The war was far from over. It was, after all, endless.
A plague ravished our planet.
Artemis had abducted Asterion and planned to use his heart to somehow make an army of minotaurs. She would not give up on the Bermuda nexus simply because I had taken the Isle of Man. But she was not currently an imminent threat.
Without ever facing her directly, I had foiled her plot.
Now that I possessed an understanding of how the nexus worked, I knew why the seats of power were difficult to take once claimed.
A god—and I use that term loosely now—has omnipotence and omniscience over the domain empowered by the nexus. For me, it was the entirety of the floating island and most of the Isle of Man below it. Once I left that domain, I was just a mage again.
A powerful as fuck mage, but very mortal.
The one advantage I had over the other gods is that they all fear death. Their immortality is their greatest weakness. They are limited to their places of power.
I do not possess such a restriction.
But Artemis does. She would not leave her seat of power in the Amazon. She would plot and plan, but at this point, the coronavirus she and her new pantheon had unleashed was a far greater danger to mankind than she was. And Earth’s scientists would take care of that problem. With a little help from ethermages.
I contacted all of the Collective Chapters. There are eleven others around the world. I told them about the events here, leaving out the part where I’d become a god. Zeus had sat on this seat for millennia without claiming it. I had broken that streak.
The Collectives were built on unclaimed seats of power to protect them from the gods. Or so we’d all been told. Likely, none of the chapters knew an advanced mage could take the power with a complex spell. A tiny voice in my whispered that I could take them all and become the most powerful being Earth had ever seen.
I could end this endless war.
But no one should ever hold such power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and all that. No matter my intentions to do good, I could not trust myself. I still had not forgotten how I had almost destroyed Loki as my first act as a “god”.
But the other nexus needed to be claimed. By the right people. The six other grandmasters would not be super happy about my proposal to deify more of our numbers, a trusted few who would give up their power once our goals were achieved.
But that could wait.
First, I needed to speak to Caderyn. He’d lied to me. To all of us. The bonds of the gods could be broken. Easily. All the innocents we’d killed over the years to protect his secrets … I needed answers.
I created a portal back to the cabin.
Not much had changed, but I sensed something in the air. I didn’t have a word for it, but some part of my senses warned me of danger, like when I’d happened upon Aiden and Abigail earlier.
I approached the door, trying to keep an eye on my surroundings. The garden was the same. The fog had parted enough to see the sun getting low on the horizon. A slight breeze brought the crisp smell of snow.
Otherwise, all was silent.
The Lares didn’t say anything as I reached for the handle, but when the door opened, the mouth appeared and said, “Mmmmm. Come on in, sugar.”
I hurried over the threshold and shut the door.
Caderyn was inside, sitting at the table, puffing on his pipe. Tendrils of smoke leaked out of the bowl. He did not look up as I entered. He stared at the mirror leaning against the far wall. There was no sign of Victoria.
I still felt the sense of danger, but now that I looked up on him, I knew Caderyn was the source. I stopped just inside the door.
“Well?” I demanded.
“It’s like that with the gods. You’ll be able to sense the others now and gauge one another’s level of power.”
He was right. As I studied my mentor, I could tell he was more powerful than I by several factors. I could not say how I knew, but I did. “You’ve bonded with seven different nodes. But have relinquished them all now.”
His head nodded, but his eyes took on a distant expression. He had still not looked at me, only stared at the mirror.
“Where is Victoria?”
“She is gone,” Caderyn said.
“What do you mean, ‘gone’?”
“Her bond was severed.”
I waited for him to elaborate and grew agitated when he sat puffing his pipe. “And?”
“The guilt was too much for her. She looked back at all she had done for Artemis and it broke her.”
“Where is she now?”
“I let her go.”
“She was freed from the bond. No longer a criminal. I could not hold her in good conscience.”
“Good conscience? The bond could have been broken any time. All we had to do is claim the nexus. We never had to kill any of the bonded mages. It was all a lie.”
“It was nec—”
“Don’t fucking tell me what is necessary. I understand your logic. You believe the nexuses are too great a temptation. You are afraid that if we gain take the seats of power, new pantheons will form and destroy this world as yours was destroyed. But fear should never rule our actions. You fucking taught me that, for fuck’s sake.”
“Aye. But it is not fear that stays my hand. It is foresight. I have looked forward and seen the only path to salvation. Every seat must be wrestled from the grasp of my brethren. The paradox is that such a feat cannot happen unless those who are pure of heart take each unclaimed seat. After these thousands of years, I have found only one who is worthy. Only one whom I am certain has the strength to relinquish power gained for the greater good.”
“There have to be more. What about the other grandmasters? Surely—”
“Why do you think I have lied to them? Amongst humankind, you alone possess the knowledge to claim a seat of power. Every other mage who knows the spell has a seat of power already and will stop at nothing to get more. After all this time, I have found no others.”
“How do you know I will give mine up?”
He puffed on his pipe. “Rather than go after the other nodes, which would be vulnerable to you now, you came here. Not to tell me of your victory. Or to debrief me. You came to check on someone you love. How many people do you know would do that?”
“Lots. People tend to be good.”
“Most people who seek power tend to abuse it, until they learn the folly of such actions. We are each of us flawed. Largely driven by competition, we will dominate others if given the chance.”
“Oh, I did,” he said. “You’ve read of Zeus. You know who I was. Even as Merlin, though mostly an advisor, I helped others conquer. Only on my third life have I chosen the role of protector. That which you choose naturally, it took lifetimes of tragedy for me to understand.”
“As you said. No one is without flaws. Even me. But you took a chance on me. There are others we can trust.”
“Trust?” He shook his head. “No. But you must find others to ascend. That burden is yours now. If you come here, I will give an old man’s advice, but Caderyn is dead now as well.”
“Then what do I call you?”
He shrugged. “I’ve always liked the name Jezza. And I knew a wise man once called this. Yes. Jez will do.”
And then he pulled in a combination of ether and wyther, working them far too quickly for me to follow. He’d not shared this spell with me. Four different dimensional portals opened pulling in primordial energy from the shadow planes of different universes. And I watched my mentor change before my eyes.
His physical form morphed into a man of middling years with dusty brown hair and short beard. His features were weathered with worry lines across his forehead.
I felt no lingering ether or wyther clinging to him. This was not an illusion. He’d changed his ethereal pattern. It was the only explanation as to why he’d not reverted back.
“That was my last spell,” he said, sagging in his chair.
“That spell. How?”
“You do not possess the strength for it. And I hope you never do.”
And then I realized the power I’d felt before—that of a god who’d bonded with 7 different seats of power—was gone. I could not sense a spark in him.
“What did you do?” I demanded.
“Something I should have done years ago. Given up my choice to do magic. I am as mortal as anyone else on this planet.”
“What do you mean ‘given up’? How?”
“I have altered the part of my mind capable of drawing ether. It was a difficult spell.”
“We have to change you back,” I said.
“But you are weak and old, and you’ll die. Not in a hundred years. Maybe just a few decades. Hell, you could catch the coronavirus. And how will you get food all the way up here?”
He chuckled. Even his voice was changed, more of a tenor than a base. “I am not likely to catch a virus up here, and I will eat the food I grow. If a young man of able body visits me from time-to-time, carrying Snickers bars, I would be obliged to eat them.”
“I am truly alone now.”
“You are grandmaster. The title confers a sense of isolation. You will grow accustomed to this. But you have others to aid you. Where is Aiden? I assuming his is the bond you severed first.”
I nodded. “He’s back on the isle, making preparations.”
“As I mentioned before, I have debts to pay in Atlantis. Now that I have averted disaster, at least for the moment, I feel the tug of promises made.”
“You would leave your seat of power unguarded?”
“Not unguarded, no. There will be wards, and I’ve sent word to the other chapters of the Collective. The surviving Celtic members will return shortly.”
“That is a mistake. They will know the seat has been taken.”
“They will know you have transcended.”
“That is a mistake,” he repeated.
I shrugged. “Maybe. I have little choice but to leave. If I do not return to Atlantis soon, I forfeit my oath to Theseus. Besides, the person I would have left guarding the nexus just pissed his power down the multiversal toilet.”
He sucked on his pipe, frown growing even deeper. But he sucked in a deep breath. When he let it out, some of the worry lines relaxed from his face. “It is your war now. Lead as you see fit.”
He grunted and turned away. I knew my mentor well enough to understand the dismissal. I stood and walked toward the door. Somehow, it felt rude making a portal inside the home.
“Liam,” he said, as I touched the handle.
I looked back at my mentor, meeting his gaze. The dim light glistened off his blue eyes. “Do better than I did.”
I swallowed my immediate response. Better than Zeus or Merlin? Ridiculous. But I saw the shimmering of a tear rolling down his cheek and promised, “I will do my best.”
He nodded and turned back to the fire. “That is all any of us can ask.”
I left. When I closed the door behind me, I felt a chill breeze that bit far deeper than it should. Each step away felt heavier. It wasn’t just the daunting task ahead.
This was truly the end of an era.
Zeus, god of thunder, father of men and gods, had given up immortality and chosen to die. He’d placed his faith in me to carry his mantle. I shivered, pulling my cloak in more tightly.
Taking a deep breath, I opened a portal and left the old man to his peace.
Then, I stepped through, back to the Celtic Collective, where the endless war awaited me.
I came to with a jolt of energy.
What happened next felt surreal. Difficult to explain. My hands were in motion, swords swinging. Despite my lack of consciousness, my body had not stopped fighting. My limbs moved of their own accord. I felt Excalibur directing spells with my lips, while Aliastulus moved both swords to defend against Loki’s attacks.
Holy fuck balls.
Loki retreated. But Abigail was in the mix too. Her daggers had become swords. Rather than interrupt the battle by taking control of the Liam Machine, I let the two swords work.
And I considered my options.
The longer this fight lasted, the more likely help would arrive. I could not keep this up forever. I needed to win. Or at least disable Abby and Loki long enough to claim the nexus.
If I lost here, this node would be gone forever.
I came up with an idea. A terrible idea. One that would either work or get me very killed. But I needed to look for the right moment to take back control of my body. On an instinctual level, I knew I could do this simply by willing it. Aliastulus would allow it, but only because she was reunited with Excalibur.
The hunters were gone. Soot and ash where they’d been firing their arrows. Aiden lay on the ground, not far off. I could not tell if he was breathing.
Abigail fought against me with her blades, while Loki threw spell after spell. Aliastulus held Abigail at bay, while Excalibur countered the trickster god.
Loki threw a ball of dark energy at my face. At the same time, a void appeared behind me. My body leapt straight up, on flows of air and landed atop the base of the statue—a round disk, no more than 2 meters in diameter. Above me the conjoining streams of ether met, forming the nexus.
You must act soon, my host, said a deep voice in my head, or the trick-some one will prevail.
Below me, Abigail cast a fly spell. Loki began dual-casting. There would not be a better window to take back my body.
I’d read about the spell I was about to perform decades ago. Only as a theory. My attempts to duplicate this feat had repeatedly failed. It turned out, Zeus had been quite proficient at it. And though he’d used this spell as Merlin, he’d not battled directly as Caderyn and hadn’t needed it. So, he’d never taught it to me.
Pulling in ether and wyther, I reached my mind into the shadow dimension and pulled primordial energy—scientists call it dark matter—into our world. And I spoke the words of the spell. I gave the matter substance and shape with my will.
Abigail surged through the air, swords flashing at my face and torso. A void appeared beneath Loki, shaped like a disk. It rose, lifting him into the air. At the same time, white flames spread out from his hands. A fire so hot, the ground melted at his feet. The air crackled around him.
I let Aliastulus take the lead with my arms. The swords deflected both attacks from Abigail, but Aliastulus knew my intent well-enough not to advance. She slashed at Abigail who danced away and lunged back. Faster and stronger.
Loki’s disk brought him closer. White-hot fire condensed into a sphere in his hands. He was almost even with me. I did not recognize his spells, but my time was almost up.
Primordial energy was invisible to the eye. Neither Abigail nor Loki saw as I shaped it and fed the mass both ether and wyther, and gave the bulk energy an ethereal pattern. Forming the pattern I wished into my mind, I chiseled the object down to match my own height.
I tied off the flow of energies inside the construct. And gave the statue life. A second me appeared behind Loki. I felt the simulacrum like a third appendage.
Loki lifted his arms to hurl the sphere at me. My simulacrum dove, wrapping its arms around Loki’s waist. Both toppled off to ground. The disk exploded. Dark energy sliced out in all directions. I covered my face with my arms.
Wyther clashed with the power of the nexus. A concussive force slammed into me. But it hit Abigail too. We both fell. I stayed atop the disk. Abigail slammed into the ground 5 meters below. And lay still.
Loki wrestled with my simulacrum. And Abigail was out of the fight.
I began to cast the bonding spell.
The nexus hummed. The statue vibrated.
I pulled ether and wyther, as Zeus had in the vision. It felt natural. And right. I fed the flow of energy into the nexus. I spoke the words.
“No!” Loki screamed.
I felt ether and wyther surge into him. The trickster god cast a storm of wyther reinforced with ether. Luminescent spheres of dark energy ripped through my simulacrum. The construct erupted into primordial mass and disintegrated.
I continued my spell. Ether flowed into me through a conduit of wyther. My very essence sang with power. I gave up my ethereal pattern, fusing myself with the flow of ether. In return, the nexus gave itself to me. A handshake at first. Then an embrace.
Loki turned, aiming the spheres at me. They rippled on the air. I felt their trajectory as if they crawled across my skin. Like slow moving bugs on the back of my hand.
I swatted them from the air. Just a thought. Loki’s spell unraveled.
And the bond was complete.
I felt every crevice of the castle and crevasse of the island. The trees and flowers, each leaf and pedal, were suddenly in my mind. I could count the molecules of water in the koi pond.
Loki stood. He reached for ether and wyther.
I denied him.
Energy fizzled on his fingertips.
Vestiges of his power hung in the air. I felt attachments to the trickster god. Bonds, I realized. Hundreds, maybe thousands of bonds. But I only cared about the one. Like strings attached from master to puppet, bonds of primordial energy clung to Aiden.
He still breathed shallow breaths. Red poured from his fingers, spilling onto my island.
I felt anger. More intense than anything I’d ever felt.
I ripped the strings from Loki. He screamed, dropping to the ground on hands and knees. I felt the matter and energy comprising his being. I knew in that moment, I could unmake his ethereal pattern and undo Loki. I could unmake the trickster god. Destroy his very existence. No rebirth. No next life. I could reduce him to nothingness.
But that would be too big of a mercy.
One by one, I stripped away his bonds. Agony poured out of him. He arched his back in a wordless scream.
Enough, child. A voice said in my mind. Excalibur. I’d forgotten about the swords.
Jesus. He was right. What was I doing? This wasn’t me.
I let Loki fall to the ground.
Once more, I opened the way to the shadow plane and brought into existence primordial energy. I shaped it into a cage, lacing spells into the bars. I brought up minerals from the island, solidifying the cage. This construct would be impregnable by anything short of a nuclear blast. Anyone inside the cell would be incapable of drawing ether or wyther. I shoved Loki into the center of it, built a pillar and placed him atop the platform, fusing the cage and column into one piece.
I flew to Aiden and closed his wound, feeding vigor into both his body and ethereal pattern. Seconds later, his blue eyes flickered open and met my gaze.
He blinked several times in confusion.
“Are you all right?” I asked, knowing he was physically fine.
“What the …?” he asked. “How are you here? Wait. No. We need to get out of here. Loki. Abigail—”
“It’s over,” I said. And I knew without looking. “Abigail is gone. So are her nymphs and hunters.”
“And Loki,” he said, looking around as if the trickster god would appear and turn Aiden into a puppet once more.
“You are free,” I told him, looking to the top of the pillar.
Aiden’s gaze followed mine.
“How did …,” he said, eyes widening. “Oh my god. The bond. With Loki. It’s gone. How the fuck is this possible?”
“We have a lot to discuss.” I stood, offering him my hand. “I’ve bonded with the nexus. Finally, I hold the power to challenge the gods.”
He looked at my hand for several seconds, comprehension slowly lighting in his eyes. Then Aiden clasped my wrist, and I helped him to his feet.
For once, his shit-eating grin mirrored my own.
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.
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.
A wood cabin had been constructed on a plateau, overlooking a foggy valley. Mist hung ubiquitously in the air. Not rain exactly, just lingering drops of moisture that dampened my skin and hair. I could not see the sun to know if it was morning, noon, or night.
“Where the hell is this?” I asked.
“Come,” Bodhi said, walking toward the wooden structure. A picket fence surrounded a dozen meters around the home. A garden, not unlike the one at the Collective—before it was destroyed, obviously—was tended and well-groomed with a multitude of tulips and roses and other flowers I didn’t know, but I was pretty sure those rainbow colored petals were not from earth.
Bodhi lifted a hand and spoke a word. Wards flared along the walls of the cabin. I had not seen nor felt them until then. Without asking, he plucked a few hairs from my head.
Ignoring my litany of curses and complaints, he fed the hair to the door. And when I say fed. An actually fucking mouth opened and took the strands on a long tongue.
“Yuch!” I said, elegantly.
“Allow my apprentice to enter.”
The tongue licked at the hair, working it around a mouth with shark-like teeth. Then a decisively feminine voice said, “Mmm. As you say, young master. I like the taste of this one.”
“You have a Lares?”
“Of course not,” Bodhi said. “I steward a Lares. No one owns a Lares. In return, she provides a refuge for me, when I need it.”
“So you take care of this place?” I asked, looking at the fine garden. “How? You haven’t used ether for the better part of a century.”
“I have a portal box in my chambers at the Collective, an artifact capable of transporting a person over long distances.”
“But clearly you do not need it. Wait. Is the portal box still in your chambers? If so, this place isn’t safe.”
“We are safe, I assure you. I destroyed the device before the Collective was taken by Loki and his followers.”
“You mean Artemis, right? Loki just made it to Earth. He couldn’t have pulled this off.”
“Let us take some tea.” He walked inside, leaving me alone on the porch.
I could no longer see the mouth on the open door, but I quickened my step as I followed my mentor into the place. A Lares (pronounced LAY-reez) is a powerful being, on par with a god or demi-god, famous for jealously protecting a hearth and home. They dwell in the ethereal plane and are only able to touch the physical world through permanent structures, where people live.
Harming a person who has been invited in would corrupt the space, ejecting the Lares back to the ethereal plane. However, the expulsion of the Lares would not make the person, viciously murdered and devoured, any less dead. This Lares had been given a sample of my ethereal pattern and would not eat me. Or, so I told myself as I quickly closed the door.
I felt the wards flare on their own accord, locking us in.
The cabin was a large open space with simple, wooden furnishings. A bar separated the kitchen from the family and dining room. Behind a lacquered round table was a glass cabinet filled with wine and liquors.
“Bodhi Caderyn, what is this—”
“A Bodhi no more.” A profound sadness entered his voice. “Just Caderyn now. Or master, if you must maintain formalities, even now.”
I swallowed my questions for the moment, allowing him to set the kettle and grab two mugs from a cabinet above the stove. We said nothing until after the water boiled and he poured the tea.
He handed me a steaming mug and gestured toward the table. “Please, let us sit.”
I took the chair facing the front door. Old habit. But Caderyn only smiled and took the chair next to mine. He knew my mind better than anyone.
I blew on my tea, trying to think of a way to start the conversation.
“Oh, for the Allfather’s sake,” he said. “Ask your questions.”
His tone held a note of mock agitation, and I could see the smile in his eyes. This felt familiar. We both needed a semblance of routine after all that had happened. And though I needed to fill him in on my jaunt to Atlantis, I just needed to know. “How can you draw ether and wyther at the same time? And how in the gods can you make a portal at all? We were taught such things are not possible.”
He was nodding long before I finished. His words were filled with mild rebuke. “Of course, this is the question you would ask first. There are such spells one cannot learn until taking the mantle of grandmaster. What is the purpose, first and foremost, of the Collective?”
“We protect innocents from the powers which are beyond them.”
“No. We mitigate power from those who would seize it. The consequences of such actions protect the lambs from the wolves. One cannot hide power from those who would lay claim to it without some measure of deception. Even from our own kind.”
“Wait. Are you saying you have been lying to me?”
“Not just you. The grandmasters deceive all in the Collective chapters and those outside our number who would grab power without temperance. Wyther is dangerous. Rather than ban it, we discuss the consequences of its use for beginning practitioners. Experimentation is expected. When you experience the pain, the lie is made true by your own observations.”
I could not keep the hurt from my voice. “You are not making any sense. I’ve seen others burn themselves out from wyther. Are you saying the damage is not real?”
“It is very real. But all life has balance. Wyther destroys. Ether creates. One cannot cancel the power of the other. Ether will heal wyther-damage in time. For those with the knowledge, time is not a factor at all. But together, both are far greater than either alone.”
“I can’t believe this,” I said, not hiding my bitter resentment. “Victoria was telling me the truth. All this time, you’ve been lying to me. To all of us.”
“Yes. And no. We lied. But Victoria only knows one side. Partial truths, twisted for the ambitions of others.”
“What’s the other side? I’m all fucking ears.”
Caderyn gave me a sad smile. Almost an apology, as if to say, “it gets worse.”
“I understand your angst, child. I too was angry once. Famous for it, in my time. But I have learned from the mistakes of my age, my world, and tried to fix that which has been broken through lies, murder, and theft. This is the secret of the grandmasters. Even they do not know everything.”
“And you do?”
He nodded. When he offered nothing more, I asked, “But why lie to us?”
“You know the answer to the question.”
I expected more, but he only stared at me. I hated it when he did this. Making a person answer their own questions is a powerful teaching tool. And it was the Bodhi’s—rather Grandmaster Caderyn’s—favorite style of instruction. And though I wasn’t in the mood, I realized he was right. I didn’t like it. I was still angry. But I knew the answer.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” I quoted. “John Emerich Edward Dalberg. Poet and scholar. No gift with magic, but the professor understood. Ether makes us strong, but it is limited in its destructive capabilities. I can make fire or lightning or kinetic force. That’s creation. But wyther only consumes. Its only purpose is to destroy.”
“You still haven’t answered the question,” Caderyn said. “Why would this necessitate a lie?”
“Yes. That was the question I asked you. Thanks.”
He ignored my snark. “So what is the answer?”
“Mages are cocky. Ether alone has caused some of us to abuse our gifts. Even the best of us think ourselves above the masses. We can live indefinitely. Some of us have taken rulership of countries, using magic to propel us to thrones or dictatorships. We’ve seen Hitlers, Stalins, and Maos abuse magic and cause great suffering. All bonded mages threw in with the gods for free access to wyther. By denying them knowledge of wyther, you are able to ferret out those who would abuse power.”
“Aye,” he said. “The pantheons are complicit in the lie. The original liars, in truth. How do you think we are able to fight off the pantheons? We have held the Celtic Nexus for over 5,000 years. How do you think this is possible, when our enemies have the power of gods?”
I sipped my tea. It was at that perfect temperament where I could almost drink it in large gulps without burning my tongue and throat.
As last I said, “The only way to fight a god is with power equal to a god.”
“Yes. Blending wyther and ether is the key to transcendency. If we were to teach all of our students this truth—”
“There would be thousands of gods, all fighting for the nexuses,” I finished for him. “So you are … what? A god?”
“God. You give that word far more power than it deserves. We are all mortal if we are killed. I possess the knowledge and power of the gods. Whatever you call me, I am still just a man, wishing to meet my end, peacefully. I have—”
“What are you saying? Are you a fucking g—”
“Enough,” he said. Though he didn’t raise his voice, he carried authority unlike I’d ever heard from the kindly old man before. After a pause, he continued, “I am sorry. I have lived far too long. Longer than most. But I must now give you the knowledge that I have given no others. This is long overdue.”
Caderyn moved too quickly for me to react. I felt a surge of nether and wyther. So much so that I could not feel the beginning nor end of the torrent flowing into him. In less than a single heart beat, the power built and coalesced into Caderyn’s chest, traveled down his arm to his finger tip. He reached out and touched my forehead.
And the world exploded.
I floated, bodiless, like a dream.
Beneath me, I saw a young man, sitting beneath a colossal tree. The base was broad and gnarled. He looked familiar, resting in the folds of the roots. He stared down at a book with a leather binding and loose leafs of vellum. Before I could get a close look at him, I blinked.
And I saw through his eyes. I felt myself holding the book, but I could not move. I was a prisoner in his mind.
“Zeus, my boy,” an everywhere voice said. “Where are you?”
A trickle of ether. “I am here, Father.”
Zeus placed the book to the side and stood. A man in white robes appeared beside the tree. He could not have been much older than Zeus in appearance with curly black hair. “I thought I might find you here. Saying goodbye?”
“Must we go, Father?”
The man placed a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “You know we must. This world is dying. Far too many mages burn ether faster than we can safely consume wyther. Our core has weakened. Soon, all remaining behind will perish.” The man lifted Zeus’s chin, so that their eyes met. “But do not worry. The elders have found a new planet, where we might thrive.”
“I know,” Zeus said. “I heard Mother call it Earth. She said the peoples there are primitive.”
“Aye. That, they are. But their ignorance will benefit us. Their understanding of magic is rudimentary, and their technological advancements are even worse. We will carve out a kingdom and our people will prosper. Trust me.”
“I do, Father. Only, I will miss this place.”
“As will I.”
Zeus closed his eyes.
When he opened them, he stood before a colossal ship made of black glass. People of all ages carried packs. They boarded the ship.
Zeus leaned against a rail, looking at a blue planet with oceans hugging huge masses of land. They descended, passed through the atmosphere and clouds, then flew toward a plush green area. A race of men, not unlike their people, stopped working with their stone tools and looked up at their ship.
Some ran. Others could only stare.
Zeus was in a room made of marble blocks and filled with lavish furnishings. He paced in front of an open balcony, which over looked the Mediterranean Sea.
“Cronos has gone too far,” Zeus said to the woman who approached.
“Am I to be called Rhea next? He is your father. The God King, now. You must respect his rule.”
“He slaughters them with impunity. Why?”
“They came against us first. We simply defend what we have claimed.”
“No,” Zeus said. “We took their lands. That did not happen without bloodshed.”
“We were refugees. Rather than open their arms to us, they raised the sword.”
“And we answered with fire and thunder,” Zeus said, exasperated. “No words of peace have been spoken. We could—”
Zeus turned to see his father standing in the doorway across the room. He wore armor of silver with gold runic scripts lining the breast plate. He held a gladius, made from ether.
“I cannot afford to have my own son dissent from my rule. This ends today.”
“Would you kill me, as well?” Zeus asked. “For the crime of desiring mercy for an inferior race?”
“They are inferior. Barely more than animals. Intelligent enough to be dangerous. They cannot be allowed to learn our magic. Better to kill them now than after they learn our ways and destroy this planet.”
“But I spoke to a man. Prometheus. He would—”
“Steal what is ours! I know how these humans think. Look inside their minds and tell me they deserve our power.”
“We do not need to give them our power. They can live in peace under our rule. As our subject, they would be more easy to con—”
“I said enough!”
Zeus felt the ether before it could be summoned into the sword in Cronos’s hand. Zeus had been ready for an attack. He threw a web of ether to catch the lightning as it left the gladius. Lightning struck the web but ground out and dissipated before reaching Zeus. At the same time, Zeus leapt backward, cloaking himself in a veil. He flew up and away.
Zeus stood atop the highest peak on Mount Olympus, staring at the torrent of ether. Energy flowed like a river from six directions and coalesced together at a single point. He felt its power. He pulled in ether and burned it to create wyther in a steady stream. Darkened arms mingled with the nexus, until all the ether redirected itself into Zeus.
Power, unlike anything he’d ever felt raged through him. He turned, looked down upon Greece with the eyes of a god.
My vision panned away from Zeus. I floated over him once more. Zeus stood there, unmoving. The scene faded.
But other visions came, Zeus fighting his father and winning. He corralled the other gods and built the first pantheon. The survivors of that war fled, found other nexuses, and began their own pantheons.
And thus, the god wars began.
Long after the visions faded, knowledge poured into my mind. Spells I would have thought impossible before, I simply knew.
Then, it all stopped.
I found myself in the cabin. On my back. Staring at the ceiling and breathing hard. Sweat covered my skin. Lying there, I even understood the mental transference spell, my old mentor had used to impart that knowledge onto me.
I slowly sat up and found him sitting in his chair, smoking a pipe.
For several long seconds, I only stared. Then I pushed myself to my feet and retook my seat. I knew with absolute certainty what I was about to say was insane. But it was also true. I recognized the young man from my vision.
I looked into my mentor’s eyes and said, “You are Zeus.”
He took another puff on his pipe. And simply nodded.
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.
I stood atop the deck of Tranquility, leaning against the rail, feeling the wind against my face. The black stone was like glass, smooth beneath my hand. Somehow blacker than black, thousands of runic scripts were inlaid beneath the glassy surface. Tracing a line, I could not feel any abrasion. I could feel it sucking in ether. Building as we moved.
The ship cut through the ocean’s waters, translucent wings open and catching wind. It did not sail very fast, but it didn’t need to. We needed energy before we could take off. The Finder Ship could fly through the air or in the vacuum of space, yet to leave one planet for the space between universes, the vessel required salt water. Whoever crafted them was a genius, but why salt water?
These ships are rare. Before yesterday, I’d never seen one. And now this one would take me home. Suck it, Ferryman. I don’t even need your boat. Crossing the River Styx had only been a few days ago, but it felt like an eternity.
Just as my mind leapt down the Why-the-fuck-did-you-fall-for-this-shit Rabbit Hole, a voice spoke from behind me.
“The view will be quite different in a few moments.”
I turned to see Captain Arianya standing in the middle of the ship. She looked more human than many races I’d met in the last few days, but a silver glint shone in her pale skin. She wore a crimson vest, sleeveless, showing off her fit arms. Her hair was a metallic white, which caught the light giving it a luminescent sheen. She wore scimitars at either hip, both covered in runes. They resonated with magic, perhaps as powerful as the sentient blade I carried. Often, awakened weapons come in pairs. This ship was likely the most valuable thing in the multiverse, which would make sense that the Baron—as she preferred to be called—would want to protect it.
“Almost ready then?” I asked.
“Aye.” Captain Arianya’s steps were lithe and graceful as she approached. She looked at the water and then to me. “And you might wish to sit for this next part.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“There is no overboard where we are going. And though your screams will not be heard, the expressions I have seen from others suggest, the death is not a pleasant one.”
“Right,” I said, moving to a row of seats bolted to the deck. There were actual seat belts. I did not hesitate to strap in.
The captain smirked at me. “She said you were a clever one.”
“Just a healthy respect for the many ways in which the hostile multiverse wants me dead and of which I am completely ignorant.”
“Well-said. Hold on. This will not take long.”
She unsheathed her blades and sliced to the sides in a single, fluid motion, holding them parallel to the deck. I could feel a hum beneath me. After a heartbeat, the air filled with static electricity. The hairs on my arms and head rose. Chills went down my spine.
The translucent wings bowed upward, coming together above. Energy conjoined at that point, visible without ether. Streams flowed off in bent lines, akin to images of an electromagnetic field. I found myself gripping the chair. Anticipating what would come next.
And I still was not ready for it.
Mach-1000 happened. My body slammed into the chair as if a giant had stepped on me. I closed my eyes. I couldn’t breathe. Gritting my teeth, I just waited. And waited.
Torrents of ether and wyther came in a steady barrage of raw power. I dared not touch any of it. I was helpless. I imagined Captain Arianya being ripped from the deck, thrown to hades or wherever-the-fuck. Surely, something had gone wrong. No one could withstand this—
And just like that, it was over.
My heart thundered in my chest. Sweat poured down my face into my eyes. I breathed as though I’d run a half-marathon in 2 minutes.
The ship floated atop white waters, surface frozen but still bent like a wave in motion. I could see other layers in the distance. Purple dots speckled a black canvas above.
Captain Arianya stood where she had before it all started, holding her swords out but aimed forward. The wings still surrounded us. I could feel a shield in place.
“Is it like that every time?” I asked, still catching my breath.
“Aye. Exhilarating, no?”
“Sure.” I grunted. “But I can’t believe you take refugees through that. How can the young and old survive it?”
“Below deck,” she said with a shit-eating grin. “The cabins are protected from the etherstorm. Most sleep right through it.”
I only stared.
“You should have seen your face. As if you were trying to work out a monster shit and terrified at what might come out. But I have seen worse. You did not cry. I hate the weepers.”
I was beginning to suspect the chairs were here for the captain’s amusement. I, however, was far from amused.
“How long until we get to Earth?”
“Everyone asks this ridiculous question. Time is a relative construct. Impossible to answer this. On Earth, a second is measured as 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the state-change between two infinitesimally thin levels of the ground state of an atom of cesium-133. Yet, a period is length of time. In short, you humans measure time as the passing of time. Perhaps one of the most complex ways to quantify observable experience in the multiverse, but still an imperfect tool for capturing the entropic decay of all matter. Don’t you think?”
“So,” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster, “why do you work alone? Your factoids are so delightful. I mean, it seems like the troops would be flocking to your ship to soak up your vast wisdom. And thanks for answering the question, by the way. Very useful.”
She sighed as if I was an epic disappointment. “It will be approximately 14 March of the year 2020 when we arrive to your Earth. We left Atlantis on the 17th day of Gamelion. Satisfied?”
“That is useful, yes. But no, that was not my question. I just want to know how long I will be on this vessel, relative to the way time passes here. Do I have time for a nap? Or should I just stroll about the deck?”
“It will feel like a few hours. If you nap below, I can wake you when we arrive.”
I left the captain to her steering and went to the cabin she’d shown me upon boarding, and I plopped on the bed.
And I could not sleep.
I felt guilt at my sharp tongue aimed at the captain. Moreso, I felt shame at deceiving the Baron. I planned to help her if or when I could, but I might never make it back to Atlantis. And my oath to Theseus might cause me to betray her. Of course, to get to that point, I would need to survive my duties on my own gods damned planet.
After an hour of restless discomfort, I climbed off the bed and made my way back to the deck. The white waters moved now, like they had on the Ferryman’s boat.
“We are in your universe,” Captain Arianya said without turning to look at me. “Not much further.”
“Sorry about before. I have a lot on my mind.”
She only grunted.
“How long have you been a captain?” I cringed the moment the question was out. I’d asked another question about time.
But she only said, “Long enough.”
Right, I was a simple bumpkin now. Stupid little earthling can’t converse about time but is obviously obsessed with it.
Sighing, I walked back over to the rail and resumed my leaning from before. For miles around, there was only white sheets of calm waters, reverberating with our passing vessel. Again, I was reminded of bad CG effects.
In the distance, I noticed a dark speck, moving closer by the second. After a minute, I could make out the smallest of vessels with a single occupant.
“Hey look,” I said, “another ship. It’s small.”
Without lowering her swords, she came to where I stood. Her lips tightened. “You might wish to sit again. We must make haste.”
“This part of Fae is claimed by an ancient power. The Ferryman does not like others sailing his waters. Our last tussle ended in a draw, but all my passengers were slain. I would strap in.”
“Wait. What do you mean—”
I swallowed my question as the ship lurched upward. I fell. On hands and knees, I scrambled back toward the row of seats. Before I could get there, the deck heaved to the side. I lost traction and rolled. The rail stopped me from pitching over.
“Fuck!” I said, elegantly.
This time, I pulled in ether and cast a spell, increasing my balance and strength. I ran on all fours to the seats and clung to them. The ship lurched and swayed as I strapped myself in. I glanced over my shoulder to the door leading below deck. It was a few short feet but felt like miles away.
Whether I wanted it or not, I was in for another ride.
The Ferryman was not far behind us. Maybe 2-3 kilometers (a mile or more). His little boat was airborne, hauling ass. Waves rose up behind his wake which grew impossibly high and continued to rise as they projected forward at blinding speed.
Our Finder Ship lurched to the side again. A wall of white whooshed by without a sound, vanishing as quickly as it had come.
“What the fuck?” I wanted to know.
“Hang on,” she said, offering no explanation.
I could no longer see the Ferryman’s boat. Instead, there was a dozen bends in the white sheet of rippling water. All growing.
Until several vanished.
My stomach heaved. I thought I’d swallowed my tongue. Nope. That was vomit stuck in my throat. My vision waned. When I came to, we were flying perpendicular to the Ferryman’s ship. He changed direction, but the waves didn’t. More grew as he sped along behind us. More flashes of white came and went.
I clung to my chair. Covered in vomit. But I did not cry. I might have let out a few churlish screams, but there was no gods damned tears.
Finally, I saw a blue sphere ahead, floating above the waters. As we flew toward it, the globe expanded from fist-sized to larger than a car. It grew exponentially by the second. Needles rippled over the surface, like 3D pin art toys. As we neared, I could make out the shape of Europe. Then it looked like Pangea. Then North America. Back to a single landmass.
The Finder Ship plunged into the globe.
Once more, an etherstorm slammed into the vessel. Not that I saw it with my eyes closed, but I recognized the feeling of a giant playing smash the little man.
Several heartbeats later, it all stopped.
Clear skies loomed above. I could smell the spring air. Blue oceans lapped against the ship. The taste of salt lingered in the air.
I let go of the arms of the chair. My fingers hurt from gripping them so long.
“Where’s the Ferryman?”
“He will not follow us here.”
“How do you know?”
“His rules. He will not break them.”
I nodded. That made sense. I used my cloak to wipe sweat from my brow and unbuckled. I stood on shaky legs and came to stand beside the captain.
She gave me a contented smile. “Exhilarating, no?”
“Anyone ever tell you that you’re bat-shit crazy?”
She turned her head to the side. “Bat-shit? I do not understand this idiom.”
I frowned. “Never mind. Thanks for not getting me killed.”
She shrugged. “Not all journeys across Fae are this smooth. Next time, you should come more prepared.”
“Smooth?” I shuddered at the thought. “And what do you mean next time?”
“Of course,” she said. “I will be waiting in neighboring universes until you are ready to return to Atlantis.”
“How will I contact you?”
She pulled a black disc from her pocket and handed it to me. It filled my palm. I could not make out any runes but felt the magic.
“Throw it in a body of salt water,” she said, seeing my confusion. “I will find you.”
She stared at me for a few seconds, expectantly.
“What?” I asked.
“We are here.” She made a shooing gesture. “Off with you.”
“This is the middle of the ocean. I don’t even know which ocean.”
She rolled her eyes. “You humans have no nature sense. Your home is a few miles that way. I’d rather not be seen by any of the earthlings.”
“Right then,” I said, pulling in ether. “See you when I see you.”
My Superman pose was lost on the captain, but I did it anyway and leapt upward, flying from the Finder Ship with a quick word.
I flew west, as she’d indicated, eager to see my home.
The cool, morning air felt good on my face. As I neared the landmass, I saw the Florida keys in the distance. I flew north, high enough that I would like a bird if anyone glanced up. I made it as far as Tampa and stopped at a petrol (gas) station outside the city.
It was empty.
Inside, the attendant wore a medical mask over his face. His beard protruded from the bottom. He stood straighter as I came to the counter, eyes widening.
“No service without a mask,” he said, backing away. After speaking Atlantian for the last few days, the English threw me as much as the words.
“What?” I asked, not caring how ignorant I appeared.
“Get the fuck out,” he said, pointing at the door. “Don’t come back without a mask!”
I held my hands up and edged backward. “I’m going. But, what day is it?”
“Saturday, now fucking leave!”
“I’m leaving. Jesus.”
I left, wondering what in hades had the guy all hot and bothered. I moved around to the back of the store and flew up, following the interstate to the next convenient store and got similar results.
Continuing up the road, I found a rural store and watched it under a veil. People came and went, only a few wearing masks. I became invisible around the backside near the toilets.
Inside the store smelled like stale cigarettes. The old lady at the counter didn’t bother to look up as I entered. She continued trying to fill in the boxes on her crossword puzzle.
I strolled to the news stand and could only stare. It was 14 March 2020. I’d lost half a year. But that wasn’t the worst part. The headlines felt like something I’d see in a Stephen King novel. I couldn’t believe it.
President Declares Virus Pandemic a National Emergency
The Virus and the Ailing Markets
Faith in the Time of Corona
Mass Gatherings to be Banned
Normal Life on Hold
Police Get Powers to Detain Virus Victims
“What the fuck?” I asked.
The lady looked up and gave me the stank eye. In a no-nonsense tone, she said, “Language, son.”
“Sorry, I … just, what happened? What’s this virus?”
“Don’t watch the news much do you?”
“I’ve been, uh … no I don’t. What’s happening?”
“Attack from China, some say. They manufactured this bio-virus-weapon. People dying. Or so they say. All a democratic hoax, probably. It’s election year. But they can’t tell me how to run my shop. If Jesus wants me dead, no little piece of cloth mask’s gonna stop him from calling me home.”
The virus. Victoria hadn’t been lying about that. Fuck. It was already happening. Why wasn’t the Collective doing anything to stop it?
“Thanks,” I said and left.
Rather than return to Tallahassee, I flew back toward Tampa and searched until I felt the ley line. It ran along the Florida Botanical Gardens. Gathering a shell around me, I hopped in and rode toward the Bermuda nexus.
And hopped the Atlantic ley toward Ireland and the Isle of Man. I need to speak to Bodhi Caderyn and find out what the hell is going on. He would know what to do.
I came out at the usual spot and followed the ley to Port Erin, finally reaching the invisible island above the city. The Celtic Collective was my safe haven, an implacable fortress that had stood unconquered for millennia.
So, I can’t say why I felt the impulse to hide. I cast a veil over me and stood still.
And that is what saved me.
I don’t like harming others. In fact, I avoid fighting whenever possible. I’ve trained for more time than most people of any race can live. If there is a martial style in existence on Earth, I have mastered it. And to be less than humble for a moment, I’m really fucking good even without the aid of Aliastalus.
Add to that, I can conjure up a song of fire and ice to make George R.R. Martin’s imagination look like a white-washed wall in comparison to the Sistine Chapel. I can hurl dimensional portals or, if I’m feeling particularly threatened, I can make a person’s blood boil in their skin. I can turn people to stone or polymorph them into ants and squash them beneath my boot.
But it’s not a good feeling, ending a life.
In fact, it’s the worst act you can take, which is why it’s illegal in most societies. There are some Spartan-esk places in the multiverse still sacrificing people for rituals, and don’t get me started on world’s using blood magic. But again, I digress.
I prefer to use words over violence, but there are times when the only response that can be made is with bloodshed. I considered briefly trying to get to the sentient blade and rejected it. Better not to reveal that Aliastalus was in my possession.
Looking at the messenger, I dropped my 3 gold latte and mumbled a word, creating two blades of pure energy. Once cast, I could maintain them with will. I’d done this spell so many times over the years, it took very little effort. At the same time, I borrowed from the ether increased strength, awareness, and agility, just as I had fighting Theseus.
Without making a move, I met the messenger’s eye and said, “Your friends might get lucky and take me out, but you’ll die first.”
Her tail stood up straight. The little dog-like smirk vanished. Her eyes widened. That all only lasted a split second. Then her ears pointed up and her hair bristled.
She flicked both wrists.
With my ether-heightened senses, I felt the daggers slice through the air. With a quick slice with both blades, I cut through the mundane weapons. The pieces clattered to the cobbles as I leapt forward. More projectiles loosed from the rooftops.
But I was already on the move. Daggers and arrows clunked into the ground behind me. For good measure, I dove into a roll, coming up at a run.
The messenger produced two more small blades, these made for hand-to-hand fighting. She held them in a reverse grip. I feinted left, stopped short. She swung at where my face would have been. I kicked her knee. She fell. She let out a high-pitched welp. Rising on one knee, she took another swipe at me. I dodged back and pivoted around behind her, placing her between me and the next volley.
But it didn’t come.
I held both blades crisscrossed on the messenger’s shoulders, making a guillotine around her neck without actually touching her. The energy of the blades—much like light sabers—could easily cut through flesh and bone. All her muscles stiffened. I looked up. Several kobolds and a few lizard-like bipeds held poised to shoot crossbows or throw knives. But no one made a move.
Sensing an opportunity, I said in a loud voice, “I do not wish to kill this woman. I did not ask for this fight. But I will kill every last one of you if I must, to achieve my goals. Where is the Baron?”
A slow clap echoed down the alley. I hadn’t seen anyone there before. But a woman walked forward. She had hair too black to be anything natural on Earth. She wore silver breastplate with the symbol of two dark wings on her chest with a sword nestled between them.
What I first took for a black cloak unfurled as she came forward, two black-feathered wings protruded from her back. Jutting up from over her shoulder was a massive hilt. I could see the tip of the sword extending all the way down to her knees.
“Well done,” she said, voice firm and commanding. “You have found me, and I would appreciate your leaving Marissa’s head on her shoulders.”
“You’re the Baron?” I asked. “A Valkyrie?”
“I am the Baron, but I have not answered to Odin in some time.” She stopped less than 2 meters from me. “Will you let my messenger go?”
“That depends on you. As I said before, I do not wish to hurt anyone. Not my style. However, I cannot allow you to kill me.”
“If I wished you dead, mortal, you would be ashes at my feet. You have cunning and skill. I would not waste that, but I also cannot allow mercenaries to tromp through my camps, slapping around my soldiers without consequences.”
I nodded my chin toward the messenger. “She attacked me.”
“I am aware of the details.”
She studied me in the brief silence. I could tell I was being weighed and measured. She had a helluva poker face. I could not say if she was going to try to murder me outright or just kill me around the edges. I was leaning toward the former, but I wasn’t ready to lop off any heads just yet and hoping the valkyrie felt the same. Sorry. Former-valkyrie.
Finally, she nodded. “Let her go, and I will spare you.”
It was my turn to study her.
The winged warriors answer to Odin, whose main source of power rests on a planet called Asgard, where he currently owns every nexus and guards them jealously. Many of the other gods came from there—Loki amongst them—and were cast out for reasons few know. Once leaving Asgard, many came to Atlantis, and then Earth and other primitive planets.
The valkyries were considered Odin’s eyes and ears in the realms. Either she was a deserter or had fallen out of grace. Neither gave me an inclination as to her temperament. Could she be trusted?
Only one way to find out.
I took a step back and let my swords dissolve back into the ether. I did not release the flow heightening my muscles and senses. If she came at me, I’d do everything in my power to send her to Valhalla.
“Come,” she said, pivoting on her heel. “We will talk.”
She walked directly at the wall, then passed through as though it was not there. I did not sense the illusion until walking through to the alley on the other side.
And I stopped.
A horde of kobolds stood there, all holding assault rifles. I saw three snipers on the roof, still looking at me down their scopes. The sight was such a contrast to the other side of the illusion—where the kobolds all held what could only be called primitive weaponry—I could only stand and gape. These people wore combat and tactical outfits, complete with grenades and other accessories more consistent with military or S.W.A.T. units.
I had the strongest feeling that had I twitched to kill the messenger, three bullets would have blasted through my skull before nicking the woman’s neck. Then, likely, I would have been turned into Swiss cheese by the M16s.
“They will not harm you,” she said. Though, I noted, none of them stopped aiming their weapons at me. “Come.”
I walked as if the ground beneath me was brittle and might crack at the wrong step. The Baron turned at a blank wall and mumbled a quick spell. A doorway appeared. She opened it and gestured for me to go first.
Seeing little choice in the matter, I stepped into the darkened room. Two more valkyries stood just inside on either side of the opening to a long corridor. Both stood motionless, eyes intent upon me. Neither so much as blinked until the Baron stepped in beside me and said, “At ease.”
Then they blinked. But they still watched me. And did not move.
“Right,” I said, “So, the reason I wanted to—”
“Not here,” she said, striding past me. “Follow.”
So I did. She marched down the corridor, which led to a square room with a portal at its center. Explosives were rigged at the corners of the room.
“What the fuck is this?”
“A doorway to my base. It is perfectly safe, I assure you.”
She stepped onto the short platform and offered her hand down to me with a patronizing expression on her face.
I did not take her hand but stepped up beside her.
She activated the portal.
My body deconstructed and reconstructed. There were no explosives here, the only indication that we had been transported.
The Baron walked down the corridor into another small room with two more valkyries. One opened the outer door for us with a nod to the Baron and a glare for me.
“Well met,” I said, cheerfully.
The glare became a glower, to which I gave a smile.
“As you were,” the Baron said, and the valkyrie returned to statue duty beside the corridor.
Outside was not what I expected. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but I just knew her base would be a dank warehouse deep in the Shadow Streets.
Instead, I stood outside. I could see palm trees jutting over stone buildings with slate roofs. In the distance, I could see people of varied races and species moving about. I could smell salt in the air, hinting at an ocean or sea nearby. Birds hovered high above. The sky was blue and cloudless.
I sucked in a breath.
Rather than just after dawn, it was nearly dusk, the sun low in the sky.
“Fuck,” I said. “How much time did we lose? Is this even Atlantis?”
“Peace,” she said. “We are still on Atlantis, but on the other side of the planet. You lost no time.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, until I saw her expression. She knew I was in a hurry, which would destroy my bargaining power.
“Come,” she said with a smirk. “I wish to show you something.”
The stone path was well-tended with flowers growing alongside the roadway. The nearest building was at least 50 meters away. A glance up revealed the birds were not birds, but valkyries. They flew low enough to make out details.
“What the fuck is going on?” I wanted to know.
“You will see.”
We walked on in silence. She stopped beside the first row of houses. Each home looked the same, made of stone with slate tiles for roofs. The only variation was in the gardens and differing color of doors.
I saw a tiny face peaking through the curtain of a window. Brown hair surrounded the little eyes. It could be a goblin or a kobold or something else I’d never seen. Someone else. The moment our gazes connected, the curtain flopped back in place.
The same thing happened at the next house, then the next as we walked.
Hundreds of houses, and each intersection led to more rows of cookie-cutter homes, all small enough for a single family. We came to a large open space where people stood in queues in front of rows of tables.
Most were humanoid with pointed ears and thin frames. Many wore tattered clothes and appeared injured or had missing limbs.
“They hail from a world called Erta,” she said. “Though, that was not their original home, either. The world to which they fled still uses blood as a means for fueling magic, not realizing they are filling the world with too much wyther to sustain a nexus for ether. The Accords of Inter-multiverse Travel restrict us from interfering with primitive societies, so even harboring these people is illegal. Yet, if we had not brought them here, they would be dead, simply for their blood.”
“The Accords were made to prevent advanced civilizations from taking advantage of peoples incapable of protecting themselves from places like Atlantis, Earth, or Asgard.”
Without slowing, she gestured toward the thousand elves. “But does nothing to keep advanced cultures within a world from doing the same. We find the accords callous. And though we do not engage in war with such nations, we do provide a safe haven for those wishing to find a life elsewhere. For saving these people, we would be brought before a tribunal—likely here on Atlantis—and executed. In the name of preserving culture.”
She had a fair point. The punishment was intended as a preventative measure, to dissuade others from interfering with other cultures. However, these elves and everyone else on the island would be slaughtered along with them.
We walked in silence for a time. Until finally, I asked, “Why here? Surely, there is a safer planet to hide.”
“Most of these people are from here. They cannot afford to live under the rule of the gods. Marginalized people are pushed into the arena. Until we came here.”
That shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. “I didn’t know. It never appeared that way in Athens.”
“By design. But the turmoil in the multiverse is not limited to your Earth. Wars always produce refugees. And though you cannot see it, Theseus is at war, as well. With any and all who damage the image he attempts to maintain. His region is a portal point. Millions come through here every year. Riches flow through here, but not to the people. Those of Athens suffer more than most. Why did you come to Atlantis?”
The sudden change in topic took me aback, but I saw no reason not to answer truthfully. “The heist. Theseus had something I needed.”
“And you took it, knowing of Theseus’s cruelty. Bold? Or incredibly stupid?”
“Yes,” I said.
She smiled. “What did you take?”
“Many things, including the artifact I needed. Before we get to that, it’s your turn. I see what you are doing here. It is noble, but what are you after? Specifically, why show me all of this?”
“To respect your time—which I know is limited—I will get straight to the point. We are at war with those who take power and abuse it, including Theseus. Much like your Collective, we wish to push the gods from their seats of power. This sanctuary rights many wrongs, but it is not enough. We need to challenge the Accords and cannot while beneath the power of the gods. And I believe you can aid us with this problem..”
As if one eternal war wasn’t enough. “I’m not sure I can. I mean … I’m hip-deep in shit already with my own struggles on Earth. And every moment I stand here, hours pass on my world. I need to get home.”
“I understand.” She nodded. “I can help you. But it will have a cost.”
“I took many artifacts that would aid your cau—”
“No. You cannot bargain that which is mine already. Normally, I do not allow poachers of any kind. I am making an exception for you. You may keep 10% of your take. The rest is mine.”
“Fuck that,” I said before my brain could stop my mouth. She raised an eyebrow. I rushed on before she could have her valkyries smite me. They still circled above. And for all I knew, she had another dozen soldiers shadowing us, hidden beneath another clever illusion. “What I mean to say,” I amended, “is that I know you start off at a much higher percentage for your street grunts and—”
“But they are my street grunts. You are an encroaching thief at best. At worst …”
“I get it,” I said, “but you cannot have the artifacts I need for my cause, and I’ll not list it all out for you so we can burn time haggling over worth. I’ll take what I need and leave you the rest.”
“I could just take what is mine.” She gestured to the valkyries on overwatch as well as to the others shadowing us, who—as I had suspected—had been hidden behind a veil. But there was no threat in her voice or in her manner.
“If that’s what you wanted,” I reasoned, “we would not be standing here amidst your refuge. I would be in chains, while you tortured me for the information on how to bypass my wards without sending you and all the goods into oblivion.” I gave a tight smile. “Meaning, you want to deal. You have smugglers, obviously, or you would not have off-worlders seeking sanctuary here. I’ve seen enough that I do not mind contributing to your cause. But I have other matters that require my attention. I cannot pledge my service to you. My Collective has that oath already. You get my excess take. I get a trip home. That is my only offer. Truth is, I don’t need all of this stuff. You do. Do we have a deal?”
“I have smugglers. I have warriors. I also have wealth and status in places that aid me. But I do not have many powerful ethermages with centuries of experience fighting the gods.”
“I am just one mage,” I said. “And what about the valkyries? They can call ether and wyther I would wager. ”
“Trivial sums and to minor effect. I am the most powerful amongst us, and I pale in comparison to your power.”
“Artifacts can amplify—”
“Our armor already serves that purpose. Little more can be gained, even with the Incanter’s Blade you took from Loki.”
Before I could make up excuses, she pressed on. “None in my employ and few in the city could bypass those wards. That is why they are effective and used by nobles in all of Atlantis. None but the gods can circumvent their defenses. With your talents, we can hit them where it hurts the most. Their wealth. And you have insights we could use. You could make the difference in our war.”
I snorted. “I am no god.”
“Oh? And what are the gods but beings of power?”
“They aren’t human.”
“Neither am I.”
“Semantics. You know what I mean. I’ll never rival Loki without weapons. Artemis holds a nexus. I cannot combat her.”
“But is that not your intent? The reason you rush back to your Earth? You plan to wage war against those gods.”
“Not by myself. And with as many tricks as I can muster.”
She spread her hands wide. “Not with all of my army could I stand against a single god in the open, and you will face an entire pantheon.”
“Not a pantheon yet,” I said, annoyed. She was trying to make me sound like Superman. It wasn’t like that. “And I won’t hit them head on. That would be suicide.”
“I see,” she said, amusement in her voice. “I misspoke. You are nothing like the gods. For they are without any hint of humility.”
I frowned at her. She began walking again. A few more blocks, she stopped on a bridge crossing over a small river. It wound around a play-yard with minotaurs, kobolds, and the cat-bipeds (whose species I still had not learned the name). All children, playing together. A lot of them.
“Orphaned by Theseus’s arena.”
“Gods damn it. This is low. Don’t you think I know what war does? I’ve fought one for 200 years. None of this changes the fact that I am obligated elsewhere.”
“What if we could end the wars?”
“Impossible. It is called the endless wars for a good reason. People, regardless of species, crave power. Competition is the main driving force amongst life in the multiverse. How can you stop our nature?”
“You cannot; however, you can remove that which causes the gods to battle.”
“They fight over the nexuses. Destroy that energy, destroy life. We would devolve into places like Erta and enslave one another again, as they do.”
“Why is it even the most resourceful and talented humans always resort to destruction as a solution to every problem?”
“We believe we have another solution to remove the seat of power without disrupting the flow of ether or wyther. But it will require cooperation from the very beings who would be denied the power of its source.”
I could only stare at her. Clearly, she was insane.
“I am not mad,” she said, guessing my thoughts. “I will not divulge more information without your pledge.”
I was already pledged to Theseus. With a blood oath. Correction, a gods damned open-ended blood oath. Part of it had been making contact with the Baron. At least I could check off that part of the obligation, but I still owed him a task. More and more, I realized this woman was at the center of it.
“I want to help you,” I said, honestly, “but I have to go home first. That pledge cannot be broken. Give me that, and I will return here and aid you in whatever way I am able.” And to myself added, without breaking my blood oath to your greatest enemy.
I felt a stab of guilt seeing the relief in her expression. “Good. My Finder Ship is just down this street.” She gestured toward the north. Now that I was looking, I could see the ocean on the horizon. “My captain is waiting for you.”
“Really? That’s it?”
“Of course, but you’ll understand if I require a blood oath from you as well?”
I shook my head. “I do not have time to draft a document.”
Taking out a knife, she said, “We will do it the old-fashion way. Starting with this: I am Betithia Odianus of Asgard.”
She cut her hand open without flinching and offered me the knife, blood dripping from the blade. I took it, brain racing to find a way out of this. Sharing oaths of servitude with warring factions was beyond stupid. My mind came up short on the options category.
“Liamorandus Fianna of Earth.” I said, then I cut my palm in the same place Theseus had and offered her my hand.
She took it and swore, “With blood spilled, I pledge to be true to these promises made. From hence forth, while trust and integrity is maintained, my domain is offered as sanctuary to one, Liamorandus Fianna of Earth, for him and his progeny shall he ever need it. In so providing sanctuary, I will give him free passage to his homeland should he ever have need of my vessel, so long as I am able to give it. By my power, I swear it.”
I felt the magic of her blood and spell linger in the air. To seal our oath, I had to make one of my own. She made herself vulnerable by going first and leaving the spell open for me to contribute. It was trust I had not earned and certainly did not deserve. But it worked.
As infinitely dumb as it might be, I could not give her any less than my deepest, heartfelt oath.
“With blood spilled,” I echoed, “I pledge to be true to promises made. From hence forth, I will pledge myself unto Betithia Odianus of Asgard to aid in her cause so long as I am able, physically and mentally, to do so in good faith, as I see fit and continue my service so long as the cause remains just. By my power, I swear it.”
Not your most heartfelt, a little voice inside my head said. After all, there was a lot of wiggle room in that pledge, but still ironclad. Betithia smiled as if I had promised to die on the altar of sacrifice for all the orphans playing in that field, which only added to my guilt.
The spell settled over both of us, linking us in an undefinable way. And just like that, it was done. I was now beholden to Betithia and Theseus, mortal enemies to one another. Somehow, I had bungled my way right into the middle of it. But I had my ride home.