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.