west of the device toward the far end of the maze. I almost prayed to Loki but stopped myself. We’d left him in the dark for a reason. We didn’t want him or Artemis to know we’d gone through with the heist until well after it was done. Instead, I sent pleas to the universe that no fairies, pixies, or children stumbled in the blast radius—we really need better terms, since it was technically not a kaboom but an in-boom. Plode radius? Lode circle? Collapse area? Okay, maybe delirium was getting to me, but I was on to something here.
Aiden stopped at the edge of the maze, where the hedges gave way to a cobbled courtyard. He turned back to the device, now a thumbnail in the distance. He held his breath as he took out a second phone, flipped it open and held down a button. Rather than a number, the Gaelic word for “Connect” appeared on the screen.
Before I could let out a squeak, I found myself on my back. I slid across the ground, toward the implosion. I grabbed hedge, grass, Aiden’s face, everything I could to hold position. Limbs entwined, we rolled together. My back hit the ground. Then my face. Stomach. Side. Air fled from my lungs. I wheezed, crawling at the ground to halt my tumble.
On every other bounce, I caught glimpses of the miasma around where the device had been. A globe of destructive energy yanked everything into the void. Sections of the wall were gone. A giant semi-sphere beneath the imploding vortex had taken a chunk out of the ground as well, creating a chasm which extended beyond the outer wall to the sidewalk.
The pulling force stopped. Aiden and I were a dozen meters from the crater. The way outside was open. Dawn light spilled through the gap in the wall. We could dart through and be gone from Theseus’s compound.
I felt Aiden’s hand on my arm. “No. Stick to the plan.”
I looked at him. “The wards crumpled. We can get through.”
“They did not crumple. Look with your ether-sight.”
I did. Energy was being restored. Had we gone immediately, we might have been able to make it in time, but it would have been close. That way was lost to us already.
“Back around the castle. Come on.”
We sprinted away from the horde of stomping boots. Shouts followed the sounds of marching, but they were far more organized than they ought to be after an attack. They ran in groups of five, forming up together on the move. A familiar minotaur stood at their head, studying the fissure in the ground.
General Lunacious Lasterious looked from the crater to the broken wall and back. Even at this distance, I could make out the quiet anger.
I felt an arm yank my shoulder. I fell into the hedges and tumbled across the ground. I started to rise, glaring at Aiden. He responded by kicking my feet out from beneath me.
“Stay down, you idiot. If the General sees us, this is over. Even if she didn’t recognize us from the dungeon, she might begin to wonder why two guards are running away from an obvious attack on Theseus’s castle.”
Right. I need some sleep.
“Come on,” he said, army crawling away.
Though my body protested, I dug my elbows into the ground and dragged my tired ass after him. We could duck beneath the prickly bushes, but Aiden parted them with trickles of ether to make the passage easier.
After reaching the other side of the maze, we stood—half-hunched—and slunk our way back to the castle. I sagged against the wall. My legs trembled. My vision waned. I shook my head. Just need a few more minutes.
“We need to run,” Aiden said.
I gave my head a slight shake. “Can’t.”
“Hold still,” Aiden said, taking my head in his hands.
I felt cold shiver through my head and down my spine. When he stepped away, my legs still shook but I could stand without support of the wall. With some effort, I could make them move quickly. If forced to, I could throw a spell or two. Maybe.
“Right,” I said, pushing away from the wall. “Let’s move.”
We spurred ourselves into a jog, trying to move as a unit, like we’d seen the squads just moments before. The grounds were now empty. Even the small cottages were closed up. Now smoke escaped chimneys. All the lights were out. Thorns protruded from the doors, like little barricades.
More than anything else, that sent waves of guilt through me.
I wasn’t sure if it was brownies or pixies or gnomes living there, but our actions had frightened them all into hiding. I could imagine them hiding beneath tables or in tiny cellars with their children, hoping whatever evil assaulted their liege did not spill over and destroy their lives.
But I did not have long for such lamentations.
We ran toward the gate that would take us back out into the streets of Atlantis. Our last hurdle before running across the finish line. Unlike when we’d come through here an hour ago, two guards blocked the tunnel to the outer gate. Each had 5 swords on their patches. With our 6, we just outranked them.
Aiden and I shared a glance of complete understanding. Though we’d already been jogging, we picked up our pace, running right at them, expressions suggesting they move or be moved. One stepped aside, but the other hesitated.
“No one is allowed to pass,” the bull with dark hair said.
“Stand down,” I said without slowing. “Our orders come from General Lunacious Lasterious.”
At the last second, the guard stepped aside, giving a terse salute, which Aiden and I returned in unison. There was just the doors at the other end. No guards on this side but no visible door knob either. We both stopped, sharing an “oh fuck” look. I wondered briefly if there was a secret knock or something.
Then the doors swung open, revealing a group of minotaurs.
“What the shit?” one of the guard’s said.
He had reddish hair and wore 6 swords on his patch. His surprise quickly turned to anger as he continued staring at Aiden. The bull next to him sent murderous looks at me.
That’s when I realized we were staring face-to-face with the minotaurs whose identities we’d stolen. And they had friends.
Lots of friends.