Too tired to sleep.
That phrase either has a personal meaning or makes no sense whatsoever. Trying to explain the notion is akin to describing an orgasm to a virgin who has never enjoyed any self-exploration time. Either you understand the sensation, or you don’t. The only way to truly know is through experience.
If you have ever been exhausted to the point of giddiness, you might know what I’m talking about, but only if, say, you worked in a field for a 16-hour day, for shits and giggles stayed up another ten, then worked another 16 hours digging trenches. Finally, you lay down and your mind won’t allow you to slip into silent slumber. It races through all the things you should still be doing or didn’t finish. Or it focuses on the emptiness of your existence.
Try to drive yourself to complete and utter physical exhaustion sometime, then you might understand how difficult a situation I was in. The little reserves Aiden had given me would allow me to keep moving, but I’d gone from Badass Jedi status to C3PO, human-cyborg relations. I could not face Darth Maul or Vader. Hell, I wasn’t a match for storm troopers, right then. Diplomacy was off the table, but I couldn’t be taken either.
Slinging evocation spells would fray my already addled mind. I might be able to manufacture a flight spell, but it wouldn’t get me very far. To become my formidable BA self, I needed rest. Real sleep. And a gods damn hamburger and chips.
Unfortunately, the mob of minotaurs standing in front of me didn’t seem inclined to go for takeout. Atlantis, being a place of high magic, our twins knew immediately what we were. It was clear in the threatening way they encircled us. The dozen or so minotaurs with them appeared ready to trample us, all holding weapons at the ready.
Surrounded, outnumbered, and on empty, we had few options and fewer hopes of escaping. So, I prayed to the only god who might listen.
“Loki,” I said in a loud voice. “I’m sorry for not trusting you, but we could use a little help right about now. Loki, we had a deal. Where are you? Gods damn it, Loki! You know what, fuck you. You gods damn, useless fucking ass-licker. Ahhhh!”
The guards had flinched at my initial words, looking around as if expecting a tidal wave of ass-kickery. Invoking a god in Atlantis was no laughing matter. But as the seconds stretched on and my plea devolved into a diatribe against the trickster god, their aggression returned in full force. It became clear to all present, Loki would not appear to save the day. He probably watched from somewhere nearby, laughing his ass off at our situation. Or maybe he was pissed we’d so thoroughly excluded him from our planning and was now reveling in our misfortune.
Whatever the case, Aiden and I were on our own. Everyone there knew it.
“Seize the imposters!” my twin shouted at the same time Aiden’s double yelled, “Kill them!”
I was not inclined to wait around to find out who followed which order.
Pulling in ether felt like crawling across trenches filled with gravel. My body shook with the fatigue. My very essence quivered with effort.
“Eitil trid an aer,” I shouted.
The head of an axe swung at my midsection. I flew backward, then leapt upward. Aiden jumped and kicked off his twin’s face. We both soared higher into the air. The minotaurs could not fly. They couldn’t even touch ether. Arrium had to be specifically designed to work for them, because something about their auras disrupted magical fields.
However, nothing stopped them from using the flying segways. As a group, they ran to a row of the rental devices. Apparently, there was an override command for the guards. Aiden’s twin screamed something in their own language, and the vehicles came free of their anchors. One by one, the minotaurs jumped onto their segways and flew into the air after us. We had a good lead on them, but it would not last.
We needed to lose them somehow.
Flying higher, we weaved in and out of traffic, cutting between buildings. Neither of us paid much attention to the warning signs—be it One Way, Stop, or Do Not Enter. We flew for our lives, like sparrows chased by eagles. Pain wracked my body as I forced ether through my frayed essence. I knew we did not have long like this. If we didn’t slam head-on into a lory or splat against the side of a building, I’d run out of gas, pass out, then gravity would take over, and I would finish my illustrious career as a greasy spot against the pavement.
“Plan D,” I said.
I sent a torrent of air ahead of me, into the penthouse of a sky-high apartment building. The window shattered. I flew inside and immediately dropped to my knees. I fought to remain coherent. I saw everything through a tunnel for several deep breaths. I stared at the ground, kneeling on the broken glass.
When I felt Aiden’s hand on my shoulder, I looked up.
An anthropomorphic gorilla-woman stood in the middle of the room. She was holding an espresso cup in one hand and a paperback in the other. Horror and fear were plain in her expression—so human I could only stare.
Behind her was a white sofa. The little cup fell from her fingers and crashed into the marble floor, splattering coffee all over the expensive couch. She clutched her book to her chest, eyes wide with fright.
“Sorry, ma’am,” I said, forcing myself to stand. My legs threatened to buckle, so I kept moving. I spotted an outer door through an expansive common room, on the other side of a short hall. As I ambled past her, I promised, “Loki will pay for any damages. We are on his official business.”
Take that, asshole.
We burst into the hall just as the minotaurs crashed into the apartment. Aiden slammed the door and cast a spell. The door fused into the frame. Of course, the minotaurs had axes. And strength. And the will to chase us down no matter the cost. So his spell would likely only buy us a few precious seconds.
“Stairs,” Aiden said, pointing to a door at the end of the hall.
As much as I hated it, he was right. The elevator would take too long. Or would it? No. That wasn’t an elevator. I could see the teleporter through the glass doors. Like the ones used at street crossings.
“Can’t,” I said, pushing the button. “I won’t make it. We can take this.”
The glass doors opened just like an elevator. But inside was the circular pad.
“Oh thank the gods,” Aiden said. “My legs wouldn’t have lasted the whole way down. I was prepared to tuck and roll down a few hundred flights, but this is better.”
We stepped onto the pad. Nothing happened. I looked at the panel on the wall. There were different floors. The writing was in Atlantian. I reached out to press the symbol for “Lobby” but Aiden grabbed my wrist.
“Wait, I have an idea,” he said, “Which one will take us to the garage?”
I started to argue, but the door to the penthouse flew from its hinges. Any idea was better than waiting here, so I mashed the button for the garage. We rematerialized. Rows of vehicles—wagons, chariots, and cars—were parked. Most of the parking spaces were filled. It was still pretty early. Soon, people would be leaving for work. Whatever we did needed to happen fast.
“We stealing one?” I asked.
“Won’t need to,” he said. “Over here.”
We ran to the end of the garage, near the stairs, and settled down between two large wagons. Aiden pulled his amulet from his chest and pressed on a runic script. His body morphed back into his own shape. The minotaur’s hair was nearly gone. He replaced it with a golden strand from a separate vial.
“The kobolds,” I said, smiling. “You are a fucking genius.”
He gave me a look that said, You are only now figuring that out?
Then he became Arkath, the male kobold from earlier. He’d taken their hairs as leverage. His barking voice said, “Hurry. They could be right behind us.”
I took my amulet out from beneath my shirt, deactivating the arrium. As my body morphed back to my human-self, all my pains intensified. I could not breathe. I staggered. My clothes were now way too big. They hung loose on my arms and felt heavy enough to drag me down. I shrugged out of them, not caring that I was naked.
We were running out of time. Those minotaurs would soon discover we had not run to the lobby. Likely, they were already cordoning off the building, trying to trap us inside. I held my amulet out to Aiden, and he replaced the minotaur hairs with the kobold’s. I let the amulet settle on my skin, activating the magic.
The polymorph hurt just as much as before. By the time the magic had taken effect, I found myself lying on the concrete. Cold, exhausted, and … female. Aiden’s shit-eating grin was a perfect imitation of the kobold’s from earlier. I stood, covering myself, uncertain why I cared. This wasn’t my body.
“Might want to put something on,” he said with a wink.
“Nah. Not my style, dog.”
“Oh. Ha. Ha. You are so clever.”
I reached down to grab my clothes and tried to transmute the garments into something that would fit. But as I reached for ether, the world darkened and the ground shook. After it stopped, I was leaning against a wagon panting. From Aiden’s now puppy-dog expression, there hadn’t been an earthquake. I was out of gas. There would be no more flying or any other sort of spell slinging. For all intents and purposes, I was a kobold.
“I’ll do it,” Aiden said, taking the clothes. He spoke the spell, changing my clothes into a racy dress and his into the open tunic and tight-fitted trousers, Arkath had worn at Starbucks.
“How are you not out of juice?” I asked him. “You got less rest than I did.”
“I am. I’m just not bitchy about it. Get it? Bitchy. Cuz you’re a—”
“I fucking get it,” I said snatching the dress.
I turned my back on him, and climbed awkwardly into the garment. I tried, and failed, to zip up the back.
“Need help?” Aiden asked, tongue lulling out of his mouth.
“I will murder you. One more word, and I swear—”
The sounds of marching boots brought us back to our dire peril. Aiden zipped me up, and we crept toward the door. It was a fire exit. Of course. The second we opened it, an alarm would sound. But, it would also exit into the street below. The guards would be looking for two minotaurs, not two kobolds.
“Ready?” I asked.
Aiden opened the door. World War Next was declared in deafening alarms. No one for five blocks was asleep anymore. We did not have time to care.
We ran down the stairs. Well, ran is a bit of a stretch. I clung to the rail and staggered as quickly as my little legs would allow. Going from the hulking bodies of the minotaurs to the petite forms of the kobolds so quickly was disorienting. That, and my legs felt as though I had spent the night marching through mountains.
I leapt the last several steps, and fell into the wall. It was jarring but the least of my pains. We exited the building into a side street. I’d expected teams of minotaurs to be lying in wait, ready to ambush us, but the alley was empty. There were no patrols or yellow tape. No snipers and hostage negotiators.
Holy, fuck-balls. We’d finally gotten lucky.
We stagger-ran to the sidewalk and turned right. With the sun blocking the buildings, I could not determine any cardinal directions, but away from here would suffice. Before we’d taken more than a few steps from the alley, other people began to spill into the street, some half-dressed. Tenants from the building next to the apartment also exited in a hurry. Concerned voices spoke at once, everyone worried over a fire. Very soon, the sounds of anxious voices rose to a volume with the sounds of the alarm.
Guilt and relief warred with one another for purchase in my mind. Relief won as I saw guards exit our building and push their way into the growing crowd. They stopped every minotaur in the area, arresting them without hesitation.
Aiden and I slipped away, turned the corner and just kept walking. We made our way to a larger, busier road and moved alongside the flow of traffic. None of the commuters so much as glanced at us. It was a constant urge to look over my shoulder, but I suppressed the impulse. As my racing heart slowed, the weariness and fatigue became heavier with each step.
Four or five blocks later, we stopped and sat on a bench. For several minutes, we both just stared at the road. As the sun rose to full dawn, traffic slowed, becoming bumper-to-bumper.
A giggle bubbled out of me. Aiden looked at me, clearly annoyed. His expression—so Aiden and yet doglike—made me laugh harder. Aiden gave me a lopsided grin. Then he began to laugh. The barking-chuckle sounded like a dog having a seizure. This, of course, made us both laugh all the more.
I couldn’t breathe.
The laughter slowed to an occasional bark. Then we both fell silent, breathing hard. I leaned against Aiden. He was taller now. He rested his chin on the top of my head. We stayed like that for a while. My eyes lulled, but would not close completely.
“We did it,” I said, reality finally setting in.
“Piece of cake,” Aiden said, another laugh escaping. Before the giddiness could take hold, Aiden froze. I felt him grow taut next to me. Though I’d heard the sound, it took my brain a few minutes to register what it meant.
Someone beside us slow-clapped.
My muscles protested, but I had to sit up and turn my body to see the tall figure standing beside us. It was Victoria. Her personal security minotaurs stood behind her. I met her gaze and saw none of the fears or intimacy she’d shared with me the previous night.
She gave me a wicked grin and said, “You look like you could use a nap.”
I opened my mouth to hurl an insult in her direction, but stopped when I saw movement from the corner of my eye. I turned in time to see a huge fist hammer into my face.
And I knew no more.