After hiking around the lake in search of any flowing body of water, Hollis grinned, spotting the mouth of a stream up ahead. Cole picked his way over the tangle of branches and weeds, not a man of the woods or nature like Oberon was. She paused, turning to glare at him, his slow pace irking her. He pushed his glasses up his nose, sweating in the humid air as clouds gathered above. His eyes snapped to hers, and her chest seized. He was handsome, that much she couldn’t deny, but guilt soon followed her lustful thoughts.
Oberon had saved her, Oberon had shown her kindness, Oberon had awoken within her something she never knew was possible to feel. Why, then, as she stared at the scientist, did her heart race? Why, when he grinned lopsidedly at her, did blood rush to her cheeks?
She crossed her arms, annoyed. His smile faltered as he appeared at her side, and she turned to take off again, but his smooth hand caught her arm, and she spun to face him in shock, shrugging her arm from his grasp. He relented, staring down at her, curious. Flustered, she cast her eyes to the shifting rocks below her boots.
“You don’t talk much,” he said, voice deep, accent so alluring. She glowered up at him, crossing her arms as a breeze whipped through the trees, the gurgle of the stream new to her—they’d only grown up near a pond, home situated over a well where they had an ample amount of fresh water.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” she spat, knowing she was being unfair. But, considering what he’d done to Oberon, she felt just. His gaze softened, his eyes like melting pools of chocolate mingled with caramel. He sighed, rubbing his forehead.
“Hollis, I know you’re attached to him, but you need to know how dangerous he is—”
“I’ve been saved from people who were more evil than you can say he is,” she hissed, defensive. He was stunned, absorbing her words.
“I just want to make sure he’s not harmed you, you seem quite taken with him,” he said, tilting his head to the side. Her blush deepened.
“No, he won’t hurt me.”
Cole nodded, surrendering.
“Alright. I think it fair, though, to share what I know of him—”
“You know what he is?” she said, eyes widening as she leaned in. He backed away at her sudden ferocity.
“Erm, no, not technically speaking. His DNA was comprised of thirty-five percent human, the other…well, unknown to mankind. Until now,” he said, taking off his glasses to wipe them with the hem of his shirt. She narrowed her eyes at him.
“Why do you want to help us?”
He sighed, pushing his glasses back on, glancing out over the serene lake. He’d never been outside a city’s walls before. It was glorious—freeing, beautiful, wild.
“Because, my partner hid his research from me. He…knew, he knew that Ada—Oberon was not human. And what we’ve done, what we’ve created has the capacity to change the course of our world. I just…” he trailed off, eyes searching her round, innocent face. He was lost in her blue gaze for a moment, feeling heat flash through him. He shook his head.
“If I may, I want to be on the right side of history,” he said, wondering if she knew what he could possibly mean. She stared, blinking up at him. He rubbed his aching wrists, sensing Hollis was intelligent in her own way—but not when it came to the world in its cruel reality. Her brows tilted up in the middle, dark compared to her icy blonde hair.
“Do you…do you think you know what he is?” she whispered. Cole didn’t miss the tremble of fear in her voice. He frowned, shaking his head. In a flash, Hollis’ fist shot out, punching him rather hard in the shoulder, a scowl on her face.
“That’s for following me from the store,” she said, turning and stomping off as Cole rubbed his throbbing shoulder. He watched her go, stunned, her narrow hips widening to her round butt. He hated how easily she drew him in. He’d had a few girlfriends before, but all were forced relationships. Being from a wealthy, prominent family, he had the option to marry anyone of his choosing. People of a lower status were forced to…well, fight over scraps, as terrible as it sounded. His parents had married out of necessity, as most wealthy individuals did.
But growing up, reading Shakespeare, Hardy, and Bronte, he was doomed—a hopeless romantic, his mother called him. His relationships were fleeting and purely physical in nature, and he felt guilty for it. As he stared at Hollis, feeling her potent punch to his shoulder, his guilt faded away. Sure, she was brash, unrefined, and seemed hell-bent on Oberon, but Cole knew that couldn’t work. Maybe, just maybe, he would be able to prove his worth to Hollis someday.
He jaunted after her, into the shelter of the woods, following the stream due north. They walked for a while, Hollis becoming more and more agitated as she kicked leafy greens that weren’t mugwort.
“Do you even know what it looks like?” she growled, glancing over at him across the stream. He chuckled.
“Mugwort, also known as Artemisia vulgaris. Uses include speeding up labor, expulsion of afterbirth, and helpful in ridding the body of anxiety,” he prattled off.
“Show off,” Hollis muttered to herself, eyes scanning the stream bank once more. They stayed in silence for a while, until Hollis squealed, pointing to a bush of what she knew had to be mugwort. Cole hopped across the narrow stream, bending to inspect it.
“Well, Mr. Scientist?” she said, hands on her hips. He flashed her a grin.
“Definitely mugwort. How much do we need?”
Hollis frowned, unsure.
“Maybe the whole thing, just to be safe,” she said, shivering as those crimson eyes flashed through her mind, the reason for this task brought to the forefront once more. Cole nodded as she shed her pack, holding it open as he tugged the plant from the moist soil, roots dangling like wet tendrils of hair. Gentle, he dropped the plant into the bag, and she zipped up the sides halfway, letting the pointed leaves stick out and drink the golden sunshine filtering in through the canopy above.
He stood, brushing off his hands.
“You know, mugwort is often used in pagan rituals. Or was, many hundreds of years ago,” he said. Hollis eyed him, unfamiliar with the notion. Cole sensed this, scrambling for a better explanation.
“Pagan, as in, ritualistic worship of nature—different deities and gods linked with the natural world.”
Again, her brows furrowed.
“So why would Oberon know this stuff, then?” she said, musing aloud. Cole shrugged.
“To be honest, most of society thought paganism as…evil, linked with Satan, demons. But that could just be unfair cover-ups from the Catholic church during the Christianization of—”
He stopped, sensing again she was lost.
“Sorry,” he muttered. She shook her head.
“Satan?” she whispered, nervous. Had she…had she been visited by Lucifer himself? Is that what all this mystery was about? Was Oberon somehow linked to something so evil? Her chest cinched, her mind seeming to go blank as she remembered him and his affinity with her father’s Bible. She reached out a shaky hand, wavering, gripping Cole’s forearm for support.
“Hollis, what’s wrong? Are you faint? Here, sit,” he urged, but she shook her head, blue eyes finding his face again.
“Cole, tell me everything you know about the Bible.”
Oberon paced along the shore, watching as the two dots on the horizon drew nearer, the ache in his heart dissipating the closer Hollis came to him. He’d found sage and rosemary in their cooking supplies bag, and had already coaxed a fire to life as the loons began to call out to one another. Dusk fell over the land, bathing everything in a pinkish hue. The two were quiet as they approached, but Hollis offered him a grin and a wave, leafy greens seeming to sprout from her back.
He chuckled at her innocence and the fact she’d brought the whole plant. There was a tightness in her eyes, however, and she glanced at Cole, a look shared between the two that made Oberon livid. They were keeping something from him.
He approached as she shed her backpack, sitting on their sleeping bags and peeling off her boots. She peered around Oberon’s legs to the wide circle he’d made in the soil, brows knitting together in confusion. Cole stepped between them, halting Oberon, who sneered down at the weak man.
“Move,” he seethed, ready to tie him up once more and gag him for good measure. Though frightened, Cole held his ground.
“Hollis would like a few questions answered, before you perform your ritual,” he said, voice wavering. He snorted in disdain.
“She knows the deal.”
Oberon glanced down at Hollis, her fingers knotted together, her shoulders hunched in defeat. A pang shot through his chest, seeing her unhappy. His livid, golden eyes found Cole’s face once more. The scientist swallowed, wrought with nerves.
“I don’t need to hear what you have to say, but Hollis deserves the truth, if you’re to pull her further into your world,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. Oberon’s fingers twitched at his side, wishing to strangle this fiend. With a nod, Cole stepped aside, walking to his tree near the horses and plopping down. Gritting his teeth, Oberon crouched in front of Hollis, reaching out to grip her chin, his anger palpable.
“You do not trust me,” he said, feeling her emotions. Her sad eyes found his, and she squirmed under his gaze. The sun set further, and the urge to perform the ritual nipped at him like an incessant mosquito.
He sighed, falling back and seating himself in front of her, weighing his options. What could she do against him, if she knew the truth? She could run, but he doubted she would, for he’d hunt her relentlessly. She wouldn’t be angry—more fascinated than anything. He hoped.
“What will you do, tiny Hollis, when I tell you?” he whispered, voicing his concern. She frowned at him, then surprised him by standing and turning around, her ass in his face. He reached up, greedily gripping her hips and forgetting everything he was about to say, and she sat once more, nestled between his legs. He inhaled her scent, calming immediately.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, stubborn as always. He chuckled, pulling her closer, wishing she could understand better what he was about to tell her.
“I…I don’t need a full on explanation,” she said. “Just…I just want to know what you are.”
He nodded, steeling himself.
“I will tell you, and then we must hurry and ready this rite. Deal?” he asked. Shuddering, she nodded, gripping his tanned forearms in her small hands.
His heart raced in his chest, nervous for her reaction. His lips parted, readying his truth, his muscles tensing.
She turned in his grasp, their faces inches apart, her blue eyes wide and wild.
“Are you a…nephilim?”
He stilled at her words, shocked, the truth hanging in the air between them. It had been thousands of years since he’d heard that word aloud. And with it came torrents of memories, good and bad. His brows pulled down over his brooding eyes, and he gave one, slow nod. Her eyes widened further, and she stiffened in his grasp.
“You think me evil,” he said, tasting her energy. Her brows knotted together, puffy lips opened to argue.
“No, I don’t,” she said, and he could hear the hammering of her own heart, could feel it beneath his fingertips.
“Do you know what that word means, Hollis?” he said, raising his brows briefly, voice soft, pleading. She gave a slight shake of her head. He reached up, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, her face smeared with dirt from her hike around the lake. He sighed, frowning. There was no time left to explain, but he felt he had to, at least a bit.
“It means…my father was an angel, cast out of heaven, that he mated with a human, that he bred me,” he said, voice low and gravelly. Her chest strained against her white tank top, her breaths coming out ragged and labored. His eyes flicked between hers, and his self-loathing reached a new peak.
“So…so heaven…heaven is real?”
He quirked his head to the side, feeling for himself how much Hollis was beginning to spiral. He held tight, knowing this was too much for her. He glanced to the stars, just beginning to twinkle in the grey and pink sky. His eyes fell back to her face, so earnest, drinking in every word he said.
“And so is hell, Hollis.”
She shook her head, pushing away with her feeble, cold hands on his chest, but he held fast, reaching up to knot his fingers into her loose braid and hold her still, his dominance overpowering her panic.
Her wild, ocean eyes found his, and she was so frightened, it felt as though he were dying once more.
“Please, don’t be afraid of me,” he pleaded, and she stopped her struggle, tears gathering in her eyes. A cool breeze off the lake chilled them both.
“I won’t hurt you,” he whispered. Her bottom lip trembled, her tears falling, and he pulled her to his chest, running his large hand over her back.
“I promise, Hollis, I won’t hurt you. I’m not a monster,” he soothed as she cried. He felt her fear, and her pain, and her confusion, but when she pulled away after a few minutes, sniffling, her question caught him off guard.
“You promise me that heaven is real?”
Her red rimmed eyes were so earnest, and he knew exactly why she was asking. He cupped her wet cheek, nodding.
“And I’ve no doubt your family is there, Hollis,” he said, the words almost sticking in his throat, for the same merciful God that loved his creation had simultaneously decimated an entire race. It was something Oberon could never reconcile in his mind, but Hollis didn’t need to hear that, not right now. Right now, she needed him, needed comfort.
His skin prickled as the moon began to rise, and he became rigid.
“We have to start, I will explain more later, I swear,” he urged. Nodding, she wiped her tears, and he helped her up, tugging off his shorts as the cool night air caressed his skin, reaching for the abandoned mugwort. Her bulging eyes looked away as she blushed, hugging herself. She’d never be used to the masculine anatomy, especially one so bold and endowed as Oberon. But there was something comforting about it, all the same. Holding the uprooted plant in his grasp, he smirked down at her.
“Get naked, Hollis.”