I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. Of all the potholes to walk into.
Luther chuckled. “Take your time.”
“You see the nature of magic and the traces living beings leave in their environment. I perceive the specifics of one’s magic, but only when I meet them face to face. To me, everyone’s power has a unique scent, and I don’t mean in olfactory sense. A lupine shapeshifter differs from a feline one, a navigator differs from a splasher, and when I come across someone whose magic is rare, I store the memory of their scent right here.” He tapped his temple.
He had remembered my scent. I must have been special enough to commit to memory. When we first met, he’d accused Mom of holding out on him because she had a sensate all this time. I should’ve asked myself how he’d identified me. I shouldn’t have forgotten this. A blunder.
“You’ve changed,” Luther continued. “There are layers and layers of power wrapped around your core, but that core remains the same. I remember it from years ago when I first met you. You are still you.”
He had no idea what those words meant to me.
“Did I say something wrong?” he asked gently.
“I have lived through so many versions of me. I don’t even know who I am anymore.”
“This is life,” Luther said. “We change, we alter ourselves, we grow or shrink. It’s part of the human condition. You might have altered your identity, but when I heard you think through the scene, you sounded just like Kate. She has an innate sense of what a person might naturally do in a dangerous situation and so do you. Hold on to that.”
All those years and I sounded like Mom. A happy feeling warmed me, and I let myself bask in it for a moment. I would need to watch my speech patterns around people who used to know me.
“Would you mind letting me see your full power for a moment? The cloak is obscuring things.”
The cloak was supposed to obscure things. That’s why I had painstakingly built it and practiced maintaining it until it became second nature. I could say no, but I needed Luther to understand what was at stake.
“One condition. There is a reason I haven’t told my family I’m here. I’ll explain why, but you have to promise not to tell them.”
“So I would know something the Lennarts don’t?” Luther smiled. “My lips are sealed, pending the explanation.”
I dropped the cloak.
Luther became completely still.
We sat quietly, looking at each other. That’s right. Look at my power. With all this magic, I’m still hiding. That’s how high the stakes are.
Luther came to, as if waking up, cleared his throat, and reached for me. “May I?”
He gently took me by the chin, leaned forward, and examined my face. “Fascinating. What happened?”
“Transmogrification through magic assimilation. I ended up with someone else’s body part and had to incorporate it.”
“Incredibly risky, but it clearly paid off. Was it an eye?”
Luther nodded and sat back.
I reinstated my cloak.
He shook his head. “It’s like an eclipse.”
“Thank you.” I had worked very hard on my cloak.
“I see your core, and I see the corona of your power, with faint traces of something else, still being assimilated. You’re still becoming. But I don’t see any trace of Kate’s power signature.”
Years ago, I was bitten by a shapeshifter and my body snapped. The Pack’s chief physician, Dr. Doolittle, had sedated me to keep me from turning loup, delaying the inevitable to allow my mom and dad to come to terms with it. I was going to be put down. In a last-ditch effort to save me, my mother pulled the blood out of my body with magic and washed it with hers, purging the Lyc-V from me. I survived, but the ritual bound us. For the next four years, I was magically tethered to Mom. I couldn’t pinpoint her exact location, but I knew in which direction to go to find her from miles away. I sensed when she was hurt, and if she gave me a direct order, I was compelled to obey.
She had only given me that kind of order once, just before she died. Her death had lasted only seconds before Dad had pulled her back from the brink. He had acquired a kind of godhood just so he could sacrifice all of it to resurrect her. We were that kind of family.
“When Mom died, the bond between us broke. I no longer have any of her in my blood.”
“Made whole but at a cost,” Luther said. “The ability to create blood armor and weapons was one of the best applications of magic I have ever encountered.”
I took out a knife, made a small cut on my left forearm, and pulled some blood out, shaping it into a miniature arrow, slightly larger than a darning needle.
Luther’s eyes widened.
I tossed the arrow at the table. It cut through the inch-thick wood and sank into the floor. I let it crumble into dust, sealed the cut by clotting the blood, and smiled.
“I stand corrected,” Luther said. “My turn: how?”
“The power of Shinar’s bloodline isn’t blood manipulation, although they are the best at it. It’s the ability to claim and hold land. Anyone can make blood armor and weapons if their magic is powerful enough, and they’ve had the right training. I’ve had a lot of training.”
“I see.” Luther frowned. “The physical changes are remarkable. The pain must’ve been excruciating.”
“I went into a magically induced coma for almost nine months.”
“I’m amazed you survived. What possessed you to do a thing like that?”
I had to make him understand, or he would talk to Mom and it would all be over.
“Are you familiar with Moloch?”
“A Canaanite god, the unpleasant kind. Famous for his dominion over fire and a fondness for child sacrifice. As I recall, he prefers his offerings to be burned alive. There is some murky water around the interpretation of the name.”
“It’s not a name. It’s a title. It means god-king. It was used by hereditary rulers who descended from Saidoune ibn Canaan, who had founded the city of Sidon over seven thousand years ago. They ruled the people who later became known as Phoenicians, and their kingdom stretched over modern Israel all the way to southern Jerusalem.”
“Roland’s contemporaries.” Luther grimaced.
“Not exactly. The rulers of Shinar concentrated on retaining and protecting land through the generations. Their urge to claim territory with their magic ensured that the worthiest descendant became Sharrum, the king, or Sharratum, the queen. They were very careful to stay away from divinity. Moloch’s family feared death, so they focused on regeneration. They wanted to become unkillable, and when their natural magic wasn’t enough, they reached for divine power. They allowed themselves to be worshiped as gods.”
Luther frowned. “Divinity comes with a price. Faith has power. When you seek godhood, the collective prayers of your faithful supply you with that power, but they also reshape your needs and bind you. You become dependent on belief and obligated to respond to supplicants.”
“And that’s why Moloch’s kingdom fell. He became a god, obsessed with accumulating power through sacrifice and prayer. Normal human needs and urges no longer troubled him. Why should he care that his ancestral kingdom was conquered and carved into pieces, as long as he continued to be worshipped?”
“Sounds like he left his humanity behind a long time ago. Once you decide that burning tiny humans alive is a perfectly acceptable method of upgrading, you stop being human. Made the transition to godhood that much easier.”
I nodded. I’d seen the inside of Moloch’s citadel up close and in person. I had never before witnessed that much suffering. I hadn’t known human beings could endure that much.
“Moloch had made the transition around the end of Roland’s grandfather’s reign. He should have faded away like other ancient gods without a persistent mythos. But the horrors of his cult left a lasting impression. He’s mentioned in five times in Leviticus, once in Second Kings, and once in Jeremiah, not counting the allusions in Deuteronomy and Ezekiel. Sometime during the middle ages, he made the transition to demonhood.”
Luther sighed. “Christianity, the most composite of all religions. Why let a rival god, even a small one, die, when you can turn him into a demon and rummage through his rites and holidays for the bits you can scavenge to attract his worshippers?”
“Exactly. After the first Shift, magic hadn’t disappeared completely. It dropped too low to be useful, but it was still there. Every time Moloch’s name was mentioned, he got a crumb of power. That trickle kept him alive like an IV drip to a coma patient. Then the second Shift flooded the world with magic and delivered a shot of adrenaline to Moloch’s power reserve. He hoarded it, biding his time, until four flares ago, he was reborn as a human.”
Luther leaned back. “An avatar?”
“The time between flares has been steadily shrinking. It’s about six and a half years now. That would put him…” Luther looked at the ceiling. “…at about thirty-three, thirty-four. Plenty of time to build a power base.”
“He has a citadel in Arizona. Near perfect regeneration isn’t his only trick. He is almost impervious to fire. He wields it like a weapon and he’s highly skilled in metallurgy. He overlaps with both Kronos and Hephaestus in powers and mythos, and he is taking full advantage of any stray Greek Neopagans that come his way.”
A shadow passed over Luther’s eyes. “Why Arizona?”
“Metallic mineralization belt. He mines copper, gold, silver, lead, and zinc. It gives him access to some iron, but also tungsten, peridot, and azurite, which he uses to create enchanted weapons. He’s building an army. Also, it’s mostly empty and hot as hell.”
“Ha-ha,” Luther said, his tone dry. “I get it. Hell as in Tophet. The Levant is a rather crowded place right now. You can’t swing a sacrificial lamb without hitting some old god.”
He wasn’t wrong. Any of the fertile regions where ancient civilizations had flourished were becoming hotly contested territories.
Luther shrugged. “So, Moloch has free reign in Arizona? None of this is giving me warm fuzzies, but so far all the bad things you’re describing are over there.” He pointed vaguely to the west. “I imagine you’re about to tell me something that will make it relevant and so much worse.”
“The Witch Oracle had a vision.”
“Oh goodie. She always has a vision. It’s always vague and it’s always bad. Just once I’d like a prophecy proclaiming that, without a doubt, everything is going to be fine.”
I waited for him to get it off his chest.
Luther sighed dramatically and motioned to me. “Lay it on me. I have braced myself.”
“Kate and Moloch meet. He kills her. The world burns and then falls into darkness.”
Luther blinked. “That is … oddly specific for Sienna.”
“It was a very vivid vision. She had to be sedated afterward. Every time she looks into the future, it’s the same. If my mother comes into contact with Moloch in any way, they fight, she loses, he kills her.”
“This murder is connected to Moloch?”
“Moloch’s assassin priests showed up at Pastor Haywood’s murder scene. This has the same MO: flying creature entering from a considerable height, victim torn apart by claws, missing heart, and the same magic signature.”
Luther pondered me. A long moment passed.
“You can’t go home.”
Thank you, gods.
“If you go home, the second Kate gets wind of this, she’ll grab her sword and wade into this mess. You are her prodigal daughter. You come back and you’re in danger. There will be no stopping her.”
I leaned forward, pouring every bit of my anxiety into the words. “You know my family. The moment they know, even if I convince them that Mom will die if she meets Moloch, they won’t give up. They will look for a loophole or a work-around. They will try to find some way to fix this because that’s what they do. They won’t allow me to proceed on my own. Sienna was very specific. This is not the kind of prophecy you can trick. Moloch’s former divine nature is a huge factor. If he were just a human, there would be wiggle room, but he is an avatar, a god made flesh. This wasn’t a version of the future; this was a deity communicating its will and intent. This prophecy is ironclad.”
Luther looked at the ceiling. I could practically feel the gears turning in his mind.
“Does he know of the prophecy?”
“He does. Sienna had touched his mind.”
“Risky. Why Kate?”
“He fears the Shinar. The family has repelled his invasions in the past. He worries about the reunification of my mother and grandmother. To his mind, each is a kingdom unto herself and their reach will grow until he is trapped between them. Mom is an easier target than New Shinar.”
Luther frowned. “Okay, trying to get my bearings here. Mom equals Kate. Grandmother is who, exactly?”
“Errahim, the Rose of Tigris, Sharratum of New Shinar.”
“Kate’s aunt? Your… great aunt? The Plaguebringer?”
“She doesn’t like to be called that.”
“And New Shinar is?”
“Shinar reborn, the New Kingdom, in California.”
“How much of California?”
“From Oceanside south to San Diego and then diagonally south-east to San Felipe across the Sea of Cortez to Puerto Penasco. She looked at the map after we subdued San Diego and said she wanted ‘the green parts.’”
Luther stared at me.
“What do you mean, a kingdom?”
“I mean that Erra claimed it bit by bit with her magic and now she has dominion over it. Any other magical heavyweight must pay their respects when they enter our territory. Should a threat arise, either she or I will handle it. The larger counties and municipalities pay us tribute, but most regular people don’t know we exist.”
“California is part of the United States.”
“Was. The states haven’t been united for a while, not really, but if the federal government wishes to regain its influence over our territory, they’re welcome to try. If they wanted that land, they should have done a better job protecting the people living on it.”
“So, New Shinar is a kingdom, Erra is its queen, and what does that make you?”
“Sharratim. I am of the queen. The Heir, Dananu Edes-Shinar, the strength of the New Kingdom. I am her will reified; she issues the command and I see it made reality.”
Luther took off his glasses and rubbed his face. “Do you know how crazy that sounds? You speak like you’ve been brainwashed by an ancient cult.”
“When my father died and my mother and I starved, the state of Georgia and the United States did nothing to help. When sea demons invaded Atlanta, actual Fomorians, who fed on human flesh, they did nothing to stop them. When my grandfather decided to subjugate the city, they did nothing to oppose him.”
“Roland possessed nearly god-like power. What could they have done?”
“Exactly. They have a duty to their people. They shirked it and engaged in a willful abdication of power. They can’t protect their citizens, they do not bother to render aid to the hungry and the injured, and they selectively enforce their laws. Laws must apply to everyone or they apply to no one. My state and my country failed me. I chose to build my own.”
Luther stared at me again, his expression unsettled. He and I were on the opposite sides. I was a princess of the new age and he was a law enforcement officer of the old.
“I wonder,” he said softly. “If you’re the future or if I am.”
I smiled with all the beauty and radiance my new face provided. “Why not both?”