It happened again. The dream that haunted Hekate’s nights returned, but this time it was different. It changed. Hekate felt the same hand holding her back, the same skin covering her eyes and mouth. Between her fingers, she felt the same cold iron.
The same as before, she tore through the skin to see and breathe. Blood dripped down her face as the loose skin hung along the edge of her cheeks and eyes. But as she glanced down, expecting to see a hunched over body, there was nothing. There was nothing but darkness.
She pulled at the arm still lifted in the air. The hard iron stayed in place as whatever it was held her wrist back. For a moment, there was silence. She could only hear her breathing as she tried to understand what was happening.
Then suddenly, something stepped out from the shadows. A man, dressed in a black cloak surrounded by a haze that seemed to follow. His hood laid on his head, but didn’t block his face. He was old. Ancient. But instead of the white hair that revealed age, his hair was pitch black, including his beard.
His face was covered with wrinkles so deep, it was impossible to see even his eyes. The skin hung loosely over his face and the hands that held onto a walking stick as he approached. Each breath staggered as if the motion was too much for his old body to take.
But with each step, his appearance changed. One minute he would be the old man, then suddenly he would change into a younger version of himself. Then the next he’d shift into a young girl, with matching long pitch black hair that was braided intricately along her face. And she too would grow old with each step before reverting back to the young man.
An old man, a young girl, an old woman, a young man, an old man…this continued until he stood in front of Hekate. His hand reached to grab the pieces of skin that hung loosely over her face. He did not speak to her. But as a young man, his milky white eyes glanced at the sword waiting in her hand. With one knock from his walking stick, the sword fell to the ground behind her.
Whatever had been holding her before suddenly released, allowing her to lower her hand. She reached to rub at her wrist, feeling grateful to have control again. Her eyes stared into the milky white ones that evaluated her.
“Who are you?” she asked in a hushed whisper.
As if in response, the man’s image suddenly flickered, flashing through the previous incarnations that had walked towards her until the woman stood in front of her. With black painted runes over her face, she leaned close until her voice could whisper into Hekate’s ear.
“Are you willing to make the sacrifice?”
Hekate didn’t know what she meant. But as the woman leaned back, waiting for an answer the milky white eyes evaluating her, she answered, “Yes.”
The woman grinned before her image flashed again, changing back into the old man. The walking stick that was in his hand previously, suddenly changed shape. She didn’t get a chance to see what the new shape even was before she felt something sharp go into her chest.
“Death will be a gift,” the man whispered.
Suddenly, he vanished. Hekate fell to her knees, as she looked down. On her chest, where the brand had once been, was an open wound, bleeding profusely. She lifted her hands to cover it, applying pressure to her chest. Realizing it was a futile effort, she looked up, breathing suddenly becoming difficult.
Surrounding her now were her friends from school, and even her mother. They all stared down at her with tears running down their cheeks. She leaned forward, using an arm to hold her steady, she cried out, “What happened?”
Marcia moved to stand in front of her, face expressionless, but covered with tears regardless. She bent down, eye to eye with Hekate. Without hesitation, her wings shot out of her back and she thrust her golden-lit hand towards Hekate’s chest.
The last thing Hekate felt was fire.
Her eyes burst open as she suddenly sat up in bed, instantly reaching for the brand on her chest. Looking back, Hekate realized she had fallen asleep on Moro’s stomach last night after everything that had happened. Her hand felt the brand on her chest, but it was different.
Her eyes hesitantly fell as she realized her fingers were tracing over leathery skin with sharp edges again. The brand had returned to what it was before Marcia had touched it. Widening her eyes, she immediately summoned her wings. They tore through her back so fast, she barely felt the pain of the torn muscles and skin.
The wings were changed. No longer a dark gray, they shifted in front of her eyes to see the pitch black colors of the feathers. Each one contained the red veins that had spread in the beginning. But this time they were embedded into the feathers themselves; Feathers that were no longer stiff and bloodied. Instead, they were as soft as the day they were first given to her.
Moro blinked, her eyes opening and closing as she was beginning to wake up. At first, she yawned as if nothing had changed and everything was fine. But as her eyes suddenly took in Hekate, they began to widen. Her jaw slightly slackened as the shock spread through her.
“What – How did?” Moro was unable to complete even one question.
Hekate began to slowly shake her head. “I – I don’t know.”
Moro stood up, lifting her nose to the brand on Hekate’s chest. She nudged it before flinching away. “It stinks.”
“I wouldn’t expect it to smell good,” Hekate scoffed, as she stood to move towards the mirror on her dresser.
Hekate’s appearance wasn’t what she expected. She expected the same dark circles under her eyes she had been seeing ever since all of this began. But she now looked refreshed. The brand was still deeply embedded into her skin, practically touching bone, but her muscles appeared more toned, her face seemed fresh, and even the soreness of the bruise from the night before was gone.
She turned back to Moro. “What is going on?”
Moro could only shake her head as she evaluated Hekate’s fresh appearance. “I am not sure. What did you do last night after we fell asleep?”
Widening her eyes, Hekate shook her head, lifting her arms into a shrug. “I slept. I fell asleep on you, and woke up the same way.”
Moro narrowed her eyes. “Nothing was different?”
“I mean,” she started, suddenly remembering, “My nightmare was different.”
Jumping down from the bed, Moro approached her. “What was different?”
Hekate explained the differences in her dream, explaining the person who approached her with the ever-changing age and gender. Moro listened intently before her head lowered. “I need to go.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Hekate asked, dropping to Moro’s level.
Moro lifted her head to lick Hekate’s cheek. “I’ll be back, but I need to speak with Selene and check something. I have to be sure.”
Nodding, comforted by the fact that Moro would return, Hekate stood up. “Let me know when you’re back.”
Without another word, Moro vanished. Despite the changes, Hekate was grateful she could still feel the wolf connected to her. But as she glanced back at the brand on her chest, she wondered if Marcia was still directly connected to her as well. Their souls were tied, but the connection seemed to increase when she shared the brand.
“Hekate! Are you up?” Her mother yelled from downstairs.
“I’m up,” she yelled back, immediately focusing on her wings disappearing as she turned to grab her phone off of her nightstand.
Without warning, her door burst open. “Are you leaving the house today?”
Hekate froze. Her back was to the door and she could still feel her muscles adjusting back into place.
It didn’t go unnoticed. “Is something wrong with your back?”
Only wearing a tank top, Hekate also realized her brand was showing. Trying to keep a normal speed, she reached for a large t-shirt on her bed and threw it on as she turned. “Nothing, I was just stretching.”
Her mother’s eyes narrowed as she lifted her hand to point at her. “Sure, but your back was…moving.”
Hekate rolled her eyes. “I’m a gymnast, mom. Everything is broken and doesn’t function right.”
Her mother chuckled, taking a step back. “I guess you’re right.” As she turned to leave, she hesitated. “Are you doing anything today, since there is no school? Considering how danger likes to follow you, I’d rather you not.”
She shrugged, reaching for a hair tie to pull her hair back. “I wasn’t planning on going anywhere. Marcia might come over if that’s okay?”
“Of course! Just don’t tear the house apart!” she yelled as she left to go downstairs.
“No promises,” Hekate shouted.
She could hear her mother laughing as she heard the keys jingling out the door. Breathing a sigh of relief, she jumped nearly three feet into the air when someone began to bang on her window. Pulling her curtain back, there stood Marcia, hair a mess from the fight over. Her ruby wings now back to their fresh, golden color.
Hekate pulled the window up. “You scared the crap out of me!”
Marcia pushed Hekate back as she climbed inside. “What the hell did you do?”
Her expression was angry. She didn’t even bother to put her wings away as she stood in front of Hekate. Reaching forward, she jerked Hekate’s shirt down, revealing the brand. When she saw it, she scoffed before pushing Hekate back, releasing the shirt.
“Moro’s gone to talk to Selene to see if she has any answers. I didn’t do anything!” Hekate said, quick to defend herself. She had messed up a lot in the last couple days, but this time she felt attacked.
Marcia eyed her carefully, trying to see if Hekate was telling the truth or not. But after a moment of contemplation, she sighed heavily with her wings beginning to disappear. “I’m sorry. I just woke up this morning and realized the brand on my chest was gone and I panicked. If I didn’t hear your mom in here, I would have burst in sooner.”
Hekate moved to sit against her bedroom door, on the floor. “I honestly don’t know what happened. I was asleep, and suddenly woke up to this.”
“Was your nightmare any different?” Marcia asked as she fell into Hekate’s computer chair.
Hekate bit her lip. Marcia knew about her constant nightmares, but they both assumed it was because of War. If that were true, then the change was serious.
Marcia leaned forward. “It was different. How?”
Blowing air from her lungs, she lifted her arms. “I mean, I was still holding the sword. My eyes and mouth were still sealed shut.”
“And?” Marcia encouraged.
“And,” Hekate hesitated, “You weren’t on the ground anymore.”
Marcia narrowed her eyes. “What was there instead?”
“Nothing. There was nothing there, at first. But then this figure started walking towards me. I don’t know who or what it was. But it kept changing genders and age as it walked towards me. It asked if I would accept the sacrifice.”
“What did you say?”
Hekate gulped, “I said yes. I wasn’t sure what was going on.”
She deliberately mislead Marcia with the words. The figure specifically asked if she would be willing to make the sacrifice, not accept it. She knew if Marcia heard the truth, she’d scold Hekate for ever agreeing to something like that, even in a dream. But if it meant taking the burden off Marcia, she had no regrets.
“That was stupid of you. You didn’t even know what you were accepting,” she said, leaning back into the chair.
Hekate moved forward to sit on her knees and pulled off the large t-shirt. “These changed too.”
Summoning them again, Hekate felt the muscles twitch before tearing apart to make room for the new bones. Marcia held her breath as she took in the changes. Getting up from the chair, she reached to touch the soft black feathers.
“I don’t understand,” she murmured.
“Me either,” Hekate agreed.
Marcia began to slightly shake her head. “How could the brand fully return to you, but your wings return to their original quality? Sure the color changed back, but the feathers were hard and falling apart before from the brand. Why are they so soft now?”
Hekate flicked her hand towards the wing Marcia was holding. “Great freaking question. I think that’s one of the reasons Moro wanted to return to Selene. There are too many unknowns, especially considering what happened last night.”
Marcia took a step back. “Did anything else happen in the dream?”
“It told me that death will be a gift, not that it is a gift,” she said. Again, Hekate deliberately left out information. She didn’t want Marcia to know the end. If it meant something, Moro would tell her later, and then she could think about telling Marcia the whole truth.
“That’s a good sign right?” Marcia asked.
Hekate tilted her head to the side, hitting a group of feathers. “How so?”
“Well,” she began as she moved to sit back into the chair, “Death is now going to be a gift. So maybe that means for War. Your gift to him will be his death.”
Turning to see her wing, Hekate wondered if that could really be it. A Horseman of the Apocalypse was something that always had to be. When Selene first gave her this task, she repeatedly stated they were supposed to put him back behind the Gate. Not once did she or Moro mention killing a Horseman. It seemed impossible.
Muninn confirmed it as he appeared on Marcia’s shoulder. “That is not possible.”
Marcia rolled her eyes at her companion. “And why not? He’s evil, isn’t he? Wouldn’t it be better to just get rid of him altogether?”
Muninn shook his head. It looked far more natural on him that his sister. “The Horsemen are part of the grand design. Built with a purpose that must be fulfilled at the right time, which is not now.”
“Do you know when, then?” Hekate asked, purely out of curiosity.
Muninn shook his head. “No. We will know only when it begins.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Marcia scoffed.
“You’re human. It wouldn’t make sense to you,” he said.
Marcia feigned insult and waved at the eagle. Muninn simply jumped to the arm of the chair before nudging her arm with his head. She rolled her eyes and began to scratch around his neck. “Then what does it mean?”
Stretching his wings, Muninn flapped once before pulling them back. “We will need to wait for my sister to return for more answers. But killing a Horseman is out of the question.”
Hekate suddenly remembered the story Moro told of her old charge who had fought War centuries ago. “What would happen if a Horseman was killed? Theoretically.”
Muninn twitched his head to the side before returning upright. “It is simply not possible. There is no theoretical answer. There must always be four Horsemen.”
Pulling her arm up, Hekate began to chew on her thumb nail, thinking. “Hm.”
“What is it?” Muninn asked.
Hekate’s hand dropped as her mouth twitched to the side. “Moro told me about an old charge of hers, back during the crusades. She said he fought War a lot before he simply disappeared. I’m just wondering what really happened.”
“He died,” Muninn said as he hopped to the floor, moving closer to Hekate.
Her wings covered her shoulders, blocking the entire doorway with their sheer size. She pulled her knees up to her chest as she wrapped her arms around her knees. “She said she wasn’t sure what happened.”
He sighed, shaking his head. “My dear sister has always been overly dramatic.”
Marcia chuckled. “I can’t imagine.”
Flapping his wings again, he settled on Marcia’s shoulder. “It is obvious the boy died and his body was destroyed from the battle. War was sent back into his Gate as always. Which is how he is able to be here now, fighting for freedom too soon, yet again. I personally preferred when Pestilence escaped. Though more manipulative, he is easier to force back.”
Hekate tilted her head. “What do you do? Throw a vitamin at him?”
Marcia burst into laughter, causing Muninn to nearly fall from her shoulder. “Oh please, let that be the answer.”
Muninn was unamused. “Of course not. That would be ridiculous.”
Marcia stood up and stretched. “All right, I’m done with this pity party. Hopefully, Moro will come back soon with some answers. For now, let’s go get a coffee or something. I’ll go shower and get my car. Probably better to drive instead of fly on a clear day.”
“The girl says as she’s about to fly home,” Hekate commented as she stood up.
Rolling her eyes, Marcia moved to open the window. Muninn suddenly vanished, returning back to his dormant state. “Har har. Hurry up. I won’t be that long.”
And she was right. Hekate was shocked when Marcia was back at her house in her car not even an hour later. She didn’t even bother to knock before using the spare key hidden underneath the doormat to get inside.
“Chica! Let’s go!” She yelled from downstairs.
Hekate finished applying her eyeliner before running down the stairs. “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
Marcia paused as Hekate walked into the kitchen. “Are you sure that shirt is a good idea?”
Glancing down, Hekate didn’t see anything wrong. She was wearing a long sleeve black shirt and a pair of jeans. Seemed simple enough. “What are you talking about?”
Pointed to her chest, Marcia raised her eyebrows. “One wrong move or twitch and that brand of yours is going to be exposed to the world.”
“Whatever,” Hekate said, completely dismissing Marcia’s worry, “Let’s just get out of here. Do something relaxing for once instead of fight for our lives.”
Marcia chuckled as she followed after Hekate into her car. “Erik is going to meet us at the coffee shop if that’s okay. After what happened yesterday, he’s a been a bit overbearing. Constantly texting and calling and wanting to be with me.”
Hekate rolled her eyes. “Oh man, how terrible it must be to have a boy that loves you.”
“Says the girl who has a boyfriend now,” Marcia said.
Her comment on the boys reminded Hekate of Marcus. “Oh yeah, there is something else.”
If Marcia wasn’t already at a stop light, Hekate was sure she would have slammed on the brakes in irritation. “What? You said nothing happened!”
Hekate shrugged. “I swear, I just forgot. But Marcus came over last night.”
Marcia’s eyes widened as she turned her head to look at Hekate. “What? Are you serious? Why?”
“He, uh. Well, he saw us last night. When we ran away,” Hekate explained.
“Oh my god! He knows?” Marcia exclaimed.
“Watch the road,” Hekate scolded, “And yes, he knows. He demanded to see my wings. Apparently, he’s seen me fly off twice now.”
Marcia tapped on the steering wheel. “Wow. So someone knows about us. What are we going to do?”
Hekate shrugged. “Moro wants to keep a close watch on him. But he swore he wasn’t going to tell anyone. He even covered for us when people started to ask where we went.”
Marcia reached up to scratch her neck. “That’s good at least. I wonder if he’ll corner me with questions next.”
“Who knows,” Hekate said, sounding exasperated.
As they pulled into the parking lot, Marcia immediately noticed Erik sitting on the outside patio with three cups sitting in front of him. “Aw, isn’t he a gentleman.”
Hekate pretended to make fake gagging noises.
Marcia giggled as they climbed out of the car. “Shut up, you hypocrite.”
Erik waved when he noticed their approach. “Sorry. I went on ahead and ordered.”
As Marcia leaned down to kiss him, Hekate sat in the chair opposite to them. She reached for the cup, smelling the hot chocolate. “Mm. Delicious. Thanks.”
He nodded as Marcia sat down next to him. “Of course. After the night you two had, you deserve something good.”
Marcia’s hand reached to begin playing with his hair. “We were already out of the room when all of that happened. It’s insane.”
“Seriously,” Hekate mumbled as she took a sip of her drink.
Erik began to grin. “At least you got to see him afterward.”
Marcia’s eyes shifted between the two of them. “Who?”
Erik seemed confused by the question. “What do you mean ‘who?” Caleb, duh! He told me he wanted to go and check on you after he heard what had happened from Marcus.”
Hekate’s face suddenly lit up red from embarrassment. Marcia gawked at her. “Seriously? That’s something you tell me!”
Her lips turned down, despite her attempt to grin. It felt more like a flinch. “It’s no big deal. He rushed over to make sure I was okay. I was so zoned out when I got home, I forgot to check my phone. There were a dozen calls from him and my mom combined.”
“I’d imagine,” Erik said, taking a sip of his coffee.
Marcia nodded. “You’re lucky I answered my phone first. Your mom was freaking out when she couldn’t get ahold of you.”
“Thanks,” Hekate said.
Erik sighed. “I wonder how long it will take before they find the guy who did it. It just seems so crazy that happened at our school. I mean, we’re super small, only having tons of people for sporting events. Nothing significant.”
“Except the fact that it’s a religious high school,” Marcia commented.
Before Hekate could get pulled into the debate, Moro interrupted her thoughts.
Hekate stood up from her chair. “I’ll be right back. I need to make a quick call to my mom. Forgot to ask her something before she left this morning.”
Immediately understanding, Marcia’s expression hardened. “Okay. Let me know what she says.”
“Sure,” Hekate said, pulling out her phone.
She took a few steps into the parking lot, phone to her ear as she pretended to speak into it. “What did Selene say?”
You had a visitor in your dream. One that neither of us expected.
“Who was it?” she asked.
Moro was quiet. She was hesitating, as though she hadn’t fully accepted Selene’s answer. Hekate was terrified to know the truth, but she needed to know. She had to know who it was that returned the brand to her.
“Moro, who was it?” she asked again.
Tainted Wings – Chapter Eighteen