Chapter 4: Scouring for Clues

With the sun falling in the evening sky, I opened the front door of my house, holding the door open for Aiden. He carried two dimensional bags, one on each shoulder. You do not want to place an extra-dimensional space inside another extra-dimensional space. The results are unpredictable, ranging from implosion to chunking you across time and space. One kills you instantly. The other could send you to the Jurassic Age. I’m not certain what’s better. Being crushed down to a single particle or being eaten by a dinosaur, but I do not want to find out.

“Where’s my room?” Aiden demanded, more than asked.

“This way,” I said, leading him down the short hall to the left of the entry. “That’s the bathroom. And you can have either of these. The one on the left is my office. This one on the right is my home gym.”

“The gym, obviously.”

“I figured.”

He set one bag on the treadmill. The second, he opened and fixed to the far wall, beside the window. Inside was a luxurious apartment, complete with a full bar, arcades, and a TV as large as the wall. After he activated an arrium attached to the the opening, a door formed from mist. When it solidified, it appeared to be just another part of the house.

“All settled in.” He breathed a self-satisfied sigh. “What’s your wi-fi password?”

“Wi-fi?” I asked as if I’d never heard of it.

His blank stare went through countless emotions before settling into a suspicious glare. “You fucking with me?”

“Yep. I’m The Great Zoltar, password is my real name and the year I was born.”

“Of course it is.”

“What? No one is going to guess either.”

“Probably not,” he conceded. “Let’s go find what Abigail’s been up to, shall we?”

“Yep,” I agreed. “Gear up and meet me in ten.”

I went down to the basement. Before returning my dimensional bag to the rack, I pulled my favorite sword out. Runic scripts ran down the side. Visual foci would give the wielder wider access to ether for the infused spells, providing an anchor to funnel more energy than I could without the aid. The spells on it mostly gave strength and speed for battle but held a few protective wards as well. There was only one real attack spell. Fire spells are a bit primitive, but after thousands of years, hitting a bastard with a bolt of lightning still has a certain style. In truth, my sword was a weak version of Excalibur. I’m no Merlin.

That bastard went one-on-one with Zeus, and the battle ended in a draw. The mortals watching from earth thought the world was ending. The peoples of 6th century Europe talked about that fight for several hundred years, before the Law of Dubiety pushed the story into mythology. After all, it isn’t every day you see lightning-laced dark clouds turn to fists and pummel a glowing figure the size of a mountain. And Zeus never tried to take a second nexus after that. The pantheon dissolved, and the gods of Greece lost power. 

When I sheathed the blade, the weapon shrank to the size of a belt knife. I grabbed a cloak of wyther protection and activated the illusion to make it look like a normal jacket to anyone but me. A coat would still look out of place at the tail end of summer in Florida, but less than a medieval style garment. Next, I grabbed my timepiece and fastened it to my wrist. This had come from the vault. With a quick word, the watch-face would expand into an ethereal kite shield and would protect against several types of spells as well as physical attacks. Last, I filled my cloak pockets with spell bombs, potions, and various arrium that might be useful in a pinch, also on loan from the Collective.

When I came up the steps, Aiden was in the kitchen, refrigerator door open. He frowned at me. “How do you not have any leftover pizza? I mean what is this?” He held up a carton of heavy whipping cream in one hand and lemon juice in the other.

“After making myself some eggs Benedict, I have egg whites leftover. I use them to make little white-chocolate mousse cakes.”

“Why? You live in America. They deliver everything to you.”

“It is therapeutic. I listen to an audiobook, and I cook. It relaxes me. You should try it sometime.”

“Nah. I’m good.” He bobbed a head toward the front door. “You ready?”

“No. We go out the back.”

“One of these days,” he said, following me, “you’ll trust the Law of Dubiety.”

“I trust it. But I don’t trust Mrs. Crangston across the street. She sits all day, watching the neighbors. Every time she sees me, she asks me about my plans for the weekend. Regardless of what I say, she insists that I join her at church. When I decline, she becomes insistent and judgmental. She already throws holy water at my lawn and prays, not quietly, for my soul. The last thing I need is for her to see us fly from the front yard.”

He snorted. “Let her. Would serve her right for getting up in your business.”

“I like this cover,” I said, leading him to the Live Oak tree. “Would you at least try not to blow it while you are here?”

“Sure,” he said, gathering ether. “Ready to do this?”

In answer, I pulled ether, made us invisible and flew into the air. I led us back to Carothers. With any luck, we could find some wyther still lingering in the air.

The parking lot was mostly empty, likely a few grad students lingering. Both buildings to either side of us were covered in windows. We would have to surreptitiously look about while flinging ether. Wyther had a way of conjoining. The best way to find wyther, was to make more.

“I’ll start over here,” Aiden said. “That’s where our fight ended. I’ll try to isolate our battle.”

“And I’ll look for older scars in the air.”

I walked to the other side of the lot. Just as I pulled several handfuls of either, I heard a feminine voice say, “Liam? Is that you?”

Turning, I loosed the ether back into my surroundings, wiping off him hands as if I’d been digging in a cookie jar. For Loki’s sake, she couldn’t see ether.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, looking into the TA’s wide smile. “Do I know you?”

She flinched as if I had slapped her. The best way to win over a lady is to pretend you don’t recognize her.

“I’m Skyler. Your TA.”

“Oh. Right.” Then I let a smile slip. “Ms. Skyler Turney.”

“You asshole. I thought you were serious.”

“Had to get even for that whole Scottish crack.”

She nodded. “Guess I deserved it. What are you doing out here? Lose something?”

“Uh,” I said. Look at me, a bastion of sophistication and poise. “Yeah. Um. Dropped a twenty somewhere.”

“It’s long gone.”

“You think? No one would turn it in?”

“Cash? Not a chance. Just think of it as contributing to some undergrad’s pizza fund.”

I shook my head as if severely disappointed. “The kids these days.”

She laughed. It was a melodious sound. Made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle. Ah fuck. I thought I might actually like this girl. Despite her being a norm, this was not a good time for me to consider dating.

“Are you hard up?” she asked, glancing me up and down.

“What’s that?” American idioms were difficult to follow sometimes.

“Do you need to borrow some cash?”

“No,” I said quickly. “I have plenty of money.” In fact, I had close to a billion dollars in assets around the world and at least fifty million liquid. Being a couple hundred years old had its perks. There was no way in hades I’d take a few bucks off a grad student in this economy.

“Oh. Sorry. I just … that deep of a frown and the thrift store jacket, I just assumed … I shouldn’t assume. Wait. Why are you wearing a jacket? This is August in Florida. Aren’t you hot?”

“Thrift store?” I said appalled. “This is vintage.” Note to self: look up stylish jackets. “And some of the buildings get pretty cold.”

“You must have been in HCB. Feels like a morgue in there.”

“Hang out in a lot of morgues do you?”

“I have worked with cadavers.”

“You have? Why would—”

“Well,” Aiden said, coming up from behind me. “I didn’t find anything on my side. How bout you?”

“Not yet, but I’m—”

“It’s pretty obvious what you’re about,” Aiden said. “This is serious. Why are you cavorting with her kind when we need to be—”

“It’s just twenty dollars,” I said in hopes of cutting off words that would destroy my hastily wrought lie. At the same time, Skyler asked, “My kind?”

“When you are done fucking off,” Aiden said, walking toward the Love building, “I’ll be over here. Always leaves the tedious work to me. Un-fucking-believable.”

Skyler raised an eyebrow.

“Sorry,” I said. “He’s Scottish. Gets murderously hangry.”

She chortled. “I understand.”

“But I should really help him. It’s his twenty. I’m just helping out.”

“Right,” she said, pulling a pen and paper out of her purse. “If you change your mind and give up, I’m on the fourth floor of MCH.” She bobbed her head to Carothers, “It’s that one. Here is my cell and office number. I plan to be here late. Come up if you want some pizza.”

She handed me the piece of paper. Looking at it, I said, “And by pizza, you mean …”

“Food. I always order Momo’s to encourage students to come during my office hours. What do you think I meant.”

“I thought you were hitting on me.”

“Nope. Can’t date students.” She shrugged an apologetic shoulder as if to say, But you won’t always be my student.

I actually breathed an audible sigh of relief. In hindsight, this is not the best way to win over the ladies.

“Wow. Didn’t realize I was such an ogre.”

“No. Not at all. You are gorgeous. More importantly, you are witty. I love that. But I just got out of a serious relationship, and I’m not ready to date anyone right now.” I almost said court—rather than date. Fuck I’m old.

“Liam,” Aiden said. “I swear to Zeus—”

“I’m coming.”

“Zeus?” she asked.

“I have to go. See you Wednesday for class.”

“Bye!” she called after me.

As I joined Aiden, his scowl only deepened. “Have a good time did ya?”

“Yes, thanks. Did you find anything?”

“As a matter of fact, aye. I did. Come look at this.”

Gathering ether, I followed Aiden to a small field behind the physics building. Long before he stopped, I felt the swirl of wyther. Drawing ether into my eyes, I could see a residue of patterns. It was designed to make people more susceptible to suggestions by the caster.

“What the fuck?” I asked, feeling a tugging thought I knew was not my own.

“Check out the flier on the wall. Anyone walking through here is compelled to look at it.”

It was an advert for people in Mythological Studies. There was an email address to get more information. Drawing ether into my brain, I seared the image of the flier into my memory. Aiden was way ahead of me. He typed and sent an email into his phone. Seconds later, he got an auto reply.

“Meeting every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 pm. The location is off campus. There are free ride share codes to get there. And there’s a party across town for existing members tonight at the same time as the meeting. Look with ether sight. There are glyphs of influence laced into the white space.”

“This is too obvious. It has to be a trap.”

Aiden moved aside his jacket and placed a hand on the knife at his belt as if it was a hilt of a sword. “That’s why we came prepared. Also, what choice do we have?”

“Guess we don’t. But I don’t have to like it.”

“Who goes to the meeting? And who goes to the party?”

“You think we should split up?” I asked.

What do you think? Should they split up? 
Poll closed! Thanks to everyone who voted!!

Chapter 3: The Celtic Collective

I placed my hand on the circle carved into the door to the basement and sent a pulse of ether into the ward. The repulsion spell fell away.

“Not much protection,” Aiden noted.

“No, but it’ll repel most intruders without blasting them to hades.”

“As far as I’m concerned, intruders deserve to meet the god of the underworld.”

Rather than argue, I flipped the light and descended the steps. I realize it looks a bit like a medieval torture chamber down here, what with the skulls on shelves and organs inside jars. Rosalind Franklin was not operating from scratch when she found the double helix. Not that she got the credit anyways—Watson and Crick stole her data, but she is a mage and used her ether knowledge to advance science. It turns out, DNA is patterned after a person’s ethereal energy—the layperson calls this a soul. This is why I’ll never give blood. A trained mage can do a lot to a person, living and dead, with the smallest sample of their DNA. 

When a mage dies, we enter into the ethereal plane to await the next life. While we are there, we can still communicate across the veil with the living. However, the summoned mage doesn’t have a choice. When pulled into a circle, you are at the conjuring mage’s mercy. I once held a dead wyther mage’s ethereal energy for a decade to extract information from him, and I only released him because I burnt all the trace DNA in his skull and could no longer contain him behind the barrier.

“Hurry it up,” Aiden said. “Get what you came for and let’s go.”

“Yeshua. Just wait up stairs.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Aiden said, looking around as if expecting a bolt from the blue. “Don’t bring Elohim into this. You know he controls two gods damned seats in this region. Almost had a third back when—”

“I know the history, and—”

“Then you’ll remember what happened last time he held three. Rome fell. Fucking dark ages. Lots of mages burnt alive. The gods damned holy crusades. I would rather not have that smite-loving tyrant look my way, thank you very much.”

I gave him a flat look. “Would you like me to get my shit or not?”

He raised a pointed hand and stomped back up the stairs.

I grabbed my pack from the far wall and activated the rune just inside. Not all arrium are used for combat. The blue cloth looks like a normal backpack, but when activated it opens a portal to a fourth dimensional pocket of space I carved out for my things. Infused ether anchors the portal to the bag, so it follows me when I carry it. Capable of holding heavy objects that are otherwise difficult to tote, such as my orange Maserati Gran Turismo parked in the corner. No one is scratching my baby in here. Not that I ever drive her anymore. Tends to draw notice.

As the opening expanded, I stepped into the capacious space, glancing at my bare feet. I would need to order some new flip-flops. Ah shit. A new phone too. But all that could wait until I got back. Next time I encountered Abigail, I would have better gear. Several wands, staves, and swords hung from the wracks on the far wall, next to my wardrobe.

I opened the medieval style trestle chest, made of real wood. My warded cloaks hung next to my favorite t-shirts, superheros mostly with the occasional indie band tens of people would appreciate. I kicked on some Wellies, insulated against the cold and rain with the best spells, then pulled a sweater over my head.

Aiden’s stomps echoed back and forth across my living room above, growing louder with each pass. Sighing, I hurried back out, closed the portal, and slung the pack over my shoulder.

“Finally,” he said, meeting me in the hall.

“For someone over two centuries old, you don’t have much patience.”

“I’ll be patient while I sit in purgatory. Can we go now?”

“For some reason, I doubt that,” I said as I opened the back door, “After you.”

Marching into the yard, he said, “The ley is strongest at a place they call the Maclay Gardens. You know the way?”

“Yes. I do live here, remember?”

His skin transformed to mist before he finished saying, “Meet you there.”

Gathering ether, I dematerialized my physical form and followed his wyther trail. Mistform took far more energy than flying, making it easy to track, but it was also exponentially faster. It took less than four seconds to get to the gardens. After reforming my body, my heart raced. I felt as though I’d sprinted a mile.

Aiden panted next to me, saying between breaths, “Always. A rush. Right?”

Breathing equally hard, I replied. “Where’s. The ley?”

He nodded behind a row of flowers. I stumbled after him, feeling the current long before we rounded the hedges. To the normal people, it looked like an empty field. To any mage, it was a river of energy, running both into the earth and stretching into the sky.

But pulling ether near the ley line is dangerous. It attracts mages like nectar drawing a bee, only there is so much of the sweet juice, the bee is more likely to drown than get what it needs. Many fledgling mages have burnt themselves out by drawing too much at once. The trick is to pull ether before plunging in and to create a hardened sphere around your body to hold excess energy on the inside of the bubble.

“Shall I do the honors?” he asked.

I drew in as much ether as I could hold and nodded.

The hardened bubble surrounded us. After I reinforced the shield, we plunged into the current. My stomach lurched as we vanished into the ground. We both created glow lights above our hands. For some reason, seeing gravel and dirt rush by at incomprehensible speeds was preferable to complete and utter darkness.

Aiden, of course, was grinning. I shook my head.

“What?”

“You are the only person I know who likes this part.”

“No. Everyone loves it. This is fucking amazing. Think about it. The norms bask in their own brilliance because they can get in machines and get across the planet in half-a-day. In a few minutes, we will be in Bermuda. And we only use our minds and ingenious spellcraft.”

“We didn’t invent this. We just use it.”

“Still. We intuit the right amount of ether to draw into our bubble. Too much and we crash into the top of the tunnel. Too little, we smash into the bottom or sides. Off by even a little. Boom. We pop like a balloon.”

“Which is why no one loves it.”

He batted at the space between them. “No trained mage has ever died like this. Think about it. We are both keeping the bubble intact and carrying on a conversations. That’s why it is so amazing. Once we cast the spell, our instincts take over.”

Abruptly, light surrounded us. Open sky was on either side. With a burst of ether, our bubble flung from the stream, catching the cross Atlantic ley stream. We whipped to the side and down, leaving my gods damned stomach in Bermuda. I held my breath as we jerked downward and plunged into the ocean.

Most animals knew to avoid ley lines, but the occasional fish strayed into the stream at the worst possible time. I could feel the occasional impact, like bugs splattering against a windshield.

“You gonna hurl?” Aiden asked.

I shook my head, not trusting my stomach enough to open my mouth for a reply. The rest of the journey was silent. We emerged on the other side of the ocean less than twenty minutes later. Aiden pulled us from the stream, putting us down on the Isle of Man, about midway between Ireland and Scotland.

We took to the sky, flying along the ley line all the way to Port Erin, and landed on the island in the sky above the village. As you likely guessed, the floating island is invisible to those untrained in drawing ether, as is the fortress at the center of the circular mass of land.

We touched down on the cobbled path and walked toward the gate. The two guards out front murmured reveal spells. Aiden and I both let the energy wash over us. If either of us had been using illusions, they would have peeled away.

“Master Corvent,” the guard on the left said to Aiden, “the Bodhi is waiting.”

He waved a hand and spoke a phrase. Visible ether fell away and the doors opened.

“Thanks, Jenson,” Aiden said, stepping inside the gates.

The walkway cut through an open courtyard with well-manicured gardens to either side. At the center was a chalice floating upside down. On either side of the path, water flowed from the ground and pooled into the inverted cup, spilling over the sides onto the colossal hand holding the ornate cup. Glittering water flowed up the shoulders and body of the androgynous statue. Thin streams covered the chest and groin, creating a voluminous mage’s robe, and disappeared at the statue’s feet, which rested on a shimmering nexus. The leys crossed, shooting off in several directions at once.

The path widened out like branches of a tree, but the widest road continued onward to the main doors of the castle, built by gray stones from Ireland. Giant gargoyles with humanlike faces and the bodies of various beasts rested atop the ramparts, road wings of each stretched as if ready to take flight. Any aggressive spell against the island would wake them.

Every seat of power around the world not controlled by a deity is protected by a Collective chapter. This is one of the few seats never wrestled from our custody, even for a moment. Countless of our members have died to make it so, my closest friend and partner being the most recent.

“Gets me every time,” Aiden said in mock nostalgia. “So beautiful.”

“Fuck you,” I said, elegantly, wiping a real tear before it could roll down my cheek.

“At last,” the old man by the willow pond said. He stood, ankle deep in the water with muck in his hands. A gracious smile filled his face.

“One of the most powerful mages in ten thousand years,” Aiden said beneath his breath, as we approached. “And he’s mucking out a gods damned pond. What a waste.”

For once, I could not disagree with Aiden. Seeing the wrinkles on my mentor’s face sent a pang of sadness through me. For a mage, giving up ether is the only way to die a natural death. And it is a long way to die. A mage could live a couple centuries before their life fades. Those who choose this end are given the title Bodhi. You may recognize the term from Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama—you know him as the Buddha—was also an ethermage. He gave up ether and soon amassed a following for his vast wisdom and understanding of the cosmos. For the most part, he shared the mages discipline without imparting knowledge of shaping the ether. People still love him for it.

I embraced my mentor, only vaguely aware of the pond water leaking through my sweater.

“I have missed you, child.”

When you are older than modern history, you get to call everyone child. What is two centuries to six thousand years?

“And I you.”

“Would you walk with me for a time?” he asked, then stepped onto the dirt path surrounding the courtyard with his bare feet.

I followed. Aiden walked a few paces behind. Several minutes passed before Bhodi Caderyn said anything. “I heard about Abigail’s attempt to kill you.”

“How?” I asked. “It only just happened.”

“Information travels far faster than you can, Master Fianna. YouTube.”

“Right. I’m still not accustomed to the internet.”

“Aye. But our agents corrupted the cloud files at the various servers with hex spells. A few kids will join yet another conspiracy group, but eventually the Law of Dubiety will set in. Your faces were too far away to identify either of you. No real harm done.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Good.”

Innocents are heavily influenced by the Law of Dubiety. It is a sliding scale. See a dragon in the clouds, and your mind says it is a beautiful mirage, a trick of the lights. You get a rank of one on a seven point scale that quickly goes back to zero. I can show you real magic and you will walk away with a rank of two and mostly believe I am a master at sleight of hand. In time, you will convince yourself that it was fake and fall back to zero.

Trauma has a way of waking people up. If I hit you with a ball of fire, it’s difficult to forget how you got the burn scars. Even so, most norms will only rank at a four or five and fall to a two or three over time. They’ll begin to believe the therapists and their friends and family when they say I must have had a flame thrower. Doubt always wins. Still, after we finally defeated the gods damn Inquisition, we stopped taking any chances. Many of our members were drowned or burnt at the stake, so we make all possible attempts to bury any information of our existence.

“What has Aiden told you?” the Bodhi asked.

I shrugged. “Very little.”

Aiden said, “I told him we needed him, Bodhi. And I saved his arse.”

“Mmm. Yes. I saw. I will send word to our governing body to reinstate your active status. Do you need coins?”

“No. I have plenty, but I am not back.”

“Of course you are back. I see you with my eyes.”

“Are you back then?” I asked.

Caderyn frowned. “I never left, but I am merely an advisor now. You know this, child. But we are speaking of you, not me. This fight is yours, whether you want it or not.”

I shook my head, but before I could speak, he said, “Victoria is alive. She came here, pretending to be injured. She told us she had been taken captive by the Nymphs of Artemis and tortured. She was beaten and battered, so we believed her. Then, while the castle slumbered, she crept into the vault.”

“But I watched her die. I felt her energy dissipate.”

“An illusion. Well-crafted by Abigail, who is nearly a demi-god now. She fooled you, child.”

I did not believe it. I wanted to scream, shout, and fight with him. But as I met the Bhodi’s gaze, I saw the pain and anger in his eyes. And I knew. Only the real Vicky could have made it across the threshold. The guards would have seen through any trick. Anger does not quite describe the feeling that came next. All of the pain I carried this last year bubbled up to the surface and boiled over. And though nothing burned at my feet, I wanted to make it so. Instead, I took several breaths, ordered my thoughts, and pushed my ire to a simmer.

Still, my voice shook as I asked, “So that entire year, she was … what? Working with Abigail?”

“We do not know. But she came for Arthur’s Blade.”

“Did she—”

“No, but she took an original syphon, a mirror, and many battle arrium.”

“Abigail is making a play for a nexus,” I realized aloud.

“Aye. After her attack on you, we now believe she will go for Poseidon’s seat in Bermuda. His acolytes have been diminished in this century and many of his priests have gone missing. We believe this is due to the Hunters of Artemis.”

“We need to stop her,” Aiden said. “Will you join me?”

Victoria had been my partner for seven decades. Not once had she sought more personal power. This wasn’t Vicky. Something else was going on here. I was certain of it. If she needed me, I could not sit this one out. But wasn’t that how all of them went? There was always a reason to fight just one more.

“What are her chances of actually taking the seat?”

“I have looked at the currents. They are shifting. There are more players than just Artemis, and they might be working together. There is pestilence rising in the far east.”

“Fuck Loki. Are you certain?”

“Aye. The Elders have all conferred. Yanluo has released a plague in China, and the pantheons are reforming. New alliances will rise. Mages from all corners are joining the Eternal War. More than twenty Bodhi have drawn ether once more.”

My heart skipped a beat. I looked in my mentor’s face again. There were far too many wrinkles for someone who worked with ether.

“But not you,” I said, at last.

“Not me.” He gave a reassuring smile that made my little spark of hope fade into oblivion.

“Why not? If the pantheons are returning, they will come for our Collectives once more.”

Caderyn actually fucking laughed. A deep belly laugh. I had to swallow my anger. When he finished, his face still held the mirth. “You know better than most, this is far from the first time the gods have come for the seats. Remember Germany and their little cult? What did they call themselves?”

“Nazis. It wasn’t little by the end and it took the help of world leaders to put them down.”

He lifted a finger. “You see. That was far worse than now. It was after we killed their bonded mage. What was his name?”

“Hitler.”

“Yes. That’s the one. He bonded to Ares and Hades—what an awful alliance that was—and nearly took four seats for the gods. One more and we would not be here to have this conversation.”

I felt obliged to point out, “Without you, we would not be here to have this conversation.”

“Your actions were just as pivotal as my own. You are ready to assume my mantel. More importantly, I am ready for you to take it.”

“But why give up ether? Go start your own garden in some quiet corner of the world. Like Eve did.”

“And you see how well that turned out, eh? Dear boy, there is no peace or quiet seclusion when you reach my age. When I am one with the ether, I feel the tension on the leys and cannot ignore them. I will not be pulled back into the fray. It is called the Eternal War for a reason. So long as the gods remain, our order will be needed. You will be needed. But not me. My time has past. Six thousand years is quite long enough. Besides, the earth is round. It has no corners.”

I did not laugh, despite his infectious smile.

“So you are in right?” Aiden asked.

“Fuck Loki in the corn hole if I want to be, but yes. I’m in.”

“The corn hole?” Bohdi asked. “Oh.” His smile slipped and he made a pained expression. He walked away, shaking his head and muttering about the idioms of the youth.

“Does this mean we can grab arrium from the vault?” Aiden called after him.

“Aye. Grab what you need now. Once the plague is released, we will lockdown the island. I cannot allow anyone in until you succeed. The only magic I will allow in are communication spells.”

“Of course,” I said.

“And when you say grab what we need?” Adien asked. “Does that mean—”

“Anything except the sword or the chalice. Yes.”

The “sword” being Excalibur, the blade Merlin made for Arthur, and the “chalice” is the holy grail. Yeshua—Elohim’s most famous acolyte—made the arrium just before being killed. Both give mages more power than anyone should be trusted with.

“Guess we are finally partners,” Aiden said as he clapped me on the shoulder. His smile was just short of maniacal as he added, “Let’s go blow some shit up.”

Chapter 2: Welcome Back

Abigail lifted her hands up in surrender, “Why the hostile face? I just want to talk.”

“You killed Victoria,” he said, pivoting toward the door. “There is nothing to talk about.”

She blinked in genuine surprise. “Have you not heard?”

“Heard what?” I said, trying to push aside sudden doubts.

“You really have stepped away from the Collective. She was right.”

“Who was right?”

“Vicky is alive,” she said, “She has joined me.”

“I saw her die.”

“Did you?”

“You stabbed her in the chest. She was ripped into a wyther rift. I saw the darkness take her.”

“It was just a portal. I healed the wound.”

“Lies.”

“Join us, Liamor. This world is about to change. You can be a part of it.”

Here we go, the predictable Join us or die moment.

“I thought Artemis hated men. Am I to be the one exception?”

“You cannot be a Nymph or Demigod, but she always needs more hunters. Still, you will hold far more power than ever before. She is a force of good and is loyal to those who serve her.”

I gave an obviously fake smile and spoke in an equally bogus tone of enamored awe. “Of course. I will set aside all of my morals for the power you are freely offering and bind my eternity to Artemis the wise and just goddess of all that is good in the world.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You will not mock my goddess. Do so again and our conversation will come to an abrupt and violent end.”

“You see, I can’t tell. Is that threat from you or her?”

“I still have all of my mental faculties. You have been lied to, Liamorandus. Binding yourself to my goddess will not leave you a witless automaton. It does not work that way.”

“Said the witless automaton.” Before she could retort, I asked, “Tell me. If you were being controlled, how would you even know? She can alter your perception of reality and supplant thoughts in your mind. How can you sort through which ideas are your own and not hers?”

“I know when she is speaking to me. I can feel her presence.”

“Or so you believe. She has the power to silently pull your strings with you being none the wiser.”

“She would not do that. It is not her way.”

“Right, well. It seems we are at an impasse because I’m not willing to take that chance. So can we get on with this? I’d like to get back to pretending to be a college student.”

Abigail sighed. “You know I cannot allow that. You’ve likely deduced why I am here. I cannot have you running back to the Collective, now can I?”

I could see in her eyes, truce talks were done, and I knew Abigail would not care about collateral damage. Her time bubble had failed to capture me. She could not sway me to join her. All these people were in imminent danger. The loss of innocent life would not deter her. Worst of all, I was not likely to defeat her alone. I needed to get her away from here. Then, by Loki, I needed to find a way to lose her.

How the fuck did she know I would be here?

No, gods damn it. I needed to focus. I could worry about that detail later. The runes on her blade irradiated with energy. I leapt back through the doorway and ran toward the stairwell.

“Gaeta,” I snarled, releasing a burst of ether.

The gathered energy stuck against the wall opening a portal to the outside. Leaping, I glanced back. Abigail was air bound. She soared from the classroom, sword in both hands, eyes now ablaze with energy.

Pulling more ether, I flew toward the portal. The moment I was through, I let the energy collapse. The opening closed, returning to brick and mortar. I knew the wall would not stop her, but I hoped it would give me a few seconds of concealment to escape. No such luck. Abigail did not bother making a hole. The wall crumbled as she ripped through. Part of the roof collapsed, but I could not stop to assess the danger to those inside.

I surged skyward. I felt wyther energy chase me. She rode the trail of burnt ether, gaining speed as she chased. Pulling in more ether, I flung myself to the side. A concussion of wyther hit the space where I’d been. The dark ball imploded, sucking inward from every direction. The force yanked me toward it. I resisted. My body jarred to a stop, but the flip-flops were ripped from my feet. They hit the center of the dark hole and vanished in a puff of brown dust.

“Gods damn it!” I yelled. “I just bought those.”

The maelstrom was too strong. I could not fly away. Below me, Abigail kept her distance. I could see her smile. She floated in place, maintaining the vortex. Likely, I could not outlast her. If I diverted any ether away from my fly spell, I would be sucked into oblivion. My hip buzzed. I cursed. Then I realized it was my phone.

Like a dumbass, I pulled it from my pocket. I saw Aiden’s name before the phone was jerked from my grasp and burst into tiny particles.

“I wonder if that is covered under AT&T’s insurance plan.”

Far below, I felt a pulse of thaumaturgy. I did not look down. Instead I shouted, “Is this the best your little goddess can do?” Then I laughed maniacally.

Speaking a deity’s name is the best way to get them to look your way. Normally, this would not matter too much. Their influence is largely perpetuated by their followers. However, Artemis’s head priestess was currently present and trying to kill me. Perhaps, mocking her was not the best strategy, but that would be a worry for Future-Liam’s therapist, if he survived to go to his next session.

Abigail’s expression did not change, but energy crackled along her skin. She moved closer but stayed outside the pull of her implosion vortex. The ether-wyther balance shifted around me. The source for my fly spell receded, replaced by a dark cloud of energy. Abigail was wrapping a globe of wyther around me to prevent ether from replenishing in the space around me. Within the next minute, I would no longer have ether to draw on.

This is one of those desperate moments I spoke of before. When ether fails, I can draw on wyther. But it is not instantaneous. When the batteries run out on the remote, I cannot draw juice from the new batteries without changing them out. When the ether runs out, there will be a few second delay while I recast the spell and tap the cloud of wyther. By then, I would be sucked into the Loki-damned vortex.

Just as my spell faltered, Aiden appeared behind Abigail, swinging a sword of ether toward the back of her skull. She must have noticed my reaction. She dropped beneath the swing. Before I could see anymore, my body jerked toward the vortex.

I closed my eyes. This was it. Would it hurt when all my atoms were violently ripped apart? Nah. Probably wouldn’t feel a thing, right? Just stop existing all of a sudden.

Wind buffeted my face. Whatever sensation I had expected, this wasn’t it. I opened an eye. The ground rushed toward me.

“Fuck!” I shouted. Then I focused and said, “Eitil trid an aer.”

Ether fused with my body and I stopped falling. The vortex was gone. Two figures clashed together, swords blurring. Aiden’s blade was wrought from ether, Abigail’s from wyther. The very weapons fought for dominance, exploding in arrays of light with each strike.

Filling myself with ether, I rushed to join them. I cloaked myself with invisibility and formed a spear, adding an expulsion spell into the tip. I flew with all my strength. Abigail was faster than Aiden. Her strikes fell with precision. Aiden retreated a dozen paces up and away. When Abigail’s back turned to me, I hurled my spear.

The moment it left my hand, the projectile became visible. It slammed into her hip. Her scream cut short as the expulsion spell took effect. Aiden’s sword swung in the space where she’d vanished a few times, before he finally stopped.

“Where is she?”

I shrugged. “Expulsion spell is random.”

“Bottom of the fucking ocean would be nice. But no, she has the favor of Artemis. Likely, the goddess pulled her along the leys to her own domain.”

“Yeah. That would be my guess too.”

Aiden nodded toward the gawkers in the quad below. “We should go. The Law of Dubiety can only do so much.”

“I need to get back to class.”

“Really? After that?”

“I need to make sure everyone is all right.”

“Fuck it. Let’s go.”

We both cloaked ourselves as we flew back to the maths building, through the hole Abigail had made.

“I’ll fix this,” Aiden said, gathering ether. “You go to your fucking lecture.”

Nodding my thanks, I left him to patch the broken wall and ran back to the classroom. The TA didn’t pause as I entered, but her frown was unmistakable. Heart still thundering, I sat in the open seat in the front row. The board was almost full with very familiar script. This was a basic calculus coarse. Ironically, I taught this material a hundred years ago, albeit with slightly different syntax. At the far left was the TA’s name, Ms. Skyler Turney, along with contact information and office location.

After drawing a graph, she turned to face the class. “Does anyone know the limit definition to the derivative?”

“Yeah,” I said. “F prime is equal to the limit as delta x approaches zero of f of x plus delta x divided by delta x.”

Her frown deepened, stopping just short of a scowl. Probably, she was unhappy that I had vanished suddenly. Sorry, Ms. Turney for saving all of your lives.

“That’s one definition. What do we mean by delta x approaching zero?” She looked over my head as if wanting someone else to respond.

I could not help myself. “The increments between the x points are decreasing in value as the secant line moves toward becoming tangential to the curve.”

“Yes,” she said, lips tight. “Thank you.”

Rather than asking another question, she picked up a new piece of chalk and continued the lesson. First, she repeated what I had said, then she gave basic examples of how to use the definition on simple functions.

Minutes before the bell rang, most of the students packed up. The moment it dinged, the students ran as if they’d heard someone shout, “Free sandwiches in the quad!” Did they still call it a quad? Note to self: look up what this era calls a field of grass where all the cool kids frolicked and strutted as if they were the best thing since sliced bread—and in case you are wondering, yes, Otto Rohwedder the loaf defying guru was a mage. 

“Why are you still sitting there?”

I stood. “Lost in my own thoughts.”

“Find the rest of the calculus class in there? Seriously, why are you in here?”

“Need the credit.”

“Why?” she asked, still obviously annoyed. “You clearly already know the material.”

“I have an eidetic memory,” I said, which isn’t exactly true. All trained mages are skilled at organizing our thoughts, and I can tap ether to store the memories I want to keep. It was easier to tell normals I have a photographic memory than to explain real magic to them.

“Must be nice,” she said in a voice that suggested it was anything but. “So … what, you have already memorized all the material?”

“Pretty much.”

“You know you can test out of this course, right?”

“My transcript from my associates degree was too old. They wouldn’t let me.” Another lie, but she was not likely to check.

Her brow furrowed. “You don’t look that old. When did you last graduate?”

“Six years.”

“That doesn’t seem very long.”

I feigned nonchalance. “My guess, they are more interested in my money than my intellectual prowess. This is, after all, still a business.”

“Don’t get me started on rising tuition costs.”

I held my hands up in surrender. “Wouldn’t dare.”

“Attendance is still mandatory. Where did you go earlier?”

“I, uh …,” What is a good lie? “Breakfast burrito hit me a bit hard. Sorry.”

“Oh,” she said, pink gracing her pale cheeks. Her tone lightened. “Completely understandable.”

“Ahem.”

We both turned to see Aiden in the door.

“That important thing,” he said without an ounce of patience or understanding.

“This is my—”

“Partner,” Aiden said, stepping between them.

“Oh,” she said, taking his offered hand. “I didn’t realize you were—”

“No,” I said, quickly. “Not my partner-partner. We are coworkers of a sort.”

Another bell dinged.

“Shit,” she said. “I have office hours.”

“And we have a thing,” Aiden reminded me. “Literally, life or death. Remember?”

“Figuratively,” Skyler said. “Not literally.”

The corner of Aiden’s mouth frowned. Knowing the look, I intervened before his mouth could spew any vitriol, “I remember. Thanks for your patience Skyler. I will be on time from now on.”

“No worries. See you in class, Wednesday.”

“I don’t like her,” Aiden said before she was completely out of earshot. “Too … American.”

She frowned at him but was in too big of a hurry to turn and defend her honor and that of all Americans.

“This is America,” I reminded him. “You are in their country by choice.”

“Which we can fix, presently. Did you know ley goes straight through this city? All the way to Bermuda and into the nexus. We can hop the cross current back to Europe.”

Then it clicked. “The ley. That must be why Abigail was here.”

“Yes,” Aiden agreed. “But that is just the start. We need to go back to Scotland. Bodhi Caderyn is expecting us.”

“No. I am not getting involved.”

“If you have already forgotten the last hour of your life, you don’t have much of a choice. If you want to get back to normalcy, as you call it, we need to stop Abigail. If you recall, she found you here first.”

Fuck. He was right.

Just to be a dick, he said, “You know I’m right.”

“Fine.” I flicked a hand toward the door. “I need to grab a few things from my basement first.”

Aiden smiled. “Good to have you back.”

“I’m not back. I will help, but I plan to be back in time for class on Wednesday.”

“Of course,” Aiden said with all the snark he could conjure.

It took all I could muster not to punch him in his patronizing face. But I’m a mage. A bastion of stability and mental fortitude. I control my destiny, bend the cosmos to my will.

I hit his arm instead. Clearly not hard enough, because he only laughed. 

Chapter 1: New Beginnings

New Beginnings

The alarm clock buzzed, you know the one. It sounded as though World War Next had begun and if I did not get out of bed immediately, my life, maybe even the world would end.

I hit snooze, of course.

The next I knew, the sun was properly up. I looked at the red digits on the old black alarm on my side table, which read: 8:45 A.M.

“Damn you, Loki,” I said, climbing out of bed.

Not that I blamed him for the time I needed to get up, but of all the gods, Loki is my favorite to curse. He is the only well-known deity not holding a seat of power on earth, meaning he cannot actually smite me for my insolence. That, and his acolytes are jerks, always messing with people for the joy of it. Who better to curse than a grade-A asshole who cannot retaliate? Somehow I knew, the trickster part of Loki’s persona would actually love this reasoning.

I stumbled into the bathroom still cursing, working on this era’s slang. The last time I’d gone to university, everyone still wore suit jackets to class. I’d started studying physics when Einstein wrote Special Relativity and ended when he produced General Relativity. For those of you bored by science, that was roughly an eight year period in the early twentieth century. I had been on a break then too.

Showering quickly, I mussed my hair with a towel, doing my best to make it look as though I had not showered. According to a google search, that was what the kids did these days.

Fuck. I can’t talk like that. As far as the world is concerned, I am a twenty-five year old boy, whose brain just finished cooking or would soon. The same is true for every ethermage. Working with ether keeps you from aging beyond your peek physical form.

I can still die. But it’s really damn hard to kill me.

My name is Liamorandus Fianna, but I go by Liam Walsh now. I’m two hundred eleven years old, give or take fortnight. At the time of my birth, my parents still adhered to the Julian calendar out of spite to British Empire, so I am not certain of my exact birthday in the Gregorian sense. But I digress.

Ether is the energy from which all matter and energy is formed. Physics calls these particles by various names, but modern scientists are unable to achieve what ethermages can by will, focus, and an assload (or is it shitload?) of discipline. Magic is a dying art, but you can still see some at work in the world if you look closely. From a parent sensing their baby’s angst across vast distances to a grandma lifting a car from atop an injured child, ether is internalized and burnt. This sort of use of ether is called intuited magic and is largely employed by animals and people in great need or distress. Those of us fortunate enough to have received the proper training can harness these energies at will and do so liberally.

My phone rang as I finished pulling on my trousers and stepping into my thongs. No damn it, they are called flip-flops now. I ran to the bar in the kitchen and sighed when I saw Aiden’s name on the screen. I slid the bar to answer.

“For the last time,” I said, putting him on speaker. “I am not coming back to the Collective. Not for a while. I—”

“Just fucking listen,” he said. “Where are you?”

“My house in Tallahassee,” I said, pulling on a Star Wars shirt.

“That’s the United States, right? Florida? Why the hell are you there?”

“Yes, Florida. I needed a change. You know that.”

“Stay there. I’m in Amsterdam, so I’ll be at yours in half an hour. Just stay put.”

“No,” I said. “I am going to the university. I have class. And I’ve told you a dozen times. I’m out for a while. The Collective can keep the world together without me for now.”

“After you hear what I have to say, you’ll change your mind.”

“I doubt that, but you have thirty seconds. You have until I finish brushing my teeth.”

“Not on the phone. I can’t risk it.”

“Nice theatrics,” I tried to say, which sounded more like, “Naw he a hicks.”

So I was impressed when Aiden replied. “This is not theatre. She might have a trace spell on your phone.”

Spitting out my used toothpaste, I asked, “Who? Abigail?”

“Not on the phone. Just wait there.”

Before I could object, Aiden hung up. It took the time for me to rinse my mouth out to decide, he was full of shit. This was not the first time he’d tried to con me back into the Collective, an ancient group of mages who take it upon themselves to keep hell from rising, heaven from falling, and to prevent mayhem from people and creatures with powers and abilities beyond the normal scope of what we consider “human.”

In short, we kick ass and take names, then we get together and laugh about it. All mages work in pairs. And as it just so happened, for the first time in over a century, Aiden and I are both without partners. But I’m not working right now. Call it burnout. Call it a mid-millennium crisis. Whatever it is, I lost someone dear to me to the Eternal War. The fight can go on without me for a time. Something tells me it’ll all still be around after I get another doctorate.

Shoving my phone in my pocket, I ran out the door into my back garden—you call them yards here in the states, which is also a unit of measurement. It’s weird. But anyway. The fence was tall, and I had grown shrubs up high enough to add as much cover as possible without looking overly suspicious, making the space around my house as private as Midtown Tallahassee could offer. I have no desire to have police poking around my basement. No fresh bodies, but human skulls and bones from last century are difficult to explain away and people tend to freak out when they discover them.

I walked toward the Live Oak tree at the center of the yard, drawing in a good amount of ether from the air around me. Energy infused my core. I used the colossal tree to hide myself from my neighbor’s bedroom window, which annoyingly overlooked my yard.

Crouching behind my shrubs, I muttered a few Gaelic words to aid my focus and felt the power release from my core. The space around my body inverted, making me invisible to those outside my dome. Pulling more energy from the air, I shaped ether to lighten my body. I knelt in the superman pose. That never gets old. And I leapt into the sky. Tucking my toes to avoid losing my thongs—eh, flip-flops—I flew over the suburbs and followed Tennessee Street to the campus.

I landed behind Carother’s Hall and dropped my hold on the ether. In the books you read, spells and incantations always have negative side-effects. Reality is no different. I can only funnel so much ether into my body at one time without the risk of frying myself. Think of it like fraying a wire inside an ethernet cable. Sure, it might still send information but far slower than when you pulled it from the package. Fray it enough, and the wire will snap. Likewise, mages can only handle so much ether at a time.

But—keeping with the metaphor—while most mages are dial-up, I am a T1 dedicated line. All of us are limited, but I can burn through far more ether than most. There are ways to bolster one’s threshold for etherburn, but only marginally. The aid of etherfused focal objects, called arrium, allows a mage to use less energy for a spell. Using focus words, which are different for every mage, will also help to narrow the amount of ether burn.

The strongest amongst us can still handle far less ether than bounded mages—those unfortunate souls who bind themselves to a deity or demigod in exchange for exponentially more power. But at a huge cost. Like most forces in the universe, ether has an opposite—a pull to its push. When ether is burned, a residue is left behind called wyther. A very desperate mage can draw wyther for destructive purposes, but it eats away at their lifeforce, chopping years away like hacking at a redwood tree with an icepick. It happens slowly, but it cannot be repaired, even with ether.

Bounded mages do not share this burden, instead funneling the negative energy to their bonded source. In exchange for this incredible power, bounded mages must serve their chosen deity or pantheon for life. Their purposes are all the same, win seats of power, nexuses around the world where ley lines cross. Just like the ocean, ether runs in currents.

It is the business of the Collective to maintain balance on earth, which requires us to hunt down bounded mages and thwart the gods. You know, simple stuff mostly. But that isn’t my problem right now. I’m just a student. Just an ordinary person doing ordinary things.

A bell gonged somewhere across campus.

“Fuck Loki in the eye socket,” I said, walking out from behind the building. I was uncertain if that was the first or second bell. I hate being late. I also love sleep. So sleeping until the last possible second is a must, but so is efficiency. I cannot both sleep in and dally. After centuries of the same internal struggle, I will likely continue to torture myself with truancy for the foreseeable future. I understand this on an intellectual level.

I mussed my already wind-blown hair to some degree of ordered chaos. I was going to need to invest in a helmet. I jogged across the teacher’s parking lot into the Love building. The place smelled like a morgue, a tinge of formaldehyde mixed with lingering mold. The negative energy was palpable. Drawing ether here would fowl up my mood for an hour. Made sense, I guess. After all, this is the place where all the students go when their dreams die, the mathematics building.

A girl stepped up beside me as I hit the button to the elevator. She was short with pale skin and dark hair. She flicked her loose hair over her and smiled at me.

“First day,” she said, sucking in a breath. “So exciting.”

“Meh,” I said. “I guess.”

After all, this would be my sixth university degree, but I couldn’t tell her that without being bombarded with difficult questions.

“Such enthusiasm,” she said, smile even brighter. “I take it you are not a math major, eh?”

“Not exactly. I want to study VFX and programming. Need lots of maths for it.”

“Oh,” she said, perking up. “You are from Scotland?”

“How dare you?” I said in mock offense. “I’m from Ireland.”

“I guessed as much. Just wanted to see if you have a sense of humor.”

“And?”

She smiled. “Maybe. I’ll let you know.”

Ah fuck. She is flirting with you, dumb ass. How do I handle this? I’ve dated innocents before, but never someone whose brain’s not done. The prefrontal cortex—part of the brain responsible for logic and reason—is not fully formed until the age of twenty-five. Even then, it never ends well to mingle with the mortals.

“What’s with this elevator?” I asked, pushing the up button a few more times.

“It’s usually pretty fast,” she said, smile fading. “Likely, someone is holding it open to have a conversation. Math professors here are notorious for that.”

“Maybe we should—”

“Wait. Hear that? It’s coming.”

Before I could take the next step, the doors opened.

I felt as though I was entering a spaceship. The shiny, metal walls with red and blue lights looked out of place in the hundred year old building. I pushed the button for the top floor. Seconds later the doors opened.

“Wow. That was fast.”

“Yep,” she said. “Which classroom?”

“Two hundred One.”

“Well, this will be an interesting semester,” she said with a smirk.

“Why is that?”

She stopped just in front of the room. “I’m the TA for this class. I’m your tea—”

Her lips froze as she took her first step into the room.

“Fuck,” I said.

Few ethermages could summon the juice for a time bubble of this size. The epicenter of the spell was coming from the front of the classroom. My classroom. This could not be a coincidence. If the TA had not gone in front of me, I would be trapped by the time delay. Pulling in ether, I surrounded myself in an ethershield and stepped across the threshold.

Inside, the other students stood frozen like the Improv Everywhere group. Only, these people would not break into theatre. A woman stood at the front of the room. She raised her hands and slow-clapped as he entered.

She wore a pink shirt with “Love” written in rainbow glitter on the front and light blue yoga pants like many of the students wore, emphasizing her athletic build. Her long hair shone red in the light of the open windows, which covered the wall of the room opposite the door. Her blue eyes danced as she drew a sword from thin air. Emerald glyphs sparkled at the hilt and along the blade.

Fuck Loki, Aiden had been telling the truth.

“Hello, Liam. What took you?”

“Abigail,” I breathed.

Then I pulled in as much ether as I could hold and prepared to fight for my life.

The Ethermage Saga

This action-packed urban fantasy is based out of Tallahassee, Florida and will be released here on my blog. The aim is for one new chapter per week.

Synopsis: After two-hundred eleven years fighting against the malevolent forces hidden around the earth, Liam decides to take a break from the Collective–an ancient order of ethermages, who are tasked with policing everything from criminal mages and errant minotaurs to the occasional god-gone-wild. Turns out, Loki can be a real asshole sometimes, and Aphrodite is no sweetheart either. He just begins his classes at FSU, when his closest friend, Aiden, turns up to destroy his plans for normalcy.

Join Liam and Aiden on their adventure to stop Abigail from world domination!

You get to help with the story!!

For fun plot twists, I will put the characters decisions into your hands. A poll will open and allow you to vote on what they do!!

Disclaimer: not really for kids–some language and not a very child accessible plot.