Honestly, they amazed him. He’d never had a friend he could do that with. He envied them that.
Savitar twisted out of a nasty-looking headlock. "Hey, aren’t we forgetting something?"
Savitar rolled his eyes. "No, you have me confused with you again." He pointed to where Acheron sat. "Aren’t you supposed to be training him?"
Takeshi let out a taunting breath. "So you admit my superiority by deflecting my attention to the neophyte . . ."
"I’m not admitting shit. I’m merely pointing out the fact that you and I know how to fight and he doesn’t. Might be a good idea for him to learn."
"True." Takeshi put his sword across his shoulders where he held it with both hands and smiled at Acheron. "Are you ready to begin again?"
"Sure. My ego’s had enough time to recover a modicum of dignity. Let’s make sure we crush it again before I mistake myself for a god."
Takeshi laughed. "I like him, Savitar. He fits with us."
"That’s why I called you." Savitar handed his sword to Acheron. "Good luck, kid."
Acheron spent the rest of the day training with Takeshi who had to be the worst taskmaster ever born. He worked him until Acheron was sure he’d drop from sheer exhaustion. By the time the sun set and he was free to rest, his entire body ached.
Even so, he felt more confident in his skills than he’d ever felt before.
Savitar handed him his staff. "Go home to Katoteros and we’ll begin again in the morning."
Still unsure why Savitar was helping him, he wished the older . . . being . . . good-night and returned home.
Acheron pulled up short as he saw Artemis waiting in the throne room for him. "What do you want?"
"I haven’t seen you in days."
"And what a beautiful thing they have been."
She narrowed her gaze. "I told you that you’d have to feed from me."
Acheron looked at her coldly. "I think I’d rather be a sadistic monster . . . like you."
She curled her lip at him. "So that’s it then. You’re just going to be mean to me."
"Mean to you? Mean?" He repeated angrily. "Fuck you, Artemis!" His words were punctuated by a blast of wind so strong, it knocked her onto her ass on the floor. He stalked toward her and saw the fear in her eyes. There was a time when that fear would have ignited guilt and compassion within him. Today it just pissed him off. "I was butchered on the floor by your brother while you watched it happen. Then, when I was finally happy someplace, gods forbid, you tricked me into drinking your blood to bind me to you. And you think I’m mean? Bitch, please, you haven’t seen mean yet."
She covered her ears with her hands and cringed on the floor.
That actually succeeded in turning his anger away from her to him since he had a twinge of pity for her and he hated himself for it. She didn’t deserve his pity. Only his contempt.
"I loved you, Acheron."
He scoffed. "If what you’ve shown me is love, I’d rather you hate my guts and be done with me."
She burst into tears.
Acheron leaned his head back and cursed at the fact that those tears affected him. Why did he care? What the f**k was so wrong with him that he actually wanted to comfort her?
I’m even more defective than she is.
He slammed his staff down on the floor, making her cry even harder. "What do you want from me, Artie?"
"I want my friend back."
"No," he said bitterly. "You want your pet back. I was never your friend. Friends aren’t ashamed of each other. They don’t live in fear of other people seeing them together."
She looked up at him with her green eyes swimming in tears. "I’m sorry. There, I said it. I wish I could go back and repair everything that’s happened. But I can’t. I wish I could save our nephew. I wish that I’d been more decent to you. I wish . . ." She paused, but it was too late. He’d heard it loud and clear.
"That I’d never been a whore. Trust me, what you feel about that is a pittance compared to my sentiments. You were never the one they degraded and used. I’m the one who has to live with that past. Not you. You should be grateful those nightmares don’t haunt your sleep."
"I have my own nightmares, thank you."
Perhaps she did. After all, she was the pitiful child who had to tolerate Apollo.
She looked up at him. "Food can’t sustain you anymore, Acheron. You don’t even have to eat human food again. But you do have to feed from me or you will revert to the Destroyer’s Harbinger. You will have no compassion for the world and you will destroy it."
A muscle worked in his jaw. He wanted to call her a liar, but he knew the truth. He already felt those violent urges inside him. And he hated her for this "gift."
Cursing, he held his hand out to her.
She took his hand and he jerked her to her feet and into his arms. Then, just as he started to ravage her throat, he pulled back and bit into her gently.
At the end of the day, he wasn’t a monster. He wouldn’t brutalize her even if she did deserve it.
He’d made her a promise and though he may have been a thief and a whore, he wasn’t a liar. He wouldn’t serve to her what she’d served to him. He would always be better than that.
Artemis sighed as she felt Acheron’s powers surging around her. His skin marbled to blue while he drank. The heat of his breath on her flesh ignited her desire, but when she tried to remove his clothes, he stopped her.
"I’m in no mood to play with my food, Artemis."
She closed her eyes as she heard his voice in her head.
When he’d taken his fill, he stepped away from her. His eyes were blazing red as he wiped the blood from his lips. "I need time away from you."
Those words sliced through her. "What are you saying?"
"Send a kori to me with your blood."
This time, he turned on her with all his powers ignited.
Artemis shrank away at the sight of his true god form. He was massive and terrifying.
"You will do as I command," he snarled through his fangs. "You brought me back against my will and you will not tell me how to live this new life. Do you understand?"
She nodded slowly as her heart broke again over what she’d lost. "While you’re telling me what to do, you should know that when I brought you back, Styxx came with you. And he’s filled with even more fury and hatred than you are."
Acheron cursed at the mention of his twin. "Where is he?"
"He’s on the Vanishing Isle, under the care of a god who owes me a favor. He can’t harm anyone where he is and he’s in a good place with his every desire fulfilled."
"Then leave him there. I have no wish to ever see his face again."
"Rather difficult, isn’t it?"
He curled his lip at her reminder. "Don’t push me, Artie. I’m one step away from the edge and it wouldn’t take much to step over it. Trust me, you don’t want me there. Now get out of my sight. I don’t ever want to see you here in my domain again."
Her tears started falling again, but this time they didn’t affect him. He refused to allow that. She’d changed him from the man he’d been.
The whore was dead and a god of destruction had been born. Cursed. Hated. Powerful. Lethal.
His hatred for the world was carved into his heart. His past was a weight he carried on his back and his future was uncertain.
He had enemies aplenty who wanted him dead, an angry mother out to end the world, a baby demon who needed to be fed every few hours, two lunatics training him for a coming war neither would explain, and a horny goddess who only wanted him chained to her bedpost.
Yeah . . . it was "good" to be back in the mortal realm. He couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow would bring. Too bad he had no warning for his place in it.
Damn the Fates-his sisters who’d betrayed and condemned him to this existence.
One day, he’d pay those bitches back too.
April 10, 9526 BC
Acheron didn’t know why he’d agreed to meet Artemis. The mere thought of looking at her right now was enough to make him physically sick-if he could get sick. For almost a year, he’d been cleaning up Apollo’s mess. There were remnant Apollites turning into soul-sucking Daimons on a daily basis.
Not that he blamed them, really. It’d been a small group of men that the Atlantean queen had sent out to assassinate his sister and nephew. Jealous over the fact that Apollo no longer came to her bed, the Atlantean queen had turned her venom to Ryssa. In the middle of the night, the queen’s men had snuck into Ryssa’s bedroom and killed her while she was feeding Apollodorus.
Then after Apollo had finished killing Acheron, the god had turned on the very race of people he’d created. Since the assassins had made it appear as if an animal had torn into Ryssa and Apollodorus, Apollo cursed them to feed on each other. Only Apollite blood could sustain them. What was it with Apollo and Artemis and blood?
If that wasn’t enough of a curse, Apollo had banished them from the sun so that he’d never have to see them again and be reminded of their treachery. And not to be outdone, he’d then condemned their entire race to die slowly and painfully on their twenty-seventh birthday-the same age Ryssa had been.
Given the severity of the punishment, Acheron might have thought the god loved his sister. But he knew better. Apollo was no more capable of love than Artemis was. It was nothing more than a show of power. A warning to others who might think of turning on Apollo who was now telling everyone that he’d destroyed Atlantis to get back at the Apollites.
Stupid bastard. And stupid people for believing his lies.
Acheron kept his silence, not to protect the god, but only because Apollo’s pathetic arrogance amused him.
By his own stupidity the god was going to be undone. Even now Acheron’s mother sat in her prison, plotting the god’s death . . . along with Artemis’s. No sooner had Apollo damned his people than Apollymi had gone to Strykerius, Apollo’s condemned son, and showed him how to circumvent death by taking human souls into Apollite bodies and thus elongating their lives.
No wonder Savitar had failed to tell Acheron the name of the goddess Acheron would be fighting.
It was his own mother. She was the one leading the Daimon army that was set on its own vengeance. He should have known.
But then his revenge had been more direct. He’d hunted down the ones who’d killed his sister and nephew-those who’d survived his mother’s attack, and he’d made them wish they’d never been born with nerve-endings.
Now he was at war with his mother.
Acheron sighed heavily. "One day, I’m going to kill those damned Fates."
But it wouldn’t be today. Today he was meeting with Artemis to see why she’d been shrieking and threatening to kill him these past months. Between her and his mother ranting at him, this was the first time since he’d died that his head had been clear of their incessant nagging.
He felt the ripple of power down his spine that signified her arrival. He stiffened in expectation of her shrewish voice. When she didn’t start yelling at him, he turned his head to find her hesitating.
"Why so nervous, Artemis?"
"You’re very different now."
He laughed at her acute sense of perception. He was different. No longer a subservient slave, he was a pissed off god who wanted the entire world to leave him alone.
"I don’t like your hair black."
He gave her a droll stare. "And I don’t like your head attached to your shoulders. Guess we can’t all have what we want, huh?" He narrowed his gaze on her. "I don’t have time for this shit. If all you want is to gawk at me, then you can admire my back as I walk away from you."
He turned his back to her.
Against his better judgment, he hesitated. "For what?"
She had approached him cautiously as if terrified of him. "Please don’t be angry at me, Acheron."
He laughed bitterly at her words. "Oh, anger doesn’t even begin to describe what I am at you. How dare you bring me back."
She gulped as her features drew taut. "I had no choice."
"We all have choices."
"No, Acheron. We don’t."
As if he believed that. She’d always been selfish and vain and no doubt that was the only reason he’d been brought back when he should have been left dead. "Is this why you’ve been summoning me? You want to apologize?"
She shook her head. "I’m not sorry for what I’ve done. I would do it over again in a heart pound."
"Beat," he snarled, correcting her.
She waved the word away with her hand. "I want there to be peace between us."
Peace? Was she insane? She was lucky he didn’t kill her right now. If it wasn’t for fear of what could happen, he would have.
"There will never be peace between us. Ever. You shattered any hope of it when you watched your brother kill me and refused to speak up on my behalf."
"I was afraid."
"And I was butchered and gutted on the floor like an animal sacrifice. Excuse me if I don’t feel your pain. I’m too busy with my own." He turned to leave her then, but she stopped him again.
It was then he heard the muffled whimpering of a baby. Scowling, he watched in horror as she withdrew an infant from the folds of her peplos.