Chapter 1: The Black Star
"Oh, it was so awesome!" Niklas' voice was scratching rough.
"Do you want to repeat that now for the whole next half hour?” Emma wanted to know smiling and threw a short glance to the side, where Niklas shifted on the passenger seat.
"No, but... it was just awesome!”
"I was there."
"I know!”, hoarse Niklas began to sing completely crooked one of the songs that they had just heard in the concert hall. Emma hummed half-heartedly, she preferred to concentrate on the street. Sure, it was the middle of the night and the highway was practically empty, but the adrenaline was gone and she got tired. In addition, it began to rain.
"What’s wrong? Why are you slowing down?” Niklas interrupted his singing and looked at the speedometer.
"It is raining. And there are minus degrees." Emma missed his non-verbal reaction, because at the same moment the right headlight of the car went out. "Oh, no..."
"No big deal. Those in the garage know you." She could hear Niklas' grin.
"It's pitch dark, Nik!” When the highway crossed some rails with a bridge, a jeep passed them and reeled in so close in front of them that it sprayed the entire windshield with snow rain.
"Ahh!" The car broke away to the side. Emma tried to keep the steering wheel stable and at the same time stepped on the brake, but they hectically moved from left to right. In the light of the single headlight the guardrail raced towards them.
Dear God, let the airbags open!
Emma tore her arms in front of her face...
When Emma opened her eyes, she looked straight into the bright blue sky; not a single cloud was visible. Under her fingertips she felt damp earth, but it wasn't cold.
Am I dead?
Even before she could answer the question, she heard a voice:
"Hey... are you all right?” Irritated, she blinked, then sat up and gasped for air. She sat in a five-meter-deep crater- with coked pines and four young men on the edge.
"Is everything all right with you?" The speaker - a tall blond - repeated his question.
"I don't know..." Her voice trembled, and so did her hands. "Am I dead?" The taller of the two black-haired men, who was wearing a dark blue T-shirt, laughed.
"Dead? Absolutely not.”
"Won't you come up to us? The crater doesn't look too comfortable," noticed the second black-haired one with the light grey T-shirt, and wrinkled his nose a little.
"Um..." Emma looked skeptically at the steep crater walls from loose earth.
"Aiden, would you give her a hand?" the blonde asked the fourth young man. He had rust-red hair and, unlike the other three, was quite chubby.
"Sure," he replied briefly and stepped on the crater rim. He slipped a bit and then dropped strangely in front and turned into a giant brown bear in front of Emma's disbelieving eyes. She screamed and put her hand to her mouth as the bear trotted towards her. When he nudged her at the knee with his nose, she whimpered quietly.
"Don't worry, the bear won't hurt you." But Emma barely dared to breathe. "If you don't want to stay in the crater, you should take some help."
"He won't hurt you," confirmed the tall black-haired man with a slightly amused tone. "Just climb on his back and hold on tight." But first of all, Emma slowly stretched out her hand, very slowly, until she could touch the straight fur. The bear held very still as she carefully brushed over his head and then crawled behind his ears.
"Good bear..." she whispered. A pleasant hum was the answer. A soft laughter sounded from above.
"I think he likes you." With trembling knees Emma stood up and knocked the earth off the things she had just worn at the concert.
"I was with my best friend! Is he here?"
"No. You were the only one who fell from the sky," replied the blonde one with a frown.
"Fell from the sky?” Emma stared at him with her mouth open.
"We can explain to you, but you're still sitting in your crater." Emma felt hysteria rising inside her, but just as she was about to cry, the bear nudged against her shoulder.
"O-okay..." It took her two attempts until she was on the back of the giant bear - they never really got so big!- and then she clawed her fingers to his fur as he climbed the crater. Arriving at the top, she slid off his back with a still racing heart and was caught by the smaller black-haired one as she stumbled.
"Nice and slow, falling once a day is enough." He smiled at her, his grey eyes sparkled. Emma nodded, unable to answer, and watched the bear turn back into Aiden. He just nodded to her and then reached out to shake her hand.
"Aiden. Or bear."
Emma returned the greeting mechanically. "Emma. Doesn't the bear have a name?"
Aiden shook his head.
"He didn't tell me." That made her giggle a little hysterically.
"C’mon, let's go back to the village. I think you need a hot chocolate... I'm Cullen, by the way," said the blonde young man and smiled encouragingly at her. She nodded to him.
"I’m Matt," the one who had caught her introduced himself, and the last one simply raised his hand to greet her.
"Hi... and... um... thank you...?"
"No problem. The oracle sent us here," Mike said and went off. Emma and the others followed him through the forest.
"Yeah. Muttered something about the time has come and sent us to check. After all, someone doesn't happen to fall from the sky every week..."
"Mike, I guess Emma has no idea what you're talking about," Matt meddled. He walked along the narrow forest path behind her and when she turned around briefly, he smiled at her.
"That would probably be the unfavorable variation.”
"But the most probable," Cullen let himself be heard from behind. Mike shrugged and took a quick glance over his shoulder. Emma didn't know what to say and remained silent.
She couldn't tell how long they walked through the forest, but at some point it opened to a large clearing, the pines were replaced by oaks, birches and other deciduous trees, and you could hear voices and jingling. Through the shimmering green of the leaves Emma saw bright buildings in the background.
"Our training ground begins here," explained Matt, who suddenly appeared next to her. "On the left are the warrior fields and behind them the large mage arena, on the right the shooting ranges." When he noticed her hard grasped expression on her face, he added:
"Just accept it for now." Emma nodded rigidly and they continued. On the right, a wide paved path wound through the bushes.
"There you go to the lake. This here," he nodded to the building that now appeared to their right, "is our fitness oasis. Training equipment, indoor swimming pool, sauna, spa... everything your heart desires." The grey stone building had a small canopy in front of the entrance, which was supported by two blue-grey columns; the floor was covered with a mosaic showing a Roman bath. Emma nodded again.
They passed a few rows of trees and then her mouth opened in surprise when she found herself on a large white paved square. A multi-storey, sand-colored building with many thick columns and crowned by a small clock tower in the middle stood straight up. On the right was a wooden longhouse with a thatched roof and small windows, which in turn contrasted strongly with the huge open pavilion on the left, which seemed to consist only of delicate white columns and a tendril roof, and under which were dozens of round dining tables.
"Where are we?" whispered Emma.
"This is the Great Square of the Warrior Village," Mike said spreading his arms in a welcoming gesture. He pointed from left to right: "Dining pavilion, town hall and hospital."
"Behind the town hall you go to the armory and behind it are the accommodations. Passing the pavilion, we go first to the temples and then to the city," Matt added. Emma swallowed hard. Maybe she was in a coma and fantasized. She hated the German winter, so why not an adventure in a summer environment?
"Why is nobody here?" she then dared to ask quietly.
"It's early afternoon. Everyone is busy learning or training," Cullen replied as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
"C’mon, we'll take you to the oracle." Matt nodded to the left and Emma had no choice but to go with them.
Behind the dining pavilion was a small grove of slender trees hiding a huge building. In amazement Emma stopped and suddenly felt very small. Directly in front of her rose a Roman frontal temple with three rows of four columns, to which six steps led up. Above the columns were the gods who guarded the temple in a bossy pose. Matt touched her gently on the arm. Overwhelmed she followed him and suddenly found herself in front of an Egyptian temple. The large entrance was flanked by two man-high obelisks, with two small sphinxes crouching at their feet. Emma was simply missing the words and a little paralyzed she let Matt lead her past the temple. What at first she thought was another piece of the grove turned out to be a temple consisting of living trees and bushes. Behind it stood a Greek open portico. But instead of passing the other two temples they turned and walked along the side wall of the Egyptian temple, through a small orchard and stood in front of a rustic two-storey log cabin.
"Here lives the oracle," Matt said quietly and Emma looked at him, probably a little disturbed, for he seemed insecure.
"We...", Cullen began, but then the door of the log house opened and a woman stepped out onto the meadow. Her age was hard to guess because her hair was snow-white, but as she approached it was obvious that her face was practically wrinkle-free. She wore a pink shirt with white trousers and smiled warmly at Emma.
"Welcome, Emma. Thank you for bringing her here. I'll expect you at the lake later."
"Good afternoon, Oracle," Mike greeted politely and even bowed halfway.
"We'll be there," Cullen added.
"See you later," Matt turned to Emma; Aiden stayed silent like all the way here.
"Come.” The oracle waved Emma to follow her into the house and Emma entered.
The ground floor was just a single room and was amply stuffed.
"Sit down. Would you like a hot chocolate?" Emma nodded and sat down carefully on the dark red couch. The oracle went into the kitchen corner, poured milk into a pot and placed it on the stove. Then it leaned against a kitchen cupboard and looked at Emma thoughtfully.
"You must have a lot of questions. And no, you're not dreaming. This is reality."
"But... nobody can just fall out of the sky! And... I had a car accident!"
"I know." The oracle threw a short glance into the pot and asked then: "How well do you know about antiquity?”
"Quite well. My mother is a curator at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.”
"Ah, very good." The oracle smiled and Emma wondered what the oracle knew and what it didn't.
"To give you the answer to a whole lot of questions: you are a half-goddess. And your father is a god." Emma opened her mouth, then she started giggling hysterically.
"Sure. And soon Percy Jackson comes around the corner..."
The oracle sighed. "I wish Rick had never written those books."
"Rick Riordan is also a half-god, even the son of Poseidon. And a whole lot of young half-gods who come here are expecting a world like his." Emma lost the giggling. The oracle was far too serious to take her for a ride just like that. With another sigh it took the milk pot from the stove and stirred chocolate drops from a can into it before pouring the hot milk into a large cup.
"Thank you." Emma carefully sipped the chocolate milk and smiled shyly.
"In the world the old gods still exist, Emma. They have withdrawn, have forged new alliances and are still watching over us. Here, in Europe, the alliance consists of Greeks, Romans, Northern Gods and Egyptians. And this warrior village is located in a hidden valley in northern Italy. Until about three hundred years ago it was the base of the Greek and Roman half-gods, before the Nordic and Aegyptic ones joined after a war." The oracle paused.
"I don't know who your father is, we'll probably find out at the ritual tonight. But he protected you and only sent you here when the time was right."
"He let me fall from the sky?" Emma wanted to know skeptically and took another sip. The oracle licked its lips uneasily.
"We have been praying for more than three hundred years that the day when the Black Star falls from the sky may still be far away. Today it has come." Emma opened her mouth, but she had no idea what to say.
"I fear you are the bearer of bad news."
"Is that why I'm being killed?"
"Oh, no! Of course not. You are not only an omen, but..." The oracle paused and crooked its head. "Emma...", she said slowly, "Whatever happens in the next time... you are not alone. You will never be alone.”
"Drink your hot chocolate and then you should rest. I doubt you can sleep tonight."
Chapter 2: The Prophecy
Emma had actually dozed off. When she woke up, the oracle stood beside her in light grey waving robes and smiled at her.
"Come. The ritual of approval takes place on the beach." Emma simply nodded. The more questions she had, the less space there was in her head for the answers. She followed the oracle through the dimly lit village to the beach of the lake. There was a surprisingly large grandstand, a big fire flickered almost in front of it and on one side there was a small hip-high fire bowl. The murmur of those present became quieter and quieter and died when the oracle stepped with Emma between the fire and the grandstand.
"Today a new half-goddess has joined us and we want to witness her approval." That sounded very much like a ritual.
"Emma, child of God and man, step forward!" Emma stepped insecurely to the side of the oracle and the crowd in the gallery replied:
"Child of God and man, we see you!”
"Emma..." The oracle looked at her and smiled. "Face the flames, jump through the fire and call for your divine blood."
She turned to the fire and lifted a brow. She had no idea if she could jump that far, but she walked around and took a running jump. This was all so weird that she could hardly imagine it. The flames blazed, licked at her clothes, but she felt no heat as she sailed like in slow motion through the air and landed hard on the sand. The crowd gasped for air and she turned around. The fire had turned silver and the image of a God hung in the shimmering flames.
"Anubis," she noted in surprise as she recognized the adorned jackal-head. And then the flames turned black, a roar rose and a silver scroll became visible, curling up and then exploding with a blood-red seal. Again, everyone gasped for air, this time Emma as well. The fire returned to normal and the oracle cleared its throat.
"Emma... daughter of Anubis, step forward."
"Daughter of Anubis, we see you!" But this time the audience was much more reserved. Emma had no idea what was happening here, but she hadn't known since waking up in that crater.
“Half-gods”, the oracle started slowly after a small pause, “Three hundred years ago, when the war against the Frost King ended, the oracle announced a prophecy. The Frost King would rise again and march with nine knights against the half-gods when the Black Star falls from the sky. Among the half-gods, five would rise to lead us, led by the power of the Black Fire." The oracle took a short pause in art.
"Emma has fallen from the sky as a Black Star and as we have just seen, she has been given the power of the Black Fire."
"Together with a curse," shouted a shrill voice. Murmur rose.
"Twenty-five years ago, I had a vision," said the oracle, raising the voice almost severely. "I saw five half-gods walking hand in hand into a citadel of ice, an army behind them. They were shadowed by a curse, but protected by black flames." Emma was now feeling extremely uncomfortable.
"So, tell me, half-gods, do you want to condemn your five siblings and all our futures simply because they carry a curse around with them? Will you deny your brothers, who have lived between you for more than ten years, because your fear of their curse is greater than the threat of the Frost King?"
"But who says that this Emma is really the Black Star?" someone asked skeptically. An uncanny silence arose, which expanded more and more, because the oracle remained silent.
"Oracle?" After all, it was Emma who said something.
"Am I this Black Star?"
"Yes," was the simple answer. "Only the mage-child of a God of Dead can receive the power of the Black Fire, only the Black Fire can compete against the power of the Frost King. You, Emma, are not only a half-goddess; you are an omen, a mage and our hope." That was the point where Emma would have liked to faint, but somehow, she remained standing and blinked at the oracle.
"Are you serious?"
"Of course. Anubis protected you until you were ready to fulfill your task. You are ready, and the prophecy can begin."
Emma looked at the oracle and shook her head.
"I am not ready. Certainly not. Especially not for this nonsense here. I've just finished university and-"
"Emma." the oracle severely interrupted her. "You are a half-goddess. You are part of a prophecy."
"And if I don't want it? I didn't ask for it! I don't want any power", Emma now interrupted the oracle for her part. Again, some gasped for air.
"You have to -"
"I have to do nothing at all, except dying. What if I kill myself?" she asked provocatively.
"Well, I think your father will bring you back. Or any other God of Dead. Your fate is not in your hands. Perhaps it will, as soon as you have fulfilled your task, but until then you must obey a higher power."
"Sure..." Emma said dryly. Her initial hysteria turned into defensive aggression. "And who tells all of you that I'm not abusing this awesome power? Turn it against you?"
"Nobody," said the oracle just as dryly and someone howled, then it became quiet again until the oracle broke the eye contact to Emma and turned again to the other half-gods.
"Cullen, son of Thor! Michael, son of Sekhmet! Aiden, son of Skadi! Matthew, son of Ares! Step forward and welcome your sister.” The four young men who had taken Emma from the crater came to the fire with unhappy faces.
"The five cursed ones are united; the half-gods have a lead. The Black Fire is with us and we can oppose the Frost King." The oracle said more, but in Emma's head everything began to spin. She had just driven home from a concert with Niklas, then she woke up in a crater and suddenly became a half-goddess with tremendous power and leader of an army...
"Don't faint," someone hissed. A strong hand lay on each of her upper arms.
"You have to stay strong!”
"What...?" she murmured. Cullen and Matt held her up.
"... we will have to wait. But we will use the time to prepare ourselves." Apparently, the oracle was finished, because murmuring rose, became louder and then the other half-gods began to leave the tribune.
"Oracle..." Mike said in a greeting tone. The oracle sighed and Emma pressed her lips together, the boys let her go.
"I'm afraid there's no better time. You are young and strong and have worked hard. So... take care of Emma. I'm not sure how much time we actually have." The boys nodded and the oracle slowly went away.
"And now?" Emma wanted to know after a moment of silence.
"We're going home," Mike said in a low voice and started moving.
"Come on," Matt said with a cautious smile.
"You heard the oracle. Five half-gods, shadowed by a curse. That's us." Matt sounded a little bitter, but his smile remained, even if it became sad.
"We." He nodded. Emma looked around. She and Matt were the only ones still standing on the beach and he nodded to her invitingly. Together they walked the path back to the village, from a distance you could still hear quiet voices. All the questions in her head made her dizzy, but she didn't know where to start. Whether she even should ask questions.
"What kind of curse is this?" she finally wanted to know as they walked by the side of the town hall.
"I don't know." Matt shrugged. "We don't know if we're all wearing the same one, or if we're each wearing our own. We all just saw the scroll with the red seal. We will probably not know the wording until it is fulfilled."
"It is. Why do you think the others are scared of us?” Again, he sounded a little bitter. Behind the town hall there was a meadow with neat flower beds, in the middle there was a small open pavilion. Behind it there were lots of small two-storey houses, which looked as if they were scattered all over the place and seemed to be colorful in daylight.
"So you're not very popular..." Emma said a little late.
"No. And many won't like the fact that we of all people are supposed to lead the half-gods." Since she didn't know what to say, she remained silent, but he went on:
"The Frost King as an opponent is one thing, but if you don't trust your leader... I don't know if we have a chance at all."
"Who is this Frost King anyway?" she finally asked.
"He was a Nordic half-god, a warrior who experimented with magic. The Northern gods are quite quiet about him and the knowledge of the northern half-gods about him was lost when his army destroyed their homeland."
"The oracle told me that this village was only for Greeks and Romans before the war," Emma said quietly.
"Right.” Matt nodded and gave her a quick glance. "The Nordic half-gods asked for help and when the Frost King crossed the Alps, even the Greeks and Romans were so upset that they also called on the Egyptians for help. Well and then they formed an alliance and settled here together." He hesitated briefly.
"The Frost King is a feared enemy, you know. But for three hundred years he was just a shadow. There are always curses and most of the time they end very ugly. And now five cursed half-gods shall lead a united army against the Frost King."
"One of them is a hysterical unbelieving girl who has no clue," Emma murmured dryly.
"The realization has to come to most of them yet," Matt returned. In the meantime, they had arrived between the houses and Matt approached one.
"Our home." He turned to her. "Our... home..."
She wrung herself a smile.
"The oracle warned us, so we cleaned up your room. First floor, right door," he said, his hand on the door knob. "You probably want to be a little alone, so..." He pushed the door open and said over his shoulder, "Come in whenever you're ready."
Chapter 3: It begins
Matt sat on his bed and rubbed his face. Aiden had disappeared as often before and Mike and Cullen had also left after Matt had offered to wait for Emma. It was still breakfast time and considering yesterday's events, he couldn't say how long Emma would sleep. Maybe he should just wake her up... He rose and jerked back when he opened the door because Emma was standing right behind it and had already raised her hand to knock.
"Sorry..." they said almost simultaneously. She had wrapped herself in her blanket and seemed very embarrassed.
"Everything all right?" he wanted to know. She nodded and then grimaced.
"Do you have by any chance clean clothes for me?"
"Uh..." He blinked irritated and nervously ran his fingers through his hair. "The others are not there, but... uh..." Something about her flustered him.
"I don't have a problem putting on your clothes. Mine are just to trash."
"Uh... yes..." He took a step back and turned around.
"Everything all right?" she wanted to know then.
"Yes... yes, everything is fine. You just scared me."
Eventually he gave her jeans and a shirt of Cullen, fished a belt out of one of his drawers and nodded encouragingly to her.
"Towels should be in your closet." She nodded gratefully and left him alone. When he heard the bathroom door, he sighed with relief. Emma disturbed him in a way even his ex-girlfriend wasn't capable of, and that almost worried him more than it confused him. As the son of Ares, he felt attracted to the daughters of Aphrodite and no less to those of Venus, after all, Romans and Greeks were almost like twins. But Emma was a daughter of Anubis and nothing about her seemed like an attempt at flirting, but still...
"Matt!” He flinched and literally stumbled out of the room, only to stop immediately as if petrified. Emma stood with a gloomy face in the bathroom door, naked except for a light blue panty.
"This isn't a bathroom, this is a battleground!", she said angrily and apparently completely unimpressed by the fact that he had to struggle not to stare at her breasts.
"The sink looks like a hedgehog exploded there."
"Um..." Her sinister look was definitely not flirting. "Four men live here, what do you expect?", he replied slowly.
"Yesterday you said you had been warned and cleaned up."
"Yes. Your room. That used to be our armory."
"At least explains the smell...", she murmured dryly.
She looked at him sourly. "You shave. You clean." And with that she took a step back and slammed the door in his face.
A large glass of cold water later Matt leaned in the small kitchen corner and looked up as he heard footsteps. Emma came down the stairs and smiled a bit more relaxed than before.
"Good morning," she said almost shyly, stopping next to him, as if they hadn’t had already a conversation.
"Good morning." It felt like a one-night stand was staying for breakfast, and the circumstance was not exactly diminished by the men's clothing. Yesterday he hadn't really paid attention, but Emma was incredibly pretty. A short golden braid, cool green eyes, full lips and a sweet snub nose sat in her narrow face. She was tall and slender and her breasts seemed almost too big for her petite appearance. Nervously he licked his lips and tried to push away the thought of some nice kisses in the shower.
"Do I make you nervous?" She sounded insecure.
"Because of the Black Fire, I mean."
He blinked. "What?"
"I've been thinking about it, you know, and if this Black Fire is so powerful... then do you have to fear me?"
A relieved grin crept on his face. "As long as you are on our side, no. I mean, I have no idea about the Black Fire, it hasn't been handed to anyone for more than two hundred years."
"Because it is dangerous," she said quietly and her eyes grew big.
"Might always is. It depends on who owns it and how it’s used." That was one of the first lessons young half-gods learned and he smiled at her reassuringly. She looked at him with a frown and then nodded slowly before also smiling cautiously.
"Is there somehow a schedule for the day?"
"How about breakfast first?", he suggested and she nodded, pressing one hand on her stomach.
To Matt's relief, the dining pavilion was practically empty and they sat down at the first table. Curiously, Emma looked at the Cornucopia in the middle of the table.
"Shall I show you how it works?" She nodded silently and he took the cornucopia to hold it down to his plate. "Two toasts with Nutella." The desired one slipped onto the plate and Emma's mouth opened with disbelief. Wordlessly she stared at the cornucopia, but grabbed it as he handed it to her. Her stomach growled audibly and then a bowl of cornflakes clanked on her plate.
"Wow...", she made awed. Matt smiled amusedly and watched her face relax after the first spoon.
"So...", she started, "explain the whole thing to me."
"Then just talk." That overstrained him a little.
"Well... normally half-gods come here at twelve or thirteen. Then the divine blood begins to appear and we become dangerous for ourselves and our environment." He pushed aside the memory of his own, often aggressive emotional outbursts.
"Here we can live in peace and be trained to protect people later as grown-up warriors."
"What does that mean? From what? How do the children get here? And what do the parents say?”
"Uh..." Interested she looked at him over the table and then he sighed deeply.
"There are so-called seekers looking for young half-gods. For our parents we go to an international boarding school. We protect people from all the mythological monsters that come to mind."
"Ah.” She nodded and then she pruned. "Doesn't your mother know who your father is?"
"That's a bit complicated," he muttered and put his toast aside.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"No, it' s fine." He waved it off and for a moment looked past Emma into the void.
"My dad- my human dad- found out by chance that I'm not his child. My mum lied for thirteen years to protect her marriage. And no, she has no idea that her affair was a god." He paused. "My family was extremely relieved when they could send me to this boarding school." The old pain was still there, along with the childish anger about the rejection.
"Must be terrible," Emma whispered compassionately.
"You get used to it," he murmured neutrally. "And we all grow up like this. As cuckoo children. Half-orphans. Left behind." And then a fine pain was also reflected on her face, but she stayed silent and he didn't ask.
Instead, they continued to have breakfast until she asked: "Where are the other three?”
"Cullen and Mike are certainly training and where Aiden is... I don’t know." He shrugged.
"You were talking about warriors..."
"That was meant rather figuratively. I mean, Mike and Cullen are warriors, but I am an archer and Aiden is a fighting bear.”
She frowned. "I thought Ares didn't think much of archers."
He grimaced. "Yes, thank you, rub it under my nose."
"E-excuse me, I didn't want to-" At once she was insecure and shy again.
"It's okay." He forced a smile. "We should rather go to Sandra."
The workshop of Sandra, the tailor, was located on the first floor of the town hall and Emma respectfully entered the colorful chaos. Matt discovered Sandra almost immediately and waved to her. The already white-haired half-goddess hurried towards them with a fluttering measuring tape around her neck.
"Emma! Nice to meet you!"
"Yes, likewise," Emma said quietly.
"Here.” Sandra took a large wooden thread reel from the shelf standing next to the front door and pressed it into Emma's hand. Amused, Matt watched her facial expression as the reel began to glow and then disappeared with a plopp.
"In half an hour I'll bring you your new clothes," Sandra said friendly and Emma nodded overwhelmed. "Would you like something special?"
"No, not really.”
"Okay... You're going into the armory now, right?" Matt nodded. "Then take your time." He nodded again.
Back on the Great Square, Emma looked at him with big eyes.
"This is all magic," he said and raised his hands apologetically.
"This is... unbelievable.”
"I know. But you get used to it. Come..." He nodded in a direction and she followed him to the small pavilion that stood in the middle of the meadow.
"The armory is underground to dampen the magical radiation," he explained as he saw her irritated gaze. He cautiously pulled on a strut of the pavilion and the floor opened to a steep spiral staircase. Emma didn't seem too excited as she walked behind him into the cool twilight, but she said nothing. Only when they were standing in a bare entrance hall did she clear her throat.
"And how does that work now? Do I get a magic wand or something?” He grinned and shook his head.
"Here are all the staffs and artifacts that were ever made for mages and are still preserved. Something of it is meant for you."
"You mean I am chosen by an amulet or such?"
She raised a brow.
"You walk along the rows, look at everything and at some point, it clicks."
"Do all... half-gods choose their weapons like that?" He nodded and she nodded with a sigh. "Fine."
He pointed to a door. "I can go in with you if you want, but I have to keep my distance." Hesitantly she nodded again and then he held the door open for her to follow with a little delay.
Matt quickly lost all sense of time in the gloomy atmosphere and watched as well as he could from a distance as Emma slowly strolled through the rows of showcases. If the strange feeling that she triggered in him continued, he would have to talk to someone about it, because it wasn't normal. Lost as she seemed, in borrowed clothes and completely overwhelmed with the situation, she had been so self-confident when she snarled at him for the bathroom. He felt a little like a protector and at the same time devoted in a strange way that he couldn't put into words. He hadn't known Emma for twenty-four hours, but when he saw her staring fascinated into a showcase, everything in him screamed for her; he didn't just want her in his bed, he wanted her in his life. It scared him.
"Matt... I think I was found," she murmured and hearing his name gave him goose bumps.
"Then you may open the showcase and touch it," he said quietly. She pushed the glass to the side and lifted something out, then she turned half to him. In her hands she held a sphere, not much bigger than a man's fist and deep black, in an irregular coarse net of silver threads. And then the sphere rose into the air, Emma panting in surprise and spinning hastily as the sphere circled around her a few times before deciding to sit over Emma's left shoulder. Unsettled, Emma took a few steps, but the sphere remained where it was.
"Is it normal...?"
"It is. These sphere artifacts can store energy if I remember correctly, but I'd rather ask another mage for it," Matt said, smiling.
"Okay..." Emma nodded and looked at the sphere. "And now?"
"Now we should go back to the house and wait for you to put something decent on."
Half an hour later they left the house again. However, Emma was now dressed in a deep black robe and Matt tried to not think about what she was or wasn't wearing underneath.
"I hate dresses," she said all of a sudden as they left the houses behind and went back to the Great Square. "But wearing this robe feels right."
"You are a mage. They all wear robes." Matt shrugged. "They are like our armor, but at the same time different. More magical.”
"Everything here is magical, isn't it?"
"What happens if the magic disappears?"
With a shiver he said quietly: "I don't even want to imagine at all." Something in her critical look told him she had expected this answer. Silently they went on and when they reached the town hall, they almost collided at the corner with someone wearing pink robes.
"Watch out- Matt..."
"Carlotta..." Uncertain Matt looked at his ex-girlfriend, but not only did he miss the heartache he otherwise felt at her sight, he also felt a surge of power emanating from Emma and Carlotta took a step back.
Emma went literally majestically on and Matt hastily followed her. When they were out of earshot, Emma asked interestedly:
"Is it so obvious?" he wanted to know, frowning.
"Well, either ex-girlfriend or unanswered feelings." He sighed and caught a compassionate glance. "Did she break your heart?"
"She cheated on me after two years, so yes, definitely."
Emma grimaced, but didn't ask any further and Matt was thankful for. He wanted to bury the Carlotta- chapter as deep as possible and yet... the usual pain and disappointed anger were gone. And Emma had reacted to Carlotta.
"Did she just do something?" Emma asked and preceded his question with it. "Something magical?"
"It was you."
"Me?" She looked at him in disbelief.
"Yes. They say mage half-gods have a strong subconscious. And if you have grasped the situation in a split second- which I actually find remarkable- you may have rejected her. Somehow." That was a miserable attempt to explain, but Carlotta had been the only one he had actually talked to about mages. His team didn't have one and she was one, so it happened just that way.
"I don't get it."
"Neither do I," he quietly admitted. For a moment they looked at each other and then Emma nodded weakly.
"Where are we going anyway?”
"Oliver, son of Ra, water and earth mage." Oliver, a burly guy in his mid-thirties, with thinning blonde hair and dark blue robes, seriously shook Emma's hand.
"Emma, daughter of Anubis and Black Fire mage." Matt smiled as Emma returned the greeting seriously, making Oliver smile.
"I think everyone here knows... Well... this is the Mage Arena. The orange-red dome above us makes sure that nothing and nobody gets damaged outside the field. Here you will train with us and explore your possibilities." He paused briefly. "Do we want to start right away?"
"Uh..." Uncertain, Emma looked at Matt, who nodded to her encouragingly. "Why not?"
"I'll wait for you at a safe distance," Matt said, pointing to the meadow behind him. Emma nodded and he moved away a little. On the meadow he could only understand fragments of her words, but Oliver's serious face, on which compassion and understanding grew a little later, and Emma's face, showing growing despair, was enough for Matt. Finally, Oliver waved him to join them and when Matt had reached the two, he said:
"Your magic has not yet arrived at you. That's not unusual for strong mages, but... your subconscious can already feel it." The short encounter with Carlotta clearly spoke for it.
"You should be careful, not that your magical energy suddenly discharges..." Oliver and Matt exchanged a quick glance and Matt nodded. Emma wasn't supposed to be alone until she could consciously use her magic.
"Well, I'll see you later." Oliver just smiled and left; Emma sighed shakily.
"Let's go back...," Matt said quietly and she nodded, but a few steps across the meadow later she stopped with a sob.
"Emma...?" Uncertain Matt turned around and saw tears shimmering in her eyes.
"I..." That's all she got out, but it didn't need any more words, because without thinking about it he made two big steps and pulled her to him. She wrapped her arms around him, buried her face on his shoulder and sobbed violently.
"Shh, don't cry, don't cry, it's all right. You are not alone, we are there for you..." He muttered a lot of calming nonsense to her, but when he was the only thing holding her up straight, he maneuvered them both into a sitting position.
It took a long time for her to calm down and before her fingers clutching his shirt loosened. She turned away so he couldn't see her crying face and muttered:
"There's nothing to be sorry about." Again, he gently rubbed her back, then she stood up and breathed deeply while Matt also rose. For a moment they remained silent, then she turned her head towards him and smiled weakly. Carefully he smiled back and took a step towards her. To his surprise, she embraced him shyly and before he could really return the embrace, the midday bell struck and she flinched.
"Time for lunch," he simply said and then she giggled, embarrassed at her own reaction.
Chapter 4: First Bonds
Aiden may have been shy and preferred to be alone, wasn’t speaking much and generally kept out of most things, but he was not blind. Matt's shirt was wet on the shoulder and Emma's face swollen from crying. Still, Matt looked like he couldn't decide whether to adore her silently or actively seduce her. Emma didn't seem to notice much of it, though, as she listened attentively to everything Cullen and Mike had to say over lunch. These were very general things, but also some anecdotes. Of course, Emma put her foot in it and scratched the one or the other scar unknowingly, but they couldn't expect anything else from her either.
Finally, the food pavilion was empty and Emma's face was normal again. A bit Aiden could even understand Matt, because Emma was really pretty and her black robes gave her something majestic, just like the sphere that she gently pushed back now and then when it cheekily ventured too far into Emma's field of vision. But the shy smile that scurried across her lips as they rose was for Mike.
"Anyway," Cullen said at that moment and Aiden half turned to the blonde warrior, "we should- oh." A white dove came fluttering and held a piece of paper in its beak, which Mike accepted.
"From Tobias. We have to go to him immediately."
"The oracle said we had time. So why the hurry?", Matt wanted to know.
"Ask him," was the cool answer and Aiden left the four to leave the pavilion. He had no great desire to squeeze into Mayor Tobias' office with so many people and spend hours discussing any war preparations, but he had no choice. With his hands in his trouser pockets, he turned halfway and watched the others leave the pavilion and join him on the Great Square. The hostility between Mike and Matt was almost palpable, but that was nothing unusual- one wrong word could be enough.
"Tobias is the mayor, right?" Emma went after it. "What's he like?"
"A righteous man," Matt said succinctly.
"That sums it up quite well..." Cullen seemed resigned and gave Emma an apologetic smile.
"How much authority does the mayor have?", she continued, and Mike, who had already marched off, replied:
"A lot. But General Soňa will lead us to war."
"We will lead us to war, Mike," Matt said coldly, adding almost bitterly: "First and foremost you." Aiden would have preferred to run off into the forest, but since he couldn't, he dropped back and pulled his shoulders up a little. He hated these fights.
"Do you have a problem with it?" Mike asked coolly back and without turning around.
"None that I could solve," Matt growled suppressed. Now even Emma seemed too uncomfortable and she waited until Cullen walked beside her. But Matt just hurried so far that he reached the town hall together with Mike and entered. Aiden sighed softly as he was the last to step into the cool shade of the building. It would be a long day.
They sat at a round conference table: the five cursed, General Soňa, Vice General Pablo, Mayor Tobias and the four-member council consisting of Anders, Marika, Ahmed and Kristoff. Already after half an hour Aiden had given up to follow the jumpy discussions. At the end, he would ask Cullen to give him a summary and would only follow orders anyway. Fortunately, Matt was able to swallow most of the comments he might have on his tongue and keep quiet, but that was more likely due to Emma sitting between him and Mike and getting paler and paler with every long hour that passed, even though she listened morbidly fascinated.
"...we can't hold back! What's that supposed to look like?" Cullen just wanted to know skeptically when Aiden concentrated on the action again for a moment.
"Someone has to protect Emma," Kristoff said harshly, "She's our most important weapon." If it was possible, Emma became even paler, and Matt put a hand on her forearm to calm her down.
"That may be true, but should we be twirling thumbs somewhere in the back rows?" Mike asked doubtingly.
"Nobody said that, but-" Kristoff interrupted himself when he heard a pecking from the window. Aiden turned his head, discovered the grey dove and got up first to let it in. The bird demonstrably ran across the whole table to Soňa and held its leg out. Carefully Soňa released the message and unfurled it. The irritated frown was clearly visible under her mousy brown pony.
"The oracle says... Matt will protect Emma. The others go to the front line."
"As an archer?" Ahmed seemed more than a little skeptical and Matt rumbled suppressed, but Mike said emphatically:
"He's a warrior." Not in the sense of the chosen weapon, but in the sense of his origin. Matt was the son of a true God of War and therefore more aggressive by nature, but these half-gods could fall into a bloodlust and then they could hardly be stopped. Aiden had never seen anyone in bloodlust, but the stories about it were enough to get him goosebumps.
"A warrior and an archer," Marika said thoughtfully.
"No one will get close enough to Emma to harm her," promised Matt in a gloomy voice, and Emma turned to him. So Aiden couldn't see her face anymore, but Matt's lips turned to a grim smile and he briefly pressed her hand. When she turned back to the others, she looked as if she would burst into tears at any moment. Tobias, who cleared his throat, also noticed that.
"I think we should continue our meeting tomorrow afternoon." With a nod he broke up the round and Emma rose quickly. To Aiden's amazement she indicated a kind of curtsey towards Tobias and Soňa, then she rushed out the door.
"Stay here!" Mike grabbed Matt by the arm as he wanted to go after her.
"Let go of me!" Matt hissed.
"Aiden, keep Emma busy until dinner," Mike said sternly and Aiden nodded. He had no idea how to do it, but this was definitely not the time to discuss Mike's orders with him.
"Matt, you're coming with us."
"How can you-"
"Weapon training!" The rest of the argument ebbed away when Aiden left the conference room and went after Emma.
"Emma!" Either she didn't hear him or she didn't want to hear him. "Emma, wait!" She had gathered her robes and hurried down the stairs, only outside did he catch up and hold her by the shoulder.
"Wait!” Shaky, she took a breath.
"I want to be alone now."
"And I can't leave you alone." Unhappily she lowered her gaze. "I could show you one of my favorite places," he carefully suggested. "There you can be quite good... alone."
"A favorite place as man or as bear?"
He blinked irritated. "Man.” A tiny smile scurried over her face and she nodded to him. He smiled back. "Then come..." They went in the direction of the houses, but before they went left on a path that led into the forest. As soon as the trees surrounded them, Aiden already felt much better, but the silence between them was oppressive. Finally, he bended a hazel bush aside, let Emma pass and turned around a large bush. In front of them a small stream meandered and he took a big step over it. When he turned to Emma, she laboriously gathered her robe and he instinctively stretched out a hand at her. Gratefully, she grabbed it and jumped across the stream; her warm hand let him go and she gave him a short smile. They followed the stream a bit and finally reached a willow, whose curtain of twigs Aiden carefully pushed to the side.
"Oh..." Emma whispered in surprise. At the foot of the willow was a large flat stone, big enough for two people and far enough away from the stream not to get wet. "I understand why this is your favorite place." She sat down on the stone and leaned against the willow tree, slowly Aiden did the same. The stream was still inside the willow curtain and the air was cooler and fresher, a pair of birds chirped above them.
"It's mid-November..." she murmured in disbelief and closed her eyes.
"The valley is magically protected," he said quietly, but she gave no answer.
They sat there mutely for quite a while and Aiden watched her from the corner of his eye until her breath suddenly went faster and became a sob, while at the same time tears were shed under her eyelids. Carefully he touched her at the shoulder and as if on command she began to tremble, giving him enough room to gently put an arm around her shoulder and pull her to him. Almost immediately she snuggled up to him and sobbed violently. When she had cried that morning, Matt had certainly known what to do or say, but Aiden had never held a crying girl in his arms and tried not to be disturbed by that circumstance- she couldn't use that now. On the other hand, the bear, which normally held itself back strongly, came closer to the surface and began to hum gently. Apparently it worked, because Emma calmed down quickly and then sat there for a moment, trembling, before she straightened up and wiped her face with the sleeves of her robe.
"Sorry I'm crying all over you now," she mumbled, embarrassed, pulling her knees to her chest to wrap her arms around it.
"It's okay," Aiden mumbled back and let her go. She sighed low, then laughed softly and shook her head.
"You don't have to apologize, Emma," he said quietly. "I know you wanted to be alone, but Mike told me not to leave you alone, and this is the place I go when I want to be alone, so..." She let her eyes wander.
"Do you often take a girl with you to be alone?" He looked at her irritated, but only when she began to smile he did understand.
"Oh!” His cheeks got hot. "No! No, I... so... I've never..." The amusement disappeared from her face and she looked at him, which made his face burn even more. "I never have..." He started stammering again. Yes, what actually? He had never found a girl even so interesting that he thought about kissing her, which gave the others another reason for mockery, but Emma smiled at him in a way he didn't understand, and his concern faded.
"What I was trying to say is that this is a pretty, wonderful little place," she said quietly.
"That didn't really matter to my thirteen-year-old self at the time I found this," he returned quietly. She nodded thoughtfully.
"Thank you for sharing this place with me, Aiden." She sounded incredibly sincere and her eyes suddenly seemed huge, although seconds later tears shimmered again.
"You're afraid," he noted superfluously.
"We'll take care of you." A tear rolled down her cheek and wordlessly he took her in his arms again, where she sobbed. It would be a long, tearful day.
Since shape-shifters couldn't wear metal on their bodies and Emma wasn't wearing a wristwatch either, Aiden orientated himself, as usual, on the position of the sun and the sounds of the valley when they finally went back to the village after hours of silence nestled together. It made Aiden eerily embarrassed, but apparently Emma had needed this kind of closeness.
"We could go to the training grounds and watch the others," he said when they reached the village. "It won't be long before dinner."
"Sounds good," Emma said quietly and nodded. Silently they crossed the village up to the training grounds, but Aiden had already said more today anyway than all the last months put together. A bit away from the magic arena were the more or less big grounds for the warriors and Emma was obviously amazed at what she saw.
There were the teenagers who practiced with different training weapons in leather armor and under supervision. There were the warriors who faced each other with leather armor and blunt weapons. And there were the warriors fighting in their heavy metal armor and with their sharp weapons, watched by healing mages. Among the latter were Cullen, Mike and Matt under the watchful eye of Clarissa, an older water mage and daughter of Isis.
"Oh my God..." Emma murmured in horror and put a hand to her mouth as Mike struck Matt with his giant two-handed sword, who blocked the weapon with two crossed short swords and cursed violently. Both were sweaty, but angry enough not to notice the effort - hitting each other was attention-grabbing enough. Actually, such weapon training for archers wasn't even planned, but since their combat team hadn't had a mage yet- and after Matt had made very unpleasant acquaintance with Murlocs- Mike had him train on the sword. Since it offered both a valve for their hostilities at the same time, nobody had anything against it.
"Oh my God," Emma murmured again, "oh my God..."
"That's enough!" Cullen shouted, standing on the edge and apparently taking note of the two, and Mike and Matt retreated from each other swerving. But it wasn't until they broke eye contact that Aiden relaxed again.
"Hey you two..." Cullen said then relaxed and strolled over to them. He, too, was fully equipped and carried his shield on his arm, but Aiden knew too well by now that this was just a precaution to intervene in case of doubt.
"Hey..." Emma said weakly, looking past Cullen, where Clarissa briefly palpated Mike and Matt with her magic before she left. In the company of the others, Aiden again lacked the words and since Cullen didn't really know what to say either, they waited for Mike and Matt.
"That looks impressive," Emma said as a big-eyed greeting, looking at the sword. Mike grinned at her.
"Better than any video game."
"And deadlier." His grin turned into a smile and he tapped the ground with the tip of his sword.
"That's what a Goddess of Death says?" Astonished, Aiden saw something change in Emma's face; her expression became thoughtful, harder and at the same time... playful?
"How big is a warrior still when he can't kill anymore…?" She asked back and now something changed in Mike's face. A kind of unpleasant comprehension was reflected in his eyes and under the stunned eyes of Cullen, Matt and Aiden he knelt down before Emma. The sword, the tip of which was still drilling upright into the ground in front of him, was almost too big for this gesture.
"You are the second to whom I will address my prayers before the battle, desert sister."
"Then let me hear your prayers, but never see your face, desert brother," Emma replied gently and Aiden swallowed. He had heard about the rituals that spoke of the divine blood when two half-gods of the same religion determined their relationship to each other - their order of rank. The spell broke and Emma blinked irrationally as Mike rose. The two looked at each other and without a word or a look to the others they walked away.
Amazed, Matt asked: "For Zeus’ Lightning! What was that?"
Cullen, the bookworm, slowly replied: "I think Anubis and Sekhmet have made an alliance."
"What does it mean?" Aiden wanted to know now.
"Blood sings to blood," Cullen said and shook his head before beginning to follow them. "I've read about it and it used to happen more often in the past. When blood sings to blood, a special bond is formed," he explained in a thoughtful tone as they went back to the houses.
"And what does it look like?" Matt wanted to know and Aiden could hear a certain aggression from his words again. "I mean, the oracle ordered me to protect her, so-"
"That has nothing to do with it, I think," Cullen interrupted him before he could talk himself into rage.
Cullen shrugged. A few steps later they reached the Great Square and Aiden stopped in amazement. Just like everyone else who saw Emma and Mike, because both of them sprayed a dangerous power perceptibly, literally visibly. They walked side by side, the mage with the black robes and the warrior in full armor and the huge sword on his back. Then Aiden felt a breeze in his face.
Oliver stepped up to them from the hospital and nodded to greet them.
"Did you see those two?" Cullen asked quietly.
Oliver nodded again. "Blood sings to blood. She has made him her knight.”
"She's just been here twenty-four hours, has no access to her magic and hasn't met her divine father yet and then something like that happens?" At the last words Matt's voice almost trembled.
"You forget that she would be powerful even without the Black Fire," Oliver said hard. "The daughter of a God of Death, a mage. I can feel it boiling beneath the surface. And for Ra's eye - you should watch to steer her powers in the right direction."
When Aiden entered the shared bedroom, he faltered and hoped Matt - too late. The wave of rage was clearly felt.
"I found a squire." Mike grinned and Emma gave him a pat - which was pretty pointless because he was still wearing his chest armor, whose buckles Emma was just fiddling with.
"Sure..." Matt gritted his teeth.
"Actually, it's quite good if Emma knows how to free us from our tin cans when necessary," Cullen said, giving thought to the situation and let his shield sink to the ground with a clonk. Surprisingly, this took Matt a little the wind out of the sails and he started to take off his own armor.
"Wait...," Aiden mumbled quietly and helped Cullen.
"I'm going to take a shower," Mike announced happily shortly afterwards and disappeared. Matt cursed soundlessly and Aiden looked up.
"Can I help you?" Emma wanted to know quietly and Matt nodded.
"Somehow..." she said then still quietly, but now a little amused, "I always imagined knights to be a little more romantic."
"What do you mean by that?" Matt asked with an audible frown.
"Well... there you have a great knight who has just won a tournament or some other glorious fight, and who is pined at and heard by a fair lady. And then you're busy for hours unpacking that knight and you find a sweaty and smelly something, which on top of all is exhausted from the fight and possibly unpleasantly hairy." Aiden met Cullen's gaze and they started giggling.
"Are you telling me I smell?" Matt wanted to know outraged.
"You're not a knight, sweetheart. And I spoke of the general idea." Aiden saw Emma's amusement, but also Matt's frosty look in his direction and his giggling died.
"And how are archers according to the general idea?" Matt wanted to know, acidified, and Emma shrugged.
"Can you think of another archer besides Robin Hood who would have ever conquered a fair lady? See, that's what the knights do." Suddenly Aiden wondered if Emma knew what she was doing and saying, because Matt's anger was now also directed at her.
"Well, and mages like to be considered witches and get killed. Best in the cradle."
"Then you are a bit late, don't you think?” She looked at him questioningly and Matt smiled dangerously.
"You can catch up on everything. You still have no access to your might." Both Aiden and Cullen had completely passed away laughing at this smile and they tensed up, ready to stop Matt. But Emma smiled back and crooked her head.
"Do I need magic to stop you?" In fact, Aiden felt the rush of magic, but Matt's posture relaxed and he shook his head.
"A woman's weapons..." Cullen mumbled barely audibly in Aiden's direction. He had no idea what Cullen meant exactly, but at that moment Mike came back - just with a towel around his hips and still dripping.
"Oh, you're still not finished. I could have taken my time." Emma let her eyes glide benevolently over Mike's body and Matt took a deep breath.
"And there we are again...", Cullen sighed no louder than before.
"I'll leave you alone then..." Emma said and scurried away. Matt swallowed his anger with difficulty, for which Aiden was really grateful. Cullen said: "I'll be in the bathroom," and disappeared. Mike dried off and Aiden saw it twitching in Matt's face - trouble wouldn't really stay down for long. And because Aiden knew Emma's expression from other women's faces, he slipped out of the room and knocked on the bathroom door.
"What is it?" Cullen wanted to know with a frown. Aiden nodded to him and was let in. "I want to take a shower, Aiden," Cullen said with his brow up and peeling himself out of his clothes.
"You saw Emma's gaze."
"Somebody should tell her she can't have Mike."
"Then tell her."
But Cullen shook his head. "Tell her now before there's any trouble later." Aiden sighed and nodded before he left the bathroom again and knocked on Emma's door.
"Come in." Carefully he opened the door. "You can come in," she said and he nodded weakly. Slowly he closed the door behind him and wondered why she looked so discontentedly into her closet. A moment later she sighed and closed the closet before looking at Aiden questioningly.
"What is it? Or may I not even be alone in our house?"
“Sure, it's just... " He had no idea how to explain it to her.
"Um..." He swallowed and started again. "Mike won't return your interest." A little stunned, she blinked at him.
"Interesting warning, but why?"
"Because he's been warned about Egyptian half-goddesses and has never... um... when it comes to such things, he avoids them." She pulled up a brow and Aiden suddenly wished he hadn't said anything to Cullen in the first place.
"Mike... well, despite the curse, he's quite popular with the girls and he's already broken a heart or two and... um..."
"With his looks, I'm not surprised." Emma smiled and suddenly Aiden felt rather inconspicuous. Normally he didn't mind that he was chubby and couldn't even cut a good figure in battle because he was a bear, but Emma... Emma made him talk, stammer and now even blush.
"We just wanted to warn you," he murmured quietly and reached for the door knob.
"Thank you," she simply said, and when he was already halfway out the door, she wanted to know: "What's the plan for the rest of the day?”
"Early dinner and then spare time," he replied briefly and closed the door.
Later, when they went back to the house together after a very silent dinner, Cullen held Aiden back a little.
"Did you talk to her?"
"Did something happen?”
He frowned and shook his head.
"Come on, you old grumpy bear, open your mouth!" Cullen had never said anything like that before and Aiden looked at him surprised.
"Let me guess... Emma said or did something." Emma walked between Matt and Mike a bit in front of them, her head jerking from left to right as they both talked at her.
"What is she supposed to have said or done?" Aiden grumbled dismissively and suddenly felt ashamed that he had felt attacked earlier.
"I don't know...", Cullen said thoughtfully, "but Matt spent some time alone with her and is even more aggressive than usual. You've spent time with her and are very grumpy."
"Matt wants her, so he's aggressive," Aiden said quietly and Cullen grinned at him.
"That can't be overlooked. But why are you in such a bad mood?”
"I'm not in a bad mood."
"No, not at all."
Aiden rumbled quietly, but Cullen grinned for a while before it passed.
"Let me guess: she made a remark about Mike's fabulous appearance?"
"She did," Aiden grumbled without thinking.
"And you compared yourself to him?"
Cullen stopped, Aiden as well. "Please… please just don’t tell me this is the first time you've found a girl interesting. This is the worst possible timing."
"I didn't even..." Aiden couldn't really follow Cullen, but he watched Aiden closely.
"You voluntarily said more today than the last six months combined. You looked embarrassed when you came to the warrior's ground. And you've been grumpy since I asked you to tell her about Mike. And now you tell me you don't find her interesting."
"She's with us now..."
"She is." Cullen nodded. "She'll eat at the same table and sleep in the same house. She will train with us and we will spend our free time together. But we will also have to go to war together and plan it together. You know how reluctantly team-internal relationships are seen and-"
"- and I'll tell you right now: if you mess up with Matt and start some kind of triangle drama..." The threat remained open, as did Aiden's mouth.
"Excuse me..." he finally said slowly, after swallowing hard for the surprise, "I have no interest in Emma. At least not like Matt."
Cullen looked at him examining.
"I'm a little overwhelmed with her presence," Aiden mumbled softly and Cullen sighed.
As they all sat in the living room talking about differences between the human and half-god worlds, Aiden only observed. He didn't like being in the house and he didn't like such evenings at all, but the mood was completely different than usual. Aiden was sitting in an armchair, next to him on the couch Cullen, Matt and at the other end Emma, and on the second armchair Mike. Emma had taken off her shoes and made herself comfortable, out of the situation she leaned more in Mike's direction, but in the meantime, she seemed to have noticed how Matt looked at her, because she glanced at him once in a while in a thoughtfully way. She was in a very good mood until Mike carefully remarked:
"You mentioned that you went to the university..."
"Yes." Immediately her good mood disappeared and she began to nestle at the sleeve hem. "I got my master's degree in bioinformatics four weeks ago and started working two weeks ago."
"That sounds interesting," Cullen said curiously and Emma's mouth twitched.
"A fellow student and I wrote a program that-" With a sigh she interrupted herself. "You can't do anything with that anyway," she muttered.
"And if you just wrap it in simple words…?" Matt gently suggested.
"It's about bacteria that produce active ingredients for drugs that can't yet be manufactured industrially."
“Wow, sounds complicated," Mike remarked, but Aiden looked at him and saw that he wanted to change the subject in the next breath. However, Emma was ahead of him:
"How's it going here, with the medicine?”
"Well, most water and earth mages can perform healing magic," Cullen started and then indicated a shrug. "They make healing potions and energy bars for battle." Emma frowned skeptically, but said nothing. Aiden remembered having been in hospital as a child for some surgery - indeed, worlds collided here and he understood that it must have been incredibly difficult for Emma, as an adult woman, to suddenly accept a magical world. She had her life out there, her friends, a job... maybe a man she loved... But none of them asked for her family or friends, they didn't ask for relationships. Mike's cautious push in this direction had shown that the human world was taboo for the next time…
It wasn't really late yet, but Aiden was a little restless and wanted to roam the forest alone before bedtime, but he had no idea when to retire. The unspoken question was answered by Cullen, who got up and nodded into the round.
"Well then... I'll go and finish my book."
"Do that," Emma said quietly and with a little smile and Aiden also rose.
"I need some fresh air." Emma smiled sadly at him and he smiled encouragingly back before he left the house and took a deep breath.
Chapter 5: Devine Dreams
It was late when Aiden returned to the house, but it wasn't something new. Cullen snored that the walls were wobbling; Matt had one arm and one leg hanging out of bed and Mike had thrown pillows and blankets out of bed, as so often in his restlessness. Aiden didn't bother to pick them up again, but quietly changed clothes and slipped into bed. As he pulled the blanket up to his chin, he wondered what Fate might see in him- in all of them- to impose such a task on them. He could quite understand that Emma burst into tears at the prospect...
"Hello, my darling."
"Mum..." Aiden looked up and found himself in a snowy forest. In front of him stood Skadi, his mother, smiling lovingly. Even though his father always claimed that Aiden looked like her, it wasn't really true. Skadi’s hair was pale blond and her eyes ice blue and even if her cheeks hadn't been so narrow and Aiden's face not so round, the true figure of the goddess and her son didn't have much in common. Besides the love for the woods and the mountains. Aiden embraced her almost carefully and she kissed him on the cheek.
"We have to talk." He had already thought so and simply nodded. But first of all, she sighed deeply and looked past him, absorbed the landscape and then stroked a strand from her face.
"I want you to know that I really love you," she said quietly and pulled something out of a pocket on her belt. Aiden wanted to return the words, but her facial expression kept him silent. Skadi never had more than one living child at a time and it wasn’t difficult for him to accept her as his mother, his mum. Not with the father he had.
What she was holding out for him was a leather strap with a small carved bear pendant hanging from it. The wooden bear was wearing some kind of metal armor and hesitatingly he accepted it.
"This is Asgard iron, blessed by Odin. So you can wear it without worries," said Skadi quietly and he nodded.
"Thank you..." He had no idea what this gift meant - but that it had a deeper meaning was certain. Skadi gently took the necklace off him and tied it carefully around his neck, then brushed her son's cheek and turned away. Silently, Aiden stomped next to her for a while; it was a dream, so he neither felt the cold nor sank into the snow.
"Not all of you will return," Skadi finally said without stopping.
"It's war," Aiden said simply. War was like that, he had already thought about it, but it was unpleasant to hear this truth spoken.
"Promise me that you will take care of yourself. That you take care of all of you." She sounded worried and a knot formed in his stomach.
"Of course, Mum."
She nodded without looking at him. Again, they walked in silence for a while, then a plain opened in front of them - Aiden hadn't even known they were on a hill - and they looked down on a small flock of reindeer.
"Emma... Emma doesn't belong to you," Skadi said hesitantly.
"Of course not," Aiden replied in a tone that was intended to make it clear that people did not belong to each other.
"You four belong to her," Skadi continued, as if he had said nothing. Irritated, he frowned.
"What do you mean?”
"Emma's power is your most important weapon and you must protect her, because without you she is nothing. She needs you as you need her. She is a queen and you are her knights." Serious and penetrating, the goddess looked at Aiden and he got goose bumps.
"Mike has already made the start, but she must bind you all one way or another to her."
"I...", uneasily he licked his lips, "I'm not sure if-"
"You'll understand. You just have to remember it." Gently Skadi took his face in her hands and pulled him towards her to kiss him on the forehead.
"Sleep now, my darling. There is less than a month left..."
Cullen's confused dream changed until he stood on a path that wound over the rocky slope of a hill. Around him stood waist-high bushes and a few crippled pines, the air was so clear it burned.
"Son." Thor's deep voice made him turn around and he indicated a respectful bow.
"Father." Cullen himself was tall and broad-shouldered, but beside the god in his metal covered leather armor, he looked small and slender. Thor's blonde hair fell on his back, ruffled by the wind, the truncated beard concealed the angular chin - yet Cullen found himself in the face, only his eyes were pale green, like those of his mother.
"War is just around the corner," Thor said, after they had examined each other for a moment.
"Not all of you will return home."
Cullen nodded again, he was aware of it. A shield holder was a defender and defenders fell first.
"Protect Emma until she can carry her might to the Frost King's Citadel."
Cullen nodded again. "Yes, Father."
"This will help you." Out of nowhere Thor grabbed a shield and held it out to Cullen. Astonished, he stared at it. The shield had the shape of a diamond, one tip of which was stretched out immensely - if he carried it in a fighting position on his arm, this tip would almost touch the ground. A Mjolnir ornament with a ruby embedded in it was worked into the widest part.
"Brokk himself finished the shield with a splinter of Mjolnir. Tyr blessed it for you," Thor said seriously and overwhelmed Cullen reached for the shield.
"Thank you, father," he whispered. The shield didn't weigh much, but that didn't have to mean anything in a dream of the gods. Thor nodded thoughtfully and laid a hand on his shoulder, a fatherly gesture, while in his eyes there was pride and sorrow.
"Take care of yourself, boy. And don't lose your heart when you get into bed with Emma. It won't get you good."
Cullen turned red. "I wasn't planning on-"
"I know you like men as much as you like women, but it's only a matter of time." Thor looked at him meaningfully. "Trust your old father." A little speechless and most embarrassed, Cullen just nodded. Thor gave him a pat on the back that would have easily knocked over another man and smiled grimly.
"Make me proud, my son."
Mike cut the sword into his opponent's side causing him to explode into sand. Before he had even blinked, he suddenly found himself at the edge of an oasis and sighed. Sword and armor had disappeared, but he wore the clothes of an ancient Egyptian man. He hated it. Nevertheless, he walked slowly through the oasis, passing bushes and stepping again and again into the shade cast by the huge palm trees until he stood in front of the palatial tent of plum-colored fabric that represented Sekhmet’s home. Right next to it was a shelter under which a lioness dozed while her two pups were baling for a leather ball. Slowly he stepped up to the tent and indicated a knock.
"Come in," Sekhmet purred. "Come in and make yourself comfortable." Mike took two steps into the tent and then stopped until his eyes got a little used to the dim light of a single oil lamp. Sekhmet lolled in a mountain of pillows and smiled sluggishly at him. Her hair was the same color as the lioness's fur outside and her skin shimmered like honey - the only detail Mike had inherited from her appearance.
"Sit down," she asked him and obediently he let himself sink to a second cushion mountain.
"Mother," he said quietly to remind her who he was. Sometimes she seemed to forget it and then she flirted shamelessly with him, as with so many other men.
"My little darling has grown up," she said; the purring had disappeared from her voice and the bedroom expression had given way to an alert look.
"Looks like it."
She grinned at him at his dry reply. "Glory is looming on the horizon. The enemy's warriors are getting armed."
Mike simply nodded.
"And what kind of mother would I be if I let my son go unarmed?" She winked at him and grabbed into the air just to effortlessly hold a full breastplate. "For you."
"Thank you..." Carefully Mike took the armor and looked at the red-brown lion's head, whose emerald eyes shimmered in the dim light.
"Seth gave his blood for it and Aton burned it into the steel." With slender fingers Sekhmet stroked the lion's mane and Mike swallowed.
"Thank you, Mother." Now her fingers brushed over his cheek.
"Don't forget your mother when you fight for your fair lady."
"How could I?" Mike mumbled and gently pressed Sekhmet’s hand.
"Oh, I'm afraid there won't be many other things soon besides the war that will find their place in your thoughts." In her golden eyes it sparkled amused as he looked up at her. Asking, he frowned.
"As long as there's war, that's not surprising either." She tilted her head and her smile disappeared - a circumstance that really worried Mike. Sekhmet was a very ambivalent goddess: as the angry eye of Ra she fought against the enemies of Egypt, but when there were no enemies, her destructive energies sought other goals. She was the dark sister of the gentle cat goddess Bastet and as the wife of Ptah she was worshipped as a triad together with the child god Nefertem, although at the same time she was said to have a stormy affair with Seth - not to mention the countless human lovers. In the myths, she was accompanied by armed goblins who slavishly served her and protected her at all costs, but in reality, it was lions who belonged to her pack.
There was a little pause where Sekhmet examined Mike.
"It's remarkable, my sweet darling, that you actually stuck to my warning."
"That an Egyptian half-goddess would be my doom?" Mike raised a brow. "If it comes from a goddess, that's reason enough to be careful, don't you think?" A strange, almost malicious smile scurried over Sekhmet’s face.
"You didn't have to stick to it. Emma will be your doom."
Amazed, he blinked at her. "Excuse me?"
"Oh, the usual." She waved off and rolled her eyes. "You go to bed with her, you fall in love with her, she doesn't want you..."
"I wasn't going to..." Confused, he broke off. What was Sekhmet getting at?
"You are her knight, but you will never be more. You must protect her and fight for her so you can defeat the Frost King together. You will be a hero… but broken." Sekhmet’s voice had become cool, the shadows crawled around her like snakes. A strange doubt crept into Mike and the edges of the breastplate drilled into his fingers. Why had she given him this warning when it was superfluous? Why did she tell him he was going to sleep with Emma when he didn't plan to? Why did she tell him that he would be a broken hero? The doubts about her words were joined by a quiet fear that this was only the tip of the iceberg, that there was a truth behind it that no one really wanted to hear. The dull suspicion that she knew the wording of his curse and had already tried to prepare him for something made him swallow nervously.
"Thank you, mother," he muttered, because he didn't know what else to say.
"May the desert wind protect you from the icy storms of the north, my son."
Matt dreamed of things spinning around a naked Emma in his bathroom when suddenly there were no more tiles under his bare feet, but poking grass. Irritated, he blinked into a bright blue sky that merged with a white line into a dark blue sea. He stood on a cliff, under which a curved bay stretched, in which a single small warship anchored. Slowly he turned around and saw a huge mountain, at the flattened top of which there were apparently buildings. He was so captivated by the sight that the movement from the corner of his eye almost struck him too late - he flinched back, but still had a sword at his throat.
"You're inattentive, boy." Ares looked at him darkly.
"I beg your forgiveness, Father," Matt murmured and looked the God in the dark eyes until he lowered the sword. Yet Ares appraised his son a moment longer and Matt's discomfort slowly turned into nervousness. He had the same narrow face with the aristocratic features and the fine nose, the same black hair that curled as it grew longer. But the God's dark eyes stared into grey.
"Hephaistos doesn't like visitors, so come." Ares nodded to the inconspicuous building, which stood a bit apart.
"Hephaistos?" Matt raised a brow, but before he could react any further, Ares had grabbed him by the chin.
"Our private affairs are completely unimportant here, this is about bigger things," he hissed. "And if you put a little effort into it, even you can see that." Matt was taller than his father, had broader shoulders, but the contempt in his voice made him feel like a little child. The feeling, however, was never long lasting, not like the rejection of his human dad still gnawing at him. With a painful jolt Ares let go of him and stomped away; Matt had no choice but to follow him.
The building turned out to be a half-open smithy, inside Matt recognized a table on which swords lay neatly lined up. The question, since when Hephaistos was a simple weaponsmith, he denied himself.
"As you lead a war, you need a representative weapon." Ares sounded anything but enthusiastic and stepped briefly into the shadow of the smithy, where he pulled something from a shelf. It was a bow whose handle and tendon holder were artfully decorated with bronze, as Matt realized when Ares held the weapon to him.
"Since when is Hephaistos a bowyer?" This time he could not resist the question.
"Artemis made it and Hephaistos decorated it with bronze from Olympus. It's due to you," Ares growled and passed the bow on. "Show me you can draw it." The string was already attached to one side, but Matt hesitated. He had never seen such a bow before and could not have assigned it to any type of bow. It was too long, too curved, too heavy. It took him surprisingly much effort to draw the bow, and Ares distorted his mouth a little. Wordlessly, he stomped past Matt, back to the cliffs, and as Matt stood beside him, he distorted his mouth even more.
"You have to protect Emma. All of you. I gave the order to your brothers and sisters as well" - there were several of them in the warrior village - "and they will all stand by your side." They were warriors and a few mages and Matt heard the unspoken words that they would all make a better figure than himself.
"I actually wanted to tell you that you can fuck Emma as much as you want as long as you don't fall in love with her, but obviously it's already too late for that," Ares continued after a short pause, and Matt, who only now noticed that he was naked, suspected that Ares knew about his dream. He blushed, but Ares didn't look at him.
"Love can't smooth the sharp edges of a war, it just lays a soft cloth over them. Because war always remains the same and no matter in which time period - it always demands sacrifices."
"I know. But we have been trained as warriors and know that every fight can be the last."
"You are not a warrior. You are my son." Ares literally spat out the words and Matt gritted his teeth for a moment before asking:
"Isn't it the same thing?”
Slowly Ares turned his head and Matt flinched back as he saw the glow in the dark eyes.
"You want to be a warrior?" With a jerk, the god tore the belt and sword from his hip and pressed it against Matt's chest.
"Then take this and fight! Fight for glory, honor, your home, love- whatever. Pray to me like all the warriors do. Shed blood and call it a sacrifice. Call for me if you are in need. Thank me after the battle for the opportunity to lie with a woman. Sing my hymns and celebrate the promise of violence and death." Matt had never done any of these things, for Ares despised archers and he had always felt rejected. Now when his divine father turned away, he quietly asked:
"And what does it mean to be your son now?”
"If you are my son, you do these things with every breath."
"Then I’m not your son.” Matt's voice trembled a little.
"Unfortunately," Ares said dangerously quiet, "that cannot be denied. And you would do well to accept it. It would drastically increase your life expectancy."
Emma couldn't sleep, too many things went through her head. The four boys with whom she suddenly had to live together confused her. She had no idea what had happened between Mike and her, even though Cullen had tried to explain the singing blood thing to her; she just felt there was a connection that was untouchable. With Matt, she could almost grasp the subliminal aggression emanating from him, but still she had felt protected and safe when she had cried all over him. He was supposed to protect her in the coming battles, and strangely enough, she had no doubt that he would take this task bitterly serious. She had also felt protected and safe with Aiden, albeit in a way she could not put into words. Quieter, more peaceful, like the promise to not let it come to fighting in the first place. His silent nature had something reassuring about it, like an anchor in a storm. And Cullen... Emma shuddered. When she looked into Cullen's eyes too long, a strange warmth began to tingle in her, similar to the one she had felt during the ritual with Mike, but if she believed his own words, it couldn't be. She hardly knew the boys, but there were moments when it seemed as if it had never been otherwise, as if she had never had other roommates, as if they had spent their time together for years.
She heard Aiden come home and thought for a moment if she should have a little talk to him, but dropped the thought again. Instead, she cuddled up in her blanket and wondered for a lazy moment that she envied the boys for their shared bedroom...
Walls pealed out of the darkness. They were painted with figures depicting everyday scenes such as the harvest, fishing in the Nile, a prayer, women baking bread... Emma slowly turned around herself until she could see a corridor in the dancing shadows. There was no visible light source to illuminate her immediate surroundings, but the light wandered with her through the corridor. The depictions now showed war, temples, sacrifices... and then became images of gods. Isis, who recovered Osiris' body parts. Maat, who was speaking justice. Ptah on a potter's wheel. Thot as scribe. Horus as Pharaoh sitting on a throne. A strange being who could only be Seth killing soldiers. Osiris sitting as a mummy on a throne. Anubis, who wrapped a corpse in stripes of linen. And then Emma stood in front of a huge stone box, which could only be a sarcophagus. With this realization she swallowed heavily and shuddered. She was in a burial chamber...
A movement in the shadow made her flinch and then a tall, slim man stepped to the other side of the sarcophagus. His skin was probably oiled and shimmered like polished bronze, his skull was shaved and his eyes were edged with thick black lines. On his chest rested a palm-sized pectoral with a scarab and around his hips lay a white finely pleated skirt. Emma stared at him for a while, just speechless.
He tilted his head to greet her. "That's me, my child."
"What... what is this?" She made a vague gesture.
"A dream. A so-called dream of the gods. Only here can we be God and get in physical contact with you at the same time.” He held out his hand and she carefully grabbed it. It felt warm and real and then suddenly something was lying in her palm.
"When you wake up, you will find this amulet." It was a tiny black scarab with an Ankh sign on its back and apparently a big hole for a ribbon.
"Thank you..." she said carefully. Anubis sighed softly.
Asking, she frowned.
"The Black Fire wasn’t meant for you, you know. About two years before you, a son was born to Hel, a mage, who should have received the Black Fire when the time was right. But at your birth you were cursed by Venus..."
"Why Venus, of all gods?" Emma wanted to know irritated. In response, Anubis just shook his head.
"The curse doesn't have much to do with you except that it's cruel to you. Venus understood my complaint and so I intertwined the Black Fire with the curse because she couldn't just remove it. That is why I am sorry, my child, because this fate didn’t have to be yours. I have protected you as long as I could, but some things must happen before it is too late." Emma took a deep breath but said nothing because she could not find words.
"Tomorrow the magic will come to you when you call for it. But hear this: Your magic changes at sunrise and sunset, as does much of my being. During the day I watch over the death rituals, at night I guard the necropolises as a jackal. I am a God of the Dead and you… don’t hesitate to use your might. Death is in you, is interwoven with you, is part of yourself. You are no healer and no protector, let the others do it for you. You are a destroyer, so destroy. Weave your strength with those of the others, unleash violence and let destruction rain. Take the might that no one else can take and use it."
Emma was not sure if Anubis didn’t say more, but at his words horror rose in her. Actually, she was a very peace-loving person and she couldn't imagine killing anything bigger than a mosquito or a spider. Across the sarcophagus, Anubis touched her arm.
"Child... daughter..." His fingertips brushed across her cheek and only then did she feel tears hanging there.
"You must accept your might, your destiny, otherwise you are a danger to yourself and your allies. And never forget: the men who stand by your side are ready to give their lives. They are ready to sacrifice everything they have, everything they are, so that you may succeed. And when it comes to it, then you must accept their sacrifice."
Emma couldn't imagine that anyone would want to die voluntarily in war, but the urgency of Anubis's words kept her silent. He looked at her for a moment, his facial expression softened.
"In battle you are a Goddess of the Dead, Emma. And Death has its own power."
Chapter 6: Awaken the magic... and the bear
The feeling of being stuck in a burial chamber and suffocating was overwhelming. Emma almost fell out of bed.
Out... fresh air...
She stumbled down the stairs and collided with someone who gave a surprised "huh?" and then wrapped his arms around her. With a squeak she braced herself against it, then realized it was Mike and lowered her forehead against his shoulder. The very own magic of their newly created bond washed around her and she relaxed in the feeling of security. He gently patted her back.
"You look like you could need a coffee," Matt piped up, and Emma raised her head. In the kitchen corner stood the other three, apparently still in sleeping clothes, and looked at her more or less critically, holding each a cup in the hand. Still not quite at ease, Emma nodded and Cullen grinned knowingly. In the few moments she needed to join them and lean against the kitchen counter next to Cullen, he had already filled coffee into a cup from a Moka- the size of which revealed a lot about the team's morning coffee consumption - and added milk and sugar.
"How do you know how I like my coffee?" she wanted to know and started stirring. Cullen smiled.
Matt skeptically raised a brow, but said nothing, and Mike filled his cup again. The boys all seemed thoughtful, but apparently waiting for her reaction. But first she took a sip of coffee.
"Perfect," she mumbled and smiled at Cullen, who returned the smile.
"Just the way I like it," he explained, and she giggled. Matt and Mike rolled their eyes while Aiden seemed to sink into himself. He held on to his little cup and when he noticed Emma's gaze, his hand twitched to a bear pendant around his neck. Something made her imitate the gesture and to her surprise she found the little scarab nestled in the hollow between the collarbones Anubis had given her in her dream.
"Looks like we all received a gift," Mike said, looking thoughtfully at her over the rim of his cup.
"All of us?" she repeated. The boys nodded.
"A breastplate," Mike said explaining.
"A shield," Cullen said.
"The pendant," Aiden murmured.
"A bow and a sword," Matt said. Since she was the only one who seemed surprised, the boys had probably already talked about it.
"Two weapons at once?" she asked with a frown and Matt rubbed his neck uneasily.
"I had a little discussion with...", he hesitated, "... my father. The bow is the actual gift, but the sword... well..." Emma simply nodded; if Ares despised archers and Matt as his son had broken a quarrel over them, a sword might have been the logical consequence.
"How was your conversation with Anubis?" Cullen wanted to know after a short pause and she made a face.
"Somewhere between worrying and deeply disturbing."
"Why so?" Mike asked carefully.
"He said a few things which..." She missed the words and so she lowered her eyes to her coffee. The memory alone gave her goose bumps. She tried twice to describe it somehow, but then gave up sighing and changed the subject instead.
"Is that what you do every morning? Drinking coffee together before breakfast?”
"Yup." Mike nodded and smiled. "Our start as a team was not necessarily easy.”
"What does it mean?"
"Well... normally the young half-gods grow up together, in the so-called nest, a little outside the village. At seventeen they join a team or start their own."
"Matt was just two weeks here when we moved in," Cullen continued.
"But he was only thirteen," Emma interjected irritated.
"That's right.” Cullen nodded. "But on the one hand Mike and I are a little more than three years older than him and on the other hand shape-shifters are the ones who form their team when they are ready. So to make sure that the Cursed really grow into a team, they put us right together." A little confused, she looked at Aiden ducking his head.
"Our animal half chooses who it accepts as its family and who it does not. If you ignore this, it usually ends ugly," he muttered.
"But basically, you ignored it," she said, and he shrugged.
"The bear is different.” He didn't give another explanation and so Emma looked back at Cullen, but it was Mike who picked up the thread.
"The first three years - until we first moved out closed as a team - weren't easy, as I said. For teenagers, three and a half years of age difference is a world and, in the end, it was Tobias who really helped us by encouraging us to share rituals like this."
"Well," Cullen threw in dry, "I guess Matt's attempt to kill you was also helpful. At least to wake Tobias up, to do something." Unbelieving Emma looked at Matt, who just shrugged.
"It was neither the first nor the last attempt.” Mike grinned at him and got a middle finger. Emma had felt the tension between the two, as well as Matt's general aggression, but a murder attempt...?
"Maybe we should go and have breakfast," Matt said lightly and smiled carefully at her. She simply nodded.
The dozen mages in their colorful robes made Emma more than a little nervous as she stood next to Oliver in the arena. Apart from Carlotta, she didn't know anyone by name, but they didn't necessarily give the impression that they wanted to get closer than needed.
"Did Anubis by any chance say anything about your magic?" Oliver wanted to know after putting shimmering shields around two wooden dolls at the other end of the arena.
"It changes at sunrise and sunset," Emma replied quietly. Oliver nodded thoughtfully.
"Hmm, yes, that happens. Well, let's get started then."
Patiently he explained to her how she should shape the magic into a ball in her hand, and after half an hour she finally held a shimmering blue-gray ball above her left hand in the balance, as amazed as delighted.
"Air magic," Oliver said cheerfully. "Try to fire it at the left shield." As she stretched out her hand, the ball literally stuck to its position above the palm of her hand, and so she imagined she would shoot the ball like a cannon. Two heartbeats later, the green shield exploded with the wooden doll under it; Oliver opened his mouth while the others gasped for air. Surprised, Emma looked at her hand and moved her fingers which were tingling a little. If she was honest, she had imagined the magic thing differently, somehow more perceptible, but Oliver's soundless "oh" ripped her out of her thoughts. He cleared his throat and scratched his forehead in embarrassment.
"Well, well..." To her astonishment, he bowed before her. "That was the strongest earth shield I am capable of." He straightened up again. "I am - or was - the strongest mage here in the valley. And your effortlessness is overwhelming."
"I..." Emma nervously licked her lips. "I just did what you told me to do."
"I know." Oliver nodded. "But even without the Black Fire you're powerful, and I doubt we'd be able to beat you even as a group." She took a quick peek over her shoulder and saw that the others had retreated united. There was fear on their faces and that hurt. She looked back at Oliver, who smiled cautiously.
"Since we don't have to worry about your attack strength... how about a little shield work?"
Two hours later fifteen mages hammered Emma's air shield with their concentrated power, which she maintained sweating with concentration. Oliver had put two smaller shields around her for safety's sake and watched thoughtfully until he shouted:
"Emma, attack!” She had no idea how to do that in addition, so she just let her shield explode outward. The blast ripped everyone - including Oliver - off their feet.
"Impressive," Oliver remarked when he had risen again, and Emma sank exhausted into the dust. She saw Oliver nodding to the others who were leaving.
"I think that's enough for a start," he said quietly and held out his hand, which she grabbed and pulled herself up.
"They are afraid of me."
He took a deep breath and then sighed extended. "I'll put it this way: most mages think they're something better until they meet someone stronger than them. Your little demonstration of power was a little surprising, even without the Black Fire, I honestly admit. But on the other hand... we should have expected it."
"Why?" she simply wanted to know and played uneasily with the hem of her sleeve.
"You are the mage daughter of a God of the Dead," was the modest answer and because it didn't help her much, she raised her eyebrows. Oliver gave her a faint smile.
"The Gods of the Dead made an agreement many centuries ago which states each of them may only father one child in one hundred years. Because these children, whatever their weapon may be, are very powerful."
Emma just nodded.
"At the moment there are two more besides you. Olga, the daughter of Hades and a warrior, and Chris, son of Hel and a mage."
"Anubis said Hel's son should have received the Black Fire," Emma said quietly and Oliver seemed surprised.
"Then why did you get it?"
"Because Venus cursed me at my birth and Anubis probably wanted to take some of the cruelty out of it."
Oliver took a breath and licked his lips. "Oh," was finally his controlled reaction. Emma bit her lip and looked past him across the empty meadow. He asked no further questions and so they remained silent for a long moment, until he finally asked carefully:
"Have you already made acquaintance with a few others?”
"No," she replied and turned to him again.
"There are a few who are not so skeptical about the cursed and since you didn't grow up here, it might make sense for you to make friends with another woman." An embarrassed smile scurried over his face and she nodded, she understood the broad hint.
"As long as you're not suggesting Carlotta to me... my magic doesn't like her."
He laughed quietly. "Between you and me, there are not many who like Carlotta at all. That her relationship with Matt has lasted so long is like a miracle. Speaking of Matt... you could go to Nadja, his protégé."
"Some kind of tutoring program." Oliver's smile got a mischievous touch. "You find each other all by yourself, just like you and me." Astonished Emma looked at him, then she had to laugh quietly and Oliver grinned broadly.
"And with this laughter I officially end our lesson. Come on, we'll go and find Nadja."
When Oliver had talked about a protégé, Emma had expected a teenager, but Nadja- small, dainty, blond- didn't look much younger than Matt and he in turn was about as old as Emma, in his mid-twenties.
"Go!" someone shouted and Matt whirled around, shooting an arrow from the movement and bursting something with a pop. Emma didn't see what it had been, but she was impressed.
"Oliver!” Nadja opened her eyes in surprise and indicated a bow in his direction while Matt just raised a brow. "What are you doing here?" Nadja wanted to know and eyed Emma curiously.
"Emma, this is Nadja, daughter of Sobek. Nadja- Emma," Oliver said and made an inviting gesture.
"Hi," Emma said cautiously and smiled a tense smile, but Nadja took a quick look at Matt and then turned back to Emma with a broad beam.
"Hi, I'm Nadja. It's nice to meet you, desert sister." She again indicated a bow and out of the corner of her eye Emma saw Oliver rolling her eyes.
"Don't overdo it," Matt grumbled in his place.
"Politeness is a virtue," Nadja gave back pointedly.
"Exaggerated politeness, however, likes to give the wrong impression," Oliver now taught her, and now it was Nadja who rolled her eyes.
Emma smiled. "I assume you're in the middle of a training session?"
"If you take it exactly: no. You interrupted us." Matt seemed to be in a bad mood and Emma gave him a critical glance, which he replied gloomily.
"Can I then kidnap Nadja after lunch for an afternoon among girls or is this lesson of yours comprehensive for the day?", she wanted to know cool and his face darkened even more.
"What Nadja does after lunch is none of my business."
"Oh, I would love to! I just have to let my team know," Nadja quickly interjected and then added: "But before our grouch blacks out the floor here, we'd better get going.”
Emma and Oliver simply nodded and Oliver briefly raised his hand to greet a figure half hidden somewhere in the bushes.
"See you later," Nadja shouted cheerfully and pulled her tutor with her.
Emma spent two extremely relaxed hours with Nadja sitting on the riverbank, learning all sorts of things about everyday life in the warrior village. And by the way Nadja told her that Matt had obviously had an eye on her - Emma was just so overwhelmed with everything new that she hadn't noticed. But the subject had to wait because Oliver found her and together, they went back to the arena for an afternoon lesson.
"All right, I had the arena closed for two hours," he started after they walked through the shimmering shield. "That doesn't mean there's no spectators, but that minimizes the risk of collateral damage."
"Doesn't sound very encouraging, you know?" Emma murmured and stretched her shoulders up.
"I'm sorry, but the black fire is..." He interrupted himself and smiled crookedly. "I'm sorry."
She chewed on her lower lip.
"Cheer up, Emma. You know, I'd actually be worried if you were still a kid or a hormone-ridden teenager, but you're already an adult. In terms of your control, that's a real blessing."
"Control over my power?"
He nodded and then sighed. "I know why they won't let me teach, but well. We'll start exactly as we did this morning. Make a magic ball." Now it was Emma's turn to sigh and she reached for the magic as he had explained it to her in the morning. The air magic came to her, but she made the ball disappear and tried again.
Again and again the air magic was the only thing that answered her calls and after more than an hour of futile attempts she was exhausted, frustrated and at the same time relieved because she was afraid of what would inevitably come. She rubbed her eyes with tingling fingers and sighed deeply, Oliver patted her shoulder encouragingly.
"Don't worry, it'll be fine."
"Nobody here has any experience with the Black Fire, right?" she wanted to know and he shook his head.
"No. The last time was a while ago..." He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip while Emma stretched out until it cracked in her shoulders. Meanwhile Oliver started walking up and down and with a nervous prickle in her stomach Emma watched him. Finally, he paused in the middle of his turn.
"How do you work?"
"How do you work with magic?"
"Um... what are you getting at...?"
He blinked hectically and took a deep breath. "I assumed that you, like most mages, could see magic. That you visualize."
"That... I think so." A little unsettled, she called for a gray-blue air ball. "I can see it, grey and blue, a bit like clouds."
He nodded. "I see it. But others can hear or feel or even smell the magic. Try to search for the Black Fire with every single sense."
Astonished, she stared at him for a moment and wondered how magic smelled or sounded. And then she didn't want to know exactly what it might be like with the magic that was interwoven with death. Disgusted by the vague idea alone, her mouth corners drew down and Oliver smiled pitifully.
"You have to try."
With a weak nod she turned away towards the empty arena and took a deep breath.
At first, she tried to see the magic, just like before. This time, however, she didn't concentrate on her hand and so she saw the fine black mist wafting around the hem of her robe. Shocked, she groaned and saw her breath as a soft black breeze. I breathe magic! She blinked hectically and swallowed heavily, then closed her eyes - also to calm down. She listened attentively to the sounds around her - the wind in the trees, the soft murmuring of the other mages watching her. She heard the rustling of Oliver’s and her robe, she heard the humming of her magical sphere. And then it was quiet. There was neither her own breathing nor the sound of blood in her ears. There was nothing. It was literally dead still. She blinked and was happy when the sounds returned, but after a few breaths she closed her eyes again and took a deep breath through her nose just to suppress a sneeze. It smelled dusty, musty and just a little decayed, if she hadn't imagined it. It smelled earthy and somehow metallic and indeed stony... it was strangely soothing. She licked her lips and could even taste the dust. There was the remnant of burnt incense and something bitter scratched her throat as she swallowed and yet... there was also the taste of blood. She grimaced and tried to feel, but before she could name anything, she collapsed under the burden. Pain and relief and pleasure and hunger and nausea ... She gasped. Cold and heat sloshed over her at the same time and with suddenly opened eyes she found herself in a huge burial chamber, illuminated by countless oil lamps and filled with dozens of huge sarcophagi. She smelled and tasted the mummies, she saw the black fog wafting on the ground. In the oppressive silence the feelings of the dead from their last moment stroked over her like tender veils and in her stomach a heavy lump formed which caused her nausea. She wanted to kill, wanted to feel the ecstasy, craved the power that came with it, and even longed for the pain that it would inflict. It was a lustful expectation that filled her, paralyzing her mind with horror and making her body tremble with anticipation.
Emma snapped back into reality and opened her eyes as a black-grey wall of flames shot up in front of her. The panting of the audience sounded far away; the shrill, almost animalistic scream, which sounded a few seconds later, also - but actually caused by real distance. She turned around and was stared at by a pale Oliver.
"Who or what was that?"
"What?" he stammered.
He blinked without understanding and then put his head crooked. His lips moved soundlessly, then he whispered:
"Can you summon a ball?”
Emma stretched out her hand and before she had even lowered her gaze, a ball of deepest black was wafting there. For a moment Oliver looked as if he would lose himself in the sight before blinking and looking into her eyes.
"Let it disappear, unused best."
Carefully she released the magic and to her surprise the sphere shot forward and slurped it up. When the Sphere made a soft sound that almost sounded like a burp, Emma collapsed with a hysterical giggle on the floor. She had to support herself with her hands so as not to land in the dust with her face, but the giggling shook her so violently that she finally tilted to the side - she barely noticed it. Oliver's voice sounded as if through water when he said:
"I know why they won't let me teach. Emma, you have a magical shock, let me help you." Her mouth, however, was distorted too much into a cramped grin for her to answer. Probably she didn't need to, because suddenly there was a bath load of cold water pouring over her. Gasping for air, she lay there for a moment until Oliver bent over her.
"Unpleasant, but effective. Everything all right?”
She nodded slowly and he reached out his hand to help her on her feet.
"I recommend a shower."
Again she nodded silently. If she found her way back home, she would be in the shower until she blew up the water bill. Her whole body was tingling and burning, she would have loved to scratch herself everywhere.
"Come on, I'll take you home." Oliver sighed compassionately, grabbed her upper arm and tumbling she let herself be led out of the arena.
The bra was black, with black lace and embroidered with black decorative seams. In her wardrobe at home she had the same bra, but in different shades of blue. The view into her wardrobe in her new home was depressing: everything was black, midnight black, there was not even anthracite. Emma put on her bra and looked into the mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door; sighing, she ran her fingers through her wet hair. She had taken a shower and then fallen into bed dripping wet, had slept a few hours completely exhausted and then had to wet her hair again because it was a big mess. The boys didn't have a hair dryer, but what was a hair dryer but hot air? And hot air she could do too.
Her hair was almost dried by the air magic when it knocked.
"Come in!" Through the mirror she saw Matt sticking his head through the door.
"Hey... everything okay?"
She let her hands sink and turned around halfway. "Yes..."
"Really?" Doubtfully, he looked at her and when she lowered her eyes, he entered and closed the door.
"Oliver told us at the meeting about the Black Fire."
Her gaze flicked up again. "I overslept the meeting!”
"Nothing bad." Matt waved off and smiled weakly. "The question is how you are." She sighed and shrugged. The tingling and itching had disappeared, but the bitter and dusty taste in her mouth had remained.
"Seeking and finding the black fire was very... intense."
He nodded thoughtfully. "At least you look better now..."
"Thank you." she murmured and saw his cheeks turn pink. She remembered Nadja's words and since she was only in underwear, she also blushed. She quickly turned away and pulled a pair of jeans out of the closet.
"How does it actually work here with the laundry?”
"Hmm?" came the slightly absent answer.
"I didn't see a washing machine here.” The answer came only when she buttoned the jeans.
"There is a shelf in our room. Below is a box for the dirty laundry and up the clean clothes come back. I think Cullen's already taken your things out of the bathroom."
"Oh, thanks." She had just left the dirty-wet pile there. Matt's smile seemed happier now and for a moment she wondered how long it would take for him to try to take off her pants. He was very pretty and she wouldn't push him off the edge of the bed. The thought made her smile and without much looking she took a shirt out of the closet and slipped it over before getting into her socks and sneakers. Meanwhile Matt watched her silently, but with a fine smile, just as if he was mentally undressing her. He leaned casually and with folded arms against the door and Emma noticed the scars covering his left upper arm. At home she hardly knew anyone who even had scars, and if so, they came from surgeries or the like, but certainly not from fights against mythical monsters. She quickly turned away her gaze and pulled a robe from the hanger before stopping. In the mirror she saw Matt had given up his posture and had come one step closer with a slightly worried frown.
"You don't have to wear robes, you know."
"You said -"
"They are like our armor, yes. But we only wear our armor for training or when we leave the valley for a mission." He stepped behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. "Unlike us, you always carry your weapon and shield around with you. You're a mage, you live magic, you don't need a robe." His voice was strangely soft and just as soft he took her robe with his free hand, only to let it sink to the floor in the closet, where it became another black spot in the midst of all the blackness. She turned her head to him and he smiled.
"You certainly don't need a robe. You could kill me before I could blink." That was as disturbing as it was true - she had understood so much in the meantime.
"Are you afraid of me?" she asked, while the fear was already crawling into her own stomach. His fingertips touched her chin.
She didn't believe him, but her body turned to him as if by itself. She wanted to snuggle into his arms and hear again and again that he wasn't afraid of her, that she didn't have to be afraid until she could believe it herself. At the same time she wished he would kiss her to change the subject efficiently, but instead it knocked.
"Hey, Emma... we're going to dinner," Mike's muffled voice sounded. Had he been here now, she could have leaned against him, after all he was her knight- heaven, that sounded silly!- but instead she shouted back:
Matt looked at her and then took a step back. With a sigh she ran her fingers through her hair and then slowly nodded to him.
While Emma walked between Matt and Cullen with her eyes closed, she could have been on campus - although not necessarily in mid-November. As the food scent from the pavilion tickled her nose, chasing away the last remnants of her afternoon magic lesson, she opened her eyes again and smiled. She felt much better than half an hour ago.
Curious, Emma watched as Cullen, Mike and then Aiden ordered their food over the cornucopia and took it.
"What have you got there?" she wanted to know from Aiden, who was sitting to her right. Without looking up, he said:
"Swordfish and potato- celery puree." It wasn't the answer which irritated her, but everything else about him. His posture was different, his charisma was different... and when his gaze flickered at her for a moment, she flinched. Instead of the strange reddish brown, his eyes glowed golden yellow.
"You're not Aiden," she whispered so quietly that the others couldn't hear it in front of the loud background noise.
"We have to talk," Aiden agreed with her and indicated a slight nod. With an unsettled blink she turned back to the cornucopia, from which a second later her dinner slipped, swordfish with mashed potatoes and celery, albeit in significantly smaller portions.
"Would you now have the kindness to tell us what's going on?" Mike's voice sounded muffled, although they were standing on a rather large clearing in the middle of the forest. Aiden's answer was to lift his gaze - Matt flinched back, Cullen's hand twitched to the non-existent weapon. Emma's fear that something was wrong became worse. Mike was the only one of them to wear a dagger on his belt outside training hours, but he couldn't do much against a bear with it - even before she could finish thinking that Matt was right and she was the only one who was really armed, Aiden said:
"We are Aiden and the bear.” We?
"Has Aiden lost his mind?" Matt whispered questioningly to Cullen, who however showed no reaction other than a deep frown.
"I'm the bear and I'm here to talk."
Emma felt helpless and defenseless in the middle of this clearing as the sky showed the first signs of dusk.
"Why doesn't Aiden talk to us?" Mike wanted to know.
"Because Aiden doesn't know much more than you do. He doesn't understand it yet, but I haven't been awake long enough either." Aiden tilted his head a little and seemed to sway. "Let me explain..." he murmured and sounded as if he was talking to himself, then his body tensed and Emma as well. The chubby shy Aiden suddenly seemed really dangerous.
"Shape-shifters are mages whose empathy is strong enough to live with a second hostile soul. I was-", Aiden rolled his eyes for a moment, "...I was born in Asgard, shortly after the dubious victory over the Frost King. I was raised and taught there until I was sent to Midgard to wait until I was needed." He paused and Emma took a quick look at the others. Cullen and Matt were tense, Mike seemed calmer, but his pinched mouth betrayed him.
"When I was tied to Aiden, I was spellbound and let to sleep until the Black Fire woke me. I am here to help." Aiden gasped for air, staggered and then landed rudely in the grass.
"Aiden?" Emma took two hesitant steps, but when Matt grabbed her by the arm, she shook him off and overcame the safety distance the boys had instinctively kept to kneel next to Aiden. His eyes were brown again, a vulnerable expression lay on his soft face.
"Is everything all right?" The question seemed ridiculous, but she couldn't think of a better one. He nodded weakly.
"We had to tell you." he muttered slowly. Mike squatted next to Emma, he seemed worried.
"We have to..." Aiden started again, but stopped and seemed to listen.
"You know," Mike said quietly, "it's a little weird when you speak of yourself in the plural."
"But we are... I am not alone. I never was." The slow way of talking combined with the big eyes, whose warm brown glow was framed by long eyelashes, made Aiden seem a little limited.
"Schizophrenia in its most beautiful form," Matt murmured dryly. Emma's head turned around and she hissed at Matt wordlessly, which scared her far more than him. Yet he obediently took two steps back after holding her gaze for a moment.
"Does the bear really have no name?" Mike asked gently to keep the conversation running and Aiden shook his head.
"Then we look for one," Emma said and smiled at him. To her surprise, a smile plucked at the corners of Aiden's mouth and he got up. The dangerous aura which had surrounded him had disappeared, now there was a deep insecurity in his posture. She searched for words, but Aiden preceded her.
"The bear wants to talk to you."
She nodded silently and returned Mike's examining look.
"We can't just-" Matt started to protest, but Mike interrupted him abruptly:
"The most dangerous thing here right now is your tongue, Matt, so swallow it before Emma cuts it out for you."
Matt growled suppressed and Emma nodded to him reassuringly before he stalked with Cullen and Mike in tow from the clearing.
"He does that often," Aiden murmured. Emma couldn't tell whether he was referring to Mike or Matt, but it didn't matter. She waited a moment, but Aiden remained silent.
"You wanted to talk to me," she finally reminded him carefully and he nodded but remained silent. He wrung his hands and seemed to struggle with himself - the bear - and half turned away.
"Skadi said you are our queen," he finally said quietly. "You are our queen and we are your knights. We fight for you, we protect you, we serve you. You must bind us to you." He took half a step away from her and she raised a brow irritated.
"You know, I gave up the idea of being a princess a long time ago."
"I doubt Skadi had a pink fairytale princess in mind," the bear returned with dry mockery and turned back to Emma. His golden yellow eyes shone. "We didn't just receive the gifts, they have a deeper meaning. I don't know which one, but we'll find out." He stretched out his hand and touched the scarab on Emma's neck with a fingertip. It was a symbol for resurrection and life, with the engraved symbol for living on in the hereafter. It made Emma thoughtful and, if it had a deeper meaning, even more so.
"You are not allowed to die, Emma." The bear tore her from her thoughts, briefly touched her cheek and then withdrew a bit. "Not all of us will survive this war, but you are not allowed to die."
"Anubis said you are ready to sacrifice yourselves." Emma's voice was nothing more than a hoarse whisper, for Aiden's threatening charisma made her shiver.
"You would die for me...?" She barely heard herself, but he nodded again.
"I have waited three centuries for this. I will kill for you and also die for you if I have to." Something about him made her back down and she stumbled, but before she could fall, the yellow glow disappeared from Aiden's eyes and it was really Aiden who grabbed and pulled her towards him. Without the bear, she felt safe, so she nestled trembling in his arms for a long moment.
"I'm sorry," Aiden mumbled hoarse. "I am sorry. I don't want to scare you.”
"It's okay," she mumbled back. "I'm scared of myself."
"Me too," he whispered into her hair and then it was him who trembled. After a short silence he let her go.
"Shape-shifters are usually most of the time busy keeping their animal side in check. I always wondered what would happen if the bear really woke from its winter sleep at some point. It's both better and worse than expected." In the fading daylight they looked at each other and Emma realized that they were quite similar in some way. With his head hanging, Aiden shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and looked like a neglected teddy bear.
"Tibbers...," she said quietly as an idea came to her.
"There's a game, you know, with different champions. One is a little girl, a mage, who always walks around with her teddy named Tibbers. Her ultimate ability turns him into a huge bear who will protect her for a while." Aiden looked at her irritated. "My name isn't Annie, but her hair color resembles your and-" Aiden's eyes lit up yellow and he began to grin.
"I like it."
Emma blinked in surprise.
"Tibbers..." He tasted the sound of the word and nodded. "Thank you," he said seriously, and now Emma nodded too.
Chapter 7: A smile, a kiss, a vow
Cullen was not only visually quite a contrast to Mike, but also in other things; while Mike lured one woman after another into his bed, Cullen had male company there. But however, Emma reminded Cullen about the fact that in the last ten years it had happened very well that a woman could fascinate him...
Through the fine drizzle she came towards the warrior field and when their eyes met, it began to tingle in Cullens stomach. Quickly he lowered his gaze, let it glide over her body and the tingling sank one floor deeper. It wasn't normal, he felt it, but something about it made him just accept the fact. The night after Emma first evoked the Black Fire and they met Tibbers, Matt and Cullen had sat together for a while and Matt had told him about his feelings and doubts.
"So you're seriously telling me you're in love with her? After two days?”
"I know what love feels like, so yes. But it's too much, too strong, too fast... it's not normal."
"If it's not normal, why don't you fight it?”
"Because Ares said it would happen... And I don't want to fight it either, it feels too good!"
And Cullen understood Matt better than he wanted to admit; this tingling in his stomach was promising and simply too good. Since Thor had also warned him, however, a completely different thought had come to him: What if it was part of Emma's being, her curse? Because apart from the fact that everyone was curious anyway, Cullen had noticed the looks she got from the men during the week she was already here. It was one thing for Matt to be completely over the moon, but he felt it himself and he saw the change in Mike and Aiden, even though he couldn't really put it into words about the latter. Mike became somehow bigger, even more the leader he already was, a warlord if you wanted to put it into poetic words.
The same warlord stood on the warrior field and yelled at the boys, who were training there sweating with blunt weapons. When Emma had reached Cullen, Mike had reached the point where he covered the boys with all sorts of obscenities, and although Emma grinned, she blushed.
"And he really thinks it'll help?" she asked doubtingly. Cullen shrugged.
"He hasn't been doing this just since yesterday."
She nodded thoughtfully and let her gaze wander over the teenagers, fifteen, sixteen years old, but only boys.
"Why," she began slowly, "do they let a cursed one train their offspring and why are they only boys?"
“After Matt was out of this age, we found Mike was quite good with teenagers. And since he seems to be the best swordsman the valley has to offer, Soňa begged him at some point to take care of the training." Now it was Cullen who quickly gave Emma a side glance. "He only refused to train girls because of... well. Egyptian half-goddess and all that."
Emma snorted and Cullen crossed his arms in front of his chest. He wore - like Mike - only his leather armor and blunt training weapons, but Emma seemed somehow out of place without robes. Still, he could somehow understand that she didn't want to wear them more than necessary.
"Break!" Mike barked and then nodded a greeting to Emma while a general sigh of relief sounded. "Is your afternoon lesson already over?" he wanted to know and scrutinized her critically.
"Oliver recommended me some books from the library, but I miss the basics and Jeannine wasn't there, so... um... Nikolaj sent me to Cullen."
"Good advice." Mike nodded with a grin and Cullen rolled his eyes.
"Ask the mage fledglings and you have your basics. Even Nikolaj should know."
Emma smiled and Cullen blushed without knowing why. He was a bookworm, yes, but he didn't know much about magic literature either. From the corner of his eye he saw Mike nodding to someone and then his protégé Frank pushed past one of his comrades. The boy already had the broad body of an adult, but a pretty babyface- Cullen thought he was incredibly cute.
"I want you to greet Emma," Mike said coolly and Frank seemed to suppress a sigh, but obediently turned to Emma.
"Emma, daughter of Anubis, I greet you," he said and bowed deeply before turning back to Mike with his face grim.
"That wasn't appropriate," Mike said, and Emma commented amused:
"I don't need a serenade, you know? I just wanted to see what you were doing, and a simple hello would do as well.”
"Serenade? He can do."
Frank growled. "I’m not Romeo."
"I thought you were the Romeo here." Emma noticed and Mike raised a brow. Cullen tried to suppress a smile.
"Casanova," she said teasingly, referring to Mike not having been home the night. But instead of responding, Mike put an arm around Frank's shoulders and bowed his head in his direction.
"And that, kid, is the kind of woman you should stay away from. They only bring trouble."
"Listen to Daddy, he's got experience." Cullen grinned and now Frank blushed after all. Embarrassed, he wiped a sweaty black curl from his forehead.
"Maybe we should continue..." he murmured and wound himself out of Mike's friendly gesture.
"Good idea. Boys!” Seconds later the weapons were clinking again.
"Frank is Mike's protégé, if it wasn't obvious," Cullen explained. Emma laughed quietly.
"The poor guy."
"I stopped him from doing something very, very stupid right in his first week," Mike remarked as he critically observed the boys. "I have two little brothers, humans, but our curly head here is more of a little brother to me than those two." Emma's warm smile touched Cullen and Mike, noticing it from the corner of his eye, actually blushed.
"Not every family is based on blood ties," she said quietly and Mike smiled crookedly.
"Are knights family members already?"
Her answer was wordless, but the expression was obviously enough for Mike, because with a smile which Cullen didn't know from him, he turned away. It took a while for Cullen to identify the new feeling that was now rumbling around in his stomach as jealousy.
Matt jumped down the stairs and tapped his imaginary hat, greeting Cullen, as he saw him standing in the kitchen corner.
"Where are you going?" he asked with a frown. It was already after dinner and Matt had both bows and the quiver with him.
"Private training session." Full of anticipation, it was hard for him to suppress a stupid grin. Cullen raised a brow and sighed.
"You know that team-internal-"
"I know," Matt interrupted him and now grinned anyway; he didn't care and Cullen sighed again, this time annoyed.
"Then at least be quiet."
"Says the one who recently made the walls bounce with Gianni?" Matt saw with satisfaction how Cullen turned red.
"Guilty as charged." He indicated a mocking bow and Cullen growled.
"Remember, Cullen, your mother is as much of a bitch as mine." Still grinning, Matt left the house. If he managed to take it with humor, it wasn't so bad. However, it actually took Carlotta to show him that his human dad wasn't the only asshole in the whole story.
With bouncy steps he walked through the village to the shooting ranges; at a beginner's field Emma waited already and thoughtfully looked at the target.
She turned around and smiled. "Hey..." Although she had tied her hair to a plait for practical reasons, she still nervously stroked a strand from her forehead. He handed her his old bow and when she reached out, they held the weapon together for a moment.
"I know this one's too big and too heavy for you, but on the battlefield, you can't look for a matching weapon first." After a serious nod on her part, he let go and she took a step back. The important words were said and so he went over to the posing part. Out of a flowing backward movement he took the divine bow from his back, pulled an arrow and drove it into the bullseye without looking. Her smile told him enough. She reached over his shoulder and took an arrow herself, then took a surprisingly correct posture and shot. The arrow collided a good distance above the target against the tarpaulin and fell to the ground.
"At this close range, don't aim so high." Matt smiled encouragingly at her and nodded invitingly as he held out a new arrow. She grabbed it and aimed again. Now the exciting part began and so he stepped behind her, so close that their bodies touched.
"Elbow up. Stretch your shoulders. Turn the upper body." His fingertips glided over her and corrected her posture; gently he pressed her hand holding the bow a little down.
"Breathe in." He placed one hand on her hip, the other on her stomach, and breathed in with her. She shot without a signal and the arrow drilled into the top centimeter of the target.
"Good." His breath on her ear made her shiver, but still she stretched her arm as if to draw a new arrow. As she was left-handed, she could not reach his quiver and so he stretched himself to give her the next arrow.
Arrow by arrow, the action was repeated and something told Matt it wasn't the first time she had used a bow, but he put that thought aside. The spicy-fruity scent of her hair was more important. Her working muscles under his fingertips were more important. And then he was suddenly quite happy when the arrows were all gone, because she probably wouldn't have missed the heat in his loins for much longer.
"Only twelve arrows?" she asked and turned to him.
"Hmm." With an amused smile she looked at him and he lowered his gaze before nodding to the target and going off to collect the arrows.
"Twelve is somehow my number."
"Is by any chance the twelfth of December your birthday?" She grinned and he shook his head with a smile.
"No, but that number's been with me since I can remember." He pulled the last arrow out of the target and put it back into the quiver with the others. "And when I'm in a bad mood, I imagine that I have one arrow for each god on the Olympus."
Her smile became thoughtful. "Can we kill gods?"
"No." He frowned slightly. "Well yes, theoretically it’s possible under certain circumstances..."
"Meaning?" she went after it and he hesitated. In her face he found nothing but curiosity for the unknown, although she touched on a very sensitive subject.
"A worthy half-god can kill his divine parent and take his place," he finally answered her question and her eyes grew big with surprise.
"Oh." She made toneless and he just nodded.
"Little walk?" She nodded silently and then they walked silently through the forest until they reached a wider path which later would lead to the lake.
Matt's hand grazed Emma’s, gently pressing it against hers until she invitingly spread her fingers. He grabbed it and she squeezed his hand briefly; from the corner of his eye he saw her smiling.
"Do you meet Ares often?" she then asked out of nowhere and he suppressed a sigh. Her choice of topics was a little inappropriate for a date.
"Once or twice a year."
"What's he like?"
Now Matt actually sighed. "I have twelve half siblings and no matter what they get up to, I'll always be the least of them, so how's he supposed to be? Always dissatisfied, always disappointed."
She stopped and looked at him with big innocent eyes.
"Is there nothing you have in common? Well, apart from the fact that you are descended from him."
Matt already wanted to deny it, but then he stopped.
"When I look at him, I look into a mirror with dark eyes," he finally said slowly and a smile played around the corner of Emma's mouth. She turned completely towards him and laid a hand on his chest, which slid towards his shoulder as she leaned forward. Her kiss was shy, almost innocent, but Matt was petrified and could do nothing to prolong it. When she stepped back, she laughed quietly.
"I really kissed a god..."
"I am..." He left the sentence unfinished and instead examined the slightly distant expression on her face.
"Ares," she began, raising her hand to his cheek, "is considered the personification of male beauty. And you," she came closer and her lips touched his, "are gorgeous.” The kiss made his entire skin tingle as he lost himself in it, pulling her closer and holding her as if she could break at any moment. Emma was so different; educated yet so unknowing, shy yet challenging, fragile yet strong. Never before had Matt been called gorgeous, never before had a woman electrified him so much - not even the daughters of Aphrodite or Venus with their love spells.
When he finally took a deep breath and stepped back a bit, Emma looked at him almost fascinated. With her fingertips she touched her lips as if she couldn't believe what had just happened, and he couldn't resist a cheeky smile.
"You can steal another one..."
She blushed and looked away, even though she smiled embarrassedly. "We wanted to have a walk," she murmured and he nodded.
"Yeah", he said stretched, "that's what we wanted." He gently grabbed her by the chin and turned her face in his direction, but when he saw the sparkle in her eyes, any thought of further kisses was forgotten for the moment. He took her hands and pressed them against his chest, for words suddenly burned on his tongue, which he urgently needed to get rid of before they burst him.
"I, Matthew, son of Ares, swear to you, Emma, daughter of Anubis, eternal loyalty until death. I swear to protect you with my life. I swear to serve you. I swear to love you. My life is yours, my arrows fly in your name, my sword sings for you." The words streamed out of his mouth without him really knowing what he was saying. But they were full of magic, wrapped around their wrists like silk scarves, and then it was as if something touched his innermost being. He leaned his forehead against Emma's and then the magic wrapped them both up for a heartbeat before it disappeared.
"You are my knight now," she whispered after a moment of silence, almost dazed.
"Mmh." he agreed. For another moment it was quiet, then they separated from each other and strangely embarrassed they looked into each other's eyes until she shoved a hand into his.
They strolled along the path Matt had imagined before, but a strange tension built up which neither of them dared to break with profane words. Only when they had returned to their house, walked up the stairs together and looked each other in the eye did Matt find his voice again.
Whether he shoved her through the door of her room or whether she pulled him with her, he couldn't say, but the door slammed shut as he pushed her against it and kissed her stormily. Hastily he took the bows and the quiver from his shoulder and threw them aside ungratefully, Emma pulled him back and shoved her hands under his shirt. Seconds later, he also threw it aside and shivered as Emma's fingertips glided over his skin, instinctively following the scars on his left side, and finally gently scratching his chest as they glided upwards. He wanted more. He took off her shirt, kissed her neck and nibbled on her earlobe as he took off her bra. As he turned both nipples simultaneously between the fingertips, she shuddered violently and shoved her hips towards him. With an audible grin, he whispered into her ear:
"You were so happy to have kissed a god..." His hands reached for her trousers and opened them.
"Let me show you", he pushed his hands in and embraced her bottom, "how it is", he pushed trousers and panties down, "to be kissed by a god..." He went down to his knees and lowered his mouth to her second pair of lips, let his tongue slide in between and was rewarded with a suffocated gasp. Her fingers were buried in his hair and he laughed softly; the vibration of it made her moan.
He purred amusedly and teased a second "oh God" out of her. Mike might have been a Casanova, a heartbreaker, but Matt, like his father, was a seductive predator whose current prey was absolutely unwary. Carlotta, thanks to her inheritance, had either adapted to his desires and preferences or devoted him to hers - two half-gods who were made for each other, wouldn't have been the character...
"Oooh..." Slowly he straightened up, placed a short kiss on Emma's breast and whispered in her ear:
"Say my name."
"Matt." Although he didn't do anything, she drilled his fingernails into his skin. "Matt." It was a velvety command that poured over him and made his fingers tremble. His prey offered itself to him, wanted to be prey, and who was he to deny her this?
Matt stretched and made a face. His whole body pounded and the scratches on his back would burn uncomfortably while showering. But Emma's face next to him, completely relaxed in her sleep, was a nice compensation. She wasn't as perfect, as divine, as a daughter of Aphrodite, but the lack of love goddess blood made her honest in bed and if Matt was honest, he had missed it, even though he had slept with many human women. But- if he was even more honest, then it was the death in her blood which called for him, a warrior. Again, he wondered who or what made him so completely addicted to her in such a short time, but perhaps it was better if he didn't get an answer.
Before his pondering made him grumpy, Emma opened her eyes and after a surprised blink she smiled shyly. As she moved, however, she grimaced.
"I hurt you," Matt mumbled, embarrassed and lowered his gaze. She made a consensual sound and then brushed his cheek tenderly.
"It's not that bad." She straightened up a little and blushed. "It was worth it." The compliment felt good, but still he said quietly:
"I'm sorry. I have... well, the children of love gods automatically adapt to their partner's preferences and..." He turned red under her eyes. It wasn't a suitable excuse that he had touched her rougher than she liked.
"Maybe I should have expected it, after all you are Ares' son," she said then and let her fingertips circle on his chest.
"Sounds like you've had some experience with him," Matt remarked critically and raised a brow, but she giggled.
"I was extremely fascinated by his myth after a special exhibition." Of course, Matt knew the myths that surrounded Ares, even the more delicate ones. "And you said you were his bright-eyed mirror." There really was something to it, but like out of defiance he said:
"I can be different too."
"Then show me." And after he had overcome the moment of surprise, he did exactly that.
Chapter 8: Emma's first mission
Mike quietly opened the front door and paused. He was later than expected because he heard the sound of water coming from the bathroom. Still, he closed the door as quietly as possible and went towards the stairs, then flinched when he saw Emma leaning against the patio door. She hadn't noticed him, but as absent as she seemed, it wasn't surprising. For a moment he looked at her and could begin to feel she wasn't feeling well - the bond between the knight and the lady had become stronger and her sad pain echoed in him.
"Emma?" he asked quietly as he approached. Surprised, she raised her head, then a smile scurried across her face.
"Casanova." Her tone was loving and Mike returned her smile.
"What's the matter, darling?" It just slipped out, but it didn't seem to bother her at all. Instead, she leaned her head against the door frame again and sighed.
"Today is the first of December, my best friend's birthday. I've been so busy with all this stuff that I've completely forgotten him." Her voice turned into a whiny whisper. "I don't even know if he survived the accident." Mike wrapped his arms around her from behind, kissed her on the back of her head, and then laid his cheek against it- it felt so familiar, so right and appropriate, that he simply pushed aside the part of himself that protested fiercely. Emma needed him.
"You could ask Anubis," he simply said.
"Do you think he knows?"
"Well, asking him won't cost you anything."
She took a breath to answer, but then just breathed out hissing and let his answer sink in. Her hair smelled fruity and spicy and reminded him of the strange delicacies Sekhmet sometimes offered him, but overall Emma smelled of sex - she had spent the last five nights with Matt. Mike kissed her on the crown again - he was almost a head taller than her, so it wasn't hard for him - and then said:
"I can show you later how to ask for a dream of the gods in the temple if you want."
She turned in his arms and looked up at him with big eyes. "Oh, yes, please."
He smiled down at her. "After dinner, okay?"
She nodded and then stretched out to kiss him on the cheek.
Mike's gaze flicked up and he saw Cullen standing at the foot of the stairs, in his slabbery sleeping clothes, hands on his hips and with an almost disapproving frown.
"Sure," Emma said and put on a smile, while Mike shrugged with an apologetic smile in Cullen's direction.
They had just started moving when someone came down the stairs again. Running the fingers through his damp hair, Matt jumped down the stairs, but his smile froze as he perceived the tension in the room.
"Everything all right?"
"Yeah, sure." Emma's smile seemed to relax him and Mike nodded to him. She didn't kiss Matt, but her brief touch as she passed him was enough. Mike wondered how long it might take before they officially became a couple, but Cullen's soft swearing from the kitchen corner distracted him.
"Oh, nothing, I got my finger caught."
Matt and Emma giggled quietly and Mike took off the coffee can from Cullen to close the lid properly.
"Did you get up with the wrong foot first?"
"You're in a bad mood."
"Can't I be in a bad mood for once?"
"Normally you're thoughtful, but not in a bad mood," Matt interfered and Cullen sighed annoyed as he continued to handle the Moka.
"Hey, Tibbers," Emma said without turning around. Mike, however, took a look over his shoulder- he hadn't even heard anyone coming.
"How do you do it?" Tibbers wanted to know and leaned against the half-height wall that separated the kitchen corner from the living room. "Am I that predictable?" The smile on Aiden's face seemed odd, but that Emma could easily keep Aiden and Tibbers apart kept Mike busy more.
"I just know," Emma simply said and then added, "What's up?" Tibbers closed his disturbingly yellow eyes for a moment and Mike frowned. Sure, as soon as Tibbers took control of the body, its posture and charisma changed, and yet... The body tension ebbed and at the same moment Aiden opened his eyes again.
"It's all right," he muttered and pushed himself past Cullen to stand next to Mike like almost every morning.
Cullen sighed into his coffee. Mike found it almost fascinating how he and Emma liked exactly the same mixture of lots of milk, little coffee and half a ton of sugar. Matt liked the exact opposite: lots of coffee, little milk and just a few crumbs of sugar; Mike, on the other hand, drank almost everything that somehow contained caffeine and was at least a little sweet. And Aiden... Mike shuddered. Aiden drank his coffee as black as Emma's clothes and if you let him make coffee you could be sure to jump through the valley like a Duracell bunny for half a day. Cullen sighed again and tried to talk, but at that moment there was a knock on the kitchen window and Mike turned around. Outside, a dove sat with its head crooked.
"Whatever you wanted to say, keep it in mind," Mike said to Cullen, turning and leaning over the sink to let the dove in and take the letter from it. After a coo she flew away and Mike unfolded the letter.
"And?" Matt wanted to know critically. Mike handed him the letter after he had noticed the words Mission, Naga and Urgent.
"We're moving out."
Emma's questioning expression became horrified as she understood.
"Uh, Naga..." grumbled Matt at the moment.
"Better than Murlocs, I'd say," Cullen remarked amused and Matt growled.
"Come on, there's still time for a quick breakfast," Mike said in the meantime to suppress the upcoming discussion. It was good that Emma could gain some combat experience before they really went to war.
Behind the team houses there was a wide strip of forest that covered the view of the harbour. Well, the airport, so to speak, because there was no water here.
"Woah..." Emma was amazed and Mike smiled. On the left were the huge ships that would be used to transport troops during the war - they were in no way inferior to the huge sailing ships of bygone times-, on the right were the smaller ships. One of them had black sails and Mike headed for it. Behind him Cullen whistled sharply and the ship - just big enough for a small cabin, which apart from a toilet offered just enough room for two beds - sank until the keel almost touched the ground. Mike knocked on the wood and a ladder folded out of an inconspicuous box.
"Is there anything here that doesn't work with magic?" Emma wanted to know and had frowned a little unhappily.
"Sure.” Cullen grinned and began to climb up. "I hope you don't get seasick," he said, looking over the railing as Emma walked up to the ladder with her face distorted and tried not to get caught in her robe.
"No," she murmured. After her, the others also boarded and Cullen went straight to the wheel. Mike nodded to him and squatted next to the three boxes moored at one corner.
"Where is your armor?" Emma wanted to know at that moment. Smiling, Mike knocked on the crates.
"In here. Magic." He winked at her and she sighed. He pulled the lid off the boxes and nodded to himself rather than to Emma. They would fly a little more than two hours to their area of operations and still had enough time to get dressed. Thoughtfully, he stroked the lion's head on his new breastplate and thought uneasily of Sekhmet's words. What was the point of such a gift? He doubted it was just a prestige object, as Ares had called Matt's bow, but he couldn't even begin to find an explanation, so he straightened up again and sighed.
Tibbers had curled up as a bear in the stern and Matt kept Cullen company at the wheel while Emma had stepped on the rail and watched the valley slowly pass beneath them. He leaned next to her and she looked up for a moment.
"Is that your ship?"
"Our ship, yes." He nodded. "Cullens Dad is a shipbuilder and made it for us. Actually, it's not much different than the other team ships, but it responds especially well to Cullen's orders."
"How is it called?”
"Wylie. That meant lotus, I think." Emma raised a brow and Mike shrugged. "The other ships are not specifically assigned to a team, but no one would seriously think of taking the Wylie with her black sails."
"Guess why..." Emma murmured sarcastically and Mike grinned crookedly.
"It all has its pros and cons, doesn't it?"
She rolled her eyes and then frowned irritated as the valley's magical shield passed over her. To Mike, it felt like a wet rag and involuntarily he rubbed his bare arms. Emma said something, asking a question according to the sound, but Mike couldn't understand a word.
"What did you say?"
Her extremely irritated facial expression told him no one had explained the language-spell-thing to her.
"Do you speak English?" he asked slowly and emphasized - if not, they had a problem, but she nodded. "Good." He smiled at her. "Over the valley lies a spell that makes us all understand each other, no matter what mother tongue we speak.”
She nodded again. "Okay..." she murmured dazed and shook her head weakly. Then he noticed that he didn't even know where she came from.
"Where are you from?"
"Berlin," she said absent.
"Berlin... like Germany?"
Now her gaze twitched up to him. "Yes, sure." As if it was the most normal thing in the world. With a smile he crossed his arms in front of his chest.
"Do you know that there are certainly two dozen places in the USA called Berlin?”
"Yes, I know." She looked at him angrily. "But it's not always all about you Americans."
"Who says I'm an American?" Amused, he raised a brow.
"You sound like one."
"Well… Guys, come over for a second..." he shouted then, without breaking the eye contact to her.
"What's up?" Cullen wanted to know and Matt frowned.
"Everything all right?"
Mike nodded. "Sure. Emma just discovered her aversion to my home country."
Aiden snorted. "Well, you all are narcistic..."
Matt grinned, Emma frowned. "Where exactly are you coming from now?"
"Miami, Florida," Mike replied and she just nodded.
"Where they are splashing with crocodiles in the pool and surfing is on the curriculum," Matt mocked and Mike rolled his eyes.
"You sound damn British," Emma then said to Matt, who nodded majestically.
"I am British."
"They're just as much narcistic, by the way," Aiden threw in and Mike sighed annoyed.
"And you have inferiority complexes."
Matt giggled while Aiden indignantly said: "Not true at all!" When he got angry, his French accent sounded stronger and Emma's gaze was priceless.
"Canada?" she asked and sounded strangely hopeful. Aiden nodded. "Cullen told me he was born in the valley. But... how is the language-thing for you?"
"In the city the houses are excluded from this magic, just like certain rooms in the nest or the town hall. After all, we all still have to learn one or the other language."
"And what do you speak?”
"Norwegian and English from home, but since the valley is in Italy, we're all learning Italian."
Emma made a face. "Wonderful."
"Don't worry, we speak English as a team, just like most others," Matt said reassuringly and she nodded.
"No worries, you can curse in German if you like. Nobody understands you anyway." Mike winked at her and she sighed.
"As if I had no other worries."
"Hey, your English is great."
"I didn't mean that."
"I know. I'm just trying to cheer you up a little."
Doubtfully she looked at him and Cullen said cautiously:
"If that's clear now, I'll take care of the course again." Together with Aiden he left and Mike gently patted Emma on the shoulder.
"How come you have such national pride when you've spent more than half of your life in this valley?" she wanted to know.
"Maybe to remind us that we're not above things," Matt said before Mike thought about an answer. "Sure, we're Greeks or Egyptians as well, but we have our human roots..."
Emma nodded thoughtfully and Mike added: "It helps not to lose touch with the world out there. Sure, there are always kids who need a little jump-start, but to be honest, every day you show us that we take a lot of things for granted, even though it shouldn't be." Again, she nodded thoughtfully and then gave him a faint smile before she went on to the bow. Matt wanted to follow her, but Mike held him by the shoulder.
"That's my job." Matt frowned angrily.
"Yes, but I don't mean that. If she panics out there, we might have a real problem. The Naga tribe we're talking about has powerful sirens and I'd like a little backup."
"I do my best, but I can't promise you anything, you know that," Matt replied seriously and Mike nodded.
"I know. But when she closes down..."
Matt nodded again. "She is not used to take orders in a foreign language. Damn, she's not used to receive orders at all." That was a point that had been making Mike sick for some time.
"You are the son of a God of War. If you can't persuade her to fight, no one can."
"Why does everyone have to remind me of that lately?" Matt sighed quietly and a little theatrically.
"Do you really want to hear my opinion?" Mike asked doubtingly and Matt rolled his eyes. "Then go and cheer her up."
Matt's answer was an annoyed sigh, but he left. Mike watched him wrap an arm around Emma and she leaned against him as if it were the most natural thing in the world. War and death in a tender embrace...
"What are Naga anyway?"
"Imagine them like mermaids, only with four arms, ugly and extremely violent."
Matt peered over the edge of a rock and sighed. At the other end of the small bay, protected by the rocky cliffs, the first primitive huts of the Murlocs were already built. For Naga they were low servants, hardly more than slaves, but for humans they were a real plague - the scars at his side testified that. Fortunately, there were no Murlocs to be seen, but three Naga warriors snaked into Matt's field of vision. From the ship, they had seen the beginnings of a new temple, the core of every settlement. Unfortunately, the Naga violated the rights they had been granted with it, so Matt and the others were here.
"Three Warriors," he mumbled to Cullen.
"Mike saw five further up and two sirens."
"Bad." From the corner of his eye he saw Cullen nodding. The Naga priestesses were the only ones you could reasonably talk to. They turned away and met with the other three a bit further away.
"We don't even need to start a diplomatic attempt without a priestess," Mike said without digression. "Hopefully two sirens are not the problem.” Matt got a short side glance and nodded barely. "The warriors worry me." "Why?", Aiden simply asked.
"Those posted up at the temple wear heavy armor." That was indeed bad.
"We attack from above?" Cullen asked, although it sounded more like a statement. Mike nodded.
Emma lifted her gaze. She was as white as chalk and trembling since she left the Wylie; she didn't look like she really got what they had just discussed.
"Darling, do you remember what we discussed earlier? About tonight?" On Mike's question, Matt opened his mouth in disbelief.
"The temple..." she answered slowly.
"Right. If you help us with the Naga, you will already have something to tell your father. I bet he's happy about your progress." Mike's words were soft and Emma nodded thoughtfully. Speechless, Matt watched Mike kiss her on the temple and then walk away.
"Tactics," Cullen whispered to Matt and tapped his chin to close his mouth again.
"Tactics..." he murmured. "Sure..." But he swallowed his anger as best as he could and stepped next to Emma to take her hand. "Come," he said quietly, "we need your help."
"I doubt I'm really useful," she mumbled silently and pressed his hand so firmly it almost hurt. Nevertheless, she walked with him over the green hill until they reached another small rock formation, behind which Mike, Cullen and Aiden hid from the views of the Naga. Mike nodded to Matt and he nodded back. He let go of Emma and took the bow from his shoulder before carefully peering around the rock.
The two sirens were in the middle of the new temple complex, half a wall already rose to the left of them, in the middle between them was one of the mighty stone bowls in which the Naga kept their holy water. It shone from the inside in a white light; the effect was intensified by the hazy, cloudy weather. One of the two sirens had a fan-like crown of skin folds, which she slowly erected and lowered, carrying a grey-black scepter in her hand and seemed to scoff at the other siren, for she had humbly lowered her head and folded the two pairs of hands. The five warriors glided restlessly, effortlessly over the stones as well as over the grass of the outer temple area. They were heavily armored and each carried two short swords, two of them had thick combs of thorns on their backs, identifying them as members of a special warrior caste. There was no doubt that this new temple would become something special.
"Emma, you were practicing attacks with Oliver, weren't you?" Matt asked quietly as he withdrew and Emma nodded. "Even on moving targets, right?"
She nodded again.
"I can't do that," she whispered.
"I can't... I just can't..." Her eyes had grown big and she trembled even more than before.
"Yes," he gently contradicted, "you can."
"Matt," Mike said quietly and forcefully, "the longer we stand here, the less time there is until they discover our signature." Matt knew that himself, so he just made a brief gesture with his free hand and lifted the other one as he wanted to calm Emma, but she backed away from him.
"I can't do that..."
"Yes, my love, I'm sure you can." He would have preferred the word darling, but it seemed to be soiled by Mike. "We're with you, together we can." From the corner of his eye, he saw Aiden shake briefly.
"They noticed us," Tibbers said with a subliminal rumble, transforming himself as Matt drew the first arrow and took two steps to the side. He shot at the first warrior and caught him at the upper arm, right where the shoulder piece stopped and the protective skin layer thickened. The Naga was forced to swing the sword with his lower arm, but that wouldn't change much. The other three stormed down the slope, while Matt dedicated the next arrows to the sirens so they couldn't cast their spells. The siren without the fan crown still seemed to be very young, for even the arrows that did not hit exactly at the weak points of the scale shell penetrated through the thick skin and she retreated; dark green blood ran over pale green scales.
A frightened whimper behind Matt made him turn around, but it was only Emma who watched the fight as if petrified. He sent a silent prayer to his father and his divine half siblings, lowered the bow and stepped beside Emma. He put a hand on her shoulder, but before he could say anything, Ares whispered in his head:
"You're a deadly seducer, so seduce her to fight!” Someone giggled maliciously and Matt knew instinctively it was Enyalios, the God of Battle and Ares' son as well. He took a deep breath and stepped behind Emma, his hands on her shoulders, his mouth close to her ear.
"Emma, my love, what exactly did Anubis say about you? You'd be a destroyer, not a protector, wouldn't you?", he asked quietly. "But you can protect, my love, I know it, I have seen your magic. You only have to use it."
She made a pitiful, suppressed sound.
"The Naga down there are dangerous and they are in outnumber. You have to help Mike and Cullen and Aiden and Tibbers..." His tone was soft but urgent, and slowly he let his hand slide along her left arm and gently lifted it.
"Call your magic, my love, and show the Naga that our warriors are not defenseless. Show them that we are stronger, more powerful." He felt a magical eruption and then the two sirens were surrounded by a shield to keep their magic away from the others. Unfortunately, it was water magic and Matt had to suppress a frustrated sigh because the older siren destroyed the shield with only two magic blows.
Enyalios, bless this woman, he asked silently, but as expected there was no reaction. But the meaning of Ares' words really sank into Matt's consciousness and he laid his hands on Emma's hip, kissed her neck and then began to whisper about battle, death and might. He whispered words which, in other circumstances, would have been vicious or cruel, but his blood - the blood of a warrior - sang to the blood of a Goddess of Death.
"...prove to me you are worth fighting by my side," he muttered velvety and sharp at the same time. "Show me you are worth being worshipped by me." A normal Emma would probably have slapped him, but the divine Emma seemed to wake up. She trembled and then shot a black flash that cut the siren, already severely injured by Matt, in two right under the ribs. Her shrill scream was clearly audible over the rest of the fighting noise. Tibbers, who had seen it, roared joyfully and Matt sighed with relief. A second black flash pushed back a warrior who had taken a blow to Mike's side.
"That's it...," Matt whispered into Emma's ear with a smile, then stepped aside to take part in the fight again.
A little later, the eight Naga warriors were defeated and Emma fought a whirling battle with the siren, who apparently didn't want to be beaten, even though one of her arms was missing, her fan crown hung in rags and the blood shimmered on her scales. The magic ensured that none of Matt's arrows reached her, and the others were wise enough not to get into the crossfire. He heard Mike shouting over the crackling and saw with discomfort as more Naga rose from the floods, accompanied by two dozen Murlocs. The other three faced the new threat, but without moving directly on the sand - which was a wise decision, as all of a sudden a red fountain whipped up there. Matt saw Cullen and Mike flinch back and then it rained tiny little murloc shreds and bloody sand. Tibbers took care of the last remaining murloc that gargled furiously. When Matt had regained his composure in surprise, Emma just gave the siren a deadly blow and then hissed furiously before going down the slope. Matt hurriedly followed her the short way to the edge of the temple, where she stopped.
"Niemand", a black flash ripped off a warrior's arm,
"vergreift sich" a second flash blew a piece of flesh out of the roach,
"an meinen", a third flash made the warrior collapse,
"Freunden!", a fourth flash hurled the warrior against a siren whose magic projectile failed, hit an ally from behind and threw him into the sand. Emma's face was distorted with rage, and for a moment Matt wondered if he might have exaggerated his motivational speech, but then he saw the blood on Mike's leg, where a Naga sword had pierced the armor.
"Shields, Emma," Matt shouted, and a blink later, Mike was surrounded by a gray-black shield that didn't stop him from fighting.
The smell of charred scales, boiled fish and blood hung heavily in the air. Matt's shoulders were a little tense, but that didn't bother him as he wrapped around the bow and turned to Emma, who stood beside him trembling and breathing heavily. Her eyes were darkly clouded, as if the Black Fire would gather inside, and her sphere twitched restlessly over her shoulder.
"Bah!” Tibbers, now human again, spat out. "We can't get the taste out for another three days." Before anyone could say anything, Emma bent to the side and vomited the remains of her breakfast.
"Was that really necessary?" Cullen asked with a sigh, while Matt kneeled next to Emma and soothed her back.
"You were awesome, my love," he said quietly and she gave a choked giggle. He faded out the quiet conversation between Mike and Cullen and took Emma in his arms after she had wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
"You were awesome," he repeated, and she snorted choked, still - or again - trembling. "Let's go back to the Wylie. You can lie down a bit, okay?" She nodded and let him pull her onto her feet.
Matt pushed the door of the cabin open and gently nudged Emma through. She seemed to hyperventilate and Matt hoped she wouldn't collapse completely.
"Matt," she whispered stifled, "I need you."
"I know, I'm here," he said with a cheering smile which froze when he saw her face. Pain, fear, despair and something indefinable struggled for supremacy. When she laid a hand on his cheek, despair won.
"I need you." Before he could say anything, she kissed him. Surprised, he held her. Sure, everyone dealt differently with the events of a fight and when she needed sex to get over it, it was just like that, but the taste of vomit wasn't exactly helpful. Her fingers slid over his armor, looking for the buckles.
"Emma, slow..." he murmured, she sobbed and retreated. Slowly he put the bow and quiver on one of the two beds. She had clenched her hands to fists and seemed to have to control herself laboriously in order not to... yes, what actually? Something about her worried him, seemed wrong to him, and so he removed his armor with deliberate movements and took off his clothes underneath. When he threw the underpants aside, she fought her way out of her robe and then threw herself into his arms, the rest of her clothes dissolved into grey smoke. Feverish hot skin pressed against his and slowly his tension released as he caressed her back and nibbled on her lower lip.
"I'm here," he muttered. He kissed her long and fervently, but as his lips brushed across her cheek, they found tears. Something was definitely going wrong.
With a muffled sound, Cullen dropped the white orb from the Naga Temple into Matt's armor box.
"Careful," Aiden grumbled.
"Do you know how heavy this thing is?" Cullen grumbled back and Mike frowned. Sometime during the fight the stone bowl for the holy water was broken and without the white shimmering water a white orb with pale blue marbling had become visible, which Tibbers had called a Nordic artifact and then burned his fingers right on it. So Cullen took the orb, which was slightly larger than a man's fist, with gloved fingers and still complained that the cold was burning down to the bones.
Aiden grumbled something incomprehensible and Mike took off his gloves before taking off the sword belt. As he set about taking off the broken leg armor, the throbbing in his thigh became stronger again. Sure, he had drunk a little healing potion right after the fight, but the dull pain was still unpleasantly strong.
"Could have been worse," Cullen noticed with satisfaction as he put his slightly dented breastplate into his box.
"Indeed," Mike agreed, peering through the torn fabric at his leg. The skin was rosy, as if the scab had just come off.
"Emma was good," Aiden mumbled, stepping by Mike's side to take off his shoulder pieces.
"Matt's aggressive charm was obviously enough," Mike remarked dryly, catching Cullen's smile.
"Why not? He's a pretty boy."
"Don't start with that now."
"Isn't it true?"
"I don't really care, Cullen, I don't like men."
"But that has nothing to do with whether you can judge the appearance of a person. And according to the prevailing ideals of beauty, Matt is a handsome man."
Mike sighed annoyed and rolled his eyes; he tried his best to avoid such conversations.
"When you tell him, exactly two things will happen." He paused and took off the breastplate whose buckles Aiden had loosened for him. "First, in your presence he will-"
A cry interrupted him. Whereby, actually, there were two, full of horror and pain. Not that Mike had expected to hear other screams, but in the safety of the ship it wasn't supposed to be. With a hiss which almost sounded like a curse, he pulled the dagger from his belt and stormed into the cabin just to pause, because he almost stumbled over Matt, who squatted in such an awkward pose between the two beds that he could only have fallen out. Mike couldn't see his face, but the wet shimmering penis- are the condoms over again?- Emma's face, distorted with despair and horror, said enough by the way. Tears ran down her cheeks as she stared into the void. Mike's gaze twitched between her legs, but what he thought was blood at first turned out to be black smoke slowly dissipating.
"Isis and Osiris..." he mumbled soundlessly. A hand on his shoulder told him Cullen also wanted to catch a glimpse of the scene.
"What's going on here?"
Finally, Matt turned his head towards them.
"Get out of here..." he whispered in horror, but at the same time as if the scenery was completely ordinary. Mike put the dagger away and frowned mistrustfully as Matt grabbed his crotch and grimaced in pain. But then he turned around, pushed a confused Cullen back on deck and closed the door behind him.
"What happened?" Aiden wanted to know with a frown.
"I very much hope that one of them will explain this to us in a moment," Mike replied. He heard how unsettled he sounded.
The Wylie had been gliding through the air for a while when Matt finally joined them. He was pale and stalked as if he was still in pain. With a groan he let himself sink to the narrow bench next to the steering wheel, resting his elbows on his knees and burying his face in his hands. Mike sat cautiously beside him as Cullen looked down on him from the wheel and Aiden, crouching on the opposite bench, peered past Cullen.
"I guess," Mike said quietly, "it's not nearly what it looked like."
"What did it look like?" Matt asked back, muffled by his hands.
"Unpleasant," was Mike's short answer and Matt pulled his hands away just enough to look at Mike.
"Unpleasant," he repeated dully after a moment and after a brief sideways glance at Cullen, Mike was glad he kept his mouth shut. Now Matt's hands slipped up until he pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes.
"I brought her back to the ship, I wanted her to rest," he slowly began his report. "She was completely off. She..." The ship creaked. "She kissed me and wanted to rip off my armor, but she didn't look like she really wanted to. She was desperate, not aroused. She cried."
"Some people do the strangest things after a fight," Tibbers remarked in an unusually low voice as Matt paused. Matt made a consensual noise.
"Her skin was feverish," he muttered. "As soon as I-" He paused again and blushed while Mike wondered since when he had been so prudish, for the end of the sentence was predictable. "As soon as I was inside, I was immediately at the point where you know it's over before the next blink. But it wasn't." His voice was quiet and almost desperate. "She cried, but her body moved with mine. I wanted to stop, but I couldn't."
Mike swallowed and had to control himself not to pull his shoulders up with discomfort; he didn't like the strange undertone in Matt's voice.
"When she came, I came too, but-", his whispering was barely understandable above the sound of the wind and the blush had spread to his neck, "-while my body was pumping the stuff out of me, something was crawling into me at the same time. It hurt. It still does."
Now Mike really shuddered and quietly said: "There was black smoke between her legs."
"Does it mean she pumped the Black Fire into you?" Cullen asked incredulously, his voice was way too loud. Matt's gaze immediately flicked up at him, suddenly as white as chalk.
"Was just some idea..." Cullen flinched and indicated a shrug. Mike took a breath, but then found no words for his concern. He exchanged a quick look with Cullen, who was apparently also uncomfortable, and then looked at Tibbers, who had frowned anxiously. Matt had turned away and Mike, chewing on his lower lip, looked to the cabin door. He hoped Emma would come out at any moment and give them an explanation.
But it wasn't until the keel of the Wylie touched her usual anchorage that Emma came back on deck, apparently barefoot, and left the ship without looking at the others. Mike looked after her as she walked away. He heard how Matt and Aiden packed Matt's armor into his box. He heard Cullen mumbling a brief explanation on the white orb. He heard Matt mumbling an order to the armor cases.
"We need to talk to her," Cullen said quietly and stepped by Mike's side. He caught an oblique sideways glance and only now noticed that he was pressing a hand on his stomach where the last two hours had formed a painful lump of anxiety and quiet fear.
"She didn't look like she wanted to talk," Matt replied, stepping on Mike's other side.
"Not really," Aiden quietly agreed.
"She'll have to talk," Mike said plainly and more firmly, as his mood was allowing.
"We're waiting," Mike said quietly as they entered the house and heard the sound of water from above. They had taken their time on their way and didn't have to wait long for Emma to come down the stairs. She didn't wear robes; the water from her hair dripped onto a long-sleeved shirt, but that didn't stand out on the black fabric. With a lowered gaze and fists pressed against her thighs, she stood there a little swaying. Everything in Mike screamed to take her comfortingly in his arms, but he forced himself to sit quietly in the armchair. For a moment it was incredibly silent until she audibly sucked in the air.
"It was my curse," she said softly and kept staring at the floor. "Death is omnipresent and continuously nourishes the Black Fire. I can't use all the energy; I have to pass on everything that goes beyond a certain measure." She sounded as if she was explaining something she had read in a book.
"To a half-god who has the opportunity to use the energy," she continued after a moment's hesitation and Mike took a quick look at Cullen who had raised his eyebrows in surprise - his spontaneous theory seemed to be correct.
"Your divine gifts give you this opportunity."
"And how would it work?" Mike asked slowly. His brain refused to grasp the greater meaning of what was being said.
"It's your gifts, Mike," she replied and hearing his name made him shiver, "but I can't stand too much black energy for long. It was just a few Naga and Murlocs, but the result..." She grimaced and looked at Matt, who became a little paler again. "Too much is too much, even for Matt. I... you..." Angrily she wiped tears from her face and the sight tied Mike's throat. He drilled his fingernails into the armrests of the armchair.
"You didn't get these gifts for nothing." Now not only her body trembled, but also her voice. "Skadi is wrong, I'm not a queen. Venus' curse makes me a whore." And with these words, accompanied by a shaky sob, she hurried out. As if petrified, Mike looked after her and flinched as the front door clicked into the lock.
"Did she seriously just tell us we'd all have to sleep with her... so we could get the energy we need to use our divine gifts?" Cullen sounded as disbelieving as Mike felt.
"Sounded like it," he mumbled soundlessly.
"No," Matt said sharply. "She's not a whore and that stupid energy-"
"She's a queen," Aiden surprisingly threw in with so much emphasis that Matt fell silent. "Whores get paid, don't they? But she is the one who...", Aiden turned deep red, "who pays her knights. Rewards them. No?" There was something pleading in his eyes and Mike frowned.
"I would never get the idea to say she was a whore. And if her curse and the Black Fire are entangled in such a way, there's hardly anything we can do about it. But I don't like it."
"If Skadi's right about her queen-knight-thing, then-" Cullen started, but Matt hissed furiously:
"I won't share Emma with Mike! Knight or not!"
"No one talked about sharing her," Mike returned angrily, but Cullen quietly said:
"Yes, Mike, that's what it means."
"Never! I won't let you ruin my relationship again!" Matt leaned forward angrily and almost fell off the couch, Cullen grabbed him by the shoulder before he could attack Mike, who had still clawed his fingers into the armrests.
Emma will be your doom...
"Matt, think," Cullen said sharply. "Can you really handle all this energy alone? Do you want that?”
"By the way, you'd have a whole different problem now if you were still with Carlotta," Mike threw in with dry mockery. "And secondly: are you a couple? I didn't hear anything like that."
Matt hissed furiously and Cullen pulled him back onto the couch with a tug.
"This isn't just about you!"
"But you and I are not her knights," Aiden said quietly. He had turned pale and fiddled around with his bear pendant.
"I don't think it really matters. Not for the curse." Cullen shook his head and gave the squirming Matt a rough pat on the back of the head. "Pull yourself together! Thor told me I would sleep with her. Do you seriously think he would announce that on a whim knowing my preferences?"
Mike made a face and Matt immediately held still. "Excuse me?"
"Sekhmet said it too," Mike said quietly and Matt's gaze twitched to him.
"They warned us," Cullen said quietly.
"I don't think there's a but, Matt." Cullen's initial disbelief had disappeared and been replaced by sober determination. "We are all cursed, we are all part of the prophecy. We have received gifts and now we know why. The gods have different moral concepts than we do, but in war completely different laws apply anyway. So... do you want to refuse the divine will?" Matt closed his mouth in amazement and Mike shook his head weakly.
"That's all well and good, but you just said it: we're cursed too."
"Sekhmet warned you about Egyptian half-goddesses and still told you, you were gonna go to bed with Emma." Cullen wanted to interrupt him, but Mike shook his head again.
"Maybe, but I can't get rid of the feeling this isn't all. We don't know our curses yet, or am I wrong? What if they are somehow tied to Emma or the use of these gifts?"
"But we found out about the existence of our curses much earlier than Emma even came here," Cullen threw in critically.
"Emma was cursed at birth. And between her birth and our approval there was enough time to make a suitable curse for us, so that the prophecy would get its five cursed ones as well as its black star." Mike didn't know where this feeling, this dark premonition came from, but he said it and sensed he was right. It was only a matter of time before he got confirmation.
Cullen opened his mouth to reply, but then remained silent. He broke the eye contact and Mike suddenly couldn't stay seated, so he stood up and went into the kitchen corner to pour himself a glass of water. Just as he was about to take a sip, he saw Matt leaning in the doorway, handed the glass over and took a new one.
"I don't like this," he finally said and Matt snorted. "No, Matt, I mean it. I've admittedly been in plenty of beds and certainly also in the wrong ones, but this is definitely wrong."
"Sex is not a sin," Cullen threw in and also stepped into the kitchen corner to get a glass of water. Something about his statement disturbed Mike immensely.
"If it's forced on you, it is," Matt said bitterly. "And you can't tell me Emma would happily-"
Cullen's snort interrupted him. "The curse forces her to pass on the energy, but that's not rape."
"Yes, by fate," Matt gave back with a rumble and Cullen rolled his eyes.
"Seriously, Emma has made it clear that you can't handle it alone and now please listen into yourself and tell me how you feel."
Frowning, Mike watched the dispute. Matt unhappily made a face.
"It still hurts..." he quietly admitted.
"Emma is right," Cullen continued with his lesson. "It was just a few Naga and Murlocs, but you know how big a battle can be. Can you even use up the energy until then? Do you know how to do that?"
"Cullen..." Carefully Mike touched him on the shoulder and his gaze was twitching around. What was inside worried Mike deeply. "Remember we were talking about handsome guys earlier? Why do you suddenly seem so eager to get into bed with a woman?” His words seemed to be like a cold shower. Cullen blinked irritated and blushed.
"I... um... it wasn't meant that way..." Matt seemed skeptical, but at that moment Aiden quietly said from the background:
"Wouldn't it perhaps be better to let the whole thing sink in first and think about it in peace before you make shift plans?” He seemed almost distraught to Mike.
"Nobody's making shift plans here," he said gently, forcing himself into a soothing smile.
"Not?" Matt murmured bitter into his glass.
"I don't want that," Aiden continued, he had stood up and got closer, but couldn't return Mike's gaze. "I've never been with a woman before and you seriously want to force me to under these circumstances?”
"Do you have other preferences?" Mike wanted to know carefully, but still gently. As difficult as his relationship with Matt was, he was the only one who came close to Aiden in terms of what they called a friend.
"No, but that's not the point. You may see it differently, but I can't." His gaze slipped to Matt. "Emma is a beautiful woman, but I still prefer to remain friends."
"Fate is more powerful than us," Cullen threw in absolutely inappropriately and Aiden made a face.
"And Skadi didn't tell me I was going to sleep with her." Even before his words had reached Mike, he had left the house in a hurry.
"Has anyone ever heard him say so much?" Matt asked in amazement, but neither Cullen nor Mike replied. Mike sighed instead.
"Are we going to let him disappear in the woods for the next few hours or are we going to get him back?"
"To put him in the shower just like us, talk quietly again and then search for Emma."
Matt sighed as if he was painfully aware of his defeat. "Let's get him back..."
The angry, stunned tears had dried up, the magical tingling disappeared from her limbs. This voice, male and female at the same time, young and old, reverberated in Emma's head, leaving little room for other thoughts.
What happened to Venus imposing such a punishment on me? And the thought that Anubis had first made the curse make sense by interweaving it with Black Fire made her shudder. She didn't want to know what the curse would have looked like on its own...
"Emma?" A surprised voice made her raise her head. She had sought a secluded spot on the riverbank to be alone, but now a surprised Frank stood in the bushes and hesitantly approached.
"Is everything all right?" he wanted to know carefully.
"Do I look like I am?" At some point, in another life, her answer would have been keen, but now it only sounded miserable.
"Not really," Frank admitted and sat next to her without being asked. "Is it because of your mission?"
"Partly... I think..."
"Would you like to tell me about it?"
He nodded and then imitated her pose by wrapping his arms around his knees. "Did the boys tell you about their scars?" he then asked curiously in an attempt to change the subject.
His answer were a mischievous smile and a pretty ornate story about a young, inexperienced team that was struggling with a horde of Murlocs - it were those Murlocs that Matt owed his scars and his sword combat training to. Although Emma wasn't really into mood for company, Frank made her smile.
"Then you don't know about the story of the dragon either, do you?"
The story of how the intrepid heroes courageously opposed the dragon that made the French Pyrenees unsafe was even more fantastic.
"If you don't believe me, ask Oliver. He was one of the mages that dragged his team by the collar for so much heroism. By the way, he saved Cullen's life with his little healing magic."
Now Emma had to smile. "Maybe I'll do it on occasion."
Frank nodded. "My first mission was quite boring. Just driving some goblins out of a swamp."
"For the beginning it should be unspectacular, don't you think?"
He shrugged disappointed. "I didn't think Mike would do his tutoring role with such boredom."
Irritated, Emma blinked at him. "You accompanied the boys?"
"Yeah, sure. Tutors are allowed to take their protégés on safe missions, even if they're not seventeen yet."
Again, Emma blinked in surprise. The boy was only sixteen. And yet he moved out with grown men to hunt monsters.
"Don't look at me like that, my birthday is in January and there's no better tutor than Mike. Although I doubt you could learn the sword fighting."
"What do you mean?" she asked tonelessly.
"You are already too old.” His grin really made him look like a cheeky teenager and suddenly Emma realized that he was right in a weird way. The half-gods came here when they were twelve or thirteen, children. Venus had cursed her at birth and forced Anubis to give her the Black Fire directly. So she could have used it with her approval... and then a child would have been forced into whoring, children would have had to be the leaders in a war... Suddenly she felt an undreamt-of gratitude for Anubis protecting her for so long.
"Emma?" Frank carefully interrupted her thoughts. "Excuse me, I didn't mean to offend you. I really don't know how old you are and-"
"It's all right." She forced a smile on her lips. "In comparison, I am the greenhorn here."
He nodded relieved.
"By the way, you don't ask women about their age either, but I'll tell you anyway: I'll be twenty-five in three weeks," she added with a wink and he grinned broadly.
"I'll remember it."
"Good." Emma could understand why Mike called him a little brother when his eyes started to sparkle again.
"Did they tell you about the insane tree nymph?"
"No, but the time for stories is over. The adults have to talk," Mike sounded seriously from the background and both turned around in alarm. "Besides, you could tell her about your encounter with the vampire at the next opportunity, right?" Frank ran bright red and before Emma could ask, he had gotten up and scurried away.
"There are seriously vampires?" she finally asked when the boys settled down around her.
"Yes. Not glittering, but drinking blood. And Frank can explain to you now which places apart from the neck are suitable." Mike sounded frighteningly sober, but Cullen and Matt smirked.
"As much as I like the boy, there are more important things going on," Mike went on and looked at Emma. "We're here because we're a team. We're all cursed and if we don't stick together, this war goes down the drain. Your curse sucks, but apparently the other gods have tried to make something of it."
"By handing out presents and determining with them who can amuse themselves here?" Emma asked bitterly in between. Her forehead was furrowed and she straightened up a little; strangely enough huddled up she felt vulnerable.
"Whatever these gifts can do... they could be decisive. But we don't know that until we've tried them." Mike sounded so terribly cold that it stabbed Emma in the heart and drove tears into her eyes. She saw from the corner of her eye how Matt clenched his hands into fists and Mike sighed softly.
"We ask you to share the energy with us. A token from queen to knight."
"A queen who goes to bed with all her guards makes herself a whore as well."
To her surprise, Mike snorted and bent over.
"Do you think I want all this? Sekhmet warned me about Egyptian half-goddesses, warned me about you! And I firmly believe that our curses are interwoven with yours. Do you really think I want to activate my curse? Do you really think I want your curse to destroy me?" His voice had become a raging hiss. "Do you really think so, Emma? If so, you are extremely stupid.” Her mouth opened, but Mike got up and seemed to be struggling to control himself. "I'm responsible for this goddamn war directly after Soňa and if these gifts can make us have an advantage, then we have to use them." With a sinister expression he turned away. "It is of no use to me to die in war just to avoid a curse that may - or may not - kill me." He went away and left Emma and the others in dismayed silence. Cullen rose after a moment of shock and followed Mike; Aiden disappeared in the opposite direction. Tears ran down Emma's cheeks again and even more so when she realized that Matt stayed, but didn't move, instead turned away.
Mike had just settled down on a lonesome part of the beach when Cullen was already sitting next to him.
"Could have went better," the blonde warrior muttered and Mike sighed in agreement. He rarely lost control and was terribly sorry, but he would need a moment - a long moment - before he could apologize. He had been in charge of his team for ten years, had made decisions that had scarred them, and felt strangely old. And now he was suddenly responsible for an army whose success and survival depended on his decisions - Soňa and Pablo or not - and he knew it would have been a selfish decision to leave it to Emma and her feelings alone. Because if she realized that she and/or Matt couldn't handle it alone, it might have been too late. He hated himself for it, but he couldn't change it.
Sometimes a friend must become an enemy in order to remain a friend.
He didn't remember who once had said it, but it seemed appropriate to him. When he pronounced it, Cullen looked at him irritated.
"Aren't you exaggerating a bit?"
Mike shrugged. "Emma, Matt and Aiden have all reason to despise me right now. And since this isn’t something you put on the bulletin board, we have to deal with it alone."
"I understand you, but you're getting pretty high right now."
Mike sighed again and drove his fingers through his hair. To his surprise it hadn't even been Matt who got angry - probably he hadn't replenished his anger reservoir sufficiently after the Carlotta thing - but Aiden and himself. Only he could convince himself of the necessity, for Emma it was different and Aiden... the gods might know why he really refused.
"What about you?" Mike asked quietly and Cullen shrugged.
"I don't know. You know, Matt said his feelings for Emma weren't normal."
"You've mentioned it before, yeah."
"Well, neither are my feelings."
"What do you mean?” Mike frowned and turned to Cullen, who seemed a little unhappy.
"I don't know, it's not normal. You know that women aren't my thing, but Emma... if I look at her too long, it starts to tingle in me and..." He broke off and took a deep breath, Mike could already see in his eyes again this touch of greed that was a little scary.
"Believe me, Mike, this is not our playground. The gods fucked it up the first time and now they're gonna fix it with all their might."
"If the Frost King is really so powerful, why don't they interfere in reality and confuse our lives so much?” It was actually more of a frustrated rhetorical question, but Cullen replied quietly:
"Because that's what the gods do. And because there are half-gods for exactly this reason: to fight their battles."
For hours Emma and Matt sat there in silence, and as the twilight slowly descended over the valley, his only reaction had been to sit closer to her without touching her. She had expected more anger from his side, but instead there was only resigned sadness on his beautiful face, and although they had known each other for only two weeks, this expression hurt terribly. The silence expanded and Emma felt as if an invisible wall was standing between them, nipping any attempt at communication in the bud.
I can hear you breathing softly
I feel the warmth of your skin
even though I'm just getting to know you
you're so familiar with me.
Shyly I feel for your hand
and you turn around to me,
put your head in my arms,
but I'm not with you.
A text of her favorite band went through her mind and a strange smile plucked at the corners of her mouth. Carefully she leaned against Matt, who looked up in surprise and his posture relaxed a little. When she put one hand on his, however, he turned his gaze away again. Why had he stayed at all?
We're not separated by worlds,
no war and no religion,
we are separated by old scars
out of fear and frustration.
No matter what you have already experienced,
whatever fear you defeated,
we are separated by the strongest of all walls:
the wall of our fear!
Behind walls of fear, a fortress of anger
I lock myself in, hide myself well.
I've faced up to you, that's why I'm locked up now,
behind walls of fear, alone with myself...
It was probably true in more than one way. Matt's heart had been broken when his girlfriend cheated on him with his comrade. And now that he had found a woman who had made him forget this wound, he was to share her again with exactly the same guy. Emma could understand that Matt withdrew and would have loved to have no opinion at all. Emma had also entrenched herself behind walls and at the thought of Timo she had to bite her lip.
They had already become a couple at school, had celebrated when they had both been accepted to the same university, and after three and a half years of relationship he had surprisingly proposed to her. They both had no other experience, but why would she say no? It was supposed to be just a small celebration, after all they were only students, but one Saturday morning, during planning for the event, the police politely knocked and took Timo with them. It hadn't taken long for him to be convicted of murder with previous rape. And for Emma the world was broken down. She had known Timo since she was twelve, they had been a couple for almost four years and had wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. And yet she obviously hadn't known the man at all. Since then she hadn't let a man come close to her, only into her bed, and there had been plenty.
But Matt was different, he made something vibrate in her, and she really wanted more than just sharing the bed with him. But fate seemed to have something against it. Would it have been different if she had not got involved with him? Then she could have pretended it was really nothing more than fun among teammates... She wouldn't give up. She had worked up her courage and admitted to herself that she liked Matt very much and enjoyed his closeness, however short the time with him had been until now. She didn't want the curse to destroy this delicate seedling.
These walls of fear, I tear them down,
clear 'em away, smash 'em up.
No walls of fear steal my courage.
The fear is defeated and the end will be good...
She had always liked this song, but never really understood the lyrics. Now it got a very personal meaning and involuntarily she drilled her fingernails into Matt's hand. He flinched and looked at her.
"Do you want... do you want to stay at my side?" she asked suffocated.
"That's what I had in mind..." he slowly gave back. "The oracle gave the order to me.”
"No, I mean... do you want to..." Somehow that sounded totally stupid. "Do you... do you want to be with me?" Like the question of a teenager. Matt blinked and then his face distorted in a mixture of relief, disbelief and fear.
"Yes..." he whispered quietly. "Yes, damn it..." He reached out a trembling hand to her, laid it on her cheek and then the tears rolled again. "I’m here. I’m here for you. You are not alone, okay?”
She snuggled into his arms, sobbed on his shoulder and tried to nod.
"I swore it to you, my love... I'll stay with you as long as you want me." He gently buried his fingers in her hair and kissed her on the neck.
"It will be all right," he whispered, as if he knew that the song ended with exactly these whispered words.
The songtext is taken and translated from "Mauern aus Angst" by Saltatio Mortis
Chapter 10: Hear the drums
The conversation parts with a * mark the words spoken just between Aiden and Tibbers.
They didn't talk about the curse.
Well, at least Emma didn't talk to the boys about the curse, but the boys among each other probably did. It drove a wedge between them all and Emma found the silence at the mealtimes oppressive, while around them there was incessant talk, for almost every hour different teams arrived from everywhere to join the army of half-gods.
Of course, Mike had apologized with a tortured face "for what I said and how I said it", had kissed her on the temple and given her a smile, but he was anything but happy, even though he insisted on the necessity of the whole thing.
Aiden withdrew, let Tibbers speak and act, and avoided Emma, although she felt the eyes of the shape-shifter resting on her.
Matt had regained his self-confidence and demonstrated to the public- with fortunately discreet gestures- that Emma belonged to him, although in togetherness he sometimes gave an almost desperate impression. But when he held her in his arms, when his fingertips painted patterns on her skin and he smiled at her, everything around her was forgotten. Then she plunged into the love that so suddenly broke over her, that seemed to drown her and yet was only part of what she felt. Matt made her forget her sorrows and therefore Cullen as well, who was the only one curious, yes, downright euphoric and whose gaze made her shiver - a gaze full of suppressed greed that made her belly tingle... and there was not only the warmth that had already been there in the beginning, but also an expectant excitement, almost lust... it frightened her.
Matt moaned annoyed as the rumbling of drums ripped him from his sleep. Emma next to him growled.
"I don't know..." Beside the drums there were also fanfares or trumpets or whatever to hear and the noise became louder. Suddenly the door was ripped open.
"They are the heralds of war, look at them!" Cullen had disappeared even before Matt understood what he had said.
"Heralds of war...?" Emma repeated discontentedly. She rubbed her eyes, then paused and slipped out of bed. "Gleemen?"
"Hmm?" By the sight of her naked body a little distracted Matt didn't really get her question, but he noticed very well that she hastily put on her robe and hurried out of the room.
"Where are you going?" he called after her and got up hastily. He got no answer, heard her footsteps on the stairs instead, and hurriedly slipped into jeans and a shirt scattered on the floor. He regretted not looking for his underpants while hurrying behind her, but the noise of drums and pipes- or whatever- distracted him and led his steps to the meadow between the team houses and the town hall.
Many other half-gods stood there on the edge and watched in fascination six silver spirits, three of them holding drums and three long pipes. They wore shirts with puffy sleeves, knee-length waistcoats over them, which hardly showed anything of the trousers in high boots. Strange hats sat on their heads, folded up on one side and fitted with a long, fluffy feather. What they played sounded like a marching song, but Matt could also be mistaken. He pushed himself between his comrades until he found Cullen, Mike and Emma. Just as he reached the three, Emma separated from the group and stepped forward while simultaneously reaching for the air and pulling something sparkling out of it. And then she held a silver transverse flute to her lips and accompanied the ghostly minstrels with bright, ringing tones. Astonished, Matt stopped beside Cullen and watched the spectacle, watched as the spirits finished and returned to their song as Emma selected a new tune that sounded like a mourning song with the deeper pipes on it. He got goosebumps and shuddered violently as the oracle in its light gray robes slowly approached. The song faded, the spirits bowed, and so did Emma, and as the spirits faded, the oracle said:
"And so the war begins..." Its voice was quiet, but carried far. "Tonight, you set out for the first battle calling."
"You're not coming with us?" Emma asked, and when she turned halfway around, Matt saw silent tears glistening on her cheeks.
"No." The oracle bowed its head. "My place is here."
"So you call us to war and stay here in the valley?" Again, the oracle bowed its head, this time agreeing. Unbelieving Emma shook her head. "Preaching water and drinking wine, of course." She lifted her flute to her lips again and played a short angry trill, which expanded into a fast danceable melody.
"You play a song for the warriors, to dance with their weapons in their hands with the enemy, and they will - to your glory."
Emma stopped at the words of the oracle and snorted.
"Sure they do." She made the transverse flute disappear.
"The half-gods fight with antiquated weapons, while out there sniper rifles and bombs are handled. But it doesn't matter, war always stays the same, always brings the same suffering and the same pain. Death is the same for all humans and half-gods, namely final. And you stand here, send us away and speak smilingly of glory?" Emma shook her head again, her tone became bitter.
"All great stories begin with prophecies or the knowledge that an old enemy will return. And yes, as a child I dreamed of adventure, but a war is no fucking adventure. And here they send children to war, children!" Emma angrily grimaced.
"How do you explain to the parents that their children died attending an international boarding school?"
"No, nothing with Emma! This is not my playground." She turned away and the half-gods willingly made space for her.
"I am here because I have to, because this stupid magic forces me to. No more and no less." Many looked after her and flinched as she slammed the front door behind her. And then a bewildered murmur went through the crowd, and Matt's mouth also opened in surprise, as their team house turned black from the ridge of the roof to the door sill.
"Well, was a clear statement," Mike quietly remarked after a moment of deep silence and raised his eyebrows in awe.
"Sure, but the Mage of Black Fire and the Oracle split? That doesn't paint a good picture," Cullen muttered. Matt snorted.
"But she's right."
"That's another problem," Cullen said quietly and Matt caught his worried glance. He bit his lip, but before he found an answer, the oracle shouted:
"Children of Ares, I expect you armed in one hour in my grove!" With his brow raised, Matt looked after it.
"What does she want from us?" someone asked while approaching.
"I don't know." He turned to Aphra and shrugged in addition to his words. Aphras milk-coffee-colored skin shimmered golden in the soft morning light, but in her dark eyes lay a hard shine and her full lips were pressed together.
"Is it because we're supposed to protect Emma?" Sibilla wanted to know pale and Aphra grumbled:
"I suppose so."
Matt shrugged again and looked at his half-sisters indecisively. "I guess we'll find out."
The two older women nodded thoughtfully and Matt turned away uncomfortably. The concentrated aggressive power of his twelve half siblings in one heap already made him uncomfortable.
Aiden wandered through a palace of ice. He knew he was dreaming and wondered who might have sent this dream to him, for he had not met Skadi as he strolled through the corridors whose walls were first roughly hewn, later polished to mirror finish, and which seemed to shine from inside. He met no one, heard nothing, and simply followed his curiosity; even Tibbers slept soundly. But finally the light changed and he heard voices that seemed to argue. Slowly he sneaked closer and finally reached a small side door made of frozen wood and decorated with the symbol of a throne.
"I told you everything I ever had to say," a man said angrily and cautiously Aiden peered through the half-open door. The view into the room behind was limited by a dark blue curtain which was supposed to cover the door, so he saw only the back of a fully armed person.
"No, you didn't. You will never have said everything, To-" a woman's voice replied, distorted by the size of the hall and the icy walls. The man interrupted her bluntly:
"Don't you dare take my name in your mouth! This name is dead!" What the woman said, Aiden did not understand, for she spoke now very quietly, but the man laughed up.
"My first-born is already on its way, haven't you understood?"
"Your first-born is dead!”
"Oh no, I'm talking about my truly first-born... my first knight..."
"You send your children out to fight your battles?"
"Of course. Just as you gods do." The man, the Frost King, laughed gloatingly and drowned out the words of the woman, apparently a goddess.
"Go. Go and warn the half-gods if you want, but it won't do any good."
"They have the Black Fire."
"So what? You know as well as I do that it doesn't help them half as much as they would like, when blood fights against blood.”
"He will kill your children and-"
"Maybe. Maybe not. But I know his blood will flow in this hall. Don't you know it too?"
There was no answer and Aiden swallowed hard. He suddenly doubted his presence here was wanted. Nevertheless, he leaned a little further forward, finally slipped through the door and peered past the curtain. He saw a table, apparently covered with a map, and the Frost King standing in front of it. His armor was black-gray, with a strange blue shimmer, and his helmet looked like a crown of icicles growing out of it- just as it was described in the stories. On his back he carried a large plain sword, which with its white-silver shine formed a strong contrast to the armor. An armored finger stroked over the map on the table and the Frost King bent forward, a strawberry blonde strand slipped from under the helmet.
"Travel with the north winds, Jehanne..." he murmured.
Aiden awoke suddenly and stared at a green canopy of leaves. Darkly, he remembered leaving Tibbers in control, and when he got up, he was disoriented for a moment. As he looked around, he wiped dry leaves and dirt from his clothes, but paused when he heard the sound of a door. Irritated, he turned around, walked a few steps, and shook his head in surprise at himself as he saw the Oracle's hut standing between the trees. At least he was where he wanted to be.
When he knocked, the oracle opened the door and looked at him in surprise.
"And I felt as if I had called for Ares' children..."
"I'm sorry." Aiden mumbled and lowered his gaze. "But I had a dream..."
"A dream of the gods?"
"I don't know. I don't think I should have been there."
The oracle was silent for a moment and then took a step back. "You don't discuss things like that in passing, come in."
Aiden obediently entered the small log cabin and closed the door behind him. He had only been in here once, the day he found out he was a shape-shifter. But that day lay thirteen years behind; he had been a frightened child back then...
"Well, would you like to tell me what you dreamed?" The oracle stood in the middle of the big room and Aiden, still standing right at the door, nodded and began.
"Well, that explains why some translations don't speak of nine knights, but of nine princes," the oracle first noticed when Aiden had finished and thoughtfully typed against its cheek. "A king's children are princes. But otherwise..." A lump formed in Aiden's stomach.
"The woman... she was probably a goddess, wasn't she?"
The oracle nodded.
"Could she be the mother of the Frost King?"
"I would almost like to assume it, yes... And according to what they said, there is a half-brother of the Frost King in our ranks." It did not pronounce it, but Aiden could see the worry on its face. "As long as the northern gods remain silent, however, we have no opportunity to learn more."
*Wrong*, Tibbers spoke up drowsy and Aiden flinched. *Here in the archive there is a room in which the remains of knowledge from the old northern village are collected, but only Nordic half-gods can gain access.*
*And the oracle knows nothing about it?*, Aiden asked doubtfully.
*If it's not Nordic itself, then probably not, no.*
"I'll ask for a dream of the gods in the temple, but there's nothing left for you to do but board a ship with the others tonight." Aiden did not need to ask how they knew where to fly. In the war hall, a gloomy chamber under the town hall, hung a magical map on which the target area would shine - now, at least, after the heralds of war had called; Tibbers remembered for him hearing the drums half asleep. He nodded to the oracle and left the house.
*Only northern gods get access to this special archive? How?*
*No clue. All I know is that there is this room. It's sealed, with a blood lock, I think.* Tibbers hesitated and Aiden didn't ask any further; playing around with a blood lock he could avoid, most were too nasty for it, but he'd tell Cullen about it on occasion, he was more into archives and books anyway...
Angry - and therefore unfocused - Emma tried her hand at a trick Oliver had shown her the day before. Of course it didn't work and frustrated she gave up after half an hour. Her sphere sucked in the free energy- slurping with relish and then burping contentedly - and she ran her fingers through the tousled hair.
Just to flinch when she noticed a figure standing at the edge of the arena watching her. When the mage realized in turn he had been noticed, he came closer and Emma had to think of Draco Malfoy with the white blonde hair, the narrow face and the pinched expression on his face. His robe was of such a dark green that it seemed black, and on his chest lay an amulet that looked as if it was made of small bones. She was about to open her mouth to greet him when she was struck by a mighty magic blow that shook her invisible shield and she stumbled back a step. Immediately she pulled the shield around her again and struck back. The mage also staggered, under the second blow he went to his knees and the third let his shield burst and he raised his hands. His bright blue eyes looked at her and he nodded benevolently at her before he got up.
"I am Chris, son of Hel."
"Emma, daughter of Anubis."
A fine smile surrounded his narrow lips and he held out his hand. Hesitantly she walked towards him and shook his hand, which was unpleasantly cold. Their eyes met again and then a mental force almost brought her to her knees. Involuntarily she gasped for air, suddenly the ice-cold breeze cut into her throat. Unable to do more than resist Chris' attack, she mutely called for help, found it in the fine ribbons connecting her to her knights, and pushed Chris away. At least mentally, because he just blinked and a strange grin distorted his face.
"It's worth fighting by your side. May darkness embrace you, desert child."
Emma didn't know what to say, so she repeated his words: "May darkness embrace you, winter child."
He let go of her hand and nodded at her before turning away.
"You have the power to make the blood sing, Emma. Be careful with it," he said quietly over his shoulder and disappeared on the path back to the village. With a wheeze she dropped to the ground and gasped for air. Cullen had been wrong - blood could sing to each other in all possible combinations, even from God of the Dead to God of the Dead. Mike had sworn himself to her as a knight, but Chris was a simple ally who, in case of doubt, let her lead, so much she understood.
The Sphere gently nudged her; if it could slurp enough energy, it gained something like intelligence and could even follow simple commands, anyway it had developed some affection for Emma and so she patted the little globe soothingly. "At least he's not afraid of me," she murmured and sighed softly.
The astonished glances of his half siblings elicited a grim smile from Matt. He was the last to stomp on the meadow outside the oracle's house and knew what an impression he gave. He had his leather armor dyed deep black, the bronze fittings on his bow shimmered in the sunlight, and Ares' sword hung on his hip.
Gregor, the oldest living Ares-child, a warrior with more scars than hair, frowned disapprovingly, but said nothing. He had already retired from the normal military service, but he had followed his father's call anyway; a son of Ares was never too old for war. As Matt approached, kind a of semicircle formed in front of the waiting oracle, with Gregor at the center and Matt all the way outside - although he was considered one of the leaders of the war. The three mages had come together at the other end and at least Sibilla nodded slightly to Matt.
"The children of Ares..." the oracle said quietly and it sounded like the name of a group, a title.
"Your father himself has commanded you to protect Emma, the Black Fire that will defeat the Frost King."
Someone hummed in agreement.
"Nine knights- nine princes- will confront you one by one before the Frost King himself defends his citadel."
"If we get this far at all," Konstantin mumbled gruffly and rolled his shoulders. On his blood-red shield was emblazoned a drooling dog.
The oracle continued as if he had said nothing: "In every battle one of you will die."
Simple words, ringing in Matt's ears. They were thirteen and ten battles lay ahead of them - the chances of survival dropped rapidly.
"Oh, fuck it," Gregor growled and stepped forward half a step. "I am a warrior, a son of Ares, where else am I supposed to die? By weeding?" He drew his sword and raised it high into the air. "Father, look at me! I was born a warrior and I will be buried as a warrior! I am ready to die!" he cried out and Aphra gave an approving cry.
"Father, I'm ready to die!" She pulled her sword from the sheath and lifted it as well. One by one they lifted their weapons - the mages the bare fist - until Matt was the last to raise provocatively the bow instead of the sword.
"I'm ready to die."
Silently, he wondered if he was the only one who had just lied.
There were so many, so damn many half-gods, who had gathered on the meadow behind the town hall and were waiting for the last speech before departure. Emma stood stiff on the balcony looking down at the half-gods, while first Tobias and then Soňa gave a short speech. She would have loved to have taken Matt's hand, standing to her left, but she didn't dare, for she was expected to be strong and confident; at least Mike had put it that way and applied his leader's face. Now he stood to her right, high up in his polished armor.
Actually, it was an unnecessary parade, but the magic that brought the armor in the crates to the ships wasn't always reliable- especially considering the count of half-gods- so it was safer if everyone wore their armor. For Emma, facing an army was a pretty oppressive feeling. Especially one who, through its disorderly ranks and so different armor, was thrown together in abundance and thus seemed quite wild. She felt small and insignificant, almost defenseless in her robe, although she certainly wasn't.
She let her gaze wander over the gathered and discovered a few familiar faces, but above all she was surprised to find that hardly anyone wore the symbols of their origin. Only among the shield-bearers it seemed to be customary to reveal his ancestry, otherwise Mike was the only one who had a decorated armor. Well, and the warriors of Ares. The nine warriors wore blood-red throws, held by the belt and slit at the sides so they could fall to their knees; on the chest a golden round shield was crossed by a black short sword. The three mages had embroidered the emblem on the left shoulder and Matt stuck out a little further.
"I know we're not exactly the most trust-awakening leaders for you because of our curses." Mike's voice ripped Emma from her thoughts. "But whatever you may think of us personally, the curses should be your last problem. They are only there to bind us to our task, the prophecy and Emma."
That was new to Emma, but she tried to keep a neutral face and turned her head to Mike, who had stepped forward and put his armored hands on the uncomfortably low parapet.
"The curses demand sacrifice from us, as the war will demand sacrifice from all of us. We will lose friends and siblings, perhaps a partner. But we fight because we defend our homeland, our families in the city; the old who have already done their duty, and the young whose duty lies before them."
Emma's throat was closed; at the right edge of the assembled half-gods stood the teenagers, who were just old enough to come along, but hadn't belonged to a team yet, she knew it, had seen Frank standing there, but now she would have had to bend far to see past Mike. Mike paused and his magically amplified voice became quieter:
"Not all of us will come back. Neither from the first, nor from the last battle. But for this half-gods were created: to fight. And we fight for our home and our future."
Emma had to bite her tongue to hold back the first tears, but after a few seconds of silence, fighting howls broke out on the meadow and she flinched back. Matt and Mike laid a hand on her back at the same time as the army cheered and shouted. They stood on the balcony for a moment more, then returned to the large meeting room behind. When the large double door to the balcony had closed, Matt growled in suppressed rage and hit the wall with his fist.
"What's the matter?" Cullen asked calmly, while Emma had stopped a little surprised by the outbreak.
"Have you seen Gregor?" Matt asked back angrily. "That dirty son of a bitch would have liked to have stood here himself and made a snappy speech!"
"Like the rest of your siblings, and on top of that the children of Mars, Tyr and who-knows-who," Mike said dryly and got an angry sparkle. "Take an arrow for all I care and kill him, but it won't do anybody any good, and the five seconds of satisfaction will quickly fizzle out when the rows get pitted in battle."
Matt hissed silently and Mike shrugged.
"Gregor is old enough to be our father easily. So, give the old man the honor of making his last exit in battle. You true warriors are so thrilled about it." The disillusionment hit Matt in the stomach like a fist and he lowered his gaze, forgetting his anger. Emma couldn't get rid of the feeling that it wasn't just Mike's words, but she didn't ask.
"How about a little... how do you say? Show?"
Irritated, Emma turned to Tibbers, who had brought a crooked grin to Aiden's face and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
"Show?" she asked back.
"Since when have you been the guy doing a show?" Matt wanted to know critically.
"Oh, Aiden's cursing pretty hard right now, but I'm the bear... so?"
"I'm always ready for a good show." Mike smiled and Cullen grinned broadly.
"There's nobody here who doesn't know that." The two exchanged a meaningful look and Tibbers nodded to Emma.
But Tibbers had already transformed in the middle of the entrance hall of the town hall and huddled together so Emma could climb on his back.
"Sorry, but... no. Just no. Aiden is in there and he doesn't want this." Her protest ended with a squeal when Cullen grabbed her wordlessly and lifted her onto the back of the bear, where she sat like in a side saddle and clawed her fingers into the fur. Her legs pointed to Tibber's right side, where Matt stood next to her, Mike positioned himself on the left side and Cullen walked first.
The meadow was still full of half-gods, although some had already made their way to the harbor. They turned around to them, the calls were for them, but Emma's chest felt trapped in a vice as Tibbers' steady steps brought her to the harbor and stopped in front of the giant sailing ships. Matt held out a hand and she slipped from the back of the bear to land on shaky knees. The army had followed them and seemed to be waiting, as she turned her head in the other direction, she knew what to do. They were expected to be the first to board a ship, even without the little show. Mike and Cullen trudged with softly clanking armor to one of the ships, whose sails had a wave symbol. The Neptune's Dolphins had been chosen as the flagship in one of the meetings, Emma could remember darkly. Matt held her hand and they followed the two warriors up the wide plank, followed by Tibbers. As they stood by the railing and turned again to the crowd, it began to scream again.
Am I the only one here who doesn't feel a thirst for blood?
Emma stood in a corner and watched the hustle and bustle. She saw Oliver - who had been officially recognized as her tutor - and his team come on board, just like Nadja and her team. She saw some of Matt's siblings among their teams and then flinched when Frank next to her happily said:
"This is much more exciting than the endless lessons in the nest."
"So you find the prospect of death exciting?" she doubted and raised her eyebrows. To her surprise, Frank blushed and cleared his throat before answering.
"Well, at least death's a pretty sight right now."
"Pale, just about to cry and deeply disturbed?"
"You're pretty anyway," he muttered and she sighed.
"I think Mike's rubbing off on you."
With still deep red cheeks Frank started to grin. "I bet he considers that a compliment."
Frank grinned even wider on her rolling eyes before it suddenly turned off.
"You are pretty. And... well, I don't want to die without saying something like that at least once."
She lifted a brow, amazed by the sudden seriousness. He ran his fingers through the dark curls, his childlike face and his broad armored chest in sharp contrast to each other.
"I have almost no real fighting experience, do you really think I don't know what my chances are?"
She opened her mouth, closed it again, licked her lips uneasily and only then found her voice again. "Mike will take care of you."
A smile scurried over Frank's lips. "Mike will take care of you first, then his team, and then maybe his protégé."
Frank shook his head. "Maybe it's better that way."
"Have you all lost your minds? Why the hell are you so eager to die?"
"We're not eager, we're just ready for it," someone interfered and Emma flinched when the young man, barely older than Frank, examined her critically. He looked so damn similar to Matt that it wouldn't have taken the red throw to identify him as a son of Ares.
"Percy," he finally said plainly and without reaching out to her. Frank took this as an opportunity to vanish. She just nodded to him.
"Emma," she said superfluously.
"I wanted to talk to Matt, did you see him?"
"Here," it sounded behind Percy and Matt slid past a mage in a red robe. "What is it, dear brother?"
A smile scurried over Percy's face. "I just wanted to tell you that I’ll have your back. Gregor may not trust me, but even less you."
"Why not?" Emma wanted to know with interest when Matt just nodded.
"Look at us. Matt looks like a younger version of our father and Gregor envies him. Us.”
"And you're even using a sword," Matt mocked kind-heartedly and Percy shrugged slightly.
"Anyway, Gregor is not happy with us and wants to prove himself to our father with all his might."
"And would kill his brother for that?"
"The unloved one? Sure.”
"Ares would hardly mind," Matt added dryly, and the two looked at each other. Percy nodded and then disappeared again in the crowd, while Emma shook her head in disbelief.
"In front of the others, Percy usually holds up the facade, but at the moment everything is different anyway..." Matt said quietly and Emma made an agreeable sound as she looked at the chaos with an anxious, worried expression. For a moment they were silent, then she quietly said:
"All this here... I feel like I'm in a nightmare. And it hasn't even started yet." Protectively he put an arm around her and kissed her temple.
"I'm sorry." He leaned his forehead against her temple and sighed softly. "I'm really not the right person to ease your fear."
"Everyone here seems as if they could hardly wait!”
In allusion he shook his head. "That's not true. But those who think like you just know how to hide their feelings." He gently grabbed her by the chin and turned her face to him. "You are one of us, Emma, a half-goddess. And we half-gods are meant to fight, it’s in our blood. To one more, to the other less, but so it is. And as sorry as I am, but..." An apologetic smile flickered across his lips. "I am Ares' son. I..." He let her go and let his gaze wander over the chaos. A somewhat unfortunate expression spread across his face and Emma wrapped her arms around him, pressed her forehead against his shoulder and sighed deeply.
"I don't blame you if you enjoy the fighting, I really don't."
He returned the embrace and laughed cheerlessly. "You should have seen yourself when you tore the Naga apart." Emma sucked in the air in surprise, but he already continued. "I doubt you enjoyed it, but you did it to protect us... and you were scary."
"Not true at all..." she grumbled and now he actually giggled.
"Oh yes... I’m glad to know you on my side." He gently pushed her away and smiled encouragingly. "Aiden hid somewhere in the cabins. If you need five minutes of rest, go to him. He's not too keen on this war either." He kissed her tenderly and she nodded.
"Okay... thank you."
He nodded back and turned away, his hands on his hips. From the corner of her eye she saw Mike standing on a stack of crates and from there, in the same pose, also looking at the chaos. Shaking her head, she turned away and went below deck. Only to find that she had no idea how to find Aiden.
"Aiden...?" she called out for a test. "Tibbers...?"
A bit down the hallway a door opened and Aiden stuck his head out with a confused expression.
"Did something happen?" he wanted to know.
"No, I was just looking for you." She made a somewhat helpless gesture. "The level of aggression up there is a little too high for me."
He simply nodded and waved invitingly at her.
The cabin was tiny and with the two bunk beds actually already overfull; she couldn't even sit upright on the lower bed, everything was so tight here. Wordlessly, Aiden sat next to her and looked at her questioningly.
"This is a nightmare," she said quietly and he nodded.
"But at least we defend ourselves. If this were a campaign of conquest, I wouldn't go with it."
He nodded. For a moment they looked at each other, then he extended an inviting arm and she leaned into his half embrace.
"Shape-shifters are considered aggressive and dangerous, but every fight is for me more a just close your eyes and go," he said quietly. "Even now that Tibbers is awake, that's nothing I really like."
"But Skadi is also considered the goddess of hunting," Emma objected and hardly saw his faint nod. "May be. But there's a difference between hunting and fighting." He looked at her and his so strange red-brown eyes looked sad.
"You are full of contrasts, but deep in your heart you are one of us. The child Anubis'. Maybe... maybe we should consider ourselves lucky that you are not as bloodthirsty as some others here."
She didn't know why, but something in Aiden's quiet voice touched her deeply and she sniffed. Like at his favorite hidden place in the forest, he held her in silence and caressed her back while she cried.
At some point, however, he hesitantly touched her cheek and she took it as calling to look at him. Surprised, she noticed that they were almost sitting in the dark and the only light came from her sphere.
"We should go upstairs. We leave the valley soon."
"Okay... thank you." She wiped her face with her sleeve and he smiled weakly.
"That you're there for me."
He indicated a shrug. "We're a team."
He finally let her go and got up. Emma could feel Aiden regaining the strange distance he had towards her lately. He gave her a quick glance and then she followed him back on deck.
She hadn't noticed that they had even departed, but she had probably been too busy crying, for which she was almost ashamed at the sight of the half-gods standing on the deck calm, cheerful, excited and thirsty for action. Most of them had meanwhile taken off their armor, but in the light of the slowly setting sun it flashed here and there.
"Do you know the equator baptism?" Aiden asked all of a sudden, so that Emma flinched.
He nodded to the middle of the deck, where the youngest ones slowly gathered. "The first time we leave the valley for a mission, we are baptized. Sort of."
"With alcohol, I suppose?" she asked, as she saw a few barrels standing at the edge, with taps already waiting.
"Why wasn't I baptized?" she asked, and now he looked at her doubtfully.
"Mike thought it was superfluous. But-" She suddenly couldn't understand the rest of his sentence, but the valley's protective spell slipped over her face like a damp cloth. Almost immediately, deafening cheers broke out and on all ships, the mages shot colorful lights into the air.
"Do you speak French?" Aiden asked over the noise and she shook her head.
"Not a single word.”
Promptly he muttered something, probably a curse, and then sighed as the barrels were tapped and their contents filled large clay pits.
"We're going to war...," he muttered unhappily, when the first jugs were handed to the offspring, splashing and spilling, and Emma nodded. Everything inside her tightened in fear. In order not to have to talk about the obvious, she asked:
"Are you from the French-speaking part of Canada?”
"No," was the short answer, but after a sideways glance he continued: "No, my grandma is French. Since I grew up without a mother and practically without a father, she raised me in her mother tongue.” He sounded very rejecting and so Emma denied the question about his father, but she probably wouldn't have got an answer anyway, because the other three emerged from the crowd.
"My goodness..." Cullen murmured and shook his head. Matt grinned crookedly.
"Why didn't we have a party when we went out as a team for the first time?”
"Because you weren't sixteen yet," Mike said seriously and watched the action with eagle eyes. "You were barely fifteen."
Emma made a face. Fighting children.
"Hmm," Matt made thoughtful. "Was also in December. It was freezing cold outside." The ships were under magic that protected the passengers from wind and weather, so it didn't matter what season it was.
"It was exactly ten years ago," Aiden grumbled with crossed arms and a gloomy face.
"So, exactly exactly?" Cullen asked in surprise. "Why do you remember it so well?”
"Because it's my damn birthday!"
While Emma was just surprised, the jaws of the other three dropped.
"What...?" Cullen made soundless. Emma blinked irritated.
"Are you trying to tell me you haven't had a clue for the last thirteen years when Aiden's birthday is?"
"I'm afraid that's what it comes down to..." Mike said slowly and made a face. "I'm sorry, Aiden. Happy birthday!"
"Congratulations," Matt murmured sheepish.
"All the best," Cullen smiled crookedly.
"Happy birthday, Aiden, and many fulfilled wishes. When we're back...", Emma paused, "when we're back home, you'll get a birthday cake from me." She kissed him on the cheek and a smile scurried over his face, then Tibbers said:
"I'll remind you."
An unpleasant embarrassed silence arose, in which they watched the small celebration strained. As withdrawn as Aiden might be, how could you ignore a comrade's birthday like that? Emma could hardly believe it, but to be honest it wasn't her cup of tea either. But before she could rise in unnecessary anger at the boys, Frank appeared dancing, holding one of the jugs in his hand and with a broad grin.
She raised a brow in response.
"I know you've been on a mission already, but still... here, drink!" He handed her the jug.
"What is that anyway?", she wanted to know skeptically and looked at the liquid sloshing in it critically.
"Bad stuff," Cullen said seriously, but seemed to be amused inside. Mike nodded.
"Doesn't give the impression, but knocks you over. The healers must have a lot of hangover potions with them..."
"You can also say no," Aiden remarked quietly and Matt laughed.
"You know what they say about the Germans. They can take a lot."
Emma snorted and sniffed at the jug.
"Come on, get it down!" For Frank it already seemed to work, his eyes glittered enthusiastically. With a sigh and an implied shrug and she took a big sip. Sweet and spicy and surprisingly mild.
"She doesn't even cough..." Matt mumbled to Cullen, who nodded approvingly.
"Tastes like mead."
"Mead?” Mike asked irritated and then Emma was irritated when he gave Frank an angry look. "Frank, how many times should I tell you not to mess with the drinks?"
"B-but... that wasn't intentional!" Defending Frank raised his hands.
"Transform it back."
"But I can't! It wasn't intentional, I don't know how it happened!”
"You can transform drinks?" Emma asked in amazement.
"I... um... have a knack for liquids..." Frank said, contrite and looked pining for forgiveness at Mike, who still seemed annoyed.
"Don't make a drama out of it, Mike," Matt said lightly, winking at Frank and taking Emma's jug off.
"I'm not making a drama out of it, but Frank has to keep his powers under control."
"You know, blood is a liquid too, and I'd love it if it stayed where it belongs as far as I'm concerned."
"Don't be so hard on him, he is sorry!” Now Emma looked at Mike, annoyed herself, with a pinched line forming around her mouth. "How you got that kind of abilities you have? I mean, you are a warrior after all," she asked Frank in a friendly way before Mike could say anything about it.
"Oh, well... my mother is Salacia..." Frank murmured and when he saw Emma's questioning face, he added: "Most people know her in the Greek version as Amphitrite, the wife of Neptune."
"Oh, but she is a nymph and not a goddess, or am I wrong?"
"No, it's true, she's not a real goddess."
"Then why are you considered a half-god?" Emma looked at him curiously and a smile plucked at the corners of his mouth.
"My father is a son of Neptune. And yes, she somehow seduced her stepson though, but hey, it's all upside down here anyway. Neptune wasn't very happy about it by the way, but so what? The Seekers found me and Salacia approved me." He shrugged when Emma shook her head.
"The genealogists probably have a lot of fun here. Or gray hair."
"That's exactly why nobody is dealing with it," Matt threw in between two sips.
"Yes, the family relationships are sometimes obscure, but the bloodline is still checked before someone gets married or when a child is born," Cullen said and took off Matt's jug, who wasn't happy about it.
"Says the one whose own mother denies her mother in turn."
Cullen promptly choked on the mead. "She doesn't! Everyone is free to swear to another deity."
"Yes, but from whom is she descended?" Matt asked provocatively and Cullen apparently had just a shrug to offer as an answer.
"I don't know, she doesn't talk about it."
"Who did she swear to?" Emma wanted to know.
"Juno. As the goddess of marriage, it would be more than scandalous if she had illegitimate children, so some half-gods join her voluntarily.”
"Of course, but why do you renounce your divine parent?"
Cullen just shrugged again and gave Frank back the now empty jug, which he snooped in, quite disappointed.
Emma stood at the bow and stared into the night. The Neptune's Dolphins finally lay there peacefully, gliding sleepily through the darkness towards her destination. A good distance behind Emma lay Tibbers, humming in his sleep as if snoring, but she couldn't sleep herself, she wasn't even tired. Fear and despair wrestled inside her and she didn't raise her hand for the first time, calling for magic and staring at the flickering as if she was dreaming. She had gone in the pharmaceutical direction to help people, and now she had to kill people under the wrong banner. Somewhere on the horizon a light flickered, disappeared, returned and then remained steady.
Schwarz wie die Nacht- das Licht, das du am Ende siehst, ist sicher nicht das Paradies…
[Black as the night - the light you see at the end is certainly not paradise...]
She sang the words softly to herself, regretfully wrinkling her forehead.
"You're turning us all into musicians..." Matt said quietly and with an amused undertone behind her, wrapping her arms around her.
"I doubt it," she returned dryly. He laughed quietly.
"Right. I am completely unmusical.”
"Even when it's about war anthems?" she asked doubtingly and he sighed.
"Even then. Perhaps especially then.” He straightened up a little and turned her towards him. In the faint glow of the sphere he looked at her for a moment and then glanced away.
"I am a warrior, Emma, a true warrior, and as little as I like it, I am Ares' son. You may not like it either, but strangely enough I'm beginning to accept it because of you alone."
She watched him silently until he turned to her again.
"Why?" she simply asked and his brows twitched a bit upwards.
"Why?" he echoed and she nodded. His shoulders sank a little and again he stared into the darkness.
"I asked Ares about the difference between a warrior and one of his sons," he said quietly. "I didn't like the answer and I said I wasn't his son. You would do well to accept it. It would drastically increase your life expectancy." He laughed cheerlessly and shook his head gently.
"I am a knight of death. I prayed to him when I had to persuade you to fight. I can't help myself. Just as I cannot resist what I feel for you, I cannot resist what I am." He paused and Emma swallowed hard, but found no words.
"I don't need to sing war anthems, you know," he then said, and a strange smile surrounded his lips. "As a companion and lover of death, I myself am an anthem of war." His eyes scared her and for a moment she wondered if it really was Matt who spoke, who cupped her face and kissed her. But a part of her knew he was right. The day would come when she would also have to face her own origin, when she would bring death with just one breath. Maybe not tomorrow, in the first battle, but some day... That scared her more than the cruelty in Matt's voice and she responded the kiss fiercely.
Thanks to Venus' curse she would have to pass on the black energy through sex.
Thanks to Venus' curse, she would never be able to love only one man.
But in these very moments, she loved Matt more than she could ever put into words. She wouldn't tell him because she knew that at the right moment, she would feel the same for Mike or Cullen or Aiden.
But now... now she kissed Matt.
And the coming battle was forgotten.
The sentence Emma sings is part of "Schwarz" by ASP.
Chapter 12: The first battle
A big thanks to AntagonizedPenguin The last scene of this chapter was deeply inspired by one of his works.
Matt had no idea where they were; snow-covered mountains could be found in many places in Europe at the beginning of December. They had left the ships, had marched a little through a forest and were now standing in front of a sky-high rock wall. A tunnel-like passage, wide enough for three people next to each other, opened in front of them; four scouts rushed out of it, back to the army and one of them saluted sharply in front of Soňa.
"It's like an arena in there. The walls are so smooth and steep that nobody can hide there. The ground is simple frozen earth, covered only in a few places with ice or snow."
"Looks like someone cleaned it especially," a second scout muttered and Soňa nodded.
"Well then... the first knight is waiting for us."
Matt shivered, not with excitement, but because he was actually cold. Emma had offered to extend her shield, but he had thankfully refused and regretted it a little. She stood next to him, pale and unhappy, but upright and without trembling. When she noticed his gaze, she wrung a quick smile from herself, but before he could react, his brothers and sisters began to move.
Gregor had talked to Soňa about the fact that they had been commissioned by Ares himself to protect the cursed, and so the nine warriors, shielded by a prophylactic magical shield and followed by the three mages, stomped through the tunnel onto the battlefield. Mike and Cullen followed, joined by Soňa, Pablo, Tibbers and several other high-ranking half-gods. Only thereafter did Matt start moving and Emma reluctantly followed him. As he left the short tunnel, he had to force himself to move on. It actually looked like an arena, but made for huge giants - who had to watch ant fights, because the passage was a bottleneck in comparison. They marched further into the rock arena, followed by the army, which slowly pushed its way through the passage. At some point they stopped again and Matt shivered anew; now war drums could be heard from the enemy side and the shivering turned into an expectant shudder. Soňa, Pablo, Mike, Cullen and damn it even Gregor discussed a little further, but Matt didn't feel like joining them.
"And now?" Emma asked quietly.
"We wait," he replied simply and she nodded.
A horn blew the signal to collect and Emma looked uncertainly into the round, then suddenly she seemed surprised.
Matt half turned around and saw Oliver and Nadja approaching.
"Hey!" Nadja grinned happily at Matt.
"What are you doing here?" he wanted to know and Oliver smiled crookedly.
"We decided to protect our friend. You know Soňas instructions."
"Yes, sure..." Matt nodded, but didn't go any further when he saw Emma's smile; apparently Oliver gave her a little booster of confidence. Since her magical range was quite limited compared to the other mages, she had to stay much closer to the front line than usual, and Matt wouldn't complain if there were a few more people watching over her. He nodded to Oliver seriously, patted Nadja briefly on the shoulder and then lifted his brows in surprise as Frank pushed his way through the crowd to them. He wore a black throw with a stylized silver flame and seemed quite proud of himself, the eleven warriors who followed him in the same throw seemed no less proud.
"Who or what did you join?" Emma asked critically and Frank bowed respectfully.
"The fire guard."
"Your very personal guard, it seems," Matt said amusedly, and Frank nodded, hardly suppressing a stupid grin. Emma, on the other hand, seemed worried as she looked at the twelve half-gods and Matt could almost hear her thoughts. They were all teenagers, just old enough to go to war. While one part of him understood her concern, another part was proud of these kids.
"Thank you, Frank, I appreciate that," she finally said and threw a smile around.
Again the horn blew to collect and Matt took a look at the debating generals, but Mike already stepped up to them and stopped with a serious expression in front of Emma, before he sank to his knees in a surprisingly smooth movement - considering his complete plate armor - and almost humbly bowed his head in front of Emma.
"I swore to pray to you before a fight," he started quietly, but Matt felt Mike's words were vibrating in him, maybe even in all of them. "And I ask your blessing."
"My... what?" Completely taken by surprise Emma stared at Mike's back of the head, Cullen and Aiden came from the side and Matt caught Cullen's brief glance. They kneeled at Mike's side and Emma gave a squeak.
"We are your knights, we ask your blessing," Matt said no less seriously than Mike.
"But... but you're not fighting for me!"
"You're our queen," Aiden simply said, as if it were an immovable fact, and from the corner of his eye Matt saw the others standing around her slowly falling to their knees as well, maybe even the whole army.
"You're the center of the prophecy," he heard Oliver say, and Frank added:
"Of course we'll fight for you."
Again Emma made a downright miserable sound. "I... I don't want one of you, one of us, to die! I... oh God... I...", she sniffed, "I can't heal and I'm not a real protector, but... but if I can protect you by... by destroying our enemies... then I will do that." She sniffed again and it almost tore Matt's heart apart.
"Heaven, get up! Look at you, you are half-gods! I mean, you are divine!" When no one seemed to react, she cursed sniffing in German.
"And stop behaving like submissive idiots! I am one of you and by no means something better. Do what you have to do, but make sure you get home safe..."
Now Matt had to smile and when Mike got up, he did the same. A few tears had rolled down Emma's cheeks, but she seemed surprisingly calm, perhaps even a little resigned, and Matt smiled. She was born to fight just like him, she just had to admit it to herself.
"Thank you," Mike said quietly, grasping her face with armored hands and kissing her on the forehead. She smiled and defiantly wiped her cheeks with her sleeve, then kissed Cullen and Aiden on the cheek before pulling Nadja into a short stormy embrace. Oliver hugged her a moment longer, patting her gently on the back and mumbling something to her, after which she nodded seriously. Then she nodded past Oliver to greet someone and as Matt followed her gaze, he saw Percy standing next to Konstantin and Aphra. Percy also gave him a short nod, which he returned, and then he had to smile when he saw Frank and Emma. She stood in front of him with her hands on her hips and looked up at him critically as he looked down at her with a grin which he must have copied from Mike. This, however, gave way to a bewildered expression and red cheeks as Emma wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled him down to her; and when he suddenly overwhelmed put his hands on her hips to hold her while she whispered something to him, the proud warrior quickly turned back into the teenager he was. The sad smile that crept onto Emma's face when he replied, however, let Matt's smile disappear and instead he was a little bit jealous, but he didn't have to worry about that. Emma let go of a bright red Frank and turned to Matt.
"Does a living war anthem need my blessing at all?" she wanted to know quietly and although he laughed softly, his arrogant words of last night seemed a little ridiculous to him now.
"A kiss can't hurt, can it?"
She lowered her eyes and so he stepped up to her, kissed her gently and a second time as she finally raised her head.
"A little symbolism is good for one or the other, don't forget it. And the others need a little push to really trust us. After all, we are cursed."
She nodded silently and the horn blew to march.
They walked in silence, accompanied only by the clanging and creaking of the armour, the sound of breathing and the dull droning of the heavy boots, while from the other side the thundering of the war drums sounded. Warm excitement spread through Matt, and although he would not participate in the first wave of archers' attack, he pulled his bow from his shoulder. Nadja, who walked on his left side, did the same.
"Matt?" Emma asked quietly and without looking at him.
"Promise me something."
"That I can fall asleep in your arms tonight."
He had already opened his mouth to a "of course you can" when all sorts of reasons against it went through his head, starting with the prophecy of the Oracle concerning the children of Ares and not ending with the fact that one of the other three cursed had to take care of the accumulated black energy. Emma knew all this, but she probably wanted to hear his promise anyway. He intertwined his fingers with hers.
"I promise you," he said a little late. Only when there were some relieved sighs around him did he realize that the others had listened and he actually got red ears.
After they had stopped again, it was again time to wait. But not for long. The archers in the front line prepared themselves, stuck their arrows as best they could into the frozen ground and relaxed their shoulders. Matt looked at Emma. A strangely calm expression had spread on her face, she was pale but not trembling. Some air mage created a sort of giant telescope that was aligned until it caught hold of a woman who could only be Jehanne. White-blonde hair whipped around her pale face, though her ice-blue robe hung down on her calmly. She stood on a kind of pedestal held up by four strong men on shoulder bars and apparently noticed she was being watched as her almost violet eyes began to sparkle and her full lips turned to a smile. However, to one that was abundantly inhuman, for the lips spread further than they should have, revealing a gorge full of needle-sharp teeth.
"If her mother was a half-goddess, I'd eat my hat," someone commented, and suppressed giggling became loud.
"Whatever her mother was - an ugly face doesn't bother from behind," someone else said, opening up a flood of slippery remarks about the Frost King which lifted the mood a little.
"Let me know when they start shooting," Emma said suddenly quietly and tense.
"Hmm? Yes, sure..." Matt nodded irritated and then it became quiet again on a signal invisible to him. The drumming of the war drums was accompanied by hoof clatter before it stopped; the signal of a strange horn sounded and the earth trembled as the enemy cavalry stormed. And then Soňa shouted to attack. A swarm of deadly arrows glided into the air, but it wasn't until the second volley shot off that Matt saw the mounted archers raise their weapons through the magic telescope.
"Emma!" Suddenly he stood in twilight as a black-grey shield spread over their heads as far as he could see and the enemy arrows bounced off. Not that he knew anything about magic, but in his humble opinion such a shield was actually impossible. Promptly the shield shrank until it only covered the immediate center, but even that was more than anyone could have expected. The magic telescope burst with a plop and then a jolt went through the rows as the armies met.
Warfare had not been a subject in which Matt had been particularly attentive. There was war in the Middle East, in Africa, but half-gods fought only against rebellious mythological monsters. As a child he had seen on television armies marching up for parade purposes, perfect rows of uniform soldiers, and the chaos into which the already disordered rows of half-gods had turned after a few minutes, he had definitely not imagined as such.
Emma's shield now enclosed only herself and exploded outwards from time to time to push enemies away. These consisted of roughly equal parts of barbaric-looking huge men, like a kitschy Viking fantasy, and emaciated undead, who were damn hard to... well, kill. Matt and Emma fought back to back in this chaos, surrounded by Emma's fire guard. Those who passed them - and they were many given the masses they were dealing with - were either given an arrow or a magic bullet, although Matt's bow was actually far too large for such a short distance, but he was afraid to draw Ares' sword.
"Say," Emma then suddenly started a little strained, "how come you don't run out of arrows?"
"Magic," he narrowly replied, shot a barbarian with light blue war paint between his eyes, and heard Emma snort. "As long as there's a supply of arrows on the ships, the quivers fill up on their own."
"And after that?"
"Well, I have a sword," he said lightly.
Breathing heavily, Matt paused and lowered the bow. Suddenly there were no more enemies around him. He heard someone curse in Italian and half-turned to see Frank wiping sweat off his face with a corner of his throw. Their eyes met.
"Where is Emma?" they asked at the same time and Matt's stomach cramped together for a moment until he discovered her a little further. She seemed to dance, everything about her was in motion, especially her hands and arms.
"She feels the magic just as much as she sees it," Dejan quietly remarked behind Matt and he flinched in surprise at the words of his mage brother.
"Does it make a difference?" Frank wanted to know.
"Not really, even if some say it would give more control-" The last word ended gurgling with an arrow in his neck - the first child of Ares had fallen.
Quickly, Matt noticed nothing more than the figure he was aiming at, sorting friend or foe, and pausing in between to look for Emma and Frank to stay together. All the screaming and shouting and groaning and clanging merged into a single sound that he could almost blend out, only occasionally he heard Tibbers' roar pop out. He couldn't tell if he himself was injured, it didn't interest him at all. But then he paused when he saw Frank pressing a hand on his bleeding side. But that didn't seem to be his biggest worry either, because he stared at Emma. And Matt did the same for a moment. She was still dancing, surrounded by a black-grey mist, and her hands seemed to be drawing from it like from a well. Then Matt saw her face, her dark clouded eyes, and for an infinitely long second there was nothing but that sight. Everything in him cried out for her, longing for the woman who distributed death like air kisses and whom he had sworn to protect. With a thoughtful smile he wrapped the bow around his shoulder, put the already drawn arrow back into the quiver and took up the sword.
Matt heard himself wheeze, felt the air burning in his lungs, smelled steel and sweat and blood and even tasted the blood. His knees trembled, his hand cramped around his sword. He opened his eyes- and dropped his sword in amazement. He stood in the middle of the battlefield. Everywhere stood heavily breathing half-gods, alone or in pairs, looking over the masses of dead and badly injured. As if there had been some kind of signal, the fight seemed to have ended. Matt's gaze glided over the living, but in exhaustion he recognized no one. Then he realized he had dropped his sword and wanted to bend down for it, but pain exploded in his right side and seeing stars he almost tilted over. Armored hands held him up.
"And that's why warriors don't fight in leather armor," Frank said rough.
"Get yourself at least a chain mail for next time."
Matt blinked against the coloured dots. "Why do I have to let you teach me?" he groaned, but it sounded more miserable than grumpy.
"Because my intestines don't dangle from my belly," Frank gave back dryly and held Matt's arm as he promptly tried to grab the wound. Disillusioned, Matt looked up at Frank instead. He was pale under the blood running over his face from a cut on his forehead, but he stood upright and still had the strength to support Matt. You really had to admire the boy for it.
As an answer Frank nodded in one direction and Matt had to blink away some coloured dots again before he saw more than a blurred mass. A silver armored figure lifted a black bundle from which the black haze seemed to drip. Matt blinked again. It was Cullen who pressed Emma to himself and then staggered away.
"Where do you get the strength from?"
"You've got these heavy armors on, dragging a shield weighing tons or a gigantic sword around with you, fighting an endless battle... and then" Matt gesticulated in Cullens direction, "you're carrying a fair lady away." He was careful not to even hint at the weight of such a lady.
"Well," Frank said lightly, "some of us were born warriors."
"Asshole," Matt mumbled soundlessly and then he passed out unconscious.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Cullen had the idea that it was only his disgusting greed and perverse anticipation that held him up under Emma's extra weight. But superficially, there was nothing but her pale face, decorated with splashes of mud and blood and wet with tears, leaned against his breastplate and which he wanted to cover with hot kisses.
Carefully he put Emma on a bed. She trembled a little and avoided his gaze, but the rational part of him couldn't blame her. Carefully he put off his armour and took off his clothes underneath. Although it was warmer on the ship than outside due to the protective magic, his sweaty body shivered; but when he noticed Emma's gaze gliding over him, he suddenly became warm. Kneeling naked in front of her, he held her hand for a moment as the blood flowed into the center of his body. Slowly he lifted the hem of her robe and took it off.
"The scars on your back... they're from the dragon, right?"
"Oliver saved your life?"
"Hmm-hmm." He put a hand on her cheek. "I can tell you the story later if you want."
A smile scurried over her face. "Cullen Dragon Slayer."
"Yeah..." From her mouth it sounded as if he was actually a hero of children's stories. Only the princess was missing. He bent over, stroked her lower lip with his thumb and hesitated for a heartbeat. Something about her eyes irritated him. But then he kissed her and it was like an electric shock. It was the most beautiful kiss of his life and he sighed into it as Emma's fingers carressed his shoulder. She kissed him as if she really wanted him, and that dampened the unnatural greed in him to a bearable level.
Emma blinked into the darkness- had she been asleep or unconscious? Her sphere began to glow and she realised that she was alone. Slowly she sat up; her whole body ached although she was almost sure that Cullen hadn't hurt her. She couldn't really remember, but she didn't want to either. She felt strangely dirty and although it wouldn't really help, she got up carefully and walked over to the small sink with some clean towels next to it. The water was too cold to be refreshing, but it cleared her throbbing head a little and she realized what a burden Cullen had really taken off her. The energy of so many dead...
She laboriously fought down the rising nausea and mutely asked the Sphere for more light-just to quickly turn away from her reflection, for a pale ghost looked at her. Her clothes lay on the floor next to the bed and she put them back on for lack of alternatives, despite her trouser legs and boots being covered in encrusted bloody mud. Her robe, however, she wouldn't even want to be a rag anymore and she left it lying there.
Mike had reached the point where his body could collapse at any moment. Probably he would have long since, if the ugly pictures of the battle hadn't appeared in his head every time he closed his eyes for more than a simple blink.
The feeling of the changing ground under his boots.
The different types of resistance his sword cut.
Vice General Pablo, who collapsed with his eyes widened in fear, hit by a magical missile from Jehanne.
Jehanne, whose needle-sharp grin crumbled as Mike cut her in half just above the hip.
Leaning on his sword, he had then sunk to his knees, his nerves tense to tear and grateful beyond all measure that he didn't have to take care of Emma as well.
He couldn't even say how he had managed to get back to the ship.
He lifted his head and registered unpleasantly surprised that he had collapsed in the middle of the corridor.
"Emma..." In the dim light of the night light she looked down at him anxiously and held out a hand that he actually grabbed. With a moan he straightened up and leaned against the wall.
"Is everything all right?" Emma asked quietly.
"It's okay," he murmured and put on a smile. "What about you?"
Uneasily she shrugged, wrapped her arms around herself and before Mike could blink, tears streamed down her face. Something cramped in his chest and he slowly pulled her towards him before deciding they both needed fresh air and moved her to the deck.
There were only a few half-gods up there, most others asleep, after all it was the middle of the night and they probably reached the valley soon. Half he sat, half he leaned against a box and held Emma in his arms, who looked silently into the darkness crying.
"I killed," she finally said tonelessly.
"Yes," Mike said quietly, "you did."
"I killed people. We killed them."
"We did." He nodded. "But we had to do it."
"No", she contradicted quietly, "no, we didn't have to. They were people. Just people."
"Yes, we had to. Sooner or later they would have threatened our families, the old people and children in the valley."
"But they were only human beings. People who stood under the wrong banner."
"And yet they were a threat."
"A human threat, not monsters."
Mike suppressed a sigh and instead pulled her closer to him so that her head rested against his chest. "You don't have to be a Naga to be a monster. Think of Hitler, wasn't he a human monster?"
That silenced her for a moment and waiting he caressed her back.
"Did you ever kill people before?" she wanted to know then and he made an approving humming sound.
"What did it feel like?"
To be honest, he didn't even have a direct answer, and she quietly added:
"I thought about it. Before, I mean. I mean, you're right somehow, they threatened us, but I thought... I thought it would feel better. Somehow... right."
"Killing shouldn't feel right," he replied harsher than intended, but she just wrapped her arms around him in response. "I think only the killing for revenge should feel really good, not the simple killing in war." He took a breath. "And maybe not even that."
"But what do you feel?" she wanted to know again and this time he allowed himself a soft sigh.
"Nothing. This is war, nothing personal. This is about one's own survival. I fight to stay alive, to protect others. Maybe... maybe even this nothing is not right, but... well, I was raised as a warrior. Others earn their money with a wrench, I do with a sword."
"Is it really that easy for you?" A tremor crept into her voice and her fingers clawed into his shirt. He put his cheek to her head and found a tear rolling into her hair.
"Yes," he said in a husky voice, "yes, it is."
For a moment he hated himself and was glad she wasn't having this conversation with Matt.
Chapter 13: Family stories
Emma's fingers trembled as she took the Moka out of the closet, and she didn't know exactly why. She had slept, had a nice shower and was unhurt, but in general she felt pretty terrible. When she had poured water into the moka, she accidentally knocked the part for the coffee powder off the sideboard and sighed. It was probably just not her day. With the small metal part in her hand, she straightened up again and promptly dropped it screeching because Matt suddenly stood in front of her.
"Half God, technically speaking," he replied dryly and then groaned as she threw herself into his arms.
"All right, I'm still alive..." He gently patted her back as she pressed her forehead against his shoulder and breathed shakily.
"How are you? Mike said you were badly injured."
"Oh well... I'm missing an adrenal gland now, but otherwise..." He shrugged and she took her head back to look at him checking. Tenderly he brushed her cheek.
"They won't kill me that fast, my love. I'm just sorry that I couldn't keep my promise." A little contrite, he made a face.
"It's okay. The most important thing is that you’re fine," she replied quietly and he nodded before they met for a relieved kiss. This was about to get out of hand when Mike was heard:
"I don't like to interrupt, but I have an urgent need for a lot of caffeine."
"Allow me to help," Aiden mumbled with a touch of mockery behind him. A little embarrassed, Emma broke away from Matt, who gave her a tender smile.
As the silence threatened to become unpleasant, she finally said:
"I very much hope your divine blood and all the magical healing tricks here are good enough to make up for the lack of the adrenal glands."
"What do you mean?" Matt wanted to know and sounded irritated rather than worried.
"Salt, stress, sex." She shrugged. "The adrenal glands are responsible for the mineral balance, producing stress hormones like adrenaline and some of the sex hormones."
Matt raised a brow. "You have two of them, right?"
"Well… The second of those little things will probably be enough."
"Just because it's small doesn't mean it doesn't matter." She frowned, while in the background the Moka began to hiss. "Testicles are small too, but I'd bet you'd be pretty unhappy without them."
"Um..." He blushed, Mike laughed quietly and Aiden noticed as well with bright red cheeks:
"Anatomy lessons in all honors, but the coffee is ready."
"And I doubt that coffee is good for you now," she added.
"Aiden's coffee's definitely not," Mike said amused and questioning she looked at him.
"Yeah, yeah, all right. Thin the stuff a little," Matt grumbled and rolled his eyes. Mike immediately acted and Emma accepted a cup from Aiden, into which she spooned plenty of sugar and poured milk. Mike meanwhile said:
"Aiden's coffee works wonders for healthy people."
"Hmm. My blood pressure's a little low anyway."
Matt snort angrily. "It's just coffee and I'm well enough that I walked here on my own."
Emma looked at him critically and he pulled up his shirt on the right side. A long encrusted cut, starting somewhere on his back, pulled down from the waist to the side, over the hips and disappeared into the waistband.
"Someone could have split you in two," Mike remarked over the edge of his cup. Emma grimaced.
"Like you split Jehanne in two?" Matt wanted to know, lowered the shirt again and leaned against the kitchen counter next to Emma.
"Something like that," Mike replied with a shrug as Emma sunk her cup in disgust.
"She's been assaulting Pablo before." Now Mike frowned half angrily, half worried. "Did you hear anything in the hospital? Did he make it?"
Matt shook his head. "I just know they got him to the ship alive. Whether he survived the night? I don't know."
"Not very reassuring when the vice-general is killed in the first battle," Emma mumbled after a break and took a sip of her coffee.
"That's life," Mike said mutedly and from his gaze she could tell how much he was really affected by this circumstance. Their conversation from the night went through her mind and she lowered her gaze.
"Did we... did we lose many?" she asked quietly.
"There are always too many," Aiden replied barely audibly.
"Dejan", Matt said thoughtfully and added on her frown: "My mage brother. Oh, and two from the fireguard. But according to Frank, they're already arguing about who's allowed to occupy the vacant seats."
"That," Emma said, "is disgusting." Matt's disinterested shrug almost infuriated her.
"You're a pretty young woman," Mike said quietly, as if it was explanation alone. "We publicly called you our queen and..."
"I get it." she murmured and made a face before she drank her coffee. "If this Black Energy thing makes the rounds, they will truly elevate me to goddess and celebrate orgies in my honor." She didn't want to sound so bitter, but couldn't find a suitable alternative.
"Emma..." Mike's soft voice elicited a helpless gesture from her.
"So what? A month ago, the fascinating legends about the ancient gods filled the books on my shelves. Now I have to deal with the result of divine annoyance. And honestly, as the goddess of love and beauty, I would never have thought that Venus could be so cruel."
"The Romans have always been regarded as the more cruel, colder variant of the Greeks," Matt said quietly. "Sex falls within her jurisdiction. And there are not only lovely things and tenderness about it." You didn't have to tell Emma, and she pushed the thought of Timo, who had become a rapist, far away. Nevertheless, she made a face.
"I know. But that doesn't make it any better." The three men looked at her thoughtfully, really examining, but it was Aiden who finally asked shyly:
"Did someone hurt you?” His tone and choice of words elicited a sad smile from her.
"No. No, it's not that..." But before anyone could ask another question about it, the front door was thrown open and they all flinched.
"Emma." Cullen's voice was scratchy and when he leaned against the half-height wall, he looked exhausted. His eyes were bloodshot and he had dark rings under his eyes as if he hadn't slept properly in a long time. "You have to come with me."
"Why? Where to?”
"Did something happen?" Mike wanted to know alarmed.
"No. Emma, please, you have to come with me."
"And where to?" Frowning, she looked at him.
"Into the archives."
She could feel the black energy pulsating in him, as if it was what kept him awake convulsively. Maybe it was like that, who knew?
"Please. It’s important.”
"Okay..." She nodded to him and took a quick peek at Mike, who nodded slightly. "Then let's go."
The archives were below the library and when they entered, Cullen finally broke the silence.
"Have you heard of the family chronicles?"
"Yes. Magic books that record the family tree of important half-gods and include special events," Emma replied and blinked into the dim darkness into which the narrow staircase was plunged.
"My family is very old," Cullen said scratchily and cleared his throat, but it didn't really help. "My mother once asked me to leave our chronicle untouched because the past is rarely helpful. Besides the respect for this request, I was never really interested in it, but now..." In the second sublevel he stepped into a corridor and almost directly opened a door. Behind it was a small room, whose walls were covered with high shelves containing leather-bound books of any thickness. In the middle was a small table with a single chair.
"And now?" Emma asked uncertainly as Cullen just stopped and rubbed his eyes.
"Take a book, any one, and try to open it." He didn't even seem to notice her deep frown as he stepped up to the table and tapped against a kind of lamp which then gave off more than a dull glow.
"All right..." She went to the left side, pulled out a thin book at breast level and laid it on the table. A silver clasp held the book closed and she fumbled with her fingertips for a seam, but found none. Instead Cullen held a dagger out to her.
"Those are blood locks."
"Seriously? How disgusting." She made a face and held out her hand, which he held uncomfortably tight while he pressed the tip of the dagger onto a fingertip. Under the fine pain she flinched, but devotedly smeared the small drop of blood on the clasp. The blood was apparently absorbed, but nothing else happened.
"This isn't your family chronicle, so you can't open it. Try this one." He pulled a pretty thick book from a shelf on the right side and dropped it on the table with a dull sound. With a sigh she squeezed a little more blood from her fingertip and smeared it on the clasp. It was absorbed again, but this time the clasp lit up briefly and then opened.
"Oh!" Emma quickly lifted the book cover. There was a white page behind it, then a handwritten text began on the next page which she couldn't read.
"What does it say?" she wanted to know and Cullen frowned.
"You should be able to read it."
"I'm sorry..." Unsettled, she looked at him, but he shook his head gently. Strained he read:
"The first of us were the children of Aphrodite, twins, born on the longest night of the year under the stars of despair. They loved each other as husband and wife do, but the brother perverted his sister and from this unwanted union came a child. When the child was born, the sister gave the child into the care of a stranger before killing her brother and herself for their sin."
"Those... those are your… ancestors?" Emma looked at Cullen in disbelief and he nodded unhappily.
"Flip on." Carefully she flicked through the book, browsing the lists of names and related events, although she could hardly decipher anything. Then she reached the last page written and her fingers stroked amazed over the red and black ink.
Astrid, daughter of Venus, sworn to Juno stood there in red, followed by a date of birth, and with black some of her deeds were listed. From her name, a line led down to
Cullen, son of Thor. After his date of birth there stood: cursed, warrior of the prophecy of the Black Star. However, the line led even further down.
Emma, daughter of Anubis.
"What...?", Emma made confused.
"You were able to open the chronicle because it is also your family chronicle," said Cullen quietly. "After we slept with each other, a voice told me about my curse. That I would continue the blood sin of my ancestors and..." Uneasily, he broke off, looking at the book. "I came here to find out what this blood sin was supposed to be." His fingers touched the book and Emma saw something like despair in his face.
"You heard it; what I read, I mean. My bloodline begins with incest. And that runs through the entire family tree. Again and again a brother assaults his sister and their child continues the line." He looked up. "I have three older sisters, humans, who have all left the valley and live somewhere far away with their families; I haven’t seen them for years. But... there is your name. You were born on the longest night of the year, just like our ancestors. You are my mother's daughter."
There was a little pause and Emma's eyes became big, she involuntarily took a step back.
"You are my sister. My blood sin. My curse."
"No..." She shook her head. "No. My mother's name is Annika, not Astrid. Astrid is..." And the realization hit her like a demolition bomb. "Oh God... My aunt's name is Astrid."
"And my aunt's name is Annika. A human.” Cullen glanced at her sadly.
"No..." She shook her head weakly. "It can't be." But a soft little voice in the back of her head told her it could. She found herself in Cullen's eyes and the tingling when she looked at him for too long was the blood that wanted to sing to blood - just because they were of the same blood.
"No..." she whispered again.
"I knew that my desire for you was not right, not normal. It is forced upon me by this curse," he said quietly and lowered his gaze back to the book. "These chronicles cannot lie."
Her head, her heart - both were suddenly empty.
"We talked about my mother, remember?" His words sounded as if they came from far away. "She is the daughter of Venus and has sworn to Juno. Venus is our grandmother. And Venus cursed you."
"Why?" Emma asked, although she could hardly follow his words.
"Maybe to take revenge on her daughter for her betrayal, I don't know. But we can ask her."
Cullen knocked on the door of the house where he had lived as a child. By foot it was only twenty minutes from the Great Square of the Warrior Village to here and all the time Emma had remained in stunned silence. He himself felt repugnant, as if he had actually violated her, and he didn't even dare touch her.
The door opened and Cullen's dad looked at him happily surprised.
"Cullen!” His gaze slid towards Emma. "Don't tell me you're finally bringing a bride home with you."
"No, not really." Sincerely, Cullen shook his head and his dad lost the grin. "Is Mum home? I have to talk to her."
"Yes... sure..." His dad let them in and nodded further into the house before closing the door behind them.
"Mum?" Cullen raised his voice only slightly, but still it seemed to echo through the whole house and made him shiver himself.
"Cullen...?" His mum came out of the kitchen, also a joyfully surprised look on her face, but it went blank when she saw Emma, who had retreated at her sight.
"Aunt Astrid," she said quietly.
"Oh? I didn't even know we had a niece. Didn't you say Annika can't have children?” His dad seemed irritated.
"No..." Emma whispered softly again. "No, that's not true..." She took another step back and suddenly Cullen saw the resemblance in the two horrified faces of his mother and his half-sister. Apparently not only he.
"Astrid, who is that? Cullen?"
For a little eternity the ticking of the kitchen clock from the next room was the only audible sound.
"Why?" Emma asked quietly. She pressed her lips together and her bewilderment seemed to give way to helpless anger. Cullen hoped that she wouldn’t let it run wild in here.
"Why..." his mum repeated quietly, helplessly. "Why..."
"Why what?" his dad wanted to know and glanced from his wife to his son.
"I was raped when I was fifteen," Astrid began tonelessly. "I asked Venus, my mother, how she could let that happen. Her answer was that the man had done it out of love, for him it had been love. I hated her for that answer."
Cullen swallowed hard.
"I went to the temple and prayed to Juno, three days and three nights, until she heard me and accepted me as her daughter. She told me I couldn’t leave the sphere of influence of Rome, because outside she couldn’t protect me". Astrid paused for a moment, but didn't take her eyes off Emma.
"I found a man, got three daughters and then returned to work. They sent my team to Great Britain and without me noticing, I left Rome. I forgot my husband and my children and enjoyed Thor's attention and when I came home again, I went with his child."
Again Cullen swallowed hard, this time he almost choked on it.
"When a war broke out among the gods in Africa, we were sent to Egypt to secure our borders. Again, I left Rome unnoticed and forgot my family and again..." Her voice was lost for a moment.
"I gave birth to the child there and before I went home I gave it to my sister Annika. Anton would never have forgiven me for two unknown children. I felt dirty and lying. I had ignored Juno's warning. And then Venus came to me." A tear rolled down Astrid's cheek.
"She said I had disappointed Juno. I had disappointed her. And I should consider whether I really would be willing to pay the price. She cursed my daughter, that tiny newborn. She should never really love, never find a husband, never find fulfillment in a family, because I had betrayed all these values." The single tear had turned into a stream of tears and Astrid's voice trembled; Emma trembled too, her clenched fists at her side.
"She told me that no matter what I did, I would see her suffer. I had to watch it tear her soul apart..." Astrid sniffed.
"I gave you away. I didn't want to hurt the man I love, and I gave you away, my own flesh and blood, although otherwise Venus might have been merciful. Emma, I-"
"No," Emma interrupted her sharply. "You're not my mother."
Cullen laboriously choked the lump down his throat.
"You are not my mother. You are..."
"Emma..." Carefully Cullen reached out for her as her face turned to disgust.
"You're pathetic." She broke away from him before he had even reached her and stormed out. With a sob Astrid collapsed. Cullen looked at his dad, who stood there stunned and apparently didn't understand, didn't want to understand what he had just heard.
Selfish. Strangely enough, that was the first thing Cullen came up with when he looked at his mother.
"You have two cursed children, by the way." When he got no reaction, he turned around and slowly followed Emma outside.
Blood sin or not, but he had a sister and she needed him.
The food pavilion was only sparsely occupied, but Matt could not say whether this was due to the time or to the fact that they had just returned from a battle. He didn't care either. Instead, he enjoyed the peace, for hardly anyone spoke, the comfort this familiar place radiated, and the gentle breeze dancing between the slender columns. Although he, Mike and Aiden had long finished, they remained seated; they had nothing better to do and at least Matt was in much less pain in the position he had found. Healing potions had their limits and the healing mages had used their reserves for severely injured half-gods.
Suddenly Emma came out of nowhere and dropped to her usual seat between Matt and Aiden. She looked as if she had cried, but her face revealed nothing but suppressed anger. Matt handed her the cornucopia and without looking at him, she took it.
He was delighted that the bitter cold behind this one word was not meant for him. Three slices of dark bread and a plastic jar containing a kind of chocolate cream slipped out of the cornucopia; the words on it seemed to be German to him. Her face relaxed a little and her movements, as she opened the cover and carefully spread the cream on the bread, were almost meditative. She was so immersed in it that she didn't even seem to notice Frank dropping into Cullen's seat in a good mood and nodding at Mike to hand him the cornucopia.
"Don't you put any butter under it?" Mike finally wanted to know and Emma, who had just wanted to take the first bite, paused.
"Butter? Butter under Nusspli? Oh please!” She snorted. "Philistine."
"Please, what is... Nusspli?"
"This." She lifted up the plastic jar and now it was time for Frank to snort.
"Maybe we can agree that butter has no place under chocolate cream, but... seriously? Nothing beats Nutella." Emma and Frank were studying each other, while Emma was biting into her bread and Frank demonstratively brushing the tip of a croissant inelegantly with dark cream before biting off heartily. He grinned and Matt hoped the boy knew what he was doing by provoking Emma, even if it was just for food, but her mood was already borderline. For the second bite, Frank dipped the croissant in his cappuccino and Emma raised a brow.
"Are you Italian?"
He nodded. "You Germans can do a lot, but breakfast certainly not."
"We'll talk about that later. After breakfast," Emma gave back cool.
"Over a beer?" he asked reconciled and now Matt didn't follow anymore, because Emma put her head crooked.
"Pasta?" She, too, suddenly sounded conciliatory.
"Both?" Affectedly Frank licked Nutella off his finger, and the gesture seemed so everything but innocent that Matt frowned darkly. The boy didn't have to meddle with it as well.
"Hmm and after... two spoons, a glass of Nutella and old stories?" Frank suggested, and now Mike seemed to suppress a grin while Emma shook her head.
"Smear the stuff wherever you want, but I'm not eating it."
"Oh, I'm sure we can agree on a compromise on that one." Frank smiled, placed his cheek in his hand and looked at her almost dreamily.
"Not in public."
Mike hid his laugh snorting in a coughing fit while Frank and Emma finally lowered their eyes to their food. Matt still wasn't sure what was going on, but before he could come to a conclusion, Cullen showed up for the second time that day and called for Emma. He stopped outside the pavilion and when Emma turned to him, a jolt seemed to go through her. Without breaking eye contact, she went to Cullen.
"Excellent tactics, almost perfect execution. The only criticism: Matt is sitting right next to you," Mike said amusedly to Frank and Matt raised a brow.
"As if I would voluntarily mess with Matt," Frank grinned and nodded to Matt. "Besides, she's a little old for me." Aiden just shook his head silently and Matt realized that Frank had only distracted Emma and perhaps wanted to lift her mood. Now he shook his head in disbelief and stood up because he wanted to ask Cullen what was going on, but after two steps he stopped in amazement.
Emma and Cullen stood forehead to forehead; Cullen had her hands pressed against his chest.
"I am blood from your blood, I am your sword and your shield," he said pressed.
"I am blood from your blood, I am the downfall of your enemies," Emma replied no less tense.
"You are blood from my blood, you are my safe haven in the storm," Cullen continued, quieter this time.
"You are blood from my blood, you are-" Emma's words became too quiet for Matt to hear, but a tear ran down Cullen's cheek and the words made something in Matt ring. How could blood sing to blood for the two of them? Finally, Cullen almost brusquely let go of Emma and hurried away, while Emma looked after him with an unhappy expression.
"The blood of Venus flows strongly in both of them," Carlotta said all of a sudden next to Matt.
"Did you just notice that, or do you just enjoy keeping the important things for yourself until you can make a show out of it?" he wanted to know neutrally and felt the other three approaching.
Carlotta didn't answer - what was answer enough - and instead shouted to Emma:
"He loves you."
"Of course, he does," Emma gave back calmly and slowly turned to the spectators at the edge of the dining pavilion. "He's my brother."
Both Matt and Mike hissed in disbelief, but Emma already went on:
"Although I assumed a daughter of Aphrodite knew such basic things about love."
"How dare you-"
"And I thought having to mess with a bitch once a day would be enough." Annoyed, Emma looked at Carlotta who stared back in amazement until she hissed:
"Who do you think you are?”
"I am Emma, daughter of Anubis. I am the Black Star. I am the mage of the Black Fire. I am a sister, a lover, a queen." She paused briefly. "And these are facts, by the way." Carlotta snorted and looked at Matt.
"How can you enjoy such a person?"
He shrugged. "She’s honest. In all aspects. And I can't exactly say the same about you." To his surprise, a dangerous smile lay on Emma's face.
"You know, Carlotta, this whole story about the children of Ares and Aphrodite going to belong together, I think it's pretty imbecilic. Matt is a true warrior and what are they doing? Fighting. And a fight is nothing more than a dance with death. It's a game they'll lose sooner or later, but warriors are adrenaline junkies, so they don't care much. Think about who I am and you'll find your answer."
Carlotta began to tremble, probably in suppressed anger, but Emma didn't seem to care, because she turned away and left. Matt looked after her and smiled proudly, but Mike groaned.
"Fuck it!" He shoved himself past Carlotta and hurried after Emma until he caught up with her and put an arm around her shoulders.
"Isn't that actually your job?" Frank wanted to know quietly and nudged Matt, but before he could answer, Aiden softly said:
"Cullen may be the brother of her blood, but Mike is the brother of her soul." Matt looked over his shoulder and corrected himself, it was Tibbers who had spoken. His golden eyes drilled into Matts and he shuddered.
"Nevertheless, you should go to her. She needs her knights." And Tibbers turned around to walk away in the opposite direction.
"Why do I feel like I'm the only one who doesn't know what's going on?" Matt sighed, but he didn't get an answer.
Chapter 14: A cake and an uninvited guest
Aiden sipped his coffee, Tibbers was asleep or at least dozed. The other three seemed relaxed, but Aiden knew them well enough to know that everyone was tense in their own way. With Cullen, he admittedly wasn't quite sure whether the fact that he was doomed to sleep with his half-sister was really the only reason, but Matt's point was clear. Emma had spent the last three days in her room and hadn't let anyone in except Mike - not even Matt. Accordingly, Matt was swaying between aimless anger, compassion, helplessness and probably something like envy, while Mike was overtired.
After all, it was Cullen who sighed softly and then asked:
"What did Frank actually want last evening?"
Aiden saw Matt's face darken, although the boy had done nothing but flirt a little for the sake of good mood.
"He wanted to bring Emma her chocolate cream," Mike murmured into his coffee.
"Emma doesn't look like she's calming her feelings with food," Matt quietly remarked, but Aiden saw it boiling behind the façade. Since Emma was here, Matt had been more balanced and unbalanced at the same time, strange as it may sound.
"Maybe not with food in general, but you did see her," Mike returned and sounded even more tired of what he looked like; Aiden had heard Emma cry for half the night.
"If it's this chocolate cream that calms her down, let her have it. Frank was just wondering."
Matt made a sound somewhere between snorting and growling. "Frank should mind his own business."
Mike just sighed while Cullen quietly asked:
"What's wrong with taking care of people you like?"
Aiden choked on his coffee when Emma suddenly appeared on the stairs. She was pale and seemed tired, but a faint smile surrounded her lips as she nodded to them.
"Could I get a coffee, please?"
"Sure." Cullen hurried to work and she came closer, probably unconsciously plucking her top. She gave Mike an honest smile, kissed a surprised Matt and accepted her coffee before leaning against the kitchen counter next to Cullen.
*They have the same eye area*, Tibbers remarked, just as Aiden came up with the same thought. Emma looked at him and suddenly he felt uncomfortable in his washed-out sleep clothes, even though Emma herself wore only a thin, long top and apparently very short shorts underneath.
"I promised you a cake," she said quietly.
"Hmm?" Aiden said, irritated.
*A birthday cake*, Tibbers reminded him as she asked:
"What kind do you want?"
"Uh..." His grandmother used to bake a simple lemon cake and cover it with white chocolate, but he didn't want to be reminded of his family.
"I... I don't know," he said uncertainly while the others looked at him waiting. Matt noisily slurped his coffee. Because of his stature, sweets were always a rather dubious pleasure in his conscience.
"Something dry? Fruit, nuts, cream, chocolate," Emma suggested.
"Fruit," he said slowly, and because Tibbers cheerfully called out nuts, he repeated: "Fruit and nuts."
"Okay." She nodded and then paused. "Is there such a thing as a supermarket here?" The other three laughed quietly.
"There's something like that in the town," Cullen said carefully.
"But we can get you a house cornucopia," Mike added and Matt completed:
"That might be the more practical solution in the long run."
Emma looked at him critically. "I'm not here to run the house or cook for you."
Matt now grinned broadly. "Maybe not, but you offered to bake a cake. Word gets around."
"Oh yes, especially if it's good." Cullen nodded and Aiden got elbowed by Mike.
"You could invite some people. For a picnic or something."
"And who?" Aiden asked back, surprised. Tibbers sighed.
"Maybe Nadja and Oliver and Frank...", Emma suggested and smiled crookedly.
"Sounds good," Mike agreed and nodded. "Come on, let's get dressed."
"You got to hand out invitations and I'll go get the cornucopia."
Surprised and confused, Aiden put his cup down and followed Mike upstairs.
*This is the perfect opportunity*, Tibbers said.
*For everything*, the simple answer was. *I know what's going on inside your head, and you need to talk to her. Before anything happened.*
*I know*, Aiden gave back and dressed.
"How is she?" he asked Mike quietly.
"Well..." Mike sighed deeply. "How is she supposed to feel? It's not very nice to find out you've been lied to all your life."
Aiden nodded thoughtfully and Mike paused, wearing the T-shirt over her head, but without arms in it.
"We get to know the truth and grow up with it through puberty. But Emma is an adult woman whose world is suddenly upside down."
"I know," Aiden said quietly. The idea of the chaos in her head caused him stomach pain. "That's why I'm asking."
"You like her," Mike said and a strange smile appeared on his face; Tibbers giggled quietly. Aiden shook his head.
"Yes, but not like Matt does." He felt the necessity to make such a statement.
"I wonder," Mike then said and finished putting on the shirt, "why Skadi didn't warn you to sleep with her. And you obviously got a divine gift, too."
Aiden's fingers slid involuntarily to the bear pendant. "I don't know if I can do that," he mumbled soundlessly and Mike snorted, after all they had already discussed the issue of the Black Energy extensively.
"I doubt that our divine blood or these stupid curses allow a physiological reason."
With a frown, Aiden looked at him. Mike gently asked "Do you want to talk about it?" after examining Aiden, and Aiden shook his head. Tibbers sighed and mumbled something that sounded like *would be better* but Aiden certainly didn't want to talk about it.
Well, he would have to tell Emma at some point, but no one else.
Aiden entered the house and, when he heard his name, held the door so that it would not slam shut.
"Aiden spoke of fruit, my love, and it's new to me that carrots are fruit," Matt said half critically, half amused.
"Of course, carrots are not fruit, but they make the cake juicier and healthier. And they have a natural sweetness that saves sugar," Emma replied busily. "By the way, I like carrot cake very much."
"It's supposed to be Aiden's cake," Matt reminded her.
"I know. But as you may have already noticed, you don't have any recipe books. And that's one of the recipes I can bake in my sleep."
Matt laughed quietly. "Well, so Aiden doesn't need to take it as an attack on his physique?"
Aiden frowned - no one of the half-gods had ever made jokes about his chubbiness, in contrast to the human children before. He heard a sound as if Emma had given Matt a pat, and then she said:
"Stop it. Aiden is a cuddly teddy bear, perfect as he is."
Aiden felt his cheeks get hot.
"Your muscles are pretty uncomfortable, you know?"
"Hey," Matt protested, but Emma already went on:
"And instead of making fun of other people, you could help me. For example, by peeling and rasping the carrots."
"How about you take care of my carrot first?" Matt suggested greasy and in Emma's slightly annoyed sigh, Aiden closed the door after all.
"Please not in the kitchen," he said audibly and took a few steps to make himself visible. At least Matt had the decency to blush.
"Do you like pears and walnuts?" Emma asked to change the subject.
Aiden simply nodded.
"Very good." She smiled at him and his cheeks, which had just cooled down, got warm again, whereupon Matt gave him a critical glance.
*For a smile? That's silly.*
Tibbers sighed. *Matt is quite possessive. And your blush doesn't necessarily indicate that you don't care about the smile.*
*They talked about me before!*
*Perfect, was her choice of words.*
*Nothing about me is perfect, especially not-*
*Shht!*, Tibbers warned and Aiden kept his mouth shut as he walked up the stairs.
It wasn't until Aiden lay on his bed and after a deep breath that Tibbers said quietly:
*Don't make it so difficult for yourself. You like her, she's pretty, she likes you.*
*What are you getting at?*
*You're going to have to take your share of the black energy, so you might as well adjust so it doesn't get that bad. You could enjoy it.*
Aiden had his doubts about it and Tibbers knew that.
What really amazed Aiden was the exuberance of the picnic. The first battle of the war was only a few days ago, the second could come at any moment, but still everyone was in a good mood and laughed a lot. Emma often seemed to have to push certain things far away, but she laughed and talked and listened attentively. They had all sorts of soft drinks and a very juicy carrot-walnut cake filled with a pear cream and covered with a green glaze, which tasted like heaven and had been eaten faster by eight people than anyone thought possible. Aiden had never had such a birthday party before.
"Oh, no, it wasn't like that!" Nadja shouted protestingly as Matt told some story.
"And the tree nymph just burned?" Emma asked with her face distorted when Cullen told her about this mission.
"Nobody can say it's any different," Oliver explained dignifiedly as he spoke of various habits in the nest.
"Mike, this is embarrassing," Frank mumbled embarrassed and bright red as Mike told of the mission with the vampire.
"Oh please, do we have to warm this up again?" Matt wanted to know rolling his eyes when Cullen made fun of some incident on a mission.
"Hey, Gianni never..." Cullen broke off embarrassed as everyone grinned at him. Sometime in the afternoon someone had started to unpack the somewhat slippery stories and this was especially concerning Mike and Cullen.
"It's okay," Emma said and patted his leg compassionately.
"That doesn't make it any better, you know?"
She shrugged. Aiden didn't quite get what it was all about, but he probably didn't want to know that either.
"What was the worst guy you ever dealt with?" Mike wanted to know curiously. Matt's face promptly darkened, but everyone else seemed no less curious.
"Come on, tell me." Nadja nudged Emma, who rolled her eyes with a smile on her face.
"A guy named Yannick. We met at a concert where he was adoring the singer, while I would have liked to get the drummer..." She wiped a strand of hair out of her forehead a little embarrassed. "Yannick had more makeup on his face than I did, but hey... he was cute." She shrugged. "Well... so small," she indicated something with her fingers and Tibbers had to tell Aiden what exactly she meant, "and lasted exactly five seconds."
All those present - except Aiden - made a face.
"And then he didn't even have the decency to return the favor."
"Son of a bitch," Mike said calmly.
Emma shrugged. "You asked for the worst."
Nadja giggled. "Who was the best?"
Suddenly it became quiet and she blushed as she understood her mistake. Tibbers was almost proud of Aiden for noticing it immediately.
"Do you really want the answer pronounced?" It was Oliver who carefully went into it.
"Oh, well..." She was turning bright red and Matt snorted.
"Don't get your head around it," Mike said with artificially overbearing arrogance. "Emma has no reasonable comparison." Now Emma snorted and Matt growled.
"What exactly are you trying to say?"
But before Mike could answer, Emma quickly said:
"Leave them in your pants, guys."
"Mike's bigger," Cullen remarked dryly, and now Matt was turning bright red.
"Size doesn't matter," Oliver said and rolled his eyes, while Aiden shook his head weakly.
"You have problems."
"That's important," Frank explained, but Mike rebuked him:
"You keep your mouth shut, kid, you're still a minor."
"Do you now want to send him to bed so that the adults can talk?" Emma wanted to know amused.
"Not a bad idea."
One way or another, the picnic dissolved and in the end it was Aiden and Frank who shook out the blankets and folded them together, while the others went on with the two baskets they had packed.
"You know," Frank then said quietly as they went back on the path to the village, "you look at Emma the way I think I look at her."
"What?" Aiden, who couldn't quite follow him, was irritated.
"You have a crush on her."
"No." Vehemently, Aiden shook his head.
"But you look like that," Frank insisted.
"No," Aiden repeated quietly. "This has something to do with the curses. It's complicated."
"Ah." Frank didn't look as if he'd believe him, but instead something else went through to Aiden.
"So you really have a crush on her?" he wanted to know from Frank, who got red ears.
"It's silly," he muttered. "She has Matt and is eight years older and everything." Aiden didn't know what to say about it, so he was silent, but Tibbers pushed himself into the foreground. It was like an incomplete transformation and almost unpleasant.
"It'll pass," he explained, and Frank frowned sceptically. "She likes you and you can be grateful that she accepts you - all of us - like a family."
*Her real family is a joke anyway.*, Aiden grumbled- he knew the feeling.
"She has Cullen as her brother," Frank said quietly.
"Cullen is her blood relative, right, but the two will never get along as well as Emma and Mike."
"What do you mean when you talk about the brother of the soul?"
"I mean what I say." Tibbers shrugged. Frank didn't look like he could do much with the answer, but Aiden and the others couldn't either.
"We are all her brothers," Tibbers said then. "You too."
"Matt hardly," Frank murmured and pushed a branch aside. "Otherwise she probably wouldn't sleep with him."
Tibbers said nothing about that; they had agreed that the subject of the curse remained between them and even Frank was no exception.
Oliver and Nadja talked to Emma from both sides as they went back to the village after the picnic. Or rather, they argued about some details in the Osiris myth, which Emma knew quite well, but was a little overwhelmed by these details.
Just as they were passing the town hall, a figure emerged from the shadow of the entrance and stepped towards them. Immediately Oliver stopped as if rooted. The stranger had flame-red hair and orange beard stubbles, the large broadsword on his back suited his stature. His leather armor was dyed black and had red lacquered metal fittings, on his chest two dark red lightning bolts crossed, above them the letter I, below a R. Imperium Romanum - the lightning bolts probably meant that he was a son of Jupiter.
"Well, who do we have here?" he asked with a fine smile. Oliver, at Emma's side, tensed up and she assumed that the two knew each other - the stranger looked about as old as Oliver.
"What do you want?" Oliver asked promptly. "You have nothing to do here."
"Oh, that's my business and discussed with Tobias, don't worry, Olli." The smile became wider, more dangerous. "I just wanted to take a look at the Black Fire..." He reached out one hand to Emma and before she could blink, two shields lay around her and from further back Tibbers gave a warning rumble. It was enough to distract the stranger, and then suddenly Matt and Mike were there, both with a dagger in their hands.
"Hey, hey, slow down. I'm one of the allies."
"I doubt that very much, Castiel," Mike said grimly.
"Tobias knows I'm here. I'm fighting by your side."
"Fighting together is different than being allied," said Matt cool. Castiel looked more annoyed than offended.
"Believe what you want. I don't want to hurt your pretty mage." The way he emphasized the words, Emma had her doubts about it.
The others probably, too, because Tibbers nudged her with his snout and pushed her aside, shielded her with his big body and then Oliver pulled her with him to the houses.
"Who is Castiel exactly?" she wanted to know when they were out of earshot. Oliver sighed deeply.
"An exile." He ran his fingers through his thin hair. "Castiel's only two years older than me, we grew up together in the nest." His face said he didn't have good memories. "He is cursed, you know. Well..." Oliver sighed again.
"There was already a team of five Cursed ones. Castiel was the youngest of them. Unlike you they weren't put together directly - probably because of Aiden - but they were a really good team. After a few years Castiel came back alone from a mission somewhere up in Sweden."
"Oh." Emma made and had a bad feeling. Oliver nodded and made a face.
"He was talking about ghouls, but that was a pretty strange thing, all in all, and so the mayor banished him."
"Did he come back just for the war?"
"Oh, he came back four years ago when Tobias became mayor. And Tobias let him stay."
Oliver shrugged. "The banishment was pronounced by his predecessor and was almost ten years old, presumably he thought it was enough."
"So he was banished again", Emma stated and Oliver nodded thoughtfully.
"There were some very ugly murders here in the village and also in the town. They never could prove anything against him, but... he was highly suspicious. So Tobias renewed the banishment at some point."
"And now he's back..."
"If you can, stay out of his way. He always had a liking for mages and..." Oliver broke off.
"Okay..." Emma nodded. "Don't worry, I can take care of myself."
"I don't doubt that." Oliver wrung himself a smile, but his posture remained tense.