Over the decades, I have learned to trust my instincts. Admittedly, they might have a blindspot where my friends and loved ones are concerned, but generally, they work fairly well.
So, despite being alone on the beach, I stood still, invisible behind my veil. And I waited. Behind me, the waves lazily lapped at the shore.
I heard laughter, faint at first, but definitely recognizable. Some part of my subconscious brain must have heard the distant sound before I had been aware of it.
Seconds later, Aiden and Abigail rounded the corner of Strand Road, then strolled onto Shore Road, passing not more than 5 meters in front of where I stood. They stopped in front of the book store, still laughing. Aiden tried and failed to produce intelligible words. Abigail pointed at his face, tears streaming down her cheeks, laughing too hard to speak.
I wanted to breathe smoke.
Every part of my being screamed to take out Aliastulus and charge. Maybe I could take one of them out with the aid of the sentient blade before the other was even aware of me.
After all, they’d left me for dead in a different fucking universe. I could return the favor by smiting them to hades right here and now.
But no. If they recovered from their laughing fit and fought back, I could not take them both. Had Aiden not intervened last time, Abigail would have sent me into that implosion vortex.
Thinking back, that had been for keeps. That spell would have collapsed all my little pieces down to a single atom. Deader than dead.
Aiden had come to stop her. So, despite their obvious happy moment, they did not see eye-to-eye on every issue. Namely, on whether or not I should live.
Waiting this out might be a better option.
I watched until their uncontrollable laughter subsided, which took 10 minutes or so. Because when one of them sobered up, the other took a few moments to catch up. And then they’d be tickled by the other’s serious expression, and they’d be off again.
It was really gods-damned endearing.
At long last, Abigail turned toward the store, wiping tears from her eyes. Then she stood straighter, frowned at the door, and said, “It’s shut.”
“Everything’s shut,” Aiden said, a few last chuckles escaping. “That whole plague thing served it’s purpose. Doesn’t mean we cannot help ourselves, right?”
With a trickle of ether, he picked the mechanical lock and was inside. It was only in that moment I wondered what the hell they were doing here on the Isle of Man, walking around as if they owned the place. Planning a coup, no doubt. But why the book store?
It felt like 2+2=5 day.
As much as I wanted to stay and figure out what they were up to, I needed to get up to the Collective. Bodhi Caderyn would know what to do. And he needed to be warned.
I backed far away from the book store, until I ran out of sand. Even then, I walked along the shore until I was certain neither Aiden nor Abigail would feel my use of ether. Then I bounded into the air and flew toward the floating island.
I froze at the edge of the walkway. Heart thudding. Breath held.
The courtyard was covered in blackish-red stains. Wilted rose petals were scattered amongst broken trees and downed walls. Gargoyles laid in smoky ruins. Stony heads smashed or severed. A seared line cut through the cobbled walkway, leading to the castle, the ground beneath fissured. A giant oak had been toppled, roots jutting above the ground, dried and dying.
I couldn’t move. I could only stare.
My eyes fixed on the upside-down, androgynous statue. Its robes no longer glittered. The thin stream surrounding its feet appeared frozen in steel. A sword now jutted into the pool at the statue’s feet. Even the leys crossing the space hardened, bleeding ether in torrents, rather than allowing it to flow into the nexus.
Somehow, the seat of power had been locked. How was it even possible?
Keeping my veil tight around me, I ventured closer. A dozen figures in dark robes stood at the base of the statue, studying the sword. None turned my way. I recognized none of them, but the crooked bow and notched arrow embroidered on their cloaks as the sign of Artemis.
And I also saw what they were studying. Excalibur.
The blade itself shone with a brilliant light. The hilt had a simple cross-guard. Though it appeared silver, it was made of etherealite—known to scientists as nuclear pasta (yes that’s a real thing). It is the strongest substance in the universe, theorized to exist in the crust of neutron stars. It can also be created by destroying ether, but is volatile in the transitionary phase and extremely difficult to shape, which is why only one such weapon existed. No one knew how the hell Merlin had done it.
The sword had been stabbed into the nexus, and had somehow frozen the flow of ether around it. By their anxious expressions, Artemis’s flunkies could not remove the sword from its perch.
Bodhi Caderyn, you brilliant, brilliant man. It had to have been him.
Then, beyond the statue, at the edge of the grounds, I saw the burn pile, and I felt sick. Disfigured and dismembered skeletal parts lay in a pile of mostly ash. Whoever had made the pyre hadn’t bothered to be thorough. Flesh burned more easily than bone. Who all had died? Was Bodhi in there? I dropped to my knees, covering my mouth for fear I might cry out.
This place had always seemed indomitable and eternal. I had always known, wherever my fight stopped, the Celtic Collective would continue on.
And it had fallen.
I found myself on my feet, marching toward the mages. I pulled Aliastulus from my pack.
Yes. Kill them all. Cover me in their blood. Let me taste the essence of our enemies.
And that stopped me. More because I felt her desires touch my own, a sloppy push of the sword’s influence. But also, I could not take so many mages, even with the sword.
But you can. Simply call my brother. Together, we can destroy worlds.
“Wait,” I said aloud. “What?”
One of the mages turned, glancing over her shoulder in my direction. Shit.
Cal, Aliastulus. He is my twin.
Cal? As in Excalibur?
Yes. Take him. Kill them all.
“Did you hear that?” the mage said.
“Hear what?” another asked.
“I thought I heard something. Over there. Where the walkway is busted up.”
“Do not be paranoid, Jessica. The fools are all dead or in the cells.”
“No buts. Focus. We need to open this before the ides. Or would you like to explain to Loki and Artemis why we failed?”
“It’s been weeks,” Jessica said. “We can’t get it freed without the old man’s help.”
“That’s Victoria’s angle. This is ours. Now help us or go find me some coffee.”
Jessica rolled her eyes and turned back to the statue. While they poked and prodded at the sword, I felt a spike of hope burn in my chest.
Bodhi Caderyn was alive.
The front entrance to the castle had a pair of hunters, complete with silver and gold breastplates. Each carried primitive-looking bows, but to the trained eye, the ruins etched into the wood glinted with power. Likely, more guards were inside. So, I made my way toward the backside of the castle, out of sight from those in the courtyard.
Wait. Go back. Take up Cal. Where are you going, you foolish mortal?
You will not need help once you—
I shoved the sword back into my pack and focused on my task. I stopped halfway across the back wall and placed my palm on the stone. No wards. They’d been ripped away and not replaced, which I’d been hoping for. Clearly, they considered the Collective beaten. The other chapters must not know. Why else hadn’t they come to our aid?
Thoughts for another day.
Backing away, I used a knife to cut a circle into the ground, infusing it with ether. This was a simple enough bit of thaumaturgy but costly in the energy department. But I saw no other way.
I focused on my spell while feeding ether into my circle. After a few seconds, my body felt lighter. The wall in front of me became translucent, as did the ground beneath my feet. Once my feet sunk into the soil, I willed myself to float.
I continued feeding ether into the circle. The world around me became ghostly. The morning sky became shades of gray and whites, like an old movie. The only color I could see was my own clothes and skin. My cloak and backpack.
You’ve likely read about astral projection, where people can have outer-body experiences. This takes place in the astral plane, a shadowy representation of the physical world. Matter—people, animals, rocks—exist in (3+1) dimensions. That’s 3D physical spaces plus another for time. However, the astral plane is a fourth dimension, so closely linked to our world, those with the knowledge can go there.
It was dangerous. What people refer to as ghosts dwell here. But there are worse things. The Fallen. Entities who feed on chaos, whose nature is to increase entropy. Such beings are those which Lovecraft made real in his writings. The astral plane works like a doorway to realms in which these creatures exist, drawn to earth from other universes and dimensions because of Order, the antithesis of entropy. Encountering these beings can break a person’s mind. I mean … read some Lovecraft and tell me he never saw one of the Fallen.
But I planned on being fast.
After finishing the spell, I felt solid, but I could not pick up the leafs at my feet. I could pass through the stone now. This would get me to the prison but not into cells, which were warded to prevent access to the astral plane. Ethermages had, after all, constructed the cells to contain beings capable of using magic.
Sinking into the ground, I flew forward through the wall. Unburdened by the encumbrance of needing to walk or go down the several flights of stairs, I reached the catacombs quickly. I could feel the wards along the cells repulsing me, shutting me out of the small rooms on either side of the long hall.
But I could get into the hall itself.
Once inside, I dropped the spell. And sagged to the floor. Me legs quivered, and my arms were weak. But nothing had eaten me or devoured my mind. Score 1 for the good guys.
I sat there, trying to control my breathing and letting my eyes adjust. Except for a sliver of orange at the end of the hall, I was in total darkness. The light came from a cell door. It wasn’t even closed all the way.
First the wards, now this. Could they really be this arrogant? It felt like a trap. Not for me, though. They all thought me stranded on Atlantis. Or so I hoped.
I shivered from the cold. It was a side-effect of going into the astral plane. As was the disorienting sensation. It took me a few minutes to overcome it and stand. Rather than burn more ether on a veil, I approached the cell cautiously.
“Ah, finally,” a feminine voice said as I reached for the handle. I stopped, wishing I’d kept the sword out.
As I readied a spell to defend myself, the woman said, “I thought you might never wake.”
“Victoria, you healed me,” a young male voice said. “Why?”
“Do not worry. I plan to damage you again in short order. Unless, of course, you tell me what I desire to know.”
The man sighed. The sound felt familiar. As did his speech pattern. “Only a hand that is worthy may pull the sword from the stone. Yours is clearly not worthy, or Excalibur could be yours.”
“Seriously? Should I call you Merlin and seek out Arthur Pendragon for their aid? End this charade. Make this easy on yourself. All this pain can stop. Tell me how to open the nexus.”
There was a brief silence followed by a surge of wyther. The man screamed.
I hurried to the door. It was made of metal with a small barred window, just large enough to peek through.
Inside, Victoria stood before a man in shackles. Dark energy flew from her fingertips into the man’s skull. Black veins snaked down his cheeks, through his neck, disappearing beneath his tattered robes. The plain, gray robes of a Bodhi.
I stared harder at the man. It had been a long time since I’d seen this face. His white beard had been shaved, replaced with black stubble. His hair had been cut short. White tips still lingered but grew dark at the roots.
Bodhi Caderyn was young again. Which meant he’d used ether. Enough ether and for long enough to revert his cells back to their prime state. He must have put up a helluva fight to keep them out of the Collective.
A pang of guilt stabbed through me. Had I not been off trying to save someone who clearly had not wanted to be saved, the Bodhi would not have been forced into this. As much as I wanted him to live, he’d wanted to be done with this life. Keeping him here for my sake, for the world’s sake was selfish.
“Tsk, tsk. Stay awake. For the grandmaster of invocation, you do not have much stamina.”
Victoria sighed and stopped, abruptly, then used ether to heal the damage she’d just caused. Caderyn breathed hard as Victoria made the same demands as before to similar results. Caderyn would not tell her what she wanted to know.
As she hit him with more wyther, I pulled the sword from my pack.
Mmm, Aliastulus said in my mind. I recognize that feeling all too well. You will slate my thirst, mortal.
Shut up, I thought back.
This was hard enough without an insane voice in my head, urging me on. I had loved this woman for over a century. We had fought together, bled together, and eventually shared a bed. A life. We had visions and dreams of a future without all of this.
But my Vic was dead. This person was an instrument of Artemis, her nymph. I could not get her back.
And I froze with my hand on the door. A nagging thought came to me. What if the Soul Breaker could bring her back? What if Aiden had been wrong? He had gone to Atlantis the first time to get the mirror. Could it work?
If it did, I would not need to kill her.
Do not be daft, mortal. The only safe enemy is the one dismembered at your feet. Thrust me into her.
That’s what he said. Thanks Michael Scott. But no. I’m going to try something else.
Fool! I command you to—
Back in the bag. Perhaps I was the biggest idiot on the planet, but I had to try one more time. But I had to disable her first.
Victoria was a capable fighter. When it came to hand-to-hand combat, she had always been better. When we sparred, she pinned me 9 times out of 10. But I was superior with invocation and had worked hard to be the absolute best in one-on-one fights.
But I planned to sucker punch her. The only fair fight is the one where I’m still standing at the end of it. Besides, a prolonged scuffle would make noise, which might attract attention. If I missed, she could sound an alarm rather than duke it out.
So, I could not miss.
Okay, enough with the pep talk. Time to do this before someone came down to check on Victoria, or to bring her coffee or whips and chains or whatever.
Victoria had stopped again to heal him, so I waited until she began to pull wyther once more.
Drawing on ether, I pulled the door open.
The rusty hinges screeched.
Dark energy sloshed off Victoria’s hands as she turned, a snarl on her face. “I said not to fucking dis—”
Her eyes widened. I thrust a fist at her face. At the same time, I said, “Inntinn spreadhadh.”
She dodged the punch with ease. But that had been a distraction. Psychic energy blasted out from my mind. The ball of ether struck the side of her face and head.
And she dropped. Eyes rolling in the back of her skull. I followed up with a sleep spell, which rarely worked on mages unless they were already mostly unconscious.
More of her muscles relaxed, and her breathing slowed, chest barely moving.
Bodhi looked up at me with a fierce grin, quickly followed by extreme worry. “You should not be here.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, rushing over to him.
His eyes were puffy and swollen, but he appeared otherwise undamaged.
I recognized the runes covering the bindings on his wrists. The main intent was to stop the use of ether or wyther. They were not unlike the pair we’d used on Victoria. Only, this set was real. Though I’d been the one to shackle Victoria, Aiden had plenty of opportunity to swap them for a fake.
With a little will and ether, I deactivated the wyther flowing threw them. Then the ether. When they opened and fell off, I placed them around Victoria’s wrists.
“Thank you,” he said, “but we need to be gone from this place. Your being here is dangerous. To all of us.”
“How’s that now?”
“Not here. We most go. Before Aiden and Abigail return.”
He stood, focused intently, then pushed his hand forward, two fingers pointed upward with the rest folded inward. He moved his hand counter-clockwise, pushing out with his other palm. Energy glowed around his fingers. Both ether and wyther poured out of him and into his circular design. The circle grew. Expanded. And became a gateway to another place.
Everything I was seeing was completely impossible. First, no one could draw ether and wyther simultaneously. And one needed focusing tools to make a gate.
“Take Victoria,” he said. “And let’s go.”
I swallowed my 20 questions and gathered up Victoria. There would be time for the ‘what the fucks?’ later.
I stepped through the opening in reality and found myself standing in the mountains, complete with snowy peaks in the distance.