I opened the portal in the courtyard of the Celtic Collective behind a broken wall I’d seen earlier. As I’d suspected, this area had been vacated. Most of the garden in this area was intact, given ample foliage to hide behind.
I kept my head low as I crept back toward the nexus.
My task was simple enough. Just like the Arthurian Legends, I simply needed to reach the sword and draw it. When that happened, I would need about 10 seconds to bond with the nexus. Then, boom, I’d hold a seat of power.
See, simple right?
I peeked around the wall.
Aiden sat at the head of the upside-down, androgynous statue, staring up at Excalibur, which was driven into the hardened ether at the statue’s feet. Abigail was seated nearby with several books open. She scanned one, then flipped through another.
The rest of their lackeys stood off to the side. One held a french press, which looked ready to stir. Another woman held bagels. The others watched, expressions somewhere between chagrin and irritation. I hadn’t seen them chastised, but I could imagine Aiden’s colorful expressions of displeasure at their failures, even though he and Abigail had also failed, thus far.
With a trickle of ether, I heightened my hearing. For several minutes, no one spoke. Abby perused the books, while Aiden glared at the sword as if his will alone would remove it.
“Are you going to help with this?” Abigail finally asked.
“I am helping,” Aiden said, without looking away from the sword. “I’m thinking.”
“Don’t hurt yourself, love.”
“Ha. Ha. As it would happen, I’m onto something.”
“Fuck off. You didn’t come up with anything. Grab a book.”
“This trick has been used before, right?” Aiden asked.
“Sword in the stone. Yeah. It’s sort of famous. So what?”
“How does it work, do you think?”
She gave him a flat look. “That’s why we got all of these books from Marvin’s hidden stash, you dolt.”
“Right. It was rhetorical. I think I know how it works. If I’m correct, I believe we can trick the spell into releasing the bond with the nexus, giving us both Excalibur and the nexus.”
Fuck. Aiden was clever enough that I believed him. But he was also often full of shit. Rather than charge into battle, I waited for him to continue.
He stared at the sword for several seconds. When it became clear he wasn’t going to say more, Abigail cleared her throat. Loudly. When he looked at her, she said, “And …”
“If I’m right,” he said, reasoning aloud, “we merely need to figure out who he bonded the sword to and become that person.”
“Won’t work,” she said, shaking her head before he’d finished. “You change the phenotypes superficially. On a molecular level, your ethereal pattern is still you. Caderyn’s spell will go that deep. Besides, we don’t know whose hand will free the blade, only that it isn’t Caderyn’s.”
“Of course we do,” Aiden said. Seeing that shit-eating grin, I decided then and there, I didn’t miss it. Not even a little.
“I will murder you if you make me ask.”
“That would be a neat trick, seeing as how that shit-stain is stuck in Atlantis. Or, so you say. Caderyn would need his ethereal pattern to cast the spell.”
Shit stain? Deep breaths. In and out. Rushing in would only get me killed.
Aiden produced a vial, smug expression never wavering. “Any mage worth his salt keeps such necessary stores of all his friends and family. The Bodhi is definitely salty. All Caderyn needed for the spell is a strand of hair, which I am sure he kept on supply.”
“Are those Liam’s hairs?”
“Of course they are.”
Abigail pursed her lips, eyes drifting upward in thought.
Gods damn it. I could think of a dozen ways they could use those against me. None of them made my task of reaching the sword any easier.
“You might be right about the who,” she relented, “but the how is still a problem. Even a polymorph spell will not truly change your core essence. Plus, the sword is sentient. You cannot trick the blade into believing you are him.”
“A golem might work. A construct comprised fully of his ethereal pattern.”
“That would take time. We are on a schedule. How long would it take to go to Atlantis and grab the piece of shit?”
“No,” Aiden said. “He is off limits. You promised.”
“If he is literally the only way to achieve our goals, we might have to renegotiate those terms.”
“The golem would be faster than going to Atlantis, tracking him down—assuming he’s alive—then convincing him to come back with us.”
“Liam’s hand will work. The golem likely will not.”
“You do not know that. It could work.”
“It is possible, but Artemis is growing impatient. And how do you think Loki would feel about taking a long shot over a certainty?”
They glowered at one another, neither appearing as though they’d budge.
“You promised,” Aiden said, at last. But his voice was weak, pleading.
“How about a compromise?” she said. “You start building your golem. I send Victoria back to Atlantis. If the golem works, we can let Liam go free. What do you say?”
And I was about out of time. If Abigail went to the cell below, she would find it empty with both Caderyn and Victoria gone. The second they were out of sight, I had to move.
“You would let him go,” Aiden said, “just like that? He tried to kill you on several occasions. I’ve never seen you let go of a vendetta. Not to mention, the reasons you wanted him out of the way have not changed.”
“Of course they have. If we have this nexus, he can no longer threaten us. With his precious collective in shambles, he will have little support and virtually no chance of taking back this place. I will let him live. You have my word.”
Aiden gave her a dubious expression, but slowly, he nodded. “Fine. But if you kill him, we are done, you and I.”
“It won’t come to that.”
“But you know the stakes if it does.”
She held out a hand to him. He took it, and they shook once. Aiden released her hand and pivoted toward the castle. He marched away with a determined look on his face.
“You,” Abigail said, pointing to a lackey, “take these books to my chamber. You, fetch Nymph Victoria. And what the fuck is that?” With a surge of ether, she swatted the french press out of the girl’s hand. The carafe hit the cobbles and shattered. “That set for way too long. Make me another. It better be fucking perfect.”
As she stormed off, she added, “The rest of you don’t take your eyes off the nexus until I come back.”
And that’s my cue. Now or never.
Going invisible with another veil, I crept closer to the statue. Only four of the mages remained, but two hunters still stood sentry at the castle’s entry. I didn’t need to fight them. At least not yet. I just needed to get to the sword.
But then … if I pulled Excalibur and lost the inevitable battle, there would be nothing stopping Loki from claiming the nexus. Not to mention, the trickster god would likely show up the second the spells began to fly.
I would need to move swiftly.
I shifted Aliastulus to my left hand. Took a deep breath. And then I charged. I cut into the first lackey before drawing on more ether. I felt a surge of lust from the blade as I pivoted and stabbed through the throat of the next.
And my surprise round was over.
Ether wrapped around the other two. I recognized the armor spell. It might not stop the blade from doing damage to them, but it would remove the chance of landing a lethal strike.
The lackey on the left glanced down at the two dead women at my feet. I took her hesitation as an opening. I lunged.
“Feachd,” I said, pulling ether into Aliastulus.
Power lanced out as the blade stabbed at her face. She dodged the sword, but the raw ether struck. She flew backward, tumbled into the ground and rolled. The other lackey produced two swords of ether and leapt at me.
I let Aliastulus take over. With her aid, I fended off both blades with little effort. But the hunters had both taken up their bows and had me in their sights. I worked to keep the mage between me and their arrows.
Aliastulus saved me.
My body dropped to the ground as two missiles whistled through the air. My etherarmor came up just after I felt the sting. On a torrent of air, I sprung up and threw a void at the mage’s feet. The churning disk sucked her in too quickly for her to scream. There was a pop. And she was gone.
The two hunters screamed. Outrage or battlecry, I didn’t know. Or care. I erected a wall of wyther in front of the statue, blocking them from sight. Arrows or flesh would be ripped apart passing through the destructive energy.
Just as I reached for Excalibur, I felt a surge of ether and wyther. I knew without looking, it was a portal. Aiden could not make one. Neither could Abigail. That left Loki.
The wall of wyther shattered. I saw him. He wore purple and white. The smug expression was gone. No smile or smirk. The trickster god was done playing games. Upon seeing me, his wide eyes narrowed. Ether and wyther swirled about him.
I was out of time.
Wait. Maybe not.
Taking in ether, I funneled wyther into my body. I reached beyond spatial reality and touched time. This had been Zeus’s favorite battle spell. He’d never shared it with me. Or anyone. I knew this truth, saw it as clearly as if I’d been the one to cast the spell a thousand times before now.
I burned ether by churning it through wyther. At the same time, I pressed my intent into reality with a focused thought, made concrete through the words. “Chan eil adhbhar sam bith aig ùine.”
Time has no purpose.
Loki had cast his own spell. Countless balls of destructive force shot from his outstretched hands. I recognized the spell from my mentor’s gifted memories. Each seed of wyther would grow, spreading out as a web to destroy any living matter it touched.
There was no avoiding it. I could not dodge something that wide.
But, I wouldn’t have to.
The web stopped. Like a freeze-frame, Loki stood motionless on the other side of the spell. Aiden and Abigail were behind him. I hadn’t seen them until now. Aiden’s hands were on Abby’s shoulders, frozen in mid-shove. A spell was on her lips, knives of ether in her hands, poised to throw.
The wind did not stir.
Arrows stopped in their flight.
My enemies all stood still.
But I could move.
I knew from Zeus’s gifted memories, I would not have long. This spell wrecks the body and ethereal pattern. But Excalibur was within my grasp. Climbing the statue, I reached out to take the hilt but stopped.
I couldn’t hold the time delay spell and bond with the nexus. I wouldn’t have the 10 seconds I needed for the binding spell, before Loki’s destructive web obliterated me. I would need to act fast. Keep Loki from the nexus while bonding with it.
There was no time to formulate a plan.
My body ached. My hold on the time delay slipped. Loki’s destructive web inched forward. Abigail and Aiden moved again. Arrows flew.
Whatever happened, it had to be now.
I took hold of Excalibur.
Good morrow, a deep voice said in my mind. Your soul is worthy.
The sword came free from the nexus. Ether burst into motion, not slowed in the slightest by my time delay spell. Gripping Excalibur in one hand, I plunged Aliastulus into the river of ether, pulling all I could hold.
Energy, like a thousand Red Bulls, surged into me.
I let go of my hold on time. The dark web flew. It devoured grass and leaves, everything in its path. Just before it reached me, I cut through the web with Excalibur, pulling the destructive energy into the sword. At the same time, I swept upward with Aliastulus, cutting the arrows from the air.
Loki stopped. Gaping. But he didn’t pause long. Abigail had fallen. She shouted at Aiden, who wrestled with her on the ground. But Aiden stopped resisting and slumped to the side. A blade of ether jutted from his gut. Blood covered Abigail’s hand.
“No!” I shouted.
But I couldn’t help him. The hunters drew more arrows.
Loki vanished. I spun just in time to parry. He held a spear of light, the blade at the end crafted of wyther. The pole-arm whirred, expertly through his hands. The blade shot toward my foot, poised awkwardly on the statue. I lifted my leg. And lost my footing.
I slipped. Fell.
My head hit something hard.
The world went black.