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Chapter 36: The Sword in the Stone

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.”

“Liamorandus Fianna.”

“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.

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.

Chapter 35: Necessary Deceits

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.” 

“How?”

“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.”

“I am.”

“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.”

“Aye.”

“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. 

Chapter 33: Haunting Surprises

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.” 

“But—”

“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?

“Getting help.” 

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 awayI 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. 

“Manadh fèin.”

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.

Chapter 32: Homecoming

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.”

“Great. Thanks.”

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.”

“Come again?”

“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?”

“With this.” 

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.”

“Perfect.”

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

House Passes Coronavirus Relief After Democrats Strike Deal With White House

“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.

Chapter 31: Frenemies

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.”

She knew. 

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.

“Agreed.” 

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. 

Peachy. 

Chapter 30: Comeuppance

Loki had a wine cellar. Now, I have a wine cellar with reds, whites, even purples and greens from all over the multiverse. That emperor sized bed that was once in his gigantic master suite now rests comfortably in my dimensional pocket, alongside all of Loki’s bedroom set. I had to expand the walls to fit everything. The ornate, gilded trestle chests and cabinets were more ostentatious than my preference, but knowing it all belonged to Loki alleviated such trivialities as good tastes. 

I took everything.

There was no more security or opposition preventing me from my comeuppance. There were a few more illusions set into place, but mostly they all had to do with ambience, likely to impress guests. Even though I had no need of it, I moved all eleven guest rooms worth of furnishings into the extended storage area I made in my dimensional space, along with his clothes. 

I left light fixtures and other things bolted down, except the bar in his front room. It took a good bit of effort and magic, but I TK-ed (used telekinesis) it all into my new home on my back. If I could have figured out a way to take the pool, I would have. 

Before I left, I wrote “FUCK YOU, LOKI” in big red letters all over the place, using magic to embed the words into the material on a molecular level. Sure, he could fix it easily enough, but the act would rankle him while he did it.

That made me smile. 

I understand on an intellectual level that my anger was not solely directed at the trickster god, but it felt damn good to get one over on him, seeing as how he had been in on the plot to strand me here and had stolen Aiden’s freedom.

We weren’t even. I still needed to find a way to hurt him personally. After all, this was just stuff. I needed to wound him, Artemis, and all the others. Not for myself, but for everyone they fucked over simply because they had power.

I hate bullies. Anyone who would abuse others for their own amusement or for boredom or whatever, does not deserve the power they wield. I would find a way to take that from him. 

And I had started with his vault. It hadn’t even been locked. That was the arrogance of Loki. He expected the wards and his name to be enough to protect his belongings. 

Interestingly, Theseus’s vault had contained more valuable artifacts than Loki’s. However, I did manage to find a few things I could use to barter my way back to Earth. After all, no one would know the difference between one god’s treasures and another’s, right? It’s not like Theseus had catalogued all of his prized possessions for the general public. They’d all been trophies collecting dust. Loki’s vault had been in a similar state of neglect. 

In all, I got a few more weapons, including an orb, called an Incanter’s Blade. It had been crafted on a primitive planet called Arinth, where most of the populace still could only use the simplest of the the magics—elemental. Only a few—those they call magi— are beginning to understand the true nature of magic. Take for example this fist-sized globe. 

It would enhance one’s connection between will and ethereal pattern, allowing them to magnify their ability to tame elemental energies. Those who understand spells can use it to increase the amount of ether poured into a spell. Translation: much bigger boom for less effort.

Making one of these little gems required the ethereal pattern of a dragon. Despite existing inside every fantasy story since Tolkien, they are rare in the multiverse and hadn’t existed on Earth for over 20,000 years. Dragons are beautiful, majestic creatures with an extremely high intellect.

They had created Arinth as a safe haven for their kind. Though highly capable and extremely powerful, they are slow to procreate. They created the Arinthians to be servants. That’s right. They made an entire species—a few of them if memory serves. So, you can imagine placing a dragon’s ethereal pattern inside a little ball might prove difficult because you would have to kill the dragon to make that happen. No easy feat, not to mention the moral implications of taking the eternal energy of a being to make a weapon. 

So the Incanter’s Blade is priceless.

More importantly, it would give me the power I needed to stand up to a god. Well, maybe it would give me a fighting chance, which is more than I had before this. So I couldn’t use it to buy my passage home. However, there was also a few other trinkets of some value, such as the Titan Bracers, which would give the wearer the physical strength of a titan. As you likely guessed, it required the essential pattern of a titan to make. 

Hunting other beings for this purpose was illegal. In fact, Loki’s entire Collection was either illegal to make or outlawed entirely in Atlantis.

Take the stasis box. Originally crafted to preserve items of importance, the space was most infamously used as a prison. Time could not pass within the stasis. Anyone going inside would be frozen until released. A cruel person would place her enemies inside just long enough until they lost loved ones. 

There were other items such as these, made for a mundane purpose but used for nefarious means. Any one of them would be a treasure to a crime lord. If none of that worked, there was gold. A fuck-ton of gold, in fact. So much that it made me think Loki loved the gold more than the rest of the stuff I’d taken. 

I exited through the front door and paused, breathing in the fresh, morning air. Turning back, I cast a quick spell to erase the double-S snakes and replaced it with a phallus. Juvenile? Maybe, but well-deserved. 

I considered filling the pond in with dirt, but an act that big might alert the local authorities, so I contented myself with urinating into the hot tub on his terrace then walked down the walkway to the front gate. 

It opened from this side. Turning the handle temporarily cut a hole through the wards. I propped the door open with a large rock and went on my way. 

I rode that high all the way back to the pyramids. 

Inside, my room had been ransacked. Nothing of value was there, but I complained to the hotel staff about the theft and made a big deal about my valuables being taken. They strongly expressed their deepest regrets, while taking no responsible for the loss of property. 

As way of apology—without ever using those words—they gave me an upgraded room, gave me free continental breakfast every morning of my stay, and an extra night in my suite, which I hoped not to need. 

The smells of baked bread and fried eggs wafted in the air, making my stomach grumble. While I waited for Arkath’s message, I decided to cash in on that breakfast token. 

On the other side of the help desk, a hallway opened to a dining area. I’d expected a buffet just like every other hotel I’d visited. Instead, I saw a full wait staff, lining the wall by the window, which overlooked the ocean. A few people had already found their way to the beach. 

“Good morning,” a cat-woman greeted in Atlantian. “Sit anywhere you like.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking a seat by the window, where I could still see the front desk. 

The same woman who had bid me a good morning came over. She looked like a Persian kitty with pure white hair, closely cropped. Her ears stood up straight and mouth was in a perma-frown until she spoke. 

“Here you are,” she said, handing me a menu. 

It was all in Atlantian. The eyes gravitated toward the giant egg platter, served with boar skin. The yolk was as large as my face and the boar skin looked like an enormous piece of bacon. 

“That. I want that. And coffee. The largest you have.”

“Excellent choice.” 

She took the menu and left. I pretended to stare out the window but watched the front desk from my periphery. Arkath would leave a message as he’d promised, especially since he’d come up empty in my room. 

My food came before the messenger, but by seconds. 

“Fuck,” I said over a mouthful of ginormous egg and bacon. It was better than the real thing. The bacon was crisp. The yolk was creamy. I lamented not being able to finish it.

The coffee was too hot to sip, so I left it along with my amazing food, suddenly hopeful that I could have breakfast here tomorrow. All it would cost to stay another day would be a month on earth. Worth it.

The messenger was a female kobold I’d never seen. Her snout was short with canines protruding from her bottom lip. Big brown eyes and floppy ears. The cat at the desk frowned at her. I could not hear them, but the envelope had ‘The Ethermage’ in big letters on the front. I’d never given Arkath my name for obvious reasons. 

As soon as the kobold walked away, I rushed to the front desk.

“That’s for me,” I said, pointing to the letter.

“I will need some sort of veri—”

“Ethermage,” I said. “I’m the ethermage. In a hurry.”

She held the letter as though she would delay, but I was out of time. With a trickle of ether and a quick word, I snatched it with a hand of telekinesis. Her eyes widened, and she stepped back.

“My regrets,” I said with as much apology as she’d given me a few minutes ago. “But I cannot be responsible for your hurt feelings.”

Pivoting, I ran for the main exit on this floor while shoving the letter into my cloak. The kobold had not made it from the parking garage. I followed her at a distance, casting a glamour to make myself look like a cat-person in hotel livery. As the density of the crowd increased, I closed the gap. 

The kobold walked through the main street and turned down an alley with far fewer people. I let the gap grow a bit before following. And so our game went. She made her way northeast, toward the Shadow Streets, I realized. 

When she stopped at a Starbucks, I knew we must be close. I changed the glamour to that of a kobold with grungy clothes. Not dirty but, not pristine like the pyramid’s uniform. 

I entered the Starbucks and got in line behind the kobold. She turned her head to the side, never looking directly at me, but I could tell she was aware of me. The corner of her mouth edged upward before she returned her stare to the menu.

When we reached the front, she ordered four drinks and asked for a carrier. I got my regular, a venti soy latte, and was glad to pay with Loki’s gold. 

My drink came first. I sat near the door and sipped it until the messenger kobold got her carrier and exited. Once more, I could feel her awareness on me, but it could not be helped. I gave her a five second lead before following. 

I took a new face, changing my fur to a golden hue. Then I hurried after her. She turned down another side alley. I followed. Took a few strides. Then, I realized the alley was empty. And it was a dead end. 

“What the fuck?”

Turning, I saw the kobold. She stood with a dagger in each hand, blocking the exit back to the street. 

“Twitch and you are dead,” she said, accent thick with a growl. “Drop the spell.”

“I would,” I said, slowly. “But you said not to twitch. Technically speaking, I don’t have to twitch to do so; however, it won’t look like that to you. So …”

“Drop. The. Spell.” The dagger spun in her fingers for emphasis. 

“What is this? A John Woo film?”

But I dropped the spell. 

“Good. Now turn around and put your face on the street.”

“That’s not going to happen. Where’s Arkath?”

“Occupied. Do as I say, or this dagger goes into your throat.”

“I think my spells are faster. Would you not rather talk about our options? I’d love to know how you knew it was me.”

“Easy. I sensed your magic. You wore the wrong clothes for your breed. And I could smell you.”

“Wrong clothes for … Never mind. It was a hasty glamour. I should have considered the scent, but I haven’t had any coffee yet. See now? Isn’t talking more pleasant?”

“It is not. Carving you to pieces would be far more enjoyable. I would love to know what ethermages taste like. A delicacy for my table, no?”

“Ew. No. I’m sure I’d be gamey. Besides,” I said, pulling the letter from my cloak pocket, “the Baron wishes to speak with me. I’d have a difficult time accomplishing that from your belly.”

“The message is unopened. How could you know her wishes?”

Her eyes flickered slightly up. I could see movement on the rooftop in my periphery. Yep. I’m an idiot. She’d been stalling me. If I wasn’t surrounded, I’m certain I soon would be. 

Readying to throw a sphere of protective force around me, I opened the envelope, trying to make it look casual. Then I read the letter. 

Dear Ethermage,

It has come to my attention you are operating in my domain without permission. This is a capital offense. Make this simple for the both of us and surrender yourself. I promise to give you a swift and painless death. You need but to enter my demesne, anywhere north of 78th street or west of 53rd. My people will find you. 

You have until the sun falls to comply. If you force me to spend further resources tracking you down, I promise to keep you alive for some time before putting an end to your misery. And bring my property or do not come at all.

Sincerely,

The Baron

Well, shit. I knew robbing Loki had been too easy, but life had a way of finding balance. And here it was. I hazarded a glance up. The buildings on either side of me were only 4-5 stories. Atop them were dozens of kobolds. They had me surrounded. And I could only guess at how well armed they were. With any luck, they all carried medieval weapons. It would be like rolling dice. Not wise, but I had few options.

Resolving myself to a fight, I looked back to the messenger. And I took a gamble.

Chapter 29: Shadow of All is Lost

Obi Wan Kenobi dies, the Fellowship of the ring falls apart, and Severus Snape murders Albus Dumbledore. Despite the odds stacked against them, Luke still defeats Vader and becomes a Jedi. Sam, Frodo, and Gollum drop the ring in the lava, saving Middle Earth. Harry learns magic and defeats Voldemort, killing him once and for all. 

How ever desperate the situation seems at the time, the hero of every tale overcomes villainy and rises up from adversity. 

At least, this was what I told myself to be able to stand up from the beach and walk back to the pyramids. It was a slow walk. I’d flown pretty far away. 

I felt very alone. 

I wished very much to hear a snarky remark from Aiden or have him fight me on why flying would be better than walking. Or anything at all. 

He’d duped me. He’d fooled the Collective. All this time, he was bonded to Loki, working with his sister to … what? Bring about a new age of the gods? 

Most of my information had come from Aiden. Meaning, I could not trust what I thought I knew. Was Skyler, my TA, even a mage? That tidbit had come from Victoria, during the midst of her machinations to manipulate me into hitting Theseus’s castle in the night.

I’m a fucking idiot. She hadn’t gotten past our wards. Aiden had let her in. Not that it mattered now, but looking back, all the signs were there. I’d been too busy putting out the fires to see my partner had been the one igniting them. All the questions that had popped up that I pushed to the back of my mind came back in a rush. 

Why had Victoria faked her death? What did Abigail want in Tallahassee? Was her recruitment effort on the FSU campus misdirection or part of a bigger play for the Bermuda Nexus? Why had Aiden come to me when he did? Was Skyler really an agent of Artemis? The Ferryman knew Aiden was bonded to Loki. Why the fuck didn’t I ask more questions? 

I stopped in front of the middle pyramid, the one we were staying in. More people were around, families and couples enjoying their evening on the beach, oblivious to the fact that my little world had come to a crashing halt. 

Watching them, I pushed aside my worries over paths not taken. Only one question really mattered at the moment. What did I need to do next?

I still owed Theseus a debt. He wanted me to contact the Baron and let it be known I was the one responsible for robbing him. I hadn’t planned on doing this so soon, but this way I could kill two birds with one stone. Assuming there was a way to get smuggled off this planet, the Baron would have means, and I knew at least one agent of the crime lord. 

Rather than go into my room and sulk more, I found my feet moving again. Instead of flying, I walked along the sidewalks. There was no reason to rush. After all, the person I sought would not likely be around until full dark. The evening light faded behind the skyline of tall buildings, turning through reds, purples, and pinks. It would have been beautiful any other day, but I just noted it all with detached acknowledgment of the passing of time.

I reached the Starbucks where we’d met Arkath and stolen pieces of the kobolds hairs. When I entered, there were no other patrons. The baristas were cleaning the used tables and restocking the condiment station. 

A human-looking male smiled at me and said, “Welcome to Starbucks,” as he walked back behind the counter. “What can I get you?”

Though I loathed the idea of spending my limited supply of gold on coffee, I could not sit at a table in good conscious without patronage. I’ve always felt buying a drink is like renting the space. Though I’m certain they would let me sit there, it would feel weird without purchasing something. And now that I smelled the food, I was eating one of those toasties. 

I ordered a strawberry goat toastie and a soy latte then sat at a corner table, facing the door. Less than 2 minutes later, the barista brought my order out to me. Believe it or not, this was not my first time eating goat. It was less gamey than the goats on the hills of Carlingford where I grew up. The meat was tender and the strawberries were actual strawberries. I couldn’t see what the cheese was but it had a sweet flavor, like brie. 

Most importantly, I was ravished. That pour sandwich never had a chance. I finished it and sipped my coffee very slowly. 

The door opened. Two minotaurs came in. My heart skipped a beat as I recognized them. I’d worn one of those faces and Aiden the other. I didn’t move. Nor did I seize ether. I would have nowhere to run. I was out of options and friends.

The one I had impersonated frowned at me. Then he dismissed me as if I was a tourist or annoying pest, blatantly ignoring me as he walked to the counter. They ordered their coffee and left without so much as a glance in my direction. 

Others came and went, but not the kobold. I nursed my coffee for nearly two hours, but fortunately, the place filled up, allowing me to ride the clock on my first installment—which to be fair would buy a small house in some countries on Earth. 

I didn’t order my second round until the people cleared out around midnight. I’d begun to worry the kobolds wouldn’t come back. After all, we’d threatened to curse them. But, like all coffee connoisseurs, you did not simply abondon your favorite spot over trivialities such as threat of death or dismemberment. I mean, if the coffee is good, I’m showing up.

And so did Arkath and his partner. 

The pep did slow from his step as our eyes met. He froze mid-stride. His tail, protruding from his trousers, stopped wagging. His ears pointed straight up. Next to him, hanging on his arm, the female kobold sensed his angst, then she too froze. 

I stood, holding my hands up in surrender as I approached them. “I only want to talk.”

“We didn’t squeal, mate. I swear.”

“I know.” I moved closer and spoke in a conspiratorial voice. “I am here for business.” This next bit hurt, but I tried not to let it show. “Can I buy you a coffee?”

“Wouldn’t turn down a free drink,” he said, body relaxing slightly. His partner continued glaring at me. 

I got in the queue with them. No one spoke while the line shuffled forward, until Arkath ordered for himself and his partner. They also got food. Altogether, it cost me 17 gold coins. I paid, trying not to do the mental conversion from sterling/dollars to gold. I failed. I had just given a new low-end BMW in exchange for food. 

It was busy enough we waited at the end of the counter for their order. No one had moved my empty coffee cup, so we returned to my table and sat. Arkath already looked far more congenial. Food has a power of its own. 

I gave them a minute to finish their toasties before speaking. In truth, I wasn’t completely certain of my approach. Should I start with telling them I did not have their hair or let that threat hang over them? I could strong-arm them, but that gets far less traction than kindness. Hence, the food. Still, a degree of wariness would not hurt. 

“Baron’s been looking for you,” Arkath said, while chewing. “He doesn’t appreciate freelancers.”

She,” I corrected, “does not appreciate freelancers.” 

He blinked in surprise, looking up from his food. “How’d you—right. We say he, savvy? He enjoys his privacy. Get me?”

“Got it. How do I meet him?” 

He stared at me for a few more seconds then returned to his chewing. He took another bite and swallowed before looking up. 

“He does not know it was you,” he said. “I didn’t offer that information, you understand. How would it look. Me suspecting you would do something like that thing you did last night in the Baron’s backyard, then I sit on that out of fear of you. Savvy?”

This time, the word sounded like an honest question. 

“I understand. For what it’s worth, we burned your hair samples. They are gone.”

He barked a few things to his partner. She nodded, tongue lulling from her mouth and barked something back. 

“We are grateful for that,” he said. “But you understand our predicament. If we introduce you to the Baron, we have to admit to knowing you before you were infamous. And he will want his cut. Since you aren’t high crew, it’ll be 75 percent.” 

“That high?” 

“His senior most crew work all the way up to giving only 5 percent.”

“How much do you pay?”

“We pay 20.” 

“You’ve worked for him a long time, then.”

“Aye, since we were pups.” 

Meaning, they were loyal. And I had forced them to betray the Baron in favor of saving their own hides. I was not keen on kobold body language. He seemed debonaire, but that could be the persona he gives when feeling threatened. Or a role he played when on a job. At best, that’s all I was to him, a means to get closer to that 5 percent. I was fine with that, so long as it got me the fuck off this planet. 

“I see,” I said. “What would it take for an introduction?”

Arkath sipped on his coffee. Though he stared right at me, his eyes grew distant. I let him think without interruption. I would never say it aloud, but he looked like a dog staring at a treat, just before it’s dropped. I knew what was coming before he did. The coffee was not enough of a payment.

“Might be possible. How much did you pinch?”

I’d gotten away with god’s treasure then lost all but a sword and a mirror. I couldn’t sell either of those. But he didn’t need to know that.

“More than anyone else has ever managed.” 

Then it became a staring contest. I hadn’t lied, but I had intended to deceive. I focused on my breathing and drew in an image of a lotus. I placed all of my thoughts somewhere outside that picture. Though my eyes stared at him, I did not see Arkath or smell the coffee. The only scent was the vaguely sweet, mostly bitter aroma of the lotus. The exercise was designed to withstand non-magical interrogation. I’d practiced it for 200 years. If necessary, I could place my mind there fully, removing sound and sensation. 

Arkath let his jaw drop open and tongue lull for a heartbeat before saying, “The Baron will want to hear the tale, himself. Have you proof?” 

“I retained a couple of pieces. The rest are with my partner.” 

“I’d like to see them.”

“I’d like to be king for a day.”

“I need to know you are on the level.”

“You know I am on the level, or you would not still be here. I can’t show the goods here for obvious reasons. You want to get me alone somewhere to take a shot at acquiring my stash at a premium.”

“I saw the castle. Only a fool would try to strong-arm the mage who’d done that. All by his lonesome and all.” 

“You wouldn’t be alone. In addition to your partner, you have a crew standing by outside. Tell me I’m wrong.”

He made a hurt expression, placing a hand on his chest. “You’ve wounded me. Just when I thought we were becoming friends.” 

“I do not have time for this. I need to meet with the Baron. Can you arrange that? Or do I need to find someone else?”

I could wander around the Shadow Streets. Eventually, the right person would find me. Or the wrong person, depending on perspective. Either way, I did not like the idea of using myself as bait.

“No,” Arkath barked. “I can make the introduction. I’ll have my people contact your people, savvy? Where are you staying?”

“I need to see the Baron, today. Now. Time is a factor for me. Or maybe you aren’t the right person for this job.”

“Oh, I’m the right person. Count on that. No one else will get you an audience, but it won’t be today. We might work in the night, but the Baron likes his sleep. Has duties not concordant with cloaks and daggers.”

“When?”

“You will know when I know.”

“Fine,” I said, rising. “I’m staying at the Pyramids. Leave a message for me, and I will meet you here.” 

Arkath and his partner stood with me. “Pyramids, eh? Luxurious Inn. Or so I’ve heard.”

“It’s all right.” I turned to go but stopped, looking back at Arkath over my shoulder. “One more thing. Where does Loki live?”

“As in the Loki?”

“Aye. He owes me a favor. Might need to collect.”

He turned his head to the side. “Curious. I’d heard that you cursed his name during your … daring escape. You don’t know how to reach his domain? Seems strange.”

“He teleported us there. I’m not certain how to find my way back.” 

“Easy enough to find. It’s on Gods Court. Keep on Lord’s Way and take a left at the intersection. It’ll be the blue and white castle. Best of luck, mate. Word is he skipped town.”

“Thank you.”

I turned to leave without a backward glance. Once outside, I gathered ether and flew, merging into traffic like I would if riding a motorcycle in New York, using as much caution as possible and assuming no one saw me. Following Arkath’s directions, I was able to find Loki’s domain easily. 

Even from the aerial view, the illusion held. The white spires were lit up with torches, at odds with a city illuminated by artificial lights but still beautiful. Blue roofs appeared almost green in the yellow light. It was spoiled somewhat, since I knew it was entirely fake. 

With ether-sight, the scene remained, but I could see a shimmer in the air now that I was looking for it. I probed the shell with a lance of energy. The ward rebuffed my spell. 

I flew around the place, looking for a way in. His defenses were perfect, similar to those surrounding Theseus’s compound. 

So I found a comfortable spot behind the castle, which opened to a private beach. And I waited. I did not allow my thoughts to wander. I focused on my goal. 

We’d worked out the details quite extensively. I hoped the mechanics were the same here. Otherwise, there’d be nothing left of my body to know I was ever here. Like a bug flying into a zapper, Loki would never even know I’d been here. I’d become a greasy spot, washed away in the rain.

I entered into a sort of trance, watching with my ether-sight. The moment the purple became a hint in the horizon, the ward dipped.

The power cycle reset. 

I’d already been holding ether to capacity, readying the spells I would need for this moment. I dual cast strength and flight, pouring all my energy into the task of getting over the wall. The wards would weaken, collapse, then renew in less than a second. 

I felt it happen.

I hurtled forward. 

Wind rushed in my ears. I heard the sonic boom. It cracked like thunder as my movement energized the air. This was the fastest I’d ever moved. The wards closed around me. Destructive energy settled in place. 

And I was on the other side of it. The gaudy mansion looked the same from the backside as it had from the front, only the back door had a patio with a sidewalk leading to a gate that accessed the beach beyond the wall. 

My heart started pounding. I felt suddenly weak. I landed on the cobbled path leading into a small garden and leaned on the short fence surrounding the patch of greenery. Sweat beaded on my forehead, and I breathed as though I’d sprinted a mile. Eventually, my eyes focused and my breathing slowed.

Loki grew his own vegetables. That came as a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t a professional job. I could tell from the crooked rows. Weeds were out of control in some places. He’d done this himself. Or some other amateur gardener living with him.

That gave me pause. What if I was wrong? I shook my head. Only one way to find out. 

I flew around to the front of the mansions and hovered above the giant pond. The merfolk were still there. None of them glanced up at me. The children still chased schools of fish. I watched for half an hour. In that time, the illusion repeated 3 times, the exact same scene. 

I flew up to the door. There were no wards. Just a simple lock. I used a hand of ether to open the lock from the other side and went inside. And I smiled.

No one came to greet me. Nothing at all stirred. I was alone in one of the richest mansions I’d ever seen. And I needed funding to get home. 

It was time to steal from a god.

Chapter 28: A Way Out

Water levels rising, stuck in a collapsed 140,000£ can, and all I could think about was the mirror in the back seat. Had the Soul Breaker been destroyed? If so, my entire journey here was for naught. Well, not entirely. I had managed to steal the largest treasure trove in the world for the Collective’s greatest enemies. I owed debts to the Ferryman and the ruler of Athens, Viscount of Atlantis. 

Oh, and I was facing imminent death. I could just lie here and die. But then, my service to the Ferryman would begin. There was no winning. So, I might as well keep on keeping on. Life’s a garden, dig it. 

Everything ached. I would have some hella whiplash. You know, if I lived.

Almost as an after thought, I considered my go-bag in the trunk that had my gold coins, a change of clothes, food and water—things I would need if I climbed out of this hole before being drowned. Hopefully, some of it was intact. 

I was fairly certain I was buried somewhere at the bottom of that picturesque cliff I had been admiring moments before. The view was less than stellar from the bottom. I could reform the stone around me, but moving mountainous rocks stacked on your head could prove catastrophic. 

And Victoria was out there still. Waiting for me to climb out. It would be like it had been on the beach, only this time I had no leverage or means of escape. Loki would just smite me. Or she’d sick her mercenaries on me. They’d put me in a box, only this time she would cut me off from wyther and ether. Then, she’d take me back to Artemis to do the gods knew what.

I needed to survive, get back to the Collective, and tell Bodhi Caderyn what I had discovered. Likely, he thought me dead. How much time had passed now? One day here is a month on Earth. We were on day 3, I think. Or maybe 3 and a half. It would be November by now. 

This line of reasoning wasn’t getting me out of this hole. 

The steering column was beneath my stomach. My feet were still by the pedals. Water came in from there and was up to my knees now. 

Closing my eyes, I cast the needed spell. “Faireachdainn.” 

I shoved my awareness into my surroundings. Instantly, I felt the sword and the mirror behind me. Both were whole, still emanating power. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding. I moved beyond the car, sensing the surrounding rock. 

My Maserati had plummeted 50 meters into the cliff, the way collapsing behind me. I pushed further in that direction, feeling where rock met water. I must have crashed into the gulf, slammed into the cliffside, finally coming to a stop in the hardened stone. Water filled in the chunks of stone destroyed by whatever the abyss had hit me hard enough to penetrate solid rock. 

My shield had saved me. It’s the only reason my car was not a flaming pile of ash and debris. 

I reached the surface of the ocean, and my awareness stopped expanding. I could feel the movement of fish of various sizes, the impact of the waves striking the cliff that entombed me, and I could feel all the rock between there and here. But I could not know if the Finder Ship was still out there. 

I waited, just allowing myself to be aware. The water continued pouring into the car. It was above my waist now and on my cheek. I craned my head, almost as an impulse, to keep my mouth and nose free. Taking a deep breath, I readied my mind for what would come next.

The bonding between minerals is called a covalent bond—the strongest possible bond—typically between silicon and oxygen. This gave rocks the properties of being difficult to break. 

However, ether makes all matter malleable. 

I gathered ether and will, pushing energy into the rock. I hardened the stone above me, strengthening the bonds. Water rose above my mouth. I tilted my head upward, but I only had seconds until it would fill the cab of my busted auto. 

Dual-wielding spells always came at a cost. But I had no choice. Focusing my will, I said, “uisge gu èadhar,” drawing the oxygen from the water, fusing the O2 molecules together around my face. I sucked in the pure oxygen and instantly felt light-headed. Too much oxygen gets you high. 

It couldn’t be helped. I would not last long without air. 

Holding the breathing spell in place, I urged the rock to close in behind my Maserati, forming a wall. 

That did three things. 

First, it closed off the flow of water. The caveat was that air was still getting in from there as well. That was the second thing. I had a limited supply of oxygen. Lastly, the biproduct of this way of breathing is that I would be creating a huge pocket of gas—specifically CO2 and Hydrogen. In otherwords, I was creating a huge pocket of methane. Incidentally, this is how an ethermage is able to make a ball of fire appear from thin air. Volatile molecules are all around. The magic is combining them in a way they can more easily explode, not something I wanted down here.

Still, I couldn’t go back and I did not want to drown, making the wall was a necessary evil. 

The only path was through. But I needed to take care of the gas, so I burrowed into the rock with a hole no larger than a finger. Burrow isn’t quite the right word. I urged the bond between the minerals to part, making a chute climb all the way up to the surface. It was large enough to release the gas but not so large as to draw notice from someone in flight.

I did the same thing below the car, only I opened up another cavern far enough beneath me to drain all the water in my little cave. Slowly, I widened the drainage pipe, allowing water to flow swiftly to the lower chamber. At the same time, I made the space around my car much larger, roughly a sphere 10 meters in diameter. 

As water leaked out of the car, my head was freed. Releasing both spells, I sagged back into my chair and passed the fuck out.

I can’t say how long I was unconscious but it was lengthy enough to give me cramps from sleeping in the awkward position. I pulled in ether to ease the pains. 

By now, Victoria had likely left me for dead. She’d been on a schedule and already had what she wanted from me. This had not been my plan back on the beach, but I had escaped. All it cost was a lifetime of gathered artifacts, my dimensional pocket, most of my gear, and all the goods we’d acquired from Theseus. 

At least I had my pride.

With a burst of gathered ether, I forced the door to my car open with raw energy and a good shove, then fell out onto the darkened cavern. I created two sources of light, as I had in Theseus’s vault, and pinned them on opposite ends of my little cave. 

I could only stare at my broken Maserati. Victoria had been with me when I picked it out. We’d both given it a test drive. Countless memories followed the purchase. Long drives along coasts on every continent. Parking on the beach and enjoying each other. 

And now, much like every thing else between us, it was a wreck. 

She’d played me like a fiddle. Aiden too. But no. She’d gotten to him somehow. Victoria may have been responsible for organizing the ball, but Aiden had been the one to get me to the dance, all while making me think it was my idea.

Looking back, I could see it. He’d presented this as our only way and had been his usual antagonistic self. When I am pushed, I push back. It has always been both my greatest strength and weakness. Aiden knows me better than anyone, with the possible exception of Victoria. 

And he was bonded to Loki. He had to be. There was no other explanation that made any sense. Not that I could do anything about it. 

If a day here was a month on Earth, that meant an hour here was just over 1.25 days on Earth. The Finder Ship was likely already back. Asterion had been delivered to Artemis and Abigail for whatever purpose. 

And I was here. 

I went to the boot—you call it a trunk—and needed the help of telekinesis to pry it open. My bag was there, still soaked of course in grainy salt water. Opening it up, I took stock. Clothes, water logged jerky, a hunting knife, and a canteen of stale water. I had a good amount of gold, but it would not last long here. 

A few days in a room but not nearly enough to buy my way home. The Ferryman would not take me, and I could not afford a Finder Ship. That left me with only one option. 

I needed to find a smuggler. I had a good idea of where to start, but I could not just leave my car here. I knew it was totaled, but it was mine. 

Snatching up the bag, I moved away from the car. With a quick spell, I smoothed out the stone ground and etched the required runes for the ritual. Another spell dried out the bag—a Janson Sport—and I placed the pack at the center of my circle. 

The next part took a deep amount of effort. I spoke the words to connect me with our physical space. “Tha ùine agus àite a ’leudachadh.” 

Higher dimensions are difficult to explain. 

My body became like an empty shell. I felt ether coursing through me, but my mind became more. My awareness was anchored in this physical reference space, but I could perceive the “space” beyond. It differs from our 3 physical dimensions in that additional dimensions can also contain our physical laws. Seizing a pocket of this space, I gathered my awareness around as much as I could hold and directed it toward the bag, simultaneously, I infused the runes around the Jansport with ether, providing a temporary anchor for the extra dimension. 

I spent the next hour, reshaping the space into a rectangular room, identical to the one Victoria had stolen from me—minus my furnishings and other belongings. I removed the anchor points from the ritual circle and attached them to the ether-fused bag.

This effectively transformed the backpack into a doorway into this extra-dimensional place. The best part about such doorways, the opening was malleable. 

Pulling the pack wide enough to drive through, I used telekinesis to move my busted car into the pocket. With a bit of effort, I opened the convertible top and inspected the mirror. The Soul Breaker did not have so much as a scratch. The sword was also fine. I exited the pocket and closed the pack. 

Then I sat on the rough ground, suddenly weary. Evocation is not my speciality. With the exception of some very short distant dimensional hops, this was the extent of my ability, but mostly because I could use thaumaturgy (the big ritual circle) to guide the process. 

After several minutes, I forced myself to stand on shaky legs. Gathering ether, I widened my air chute, making it roughly Liam-sized. Natural light flooded my little cave. Still day out there. Which day though? 

Only one way to find out.

Strapping my pack to my back, I said a quick spell and flew upward, out of the hole. The sky above me was clear. It was evening, maybe 2 to 3 hours until dusk. 

No Finder Ships lingered. As I had expected, Victoria was long gone. 

I landed on a cliffside, overlooking a bay. I saw a yacht out on the water and a few fishing vessels beyond. 

Resolving to relate more to the working class than the elite members of high Atlantian society, I gathered more ether and flew to a medium-sized fishing boat, moving slow enough that the crew could see me coming. 

They were all gnolls. 

A female wore a captain’s hat and medieval style of privateer clothing. Beneath her red vest was a white puffy-shirt that would not be amiss on an episode of Seinfeld. Her black tights disappeared into boots that laced up to her calves. Baggy woolen breaches stopped at her knees. Her hand rested casually on the hilt of the cutlass on her belt.

The crew stood behind her, similarly attired, albeit with older dingier clothes. All eyes watched me as I slowly lowered onto the deck, half-a-dozen paces from the captain.

She spoke in that barking language. I could only guess at the words, but her manner seemed more curious than hostile. 

“Good evening,” I said in Atlantian. “My ship wrecked. Please, can you tell me where we are?”

“You are aboard the Fleece, and we sail the Thesean Sea and are bound for Athens. And we do not care for the magi upon our vessel. It is bad luck.” 

“I understand,” I said with a slight bow of my head. “I will be on my way without delay. Which way to Athens?” 

She nodded toward the north. “About 50 kilometers due north.” 

“Thank you.”

I mumbled my spell in attempts to assuage their superstitions. They all tensed. A few half-pulled their swords. But I was in the air and out of reach seconds later. No longer confined by the need for caution, I gathered as much energy as I could and flew with as much speed as I could muster, fast enough to require a shield of air in front of me as a buffer.

It took me about 15 minutes to reach the mainland. And though I’d flown slightly off course, there was no mistaking the massive city of Athens. Vehicles swarmed about the skylines. People were done with their work for the day, going to restaurants or wherever as if nothing had changed.

I landed about a kilometer from the wharf, as far from other people as I could. Technically, I still had a room at the Pyramid. Aiden had only paid for one night, but we’d never checked out. Maybe the hotel would let me stay another night. Though I would love the sleep, I wanted to see if Aiden left some clue behind as to how all this got so fucked. 

Also, I needed to see how far Theseus’s mercy extended. He’d allowed me to leave, but he had also sent his guards after us. It was possible a team of minotaurs was waiting for me in the lobby or even watching the place to see if I came back. 

I had no material for a disguise and hoods would be suspicious in a place like this. Instead, I changed my garb to match some of the rich styles I’d seen adorning others, consisting of an expensive suit, black with a red tie.

But it was all for nothing.

The guards did not so much as glance at me, as I walked in. No one screamed “Go, go, go,” and came to arrest me. No one cared to look my way, while I made my way to the desk. 

The same cat-person that was here when we checked-in stood in attendance with two others in white and gold. They all looked at me as if I’d stumbled up on a private conversation. 

The one with rich, white fur said, “Good evening, milord. Can we help you?”

“Yes,” I said, giving them a polite smile. “I failed to check out this morning and would like to settle my bill.”

“Name?”

“It would be under MacGregor. Aiden MacGregor.”

She tapped on her tablet then asked without looking up, “Liamorandus?”

“Aye. That’s me.” 

“Your room has been paid up for the remainder of the week. Mr. MacGregor left this for you.”

She handed me a letter. 

I stared at it, a multitude of emotions tearing through me. Fustration, pain, annoyance, but most of all confusion. 

“When did he leave this?”

She pulled the post-it note from the back of the note and read it to me as if I was simple. “Yesterday evening around 20:00.” 

While I was asleep. 

I muttered my thanks and found my way outside to the beach. I hurried away, wanting to be alone. Apparently, evening strolls along the beach were all the rage, because couples walked everywhere. I soared on wings of ether a mile up the beach clutching the note.

I landed on a secluded area near a private home. The home was dark, but the sands were walled off.

My name was written on the front but nothing else. I recognized Liam’s shitty writing and paused, afraid of what I might read inside this letter.

Was it a confession? An apology? Instructions on how to get home? Maybe he was imbedding himself inside enemy lines and this was a way to reach him when I got back to Earth. 

I ripped the envelope open. After the first few lines, my knees buckled, and I sat hard on the cool sand. 

Dearest Liam, 

I cannot imagine how you must feel, abandoned and alone in Atlantis, but if you are reading this, we did not die horribly this morning, so you have that going for you. We lived. Go us, right? 

You want answers. I cannot give all of them to you, but I can give you solace in the fact that you never had a choice in this. Victoria had your number from the beginning. This isn’t a ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ sort of thing. 

I wasn’t completely honest with you before. After discovering the existence of the Soul Breaker, I came to Atlantis, made contacts, even cased the castle to see if I could steal from Theseus. When I knew I would fail, I got shit-faced. I’ve never been so drunk. Epic story, complete with dwarves and pixies. They can shrink you down to their size and … suffice to say you’ll never be the same. 

On the fourth day of the bender, I met Loki for the first time. 

Of course, I did not know it was him, but that bastard tricked me into bonding with him. It should not be possible. Bonding requires willful consent to take root. However, it turns out that my subconscious needed to understand how Abigail could betray us all and permitted my enslavement to the trickster god. The details don’t really matter, but I am one of them, have been for three years now.

None of us wanted this fate, but there is no way to break the bond. Not even with the Soul Breaker. Well, probably not. But they needed to get you here. We could not have done this without you. More importantly, this was the only way to get you out of the fight in a way that would not leave you dead. Victoria and I both agreed on that point, assuming she wasn’t lying to me as well. But that isn’t your problem anymore. 

You are out, just like you’ve always wanted. 

The Collective cannot pull you back into the fray from Atlantis. You can start over. Earth will soon be unlivable with plagues and raging gods running rampant. Not the sort of place to earn that next degree. What is it, six or seven now? I never understood that about you. Why doggedly pursue pieces of paper from the muggles? You can absorb their books in minutes. Why go through all the rigmarole? I guess I’ll never understand now. 

Live well, my friend and know that I’ll miss you as often as Loki allows me to. 

Sincerely yours,

Aiden

The moment I finished reading the last word, I felt a puff of energy. A hole seared into the middle, then spread to the edges, burning the words alongside my tears. As I let go of the page, the ashes fell scattered to the winds.

Along with my hope. 

Chapter 27: Rock Bottom

I woke up, pain lancing through every part of me. It was dark. I was curled into a ball, head tucked between my legs. I tried to sit up, but my back pressed into something hard. I reached for ether and found … none. 

It wasn’t fatigue. Though I still felt aches and pains in spades, my body had drawn in ether for the purpose of rejuvenating my frayed ethereal pattern. I could sense ether inside of me, but nowhere else. Without the ether to preserve me, I would die. 

Then I realized why I was in this box.

I sensed wyther in abundance. It surrounded the confining space. My little prison was made from it. Tapping into that source would cost me. Using wyther is like taking drugs. The power is intoxicating—a destructive energy, used to break things. 

Victoria had placed me in here with a single purpose in mind. To show me I could make my own path. My own freedom was right in front of me. All I had to do was reach out and take it. I’m certain she considered this a metaphor of some kind. 

My only way forward is by a means I considered wrong or beneath me. That sometimes, the best course is the road we had closed long ago. 

For a minute there, I thought she’d been on my side. She had come to me to warn me. And that kiss. It felt like the old her. She also had wiped her own memory of the conversation. She would remember going to sleep and waking up. 

Or so she had told me.

My neck was starting to cramp. And though I was stubborn, I was not stupid. Staying in here would serve no purpose. Using wyther was not against the rules of the Collective, but it was to be avoided. Funneling wyther through myself would leave an infinitesimal stain that would wear down my ethereal pattern. Think of it as aging. Like damaged DNA, casting a spell with wyther would cause me to lose some of my lifespan. 

But I had little choice.

Opening my mind to the wyther, laden in the box around me, I said, “Scrios.”

It was the same spell I’d used to open the door in Theseus’s vault but instead of feeling fatigue, renewed vigor coursed through me. The euphoria came next. The feeling of absolute power. I could tear free of here and lay waste to my enemies. I sent the destructive energy outward, standing as the confining box disintegrated around me. 

The smell of fish and salt hit me immediately. Cool wind contrasted with warm air against my face. Palm trees? I could hear a quiet tide behind me. I stood for several seconds, breathing hard. 

With the box gone, I could feel my connection to ether again. The wyther had cut me off. I released the darker half of magical power. As the initial hit of wyther faded, my desire to fight dissipated as well.

Turning around to face the ocean, I realized I was not alone. 

Victoria was there, holding my pack. Her security team was with her, ten minotaurs in all. Behind her, a gorgeous ship made of black glass hovered above the tides. A door opened from the hull, a set of stairs descending down to the white sand. It was the Finder Ship. 

Even its sails were like obsidian, but somehow malleable, rippling in the wind. Power radiated from the vessel, not ether or wyther. Something ancient. Our arrium vessels used for world travel are modeled after this incredible machine. Only, the Finder Ship could pierce the veil between worlds and go unerringly to any charted destination in the multiverse. 

This was our way home. 

Aiden stood nearby, staring at his feet. He still had his pack on, sword at his hip. Loki stood beside him, a hand placed affectionately on his shoulder.

“What the fuck?” I wanted to know. 

Aiden did not move. He did not look up. A tear rolled down his cheek, but he otherwise did not so much as blink. 

“I need you to open your bag,” Victoria said, dropping the pack at my feet.

I crossed my arms over my chest. “And I need you to go get properly fucked. Aiden, what the bloody hell is going on?”

Aiden closed his eyes, releasing more tears. 

“I’ll give you one more chance,” she said. “Open it, or I’ll make another box to stuff you in.”

“Get. Fucked.”

Victoria looked at me, lips pursed as she did when on the verge of making a large decision. A glance around would suggest I had little bargaining power to speak of. I could only guess at our location. Victoria had the muscle, my so-called partner either turned traitor or was thoroughly placed in check, and she possessed the Finder Ship. Oh yeah, and there was a literal god standing on her side, or so it would appear. 

There was a reason Loki hadn’t helped us when I called upon him earlier. He’d been working with Victoria all along. I should have seen it. He wanted back on earth. He would want power. Likely, Artemis had granted him membership into the New God Club. All for the minotaur’s heart? Couldn’t be just that. But I could puzzle through all that later—assuming there would be a later.

Anyone taking bets would not be putting money on the home team. 

But I had all the shit they wanted locked safely away in my dimensional pocket. The domain is anchored to me. And it is warded. Heavily. Anyone not me opening the bag would be thrown into a random dimension. Similar to the very first spell I’d used against Abigail. Only, my bag had an extra nasty effect. It would hit everyone and everything in a 5 meter radius and render them catatonic. If a person was banished to a hostile plane, being unconscious might prove deadly. I had patterned the spell using my own ethereal essence, granting me immunity from the effects. 

Victoria knew this. 

Also, we both knew she didn’t want to be here doing this to me. Well, maybe. With Aiden apparently working for Team Gods, I wasn’t exactly certain what reality could be trusted. Quite possibly, the whole damsel-in-distress routine she’d pulled could have all been an act. But why warn me of this betrayal? What purpose had any of it served? Nothing in her demeanor now suggested she would be left for dead alongside me.

At last, she gave me her wicked grin. “The little hamster running in that wheel you call a brain must be exhausted, trying to figure a way out of its little cage.” She paced a little closer. The security team behind her tensed, eyeing me as one might an unstable junkie standing too close to a baby. “But you are beaten. You lost. Give me the treasures you’ve taken from Theseus, and we will let you live. Be reasonable, Liam.”

“Can we skip the part where you play evil villainess and jump to the part where you take me home? I’m not giving you anything except the heart. And you are taking me back to Earth, as we agreed. We have a blood oath.” 

“Do we?” She spared a quick glance at Aiden, who opened his eyes. He looked at me, fear and shame clear in his gaze.

“Yes,” I said. “I was there. I signed. You signed. We all signed. Hurrah.”

“How close did you read the fine print?” she asked. “Aiden made all the adjustments, right? Did you read the document?” 

Fuck. No. I hadn’t. I had trusted my friend of nearly two centuries. We had discussed final tweaks, and I had expected him to make the changes. 

“Well,” she said, smile widening. “Turns out, you were not included in the contract. Very sweet of him, actually, excluding you from the consequences in the event that you failed. However …”

She trailed off, allowing me to fill in the gaps. 

“I am also excluded from the benefits, in the unlikely event that we succeeded. Gods damn you, Aiden. Why?”

“I’m sorry, Liam. I didn’t ha—”

Aiden’s mouth froze mid-sentence, then his jaw clamped shut. I could feel the slight use of ether from Loki. He controlled Aiden, completely.

“No,” Loki said, tersely. “Bad human.” He made a twirl of his hand to Victoria, motioning for her to get on with it.

“Does it really matter why?” Victoria said. “You are wasting precious time, and we are on a clock. Time moves faster on Earth. Last chance. Open the bag.”

“Is that why you came to me last night?” I asked. “Not because you wanted to be free of Artemis. You didn’t want to wait a day.” 

“You always fall for a girl needing to be saved.” She shrugged, feigning nonchalance, but her eyes had widened. Had that been surprise? Her voice became cocky, but it felt forced. “Know your audience. I had calculated better odds if you hit Theseus’s vault in the night. I spurred you to action. And hey look, it turns out I was right. Here we are. Open it.” 

I had one last card to play. “What about the … kiss? And all that followed. Was that just an act too?”

She flinched. We had not slept together, but clearly she did not know that. She sputtered, lips moving for a few seconds without words. I’d only ever seen her do that a handful of times. Under other circumstances, I might relish the point scored against her, but it felt like a lifeline. All of it hadn’t been a lie. Sure, she had led me to believe she would be burned, cast aside by Artemis like a used doll, all while warning me she would betray me. But she’d promised to erase her own memory of our conversation to keep it hidden from Artemis. And she had. What did this all mean? 

Gods damn it, I needed time to think. 

“Whatever you think happened between us,” she said, “it was all meant for this purpose. Now give me the fucking artifacts, before I lose my patience.”

“Sure,” I said, picking up my bag. “We can make a trade. But forgive me if I don’t trust you at your word. I’ll need a contract.”

“An oath? You cannot be serious. We do not have time to write a document.” 

“We do not need a document. Just our words and blood, like the oaths of old.” Like the one I made with Theseus—but she didn’t need to know that. Aiden had been unconscious at the time. My deal with Theseus might be the only way to save my ass. But that was a worry for after I wasn’t killed violently by the ten minotaurs and god glaring at me.

“Let me guess,” she said with a heavy sigh and roll of the eyes. “You want assurances that we won’t give you to Theseus or kill you after we have what we want.”

“That is just the beginning. You’ll also agree to take me to Earth and leave me peaceably. And alive.”

“No. You’ll open the bag, and I’ll leave you here without sending an anonymous tip to the Atlantian Guard. You find your own way back. Otherwise, I strand you here, take your bag to Artemis. Likely, she can open it without setting off the ward.”

“We both know she cannot. Else, Loki would have already done so.”

“He does not control a nexus.”

“Law of Magical Attunement,” I retorted. “It’s not about power. The flow of energy surrounding the ward cannot be disrupted or diverted. It can only be neutralized by the will of the hand who created the magic. You cannot force me to open the bag. Not with magical dominance, not with threat of coercion. You need my cooperation, which you will not get unless you meet my demands.”

“Or unless I break you. Enough pain would change your mind.”

“But that would take time wouldn’t it? Time you don’t have. Why is that? I mean, you are going to kill me. Why not tell me your plan?”

“You watch too many B films. This isn’t some sad body plot, where I—the villain—reveal to you—the hero—our evil plan, just before you make a daring rescue and come back to save the day. This is reality. And it is time for you to save yourself from torture. Believe me when I say, I know the best ways to hurt you.”

I did believe her. We had the same training to withstand torture. She would know the best ways to fight against our mental techniques. I also believed I was right about her time scale. Beating me until I was pliable would take a while. 

I crossed my arms over my chest and said, “Do your worst.”

“You are right, of course.” She traipsed over to Aiden, placing the back of her hand on his cheek. He didn’t even flinch. “I cannot force you to give me the heart. But what about Aiden? He has less than 6 days left until he fails his part of the oath. I wonder if it will hurt. Losing his power and will to Artemis. What do you think?” 

Aiden’s bottom lip quivered. I could see he wanted to speak, but his lips would not open. 

“Take Aiden onto the ship,” Victoria said. 

Loki gave a stately bow. “As the lady commands.” 

Without a saucy quip or any hint of derision, Loki walked toward the Finder Ship. Aiden turned, and in a stiff-legged march, followed Loki. They vanished up the steps, into the hull. 

Something important tickled the back of my mind. Something I should know. Fuck. I fiddled with the clasp of my pack, staring at it as if I might open it. Time. What was it the Ferryman had said? 

You have been claimed by a citizen of Atlantis.

When we had gone to Loki’s estate, Aiden had been controlled easily. So had I, so I’d thought nothing of it. But there was more to it. Loki had cast a spell of dominance on me. But I broke free first. Or would have, so he released me. It was seconds later that Aiden could move, like a reaction to me being freed. An after thought. 

Coming to Atlantis had been Aiden’s idea. We were here because of him. I had been so focused on my own goals, I had missed it. I am such an idiot. It had been in front of me all this time. 

Aiden was bonded to Loki. 

I was certain of it. If I was right, he could only be saved by the Soul Breaker. Victoria could be saved, as well. Inside my pack was the means to free them both. But if I opened the bag, she would kill me. Or Loki would. He might have gone onto the ship, but he was watching. I could feel his presence on the ether.

I could also feel Victoria staring at me. She held her breath, as if I was a fawn suddenly in her garden and any move might frighten me off.

What was her end goal? Did she want free of Artemis or had that been a ploy? What was true? Was she still manipulating me? Too many questions. No real answers. I needed a hint. Something that would help me out of this. 

“So,” I said, voice flippant, “got a god on your strings now, eh? How’d you manage that trick.”

“No more stalling,” she said, signaling her mercenaries. 

As they started forward, an idea came to me. Not a good one. But it was all I had. 

“Stay right there,” I told her. “I am going to back away. If anyone twitches, I’ll sever the ward and blow us all to hades.” 

She held her hands up as if in surrender, one hand shifting toward the minotaurs and ordered, “Hold.” 

They made no advances, but the subtle shift to their stances told me they had other intentions in mind. Either Victoria spoke to them via a mind link or had given them orders prior to this encounter. One minotaur twisted his feet in the sand as if readying to run at me. Another leaned back as if lining up to throw his axe. Each of them would attack the moment I opened my pack. 

I took a slow step toward the palm trees behind me, keeping my eyes on Victoria and her thugs. I kept walking at a steady pace, as if the shifting sand might open up and swallow me up any second. 

“That is far enough,” she said.

I took two more steps and turned to face her. 

“I’m going to open my bag. If anyone moves—”

“I understand. You will blow the ward, sending us all in random dimensions. I understand how the magic works.”

“I’m just reminding you that if I cut a new dimension into the internal fabric of the expanded domain, all the artifacts will be scattered across the multiverse. You won’t get what you want.”

She blinked. “You would also be banished.”

“Yep. But I’ll prevent you from reaching your goals and count it as a win.”

“You are bluffing.”

“Rush me and find out.”

We locked gazes for several seconds. Finally, she twirled a hand with a get on with it gesture. I stared for a few more seconds, for the sake of contrariness. I did not move until she rolled her eyes and sighed. 

I dropped my bag, forming a sword from the ether with an intricate casting, “Bidh adhair a ’cruthachadh lann.”

“What are you doing?”

Readying my sword, I bent down to open my dimensional pocket. The moment the pocket opened, the minotaurs acted. An axe was thrown. A spear hurtled toward me. Several of the mercaneries burst into a sprint. All of them rushed me.

But I was ready. The blade I’d formed was no ordinary weapon. I hurled it at the ground between us and spoke the words to solidify my will. Raw force ripped into the ground. But rather than explode, the sand bonded together. A wall ripped upward, blocking the minotaurs from reaching me.

Even as it rose, I heard the blows of the weapons strike the barrier. I had bought myself a few seconds. The wall spanned a hundred meters in both directions. A few hammer blows came from the other side. They could easily go around, but by the sounds of it, they were determined to come through.

Either way, I did not have long. 

Gathering ether, I flew into my dimensional pocket, scooping up the sentient blade on my way. I wanted to grab more of the artifacts, but I didn’t have the time. I had a go-bag in the trunk of my car. Every survivalist had one. It contanied a few essentials. But the most important thing I could think of was on my bed.

Where are our enemies? Aliastulus demanded. Draw in power. We will destroy them!

“Uh,” I said. “Not yet.”

She began to rant and rail. Despite my weariness, I was able to squash her thoughts, her will to a buzzing sound in the back of my mind, and continued toward the back rooms. 

I paused in the hall and glanced in on Asterion. He was still unconscious. The heart was nestled on the pillow next to him, thrumming in a steady beat. I spared a fraction of a second, considering whether or not to take him with me but immediately rejected it. If I took the heart, Aiden would suffer. I couldn’t do that to him, even if he betrayed me—which I was not completely certain of just yet. 

When I saved Aiden, I would save Asterion. 

But I had lost this battle. A tactical retreat would allow me to come back and fight them. Once more, Aliastulus railed at the thought of defeat. I ignored her.

Once in my room, I shouted, “Gluasad!” 

Telekinesis is a useful spell for moving furniture. In this case, I took hold of the mirror with the spell and ran toward my Maserati, parked near the entry. The top of the convertible was down. I flew into the driver’s seat as I settled the Soul Breaker and the sword into the bucket seats behind me. 

In front of me, I could see just outside the front of my dimensional pocket. The wall was crumbling inward. 

I started the engine, hitting the button labeld “nitros”, which was in fact the activation for the arrium infused into the vehicle. 

Ten angry minotaurs knocked away rubble and climbed through the failing wall. Victoria hovered behind them, wyther in formless pools around her hands. She had knocked down my spell. 

I edged the steering column down. My car rose a few inches off the ground. I slammed my foot on the gas petal. The car surged forward. Minotaurs jumped to either side, narrowly avoiding being mowed down. 

Victoria had plenty of time to hurl wyther at me. But she didn’t. She met my eyes as I flew by. Was that my imagination, or was that relief in her expression?

I flew higher, turning away from the Finder Ship. I rose high enough to see, we had been on a small island. In the distance, I saw a larger mass of land. I down shifted and floored it. My engine roared. A boom followed in my wake. 

I flew a mile, then two. They still hadn’t followed. It would take her a few minutes to gather her minotaurs and pursue me. 

I had done it. I had escaped. 

But where was I? We had to be near Athens. Maybe I could—

I saw the Finder ship in my rearview mirror. 

It was airborne. Pursuing me. Gaining ground. There was no way I would outrun them. They came closer by the second. I could see figures on the deck. Victoria was at the helm. Loki stood next to her. The minotaurs had traded their medieval weapons for M16 assualt rifles. Likely, the bullets were hexed. 

I traded speed for evasive maneuvers. 

I hit the button to raise the top. As the convertible closed, a warding shield sprung into place. Bullets boomed against the invisible barrier, exploding upon impact. The car’s rear spun. Like hydroplaning, I could do little for the first few seconds.

Reversing my grip, I turned into the spin, trying to regain control. At the same time, I cast a spell, refortifying my shield. The car righted. I was facing the Finder Ship. It was almost upon me. Bullets hammered into my barrier, pushing my car toward the ocean.

I drove at the ship, flying beneath the vessel. The bullets stopped. I reversed direction. For several heartbeats, I flew parallel beneath the Finder Ship, giving me a chance to see my surroundings.

We were in a small gulf. Ahead was one of the beautiful cliffs that made Greece on Earth famous. Part of me was glad to see such continuity. The rest of me saw a deadend. 

Where could I go?

Before even considering the question, the shade vanished. I felt exposed. Vulnerable. The bullets would come next. 

I gunned it. Less than a heartbeat later, I felt the impact. That couldn’t have been bullets. I heard the explosion as an afterthought. I couldn’t get a sense of any direction.

My stomach spun. My head felt faint. I held my breath to keep from vomiting. 

Then just everything stopped. 

Weight crashed down on me. My shield popped like a soap bubble. Glass shattered. The convertible top pushed into me, pinning me to the seat. 

Breathing was hard. I could taste dust and metal. A gas smell lingered in the air. Probably the petrol tank was busted. 

I laid there, dazed, as my mind reoriented itself in the total darkness. No trickle of light came in from anywhere. Though there was little room for movement, my chest pressed against the seatbelt. I was upside down. Releasing the catch, I fell maybe two inches, chest hitting the steering wheel. A minute passed, where all I could do was rest my face against the crumpled glass that had been my wind shield.

I wasn’t dead. I hurt too much to be dead. Why hadn’t they finished me off? 

That’s when I felt water on my feet. And it was rising. 

Chapter 26: Deus Ex Machina

Too tired to sleep. 

That phrase either has a personal meaning or makes no sense whatsoever. Trying to explain the notion is akin to describing an orgasm to a virgin who has never enjoyed any self-exploration time. Either you understand the sensation, or you don’t. The only way to truly know is through experience. 

If you have ever been exhausted to the point of giddiness, you might know what I’m talking about, but only if, say, you worked in a field for a 16-hour day, for shits and giggles stayed up another ten, then worked another 16 hours digging trenches. Finally, you lay down and your mind won’t allow you to slip into silent slumber. It races through all the things you should still be doing or didn’t finish. Or it focuses on the emptiness of your existence. 

Try to drive yourself to complete and utter physical exhaustion sometime, then you might understand how difficult a situation I was in. The little reserves Aiden had given me would allow me to keep moving, but I’d gone from Badass Jedi status to C3PO, human-cyborg relations. I could not face Darth Maul or Vader. Hell, I wasn’t a match for storm troopers, right then. Diplomacy was off the table, but I couldn’t be taken either. 

Slinging evocation spells would fray my already addled mind. I might be able to manufacture a flight spell, but it wouldn’t get me very far. To become my formidable BA self, I needed rest. Real sleep. And a gods damn hamburger and chips. 

Unfortunately, the mob of minotaurs standing in front of me didn’t seem inclined to go for takeout. Atlantis, being a place of high magic, our twins knew immediately what we were. It was clear in the threatening way they encircled us. The dozen or so minotaurs with them appeared ready to trample us, all holding weapons at the ready. 

Surrounded, outnumbered, and on empty, we had few options and fewer hopes of escaping. So, I prayed to the only god who might listen.

“Loki,” I said in a loud voice. “I’m sorry for not trusting you, but we could use a little help right about now. Loki, we had a deal. Where are you? Gods damn it, Loki! You know what, fuck you. You gods damn, useless fucking ass-licker. Ahhhh!”

The guards had flinched at my initial words, looking around as if expecting a tidal wave of ass-kickery. Invoking a god in Atlantis was no laughing matter. But as the seconds stretched on and my plea devolved into a diatribe against the trickster god, their aggression returned in full force. It became clear to all present, Loki would not appear to save the day. He probably watched from somewhere nearby, laughing his ass off at our situation. Or maybe he was pissed we’d so thoroughly excluded him from our planning and was now reveling in our misfortune.

Whatever the case, Aiden and I were on our own. Everyone there knew it.

“Seize the imposters!” my twin shouted at the same time Aiden’s double yelled, “Kill them!”

I was not inclined to wait around to find out who followed which order.

Pulling in ether felt like crawling across trenches filled with gravel. My body shook with the fatigue. My very essence quivered with effort.

“Eitil trid an aer,” I shouted.

The head of an axe swung at my midsection. I flew backward, then leapt upward. Aiden jumped and kicked off his twin’s face. We both soared higher into the air. The minotaurs could not fly. They couldn’t even touch ether. Arrium had to be specifically designed to work for them, because something about their auras disrupted magical fields. 

However, nothing stopped them from using the flying segways. As a group, they ran to a row of the rental devices. Apparently, there was an override command for the guards. Aiden’s twin screamed something in their own language, and the vehicles came free of their anchors. One by one, the minotaurs jumped onto their segways and flew into the air after us. We had a good lead on them, but it would not last.

We needed to lose them somehow.

Flying higher, we weaved in and out of traffic, cutting between buildings. Neither of us paid much attention to the warning signs—be it One Way, Stop, or Do Not Enter. We flew for our lives, like sparrows chased by eagles. Pain wracked my body as I forced ether through my frayed essence. I knew we did not have long like this. If we didn’t slam head-on into a lory or splat against the side of a building, I’d run out of gas, pass out, then gravity would take over, and I would finish my illustrious career as a greasy spot against the pavement.

“Plan D,” I said.

“What’s plan—”

I sent a torrent of air ahead of me, into the penthouse of a sky-high apartment building. The window shattered. I flew inside and immediately dropped to my knees. I fought to remain coherent. I saw everything through a tunnel for several deep breaths. I stared at the ground, kneeling on the broken glass. 

When I felt Aiden’s hand on my shoulder, I looked up.

An anthropomorphic gorilla-woman stood in the middle of the room. She was holding an espresso cup in one hand and a paperback in the other. Horror and fear were plain in her expression—so human I could only stare. 

Behind her was a white sofa. The little cup fell from her fingers and crashed into the marble floor, splattering coffee all over the expensive couch. She clutched her book to her chest, eyes wide with fright. 

“Sorry, ma’am,” I said, forcing myself to stand. My legs threatened to buckle, so I kept moving. I spotted an outer door through an expansive common room, on the other side of a short hall. As I ambled past her, I promised, “Loki will pay for any damages. We are on his official business.”

Take that, asshole. 

We burst into the hall just as the minotaurs crashed into the apartment. Aiden slammed the door and cast a spell. The door fused into the frame. Of course, the minotaurs had axes. And strength. And the will to chase us down no matter the cost. So his spell would likely only buy us a few precious seconds. 

“Stairs,” Aiden said, pointing to a door at the end of the hall.

As much as I hated it, he was right. The elevator would take too long. Or would it? No. That wasn’t an elevator. I could see the teleporter through the glass doors. Like the ones used at street crossings. 

“Can’t,” I said, pushing the button. “I won’t make it. We can take this.”

The glass doors opened just like an elevator. But inside was the circular pad. 

“Oh thank the gods,” Aiden said. “My legs wouldn’t have lasted the whole way down. I was prepared to tuck and roll down a few hundred flights, but this is better.”

We stepped onto the pad. Nothing happened. I looked at the panel on the wall. There were different floors. The writing was in Atlantian. I reached out to press the symbol for “Lobby” but Aiden grabbed my wrist.

“Wait, I have an idea,” he said, “Which one will take us to the garage?”

I started to argue, but the door to the penthouse flew from its hinges. Any idea was better than waiting here, so I mashed the button for the garage. We rematerialized. Rows of vehicles—wagons, chariots, and cars—were parked. Most of the parking spaces were filled. It was still pretty early. Soon, people would be leaving for work. Whatever we did needed to happen fast.

“We stealing one?” I asked. 

“Won’t need to,” he said. “Over here.”

We ran to the end of the garage, near the stairs, and settled down between two large wagons. Aiden pulled his amulet from his chest and pressed on a runic script. His body morphed back into his own shape. The minotaur’s hair was nearly gone. He replaced it with a golden strand from a separate vial.

“The kobolds,” I said, smiling. “You are a fucking genius.”

He gave me a look that said, You are only now figuring that out?

Then he became Arkath, the male kobold from earlier. He’d taken their hairs as leverage. His barking voice said, “Hurry. They could be right behind us.”

I took my amulet out from beneath my shirt, deactivating the arrium. As my body morphed back to my human-self, all my pains intensified. I could not breathe. I staggered. My clothes were now way too big. They hung loose on my arms and felt heavy enough to drag me down. I shrugged out of them, not caring that I was naked. 

We were running out of time. Those minotaurs would soon discover we had not run to the lobby. Likely, they were already cordoning off the building, trying to trap us inside. I held my amulet out to Aiden, and he replaced the minotaur hairs with the kobold’s. I let the amulet settle on my skin, activating the magic. 

The polymorph hurt just as much as before. By the time the magic had taken effect, I found myself lying on the concrete. Cold, exhausted, and … female. Aiden’s shit-eating grin was a perfect imitation of the kobold’s from earlier. I stood, covering myself, uncertain why I cared. This wasn’t my body. 

“Might want to put something on,” he said with a wink.

“Fuck you.”

“Nah. Not my style, dog.”

“Oh. Ha. Ha. You are so clever.”

“I know.”

I reached down to grab my clothes and tried to transmute the garments into something that would fit. But as I reached for ether, the world darkened and the ground shook. After it stopped, I was leaning against a wagon panting. From Aiden’s now puppy-dog expression, there hadn’t been an earthquake. I was out of gas. There would be no more flying or any other sort of spell slinging. For all intents and purposes, I was a kobold. 

“I’ll do it,” Aiden said, taking the clothes. He spoke the spell, changing my clothes into a racy dress and his into the open tunic and tight-fitted trousers, Arkath had worn at Starbucks. 

“How are you not out of juice?” I asked him. “You got less rest than I did.”

“I am. I’m just not bitchy about it. Get it? Bitchy. Cuz you’re a—”

“I fucking get it,” I said snatching the dress. 

I turned my back on him, and climbed awkwardly into the garment. I tried, and failed, to zip up the back. 

“Need help?” Aiden asked, tongue lulling out of his mouth.

“I will murder you. One more word, and I swear—”

The sounds of marching boots brought us back to our dire peril. Aiden zipped me up, and we crept toward the door. It was a fire exit. Of course. The second we opened it, an alarm would sound. But, it would also exit into the street below. The guards would be looking for two minotaurs, not two kobolds. 

“Ready?” I asked.

Aiden opened the door. World War Next was declared in deafening alarms. No one for five blocks was asleep anymore. We did not have time to care.

We ran down the stairs. Well, ran is a bit of a stretch. I clung to the rail and staggered as quickly as my little legs would allow. Going from the hulking bodies of the minotaurs to the petite forms of the kobolds so quickly was disorienting. That, and my legs felt as though I had spent the night marching through mountains. 

I leapt the last several steps, and fell into the wall. It was jarring but the least of my pains. We exited the building into a side street. I’d expected teams of minotaurs to be lying in wait, ready to ambush us, but the alley was empty. There were no patrols or yellow tape. No snipers and hostage negotiators.

Holy, fuck-balls. We’d finally gotten lucky.

We stagger-ran to the sidewalk and turned right. With the sun blocking the buildings, I could not determine any cardinal directions, but away from here would suffice. Before we’d taken more than a few steps from the alley, other people began to spill into the street, some half-dressed. Tenants from the building next to the apartment also exited in a hurry. Concerned voices spoke at once, everyone worried over a fire. Very soon, the sounds of anxious voices rose to a volume with the sounds of the alarm.

Guilt and relief warred with one another for purchase in my mind. Relief won as I saw guards exit our building and push their way into the growing crowd. They stopped every minotaur in the area, arresting them without hesitation. 

Aiden and I slipped away, turned the corner and just kept walking. We made our way to a larger, busier road and moved alongside the flow of traffic. None of the commuters so much as glanced at us. It was a constant urge to look over my shoulder, but I suppressed the impulse. As my racing heart slowed, the weariness and fatigue became heavier with each step. 

Four or five blocks later, we stopped and sat on a bench. For several minutes, we both just stared at the road. As the sun rose to full dawn, traffic slowed, becoming bumper-to-bumper. 

A giggle bubbled out of me. Aiden looked at me, clearly annoyed. His expression—so Aiden and yet doglike—made me laugh harder. Aiden gave me a lopsided grin. Then he began to laugh. The barking-chuckle sounded like a dog having a seizure. This, of course, made us both laugh all the more. 

I couldn’t breathe. 

The laughter slowed to an occasional bark. Then we both fell silent, breathing hard. I leaned against Aiden. He was taller now. He rested his chin on the top of my head. We stayed like that for a while. My eyes lulled, but would not close completely.

“We did it,” I said, reality finally setting in. 

“Piece of cake,” Aiden said, another laugh escaping. Before the giddiness could take hold, Aiden froze. I felt him grow taut next to me. Though I’d heard the sound, it took my brain a few minutes to register what it meant.

Someone beside us slow-clapped. 

My muscles protested, but I had to sit up and turn my body to see the tall figure standing beside us. It was Victoria. Her personal security minotaurs stood behind her. I met her gaze and saw none of the fears or intimacy she’d shared with me the previous night. 

She gave me a wicked grin and said, “You look like you could use a nap.”

I opened my mouth to hurl an insult in her direction, but stopped when I saw movement from the corner of my eye. I turned in time to see a huge fist hammer into my face.

And I knew no more.