I was never one for American Football. First of all, why the hell is it called “foot-ball” when only one person is allowed to kick the ball and only at specific times in the game? Second, they stop the game so often, I get bored waiting for something to happen. If you turned the time between plays into a drinking game, everyone would die of alcohol poisoning before the game actually ended.
Real Football (you probably call it soccer) is the only sport I can get behind. There’s near constant action, and there’s always a fight on the sidelines. No matter where you look, you will be entertained. I can’t say why this sprung to mind in those seconds after Theseus left us in his throne room, except that I knew we would soon be getting the ball’s perspective on sports.
I could not see a five minute clock counting down, but I could certainly feel it with the guards in the wing, waiting to sprint after the ball and give it a kick. Was someone counting it down? Or were they going on what felt like 5 minutes? That distinction was extremely important. It meant the difference in having seconds remaining or actual minutes.
“Help me with him,” I told Aiden after being unable to rouse the minotaur.
Together, we got him into my dimensional pocket into one of my spare rooms. The bed was too small for him, but it was better than the floor. Had we more time, I would have recommended shoving two beds together, but after having nothing but stone to sleep on for a couple thousand years, I’m sure Asterion would be grateful for the change.
We sprinted back out, and I closed the bag on the run, following Aiden down the hall. My brain tried to send thoughts to my conscious mind, but my eyes kept trying to close mid-step. Wasn’t there something else I was supposed to be worried about?
Oh right, the mana potion.
I did not have much petrol left in the tank. We needed to get through the ward before dawn, or I’d wake up in chains or the arena. Or maybe not at all.
“Where are we going?” I asked after several turns. “Feels like this is a different way than we came in.”
“It is, genius. We came in through the front door. Won’t work on the exit. You’d have worked that out on your own had you not taken that gods damn potion.” He stopped suddenly, holding up a fist for me to do the same.
I stumbled, nearly tripping over him.
He cast me a serious look, somewhere between fear and frustration. I heard the minotaurs around the corner.
At this point, I could not have found my way back to the throne room, even if a million gold coins waited for me to claim as a reward for my efforts. I was maybe one or two spells from passing the fuck out. And even then, they would not be very potent. I felt the sword urging me to pick her up, but I would not dare try to wield her in my current condition. I’d have to rely on Aiden to do our fighting. We both knew it.
I felt Aiden’s slow pull of ether. Somewhere around the corner, stone cracked. The minotaur’s moved off the other direction. The tug on my arm spurred me to follow. Aiden stopped at a random door and knelt with his lock picks.
While he worked, I glanced down the hall. Three minotaurs ran the other direction, toward a crack in the floor. It spread up the wall and crumpled inward. Someone screamed in surprise.
Aiden ushered me into the room and eased the door closed.
Inside was a perfectly cleaned room—like a hotel only far grander than anywhere you’ve ever stayed. The anteroom had a full bar with stools all made of polished wood. A hall led to a common room large enough for a small army. I counted at least 4 rooms with beds.
“It’s for visiting dignitaries,” I said. “I remember it on the schematics.”
“Yep. And there are no visitors this week. Come on.”
Aiden ran to an outer window. The castle must have been built atop a hill. We’d entered on the ground level, but we were on a second floor. Beneath us was a hedge maze, winding around a small courtyard complete with stone benches and yet another statue of Theseus. This one—every bit the scholar—he sat on a bench, holding open a book.
Dawn crept over the wall, bathing the white stone in pink light. The sight was truly majestic, causing the lilies surrounding the statue to glow. This would be beautiful if not for the circumstances. I could see why this was reserved for visitors. It even gave me hope that we could reach the wall before—
“Fuck,” Aiden said, echoing my thoughts. “We missed the window.”
“Wards have already reset. What do we do?”
I couldn’t think straight. My legs felt like I’d run up a million flights of stairs. I sat on a sofa, feeling my eyes lull immediately.
“Get up,” Aiden said, tugging my arm. “We need to keep moving.”
“Just five minutes.”
He pulled me to the window and opened it. “Don’t resist the spell.”
I felt him seize ether and lift me on a stream of air out and to the ground. No one was around. Too early for a stroll and a bit chilly. But the cool air helped slap me back to alertness.
We both landed at the same time. The hedges were too high to see over without standing on my tip-toes. Aiden led me to the edge of the maze. There was an open field of green between the edge of the maze and the massive wall, blocking us from our freedom. Had we made it here before the wards reset, we could have flown through—it was a bit more complicated than that, but we had a plan. But now …
“Well,” Aiden said. “I hoped it would not come to this. Wait here.”
“What are you—”
He’d slung his pack from his shoulder and disappeared into his dimensional pocket. He returned with a device made of red play-dough with runes etched into the side. Wires protruded from the blocks of rectangular clay, connecting the red substance to an old flip phone atop it.
“No,” I said. “Out of the question.”
“We need a diversion. This is it.” He raised an eyebrow. “Unless you have a better idea?”
“There could be people outside the walls.”
“Aye. Not denying that, but the blast is set for implosion. I can place the device far enough away that it’ll only hurt the wall. You should be more worried about the backlash in the wards than my bomb. No telling what Asterion has prepared for anyone bringing down his wall.”
He was right. Damage to the structure would have unpredictable results. Rather, Theseus had likely set measures in place to deal with any sort of attack to the structure. As a ruler, he would want to mitigate damage to any people nearby, but would not spare the same courtesy to the attackers.
“I see the wheels turning,” Aiden said. “Have you figured it out yet?”
“Diversion,” I said, dumbly. “You mean for us to be elsewhere by the time the guards get here.”
“Aye. We play hide-n-seek with them. With any luck, they give chase out the wall here, only we’ll be heading out the other way.”
“What other way?”
“Front door, where there will likely only be the two guards. We’ll just be two minotaurs leaving the compound. In all the confusion, they probably won’t even question us.”
Maybe it was the fatigue talking, but I said. “Okay. That’s not a bad plan. But we need to hurry. I don’t have much left in me.”
“I’m on fumes myself. Stay here.”
I didn’t have the energy to argue. I waved a tired hand for him to go. He left the safety of the hedge maze and sprinted the distance to the clearing, placed the device a good 3-4 meters from the wall, then ran back to me.
“We do not want to be here when it goes off,” he warned. “Let’s go.”
We made our way west of the device toward the far end of the maze. I almost prayed to Loki but stopped myself. We’d left him in the dark for a reason. We didn’t want him or Artemis to know we’d gone through with the heist until well after it was done. Instead, I sent pleas to the universe that no fairies, pixies, or children stumbled in the blast radius—we really need better terms, since it was technically not a kaboom but an in-boom. Plode radius? Lode circle? Collapse area? Okay, maybe delirium was getting to me, but I was on to something here.
Aiden stopped at the edge of the maze, where the hedges gave way to a cobbled courtyard. He turned back to the device, now a thumbnail in the distance. He held his breath as he took out a second phone, flipped it open and held down a button. Rather than a number, the Gaelic word for “Connect” appeared on the screen.
Before I could let out a squeak, I found myself on my back. I slid across the ground, toward the implosion. I grabbed hedge, grass, Aiden’s face, everything I could to hold position. Limbs entwined, we rolled together. My back hit the ground. Then my face. Stomach. Side. Air fled from my lungs. I wheezed, crawling at the ground to halt my tumble.
On every other bounce, I caught glimpses of the miasma around where the device had been. A globe of destructive energy yanked everything into the void. Sections of the wall were gone. A giant semi-sphere beneath the imploding vortex had taken a chunk out of the ground as well, creating a chasm which extended beyond the outer wall to the sidewalk.
The pulling force stopped. Aiden and I were a dozen meters from the crater. The way outside was open. Dawn light spilled through the gap in the wall. We could dart through and be gone from Theseus’s compound.
I felt Aiden’s hand on my arm. “No. Stick to the plan.”
I looked at him. “The wards crumpled. We can get through.”
“They did not crumple. Look with your ether-sight.”
I did. Energy was being restored. Had we gone immediately, we might have been able to make it in time, but it would have been close. That way was lost to us already.
“Back around the castle. Come on.”
We sprinted away from the horde of stomping boots. Shouts followed the sounds of marching, but they were far more organized than they ought to be after an attack. They ran in groups of five, forming up together on the move. A familiar minotaur stood at their head, studying the fissure in the ground.
General Lunacious Lasterious looked from the crater to the broken wall and back. Even at this distance, I could make out the quiet anger.
I felt an arm yank my shoulder. I fell into the hedges and tumbled across the ground. I started to rise, glaring at Aiden. He responded by kicking my feet out from beneath me.
“Stay down, you idiot. If the General sees us, this is over. Even if she didn’t recognize us from the dungeon, she might begin to wonder why two guards are running away from an obvious attack on Theseus’s castle.”
Right. I need some sleep.
“Come on,” he said, army crawling away.
Though my body protested, I dug my elbows into the ground and dragged my tired ass after him. We could duck beneath the prickly bushes, but Aiden parted them with trickles of ether to make the passage easier.
After reaching the other side of the maze, we stood—half-hunched—and slunk our way back to the castle. I sagged against the wall. My legs trembled. My vision waned. I shook my head. Just need a few more minutes.
“We need to run,” Aiden said.
I gave my head a slight shake. “Can’t.”
“Hold still,” Aiden said, taking my head in his hands.
I felt cold shiver through my head and down my spine. When he stepped away, my legs still shook but I could stand without support of the wall. With some effort, I could make them move quickly. If forced to, I could throw a spell or two. Maybe.
“Right,” I said, pushing away from the wall. “Let’s move.”
We spurred ourselves into a jog, trying to move as a unit, like we’d seen the squads just moments before. The grounds were now empty. Even the small cottages were closed up. Now smoke escaped chimneys. All the lights were out. Thorns protruded from the doors, like little barricades.
More than anything else, that sent waves of guilt through me.
I wasn’t sure if it was brownies or pixies or gnomes living there, but our actions had frightened them all into hiding. I could imagine them hiding beneath tables or in tiny cellars with their children, hoping whatever evil assaulted their liege did not spill over and destroy their lives.
But I did not have long for such lamentations.
We ran toward the gate that would take us back out into the streets of Atlantis. Our last hurdle before running across the finish line. Unlike when we’d come through here an hour ago, two guards blocked the tunnel to the outer gate. Each had 5 swords on their patches. With our 6, we just outranked them.
Aiden and I shared a glance of complete understanding. Though we’d already been jogging, we picked up our pace, running right at them, expressions suggesting they move or be moved. One stepped aside, but the other hesitated.
“No one is allowed to pass,” the bull with dark hair said.
“Stand down,” I said without slowing. “Our orders come from General Lunacious Lasterious.”
At the last second, the guard stepped aside, giving a terse salute, which Aiden and I returned in unison. There was just the doors at the other end. No guards on this side but no visible door knob either. We both stopped, sharing an “oh fuck” look. I wondered briefly if there was a secret knock or something.
Then the doors swung open, revealing a group of minotaurs.
“What the shit?” one of the guard’s said.
He had reddish hair and wore 6 swords on his patch. His surprise quickly turned to anger as he continued staring at Aiden. The bull next to him sent murderous looks at me.
That’s when I realized we were staring face-to-face with the minotaurs whose identities we’d stolen. And they had friends.
Lots of friends.
We dropped out of the ley onto the frozen tundra in the middle of Nowhwere, Antartica and immediately drew on the ether for warmth. Hugging myself and rubbing my arms, I took a quick survey of my surroundings. The ground around us was flat, loose snow. A vast sea of white stretched out in every direction. The only variation to the land lay about a hundred meters ahead, where blocky chunks of ice jutted upward, making giant cliffs of solid ice. It had been around midnight when we’d left Tallahassee, but overhead, the sun gave a weak glow through a thin array of clouds.
Frigid wind buffeted the sphere of heat I had conjured, almost staggering me. I could not hold this forever. We were both taxed from the long journey across Earth. Though faster than an airplane, we’d crossed a dozen ley lines to get here. Two and a half hours of constant ether burn is a lot of work. To get an idea of how much effort it takes, try holding your arms out to the side for a while without dropping them. Think it’s easy? Hold them there for twenty minutes, and I’ll be impressed. That’s what it’s like holding ether steady for prolonged periods. Really easy at first, but after time, the struggle is real.
The gateway to Fae is several miles from the ley into Domo Argus east of the South Pole. Domo Argus is the coldest place on the planet, reaching temperatures of -90 degrees Celcius. Trudging through the snow, climbing over the cliffs was not an option. Neither of us would last long without constantly burning a nimbus of heat, which would strain our already weary reserves before we reached Atlantis, where we’d both need to be on guard.
“Make a boat?” I asked Aiden.
“Way ahead of you,” he said, tossing a fist-sized model ship onto the ice at our feet. It was shaped like a medieval vessel called a cog with little dragonfly wings instead of sails. Aiden sent a trill of ether into the arrium.
Seconds later, a hull rose from the snow and formed beneath us. Smooth walls grew on all sides, forming a buffer from the wind. A domed fire-pit sat at the center with four wooden chairs rising from the deck. I sat in one and sent a trickle of power to set the single log in the pit to flames. Heat poured out of the arrium, filling the space as if we were inside a hut rather than a topless boat. The cold vanished, allowing me to stop burning ether.
“Much better,” Aiden said, sitting in the chair across the fire from me. His expression became pensive as he concentrated. I felt ether burn as the cog lifted into the air.
“Aye,” I said. “How are we getting past the gatekeeper?”
“What do you want me to say? Inflation isn’t really a thing out here.”
“And the ferryman?” I asked, ignoring his sarcasm. “What will he want? A single coin as well?”
“A favor owed in exchange for his labor, a drop of blood, or a century of service upon death.”
“Fuck Loki, is that all? What about the stories of the River Styx?”
“Stories are always wrong,” Aiden grunted. “You know that. But relax. We will promise to pledge service upon death. Only a fool would give him blood or owe a favor. I mean, aside from haunting you, I don’t have many plans after you get me killed. How ’bout you?”
“Funny,” I said without humor.
“We should consider other options.”
“Already have. I spent five years trying to find other ways. The grandmasters told me where to shove it when I asked to borrow a Map.”
I nodded to him, showing my understanding. Then I brooded on the problem. I know, it’s a bit arrogant of me to think I could figure out in ten minutes the solution to a problem Aiden had been chewing on for five years. But I had to try.
There are many ways into the Fae Realm, but an unprepared traveler could become lost, unable to ever return to this world or time, or even the same dimension. The universes are vast. Not all of them contain ether. One who requires ether to survive does not go hopping around through the Fae Realm without a Map or guide. Maps are very expensive. The combined Collective has 3. In truth, I knew little about them other than the Maps cannot be stolen or copied, which is why they are guarded by the Grandmasters, who are each unrivaled mages considered to be the supreme authority on their particular sect of magic. There are 7, one for each of the known disciplines of magic.
I have been intentionally avoiding discussing the details of all the branches of magic because it is a long tangent that gets a bit esoteric. But here they are, in no particular order.
Alchemy is the art of turning one thing into another by combining the proper constituent components, magic, and will. Thaumaturgy is ritualistic magic. It is the most mathematical. A mage creates a model-scale conduit for a large scale result. This is the most dangerous but has the most bang for the buck. For example, the arrium we were flying in was created with Thaumaturgy and can shrink or grow upon activation. Invocation, which is my speciality, is combat magic. You’ve seen much of what it can do. It requires vast amounts of energy and disciplined focus for on the spot ass-kicking.
Evocation—often confused with invocation—is magic dealing with drawing power from other planes and dimensions directly, often used to fuel Thaumaturgy. This branch carries many risks. Think of reaching your hand into a bag of poisonous spiders, hoping to find a nugget of gold at the bottom. There are ways to see into the bag, but you better know what the hell you are doing before reaching inside or you’ll not live long enough to see what you pulled out.
Summoning, is the art of using ethereal patterns to manipulate or influence beings from other planes. Get a minotaur’s, nightmare’s, or troll’s pattern, and you can call it to serve you. Summoning spells bind the drawn creature or entity to the fate of the summoner. But this is a one-way street. A summoner can kill or harm the summoned creature without effect, which is why the called entity typically will serve the one who calls them without the need for compulsion—also known as Enchantment magic, which is sometimes required to control willful beings who are summoned. Enchantments can also be used on normals to influence or control their behavior.
I do not care for either of these last two magics because I do not enjoy the idea of taking away the Freewill of another. Whether it came from an Allfather, Allmother, or some gendered-neutral omnipotent but paternal deity, or simply exists independent of such powerful beings, we have Freewill for a reason. That matters to me.
The last magic is known as Spirit magic, which could be sub-divided into Life and Death. If Life has a basic element, it is the ether, just as wyther has Death. All mages can use both, but some mages are naturally energized by the use of wyther. We call them wythermages (I know … original), but stories refer to them as necromancers. Same idea but not so goth as you see them on the telly. I once knew a wythermage who only wore pink and rainbows. He also was a hairdresser named Cody. Fun guy.
Anyway, I have some small talent with all of the schools of magic, but am best with Thaumaturgy and Invocation, both of which I am ranked as a master. But my raw power places me on the path to take my Bodhi’s place some day in Invocation. And though the testing is secret, I know that it usually takes place over the course of a year and is administered by all of the living grandmasters working in concert. To be elevated, their agreement must be unanimous. Suffice to say, I really hope Bodhi Caderyn lives a long time for more than just my love of the man.
There is a silver-lining. When I rise to grandmaster, I will have access to the Maps. As long-lived beings, we could wait this out. It is called the Eternal War for a reason. It will still be here when I make grandmaster. Then, when I have the means, I can come back and navigate through the Fae Realm to Atlantis without giving up a century of my existence to serve as some sort of undertaker.
However, time was not on our side. Victoria, the love of my life, was shackled in a basement in my dimensional pocket. Don’t judge me. What would you do if your significant other was being used like a puppet by a goddess hellbent on world domination? The second Aiden left me alone with her, I gave her a light, pillows, and a few novels. Not ideal, but she’s also not at the Collective being beheaded.
Guilt aside, waiting was not an option. As far as the Collective was concerned, Victoria was a fugitive. She’d forfeited her life when she bonded to a deity. And while we were here, trying to get a device to break the bond, Abigail was gathering forces for an obvious attack on a nexus of power. And fuck Loki, what time was it? Shit. What day was it? In Tallahassee, it was 2 or 3 a.m. Tuesday morning. Antartica is … what? 15 hours ahead? Yeah, whatever. I was pretty sure I would be missing a class or two.
The ship stopped, interrupting my internal dialogue, which hadn’t gotten anywhere. I’d been replacing sleep with an extra burning of ether. Better than caffeine, but it would only stave off sleep-effects for so long. Also, my metaphorical arms were getting tired.
“A century before choosing your rebirth isn’t so bad.”
“What’s that?” I asked, looking up at him.
“Death row inmates walking the green mile have more color in their cheeks than you do right now. What are you thinking about?”
“Everything. Nothing. It doesn’t matter. Let’s get on with this.”
We climbed out of the ship to get clear of the inverted growth spell. The vessel shrunk down to fist sized, and Aiden pocketed the arrium again.
I looked around the frozen wasteland. Wind picked up, sending motes of snow into the air. Aiden walked with purpose then stopped a few paces away, staring at the tundra. At first, it appeared no different than any other white surface, until I realized the thick sheet of ice was perfectly clear of snow. Protective runes glowed beneath the surface, inside the glaciated lake. Silent power thrummed through them.
“Follow my steps, exactly,” Aiden said.
“What do they do?”
“Look deeper. Way deeper.”
I looked with my ether-sight, questing lower. After a hundred feet below, I found the first body, encased on a frozen chunk. Then another. And another. Gods, there were dozens of them, probably all mages who had tried to cross to the gateway. I mean, I suppose one or two could be scientists stumbling the magical construct in the middle of the coldest place on earth. They are masochists for knowledge.
“It’s a maze of magic traps,” Aiden confirmed. “One wrong step, the circle closes on your leg, traps you in a disruption sphere, and hurls you below the lake. You’ll freeze from the inside long before you drown, unable to draw even a trickle of ether or wyther.”
“And we can’t fly over it because?”
“Notice there is no wind?”
“Use that sexy brain of yours.”
“Ah,” I said, realizing the problem. “The disruption field is projected upward, nullifying any magic above it for at least a hundred feet.”
“Feet? What are you? American now? More like a thousand meters. We have to walk a tightrope to the center. It’s actually a simple pattern if you know what to look for. You’ll recognize it as the Penpont Maze, only a bit more deadly.”
“That’s great.” I smiled at him. “After you.”
“You just want to stare at my ass. Don’t be jealous. I do yoga.”
I shuddered from the the image of Aiden in tight nylons bent over a mat doing downward-facing dog. I know him well enough to know that if he ever did yoga, he would be one of the dudes in the front, without shorts to cover his goods, happily shoving his junk in the faces of all those in attendance as he executed the exercises with perfect form.
Aiden took a careful step onto the ice. I expected it to creak or crack like it does in the movies. Nothing. He walked one foot at a time, studying the pattern with each move. I placed my feet exactly where his had been. The second I was on the lake, the wind stopped whistling in my ears. Every part of me screamed to go back.
We inched our way toward the center, which I realized was a circle. If I was somehow able to perfectly measure the circumference divided by the diameter, I knew I would get Pi, exactly to its infinite precision. If there had ever been doubts of magic at play, this would have killed that uncertainty. Such perfection never occurred in nature.
Aiden stopped at the center and looked down at a pentagram, encased in yet another perfect circle. He stepped into the pentagon at the center, which spanned at least 3 meters across. I stood beside him.
“You are going to have to trust me here,” Aiden said. “Forewarning, this is going to suck.”
“What’s going to s—”
With the slightest tug of ether from Aiden, we plunged into the ice. My testicles must have climbed back inside me to keep from freezing off. Not that I could feel them from the stabbing sensation hitting every angle of my body. I’d only sucked in half a breath. The pressure to suck in breath made my lungs burn.
If I lived through this, I would kill him. Not with magic either. Oh no, I would wrap my hand around his throat and squeeze until—
Just as it occurred to me to draw on the ether to save myself, the sensations ended.
I stood on shaky legs, next to Aiden, upon a perfect replica of the pentagram atop the lake, only the drawing was white atop a sea of black. I was dry. We had not actually fallen through the lake. This was the place between, no longer Earth, but not quite in Fae.
There was no tapestry of traps on this side. Ether and wyther pulsed in abundance. And I knew without asking, there was an endless drop beyond the border of our little circle. Less than a hundred yards away, an ancient archway of dark marble hung upon nothing with a vast void beyond. Red pulsed on the greenish stone, patterns far more intricate than anything I had ever seen or created. I recognized some of the symbols of transport and knew enough to realize the rest was an address. Beautiful and impossible magic, old and powerful.
How in all the gods did anyone navigate here without that portal? I shuddered at my own arrogance before. I wouldn’t even chance using a Map to find this place. No arrium could be so strong.
Even with all the mind-boggling impossibilities before me, somehow, the biggest oddity was the young girl sitting on an invisible chair in front of the archway, reading a book. A voluminous robe draped on her shoulders, open in the front. Beneath, she wore a red spaghetti-strapped shirt with tight jeans. Blonde hair was tied back and held up with chopsticks. She wore no makeup but had a touch of natural blush reddening her cheeks. Also, she was practically alight with ether infusing every part of her.
She glanced up at us, frowned, then got back to her novel, completely nonplussed by our sudden, miraculous arrival.
Before I could ask, Aiden said, “Just like riding a ley. Come on.”
My heart lurched as he dropped off the tip of the pentagram. A semi-sphere of hardened ether enclosed him, carrying him like a single-serving boat to the girl. I followed in my own little pod of ether.
Without looking up from her book, the girl asked, “Can you pay the toll?”
“Of course,” Aiden said, clearly enjoying the sight of her. “May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?”
I cringed as he gave her his most charming smile. Clearly, he did not recognize the name. “Are you a mage?”
Lowering her novel, she stared at Aiden as if he was the biggest idiot she’d ever deigned to speak to.
I leaned in and whispered, “She also goes by Ino, daughter to Cadmus and Harmonia, granddaughter to Ares and Aphrodite. After Hera drove her from their mother’s place of power, she was banished, apparently now tasked with being the gatekeeper here.”
Leucothea, demi-god to Ares turned her frown on me, and it deepened. “For another six hundred eighty-seven Earth years.”
“Right,” Aiden said, digging an old-fashioned coin purse from his cloak. “We have gold. How much?”
He fished out two gold coins and offered them to her. When they vanished from his palm, he yanked his hand back with a shrill yelp, eliciting the hint of a smirk from Ino. She nodded toward the gate.
We stepped through and found ourselves standing before the River Styx.
Seeing Victoria bound to the chair, unconscious and head lulling to the side, I felt pain more intense than a jolt of lightning to the chest. Memories of our times together came unbidden. My bottom lip quivered. Tears reamed my eyes.
“Gods damn it,” Aiden said. “No. She broke the Accords. It’s over for her. We are taking her in.”
“I never said anything.”
“The fuck you didn’t. It’s all over your face. She’s bonded. There’s no coming back from that. She’s the enemy.”
“What if there is a way to come back?”
Aiden stared at me as if I was simple, mouth open at the shock of my sheer stupidity. The worst part was, I wasn’t certain he was wrong. His face scrunched up in anger, then disgust, and finally settled into bitter resolve.
“How are you so certain? Have you looked?”
“Yes. I went through this a hundred years ago. Do you think I did not try to save Abby? There isn’t a way to break the bond.”
“There is always a way to undo magic. No one has looked hard enough.”
“That’s precisely what I told Grandmaster MacGregor, just after she gave me the kill order on her own daughter. When I refused, the grandmaster banished me from the Hebrew Collective.”
I had always suspected that might be the case, but he rarely spoke of the events of Abby’s fall. I chose my next words with great care. “Do you no longer believe she was wrong?”
“Look. I have chased down several promising leads and got nothing. Texts I found in hieroglyphs claimed a ritual using blood of an ancient would sever the bond, but the ritual required the bonded mage and was not specific on what the hell an ancient is. I found an artifact in Atlantis that could be used to break any bond, but it is owned by Theseus of Athens and hidden at the center of a Labyrinth. There isn’t a way to get it.”
“So, you have given up? You think your mother is right?”
“No. All magic is unworkable. Cancer has a cure. Teleportation can be achieved by machines. ”
I am an ass. I know this is a vulnerable point for Aiden. He’s been dealing with Abby’s fall for a century. I’ve only known about Victoria for a day. But I knew I could not kill her. If I took her to the Collective, I might as well have severed her head myself.
Doing my best to ignore the guilt of manipulating one of my oldest friends, I gestured to Victoria. “Well, here’s our chance to find out if you are right.”
I could see the gears turning behind his eyes. He was way ahead of me on this. When it came to solving puzzles, Aiden was relentless. And he’d never been closer to anyone than his sister. Despite what he claimed, he was still looking for a way to save Abigail.
“Okay,” Aiden said at last. “Fine. But I have two conditions.”
“First, she stays shackled and I keep the key. So long as she is in our custody, we are not criminals. Though the directives are clear on escorting her kind, we can bend them a little if we have good reasons. You’ll need to think of some gods-cursed good ones by the time we get back to the Collective.”
“Agreed on all accounts.” I fished out the metal pentacle that would unlock Victoria’s shackles and handed it to him. He did not put it away immediately. Aiden didn’t fully trust me at the moment. It hurt, but I understood.
“Second,” he said, “I am in charge. The very moment I say we are through, that’s it. Game over. We take her back to the Collective. No arguing. No questions asked. You do as I say.”
Taking orders from a guy who was just riding a chariot through a party an hour ago seemed unwise at best, but at the same time, I knew what Aiden was capable of. Though it felt like taking a gut-punch to admit it, Aiden had a more level head in this. And he was helping me.
I gave him a stiff nod of agreement.
“Nope. I need to hear you say it. I am in charge.”
“Yes. I agree. You are in charge.” Gods, that hurt.
“Was that so hard?” As I frowned, he gave me a shit-eating grin. “Now, open your dimensional pocket.”
“No questions, remember.”
Biting my tongue, I pulled the bag from my shoulder and opened it. Aiden walked in without invitation. He looked around, shaking his head. “This place hasn’t changed since Paris.”
“Why should it?”
He walked through the stands of my formal wear and held out one of my older suits. He pulled it out with two fingers and raised an eyebrow at me.
“What?” I said, “It’s vintage.”
“Tailcoats went out last century, but hey … if you want to hit up a renaissance fair, I’m sure you’ll kill it with all the ladies who want to be with an aristocrat.”
“Can we please get back to the task at hand?”
He dropped the coat and looked around. Speaking some Hebrew, Aiden drew ether and began to move my things.
“Hey! What are you doing?”
Aiden ignored me. My wardrobe moved to the far edge of the space. Stone dividers began materializing, hiding the blackened end of the dimensional pocket. Rather than some otherworldly place, it began to look like a castle’s interior. He moved my Maserati Gran Turismo closer to the front, near the exit. Rooms and hallways appeared, all made of stone. The spheres of light clinging to the top of the space, like tiny stars were plucked loose and placed into sconces along the walls. The doorways hung empty. Wood came from living material and could not be created from ether. Elemental energies are far easier to conjure, which is why every tale of wizards have them at the tops of towers. It’s just far simpler to make.
“Do we really have time for this?” I prodded.
A few minutes later, the torrent of ether stopped and Aiden nodded to himself. He looked at me with a self-satisfied grin. “There. Much better.”
“I liked it the way it was.”
“You’ll like it this way better. And now, the prisoner can be secured. Come on. Let me show you around your new travel house.”
I followed Aiden through the halls. He had shoved my clothes and the canopied bed together into a large room at the back of the space. My artifacts and shelves of arrium were across the hall. The front of the place had a stone fireplace, complete with hearth. The space around it was empty, except for the rug I’d had beneath the bed.
With a burst of ether, Aiden moved the rug, revealing a large stone square. The stone lifted, revealing a darkened room below.
“Okay, how did you create an extra space?”
Aiden gave an arrogant snort. “You should know as well as I that applying force to the resin layer around a dimensional space will allow it to expand. The stone will keep it in place.”
“Right. I knew that.”
“Sure. Of course you did. Come on. Grab Victoria and lets get her inside.”
“But it’s dark in there.”
“How would you like being trapped in the dark?”
“I wouldn’t. That’s the point. Neither will she. If she gets comfortable, she might get the idea that she can escape. If she cannot see, she cannot find a way to do that. Grab her. Let’s go.”
Victoria was right where we left her, head lulled to the side. I unfastened the latches, releasing her shackles from the chair. She slumped forward. I caught her before she hit the ground and lifted her in my arms. As her hair fell across my face, the smell of her fruity shampoo filled my senses. I looked at the dimensional pocket.
Aiden stood in the opening, watching me with a concerned expression on his face. Having second thoughts, no doubt. Not that I blamed him.
“I owe you,” I said.
“Yeah ya do. And I swear to the gods, if you get me killed over her, I’ll haunt you til your death.”
Carrying Victoria into the pocket, I snorted a laugh.
“I am serious. It’s not a joke. Whatever you do, I will be there, taunting you. You’ll never be able to have sex again without mockery. And just not from the poor girl showing you some pity. You’ll hear my laugh from beyond the grave.”
“Great,” I said. “Fine. You will haunt me. But we are still alive now. Would you like to help me with her?”
He shrugged. “I already lifted the stone. Just drop her in.”
I pulled in ether and with an effort of will made a globe of light and let it fall. It hit the stone and stuck. The cubic space was small, no more than three meters across in either direction. No pillows or cushions would soften the stone. Knowing better than to protest, I gathered in more ether and took hold of her with air and lowered her into the prison.
Aiden was kind enough to lift the massive stone to cover the hole. He kicked the rug back over the square and turned toward me. He crossed his arms in front of his chest, with one hand propped up so he could chew on his thumbnail. He did that when he was about to suggest something ridiculous.
“So,” Aiden said, “how do you feel about going up against a few minotaurs on their home turf?”
“Atlantis?” I said, musingly. “You want to steal from Theseus?”
“It’s either that or hunt down an ancient and kindly ask for its blood.”
“Either way sounds like suicide.”
“No one who knows what we know will give up their blood willingly, least of all a being as old as time. And I don’t know about you, but I would rather not go into the Fae’s Realm without a proper guide.”
“We have to cross through Fae to get to Atlantis.”
“True, but the ferryman will take us across. For a price.”
“If we go in the front door,” I said, “Theseus will know we are there.”
“So what? Atlantis is huge and ethermages are welcome. It isn’t as if we are going to run in screaming, ‘Hey! Theseus of Athens, we are here to steal your prized artifacts. Come forth and do battle!’ Well, at least we’ll try to come up with a better plan first.”
“Atlantis is neutral ground,” I reminded him.
“Wythermages are also welcome. Bonded mages will be there. Some of those people we have personally hunted have gone to Atlantis for asylum against the Collective.”
“Why the hell do you think I haven’t gone for the arrium before now? If you are having second thoughts, we should just take Victoria to Bhodi Caderyn now. He will put her down as humanely as possible. He is the one person who has felt her loss as much as you. It is not too late to change your mind.”
I thought about it for less than two seconds. “No. I need to try.”
“Alright then,” he said, voice cheerful, “Let’s go to Atlantis, rob the greatest ether-warrior of all time of his prized possession. Then, we can break Victoria free of her bond to the goddess of the hunt, track down Abigail and stop her from taking over Poseidon’s nexus of power, freeing her of Artemis as well. And … am I forgetting anything?”
“Yes,” I said. “The most important part.”
“Yeah. What’s that?”
“Pfft. I’ll settle with live. Who’s happy in our line of work?”
I let out a sigh. He had me there.
The vineyards at Chateau Pape Clement in Pessac, France were a sight to behold in the summer of 1876.
I know. I know. Everyone hates flashbacks at this point in the story, but it is necessary for you to fully understand why I would even consider giving up everything I believe in to save Victoria from my own order.
Members of the Collective gather for a summit every thirteen years—a mage’s decade. It is under the pretense of scholarly pursuits, where we discuss our latest and greatest research with one another. But also, we drink. A lot.
So it was convenient to hold the events at the vineyards. We rented the chateau from Jean-Baptiste Clerc, who had expanded the vineyard in the brief years he owned them, commercializing his wines to be amongst the greatest in France. Though the inquisition had ended 42 years prior, our numbers had yet to recover from all the murder, death, and mayhem. Still, the manor would have been too small for all the mages without shoving several of us in each room.
With our dimensional pockets, this wasn’t really a problem so much as an excuse to mingle. As it would happen, I shared a small storage closet with five others who had as little clout as I possessed in those days. Even though I was approaching 70, that is quite young as an ethermage. As a journeyman, I had only been officially practicing the art for about 60 years. It would be another 40 before I could be considered for the test to join the guild of masters.
And though my mentor was Grandmaster Caderyn of the Celtic Collective, I was barely more than a clerk for the Collective, which earned me few perks. Likewise, Abigail and Aiden had come as grunts from the Hebrew order in Jerusalem. After their father had died, their mother had moved them from Ireland to her homeland in Israel. I’d never learned all the details, but soon after Abigail had bonded to Artemis, Aiden joined the Celtic chapter and had not spoken to his mother, Grandmaster of the Hebrew Collective, since.
But I am getting ahead of myself. This flashback has a better beginning. That debacle would all come long after the summit.
It was a short trip along a single ley from the Isles of Man off Ireland to France, which dumped me out in the middle of Paris. Fog rolled off the Seine River, climbed the shores and settled atop the cobbled road—one of the few broad stoned streets not replaced with the small rocks from macadam design after the revolution of 1871. The white cloud obscured my feet below the ankles. I could smell bread in the air from a bakery I could not see.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
I had been expecting a steward from the summit, but I had not seen the woman walking from the bridge until she spoke. Immediately, I was struck by two things. First, her piercing blue eyes lit the morning gloom, sparkling somehow despite the lack of ambient light. She wore a gown of ornate fabric, expensive enough to feed a commoner’s family for a year. The lace along the top covered very little of her shoulders and hugged her form to the waist, then plumed out in a bell-shape. Her pale skin contrasted her black hair, which was pulled into an intricate bun.
The second thing that hit me about her was the raging torrent of ether surrounding her. She was strong in the art with a natural talent equal to, if not greater than, my own.
Her lips quirked up as she studied me as well, broadening as she approached.
“Aye,” I finally croaked out. “Beautiful. Beyond words.”
She smiled. I melted. My mouth went dry. To this day, I could not say how I walked without tripping on my rubbery legs. I extended a hand to her. The tremble I felt inside did not reach my fingers. Thank the gods.
“I am Liamorandus Fianna of the Celtic Collective. But, please, call me Liam.”
She extended her fingers. After I bent over and kissed them, she left her hand atop mine. I know such a gesture is nothing to the kids these days, but that smallest touch sent my heart fluttering. It was practically a declaration of interest. And since I had not dated in over two decades, it stirred desires I had not known still existed. I mean, 70 isn’t old for magi standards, but between hunting Lovecraftian beasties and quelling the ambitions of the gods, there was time for a bit of romance.
At least, that’s what I told myself as she said, “I am Victoria Deletante of the Franc Collective.”
“Victoria,” I said, tasting the name, “like the Roman goddess of Victory.”
“Do not worry. I left my chariot at home.”
I snorted out an inelegant laugh. “Probably for the best. They went out of fashion with the coach.”
“Out of fashion?” An arrogant, Scottish voice asked from behind me. “Never.”
I turned to see a man dressed like a rich count with fiery red hair and matching stubble. His ruffled, white satin blouse plumed out of a black doublet. Red and gold trimmed the seams of his leather cape. His cocky grin put me instantly on edge. He strutted over and bowed, cape flourishing as he whipped it to the side.
Before he could introduce himself, a woman appeared beside him and shoved hard enough to topple him. He glared up at her. “Oy. You ruined my entrance.”
“I was just saving you the trouble of doing so yourself.”
And that was how I met Aiden and Abigail MacGregor, son and daughter of Robert MacGregor, also know as Rob Roy, who was basically Robin Hood in the flesh. Both carried their father’s rebellious nature and their mother’s immense skill in the art of ether magic.
“I’m Abigail MacGregor. That is Aiden.”
Aiden stood, meticulously cleaning the dirt from his cape and backside. “We have come from the Hebrew Collective.” He glared at Victoria. “I presume you are the steward for the summit?”
She shrugged dipping her chin toward her bare shoulder. “Oui.”
At the time, I did not speak French, but I knew the word for yes. Aiden, however, threw a string of sounds, vaguely French at her after that. With his Scottish accent, his sounds were harsher than hers, but Victoria obviously understood his meaning. Beside him, Abigail shook her head and added to the conversation.
A few seconds later, they all regarded me expectantly. I shrugged. “My apologies. I speak nine languages. French is not one of them.”
Victoria’s eyes widened. “Nine? I am not sure if I should be insulted.”
“Definitely not,” I assured her. “I do not share my mentor’s distaste for France.”
“Grandmaster Caderyn does not like France?” Aiden cut in.
“How did you know my—”
“Your reputation proceeds you, Liamorandus,” Abigail said.
“Reputation?” I said, dumbly. “What reputation?”
Before they could answer, another pair exited the ley and hurried onto the bridge. Both wore traditional wizard’s robes, voluminous and flowing, with only their almond-skinned faces revealed. One was tall with a heart-shaped face. Her dark hair was long and straight, spilling down the front of her robes. The other was short, barely over five feet, hair cut like a page.
“Are we late?” the taller woman asked, dark eyes drinking me in.
“No,” Victoria answered.
The Indian woman’s gaze lingered on me for a few more seconds. She smiled before turning to regard Victoria. “This is good news.”
“I am Amoli Bhatti,” the short one said. “This is Mayra Chander. We come from the Bharata Collective.”
“I am Victoria Delatante,” she said, bowing her head slightly, “of the Franc chapter. I am your steward for the extent of the summit. Now that we are all here, shall we get settled into our room?”
“Room?” Aiden asked. “As in singular?”
“Many will be attending the summit this year. Did you not bring your dimensional pocket as instructed?”
“He brought it,” Abigail said. “He simply enjoys being contrary.”
“Do not,” he said, expression petulant.
“See?” Abigail said with a smile.
“I do,” Victoria said, politely. “If it would please you to follow me?”
Without waiting for a response, she assumed mistform. I quickly dematerialized and leapt behind, staying close to the wyther trail caused by her use of ether. We zoomed over a waking Paris, swirling the fog as she soared out of the city and across the country, southwest.
We landed in a vast field of summer flowers. Once everyone rematerialized, panting and breathing hard, Victoria waved a hand revealing a small boat. Instead of sails, it had translucent wings protruding from the sides.
“All aboard,” Victoria said with a smile.
Steps appeared from the side. Aiden reached them first and tromped up, frowning. “A bit small, isn’t it?”
“Do not be an ass,” Abigail said, following.
“After you,” I said to Amoli and Mayra.
“Such a gentleman,” Mayra said, walking up the steps. I gave a polite smile and nodded my thanks at the compliment.
With a foot on the lowest step, Victoria stopped me with a glance. She motioned conspiratorialy for me to come closer. When I did, she said, “I would keep an eye on that one, were I you.”
“Have you not heard of the aggressive promiscuity of the Bharata Collective?”
I had, in fact, heard things, but I said, “No. Aggressive?”
She shrugged, drawing my attention to her bare shoulders. Though she said, “You’ve been warned,” it sounded more like, “You’ll see.”
I gave a thankful bow and said in the stiffest voice I could manage, “I am eternally grateful that you would defend my chastity, Madam Delatante.”
“But of course,” She said with a wry smile. “As your steward, my only job is to serve you.”
“And the others.”
“Sure. And the others.”
As I stepped into the boat, I felt a burning in my chest. I’m pretty old to be this taken by someone within minutes of meeting her, but somehow I knew this weekend would be magical indeed.
Victoria followed, gathering ether as she moved to the helm. As we ascended, the sun rose behind us in streams of pinks and purples, glittering along the wings of the vessel. They flapped in the wind, carrying us all to our fates.
Sometimes, Loki can be kind.
“Split up?” Aiden asked. “Have you never seen a movie? Or read a book? Or remember earlier today, when you almost got imploded? No. We should not split up.”
I agreed with him, but since he generally likes to do the opposite of what I say, I thought the suggestion would give him an opportunity to make the right decision for once. Of course, if I said this out loud, he would huff off again.
“Right. Good thinking,” I told him. “We should probably go to the meeting. I think Abby is more likely to be there.”
“Abby? Since when does she earn any monikers? And no. Only the newbs and prospective newbs will be at the meeting. Abigail will be at the party. The other nymphs will most certainly be there.”
He was right, and I knew it, but we had to get one thing straight first.
“What? Of course there will be booze. It’s a party. We want to blend in right?”
“We are going there to get information and survive the night, not party with co-eds. Neither one of us needs lowered inhibitions. The mission comes first.”
Aiden scrunched up his face, taking extreme offense at my insinuation. “I have never in my life put partying before the—”
His mouth hung open, some of the fire leaving his expression. “You heard about that?”
“When a mage animates the statue of a stag and rides it through the Guinness factory, word tends to get around.”
“I’ll have you know, Arthur Guinness threw that party for good reason. We brought that bonded mage down.”
“And half of Dublin with him.”
“We rebuilt it before the Inquisition came knocking.” He shook his head. “But it doesn’t matter. It was just that once, a long time ago—”
“Sydney, 1878. You grew a kangaroo large enough to fit in its pouch and charmed it into believing you were its offspring.”
“I felt bad after it lost its … wait. How could you even know about that? Don’t answer. Again, that was just a one off—”
“There was a good reason for—”
“They had just ended prohibition! If I hadn’t had a few—”
“Fine!” he threw his hands up in surrender. “No booze.”
“You don’t have to be so smug about it.”
“Where is the party?” I asked.
He looked back down at the phone. “It’s at a fraternity house on West Park Avenue.”
“Call an Uber.”
“You call an Uber. I don’t want your surly ass messing up my ratings. I’m at 4.98 stars.”
“My phone was destroyed by Abigail’s vortex.”
“We can just fly.”
“Sure, we might as well nuke the place while we are at it. Because if we fly in on a storm of ether, we’ll be announcing ourselves to any ethermage on the block.”
He pulled his phone back out, grumbling all the while. “We need to walk this way.”
We made our way to the street and waited. A few minutes later, our ride was here. The driver was a college-aged kid, dressed as though he’d come straight from the gym. The sleeves were ripped off his shirt, revealing rippling abs and muscles the size of my face.
“Hi Josh,” Aiden said, getting into the front of the red Prius, knowing I get car sickness in the back. “How’s your day going?”
He shrugged. “S’alright. You Aiden?”
“Nope. I’m Bob.”
The jock’s forehead scrunched up in confusion. And he looked out the window as if searching for his real fare. “I’m supposed to pick up Aiden.”
“That’s us,” I said, before Aiden could retort. “Thanks.”
How had he gotten 4.98 stars?
“Cool,” the guy said, then drove off. A few minutes of awkward silence later, we reached the sorority house. The building looked like an old plantation home, standing four stories tall. The off white paint job had been done by magic. It was far too perfect and stood out on this street. Round columns stretched from the porch to the ceiling. Ping pong tables were set up with red cups. The front gable had big greek letters plastered to the front: Alpha Omega, symbolic for the beginning and end. It’s a god’s way of saying, I’m the shit.
“This has to be the right place,” Aiden said once we were out.
“Yeah, but where are all the people?”
“It’s not even eight yet. Party’s at nine. They’ll be here.”
“What are we supposed to do until then?” I asked. “If we stand here gawking, that’ll look even more suspicious than flying in.”
“There’s a cafe back there on the corner. Let’s grab some coffee and wait.”
So we did. The coffee was not amazing, but it was caffeine. There was outside seating. We both sat facing the street. I drew in ether to enhance my vision. Even at a quarter a kilometer, I could see the house just as easily as when we were standing in front of it. When people began showing up, we’d know.
We sipped our drinks in silence for several minutes, until Aiden said, “So, how’re you holding up?”
“Victoria could be at this party. Are you ready for that?”
Trying not to think too hard or feel the swirl of emotions battering away at my heart, I grunted, “I’m fine.”
Aiden leaned forward. “You don’t sound fine. And your pale face is now reflecting light. You should talk about it while we have some time.”
“Your lover and partner abandoned you for power. And all you can say is …,” he raised his hands to do air quotes, deepening his voice as he said, “I’m good.”
“What do you want me to say? If she’s bonded, we bring her down. That’s who we are. She knew the stakes.”
“Good. I’m glad you’re ready for her, because she just got out of that limo and is heading inside the house.”
My heart skipped a beat. I found myself standing, looking at the white stretch-limo. It was one of those big square ones. Likely, it had a hot tub in the back. The woman stepping out wore a skin-tight green top with sequins around the v-neck. Her black leggings vanished into calf-high, black boots. With my ether-sight, the radiant energy made her pale skin shimmer. She wore little makeup—she’d always hated it. Not that she needed any. Her natural blush and light freckles made her big eyes stand out—like perfectly carved sapphires rimmed with dark lace. She could stare into your soul and make your spirit dance for her attention.
And there she was, raven hair flowing about her shoulders. As if she knew he was watching, she stopped halfway to the house, took out a scrunchy and wound her hair into a bun, exposing the skin of her smooth neck. My feet began to move of their own accord, as if she’d cast a summoning spell.
“Wait!” Aiden said, after I started to run. “Fucking stop! Gods damn it, Liam. It’s a trap!”
I stopped. He was right. As narcissistic as it sounded, why else would she be here in Tallahassee at all if not to get to me? Of all Artemis’s nymphs, what job did they have that could only be done by her? More importantly, did any of this matter?
It was Victoria, the love of my life, alive and well and right here. How could I resist?
Pain stung my cheek. The shock of it made me reel. I turned back to see Aiden’s angry face glaring at me.
“Ow! You fucking asshole. Why—”
“Use that big beautiful brain of yours. For all you know, it’s a glamor. It could be Abigail baiting you, or any number of other people. Sit back down, and let’s make a plan. Mmk?”
I unclenched my fist. Aiden will never know how close he was to getting his nose flattened. “It was her. Not even Abigail is good enough to hide a glamor from ether-sight, which I had going until you hit me.”
“She could have used wyther. You would never know.”
Shit. He was right. I wasn’t thinking straight. Come on, Liamorandus, get it together. Rather than admit it, I sat back down and glowered. For once, Aiden did not gloat. He eased back onto the edge of his chair, with what looked like genuine concern in his eyes.
“Clearly,” he said after a few minutes, “Abigail is a few steps ahead of us. She knows we are coming. How?”
“She must have left a trace spell on that flier. Also, what email did you use to sign up on the site?”
“An alias I made a few months ago. She wouldn’t know it. Trace spell is more likely. But that would only tell her which flier was activated. And then she could have scried us.”
“Agreed. That’s the how. But why?”
“That’s even easier,” Aiden said. “She’s up to something big and wants us out of the way. We know her better than anyone. If she can bag us, she is more likely to win against whoever the Collective sent to replace us.”
“That’s a bit cocky.”
“What’s her bigger plan then? If she wants the Bermuda nexus, why is she here?”
“That, my friend, is the million Euro question.”
We both grew contemplative. In the lull, I itched to storm into the house and confront Victoria or whoever was posing as her. It took all my willpower to remain in my seat. But I did, draining my coffee and wishing I had not advocated so strongly against drinking. I drained my drink and went back in for more, grabbing Aiden another white-chocolate latte with extra whip cream.
“Here’s your pansy drink.”
“Pfft,” he said, then took a large gulp.
We spent the next half hour making conjecture about what the hell was going on. Nothing came better than our first theory. We did spend several minutes discussing our plan. By the time we agreed on an approach, it was fully dark. Cars came and went, dropping off party-goers in droves. Some of the other frat houses along this street began to fill as well.
Aiden stood. “You ready?”
“Yes.” A trill of excitement surged through me at the prospect of speaking to Victoria. At the same time, I felt unfathomable pain and hurt. The emotion that took root though was anger. As I took a step, Aiden stopped me.
“Remember,” Aiden said, “this is just a scouting mission. We want to see what they are up to. Only confront the nymph if we can get her alone.”
I nodded. “Let’s get this over with.”
“No, no, no, no. That’s the wrong attitude. We need to blend in, remember? Get your party face on.”
“Fine, but remember. No. Booze.”
Aiden pulled a hat out of his cloak and placed it on his head. The arrium activated, changing his face to become more symmetric, almost beautiful. His eyes turned from green to bright blue. His cloak became a thin bedsheet and his clothes transformed into a greek-style white toga.
“What is that?” I asked.
“I won’t be the only one. Besides, I’m the magnet, right? This will work. Trust me.”
It was still closer to summer than fall, meaning most everyone wore little to nothing. No one else, I noticed, was sporting a toga. Shaking my head, I activated my own glamor, making my shirt look like a tank top with Go Noles! across the front. My trousers became gym shorts, similar to most of the other boys I could see. My boots looked like flip-flops. Nothing actually changed, but so long as the clothes were on me and the glamor intact, all normal senses would see what I wanted them to.
On the porch, dozens of people were throwing pong balls into cups and drinking with wanton abandon. When we stepped up the steps, I saw a girl sitting on a pedestal next to the entrance. She wore a mermaid outfit, restricting her movement capability. I could only guess as to how the shells stayed up. She greeted us by offering us cheap beer in plastic cups.
Aiden raised his hands as if he was coming home to the cheers of his closest friends and family. He gave the mermaid a huge smile and raised his voice. “Who’s ready to party?’
As all those on the porch cheered, I suppressed a sigh and took the proffered cup. This was going to be a long night.
All I could think to myself was … Tallahassee, 2019.
With the sun falling in the evening sky, I opened the front door of my house, holding the door open for Aiden. He carried two dimensional bags, one on each shoulder. You do not want to place an extra-dimensional space inside another extra-dimensional space. The results are unpredictable, ranging from implosion to chunking you across time and space. One kills you instantly. The other could send you to the Jurassic Age. I’m not certain what’s better. Being crushed down to a single particle or being eaten by a dinosaur, but I do not want to find out.
“Where’s my room?” Aiden demanded, more than asked.
“This way,” I said, leading him down the short hall to the left of the entry. “That’s the bathroom. And you can have either of these. The one on the left is my office. This one on the right is my home gym.”
“The gym, obviously.”
He set one bag on the treadmill. The second, he opened and fixed to the far wall, beside the window. Inside was a luxurious apartment, complete with a full bar, arcades, and a TV as large as the wall. After he activated an arrium attached to the the opening, a door formed from mist. When it solidified, it appeared to be just another part of the house.
“All settled in.” He breathed a self-satisfied sigh. “What’s your wi-fi password?”
“Wi-fi?” I asked as if I’d never heard of it.
His blank stare went through countless emotions before settling into a suspicious glare. “You fucking with me?”
“Yep. I’m The Great Zoltar, password is my real name and the year I was born.”
“Of course it is.”
“What? No one is going to guess either.”
“Probably not,” he conceded. “Let’s go find what Abigail’s been up to, shall we?”
“Yep,” I agreed. “Gear up and meet me in ten.”
I went down to the basement. Before returning my dimensional bag to the rack, I pulled my favorite sword out. Runic scripts ran down the side. Visual foci would give the wielder wider access to ether for the infused spells, providing an anchor to funnel more energy than I could without the aid. The spells on it mostly gave strength and speed for battle but held a few protective wards as well. There was only one real attack spell. Fire spells are a bit primitive, but after thousands of years, hitting a bastard with a bolt of lightning still has a certain style. In truth, my sword was a weak version of Excalibur. I’m no Merlin.
That bastard went one-on-one with Zeus, and the battle ended in a draw. The mortals watching from earth thought the world was ending. The peoples of 6th century Europe talked about that fight for several hundred years, before the Law of Dubiety pushed the story into mythology. After all, it isn’t every day you see lightning-laced dark clouds turn to fists and pummel a glowing figure the size of a mountain. And Zeus never tried to take a second nexus after that. The pantheon dissolved, and the gods of Greece lost power.
When I sheathed the blade, the weapon shrank to the size of a belt knife. I grabbed a cloak of wyther protection and activated the illusion to make it look like a normal jacket to anyone but me. A coat would still look out of place at the tail end of summer in Florida, but less than a medieval style garment. Next, I grabbed my timepiece and fastened it to my wrist. This had come from the vault. With a quick word, the watch-face would expand into an ethereal kite shield and would protect against several types of spells as well as physical attacks. Last, I filled my cloak pockets with spell bombs, potions, and various arrium that might be useful in a pinch, also on loan from the Collective.
When I came up the steps, Aiden was in the kitchen, refrigerator door open. He frowned at me. “How do you not have any leftover pizza? I mean what is this?” He held up a carton of heavy whipping cream in one hand and lemon juice in the other.
“After making myself some eggs Benedict, I have egg whites leftover. I use them to make little white-chocolate mousse cakes.”
“Why? You live in America. They deliver everything to you.”
“It is therapeutic. I listen to an audiobook, and I cook. It relaxes me. You should try it sometime.”
“Nah. I’m good.” He bobbed a head toward the front door. “You ready?”
“No. We go out the back.”
“One of these days,” he said, following me, “you’ll trust the Law of Dubiety.”
“I trust it. But I don’t trust Mrs. Crangston across the street. She sits all day, watching the neighbors. Every time she sees me, she asks me about my plans for the weekend. Regardless of what I say, she insists that I join her at church. When I decline, she becomes insistent and judgmental. She already throws holy water at my lawn and prays, not quietly, for my soul. The last thing I need is for her to see us fly from the front yard.”
He snorted. “Let her. Would serve her right for getting up in your business.”
“I like this cover,” I said, leading him to the Live Oak tree. “Would you at least try not to blow it while you are here?”
“Sure,” he said, gathering ether. “Ready to do this?”
In answer, I pulled ether, made us invisible and flew into the air. I led us back to Carothers. With any luck, we could find some wyther still lingering in the air.
The parking lot was mostly empty, likely a few grad students lingering. Both buildings to either side of us were covered in windows. We would have to surreptitiously look about while flinging ether. Wyther had a way of conjoining. The best way to find wyther, was to make more.
“I’ll start over here,” Aiden said. “That’s where our fight ended. I’ll try to isolate our battle.”
“And I’ll look for older scars in the air.”
I walked to the other side of the lot. Just as I pulled several handfuls of either, I heard a feminine voice say, “Liam? Is that you?”
Turning, I loosed the ether back into my surroundings, wiping off him hands as if I’d been digging in a cookie jar. For Loki’s sake, she couldn’t see ether.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, looking into the TA’s wide smile. “Do I know you?”
She flinched as if I had slapped her. The best way to win over a lady is to pretend you don’t recognize her.
“I’m Skyler. Your TA.”
“Oh. Right.” Then I let a smile slip. “Ms. Skyler Turney.”
“You asshole. I thought you were serious.”
“Had to get even for that whole Scottish crack.”
She nodded. “Guess I deserved it. What are you doing out here? Lose something?”
“Uh,” I said. Look at me, a bastion of sophistication and poise. “Yeah. Um. Dropped a twenty somewhere.”
“It’s long gone.”
“You think? No one would turn it in?”
“Cash? Not a chance. Just think of it as contributing to some undergrad’s pizza fund.”
I shook my head as if severely disappointed. “The kids these days.”
She laughed. It was a melodious sound. Made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle. Ah fuck. I thought I might actually like this girl. Despite her being a norm, this was not a good time for me to consider dating.
“Are you hard up?” she asked, glancing me up and down.
“What’s that?” American idioms were difficult to follow sometimes.
“Do you need to borrow some cash?”
“No,” I said quickly. “I have plenty of money.” In fact, I had close to a billion dollars in assets around the world and at least fifty million liquid. Being a couple hundred years old had its perks. There was no way in hades I’d take a few bucks off a grad student in this economy.
“Oh. Sorry. I just … that deep of a frown and the thrift store jacket, I just assumed … I shouldn’t assume. Wait. Why are you wearing a jacket? This is August in Florida. Aren’t you hot?”
“Thrift store?” I said appalled. “This is vintage.” Note to self: look up stylish jackets. “And some of the buildings get pretty cold.”
“You must have been in HCB. Feels like a morgue in there.”
“Hang out in a lot of morgues do you?”
“I have worked with cadavers.”
“You have? Why would—”
“Well,” Aiden said, coming up from behind me. “I didn’t find anything on my side. How bout you?”
“Not yet, but I’m—”
“It’s pretty obvious what you’re about,” Aiden said. “This is serious. Why are you cavorting with her kind when we need to be—”
“It’s just twenty dollars,” I said in hopes of cutting off words that would destroy my hastily wrought lie. At the same time, Skyler asked, “My kind?”
“When you are done fucking off,” Aiden said, walking toward the Love building, “I’ll be over here. Always leaves the tedious work to me. Un-fucking-believable.”
Skyler raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” I said. “He’s Scottish. Gets murderously hangry.”
She chortled. “I understand.”
“But I should really help him. It’s his twenty. I’m just helping out.”
“Right,” she said, pulling a pen and paper out of her purse. “If you change your mind and give up, I’m on the fourth floor of MCH.” She bobbed her head to Carothers, “It’s that one. Here is my cell and office number. I plan to be here late. Come up if you want some pizza.”
She handed me the piece of paper. Looking at it, I said, “And by pizza, you mean …”
“Food. I always order Momo’s to encourage students to come during my office hours. What do you think I meant.”
“I thought you were hitting on me.”
“Nope. Can’t date students.” She shrugged an apologetic shoulder as if to say, But you won’t always be my student.
I actually breathed an audible sigh of relief. In hindsight, this is not the best way to win over the ladies.
“Wow. Didn’t realize I was such an ogre.”
“No. Not at all. You are gorgeous. More importantly, you are witty. I love that. But I just got out of a serious relationship, and I’m not ready to date anyone right now.” I almost said court—rather than date. Fuck I’m old.
“Liam,” Aiden said. “I swear to Zeus—”
“Zeus?” she asked.
“I have to go. See you Wednesday for class.”
“Bye!” she called after me.
As I joined Aiden, his scowl only deepened. “Have a good time did ya?”
“Yes, thanks. Did you find anything?”
“As a matter of fact, aye. I did. Come look at this.”
Gathering ether, I followed Aiden to a small field behind the physics building. Long before he stopped, I felt the swirl of wyther. Drawing ether into my eyes, I could see a residue of patterns. It was designed to make people more susceptible to suggestions by the caster.
“What the fuck?” I asked, feeling a tugging thought I knew was not my own.
“Check out the flier on the wall. Anyone walking through here is compelled to look at it.”
It was an advert for people in Mythological Studies. There was an email address to get more information. Drawing ether into my brain, I seared the image of the flier into my memory. Aiden was way ahead of me. He typed and sent an email into his phone. Seconds later, he got an auto reply.
“Meeting every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 pm. The location is off campus. There are free ride share codes to get there. And there’s a party across town for existing members tonight at the same time as the meeting. Look with ether sight. There are glyphs of influence laced into the white space.”
“This is too obvious. It has to be a trap.”
Aiden moved aside his jacket and placed a hand on the knife at his belt as if it was a hilt of a sword. “That’s why we came prepared. Also, what choice do we have?”
“Guess we don’t. But I don’t have to like it.”
“Who goes to the meeting? And who goes to the party?”
“You think we should split up?” I asked.
What do you think? Should they split up? Poll closed! Thanks to everyone who voted!!
This action-packed urban fantasy is based out of Tallahassee, Florida and will be released here on my blog. The aim is for one new chapter per week.
Synopsis: After two-hundred eleven years fighting against the malevolent forces hidden around the earth, Liam decides to take a break from the Collective–an ancient order of ethermages, who are tasked with policing everything from criminal mages and errant minotaurs to the occasional god-gone-wild. Turns out, Loki can be a real asshole sometimes, and Aphrodite is no sweetheart either. He just begins his classes at FSU, when his closest friend, Aiden, turns up to destroy his plans for normalcy.
Join Liam and Aiden on their adventure to stop Abigail from world domination!
You get to help with the story!!
For fun plot twists, I will put the characters decisions into your hands. A poll will open and allow you to vote on what they do!!
Disclaimer: not really for kids–some language and not a very child accessible plot.