Chapter 24: Fly You Fools

Gandalf the Gray was wise. That scene in Lord of the Rings where he looked at the companions and told them to fly while calling them fools has been spoofed upon a dozen different ways. For some reason, his fall came to my mind in that moment as we stepped into the audience chamber. Probably because I fancied myself as Gandalf here. And I saw few ways through this without sacrifices being made.

Theseus stood beside his throne, posing like some greek god from legend—oh wait. That’s because he was exactly that. What in hades were we doing in this room? This was definitely not the plan. Conflict with Theseus was never in the discussion. Because Aiden and I both knew, if it ever came to this moment, we would be bent over and tied to a barrel, breeches to our ankles, greased up, and in for a pounding we could not stop. 

In other words, we were about to be royally fucked. 

Asterion marched into the room, pausing just outside of striking range, blood dripping from the axe head onto the marble floor. Theseus stood there, lounging against his throne, smirking at the minotaur. He wore a toga, much like Aiden’s had been at the party all those days ago. His rippling muscles were camera-ready, like Brad Pitt in Troy—square jaw almost too symmetrical. Short black curls cut in the Caesar fashion fell across his forehead.

I hated him, immediately. 

Not because I was jealous—though I was. I mean, look at him. I don’t lean toward men, but damn, this guy was sexy as hell. But it wasn’t that. It was the smirk. The arrogant lounge. The amusement in his eyes as he looked at Asterion—a living, breathing being he’d trapped for thousands of years. Altogether, it made me want to slap a glove across his face and demand satisfaction in the ‘I bite my thumb at thee’ sort of way. 

That feeling was made worse, when the arrogant asshat never even glanced at Aiden and me. Then reason raced to step in front of my irked impetus and placed a metaphorical hand up to halt my suicidal impulse. Better not to get noticed here. Pay no attention to the men behind the fake minotaur faces. 

We could not run. I realized that. There was no way I could leave Asterion here. But I could get Aiden clear of this. A plan—a very bad plan—was forming and I needed time. And maybe it would work. If Indy could reach his hand into a hole of spiders and come back unbitten, maybe I could too.

“Wait here,” I whispered to Aiden, digging into my cloak pockets.

“What are you going to do?”

“Something dumb. We both agree on that in advance.”

“Fuck that. We need to run for it before Theseus rips through Asterion and gives us his undivided attention.” 

“You are leaving,” I said. “We agree on that, too. But I’m staying and fighting. At least long enough for you to get clear of this.”

“That is suicide. Asterion made his choice when—”

“You are wasting time we do not have. Besides,” I said, pulling a sparkling purple potion from my pocket. “It’s too late.”

For those of you who play RPG video games, this is a mana pot. It refreshes my body, enabling me to draw ether a bit longer. The negative side, it’s more like coffee than a magical cure for fatigue. Once the effects wore off, I would not be conscious for long. Depending on how sparingly I went with the ether, I could go for half-an-hour to an hour. 

Unstoppering the cork with my teeth, I quaffed the potion. It tasted like pixie stix, blue raspberry flavor. That was by design. Back in the day, all potions tasted like their ingredients. Suffice it to say, you’d rather like the bottom of a shoe after it ran through a field of manure.

Within seconds, I felt the vigor return to my body and mind. 

“Gods damn it,” Aiden said through his teeth. “Was that a mana pot?”

“Yep. But that’s not the plan. Once, I engage with Theseus, take this and my pack and get out.”

He snatched the heart from my hand and shoved it into his own cloak pocket. “And what the hell do you intend to do. Wait. What’s in there? You aren’t going to—”

All the artifacts I’d stolen were right in the threshold of my pack. I had opened it after handing Aiden the heart, and without preamble, I picked up the replica of Excalibur. The mental link was established by the physical connection. A feminine voice spoke in my mind. 

You will destroy mine enemies, mortal.

The words came with an intimate sense of the sword’s personality, as well as image of murder, death, and mayhem. 

Not Excalibur then. Arthur’s blade was also sentient but had embodied the Knights of Camelot—yes they were real. This sword is more like Excalibur’s evil twin. Fantastic. 

No, I told the blade. I am master here.

You will kneel. 

A very strong impulse shot through me to do just that. I resisted but felt my body lag. Somewhere outside me, I heard Aiden’s voice. The words washed over me. I could no longer see the hall or sense beyond myself and the sword. Images flashed in my mind. Battle. Death. Glory. 

Power beyond comprehension. 

This and more could all be mine. 

If I gave myself to her, fully. 

It was a bond, I realized. The energy was formless but building. This sword, Aliastalus as she called herself, would dominate me more thoroughly than would a bond to Artemis. She would take up my body and wield me like a weapon to wreak havoc upon those she deemed an anathema to her purposes. 

But the bond had not yet settled.

I felt the torrent of wyther she poured into me. Gathering up ether, I placed a shield around my mind. Her mental assault did not stop. But her voice was muted. I felt my body again. A crash sounded in the other room. Asterion roared. Theseus laughed. Aiden called my name. Why the fuck had he gone in there? No. I could not be drawn in or I’d lose myself. I pushed his pleas away. Relenting now would mean my death. Not in the physical sense, but my mind and body would belong to Aliastalus.

My grip on the sword tightened by the second. My knuckles screamed in protest, but I focused beyond the pain to feel the energy of the sword, the magic that held it together, and my connection to both. 

Forming my will, I sent ether into the bond. The one she’d created. It was of her ethereal pattern. And I knew it was more than just a connection of wills. I took hold of her, not just with my grip.

She screamed. 

Wyther came out in a torrent, swatting away my hold on the bond. 

She battered down my shield. Agony lanced through my mind. My awareness expanded. I could sense the battle raging in the throne room. Fighting and screaming. Music and the dance. A song to my ears. All my enemies fought one another. It would be so easy to smite them while their backs were turned. I could kill the one who had enslaved me and left me to rust and decay. Then, I could take this—

No.

These thoughts did not belong to me. The voice was hers. I redoubled my shield forcing her out with every ounce of will I could muster. Once more, I took hold of the bond, drawing in more ether with every iota I could pull into myself.

The bond solidified. 

I could feel her impotent rage. And I knew, it had been over ten thousand years since she’d been mastered. By Theseus. He’d released her from the bond and left her to rot in his vault. More of her knowledge flooded my mind, too much to parse.

It hurt. My head throbbed. I found myself on my knees. Someone screamed in the other room, a blood-curdling cry. Flashes of energy erupted from just out of sight.

I came in just as Aiden fell. A blast of ether had flung his body through the air. He slammed into the wall beside me and dropped to the ground. 

Asterion fought hard, both weapons moving at blinding speed. Theseus knocked all attacks aside, moving even faster. Ether infused every part of the man, aiding his strength. It was a simple spell, but effective. From the smile on his face, Theseus enjoyed the exercise. But that’s all it was, and he wasn’t breaking a sweat.

Asterion, on the other hand, bled from several tiny cuts and gashes, none too serious on their own. Together, they took their toll. I could see him slowing. 

Drawing ether into myself, I readied to join them. Theseus leapt up and back, flying several feet away. At the same time, wyther burst from his hands, striking the minotaur’s weapons. They disintegrated. Theseus surged forward. He swung his sword at Asterion’s face. The minotaur dodged to the side. Thesues pivoted mid-swing his foot hitting Asterion’s knee. He went down.

Without slowing a beat, Theseus spun. His sword slammed into the minotaur’s temple. Asterion crumpled. My heart stopped beating. I could only stare. But Asterion put his hands beneath him, trying to rise. There was no blood where he’d been hit. Theseus had struck him with the flat of the blade.

As Asterion started to rise, Theseus dealt him another blow to the temple, just beneath his horns. Asterion dropped and lay still. 

Gripping the magic blade, I marched into the room. I could feel her energy pulsing within, magnifying my own power. Access to more wyther was available too, though, I was not certain if using the destructive force would fray my etherial pattern. I would not touch it unless I had to. 

But that was not the only gift she’d given me. She knew how Theseus fought. All his battle forms came to me and how to defeat them. But gods he was fast.

I marched forward, enhancing my muscles and senses with ether. It would be the only way I had a chance to defeat this man. This god.

Without introduction, I rushed him. 

He dodged to the side and reposted with a swing of the sword. I blocked and countered. He blocked and kicked. I caught his foot on a knee while slicing down. Had he not retreated, he would have lost a leg.

Why was he not using ether or wyther? Oh shit. I looked like a minotaur—who are notoriously immune to magic. If he did not use ether to defeat me, I might win this. 

Theseus circled me, looking for weakness. His smile held but his eyes looked crazed. He darted forward, but I knew—thanks to Aliastalus—it was a feint. He would spin away at the last second, come over my downward block and cut off my wrist at the sword hand. He’d done it a thousand times or more with the very sword I held. 

I knew the counter. As he came forward, I feinted the block. His sword came up. I lunged, spinning away from his swing. I surged forward with the help of ether. When I spun back to face him, red leaked from a gash in his toga, at his shoulder.

He no longer smiled.

I swallowed. He rushed me. I felt ether building in him. I side-stepped and nearly tripped on a block of stone. A gash sliced across my shoulder. I flung myself in a roll, sliding beneath a blow that would have taken my head.

As my back touched the ground, I felt the ether shift beneath me. I flipped up. A sword lanced upward, shaped from the stone. It would stab right through me. 

“Sciath,” I said, flinging ether.

The stone sword shattered against my barrier. Theseus came from the other side. I got my sword up just in time. Once again, Aliastalus saved me. I parried several quick strikes and kicked my heel into his midsection, forcing him back. I followed up with an attack of my own. 

I allowed her to guide me through the next several moves. 

It is difficult to describe what happened next. What we did was not dominance, but she controlled my body through honing my instincts. She’d seen a pattern in Theseus’s attack. Sword, ether strike, sword, sword. Then ether, ether, sword, ether. And then he would rotate. 

I knew the moment he would switch. I waited. Then I used his tactic, infusing the ground with ether and ripping a sword upward. 

He spun away. 

And on we went. We dueled for several minutes. Theseus never slowed. But I would. My potion would wear off. Sooner rather than later. I burned through more ether than I could maintain, simply to keep up with him. I needed to end this. Fast.

With the sentient blade’s help, we were a match. If I, rather Aliastulus, could find a way past his defenses, I could win. 

Then, Theseus sped up. 

Power filled him. The nexus, I realized. He was drawing on the energy of the leys to add to his ether-enhanced speed. Only marginally, but I knew he could take more. He wasn’t just a demigod. He controlled this seat of power. And I faced him alone.

There was a reason the gods still held their seats on Earth. This was it. Theseus was playing a game and enjoying himself. He had been toying with me the whole time. He could have defeated me from the start and had chosen not to for the sport of it. 

I feinted forward and flew back and away from him on a surge of ether. It felt prudent to delay the inevitable. I did not wish to die, but I would not do so in vain.

But Theseus did not advance. He stopped just next to his toppled throne—the crash I’d heard earlier, no doubt. 

“Aliastulus,” he said. “I see you have found another host, at long last. But you cannot defeat me in this place.”

“No. I wield the blade,” I said. “She does not wield me. But you are right, even with her aid, I do not believe I can win.”

Theseus blinked, eyes widening. He lowered his blade, tip touching the ground. Though he looked relaxed, I knew he could respond to any attack within fractions of a second. The gesture was for my benefit, a symbol of a temporary truce. “You speak truth. For I know Aliastulus does not possess the humility necessary to feign otherwise. Well, done. You are clearly not Oramald. Does he live?”

Kill the insolent, twit. 

“Yes,” I said, ignoring the sword and the instincts to fight. “They are unaware we have stolen their faces.”

“Very clever. And you have the will to best the blade. I should hate to destroy you, but I cannot allow such a transgression to go unchallenged.” 

“Nor was this my wish,” I admitted. “I never wanted to steal from you. But I had no choice. I am merely here in a desperate attempt to save someone I care for deeply. If there was any other way, I would have taken it.” 

He stared at me for a long moment. I could hear Aiden stir behind me. The relief must have shown in my expression because Theseus glanced at the ground by my feet. I would not be able to defeat Theseus. I knew that now. The sword had given me much more than I could have anticipated, but Theseus was a master of this place, as he had aptly demonstrated. But I could hold him off long enough for Aiden to get free of this. If the stubborn bastard would leave.

And then, Theseus nodded. “I believe you. More importantly, I see a way forward. It will require an oath on your part. Will you hear my bargain?” 

Inwardly, I cringed. By the time I finished this, I would not have much freedom remaining. Though, it’s not like I had a choice. “Aye. Please, continue.”

“I will allow you to leave here with your life. You may finish your quest. Whether you succeed or fail, if you live, you will pledge your service to me. I have a task for which you are uniquely suited. Once you complete this service, you will be free of your obligation to me.”

“What task?”

“We will speak of the details after you have given your oath. However, if you agree, it serves my purposes to allow you to leave with both your life and my property. What say you?”

I stared at him, uncertain I’d heard him correctly. There was a catch. Gods damn it, I hated god-like beings. Was he still playing a game with me? Certainly, but he seemed earnest. Why spare me? Fuck. It didn’t matter right now. He was talking instead of killing. Besides, what is one more favor owed? 

“You have my oath.”

“Very good. Now in blood.” 

Quicker than I could track, he pulled ether into a sharp blade and took hold of my arm with a second spell, cast simultaneously. He held his own hand out, palm up, forcing me to do the same. Though, I did not resist. 

“With both blood spilled, we will be true to these promises made. By my power, I swear it.”

Long before legal documents ever existed, this was how an oath was made. If either of us broke the bond, we’d be made weaker, perhaps losing our ability to call ether altogether. In many ways, it was far more binding than those contracts we’d made with Artemis and Loki. It was fully dependent upon my intentions. If I failed in my own mind, I would lose some—if not all—of my power and it would pass to Theseus. Or vice versa. 

“With blood spilled,” I repeated, “So too do I swear by my power to hold to promises made.”

Theseus flourished the ether blade synchronously with his sword, sheathing them both. When he released the hilt of the actual weapon, the ether-made sword vanished. 

Gods, he was impressive. 

“What do you know of The Baron,” he asked.

“Little. He is a master of thieves, I would wager, and runs the Shadow Streets. Why?”

She is a master of thieves. Before you leave back to your Earth, I will need you to brag about your theft from me to those who might be in her employ. When you return to Atlantis, I will know of it and send word of how you may reach me.”

I got a feeling I’d just been played in more way than one. 

“You know who I am,” I said. It wasn’t a question.

“I took a measure of your pattern just now, Liamorandus.”

“My friends call me Liam.”

“Well met, Liam.” He offered his hand.

I was still holding Aliastulus, I realized. Hastily, I shoved her into the dimensional pocket. Even with the pocket closed and on my shoulder, I could still feel our bond. I’m not sure I would keep the sword, but I also did not know how to break the bond. 

I took Theseus by the wrist. He looked into my eyes and said seriously, “It has been some time since anyone spilled my blood. In my younger years, I would have killed you for that.”

He gripped my wrist a bit tighter. I did not swallow. Or shit myself. So I count that as a win. I kept his gaze and asked, “And now?”

“I see wisdom in mercy,” he said, realizing my hand. “You, for example, will be a valuable asset to me. You have will enough to dominate a sentient blade—do not lower your guard with her, by the way. She will attempt to reverse your bond and dominate you, every chance she gets. Further, you have infiltrated my own keep, quite effortlessly. And you can use ether subtly enough to avoid detection. Except at the end there, when you shook my gods damned castle.” 

I had been beaming at his praise, up until the end. “Yeah, uh, not my finest moment. Apologies for that.”

He waved a dismissive hand. “I am grateful for your lapse in judgment. Had you not woken me, you might have slipped by without notice. And then I would have been forced to hunt you down and kill you, rather than enjoy this interview.”

“Interview?”

His smirk returned, along with my desire to punch his face. “Of course. Or did you believe I could not have killed you immediately? I own the nexus. It will take more than one mortal to defeat me.” 

“No. Uh, yeah. Of course, I knew you could. Makes total sense.” My foot never tasted so sour. “Thank you.” 

“However,” he said. “I cannot allow you to leave with Asterion. It would not serve my purposes and would tarnish my image.”

“He is my mission. The biggest part of it. I cannot leave without him. Literally. I made an oath.”

“To whom?”

“Until the oath is fulfilled, I cannot say.”

He simply nodded. “Very well. I have accepted your oath, and I am not one to second-guess my instincts. Besides, he has suffered here long enough.”

“Thank you.”

“There is one more catch,” he said, smirk becoming full smile. “When you leave here, my guards will have orders to capture you. Appearances, you understand. After you leave this room, if you are caught, you will be killed, slowly and painfully in the arena. Take your friend and the minotaur and be gone from here. Good luck, Liamorandus. I do hope to see you again, as yourself next time.”

He turned his back on me and marched from the room. The outer door swung open as he approached, and I could see dozens of guards waiting in the hall beyond.

Just before the door closed, I heard him say, “Give them a five minute head start.”

Aiden stood, stumbling a few staggered steps toward me. His eyes took on a distant look as though he might collapse. Asterion was breathing but otherwise not moving. I needed to move, but my own legs felt suddenly weary. The potion’s effects waned. Sweat beaded on my forehead, the tell-tale sign of minutes until I collapsed. 

In the hall, I heard the movement of armor, as Theseus’s personal guard readied to storm in. I wondered if someone had a stopwatch, counting down the seconds until they could give chase. Gods, how long until the wards reset? Had we missed the window?

One way or another, this would all be over soon.

Chapter 23: Rude Awakenings

Asterion took my wrist and squeezed. “I will take your aid, little brother.”

“Great,” I said, allowing myself to breathe again. I let go of the vice-like grip and nodded toward the vault. “Can you get us in there?”

“Theseus did not trust me with the key. However, there are no wards attached. He has made it clear to me the consequences for failing to protect his treasures.”

“Fantastic,” Aiden said, moseying up to the lock. He inspected it and frowned. “It is filled with rust.”

“That a problem?” I asked.

“Yeah, tumblers won’t budge.”

“Right,” I said. “Plan B. You might want to stand aside.”

Gathering ether, I stepped toward the vault door. The handle was as long as an arm with a round faceplate at the top. The simple, turnkey hole was filled with red-orange gunk. Focusing on the mechanism, I sent a narrow beam of pure energy at the hole with a muttered, “Scrios.”

The metal disintegrated, vanishing from sight. Something fell with a clang on the other side. On this side, the handle sagged. So did I. Ether is not naturally destructive. Making it work against its nature to unravel matter is costly. I leaned against the wall to steady myself. And I am better at evocation than most.

Aiden pulled on the latch, and it came free. He looked between the broken handle and the door, annoyed. The door hadn’t budged an inch. We looked at each other, both frowning. Echoes of marching boots came closer. 

“Fuck,” Aiden said, trying to find a handhold where the lock plate had been. His giant bull-fingers could not fit enough into the hole to get a good grip. “Need a bigger hole.”

“Right,” I said, cringing at what I had to do.

I sent another small beam of destructive energy into the hole, but angled downward. It would be a shame to hit an arrium or some other artifact and destroy it. Also, it was unwise to mix magical energies. No telling what sort of reaction would occur. I made the hole large enough to get a good hold and destroyed the latch where it was fastened to the doorframe. 

My legs wobbled. I clutched Aiden’s shoulder to remain upright. 

“You alright?” he asked. 

“Yeah. Just need a minute.”

“We don’t have a minute.” He took my head. I felt ether funnel through him to me. The energy revitalized me enough to stand on my own. With more rest, I would be good as new. In the meantime, I could function as a decent mage, just as long as I didn’t need to fling spells anytime soon. 

We pulled the door open just as the marching stopped. 

Ten or more minotaurs crowded the opening to the maze. All brandished medieval style weapons, from daggers and swords to spears and poleaxes. The one in the lead wore an X on her golden patch. She glared at Asterion with heavy disgust, but her expression became smug as her gaze settled on Aiden and me.

“Well, well,” she said, “so you are the ones who purchased the schematics to the vault. Didn’t expect two of our own to be the traitors seeking to rob our liege. Theseus will be very happy with me when I deliver your heads to him. I’ll finally get the promotion I earned decades ago.” She nodded to her guards. “Seize them.”

Fucking hero-syndrome. She had created a problem so that she could solve it to make her look good or useful to Theseus. We hadn’t been setup exactly, but close enough. I was not prepared to fight. This was going to hurt. I stood, trying my best to appear ferocious and ready.

But then Asterion made a fist and said, “No.” 

The single word cracked across the room in a deep wave of firm resolve. The guards had moved forward but stopped, looking at Asterion as though he was a dog who’d suddenly grown a second head. 

“What was that,” the lead minotaur demanded. 

Asterion towered over the guards by at least two feet or more. His voice was patient but unyielding. “I do not wish to harm you, little sister. But you are not to injure these two.”

She sputtered for a couple seconds before spitting, “Do you know who I am? I’m General Lunacious Lasterious. And you are barely more than a brood mare. You have no authority here. You will step aside. Now.”

Asterion rolled his head to one side, then the other. He moved deliberately between the vault, where Aiden and I stood, and the group of hostiles, not giving an inch for them to pass. Still not raising his voice, he said, “You would be wise to leave.”

“Do not injure the progenitor,” the general said. “Kill the traitors.”

I felt Aiden attempt a mind-link with me. I opened my thoughts to him and he immediately sent, Get in the vault. I will stall them.

Before I could object, Aiden stepped forward. “You could do that. But then again, if we die, you would not be able to find the copies of the schematics we made of this place. I mean … you would not want just any old riff-raff sauntering down here, would you?”

The general held up a hand, fist closed. The minotaurs had all taken a few steps, but they stopped instantly at her signal. 

“What copies?” she asked.

“Oh,” Aiden said at the same time sending, Why are you gawking? Fucking go, dumbass. “The ones we left with our benefactors in the event we did not make it out alive.” 

“Someone paid you to do this? Who?”

Aiden stepped next to Asterion, blocking my line of sight. I slowly moved backward, slipping behind the door then into the vault. My legs still shook, but I forced myself to keep moving. 

I could still hear the conversation. 

“A very powerful off-worlder,” Aiden said. I could hear the smirk in his voice. “One who will remove the nobles from rule in this world. We will make a better Atlantis for all of our citizens. Not just for Theseus and the gods.” 

“Impossible. You are fools.”

I tuned out their posturing. Knowing Aiden’s tactics erred on the side of extreme antagonism which would escalate by the second, I did not have much time to get the artifacts and get back before someone wanted to rip his face off.

The vault, however, was massive and had not been detailed in the schematics. Rather than light a torch, I created a glowing ball of ether in my palm and threw it at the ceiling. As designed, it stuck and lit the entirety of the room. That had been the first spell I ever learned. Most evokers start there. We used the balls for mock battles. But that is a story for another time. It was simple enough that I did not even stagger. 

The room was polished and somehow immaculate, despite not seeing the light of day for some time. Shelves lined the walls, each filled with nicknacks. Some were dull and lifeless, made of stone or wood. Others had been crafted from gold and other precious metals or stones. Dozens of eclectic objects rested on small pedestals in rows, spaced evenly around the room.

Opening my ether-sight made the room burst into lights. Everything in here was an arrium except the marble pedestals, holding the most potent artifacts. Glancing out toward Asterion, I found the thread binding him here. It led to a massive crystalline object. As I neared, I realized it was shaped like a heart—the organ, not the childhood love symbol. And it was beating.

I picked it up. It thrummed gently in my palm. Though it felt solid as rock, I placed it gently into a cloak pocket and released a breath I had not realized I was holding. I had what we needed to fulfill our obligation to Artemis. I still needed to get out of here without dying, but if we did, we could hand this over and be released from the oath. Somehow, we would then need to free Asterion before that. He was trusting us, and I would not fail to gain his freedom after his years of servitude here. 

That would come later. Now, I just needed to find our main purpose for coming to this gods-cursed city. Unfortunately, I did not know what a Soul Breaker was exactly or what it might look like and had limited time to sort out which one of these treasures it was. 

If Theseus truly had a Soul Breaker, I imagine it would be here on display with the other artifacts of obvious worth and power. For example, the sword at the center looked strikingly similar to Excalibur. And when I picked it up, I felt a sentient voice begin to awaken. Shit. No time or energy to wrestle wills with a powerful entity. I would most likely lose and would rather not have an ancient being control me. Sentient swords typically have one main drive. Spill blood. Opening my bag, I dropped the weapon in. But I didn’t stop there. I grabbed the rest of the artifacts from pedestals and lobbed them all into my dimensional pocket.

Some of these might prove useful in the event we survived long enough to use them. And, if I took everything, I could sort through which one—if any—was the Soul Breaker later. For good measure, I grabbed several items from the shelves and wracks. I stopped when I reached the mirror hanging on the far wall.

The plain silver frame was gilded with a script I could not read. When I looked at my reflection, I saw myself for only an instant. Then, the image morphed into something brighter, more beautiful than I could describe. It was pure ether, laced together in fractals upon fractals. An infinite pattern moving in upon itself. Dark threads laced through the pattern, wyther traces, I realized. 

This was my soul. 

I tore my eyes away, feeling feint. I was breathing hard. I could not make myself look back up at the image. This was it. This had to be the Soul Breaker. Without looking at the mirror, I grabbed the frame and pulled it from the wall. Though most arrium could stand up to some abuse, I could not take the chance with the mirror and just drop it into my bag. 

Instead, I took the painstaking seconds of setting up my pocket dimension so I could walk in. I placed the mirror on my bed and hurried back out. Slinging my pack over my shoulder, I grabbed a few more arrium for good measure from the shelves. 

I would have continued robbing Theseus blind, but outside, voices had raised. Aiden and the general now spoke over one another. Aiden’s voice mocked, while the general’s became increasingly enraged. 

“Enough!” the general shouted. “We have better ways of making criminals talk. Drop your weapon, and I will leave your legs in tact for now.”

And, that’s my cue. 

As I have previously mentioned, Aiden and I have fought minotaurs before. Those had been summoned and controlled by a bonded mage, making them almost bestial in their combat style. Also, most direct spells slide off them, making magic nearly ineffectual. Fortunately, we’d learned ways around that. Hitting them with an object was a nice way around their near-immunity. As it happened, I was obliged to open the fight with such a projectile. Hey, don’t look at me like that. Han Solo shot first, and we all still love him.

“Cruthaigh cloch,” I said, shaping ether. 

I pulled stones from the wall and sent them hurtling into the group of minotaurs faster than any major league pitcher could dream. A fist-sized stone punched the closest minotaur in the face. Her head snapped back with a loud crack. She fell to the ground, eyes staring wide. Cries of alarm and pain erupted from the remaining minotaurs as I pelted them with more rock.

Aiden reacted at once, as did Asterion. They both darted forward. Asterion side-stepped a thrust at his midsection, swatted the side of the sword with his palm and struck his attacker in the throat. Even above the shouts and clamor of armor, I could hear the crunch. As Asterion’s victim fell, he took up the sword and flowered the blade with a flourish of his wrist. 

He waded forward, but the other minotaurs changed tactics. They fought together. One parrying with another striking. The guards pressed Asterion hard. He retreated, dodging and parrying. Four minotaurs pressed him back and away from us.

Aiden sent ether into the floor. Stones rose at precise angles, shaped like swords. The stony edges ripped into the guards, tripping them. The general bellowed and rushed Aiden, side-stepping the swords as they formed at her feet.

I gathered a swath of stone in front of Aiden and ripped upward with a torrent of ether. A wall formed just as Asterion swung his blade. A loud clang resounded, followed by a scream of outrage. Aiden bounded to the left, picking up a spear. He raised it just as the general appeared from behind the wall. 

I felt the strain inside. And I staggered. But I could not stop. The wall would only delay the minotaur. I pulled more stone from the wall behind me with the intention of throwing it at the general, but I froze when the ground beneath me shook. 

The fighting paused. 

“You are not Tifoald,” General Lasterious said. “I should have noticed sooner. Who … no, what are you?”

“We are no one to be trifled with,” Aiden said, in a perfect imitation of Wesley from The Princess Bride. “Step aside, and we will let you live with the Dread Pirate Robert’s kind regards.”

“You will not—”

The castle quaked in a little aftershock. Perhaps tearing at the foundation was not the wisest of decisions. 

“You’ll pull the whole fucking castle down,” Lasterious said, paralleling my thoughts. 

“Would that be bad for you?” Aiden asked. “It won’t be a problem for us.” 

“You are mad,” she said.

“Not at all,” I said. “We are quite fucking serene, I assure you. Is this fight over? Or should it all come to a crashing end?” 

“Stand down,” the general commanded. “Drop your weapons.”

“And everyone get into the vault,” Aiden added. 

“Do it,” the general said.

Only 6 of the guards remained. Three had to all but carry one. The rest lay in broken lumps on the ground, most at Asterion’s feet. The large minotaur was covered is splatters of crimson gore. He’d picked up an axe at some point, in addition to the sword. He eyed the general without emotion as she stepped around him to get inside the vault.

She glared at me as I shut the door on her. “Whoever you are, we will find you. We will bring you back here. And we will make sport of your end. Mark me well, you will—”

I shut the door in her face. 

“Aiden,” I said. “Would you tighten the wall? I don’t have it in me.”

“Sure.” He stepped up beside me, concern in his expression. 

I felt him draw the ether. He pulled stone from the frame and tightened the opening, slowly. Stone groaned at being shifted, but after testing the door, it would not budge. In hindsight, this would have been a better—albeit slightly louder—way of getting into the vault, but instead of tightening the frame, we could have loosened it enough to push the door free. 

Next time, maybe. 

General Lasterious shouted and pounded from the other side. Two of the others joined her. The door held. For now. 

“We probably should have killed them,” Aiden said. 

“No,” Asterion said. “You should always spare life if possible.”

“We can philosophize over all this later,” I said. “We have a deadline. How long has it been?”

Aiden held up the pendant containing the polymorph hairs. The casing was translucent, allowing us to see the remnants of the burning strands.

“An hour,” he said, “at most.”

“Plan A won’t work anyway,” I said, looking at Asterion’s size. “We won’t be able to get through the gate anyway. He won’t fit in any of the uniforms.”

“Sunrise is right around the corner. If we are late, the front gate will be our only choice.”

“And,” I added, “there might be more guards waiting up there.”

“And people might be a little freaked out about the sudden earthquake.” He nodded toward Asterion. “That ever happen here?”

“Never.” 

“Right,” I said. “So, we’ve given the castle a rude awakening. We’ll have to take the back way out of here.”

“There is no back way from the labyrinth,” Asterion said. “I assure you.”

“Not the labyrinth,” I amended. “Out of the compound. We still have to make it through the castle. Then we have a way out.” 

“Theseus will likely be waiting for us,” Asterion said. “He is stronger now than when he bested me, while I have grown weak down here. We cannot defeat him.”

“With any luck,” I said. “We won’t have to.”

I did not feel lucky, but I could not tell him that. I also neglected to mention how fatigued I felt or that I had maybe a few goods spells in me before I fell to exhaustion. Instead, we made our way back through the maze, stopping at the slightest noise. No one came for us. Likely, those creaks were just the castle settling after some asshole decided to up and shift the foundation. We pushed on and stopped at the door. 

It was ajar. 

Infusing my senses with ether, I listened. At first, I heard nothing but our own heartbeats. Mine, Aiden’s, and the minotaur’s in my cloak pocket—yeah, it weirded me out too. 

Then I heard a fourth heartbeat. Distant, somewhere on the other side of the door. Close to the throne if I had to guess. 

Whoever it was, stood there, waiting. 

“Asterion,” a deep voice said. “I know that is you. Come out here. Let us finish what we started all those millennia ago.”

Theseus. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! I turned to see Asterion. His expression had changed. It spoke volumes about Asterion’s mental strength that he wasn’t raving mad after all that time alone. I could only guess at how long that had been, but at least 5 to 10 of my life times. And I’m fucking old. But I saw it now. The craze that Asterion had locked away somewhere in his mind had broken free. Whatever resolve he had possessed to preserve life had vanished, replaced with something beyond anger and rage. Gripping both his weapons tighter, he lowered his head as if aiming those massive horns and took a step forward. 

Maybe I was ten kinds of a fool, but I moved in front of the minotaur, hoping my pleading gaze would stop him. 

It didn’t. 

Asterion shoved me aside as if I was a paper-weight and stepped out to fight the god of this realm, even though the gods-damned minotaur had been the one to say we could not win in a fight against Theseus. But making the bull-headed bastard see reason was not going to work here. 

We were outclassed in every possible way. Theseus had home advantage. This was his realm in the same way that little patch of land was Loki’s. Fighting would not likely end well. On the other hand, if we left Asterion here and took his heart, he would die. Theseus would not even need to lift a finger. 

All this passed through my mind in those first few milliseconds after Asterion stepped out to throw down with Theseus. 

I had another few milliseconds to decide, do we go down swinging with the minotaur or leave his ass in the wind? 

Chapter 22: Stealing into the Castle

To acclimate to our new half-bull bodies, we walked up and down the alley for a half-hour. We only had a few hours until dawn. At that point, we’d need to be long gone for a number of reasons. First, Artemis was expecting us to hit the place at dawn. She would have some nasty, yet-to-be-determined surprise lying in wait for us. Second, the wards would reset. Rather than using that fraction of a second as a window into the compound, dawn would be our escape plan in the event Murphy showed up and laid down his shitty Laws. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the fuel—the minotaur hair—would be fully burnt by dawn, if not sooner.

Time to get a move on. 

I peeked around the alley at the castle. The entry was large enough for Texas-sized lorries—you probably call them semis or eighteen-wheelers—to pass through. The portico was closed, a metal grate with bars, each thicker than my leg blocking entry. Six guards stood out front, staring straight ahead and motionless like the Queen’s Guard in front of Buckingham Palace, only with horns instead of fluffy hats.

Off to the side was a uniformed minotaur all by himself, glaring at any drunken group ambling too close. We’d seen a few other guards patrol by. Saluting appeared to work the same way as it did in every other militarized state I have visited: subordinates saluted superiors first. So far, every patrol passing saluted far faster than the gate guard did. 

Rank was always difficult to determine in any military. Usually, the more flare on a person’s chest suggested higher levels of authority. No such convention existed here. However, every guard’s sleeve was adorned with a golden patch—a kite shield with tiny swords along the top. More swords appeared to mean higher rank.

Aiden and I had transmuted our clothes to match the minotaurs we impersonated, copying the uniforms with as much precision as we could. We each had 6 swords on our patches. The patrols wore emblems with 2 swords, and the gate guard had 3. This had been luck, rather than design.

Sometimes, Loki was kind—not that I would give the bastard any credit to his face.

Hopefully, our 6-sword patches would provide us with access to areas a lesser rank would be denied. Then again, once we hit the castle grounds, someone might ask us to do some act neither Aiden and I would be qualified to perform. We could, with a bit of ether, tap into the reserved ethereal pattern we’d taken from the minotaur to access some memories, but it would burn the hair fragments far more quickly. Plus, memories were not always reliable, and the excess ether would likely be detected. 

Regardless, we were in it now. Worrying would only increase the likelihood one or both of us would fuck up. 

Taking a deep breath, I turned back to the alley.

Aiden carried a definitive swagger to his step. Not the, I’m a badass, sort of walk. More like a, someone punched my face, sort of movement. 

“Are you up for this?” I asked. “Maybe I should go at it alone.” 

“I’m fine. Spirits are starting to kick in. I’m good.”

I was not convinced, but I also needed someone to watch my back. Gods damn dwarves. One swig, and he couldn’t walk straight. I would hate to see what an entire tankard would have done to him, and Aiden’s liver was conditioned to strong drinking. It would have probably killed me. 

“Right. Fine, but you are following my lead. Every step of the way. Understood?”

“Of course,” he said. “Let’s move.”

Before I could object, he strutted past me and into the street, crossing to the front gates of the castle. I could argue with Aiden in front of them, but that would not get us anything but dead faster.

So, I gritted my teeth and followed him to the minotaur, guarding the side gate. Aiden marched toward the door as if it wasn’t closed, face suggesting it better be opened by the time he got there. 

The minotaur jumped to open the wooden door, getting it clear just in time. He let us pass without asking any questions. Though, I noted, his brow raised a fraction. This suggested our actions were not exactly normal, but also not overtly suspicious. Hopefully this meant the guards we were impersonating had gone for the night and though it was rare for them to return, it was not so infrequent that our presence would sound the alarm.

Phew. First hurdle jumped.

We stepped through the doorway without a backward glance, but I kept telling myself you belong here, asshole, while trying to keep the etched-from-stone facial expression expected of a high-ranking minotaur guard.

As we passed through the wall, I felt the wards laced into the wall around us. It was impossible not to note the immense energy holding them in place. Think of the largest animal to ever walk the earth, like T-rex’s bigger sister in Jurassic World. The amount of electricity pulsing through the wall would stop its heart ten times over with a single touch. And that was just the surface defense. Gods. Our timing needed to be perfect when we came through. If we were off by a fraction of a second … 

Nope. Couldn’t think about that right now. If we are undiscovered and everything goes perfectly, we might be able to walk right back out. No. Not ifWhen we got the artifacts, we’d just walk out the main gate, then move on to Phase II of our suicidal plan. 

We exited the passageway into an open courtyard of dark cobblestone winding through a scene that put the Queen’s Garden in England to shame. As far as the eye could see, flowers of every color bloomed in intricate arrays of mythical creatures. A red dragon of broad petaled roses stood on two legs, towering over green cottages formed from hedges. It’s maw was open and chest expanded as if readying to breath fire. Other beings from legend were arrayed around the tiny homes, which were mostly quiet.

Smoke rose from the chimneys, mingling together above the tiny city. The air smelled of burning cinnamon and sage. Most of the windows of the pint-sized cottages were shuddered with large leaves. A few were open, revealing a low glow from within. I could make out shadows moving within but not details of the beings that lived there. 

I walked past it, trying to mimic the guards from Victoria’s Inn. After all, this was common place, not a magical village inside a demigod’s domain. Or was Theseus a god now? It was possible he controlled the Nexus of power in this place rather than just acting as its steward on another god’s behalf. After all, the struggle for power on Earth had been modeled after Atlantis. Only a few civilizations across the entirety of the multiverse had truly moved beyond aggressive competition to a state of humble cooperation. Humanity would likely never achieve such a harmony. Neither would the Atlantians. 

We passed a patrol, who saluted us before we could even see their patches. Aiden and I both slammed our fists to our breasts without slowing our steps. I noted from my periphery the 4 swords on their sleeves. The progression of rank left me wondering how far our guises would take us into the castle.

We marched along the cobbled path to the front gate of the castle. Two guards stood there, both with 4 swords on their golden patches as well. Just as before, we walked at the door with expectations of being admitted. Once more, salutes were exchanged and doors were opened, proving once again that having the right face and an abundance of confidence could get you anywhere.

Even in the low-light, wealthy did not begin to describe the welcoming chamber, as it was called in our schematics. Dark marble columns led to an expansive room with a dais and an empty throne made of a silvery substance far too glittery to be a simple metal. A fist-sized ruby adorned the top of the headrest. I could sense a fountain of ether within.

Openings along the sides led to other areas of the castle, including servants chambers, offices for members of parliament, as well as sleeping quarters for long sessions, and other rooms with a myriad of purposes. There was a gazing room somewhere, designed to peer across space. We cared for none of those.

We moved without pause to the lonely door behind the throne. It was locked, as we had expected. But, according to the schematics Victoria had given us, was not warded.

“You are up,” I whispered.

Still, the sound echoed across the chamber. Likely, the acoustics had been designed to make Theseus’s voice carry across the room to all those in attendance. When empty, that meant a whisper was a booming voice. I clamped my mouth shut. 

In reply, Aiden scowled and made a shooing gesture. I slid aside and let him work. He produced thin pieces of metal with crimped ends and jammed them into the keyhole. It took less than 3 seconds for him to maneuver the lock. 

The click reverberated around the empty room. 

We both froze. I sucked in a breath and held it. My heart drummed against my chest. Footsteps sounded somewhere in the distance. Boots on stone. Two or three people marched alongside one another, moving toward us. I motioned for Aiden to hurry. He pulled the door handle. 

To say rusty hinges squeaked is a drastic understatement. 

Nails on chalkboard make less noise than the door screeching open. If the click had echoed, the door roared like a lion announcing its intentions to claim new territory. 

For a second, we froze. The boots stopped. All was eerily quiet. Then the boots stomped harder. Faster. Aiden and I squeezed through the opening and pushed the door screaming shut. Its closing plunged us into darkness. The dank air smelled stale and moldy. I could almost taste it. Swallowing the rising bile, I fumbled for the knob and fidgeted until the lock clicked into place. If we were lucky, the guards on the other side of that door did not possess a key or the means to open it quickly. 

We stood there, holding our breaths like kids hiding in a closet. 

The handle rattled. A muffled voice said something. A different voice responded. The knob shook again, sending echoes through the hall behind us.

Hurried boots stomped away from the door. 

A soft glow appeared, lighting Aiden’s face. He held his phone up, using the screen to light the area. Nodding toward the darkened corridor, he stepped slowly back from the door. I followed without argument. 

We’d both used ether to burn the schematics into our memory. But now that we were here in the dark, the memories of the way forward were far less of an abstract plan and far more suicidal stupidity. Still, there was no turning back now. Worse, even if those guards did not come in, there was a good chance they would still be waiting out there when we came out, wanting to know why we held a fist-full of stolen goods.

Future Me could worry over that. Present Me had to avoid traps and pitfalls that would kill him. Aiden went right at the first turn. Left would lead to a hidden portal that would send a hapless thief into the center of this world’s sun. No thanks.

Using the light of Aiden’s phone, we kept going. The next turn, we went straight, then left, straight, right, right, left, straight. The temperature dropped, and I realized we were descending down a slope as we continued following the directions. 

I tried not to imagine a team of minotaurs, led by Theseus, blasting down the door and hunting us through the maze. Instead, I focused on recalling the schematics. We still had one more hurdle to cross before we could enter the vault. 

If the schematics were right—and they’d not misled us so far, seeing as how we had not met an unimaginably gruesome death yet—Asterion, the first minotaur, had not been killed. Somehow, he survived here without a heart, living as Theseus’s personal guardian. We had an idea of how to handle him but no notion of whether he would be reasonable or simply a mindless monster who destroyed all trespassers. 

We walked into an open room with low lighting. Torches flickered on the wall to the side. The largest minotaur I’d ever seen sat on a simple stool, legs crossed as he read from a book. He wore nothing, save a loincloth. He made the Hulk look like a man-baby. How he could grow such muscles was beyond me. There was no way he could workout down here. 

He looked up from his book as we entered. We stopped a pace into the room, prepared to fight, but hoping we would not need to. After all, a team of guards were likely descending on us as we stood there gaping like yokels. 

“Hi,” I said, dumbly. Then again, how would you start a conversation with a guy who’d been held prisoner for centuries? No, he’d been here for millennia. 

“Hello, little brothers,” he said in old common—a mix between Old English and Germanic. His deep voice was filled with patient concern. “Why have you come here?”

“We wish to free you,” I told him. 

“You would show me such kindness? One who is not worthy?”

“No one deserves this,” I said, gesturing toward the darkened walls.

“I am an abomination. The progenitor of a race that should never have come to pass. I belong here.”

“Bull shit,” Aiden said then winced. “Pardon the terminology, but no one belongs in a place like this. Come with us.”

“I cannot.”

“You are not an abomination,” I said. “Your existence spawned an entire species. Men, women, and children live, all thanks to you.”

“Children?” he asked. “There are families now?”

“There are,” Aiden said. “They live in the city above you.”

The minotaur’s gaze grew distant, wistful. He looked up at the ceiling as though he might see them if he stared hard enough. All I saw was the team of minotaurs gearing up to kill us. But I did not rush him. I could see the angst in his eyes, on his face. Forcing him into an ultimatum would be a bad—

“But we need to go,” Aiden said. “Soon.”

“I cannot,” he said, voice sad now.

I could punch Aiden’s stupid face. Instead, I took a breath. “Why not?” I said, trying and failing to contain my frustration.

“Even if I wished to leave,” Asterion said. “Theseus has removed my heart and bound my life to this place. If I step from the labyrinth, I will die.” 

Fuck.

“Are you certain?” Aiden asked.

“Quite. Or did you believe that tiny metal door a real barrier to my escape?”

“Liamc could you—” 

“Way ahead of you.”

As I said before, I am a master in Thaumaturgy. If a ritual bound Asterion here, I could find it, maybe break or alter it so he could leave.

I opened my mind and sight using ether and looked around. There was no signature or imprint in the place suggesting a binding. Not until I looked at Asterion. A thread of energy protruded from him. The string of pulsing light led to a wall. No. Not a wall. That was the vault, covered and dust and unopened for some time.

“You are bound to something inside there,” I said, pointing. 

Then realization dawned on me. The heart. It had to be the heart. All this time, the minotaur could have simply walked out of here by taking his heart with him. And gods damn it all, I am certain Artemis had known all along. For some reason, she wanted Asterion. I could do shit all about that now. After all, in for a penny, in for a pound. 

“I warn you,” Asterion said. “If this is a trick to—”

Sounds of marching boots echoed from the maze. 

“No trick,” I said. “And we are out of time. I know how to save you, but you’ll have to trust me. Will you come with us?”

I offered him my hand. He stared at it. Boots marched closer. I held my breath.

Chapter 21: Totally Plucked

Starbucks in Atlantis is open 24 hours. It was almost enough to make me want to stay. Too bad I’ll never be able to return here after all this is done. Even if we were successful and did not get caught, simple paranoia would never allow me to come back here. I do not wish to live in fear, always looking over my shoulder. Makes me feel a bit of empathy for bonded mages on Earth, hiding from the Collective.

Even now, sitting here at our corner table, I could not help but feel as though we were being watched by the group of minotaurs standing at the back of the queue. After all, they were a mistrustful sort, and in this case, they had a right to be suspicious. We were, after all, trying to steal some of their hair so we could use it to take their identities and burgle their ruler. 

Three of them stood there, not looking at each other or scanning the room. Their big cow-eyes just stared at the giant menu behind the bar. 

“You are up,” Aiden said. “You need some coins?”

“Nah. I’ll get this round. It’s definitely my turn. You got all the beers.”

We both spoke just loudly enough that anyone paying us attention could hear. We’d been sitting here staring at the menu for half an hour or so, trying to pass off as tourists going to a Starbucks for the first time. I hurried to the queue, cutting in front of the couple who’d entered, moving just fast enough not to be rude as I cut them off. I turned and gave them an apologetic smile, as if my getting their first was an accident. The male kobold stared at me, lips pulling back from his teeth revealed his sharp canines. Was that a smile? Or was he growling? 

Damn it. Now I’d have the worry of being seen. I turned back to my task. This required a delicate touch. Staring at the minotaur’s back, I could see several hairs across the shoulders of his uniform. I cupped my hand at my belly and focused my will.

I channeled the barest amount of ether. Just that moment, the queue moved. The minotaur stepped up. And I missed the hairs. I bit down a curse. Shuffling forward, I steadied my breath and tried again. I grasped the hairs on thin strands of air and pulled them to my palm. I’d gotten three of the hairs. They were short and brown. There was an unstoppered vial in my cloak pocket. Rather than try to needle them into it with my fat fingers, I used ether to place them in and cork it. 

If I felt eyes on me before, I was beside myself now. But rather than glance about, I continued staring forward until the line moved again. Then I turned my head to the right and stared at the abstract painting as though I was interested, using the opportunity to observe the room from my periphery. No one appeared to be looking at me. Except the kobolds behind me. Their expressions of malcontent had not changed. 

The queue moved again. The minotaurs were next to order, and I still needed one more sample. Though I had enough strands to turn us, twin minotaurs would likely stand out. And what if we needed more time? One strand would burn out in an hour or so.

The barista was not looking directly at me, but if she was sensitive to ether, she might see me. I shifted my weight to the other leg, leaning enough to put the minotaur between myself and her. Then I used a thin strand of ether to grab reddish hairs from the other minotaur. One had been attached. The minotaur flinched and slapped at his neck. I held my breath as he half-turned toward me. 

I mean, on Earth, plucking hairs from someone likely would not even be a crime. However, here, everyone understood the significance of an ethereal pattern (such as that laced into DNA). Plucking a few hairs from someone took on an entirely new intent when those strands could be used to place a curse on a living person or to bind them to a cause. Or, as we intended, used to replicate that person and wear their body like a mask.

If the minotaur saw the hairs on my palm, he didn’t say anything. Instead, he frowned then turned back to the barista, placing his order. 

And I breathed again, pocketing the hairs as I had the others. 

Just as I stoppered the second vial, I felt heat on my ear as a gruff voice whispered, “What do you plan to do with those hairs, poppet?”

Shit.

I turned to see the male kobold staring at me. He was no longer glaring. His short dog-like snout could only be called smug, like fido having bested the cat and stolen all the treats. The female kobold gave the same expression. 

“Don’t know what you mean?” I said in even a lower whisper than his. 

“Perhaps we should ask them?” he nodded toward the minotaurs as they moved toward the end of the bar. The red-haired one was looking at us, quizzically. 

“Next,” the barista said.

I was more than happy to jump up to the register. “Venti Soy Latte and Venti Mocha, please.” 

“Earth milk on that mocha?” she asked.

“Yes, please.” 

“That comes to 3 gold, 8 silver.”

Jesus. Should have let Aiden pay the tab. I fished out 4 gold coins—worth about $2000 or €1700 an ounce—and handed them over. She gave a gold coin back to me. In Atlantis, 1 gold = 100 silver pieces. I knew the right thing to do was to drop that in her tip jar. I did. But it hurt. Essentially, I just bought her a used car or a plane ticket to damn-near anywhere on Earth. 

“Thanks,” she said with a smile. 

As I moved away, the male kobold shadowed me, while his companion stepped up to order. He stood inside my personal bubble, that understood invisible space that belongs to just me and follows me everywhere I go. He smelled like wet fur. 

I tried not to glance at the minotaurs who had taken a table near Aiden, but I must have failed because the kobold nodded toward them. He no longer whispered as he said in a proper Cockney accent. “Suppose they’ll want to know why you took their ethereal pattern. Unless I have a few good reasons not to. I’m not a difficult bloke, philosophizing over the stars, and who should fuck who. I find gold to be a proper motivator for most things in life.”

Fuck Loki, but this asshole was shaking me down. And in Starbucks of all places. Of all the low-down rotten things a person could do. 

“Ethereal pattern? What do you mean?”

He held up his hand. And like a magician’s trick, flicked his wrist and had my two vials. “I mean this. I’m supposing, you want them back.”

Mouth hanging open like a dullard, I locked eyes with the kobold. They were coal black. He wore a medieval tunic with the top several buttons open, showing off his thick fur. The color was a mix between a German Shepard and a Golden Retriever. It was cut close everywhere except atop his head, where it was styled long and floppy, like a Californian surfer. 

He flipped his hair back, as though I’d been admiring his dashing good looks. “So what’ll it be? We doing business, or should I go have a chat with the cows. See what they’re guards of?”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck!

The barista put my drinks on the bar. Grabbing the coffees, I smiled as if all was fine. “Thank you so much.”

She didn’t even glance my way as she moved back to her machine to make more drinks. Meanwhile, the kobold was still inside my bubble.

“Well, poppet? What’s it gonna be?” 

I could probably get my vials back with the ether. It would not be subtle. It would likely be loud and messy. So, I found myself saying. “We might be able to make an accord. Would you and your companion care to share a table with my partner and I?” I gestured toward Aiden, who could have set me to fire with his look of irritation. 

“Me,” he said, smugly. 

When I gave him a quizzical look he said, “At the end of the sentence, it’s ‘my partner and me’, savvy?”

“No. I’m pretty certain it’s I.”

“Sound it out.”

“Sound what out?” I said, not hiding my mounting agitation.

“Say it again, sans ‘my partner’ and see how it sounds.”

Grinding my teeth together, I said, “Would you and your companion care to share a table with … with I?” He was right. It sounded dumb to end the sentence without ‘my partner.’ 

“See,” he said, “I was right.” 

“What are you, the gods damn grammar police?”

“Don’t be sour, poppet? I was taught your language by the best tutors in Atlantis.” 

What the actual fuck was going on with this night? “Are you shaking me down or prepping for the SAT?” 

“I miss your meaning. The sat?” 

“Ask your tutor. We doing this?”

He held up a gnarled finger with a long nail at the end. “One second while I converse with my mate.”

The female kobold came over as if cued. Apparently, she did not speak Earthling English. She said something in the barking language of the kobolds. He barked back, finishing with a shit-eating grin, tongue lulling out the side of his mouth. She returned the expression. I did not need a translation to know, they were going to swindle us hard. 

“We are prepared to discuss terms with you.” He gestured toward Aiden. “After you. I insist.” 

I stomped over to Aiden and said in Gaelic. “They saw. They have the vials of hair.”

“They what?”

“Enough of that gibberish,” he said and then in the next breath spoke kobold to his partner. He sat at the table next to ours. She stood behind him, lounging on his shoulder.

“My name is Arkath. You might call me an entrepreneur of sorts. Mostly I move this and that in Shadow Streets. I also deal in information. Luck has always been my lady.” He nodded toward the woman massaging his neck. “But don’t tell her that, savvy?” 

Whoever had taught this kobold our language had seen Pirates of the Caribbean one too many times. 

“What do you want?” I demanded.

“Easy. I’ll take 500 gold or 100 gold and the name of your target.”

“Target?” Aiden asked with a believable amount of incredulity. “I’m not sure what you think is going on here, but my lover here and I like to play dress up. Wanted to see what it’s like to have bull slongs for a night.”

Arkath barked a laugh. It was a high-pitched yippie bark. And just when I thought I could not hate him more. “That is rich. I like this one. Sense of humor, he has.” He gave another yipping chuckle. “But I know my business. You are going to pose as guards and try to hit someone. But those are the wrong guards. Work for the Baron. Everyone does.” He winked. “Even the thieves.” 

We had, point of fact, waited for those guards to come in and chose them for their silver and black uniforms, known to everyone as those who worked for Theseus. That bit about the thieves was interesting though. 

“Are you saying Theseus employs brigands?” 

“I’m not saying that at all. Hypothetically, if thieves were fool enough to show up in Atlantis Proper, they’d seek employment through the proper channels. And they’d get their jobs from the Baron.” 

“Wait,” Aiden said. “Theseus is a viscount, not a baron.” 

“That he is. And the price is gone up. You tell me your job and give the 500. Or I take these vials over to the bulls, there. Do we have an accord?”

“Or,” Aiden said, holding up a vial with golden-brown hair. “I use this to curse you both. Maybe I’ll just make you impotent. Oh wait. I’ll turn you into an impotent goblin. No, I know just the thing. I will turn you into a female goblin.”

I hadn’t even felt the stirring of ether, but by the end of Aiden’s speech, the shock had faded. The notion of cursing someone—altering their ethereal pattern—was repulsive. Still, I gave the kobold a wicked smile. 

The smugness slipped from the kobold’s face but only for a heartbeat. Probably less. “So he’s a player in this great game after all. Welcome to the table. Now, we can make a proper deal.”

“There is no deal. And I grow weary of this. Give us the vials. Now.” Aiden left no room for negotiation to his tone. He glowered at the kobold for several seconds. Arkath glared back. 

The kobold female barked something. Arkath barked at her, clearly annoyed from being interrupted. Finally, he placed the vials on the table and slid them across to me. 

“Now, give us ours,” he demanded.

Aiden slid them into a cloak pocket. “I’ll burn them just before we leave Atlantis. If guards or anyone else show up to nab us, I’ll assume the worst and throw the curse with my last defiant act.” Aiden gave the kobolds his best shit-eating grin and asked in a cheery voice, “Do we have an accord?”

They both gave us puppy eyes, which—contrary to popular belief, denoted fear in dogs, not love—was worse than a growl or more snark. 

“We understand,” he said at last. “We’ll never speak of you.”

“Run along, then,” Aiden said. “Find a different hydrant to piss on. This one’s ours.”

He stood abruptly, buttoned his cloak closed as he stood tall. Nodding, he said, “Gentlemen,” then turned and strode from Starbucks. His companion picked up their coffees and trailed after him. 

“Well, done,” I said. “Wasn’t sure how to get out of that one.”

“That’s because there is only one functioning brain between us, and two-thirds of it is with me.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Only two-thirds?”

“I must be a bit short of a full deck. After all, I’m here with you.”

“Fair. Can we get on with it then?” 

“Aye.”

We downed our coffee, then left. It was not difficult to find Theseus’s castle. After all, it was the tallest structure in all of Athens. On Lord’s Way, one need but to look south and see the enormous structure towering like a tale from some fantasy book. It was a city of its own. Without schematics, there would be no way to know the vault was beneath the structure, at the middle of a labyrinth. We made our way down the street, which even at this hour was not empty of inhabitants. 

People swayed drunkenly, barely noticing us. Some human-like groups and several furry mobs went around. 

“Holy shit,” Aiden said.

I followed his gaze to a pair of blocky men with beards long enough to braid. They were half-as-thick as they were tall. One wore a suit of full plate mail with a double-bladed moon-head axe strapped to his back. The other wore hardened leather with two slender swords, one over each shoulder. He was slightly smaller than the axe-wielder. They carried actual tankards and sang in a thick language that reminded me of German. 

They slowed as they neared us, looking at us as oddly as we examined them. Up close, they were at least two feet shorter than us with fists the size of my face. The larger one said something. The other one made a humping motion in the air and laughed at us. 

Then Aiden said something in their language. Their joyful expressions vanished, replaced with utter confusion. They looked at Aiden as if he was a chimp at the zoo who had stopped flinging feces and then spoke. 

A second later, they laughed. Aiden laughed. They spoke more quickly, and the laughs continued. The stocky men patted Aiden roughly on the back, speaking insistently. One shoved the tankard at him. I cringed as he took the silvery cup and took a long pull. He gave his head a little shake and made a grunting noise, passing the drink back. 

The two strange men cheered, hooting. The conversation went on for a few more minutes, until finally the drunken pair stumbled on, cat-calling toward Aiden as they left, laughing all the while.

“The fuck?” I asked.

“Dwarves,” Aiden said, a bit of a slur in his voice. “Best partiers in any universe.”

“Do you think now is the time for a drink? Really?”

“I’ve never done a job sober. It was just what I needed. Nothing like Dwarven Spirits to get the blood pumping.”

“You are unbelievable,” I admonished.

“Don’t look at me like that. They invited us to a party. It would have been one for the ages, and I turned them down.”

“Well golly gee. Thanks for not getting completely hammered before taking the biggest risk of both of our lives.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said without a hint of sarcasm. As he walked ahead of me, I noticed a familiar stumbling stagger to his gait.

I caught up, trying not to seethe and curse. But I failed at both. Aiden’s soft chuckle did not improve my mood. 

“What was in that drink anyway?” I asked, once my blood cooled from boiling to simmering.

“Heaven,” Aiden said. “Have you heard of Absinth?”

“From France, right? Causes hallucinations?” 

“Only the first time,” Aiden said. “But yeah. It’s like Kool-aid compared to Dwarven Spirits. One hit and I’ll be pleasantly buzzed for the rest of the night.”

“You might want to consider getting into a 12-step program or something.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Forget about it,” I said, moving into an alley. We were a few blocks from the castle. 

I placed my dimensional pocket behind a trash bin and opened it. Once inside, I sealed it. Anyone picking up the bag would see an empty container. We went into my room sectioned off for Thaumaturgy and got to work.

The ritual was fairly straight-forward. We would have to blend our blood with the ethereal pattern of the minotaur. The tricky part would be hiding the ether-burn pattern. Tiny bits of wyther would follow our path. Only highly-skilled mages could sense the trail, but we did not want to take any chances. We would set up a talisman to burn that energy into a layer of protection, making the excess energy far more difficult to see. 

I went first. 

We made the Thaumaturgy circle, and I stood in the center. I placed the minotaur’s hair into a small locket—an arrium designed just for this—and focused my will. I always started with my head for something like this. It hurt the most, so I wanted to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

All the bones in my head cracked as my skull grew. Agony lanced through my neck and back, as my spine compressed and stretched. Every ounce of my will and focus remained on the transformation. I dumped ether into the circle, fueling the power of the ritual. Muscle expanded. Joints elongated. When it was done, I rested on one knee, breathing hard.

I looked up at Aiden. My vision was different, broader. I could see more in my periphery. I stood, moving out of the circle. My body was thick, awkward to move. We’d need some practice before going through the gates. 

“How does it feel?”

“Very weird,” I said. “Your turn.”

“Cool,” Aiden replied. “Moo-ve over.”

“No. Just. Stop.”

“Sure,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. “Won’t udder another word.”

Yep. He didn’t need to worry about the mission. I was going to kill him.

Chapter 20: Change of Plans

It had to be a dream. 

Victoria’s hair was down, crimped and bed-worn. Her face was clean of cosmetics. She looked down at me, an expression of doubt and uncertainty in her eyes. Her grip on my bare shoulder was tender. I’d gone to bed clothed, but I must have lost my shirt sometime in the night. She moved her thumb over my skin in a familiar way. The only light emanated from a pendant she wore, making her face the only thing I could see.

She held a finger to her lips for me to stay quiet and spoke softly. “Artemis is focused elsewhere, so we do not have much time.”

“Time?” I said, still not certain this wasn’t a dream. “Focused elsewhere? Wait. How did you get past our wards?”

“You use the same ones we learned at the academy. It was very easy. But that is not your biggest concern. Or mine. Tomorrow, I am going to betray you.” 

“What the fu—”

I sat up, but she pushed me back on the bed, holding me in place with a hand on my chest. “Just listen. You were right. Most of the time, Artemis is intruding in my thoughts. She controls me almost completely but in subtle ways. Her suggestions are compulsions, like an itch I need to scratch. If I choose not to, she can hurt me or, as you saw today, take over. I want free of her. There is a way for you to defeat her.”

“How can I trust a word you say?”

“I did not have to come here. You’ll understand more tomorrow, but I needed to warn you. Will you hear me out?”

I could feel the heat of her palm on my chest. “Yes.”

“After Artemis gets both artifacts, she—rather I—will set you up to be caught by Theseus and take Aiden to Abigail.”

“We expected some form of treachery,” I admitted. “Aiden and I might not be the strongest mages around, but you cannot possibly hope to defeat us both. We have a few tricks of our own.” I would not tell her about Loki, but he would have a vested interest at this point. If he doesn’t get us back to Earth, he’s thoroughly fucked. Aiden and I would receive a portion of his power. He will not let that happen.

“Artemis knows about Loki,” Victoria said. “She has a way to neutralize him.”

Fuck. I kept a straight face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“There’s no time for that. She knows. He will not be of any help to you.”

“She would implicate herself. We have the document.” 

“Pixies swapped the document out after making the oath. You have a very close copy. When Theseus takes you, there will be no evidence of Artemis ever being involved.” 

That posed a problem. “Still, she signed the oath. If she breaks it, she’s fucked.”

“My blood. My consequences for the failures. Artemis plans to sacrifice me to the oath.”

“But it’s her name on the document. She was there making the pledge.”

“With my body. My voice. Aiden is a fantastic lawyer both in metaphysics and in mortal logic. However, he could never have anticipated the nature of the bond. True, if we are still bonded when I betray you, Artemis would be bound to the document and suffer the consequences. That is why she will sever our bond after she compels me to burn you. I will not be able to stop it. When it’s done, she will be shielded from any backlash. Rather than let you return to Earth, she will sever our bond and sacrifice me for her gain.” 

I could only stare at her. It all made sense now. Artemis’s smugness. It was all misdirection. We always assumed she would try to rob us of our free will. But those are our greatest fears. Artemis just needed us out of the way. We were cogs. No, worse. We were bots, carrying out our programming, and she was the designer. And gods, Victoria would suffer just as badly as we would. Maybe worse.

Meeting her gaze, I saw the fear and hope. She nodded, giving silent acknowledgment of my realization. 

“You see it now?” she said, more statement than question.

“You’ll lose your power. It will break your mind. You could die.”

“And you will be killed as sport in Theseus’s arena. He might compel you to kill me or simply torture you as a spectacle. Artemis gets her second nexus, so do two other gods.”

“Which two?”

“I do not know. Abigail does though. She’s been planning with Artemis, maneuvering for this moment for about 102 years. Your coming here is not by chance. She compelled you in very subtle ways. You and Aiden both. That’s their style. That is what the Gatekeeper sensed. Look for it. You’ll see what I am saying is true.” 

I did not doubt her. “But how?”

“Your TA. Skyler. She’s one of Artemis’s Nymphs. Every time she touched you, tapped your hand or brushed your arm. It wasn’t flirtation. She was laying compulsion patterns.” 

Yep, I’m a fucking idiot. “I never felt a thing.”

“She is quite good. You never had a chance. But you do now. If you make it back to Earth, you’ll find Abigail still in Tallahassee. Once they have their minotaur thralls, they will mount an assault on the Bermuda nexus by taking the lay line. It is in a place they call the gardens. It’s fairly isolated and not overly used. Do you know it?”

“Maclay Gardens. Aye. When?”

“Just after the plague reaches Miami. It will lock down conventional travel for a time.”

“Can you be more specific? What plague?”

“Right now, they are releasing a virus in China. Around the middle of March, the disease will reach Florida. This is a large part of her plan.”

I snorted. “That’s still six months away. That’s plenty of t—”

“No. That’s partly why she had me bring you here. You lost two and half earth-months going through the Antarctic portal. And then every day passing here is just under a month on Earth.”

I started racking my brain to determine exactly how long it’d been. “So, that’s about three and a half months. But, we’ll need through the end of today. Four and half months. It’s already December?”

“Yes. And going back through the Antarctic gate will cost another two and half months.” 

“So, it’ll be February? If we are lucky.”

“Don’t count on being lucky.” 

Could I have been so wrong about the timing? What about El Nina? More misdirection? It didn’t matter at the moment. I shook my head. “I can’t believe I didn’t feel that compulsion. Even now, I want to see Skyler and can’t be upset with her. I can smell her fucking hair.”

“She is a Nymph.” Victoria gave me a sympathetic half-smile. “You cannot second-guess yourself. Especially, not now. You did not look for a compulsion pattern because you were compelled to ignore it.” 

She was right. I could massage my bruised ego later. “Thank you. For coming to me. It was risky.”

“Aye. But necessary. I should get back.”

As she started to go, I grabbed her arm. “Wait. Is that it? I mean, how will you betray me?”

“Artemis hasn’t told me the details yet, but I imagine, she will be controlling my body at the time. She knows I plan to resist. Which is why I do not know more.” 

“And you are certain she cannot see us right now?”

“Yes. She is with the other gods. That’s the only time she cuts me off. The bond goes both ways. When she experiences strong emotions, I get glimpses of what she can sense. Rather than let me see her plans, she mutes the link.”

“What about Abigail? Is she cut off too?”

“She is becoming a demigod. When they take a second nexus, Artemis is gifting her with the control of it. In her name, of course. She is at the meeting, as well as the others who will become demigods.” Firmly but gently, she pulled her arm free. “I must go before they finish their gathering.” 

“Why? Artemis will likely access your memories and see that you spoke to me. Right?”

“She will, but all she’ll find is a blank spot, as she does when I’m sleeping. I set a temporal mind fog to wipe away the last hour. Artemis will not know I was here. But I won’t remember any of this, just the desire to come to you in this way. Neither myself nor Artemis will know if I actually came.”

Despite it all, I smiled. “You were always so gods damned brilliant. And I love you. Always have, always will.”

Her eyes glistened. She gave me the same sad nod she gave at dinner. It was an expression of loss and hope. Her hand moved to my cheek. We sat like that for a time, exploring one another’s souls. I wanted desperately to kiss her, but I could not make myself move. I saw the same desire in her. 

“And I you,” she said, at last. “But I must go. If you save us, we can finish this conversation.”

She removed her hand and backed away before I could object. “Reset your wards. Good luck tomorrow.”

And just like that, she was gone. I sat there, feeling the faint trace of heat on my face from where she’d touched me. My heart raced. My palms were sweaty.

I got out of bed and followed after her. The balcony was ajar, but there was no trace of her. Our wards were still up, except, the energy parted like a curtain where Victoria had come through. Closing the door, I reinforced our defenses with a mind trap. If someone managed to bypass the destructive barriers, they would find a subtle web designed to ensnare their thoughts waiting just inside the outer ward. 

Aiden was asleep on the sofa, holding the schematics loosely in his hands. Stubborn bastard. Deciding it best to let him sleep, I went back into my dimensional pocket, gathered fresh clothes, all warded with defensive spells, as well as my attuning cloak. It was an arrium designed to magnify the effect of an invocation. If our heist devolved to a battle, we’d likely die horribly. But maybe, just maybe, being armed to the teeth would give us a chance to escape. 

I showered and changed, then returned to the sofa. Aiden’s mouth was hanging open with a bit of drool falling from the corner of his mouth. I was tempted to leave him be, but I glanced to the clock. It was 00:07 hour (that’s 12:07 a.m. for you nutters who use a duodecimal—base 12—time model). 

I gave him a gentle shake and stepped way back. He woke up swinging. And cursing. The fog left his eyes, and he focused on me. Readying a snarl, he opened his mouth but stopped. His forehead scrunched up. 

“What’s happened?” he asked.

So I told him, leaving out nothing. The moment I finished he took hold of my head, in both hands. I felt ether and a moment later, wyther. He began cursing. This went on for several minutes. 

“Hmm?” Aiden said.

“What?”

“Tell me about Victoria again.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Anything. Just talk.”

I did as he asked, focusing mostly on my conversation with Victoria tonight. My thoughts drifted to what might happen if I was able to get us out of this mess. How could I return her to good standing with the Collective? 

Then, without warning, I felt a flash of pain, quickly followed be a release of pressure I had not known was there.

“Ow,” I complained. 

“I’m not done. Stop moving. And that cunt Skyler. I knew I hated her for a good reason. Tell me about her.”

“Not much to tell,” I said. Then I told him about how I’d met her. Then the party. “She seemed so innocent and—Fuck!”

Searing pain lanced through my head. My vision waned. Slapping pain stung my cheek. I opened my eyes and glared at Aiden. 

“She was telling the truth,” Aiden said. “It was wyther. Very subtle. Fucking god balls. You betrayed us. All this time. It was you.” 

“We should have checked.”

“I did. When you were sleeping. I missed it. The Nymph who did this is very talented. She laced the neurons around your prefrontal cortex with a compulsory suppression spell. Any time you considered the consequences of your actions regarding Victoria, the spell would activate. At least, that’s what I think it did. But it’s gone now. The second one made you disregard Skyler as a threat. In time, you would have become her thrall.”

I felt a burst of ether, and sensed him add another layer to our wards. 

“That’s not necessary,” I said. “There’s no reason—” 

“The hell it’s not,” he spat. “I’m not taking any chances the harlot won’t come back.”

“No. You were right before. We need—”

“Wait. Wait. Wait. Go back. What was that about me being right? I was right about so many things, you’ll need to elaborate. Which part are you referring to? Coming here being suicide? You being a sucker for a skirt? Rather, all the skirts? Or about moving at dawn?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “I made many mistakes. But you are right about going in sooner, rather than later. But we need to move before dawn. We need to go now.”

“Can’t. Their wards are far superior than ours and backed by arrium.” 

“I have a plan for that.”

“I’m listening,” he said. 

“You are not going to like it.” 

“Expectations managed. Check. What’s the fucking plan?”

“We have to get ahead of Artemis, right? We both agree going when she expects us to is a bad idea.”

“Aye,” he said, voice clipped with impatience. “But I’m not seeing an argument for a better plan.”

“There is a shift change at 01:00 hours,” I said. “We are going to capture two minotaurs before they enter the castle grounds and replace them.” 

“You’re right. I don’t like it. We have to wait ‘til dawn.”

“Artemis knows that is the best play. If we want to get ahead of her, we cannot wait.” 

“It isn’t the best play. It’s the only play. Even if we could nab two minotaurs without being noticed, we still would need to impersonate them. Polymorph isn’t perfect. There will be differences.”

“Aye, but we know their schedules and routines. Once inside, we can make our way to the vault.”

“But not their names or interests, who fucks who or any gossip. The first conversation we attempt will blow our cover.”

“Have you met a minotaur?” I asked. “What about their behavior leads you to believe they are a bunch of chatter boxes?”

“Fine. They probably won’t notice us once we are inside. But we cannot just nick a pair of guards.” I started to speak but he held a hand up. “But I don’t think that is necessary. I’m not saying I agree with this insane plan. But hypothetically, all we need to polymorph is the hair of a minotaur. Any minotaur. Than we can use a glamour to change our appearance to match one of the castle guards. Less messy that way.”

I nodded. And even though I already knew the answer, I asked. “But where are we going to get the hair of a minotaur?”

“The same place they serve the nectar of the gods.”

“Starbucks,” I said with a smile.

“Exactly. We saw a disproportionate number of minotaurs, mostly those in guard uniforms earlier. It won’t be difficult to pluck a few hairs. And we both need coffee.”

“No abduction necessary, but we still move now,” I said, thinking it over. “Yeah. Okay. That works. We do it your way.”

“You sure? I mean. We could do it your way still and die more quickly.”

“I’m agreeing with you, asshat. Are you really still arguing with me?” 

“This was hypothetical, remember? Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing here. You knew polymorph would be more logical than attempting to abduct a pair of ether-immune cow-men. But you wanted me to argue so that I’d think the idea was mine. So who’s the asshat?”

“I’m sorry,” Liam said. “You’re right. But this is the best play.”

“You are sorry. But, you’re also not wrong. Come on. Let’s get some coffee.”

Chapter 19: Art of the Con

Though Aiden had protested, we’d accepted Victoria’s invitation to dine with her in the villa’s swanky restaurant. Aiden had come mostly to keep me from being alone with Victoria. Not that I could blame him. Despite my best efforts, I did not seem capable of logic and reason as far as she was concerned. 

We sat at a round table with a white cloth of silky substance. We were on the fourth and main course of the meal. It smelled like heaven, but the meat was orange and tasted like like a sweet curry with light spices. The ciracorn was red corn. It tasted like yellow corn with a bitter aftertaste. 

Ours was the only table on a balcony overlooking the ocean. Aiden was next to me, while Victoria sat across from us. None of us had spoken much sense the oaths were made. 

Aiden glowered at everything. Victoria looked everywhere except at me. And I could not find any words. I know, shocker. I loathe silence and would rather fill the air with syllables, whether they made sense or not.

I know I should be mad at her for what she’d done to us, for what she’d done to me. But I could not help but to feel pity for her. She tried to play it cool after being possessed by Artemis to do the goddess’s biding, but I could tell the experience had rattled her. She mostly pecked at the food, which was not like her at all. One of the things I loved about her was her voracious appetite for everything, food, learning, adventuring. Everything. Instead of enjoying the exotic meal, she cut off delicate bites and chewed slowly. I had only ever seen her like this when she was scared or nervous. 

Putting aside for a moment the possibility that this was all an elaborate ruse to keep me off-guard, she appeared real in a way she had not been since before. 

This gave me hope that part of her was truly in control. Unless Artemis decided to take over directly, I was more confident Vic could make her own choices. Perhaps she would influence Victoria in other ways, but some of my Vic was still in there. That did not mean I could trust her, by any stretch of the imagination. But it also meant there was some hope that if we could break the bond, Vic would come back to the Collective. And me.

“What is an arcanine, anyway?” Aiden asked forking the tender steak.

“A dog-like species,” Victoria said, “of vicious predators which roam the wilds of Atlantis. They hunt fairies and pixies to feed on their innate magic but also have been known to attack other races for their arcane talents. All attempts of domestication have failed, so they are killed in the wild and served as a delicacy to people with more money than sense.” 

“Not bad,” Aiden said, cutting a second bite. 

“How do you feel?” I asked Victoria. 

“What do you mean?” She asked, a fake smile making its way to her lips. “I’m fine.”

Aiden snorted. “Yeah, I’d be just fine after a god stuck it’s hand up my ass an played me like a puppet too.”

In fact, he’d not been fine after Loki had done just that. I gave Aiden my best scowl. And I said in a gentler tone. “We saw. She took you. And it was obvious when she’d left.”

“As is her right,” she said. “I am her Nymph. Her eyes and ears away from her domain.” 

“That was the first time,” I guessed.

She flicked her head as if to flip her hair, but it was up in a bun. Her old tell. She gave it just before deflecting or in cards, bluffing. “It is the price of the Bond.”

I studied her face, which was blank of emotions. At least she’d dropped the façade. I asked, “Do you not want free of it?” 

“I know what you would say, but save it. You will never be able to use the Soul Breaker on me.” Her eyes became sad. “You are so far in over your head, you can’t see the surface of the waters thrashing above you. Nothing you are planning is going to work the way you’ve planned. Soon, you’ll lose your freedom as well.” 

“Won’t happen,” I said.

“It already has. You just haven’t realized it yet. The gods have been playing this game since the dawn of man. We cannot beat them.”

Aiden pushed his plate forward and threw the cloth napkin on top. He stood. “On that cheery note, we have work to do.” 

I sat, staring at Victoria, who still would not meet my gaze. “You said we.”

She looked up. As our eyes met, my heart fluttered. I could see hope in her eyes. Only for a second, but it had been there. She quickly masked the emotion and said. “Just a figure of speech.”

“I might not be able to beat you at chess, but you can’t beat me at cards. I know you. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. You want out. I knew it.”

“You should go.”

I pushed my chair back from the table. “Aye. Thank you for the meal.”

“Any time,” she said, rising. “Good luck, tomorrow.”

Aiden drew ether and flew off the balcony toward the surf, somehow putting an impatient flourish to his flight. I followed but turned back. Victoria hadn’t moved. She stood, watching me. I paused.

“I need to know something,” I said. “Where have you been this past year?” 

She shook her head. “I cannot tell you.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Does it matter?”

“The other day,” I pressed, “you asked me to join you, saying you were free. But for someone still free, you sure seem to have little control over what happens to you. Or to the people you supposedly care about.”

She closed her eyes. “Please, go.”

“I will. But I need you to know. I forgive you, Victoria. For all of it.”

A tear rolled down her cheek. I wanted to go to her. Hold her. Tell her it would all be all right. But Vic would hate that. She hated people seeing her cry. That tear had cost her. 

Pretending not to see it I said, “I will see you, soon.”

Without another word, I turned and flew after Aiden. We returned to our inn without speaking. Though I could not sense any magic scrying us, I felt eyes upon us. We’d left our balcony unlocked in our suite, so we could return without going through the main lobby. Aiden had tied a red scarf around the doorknob to make it easier to find. 

Once inside, I closed the door and we both constructed wards to prevent scrying and eavesdropping. 

“Gods damn it, Liam,” Aiden said the second the wards closed around us. “She’s playing you. Can’t you see that?”

“She’s not. I know she’s not.” 

“For all you know, that entire act at dinner was Artemis.”

“Why would she do that? We’ve already made the oaths. What else would she have to gain?”

“That is the real question isn’t it? And why do the gods do anything? They are bored from thousands of years of existence, so they fuck with the mortals because what else have they got to do? This isn’t going to end well, you know that, right?”

“If you truly believe that, then why the fuck are we here?” 

“For you, you idiot. I’m here for you. Had I not come, you would have found your way here on your own. And what a mess it would have been. You’d probably already be bonded to Artemis.”

“So you’re my babysitter now? Is that it?”

“Yes, gods damn it. When it comes to her, I am. Just stop for a second. Remember how I was after losing Abigail? You pulled me back from the brink. Let me fucking do the same for you.”

I bit my tongue. I had only half-heard what he’d said over my own anger and frustration. It took a few seconds of listening to my racing heart for his words to register. Gods damn it. He wasn’t wrong. 

“This is getting nowhere,” I said at last. “We need to focus.”

Aiden gave a frustrated sound, somewhere between exasperation and disgust. He grabbed the folder from an inner pocket and dropped it on the bar.

We poured ourselves another drink, and then we made our plans. Both of us worked better with a bit of anger and pressure. Don’t look at me like that, it’s an Irish thing. 

We spent hours poring over the schematics of Theseus’s fortress. And by fortress, I mean Fort Knox is less guarded than this compound. In addition to stationed guards—all battle minotaurs with anti-magic protective gear—patrols were randomly assigned. We never intended to go in spells blazing, but fighting would not be an option. Our plans required subtlety of the highest calibre. 

We both fixed our dimensional pockets to a wall and spent some time gathering the gear we would need for a chance to survive a hasty exit, you know … assuming we could make it inside. 

In our oaths, we gave ourselves one Earth-week to get the arrium to Artemis—not after one week passes on Earth but after a total of 168 hours pass from our perspectives. This is an important detail, because for all we knew a day here was a week on Earth. Rather than take chances on a technicality, we’d stipulated a timeframe in the oath. Of course, we would not need this long. 

By the end of the day tomorrow, we would have the artifacts and be halfway back home, or we’d be caught and killed. 

“Hello?” Aiden asked. “Are you listening?”

“No. Sorry. I can’t focus. I need a break.”

“We don’t have time for a break. Just before dawn tomorrow, we move.”

“I’m still not sold on the timing,” I said, glancing out at the evening sky. It would be dark in a few hours. “I need real sleep. Ether-fog is starting to kick in. We should get some rest and think on it after we rest. Maybe take tonight to do a fly about.”

“Too risky. If someone sees us casing the place, we could be stopped and questioned. And we have everything in these schematics. Seeing it won’t change anything.”

“It will let us know if we can trust any of this. What if Artemis wants us to be caught? Victoria seemed certain we would not get the Soul Breaker. And did you see her face after we made the oath?” 

Aiden frowned. “The document clearly stated that speaking to authorities about the heist would result in an immediate failure to uphold our agreement, and to the best of the signatory’s knowledge, the owner of the artifact is unaware of our desire to claim it. And she swears to the authenticity of our schematics. If she lied about any of it, we would already be free of the obligation.” 

“It is all true to the best of her knowledge. But Victoria gave us the schematics. Artemis made the oath.”

Aiden opened his mouth and closed it. He started pacing, like he did when he was nervous. That act alone made my own nerves fray a bit more. Aiden was not typically one to worry or have self-doubt. If he was stopping to consider the implications of our oath, perhaps it was not as binding as we had assumed. 

“This is a rabbit hole,” he said at last. “We can second guess our decision at every step, but we are on the hook now regardless of who is fully bound to the oath. Remember, we did not have much of a choice in this. Under the circumstances, I think we got the best deal we could with Artemis and an even better one with Loki.”

“Aye,” I said. “We can only move forward, which means we have to trust these schematics.”

“Either that or try to get our own. But this could not have come cheaply, and I doubt we can do it within the week we gave ourselves.”

“Agreed.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “So we are back to the timing.”

“The wards recycle at twilight,” Aiden said. “So that is the window. We have less than a second to get onto the compound.”

“But we could wait a day and get proper rest.” 

“No. Someone inside Theseus’s influence sold these to Victoria. What if they made copies and sold them to someone else? What if they get cold feet and rat us out? Too many uncontrollable variables. We need to go now.” 

“How many suicidal thieves can there be in Atlantis? I doubt anyone else is foolish enough to attempt something like this.”

“You are thinking like a human. There are far more powerful entities than us who might be interested in the same artifacts. In fact, we should plan on it, so we are not taken off guard.” 

Well, shit, Aiden was right. Rather than admit that, I said. “Fine, but even if that is the case, I need a few hours of sleep. Neither one of us has recovered our burnt ether in days, and I’m fucking exhausted. I want to get home as badly as you do, but if we burn out, we will both die or worse.”

“We haven’t burned that much. Remember the pandemic of 1918? We went weeks without sleep and fought almost daily to push the daimones and keres into Pandora’s jar.”

“The Nosoi are not gods. And we are on Theseus’s domain.”

“No, but it was Artemis and Apollon who loosed them.”

“That had been Artemis,” I said. “I had forgotten that detail. Fuck. What if she is ramping up another plague?” 

“We can’t worry about that right now. Focus. We need to—”

“Gods damn it, Aiden. I told you. I cannot focus. I need a break!”

“Fine. Sleep if you want to, but I’m too wired. We’ve been chugging coffee like water, and I’m too anxious.” He made a shooing gesture. “Go. I’ll keep watch and go over our plans.”

I wanted to argue. He needed rest too, but by the set of his jaw, I would just waste the time I could be sleeping. So, I went into the room and into my dimensional pocket. Sleeping in my own bed would be better than the inn’s. Besides, who knew what kind of crazy bedbugs existed in this realm? And I didn’t want to find out.

Not bothering to undress, I plopped down onto my bed. I’m not sure I was still conscious when my head struck the pillow. 

What felt like seconds later, I startled awake. A figure hovered over me, a hand on my shoulder. I opened my mouth to curse Aiden for waking me but stopped when I smelled lavender. 

It was not Aiden standing over me. 

Chapter 18: Favorable Terms

Do you ever take the time to read the fine print on any app downloads? How ‘bout when you buy a car or house? Most of us just allow the representative to explain what each section is saying and trust in their word. Aiden is not one of those people. He reads every byline twice, looking for loopholes. 

He has been a solicitor and lawyer for well over a century, so he drafted our oath with the occasional input from yours truly. 

First and foremost, we covered our own asses. We would harbor Loki for 31 days, so long as he agreed to remain enclosed in the location of our choosing. Interfering with our business in any way would result in a violation of our oaths, and he would experience the entirety of the repercussions outlined in the section titled Illegal Termination Clause

In exchange for our mule services, he would secure a Finder Ship for us, along with safe transport to Earth. We intentionally left Victoria’s name off the agreement. In the end, we did not care who got us home, only that they did. Also, we did not want in writing the fact that we planned to take Victoria’s vessel. That would be illegal. 

Once we finished, we copied much of the agreement for our oath to Victoria. Likewise, she would procure passage to Earth. But both Loki and Victoria will not be able to carry us back across Fae. No matter what, one of the two would fail to meet the obligations in the agreement. So long as one did not exchange notes with the other regarding the oaths, we would be able to burn one of them. 

For Victoria, it was much more difficult filling in the Services Rendered section. After all, we could not say, “stealing the heart of the minotaur from Theseus” and leave the document for just anyone to find. Instead, it spoke of acquiring a valuable artifact, known to both parties and spoken at the binding. This was not unheard of when creating an oath. 

“Take that, bitches,” Aiden said, writing the last line. “Finally, we are getting ahead on something.”

“I wouldn’t say that. We still have to steal the artifacts and get out.” 

“Right,” he said, deflating somewhat. “But this way, we can take someone down with us. This proves Victoria is a co-conspirator. And Artemis. She’ll be as much on the hook as the rest of us.”

“And we will have it in writing,” I said. 

He frowned.

“What?”

“Why do I get the feeling something is going to go horribly wrong and that she has somehow already considered everything we are saying?”

My frown mirrored his. I sighed. “Likely, she has. But she likely has not considered Lo—uh … you know who’s working with us.”

“Agreed.”

“Are you ready to call him?”

He inhaled deeply, finished his wine in a single gulp, then nodded. “Do it.”

I dropped our sound shield and said, “Loki is a bitch.” 

A white glove appeared and slapped limply across my cheek, followed by the rest of Loki. He held the glove in front of my nose. “And don’t you forget it, girlfriend.” 

He had changed into a purple doublet with no sleeves and wore tight-fitted white leather trousers. He sauntered over to the bar and helped himself to a glass of rosé. Raising the glass high, he said, “Here’s to escaping Atlantis.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Aiden said, pouring himself some more. He tipped the bottle toward me with an raised eyebrow.

I shook my head. “One of us needs to keep a level head.”

Loki blew out his lips, spittle flying. “Fun-killer.”

Aiden frowned and put his glass on the bar, untouched. “Right. Business first.” He pushed our draft toward Loki.

The trickster god picked it up with a smirk. “How adorable.” He dropped it back on the bar and flourished his wrist. A volume thicker than War and Peace appeared in his hand. He slapped it down in front of me with a thwack. “This is our working draft.”

“Not a chance,” Aiden said. “I will go to Theseus myself and confess before glancing at that. It’s our draft or we walk.”

Loki’s smirk faltered. 

“The way we see it,” I said, confidently. “You need us as much as we need you. Earthlings do not come here often. Those who do are mages and know all about the gods. It could be another century before you get an opportunity to leave. We are your only shot out of here, and you won’t mess that up.” 

Aiden grabbed our draft and plopped it down in front of Loki. “We’ll give you a chance to read over the language and make any addendum you like. We will read over the changes then sign.” 

Loki picked it up, thumbed through it. I felt ether flash as he glanced over the pages. His tone became more businesslike. “This is acceptable with one alteration.” 

“Which part?” Aiden asked.

He flipped to the page and said, “Under Illegal Termination Clause, you must include the word intentionally right here.” 

“The Passenger will not intentionally interfere with the Service Providers or their business in any way,” Aiden read, adding the change. He frowned, thinking. Finally, he shook his head. “Leaves too much to interpretation. You could honor the letter and not the spirit.”

“Oh?” Loki asked. “How so?”

“If your intentions are to further your own goals, this entire line is moot. You could push your own agenda and still not intentionally interfere with out goals while still fucking us six ways from Sunday.”

“Only if you let me, darlin’,” he said with a wink. “But I won’t sign it without the change.”

“Fine, but I am adding a line that says ‘Will not take actions which might knowingly harm the Service Providers, their duties as members of the Collective, or their attempts to preserve the safety and well-being of others.’ Agree to that, and we take the oath.” 

Loki fluttered his eye lashes. “I take it back. You are the fun-killer. But we have an accord.” 

Aiden pulled in ether and modified the language. We all read over the pages again, closed it, then sealed the pages with a bond of ether. No alterations could be made without the others noticing.

“You start,” I told Loki.

He shrugged a shoulder. Taking out a knife, he sliced the skin of his palm, making a thin red line. Holding it over the pages, he intoned, “By my essence and my blood, I bind myself to these words.” As he closed his fingers into a fist, crimson drops spattered onto the page. He repeated the oath, pouring ether into the red pool atop the page.

It sunk into the document. The pages glowed. He stepped back from the document, cheeks slightly piqued. Aiden and I spoke the words next, cutting our palms and spreading our blood atop the document. We both spent the ether to bind ourselves to the oath. 

When the binding settled over me, I felt a weight impossible to carry. I stumbled, holding onto the bar to keep from falling. Aiden staggered but stayed upright by grabbing my arm. After a few moments, the heavy feeling passed. 

Before I could grab the oath, Loki plucked it from the bar. “I’ll hold onto this.”

“We are the service providers,” Aiden argued. “Traditionally, we are the ones to carry the oath.”

“I loathe tradition. Besides, this has potentially incriminating evidence. I’ll keep it until the services are rendered.” Before we could raise further objections, wyther and ether surged, and the document vanished.

“Gods damn it,” Aiden said. “Fine. It’s done anyway. Go fulfill your part. Liam and I still have work to do.”

“As you wish.” Loki flourished his hand into a deep curtsey, vanishing before his eyes dipped too low to see us.

“Insufferable prick,” Aiden spat. “Let’s find Victoria and get this over with.”

We made our way back to the hover crafts and paid for a trip to the Lady’s Villa. They carried us a few blocks over to a single mansion overlooking the bay. 

The style was late Victorian—which had always been Vic’s favorite—somewhere between Queen Anne with a dominate front-facing gable and loose goth with three asymmetrical towers. The main structure was off-white with crimson slate tiling the roof. In front was a colorful garden that complemented the mansion rather than pull the focus. 

There was no place to return the flying Segways, so we parked them on the sidewalk in front the garden. The disembodied voice asked, “Would you like to pay a docking fee while I wait for your return?”

“No,” Aiden said. “We can fly ourselves back up the beach.”

“Thank you for choosing the Tinkers Guild. Good bye.”

The hover crafts took to the air, speeding away from us. Before we could take two steps, a team of minotaurs were rushing toward us, all armed with medieval weapons, swords, axes, and even a halberd. 

The lead minotaur stopped just short of us. His nose was flat, like a pug with round saucers for eyes. He slammed the butt of his halberd on the ground and said, “This is private property. Leave at once.”

“Can’t,” I said. “We have bus—”

“This is your last chance to remove yourselves.”

“What is your name?” I asked. 

“That is not your concern. If you do not leave of your own accord, we will assist you.”

“Fine,” I said with a shrug. “I’m sure Victoria won’t hold it against you when I tell her how you treated her guests.”

His eyes became even wider. He spoke with immense confusion. “Mistress Deletante invited you?”

“Yep,” I said. “And you are in our way.”

He turned to the other guards and spoke in a language I did not know. One of the guards ran off. The lead guard turned to me and said, “Wait here.”

Several minutes later the guard returned at a run. Out of breath, he whispered into the lead minotaur’s floppy ear, who nodded. When he turned back to Aiden and me, his expression was more subdued. 

He gestured toward the cobbled path. “This way if you please.”

I could see the mischievousness in Aiden’s eyes. He hates bullies even more than I do. This guard found a rat in his garden that turned out to be a rare gerbil. Okay, maybe not the best metaphor, but I haven’t slept in a few days. Give me a break. The point is, I didn’t want Aiden starting a fight just to show he wasn’t a pushover. As he opened his mouth to speak, I stepped in front of Aiden, effectively upstaging him by blocking his view of the minotaur. 

“Please,” I said to the guard. “After you.”

“Asshole,” Aiden whispered in my ear. 

I smiled and kept walking. The rest of the minotaurs flanked us. I felt more like herded cattle than an escorted guest, but I left that thought unsaid. From what I understand, minotaurs are a bit touchy about how Earth treats cows. 

They led us around a maze of hedges, covered in flowers of every imaginable color, patterned to create a mural of people in fine clothing. There was a subtle energy of the ether required to sustain the flowers in bloom. Looking more closely, I realized the smooth stones beneath the bushes were arrium. No wonder the guards shooed off people wandering near. Nothing spoke of wealth like leaving magical artifacts literally laying about.

The green maze opened to a patio of dark marble, polished enough that I could see my reflection. Gods, did I need a bath. And a rest. Both of those needed to happen before we hit Theseus. The walkway wound around a coy pond with lily pads. Small fairy-like creatures zipped above the waters, pulling weeds and leaves from the water’s surface. Their wings fluttered swiftly like hummingbirds, glittery dust flying from behind them. Each wore maid’s dresses with low cut bodices. No head color was the same, but they all had their hair up in a floppy bun, bobbing about as they worked.

Beneath the clear waters, I could see merfolk—mermaids and mermen—swimming between underwater buildings. They were even smaller than the fairies. I had read merfolk would grow to match their environment. It took an ocean-sized habitat for them to grow to the size of humans. The pond was no more than twenty meters across, and they shared the space with a multitude of fish and other aquatic creatures.

The minotaurs marched by as though the tiny habitat did not exist, oblivious of the beautiful fairies diligently cleaning the space. They escorted us to double-doors made of glass, propped open. Inside was a common room with old Victorian style furnishings. A grand sofa of dark wood and plush white pillows was the centerpiece. The frame was gilded with platinum scrollwork. Crimson throw pillows decorated the corners. In front of it was a coffee table with matching wood and design. Two chairs on either side mirrored one another to complete the set. 

A woman of angelic beauty stood behind the sofa, white wings bound to her back. She wore a red dress, tight around her chest down to her thighs but loose about her knees. Gods, did she fly to work? Talk about distracting drivers.

“Greetings,” she said with a voice that sent shivers down my spine. “Victoria is expecting you. Would you like any refreshments while you wait for her to receive you?”

In my periphery, I could see Aiden gaping at the seraph—at least that’s what I thought she was— and I wondered briefly if I looked so entranced. Closing my mouth to avoid drooling, I decided I’d rather not know the answer.

“Thank you,” I said, voice squeaking more than I would have liked. Clearing my throat I added, “I would love some coffee. And maybe a pastry.” 

She nodded to a servant I had not seen before. It was a goblin. She was no more than 3 feet tall, with dark beady eyes and green skin. Call me xenophobic, but she was too adorable to be sexy, even though I am certain that’s what the girl’s red dress was designed to be. No. She wasn’t really a girl. I know she was a fully grown female goblin, but she looked like a kid with green skin playing dress up to my barbaric, human mind. 

The goblin curtseyed then bounded down the hall, disappearing through a double-hinged door. The seraph turned to us, gesturing to the sofa. “Please, make yourselves comfortable. If you need anything else, please do let me know. I am Charmeine.”

I turned to see the minotaurs had dispersed. Only one remained, standing by the entrance. He’d adopted a bored expression, while pretending not to watch us. Even though he looked straight ahead, I felt his awareness on us. 

Apparently, Aiden noticed as well, because he said, “I would love a hamburger. And some chips.”

The minotaur’s head swiveled and he frowned. But to his credit, he only glared at Aiden. 

“My apologies, but we do not serve the flesh of sentient beings in this establishment. I can, however, offer you a delightful arcanine flank with a side of basted ciracorn and peas. ” 

“Peas, eh? As in the green ones?”

“Imported from Earth Seven.” She smiled. But I sensed irritation in the expression. “Would you like to make a reservation in our dining hall?”

“No need,” a woman’s voice said. “I just made reservations for us.”

Victoria entered from the other hall and stopped just inside, resting one hand on the mantle of a grandiose fireplace made of pearl with ruby veins cutting across. A giant framed mirror rested on the wall above. Once more I could see myself. Dear gods, I would groom myself as soon as humanly possible. My facial hair was far too long to be called stubble but far too short to be considered a beard. Though I went for the out-of-bed look on most days, I appeared more like a crawled-out-of-an-alley sort of bum at the moment. 

Of course, Victoria was stunning. She wore a green gown with a diamond cut down the center, just enough fabric to cover her but leaving very little to the imagination. She stood posed, half-turned so I could see her back, which was bare to the waist, where her dress was loose. Her hair was intwined with silver lace into an intricate braid, forming a circlet around her head. It came together in the back, held in place by a sparkling butterfly. The wings flapped when she moved.

Her saunter made cats look graceless. She came to within two feet of me and stopped. A barest hint of mascara and eyeliner was all the cosmetics she wore, but her cheeks were still flush as she studied me. 

“Right,” Aiden said. “That outfit is utterly ridiculous. We know what you are doing. Tell her Liam.”

My mouth was dry. After working moisture back into my tongue, I said, “Um. Yeah. We know. Won’t work.”

Look out Cicero, I’m gunning for your title as most famous orator in all of history.

Victoria laughed. A full belly laugh. Aside from being musical, the motion did the most interesting things to the front of her dress. And though we’d been intimate, that had been a long time ago, before I thought she’d been brutally murdered.

“What?” she said, perfect imitation of innocence. “This is my favorite summer gown and is appropriate for my plans this evening.”

“Plans?” I asked. “You have plans?”

“I do,” she said. “Our reservations, remember? I just mentioned it.”

“Right. Yes. I remember.”

“Shall we?” She said, gesturing back down the hall she’d entered. “I booked a private business room to discuss our oaths.” 

We followed her down the broad corridor and passed a room with marble perches, coming out of the walls like branches. Only one was occupied, a red-skinned man with black wings. Dark horns protruded from his temples and curled around like a ram around his head, coming to sharp points. He wore a suit and tie but no shoes. His talons gripped the marble branch. He held a magazine in one hand and coffee in the other. 

Beneath the branches was a clear pool, where two children—smaller versions of the perched man—played. They flew out of the water and splashed into it. Steam rose from their skin and the top of the water where they touched it. The man’s awareness settled on me. I felt the weight of his annoyed gaze and snapped my eyes back on the hall. 

Victoria stopped at the last door on the right. It was propped open. Inside looked like any board room I’d ever visited with the exception of the outer wall, which was made of glass, giving us a view of the private beach. It was virtually empty, save for a few gnolls down by the water. 

“Gentlemen,” Victoria said, taking the executive chair at the table’s head. “Please, have a seat.” 

I sat three chairs down from her. Aiden took the chair to my right, placing himself between Victoria and me. He pulled out our document and slid it up the table toward her. She smirked then read it much in the same fashion as Loki had, slowing at the section which discussed the consequence for failure. 

“Upon failure, Primary Party—who you have listed as Artemis—will relinquish any and all claim to her nexus to the Collective.” Victoria looked up at me after she finished reading. “Really? Why would Artemis agree to that. And if she would, do you expect me to call Artemis to create a blood oath with you? She’s a god and has far too muc—” 

“She is watching us now,” I cut in without raising my voice. I kept my tone neutral. “Or do you deny that she is seeing through your eyes?” 

Victoria simply stared at me, but it was not her expression of irritation I saw. It was far too impatient for the Vic I knew. 

“Our actions,” I continued, speaking to Artemis rather than Victoria, “are the most important aspect of your plans on Earth. You need us more than we need you. After all, though not ideal, we can survive here in Atlantis for a while. Eventually, the Collective will come for us. And messengers will carry our plight to them. We are not without means. Likewise, we can hire a solicitor to represent us against any accusations you level against us. However, you, are on a time crunch.”

“Why would you say that?” she said. The voice was Victoria’s but that tone was not. I did not know the person looking back at me. Loki had commanded Aiden and I like puppets. What Artemis did to Victoria was far more sadistic. She wore the love of my life like a suit. And there was shit-all I could do about it. In fact, if Artemis decided to smite us here in this semi-private place, there was nothing we could do to stop her, which made what I was about to say a huge gamble. 

I swallowed and wet my lips. “Poseidon’s seat of power waxes and wanes based on currents and weather. La Nina is ramping up and will peak around November. You won’t be able to take his seat after that, because he will build up power from the movement of that energy. It will be another year before that power wanes. The new pantheon wants to act sooner than that. If you wish to be included in their coup, you have to act now. Aiden and I don’t. In fact, one might say, our duty is to run to Theseus and tell him all about your plans. After all, that would be in the best interest of the Collective.”

Victoria’s face was emotionless. She studied my face for what felt like minutes. I pushed every ounce of will into maintaining a similar stony resolve. I could not speak first or break the gaze. If Artemis sensed weakness, this would be over. I do not know how I knew this to be true, but I do not doubt for a moment, she would obliterate us if she believed we would hinder her goals or thought us too weak to carry out her needs. 

And maybe there was an Allfather, Allmother, or some other all powerful being out there who gave two shits about me.

Because the goblin came in, carrying my coffee and a red danish on a plate. Victoria’s gaze snapped to the inn servant and she said, “Close the door on your way out. We are not to be disturbed for the remainder of our meeting.”

“Thank you so much,” I said as she placed the coffee and pastry in front of me and scurried out. 

Victoria’s glare did not have as much weight as it had before. “I will agree to your terms; however, I will add a caveat to this section. If you fail to meet my obligations, you will bind yourselves to the deity of my choosing.”

Believe it or not, we’d considered this a possibility. And it didn’t matter because we already planned to burn her. Not only would we get the artifact necessary to free Victoria, we would knock Artemis from her seat of power and gain an arrium that would help other people and better protect the Collective and Earth for centuries. 

I tried not to let the excitement show on my face as I asked, “Are we ready to do this?”

We stood for the oaths. Artemis—in her Victoria suit—reached out her hand and used ether to draw a cut across her palm. She spoke the words. Aiden and I quickly followed, naming the artifact we would recover as the heart of the minotaur, currently owned and possessed by Theseus. 

After we finished the oaths, Aiden snatched the document and held it close to his body. Victoria’s smile twisted into a self-satisfied sneer, as if it didn’t matter. But I could tell it was not an act. Like us, she had ulterior motives for making this oath. My confidence faltered. I feel like that moment in Texas Hold’em, where I’ve gone all-in and my opponent calls and pushes her chips in. That flutter in the chest where you wonder if you miscalculated is the best and worst feeling you can feel. In the next few seconds, you would find out if you were the biggest winner or the biggest loser at the table.

Only, no cards would be revealed today. We placed the stakes on the table, and now we played for it. Dear gods, what the fuck did we do? 

“Excellent,” she said, smile becoming arrogant. “We will speak again very soon, little ones. So very soon.”

The expression vanished. Victoria looked down at her body, which was standing now. She blinked a few times, confusion clear in her eyes. Biting her lower lip, she looked off to the distance as if listening intently to someone only she could see and hear. She nodded and turned back to me, lips tight in an obviously fake smile. 

“That wasn’t so bad,” she said, but her voice shook and fingers trembled as she gestured to the document in Aiden’s hand. “We came to an accord.”

“Aye,” I said, voice also trembling. “It’s done. There’s no turning back now.” 

Dear gods, there was no turning back. We had to rob a powerful force without getting our heads lobbed off. If we failed and somehow survived, Artemis would own us.

Chapter 17: Best of the Worst

“What choice do we really have?” Aiden asked. “They all have us by the short hairs. If we screw over Victoria, she’s going to go straight to Theseus after we’ve fled. And though she will neglect to mention the part where she also planned to steal from him, he’ll put bounties out on us. Like real ones, where all the scariest, ugliest bastards in the multiverse come to collect our heads. I’m not so eager to go work for the Ferryman. You?”

“Not particularly,” I admitted. “So we just do it all?”

“I don’t see any other way. You don’t either, or you would have suggested it by now.”

“If we do this, you and I will be writing up the oath.” 

“Great,” Aiden said, “Who first?”

“The Trickster God,” I said, intentionally avoiding his name. “He only gave us an hour’s deadline. So, we go to him first.”

“No. We get a room, then you curse that bastard’s name until he comes to us. I’m not going anywhere near his domain again.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Agreed. But where should we stay?”

“One second,” Aiden said. He downed the rest of his coffee then got up, breaking our sound barrier, and stood at the back of the queue to get more. 

The sound of grinding beans and steaming milk overpowered the voices of those sitting at the tables around me. It felt so normal. We could be on earth still, if not for the family of goblins and angel-looking creature in front of Aiden, waiting to get coffee. 

For some reason, my thoughts drifted to Skyler Turney, my calculus TA. Last time I’d seen her, she’d been drunk and flirting with me, until the excessive alcohol proved too much. She’d gotten sick, and her ex-boyfriend escorted her away. I hoped she got home safely. I wished I could check on her.

Since last seeing her, I’d passed through a dozen time zones to get to the portal in Antartica, then we’d traveled through Fae. And now I sat in Atlantis. I could only guess at the number of days that had passed. Certainly, it was at least Wednesday by now, so I’d already missed my second calculus course in addition to all my other classes. I still hadn’t slept. 

Gods damn it all, I was supposed to be on a break.

And where was Abigail? She seemed perfectly content to let Victoria do her bidding. But what was Aiden’s sister up to? 

Fuck me, I’m an idiot. It was in front of me this whole time. We needed to get back to earth, sooner rather than later. I stood up. Aiden was next in the queue. I cursed all the way to him. 

“And a venti soy latte, hold the masculinity.” 

“What’s that?” the barista asked with the barest hint of an accent. She had four arms, useful for a coffee artist. Otherwise, she could have passed as a human girl with green hair and sapphire eyes, albeit with skin far paler than anyone else I’d met.

“Nothing,” Aiden said. “Was just teasing my friend here.”

“You speak earthling English very well,” I told her.

“It is a requirement to work for Starbucks. Would you like anything else?”

“Yes,” Aiden said. “Would you please suggest a decent place to rent a room?”

“Hmm,” she said. “If I were from an outer world, I would look into The Pyramid, in the bay. Go two streets east to Northway, then go north. You will see the golden pillars along the water.” 

“Thank you,” Aiden said, handing her some silver coins and placing one in the gratuity jar. 

She smiled. “My pleasure.”

As we waited for our coffee, I still fumed over my recent epiphany, feeling like a dumbass for not stopping to think this through sooner. 

“What is it?” Aiden asked. “You look as though someone switched your soy for almond milk.” 

“Abigail,” I said. “She planned all this with Victoria. Artemis is pulling the strings, sure, but Abigail has her hands all over this.”

“Yeah,” he said, slowly. “We already knew that.”

“But where is Abigail? What do you think she’s doing while we are here?”

“Still recruiting, most likely.”

“And what do you think she is doing with all those recruits?” 

Aiden’s face went slack. “Readying to turn them into minotaurs to take on Poseidon.”

“And we are helping her.” 

“We have no choice,” Aiden said. “We’ve already been over this.”

“That’s not what’s bothering me. Well, it does. I’m furious but that isn’t the worst part. It was our idea to come here, right?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Then how could she have planned all of this? How could she know we would come here unless we were betrayed?”

“Gods. Not this again. We are all alone here. It’s just the two of us, and we’ve been together since this whole thing started. Even if I had the inclination to betray you, there was never an opportunity.”

“I know.” I said. “That’s not what I’m saying, but that does not change the fact that Victoria could not have planned to use us to get here and then blackmail us into stealing for her unless she knew we would come before we did. There are only a couple possibilities. Do you think it was clairvoyance?” 

“Pfft,” he snorted. “You know as well as I, all possibilities exist in quantum states, making it damn near impossible to predict which state our reality will slide into. In some universe, I am bent over Loki’s knee right now, and actually enjoying it.”

“Mmmm,” a rich voice said from beside us. “I will have to find that universe and play imposter.”

Before I could reprimand Aiden for using Loki’s name, he’d appeared. Aiden jumped, spinning to face the Trickster God standing next to the bar. 

“We still have 15 minutes,” I complained.

“I heard my name on those sweet lips and came.” He winked at Aiden. “Then I ported here.”

“Ugh,” Aiden said. “You are disgusting.”

“Have you decided?” Loki asked. 

I nodded. “We accept your offer.”

“Bray, mother fucker, bray.” He smiled at Aiden. “You be my mule, bitch. Bend over and let me take you for a ride.” 

“Jesus,” Aiden said. “Do you ever stop?”

“Only after we’ve fully and completely exhausted one another, sweetums.”

Aiden made a sound of disgust and left Starbucks. 

“Would you lay off him?” I asked, immediately regretting my word choice. Loki was worse than a pubescent boy. As the Trickster God opened his mouth to give me yet another visual image I had no desire to think, I added, “I need him to be clear-headed. Please, stop distracting him.”

He bobbed his head and swayed his shoulders. “Oh fine. Since you said please.”

“Thank you.”

“Sure thing, buttercup. Let’s talk about our blood oath back at my place, and we—”

“Nope. Aiden and I will write the draft. You’ll make revisions. Then Aiden and I will write the final version. We all approve and then sign it in our room at the Pyramid.”

“Nice choice. You can afford that?” 

“Don’t worry about what we can and cannot afford. We will call you when we finish the first iteration. Agreed?”

“Suit yourself.”

He kissed his palm and blew me a kiss as he vanished. I felt the barest trickle of wyther and ether, not enough energy to determine what he’d done. He could be standing in front of me behind a veil, or he could have teleported. I swatted at the air where he’d been as if trying to strike a fly. My hand passed through the space uninhibited. 

Fuck Loki, but I hated dealing with the gods.

Sighing, I took a sip from my coffee before putting in a green stopper. Then I met Aiden on the sidewalk. He stopped pacing when he saw me. 

“You are carrying him,” Aiden declared. 

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s find this hotel.”

We followed the barista’s instructions. Aiden silently brooded the entire time we walked. I let him. We reached Northway and stopped at the intersection. The road was at least 12 lanes wide with traffic stopped in 2 layers. Those along the street drove vehicles or walked on their own power. Various creatures and contraptions hovered above the wagons and cars. Some were motionless, suspended on ether or wyther. Others flapped wings or sat in a myriad of flying carts and wagons too numerous to count. 

“I want one,” Aiden said, staring at a Segway device. 

Dozens of the gadgets floated between the larger beings and vehicles, swaying side-to-side, moving in and out of traffic. Rather than two wheels, round jets aimed downward with the riders standing atop them. 

“Look,” he pointed to a long row of them on the sidewalk. “We can rent one.”

“Why?” I asked. “We don’t need a device to fly.”

“Yeah but why spend the energy?” 

As the light changed, I watched the chaos of fliers merging with non-fliers and vice versa. It looked like a nightmare where those with less metal surrounding them were likely to get splatted between to massive creatures or … dear gods, was that a flying bus? They all moved at autobahn level speeds across 12 lanes—24 if you count both levels.

“We don’t know the traffic rules. I mean look at that mess.” 

“How hard could it be? Besides, the bay is several kilometers away, and I don’t want to walk it.” He pointed to a sign which read: No Flying Above Walkway Except to Enter or Leave Motorpool

“You’re paying,” I said. 

Aiden walked up to the rental machine and placed his hand on the screen. After hitting a few buttons and placing coins into the slot, two of the Segways flew from the front of the line and settled next to the roadway. Aiden climbed atop his like a kid stepping onto a rollercoaster, grinning wildly. He’d stopped brooding at least. 

I stepped onto mine, next to him and placed my coffee in the holder. A blue shield popped up around it. That was a nice touch. Flying with coffee was always a bitch. 

A feminine robotic voice asked in Atlantian, “Hello, what is your preferred language? Speak any word, and I will adjust my settings.”

“What did it say?” Aiden asked.

“Hello Earthling. Welcome to Atlantis.”

“Cool,” he said, grin growing even wider.

“Due to your lack of experience,” the voice continued, “your ride will be automated. Please tell me your destination, and I will carry you there.”

His smile slipped. “What the fuck?”

“You would like to go to a brothel. Is that correct?”

“Wait, what? No. We are going to The Pyramid. It’s a hotel.”

“We do not have a hotel in this realm. The closest match is The Pyramid Inn, Luxury Rooms and Cuisine. Would you like to go here?”

“Yes,” Aiden said, scowl as deep as his smile had been wide. 

“Is your companion traveling to the same location?”

“Yes,” he growled.

The voice came from my Segway. “Your companion has chosen for you to accompany them to The Pyramid Inn, Luxury Rooms and Cuisine. Is this right?”

“Yes,” I said, glad Aiden would not be zooming through traffic.

“Hold on. The Tinker Guild is not responsible for user injuries. You must hold on for the safety features to remain in effect. Lifting off in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1.”

The hover crafts powered on and very slowly rose from the sidewalks. Lifts (you call them elevators) moved more swiftly than this. It took several minutes for us to rise to the second level and merge in with traffic.

Aiden rolled his eyes toward me. “Wow. This might actually muss up my hair.” 

“At least we are not burning ether, right?”

“Whatever.”

We did move at the speed of traffic, but the Segways traveled in the slowest lane to the far left. Aiden’s red hair did flop about, though he did not seem at all amused. He held on to the handles as if trying to urge the thing to go faster. Occasionally, the disembodied voice would say, “Manual drive override has been disabled. We apologize for the inconvenience.” 

I could taste salt before seeing water in the distance. Golden pillars rose into the sky, holding up colossal pyramids. The surface shimmered as if coated in metallic glitter. Out front was a walkway the size of a dozen football fields, separating the pyramids from the bustle of traffic. Vendors and entertainers filled the space around a gigantic statue of Theseus. The detail was exquisite. 

Theseus stood over the minotaur, holding his right horn in one hand and a sword in the other, held high overhead as if ready to strike. The minotaur was naked, kneeling on one knee, while Theseus wore a toga. Both the victim and the victor were ripped, muscles bulging and tense. The minotaur’s bullish face looked frightened, while Theseus’s expression was one of callous apathy. His Caesar-style hair perfectly curled around angular cheeks and a chiseled chin. The minotaur’s thick mane covered most of his back with an empty patch above his short tail. 

A pool surrounded the pair. Coins sparkled beneath the crystalline water in the basin. Here when people made their wishes and called out the name of a god, they were likely to get an answer. Belief held power, and the gods favored those who worshipped them.

From my experience, their favor isn’t altruistic. After an eternity of living, they get bored. And they enjoy the ego trip of lording over the lives of lesser beings. Though Theseus was not technically a god, he had a lot of power. 

Our hover devices moved to the end of the boardwalk and slowed. From the pace of the descent, it would take another full minute to reach the ground.

“Please hold on while the craft descends. We will be grounded momentarily. Thank you for choosing the Tinker Guild for your product needs.”

Aiden said, “This is some bullshit.”

He pulled ether and stepped off. The voice continued descending and repeating its proclamation. Grabbing my coffee, I stepped off to the chorus of duel voices speaking the same message, slightly out of sync.

Other people flew above a space of grass and along the beach by the sea, so we flew toward the pyramids. The space beneath was sectioned off by thick panes of glass, preventing beach-goers from crossing into the Inn’s domain. Valets, all biped catlike creatures, rushed about, escorting people or luggage in every direction. 

Five golden pillars supported the base of the polyhedron, each twenty meters in diameter. The columns doubled as lifts. The central one carried people to a check-in station above. The lowest level, at least twenty meters above the ground, also appeared to be made of glass.

We could see a restaurant covering most of the floor. An Olympic-sized pool was at the far end, facing the beach. Children of every imaginable specie played in it with parents screaming at them from the sides, not all that different from an Earth hotel. 

We stopped just outside a revolving door. I turned to Aiden, “You sure you can afford this place?”

“Aye,” he said. “My father left me a substantial inheritance.” 

“I thought he gave away all that he stole. You know, to give to the poor.”

“He did. Except for the bits he kept for us.” He nodded toward the door. “Come on.”

The spaces between the revolving door was large enough for a team of elephants to pass. It rotated automatically as we walked through. A cat-person with white fur appeared from nowhere and walked toward us with a feminine grace. She wore a gold and white tux and bowtie. Aside from an impossibly thin waist, her torso was human-like with generous curves to her hips and chest. Her tail protruded from the back of her trousers, standing straight in the air.

“Do you have a reservation?” She asked in Atlantian. Her voice was sing-song, almost a soprano. 

“No,” I replied. “We wish to book a room.”

“This way if you please.”

We followed her to the central pillar and up the lift to the base floor. She led us to a counter with several more cat-people. She approached the orange-furred male at the center. He was thicker than our escort with long arms. His dark whiskers were fashioned into a sort-of mustache. 

“They do not have a reservation,” she said. “Do we have any suites available?”

“Two rooms?” he asked, voice almost as soft and high-pitched as hers.

“Yes,” I replied. “If possible.”

He tapped at the air. A holographic pyramid appeared. He rotated it and tapped on a square, spreading his fingers apart. The square magnified. He rotated it toward us. There was a kitchenette and common space that opened to a balcony. Two doors led to small rooms. 

“We have a west-facing suite,” he said. “Will this suit your needs?”

I looked at Aiden and spoke in English. “Will this work?”

“How much?” he asked.

The male answered in English. “Each night is one hundred gold or a thousand credits. How will you be paying?”

“Gold,” Aiden said. “We need it for one night. Is platinum all right?”

“Of course.”

“He pulled 10 platinum coins from his cloak pocket and set them on the counter.” 

“Passports,” the attendant said.

We handed them over. He scanned them with an arrium and passed them back to us.

“This way,” the valet said. 

We followed her to the pillar in the corner. She stepped on and hit 37 of 100. We lurched upward. Our escort’s tail swished slightly, but Aiden and I stumbled, forced to hold on to the rail or fall. The door opened, and she took us to our suite. 

The door opened as we approached, sliding up into the frame above. 

“Will there be anything else?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Thank you.”

She bowed and left. The door closed after we entered. Aiden went straight to the bar, which was fully stocked with alcohols from all around the multiverse, as well as local wines and liquors. 

“Is that the best idea?” I asked.

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“We need a clear head when drafting this.”

“I am more creative with a drink. Besides. I just want one.”

“Someday, you need to consider whether or not you have a drinking problem.”

“Nothing to think about,” Aiden said with a shrug. “I have no problem having a drink when it suits me. You want a glass?” He lifted a dark bottle of red wine.

I sighed. “Sure.” 

He uncorked the bottle and poured us both a glass. Then we sat at the bar and got to work.

Chapter 16: Strange Bedfellows

Have you ever tried to walk on your foot after it falls asleep? There’s a second or two when it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. There is a sense of terror at the alien sensation that your limbs are not your own. Imagine this being your entire body, only instead of not supporting your weight, your feet are moving on their own. 

My head still worked, but my body was firmly controlled by Loki. I could talk, or like Aiden beside me, scream and shout profanities. But I could not force my legs to stop walking. They carried my body forward on floating steps up to the monolithic house. 

We were marched into the capacious living space of Loki’s mansion. Three expensive-looking couches of white fur surrounded a fireplace. Several pillows of varying shades of purple rested atop the plush cushions. The room opened to a fully stocked bar and kitchenette. Other than that, I could see nothing more of the home. Two doorways on the west wall were ten feet off the ground with two mirroring them on the east. Another darkened opening was in the ceiling above us. With Loki’s power, he could fly more easily than Aiden or I. Why not eliminate stairs?

Aiden sauntered over to the fire and bent over, slowly picking up the poker. Still bending over, he shoved the poker into the smoldering wood and wiggled it around. Fire flared to life. Aiden returned the poker and sat on the nearest couch, crossing one leg over the other. You have to admire his dedication to the craft of colorful expletives. Not once did he stop his stream of cursing, some of it directed at me for getting him into this, but most going toward Loki.

I staggered, nearly tripping but caught myself before hitting the floor. My body was mine again. Just as abruptly as it had begun, I could move freely. 

“Please,” Loki said, gesturing beside Aiden. “Have a seat.”

I hesitated. He could have simply placed me where he wanted me, like he had Aiden. Why give me a choice? Rather than provoke him further, I decided to sit. The throw rug was a foreign animal of some sort. The head was still attached, mouth open as if roaring. The teeth still looked sharp. I stepped over the head and sat next to Aiden.

“Abominable snowman,” Loki said. “Also called a yeti. It is from earth, actually. Long ago.”

“Great,” Aiden said. “Can we have our bodies back now?”

“It’s already done.”

Aiden looked perplexed. Then he uncrossed his legs and stood.

“Don’t be naughty again,” Loki said. “Or I will have to bend you over my knee and spank that tush.” 

Aiden’s face paled. He plopped back down next to me and spoke through gritted teeth. “What do you want from us?”

I did not feel even a spark of ether as Loki disappeared and reappeared on the sofa across from us. He sat with his legs crossed and hands atop one another on his knee, straight-backed, head cocked to the side.

“We are going to do one another a solid,” he said. “This is for your good as well as mine.”

“Define this,” I said, trying not to let the agitation bleed into my voice. I failed. “The theatrics are getting old.”

“You are just no fun at all.” He waved a hand. “Fine, fine. But first, tell me what you want with Theseus’s Soul Breaker.”

“His what now?” I asked.

“The artifact we are stealing,” Aiden said. “It’s called a Soul Breaker.”

“It can unmake any pattern or bond,” Loki said. “It can also unravel a person’s essential pattern, effectively destroying their existence. They are illegal everywhere in the universe. Theseus has the only sanctioned Soul Breaker under his protection.”

They say love is blind, but maybe I rushed into this. I mean, I did not exactly ask what we were after. I just wanted to save Victoria. In hindsight, I should have at least made Aiden clarify what exactly we planned to steal. 

I looked at Aiden. “What the fuck, man?”

“Don’t look at me like that. I told you it was likely suicide to come here.”

“And then you neglected to mention we were planning to steal the one artifact in the universe capable of permanently destroying a person’s soul.”

He shrugged. “You didn’t ask.”

I was going to kill him.

“Boys, boys,” Loki said, as my hands reached for his throat. “Can we please return to the discussion at hand? Afterward, I’d be happy to give you boys some lube and let you wrestle it out.”

“Right,” I said, pulling my hands back. I didn’t say that won’t be happening because I did not want Loki to take my declaration as a challenge. He could, after all, force us into a kiddy pool filled with jello, and there was little we could do to stop him. So instead, I sat up straighter, trying to appear as dignified as he somehow looked and added, “Please, continue.”

“You were telling us me why you want the Soul Breaker.”

“Not to break any souls,” Aiden said. “And that is all the explanation you’ll get. Tell us what you want or we are done here.”

Loki looked at Aiden like he was a kitten stretching his claws. From the smirk, he still might just pet him. 

“After we are done with it,” I assured him. “we will bury it under the protection of the Collective. Gods and other denizens have tried and failed to take us on for thousands of years and failed. We can protect it. That is all you’ll get from us on that matter. Can we talk business now?”

“Of course.” Loki shrugged a shoulder as if he hadn’t really cared what we did with it. His voice remained nonchalant. “The short of it is, I will acquire this Finder Ship for you. In return, you will take me back to earth in a dimensional pocket.” 

Aiden and I simply stared at him for a few moments. Then we looked at each other. There was a rare mental exchange between the two of us, where we were both solidly on the same page. If the new Pantheon realized we were harboring someone they’d exiled, we’d essentially become more of a target than we already were. That was why Loki had been irritated when I realized he was not in Atlantis by choice.

“You want us to smuggle you to Earth?” I said, trying to stall. How do you tell a god who can make you dance like a puppet to kiss your ass?

“Smuggle is such an ugly word,” he said. “Think of it more like carrying a deadly secret on your back that just so happens to live and breathe.”

“Not possible,” Aiden said. “Every god on Earth would know.”

“Nope. I’ll be riding in this.”

He held out his hand and a silver chain appeared. A round locket dangled at the end. He opened it to reveal a tiny picture of a castle, similar to the one we’d seen from the street outside his compound. I did not feel an ounce of ether or wyther coming from it. 

“It looks like an ordinary locket.” Aiden asked, “How would we carry you in that?”

“I know evocation is not your strong suit,” Loki said, “what with the pulling dimensional energies from other worldly places. Feels too Lovecraftian for most earthlings. However, you can create entire mini-universes and stuff them into a pocket like this one. The reason it does not resonate as an arrium is because it is not a simple magical artifact. It is a doorway into a realm I created specifically for the purpose of returning to earth via a mule.”

“Just like this place,” I said, gesturing to the house. “It’s how you can maintain the illusion without people noticing. It’s literally just a projection of lights on the surface of the covering surrounding the pocket dimension. What is it? A dome wall?.”

He clapped, giggling while he did. “Very good.” 

A doggie bowl appeared in my hand. Inside was a chocolate-chip cookie. I frowned, placing the bowl beside me on the couch. 

“We won’t do it,” Aiden said. “Keep us here forever if you must, but it will not get you what you want.”

“When I said mule earlier, I meant stubborn ass.” Loki lifted a hand and made a dainty slapping motion. Aiden’s head whipped to the side as a small smacking sound struck his cheek. “Bad mule.”

Aiden started to rise, but I put a hand on his forearm. I mean, seriously, the guy was too easily provoked. 

“Let’s talk it out,” I said. “You may be able to control us here, but you cannot make us do anything out there. If we do not truly agree, you won’t be able to trust us. We could just throw your locket aside after we get the Finder Ship.” 

“True. But we will be formalizing our agreement with a blood oath. You fuck me.” He winked at Aiden. “I fuck you.”

“Never do it,” Aiden insisted.

I agreed that it was a bad idea. But that’s sort of all we had at this point. We could help Victoria or we could help Loki. Hell, we could go for broke and help them both, even though they were strong-arming us into compliance. 

We had too many bad options to see another way through this. 

“If we help you,” I said, slowly, “you’ll leave us out of your plans on earth. That isn’t up for negotiation.” 

“Certainly, with the caveat that you carry me for thirty-one days. I will not intentionally burden you with my schemes beyond that. By then, your Collective will have dealt with this new Pantheon.”

“I’m not saying I’m going along with this,” Aiden said, “but if we do agree, you’ll give the Collective all the information you have on this new coalition of the gods.”

“Of course,” he said. “I would be glad to service you however I can.”

“We should at least see what Victoria wanted us to steal,” I said, opening the folder she’d given us. The first page had the item she wanted us to take. The rest of the pages were the schematics she’d promised would get us in and out. Of course, none of them would be of any use if Victoria informed Theseus of our plans to rob him. If we did the heist early in an attempt to double-cross her, she would rat us out in a heartbeat. 

“What is the heart of the minotaur?” I asked, holding up the top page.

“That’s what she’s after?” Loki said, clearly amused. “Funny.”

“Why is it funny?” Aiden asked. “What does it do?”

“The very first minotaur, Asterion, was the love child of Queen Pasiphae and a bull. When the first bull-man died, Theseus took Asterion’s heart and infused its essential pattern into an arrium that would allow him to grant a human the power of the minotaur.”

“The power of the minotaur?” I asked. “As in … turn someone into one?”

“Likely, but it is unclear if that is the intended purpose,” Loki admitted. “As far as anyone knows, it has never been used.”

“Why does Victoria want it then?” Aiden asked.

“Rather,” I said. “Why does Artemis want it?”

“I am a god, not the Allmother,” Loki said. “Ask Her. Better yet, agree to my terms, then when we get back to Earth, you can ask Artemis yourself.” 

“Aiden and I need to talk. Alone.”

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll just go into the other room. I promise not to listen.” 

“And I have beach property at the edge of Atlantis. I’ll sell it to you at a steal,” Aiden said. “We are going back to Starbucks. We will discuss our options and get back to you.”

“Fine,” he said, voice petulant. “If you are not back in an hour, I’m going to reach out to Theseus. It’s been ages since I’ve had him over for dinner. There is so much to catch up on.”

Great. Not so subtle threat noted. 

Loki snapped a finger. Aiden and I found ourselves standing in front of the compound, staring at the white castle again. 

Aiden sagged with relief. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“Wait,” I said.

“Gods damn you,” Aiden said. “We need to put some distance between us and that psychopath. And fast. You cannot seriously be considering his proposal.”

“Do we have a choice?” I asked. “Victoria will likely double-cross us when she gets this minotaur heart. She doesn’t want us to go back to earth. Why would she, knowing we plan to stop her?”

Aiden stared at me for several long seconds. “Can we go somewhere else to talk about all this?”

“Sure,” I said.

He stormed off. I followed. We meandered for a while, stopping at a different Starbucks on a busy intersection and ordered more coffee. Aiden hadn’t lied. His purse was quite full, so I let him pay. Likely, we could afford a decent room. There was no way we would be staying with Loki, seeing as how we were little more than thralls in his domain.

We rounded a corner and both erected a sound shield as well as anti-scrying wards. We could not stop someone with godlike power, but we would at least know if someone tried to listen.

Sipping my coffee, I resolved to let Aiden speak first. After all, I had gotten him into this. And he was clearly too irritated to speak rationally.

Eventually, he calmed and said, “We are so fucked.”

I nodded.

“I mean,” he continued, “we could just go in now, get the Soul Breaker and take our chances with the Ferryman. He never said he would not ferry us again, right?”

“But how can we pay him? We already owe him a hundred years of service. He has our blood. And we owe him a favor. What can we give him that he would take? And if he says no, Victoria will go straight to Theseus and tell him where to find us, at which point, we will be faced with traversing Fae on our own to avoid a very gruesome, public death here.”

“I bet Theseus has a Map,” Aiden said. “We could take it too.”

“That is a big IF to gamble our lives on.”

“If we take Loki back to Earth, we are essentially encouraging a god war. Worse, we are picking the losing side from the gate.”

Again, I nodded. “Only if anyone finds out. If we took Loki straight to the Collective, they could contain him in a Faridarian Shell and lock him away for good.” 

From the mischievous gleam in Aiden’s eyes, I could see that was definitely an attractive option. Then his hope died. He frowned. “The blood oath will likely preclude us from going to the Collective while we carry him.”

“True,” I said. “But there might be a way to have them come to us.”

“He’s the gods damned Trickster God. If we thought of it, he has as well.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Aiden was right. We could not outwit Loki. Not on our own. Not when he had the advantage of knowing how fucked we were.

We both sipped our coffees for a while, not saying anything. I wracked my brain, trying to come up with alternatives. Maybe there was a way out of this neither of us had thought of. If there was, I could not see it. By the look in Aiden’s eyes, he could not either. 

“Look,” I said. “I got us into this, so you should decide what comes next. It’s up to you. What the fuck should we do? Whatever you choose, I’m in.” 

Rather than looking relieved, Aiden’s lips thinned into a tight frown. He sat that way until finishing his coffee then looked up at me with resignation in his expression.

VOTE on what you think Aiden should choose!

Chapter 15: Pulling Some Strings

“Relax,” Loki said. “I’m not going to kill you. Unlike most gods, I can take a bit of ribbing. But the earhole?” He glanced down at my crotch. “That’s sort of a small hole, or do you disagree?” 

I could only stare as I sorted through the swirl of emotions. Instead of smiting me for my years of insolence, Loki was sitting here in front of me, joking with me about the size of my member. 

Aiden’s bark of laughter made my cheeks heat. 

“Yeah, no,” I said. “It’s small.”

He reached over and pinched my cheek and spoke as if talking to a baby. “Don’t worry, sweet cheeks. It’s not the size that counts.” 

“No. Wait. That’s not what I—”

Loki held his hands up as if the cops had said freeze. “No worries. Your secret is safe with me.”

“What are you doing here?” Aiden said.

“I have a summer home in Atlantis,” Loki said, “I come here often now that I do not have a Nexus to protect. It can grow rather dull at times, but I have my fun where I can.” 

“Could you really hear me every time I cursed you?” I asked.

“Of course,” Loki said, smile never wavering. “There is power in a name. You should know that by now. Liamorandus.”

My head swam as he pushed will into the annunciation of my name. I was certain he’d articulated each syllable the way my parents had when they first looked upon my face and pronounced me. There was no hurling of power, ether or wyther. He’d simply exerted his will upon mine while speaking my name. I thought I might vomit. I swallowed the acid taste and tried not to pass out.

The gods of earth are old, as in, they are some of the first beings to settle there. There is much debate about the origin of man, most of it coming from some source of mythology, but there is no dispute around the fact that it is the gods who have shaped human civilization for eons. Though many of them have allowed their names to fall into the category of mythology, they do exist. And they are petty as fuck. And egotistical beyond measure. I mean, for good reason. For all we know, they are eternal and far more powerful in regards to raw magical ability than any mage in existence. And I’d flippantly and defiantly cursed the one sitting beside me for years.

“Do not fret, dear,” Loki said. “I assure you, I do not intend to turn you to a pile of ash. Where is the fun in that?” He sipped on his coffee. I sipped on mine. I got the feeling the uncomfortable silence was one-sided. 

“Okay,” Aiden said with an unhealthy amount of irritation in his voice. He always bristled at a threat, even if that threat was a literal god capable of showing him his insides with a thought. “You’ve had your fun. What do you want from us?”

Loki pursed his lips, humor returning to his eyes as he studied Aiden. “Mmm mm, and he has a bit of sass in him as well. The delights we could enjoy together.”

“What do you want?” Aiden demanded. “Or do you expect us to believe this is a chance encounter?”

“And he’s observant. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” He crossed his chest in the Catholic fashion, biting his lower lip. 

“A god praying to another god,” I said. “That’s not something you see every day. But seriously, you must want something from us.”

He shrugged a shoulder, making the gesture look both seductive and nonchalant. “I might have overheard your predicament just now. Being stuck here without a way back to earth, while being strong-armed by someone more powerful and holding all the cards. That must chafe.” He adjusted the bulge in his crotch. And winked at Aiden.

We had been enclosed in a sound-proof shield. How had he heard us?

“Oh,” Loki said, waving a hand. “I doubt any other god was sitting about. Few around here could have penetrated oh-so-sweetly that tight little sphere.” 

“But you did,” I said. “And so you know—”

“I do know. Theseus is an ass though, so I might be willing to help you,” his eyes looked Aiden up and down again, “for a price.”

Aiden shook his head vehemently. “No way in hell—”

Loki leaned in and quickly placed a finger over Liam’s lips. “Shh, my little dumpling. We can talk over the details later. At my place.”

He stood, straightening his purple coat. 

“Your offer is kind,” I said, “but we have to make some arrangements, and—”

“Oh hush. You can’t afford a room here outside of the Shadow Streets, the one place Theseus allows a crime ring, of a sort. And you’re more likely to find yourself waking up on ice with your ethereal talent ripped from you and sold on the black market than to get a good deal on a bed-and-breakfast. You are staying with me, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

Loki had a point. The gods were not exactly our enemies, but we weren’t exactly cozy with them either. If an underground society existed in Atlantis, I had never heard of it, but I sure as the chili-dog shits didn’t want to meet them.

“Look,” Loki said, “I promise not to trick you into bonding with me while you are in my home.”

“Since you put it that way,” I said, “I suppose—” 

“We can procure our own lodging,” Aiden said. “It’s no trouble. I have plenty of coins.”

“Oh, but Scrumptious,” Loki said, “You could spend those little coins-y onesies on some more of those delicious tight pants rather than some dank old squatty hole. I could show you some great places to go shopping.” 

“We accept,” I said, not completely certain why. Maybe it had something to do with the look of horror Aiden gave, following my pronouncement. Friends can be the most cruel of people sometimes. 

“Excellent,” Loki said. “It’s this way.”

He snapped a finger. I felt a surge of power, ether and wyther. A hole ripped into the street just outside the Starbucks courtyard. A minotaur avoided it as if a cat had jumped in front of him rather than a portal to another place.

As I made to follow Loki, Aiden grabbed my sleeve. “What. The. Fuck are you doing?”

“He’s right. We don’t have a lot of options. And this gives us an alibi. Just trust me. We’ll talk more later.”

“I’m getting really exhausted trusting you. If this goes poorly—”

“I know. You’ll haunt me. Got it.”

He nodded as if satisfied to have gotten through to me and stormed into the portal. 

I followed. Being on the same plane, there was no disconnected feeling passing through the opening. I could have been taking a step on the same stretch of sidewalk. But when I got to the other side, I stuttered to a halt. And gaped. 

The sidewalk ended in a wall of bars surrounding a compound of green rolling hills. A white path led from the entry to a castle on the hill that shimmered like pearls. Spires stretched from odd places to different lengths, topped with blue roofs. Unicorns pranced on the lawn and little winged creatures chased one another. We had not left the city. Or, we were at least still in a large metropolis. 

There were skyscrapers in the distance and I could still hear horns from traffic behind me. Turning, I confirmed a wide street was filled bumper-to-bumper with the mismatch of devices. I did a double take when I saw a centaur standing behind a thunderbird. His lower body was that of a black stallion (Emphasis on the stallion part. Someone should tell him to cover that thing up. Sheesh.). His upper torso was human. He wore a button up coat and bow tie, and held aloft an open newspaper. Lowering it, he looked at me with an annoyed expression.

I swear to Loki—rather, any other god than Loki—he had Brad Pitt’s face. He flicked his newspaper and trotted forward, hooves clopping against the cobbled road as he edged closer to the car in front of him.

“Oy,” Loki said, nudging me. “Don’t be a tourist. Staring like a two year old. What’s wrong with you?”

“Right. Sorry.” 

“Come on. Let’s get you two settled.” 

The gates opened as we approached. There was a hum of energy as we passed through, and the veil fell away. Inside the compound, there was no castle. The home in front of us was no less luxurious, covering more ground than the castle had appeared to from the street. The house itself was stacked at impossibly odd angles, like legos thrown by a child but somehow held together as they landed. Spheres connected the blocky shapes, which surrounded a giant pond, clear as glass.

Mermaids swam beneath the surface alongside mermen. The little merchildren chased schools of fish. Flat stone disks floated above the water, like stairs, leading to the front door, which was made of blue glass, the color of sapphire. At the center, silver snakes formed an S-shape, each circling one another biting the other’s tail. They appeared to be alive and slithering in unison.

He hid all of this from those outside his compound with intricate but subtle illusion magic. The kind of energy used to power such a veil must have been immense. But I felt nothing. Perhaps, I had been a bit hasty in cursing this guy all these years. He was no chump. 

“Yep,” Aiden confirmed. “I really believe you are Loki now.” 

“Or maybe I just stole his gorgeous face and incredible home.” 

“But only a fool would take his symbol,” Aiden said, gesturing toward the snakes on the door.

“Careful,” Loki said. “I might believe you are complimenting me.” 

“There is a lot of room between not a fool and genius.” 

“Indeed,” Loki said, studying Aiden to see if there had been an insult in his words. 

“I hate to interrupt,” I said, in fact quite happy to stop the conversation, before Aiden could chew on his toes. I waved my hand toward the city. “Why the deception?” 

“Appearances, darling. I am the Trickster God. I must not disappoint my guests. Besides, I was bored.” 

“You are exiled.” As the realization hit me, I spoke without thinking about the consequences. “You are here because the new Pantheon they are forming won’t let you return to earth.” 

Loki’s demeanor changed. His jaw twitched. The twinkle left his eyes. He regarded me with a cold stare and said, “It is impolite to say such things. I would hate to end my hospitality swiftly and abruptly, before having the chance to wine and dine you.” 

“But that’s why you want us here, right? You have an offer.”

The irritation faded as it had never been. He gave me an appraising look, and his mischievous expression returned. “You are far more capable than they gave you credit, Liam. Perhaps, you can pull this off after all. And serve my purposes as well.”

“Pull what off?” Aiden said, sounding no less guilty than he had earlier.

“Still with that, eh?” Loki rolled his eyes. “You need to work on that poker face, honey bunches. When there is time, I will give you a few pointers. For now, suffice to say, I’ve been all up inside those surface thoughts.”

With a sudden panic, I checked my mental shields. They were always in place and had not slipped. I refortified them with a bit of ether.

“Bah,” Loki said, waving a hand. “Won’t do you any good in here. This is my domain. My mini-nexus, if you will. I have absolute power over you.”

“Fuck,” Aiden said, turning toward the gate. He ran two long strides, then his foot froze mid-step. 

“You said you wouldn’t harm us,” his voice squeaked. 

“No. I said I would not trick you into bonding with me. And I won’t. I am a god of my word. However, I also will not allow you to leave until you hear my proposal and bind yourself to my cause.”

“Fuck you, Loki.”

“Like I told you when we met. Not my type.” He smirked. “But we can discuss all the details after I get the two of you settled in. Walk this way.”

My limbs betrayed me and moved puppet-like after Loki. This was fine. It was all fine. I had a plan, and we were going to need help. I could handle this. 

Part of me actually believed that. The other part couldn’t even piss himself because Loki was in control now. Yep, I really fucked us this time. But hey, look on the bright side. At least Theseus wouldn’t be ripping us apart in the city square, while the Trickster god had us enthralled. 

So we had that going for us.