Caleb wasn’t wrong. The moment she started her car, the clouds broke. It wasn’t like the average rain that usually hit Virginia. This was a downpour with high winds. It made driving nearly impossible. The lines on the road were hard to see and the wind pushed the car in ways that made Hekate wonder if she’d hydroplane.
Deciding the highway was too risky, she took the nearest exit to use the back roads to get home. She knew those like the back of her hand, making the limited vision not as big of a problem. Her only concern at this point would be wildlife. She prayed they would stay bedded down from the weather.
She drove well below the speed limit to keep her risk low. But every time she came across a curve, her adrenaline would prickle through her skin. Each time it tickled the brand, the sword felt like it was etching its way further into her chest, reaching for her heart. One of her hands released the steering wheel to slip under her shirt and feel it. The brand had etched so far into her skin, her fingers could feel the edge of the burn. It was rough and sharp; as though it wasn’t skin at all anymore. It felt closer to leather.
Her mind was so distracted by the leather-like skin against her fingers that she didn’t see what was coming towards her or notice Moro’s warning. While taking a corner a little too sharp, headlights appeared on the other side of the road and instead of curving with the road, the car came straight for her.
The next few moments happened like a blur. Despite turning the wheel hard, and slamming onto the brakes, the oncoming car slammed into Hekate so hard, she didn’t have the time to process what was happening. The car met her back driver’s side door, pushing the car into the woods surrounded by a swamp. The pull of her seat belt and blast of the airbags in her face knocked the wind right out of her.
Fading in and out of consciousness, Hekate tried to lift her head and glance around. The car was sitting on the side of the swamp, causing half of it to sink very slowly into the murky water. She could hear rain as it shattered onto the top of the car. Sitting backward, she lifted her hand towards her face. Her nose was crooked, and her fingers were bloodied.
“Moro?” she whispered.
If you can snap your nose back into place, it’ll begin to heal. I’m working on healing your other injuries. You need to get out of the car.
Hekate could feel Moro working to find her injuries. One by one, she felt a jolt of pain each time Moro snapped a rib back into place or moved something that wasn’t supposed to be moved. And each time something snapped, Hekate would whimper, unable to scream as she still hadn’t gathered her breath.
Refocusing her mind, she attempted to take a deep breath, pulling oxygen back into her lungs. Hekate closed her eyes as she reached her nose. With one firm jerk, she pulled her nose back into place, her voice finding itself in a scream. But once it was back in place, she could feel Moro reattaching the bone. When her body felt only aches and no sharp pain, her eyes turned to the door.
At first, the door was refusing to give. Hekate shifted in her seat so her feet were pressed on the center console and her back was to the door. She reached behind to pull the handle before pushing as hard as she could. The door swung open so fast, she collapsed to the muddy ground, hitting her head on the bottom edge of the door.
“Damn it,” Hekate mumbled.
She could only lay there for a moment before it felt like she was drowning. The rain hit with such force, it felt like tiny bullets threatening to end her. In a backward crawl, she pulled her feet from the Toyota and sat up in the mud. Using the rain, Hekate rubbed her hands together, cleaning off the blood from injuries that were no longer there.
To her right, she finally saw what had hit her. Sticking out of her back passenger door was a small red Honda with its front completely totaled. Smoke was lifting from the hood, as Hekate began to stand. Feeling stiff, she moved carefully through the mud, trying to maintain her balance.
There was no time to respond. A hand reached forward and pushed Hekate hard against the red car. Her face smashed into the side of it, nearly breaking her nose again. Another hand reached for her hair before whatever it was leaned in close.
“I hear your soul was already claimed. A claimed soul has value,” the voice said.
The voice wasn’t familiar. Although not high pitched, it wasn’t deep either. It was scratchy as if spoken by a man who had smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for forty years. As Hekate tried to lift her head to get a look at who was behind her, the hand yanked her hair down, holding her against the car.
“Ah ah, no moving. If I don’t do this carefully, I could damage both you and your soul. Then you’d be worthless,” he said.
At that moment, Hekate’s instincts finally kicked in. Without another thought, she summoned her wings. They ripped through her skin and clothes so fast, she didn’t even have time to register the pain. Whoever had been holding her was thrown back. There was a loud boom when the man flew into a tree, practically shattering the base of it.
“What are you?” she yelled as she jerked around.
The voice certainly matched the body. He was older, with gray speckled throughout his beard and hair. Even though the long mostly white beard and hair, she was able to see the skin that hung loosely on his face and neck, making him probably over the age of sixty. The long brown cloak that hung loosely over his shoulders shook furiously as he tried to stand. There was a feature that gave Hekate pause: one empty eye socket.
The stranger pulled himself to his feet, using the shattered tree trunk behind him for support. As he stood there, evaluating Hekate, the rain began to lighten. Soon, only the wind continued to bluster between them. It felt like a standoff; One waiting for the other to make their move.
Finally, he spoke first. “I want that brand and what’s attached to it. It isn’t yours anymore. Give it to me.”
Hekate began to build energy into her palms as she answered his demand. “My soul isn’t yours. And neither is the brand.”
“No,” he agreed, “But they aren’t yours either. They’re owned by another. Regardless, I will take it. I need that power. You’re going to die soon anyway. With that brand, I know who’s after you, so why fight the inevitable. If you gave it to me, then he wouldn’t have you. I am not bent on ending all things as he is. I would protect it. Use it for my own purposes.”
She felt the power begin to dissipate as she took in his words. She was surprised. “Wait, you mean you aren’t here to take it TO War?”
The old man threw his head back in a hearty laugh. “There are so many pieces to this game. So many fighting on this plane and others. Fighting to gain control of this realm. Mortals have no say on who has power here. To him, you’re nothing but fodder for his freedom. I have always been far fairer to humanity. Most of us would rather lock him back up than release his brothers.”
Something snapped in Hekate. It was the same thing that caused her to attack Marcia and the same thing that caused her to scream at an angel. Without hesitation, her wings slammed down, thrusting her forward as she reached for the man’s throat.
“Nothing will take me. You pathetic creatures can never take what is mine!” she screamed, squeezing hard.
The man shoved her hand aside, as he threw his fist into her face. The moment his fist made touched her, Hekate was thrown further into the woods. She quickly recovered, flying towards him. Her hands lit up, but this time it wasn’t her light. It wasn’t her power. It was fire.
With a rageful scream, she threw the flames toward the man, who simply dodged before backhanding Hekate in the face again. He laughed at her attempts. “Stupid human. You don’t even know what you’re doing, do you? Has he taken control so fast?”
The impact from hitting the car again pulled Hekate back to her senses. Falling to her knees, her hand reached into to her hair, holding on to her head until she felt like herself again.
“I want to know,” she started.
Hekate… Moro warned.
She knew what Moro wanted. She could feel it. Moro was afraid and wanted this encounter to end. But Hekate’s desire for answers overrode Moro’s fear. Standing, she lifted her eyes, meeting the stranger’s again. Her mind returned, she had full control.
“Tell me. Tell me what you’re talking about, and maybe I’ll consider giving it to you,” she said, her voice hard.
Moro suddenly appeared next to her. Before Hekate could protest, Moro charged at the stranger. The moment her paws left the ground, she was frozen in the air, mid-leap. The old man began to cackle.
“Hello, old friend. It looks like you’ve been busy,” he said as he lifted his hand to flick her nose. The moment his finger hit her nose, Moro was thrown back into the red car.
The sound of Moro’s body hitting the car caused Hekate to flinch. But she fought every instinct to help the wolf and stood her ground. “Tell me.”
The stranger moved as though he were as young as her. His feet delicately danced around as he kicked at the ground, gleefully playing in the puddles as he spoke.
“You mortals think things are so black and white. That one book would explain the secrets of the universe. Or the secrets of God. Of any god. Fools. Everything is merely a piece of a much larger puzzle. But that deity would never give away all of the secrets. Where is the fun in that?
In all of the centuries I’ve been alive, I’ve seen humans get close to the truth. Reach what you would call ‘god-hood’ with powers and extended lives. Taking from nature, taking from angels, or even from demons. Only with great sacrifice can this be achieved. There are few of us left, but we’re still here all the same. Survival is all we seek. Survival and power. And your power was given to you by the highest deity. That alone makes it more valuable than a normal mortal soul. But having been claimed by a Horseman as well, it is immeasurable in value.”
Hekate couldn’t blink or breathe. Of all of the things she expected to hear, this wasn’t even on her list. Only when she was able to feel Moro shift beside her did she feel she was able to ask another question.
“Then,” she began, “then you’re not a demon?”
He chuckled again. His face only inches from hers. The closeness unnerved her. His one golden eye stared at the surface. While it felt as though the empty eye socket was able to see past everything, to see who she truly was.
“I was human, same as you. Centuries ago. But then I sacrificed for knowledge and power. For a while, I was a god to you mortals. Your partner here and her brother were my allies for a long time. Only when I started using demonic power did they abandon me. I don’t know what I am anymore.” He leaned back waving his arms in the air as if they held weights, “On the one hand, I was a god, but on the other, I used demonic energy. I wanted more power, and I found a way to get it. I didn’t care about the source. I still don’t.”
Glancing down at Moro, she saw the wolf hang her head low, as if ashamed of her past. Hekate’s eyes met the man again. “I changed my mind.”
His lips tilted into a surprising grin as his eye narrowed. Before she could react, the stranger reached forward, slamming his hand onto the brand. The touch alone caused the brand to light up in flames. She screamed at the shock.
“I thought you might.”
Lifting her hands again, they met his chest, mirroring his touch. The energy beneath her palms built at the same rate as his. This time, her light poured through her hands, searing into the man’s body. There were no flames.
Both of them screamed in agony. He tried to fight it, but as their eyes locked, his grunts turned into full-fledged screams. Hekate was trying to destroy him from the inside out, while he attempted to separate her soul from the body. Although the man was powerful, she had one advantage. Moro.
Moro suddenly leaped from the ground, biting the stranger’s throat from behind. His eye widened in shock as he fell backward, with Hekate falling on top of him, unable to separate her hand from his chest. The light that had begun to glow underneath her palm suddenly exploded, nearly throwing Hekate backward. Using her wings, she forced her hands to never to let go. Moro’s teeth dug deeper into the man’s throat as the light grew brighter. The blood the seeped from the wounds was black and thick in contrast to the liquid red that bled from her chest.
Hekate could feel the stranger’s chest beginning to cave in under the pressure and turning into ash.
“You can’t! I cannot die!” He screamed.
Hekate leaned in close to his ear and whispered, “Even a god can die.”
His fingernails bit into her skin as he attempted to pull off the brand containing her soul. She leaned back, screaming, but never releasing him. Her eyes darkened as the light from her hands suddenly sparked. Though not completely changed, part of her light suddenly lit on fire.
His entire body began to disintegrate, including the pools of black blood. She watched as the one golden eye and the empty eye socket stared at her in fear. They soon began to fall apart, just like the rest of him. When her hands fell to the ground, her head began to scream.
The intensity of the amount of power Hekate had used caused her head to feel as though it was splitting in half. Only when the light and flames vanished did her hands leave the ground to hold her head, as if the pressure of her hands could keep it from tearing apart.
Her wings began to jerk behind her, feeling the pain radiate from her head and move throughout her body. Only when the stranger’s body had disintegrated completely did the pain finally begin to subside. The wild wind threw the ashes into the air until they met her wings. She was sure they were being absorbed like the rest. The sensation almost caused her to vomit. They felt older and poisonous compared to the rest.
Moro moved to nudge Hekate’s head. The two of them sat there, panting as they tried to catch their breath. They had fought battles together before, but this was something entirely different. Not only had Hekate nearly lost, but something else came out too. She knew she wouldn’t have won if it weren’t for the flames and that frightened her.
Moro took a step back, her mouth coated in black. “You did well.”
Slowly, Hekate let her hands fall to her side. “I’ve killed someone else now.”
Moro nudged Hekate’s cheek with her nose, leaving behind a small black smudge from the blood. “You killed no one. That man has not been human in a very long time.”
“Centuries old or decades old,” Hekate began, “is still just an old man. Just an old man with power.”
“An old man who would have taken your soul without hesitation, essentially killing you. And he almost did,” Moro countered.
Finally, Hekate met Moro’s gaze. “You’ve pulled me into something way more complicated than simply putting a Horseman back, haven’t you?”
Moro shook her head. “No, that was not the intent. Your job was simply to put War back.”
“And yet…” She trailed off as her arm waved to her ashen colored wings.
“And yet.” Moro echoed, looking down.
Neither of them knew what to say anymore. Everything Hekate had known about the world had been pulled out from under her feet. Humans reaching ‘god-hood’ and living for centuries was something she never thought possible. Those were only stories. Everything she had ever read or learned raced through her head as she tried to come up with some sort of explanation.
The first excuse she could come up with was that he was lying. The stranger could have only been playing a game as he lied to her. Hekate never sensed a demon nearby as they spoke. But she hadn’t sensed on in the club either. She hadn’t sensed anything.
Then there was the second; Which was that he was telling the truth. As Hekate shifted to see her wings, she weighed her options. Her wings were now practically black, stained with the blood of the stranger and every other creature or demon she had destroyed. When she absorbed pieces of him, she felt his age. She felt his power. Hekate then wondered if Marcia’s wings would change color with everything she would kill.
When the sound of the police and an ambulance was carried through the wind to her ears, she came to a firm decision. She began to stand, allowing her wings to disappear. As she was trying to come up with an explanation for the police, Moro began to vanish as well.
“Now,” she said, taking a deep breath, “You tell me the truth.”