Acheron (Page 33)

Acheron (Dark-Hunter #15)(33)
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon

He threw a beautiful strand of pearls at her. They were covered in white rose petals. Artemis frowned as she reached for them. "What is this?"

"The Prince Whore brought those to you."

Her heart ceased beating. "Excuse me?"

"It was entertaining really. He came in with the rest of the filth and after he handed those over by saying he asked nothing of you in return for his gift, he was exposed. Last I heard, they were going to make him pay for defiling you."

It took every piece of control she had not to betray their relationship. But in truth, her throat burned with tears for her Acheron . . . and bitter anger that they would hurt him again. She wanted to kiss the pearls that he’d given her because she knew that unlike the other tributes, his had truly come from his heart. More than that, she wanted to go to Acheron and help him.

If only she could.

Steadying herself, she threw the pearls down. "Why would you bring these to me?"

"I thought you should know that a whore breached your temple. Zeus knows, I wouldn’t tolerate such a person in mine. Shall we go exact our own revenge on the whore?"

She returned to strumming her kithara. "He’s not worth my time."

"Since when do you not have time for vengeance?"

"Since I’d rather stay here and play. Now go and visit one of your pets. I can’t be bothered with you."

"Suit yourself."

Artemis didn’t move until after he’d left her. The moment he did, she held her hand out for the pearls. They flew into her hand. Rubbing them against her heart, she went to see if she could help Acheron.

Acheron stood in the courtyard with his hands tied above his head. His lips and nose were already bleeding from the hits Styxx had gleefully rained down on him.

He spat blood on the ground before he narrowed a murderous glare at his brother. "Shouldn’t you be at the temple still?"

Styxx backhanded him so hard his ears rang.

Acheron laughed at the pathetic slap. "You hit like an old woman."

Styxx stepped forward but was stopped by their father who entered through the doors. The look on his face was one of supreme disgust.

Acheron sighed. "I know I shouldn’t have gone. Could we just start the beating, finish it and let me go back to my room?"

His father narrowed his eyes. "Why are so eager to be beaten?"

"It’s the only attention I get from you, Father. As with Estes. So let the blows commence."

His father dug his fingers into his face as hatred blazed in his blue eyes. "I’ve told you not to mention my brother’s name from your foul mouth." His gaze dipped down to the necklace Acheron wore.

Acheron held his breath as he realized he’d forgotten to remove Artemis’s gift before he went to her temple. His heart stilled and for the first time he tasted fear as his father released his face and plucked it up to examine it.

"What’s this?"

Acheron forced himself to remain calm and nonchalant. "A trinket I bought."

Styxx peered at it over his father’s shoulder. "It’s the same ring Artemis’s priests wear to summon her." His features hardened. "You stole it!"

His father snatched it from his neck, causing the chain to cut into his skin before it broke. "Do you think the gods give a damn about you?"

Not as a rule, but Artemis did.

Styxx took the ring and grabbed a ladle of water. "We should teach the thief a lesson." Before Acheron could move, Styxx shoved the ring into Acheron’s mouth and poured water into it, forcing him to swallow it.

Tears gathered in Acheron’s eyes as the ring scraped his throat and burned. He choked on it and the water, but Styxx didn’t let up until he was satisfied the ring was completely swallowed.

Acheron coughed and sputtered, trying to catch his breath.

Styxx wrenched his hair. "A whore has dishonored our beloved virgin goddess on her feast day. I think he should be publicly gelded."

Acheron’s eyes widened at the punishment.

His father laughed approvingly before he cut him down. "It would please Artemis I think."

Acheron tried to run, but his father caught him and knocked him to the ground.

"Tell me why you came to the temple," his father demanded.

Acheron pushed himself up to find Ryssa joining them. His father struck him again and spun him around so that he could pin Acheron to the wall with his forearm held across Acheron’s throat.

"Explain yourself, whore. What made you venture to the temple?"

Ryssa ran to Acheron. "Tell them. You must."

Fear gripped him as he shook his head at her.

"Tell us what?" the king demanded.

"Don’t, Ryssa," Acheron whispered from his pinched throat as he tried to push his father’s arm away. "I beg you. If you love me even a little, don’t betray me."

"They’re going to geld you. If they know the truth, they’ll leave you alone."

"I don’t care."

Ryssa pulled their father away from him. "Father stop! He’s innocent. He’s with Artemis. Tell him, Acheron! For the sake of the gods, tell him the truth so he’ll stop this beating."

His father knocked him to the ground. He then kicked him onto his back and pressed his foot to Acheron’s throat to the point bile rose to choke him. "What lies have you told her, maggot?"

Acheron tried to push the foot away, but his father pressed it even harder against his windpipe. Speaking was all but impossible. "Nothing, p-p-please . . ."

"Blasphemer." His father stepped back then and left Acheron to strangle as he tried desperately to breathe through his bruised esophagus. "Strip him and drag him to Artemis’s temple. Let the goddess witness his punishment and if he really was with her, then I’m sure she’ll come to his defense." He’d turned a smug look at Ryssa.

The guards moved forward, but Ryssa put herself in front of him. The only way to get to him would be to harm her and possibly the baby she carried. "Father, you can’t."

"This doesn’t concern you."

"If you hurt Acheron, Artemis will unleash untold horrors on you."

Their father laughed. "Are you insane?"

"No, Ryssa, please stop!" Acheron begged. "Don’t!"

"Acheron is her consort."

Acheron couldn’t breathe as those words rang in his ears . . . Ryssa had betrayed him. But in her world the gods protected their pets. She had no reason to think that Artemis wouldn’t come to save him the way Apollo would save her. Too bad Artemis was not her brother. Closing his eyes, he wished himself dead.

When he opened them, he saw an outline of Artemis in the shadows. She was holding his pearls.

His father’s laughter mixed with Styxx’s. "You are Artemis’s consort?"

Acheron couldn’t respond as he saw the look of horror etched on Artemis’s face. It faded beneath a look of anger so palpable it singed him.

His father sneered. "Do you really expect me to believe a goddess would have anything to do with you?"

Acheron couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even deny it. Artemis had frozen his vocal chords.

She thinks I told him . . .

Acheron shook his head at her, trying to make her understand that he hadn’t told anyone.

His father seized him by the throat again. "Fine. Let’s see what the goddess thinks of you." He turned to the guards. "Take him to Artemis’s temple." He sneered at Acheron. "If you mean so much to the goddess, surely she’ll come save you. If not, we’ll show the world what we do to blasphemous whores. Beat him at the altar until Artemis shows herself."

"No!" Ryssa shrieked.

It was too late. Completely nak*d, Acheron was dragged unceremoniously out of the palace and through the crowded streets.

His body was bloody before he ever reached the temple. Everyone parted as the guards hauled him to the altar and strung him up between two columns.

"What is this?" the head priest demanded.

"By the king’s orders, the blasphemer is to be punished until the goddess is appeased. He’s to be beaten on her behalf until she shows herself to stop it."

Acheron met Artemis’s gaze and the satisfaction in those green eyes scorched him.

"I told you what would happen if you betrayed me." Her voice whispered through his head.

He choked on his tears as the first lash sliced through his back. "I didn’t betray you," he whispered. "I swear it."

Artemis moved forward and struck him across the face with the pearls he’d given her. "Beat him harder," she whispered to his punisher. "Make him feel every lash."

Acheron cried out as the lashes cut ever deeper.

The crowd cheered his beating. Repressed memories tore through him even sharper than the lashes. He was again in Estes’s home, surrounded by people, pulling at him, grabbing him, calling for his submission and humiliation. How many times had he been jeered at? Laughed at and mocked?

"Beg me for mercy, whore . . ." His uncle’s voice was loud and clear.

Acheron locked gaze with Artemis. How could she do this to him? How?

Artemis inwardly flinched at the torment and pain in those swirling silver eyes. They accused her as if she were in the wrong. She’d warned him what would happen if he told anyone. Did he think for one minute that she’d been joking?

"I gave you everything," she growled at him, making sure that only Acheron could see or hear her. "Everything!"

He lowered his head before he whispered in the lowest of tones. "I loved you."

Artemis shrieked in outrage that he’d dare say that to her after what he’d done this day. If anyone found out that she’d allowed him to touch her, she’d be ruined. Did he think his paltry love would ease her humiliation? Her ruination? Was it love to drag her down to be ridiculed alongside him?

"Hit harder!" she urged the guard. "I want his blood covering the floor of my temple."

That would teach him!

"You are nothing to me, human," she sneered in his ear. "Nothing."

Acheron let his tears flow as Artemis abandoned him. There was no need to beg for her forgiveness or mercy when it was obvious she had none where he was concerned. More than that, he felt her rip away his ability to fight. She took everything from him.

Unable to bear the pain, he surrendered himself to unconsciousness. But it was short-lived as they revived him to beat him more.

One his third session, he opened his eyes to find his father and Styxx standing in front of him. "Where’s your goddess, maggot?"

He looked to Ryssa whose face was pale and drawn. He saw the guilt in her gaze as tears streamed down her cheeks.

"I have no goddess." He had no one and he knew it. "Just geld me and get it over with."

But they didn’t. Instead they beat him until he lost count of the lashes. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he wasn’t sure when the beating finally stopped. He could feel nothing but the searing pain on his back.

Still there was no mercy for him. They left him tied before the altar where the crowd could add their own blows to him in defense of their beloved goddess.

For three days, Acheron hung there with no food or comfort. The closest he had was to see Merus approach him.

The boy stopped before him with a frown. "I thought you were a nobleman. You lied to us." His eyes angry, he picked up a rock from the floor and threw it at Acheron. It caught him on the chest.

Leaning his head back, Acheron stared up at the gilded ceiling. "Why!" he shouted at the gods. Why had they done this to him? Why was this his fate?

He’d been born a prince. He should be honored as such and instead, he was nothing. Surely he must be cursed. There was no other reason for this life. No reason for his suffering. And in that instant he hated everything on this planet. Everyone.

With a battle cry born of desperation and torment, he fought against his chains. But there was no one to care and no way to break free. All he succeeded in doing was reopening the wounds on his back and making new ones on his wrists. In the end, it only hurt him more.

So he stayed until the evening of the third day. The guards returned to free him, but before they did, his head was shaved and Artemis’s double bow symbol was branded into his skull.

Acheron laughed at the irony. Her name had been branded into his heart before this and now he publicly wore the symbol of a goddess who would never again acknowledge him. The cruelty of it was unbearable.

Once they were finished, he was taken out to the street where a horse waited. His hands were tied in front of him so that the horse could drag him all the back to the palace. By the time he reached it, there was little to no skin left on his body.

Barely conscious, he was taken to his room and thrown inside it. Acheron took one step and fell to his knees. Too weak to move, he sprawled across the floor. But at least the stone was cool against his wounds, even though it made them throb.

There would be no Artemis to help him this time. No goddess to offer him succor or refuge.

"You are nothing to me, human." Those words would be forever etched in his heart.

So be it.

Closing his eyes, he had no hope for the future. No will to ever recover or move forward. His sister and his lover had shattered him for the last time. There were some betrayals no amount of apology could rectify and this time, Acheron had hit his limit.