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.