Caderyn or Zeus or Whoever-the-Fuck just stared at me over a ream of pipe smoke. His expression was one of relief. The worry lines on his brow were gone.
“Say something,” I demanded. “How the fuck can you be Zeus?”
He took another long puff on his pipe and let it out before saying, “Once upon a time, I answered to that name. Those days are gone. I was defeated at Mount Olympus. Hubris. I became someone else. Founded the Celtic Collective. And you know much of the rest.”
“No, Merlin founded the … wait. Don’t fucking tell me. You are also Merlin?”
“I was. Aye.”
“If I wished for you to know the details, I would have given them to you with the rest of the knowledge. You have my spells. That is enough. You can succeed where I have failed, but first, you will need to take up the sword and claim the nexus. After you transcend to—”
“Stop. Fucking slow down. You are a god. How can I trust a gods damned word you say?”
“I have already given you the answer to that question. You know who I am by who I have been in the years you have known me and by what I have given you just now.”
That’s why he’d shown me his past. Having seen where he came from was much more effective than him simply telling me that he was Zeus. Aside from the fact that he’d mentored me for 2 centuries, I’ve seen the power he gave up as a Bodhi. He’d chosen to fade from this life. More than that, he’d sat on the nexus for the gods knew how long and not seized it for himself. He’d fought the eternal war by training people, humans, to defend against the gods—his own people from his home planet. He probably knew Loki and Artemis and all the gods in the same way I knew Victoria, Aiden, and Abigail. Poseidon was his brother. So was Hades. And he had fought them. For us.
“You’re right. I do trust you, but I still can’t believe it. All this time, you’ve been one of them.”
“Zeus. The Father of all gods. You ruled humans. Why did you stop?”
“That is a long story. And in the end, it matters little. For centuries, I have been teaching you to protect yourselves. And you are ready for what comes next. Of all my pupils over the millennia, you are the one I have chosen.”
“Chosen for what? To die horribly in a losing battle. I was duped. They beat me.” And I told him about my last week or so, starting with Aiden and Abigail coming to town, my journey to Atlantis and back, and finishing with freeing him from the cells. He listened. His face was unreadable as I showed him the Soul Breaker and Aliastulus. For several moments, he puffed his pipe, face frozen in quiet contemplation.
“None of us is omniscient,” he said, at last. “I was also fooled. Aiden brought Loki and dozens others into the compound through a dimensional pocket. It was warded somehow, to bypass our safeguards. But the gargoyles were not as easily deceived. They barked a warning, and I knew. I was just able to get the sword and close the nexus before they took the courtyard. Those of us still standing retreated to the castle. The fight was long and brutal. Lasted weeks. Just when I knew we’d lose, I sent the others away. Only I remained. Rather than kill me, I was taken. Loki was just as smug as I remembered him. Of course, he was never one to get his hands dirty. He ordered Victoria to torture me until I unlocked the nexus. We were on our fourth day when you arrived.”
“What do we do with her?” I asked. She was still shackled and tied up in my dimensional pocket. I could not keep her there forever.
“She is bonded to Artemis. There is only one thing to do with a bonded mage. You must end her suffering.”
“But why? You are a god. Doesn’t it seem hypocritical to kill people just for bonding to one another?”
“Do you know how the subjugation bond is made?”
“Not exactly. The Collective has never been very chatty about it.”
“On my home planet, our nexuses were weak in comparison to those here, likely due to the number of mages tapping into them over the millennia. When a mage claims a nexus, he is conferred with power from the node. Permanently. That which is lost from the nexus is gained by the mage.”
“Interesting,” I said. “But I don’t feel like you answered my question.”
He waved his hand as if swatting at a bug. “I am getting there. When a god has a nexus, he can subjugate others by bonding them through the nexus he or she has claimed. This connection enhances his power, which is why the so-called gods rarely venture away from their seats of power. The greater their number of subjects, the more invulnerable they are while near their nexus. They are nearly invincible. Do you see it now? Why our rules are necessary?”
“Aye. I see why you’ve always done it like this. But what if there is another way?” I gestured to the mirror. “Maybe we don’t need to kill her.”
“The Soul Breaker.” He grunted. “It might be possible. Amongst its other properties, the mirror reflects your true self. All bindings attached to the mind can be broken, but only if the person truly wishes to be saved. If Victoria wishes to be freed, the Soul Breaker will allow her to break the bond. But if she was not coerced or persuaded and truly chose to bind herself to Artemis, there is little hope that she come back as the Vic you remembered.”
“How do we use it?”
“Simple,” he said with a barely-suppressed sigh. “She looks into the mirror until she reveals her own truths. Either way, she will be no help to you with what is to come. Once her soul is broken, she will need months, maybe years to recover. Leave her with me and go.”
“And do what? I can’t take on Loki, Aiden, and all the others alone.”
“But you can. And you must.”
“Suicide. Even with the knowledge you gave me, I haven’t trained with the spells. And I don’t have enough power to—”
“You do not have enough power yet. But you will. Once you take up my sword, bond with the nexus and transcend. Then you can face them.”
“Take up the sword? You mean Excalibur? What if they’ve already freed it?”
“They cannot,” he said. “The sword in the stone. It is an old trick, but effective. They will not be able to unlock it. Not by force or spell. Only the hand to which it is attuned may draw Excalibur. Yours.” Before I could ask, he added. “Your hairs. Taken from your chambers at the Collective. Years ago.”
“You’ve been planning this for some time.”
He nodded. “Some events are inexorable.”
When he added nothing further, I asked, “So there has to be a phase 2 or something, right? To this insane plan? Assume I can take back the Collective. What then?”
“Once the plague came, I knew Artemis was going to make her move. She has not taken Bermuda. She will not be strong enough until Loki has the nexus at the Isle of Man. Stop him and you stop her. We win. For now. And the Eternal War wages on.”
“Not good enough,” I said. “We need to stop them. For good. Excalibur closed the nexus. Can we not close all of them?”
“To craft Excalibur, I had to journey to the center of a dying star, extract the etherealite and shape the material before the star collapsed. I nearly died. So there are only two such blades. One fused with ether. The other with wyther. Excalibur and Aliastulus, named after the mages who gave up their ethereal pattern to craft them. Another sacrifice which must be made to craft a sentient blade. I will make no others. And the knowledge to do so will die with me.”
Rather than argue with him about that last point as I really wanted to, I asked, “Aliastulus, can she lock a different nexus?”
“No. She is made of wyther and can only absorb ether.”
“And excalibur is made of ether,” I reasoned. “So he absorbs wyther but will repel ether. Which is how the nexus is locked.”
“Great. So, we can go get it and take back the Celtic Collective.”
“Not ‘we’. You.”
“No. Fuck no. You are coming with me. I can’t do this alone.”
“And yet you must.”
“Why? You’ve already taken in ether. What’s another few days of—”
“That,” he said, pointing a finger at my face, “is the exact reasoning which keeps one in the battle. I have seen tens of thousands die. Most of them by my own hand. No more.”
“I do not enjoy killing any more than you.”
“But you are still able. I am not.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. You are Zeus. God of—”
“Do not call me that. I am an old man, who will die here. In this place. Alone.”
“Coward,” I said, immediately regretting the lie. I’d seen his memories, felt his fears. He’d killed his own father. Watched his mother die. Of his countless lives, he’d never failed to place himself in harm’s way. Dying was the only thing he’d ever chosen for himself.
I saw the pain in his eyes at hearing me say that word. Before I could take it back, he turned. “You should go. There is work to be done. Leave Victoria. I will see that she stares into the mirror. Whatever the outcome, I will care for her until you return.”
“You mean if I return. If not, the world is quite fucked.”
“Perhaps.” He shrugged. “Perhaps not. The other Collectives might be able to rally.”
His nonchalance hit me like a slap to the face. Before I said something I regretted, I turned to go.
“Wait. Take Aliastulus. The blades were made as a pair.”
I shook my head. “She’s mad. And I don’t need the distractions of a raging psychopath in my head while I risk so much.”
“Eternity is long with no contact. And, she was made from wyther, but she will be calm until you retrieve Excalibur. Once she reunites with her brother, she will remain lucid. Mostly. But you will need her strength.”
I picked up the sword. Once more, she was quiet. I felt a sense of … profound respect emanate from her. Directed toward Caderyn, I realized.
The maker, she said to my mind. Thank you for letting me see him.
I met Caderyn’s gaze. The worried, old-man look returned. I saw pride and fear battle with shame and regret. I did not want any hard feelings between us in the event that I died quite fantastically.
“I didn’t mean it,” I said. “In a way, I understand. You’ve been like a father to me.”
“And you more of a son to me than Apollo or Heracles ever could be. But there is no need for goodbyes. Go. Save the day. I have some unpleasant business to deal with.” He looked toward where Victoria laid, just inside my dimensional pocket, which I’d left partially open on the table. She began to stir.
He was right. She would be of no use to me. I couldn’t trust her, and even if the Soul Breaker worked, I couldn’t take her with me. Better not to have to speak to her at all.
I left before she was fully coherent. Once outside, I pulled in ether, made it into a conduit to seize wyther. Despite my earlier reservations about using the imparted knowledge, casting the spell felt as easy and seamless as any spell I already knew. Weird.
Using an equal blend of both sides of magic, I ripped a hole into the fabric of space and time, opening the portal from here to the Isle of Man. I looked through it for several heartbeats, admiring the simplicity of the spell. I felt the strain of burning wyther, but it was a dull thing, far different than all the times I’d used it before. There was damage. I could feel it, but I also knew how to repair it, thanks to Caderyn’s knowledge.
I vowed to ask my old mentor why he’d spent decades teaching me the old-fashioned way when he could have passed all of my training to me with a single touch. Not that he’ll tell me. I’m pretty sure he would give me a fortune cookie answer about traveled roads and journeys being more important than the destination. But I would still ask. Good to set goals when you are walking into certain death.
Taking a deep breath, I gripped the hilt of the sentient blade and stepped through the portal, ready for a fight.