Chapter 1: The Apple
Ogun sat in an uncomfortable wooden chair in the main office of his elementary school, across from the secretary's desk. The woman barely spared him more than a curt nod and a brisk, "You again, Contee." She'd shaken her head at him, her eyes rolling up to the ceiling as if in prayer. Then she'd picked up her desk phone. "As often as you're in here, I should have your parents' numbers on speed dial. Some kids," she'd snorted, dialing the number from memory. "They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Well, in your case, you must be from another tree because your parents are lovely people."
He heard his mother's voice on the other end of the line right before Mrs. Lawrence—the too-short, too-fat secretary—mumbled, "No wonder he's an only child. Who would risk having another kid like him?"
His mother had arrived fifteen minutes ago, and she was now in the principal's office. Normally, when he'd get in trouble, Mrs. Winters, the principal, would have him sit in on the meeting as well. This time, however, he'd been asked to wait outside.
Slumping in the chair, Ogun fumed at the exclusion. He hated the principal, with the cheery "Good mornings," she offered to all the students, to her "Why can't you be like the other kids, Ogun? I know you have it in you to behave." She would say that with a smile as well, but Ogun could smell the lie on her. Mrs. Winters, Mrs. Lawrence, and all the teachers Ogun have ever had thought of him in the same way—an uncontrollable bully.
He balled his hands at the thought. He was no bully. The other kids were weaklings. He had no time for the weak, pathetic humans. Their minds were slow and their bodies even slower. It took them forever to finish a simple math equation. School was boring, and his teachers were stupid. They had nothing to teach him that he didn't already know. Why his parents insisted on sending him to this lame school was beyond him.
By the time he was five, he'd already mastered seven languages. Now, at eight, he knew twice that many, including a couple considered "dead languages”. His reading and math were on the collegiate level, yet he was stuck in a third grade class with a bunch of morons who couldn't see past a wig and a fictitious southern drawl to realize when they were in the presence of Lady Shotel and Sky God.
What a bunch of losers. I should've kicked all their asses, instead of the jerk who made fun of me. How dare they laugh at me.
His fists balled tighter, and Ogun felt his eyes begin to redden and claws extend. He focused on that point in his head, a safe, calm place his mother told him to visit whenever the beast threatened to overwhelm him.
He did it now, not wanting to get into more trouble than he was already in by revealing his family's secret. Breathing slow but deep, Ogun focused on the only thing in his life that gave him peace and made him happy. Mother. She was there, in his mind's eye, smiling down at him in that patient way of hers.
With that thought, a tendril of guilt penetrated then destroyed the image. His mother would not be pleased with having to meet with the principal again. She rarely scolded, but when she did, Ogun was always left with a feeling of disappointment. It was not a good feeling to disappoint one's mother, especially when she asked so little of him. In fact, she only ever asked one thing of Ogun. "You must always be in control of your powers, son. If not, you’ll hurt innocents. Take care, my love, if you lose control you risk losing your heart, your soul."
But she didn't understand. No one truly understood. Losing control wasn't Ogun's issue, it was the sweet taste of rightness that came over him when he bested an opponent, making them bleed, scream in pain and beg for mercy. It was all about the conquest. And Ogun had found that he had an unquenchable thirst for subjugation, for winning by any means.
It wasn't the way of gods and heroes, of Lady Shotel and Sky God, but Ogun wasn't them, no matter that he was the spitting image of his father and had his mother's divine blood in his veins.
Ogun found himself frowning at the principal's closed office door. He wished he had x-ray vision like his father. As it was, he could just make out what Principal Winters was saying to his mother. He wondered if, in time, he would develop powers like his parents. He didn't have super vision or hearing, nor could he fly. He was, however, very strong and fast. His father told him his powers would eventually "kick in," though he didn't seem particularly happy about that prospect. In fact, Ogun was pretty sure his current frown matched the one his father often wore when Ogun did something "inappropriate".
Acting as if he weren't listening to the conversation on the other side of the door, Ogun fought not to lean closer, but all he heard was the principal's soft, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Contee. I wish things could've been different. I wish you and your husband the best of luck."
Then there was shifting of feet and movement toward the door. Quickly, Ogun sat up straight and placed his hands in his lap.
Within seconds, the principal's door cracked open and out came his mother. Mrs. Winters didn't follow, but she stood in the doorway, staring at his mother's back and shaking her head, sympathy in her blue eyes. But when those same eyes shifted to him, they darkened, narrowed, then brightened in shamed relief.
It was then Ogun knew. He would never return to this school. No wonder his mother had such a stony, resigned look on her face. She stopped in front of him, the chocolate eyes behind her glasses revealing none of the frustration and dissatisfaction she had to be feeling.
"Do you have all of your belongings, Ogun?"
His teacher had made sure he'd taken his lunch box and backpack with him when she'd sent him to the office, referral in hand. There was a blue-and-white jacket, a couple of toy cars, and a Sky God action figure in his locker, none of which Ogun cared enough about to stay in this school a minute longer.
"Then we can leave. Come along."
His mother extended her hand to him and Ogun took it, sliding from the wooden chair and grabbing his backpack with his other hand. Swinging the bag over his right shoulder, he followed his mother out the main office, down two hallways and out into the school parking lot. And not once did his mother utter one word to him, which wasn't like her at all. Ogun could count his friends on one hand and he would still have four fingers left.
The woman holding his hand, gentle and silent, was his only friend. And he had brought shame to her once more, dishonoring her with his continued mischief. But she said nothing, just continued to walk to her car, long, determined strides he knew well.
Standing mutely, Ogun waited for his mother to unlock the door. Once he heard the pop from the key fob she held in her right hand, he opened the rear door, tossed his backpack in and hopped onto a booster seat he didn't need. But he was eight, and his family was all about pretending to be normal. And human eight-year-olds, like his former classmates, still used booster seats.
Fifteen minutes later, they were home, and his mother had yet to speak one word to him about school. She did, however, have him wash his hands and eat a snack—baby carrots and peanut butter.
"I'm sorry," Ogun said around a mouth of peanut butter, but was quickly admonished for talking with his mouth full. After swallowing, taking a sip of milk, and making sure to wipe his mouth on the napkin his mother had placed beside his plate, Ogun said again, "I'm really sorry."
He wasn't sorry about popping that kid one and pushing him down the hill. They were playing "King of the Hill." And Ogun was the undisputed king. He'd won, beat all challengers and shut Marcus up. After he landed at the bottom of the hill, he was no longer laughing at Ogun.
"Marcus called me a 'momma's boy,'" he confessed, wanting her to understand his motivation for doing what he did. Although the bullying hadn't been the only motivation, but it was the primary one and the only one he was willing to share with his mother. Akonadi, despite their warrior spirit, were not bullies. His mother, no matter Ogun's rationale, would not so easily excuse his misbehavior.
"Come with me."
Adina moved from the kitchen table, and Ogun followed. She walked them down the hall and up a flight of stairs. Once upstairs, she made a right and continued until she reached her bedroom. The door was open, so she stepped aside and allowed him to precede her in.
The room, as always, was spotless, his father compulsive about having everything in its place. A four-poster bed was pushed against one of the walls, which was where Ogun sat while he waited for his mother.
Once entering, she went to her closet. When she turned to face him, she wore shotel swords. The curved, sickle-shaped swords, made of magic and metal, wrapped like a snake around his mother’s arms—going from muscular bicep to forceful wrist.
"Are you going out as Lady Shotel? Did you get an emergency call while I ate?"
"No, but this is an emergency, of sorts."
She moved to the bed and knelt in front of him. For the first time in his short life, there were tears in his mother's eyes. Akondai warriors did not cry. Lady Shotel did not cry. Adina Contee, his mother, apparently did.
"I think I’ve failed you." She wiped away the tears that hadn't yet fallen, then held out her arms to him. "When my mother gave these to me, I was a little older than you are now. I, too, was bullied and called names. Unfortunately, for some kids, even for some adults, to make themselves feel better about their own shortcomings, they seek to hurt others by passing along their pain and inferiority complexes."
Ogun couldn't imagine anyone ever daring to bully his mother. Even as a child, she could've crushed any kid who'd come off wrong to her.
"Did you beat them up when they called you names?"
They would've deserved it if she had. Even now, as powerful as his mother was, she tempered her strength with fairness, justice, and patience. Just like now, with me.
On a sigh she admitted, "I did. Not often, but yes, sometimes I let my anger get the better of me. And, if I'm to be totally honest with you, Ogun, such fits of anger occurred when I was a young woman as well. Even now, I have to be cognizant of not only my temper, but the reactions they may result in if I'm not careful."
His small hands reached out, thin fingers running over her swords.
"My mother had these made for me."
"To protect you."
He'd seen news footage of his mother in battle, her shotel swords serving as weapon and shield. He'd wanted to be there with her, fighting by her side, making sure nothing and no one harmed her. But he was still a boy, far too small and weak to be of any use. Yet one day he would be a man, as big and as strong as his father, then he would protect her, make anyone pay who dared to shoot weapons at her.
"Not for my protection. Well, I guess in a way they were."
He didn't understand. "You're saying you're actually stronger when you're not wearing the swords?"
"In a way, yes. But that much power makes me a bigger threat. The more power a person possesses the more damage they can also cause."
"But who wouldn't want to be all-powerful? One day I'll be stronger than goddess Akondai."
Obviously that was the absolutely wrong thing to say because his mother frowned.
"True power comes with restraint, Ogun. That's what these swords represent. They only suppress so much, and I can take them off at any time. That is a different, more important level of power. The fact that I can be more powerful but choose not to unless the situation truly warrants such an act, that is, in part, what it means to be a guardian, to be Lady Shotel. The choice is always mine. I control it, it doesn't control me. When I wear these swords, they remind me that even divine beings should have limitations, self-imposed or otherwise."
"You're saying I should've handled the situation with Marcus in a different way?"
"I'm saying you broke the child's arm and could’ve killed him if you would've used a bit more force or he landed differently. I'm saying that Marcus was no match for you—intellectually or physically. I'm saying that the bigger part of valor is often walking away and doing nothing."
Ogun didn't know how to do any of those things. Worse, he had a feeling he didn't want to learn. But he hated disappointing his mother, hated that he had made her cry, and hated that she blamed herself for his shortcomings.
"You want me to wear the swords, don't you?"
"No, not want, but I think you should. Perhaps they will do for you what they did for me."
One by one, his mother removed her swords and placed them on his arms. They were far too big, he thought. But once they were in place, they glowed silver and began to change, contorting to his smaller arms until they fit him perfectly, stopping halfway to his elbow.
"They will adjust as you grow. They are yours now, from mother to son, from my heart to your heart, from my hopes and dreams for you to your hopes and dreams for yourself. With love and devotion, I grant you this gift."
He held up his arms and stared at them, choosing not to think on what his mother had just said to him. It was an old Akondai prayer, this he knew, but the meaning went much deeper. Time would prove how deeply the prayer went, and how seriously his mother had meant her words.
The swords were lighter than they looked and more comfortable than he would've thought. "I feel the same."
"I know, but that will change when you feel the urge to use your powers. The swords won't weaken you, but they will prevent you from using nearly forty percent of your power. And, for people like us, sixty percent is still a lot of power, especially since your abilities will increase with age."
"Will I have to wear them all the time?"
"For starters. I want you to get used to them, feel how they adjust and manipulate your speed and strength."
"But I can remove them whenever I like?"
"Yes. Restraint cannot be externally imposed. It has to be internally submitted to. The choice will always be yours. But understand this, when you abuse and misuse what the gods have given you as a birthright, there will always be someone willing and able to bring you to justice. Or worse, have their revenge against you."
He almost told her that he would destroy anyone who threatened him, that there would be no one stronger or more powerful than he.
Yet he said nothing, not wanting to worry his mother and make her cry again. He was glad his father wasn't there. His mother understood him so much better than his father. Besides, if his father had seen his mother cry over Ogun, he would've been angry with him. Olorun Contee didn't yell or scream, or even raise his voice, but he did have a way of looking at Ogun as if he were some four-headed creature dredged from the bowels of Hell.
Unable to help himself, Ogun climbed off the bed and into his mother's warm, loving lap. She always smelled so good, like a spring flower.
She held him as if he hadn't just caused her so much trouble, and kissed the top of his head.
"I'm sorry." Tears welled in his eyes, and he fought them back. He was a big boy. And big boys didn’t cry, not even when held so sweetly by their mother.
She kissed his forehead, then lifted his chin so they were eye to eye.
"Don't be sorry. Be better, much, much better. I'm not asking for or expect perfection, Ogun, but I do expect you to be a good and kind person."
Ogun wanted that as well, but…
He pressed his face into her neck and held her even closer. He wasn't a good and kind boy. He would wear the swords, but knew when the time came he would take them off and be Ogun the War God. It was to be his lot in life, and the woman rocking and soothing him with her high expectations and gentle warning would one day see that she was wrong and he was right. Because absolute power did not corrupt, it made one untouchable.
She would see it his way, eventually. Until then, Ogun would try to be better, for her, only ever for her.
Chapter 2: The Tree
When Olorun arrived home, his off-world mission having kept him away from his family for a week, he wasn't at all surprised by the sight that greeted him when he entered his bedroom. Beside Adina, in their bed, was their son, sleeping like the dead. The boy used every away-mission to claim Olorun's side of the bed. Oddly enough, whenever Adina spent a night away from home, Olorun never awoke to Ogun next to him. Apparently, the child had no interest in sleeping with his father.
The sight was as tender as it was disturbing, for all the unspoken undertones it represented. Ogun was protective of his mother, and Olorun could appreciate that character trait in his son. The problem, as always with Ogun, was that the child took everything to the damn extreme, viewing most people as threats or challengers. And that included his father.
Between them, everything was a competition in Ogun's eyes. He didn't just want to surpass Olorun in every possible way, he viewed Olorun as a barrier to him achieving his ultimate goal. And that ultimate goal, Olorun was slowly realizing, stank of nefarious intent—most likely world domination. The thought hurt and worried Olorun.
Adina and Olorun shouldn’t have been biologically compatible, not with her being the great, great whatever of Akonadi, an oracle goddess of justice who’d fallen in love with a human, taking him as consort and birthing what would become Shotel Warriors. They fought for peace and justice, heroes long before social media put the “super” on headlines featuring their heroic deeds. And Olorun Contee, well, he couldn’t trace his lineage as far back as his wife. No more than he could tell her his place of origin. His planet of origin, to be precise. He didn’t know. The only thing he did know was that, while he may have resembled an African male, he was not human, his control of elemental forces having earned him the moniker of Sky God. He’d simply stepped through a dimensional portal, a white puppy in his arms, leaving most of his memory on the other side of the rift. That had been fifty years ago, and he hadn’t aged a day, his thirty-year-old appearance misleading.
So an alien, a creature of unknown origin, should not have been able to impregnate a demigoddess. Even Akonadi, as the tale went, had taken the form of a human woman when she laid with her human lover, producing dozens of demigod daughters from their union. Daughters who, as they grew, had also taken human males as mates. Adina’s mother had been no different, marrying a human and giving birth to the next generation of Shotel Warriors, protectors of Earth.
Yet Olorun had gotten Adina with child. And the result, gods, the result proved their incompatibility on a genetic level that could, one day, prove fatal for the world and the people they protected. There were good reasons why guardians like them didn’t marry each other or have children. Too little time and too much danger being the primary ones. But Olorun and Adina thought they could be the exception to the rule—happy and in love.
And they were. They’d made it work, despite the madness that was their lifestyle and the façade they lived, pretending to be normal. But they weren’t. And neither was their son, Ogun’s inexplicable violent nature proof of the unknown alien hiding inside the human-looking Olorun the Sky God.
That acknowledgement had been a bitter pill for Olorun. It still was. But the truth of what he created grew more apparent the older Ogun became, a simmering fuse of death and destruction hidden behind the innocent face of what should’ve been a protector in the making. Instead, Ogun, if Olorun and Adina didn't figure out how to curb his violent instincts, would develop into a monster worse than any they’d faced.
Shaking his head, Olorun undressed, brushed his teeth and then showered. Once done with his nightly routine, he walked to his bed and plucked his son from it, careful not to jostle and awaken the boy. A minute later, Olorun had Ogun in his own bed, covers up to his shoulders and nightlight on.
Olorun didn't even want to know what Ogun had done this time. Once he spotted Adina's swords on the child, Olorun had concluded that Ogun had finally committed an act worthy of a magical intervention. Adina had been on the fence for a long while, not wanting Ogun to feel any more different than he already did. Yet there he slept, power-dampening swords on. Olorun knew Adina would tell him the details in the morning, no point fretting over the unknown tonight.
Kissing Ogun's baby soft cheeks, Olorun lingered at his son's bedside for a few minutes more, wishing he knew how to help his son and cursing the Gods. Did they think this funny? Did they mean to mock Adina and Olorun’s quest for peace and justice by giving them a child of questionable moral character?
Ambling back into his bedroom, Olorun crawled into bed beside his wife. He knew she was no longer asleep, so he wasn't surprised when Adina turned to face him.
Olorun smiled. "It's good to be home."
He wanted to tell her about his mission and ask her about Ogun, but it was after midnight and Adina appeared as if she'd had a long, hard day. Instead, Olorun leaned over and kissed her, then opened his arms. She came, holding him as tightly as he held her.
The feel and smell of Adina always had a way of soothing and reassuring him. They’d married for the sake of their child, neither knowing whether a rushed marriage between them would work, their courtship barely a year before Adina's unexpected pregnancy. Despite their cultural differences, however, Olorun and Adina had a strong marriage. It wasn't without its disagreements and misunderstandings, but they loved and respected each other, which turned out to be an excellent foundation upon which to build a solid marriage. If Ogun wasn’t such a trial, their little family would've been perfect.
"Sleeping like a hibernating bear."
"He hurt another child today and got himself expelled. I'm pretty sure we can fight the expulsion, but I think it best we homeschool him. At least until he learns how to control himself."
And that meant Ogun would never return to school—public or private.
"Is the child okay?"
He felt her nod against his neck. "I called the mother and offered my apologies, as well as to pay doctor's fees."
"What did she say?"
"She said her son is in an arm cast and pain, they have medical insurance and don't need handouts from 'shitty parents', and that our son would probably be the next school shooter. Then she told me to get Ogun medical help before hanging up on me."
He winced. Adina had indeed had a wretched day. She didn't deserve to be spoken to in that manner, although Olorun couldn't begrudge the mother her anger.
Olorun closed his eyes and took ten deep breaths before opening them again.
"I don't know if we can prevent the inevitable," he whispered, pulling back just enough to see her lovely face. "I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry our child and others will suffer because of me."
Adina began shaking her head, as she always did when he rightfully shouldered the blame for how Ogun was and the vile creature Olorun was sure he would grow into. But Adina's denial of the truth did nothing to absolve Olorun of responsibility, of his unending remorse.
"It's not your fau—"
He kissed her, silencing Adina's protest, the lie she kept telling herself and him. Olorun appreciated the sentiment, but it changed nothing of consequence. Yet it did feel shamefully good to have one person in the relationship to not blame him.
“I wish I could give you a child you deserve. A child with a guardian’s heart instead of a monster’s soul.”
Adina shushed him with a gentle hand to his mouth. "He's our child, Olorun. We cannot forsake Ogun because he’s not as we wish him to be. We love him, despite the pain he sometimes brings us."
Olorun did love his son. But one day they would have to make a decision about Ogun. Adina never wanted to speak about the ever-encroaching future, and all Olorun could do was ponder that same future, wanting to stop time, keeping Ogun in his child state where he was still manageable and not yet capable of utter devastation.
No, they would have no more children. Something else for Olorun to feel guilty about.
They rest on their backs, holding hands and staring at the ceiling. "I'm sorry," he repeated into the darkness, not knowing what else to say to his wife.
Adina said nothing, just turned on her side and away from him.
Perhaps a small part of her blamed him after all. If that were true, well, it was nothing more than what he deserved.
"Olorun," Adina said, soft voice shattering the silence, "when the time comes, I don't think I'll have the strength of heart to do what needs doing. No matter what, he's my son, and I could never hurt him."
Yeah, Olorun knew that.
Adina slid to his side of the bed, placing her head on a shoulder and an arm around his waist. He hugged her to him. "Neither can I."
Chapter 3: The Beast
Quietly, Ogun closed the door once he was outside—the night cold, the sky gleaming with brilliant stars.
A growl sounded behind him.
He knew Bashira was there. The beast of a dog had been his unwilling bystander for two years. No matter how hard he tried, there was simply no way of getting in and out of the house without Bashira knowing.
Six years ago, they’d moved away from the suburban town he’d known and hated his entire life and to a cold, mountain region with too much snow and not a neighbor for miles. The move had been part of his parents’ plan to help him gain control over the monster within.
"You stay here and guard Mother."
Another growl. Fiercer and closer.
Ogun faced the dog, his white coat a bright contrast against the midnight surrounding them.
"I'll be back soon. You stay here and watch the house."
Teeth bared white. He snapped at Ogun. Dammit. The dog normally growled a bit but obeyed his command.
The last time Ogun had come home, he hadn't taken the time to wash all the blood from his hands and discard his stained clothes. Bashira had been waiting for him, sniffing then growling his displeasure, clearly having determined that the blood on him wasn't Ogun's. No, the blood belonged to four gangbangers from LA. He'd seen the assholes at the scene of a drive-by shooting that killed ten people, none of the victims the intended target. His father had taken him to the neighborhood. It was far too late for Sky God to save anyone, but the city councilwoman of the beleaguered community had appealed to the guardian of peace and justice. And while everyone knew who were responsible for the gang war tearing the neighborhood apart, most residents were too afraid to speak, even to a being who could split the sky in two with a whispered command.
Ogun had spent an entire day canvasing one street after another, looking for that one brave or stupid soul who would risk their life on the rare chance that the local officers would arrest the men and the DA would get a conviction.
He knew it, and so did his frustrated father. This was where Ogun and Sky God split company. Ogun had known precisely what to do about those punks. The problem was that they thought they were predators instead of the prey they actually were. Well, Ogun had showed them the true face of a predator. And it was the last thing they saw before he ripped their heads off their worthless bodies.
Now, his father's damn dog wouldn't get out of his way. He didn't have time for this. If Ogun didn't leave now and find his prey, things wouldn't turn out well for Bashira.
"One last time. Get out of my way. I know you understand me. And if you bark and wake Mother, so help me, Bashira, I'll tear you apart with my bare hands."
The burly dog snarled, leapt and went for Ogun's throat.
The beast inside roared to life.
Exoskeleton ripped through pants and hoodie.
Lightning sparked from eyes gone white.
A growl. Ogun this time. He blocked the massive dog’s attack, raising an arm to protect his throat.
Fangs sank into his raised arm, finding an impenetrable exterior instead of soft, vulnerable flesh. Bashira tried harder, using his hind legs as support and pushing into Ogun, working to take him down.
Ogun was having none of that. He'd warned the animal. He'd tried to reason with the dog. Falling into the snow. Ogun tussled with the big beast, barely evading the snapping of his massive jaws. Wildly, he punched upward, landing a blow to the canine's ribs.
Bashira howled from the pain but kept fighting, kept gnashing and scratching.
But the howl spurred Ogun on, as did the blood on the dog's no longer pristine white coat.
Ogun struck the dog again, drilling his claws into thick, soft fur and twisting when he met warm flesh.
The dog howled again, his attacks beginning to slow.
Raising his knees, Ogun struck the tender underside of the massive dog, sending him flying off him.
Like the beast he was, Ogun went on the offensive, getting to Bashira before he landed in the snow.
He'd never moved so fast, but he was getting stronger, changing, like his father had said. He wouldn't have to use his super speed to run to LA today, he could satisfy the raging need to kill with Bashira's bloody death.
Jumping onto the downed animal and avoiding his still snapping jaws, Ogun began to rain down vicious blow after vicious blow. The dog was strong, no doubt about that. But Ogun was stronger, more determined, and definitely more lethal. So he kept hitting his enemy, slicing the animal with claws and fangs that sprang from his own mouth. Within minutes, Ogun, Bashira, and the ground glowed crimson fire.
Sky God’s dog lay unmoving under Ogun's trembling body, Bashira's breathing labored, heart pounding—slow but there. For a regretful second, Ogun considered dragging himself off the animal and letting it be. This wasn't how he'd envisioned tonight going. He hadn't set out to kill his father's beloved pet. He tried to kill you, the cruel, unfeeling part of him said. It's conquer or be conquered. You choose.
Raising hands dripping with blood, he called the shotel swords he’d left under his bed. On a magical current swifter than the speed of light, the swords materializes in his hands and Ogun slammed them into Bashira's chest, cutting out his heart.
Chapter 4: The Decision
"Are you ready, Adina?"
Realizing she'd slipped into her second silent reflection since convening in the living room, Olorun on the sofa beside her, Ogun on the floor at her feet, Adina wished, for the thousandth time, she didn't have to do this, that it wasn't necessary and critical to the future of her family. But it was. The Gods help her, Adina saw no other way, knew not how to discern hope from faith from truth. At least not when it came to Ogun, Olorun and Adina not as critical, not as cautious as they normally were with villains. But that was just it, Ogun was no villain. He was their son. A son who'd viciously killed Bashira, his father's faithful and loving friend, Olorun’s only connection to a home he didn’t remember and could never return to.
That truth, a sour pill to swallow, still stuck in Adina's throat, impeding her breathing each time she looked upon the child she'd given birth to, the child she'd raised to value life and to love peace. How could such a child then…?
Adina reached for her shotel swords. She'd hoped the swords would help her son appreciate the importance of restraint and control. Adina believed Ogun to be like her and Olorun, only needing proper guidance, patience, and understanding to develop into a man of worth, a guardian for the people.
She slid onto the floor beside her son, knowing she should’ve done this years ago. After Bashira, she had no choice.
Olorun had agreed with Adina when she made the suggestion, two days ago, to use the swords on Ogun. He'd asked her only one thing: "Are you sure?"
She was certain, certain she wouldn't like the revealed truth.
"I've explained the process to you already, Ogun. Do you have any questions before we get started?"
The boy's wary, dark-brown eyes darted up and to his father. They didn't linger there long before dropping back to Adina. Despite the fourteen-year-old’s savagery when he'd killed Bashira, Adina knew genuine shame and regret when she saw it. The magical swords and their blood bond would allow her to see even more.
Ogun managed to grant Adina a wan smile. When he smiled like that, shy yet captivating, he looked so much like Olorun. Adina's heart squeezed, a painful constricting of the vital organ that left her breathless. These two males meant everything to her, alike yet so very different. She loved them dearly, fiercely. Olorun her radiant sun, Ogun her rocky moon—both essential in her starry universe.
"I don’t have any questions. I know you would never ask me to do anything that would hurt me."
His absolute faith, unwavering trust in her burned. They were gathered there, on a rainy Friday evening because Olorun and Adina's faith and trust in their son had been shattered.
"Once I cut us and merge our blood, your secrets will no longer be your own. There will be no part of you closed to me, no truth I can't unearth, even if you resist. Do you understand?"
"You want to see all of me, even the me I pretend doesn't exist, the me I wish didn't exist."
To Adina's surprise, Ogun took one of the swords and slashed it across his wrist. Not deep, although the sword’s sharp blade would’ve severed the wrist of anyone other than a child of a demigoddess and a mythical god of the sky.
With sad but resolute eyes, Ogun looked up at his father. "I want you to know. I want you to see. For once, I need you to see all of me. The boy and the beast." Eyes lowered to meet Adina's. "Go as deep as you like. I won't resist."
Adina hadn't expected such brave compliance, so sure was she the boy would covet his secrets, his sins. This single act of courage gave Adina the slightest taste of renewed hope, hope she quickly crushed when an unbidden image of Olorun crying over a dead and bloody Bashira forced its way to the fore. No, Adina could no longer afford the luxury of a mother's blind hope.
This was her reality, her family—for better or for worse.
She gripped the second shotel sword, slicing the palm of her hand. Reaching out, she grasped Ogun’s bleeding wrist with her bloody palm, comingling their blood and setting the magical spell in motion.
Closing her eyes, she opened her mind and godly senses, merging her divine will with the bonded blood of her son—her deadly offspring. Floating on magical currents, she allowed her mind to be transported through their shared genetic link. “Show me,” she said, invoking the blood spell of the Shotel. “Show me the truth of Ogun Contee’s soul.”
True to his word, Ogun did not resist. The moment Adina and the sword merged, finding Ogun's senses and slipping inside, she felt his acquiescence to her gentle probing. His mental shields, natural defenses everyone possessed, to varying levels of strength and effectiveness, lowered and permitted Adina entrance.
In she went, the fog slowly but surely receding, a retreating tide of dark, malevolent waves, displeased with being relegated to nothing more than snarling, background noise.
Even with the fog gone, spirit-depleting darkness remained, surrounding Adina with disapproving hisses and warning growls.
“Show me,” she repeated, her tone soft but firm. “Light my path and show me the truth.”
On the spiritual plane, the magical plane, a hand reached out and found Adina's. Child small, the hand tugged until Adina allowed herself to be led forward, trusting the invisible spirit to show her the truth she sought.
So Adina followed a path she could not see, could not feel, could not sense in any way. All that existed were shadows and a tiny hand she hadn't felt since Ogun was a boy of five.
The zigzag pattern, one only a child would create, revealed a different truth. This circuitous route to Ogun's soul was, in truth, a form of resistance, though she doubted her son even realized what he was doing. Self-protection, she knew, was nearly as powerful as love, as fear.
Adina leaned closer to Ogun and whispered in his ear. “Don't be afraid, my love, you can show Mother all.”
For long minutes, he didn't reply, just sat there, crossed-legged, eyes cast down to the bloody shotel sword, hand toying with the hem of his shirt.
Adina didn't want to compel him, didn't want to take what he didn't want to give. But she would, she always did when she used her swords and magic this way. Blood magic was an invader of privacy, a demolisher of free will. No matter the good intent of the wielder, Adina knew each time she used the spell she took what wasn't voluntarily given. Her actions were for the greater good, she always told herself. That truth, however, made the act no less a violation.
But today, with her son, she would prefer his consent. But was it truly a choice when Ogun knew, with one forceful command, Adina could make him submit?
Just when she thought she would have to compel the truth from Ogun, she felt the grip from the spiritual hand tighten then begin to tug her along again.
Adina's spirit followed.
The surroundings hadn't changed. The cloak of protective darkness as cloying as ever, but the route mercifully short this time.
When they stopped, the hand slipped out from hers and, like a stage curtain pulled to the sides, disclosing what lay behind, so too did the cloak of darkness lift and move.
There, beside Adina, face as beautiful as a starless night sky, stood Ogun, five years, if a day. Adina didn't understand the significance or perhaps symbolism in Ogun appearing to her at such a young age. She knew it to be important, but, right now, her mind couldn't latch onto the relevance of having Ogun's five-year-old self serving as her guide to his soul.
Forcing her eyes away from the child and upward, Adina stared at what the curtain of darkness had revealed.
Three steel cages—small, medium, and large, each with thick, sturdy bars. The smallest of the cages, empty and open, looked as if it could hold a dog the size of a German Shepherd or…
Adina swung her eyes down to Ogun, who, no, no, no, was walking towards the empty, open cage.
Dropping to all fours, Ogun crawled inside the cage and shut the door behind him, brown eyes big, round and filled with baby tears.
This is where I belong.
No, he didn't. No child belonged in a cage, not Ogun, not her son.
Adina went to move to him, hating seeing her child caged like some common beast of burden, but she caught herself, recalling where she was and why she was there.
To learn the truth, no matter how painful.
Adina stalled her forward progress, compelling her spirit to calm and think clearly.
She looked at the five-year-old Ogun in his cage. Nothing prevented him from entering and exiting at will. No locks or chains bound him, which probably meant this version of Ogun, while in a cage, was of threat to no one.
Willing her eyes away from the smallest of the pens, Adina directed her attention to the cage in the middle, the medium one in size.
Adina closed her eyes and breathed deeply. After seeing five-year-old Ogun crawl into a cage, she should not have been surprised to see an older Ogun in the next one. But the shock of seeing her son, older than he was now—eighteen or twenty—still gouged at every part of Adina that made her a mother.
Tall as Olorun but not nearly as muscular, eyes an incomprehensible blend of brown, black, and lightning white, clad only in a pair of shorts, Ogun stared at Adina. Clawed hands gripped the bars separating them, razor-sharp fangs jutted from below upper lip.
Adina approached the cage. With a surprisingly steady hand, she reached out and touched a clawed hand of her son.
Ogun growled low in his throat, widening his mouth to show more of his lethal teeth.
Adina raised her other hand and brought that one up to touch Ogun's left hand. Spiritual flesh on spiritual flesh, Adina stroked those dangerous hands.
Is this the true you? The beast behind the boy?
Between fangs meant for ripping and killing, came the cold, unvarnished truth.
I am what you and Father have made me. I am Ogun, and I am doomed.
Why are you doomed?
Because I have taken lives, spilled blood, done terrible things that have brought me immense pleasure.
Adina held Ogun's gaze, as well as his hands, not shrinking from the depraved bloodlust she heard in his husky voice.
You've killed? More than Bashira?
He nodded, looked away and then faced her again.
I have. Each of them deserved their fate. They were lowlifes, a blight on society that needed purging. So I purged them. It made me feel better, normal, able to cope, to live, to be with you and Father the way you wanted me to be. You now know what an irredeemable son I am. I tried to be normal, to fit in, to help instead of harm—to be a guardian of humanity."
Are you saying you cannot, that there is no hope than the bleak future you've already painted for yourself?
You won't even look at him. Ogun pressed his face to the bars, breath hot. He's right there. Why won't you look at him, at what I will become in ten years? It can't be stopped.
The third cage, thirty-feet high, fifty-feet wide, rattled to her right. Mocking, cruel laughter emanated from within.
I don't wish to see.
Then you don't wish to know the truth.
You're wrong, Ogun. It’s you who do not know the truth, do not understand.
What is it that I'm missing, Mother?"
Like Ogun, Adina pressed her head against the bars, steel separating mother from son. Dozens of scratched and broken locks lay in a pile to the left of where Adina stood, silent testimony to how many times Ogun had gotten out of his cage, giving in to the beast's need to hurt and to kill.
Lifting her face, Adina placed a kiss to Ogun's forehead.
This is the truth. Sometimes it’s best not to be who we are but who we desire to be. Man or beast, Ogun, you are capable of both. One is transcending yet demanding, the other uncomplicated yet devastating. The choice is yours—always yours.
Later that night, when Olorun spooned against Adina, her husband finally spoke the words she'd known he'd been thinking ever since she told him what she'd learned about Ogun's soul.
"I have to take him away from here. Away from Earth."
Olorun's hand went to Adina's face, suddenly awash in tears. She shook her head, not wanting him to see her cry, but unable to stop.
"I don't want to. God knows, I don't want to leave you here alone."
She couldn't answer him, didn't want to acknowledge the agony she heard in Olorun's trembling voice, because it would be too much for her to bear. His big body cradled her as she wept, being strong for Adina instead of giving into his own pain at the separation to come.
"I'll teach Ogun how to manage the beast within, how to control his monstrous urges. Then we'll come back to you. I promise." Her husband wiped away her tears. "I promise. I promise. Wait for me."
Adina would wait, for as long as it took. She'd told Ogun the truth of his soul. His nature was a contrary one—good and evil, man and beast, guardian and villain. As much the nonthreatening five-year-old as he was the frothing creature imprisoned in the third cage, which bespoke of contradictions and duality, not necessarily inevitability. People rarely fit into such simplistic designs but, more often than not, they did tend to gravitate more to one end of the morality continuum than the other.
Right now, Ogun was just shy of the older teen in the middle cage, having given into his darker side but not yet lost to the demon within. There was still time for Ogun. Olorun was right. Ogun could not stay on Earth, and his father was the only person who could help him. Perhaps, in his quest to save their son, he’d find his own answers to self—where he came from and how he ended up on this planet.
Adina didn't want to lose them, didn't want to let them go. For the love of her son and the protection of Earth, she had no choice but to send Ogun away with his father and hope for their safe return.
Hope. Adina held on to it with both hands.