A wood cabin had been constructed on a plateau, overlooking a foggy valley. Mist hung ubiquitously in the air. Not rain exactly, just lingering drops of moisture that dampened my skin and hair. I could not see the sun to know if it was morning, noon, or night.
“Where the hell is this?” I asked.
“Come,” Bodhi said, walking toward the wooden structure. A picket fence surrounded a dozen meters around the home. A garden, not unlike the one at the Collective—before it was destroyed, obviously—was tended and well-groomed with a multitude of tulips and roses and other flowers I didn’t know, but I was pretty sure those rainbow colored petals were not from earth.
Bodhi lifted a hand and spoke a word. Wards flared along the walls of the cabin. I had not seen nor felt them until then. Without asking, he plucked a few hairs from my head.
Ignoring my litany of curses and complaints, he fed the hair to the door. And when I say fed. An actually fucking mouth opened and took the strands on a long tongue.
“Yuch!” I said, elegantly.
“Allow my apprentice to enter.”
The tongue licked at the hair, working it around a mouth with shark-like teeth. Then a decisively feminine voice said, “Mmm. As you say, young master. I like the taste of this one.”
“You have a Lares?”
“Of course not,” Bodhi said. “I steward a Lares. No one owns a Lares. In return, she provides a refuge for me, when I need it.”
“So you take care of this place?” I asked, looking at the fine garden. “How? You haven’t used ether for the better part of a century.”
“I have a portal box in my chambers at the Collective, an artifact capable of transporting a person over long distances.”
“But clearly you do not need it. Wait. Is the portal box still in your chambers? If so, this place isn’t safe.”
“We are safe, I assure you. I destroyed the device before the Collective was taken by Loki and his followers.”
“You mean Artemis, right? Loki just made it to Earth. He couldn’t have pulled this off.”
“Let us take some tea.” He walked inside, leaving me alone on the porch.
I could no longer see the mouth on the open door, but I quickened my step as I followed my mentor into the place. A Lares (pronounced LAY-reez) is a powerful being, on par with a god or demi-god, famous for jealously protecting a hearth and home. They dwell in the ethereal plane and are only able to touch the physical world through permanent structures, where people live.
Harming a person who has been invited in would corrupt the space, ejecting the Lares back to the ethereal plane. However, the expulsion of the Lares would not make the person, viciously murdered and devoured, any less dead. This Lares had been given a sample of my ethereal pattern and would not eat me. Or, so I told myself as I quickly closed the door.
I felt the wards flare on their own accord, locking us in.
The cabin was a large open space with simple, wooden furnishings. A bar separated the kitchen from the family and dining room. Behind a lacquered round table was a glass cabinet filled with wine and liquors.
“Bodhi Caderyn, what is this—”
“A Bodhi no more.” A profound sadness entered his voice. “Just Caderyn now. Or master, if you must maintain formalities, even now.”
I swallowed my questions for the moment, allowing him to set the kettle and grab two mugs from a cabinet above the stove. We said nothing until after the water boiled and he poured the tea.
He handed me a steaming mug and gestured toward the table. “Please, let us sit.”
I took the chair facing the front door. Old habit. But Caderyn only smiled and took the chair next to mine. He knew my mind better than anyone.
I blew on my tea, trying to think of a way to start the conversation.
“Oh, for the Allfather’s sake,” he said. “Ask your questions.”
His tone held a note of mock agitation, and I could see the smile in his eyes. This felt familiar. We both needed a semblance of routine after all that had happened. And though I needed to fill him in on my jaunt to Atlantis, I just needed to know. “How can you draw ether and wyther at the same time? And how in the gods can you make a portal at all? We were taught such things are not possible.”
He was nodding long before I finished. His words were filled with mild rebuke. “Of course, this is the question you would ask first. There are such spells one cannot learn until taking the mantle of grandmaster. What is the purpose, first and foremost, of the Collective?”
“We protect innocents from the powers which are beyond them.”
“No. We mitigate power from those who would seize it. The consequences of such actions protect the lambs from the wolves. One cannot hide power from those who would lay claim to it without some measure of deception. Even from our own kind.”
“Wait. Are you saying you have been lying to me?”
“Not just you. The grandmasters deceive all in the Collective chapters and those outside our number who would grab power without temperance. Wyther is dangerous. Rather than ban it, we discuss the consequences of its use for beginning practitioners. Experimentation is expected. When you experience the pain, the lie is made true by your own observations.”
I could not keep the hurt from my voice. “You are not making any sense. I’ve seen others burn themselves out from wyther. Are you saying the damage is not real?”
“It is very real. But all life has balance. Wyther destroys. Ether creates. One cannot cancel the power of the other. Ether will heal wyther-damage in time. For those with the knowledge, time is not a factor at all. But together, both are far greater than either alone.”
“I can’t believe this,” I said, not hiding my bitter resentment. “Victoria was telling me the truth. All this time, you’ve been lying to me. To all of us.”
“Yes. And no. We lied. But Victoria only knows one side. Partial truths, twisted for the ambitions of others.”
“What’s the other side? I’m all fucking ears.”
Caderyn gave me a sad smile. Almost an apology, as if to say, “it gets worse.”
“I understand your angst, child. I too was angry once. Famous for it, in my time. But I have learned from the mistakes of my age, my world, and tried to fix that which has been broken through lies, murder, and theft. This is the secret of the grandmasters. Even they do not know everything.”
“And you do?”
He nodded. When he offered nothing more, I asked, “But why lie to us?”
“You know the answer to the question.”
I expected more, but he only stared at me. I hated it when he did this. Making a person answer their own questions is a powerful teaching tool. And it was the Bodhi’s—rather Grandmaster Caderyn’s—favorite style of instruction. And though I wasn’t in the mood, I realized he was right. I didn’t like it. I was still angry. But I knew the answer.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” I quoted. “John Emerich Edward Dalberg. Poet and scholar. No gift with magic, but the professor understood. Ether makes us strong, but it is limited in its destructive capabilities. I can make fire or lightning or kinetic force. That’s creation. But wyther only consumes. Its only purpose is to destroy.”
“You still haven’t answered the question,” Caderyn said. “Why would this necessitate a lie?”
“Yes. That was the question I asked you. Thanks.”
He ignored my snark. “So what is the answer?”
“Mages are cocky. Ether alone has caused some of us to abuse our gifts. Even the best of us think ourselves above the masses. We can live indefinitely. Some of us have taken rulership of countries, using magic to propel us to thrones or dictatorships. We’ve seen Hitlers, Stalins, and Maos abuse magic and cause great suffering. All bonded mages threw in with the gods for free access to wyther. By denying them knowledge of wyther, you are able to ferret out those who would abuse power.”
“Aye,” he said. “The pantheons are complicit in the lie. The original liars, in truth. How do you think we are able to fight off the pantheons? We have held the Celtic Nexus for over 5,000 years. How do you think this is possible, when our enemies have the power of gods?”
I sipped my tea. It was at that perfect temperament where I could almost drink it in large gulps without burning my tongue and throat.
As last I said, “The only way to fight a god is with power equal to a god.”
“Yes. Blending wyther and ether is the key to transcendency. If we were to teach all of our students this truth—”
“There would be thousands of gods, all fighting for the nexuses,” I finished for him. “So you are … what? A god?”
“God. You give that word far more power than it deserves. We are all mortal if we are killed. I possess the knowledge and power of the gods. Whatever you call me, I am still just a man, wishing to meet my end, peacefully. I have—”
“What are you saying? Are you a fucking g—”
“Enough,” he said. Though he didn’t raise his voice, he carried authority unlike I’d ever heard from the kindly old man before. After a pause, he continued, “I am sorry. I have lived far too long. Longer than most. But I must now give you the knowledge that I have given no others. This is long overdue.”
Caderyn moved too quickly for me to react. I felt a surge of nether and wyther. So much so that I could not feel the beginning nor end of the torrent flowing into him. In less than a single heart beat, the power built and coalesced into Caderyn’s chest, traveled down his arm to his finger tip. He reached out and touched my forehead.
And the world exploded.
I floated, bodiless, like a dream.
Beneath me, I saw a young man, sitting beneath a colossal tree. The base was broad and gnarled. He looked familiar, resting in the folds of the roots. He stared down at a book with a leather binding and loose leafs of vellum. Before I could get a close look at him, I blinked.
And I saw through his eyes. I felt myself holding the book, but I could not move. I was a prisoner in his mind.
“Zeus, my boy,” an everywhere voice said. “Where are you?”
A trickle of ether. “I am here, Father.”
Zeus placed the book to the side and stood. A man in white robes appeared beside the tree. He could not have been much older than Zeus in appearance with curly black hair. “I thought I might find you here. Saying goodbye?”
“Must we go, Father?”
The man placed a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “You know we must. This world is dying. Far too many mages burn ether faster than we can safely consume wyther. Our core has weakened. Soon, all remaining behind will perish.” The man lifted Zeus’s chin, so that their eyes met. “But do not worry. The elders have found a new planet, where we might thrive.”
“I know,” Zeus said. “I heard Mother call it Earth. She said the peoples there are primitive.”
“Aye. That, they are. But their ignorance will benefit us. Their understanding of magic is rudimentary, and their technological advancements are even worse. We will carve out a kingdom and our people will prosper. Trust me.”
“I do, Father. Only, I will miss this place.”
“As will I.”
Zeus closed his eyes.
When he opened them, he stood before a colossal ship made of black glass. People of all ages carried packs. They boarded the ship.
Zeus leaned against a rail, looking at a blue planet with oceans hugging huge masses of land. They descended, passed through the atmosphere and clouds, then flew toward a plush green area. A race of men, not unlike their people, stopped working with their stone tools and looked up at their ship.
Some ran. Others could only stare.
Zeus was in a room made of marble blocks and filled with lavish furnishings. He paced in front of an open balcony, which over looked the Mediterranean Sea.
“Cronos has gone too far,” Zeus said to the woman who approached.
“Am I to be called Rhea next? He is your father. The God King, now. You must respect his rule.”
“He slaughters them with impunity. Why?”
“They came against us first. We simply defend what we have claimed.”
“No,” Zeus said. “We took their lands. That did not happen without bloodshed.”
“We were refugees. Rather than open their arms to us, they raised the sword.”
“And we answered with fire and thunder,” Zeus said, exasperated. “No words of peace have been spoken. We could—”
Zeus turned to see his father standing in the doorway across the room. He wore armor of silver with gold runic scripts lining the breast plate. He held a gladius, made from ether.
“I cannot afford to have my own son dissent from my rule. This ends today.”
“Would you kill me, as well?” Zeus asked. “For the crime of desiring mercy for an inferior race?”
“They are inferior. Barely more than animals. Intelligent enough to be dangerous. They cannot be allowed to learn our magic. Better to kill them now than after they learn our ways and destroy this planet.”
“But I spoke to a man. Prometheus. He would—”
“Steal what is ours! I know how these humans think. Look inside their minds and tell me they deserve our power.”
“We do not need to give them our power. They can live in peace under our rule. As our subject, they would be more easy to con—”
“I said enough!”
Zeus felt the ether before it could be summoned into the sword in Cronos’s hand. Zeus had been ready for an attack. He threw a web of ether to catch the lightning as it left the gladius. Lightning struck the web but ground out and dissipated before reaching Zeus. At the same time, Zeus leapt backward, cloaking himself in a veil. He flew up and away.
Zeus stood atop the highest peak on Mount Olympus, staring at the torrent of ether. Energy flowed like a river from six directions and coalesced together at a single point. He felt its power. He pulled in ether and burned it to create wyther in a steady stream. Darkened arms mingled with the nexus, until all the ether redirected itself into Zeus.
Power, unlike anything he’d ever felt raged through him. He turned, looked down upon Greece with the eyes of a god.
My vision panned away from Zeus. I floated over him once more. Zeus stood there, unmoving. The scene faded.
But other visions came, Zeus fighting his father and winning. He corralled the other gods and built the first pantheon. The survivors of that war fled, found other nexuses, and began their own pantheons.
And thus, the god wars began.
Long after the visions faded, knowledge poured into my mind. Spells I would have thought impossible before, I simply knew.
Then, it all stopped.
I found myself in the cabin. On my back. Staring at the ceiling and breathing hard. Sweat covered my skin. Lying there, I even understood the mental transference spell, my old mentor had used to impart that knowledge onto me.
I slowly sat up and found him sitting in his chair, smoking a pipe.
For several long seconds, I only stared. Then I pushed myself to my feet and retook my seat. I knew with absolute certainty what I was about to say was insane. But it was also true. I recognized the young man from my vision.
I looked into my mentor’s eyes and said, “You are Zeus.”
He took another puff on his pipe. And simply nodded.