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Chapter 14: A Raw Deal

As the closest minotaur reached for my shoulder, time seemed to slow. Though my instincts screamed at me to fight and run, a rare moment of insight told me to relax. When the giant hand settled at the nape of my neck, it took every ounce of self-control to listen to that infinitesimal voice, telling me more was going on than I knew. 

I realized suddenly, who had been the brains in mine and Vic’s partnership. I may not be a dummy, but Victoria was brilliant. It was part of why I loved her. She had calculated every possible scenario and attached probable values to them. 

My normal attitude was to burn it all down and let the gods sort it out, so Victoria probably expected us to fight. And there was a reason for it. After all, she had wanted us to take her captive and torture her with magically enhanced truth serum to get her here. She didn’t do all of that just to kill us. There was a purpose. I needed to figure it out before making any irreversible actions. 

“Unhand me,” Aiden said, pushing uselessly at the arm of the minotaur holding him. “I will not warn you again.”

“Don’t,” I told Aiden. “It’s what she wants.”

A wicked grin split her face. “I always enjoyed watching the wheels spin behind your eyes.”

“We may not be citizens,” I said, “but you cannot simply butcher us here in the street. Even manhandling us will draw notice. And that’s not what you want, is it?” I pointedly looked at the minotaur touching me. 

She nodded to them. The minotaurs released us and took a step back. 

“Very well,” she said. “Shall we talk? I can buy you coffee.”

“Sure. I could use some coffee.”

“What?” Aiden demanded. I held up a hand for him to be patient. Either he missed the cue or blatantly ignored it. “We don’t want anything from you or your bitch goddess. Ya fucking masochistic cu—”

I drew a trickle of ether and sent a mental message to Aiden. We need to find out what she is doing here. Just trust me for once.

His mouth snapped shut. He took several slow breaths. Though his face puckered as if someone had slipped him sour candy, his lips stayed shut.

“Pleasant as always Rob Junior,” Victoria said.

Aiden simmered but pointedly looked at the ground, grinding his teeth.

“Shall we,” I asked. 

“After you,” she said gesturing for me to walk.

I offered her my arm, more to keep her from being behind me than to be close to her. But, if we are being honest, she smelled of lavender. And it was extremely difficult not to notice the side of her body as it pressed into mine. 

“Where to?” I asked.

“There is a place up the street. You will love it.”

“What is this?” Aiden asked. “A date? Talk already so we can be about our business.”

“Not until we are some place more private.”

Though many people bustled past us on the walkway, none paid us any attention. We were not the only earthling-esk people walking about, but we were definitely in the minority. Still, people walked or rushed around, going about their business. In many ways, it was just like any other huge city I’d been to. 

Horns sounded from vehicles in traffic. A faint breeze brought the smell of baked goods and other salty flavors. My stomach growled, reminding me I had not given it anything for a while. And though ether could sustain me, it was a poor substitute to a bacon cheeseburger with extra grease and a side of chips (you might call them fries.) 

We turned a corner, the buildings curved around to the right. A massive building stood on a patch of land to itself. Glass tubes protruded from the side, wound around in odd patterns and branched off into more tubes. Conjoined balls at the ends had flat bottoms. Inside, I could see tables and people dining, served by giant hamster-creatures, each differing in color. They wore red livery, complete with white aprons.

“Please tell me this isn’t the place.”

“No. We are farther up, but they make an incredible dish called chichidee here. Basically eggs benedict, but it has this spicy-sweet, earthy flavor that you would love.”

Eggs Benedict is my favorite breakfast. The fact that she knew that hurt more than a punch to the nose. There was a sad little twist to her mouth. It vanished as quickly as it had come.

“I’ll have to try it sometime.” 

We passed several stone buildings followed by some high-rises. We stopped to cross the street. Victoria stepped on a circular disk, buried into the cobblestone, and hit the button to cross. She instantly transported to the other side. I stepped up and hit the button. And just like that, I was across, standing next to Victoria. 

“This place is truly wondrous,” she said. “Don’t you agree?”

“Insane,” I agreed. “We should try to patent that back on earth.”

She crooked her arm and I took it. We walked on before Aiden and the minotaurs caught up. Some part of my brain told me this was likely part of her design, to get me alone—or rather without Aiden within earshot—for a few minutes.

“You were always clever,” I said. “I could almost believe your mind is still your own.”

“It is,” she said, smile making her eyes sparkle. 

“My Vic never would have set me up like that. The Ferryman could have killed us.”

“I knew he wouldn’t.”

“That isn’t the point. If you were not influenced by Artemis’s control, you would never have led us into the trap.” 

“I would apologize, but we both know that would not matter. I have a job to do, just like you do. I take orders from Artemis the same way you do from the collective.”

“Right,” I said, suddenly weary of the conversation. “We both have jobs to do, so what do you want from us?”

“I just want you to see the truth. The Collective lied to us, Liam. About so many things.”

I took a slow breath and sighed. “Not this again. You cannot believe I would join Artemis. I’m not going to bond with any god. You know me better than that.”

“I do know you,” she said, “which is why I know you can see reason. Not all the gods wish to dominate the world. Not in the Zeus-Elohim sort of way. There is a New Pantheon forming on earth. It is going to change the world for the better. We will end hunger, suffering, and bring about a New Eden. Think of it, Liam. No more starvation. No more murder. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

“Sure. But there is a catch. The only way humans can ever achieve such a state is when they give up competition in favor of cooperation and global community. It might be possible in the future, but civilization isn’t ready for that. Not without taking away their free will.”

“Free will is a privilege. Not everyone will have that in New Eden. Not at first.”

“So … what happened to not dominating the world?”

“No one is being bonded. We will simply suppress the urge to do violence and nurture the part of the human mind desiring to give. They will be happier to be a part of something bigger than each individual.”

“And all the books burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Are you going to take away their ability to think as well?” 

“Of course not. Just their desire to obsess over wealth and petty rivalries. The world will work together to grow. In time, we can rival Atlantis. But not if we continue the way we are.”

“I will never condone anything that steals the mind and free will of another. Never.”

“Look what humanity has done with their free will. The Earth is dying from global warming. Wars are becoming more frequent. Governments are murdering their own people. The rich will inexorably drive the working class into abject poverty on a global scale with AI technologies. We are saving an entire race. Help me save them from themselves. Please.” 

I could feel the plea in her gaze. She truly believed in her own words. And though it felt like the real Victoria, I knew better. There was a fervor for this cause that could have only come from Artemis. The goddess had changed Victoria. And they would do this to all mankind if they got a chance.

“If this is all you wanted to say to me,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest, “then you are wasting your time.”

“No. Not a waste. In time, you will see reason.”

“Are we done then?”

“For now.” I felt the sound shield drop a heartbeat later. 

“—fucking smell like a barn, you gods damn heifer. Get your paws off.” Aiden broke free of their grasp and ran forward, only slowing when he’d reached me. “Fucking cows manhandling me. I am done with this farce. Time to go.”

“You still have not heard my offer,” Victoria said. “How do you intend to get home?”

“We’ll figure it out,” Aiden said. “There’s no way I could trust anything you gave us.”

“Sure you will. We will bind our agreement with a blood oath.”

“We can hear her out,” I said. “We both could use coffee.”

“Fine,” Aiden said, stomping ahead as if he knew the way. “But she’s paying.”

“I already said I would.” Victoria winked at me. “And you are going the wrong direction. It’s across here.”

She pointed to a building across another street. It was a Starbucks. 

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “Best coffee in the multiverse?”

“Can’t beat ‘em.”

“Well, at least I know what I’m getting.”

“Soy latte,” she said, “extra shot.”

“Two extra shots,” I said, not hiding my annoyance.

We crossed at another pair of teleporter disks and made our way to the coffee shop. There was outdoor seating, complete with green umbrellas and the trademark symbol of the Seattle-based coffee chain.

Inside looked the same as every Starbucks I’d ever been to. The dark wood, tiled floor with modern (for earth) lighting. Square tables filled a moderate space, separated by a long bar down the middle. More bar seating lined the windows that looked out onto the pedestrian walkway. I walked up to the counter. A barista came up to me immediately. She had pink hair and a nose ring, but otherwise entirely human. 

It was surreal.

“Can I offer you a toastie?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said, “And a venti quad-shot soy latte.”

She picked up a cup and asked, “Name?”

“Liam.”

She wrote ‘Will’ on the cup. “Anything else for you today?”

“Whatever they are having. And that young lady is picking up the tab.”

Aiden ordered next, adding far more than he could possibly eat or drink. Victoria didn’t complain or bat an eye. She paid without ordering for herself or the bull squad. 

“Shall we,” she said, gesturing to a table in the corner. 

“We will sit outside,” Aiden said, not giving anyone a chance to protest.

We followed him to a table in the middle of the patio. The minotaurs could not stand surreptitiously around the table, which is likely why Victoria ordered them to wait on the walkway. 

“What do you want?” Aiden said. “Make it quick.”

Drawing ether, she closed us into a sound bubble, far less subtle than the one she’d made on the street earlier. “Only for you to pick up a second artifact from Theseus.”

“Second artifact?” Aiden said, trying to play it dumb, but there was too much surprise in his eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“You should make sure your victims are truly unconscious before making plans in front of them.”

“You are insane,” Aiden said. “We would never take anything from Theseus. Have you not heard what he does to criminals here?”

“You are already stealing from him,” she said, as if he hadn’t protested, “so it won’t put you out. When you get into his vault, you’ll take this as well.” 

She pulled a thin folder from her purse and placed it on the table. When I went to grab it, she placed her hand on the folder, preventing me from taking it. I was tempted to play tug-of-war with her, but I met her gaze instead, giving her a get-on-with-it-already look. 

“This also has schematics of his compound as well as the details of his vault. There are guard postings and patrols, everything you need to get in and out, including details of the wards and traps protecting the castle and artifacts.”

“This is a set-up,” Aiden said. “You want us out of the way so you can get the Bermuda Nexus. You could not goad us into fighting, so you’ll get us arrested and executed this way instead.”

“We could have killed you on earth if that was our goal. You can be more use to us here. Your failure would be a complication for us as well.”

“A bit more so for us. We’ll be ripped apart. Literally.”

“You already intend to get inside,” she said, tapping the folder with one manicured fingernail. “With my help, you actually have a chance to make it out.”

“You have someone on the inside,” I said. “Who is it?”

“Clever boy,” she smiled. “But I cannot tell you that.”

“No way,” Aiden said. “We cannot trust her. For all we know, these schematics will lead us straight to the dungeon. Not worth it. We will find another way.”

“I can give you some time to consider your options,” she said, rising. “However, you should also know that if you reject my offer, Theseus will receive an anonymous tip that a couple of earthlings are planning to rob him. Can you believe those arrogant pricks were talking about it at the Starbucks? The nerve, right?”

“Bitch,” Aiden said.

“Such flattery. No wonder you always get the ladies.”

“And if we do this for you,” I said, “how do you intend to get us back to earth? Our earth in our home universe.” When dealing with a genius and master manipulator, you have to be specific. 

“We have access to a Finder Ship.” 

I felt half-a-second of confusion before I figured it out. Aiden was a bit slower. “A Finder Ship? Ridiculous. Then why did you trick us into smuggling you …” 

He trailed off. His expression grew slack. Then his cheeks reddened. His forehead scrunched up. I could practically see him bristle, shoulders squared up, readying for a fight. 

“Yes,” I said, putting my hand on his. “She tricked us with the Ferryman so we would be forced to take her help. We both fell for it.”

“Gods damn it,” Aiden said, standing. “I will fucking kill you—” 

I stood as well. “Stop! This isn’t helpful. We lost this round. Don’t make it worse by getting us arrested. Think for a minute.”

Victoria simply sat, giving Aiden a smug look, not too different from his own typical expression. She must have practiced that in a mirror to get it so perfect.

“We’ll do it,” I said. “But we will draft up the blood oath. You’ll sign it, or we’ll take a job as baristas and find a cozy life here.” And though I didn’t believe it, I added, “There is still chance the Ferryman will take us on a return trip.”

“Done,” she said, rising. She left the folder on the table as she turned to go. “You can reach me at the Lady’s Villa. Queen’s suite.”

She sauntered away without a backward glance, breaking the sound proof shield as she left. Aiden assaulted her with more curses than I could keep up with. 

“Will? Caden?” 

The barista stood with a drink carrier and an armful of paper sacks. 

“Sure. That’s us.”

She dropped the sacks on the folder and placed the drinks in front of me. “Called your names for five minutes.”

“Won’t happen again,” I said, crossing an X over my chest.

“No worries. I just hope it’s not cold. Let us know if we need to remake it.”

And that’s why I love Starbucks. Even if I’m the dumbass who left his order to get cold, they’d make it fresh without complaint. Maybe a bit of sass, but I don’t blame them.

We ravished the food for several minutes without talking. It gave me time to think. The more I thought, the more used I felt. Eventually, the anger I’d been suppressing while under pressure came bubbling up. 

“Gods I feel used,” I said. “We are fucking tools.”

“No. You are a tool. I wanted to turn her in to the Collective. You are the one insisting on saving everyone all the time. Even the megalomaniacal, manipulative bitches who don’t want to be saved.”

“She is not herself, and you know it,” I said, “Fuck Loki, but we have a chance—”

“Sorry, love, but you are not my type.” The man at the table beside us turned and eyed Aiden up and down, finishing his perusal of Aiden’s body with a seductive wink. “But he just might be.”

Aiden blinked. “What’s that now?”

The man wore an ostentatious fur coat made of velvet fur and lacy frills. He could have been Prince’s twin with a closely trimmed mustache and dark eyeliner which highlighted his brown eyes. His crimped black hair fell a few inches below his chin and shimmered as if he’d just stepped out of a shower. 

“Oh boyfriend,” he said, “That is one sweet ass you have. I could sop you up in gravy and eat you like a biscuit.”

Red flushed Aiden’s cheeks. “Uh. Thanks. But I’m not really dating right now.”

“Who said anything about a date?” He leaned forward, eyes now predatory.

Aiden’s nervous laugh failed to hold any actual mirth. 

The man gave himself a self-satisfied grin, head swaggering back and forth as he turned his body to fully face us. He lifted his coffee and sipped it, pinky out. 

I felt a strange connection to the man—not just the joy at seeing his ability to make Aiden squirm at a furtive glance. There was a resonant power coming from him that was familiar but I could not quite place. His eyes twinkled as if he had told a joke where only he knew the punchline, but he had the patience to wait it out rather than explain the pun.

As I opened my mouth to ask who he was, he said, “You must recognize the god you love to curse so often. I mean, do you really want to fuck me in so many orifices?”

The predatory smile turned on me. Just like that, my joy evaporated. 

“Loki?” I said. “Jesus Christ.”

“No. You had it right the first time.”

I knew he could smite me into oblivion, and there was little I could to do stop him. There were laws against murdering in Atlantis. They do not wish chaos to break out on their streets. However, the civilization was archaic in that Loki could demand satisfaction, forcing me to duel him to the death or admit guilt and be executed for dishonoring a citizen of Atlantis. Either way, I’d be dead.

And it would be my own fault for opening my big-fat mouth.

Chapter 13: Into Atlantis

Think of a mage gate like a wormhole. Two openings are made on the surface of an apple, allowing a worm to burrow through, rather than go around. In physics, a wormhole does not necessarily create a shorter path across a frame of space—this is simply a convenient mechanism for science-fiction movies. It is possible that a wormhole could make a path between two positions in space longer.

However, Atlantis is not across space from Earth. It is in a parallel universe, considered to be the centermost realm of Fae. I have not studied enough of wormhole geometries to understand how they came to this conclusion, but I do know that portals connecting reference frames across the multiverse take less time to traverse than those in the same universe. 

Mage gates create a negative energy density to keep the conjoined points in space from pinching off, allowing the portal to remain open between two differing realms. Rather than traverse the Fae Realm, a traveler can use the gates to reach other realms or distant points in our own universe.

Pretty badass, right? Eat your heart out, Einstein. 

Of course, few can intuit the currents of Fae. Without a Map or a guide—like the one we’d just paid dearly to bring us here—a hapless wanderer can find many pitfalls and predators quite easily. In short, if the Ferryman decided not to return us across Fae to our own universe, we would become stranded here, but let’s worry about such trivial details after planning and pulling off the heist. I mean, dead mages didn’t care much if their bodies were stranded somewhere. 

As I stepped across the archway of the portal, I cringed for the terrible sensation I’d felt leaving Antartica for the Fae Realm. It never came. Stepping out of Fae was almost euphoric. My body felt light as if in free fall, but pulled outward. My skin tingled with a warm glow for a full minute, making my stomach dance. 

When the sensation ended, I was standing on a beach with white sands and a blue ocean behind me. The sun was just rising, sending colorful rays skittering across the rolling waters. 

There was no sign of Victoria. 

Up the beach was a long queue of people—using that term loosely—leading up to a colossal wall, which surrounded a large patch of the sand, extending into the ocean. The setup had the feel of crossing the border at an airport, with roped off sections guiding travelers to guard booths. 

Only, you would not see angelic creatures with dark-winged feathers protruding from a medieval, steel breastplate at the airport. After all, they’d never get passed the metal detectors in that. Beyond, there was the hint of people bustling. I smelled coffee. Maybe Atlantis wouldn’t be so bad after all. 

“She’s not here,” Aiden said. “She must have gone through the smaller line.”

As he took a step, I grabbed his arm to stop him. He yanked free, scowling at me. “She’s going to get a way.”

I pointed to the sign. “My Atlantian is a bit rusty, but I’m pretty certain that says ‘Citizens only. All others to the right’.”

Aiden glanced up at the sign and squinted. “You can read that gibberish? Looks like Chinese.”

“Wow. In a single breath, you insulted two civilizations in separate universes.”

“What can I say? I’m an overachiever.” 

“Maybe it’s good you can’t speak the language. Far less likely that mouth of yours can start a duel.”

“Ha. Ha. You are so funny. Almost as comical as that shit-stain you call a face.” 

He walked up to the back of the long line to the right. I followed, trying not to curse him. I should follow my own advice, right? No telling who I might end up offending with a careless word. After all, some of the people I invoke as expletives might actually live here. Dropping Loki’s name as an insult might draw the wrong kind of attention. As two of the few earthling humans around, it would be difficult to blend in, but we could strive not to be noticed.

Glancing at Aiden’s frown, I would not hold my breath. As we waited, I did my best at remaining inconspicuous while noticing those nearby. 

The person in front of us in the line was exceptionally thin with curves similar to a human woman. Her skin appeared granular, as if made of stone. She wore tight-fitting fabric, almost like a unitard, but open at the top, exposing her shoulders and upper chest. Her hair was silver. Not white with a sheen— pure silver. She glanced back at us as we got in the queue behind her. I could see her eyes. They were turquoise with diamond pupils.

“Now who is being insulting?” Aiden whispered. “Ogling the aliens, eh?”

I jerked my eyes away, feeling my cheeks flush. I had been staring. Despite being a different species, likely from a different universe, she was exotic and stunning. Aiden was right. Staring could be taken as an insult as well. Still, I felt the need to reply. “Here, we are the aliens.” 

Aiden gave a snort, which I could not interpret as descent or affirmation. I let it go, continuing my surreptitious studying of those in my immediate vicinity. 

A group of Tennin soldiers came through the portal. I recognized them from my studies of Japanese lure. The shortest of them stood twice my height with pale, almost porcelain-colored faces and rosy cheeks. Some wore their hair bound in intricate braids, while others kept theirs loose. Their white wings were folded behind them, tightly enough to be mistaken for cloaks. They each wore leather armor with a circular emblem on their breasts. They carried swords, still spattered with the remnants of blood from whoever they’d slaughtered before coming here. 

And they got into line directly behind us. 

I sent mental pleas to Aiden to mind his business. He didn’t seem to notice the hulking forms behind us. One arm wrapped over his chest to prop up his elbow so he could rest his chin on his palm. He shuffled forward, expression split between half-bored and half-asleep. A few times, he might have actually dozed on his feet. 

The Tennin gave us both a glance over. I could see the dismissal in the largest one’s eyes. They did not see us as a threat in the least. Good. Beneath noticing. That’s great actually. 

For the next two hours, the line ebbed slowly forward. The crowd behind us grew at about the same pace it shrank in front. I saw many more classes of denizens I did not recognize, including an ape-like creature with four arms and a biped snake-lizard creature with at least twenty offspring. 

There were other races I recognized, including a few minotaurs, some goblins, and even a troll. All the half-bull creatures stood with an air of smug superiority. The three of them were dressed in tailored suits, leftover from an 80s Bond film. Rather than shoes, they stood motionless on hoofed feet, arms crossed in front until time to step forward. Somehow, they made the gesture look like a purposeful march, rather than a mindless shuffle. Their movements emphasized heavily muscled torsos hidden beneath those expensive jackets. Each of the minotaurs studied everyone and everything around them, including Aiden and myself. I pretended not to notice, trying to adopt Aiden’s bored expression. I’m certain I failed because I locked gazes with the tall minotaur with a hooped ring going through the septum of a fat nose. He did not glower, his face never changed, but I felt his attention on me after that. No matter which direction the line turned, I stayed in his periphery. Thankfully, they were several groups behind us in the queue. We’d be long gone before they came through after us.

The goblins were one of the few creatures smaller than Aiden and me. They were cuter than the images we had of them in the archives as well, with round, hairy faces and pinched noses. Their barking language made me want to pet one, and scratch behind those long adorable ears.

The troll was a huge, gangly thing with a humanoid face, complete with nose and mouth, but skin like dark leather. It wore actual sunglasses, too dense to see its eyes and nothing else save a loincloth made of white fur. Its muscles had more muscles with pale scars cut into countless places. And though the troll stood above every other person in line, the gnarled staff in its hand drew more gazes. The wood was covered in runes—a language I did not know—with a multicolored prism resting in the head. With minimal focus, anyone attuned to magic could feel energy radiating from the staff.

More “mythological” and scary-as-hell creatures came as our time in the queue grew shorter. Suffice it to say, by the time we reached the front of the line, I was reminded how small earth is and how weak humans are compared to all the other denizens in the multiverse. And of those, the most powerful beings across the realms take up residence in this universe and live on Atlantis. 

In case this detail was not apparent, Atlantis is an entire planet. Most people expect something out of Arthurian Legend, like a city in the clouds. But it’s more like a steampunk earth. Only, there is a single nation, ruled by The Pantheon (note the capital “T” and “P”). 

Athens is the entry point into Atlantis. Much like it’s counterpart on earth, it is located on a peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea, only it spans the entire northern region and is filled with people trying to break into the lucrative economy. There are also refugees, those fleeing the harsh conditions of a hostile home world. And of course, there are several criminals, coming here to escape justice. None of those are Citizens of Atlantis. All the real-estate is spoken for and rented out at a premium. The currency of Atlantis isn’t bitcoin. It is regular coins. Believe it or not, the precious metals of earth are rare in the multiverse and is a convenient means of multiversal currency—which is why the Collectives of earth use it. We are fucking sophisticated, bitches. 

Sorry, spending too much time with Aiden. 

Athens is one of the largest cities of Atlantis and has little crime because this region is ruled by Theseus, hero of the Attic legend, who is famous for tying criminals up and ripping them apart in front of crowds of onlookers. Brutal but effective. Yet, what did it say about our wisdom seeing as how the entire reason Aiden and I came here was to steal from him?

We would buy the artifact from him, but we are only earth rich. Dollars won’t do much here. Even if it did, all of Aiden’s and my wealth combined might be able to afford a single bed rental for a year here. And it wouldn’t be lofty. It would just be a place to sleep. I was already cringing at the room we need to procure. 

“Next.” 

I looked up from my musings to see the way between us and the gate empty. Thirteen stations were open. Beside each was an archway. Though invisible, I could feel the energy barring entry into the city. A minotaur at the fourth booth waved us forward. She also wore a suit, though it was much tighter in the chest than the minotaurs still in the queue behind us.

As we stepped forward, Aiden asked beneath his breath. “You think she has utters?”

I’m certain he meant it as a joke. Though they possessed the head of a bull, minotaurs had human bodies. No utters. Just breasts like the rest of us. Still, my cheeks instantly heated. I almost tripped.

When I regained my footing, I glared at Aiden. “Be cool, man.”

He gave me the smirk that always makes me want to flatten his smug nose. I took deep breaths to compose myself. 

I smiled at the border security guard. “Good morning.”

She spoke in Atlantian in a husky but feminine voice. “Passports.”

Fishing the rune-covered stone from my purse, I placed it on the counter, motioning for Aiden to do the same. The talisman is attuned to each mage. It requires an individual’s ethereal pattern to be constructed and is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to counterfeit. Each ethermage gets one upon becoming a master. Aiden plopped his down next to mine with a resounding thud. 

“Blood,” she said. “One drop at the center.”

Though she offered a needle, I used my belt dagger to prick the tip of my index finger and touched it to the stone. The runes resonated with energy. 

“Liamorandus Fianna,” she said as if reading the waves of energy. Ethermage of the Celtic Collective of Earth. Race, Human. You are a master of ether magic?”

“Yes,” I said in Atlantian. 

“What is your business in Atlantis?”

“We have come on pleasure to Athens. I hear you have the best coffee in the multiverse.”

“Do you plan to travel outside of Athens?”

“Not likely. No.”

“Where do you intend to stay while within the region?”

“We have yet to procure lodging,” I said. “We plan to find something on the gulf side. Any recommendations?” 

She turned her attention to Aiden. “Blood.”

Aiden went through a similar procedure, me acting as an interpreter. I modified some of his answers, removing the pomp in favor of conservative dialogue. 

She used a rod to send pulses of energy into our passports then pushed them back to us. Whatever she’d done had the feel of invocation, likely some form of divination pattern. In other words, they could keep tabs on us easily. 

“Keep your passports on you at all times.” She gestured toward the portal, then turned her attention back to the queue. “Enjoy your stay.”

As she called for the next traveler, part of me considered asking for recommendations again, but that was just the lack of coffee talking. Everyone knows, you do not want to push boundaries with airport security. Those assholes have a god-complex worse than Loki’s, looking for any excuse to feel you up—rather … pat you down. That truth holds doubly here. Only the pat down involves protrusion into orifices using magic. 

No thank you.

So I sauntered through the archway and into a stone walkway of earth tones. People rushed left and right, barely glancing our way, even though I had stopped to gape like a yokel. The clash of genres was off-putting. I could not tell if I had stepped onto an episode of the Jetsons or Game of Thrones. 

The walk path ended at a street, also cobbled but with red stone. Self-driving cars without wheels hovered next to horse-drawn carriages. One person flew a Harry Potter style broom, while another rode the motorcycle from Grease—an actual Honda Scrambler. In the air, valkyries flew through skyscrapers which disappeared into the sky. Down the street, I could see a gray wall. Behind it was a castle, complete with spires and ramparts. Every architectural wonder from anywhere in history existed here plus others from fantasy. 

“Hello, stranger. You look lost.” 

The familiar voice made my back stiffen. I turned to see Victoria standing behind me. She had changed into a red dress, fit to her form. A necklace shimmering with prisms fell across her bare chest. Her hair had been arranged in a woven bun. Four minotaurs in black suits were with her, two on either side. 

She smiled at my discomfort. “Can we go somewhere and talk?

Chapter 12: Fair Shake

I’ve faced all manner of creatures in my time. I’ve mentioned the minotaurs. I’ve also hunted vampires, ghouls, ghasts and other undead most people have never heard of, like Drauger—which are strong like titans and intelligent enough to have motivations, such as destroy all living beings. The Lich King Chitragupta gained power by consuming the ethereal energy of the living. Despite eating many of my fellows, I fought that bastard to a stalemate, then participated in banishing him from earth for the next 152 years. 

Demons are chaotic and devils are wily, and both are often enthralled to a wythermage. With the help of Aiden, Victoria, and Abigail—before the latter two lost their damn minds and bonded themselves to a goddess—we took out a score of demons from the realm of Dubnos, along with the summoner who called them. 

I killed a titan off the Gulf of Bothnia, a Cerubus Mount Giona, Greece, and a Wyvern above the Aegean Sea. In all these cases and dozens more like them, I had been prepared to do battle. Even when outmatched, I had never been out-gunned.

Until now.

The Ferryman held his power, watching us with unimaginable intensity. I did not move. Beside me, Aiden clutched my elbow as if urging me to do something. There were several arrium inside the bag at my feet that might offer us a chance to survive this, but reaching for them might get us killed.

Diplomacy. That’s what we needed. Sure, we broke his one rule, but he was a reasonable sort of guy and he had not blasted us to ashes yet. There was a chance he would talk, right?

“So,” I said, hoping better words would form in my mind and make their way to my lips. They didn’t. “Uh … can we talk about this?”

The Ferryman stood there, seeing beyond our flesh. He stared as if counting every molecule of my being. Then his gaze moved onto Aiden before settling back on me. This went on for some time. I once again considered going for a weapon and rejected it. Instead, I readied myself to throw a quick shield spell, hoping it would at least stop some of the force of whatever hell he called up to rip us asunder. 

“You have been claimed by a citizen of Atlantis, so I will not smite thee to oblivion,” the Ferryman said at last. “However, there will be a cost to your violation of my realm. You will both—”

“Claimed?” Aiden asked, “What do you mean claimed?”

Though I cringed at the Ferryman’s expression at being interrupted, I wanted the answer as well. Only the most powerful beings in the universe earned a place of permanent residence in Atlantis. These included every known god and goddess of earth, as well as the more powerful denizens of the inner realms of Fae. A Citizen of Atlantis was protected by the Atlantis Accords. As far as I knew, the only claim someone could have over us was if we were bonded to them. I knew I wasn’t, so … could it mean Aiden had been bonded all this time as well? Were Aiden and Abby working together? If so, how in hades had he hidden it from me? As much as I wanted to ask these questions, I bit my tongue—mostly due to the lightning storm of anger in the god-like being’s eyes, who happened to be glaring at us at the moment. Survive now, beat the answers out of Aiden later.

“You test my patience, child of earth. Do not interrupt me again.” The energy crackled around the Ferryman’s oar, emphasizing his aforementioned ability to smite us. “Understood?”

Aiden bit his tongue and nodded. Inwardly, I sighed in relief.

“As I was saying. You will both offer a task as payment for the passage of Victoria Cleopatra Deletante. Additionally, for smuggling an unwilling captive onto my boat, you will consign to me a drop of blood as collateral. Do you accept these terms?”

“Just for clarification,” Aiden asked, “is this our only option? I mean … how about another couple hundred years of service instead?”

“Blood and a favor,” the Ferryman said. “That is the deal.”

“And if we say no?” Aiden pressed.

“Claimed or not, you will find yourself in service to the River Styx far sooner than you planned.”

From the look in his eyes, I could tell Aiden was considering a fight or maybe just a follow-up question. Either way, I didn’t want to find out if the Ferryman would carry out his threat. Before Aiden could say something that would get us murdered violently, I said, “We will take the deal.”

“We will?” Aiden said.

“Yes,” I said between my teeth. “We will.”

“Very well.” 

Faster than I could track with my natural sight, the Ferryman produced a knife and stabbed the tip into my hand then Aiden’s arm. With a trickle of ether, a single drop of blood floated above my hand. Air solidified around the crimson drop and compressed it into a sphere. Likewise, Aiden’s blood floated over to the Ferryman and vanished inside his gray cloak. It all happened faster than my brain could register the sting of the cut on my skin.

“What favor?” Aiden asked, voice a bit sullen as he pressed a hand to the small cut in his bicep. 

“You will know when I call you. Now get off my boat.”

He did not have to tell me twice. I all but hopped onto the black sand and hurried toward the gate that would take us to Atlantis. After getting well clear of the Ferryman, I gathered ether and healed the cut. Aiden didn’t bother. He stepped between me and the gate, squaring off for a fight. 

“What did he mean, claimed?”

I pulled up short. “I was going to ask you the same thing.” 

He drew much more ether than necessary to heal the small cut on his arm. I pulled in enough to match him. 

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“What are you doing?” he said. 

“Aside from saving your dumb ass from annihilation from a god?” I said, “I’m trying to figure out what the hell is going on here. Are you working with Abby and Victoria?”

“Don’t turn this around on me. I know I’m not bonded.”

“I’m not bonded,” I snapped. 

“How did Victoria escape?” he countered.

“You put the shackles on her. You tell me.” 

“And you gave her fucking pillows. I saw you. Don’t deny it.”

“It was dark. The stones are hard. I love her, you asshole.”

“Which is why you would bond yourself to Artemis. Gods damn it. I should have known.”

I held my hands wide. “I’m not fucking bonded. You would sense it, you dolt.”

By the same argument, I would sense his bond. 

Aiden frowned. 

I frowned.

We stayed that way for sometime, both holding the ether, neither one moving, glowering at the other. 

For those keeping count, I said there were 7 schools of magic, but I only explained 6 before. Essence magic—sometimes referred to as soul magic or kotodama—is volatile, and though not illegal, Grandmaster Tomoe Gozen of the Samurai Collective recruits all of his own students herself. 

Essence magic is that art of burning a bit of the essential energy to create a permanent enchantment, charm, or effect. It is, by and large, the most powerful school of magic because the skill can be used to enhance any spell. Imagine creating a physical body that will never decay or a house that will stand for a million years. This is possible with essence magic. An essence, the soul, is eternal. It is made of stuff outside the effects of entropy and the wearing of time. Using it to power a spell is dangerous but lasting. 

These spells empower the bonds that link a thrall to a master, which is why we have no way of severing the chains holding a bonded mage from their chosen deity. In theory, a talented mage could use essence magic to break such a bond, but even Grandmaster Gozen is not capable. Before becoming a member of the Collective, Grandmaster Gozen was a samurai to Yoshinaka in the twelfth century. Her dedication to her craft is inscrutable. She has vowed to remain living until she has found a way to sever the unbreakable bond. After over 900 years of trying, she has not succeeded. 

There is a resonance to essence spells that can be sensed by a mage with even the smallest amount of talent. Either Aiden or myself would be able to tell if the other was bonded.

I sensed no such resonance on Aiden. I knew he sensed no such power over me. 

With a sigh, I released my hold on the ether. Aiden did the same, likely for the same reasons. He confirmed as much by saying, “This is pointless. You are clearly not bonded.”

“And neither are you,” I said as a way of apology. “But what did he mean do you think?”

He shrugged. “Earthen magic is not the only power that exists in the multiverse.” 

“True,” I agreed. “Perhaps there is Fae magic lingering on us or some other power we cannot detect.”

“That’s a sobering thought.” Aiden frowned and wiped at his cloak as if trying to brush off dirt. “Or it could simply be that an earth deity has placed us under their protection. It isn’t Artemis. Abigail already tried to kill us once or twice.”

“But did she? Think about it. Victoria was prepared for this. She slipped the shackles and waited until we had almost reached Atlantis.”

“She could not have slipped the shackles using the ether.”

“Then how? There is no lock to pick or seam to leverage.”

“That’s the million sterling question, isn’t it? But I think a more important question is why? What does she want in Atlantis? Do you think she is after the same artifact we are?”

“Not likely. She would have waited for us to risk our own necks then take it from us. After all, we thought she’d been properly cowed. And to think, I actually felt bad about locking her up.”

He snorted. “Of course you did. You’re soft. And when she’s concerned, you’re practically melted butter.”

“Melted butter? That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Not every zinger can properly zing. Besides, it’s been a long day. Gimme a break.”

“No such luck,” I said. “Day’s still gonna get longer.”

“What day is it anyway?”

“Tuesday still, I think.” 

“As if it matters,” he said, turning toward the portal. “We aren’t going to figure any of this shit out standing here.”

“Right,” I agreed. “Let’s see what Victoria has waiting for us on the other side.”

Taking a few deep breaths, we stepped through the portal. 

Chapter 11: Crossing Fae

We stepped through the archway onto black sand, speckled with glowing gems, no larger than a single karat. As mere mortal earthlings, we have learned to think of a river as a flowing body of water bounded between two masses of land. The River Styx seemed endless. White waters rested against the banks. Ripples reverberated across the otherwise still surface, so completely unlike an ocean’s waves, it felt fake—as if made via computer for a B-film. 

A cloaked figure stood by the water’s edge with its back to us. The cloak was a faded gray, as if it had once been black. Not tattered exactly, but the hem was frayed and dragged the sand as the figure turned toward us. I was surprised by the young face looking at us. His midnight black hair spilled from his cowl covering his pale cheeks. Ancient eyes of gold watched our approach with a predatory hunger. 

I could still feel ether and wyther in abundance. Much of it came from the River Styx and the sand at our feet. But a vibrant source of power radiated from the figure as well, easily the equal of Aiden and me and maybe five or six more mages together. 

I felt like a rabbit walking into a lion’s den of its own Darwin-award winning free will. I was aware of each step in the dark sand. The walk felt like a mile. Don’t fucking trip. That was the only thought I could make go through my brain. Over and over. I resisted the urge to glance back to see how far we had gone, but I dared not take my eyes from the Ferryman. Such an innocuous sounding name, like the gardener or chef. Seriously, someone needs to correct this oversight for the history books. 

As we neared, the Ferryman seemed to grow taller, so much so that I had to crane my neck to look up at him. If I had to guess I would say 11 or 12 feet tall. Though any ethermage could cast a spell to grow like that, no lingering magic hung to him. He was clearly not human. The thin angular face and golden eyes suggested a Fae race, an elf maybe. Whatever he was, I wanted to pull in a little ether and grow to his size, then I’d be able to meet his gaze straight on. I’d feel less like prey, but he might take it as a challenge. The buzz of power surrounding him, I did not want that. Besides, I was not that petty. Thank the Allfather and the rest of the gods, Aiden wasn’t either. At least not at the moment.

The Ferryman showed his teeth in what might have been a smile. “What brings you to my shore, children of earth?”

Aiden stepped half a step forward. “We wish to bargain for passage across Fae, to the lands of Atlantis.” 

“Of course,” he said, predatory smile increasing. “Are you prepared to pay the toll?”

There was an inauspicious quality to his tone. Something in it suggested, he would not tell us the price if we asked. Which made me want to ask. Maybe we could negotiate for better terms. But Aiden spoke first.

“We are. We pledge service upon our death.” Aiden swallowed, a slight quiver to his voice as he added, “One hundred earth years each.”

The Ferryman gave a slight incline to his head. “Payment accepted. Please, come this way.”

He gestured toward the white ocean. The water parted like mercury on glass, revealing an old wooden dinghy with a single oar attached to the side. Not more than five meters across, the vessel looked tiny next to the endless white waters. I felt a pit rise in my stomach as we followed him onto the boat. The wood creaked beneath our feet. 

“So … uh,” Aiden said. “You ever consider upgrading? I know this guy who could get you a helluva deal on a yacht.” 

“I have no need of mortal luxuries. But thank you for your kindness.” I swear he smiled as he said, “You will want to sit down.”

The moment his fingers wrapped around the pole, the boat lurched away from the shore. We sat our not-so-happy assess on the wooden plank at the rear of the dinghy. A sphere of energy surrounded us just before the vessel descended into the white substance—calling it water now felt completely absurd. It swirled against the invisible barrier as we hurtled through at Loki only knew what speed. 

Aiden leaned over and whispered, “Feels like a ley, eh?”

Extending my senses out, I realized that was exactly what it felt like. We could travel through the River in a similar fashion to the leys. Only, the Ferryman made use of the currents, changing directions at will. We had no such control of the ley lines. We hopped in and off like hobos getting on and off an already moving train. This showed a mastery beyond our capability.

“Sure,” I said, at last. “Just like the leys.”

Aiden gave me a tight smile. And for once, the bastard looked as queasy as I felt. We rode in silence for some time. I tried and failed to quiet my mind. 

We were on our way to a Fae world to steal from a being more powerful than any human in a land—though neutral—mostly hostile to human ethermages. If we managed to avoid getting killed by the various denizens of Atlantis, we would be at the Ferryman’s mercy to get home. Again, I wish we would have negotiated. Perhaps, the hundred years would have paid for a return trip. I mean … it seems kinda steep for a simple boat ride—

Power flared from within my dimensional pocket. It hadn’t come from me. Victoria was in there. But she was held by shackles of negation. She couldn’t have. Could she?

The Ferryman’s back stiffened. He turned to look at me, those golden eyes simmering with anger. “Are you attempting to smuggle a soul across my river?”

“What?” I said, voice far shriller than I would have liked. “No. It is not like that. She is a prisoner. A criminal.”

“Bring her forward.”

“If I may interject—” Aiden began, but the Ferryman lifted a finger, cutting off Aiden’s protests. 

“Bring. Her. Forward.”

“At once,” I said, pulling my pack off my back. The sides of the boat were not large enough to secure an opening, so I handed the backpack to Aiden, who held it open without being asked. His fingers trembled slightly as he lifted it. 

The fear in his eyes mirrored my own. This was not going to end well. I mean … I had a girl tied up in my basement. Thank all the gods and their kids I had given her those pillows and tried to make her comfy, or someone might get the wrong idea.

I gathered ether and lifted the rug and stone by the fireplace. Rather than lift her, I rearranged the stones to make a staircase up.

“Vic,” I called, using my old moniker for her in hopes to sound less like a serial killer and more like a normal guy helping his old friend out. “Would you please come up here?”

There was a slight whimper and a shuffling of bare feet on stone. What the actual fuck?

Victoria emerged from the darkened hole looking far more haggard than when I’d left her. Her v-neck was missing several green sequins and was ripped, exposing much of her torso and part of her breasts, which she covered with both arms. Likewise, her black leggings appeared as if they’d been torn from her and hastily replaced. She held her eyes downcast, not meeting anyone’s gaze. There were welts on her wrists where the shackles had been. Had been. Past tense.

Fuck. Yeah. We were dead.

She scampered from the dimensional pocket, stumbling to the deck and looking up at the Ferryman, eyes filled with fear and hope. She deserved a gods damned Emmy for that performance.

“It’s not what it looks like,” Aiden said. I could hear the panic in his voice, which made us appear even more guilty. “She’s a prisoner of the Collective.”

“What is your name, child of earth?”

She lifted her chin. Her bottom lip quivered. And she produced actual gods damned tears as she said, “I am Victoria Cleopatra Deletante. And these men … hurt me.”

“She’s a bonded mage,” Aiden said. “We were—”

“I do not recognize her name from my list of fugitives. Do you have documents for her bounty?”

He said documents and bounty with a lowercase “d” and “b”, but Bounty Documents were universally recognized magical writs for a person’s transportation across Fae. Such universally recognized criminals had broken the Accords of Atlantis. 

I was going to elaborate upon this when we reached Atlantis, but before you can truly understand the shit-storm about to come our way, you had to understand a bit of the politics of the ancient realm of the Fae. 

Atlantis is far more than a city. It is the oldest civilization in the universe. It’s rules and mandates supersede all others in regards to the Fae Realm. Think of it like a militant Switzerland. Though technically neutral, they have the power and ability to take over the multiverse but choose not to get involved in the local affairs of a given world unless individual members violate their laws. Such people get assigned bounties and get hunted down to be returned to Atlantis, where the pantheon metes out Justice—which incidentally is how Ino got tasked with guarding the gate to the River Styx. 

The River is the Ferryman’s seat of power, similar to the nexuses on Earth. For all intents and purposes, he is a god with his own domain. Unlike the gods of Earth, the Ferryman does not bond mages in search for more power. He creates indentured servants of the dead, all tasked with ferrying souls to their assigned afterlife. Of the living, he requires only a single favor, far better than a lifetime of servitude required by the Earthen pantheon, from Artemis to Zeus. But I digress. 

In his domain, the Ferryman gets to set his own rules. He has only one: all travelers seeking passage across the River must pay a toll. None shall pass without negotiating with him. Stowaways will not be tolerated. 

“We do not have Bounty Documents,” I said at last. “She is a criminal of Earth. Not Atlantis.”

“Then she is free to go.”

Seeing his expression, I could tell Aiden would argue. I put a hand on Aiden’s wrist to indicate he should shut the fuck up. Thank Amaethon, goddess of luck, he did. But he did cast me an, “this is all your fault,” expression that could have also been, “go fuck yourself, you bloody wanker.”

“Th-thank you,” Victoria said, standing and limping over toward the Ferryman.

“Which side of the River do you wish to depart company with these earthlings.”

“Earth,” she said, “but can I catch my breath for a few days in Atlantis.”

“Aye,” he said, somehow glaring at both Aiden and me simultaneously. “These two will pay for your passage.”

“Pay how?” Aiden asked.

The Ferryman turned back to his ore without responding. I shared a look with Aiden. The anger had drained from his face, along with the color. His pale cheeks were pallid. He chewed his lip and turned away from me. 

To Victoria’s credit, she continued the role for the remainder of the trip, avoiding eye-contact with anyone. But I could read her better than anyone. She kept her gaze down so no one could see the smirk in her eyes.

Yeah. I’m an idiot. That’s not in debate at the moment. I saw it all so clearly now. Abigail baiting me back to the Eternal War. Victoria going to that party. Her getting captured. All of it had been planned. Like a love-sick puppy, I licked the heel of my masters. Victoria wiggled her toes, and I came running. Why? What was her end game?

She had wanted to come to Atlantis. That was certain. And she’d gotten me and Aiden to get her across the River for free. Her ride back was on us as well. But what did she want here? Surely not Theseus’s artifact. If that was the case, she would want to work with us, or at the very least wait to Houdini her way free after we got the thing. 

We came to a stop. The shell opened, revealing the white surface of the River Styx once more. The boat came to another shore, virtually identical to the one we’d left. Only, the gems sparkling in the sand gave off a deep blue glow rather than a white luminescence, and there were thirteen different gates, each with complex formulae covering them.

The Ferryman’s voice was cold. “Give her some coins for food and lodging.” 

One glance at Aiden told me he would rather die than pay a pence. 

“Of course,” I said, pulling the purse from a pocket of my cloak. I fished out a small handful, dropping the heaviest ones back inside the coin bag. 

Fingers trembling—seriously, how the hell did she do that on cue?—she reached out and took my coins.

The Ferryman pointed to the middle arch. “Atlantis is that one.”

Once her foot stepped onto the sand, he turned toward us, his back to Victoria. He did not see her triumphant grin. Nor did he see her mouth, “Thanks, bitches.” 

But I did. And so did Aiden. 

After she disappeared through the portal, the Ferryman turned his gaze on us, seeming to grow even taller. He pulled his cowl down. Long pointed ears emerged from his hair. He drew power. Energy crackled around him, like a Tesla coil. 

I’d like to say that I stood tall and brave in the face of my impending doom. In truth, I nearly pissed myself. 

Chapter 7: Old Tricks

Aiden’s glassy eyes glared down at Victoria. He took his arm from around Red Dress and literally bit his thumb and flicked it in Victoria’s direction. His smug smirk made me want to flatten his nose, so I could only imagine what it did to Victoria’s ego. She’d never liked Aiden, and he had replaced her as my partner. His arrogant expression said as much and invited her to smite him. From her smoldering gaze, that was her intention, so we had that going for us.

Believe it or not, we’d planned for this inevitability. After all, one does not intentionally walk into an obvious trap without first securing a means of escape. I had hoped to get more information about Abigial’s plans before springing the snare, but hey, no one is perfect. 

“A fucking chariot?” I said. “Really? And you brought a norm?”

The horses stood at attention, unnaturally calm. Upon closer inspection, their midnight coats and long black manes were coated in small embers that flared and pulsed with their breathing. As they stared at the impending battle with intelligent eyes, smoke rising from their nostrils.

“With nightmares? Where the—”

As Victoria’s time bubble dropped over us, the arrium in my pocket activated, inverting the dilation of time around the point of origin. Victoria and her nymphs all froze. The energy of her burned ether would power the spell based on her initial expenditure of power. From the wave of wyther filling the air, Victoria had tried to hit us with all the ether she could pull, which was admittedly far more than when she’d been my partner. 

I pulled the timepiece from my cloak pocket to confirm. Yep, the second hand had thirty-seven seconds until midnight. The arrium pulsed with the spent power. A slow-motion crack made its way up the clock-face. Once the time bubble popped, so would the timepiece. We needed to be gone before then. I did not like our chances against so many.

“No time to get them all,” I told Aiden. 

“Let me guess, you think we should grab Victoria.”

“She is the only bonded mage. The others could be victims of Abigail’s scheming.”

Could be,” he said. “But we won’t know unless we question them.”

“Twenty-one seconds. And, there’s a good chance the shackles will nullify the time dilation. Once we nab Victoria, we’ll need to bolt.”

“Fuck. I hate it when you’re right. Get her and let’s go.”

I ran toward Victoria, trying not to count the seconds remaining. Her face was a mask of calm serenity, her hand frozen halfway to her back, where she concealed her two handed sword in its glamor-sheath. She was always a fierce fighter. Most of our sparring ended in a draw, but over the years, she had defeated me as often as I had her. Now, she was super-powered by her connection to the goddess Artemis. She could sling more ether and draw wyther without the damage to her ethereal pattern. In a fair fight, I would not have a chance. Fortunately, we mages are a tricky lot. Honor duels are for the middle ages. And even then, they were dumb. Where is the valor in dying because you gave your opponent a “fair” chance to kill you? Ridiculous. Fight to win.

I pulled out the shackles I’d taken from the Collective and snapped the smaller bracelets around her wrists. Once the neck piece closed around her neck, the mass of energy in the air dissipated, as I thought it would. The time bubble collapsed.

The nymphs stumbled forward, confusion in their expressions. Seeing me next to her, Victoria flinched. Instinctively, she tried to draw ether. The shackles flared, disrupting the flow of energy around her. She screamed from the pain of the backlash and slumped forward. 

Enhancing my strength with ether, I caught her and threw her unceremoniously over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. 

“Get on,” Aiden said, wheeling the chariot next to me. 

The girl in the red dress stared at me, eyes wide with wonder. Even though his arm was around her, Aiden looked at her as if surprised she was still there.

“Uh, right,” he said, “time to go, love.”

“Where are we going?” she asked, clearly not ready to quit the sudden adventure.

“You aren’t coming,” he said. “But I’ll call you. I swear.”

He gathered her in a flow of air and lifted her off the chariot, setting her gently on the dance floor next to another young co-ed. 

I climbed on and said, “Let’s go.” 

He flicked the reins, and the nightmares leapt toward the wall. Ether flared around Aiden. A hole formed in the old wood large enough for us to ride through and closed after we cleared the portal. I wrapped us in a globe of invisibility as we flew higher and faster. 

A few minutes later, we landed in my backyard. Aiden walked to the lead horse and placed a hand on its neck, patting the creature fondly. He spoke a few words, opening a gateway to a dark plane. Heat billowed through the opening. The nightmares leapt through, leads and chariot dissolving just a few feet into the other plane. 

Adjusting Victoria over my shoulder so I could look Aiden in the face, I said, “I can’t believe you summoned nightmares to earth. We’ll need to talk about that when we get a few minutes. 

“What’s to talk about? I needed horses. They owed me a favor.” He shrugged. “End of story.”

“Open the door,” I told him. “Preferably before Mrs. Crangston decides to investigate and see us carrying a beautiful, unconscious woman into my basement and gets the wrong idea.”

He snorted, but he also picked up his pace, hurrying to the door and flinging it open. I took Victoria to the basement and secured her to my interrogation chair. It was made of steel and bolted to the floor with long arms. Since not all of those sitting in the seat are exactly human, the chair rested in the center of a containment circle. 

I eased Victoria into the chair, trying not to smell the sweet fragrance of her perfume. It was the same scent she’d worn for several decades now. Another pang of loss rippled through me. Steeling my nerves, I fastened the clamps around her wrists and ankles, binding her to the chair. Not even a minotaur could break free of the spell. 

“Move,” Aiden said, breaking smelling salts in front of her face.

Her head whipped back and she shook off the grogginess. She looked up at Aiden, expression dismissive, before her gaze turned to me. 

“I thought you preferred to be the one tied up,” she said with a wink.

“This is not a game,” I said. “Tell us what we need to know, and we can be done with this.”

She shrugged as if it did not matter either way.

“Why the university?” I asked. “What is Abigail playing at?”

“You used to be good at chess, Liamorandus. You have not figured it out yet?”

“Obviously she is recruiting,” I said, ignoring the fact that she was baiting me. “What is her end game?”

“I think you know that as well.”

“Right,” Aiden said, flicking the syringe. “As much as I enjoy the banter, it’s truth time.”

She snorted as if she did not care, but I knew her well enough to see the fear in her eyes. Our gazes met for a few seconds, sending a pang of regret and angst rippling through me. We’d been far more than partners and lovers. For nearly six decades, Victoria had been my closest friend. Seeing the needle move closer to her neck made my stomach lurch. I turned away.

“This is not necessary,” Victoria said. “I will tell you the truth.”

“You’ll understand,” Aiden said, “if I do not believe you.”

From Victoria’s grunt, he’d administered the serum. The ether-laced particles would make their way to her brain. Every time she told the truth, her brain’s pleasure centers would activate, flooding dopamine into her system. When she lied, she’d get cortisol and other stress hormones. In short, when she was honest, she would feel intoxicating joy. When she lied, her worst nightmares would manifest. The serum also compelled her to speak her thoughts. She could not resist talking, and the more truths she told, the more she would want to say.

“What is your name?” Aiden said. Establishing a dopamine hit early was necessary. Really, anything to get her talking would expedite the spread of the serum. 

“Thanks for the easy one,” she said. “Victoria Cleopatra Deletante.”

“Why are you here?”

“You brought me here, you fucking dalcop.” She sucked in a breath, eyes blinking in euphoria. Victoria had used the interrogation serum enough to know how to give half-truths. And I saw the effort of not speaking in her features, the way she gripped the handles of the chair, the way she licked her lips and tightened them. She desperately wanted to not say something.

“Why did you come to Tallahassee?” I asked. “Why recruit college kids?”

“Abigail sent me here to kill you if I could. At the very least, I would be a distraction. And we need more nymphs for what she has planned.”

“And that is?” Aiden asked.

“Something big.” Her eyes rolled backward. The serum would make her give us truths, not necessarily the information we sought. Eventually, the excess dopamine would make her hallucinate. Soon after that, she would pass out. If I was her, I would try to stall us until being rendered senseless. And she’d always been cleverer than me. Not that I would ever admit to that aloud. 

“Give us details,” Aiden said. 

“Bermuda,” she said, breathing hard. “We are going to steal Poseidon’s seat. When we do, Artemis will raise Abigail to be her demi-god.” 

“And the college kids?” I asked. “They are what … fodder?”

“Yes. She is training them to draw ether and wyther. Some of them could be proper mages some day, but few will live through this. She knows you will try to save some of them. You cannot help trying to play at being a hero.” 

“That’s why you took the original syphon. Abigail plans to harness their raw energy for when you go up against Poseidon.” 

“You already knew that,” Victoria said, smiling so broadly her expression looked crazed. “Are you just toying with me now, Liamorandus? Making me feel good for old time’s sake?” She arched her back as if in pleasure, making her torso do interesting things.

“My turn.” Aiden pushed me aside to stand looming over Victoria. “Where is Abigail now?’

“She made sure that I did not know in case this happened.” Enough sweat beaded on her forehead to drip down her cheek.

“Fuck,” Aiden said. “Of course the cunt-wrangler would have planned for this.”

“Such lovely language,” Victoria said, “and for your own sister.”

He aimed a finger in warning at Victoria’s nose. “That abomination is not my sister. My sister died over a century ago at the hands of your master.” 

“Where is her main base of operations?” I asked. 

“Off world, on a planet called Adaer. Only a wyther gate can take you there and from specific bridge points.” Her gaze drifted beyond me and Aiden. She smiled as if seeing someone else. “Don’t worry. I only told them what you ordered me to.”

“What does that mean?” Aiden demanded as I asked, “Where are the bridge points?”

She laughed. “Old tricks work both ways,” she said almost to Aiden, but her eyes drifted upward as if seeing someone taller. “You never were good at chess. Well, you could never beat me at least. No. You’re wrong there. He still loves me. It’s in his eyes.”

“Shit,” Aiden said. “We are going to lose her soon. Anything else you want out of her before we do?”

I nodded and turned back. “One last question.” I could not help myself. I needed to know. “What you said before, about Abigail having my blood and your reasons for bonding to Artemis, was it true?”

Sweat poured down her face. Her head swiveled toward me, sobering somewhat. She struggled to keep her eyes open as she looked up at me and labored to speak. “Every. Word. I …”

Her eyes rolled into her skull, and her head lulled to the side. Her breathing came in the slow, steady breaths of someone in deep sleep. As I looked down at her, my heart did backflips in my stomach. I felt ill. 

I had never loved anyone like I had her. She had sacrificed everything she believed in to save me. And I had done this to her. I fell to my knees and wretched my guts on the floor. When I was finished, I could feel Aiden standing over me. 

He offered me a handkerchief. “Clean up. We need to get her to the Collective.”

Where they would kill her. He didn’t say it, but I could see the conviction in his eyes. Gods damn it, but I could not let them kill her. I just couldn’t. But what choice did I have?

If I turned against the Collective, they would hunt me as if I had not given two centuries to the cause. This was Victoria. She had been the best of us. Maybe there was a way to save her, break the bond with Artemis. The Collective said it was impossible, but how hard had they tried? If I took her in, I could spend all the influence I had trying to save her.

What in hades should I do?

What do you think Liam should do?

A.) She was telling the truth. She turned against the Collective to save him. Liam needs to go against the Collective’s directive to bring Victoria in and try to save her instead. 

B.) Had that been pain in her eyes at the end? Yeah, she was lying. Liam isn’t thinking straight. He needs to do his job and take her in.

Vote Here!!

Chapter 6: Temptations

Music boomed somewhere deeper in the house and got louder as we walked closer. Pong balls bounced on the tables to the excited shouts of both winners and losers. Aiden looked at the cups with longing in his gaze.

“No booze,” I reminded him. I gestured to his beer with the cup the mermaid had given me. “That’s just for show.”

“Oh this?” He raised the drink in mock salute then took a sip with his pinky out. “This is a pale ale, Liam. Booze requires shot glasses.”

“Aiden,” I said with more patience than I felt. “We are here—”

“Relax. Seriously, it would take a keg of this beer-flavored-water to get me drunk. And we need to blend in. Just, come on.”

He marched through the threshold. The lights on the porch were dim but much brighter than those in the foyer. Multicolored lights swirled from a strobe light attached to the third floor balcony.

Two college girls walked up to Aiden before he could take two steps in the door. One wore a red sundress that screamed for some relief from the cosmic force trying to rip free of the chest area. Her face looked far too young to be at least six solo cups in. The other girl wore a yellow top with sequins, which caught every light in the place and bounced them into my eyes. What in hades was it about sequins anyway?

“I love your toga,” Red Dress said, giggling.

“Thanks,” Aiden said, taking a large gulp of his beer.

“Where’s yours?” Yellow Sequins asked.

Still seething at Aiden for already breaking his promise not to drink, it took me a few seconds to realize she was talking to me. All three of them stared at me expectantly.

“Oh me?” I said, “Left it in the chariot.”

“Oh my god, you have a chariot?” Red Dress said.

“We certainly do,” Aiden said. “But I can show you something way better. Watch this.”

Aiden pulled back his sleeves, showing he wasn’t hiding anything there. Then he held up his left hand. Both girls followed his flowing fingers. He snapped. A poof of smoke ignited in front of them, dissipating quickly, revealing a deck of cards. It was sleight-of-hand, not ether. He kept little bags of black powder—his own recipe—he used for his tricks. Beneath that don’t-give-a-shite exterior, Aiden was a true chemist and alchemical genius. His vast wealth came from turning lead into gold. He could even age the stuff to look like lost treasure that he sold to private collectors. It was his favorite pastime to rob from the rich and give to himself.

When he’d discovered the power, he’d been trying to make a much bigger boom. Instead, the formula just made a lot of smoke when exposed to air. He kept it for just such occasions. And it always worked. The girls oohed and awed as if it was the most amazing thing since sliced bread. Others close by flocked to Aiden begging for more.

I used the opportunity to slip around them and go deeper into the house. Knowing how much Victoria loved to dance, I followed the music up the stairs, which opened to an expansive ballroom. Still, the unce, unce, unce of the beat filled the space.

Just inside was a big sign that read: No drinks on the dance floor!

Still, several ladies held their drinks while elegantly and gracefully grinding against gentlemen also holding cups. No one seemed to be policing the rule.

One woman danced alone, but with a crowd encircling her. She moved too fluidly for anyone to dance up on her. She flowed with the music, her movements like art in rhythm with the beats. Her raven hair whipped across her face as she spun. She flipped her head back, revealing her face. Our gazes met for a slow heartbeat. She smiled and turned away. I tried to get closer, but the circle of bodies around her were three to four people deep. They chanted and cheered her on. When the song ended, they crowded up on her, everyone wanting to be the one to give her the congratulatory drink.

By the time I reached where she’d been, Victoria was gone.

“Fuck Loki in the ear.”

“Liam?”

I turned around to see a girl in a sheath dress, wrapped tightly around her legs to her thighs. There were no sleeves. The fabric pulled tight around her body, hugging her neckline. In the strobe lights, the white shone with every color. Her dark hair was pulled up in an intricate bun-shape that managed to still have a pony tail. Her eyes sparkled as she stared at me.

“Liam, that is you!”

I was almost too surprised when she hugged me to squeeze her back. How the fuck did she see through my glamor? Then I smelled the beer exuding from her. Illusion magic tricked the cerebral cortex into believing an altered reality. Those with an overactive limbic system—responsible for fight or flight—are more likely to see through glamors and other such magic. For this reason, a small percentage of people developed an immunity to illusion magic while intoxicated. And just my luck—fuck you Loki, I know this was your doing—Skyler, my TA, was one of them. This was not going to end well.

Skyler held on to me with extreme vigor for longer than seemed prudent. After releasing me, she pulled back only a few inches, keeping the palm of her hand on my chest.

“You never came to office hours,” she shout-said with the slight slur of intoxication, “I waited.”

“Skyler,” I said at nearly a shout to hear my own voice over the boom of the music. “What are you doing here?”

“I like to have fun, too. And, I just passed my last qualifying exam yesterday and deserve a drink or ten.”

Gods damn it. The only person I’d really met. She should not fucking be here. The Law of Dubiety does not work as well on people you know. If she sees me make with the magic, she would be more likely to remember it accurately. But there was a larger worry. Could Skyler be a nymph? Maybe Abigail had recruited her already.

“But why this party?” I said, trying to sound curious rather than nervous. I pointedly did not look around for Victoria. “Do you know Abigail? Or Victoria?”

“Who?” Her smile fell. “No. A guy I’ve been sort of seeing invited me. Well, not seeing exactly. We are an on-again, off-again sort of thing. We are off at the moment.”

“Where is he now?” I believed her. I felt so much relief I could not keep it from my face.

Her smile returned. “He went to watch that girl dance along with every other dude in this place. Not that I can blame them. Did you see her?”

“Yeah. She was all right.”

Skyler hit my chest. “She was far more than just all right. I’ve never seen anyone dance like that.”

I shrugged in response, trying to nonchalantly scan the people to see if Victoria reemerged. “I’ve seen better.”

“No way. She’s probably in the FSU School of Dance. They are in the top ten for US colleges. Admit it. She was amazing.”

“Fine. Sure. Whatever.”

“Wait. You know her. Don’t you?”

“She’s sort of an ex.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Sort of an ex?”

“Yeah, we had this on-again, off-again thing for a long time. We are definitely off at the moment.”

“Very funny,” she said, not laughing. Glancing at the full drink in my hand, she asked, “Is she the reason you are here?”

Well, shit. How to play this one? Fortunately, I did not have to come up with an answer. A guy twelve feet tall and ten feet wide walked up, putting an arm around Skyler, like King Kong wrapping his paw around Ann Darrow. Perhaps, I’m exaggerating his size, but his muscles made Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson look like the runt of the litter.

Since she was inches from my face, he was now inches from my face. I could taste the nachos he’d eaten earlier. Hints of tequila lingered as well. Oddly, my stomach grumbled. Don’t judge, I hadn’t eaten much today.

He aimed his scowl at me and sniffed as if unimpressed. “She’s taken bruh, but thanks for the drink.” He grabbed my cup and downed the contents, much of it flowing over his face rather than in it. Once finished, he clinched his fist. Little piece of plastic never had a chance. He threw the crumpled cup at my chest, and wiped his mouth with the back of his arm.

Skyler made a disgusted sound and pushed the guy’s arm off her, which was an impressive feat, seeing as how the arm was as large as she was. “Damn it, Brent. He’s one of my students. We were just talking.”

“Oh,” he said, cheeks reddening. “Sorry.”

“Go get him another drink.”

“But—”

“Go. Now.”

He slinked off, head down as if embarrassed.

“Wow, he’s a bit—”

“Possessive. Infuriating. A misogynist prick.”

“I was gonna say over-muscly, but yeah … those things too.”

“Do you want to dance?” she asked.

“Is that the best idea? Do we really want to piss off Hulk’s older, bigger brother?”

“It will be fine.”

Before I could voice further protests, she grabbed my hand and led me onto the dance floor. I looked for Victoria as Skyler pulled me to the far side of the room. There was no sign of her. Fuck Loki in the ear, had I missed my chance? I needed to check on Aiden. I could still hear shouts and cheers from down below, rising above the music. He was doing his part but how drunk was he by now?

Skyler stopped and put her hands on my shoulders. Reflexively, I took hold of her waist and matched her moves. She was no Victoria, but she had clearly danced before. And she did so tastefully without all the grinding. Despite the failing mission, it was nice to be close to her. Every time she glanced up at me, her eyes sparkled with her smile.

When the song ended, the DJ declared, “I’m going to take ten. Grab someone and chill with some slow tunes.”

A ballad started playing. All around us, the gyrations these people tried to pass off as dancing stopped. People held each other and swayed. Noticing Brent standing where we’d been before the dance, I took a step back from Skyler.

“One more?” she asked, no longer needing to shout. “I love Shawn Mendes.”

“Our drinks are back,” I said, nodding toward Brent, who held two cups and glanced about with more than a little angst.

“He can wait,” she said, lifting her arms to my shoulders again. But she froze, eyes wide. I saw her stifle a belch. She covered her mouth. “Actually, I’ll be right back.”

She ran past Brent and turned down a hall. The ogre followed. They were too far away for me to hear, but several people cleared a path for Skyler. She didn’t make it to the bathroom, but she found a trashcan and buried her head in it.

“What a lovely girl.” That melodic voice sent a shiver down my spine. “Dating norms now?”

I turned around to see Victoria approach. She was just as I remembered her, elegance personified. My heart pounded. I couldn’t breathe.

Unable to speak, I worked moisture back into my mouth with my tongue and managed to choke out, “No.”

Four girls lingered next to Victoria. I did not need to draw ether to feel the power surrounding them. Well, I had known this was a trap, but she wasn’t likely to do anything with all these people around. Then again, body count did not matter much to them. And this was their house. With a bit of wyther, they could restructure the narrative.

“That disguise is ridiculous. Surely, you didn’t expect it to fool me?”

“It was far less effective than I had hoped,” I admitted, eyes flicking toward Skyler.

It was impossible to sort through the buzz of emotions. We stood there studying one another for a full moment—people misuse that word all the time in fiction. It’s about ninety seconds as a unit of measurement. Anyway, she was hauntingly beautiful. She held her expression neutral, but I could feel her irritation as she glanced toward where Skyler was still hurling.

“Aiden is the magnet, eh? He distracts as many of the people as possible while you find me. Is that the extent of your plan?”

I did not need ether sight to know this was the real Victoria. The way she flicked her hair and pursed her lips. Her smirk and the little wiggle to her nose when she smiled, those could not be faked by a glamor. Ah fuck. She knew me in the same way I knew her. My disguise did not hide my mannerisms, which she would notice. She had always been the observant one.

“Well?” she said, tone almost bored. “I know you have questions.”

“Fuck you,” I said at last. “Fuck. You. Fifty-seven years we were together. How could you do this to me?”

A slow smile rose on one side of her lips, then the other. “There’s the passion I always enjoyed. We had great times, you and I, but it could not last.”

“Why not?”

“It is complicated.”

“A true genius can explain difficult subjects to the simple minded. Give it a try.”

“Liamorandus, you’re making me blush. Do you truly think I am a genius?”

“Have to be to pull off your own fake death like that. Stop changing the subject. Why did you turn against the Collective?”

“Abigail had your blood. She picked it up after the minotaur scourge in Brazil. She was going to use the sample to boil your insides. I gave myself to save you. She gave me your blood. I destroyed it before bonding to Artemis.”

I wanted it to be a lie, but that had been a grizzly battle. A rogue mage had been summoning minotaurs from a world called Arinth and using them to kill off rival gangs. Many innocents were getting caught in the crossfire. Minotaurs are highly resistant to ether, which made them nasty to battle. We had three teams there. Two of us died, and I was gored. After I was rendered unconscious, my team retreated. I was never able to find and destroy my spilled blood.

“I would have rather died,” I said.

“Which is why I sacrificed myself. I could not lose you.”

“But you have. The Collective is hunting you now. What we had is gone forever.”

“It does not have to be this way. Being bonded isn’t so bad. I’m myself, yet much more than I was without Her.” She stepped closer, looking up at me with those bright eyes. My heartbeat tripled. Loki knows how much I missed her. “Join me.”

I swallowed. This was the trap. And it was a Loki-damned good one. Every instinct I have screamed at me to call for Aiden. Just a quick burst of ether would draw his attention up here. I could hear the cheers on the bottom floor, growing louder. After the DJ had taken his break, most of the people cleared the dance floor. Likely, they’d gone downstairs to watch Aiden work his “magic.”

Victoria placed her fingers on my chest, exactly like Skyler had. I tensed, sucking in shallow breaths. She edged nearer, craning her lips up closer to mine and whispered, “I need you, Liam. We could be together again.”

Looking back at this moment, I am absolutely certain if I had let her kiss me, my life would be completely different now. But I did not. Zeus, Zelos, and Cratus must have all been with me, because I stepped back.

“Victoria Cleopatra Deletante,” I said, barely hearing my own words with the thundering of my heart in my ears, “you have been charged with treason against the Collective and are in violation of the Accords of Magic. Kneel and place your hands on the ground. I am taking you into custody.”

Her smile faded, the shimmer of hope fading from her eyes. The pained expression she gave me broke open the dam I had built around my heart. Every part of me wanted to take back my words. I opened my mouth to do just that when Aiden’s magic act crashed the party.

A team of horses pulling a chariot pounded up the steps with Aiden at the helm. He held Red Dress in one arm and a beer in the other. She clung to him, eyes wide with amazement. I never did ask how he’d gotten horses so quickly, but the chariot was crafted from ether.

Victoria and her cronies sidestepped the charging horses. The college kids all scrambled off the dance floor, making room for Aiden. He spun the chariot about and came to a stop beside me. He held his beer up as if it were a sword and declared, “I bite my thumb at thee.”

Victoria did not look amused. I felt her preparing a time bubble as she said, “Take them alive.”

Chapter 3: The Celtic Collective

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

“Not much protection,” Aiden noted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeshua. Just wait up stairs.”

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

“I know the history, and—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I do live here, remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shall I do the honors?” he asked.

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“Which is why no one loves it.”

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

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

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

“You gonna hurl?” Aiden asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have missed you, child.”

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

“And I you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Good.”

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

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

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

I shrugged. “Very little.”

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

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

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

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

“Are you back then?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did she—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck Loki. Are you certain?”

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

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

“But not you,” I said, at last.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hitler.”

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

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

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

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

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

I did not laugh, despite his infectious smile.

“So you are in right?” Aiden asked.

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” I said.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2: Welcome Back

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

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

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

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

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

“Who was right?”

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

“I saw her die.”

“Did you?”

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

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

“Lies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the fuck did she know I would be here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is she?”

I shrugged. “Expulsion spell is random.”

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

“Yeah. That would be my guess too.”

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

“I need to get back to class.”

“Really? After that?”

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

“Fuck it. Let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you still sitting there?”

I stood. “Lost in my own thoughts.”

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

“Need the credit.”

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

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

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

“Pretty much.”

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

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

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

“Six years.”

“That doesn’t seem very long.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ahem.”

We both turned to see Aiden in the door.

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

“This is my—”

“Partner,” Aiden said, stepping between them.

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

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

Another bell dinged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I am not getting involved.”

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

Fuck. He was right.

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

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

Aiden smiled. “Good to have you back.”

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1: New Beginnings

New Beginnings

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

I hit snooze, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not on the phone. I can’t risk it.”

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

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

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

“Not on the phone. Just wait there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bell gonged somewhere across campus.

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

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

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

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

“Meh,” I said. “I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And?”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe we should—”

“Wait. Hear that? It’s coming.”

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

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

“Wow. That was fast.”

“Yep,” she said. “Which classroom?”

“Two hundred One.”

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

“Why is that?”

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

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

“Fuck,” I said.

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

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

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

Fuck Loki, Aiden had been telling the truth.

“Hello, Liam. What took you?”

“Abigail,” I breathed.

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