Obi Wan Kenobi dies, the Fellowship of the ring falls apart, and Severus Snape murders Albus Dumbledore. Despite the odds stacked against them, Luke still defeats Vader and becomes a Jedi. Sam, Frodo, and Gollum drop the ring in the lava, saving Middle Earth. Harry learns magic and defeats Voldemort, killing him once and for all.
How ever desperate the situation seems at the time, the hero of every tale overcomes villainy and rises up from adversity.
At least, this was what I told myself to be able to stand up from the beach and walk back to the pyramids. It was a slow walk. I’d flown pretty far away.
I felt very alone.
I wished very much to hear a snarky remark from Aiden or have him fight me on why flying would be better than walking. Or anything at all.
He’d duped me. He’d fooled the Collective. All this time, he was bonded to Loki, working with his sister to … what? Bring about a new age of the gods?
Most of my information had come from Aiden. Meaning, I could not trust what I thought I knew. Was Skyler, my TA, even a mage? That tidbit had come from Victoria, during the midst of her machinations to manipulate me into hitting Theseus’s castle in the night.
I’m a fucking idiot. She hadn’t gotten past our wards. Aiden had let her in. Not that it mattered now, but looking back, all the signs were there. I’d been too busy putting out the fires to see my partner had been the one igniting them. All the questions that had popped up that I pushed to the back of my mind came back in a rush.
Why had Victoria faked her death? What did Abigail want in Tallahassee? Was her recruitment effort on the FSU campus misdirection or part of a bigger play for the Bermuda Nexus? Why had Aiden come to me when he did? Was Skyler really an agent of Artemis? The Ferryman knew Aiden was bonded to Loki. Why the fuck didn’t I ask more questions?
I stopped in front of the middle pyramid, the one we were staying in. More people were around, families and couples enjoying their evening on the beach, oblivious to the fact that my little world had come to a crashing halt.
Watching them, I pushed aside my worries over paths not taken. Only one question really mattered at the moment. What did I need to do next?
I still owed Theseus a debt. He wanted me to contact the Baron and let it be known I was the one responsible for robbing him. I hadn’t planned on doing this so soon, but this way I could kill two birds with one stone. Assuming there was a way to get smuggled off this planet, the Baron would have means, and I knew at least one agent of the crime lord.
Rather than go into my room and sulk more, I found my feet moving again. Instead of flying, I walked along the sidewalks. There was no reason to rush. After all, the person I sought would not likely be around until full dark. The evening light faded behind the skyline of tall buildings, turning through reds, purples, and pinks. It would have been beautiful any other day, but I just noted it all with detached acknowledgment of the passing of time.
I reached the Starbucks where we’d met Arkath and stolen pieces of the kobolds hairs. When I entered, there were no other patrons. The baristas were cleaning the used tables and restocking the condiment station.
A human-looking male smiled at me and said, “Welcome to Starbucks,” as he walked back behind the counter. “What can I get you?”
Though I loathed the idea of spending my limited supply of gold on coffee, I could not sit at a table in good conscious without patronage. I’ve always felt buying a drink is like renting the space. Though I’m certain they would let me sit there, it would feel weird without purchasing something. And now that I smelled the food, I was eating one of those toasties.
I ordered a strawberry goat toastie and a soy latte then sat at a corner table, facing the door. Less than 2 minutes later, the barista brought my order out to me. Believe it or not, this was not my first time eating goat. It was less gamey than the goats on the hills of Carlingford where I grew up. The meat was tender and the strawberries were actual strawberries. I couldn’t see what the cheese was but it had a sweet flavor, like brie.
Most importantly, I was ravished. That pour sandwich never had a chance. I finished it and sipped my coffee very slowly.
The door opened. Two minotaurs came in. My heart skipped a beat as I recognized them. I’d worn one of those faces and Aiden the other. I didn’t move. Nor did I seize ether. I would have nowhere to run. I was out of options and friends.
The one I had impersonated frowned at me. Then he dismissed me as if I was a tourist or annoying pest, blatantly ignoring me as he walked to the counter. They ordered their coffee and left without so much as a glance in my direction.
Others came and went, but not the kobold. I nursed my coffee for nearly two hours, but fortunately, the place filled up, allowing me to ride the clock on my first installment—which to be fair would buy a small house in some countries on Earth.
I didn’t order my second round until the people cleared out around midnight. I’d begun to worry the kobolds wouldn’t come back. After all, we’d threatened to curse them. But, like all coffee connoisseurs, you did not simply abondon your favorite spot over trivialities such as threat of death or dismemberment. I mean, if the coffee is good, I’m showing up.
And so did Arkath and his partner.
The pep did slow from his step as our eyes met. He froze mid-stride. His tail, protruding from his trousers, stopped wagging. His ears pointed straight up. Next to him, hanging on his arm, the female kobold sensed his angst, then she too froze.
I stood, holding my hands up in surrender as I approached them. “I only want to talk.”
“We didn’t squeal, mate. I swear.”
“I know.” I moved closer and spoke in a conspiratorial voice. “I am here for business.” This next bit hurt, but I tried not to let it show. “Can I buy you a coffee?”
“Wouldn’t turn down a free drink,” he said, body relaxing slightly. His partner continued glaring at me.
I got in the queue with them. No one spoke while the line shuffled forward, until Arkath ordered for himself and his partner. They also got food. Altogether, it cost me 17 gold coins. I paid, trying not to do the mental conversion from sterling/dollars to gold. I failed. I had just given a new low-end BMW in exchange for food.
It was busy enough we waited at the end of the counter for their order. No one had moved my empty coffee cup, so we returned to my table and sat. Arkath already looked far more congenial. Food has a power of its own.
I gave them a minute to finish their toasties before speaking. In truth, I wasn’t completely certain of my approach. Should I start with telling them I did not have their hair or let that threat hang over them? I could strong-arm them, but that gets far less traction than kindness. Hence, the food. Still, a degree of wariness would not hurt.
“Baron’s been looking for you,” Arkath said, while chewing. “He doesn’t appreciate freelancers.”
“She,” I corrected, “does not appreciate freelancers.”
He blinked in surprise, looking up from his food. “How’d you—right. We say he, savvy? He enjoys his privacy. Get me?”
“Got it. How do I meet him?”
He stared at me for a few more seconds then returned to his chewing. He took another bite and swallowed before looking up.
“He does not know it was you,” he said. “I didn’t offer that information, you understand. How would it look. Me suspecting you would do something like that thing you did last night in the Baron’s backyard, then I sit on that out of fear of you. Savvy?”
This time, the word sounded like an honest question.
“I understand. For what it’s worth, we burned your hair samples. They are gone.”
He barked a few things to his partner. She nodded, tongue lulling from her mouth and barked something back.
“We are grateful for that,” he said. “But you understand our predicament. If we introduce you to the Baron, we have to admit to knowing you before you were infamous. And he will want his cut. Since you aren’t high crew, it’ll be 75 percent.”
“His senior most crew work all the way up to giving only 5 percent.”
“How much do you pay?”
“We pay 20.”
“You’ve worked for him a long time, then.”
“Aye, since we were pups.”
Meaning, they were loyal. And I had forced them to betray the Baron in favor of saving their own hides. I was not keen on kobold body language. He seemed debonaire, but that could be the persona he gives when feeling threatened. Or a role he played when on a job. At best, that’s all I was to him, a means to get closer to that 5 percent. I was fine with that, so long as it got me the fuck off this planet.
“I see,” I said. “What would it take for an introduction?”
Arkath sipped on his coffee. Though he stared right at me, his eyes grew distant. I let him think without interruption. I would never say it aloud, but he looked like a dog staring at a treat, just before it’s dropped. I knew what was coming before he did. The coffee was not enough of a payment.
“Might be possible. How much did you pinch?”
I’d gotten away with god’s treasure then lost all but a sword and a mirror. I couldn’t sell either of those. But he didn’t need to know that.
“More than anyone else has ever managed.”
Then it became a staring contest. I hadn’t lied, but I had intended to deceive. I focused on my breathing and drew in an image of a lotus. I placed all of my thoughts somewhere outside that picture. Though my eyes stared at him, I did not see Arkath or smell the coffee. The only scent was the vaguely sweet, mostly bitter aroma of the lotus. The exercise was designed to withstand non-magical interrogation. I’d practiced it for 200 years. If necessary, I could place my mind there fully, removing sound and sensation.
Arkath let his jaw drop open and tongue lull for a heartbeat before saying, “The Baron will want to hear the tale, himself. Have you proof?”
“I retained a couple of pieces. The rest are with my partner.”
“I’d like to see them.”
“I’d like to be king for a day.”
“I need to know you are on the level.”
“You know I am on the level, or you would not still be here. I can’t show the goods here for obvious reasons. You want to get me alone somewhere to take a shot at acquiring my stash at a premium.”
“I saw the castle. Only a fool would try to strong-arm the mage who’d done that. All by his lonesome and all.”
“You wouldn’t be alone. In addition to your partner, you have a crew standing by outside. Tell me I’m wrong.”
He made a hurt expression, placing a hand on his chest. “You’ve wounded me. Just when I thought we were becoming friends.”
“I do not have time for this. I need to meet with the Baron. Can you arrange that? Or do I need to find someone else?”
I could wander around the Shadow Streets. Eventually, the right person would find me. Or the wrong person, depending on perspective. Either way, I did not like the idea of using myself as bait.
“No,” Arkath barked. “I can make the introduction. I’ll have my people contact your people, savvy? Where are you staying?”
“I need to see the Baron, today. Now. Time is a factor for me. Or maybe you aren’t the right person for this job.”
“Oh, I’m the right person. Count on that. No one else will get you an audience, but it won’t be today. We might work in the night, but the Baron likes his sleep. Has duties not concordant with cloaks and daggers.”
“You will know when I know.”
“Fine,” I said, rising. “I’m staying at the Pyramids. Leave a message for me, and I will meet you here.”
Arkath and his partner stood with me. “Pyramids, eh? Luxurious Inn. Or so I’ve heard.”
“It’s all right.” I turned to go but stopped, looking back at Arkath over my shoulder. “One more thing. Where does Loki live?”
“As in the Loki?”
“Aye. He owes me a favor. Might need to collect.”
He turned his head to the side. “Curious. I’d heard that you cursed his name during your … daring escape. You don’t know how to reach his domain? Seems strange.”
“He teleported us there. I’m not certain how to find my way back.”
“Easy enough to find. It’s on Gods Court. Keep on Lord’s Way and take a left at the intersection. It’ll be the blue and white castle. Best of luck, mate. Word is he skipped town.”
I turned to leave without a backward glance. Once outside, I gathered ether and flew, merging into traffic like I would if riding a motorcycle in New York, using as much caution as possible and assuming no one saw me. Following Arkath’s directions, I was able to find Loki’s domain easily.
Even from the aerial view, the illusion held. The white spires were lit up with torches, at odds with a city illuminated by artificial lights but still beautiful. Blue roofs appeared almost green in the yellow light. It was spoiled somewhat, since I knew it was entirely fake.
With ether-sight, the scene remained, but I could see a shimmer in the air now that I was looking for it. I probed the shell with a lance of energy. The ward rebuffed my spell.
I flew around the place, looking for a way in. His defenses were perfect, similar to those surrounding Theseus’s compound.
So I found a comfortable spot behind the castle, which opened to a private beach. And I waited. I did not allow my thoughts to wander. I focused on my goal.
We’d worked out the details quite extensively. I hoped the mechanics were the same here. Otherwise, there’d be nothing left of my body to know I was ever here. Like a bug flying into a zapper, Loki would never even know I’d been here. I’d become a greasy spot, washed away in the rain.
I entered into a sort of trance, watching with my ether-sight. The moment the purple became a hint in the horizon, the ward dipped.
The power cycle reset.
I’d already been holding ether to capacity, readying the spells I would need for this moment. I dual cast strength and flight, pouring all my energy into the task of getting over the wall. The wards would weaken, collapse, then renew in less than a second.
I felt it happen.
I hurtled forward.
Wind rushed in my ears. I heard the sonic boom. It cracked like thunder as my movement energized the air. This was the fastest I’d ever moved. The wards closed around me. Destructive energy settled in place.
And I was on the other side of it. The gaudy mansion looked the same from the backside as it had from the front, only the back door had a patio with a sidewalk leading to a gate that accessed the beach beyond the wall.
My heart started pounding. I felt suddenly weak. I landed on the cobbled path leading into a small garden and leaned on the short fence surrounding the patch of greenery. Sweat beaded on my forehead, and I breathed as though I’d sprinted a mile. Eventually, my eyes focused and my breathing slowed.
Loki grew his own vegetables. That came as a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t a professional job. I could tell from the crooked rows. Weeds were out of control in some places. He’d done this himself. Or some other amateur gardener living with him.
That gave me pause. What if I was wrong? I shook my head. Only one way to find out.
I flew around to the front of the mansions and hovered above the giant pond. The merfolk were still there. None of them glanced up at me. The children still chased schools of fish. I watched for half an hour. In that time, the illusion repeated 3 times, the exact same scene.
I flew up to the door. There were no wards. Just a simple lock. I used a hand of ether to open the lock from the other side and went inside. And I smiled.
No one came to greet me. Nothing at all stirred. I was alone in one of the richest mansions I’d ever seen. And I needed funding to get home.
It was time to steal from a god.