I don’t like harming others. In fact, I avoid fighting whenever possible. I’ve trained for more time than most people of any race can live. If there is a martial style in existence on Earth, I have mastered it. And to be less than humble for a moment, I’m really fucking good even without the aid of Aliastalus.
Add to that, I can conjure up a song of fire and ice to make George R.R. Martin’s imagination look like a white-washed wall in comparison to the Sistine Chapel. I can hurl dimensional portals or, if I’m feeling particularly threatened, I can make a person’s blood boil in their skin. I can turn people to stone or polymorph them into ants and squash them beneath my boot.
But it’s not a good feeling, ending a life.
In fact, it’s the worst act you can take, which is why it’s illegal in most societies. There are some Spartan-esk places in the multiverse still sacrificing people for rituals, and don’t get me started on world’s using blood magic. But again, I digress.
I prefer to use words over violence, but there are times when the only response that can be made is with bloodshed. I considered briefly trying to get to the sentient blade and rejected it. Better not to reveal that Aliastalus was in my possession.
Looking at the messenger, I dropped my 3 gold latte and mumbled a word, creating two blades of pure energy. Once cast, I could maintain them with will. I’d done this spell so many times over the years, it took very little effort. At the same time, I borrowed from the ether increased strength, awareness, and agility, just as I had fighting Theseus.
Without making a move, I met the messenger’s eye and said, “Your friends might get lucky and take me out, but you’ll die first.”
Her tail stood up straight. The little dog-like smirk vanished. Her eyes widened. That all only lasted a split second. Then her ears pointed up and her hair bristled.
She flicked both wrists.
With my ether-heightened senses, I felt the daggers slice through the air. With a quick slice with both blades, I cut through the mundane weapons. The pieces clattered to the cobbles as I leapt forward. More projectiles loosed from the rooftops.
But I was already on the move. Daggers and arrows clunked into the ground behind me. For good measure, I dove into a roll, coming up at a run.
The messenger produced two more small blades, these made for hand-to-hand fighting. She held them in a reverse grip. I feinted left, stopped short. She swung at where my face would have been. I kicked her knee. She fell. She let out a high-pitched welp. Rising on one knee, she took another swipe at me. I dodged back and pivoted around behind her, placing her between me and the next volley.
But it didn’t come.
I held both blades crisscrossed on the messenger’s shoulders, making a guillotine around her neck without actually touching her. The energy of the blades—much like light sabers—could easily cut through flesh and bone. All her muscles stiffened. I looked up. Several kobolds and a few lizard-like bipeds held poised to shoot crossbows or throw knives. But no one made a move.
Sensing an opportunity, I said in a loud voice, “I do not wish to kill this woman. I did not ask for this fight. But I will kill every last one of you if I must, to achieve my goals. Where is the Baron?”
A slow clap echoed down the alley. I hadn’t seen anyone there before. But a woman walked forward. She had hair too black to be anything natural on Earth. She wore silver breastplate with the symbol of two dark wings on her chest with a sword nestled between them.
What I first took for a black cloak unfurled as she came forward, two black-feathered wings protruded from her back. Jutting up from over her shoulder was a massive hilt. I could see the tip of the sword extending all the way down to her knees.
“Well done,” she said, voice firm and commanding. “You have found me, and I would appreciate your leaving Marissa’s head on her shoulders.”
“You’re the Baron?” I asked. “A Valkyrie?”
“I am the Baron, but I have not answered to Odin in some time.” She stopped less than 2 meters from me. “Will you let my messenger go?”
“That depends on you. As I said before, I do not wish to hurt anyone. Not my style. However, I cannot allow you to kill me.”
“If I wished you dead, mortal, you would be ashes at my feet. You have cunning and skill. I would not waste that, but I also cannot allow mercenaries to tromp through my camps, slapping around my soldiers without consequences.”
I nodded my chin toward the messenger. “She attacked me.”
“I am aware of the details.”
She studied me in the brief silence. I could tell I was being weighed and measured. She had a helluva poker face. I could not say if she was going to try to murder me outright or just kill me around the edges. I was leaning toward the former, but I wasn’t ready to lop off any heads just yet and hoping the valkyrie felt the same. Sorry. Former-valkyrie.
Finally, she nodded. “Let her go, and I will spare you.”
It was my turn to study her.
The winged warriors answer to Odin, whose main source of power rests on a planet called Asgard, where he currently owns every nexus and guards them jealously. Many of the other gods came from there—Loki amongst them—and were cast out for reasons few know. Once leaving Asgard, many came to Atlantis, and then Earth and other primitive planets.
The valkyries were considered Odin’s eyes and ears in the realms. Either she was a deserter or had fallen out of grace. Neither gave me an inclination as to her temperament. Could she be trusted?
Only one way to find out.
I took a step back and let my swords dissolve back into the ether. I did not release the flow heightening my muscles and senses. If she came at me, I’d do everything in my power to send her to Valhalla.
“Come,” she said, pivoting on her heel. “We will talk.”
She walked directly at the wall, then passed through as though it was not there. I did not sense the illusion until walking through to the alley on the other side.
And I stopped.
A horde of kobolds stood there, all holding assault rifles. I saw three snipers on the roof, still looking at me down their scopes. The sight was such a contrast to the other side of the illusion—where the kobolds all held what could only be called primitive weaponry—I could only stand and gape. These people wore combat and tactical outfits, complete with grenades and other accessories more consistent with military or S.W.A.T. units.
I had the strongest feeling that had I twitched to kill the messenger, three bullets would have blasted through my skull before nicking the woman’s neck. Then, likely, I would have been turned into Swiss cheese by the M16s.
“They will not harm you,” she said. Though, I noted, none of them stopped aiming their weapons at me. “Come.”
I walked as if the ground beneath me was brittle and might crack at the wrong step. The Baron turned at a blank wall and mumbled a quick spell. A doorway appeared. She opened it and gestured for me to go first.
Seeing little choice in the matter, I stepped into the darkened room. Two more valkyries stood just inside on either side of the opening to a long corridor. Both stood motionless, eyes intent upon me. Neither so much as blinked until the Baron stepped in beside me and said, “At ease.”
Then they blinked. But they still watched me. And did not move.
“Right,” I said, “So, the reason I wanted to—”
“Not here,” she said, striding past me. “Follow.”
So I did. She marched down the corridor, which led to a square room with a portal at its center. Explosives were rigged at the corners of the room.
“What the fuck is this?”
“A doorway to my base. It is perfectly safe, I assure you.”
She stepped onto the short platform and offered her hand down to me with a patronizing expression on her face.
I did not take her hand but stepped up beside her.
She activated the portal.
My body deconstructed and reconstructed. There were no explosives here, the only indication that we had been transported.
The Baron walked down the corridor into another small room with two more valkyries. One opened the outer door for us with a nod to the Baron and a glare for me.
“Well met,” I said, cheerfully.
The glare became a glower, to which I gave a smile.
“As you were,” the Baron said, and the valkyrie returned to statue duty beside the corridor.
Outside was not what I expected. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but I just knew her base would be a dank warehouse deep in the Shadow Streets.
Instead, I stood outside. I could see palm trees jutting over stone buildings with slate roofs. In the distance, I could see people of varied races and species moving about. I could smell salt in the air, hinting at an ocean or sea nearby. Birds hovered high above. The sky was blue and cloudless.
I sucked in a breath.
Rather than just after dawn, it was nearly dusk, the sun low in the sky.
“Fuck,” I said. “How much time did we lose? Is this even Atlantis?”
“Peace,” she said. “We are still on Atlantis, but on the other side of the planet. You lost no time.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, until I saw her expression. She knew I was in a hurry, which would destroy my bargaining power.
“Come,” she said with a smirk. “I wish to show you something.”
The stone path was well-tended with flowers growing alongside the roadway. The nearest building was at least 50 meters away. A glance up revealed the birds were not birds, but valkyries. They flew low enough to make out details.
“What the fuck is going on?” I wanted to know.
“You will see.”
We walked on in silence. She stopped beside the first row of houses. Each home looked the same, made of stone with slate tiles for roofs. The only variation was in the gardens and differing color of doors.
I saw a tiny face peaking through the curtain of a window. Brown hair surrounded the little eyes. It could be a goblin or a kobold or something else I’d never seen. Someone else. The moment our gazes connected, the curtain flopped back in place.
The same thing happened at the next house, then the next as we walked.
Hundreds of houses, and each intersection led to more rows of cookie-cutter homes, all small enough for a single family. We came to a large open space where people stood in queues in front of rows of tables.
Most were humanoid with pointed ears and thin frames. Many wore tattered clothes and appeared injured or had missing limbs.
“They hail from a world called Erta,” she said. “Though, that was not their original home, either. The world to which they fled still uses blood as a means for fueling magic, not realizing they are filling the world with too much wyther to sustain a nexus for ether. The Accords of Inter-multiverse Travel restrict us from interfering with primitive societies, so even harboring these people is illegal. Yet, if we had not brought them here, they would be dead, simply for their blood.”
“The Accords were made to prevent advanced civilizations from taking advantage of peoples incapable of protecting themselves from places like Atlantis, Earth, or Asgard.”
Without slowing, she gestured toward the thousand elves. “But does nothing to keep advanced cultures within a world from doing the same. We find the accords callous. And though we do not engage in war with such nations, we do provide a safe haven for those wishing to find a life elsewhere. For saving these people, we would be brought before a tribunal—likely here on Atlantis—and executed. In the name of preserving culture.”
She had a fair point. The punishment was intended as a preventative measure, to dissuade others from interfering with other cultures. However, these elves and everyone else on the island would be slaughtered along with them.
We walked in silence for a time. Until finally, I asked, “Why here? Surely, there is a safer planet to hide.”
“Most of these people are from here. They cannot afford to live under the rule of the gods. Marginalized people are pushed into the arena. Until we came here.”
That shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. “I didn’t know. It never appeared that way in Athens.”
“By design. But the turmoil in the multiverse is not limited to your Earth. Wars always produce refugees. And though you cannot see it, Theseus is at war, as well. With any and all who damage the image he attempts to maintain. His region is a portal point. Millions come through here every year. Riches flow through here, but not to the people. Those of Athens suffer more than most. Why did you come to Atlantis?”
The sudden change in topic took me aback, but I saw no reason not to answer truthfully. “The heist. Theseus had something I needed.”
“And you took it, knowing of Theseus’s cruelty. Bold? Or incredibly stupid?”
“Yes,” I said.
She smiled. “What did you take?”
“Many things, including the artifact I needed. Before we get to that, it’s your turn. I see what you are doing here. It is noble, but what are you after? Specifically, why show me all of this?”
“To respect your time—which I know is limited—I will get straight to the point. We are at war with those who take power and abuse it, including Theseus. Much like your Collective, we wish to push the gods from their seats of power. This sanctuary rights many wrongs, but it is not enough. We need to challenge the Accords and cannot while beneath the power of the gods. And I believe you can aid us with this problem..”
As if one eternal war wasn’t enough. “I’m not sure I can. I mean … I’m hip-deep in shit already with my own struggles on Earth. And every moment I stand here, hours pass on my world. I need to get home.”
“I understand.” She nodded. “I can help you. But it will have a cost.”
“I took many artifacts that would aid your cau—”
“No. You cannot bargain that which is mine already. Normally, I do not allow poachers of any kind. I am making an exception for you. You may keep 10% of your take. The rest is mine.”
“Fuck that,” I said before my brain could stop my mouth. She raised an eyebrow. I rushed on before she could have her valkyries smite me. They still circled above. And for all I knew, she had another dozen soldiers shadowing us, hidden beneath another clever illusion. “What I mean to say,” I amended, “is that I know you start off at a much higher percentage for your street grunts and—”
“But they are my street grunts. You are an encroaching thief at best. At worst …”
“I get it,” I said, “but you cannot have the artifacts I need for my cause, and I’ll not list it all out for you so we can burn time haggling over worth. I’ll take what I need and leave you the rest.”
“I could just take what is mine.” She gestured to the valkyries on overwatch as well as to the others shadowing us, who—as I had suspected—had been hidden behind a veil. But there was no threat in her voice or in her manner.
“If that’s what you wanted,” I reasoned, “we would not be standing here amidst your refuge. I would be in chains, while you tortured me for the information on how to bypass my wards without sending you and all the goods into oblivion.” I gave a tight smile. “Meaning, you want to deal. You have smugglers, obviously, or you would not have off-worlders seeking sanctuary here. I’ve seen enough that I do not mind contributing to your cause. But I have other matters that require my attention. I cannot pledge my service to you. My Collective has that oath already. You get my excess take. I get a trip home. That is my only offer. Truth is, I don’t need all of this stuff. You do. Do we have a deal?”
“I have smugglers. I have warriors. I also have wealth and status in places that aid me. But I do not have many powerful ethermages with centuries of experience fighting the gods.”
“I am just one mage,” I said. “And what about the valkyries? They can call ether and wyther I would wager. ”
“Trivial sums and to minor effect. I am the most powerful amongst us, and I pale in comparison to your power.”
“Artifacts can amplify—”
“Our armor already serves that purpose. Little more can be gained, even with the Incanter’s Blade you took from Loki.”
Before I could make up excuses, she pressed on. “None in my employ and few in the city could bypass those wards. That is why they are effective and used by nobles in all of Atlantis. None but the gods can circumvent their defenses. With your talents, we can hit them where it hurts the most. Their wealth. And you have insights we could use. You could make the difference in our war.”
I snorted. “I am no god.”
“Oh? And what are the gods but beings of power?”
“They aren’t human.”
“Neither am I.”
“Semantics. You know what I mean. I’ll never rival Loki without weapons. Artemis holds a nexus. I cannot combat her.”
“But is that not your intent? The reason you rush back to your Earth? You plan to wage war against those gods.”
“Not by myself. And with as many tricks as I can muster.”
She spread her hands wide. “Not with all of my army could I stand against a single god in the open, and you will face an entire pantheon.”
“Not a pantheon yet,” I said, annoyed. She was trying to make me sound like Superman. It wasn’t like that. “And I won’t hit them head on. That would be suicide.”
“I see,” she said, amusement in her voice. “I misspoke. You are nothing like the gods. For they are without any hint of humility.”
I frowned at her. She began walking again. A few more blocks, she stopped on a bridge crossing over a small river. It wound around a play-yard with minotaurs, kobolds, and the cat-bipeds (whose species I still had not learned the name). All children, playing together. A lot of them.
“Orphaned by Theseus’s arena.”
“Gods damn it. This is low. Don’t you think I know what war does? I’ve fought one for 200 years. None of this changes the fact that I am obligated elsewhere.”
“What if we could end the wars?”
“Impossible. It is called the endless wars for a good reason. People, regardless of species, crave power. Competition is the main driving force amongst life in the multiverse. How can you stop our nature?”
“You cannot; however, you can remove that which causes the gods to battle.”
“They fight over the nexuses. Destroy that energy, destroy life. We would devolve into places like Erta and enslave one another again, as they do.”
“Why is it even the most resourceful and talented humans always resort to destruction as a solution to every problem?”
“We believe we have another solution to remove the seat of power without disrupting the flow of ether or wyther. But it will require cooperation from the very beings who would be denied the power of its source.”
I could only stare at her. Clearly, she was insane.
“I am not mad,” she said, guessing my thoughts. “I will not divulge more information without your pledge.”
I was already pledged to Theseus. With a blood oath. Correction, a gods damned open-ended blood oath. Part of it had been making contact with the Baron. At least I could check off that part of the obligation, but I still owed him a task. More and more, I realized this woman was at the center of it.
“I want to help you,” I said, honestly, “but I have to go home first. That pledge cannot be broken. Give me that, and I will return here and aid you in whatever way I am able.” And to myself added, without breaking my blood oath to your greatest enemy.
I felt a stab of guilt seeing the relief in her expression. “Good. My Finder Ship is just down this street.” She gestured toward the north. Now that I was looking, I could see the ocean on the horizon. “My captain is waiting for you.”
“Really? That’s it?”
“Of course, but you’ll understand if I require a blood oath from you as well?”
I shook my head. “I do not have time to draft a document.”
Taking out a knife, she said, “We will do it the old-fashion way. Starting with this: I am Betithia Odianus of Asgard.”
She cut her hand open without flinching and offered me the knife, blood dripping from the blade. I took it, brain racing to find a way out of this. Sharing oaths of servitude with warring factions was beyond stupid. My mind came up short on the options category.
“Liamorandus Fianna of Earth.” I said, then I cut my palm in the same place Theseus had and offered her my hand.
She took it and swore, “With blood spilled, I pledge to be true to these promises made. From hence forth, while trust and integrity is maintained, my domain is offered as sanctuary to one, Liamorandus Fianna of Earth, for him and his progeny shall he ever need it. In so providing sanctuary, I will give him free passage to his homeland should he ever have need of my vessel, so long as I am able to give it. By my power, I swear it.”
I felt the magic of her blood and spell linger in the air. To seal our oath, I had to make one of my own. She made herself vulnerable by going first and leaving the spell open for me to contribute. It was trust I had not earned and certainly did not deserve. But it worked.
As infinitely dumb as it might be, I could not give her any less than my deepest, heartfelt oath.
“With blood spilled,” I echoed, “I pledge to be true to promises made. From hence forth, I will pledge myself unto Betithia Odianus of Asgard to aid in her cause so long as I am able, physically and mentally, to do so in good faith, as I see fit and continue my service so long as the cause remains just. By my power, I swear it.”
Not your most heartfelt, a little voice inside my head said. After all, there was a lot of wiggle room in that pledge, but still ironclad. Betithia smiled as if I had promised to die on the altar of sacrifice for all the orphans playing in that field, which only added to my guilt.
The spell settled over both of us, linking us in an undefinable way. And just like that, it was done. I was now beholden to Betithia and Theseus, mortal enemies to one another. Somehow, I had bungled my way right into the middle of it. But I had my ride home.