The Rise

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Chapter Nine

I stiffened as the words left her lips. She was supposed to give me this? Was it from Aeron? Was he trying to taunt me now?

Valerio gripped the woman tighter. His lips formed a tight line. “Why?”

She crossed her arms again, glared at Valerio, and said, “Like I said before, it’s none of your business.”

After I gave Valerio a stern nod, he released her. I knew she wouldn’t going to give us any answers by us just demanding them. She huffed and dusted herself off. When she turned to me, I gave her the skull.

“Mae,” Valerio started. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

I held up my hand. I didn’t know if it was a smart idea or not. This woman wasn’t kind at all. There was no reason for me to be kind back to her. But I didn’t know who she was or why she was up here. I needed answers.

And, to get those answers, I wanted to be kinder than how my mother would’ve been. I was being very careful to not step into the same footsteps as her. I didn’t want to let everyone’s deaths make me a monster.

The woman snatched the skull from my hands.

“What’s your name?” I asked softly.

“Mariella. What’s it to you?”

I gazed at her for a few moments, watching her silver hair blow in her face. “My name is Mae. I’m the Moon Goddess.”

Mariella scoffed. “Yeah, right.” She looked me up and down, pausing at the glowing white mark on my chest. Her eyes widened. “Oh, my goodness,” she whispered. Dropping to her knees, she held out the skull to me. “Oh, please, forgive me. I didn’t know. Don’t-don’t hurt me.” Fear shone in her eyes.

I smiled sweetly down at her. She probably thought I was my mother. Mother’s reputation was obviously not a good one. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

She held out the skull a bit farther. “Take this, please.”

I took it from her and helped her up. “Mariella, can you tell me who this is?”

“The first Moon Goddess. It’s her skull. My family saved it – was asked to save it by her before she died.”

My brows furrowed. “Why?”

She looked at the skull for a moment. “I’m not sure. Everything has gotten a bit fuzzy throughout the generations. But my mother told me that this skull wielded the power of dark and light before that terrible, terrible man took it from her and became the darkness himself.”

I swallowed hard. “Aeron.” I should’ve known he took the power from her, probably stole it right under her nose, and then killed her.

She shook her head in disgust. “That bastard.”

“Why is he a bastard?” I asked. Of course, I could list a hundred and one reasons why he was a bastard, but I needed to know exactly why he was one to her. After all, she lived atop the mountain that he had lived upon.

She pinched her lips together. “When the original Moon Goddess died, he left a woman in my family here to guard this skull. Told her he’d be back to help her out, told her she couldn’t leave. He even cursed her to live on this mountain and this mountain alone. My whole family bares this curse now.”

“You can’t leave the mountain?”

She shook her head. “I have tried to leave, but he’s cursed me to the spot. If I try to pass a certain barrier, my body aches with an inescapable pain, and my lungs fill with – they fill with a darkness – and I can’t breathe. Oh, dear, it’s so bad – too bad.” She trembled, as if she was reliving the experience many times over.

I apologized to her and told her I’d try to help her out in any way that I could – have someone bring her clothes and food and make her a little cabin if she wanted – but she declined. “I can live on my own. I’ve done it for the past sixty-five years. It’s peaceful out here.” She gazed up at the trees and smiled. “Sometimes at night I can hear the wolves howling.” Her gaze dropped to the skull. “Anyways I have never met the Man of the Dark, but mother told me he took it really hard when she died.”

Mariella huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “But if he cared about her that much, you would think he’d want to visit his first lover every once in a while, – even if it’s just her skull.”

My eyes widened. “Lover?” I asked. They were lovers? I shivered. He was lovers with my great-grandmother and wanted to be lovers with me too? What a pervert.

“Lovers.” Mariella shivered too. “Disgusting, disgusting lovers.” She knelt to pick up her berries from earlier and a few of the Protector’s helped.

I leaned closer to Valerio. “So, if he doesn’t come visit the skull, why curse her family to this mountain?”

Valerio thought for a long time, his gaze distant. Then he shrugged. “It’s important. I don’t know how, but it is.”

“Either he needs it for something or he’s hiding it from you,” Nakida said, staring at the skull.

“We should take it far away from here and keep it safe,” I said.

Mariella placed the rest of her berries in her basket. “He told my family to keep it here, but I don’t care about what he said anymore. It’s yours.”

I nodded and thanked her for the information. Before I left, I ordered a few Protectors to stay with her in case taking this off of the mountain triggered Aeron and he decided to pay Mariella a visit.

She grabbed my arm before we descended the mountain. “Before you go, I want to tell you the only other piece of information that has successfully been passed down through my family. It’s a riddle of some sorts, I think. In the dark of night, he will be there. Far, far away from here, he’s nothing but a hare. Dark as day and Light as night, his storm will follow you with all its might.”

Again, I thanked her. When we descended the mountain, Nakida, Ayodele, Valerio, and I drove in the same car. We drove with two cars beside us, one in front and one in back. I was taking no chances with Aeron. The riddle was something we could worry about later. But right now, I was focusing on getting out of here safely and as soon as possible.

Once we approached the mountain’s edge, the skull began to shake in my hands. The white side glowed brightly, and the black side grew darker somehow. Its power radiated through my fingers until we were a few miles away from the mountain.

I kept it in my lap, hands tightly grasping the sides, until we arrived at the pack-house. “Where are we hiding it?” Valerio asked, holding the door open for me.

“I know a place.”

I decided to hide it in a place that I only knew about. If Valerio, Nakida, Ayodele, or anyone else was captured, tortured, or accidentally slipped to Aeron, Luca, or the divine, we’d be screwed.

The place manifested itself in my mind. I closed my eyes and leapt into the air, teleporting to an empty warehouse. The lights were off, giving it an eerie feel. I walked around aimlessly until I found a light switch. The lights turned on one by one, illuminating each lane until I saw the wooden targets at the ends of them.

I gazed down the one lane that held so many memories for Damon and me. Our first date.

Since I was here alone, I searched for a place to hide the skull. I walked down each lane, took off each target, checked each stump, and fiddled with each semi-loose wooden floor plank.

But there was nothing.

Just as I repositioned the last target back up, an axe came barreling down the lane and sliced into it, splitting the wood in half. I jumped back in surprise, clutched the skull to my chest, and turned around.

A man with broad shoulders and dark hooded eyes stood clutched another axe in his hand, a few feet behind me. When he saw my face, his eyes widened. “You’re the women Damon brought here.”

I nodded my head, remembering him from our first date. It had been months since we were here; I was surprised that he still remembered me. “Yes, I am.”

He placed the axe down onto the tree stump in front of him. “How’s he doing? I haven’t seen him in a while.”

I took a deep breath, knowing that he wasn’t a threat anymore, and walked toward him. “Damon’s dead.”

His lips parted. “Dead?” His voice was nearly a whisper. “He’s dead?” He didn’t say anything for a long time, just stood there, lost for words. “How? When?”

I knew he wouldn’t understand the whole truth. I wasn’t even sure he would believe me, but I told him anyway. “The God of the Night took his life. Damon died protecting me.”

He rubbed the back of his head, his bicep flexing. “I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “Look, if there’s anything I could do for you, please tell me. Damon was a good friend of mine. Used to come here every night to play a game with me.”

I clutched the skull closer to my chest, and he looked down at it. “There is something that you can do for me.”

After I told him that I needed to hide this – no questions asked – he brought me to his back office. We pushed his desk to the side of the room and pulled up the rug and a loose wooden plank under the rug. There was a hole big enough just to fit the skull.

We placed the plank back on and rolled the rug over it, hiding it. When we were finished, he gave me half a smile and stuck out his hand. “I’m Vihaan.”

I took it graciously. “Mae.”

“I have something that you might like,” Vihaan said. He opened a couple of his desk drawers, looking for something, then finally pulled out an axe. He handed it to me. “It was Damon’s. I’m sure he would’ve wanted you to have it.”

I held it in my hand, a smile tugging at my lips. “Thank you.”

A/N

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