Chapter 19: Art of the Con

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you feel?” I asked Victoria. 

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

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

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

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

“That was the first time,” I guessed.

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

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

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

“Won’t happen,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“You should go.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Does it matter?”

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

She closed her eyes. “Please, go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s not. I know she’s not.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not Aiden standing over me. 

Chapter 18: Favorable Terms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He frowned.

“What?”

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

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

“Agreed.”

“Are you ready to call him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loki’s smirk faltered. 

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

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

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

“Which part?” Aiden asked.

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

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

“Oh?” Loki asked. “How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You start,” I told Loki.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can’t,” I said. “We have bus—”

“This is your last chance to remove yourselves.”

“What is your name?” I asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Asshole,” Aiden whispered in my ear. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Peas, eh? As in the green ones?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Plans?” I asked. “You have plans?”

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

“Right. Yes. I remember.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 17: Best of the Worst

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

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

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

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

“Great,” Aiden said, “Who first?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled. “My pleasure.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Still recruiting, most likely.”

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

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

“And we are helping her.” 

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

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

“Yes. Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We still have 15 minutes,” I complained.

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

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

“Have you decided?” Loki asked. 

I nodded. “We accept your offer.”

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

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

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

Aiden made a sound of disgust and left Starbucks. 

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

“Nice choice. You can afford that?” 

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

“Suit yourself.”

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

Fuck Loki, but I hated dealing with the gods.

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

“You are carrying him,” Aiden declared. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah but why spend the energy?” 

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

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

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

“You’re paying,” I said. 

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

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

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

“What did it say?” Aiden asked.

“Hello Earthling. Welcome to Atlantis.”

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

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

His smile slipped. “What the fuck?”

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

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

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

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

“Is your companion traveling to the same location?”

“Yes,” he growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aiden said, “This is some bullshit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This way if you please.”

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

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

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

“Yes,” I replied. “If possible.”

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

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

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

“How much?” he asked.

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Passports,” the attendant said.

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

“This way,” the valet said. 

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

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

“Will there be anything else?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Thank you.”

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

“Is that the best idea?” I asked.

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“We need a clear head when drafting this.”

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

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

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

I sighed. “Sure.” 

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

Chapter 16: Strange Bedfellows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s already done.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His what now?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shrugged. “You didn’t ask.”

I was going to kill him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope. I’ll be riding in this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never do it,” Aiden insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aiden and I need to talk. Alone.”

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

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

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

Great. Not so subtle threat noted. 

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

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

“Wait,” I said.

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

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

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

“Sure,” I said.

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

“If we take Loki back to Earth, we are essentially encouraging a god war. Worse, we are picking the losing side from the gate.”

Again, I nodded. “Only if anyone finds out. If we took Loki straight to the Collective, they could contain him in a Faridarian Shell and lock him away for good.” 

From the mischievous gleam in Aiden’s eyes, I could see that was definitely an attractive option. Then his hope died. He frowned. “The blood oath will likely preclude us from going to the Collective while we carry him.”

“True,” I said. “But there might be a way to have them come to us.”

“He’s the gods damned Trickster God. If we thought of it, he has as well.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Aiden was right. We could not outwit Loki. Not on our own. Not when he had the advantage of knowing how fucked we were.

We both sipped our coffees for a while, not saying anything. I wracked my brain, trying to come up with alternatives. Maybe there was a way out of this neither of us had thought of. If there was, I could not see it. By the look in Aiden’s eyes, he could not either. 

“Look,” I said. “I got us into this, so you should decide what comes next. It’s up to you. What the fuck should we do? Whatever you choose, I’m in.” 

Rather than looking relieved, Aiden’s lips thinned into a tight frown. He sat that way until finishing his coffee then looked up at me with resignation in his expression.

VOTE on what you think Aiden should choose!

Chapter 15: Pulling Some Strings

“Relax,” Loki said. “I’m not going to kill you. Unlike most gods, I can take a bit of ribbing. But the earhole?” He glanced down at my crotch. “That’s sort of a small hole, or do you disagree?” 

I could only stare as I sorted through the swirl of emotions. Instead of smiting me for my years of insolence, Loki was sitting here in front of me, joking with me about the size of my member. 

Aiden’s bark of laughter made my cheeks heat. 

“Yeah, no,” I said. “It’s small.”

He reached over and pinched my cheek and spoke as if talking to a baby. “Don’t worry, sweet cheeks. It’s not the size that counts.” 

“No. Wait. That’s not what I—”

Loki held his hands up as if the cops had said freeze. “No worries. Your secret is safe with me.”

“What are you doing here?” Aiden said.

“I have a summer home in Atlantis,” Loki said, “I come here often now that I do not have a Nexus to protect. It can grow rather dull at times, but I have my fun where I can.” 

“Could you really hear me every time I cursed you?” I asked.

“Of course,” Loki said, smile never wavering. “There is power in a name. You should know that by now. Liamorandus.”

My head swam as he pushed will into the annunciation of my name. I was certain he’d articulated each syllable the way my parents had when they first looked upon my face and pronounced me. There was no hurling of power, ether or wyther. He’d simply exerted his will upon mine while speaking my name. I thought I might vomit. I swallowed the acid taste and tried not to pass out.

The gods of earth are old, as in, they are some of the first beings to settle there. There is much debate about the origin of man, most of it coming from some source of mythology, but there is no dispute around the fact that it is the gods who have shaped human civilization for eons. Though many of them have allowed their names to fall into the category of mythology, they do exist. And they are petty as fuck. And egotistical beyond measure. I mean, for good reason. For all we know, they are eternal and far more powerful in regards to raw magical ability than any mage in existence. And I’d flippantly and defiantly cursed the one sitting beside me for years.

“Do not fret, dear,” Loki said. “I assure you, I do not intend to turn you to a pile of ash. Where is the fun in that?” He sipped on his coffee. I sipped on mine. I got the feeling the uncomfortable silence was one-sided. 

“Okay,” Aiden said with an unhealthy amount of irritation in his voice. He always bristled at a threat, even if that threat was a literal god capable of showing him his insides with a thought. “You’ve had your fun. What do you want from us?”

Loki pursed his lips, humor returning to his eyes as he studied Aiden. “Mmm mm, and he has a bit of sass in him as well. The delights we could enjoy together.”

“What do you want?” Aiden demanded. “Or do you expect us to believe this is a chance encounter?”

“And he’s observant. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” He crossed his chest in the Catholic fashion, biting his lower lip. 

“A god praying to another god,” I said. “That’s not something you see every day. But seriously, you must want something from us.”

He shrugged a shoulder, making the gesture look both seductive and nonchalant. “I might have overheard your predicament just now. Being stuck here without a way back to earth, while being strong-armed by someone more powerful and holding all the cards. That must chafe.” He adjusted the bulge in his crotch. And winked at Aiden.

We had been enclosed in a sound-proof shield. How had he heard us?

“Oh,” Loki said, waving a hand. “I doubt any other god was sitting about. Few around here could have penetrated oh-so-sweetly that tight little sphere.” 

“But you did,” I said. “And so you know—”

“I do know. Theseus is an ass though, so I might be willing to help you,” his eyes looked Aiden up and down again, “for a price.”

Aiden shook his head vehemently. “No way in hell—”

Loki leaned in and quickly placed a finger over Liam’s lips. “Shh, my little dumpling. We can talk over the details later. At my place.”

He stood, straightening his purple coat. 

“Your offer is kind,” I said, “but we have to make some arrangements, and—”

“Oh hush. You can’t afford a room here outside of the Shadow Streets, the one place Theseus allows a crime ring, of a sort. And you’re more likely to find yourself waking up on ice with your ethereal talent ripped from you and sold on the black market than to get a good deal on a bed-and-breakfast. You are staying with me, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

Loki had a point. The gods were not exactly our enemies, but we weren’t exactly cozy with them either. If an underground society existed in Atlantis, I had never heard of it, but I sure as the chili-dog shits didn’t want to meet them.

“Look,” Loki said, “I promise not to trick you into bonding with me while you are in my home.”

“Since you put it that way,” I said, “I suppose—” 

“We can procure our own lodging,” Aiden said. “It’s no trouble. I have plenty of coins.”

“Oh, but Scrumptious,” Loki said, “You could spend those little coins-y onesies on some more of those delicious tight pants rather than some dank old squatty hole. I could show you some great places to go shopping.” 

“We accept,” I said, not completely certain why. Maybe it had something to do with the look of horror Aiden gave, following my pronouncement. Friends can be the most cruel of people sometimes. 

“Excellent,” Loki said. “It’s this way.”

He snapped a finger. I felt a surge of power, ether and wyther. A hole ripped into the street just outside the Starbucks courtyard. A minotaur avoided it as if a cat had jumped in front of him rather than a portal to another place.

As I made to follow Loki, Aiden grabbed my sleeve. “What. The. Fuck are you doing?”

“He’s right. We don’t have a lot of options. And this gives us an alibi. Just trust me. We’ll talk more later.”

“I’m getting really exhausted trusting you. If this goes poorly—”

“I know. You’ll haunt me. Got it.”

He nodded as if satisfied to have gotten through to me and stormed into the portal. 

I followed. Being on the same plane, there was no disconnected feeling passing through the opening. I could have been taking a step on the same stretch of sidewalk. But when I got to the other side, I stuttered to a halt. And gaped. 

The sidewalk ended in a wall of bars surrounding a compound of green rolling hills. A white path led from the entry to a castle on the hill that shimmered like pearls. Spires stretched from odd places to different lengths, topped with blue roofs. Unicorns pranced on the lawn and little winged creatures chased one another. We had not left the city. Or, we were at least still in a large metropolis. 

There were skyscrapers in the distance and I could still hear horns from traffic behind me. Turning, I confirmed a wide street was filled bumper-to-bumper with the mismatch of devices. I did a double take when I saw a centaur standing behind a thunderbird. His lower body was that of a black stallion (Emphasis on the stallion part. Someone should tell him to cover that thing up. Sheesh.). His upper torso was human. He wore a button up coat and bow tie, and held aloft an open newspaper. Lowering it, he looked at me with an annoyed expression.

I swear to Loki—rather, any other god than Loki—he had Brad Pitt’s face. He flicked his newspaper and trotted forward, hooves clopping against the cobbled road as he edged closer to the car in front of him.

“Oy,” Loki said, nudging me. “Don’t be a tourist. Staring like a two year old. What’s wrong with you?”

“Right. Sorry.” 

“Come on. Let’s get you two settled.” 

The gates opened as we approached. There was a hum of energy as we passed through, and the veil fell away. Inside the compound, there was no castle. The home in front of us was no less luxurious, covering more ground than the castle had appeared to from the street. The house itself was stacked at impossibly odd angles, like legos thrown by a child but somehow held together as they landed. Spheres connected the blocky shapes, which surrounded a giant pond, clear as glass.

Mermaids swam beneath the surface alongside mermen. The little merchildren chased schools of fish. Flat stone disks floated above the water, like stairs, leading to the front door, which was made of blue glass, the color of sapphire. At the center, silver snakes formed an S-shape, each circling one another biting the other’s tail. They appeared to be alive and slithering in unison.

He hid all of this from those outside his compound with intricate but subtle illusion magic. The kind of energy used to power such a veil must have been immense. But I felt nothing. Perhaps, I had been a bit hasty in cursing this guy all these years. He was no chump. 

“Yep,” Aiden confirmed. “I really believe you are Loki now.” 

“Or maybe I just stole his gorgeous face and incredible home.” 

“But only a fool would take his symbol,” Aiden said, gesturing toward the snakes on the door.

“Careful,” Loki said. “I might believe you are complimenting me.” 

“There is a lot of room between not a fool and genius.” 

“Indeed,” Loki said, studying Aiden to see if there had been an insult in his words. 

“I hate to interrupt,” I said, in fact quite happy to stop the conversation, before Aiden could chew on his toes. I waved my hand toward the city. “Why the deception?” 

“Appearances, darling. I am the Trickster God. I must not disappoint my guests. Besides, I was bored.” 

“You are exiled.” As the realization hit me, I spoke without thinking about the consequences. “You are here because the new Pantheon they are forming won’t let you return to earth.” 

Loki’s demeanor changed. His jaw twitched. The twinkle left his eyes. He regarded me with a cold stare and said, “It is impolite to say such things. I would hate to end my hospitality swiftly and abruptly, before having the chance to wine and dine you.” 

“But that’s why you want us here, right? You have an offer.”

The irritation faded as it had never been. He gave me an appraising look, and his mischievous expression returned. “You are far more capable than they gave you credit, Liam. Perhaps, you can pull this off after all. And serve my purposes as well.”

“Pull what off?” Aiden said, sounding no less guilty than he had earlier.

“Still with that, eh?” Loki rolled his eyes. “You need to work on that poker face, honey bunches. When there is time, I will give you a few pointers. For now, suffice to say, I’ve been all up inside those surface thoughts.”

With a sudden panic, I checked my mental shields. They were always in place and had not slipped. I refortified them with a bit of ether.

“Bah,” Loki said, waving a hand. “Won’t do you any good in here. This is my domain. My mini-nexus, if you will. I have absolute power over you.”

“Fuck,” Aiden said, turning toward the gate. He ran two long strides, then his foot froze mid-step. 

“You said you wouldn’t harm us,” his voice squeaked. 

“No. I said I would not trick you into bonding with me. And I won’t. I am a god of my word. However, I also will not allow you to leave until you hear my proposal and bind yourself to my cause.”

“Fuck you, Loki.”

“Like I told you when we met. Not my type.” He smirked. “But we can discuss all the details after I get the two of you settled in. Walk this way.”

My limbs betrayed me and moved puppet-like after Loki. This was fine. It was all fine. I had a plan, and we were going to need help. I could handle this. 

Part of me actually believed that. The other part couldn’t even piss himself because Loki was in control now. Yep, I really fucked us this time. But hey, look on the bright side. At least Theseus wouldn’t be ripping us apart in the city square, while the Trickster god had us enthralled. 

So we had that going for us. 

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 gnolls, 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 gnolls 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.

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